I’m on the train now heading for London, and then on to Germany, to spend Christmas with relatives in Cologne. We’re just passing through Newton Abbot, in Devon, and the fields are tinged with frost, that wonderful transparent twilight between just plain cold and winter wonderland. It clings to only the thinnest, outermost branches of trees making them look as if they’ve gone white in a sudden flash. What a lovely scene: all pale gray and hazy winter light, as the train snakes its way through old rail yards, somber brick buildings and now on past glass-smooth tidal flats and stranded boats, where houses huddle down near the shore, as we roll on towards Exeter.
Father Christmas came to St. Agnes yesterday. I was given the opportunity to play the part a couple of weeks earlier and gladly agreed. The beard I was given was a little mangy--I gave it a quick rinse, dried it out on the Rayburn, and was ready to go. I imagine I was the skinniest guy to ever play the role.
My arrival at the Island Hall was planned via Land Rover, but in the end Jon, Hans, and I just ended up walking down. I carried my customary sack of toys plus a few bags of chocolates I had put together for the kids. Jon rang the sleigh bells outside and I walked through the kitchen, greeting past generations of island children (some now in their sixties) as I made my entrance. The children had been sitting on the floor waiting for me. I put on my best elderly, English gentleman accent, and wished them a Merry Christmas. The hall wore its decorations well in the dim light (intended to hamper the attempts of non-believers in guessing Santa’s true identity). I stood staring at everything for a moment.
“Would you like to sit down, Father Christmas?” Margaret Fox, the director of the evening’s production, offered a guiding hand. We hadn’t really gone over the play-by-play, though I suppose it was fairly obvious how the plot was supposed to unfold. I got wrapped up in the moment though, the kids, the decorations, the red suit, and needed prompting. “Would you like to hand out the presents, Father Christmas?”
One by one they came up, all very polite and well behaved. All of the answers I had prepared, for what I had assumed would be the inevitable deluge of questions, were going to waste. No, “Where did you park the sleigh?”
“The reindeer are grazing on Annet (one of the uninhabited islands).
No, “Are you the real Santa Claus?”
“Why, yes, of course! Are you the real Sasha? Because I heard that there’s a little girl that dresses just like you saying she’s the real one.”
No, “I don’t believe in Santa Claus anymore.”
“If you don’t believe in me I’ll soon fade away. Ditto for the presents.”
No—just polite little kids this year.
My grandmother would tell me a week later in Germany that when she was a girl St. Nick was accompanied by Knecht Rubrecht, the anti-Santa. He was the one bad little kids got to meet. He dressed in black, had soot on his face, carried a switch and a black bag out of which hung a pair of small legs. This he tied with a chain and dragged up the stone steps, and into the hall, where she waited with her childhood friends. Yay… Merry Christmas!
Early reports said critics offered favorable reviews of my holiday performance. There were lots of smiles all round last night. The moon was out in a clear sky. We all left the Island Hall and headed back up the road. Later on Jon accompanied me on my island Christmas card deliveries. We had a good walk and were invited in here and there for a cup of tea.
The train track runs daringly close to the sea at points along this line and occasionally gets flooded in winter as a consequence. Sitting in a seat on the landward side of the train plays a nice trick of the eye, as looking out the window, we appear to be running on open ocean for a few minutes. The farther east we go, the colder it gets. Ponds and streamlets that don’t quicken their pace become numb and cloud over with ice. Other streams hurry in the cold trying to avoid the same fate.
Passing through Cornwall this morning on a smaller train I was reminded of the intimate forms of address customary to the Cornish. The conductor greeted the woman in front of me with a hearty “Awroit, moy lovar?” (translation: “Alright, my lover?”) and her son with “Awroit, me handsome?” Not a hint of impropriety, it’s offered in the same tone of voice one might expect to hear “Alright, my neighbor?”
Still, weren’t the English supposed to be reserved and formal? How did this come about? Perhaps at some point in the middle ages Cornwall was a much racier place, embracing “free love” centuries before it was rediscovered in our age. People may have been saying “Awroit, moy lovar?” with good reason, and perhaps the phrase just stuck.
I remember Zoe telling me a story about trying to get from the train in Penzance to the airstrip at Land’s End on a trip to Scilly a few years ago. She had missed the shuttle and ended up running a couple of miles through fields, and chickens, and hedges trying not to miss her flight. Then she came across a farmer on his tractor, dropped her luggage, and asked if there wasn’t just a bus she could catch. The farmer’s reply? “You won’t find any buses ‘round here, my lover.”
An authentic, older, English gentleman has just come back from the dining car (four cars up) with sandwiches for himself and his wife and, with perfect senior-citizen dryness, said “I’ve just had to walk to London to get these!”
Miles further on and we’re past the delicate in-between stage. Everything’s white now—I haven’t seen snow in years. A flush of small Christmas trees, camouflaged in snow, dash by, safe for another season. A field of sheep stand motionless, only their mouths moving. Ducks persevere. We create our own snow flurries as the train barrels between narrow embankments, blasting the fresh powder off the branches and past the windows in a frantic whirl.
I’m back in London this evening and sitting on a stone bench on Oxford Street as packs of blank-faced holiday shoppers stream by, a strange current as it flows against itself in two directions. Throngs of people, lights, lights, and more lights, so much glitz, so much flash, but for my money not enough cheer.
Going from one of the smallest communities in the world to one of its largest, in a matter of hours, cannot be done, it seems, without feeling a “culture lag.” A new environment has sprung up in front of my eyes: no neighbors, no cows, no quiet openness. A soprano saxophone wails a little song from under a shop sign and I notice how mad it is, just staring at everything as if I’ve dropped in from another planet, a feeling I’ve had quite a bit lately. Ah, well, it doesn’t matter. Mostly, I was just enjoying looking at the girls.
I’m at Zoe’s now. It’s late in the evening and we’ve gotten Indian takeaway from a plain, little, one-table shop, six doors up. We sat on her floor, ate, and had a slice of the German Christmas stollen I baked and brought her. Oh, it’s so nice: that blissed out, tired feeling of having run around all day in the big empty city, and come home, having a glass of wine, and a meal, sitting on the floor with a good friend. Just what I needed—perfect. As I type this dispatch, Zoe sits across from me with a preoccupied, lopsided grin on her face, as she sends a text message to Jon’s cell phone. It reads: “Alright, me handsome? Happy holidays!”
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