We’d always talked about moving into the country. It would be great for the girls, for one thing. They would grow up surrounded by beauty and peace and their childhood would become a fondly remembered idyll of bucolic delight. And there were advantages for my wife and I. She would finally get that garden she’d always dreamed of, whilst I would be able to concentrate on my painting instead of slaving away in an office all day. So when the chance to rent a cottage on the Welsh borders came up, a cottage with a half acre garden and a large barn which called out for conversion into a studio. It looked good on paper; and after we’d visited and seen the heart-stopping views across the border into Herefordshire, we jumped. My wife found a job at the local hospital, our eldest girl liked the look of the local school, and I started planning a series of landscapes in water-colour which I planned to sell at local craft fairs. Only the baby seemed indifferent to the project, but we felt that she would warm to it with time.
Nothing quite prepares you, moving from the city into the country, for the non-stop noise. The scream of the chain-saw, the throb of the muck spreading tractor in the field next to the house and the endless commotion of the sheep and cows became our constant companions. Huge swathes of time were spent driving; driving to the shop, driving our daughter into school, and driving to the craft fairs where I quickly realised that landscapes in water-colour of local scenes were not exactly in huge demand. And our social life dried up. It had gone from being relatively active given that we had a seven year old and a six month old baby, to nothing. Not a thing. You watch a lot of telly in the country, we soon discovered. Even on the rare occasions when we could coax a baby-sitter up from the village, three miles away, there was nowhere much to go other than the pub, and even when you got there, only one of us could drink, because the other one had to drive.
There was an old man who lived further along our lane who used to solve this by walking to the pub every night, three miles there and three miles back. On the outward leg of his journey, he would often stop and chat with me if I was outside the cottage, digging in the garden or chopping firewood.
“Arghed loike barserler the woife adlle lornge graaass.”, he would say. I would nod, and smile, and agree with him. After a month I started to understand some of what he was saying, and I realised that he was telling me that he would like to take my wife off into the long grass, and although I continued to smile, I withheld my agreement. Keen as we were to get in with the locals, this seemed to be going a bit far. It is not easy to get in with the locals in the country. There was a youngish man in the pub who, if I bought him three pints, was at least prepared to talk to me.
“What do we have to do to be accepted as locals, Ken?”, I asked him one night.
“You need three generations in the grave. By then we’ll be getting used to yer.”
Our eldest daughter Lilly, the seven year old, was doing better. All the boys in her class vied for her hand in marriage (they start early in the country), and all the girls envied her metropolitan sophistication. But we were surprised when she announced one day that she wanted to join the church choir, because her best friend Bethan was in it, and it would be fun. My wife was unsure.
“They’ll brainwash her into joining some religious cult, and we’ll never get her back.”
I said that I didn’t think The Church of Wales counted as a religious cult per se, and besides, it would give us an in with the locals. So we agreed, even though it meant that we now had even more driving, driving her to practise, driving her to services. I used to quite enjoy the services, in an armchair anthropologist kind of way, and some of the congregation had even taken to nodding to me in the village shop. I felt that we were making progress at last. Acceptance, I felt sure, was just around the corner.
Our first Christmas approached. We were going to stay in the cottage, and my brother and his girlfriend were going to bike up from London to join us. It would be fun.
One evening after choir practise Lilly announced that she had been chosen to play the part of Mary in the Church’s Nativity Play, due to take place on Christmas Eve.
“And they want her,” she said, pointing at the baby who sat burbling in her high chair, a tiny pot of Petits Filous smeared all over her bald head. “to be Jesus.”
My wife was unenthusiastic, but I argued that this would be the thing which would win us a place in the community.
“They will be comfortable with us, once we’ve lent them Jesus for the night.”
So it was agreed. And Christmas Eve came around.
My brother phoned me from London at midday.
“I’ve just got in, geezer. Puss is making me a cup of tea, and then we’ll be on the bike. With you about four.”
My brother is a roadie. He’d just ‘got in’ from a three month tour of the States with Status Quo, and ‘Puss’ is what he calls each member of the string of interchangeable rock chicks who are unfortunate enough to have to spend time as his girlfriend. I hadn’t met Puss’s latest incarnation, but I did know that having just got off the plane and then driven his bike across country, my brother would be coming to stay with us mostly to sleep, rising with Puss at six in the evening, eating dinner, and then drinking Jack Daniel’s until nodding off at about 11. But I was determined that before he passed out, he would see his nieces in the Nativity Play.
We spent the day getting Mary and Jesus ready for the big night. Dressing gowns and tea towels played a large part in Mary’s costume.
“There,” said my wife. “Our Lady of the Dishwasher. The patron saint of washing up.”
We weren’t sure what swaddling clothes looked like, so we made do with yet another tea towel, pinned around the baby.
“Why did people wear tea towels in olden days, daddy?”, asked Lilly/Mary.
I didn’t know, but I do know that the profits of tea towel manufacturers rise appreciatively at Christmas.
My brother and Puss arrived. I hugged him. He was smelly.
“How are you, guy?” I asked.
“Creamed. Kin cream crackered. I only got in this morning. Kin terrible flight. This is Puss.”
I shook her hand, and told them the plan for the evening. I said I hoped they didn’t mind.
“Ah, it’ll be lovely, won’t it, Davey? All Christmassy and nice.” said Puss, smiling at my brother.
“Yeah”, he replied, less enthusiastically.
We were due to deliver the children to the church at seven, so that they could get ready for the service, which was due to begin at seven thirty. Which meant that we due to leave home at a quarter to. And at five to I was screaming up the stairs at my wife and daughters.
“Aren’t you ready yet? We’re going to be late!”
“Nearly! Here we come. There. Did you do the oil?”
“Ah.” This is a bad habit of mine. I admit that. I’m not running away from it. I get so mad waiting for my wife to pack the changing mats and spare nappies and baby wipes and nipple guards without which babies can’t leave home, that I always forget that I’m supposed to be getting ready too. And I’d forgotten that my wife had been shopping in Hereford the day before, and that the car was burning oil, and I needed to top it up before we went into the village. So while my family and my brother and Puss loaded themselves into the car, I opened the bonnet and topped up the oil by torchlight. It was five past seven by the time we set out, and as we were twenty minutes late, I felt justified in putting my foot down and screaming along the dark and empty lanes.
As we approached the village, my wife said,
“It’s hot in here.” It was. I looked at the temperature gauge. It was in the red. The oil light flashed a warning, and I stopped the car. Smoke issued menacingly from under the bonnet.
“Right, everyone out!” I shouted. Our little party stood by the side of the road, blowing on their hands to keep them warm. I lifted the red hot hood. The engine was covered in smoking oil. The bonnet was covered in smoking oil. And now, my best suit was covered in smoking oil. I had forgotten to replace the oil cap. It was twenty past seven.
“Right. Come on. Run.” I grabbed the baby, smearing her with oil, and started to trot towards the church, maybe half a mile distant. Behind me, my wife and Puss dragged Lilly, never a great one for running, and especially not in her blue dressing gown, a tea towel tied round her head. My brother brought up the rear.
We arrived at the church at twenty five to eight. I flung open the doors. It was packed, almost every pew taken, except for one at the front which had been saved for us. The congregation turned to look at us, panting, the baby and I covered in oil, Lilly in tears, my brother almost sick with breathlessness.
“Sorry.”, I said. “Car trouble.” The congregation stared sullenly as we handed the baby to Lilly/Mary and helped them find their place with the other be-tea towelled children in the charming tableau before the altar.
Now, I have held back from describing my brother and Puss’s appearance, partly because he is my brother, and I take him for granted, and I suppose I hadn’t really taken his clothes on board, not until he and Puss marched up the aisle behind us to take their place in the pew anyway, and partly in order to capture something of the shock the congregation must have felt.
Puss had a pink mohican and matching pink leggings, ankle length leopardskin stiletto boots and an old bikers jacket with a large green lizard painted on the back. My brother had short bottle blond hair, an old pair of army boots held together with silver gaffer tape, leather trousers, a leather jacket covered in studs, and, unforgivably in my view, a baseball cap advertising the merits of Swedish rock band The Leather Nun. I pulled it off his head as we sat down.
“Right.” said the Vicar. “if we’re all quite ready?” My wife and I nodded, and my brother smiled, and gave him the thumbs up.
“Good.” And the choir started to sing ‘Once In Royal David’s City.’
That would have been a wonderful service, even then, I have since tried to persuade my wife, if my brother had flown in a day earlier, and if I hadn’t sneezed. To see our children in the ancient candlelit church, their little faces all aglow with wonder, that would have been something we’d have remembered for a long time. Our late arrival, the oil-stained baby, the post-punk get ups, all that would have been forgotten. Because if my brother had come home from his tour a day earlier, then he wouldn’t have fallen asleep in the middle of the first lesson, and snored like a steamroller crushing a vast sheet of bubblewrap throughout the whole thing. But he hadn’t, and he did, despite both Puss and I digging him desperately in the ribs. He was gone. It took away from the beauty of the proceedings to see his open mouth, and the thin line of drool which ran down his chin.
And as the service drew to a close, I was worrying how we were ever going to wake him up, when I sneezed. And when I sneeze, I sneeze big. And our baby never liked me sneezing. It made her scream with terror. And from lying quietly in her sisters arms, like a good Jesus, she stared screaming, which started two other babies in the congregation off, and they didn’t stop screaming all through ‘Hark The Herald Angels.’ But at least the screaming woke my brother.
“Wassat?” he said loudly.
“Jesus screaming.”, I whispered.
“Oh.” he said. “Have I been asleep?”
The service ended. As the congregation rose, I noticed that none of them were looking at us. Where were the smiles of acceptance that I was expecting, the invitations to post Christmas drinks? The Vicar stood at the door, shaking the hands of his parishioners as they left. He took mine rather unenthusiastically, but I still managed to get oil on his hand. And when it was my brother’s turn, the Vicar said,
“Who are you?”
And my brother jerked his thumb at me and said,
And so, after Christmas was done, we all agreed, my wife and Lilly and the baby and I, that really there was nothing to be done. We gave up the cottage, and moved back to town, where Lilly has never since been moved to join the local church choir.