for writers and readers….
Mrs Finnegan, housekeeper of The Regency Town House, announces that this is not the Post Christmas message she intended to write. But then she didn’t have the kind of Christmas she expected to have. Oh no….
I set off in high spirits on the kind of morning that makes the BLOOD TINGLE. Wordsworth knew what I was feeling…
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive
But to be verging on the middle aged was very heaven!
(Although in truth it was someway past dawn as the Mitcham coach was leaving at 11 O’ the clock)
Hallooo! I called to the WHIRLING sea gulls as I walked along the sea front.
Halloo! I shouted at a passing chimney sweep (and then regretted it as he was probably expecting a Christmas box and the Mistress hadn’t left enough money for such gratuities.)
My heart springs back and forth between A NEED FOR ROUTINE and an urge to run. And on the morning of Christmas Eve I was RUNNING towards festive parties and good company, towards my sister in law and her mattress shop, towards laughter and gaiety and red wine!
When I got to North Street the coach station was a harlequin of colours and an ORCHESTRA of sounds. Coaches were coming in dragged by horses with sweaty flanks and flaring nostrils. Coaches were departing, PULLED by gallant creatures straining on the bit, eager for the fresh air of the south downs. The crowds! The excitement! The horse dung!
I boarded my coach – and glad I was that I had gone to the expense of an inside seat – assisted by George the coachman, who gloried in a RUGGED face the colour of a SQUASHED raspberry. A very imposing character with a BRASS BELL of a laugh, he had festive greenery tucked into his buttonhole and was buried in a MULTIPLICITY of coats that put me in mind of a cauliflower.
He walked around the coach with a LORDLY PRIDE noting the parcels and hampers full of delicacies to be delivered along our route: well-hung hares and geese; crates of fish, salty from the sea and caught just an hour before; pies the size of a cartwheel; loaves as long as PANTALOONS; hams as big as a fat man’s head. Oh, it was a MERRY scene. Inside was just as jolly. I FOUND myself between a Hassocks farmer and his wife and three rosy-cheeked school boys, freed from lessons and full of songs. Well, just the one song and a very fine song it was too: While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night
Opposite sat an elderly curate who took up far too much room for a bony man. His elbows and knees got in the way wherever he put them. His large feet were just as bad, colliding with the smoked ham and bottle of French wine that I was PROTECTING underneath my skirts. He smelt of a parsonage where the broom doesn’t often reach the corners and clothes don’t get aired long enough
Church bells rang out the hour and we all cheered – apart from the curate – but we did not move. We could see George confer with other drivers and there was a lot of chin tugging. LOWER LIPS were sucked and meaty hands placed squarely on meaty hips in the manner of men who will not listen to what they’re hearing. What could it mean?
I hoped to be in Mitcham – A CHARMING HAMLET outside London I’m told – in about four to five hours. Ours was a stopping-all-villages coach so it was difficult to be precise. There were so many parcels to be dropped off on the way, and doubtless many more to be collected, that I wondered if it could be done in under six. That still meant I would be in plenty of time for my sister in law’s supper, but really we needed to get going. We grew anxious, but the DEAR SCHOOLBOYS sung on and made us more cheerful:
While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
all seated on the ground,
the angel of the Lord came down
and glory shone around.
The curate employed his time by tutting loudly and snorting OVER-SIZED pinches of snuff.
Finally, George clamoured aboard, the whole carriage tilting to the right as he mounted his seat and the coaching horn blew its one note of ADVENTURE and quest!
We were off!
The curate’s legs tangled with my skirts and he sprayed a fine BROWN POWDER over my shawl. As we swung out of Brighton the whole company was sneezing and the curate complained that we were getting the BENEFIT of his snuff without paying the PRICE. I exchanged glances with the Hassock farmer’s wife: we had met men like him before.
We WAVED FAREWELL to the white stucco terraces of Brighton and the working people’s shacks on the edge of town. And then green fields! Well, brown fields as the earth is mostly bare, but they hold the hope of green in them and the summer that is to come. That set me thinking that in a way winter is THE REAL SPRING, for it is the time when inner things HAPPEN, and nature resurges. I made a point of noting it down in my diary – I have so many extraordinary thoughts that fly away for the want of a pencil and SCRAP OF PAPER – and wonder if it would be worth working on a cushion. In CREWEL STITCH perhaps? Dear reader perhaps you could help me make up my mind.
The GOING WAS GOOD and the horses pulling well and along Dyke Road we spied sheep so, of course, the boys started to sing with even greater GUSTO: While shepherds watched their flocks by night…We clapped and laughed at them: the three little fellows were such pleasant company
As we climbed the hill the heavens opened.
At the Windmill Tavern we halted. We looked at each other in surprise. Not a SCHEDULED STOP surely? ‘Tis not far from Brunswick Square. I feel I’ve hardly left home. The farmer put his head out one window to enquire what was happening and the curate put his head out the other to complain. The sky grew dark and the wind HOWLED.
George the coachman THREW down his reins in disgust.
Up in front we could see A LONG LINE of Brighton to London coaches. I counted 20 before the curve of the road obscured the view. George climbed down and walked along the snake of empty vehicles. We waited. And waited.
He returned with a face resembling THE NECK OF A TURKEY after it has been strangled. The sky darkened.
It is no good, he told us. The roads were closed. Up in front were coaches that had left Brighton YESTERDAY MORNING for London.
How can this be? we cried in UNISON.
‘Westminster!’ growled George in explanation.
‘The Continent!’ SNIPED the curate.
‘Pestilence?’ wondered the farmer
‘Bonaparte!’ asserted his wife. When everyone, including the schoolboys, rounded on her to say that Napoleon was LONG DEAD, she blinked and said ‘Bonaparte’s legacy!’ at which everyone nodded as if they were about to say the same thing themselves.
It meant, said George, that London was now ISOLATED, seeing as it was cut off from Brighton. He didn’t know how the Capital would manage, but expected it would CLING ON somehow. In the meantime all the drivers had to stay with their coach and horses while passengers made their own way on TWO LEGS. It being about 50 miles to Mitcham I knew which direction I had to go. I bade a SAD farewell to the farmer and his wife who decided to stay at the Ship Hotel in Brighton. The schoolboys accompanied them on their way back to school. They had NO HEART to sing Shepherds any more. It was now nearly AS DARK AS NIGHT.
The curate ANNOUCED he was going back to Hove and, seeing that he had no parcels to carry, I asked if I may accompany him. He reacted as if he’d been STUNG BY A WASP or I had proposed marriage! He disappeared into the rain.
Very soon, dear reader, I was wet from my fichu to my chemise and as cold as a DOG’S NOSE, as hungry as a writer trying to MAKE A LIVING from poetry, and as lonely as a walnut ROLLING IN A BARREL but I was not defeated. Some cry with tears, others with thoughts and I was doing a lot of thinking.
Trying not to dwell on what could have been, but rather what I could still look forward to I reckoned that Brunswick Square was just a mile and a bit from the Windmill Tavern if one walked in A STRAIGHT LINE. So, reason TOLD ME that if I avoided winding, bendy roads and CUT ACROSS FIELDS I should be there in no time. And I thought about the jam that awaited me in my own kitchen. It is a special treat that I have even eaten out of the spoon, without bothering about BREAD OR BUTTER – as no doubt you will have done when you found the cupboard door unwisely left open. The memory of jam made me take one step after another.
I can do this, I told myself. By and by I will eat jam, sit by a big fire, make a fine meal from the smoked ham I had with me, eat more jam. Go to bed. Cry myself to SLEEP with more thoughts.
It was as good a plan as any Wellington dreamt up.
That was before the FIRST FALL.
I did not see the ditch. Nor did I did see where the ham rolled. All I knew was that ONE MOMENT I was standing and THE NEXT was down on my knees. In mud.
But somehow I saved the claret. And that was fortunate because I was in SORE NEED of a drink.
I rested a while in the ditch to regain my strength. The wine FORTIFIED me. Without it I could not have carried on, nor would I have fallen again.
I sensed a sea fret coming in from the channel like a DAMP DEAD HAND. A yellow fog tumbled across from the Downs SMELLING of bad eggs. The two forces of nature MET AND MADE FRIENDS where I was sitting in a boggy hollow. Only another mouthful of claret – a good vintage I think – forced blood through my veins. A mile and a bit I kept telling myself. But I forgot I was measuring as I had done as a child that is to say in the Irish WAY where all measurements are more bountiful and generous. This mile I was walking was an Irish mile, not a mean English one. And the bit. O Lord! An Irish bit can be AWFULLY LONG.
Jam. Jam. Jam. That was my MARCHING TUNE.
One step after another step after another swig of claret…until I saw…
O! blessed sight! the village of Hove! Had it ever looked so beautiful? Had I ever noticed its fine proportions before?
The sea fret rolled back and revealed not blue skies – this was real life after all – but a greyness befitting a DECEMBER AFTERNOON and I was home, very nearly. All I had to do was turn left and a little way along would be Brunswick Square.
There were a lot of people about, busy with all manner of Christmas things. And I was mud from neck to boots with head uncovered and hair as wild as a gorse bush.
And holding an empty wine bottle.
What did I do?
I ran. Low and swift. Pulling strange faces as I went. If anyone saw this poor PATHETIC creature would they recognise Mrs Finnegan? The beacon of wisdom and good advice? The COMMANDING HOUSEKEEPER of her generation?
I think not.
And if people say ‘Oh, I saw you upon Christmas Eve…’ I shall deny it, looking them in the eye. If an artist happened to sketch me as I ran I WILL STILL DENY IT and say I was in Mitcham at such and such a time. It works for the politicians, so why not me?
I scuttled down to my basement room and through to the kitchen. If I kept up the PRETENCE of being away no fire could I burn and no smoke could come out of the chimneys until Boxing Day. But I could have jam.
As I opened the pantry door I remembered that the last jar was consumed yesterday.
Cold stew in a cold house.
Cold stew in a cold house.
I returned home (as far as the world is concerned). Threw open the shutters. Got a roaring fire going in the kitchen, dining room and bedroom and washed in WARM WATER.
As the stew was all gone, I dined off nuts and dried apricots and sent out for jam.