posted by Barter Books @ 3:56pm, Tuesday 9 December 2008.
You go along thinking some places on this earth were just made for Christmas and others weren’t.
Australia, for example, wasn’t. (We were there once during the holidays and can only say that having to listen to Frosty the Snowman in broiling hot weather just didn’t do it for me.)
England, on the other hand, was.
Just a few miles from us, for example, is Alnwick Moor. On one side of the moor is a deep valley. Down in the valley you can just see what’s left of a castle, a little Anglo-Saxon church, a viaduct, a tiny village, farmhouses scattered about, and sheep safely grazing. Now, imagine all this surrounded by hills and covered in snow. Honestly, all it lacks is a sleigh circling overhead led by eight tiny reindeer.
By this yardstick, I think it's fair to say that our bookshop, too, was made for Christmas. It’s located in an old Victorian railway station which was sited on a bit of high ground just outside the town centre.
To get to it, you walk through a high wrought-iron arch and then on up this curly path which is bordered by tall trees. Then once you pass under the exterior lacy canopy, the first thing you see when you walk into the bookshop is an open fireplace with dogs (and people) usually sitting around. (Here's a photograph and, all right, I'm not much of a photographer, I never know which button to press, it's a minefield):
Anyway, we have not let the side down. Today is December 9th and the shop has been well and truly decorated at last. (I hold off letting Christmas decorations go up until December 1st . Putting them up before then feels like cheating.)
But for now it's all green swags with red ribbons, mantelpieces covered in holly and ivy, a big wreath over the old Waiting Room fireplace, and two, yes two, Christmas trees. Not to mention that come the 24th, we'll be handing out to one and all little thumbles of hot mulled wine and bite-sized mince pies. (Too bad I don’t like mince pies). And I look at it and think, you’d have to be a real Scrooge not to like this, poor old Australia.
Mind you, that tree in the children's room - I don't know about it. It's 7’ tall. It looks real but it isn't. What else it isn't is straight up. It's been turned upside down, less Dickens you might say than Narnia. Customer - and staff - opinion has been divided. The opinion that hasn't been divided is the children's. They look at it and giggle, then lie under it looking up and up, at just what who knows, but whatever it is, they start in giggling all the more.
The second tree, however, now that's real, all right - a 14’ fir tree in the very middle of the huge Main Hall. This one is the stunner - hundreds of tiny white lights glancing off hundreds more silver and gold baubles hanging down from the branches. (I'd show you a photo of this, too, but can't, too big for my camera). And, yes, don't worry - it's right-side-up.
Anyway, the local Hospice asked if they could have a little service by that tree, one in memory of friends and relations who had not made it to this Christmas.
Of course they could. The Hospice deserves all the support it can get.
Still, I'll be honest, I was a bit concerned - wondered if the inevitable sadness of the service would be contagious during this determinedly cheerful season. Nevermind, the organizer said the whole service shouldn’t take more than twenty minutes or so, what's twenty minutes?
Anyway, the day of the service I decided I’d better go to it myself. As most people would no doubt be going to the bigger candlelight services elsewhere, the least I could do would be to help make up the numbers.
By the start of the service, there were about thirty of us there, mostly older people. They were of an age when losing people (a husband, a sister, an old friend) was becoming all too familiar. Not that there weren’t younger people there, too – there were. These were the ones who had lost, say, a father, a mother. And a few of them, in turn, were holding the hands of someone still younger, even much younger - children whose necks kept swivelling around still half looking for Granda or Gran, where were they?
Most of the people were standing in the comparatively large space around the temporarily darkened tree, while the rest of us found room in the nearby aisles.
I took my place just off the central aisle leading up to the tree. Then I had a quick look at my watch. It was 4pm now, it would be all over by 4.20, or so I hoped. I had a lot to do.
On a prearranged cue, the Christmas music filling the shop (Diana Ross and the Supremes singing Joy to the World; it's the Yank in me) was turned off.
We were then joined by a tall thin man with dark hair, a nice, clean-shaven face, wearing a dark suit, dark tie – clearly the vicar who would be taking the service.
He nodded to everyone, thanked everyone for coming, and introduced himself. He was The Reverend David Archer, minister of the local Baptist Church. He explained that Katy Drummond at the Hospice had asked him if he could come along and say a few words, and he was glad to do just that.
He then asked us to join him in a short prayer, one of the psalms.
We bowed our heads.
And then, when he finished, he asked if someone could please turn on the lights of the tree?
A pause. A longer pause. (If I had not prayed as seriously as i night have done before, I did so now, Lights, puh-leez come on.)
Then there it was - the tree suddenly turning tree of lights, lights which, altogether, lit up the faces - sad faces, drained - of those standing around it, the exception being the children's faces, their faces as shiny bright as the ornaments on the tree, their eyes all wide.
A woman dabbed at her eyes.
We would sing four carols in all, Mr Archer said, and in between each carol he would say a few words.
And so we did sing, tentatively at first, a little group of people overwhelmed by the very space of that huge Main Hall - a Hall that was for almost a century the old Platform 1. (It has seen so much over the years, that Hall - the arrival of Queen Victoria, Tommies leaving for WWI, city children brought to be housed with families during WWII, and then, in 1968, the last train to depart after the Beeching cuts, old newspaper photographs showing the locomotive front decorated in flowers. And now, now a small group of people singing where the old well had been.)
Still our voices did grow at least a little stronger with each succeeding verse, helped by (I stopped momentarily just to listen) someone’s lovely soprano beginning to thread its way through the spaces between the notes that the rest of us were doing our best with. (I looked around to find the owner of that voice; couldn't.)
But here was the surprising thing: Mr Archer. Can I just say how good he was? I found myself listening to him intently. It wasn't so much what he said (though that, too) but how he said it. No pear-shaped vowels softened by the odd sherry informed that voice, no theatre.
We had all known grief, he said, we had all experienced it in different ways, coped with it in different ways, had done and were doing the very best we could. We mustn’t be too hard on ourselves; they would not want that. They had loved us, just as we loved them. Hold on to that love and to our faith in life everlasting.
Listening to Mr Archer, I found myself taking comfort from his words, why was that? I was not there to be comforted.
Old griefs, it seems, are closer to the surface that we suppose.
We sang the last carol, O Come All Ye Faithful.
I found it difficult to sing.
Then Mr Archer ended the service by telling everyone that, if they wanted to, they could take one of the silver ornaments from the bowl that was being passed around and add it to the tree in memory of.
A fair few did.
I who had just come to help make up the numbers.