Down memory lane
THE ghosts of past Christmases, Charles Dickens said, haunt us. I am not a believer in Christmas. I am aware that the festival is a sophisticated relic of rites that were enacted in some parts of northern Europe at the winter equinox, about 1,000 years ago. They were performed by barbaric nations, and involved human sacrifice. The red of Santa Claus's robe comes from racial memory. It was originally dyed that colour by the butchered victim's blood.
The modern version of Christmas does not appeal to me any more than its primitive counterpart, but I sometimes observe it. Five years ago I spent it at my son's house in London. I hadn't seen him much since in 1969 his mother and I separated. He was then three years old. But Judy, her family, and I had remained friends. Hers was the only family I have ever had. We had not met as often as we would have liked to, but only because of distance and the cost of tickets.
She died young, of cancer, in 1991. But her mother and brother were at my son's house that Christmas day. The television screen was made hideous by carol singers and Santa Clauses with cottonwool beards, bellowing Ho Ho Ho. We were all slightly stertorous after lunch. I was about to fall asleep in my armchair, knowing I would be forgiven if I snored, when I noticed a figurine on the table by me. I picked it up and suddenly recollected much that I had forgotten.
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Judy and I lived together for six years. We spent most of our Christmases outside England. After our son was born, we spent one Christmas in Gangtok, one in Oaxaca. He accompanied us in a pushchair. By the third Christmas Judy and I had separated, and the three of us never spent another one together. But I never forgot the first Christmas we ever shared, in 1963, though I detested the event like all other religious festivals. We spent it with her mother in the country.
Pat was a widow. She lived in the Dower House of her grandfather's farm: a large, rambling place, with high oakbeamed ceilings and a thatched roof. The pillows in my bedroom smelt of lavender. When I awoke on Christmas Day there had been a hard frost, but the sun was up. The fields around the Dower House sprawled away as far as I could see. The combination of sunlight and frost had made them glitter and flash as though they were made of green quartz.
Later we had the traditionally indigestible Christmas lunch. Guests came: local farmers and London businessmen with weekend cottages nearby. They were gross, prosperous men of a kind I have always disliked, whether in England or here. They talked exclusively of money, and their wives of films and clothes. Pat asked one of the farmers to carve the turkey. His already crimson face more deeply flushed with whisky, he expertly pared the warm white flesh from the carcass. I thought of the Roman soldiers who had despoiled the corpse of Christ.
I also met the village vicar. He was a quiet, mildly alcoholic man in shabby tweeds and a clerical collar. He asked me if I was a Hindu. I replied that I didn't follow any religion. He smiled sadly and said, ``Neither do I.'' I thought him very sympathetic. The other guests seemed to find him a source of amusement.
Outside the sun had disappeared, and the farmers, as they left under a darkened sky, said it would snow before nightfall. It did; the chilly brittle flakes drifted into a landscape that gradually came to resemble a good watercolour of winter. Pat asked me if I had liked the vicar. ``I think he's sweet,'' she said. ``The local people make fun of him because he's so vague. His wife died last year, and I think the poor man is lonely. I hope you don't mind, but I asked him to dinner."
He arrived soon after, on a bicycle, his scanty hair and the shoulders of his cheap overcoat thickly dandruffed with snow. ``Oh," Pat said, flustered, ``I didn't mean you to cycle two miles in this weather, vicar. I could easily have picked you up.'' He replied, ``It's good exercise. Besides, it's stopped snowing.'' He produced three small packets from his pockets: scarves for Pat and Judy, a tie for Judy's young brother Ian. Then he gave me a stricken look. ``I didn't bring you a Christmas present,'' he said. ``I shall never forgive myself.'' He refused a drink and for some minutes brooded in an armchair. Then he leapt to his feet.
"I must go home,'' he declared. ``But I shall come back soon."
A chorus of protests followed. Pat offered to drive him to the vicarage and back, but he was adamant in refusal, mounted his bicycle, and pedalled off. It had started to snow once more. ``He'll catch his death of cold,'' Pat lamented. When the vicar returned an hour later, he was encrusted in snow, but triumphant.
He gave me a chipped, worn, ebony elephant. One tusk had fallen off.
"You couldn't possibly be left without a present at Christmas, my dear boy,'' he said. ``After I first came here, I remembered I had this in my attic in the vicarage. It's nothing much, but I thought that it would remind you of India."
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"It's been lying around the house since I was kid,'' said my son. I fingered the little figurine and remembered over years the snowbound village, the dreadful lunch guests, and the vicar's mild, foolish face. Sweetness of nature is rare, and the amount of it once invested in this cheap curio had made it valuable to me. ``It's nothing much,'' my son added. ``But Mum was very fond of it."
"Yes,'' I said. ``I'm glad you kept it, even though it's nothing much."
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