Here it is once again – the most ungodly week on the calendar!
I must confess I greet this festival each time with increasing wonder – like by whose permission am I still here? This is a special one, though: it’ll surely be the smallest, and for the first time I go into it with the feeling of being watched – not by friends and family who are accustomed to my excesses, but by the lurking presence of ‘authority’. If I step out into the yard for some fresh air:
“That’s far enough, sir!”
I wasn’t going to go any further, but the strange, black-suited figure at my gate is not content with that explanation.
“You should return to your habitation immediately. If you want air, open a window!” His voice is muffled by mask and screen. “Take The Pandemic seriously. Do you realise that at least one person in a hundred thousand could suffer a moderate headache because of your selfish action?”
I won’t mention my own headache, brought about by a liberal application of gin, for fear of being gift-wrapped in cling film and carted off to an empty Nightingale Unit fifty miles away. It is easier to retreat.
Indoors, though, the atmosphere this week promises to be, depending upon our state of ‘lockdown’, one or another kind of hell.
Not that Christmas is ever easy. In normal years we might at least air our rapacity on the street and go about with our best ‘God bless us, every one!’ expressions as we bestow good wishes on those we meet – in normal years, but not this one. The streets are all but deserted. Those we do encounter are so disguised by masks and haunted looks they might as well be talent-spotters for Hezbollah.
Meanwhile the media, sensing our inability to mingle with friends, relatives, loved ones, are primed and determined to batter us with a relentless hail of ‘Christmas Specials’. Backcloths to football shows embellished with fake ‘snow’; everyone from the weather girl to the Prime Minister (oh, imagine!) clothed as if for pantomime. Picture Dumb and Dumber, our two ‘medical experts’ dressed in crinolines, and Boris Johnson as Widow Twanky. “She’s BEHIND YOU!”
“Oh, no she isn’t!”
As of today the assault will intensify. Every programme, TV or radio, is ‘Christmassed up’. I await the Queen’s Christmas Day message with trepidation. Mock antlers and tinsel were never her thing.
There is one consolation for us oldsters. On the afternoon of the Sainted Day itself we elders get centre stage. The audience may be smaller, but we can still beguile them with our tales of better times. Think of it as I think of it – as scattering the faery dust of Hope.
Some drink-impaired relative will offer a cue: “I bet things were nicer in your day, Grandad…”
On this special day nostalgia rules. Be it around the festive table, ‘up the pub’ or ‘down the club’, at some stage the talk will turn to yesterdays; and some of us will relish the drift, and others will prefer to forget.
There are very good reasons why history is such a favorite subject. Pursuant upon the miasma of too much wine and too much dine, we are too cosseted and cosy for conflict: it avoids politics, which are always dangerous, and religion, which is equally devisive.
Immortal quote: “Stop going on about religion, Dad; it’s Christmas, for god’s sake!”
Not that history is entirely without its pitfalls.
“Remember Jeff’s party? Things got really hot, didn’t they? I never managed to explain to him how we broke that bed!”
After an icy silence:
“No, I don’t remember. What bed, and who is Jeff?”
Lethal! The greatest traps are not so much the deepest submerged, but those whose fronds wave gracefully in the coral shadows, still occasionally visible in filtered daylight from above. Beware! Snorkelling nostalgia is contingent upon truth. All facts are verifiable. Only the rashest romancers dare to embellish facts that are commonly known. Only the most boring would bother.
No, the more interesting story-fodder lies full fathom five – or three-and-a-half, at any rate. Here, where little light intrudes, the most remarkable treasures of retrospection are to be found nestling cosily in sand, awaiting the salvage of your story.
“Ah, 2005! That was the year Pope John Paul died, y’know. I was in Rome at the time. No-one expected it, him popping off like that. The outpouring of grief was incredible. They had to close St. Mark’s Square for fear of people getting crushed.
“St. Mark’s Square?”
“Yes. I remember how terrifying it was. I was caught up in the hysteria…”
“In St. Mark’s Square?”
“Yes, amazing place, normally. Like a great theatre…”
“Amazing – and in Venice. Did you mean St. Peter’s Sqaure?”
“Oh? I mean, yes, of course! How could I forget? It was so hot, that June..”
“He died in April.”
Little traps, with big, yawning chasms of credibility beneath! By just that one, tiny slip are we judged; thereafter our audience will be a little less rapt, still kindly, but indulgent.
Prepared for fiction.
In nautical terms barnacle-encrusted recollections get less distinct as you descend below the twenty-year critical level. And far safer.
Mischievous currents may move events and places around, so as you drag your air-line among them in your steel helmet and leaded boots you can no longer trust them to be as you left them, all those years ago, but who’s to know?.
Was that before the Berlin Wall came down, or after? ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ Who was President then?
This is Christmas and the wine is flowing and your audience, most of whom were yet to be born in the times you so gleefully explore, is as captive as they’re ever likely to be. Tired, well-fed caterpillars, you can watch their eyes glaze over as you help them into the chrysalis.
The Peurto Rico Trench of memories. No-one should dive to sixty years or beyond without a bathyscaphe, yet it is warm, it is comfortable, and in some ways a liberation. Depth and darkness.
“Did I ever tell you I was one of the crew of the Kon Tiki? A bit of a wild one, I was, in those days. Me and – dear me, what was his name – Floyd! Yes, that’s it; Floyd Patterson. We used to hang around with a Swedish chap, Thor Hennerdahl. We did a lot of boating together, y’see…”
The Monopoly Board was laid out some five minutes ago. A face leans into vision. The money is being counted out
“Do you want to be the top hat, grandad?”
If I look up I will see a little Mexican Wave of returning consciousness pass through my small audience
I had something important to tell them, didn’t I? Wisdom to impart. Whatever it was, I can’t quite remember it. Maybe next year, when there are more of us?
No, that isn’t true; there won’t be. Every year we get fewer in number. Little by little, time will ease us apart.
Never mind; it’s Christmas – in ways the man in black at our gate can never understand.
“Yes, I’ll be the top hat…”