Christmas comes but once a yearby Listener Archive
David Hill remembers an English Christmas of snow, electric fires and surface mail.
Long, long ago, in a youth far, far away, Beth and I spent a Christmas in England. I’d milked my university degree to get a job teaching at a new high school that catered for the sons of Saudi/Egyptian businessmen. Beth milked hers to get a job cleaning rooms in an old hotel that catered for the families of London holidaymakers.
We knew our English Christmas was going to be a special one. We’d already given ourselves an advance pressie: she was 7lb 2oz, with Beth’s eyes and my opposed thumbs. We told far-off families all about her in thin blue weekly aerogrammes. We had bought and mailed our Christmas cards. I’d walked down to the bright red postbox, pausing at the Saucy Sailor to ask for directions. I’d walked back to our dull brown semi-detached, pausing at the Shaucy Shailor to ashk for …
A week before December 25, snow fell. Excited cries of “White Christmas!” were heard. Within 12 hours, passing trucks revving up and passing drunks throwing up had turned long stretches into a Grey or Orange-Yellow Christmas.
Traditional English reserve evaporated as Xmas Hour approached. Neighbours who’d never done more than nod to us in passing invited us over for mince pies and sherry. The postie knocked, then stood outside, whistling and sorting letters, till one of us opened the door and handed him a small seasonal something. The milk-boy clinked bottles for five minutes, and the dustman lifted then banged down the bin lid 14 times till we proffered the same gratuity.
The windows and doorways of suburban butchers became hung with corpses of pheasants, rabbits, turkeys, hares, geese and the odd badger that hadn’t made it across the A23. Carol singers went from door to door, hollering, “God rest you, merry gentlemen.” Mr Singh next door, whose work permit was a bit dodgy, thought they were singing “God arrest you”, and didn’t unlock his door until December 30.
We had a grand time, sitting by the fire (electric: shilling in the slot), sharing distant memories of warmth, blue skies, peeling noses, stubbed toes, warmth. Rather to our surprise, no gift arrived from one major branch of the family. Oh well, perhaps they felt diffident about sending a couple of dozen krugerrands through the post.
The ghosts of Christmas Present …passed. My Saudi and Egyptian pupils returned. The father of one had bought him two dozen silk shirts. The father of another had bought him a Bentley – “for the holiday purposes only, sir”. The father of a third, if I understood him correctly, had bought him the local police chief. I thought rather grimly of that non-doing major branch of our families.
January came. The neighbours went back to nodding at us, except for one who asked if by any chance our pram had scraped the side of his parked car. January went. Then one day in early February, when milk came frozen home in pail, and baby daughter’s nappies came frozen stiff from line, the postman knocked again.
The mercenary sod, I thought, and opened the front door with a phrase or three ready for him. The postie stood there. He appeared to be holding his breath. He pushed a small stained, stunningly smelly parcel at me. “Not ’nuff postage,” he blurted. “Come surface mail.” He wheeled, and ran back down the path.
I took the parcel straight inside. I took the parcel straight outside, pursued by intemperate charges that I was trying to asphyxiate our new daughter. Standing upwind, I opened the mephitic mystery with a pair of garden shears.
As the insufficient postage label parted and the contents were revealed, I reeled and realised. The major branch had sent us a Christmas gift, after all. Across the ocean, through the sun-baked ports of Australia, the sweltering humidity of the tropics, the two-week dock strike in Italy, the inspection by the UK Dept of Chemical and Biological Warfare, had sailed for three months our festive pack of New Zealand cheeses.
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