A Child's Christmas in Wales - Part III

Not many those mornings trod the piling streets: an old man always, fawn-bowlered,
yellow-gloved and, at this time of year, with spats of snow, would take
his constitutional to the white bowling green and back, as he would take
it wet or fire on Christmas Day or Doomsday; sometimes two hale young men,
with big pipes blazing, no overcoats and wind blown scarfs, would trudge,
unspeaking, down to the forlorn sea, to work up an appetite, to blow away
the fumes, who knows, to walk into the waves until nothing of them was left
but the two furling smoke clouds of their inextinguishable briars. Then
I would be slap-dashing home, the gravy smell of the dinners of others,
the bird smell, the brandy, the pudding and mince, coiling up to my nostrils,
when out of a snow-clogged side lane would come a boy the spit of myself,
with a pink-tipped cigarette and the violet past of a black eye, cocky as
a bullfinch, leering all to himself.

I hated him on sight and sound, and would be about to put my dog whistle
to my lips and blow him off the face of Christmas when suddenly he, with
a violet wink, put his whistle to his lips and blew so stridently, so high,
so exquisitely loud, that gobbling faces, their cheeks bulged with goose,
would press against their tinsled windows, the whole length of the white
echoing street. For dinner we had turkey and blazing pudding, and after
dinner the Uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, put their
large moist hands over their watch chains, groaned a little and slept. Mothers,
aunts and sisters scuttled to and fro, bearing tureens. Auntie Bessie, who
had already been frightened, twice, by a clock-work mouse, whimpered at
the sideboard and had some elderberry wine. The dog was sick. Auntie Dosie
had to have three aspirins, but Auntie Hannah, who liked port, stood in
the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush.
I would blow up balloons to see how big they would blow up to; and, when
they burst, which they all did, the Uncles jumped and rumbled. In the rich
and heavy afternoon, the Uncles breathing like dolphins and the snow descending,
I would sit among festoons and Chinese lanterns and nibble dates and try
to make a model man-o'-war, following the Instructions for Little Engineers,
and produce what might be mistaken for a sea-going tramcar.

Or I would go out, my bright new boots squeaking, into the white world,
on to the seaward hill, to call on Jim and Dan and Jack and to pad through
the still streets, leaving huge footprints on the hidden pavements.

"I bet people will think there's been hippos."

"What would you do if you saw a hippo coming down our street?"

"I'd go like this, bang! I'd throw him over the railings and roll him
down the hill and then I'd tickle him under the ear and he'd wag his tail."

"What would you do if you saw two hippos?"

Iron-flanked and bellowing he-hippos clanked and battered through the scudding
snow toward us as we passed Mr. Daniel's house.

"Let's post Mr. Daniel a snow-ball through his letter box."

"Let's write things in the snow."

"Let's write, 'Mr. Daniel looks like a spaniel' all over his lawn."

Or we walked on the white shore. "Can the fishes see it's snowing?"

The silent one-clouded heavens drifted on to the sea. Now we were snow-blind
travelers lost on the north hills, and vast dewlapped dogs, with flasks
round their necks, ambled and shambled up to us, baying "Excelsior."
We returned home through the poor streets where only a few children fumbled
with bare red fingers in the wheel-rutted snow and cat-called after us,
their voices fading away, as we trudged uphill, into the cries of the dock
birds and the hooting of ships out in the whirling bay. And then, at tea
the recovered Uncles would be jolly; and the ice cake loomed in the center
of the table like a marble grave. Auntie Hannah laced her tea with rum,
because it was only once a year.

Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight bubbled
like a diver. Ghosts whooed like owls in the long nights when I dared not
look over my shoulder; animals lurked in the cubbyhole under the stairs
and the gas meter ticked. And I remember that we went singing carols once,
when there wasn't the shaving of a moon to light the flying streets. At
the end of a long road was a drive that led to a large house, and we stumbled
up the darkness of the drive that night, each one of us afraid, each one
holding a stone in his hand in case, and all of us too brave to say a word.
The wind through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe
webfooted men wheezing in caves. We reached the black bulk of the house.
"What shall we give them? Hark the Herald?"

"No," Jack said, "Good King Wencelas. I'll count three."
One, two three, and we began to sing, our voices high and seemingly distant
in the snow-felted darkness round the house that was occupied by nobody
we knew. We stood close together, near the dark door. Good King Wencelas
looked out On the Feast of Stephen ... And then a small, dry voice, like
the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time, joined our singing:
a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small dry
voice through the keyhole. And when we stopped running we were outside our
house; the front room was lovely; balloons floated under the hot-water-bottle-gulping
gas; everything was good again and shone over the town.

"Perhaps it was a ghost," Jim said. "

Perhaps it was trolls," Dan said, who was always reading.

"Let's go in and see if there's any jelly left," Jack said. And
we did that.

Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a
cousin sang "Cherry Ripe," and another uncle sang "Drake's
Drum." It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had
got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death,
and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird's Nest; and
then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my
bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow,
I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill
and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I
turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and
holy darkness, and then I slept.

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