The usual Christmas card came from an old friend, many miles away. It contained the usual folded-in-four, once-a-year letter. I’m not sure how old Jen is now but she must be ancient, considering she was a great deal older than me when we typed together for a while, in that tiny, exhaust-fume filled basement next to the ring road – bars on the windows; stiflingly crammed with sweating female bodies and those massive old word processors and printers. She tells me that her husband and his mother are on different floors of the same hospice – rooms above and below one another – and that she walks uphill for twenty minutes or so several times a week to visit them both. Neither of them know who she is.
One sentence from her letter has stuck in my mind – “I am afraid my world has become rather narrow”. Poor Jen, it was always narrow, though she wasn’t one to complain – a narrow, if cheerful, upbringing, narrow horizons, narrow expectations, narrow opportunities – and now it is narrower still.
Yesterday I went to the free Christmas Dinner the Parish Council put on every year. This place gradually seeps into your bones. You find yourself beginning to acquire the local cunning, which basically boils down to a series of mottoes such as:
- Pay no more than 50p for anything.
- Get the 9.30 bus so that you can use your bus pass. Argue piously with the driver if he says it’s 29 minutes past. By the time you have finished arguing it will be 30 minutes past. And then you can use your bus pass.
- Leggings go with everything, and they are very cheap.
- Tee shirts go with leggings, and they are also cheap.
- Get your hair (beautifully) cut and (unpredictably) coloured by college students. They are very cheap.
Everyone goes to the Christmas Dinner, and every tiny parish has one. You have to fill in a form from the Post Office requesting a place. You have to be old, and local. There are a series of Christmas Dinners on different days in one of the three possibly “venues”. Sometimes the same venue hosts different parishes on different days of the month. It’s complex. But free. And actually, quite good. At least there’s plenty of it, even sprouts, even those tough-ish roast potatoes that remind you of school – even if a rainstorm is swirling outside, the car park is a sea of mud, your baby elephant sized paper hat is falling down over your ears and you are being forced to listen to mega-amplified Sixties classics sung by a man with sideburns in a shiny suit.
I saw him, hiding behind the amplifier, wolfing it down before he began. A plate of Christmas Dinner must be part of the fee.
Poor chap, he worked really, really hard, but they made the mistake of calling the raffle (30 sumptuous prizes, including a box of biscuits-for-cheese) moments before he got up to tune his guitar (new strings, he was having problems with them). Immediately afterwards all the oldies started struggling into their coats and hats to go home. Mr Guitar Man was left, mid-afternoon, trying to ginger up a three parts empty hall, the few remaining oldies in the middle with their elephant hats, full of Xmas Pud and clapping sporadically, and a few schoolgirls (still in uniform) propping up the bar. Presumably they were related to the proprietors rather than hardened drinkers.
And oh, he sang Driving Home For Christmas. Extremely tunefully, but very loud. How I loathe that song. And Another Brick In the Wall by Pink Floyd, which I used to like but only for about three and a half minutes back in the Seventies. Very, very loud. And that Ride, Sally, Ride one. What’s that all about? Wasn’t that the Fifties?
And this – by way of attempting to bite one’s tail, post-wise, serpent-wise – is what really worries me. But I don’t think I can explain it. Oh well, I’ll have a bash.
It’s what my first-paragraph friend said about the narrowing of one’s world. I see it happening to me, of course, and yet, oddly, not. I see the advantages of being sucked in and submerged, the comfort and blanketing ease that narrowness brings – old age, no money, working class. Belonging. You see, that is what I have never, ever experienced, and part of me wishes only to be absorbed into it, never to have to think ‘outside the box’ again. Never again to be forced to sit on some hard, chilly seat and observe. I didn’t want to write this, because I observed it.
All the while I was sitting in the corner on that hard, chilly seat and knew however much I was clapping and smiling and chinking glasses and wishing people Happy Christmas at the socially appropriate (also observed) times, playing with the debris from the Christmas crackers, wishing I’d got one of those tiny spinning tops instead of a tiny yellow car – I was making mental notes, and I couldn’t stop. And I knew that I would never be able to, however lonely it was.
Watching my friend (of this paragraph) struggling to her feet to clap and sing along to Driving Home For Christmas; watching her propping her telescopic walking stick out of sight and hobbling onto the dance floor to do a kind of dignified, shuffling Sixties dance in the middle of the floor with another woman; observing her dancing, her with her floaty, surprisingly-coloured-by-students hairdo, wearing a blouse so large, twinkly and besequinned it was like a little constellation all of itself, I so wished I could do that, be like that. And yet I didn’t, and I couldn’t. I would rather the floor had opened and swallowed me whole than venture forth to dance. The other half of me was wondering how soon it could think of an excuse to go home and feed the cats.
The part of me that recognised courage in the face of adversity, a certain inexplicable joyousness about her, also felt the horror.