A Christmas extract from
The Labyrinth Year:
Jenny & Max take their older daughter, Alice, aged just five, to her first Carol Service … Jenny remembers how Max introduced her to carols in Cambridge …
It’s another starry night, bitterly cold, a north-east wind blasting through our clothes. We pile into the car.
St Hildie’s porch is warm and welcoming. A black-robed person is handing out tapers. Another shows us through the double doors. Inside, crowds of tiny candles, multiplied by their own reflections in the dark arched shapes of the windows, form a band of flickering flames around the walls. Their light picks out shimmery things on the huge Christmas tree. The warmth, the smell, candles everywhere: on shelves, in racks, in candelabra hanging from the lofty ceiling. Bemused by some alien emotion, I grasp at Max.
‘Yeah: yep.’ Breathless, actually. Jolted into somewhere I don’t want to go, while a distant voice requests, ‘Could you light your tapers from your neighbours’ ones, please? Then pass the light on?’
Max leans down to help Alice: I snap, caught by overprotectiveness, ‘She’ll burn herself. What if she drops it?’
‘I’ll not let her. Will you not fuss?’ he hisses, then turns away, guiding Alice (holding her taper, beautifully careful and confident) up the church. They’re whispering together: Alice looks back, smiles, and hands me the taper. My eyes are full of confused tears, as we’re borne along by the crowd.
Alice stops again. ‘Daddy, is this the stable? With the baby?’ A huge Christmas crib occupies a side chapel. The coloured plaster figures are set in straw, surrounded with holly and ivy and branches of pine. Beside it stands a complicated wrought-iron candelabra, filled with blazing candles.
Max crouches, one arm around Alice, ‘It’s the stable, yes.’
Breathless again, I catch the moment. Alice, eyes wide with pleasure and curiosity, is me in Cambridge when I’d also had my first experience of candlelit Christmas, with carols. Up for interview, and with the man I fell in love with.
I can’t do this. He gives her all his attention: he loves her, and makes the magic work again. She stands in the crook of his arm, her mouth half-open, seduced. Did Dad care like that for the five-year-old me? I turn away.
‘Jenny? We need to move on.’ A traffic jam has formed. A robed helper, holding a sheaf of service papers, tries to herd us all into the chancel. Reluctant to leave the stable, Alice won’t budge. ‘Where’s the baby?’
A woman in a tweed coat leans over, ‘Oh, the baby’s not here yet, is he? We put him in at the Midnight Mass.’ She addresses Max, ‘Do you come to the Midnight?’
‘Sorry, no. Just for the carols.’
Alice’s eyes shine with tears: ‘I won’t see him!’
‘Oh dear, oh what can we do?’ the tweedy woman says.
‘Nothing. Alice, the baby will be here at Christmas. We’ll come and look,’ says Max. Alice’s lower lip trembles.
‘Now we’ve started something.’ Emotionally walloped by my feelings about Dad, I hate myself for blaming Max, Alice, or anyone.
He says, ‘Delayed gratification: it’s something we all have to learn.’
‘That is so Scottish of you.’
‘It is not.’
‘That’s right: move along up and fill the choir stalls, the choir will be standing around the Tree.’ When we find a couple of spare seats, Max pulls Alice onto his lap. ‘You come and sit up here. So you can see the choir and the Tree? Jenny, can we have that taper please?’
Thankfully, she’s mollified, and sits almost completely still. Until she notices that the opposite choir stall is painted with Bible stories. Noah’s Ark, Moses and the Burning Bush, and, importantly, as she points out, ‘There’s Gabriel and Mary, look!’
‘Yes: ssh now.’
The church is packed with expectant Christmas visitors, each with a lighted taper. The organist is noodling quietly. The choir’s assembled down by the main door. We all stand. It has to be Once in Royal David’s City, it must: once I discovered the Carols from Kings, the huge college right next to mine, that carol had to herald Christmas.
Max holds Alice up to see. The procession’s led by a teenage girl with a ponytail, carrying a tall, silver cross, then the choir, then David, robed, solemn, but also smiling, his hands folded.
It’s partly to try and be generous towards him that I’m here at all. Other times, David’s just ordinary; here, he’s a priest. This is all about a baby. …
Glancing at Max, does he feel this frisson? About David in God-mode? About … about the day we met and he worked magic to persuade a sceptic to experience the spiritual side of Christmas?
He leans across as the choir assembles round the Tree, and whispers, ‘I can almost hear Dad’s voice, A pagan travesty around a pagan symbol.’
Not thinking magic. We’re totally out of synch.
‘Oh don’t spoil it! Remember Cambridge 1984?’
‘Mm.’ He lowers our daughter to her feet on the ground. She leans forward to watch the choir. Will she remember this?
*Photo: C. M Weiner