We worked our way through the graveyard, following the old habit of looking for the oldest stone, the youngest and most tragic death. There, on the edge, in a clearer spot, was the one I wanted to see, the shape and pattern so, so familiar.
“This was Alec’s, Stewie’s friend, yeah?”
“Aye, pet. Thought, you know, pay some respects. I mean, all of this here, it sort of comes from her, aye?”
My wife nodded. “You do too, I suppose. This lot, they pulled you out of the crap”
I turned to her, and kissed her gently. “I rather think you had a lot to do with that, love”
“I don’t like to blow my own wotsit---no, don’t even think about making that joke!”
She sobered, quickly. “You are thinking of it, aren’t you?”
I squeezed her hand. “Been thinking about it ever since I knew it was possible, love”
“You know what I mean. It’s been on your mind ever since that old bastard kicked you. I was talking to Annie, yeah? And Steph. Wanted to get an inside sort of thing. How their men coped. With, you know, before the op”
She turned me to her, taking the lapels of my coat in her hands after picking off some imaginary piece of lint. “It’s different here, yeah, what with everyone but you being straight. Annie says her Eric had real difficulty at first, seeing her as a woman, and Steph says the opposite, so it’s not simples”
She leant forward, head on my breasts as she so often did. “This is a joint decision, yeah, cos we is married and that lets me get my claws into all your worldly wotsits, but it’s your decision as well, yeah, your body, but…”
She settled further into my embrace. “What’s that bit from the wedding vows? With my body I thee worship? Says nothing about what body you got, so here’s my formal statement, lover. I married you eyes open. We’ve discussed this, danced around it, avoided it off and on, but it’s always been there since I found your clothes, so all I will do is repeat what’s the heart of it: I love you. I married you. I didn’t marry your cock, though I did sort of love it a bit, yeah? As long as I have the person I love to wake up with, that’s all I want, all I need, and that means you can do what YOU need and I will still be there”
She turned to look at the gravestone. “Till death, yeah?”
“Love… there is nothing I can say…”
“Then just gimme a snog and we’ll see about some lunch, yeah? “
“Doesn’t matter. When did you ever hear of a Christmas lunch?”
“Snog now, lover!”
We returned to the church to find a number of odd vehicles arriving as well as a coach, as it appeared that the dinner that year was for the children’s hospital, and there was a steady flow of wheelchairs and walking frames before all were seated at the long tables. Various musicians were assembled on the stage, including James and Darren, but there were also several women mixed in with a group of mainly thickset men. And Hays in the front. The vicar, Simon, picked up a microphone.
“Ladies, gentlemen, friends. Welcome to another Christmas at St Nick’s. We are grateful, as ever, for the generosity of the Women’s Institute, and this year we have received substantial donations from the local Rotary club and Lions. This is a significant part of our calendar, not just because it is Christmas, which sort of has a big place in my job, but also because it is a time for giving. People have given money, as I have said. The lovely ladies of the WI have given their culinary skills, and I can already smell the results, so if you hear a rumble from my stomach blame them.
“We have, as ever, our musical friends to entertain us, but this time we have decided to begin with something to involve our guests as well. Last night was our carol service, and I know that too many of our young friends here missed having one. So, before we begin our meal, we shall sing. The words are on the sheets of paper on each table. Happy Christmas to you all!”
A heavy-set man with part of a finger missing stepped forward from the choir.
“Now, we have children here, so as they are foreign we shall have to sing in their language, aye? I am sure you have sweet voices, and as we are well-represented in the lower registers, can you please help our ladies to shine? First one is a slow one: Oh come Emmanuel”
I watched my brother as the wall of sound hit me, before realising he was actually wearing a an apron. This time, as his daughter sang, his tears were held, and what shone from him was pride. I noticed he had the tall blond boy and his skinny partner with him, also wearing aprons, and he turned to them and said something that was simple to divine without hearing: that’s my daughter there, the one with the sweetest voice of all.
The choir worked through the songs most of us knew, and gave us a few more obscure ones, and then did something in Welsh. I looked for Hays, and she was singing along quite happily, which was astonishing. After the last song died away and the band began something gentle, I made my way over to her. Ian and his new friends were already dishing out food, and I found her with the self-appointed spokesman, the one with the damaged finger.
“Aunty Jill! Did you hear me sing?”
The big man was grinning. “Arwel Powell. True soprano here you have, Aunty Jill! Clear and pure, aye, and she can take the old language as well”
“How the hell did you get her to do that?”
“I have no idea at all. Just showed her the words, aye? And she says, that’s foreign, and I say, well, cariad, it’s a different alphabet, but the sounds are always the same, aye, not like English, and she says show me, and she’s singing the words in a proper Abergwaun accent in twenty minutes flat, Duw!”
Idiot savant, that was the old and insulting phrase. It was odd: I looked up the phrase later, and found out it was coined by the same man who gave his name to Down Syndrome. Whatever the name, it fitted her. That first imitation of a Welsh accent, her first performance in a choir, they were only hints as to her talent.
At that moment I truly hated her mother.
“Yes, aunty Jill?”
“Did you enjoy that? The singing?”
A huge and absolutely genuine smile, the smile of a happy child.
“It was magic! Mr Powell, he showed me how the words work, and all I had to do was read them and sing what they said”
“And you had no problems with that?”
“I don’t know what the words mean…”
Arwel grinned. “How about these words? Dinner is served, and an old man wants to eat, so a little girl…no, a young lady, that’s what you are, aye, a young lady must want her feeding as well. Shall we, ladies?”
Hays looked puzzled. “Shall we what?”
“Find your daddy and then find some food?”
“Yes please! And will there be more singing?”
He sighed. “Not like that, cariad, but the boy will probably do some different singing tonight, with the band, aye? And there will be dancing”
“Never done that”
“Then tonight you shall dance, aye? Come on, there is turkey and tatws”
And in a whisper to me “And a pint. Fair syched, aye, after all that singing”
The dinner was exactly as could have been expected, the waiters and waitresses, Ian among them, dishing up plates of the traditional turkey and trimmings before finding a seat for their own meal, which was finished by a sort of Christmas pud obviously made in trays but served with properly tasty custard. There were all sorts of children around us, adults interspersed, and the noise level rose to such a pitch that I saw the musicians simply nod to each other and shut up shop before finding their own meals. So many people, and so few I had actually been able to speak to.
Eventually, the children began to disperse to their transport, and as I sat replete something fell across my shoulder. An apron. I looked behind me to see a grinning brother.
“Dishes to do, lass! Get thy pinny on and get to it!”
Cheeky sod. In the end, it was quickly done, a chain gang of us getting through it double quick, and a cup of tea was waiting at the end. I thought back to the morning cold: I was doing this for fun? Ah well. Tea…
Ian was beside me. “Fancy a walk this afternoon? Sophie has somewhere she wants to show her other half and her sister”
“That teacher Eric talked about. She’s here with her lad and her family. There’s an old fort up on the hill north of here, they say”
“Oh, up on Reigate Hill? Not been there for a while. Walk off the dinner, like?”
“Aye. Save me getting fat”
I understood the weak joke, his acknowledgement of what would happen to him in the next months.
“Aye. How many of us going?”
“I’ll ask around. Should be enough cars”
In the end it was the five of our family, plus James and his parents, Stewie and his wife, and John Wilkins, plus five French people. We parked at the little food stand, closed up for the holidays, and I realised the sleet was actually snow now. Light, dry, but snow. I led the way over the little footbridge on the frozen path, a small child riding high on his father’s back in a papoose sort of thing, and realised Bethy was still close by James, so close she was actually touching him now and again, and he was still open.
John held up a hand. “Nuthatch. Hear it?”
Bloody hell. “You’ve, er, seen them before, John, surely?”
He grinned. “Seen them, but never watched them. Remember the kittiwakes? Look, there you go”
A blue-grey bird moving head first down a tree. The tall French girl whispered to her friend “C’est une sittelle”
She turned to me. “I am sorry, we have not made the introductions. I am Sophie, I am a teacher in the Normandy. My brother Roland, my sister Maggie, and the little man, he is Guillaume. The blond, he is my… what would you say in English? My lover? My man?”
“Yes. Benny, we are partners”
I raised an eyebrow, and there was a shy smile. “Yes, he is the other two words as well. I was here one other Christmas, with Roland, and it was a journey I needed. We have made the circle now, no?”
The snow was still light, but settling on the path and the grass, so the air was clear enough for me to show them the distant towers of London before we explored the little fort, Sophie making predictable jokes about it no longer keeping the French out, and finally we emerged from the trees to the little pergola and orientation table, where she kissed her brother. There was a real sweetness to the big man’s smile just then, and I realised there was a lot of history riding on this walk. Stewie whispered to me.
“Last time they were here, she was healing. Attempted suicide, thing. After some men decided gang rape was the sport of the day”
I turned to stare at him, all of my own fears about the future collapsing in ashes as I compared what I had with what the girl had faced.
“Shit, pal! She seems, like, so sorted!”
Stewie sighed. “Got her man back, so that helped, and I do believe her brother did a bit of up close and personal on the ringleader. Last time she was, well, like a little mouse. You do realise she’s like you?”
Shit. Of course. Obviously started young, but once told I could see the lines in her hands, the size of her feet. What was also clear, however, was the simple acceptance her partner/lover/man showed in everything he did near her. I looked around, at Karen and Terry snuggled together watching the planes land at the airport, James and Bethy as close as they could get, obviously for mutual warmth, Stewie’s wife settled into his side just as my own was to mine, French people doing the same while John simply stood taking pictures as Hays ran around trying to catch the larger snowflakes on her tongue.
A happy Christmas indeed.
That night was chaos, in the nicest way imaginable, as the musicians let rip properly for once, all sorts of instruments playing such a range of music, and what was obviously Arwel’s ‘Boy’ showing how powerful his lungs were to everything from Tull through Deep Purple to Metallica, and there was dancing, not just from the mad ginger fiddler but from almost everybody in the hall, even the cardigan sisters getting up.
And in the middle, a little girl dancing her soul out, face wet with tears as her Daddy did his best to keep up with his child.
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