I REMEMBER CHRISTMAS
Yes, I remember Christmas. I remember Christmas when there was always snow on the ground. Real snow! It was as if, during my childhood, there always had been snow at Christmas. It was as much a part of Christmas as The Wizard of Oz. I remember I was with my father and we were trudging along some big wide street in the West End – Oxford Street it might have been. It was crowded and, as a little boy the streets and the people dwarfed me, so that I was constantly looking about me, avoiding the people whose eye level I obviously failed to reach, for they jostled me anyway. I clutched my father's hand so tightly that it might have been as though my very life depended on it. Maybe it was because I was finding it such an effort to keep up with him. I trailed along a little behind him. He was in a hurry and walked very fast, pulling me forward relentlessly. It was important. We had to get somewhere quickly and we had to hurry. My little steps were no match for my father's giant strides, so that I was almost running. My feet were hurting with the cold. My shoes were scuffed and worn so much that the black polish had gradually given way to a faded grey and the soles had little holes where the snow penetrated and soaked my socks, numbing my toes. I remember how the snowflakes fell in clusters – great big clusters – straight down, so that all my vision was obscured by these little white puffs, falling everywhere, as far as the eye could see, and being trampled by the hordes of weary-looking people into a black slush. I looked up in wonder and fascination, even as we marched along, to see if I could actually distinguish the snowflakes forming, but all I could see was a relentless barrage of icy flakes, pelting my face and stinging my already reddened skin.
Finally, we reached our destination. It was a shop of some description, but not one where you could look in. There were no windows of coloured lights and tinsel. Difficult to tell what they were selling. I was not allowed to go in. My father told me to stay and wait for him outside. I watched him disappear into the doorway and, as he did so, I caught a glimpse of the bare interior, which was crowded by many men and filled with smoke and emitted, just for a second, what sounded like a television. I pinned myself against the wall, afraid to be caught up in the unfriendly rush of the passers-by, and huddled deeper into my duffel coat. My ears were shot through with cold, so that they started to hurt, and my eyes were streaming in the cruel winter breeze. I stamped my feet hard and found that I had discovered a section of fresh virgin snow, close to the wall, which had not been disturbed by the passing crowds. I admired the resulting footprints and the way it crunched beneath my feet.
Before long my father returned clutching a fistful of grubby banknotes.
'We won, young feller, we won!'
He was happy. I don't think I had ever seen him so happy. The transformation since coming out of the shop surprised me, for he fell to his knees and hugged me, even in the snow. We had made it. We had got there in time and he had suddenly acquired this large sum of money, more money than he had ever had in his life. It was important. Important to him. And because he was happy, I was happy too. The urgency had stopped and I was relieved. We didn't have to run any more. He got up, dusted himself off, and we walked on.
Further up the street we met a man with a multitude of floating balloons on strings, which towered ten feet above him. I did not understand what made those balloons float like that, but the prospect of owning one of those marvels filled me with an awe I had never felt before. My father looked at me and, without further hesitation, went over and bought me one. The man took one string from the cluster and handed it to me and I remember the elation and sense of gratitude I felt towards my father at such a wonderful and unexpected gesture. His kindness touched me as only a child could be touched.
And there was more. My father bought flowers to take home to my mother, and then we came across a man on a corner with a flat cap and gloves with the tips of the fingers cut off, standing over what appeared to be a metal dustbin with holes in it, and a fire raging inside. It gave off such intense heat that I feared to get too close. My father stopped and bought something from him in a brown paper bag. Later, I discovered that it was a bag of roasted chestnuts, which I thought were delicious.
We also stopped in front of a bright and animated shop which had rows and rows of television sets all switched on. I remember standing, still holding onto my balloon, and watching the way they all changed scenes at the same time and the way the same programme was duplicated on a myriad of screens, most of them in black and white. My father told me that it was a transmission from Apollo 8, a spacecraft which was at that moment in orbit around the moon, and those three men in the picture with white overalls were astronauts. I did not understand. I could not grasp why they had gone to the moon when it was Christmas, and why the three men would want to spend Christmas so far away, so distant, away from their families. I did not understand it at all. Suddenly, I felt sorry for those three men, and thought of them all cramped together like that, inside that little capsule, floating in the blackness of space, all alone. I looked up at the night sky in the hope that I could see them, but I could hardly see anything through the driving snow.
We walked on and on, further still, one hand holding on to my father's, the other clutching my balloon, which twisted and tugged at its string above my head and followed me obediently. I saw a man walking back and forth with a big board strapped to his body. The board was bearing messages both in front and behind, and with an additional banner above his head. I could not make out what the messages were. Something about the end of the world. And he was walking up and down, shouting at the passers-by, calling out 'Repent, repent!' They in turn ignored him, or deliberately avoided him. I remember how much I was frightened by this man's belligerence and wondered why he was doing that.
Eventually we reached the subway and I led my balloon lovingly onto the subway train. I sat happily across from my father, glad to be able to rest my sore feet and basking in the warmth of the train. He cradled the flowers in his arms, swaying back and forth with the movement of the subway car and I remember thinking what a wonderfully exhausting day it had been.
Our last ride home was the bus, which would take us practically to our door. I was sleepy and tired by then, but we were nearly home. And them, when we reached our stop, I stepped off the high step of the bus in haste, afraid that my father might leave me behind, and as my sore little feet touched the icy ground, I slipped and toppled over, face down into a deep blanket of snow. The bus pulled away and I was aware only of letting go of the string of my balloon. My father stooped to pick me up, but I just stared up at the blackness of the sky and saw my balloon rising, up and up and up, further and further away from me, wrenched from my grasp to be lost forever. I watched it, rising higher and higher all the time, hundreds of feet up, until eventually it was just a speck which soon became indistinguishable in the vast night sky. The joy that that balloon had brought me, brief though it was, vanished just as the sight of it vanished from view. My disappointment was indescribable that I should lose my balloon after having nursed it nearly all the way home. My father picked me up and hugged me, brushing the snow from my duffel coat, but I just looked up, straining my neck in the hope that I might catch one last glimpse of my balloon. I remember my father saying that maybe my balloon would rise all the way to the moon, and I remember how I was comforted by the thought that those lonely men in Apollo 8 would see my balloon and hoped that it would bring them as much joy and happiness as it did me. I remember all of that. Yes, I remember Christmas.