Bathyscaphe

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…”

Gift Wrapped.

This is a tribute.  Whatever damage to our health this black COVID comedy has visited upon us, its most permanent effect has been the demise of our traditional way of shopping.  Although our physical wellbeing will return, we are witnessing the final decline of the Mall, the Department Store, the High Street retailer.  

So, a little piece from Christmas past, and maybe an expression of sorrow for things lost; things we’ll miss in the online society of years to come…

“Gif’ wrapped?”

She is in her fifties, piped into the store’s idea of what a woman should wear in her thirties if she were a size 12. She is not a size twelve.

Plastic smile.  “Would’y’like to include-a-message?”

“Sorry?”

“Message.  Would’y’l….”

“Oh!  Sorry.  No thanks.”

The boxed perfume and cologne upon which I have just expended next month’s rent lies before me on the counter.  As enemies go it is already vanquished – its acetate window a little clouded, a little wrinkled, its cardboard colours brash.  Defiant, but defeated.  It is nothing like the resplendent offering that I selected from the brightly-lit glass case.   A cell-phone begins to play something Bieber.   The woman stifles it at the third chord.

“Yeah? Did he?  Oh, right, and he….”

A miracle happens.  Cell tucked against shoulder, bright paper from somewhere.

“Silver or gold?”

“Erm, silver?”

My perfume gift is interred in a whirl of glitzy paper.

“Well, it’s not my fault, I tried!”  The woman tells the ‘phone.  “No, not tonight.  I’m goin’ t’ Freddy’s.  I said.”

Ribbon shoots from somewhere far beneath, not one but two strips.  She holds them up for my approval, her face a mirror of enquiry.  I am being asked to select a colour.  The ‘phone is squawking angrily.  

I point at red.  

“Its no good him prattin’ on.  I said last night I wasn’t goin’.”  From furious to obsequious.  “Yes, madam?”

She has a customer enquiry further along the counter.  I expect her to move away but no, the miracle is still happening.   My gift is wrapped neatly in silver, a red ribbon is flying around it.

“Those are really more for the older man, I think.  Hav’y’thought of Hugo Boss?”  And to the ‘phone:  “Well he knows where he can put it, doesn’ee?”

Ribbon in a tight binding, scissors from treasure-house  below, their point stripping through the loose ends, reducing them to tight curls.  Gum, glitter.  To the new customer:  “He’ll really go for that one, I should think.  What about the cologne?”

To me:  “Seventy-Nine pounds, dear.  Cash or card?”

I never hear the end of the conversation.  I am dispatched, processed, a satisfied customer.  My gift cradled in my respectful grasp, my work of art, my Lichtenstein in silver created by the hand (well, one hand) of an anonymous woman whose work should surely be exhibited somewhere more prominent than my humble Christmas tree.

At home I contemplate the bottle of single malt that I shall gift to Uncle Bill with naked fear.  They stretch out before me – the paper, the scissors that will never cut it in a straight line, the sellotape which has no distinguishable end; the instruments that are the true hell of Christmas.  Grimly, but with determination, I down a third gin and fit the scissors around my fingers.

My wife comes in from work at six o’clock.  “The neighbours are complaining,”  she says,  “about you shouting again.”  She sees the broken glass and the splash of gin on the wall. “Have you been throwing things?”

“It was an accident.”  I tell her.  “Me, shouting?  No, must have been number fifty-eight.”

“What on earth is that?”  She has spotted Uncle Bill’s wrapped bottle of single malt.  “It looks like a traffic accident.”

I come clean.  What else can I do?  At least in my long-sleeved jumper she cannot see the scars where I finally turned the scissors on myself.

“Well you do your best and it is the season of good will!”  My wife says charitably.  “I hope you haven’t bought me perfume again.”

Today, when the thoroughfare should be brimming with supplicants to the Great God of Consumerism, scarcely a foot is heard to fall.  Brightly lit windows flicker code to each other across empty streets – gone the street markets; still-born the Santa Claus parades, the rattling strings of coloured lights that echo in a rain-rich wind.

Not once have I ventured out to make my contribution to those echoes. My Christmas is already shopped – day after day parcels to be gifted trickle to my door, from Amazon, from Etsy people, from emporia I have only seen on my monitor and whose threshold I shall never need to cross.   

One hellish prospect remains, however:  the paper, the sellotape, the scissors that won’t cut straight sit waiting and I know my skills have not improved!   If I was briefly the acquaintance of a lady, a true artist, and if she should remember how she wrapped some perfume for me once?  If she should by any chance be reading this, and be in need of some libation, maybe a mince pie or two as reward for a small service, I can assure her of a welcome at my door…

Christmas Comes but Once a Year…

and when it comes it lasts three months.

All September it lurks in the shadows, fearful, almost, to show its face.   Advertising suggests delicately that if we want to avail ourselves of any pre-Christmas bargains, now is the time.  Those sharpest of eye might catch a glimpse of the advertisers ‘campaign animations limbering up in the wings; a cute little dragon, a charismatic cat, a carrot…a carrot?

Down in their dark fetid dungeons union convenors are preparing their respective marches to personal glory, competing with each other for the best headline, the direst threat.  They are eager to let you know either their members get their twenty-five percent pay increase or you’ll spend your Christmas in airline departures, or waiting on the station platform, or…

October, and the carrot is christened Kevin!  In despair of getting a flight or a train, you learn the ferries are likely to be on strike, and France has downed tools until the New Year.  You decide your best option will be to celebrate closer to home, so you attempt to book a Christmas break at a hotel.   The sound of derisive laughter on the ‘phone is not pleasant.  Now if you’d booked in July

As October spills over into November you notice how wolves are beginning to gather around street corners, taking experimental nips at the heels of more harassed-looking shoppers as they struggle beneath their panniers of expensive toys.   Throwing up the barricades you elect to have a traditional Christmas, and the die is cast.   The following day is the optimum time for news of shortages:  shortages of turkeys, shortages of Brussels sprouts, et al.

November into December and out there in tele-ad world personalities have slimmed themselves to wafer elegance.  Luxury baths, swimming pools and tropical beaches await their perfumed presence   – why do advertisements for perfumes always involve so much water?  The scent would wash off, surely?  Kevin the Carrot now has a circle of friends, including a love interest and a middle-aged pop idol.  The cute little dragon no longer breathes fire on everything, but is reduced to gazing longingly at various ‘special offers’ – including a mobile phone.  What’s a dragon going to do with a mobile phone?  He looks rather sad, and lost.

The wolves are fiercer by far.  You can barely elbow your way into Marks and Spencers, and the smell of hot plastic at the Supermarket is all but intolerable.  By the end of the third Black Friday in a row and just before the last Cyber Monday you will have realized the goods you were counseled to buy in September are now on sale fifty percent cheaper than the price you paid.  This is the time to remember the smug look you gave your neighbor as you told her you ‘had all your Christmas shopping done’ and how she confessed she’d ‘done nothing yet’.

Personally, I try to regard Christmas Day as a period for quiet reflection, so to speak; the eye of the hurricane.  It is a time for families to be together, discussing their issues openly.  Last year, for example, Cousin Hubert chose the occasion to ‘come out’ (we all had to try and look surprised – we’ve known for years) and once explanations have been offered to children why the expensive games console they have been given is obviously totally the wrong games console and apologies offered for our hopeless present buying there is an opportunity to relax, indulging fond memories of times past.  On this one day of the year, at least, we are given the chance to watch once more movies the entire cast of which have been dead for half a century (which helps).

And then, quite suddenly, January will dawn and it will all be over.   The world will return to work, which should be a relief if only the banking community could remain on holiday, but alas, no.

The credit card statements will hit the doormat, delivered personally by the most insistent of the wolves.  They will be transferred from doormat to desk, where they will sit unopened and we shall try to stare them out for maybe a week, then bury them under other ‘more urgent business’ for a further two.  All the while the wolves will be ranging around our door, scratching and baying, until at last, unable to outface them any longer, we pick up the paper-knife.

Bad?  Not too bad.  We should have paid it all off by next September.

Happy Christmas, everybody, and a stonking New Year!