by John Morrison
84: Stuff the Turkey
Winter has come to Milltown. It's the time of year when conversations tend to start with the meaningless pleasantry: "Are you ready for Christmas?"
Don't say: "Ready for Christmas... how do you mean? Comatose? Broke? Bored? Argumentative? Suicidal?" This would just mark you down as a humourless killjoy. And don't brag that you bought all your presents back in October, or that your Christmas cards are already written, addressed, sealed up and stamped. This would mark you down as insufferably smug. The correct response to this kind of inanity is to clap both hands to your face, adopt a horrified expression and admit: "Oh God, no, I haven't even started yet." This reveals you to be as disorganised as the person asking the question, and honour will be satisfied all round.
Why are Christmas cards all so appalling? Since there seem to be cards for every conceivable occasion, why is it so hard to find one with a greeting that honestly reflects the festive spirit? Like: 'Wishing you all the very best for the panic-stricken void that Christmas has become'. Even more unforgivably, a lot of Milltown folk make their own cards. By the time the envelopes have run the gauntlet of the Christmas post, they rattle ominously with unglued pulses, grains and pasta shapes. The recipients generally throw the card away, and use whatever's left to thicken a panful of winter broth.
There are two Christmases, running in tandem. There's the conventional Christmas: an unspeakably naff celebration of commercial opportunism. Then there's the alternative Christmas (quite a popular choice here in Milltown) when we decry the whole business as a cynical marketing ploy, pretend to ignore it altogether, gradually fill up with nausea and self-loathing... only to weaken on Christmas Eve, rush round buying a few perfunctory presents and cards, before collapsing into a drink-fuelled, guilt-ridden catatonia for a fortnight. This approach is unspeakably naff too, but what can we do?
Unhappy couples manage to rub along together for most of the year, by sweeping their differences under the carpet. It's only at Christmas that their marriages are brutally exposed as the empty shams they really are. And there are plenty of kids in Milltown who'll find Christmas a big let-down. Instead of a laser death-ray - or whatever's being advertised, relentlessly, on children's TV - Green Man's kids will have to make do with a set of home-made finger puppets. Single people muddle through for month after month, with their mixed bag of friends, acquaintances and drinking buddies, maintaining the illusion that they are not, after all, irredeemably alone. Then, at Christmas, hemmed in by four walls and with only the counterfeit jollity of TV for company, they are forced to confront their isolation head-on. No wonder the Samaritans are so busy at this time of year.
We try to be a little better than we usually think we are. But the odds are generally stacked against us. Green Man, for example, tries to find gifts that come from the heart, precious things that mere money cannot buy. In other words, hes a bit of a cheapskate. Then, just when he's had it up to here with tinsel-strewn tawdriness, and he feels his head is about to explode, he rounds the corner into St Bernard's Square and comes across a brass band playing Christmas carols. Suddenly everything goes Dickensian, and the streets of Milltown are transformed into a Quality Street advert.
Green Man is transfixed by the heart-rending beauty of the music, the sweet naivety of Christian faith and fellowship. Away in a Manger, played by a brass band, can melt the stoniest of hearts. Those who have grown up in Yorkshire milltowns find that brass band music gets through their defenses, like the rain that permeates the crumbling window frames of their little terraced houses.
The floodgates open; hot tears drench his cheeks. The music is eventually drowned out by a chorus of car alarms ("Get back, get back... you are invading my personal space... get back") but, for a few precious moments, while his defences are down, Green Man is lost in wonder. Deep into his being flows a quite unrequisitioned love of all things being as they are, and not as we would wish them all to be. Christmas drives deeper into our collective psyches than any of us would care to admit. Love it or loathe it - and Green Man would normally bow to no-one in the extent of his distaste - Christmas is powerful medicine.
When visitors come to Milltown in winter, its usually just for Christmas or New Year, and mostly to get away from their loved ones for a few days. It doesnt seem to matter that the December sun has set by mid-afternoon. They dont come to take long hikes over the hills; a brief stroll down to the Stoic, wrapped up like sausage rolls against a piercing wind, is a more likely scenario. Stone-flagged floors, open fires, a brandy to swirl lazily around a balloon glass: This is more like it, they think, as they settle back, with exaggerated sighs of contentment, into wing-back chairs.
What the visitors are looking for is a village Christmas: a Breughel painting brought to life. A bare and brittle landscape peopled with tiny figures, all going about their business. And, amazingly, this is pretty much what our valley does look like in winter. The colour is drained from the landscape, as photosynthesis shuts down operations until the following spring. The scene is reduced to tone, line and texture: the tracery of dry stone walls on the valley-sides, leafless trees silhouetted against a fretful winter sky, sturdy gritstone farmhouses built to withstand the worst of winter's blast.
The farmers are out in the fields - come rain, come shine - doing boring but essential jobs. Even though nothing is growing, the farmers dont think: Hmm, things are a bit quiet on the farm. Maybe Ill take a fortnight off, put my feet up and catch up with some reading. Hill-farming isnt a job, its a way of life. Its not something you can put to one side for a few days, like a piece of knitting. Cows need milking: twice a day, every day. They dont know it'll soon be Christmas.
Pheasants, in contrast, do. They congregate on the verges of the quieter roads around Milltown, like colourfully attired aristocrats lined up to face the guillotine. Most birds make themselves scarce whenever a car passes, but pheasants cant be bothered. They're bred to be particularly stupid, so they won't be able to outwit the well-heeled buffoons who come to shoot them. Pheasants tend to be stoical and despondent, especially at this time of year. It's hard to look on the bright side once they understand what fate has in store for them. And having day-glo plumage only makes things worse; when God created pheasants he should have just put a target on their chests.
The gamekeeper looks after their welfare and provides all the food they need. No need to forage; the pheasants just keep on eating. Their one role in life is to get fatter and fatter. They eat to cheer themselves up - it's comfort food - then get depressed again as soon as they remember why they're getting fat. If the gamekeeper were to put out roasting dishes, the pheasants would probably just climb in, baste themselves and set the oven to regulo five.
So is it any wonder that some of the pheasants lose the will to live? Since they're bred to be blasted out of the sky in a flurry of feathers, why postpone the fateful moment any longer? They stand by the side of the road, thinking Shall I? Shant I?: too dejected to make a rational decision. Then, on a cars approach, they give a care-worn sigh. Their last thought is Fuck it... as they scuttle beneath the wheels.