Driving Home for Christmas
It’s not always a delight.
“Santa Stops Here.” That’s what all the signs say as I leave the Portsmouth suburbs under the cover of darkness. He’s going to be really busy if all these signs are to be believed. We’re rolling over new fallen snow, the car in front throwing snow from its rear wheels into the beam of my lights. Ambient heat filters in at my feet. Bruce Springstein sings of our shared predicament.
Mum died 6 this morning,
Victoria Hospital. Funeral Tue 16 June at Cowdenbeath. Jenn.
I hadn’t gone. To this day I don’t know why. Now, two and a half years later I’m making the trip. After ten years I’m going back. I can’t even say going home. Something deep within me says I’ve forfeited the right.
The radio is telling of a severe weather front up north. Its a bad combination of ever stronger winds and snow. What’s more, it’s heading south. As if in confirmation, the snowflakes grow larger in the headlights. The Winchester by-pass is a winding chain of lights, the verge like the black walls of a tunnel. Any houses out here are well illuminated. They have that cozy look which comes from viewing them from outside.
‘John, Jennifer, get doon here now. Breakfast’s oot.’
The windows are iced over on the inside. There isn’t enough heat in the big square room to cause the droplet race of condensation. There is a worn wool carpet bridging the gap between the two beds. Its narrow span crosses the icy tundra of the well-polished linoleum. Jenn gazes across the frozen expanse; the top half of her face visible through a small worked gap in her blankets. Okay, it’s hyperbole; but it’s minimal. This room is Baltic.
Jennifer; Jenn; Sis, is six years old. By turns my henchman; my familial rival; my burden. ‘Aw Mum! Dae I hiv tae take her wae mi?’ She’s chunky and robust as she runs at speed in the direction of the bathroom. It grants me a two minute stay of execution. I remain in the foetal position, listening to the patter of driven snow on the window pane. That sound is the most comforting, cozy sound in my cerebral store.
‘John Graham,if a hiv tae come up thair.’ Mum’s implied threat, like Damocles sword, is left to hover about my head.
The warm interior of my car brings me back to the present. Or maybe its the pitter patter of the snow on the windscreen. At any event, the car seems overheated, and I crack the window. The sudden gust of cold air peaks remembrance. Nat King Cole sings When a Child is Born. The vintage and the reverie are comparable and compatible.
My blankets are so tightly tucked-in that I have to draw myself out of the top, as you would from a modern sleeping bag. I’m wearing blue and white striped pyjamas. They are cotton, well used and reassuringly thick. The jacket is tight tucked in the trousers. The trousers are tight tucked into thick wool socks. I breathe heavily on the window pane; producing a small oval world resembling a twenties movie. I see a small, featureless white square; doing no justice to my parents agricultural efforts. Wait! I lie. Off to the right I see the stark silhouettes of long cosseted brussels sprouts. I file away the memory of this winter wonderland. It must wait till after school. Excited anticipation warms my extremities. As Jenn thunders down the stairs, I make the ill-equipped dash for the bathroom.
Dad lights the fire before he leaves for work. After a cursory splash in ice-cold water, the living-room is the outer edge of civilization.
‘If ye wash in ice-cold water it’ll mak ye warm up real quick,’ said my Mum, sounding wise and authoritative. So I go through this masochistic ritual every morning. The sudden descent and the arctic plunge have me pink as I pull up to the fireplace. School clothes are warming in front of the fire. As I slide into warm cotton and wriggle in sultry linen; Jenn goes through her female grooming ritual. It’s a process I barely understand, a puzzlement I share with my fellow man, an unspoken bond with my Dad..
Through in our now warm kitchen, Mum slings thick slices of French toast and pours strong, sweet tea. Tomato ketchup is available as an optional extra. These thick slices of eggie bread are brown and crisp on top, under a granulated layer of salt. Under this crust, the bread is soft, yielding and downright decadent. Mum stands arms crossed. She has on a wrap-around apron and she is far enough into the new day to be comfortable with her place in it.
‘OK Toots, time for school.’
‘Aye Mum,’ says my sister in that ingratiating voice she also uses when delivering me up for punishment. Swooping like the sparrow-hawk from the back of the garages, I sequester the last of her French Toast. Time for an equipment check.
The glancing check in my rear view mirror shows a light-flashing column of snow-ploughs beating north on the outside lane of the M6 motorway. It’s four in the morning and we have been sitting here for around four hours. The colds intrusive and I reckon it’s safe to turn on the heater. The creeping cold brought me to full wakefulness around an hour ago. Once awake, my mind was razor sharp and I went into fast unimpeded recall.
Tommy Bowles is a great Norse God of a man. Thor the Thunderer, no less. For a start there’s the thick heavy beard. Grey, black, slightly unkempt and normally displaying the remnants of lunch. He has matching eyebrows, articulate and at times, awe-inspiring. As I walk into his office he is engrossed in a telex sheet, fresh ripped from the printer behind him.
‘Bloody Jocks,’ he mutters. ‘Arseholes. Ungrateful arseholes.’ The green highlighter flashes once, twice, three times. ‘Oh God, here’s another one,’ he sighs, shaking his head and slicing through my life-force with that flashing highlighter.
‘Guilty as charged Your Honour,’ I reply, dodging the highlighter and lowering my body into the visitor’s chair. ‘But I must be allowed a statement in mitigation, Milord.’
‘John boy, you’re as bad as the rest of them, despite the mouthy southie accent.’ He throws the overworked highlighter onto the desk and fixes me with that disconcerting stare of his.
‘Well? Can we go to print on Smiling Boy?’ He refers to our local councillor, Bernie Mates, potential candidate for the vacant Conservative seat of Portsmouth and Southsea.
‘You can have my final draft this afternoon. It’s all there, all verified; and it’ll make a great lead.’ The story is typical of The Standard. Incisive, relevant and unemotional reporting. The Tommy Bowles way, his only way, and for twenty years past the way of the Portsmouth Standard.
‘So why the long face, my foxy jock newshound?’ He has a way with words does Tommy. His unwavering gaze grabs me by both shoulders.
‘Chief, I need some time away.’ His eyebrows rise at the use of the honorific.
‘C’mon John, we’ve been beyond chief or boss for a long time gone. Just give it to me unsweetened.’
‘I need to go home. No. I want to go home.’
‘Of course you do, it’s been a hard year. Take the whole week, then you’ll be back with us for Christmas. Louise will be there.’ Louise is Tommy’s beautiful, talented and unattached daughter. She’s a Political Analyst with the BBC. Mum and Dad see us as a pair, and although we are close we, neither of us, set the other’s heather on fire.
‘No, I think I need an extended leave of absence. At the least a month.’
‘And what about your job here? You’re my lead reporter; my shareholders would want you replaced. We both know that one month means more like two.’ In an instant his manner changes. ‘Is it your family John? Can we help? Tell me.’
‘No, it’s… Look, I haven’t been home for ten years. I didn’t even go back for my mum’s funeral. I need to make my peace.’
‘And this freedom bullshit? Is that something you have to see to as well?’
‘No. At least I don’t think so. It’s just brought it all to mind.’ Tommy seems deep in thought.
‘Do you know anything about what’s happening up there John?’
‘I probably know more than anyone south of the Watford Gap. I used to be a Nationalist. Fuck; I went to school with Eddie Christie.’
‘The First Minister? That Eddie Christie?’ Tommy seems bemused.
‘It was years ago. We were really good mates.’
‘So could you do me a detailed situation report John? Well yes, of course you could. If there were a story there, you could do a series. Serial reporting from where it’s at.’
‘No. I need an extended break. It would take too much of my time. No Tommy.’
‘Think John, son. It’s pretext for your absence. You can take as long as you like. And we both know you can give a well-balanced account,’ The green highlighter was pointed straight at my heart, so what was I going to do? Twelve hours later and I’m in snowdrifts north of Winchester.
It’s eight o’clock and barely light. The kids are obviously not destined for school today. They leave warm homes with great alacrity. No, no school today; instead the wonder of new snow. The pavements are busy with winter-wrapped workers, cars left in snow-piled drives; discretion’s victory over valour. The house is the third on the left. A really well-appointed semi, far from the mean housing schemes off Stenhouse Street and Woodend. Bought and paid for in the dogged, determined fashion of my little sister.
‘C’mon John, it’s cauld,’ she says tugging at my heavy elk-skin coat, pulling me off balance. In the middle-distance I can just make out Captain Scott and his dog team battling in the teeth of an infernal blizzard.I want to tell her to stay out of my play zone. Antarctica is no place for a six year old schoolgirl. But Jenn dances to her own tune.
’He’s coming, look. So ye can just wait.’
‘Will you fuckin’ move it Eddie. We’re gaun tae be late,’ my baby sister shouts along the busiest street in Cowdenbeath. Mum and Dad don’t swear so where did she get that from? But then of course I know the answer to that one. There’s little point in telling her that it isn’t Eddie Christie, but Captain Scott, the explorer. She can’t see the hooded, elk-skin coat and goggles; just a knitted balaclava and a worn gray duffel-coat. But then that’s girls for you.
Eddie has this big, round moon face. It looks even rounder inside the black balaclava. He’s much broader in the shoulder than me, a big lad by anyone’s standard. My little sister terrifies him though. Shading his eyes with a hand, Eddie gazes off into the middle distance. There is the sound of cheering and a human wave of Primary school kids breaks against our little world.
‘School’s aff! It’s a day aff! There’s nae heating, we’ve been sent hame!’ A primal joy lights up the drab, snow covered streets. Our joy is cut short. The Penman twins have spotted us. Billy is really ugly and Bobby, well they’re twins. The biggest pair of bullies in Cowdenbeath.
‘Huv you three ony money?’ Three heads shake in unison. ‘Yer lyin’ Christie, you always hae money.’ It was true, Eddie was posh. His family lived at the better end of Broad Street and his Dad had a big, gray Hillman Hunter.
‘Well I hav’nae,’ he says which is brave in the extreme. It works too, as suddenly their attention switches to me.
‘Empty his pockets Billy,’ says Bobby with a hint of pure evil in his grin.
‘Leave ma brither alone ya bastard,’ shouts Jenn with real conviction. At the same time she draws back her wellington-booted right foot and kicks the luckless Billy between the forks, which is Cowdenbeath for ‘in the testicles’. Billy drops to his knees, desperately trying to pull his bollocks from inside his groin. Bobby retaliates in a manner which he is later to perfect whilst gaining fifty-odd caps for Scotland at rugby union. He simply hands Jenn off with the flat of his hand. Jenn twists in mid air and lands face down in the thickening snow.
‘Jenn.’ She turns and for an instant I look upon a stranger; a woman not unlike my Mum. ‘It’s me, Jenn.’ She’s short and petite, her head barely reaching my shoulder.
‘John, it’s you finally.’ The smirking, half smile spikes my remembrance. ‘Well you missed the funeral. She was your Mum too, so you know she would have waited if she could?’
‘I’m sorry Jenn.’
‘You don’t need to apologise to me John Graham. I’m your sister. And Mum’s known for long enough that you’re sorry.’ With a sweep of her hand she signals me to precede her. ‘C’mon, it’s too bloody cold out here.’
It’s that simple…