a true story for Yuletide.
By December 1958 I had reached the mature ripeness of 14, and on Christmas Eve, although I didn’t yet know it, I was about to stand on the first steps at the portal of manhood.
“We can’t have another Christmas dinner like some we’ve had!” said Mam, shaking her head. Dad poked some more timber into the stove and puffed on his roll-up.
“And we won’t, because I’ve got something sorted,” he said.
Christmas Eve at our wooden shack, Elm Bank, in 1958 seemed to possess an air of promise. Dad was back in work. I continued to enjoy my weekly delight – the New Musical Express. Rock and Roll had arrived, and I thanked the Good Lord that here, we still had electricity, and we’d kept our radio and television set, and we had a Calor gas stove for cooking, although it was still the weekly tin bath. So, if our Yuletide feast wasn’t to be Irish stew or even the luxury of chicken; I suspected rabbit pie; but perhaps I was wrong. What did Dad’s cryptic proclamation mean? There was no such thing as turkey among the lumpen proletariat back then. Chicken was the ultimate luxury, and we even had a chicken coup, yet we’d killed so many of the poor devils for food that year that only three egg-laying hens and an indomitable, evil cockerel survived. Chicken was obviously off and no-one, even Dad, dare threaten Adolf the cockerel – he was a nasty piece of work and still the best alarm clock we had.
As the sharp, bitter darkness fell over the trees that Christmas Eve, spreading its icy fingers of hoarfrost across the surrounding scrubland, the bright moon arrived and the
frozen, leaf-like filigree of frost crept across the window panes. My two younger brothers had been sent to bed, excited by thoughts of Father Christmas’s imminent nocturnal visit. Yet for some reason, I was allowed to stay up. Was it because I was now some kind of ‘second man’ in the house? Did 14 now separate me from my receding childhood? I finished my Musical Express and watched some lame variety show on the TV. Then it happened. Dad switched the set off and, leaning in towards me in a conspiratorial fashion, filled me with a sense of horror as he outlined a mission he had obviously been planning for some time.
“Right, son. Christmas Eve. I’ve just been outside and lowered the saddle on my bike. I’ve checked the dynamo and the lights are working.” He produced a piece of paper which bore an address scrawled in thick joiner’s pencil.
“I want you to bike to Uncle Sid’s on the Longhill Estate. That’s the address. He’s got something for us for our Christmas dinner.” He handed me two pound notes.
“Give him this money, and tell him Stan wishes him a merry Christmas. Ride straight there and straight back, and don’t stop for anybody. Right – now tell me what you’ve got to do?” I repeated the instructions. He looked at the clock.
“It’ll take you about three quarters of an hour to get there, and the same to get back. It’s quarter past nine now, so you ought to get back here by half past eleven.”
“And don’t forget to put your scarf on,” said Mam, “and your gloves, and your balaclava.” I hated that balaclava, but it was an arctic night, and ninety minutes of cycling lay ahead of me, a quite unexpected and highly dubious pleasure.
It seemed odd, pedalling for all I was worth along the long, straight run of the road between the village of Hedon and the twinkling lights of the oil refinery at Saltend. Odd because I was actually enjoying this. Dad, as an ex- Army sergeant, with 20 years in India and Europe under his belt, had shown his trust by giving me this important mission. That filled me
with pride. What lay at the core of it was still a mystery, but as I slipped along through the crisp, cutting Christmas moonlight a new sense of purpose pushed my aching, cold knees into a blur.
It took me ten minutes of pedalling along past windows filled with shimmering Christmas trees on the Longhill Estate to find Uncle Sid’s council house. I couldn’t help wondering what it must be like in those solid brick homes; proper houses with proper rooms, tiled roofs, ceilings, fireplaces, boilers with immersion heaters – perhaps they even had baths. What must Christmas be like in these places? Maybe it was luxurious. We’d almost had it all, but now it was gone, yet again. I put it from my mind. I parked the bike and with wobbly legs ambled to the back door and knocked. Sid, a docker, was a wiry little man. Clad in a grubby vest and a pair of shiny gabardine trousers held up with string, he puffed on his briar pipe and eyed me up and down.
“Aha! It’s lil’Roy, Stan’s lad, eh?”
“Has he given you the money?”
I handed him the two pounds. I was very cold and I had hoped he might invite me in for a quick warm, but he simply instructed me to stand there by the door as he disappeared into the brick outhouse at the side of the tiny garden. I then heard a strange noise. A furious quacking sound, a fluttering, followed by a gargled squawk. This was repeated twice. Then, through the moonlight Sid appeared holding two fine and very dead ducks by their broken necks. He tied them together with a piece of string, walked over to the bike and slung them over the handlebars.
“Dad said Merry Christmas,” I said.
“Tell him the same to him,” replied Sid, “now get on that bike and ride like buggery all the way home. Tell your Mam about two and a half hours at gas mark 6. She’ll love them birds.”
This was all going remarkably well. Within half an hour
the lights of the refinery came into view again. The road was now a sheet of ice and every few yards I could feel the bike slipping slightly, yet I kept my balance and ploughed on. Soon, the village of Hedon appeared, its frosted roofs a blue-white in the moonlight, a living Christmas card. I leaned forward and felt the ducks. They were now frozen solid, the cold of their dead flesh penetrating through my gloves. I passed the closed off-licence, past the ladies’ hairdresser’s shop and the silent motor garage. The road was empty. No traffic. No cars. No pedestrians. Just a freezing, moonlit boy on an over-sized bicycle.
Ahead stood the lofty façade of Saint Augustine’s Church. Its tall, stained glass windows emitted pale golden light and as I drew closer, my breath shrouding my freezing face with a pale white cloud of bitter vapour, I could hear the choir singing. Of course, I thought – this must be for the Midnight Mass. It all seemed to fit together – this new sense of positivity, the ducks, my mission, and, as a bonus, those silvery voices were singing my mother’s favourite carol. Then it happened.
The figure of the policeman seemed to come from nowhere. Like some sinister phantom from a Victorian penny dreadful, he stepped into the road a few yards ahead. He was wearing a heavy cape, and the beam from his lamp hit me in the eyes, temporarily dazzling me. I could see him only in silhouette as I drew closer. His hand was held up, open palm signalling me to stop. I gripped the brakes and drew to a skidding halt in the icy gutter. The sound of his hob-nailed boots, a comfort to those in the darkened, sleeping homes around us, was ominous to me. Yet that crunch along the tarmac was punctuated by the faint, angelic rise and fall of the Saint Augustine’s choir.
‘Silent Night, Holy Night….’
“Now then,” the voice was a deep, gravelly and confident tenor, “and where d’you think you’re off to my lad at this hour?”
‘All is calm, all is bright…’
My heart was pounding.
“Er…I…I’m going home. I live up there – on the Bond’s Estate.”
“Mmm. Bond’s Estate, eh? All the ruffians live there. Are you a ruffian?” I wasn’t quite sure what a ‘ruffian’ was, but I didn’t think I fitted the bill.
“No. I go to school.”
He shone the torch on the ducks.
‘Round yon Virgin Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild’
“And where did you get these beauties from then, son?”
“My Uncle Sid.”
“And what does he do for a living?”
‘Sleep in heavenly peace’
“He’s…he’s…he’s a butcher. These ducks are for me Mam. For Christmas.”
He lowered the beam of the torch. His vaporised breath mingled with mine and was sliced through by the moonlight as he leaned towards me. He had a big, round face with sharp, dark eyes, and sported a thick, well-groomed moustache. Our eyes seemed locked in an inseparable gaze; his one of inquisition, mine one of terror.
‘Sleep in heavenly peace’
He fingered the ducks, weighed them in his huge hands, all the while staring at me. The choir seemed to grow louder, and I thought even then, in the presence of this strong arm of the law, that no matter what may happen, there was still something sadly beautiful in this sorry little tableau, something tragically Dickensian; a young boy, a policeman, a bicycle, two frozen ducks, an almost midnight, empty street and a church choir. A whole verse rang through the chill air as he stood there, pondering.
‘Silent night, holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!’
I then saw something remarkable. His stern, inquiring visage appeared to melt into something more human. The eyes seemed softer. Then I realised that, like me, he too was listening to the music. He breathed in deeply, and to my utter amazement, a tear rolled down his cheek and vanished into the thick undergrowth of his moustache. One of those strong hands reached towards me and patted me on the shoulder.
“Aye….well. Alright son. You get yourself home and get warm. Off you go. Oh, and before I forget…”
I was about to pedal off.
“Have a Merry Christmas.”
As I rode away with all the speed I could muster, the faint tones of the choir subsided into the silvery night behind me.
‘Christ, the Saviour is born
Christ, the Saviour is born’
My arrival in the warmth of Elm Bank’s living room was a triumph, although Dad was concerned.
“Where the bloody hell have y’been, lad?”
I told him about the policeman.
“Christ. Y’didn’t give him your address, did you?”
“No. But he wished me merry Christmas.”
Dad produced a bottle of that favourite of all Hull’s trawlermen, Red Duster Rum. He poured two small glasses. I was staggered when placed one into my cold hand and said
‘”Knock it back, lad – you’ve earned it!”
As the searing liquid spread its warm fingers through my chest, it seemed as if my childhood had begun to slip away.
We sat around the spluttering stove plucking the ducks, ankle deep in feathers until the clock struck one. On some American Forces radio station they were playing Good King Wenceslas. I shall always remember that line….
“Though the frost was cruel…” Who was he? Police Constable Wenceslas? Did he really exist at all, or had I simply experienced some adolescent Dickensian epiphany? I’ll never know.
As I got ready for bed in the ice-bound bedroom, Dad’s silhouette appeared in the doorway.
“Er…good job done, lad. Just do us a favour, though. When you go to East Park next time with your mates, stay away from the pond. There’ll be a few ducks short this year….”
This is an extract from
Crazy Horse & The Coalman: A Memoir.