Getting the Christmas Bird
A Tale of Christmas
‘It’s a one-legged Woozlum.’ My father assured me. ‘It’s a cross between an Oozlum and a Woozle. Very rare.’
I looked down at the row of small round holes that trailed through the snow next to our bootprints and snorted both amusement and exasperation. I loved my fathers’ elaborate jokes but there were times when he drove me mad. This one may have worked when I was five but not anymore.
The sledge was heaped high with dark-leaved holly, bundles of ivy, fir swathes and my favourite, the gleaming, orange/pink fruited spindle. I knew they were far more than necessary, but I adored the Christmas ritual of Gathering-the-Greens. It was only I that was really interested, but with my father’s help I always made an occasion of it. We had gathered evergreens for swags and left the sledge near the ram’s shed before heading toward the Top Close where two-dozen steers were kept on deep litter for the winter months.
It had snowed hard that morning, and the sky promised a lot more to come. Leaden cloud layers spanned the sky and a stiff wind was blowing up from the north.
My father frowned at the sky. I suspect he could have preferred a strapping lad’s muscle for this job, but Len had been too engrossed in his model railway to offer. Even the with keenest of intentions my illness kept me small for my age. ‘Come on Sunshine,’ he said. ‘Time we got on. I want to get ‘ome to see the football.’
My father moved away, and I had to run to catch up. ‘So what’s this Oozlum?’ I demanded.
‘A bird that flies round and round in circles until it disappears…’ he paused and coughed loudly. I hid my own smile. I had heard this one a hundred times, yet still he worried that I might go home and repeat the rest of the rhyme to Mother, and then he’d be in trouble. He regrouped and changed tack. ‘Related to the Mugwump,’ he continued.
I galloped beside my father, laughing, or as near to laughing as I could manage. I was getting out of puff trying to keep up, breath streaming before me in trailing steam-train clouds. The snow was well over my ankles which made the running hard. I scuttled after him, face stinging with the small, gritty snow that had begun to whistle on the tail of the bitter wind.
We paused at the last gate, and I took the brief respite to pursue my interrogation. ‘And the Woozlum?’ I asked.
My father glanced at me as he pulled the gate toward him with the crook of his walking stick. ‘A one legged bird,’ he said. ‘It hops around the countryside following Heflumps to steal their honey.’
‘Oh, Daaad!’ I swept up a handful of snow and threw it at him.
My father shook the white powder from his coat, and glanced around him, serious all of a sudden. ‘I think we’d better get moving, Pet.’ He said. ‘That snow’s getting thicker. Bo! Come by!’
Bo came bounding through the drifts in a strange rocking-horse stride. His plumed tail whipping and his deep pink tongue lolling.
I threw him a snowball and Bo raced after it, jumped. His jaws snapped and the missile exploded around his head. I shrieked with laughter and bent to gather more snow. The walk became a noisy one as Bo demolished one ball after another, rarely missing his mark.
The Top Barns were almost a mile from the cottage. A collection of barns constructed of pitch-blackened wood and Sussex brick, which had originally been built to house horses. Now they were used to over-winter beef steers, and to store some of the wheat straw from the three-acre field that spread between them and then derelict Arun and Wey canal.
My father opened the small door and we all piled in. Bo crossed straight to the stable door that led to the main barn where the steers were kept. He looked over his shoulder at my father, his tongue still flapping, his sides heaving with spent breath.
‘Hang on lad,’ my father laughed. He lifted the lid on the two galvanised bins that held opened bags of cow-cake, crushed oats and barley. Supposedly it stopped rodents from eating the feed, but it was a fairly token effort. ‘Sheer-meece?’ he asked.
It was an old game, one we had played since before I was even tall enough to see over the bin sides and had to stand on a straw bale to play.
I watched avidly as the lid rose, and counted with my fingers as the little furry bodies scampered for cover. Mice of various kinds. The rats were too large to find a way in. ‘Seven,’ I shrieked. ‘I think that’s a record’
‘Most likely,’ my father agreed absently. He bent to scoop feed from the bins into heavy weight sacks, counting under his breath as he did so.
‘Shall I do silage?’ I asked.
My father shook his head, still counting.
‘How many?’ I asked.
‘Two,’ he said, throwing the scoop into the bin and letting the lid fall with a dull clang. ‘Can you roll them down for me? And put’em in the barrow?
‘’Course,’ I snorted, and pushed opened the door into the hay store to climb onto the first layer. The barns had no electricity supply, and I had to work from natural light such as it was. The store smelled cool and dusty, and faintly sweet. The barrow stood by the door and I shoved it further into the patch of dim light where I rolled two bales from the stack onto the floor.
I could hear the half-door into the pen opening, and my father’s deep voice urging Bo to ‘go by, lad’. I hurried to roll one bale through to the doorway. I liked to watch Bo clearing a passage like a furry snowplough.
The steers grunted gently as they pushed and shoved and pushed to get out of the way of the dog’s snapping jaws. Bo strutted in front of his master, head and tail held high as he cleaved a path for my father through the forest of stomping legs and barrel-shaped bodies.
Dad stopped by the first of the two centre mangers and poured a steady stream of cattle-feed and corn into the tray, then walked around both mangers, pouring as he went; and behind him the steers fell into rank snuffling and grumbling as they jostled at the manger trays for a share of the feed-stuff. A relative quiet fell over the barn as they all settled, noses down, for their evening feed.
I breathed in deeply, savouring the acrid sweetness of ‘cow’ mixed with silage from the manger standing at the far end of the barn; where a wagon load of silage was parked on the outside of double doors handy for pitching straight into the mangers.
My father came back to the door and opened it to take the first bale. He lifted it onto a barrow and waited while I rolled up the second bale. Cutting the twine holding the bales tight he wheeled them into the barn, throwing sections of hay into the mangers with a pitchfork.
I breathed in again, smelling the hay and straw, and over them something else that I could not quite place. Not a smell so much as a sensation in my nostrils that could only be the smell of cold that only came with the snow.
I went to the feed room’s single dusty window. In the short time that we had been in the hay store the wind’s burden of frozen moisture had blossomed into fat, fluttering snow-blobs. ‘Blobs,’ I decided, ‘Far too big for snowflakes.’
‘Getting thick,’ my father observed as he came to stand beside me. ‘Bit of straw to get down,’ he said, ‘and then we’ll go,’ he told me. ‘Come on Susie giv’us a hand.’
I helped him to take two straw bales to the door, but no further. My father would not let me into the barn, especially when he spread straw because the animals were too boisterous in confined spaces.
He dumped the bales in the centre, cut the twines, took his pitchfork and began shaking the straw across the barn floor, spreading a layer across the dampest patches of deep-litter.
One steer, and then two, and then a whole gang left the mangers and began to rush around in the new straw. My father went on shaking wedges out, Bo standing guard, warning off any steer that came too close as they kicked and bucked and danced through the clean bedding.
I was on the door, my boot toes claiming a hold on the ledge struts. I giggled at the spectacle, as I always did, finding the animal’s mood infectious.
‘All done,’ said my father as he brought back the barrow and fork. ‘Time we went before this snow gets worse.’
It took just a few minutes to empty the barrow and check that all the doors were secure before we collected the sledge and began the trek home. Once we had left the lee of the barns the wind hit hard. It was almost a mile from the top-barns to the cottage, and though it was track-way rather than open fields it was hard going. I trudged just behind my father, shielding my face in the folds of my duffel coat hood, my scarf wrapped close around my mouth. Even then some of the snowy lumps found a way into my eyes, melting rapidly as they touched the only exposed part of me. In fact it was hard to see anything beyond my booted feet.
As we came down from the upper fields it got a little less windy, but the snow was falling harder now. The lane cut a dip between the fields, topped on either side by thick hedges that my father and the rest of the farm labourers had spent the autumn layering. Here and there a tall oak or elm tree swayed in the rising wind. Between them some holly trees and bushes rustled their dark spines, left for luck, and covered in bright berries, and it was only these raised bushes and trees that gave any indication of the track’s direction.
I found myself beginning to lag behind, and though I tried to catch up the wind was strong, and the snow dragged at my legs. My father’s solid form was only a yard or two away, but was getting hazy in the wind-driven murk of the snowstorm.
One tall holly sentinel dipped toward me flailing its arms. I shied away and tripped, sprawling into the drifting snow. ‘Dad,’ I yelled. Suddenly I felt five years old and could feel tears prickling among the melted snow. Maybe he wouldn’t notice and he would disappear into the whiteness, and then I’d be alone. ‘Daddy,’ I screamed. ‘Daddy, wait, please!’
My father hurried back the few paces between us and handed me his stick. ‘I’m sorry, Pet. Here, hang on to this.’ Then he pulled me close against him as he turned back into the wind.
I grabbed the stick, panic subsiding immediately. I felt a little foolish. ‘My feet are cold,’ I said, a sob catching in my throat. ‘They’re getting fuzzy.’
‘Never mind, Pet. We’ll be home soon.’ My father moved the greenery to the very end of the sledge. ‘Good job this thing is built to take three,’ he observed. He grasped the stick, leaning on it as he tackled the hill, hauling sledge, daughter and foliage along the final stretch in a silence, made more eerie by the quiet of the snowy landscape.
Bo trotted before us, pausing before the porch door to shake the snow from his thick coat, and jostled through the door as my father pulled it open. He took up the tall metal scuttle that had been left by the kitchen door and filled it before he bent to help me, still struggling with my wellington boots. ‘Getting deep,’ my father announced as he hustled me across to the Aga to warm myself. ‘And ruddy cold.’
‘Language,’ Mother said absently. ‘Are your coats wet?’
My father shook his head. ‘It’s dry snow. Brushed right off.’ He motioned me into the chair by the Aga and bent to rub my feet between his palms. ‘Better Cherub?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ I nodded, grinning now I had warmed up a little.
‘Tea will be ready in a bit,’ Mother announced. The table was already set with her second best table cloth. Pristine mint green that she had embroidered with anemones and snowdrops; the snow white ‘best’ cloth was only used for visitors and Christmas Day.
Best cloths meant visitors and I wondered who that could be in this weather, then dismissed the thought and set about weaving the mound of greenery into long bundles.
By six o’clock I had uneven lumpy swags piled on every ledge and picture rail. The ceiling was already a mass of criss-crossing paper chains, manufactured with equal enthusiasm and similar finesse. My parents exchanged glances. There was little they could say without deflating their only daughter’s pride.
‘It’s… bright,’ my father ventured.
‘Yes,’ I cocked my head from side to side in a serious appraisal. ‘But we haven’t got the Chinese lanterns up yet. Or those paper-folding-things.’
My father groaned quietly, and Mother returned to the kitchen to finish peeling the vegetables. Their youngest child had far too more energy. ‘Overactive,’ the specialist had told them. ‘Keep her occupied. She’ll probably grow out of it.’
Easy said, but harder done, I was eleven, and showed no signs of calming down. That day was all about perfecting decorations.
All Father wanted to do was stretch out in his chair in front of the log fire and watch the News. He knelt down and scooped the wreckage left by my whirlwind activity into the storage box and then turned on the TV. It had been a long afternoon, and he had a four a.m. start for milking the next morning, despite it being Christmas Day.
The TV hummed gently, and the screen’s faint greyness lifted to fizzling black and white specks as the valves warmed to life. A face appeared, and then gently vanished off the top of the screen, to be replaced from the bottom. Dad slapped the Bakelite casing and the rolling screen slowed, fuzzing and tweaking to a standstill. A few minutes later Mother appeared with a cup of tea.
‘Just watching the news,’ he said, guiltily. ‘I’ll just drink this, and I’ll help you out there.’
‘Alright,’ she did not begrudge him a rest; he worked long hours, and hard ones, as a stockman and labourer, but she resented having so much left to do before she could join him. ‘What time’s the Guv’nor coming?’ she asked.
‘‘Bout eight, he said. ‘Plenty of time yet.’
It was the Landlord’s habit to visit each employee on Christmas Eve bearing gifts. Sherry for the wife, whisky or rum for the man, biscuits for the children and a turkey from the farms own flock. Mother needed to prepare that bird for cooking and she always said that she’d rather it was stuffed and ready this side of nine o’clock.
Bo whined gently. Like most working dogs he only came in-doors on the coldest of nights, but he sensed the atmosphere was not normal. My father bent to rub the dog’s ears briefly.
‘Len!’ Margery yelled. ‘Cocoa!’ There came a muffled reply and a thumping of feet as her son pounded into the kitchen.
‘I’m starving,’ Len announced. ‘Got any biscuits, Mum? Please?’
She sighed, but marched into the pantry, to reappear with a tin of Rover Assorted. The annual tin of biscuits was about to be broached. My father took the tin, laboriously peeled of the sellotape from the rim and prised the lid free. With exaggerated care he removed the paper circle from the top layer, glancing around to make sure that his audience was still attentive. He could never resist teasing.
‘Only one,’ Mother said sternly.
Len and I pushed forward, scrabbling to beat each other to the chocolate digestives. I hesitated. I loved bourbons the best, but I also liked the pink wafers. On the other hand I looked longingly at the iced shortcake rounds, smooth and shiny in pink, yellow and brown, all decorated with the ghostly white shapes of angels and stars. My left thumb crept into my mouth. My other hand hovered over one biscuit, then another, each morsel snug in its crinkly red-paper nest.
‘Can we have another one, Mum?’ asked Len. ‘It’s Christmas,’ he added hopefully.
‘Oh, all right,’ she said, sounding crosser than she was. Len had an appetite a dog would envy. Not like me and I know it bothered her. She watched me debating over my first choice. My wrists protruding from winceyette pyjama sleeves were stick thin. Another bout of Brucellosis had kept me shivering in my bed for the last week, and I know she despaired of my ever eating a full meal.
Len reached over for his second biscuit, but mother tapped him on the head. ‘Wait your turn,’ she snapped.
‘Come on scraggy-Lil,’ Len shoved at my elbow. ‘Hurry up.’
‘I’m not d’cided yet,’ I replied. My hand wandered yet again between the bourbon and the wafer.
‘Well decide and give the rest’ve us a chance,’ said Len, mentally measuring the distance between himself and his mother in case another slap was heading his way.
Mother frowned, and gave him another sharp command of ‘Wait.’
I grabbed at a wafer and a split second later dropped it as I snapped up the bourbon.
‘Muuuum,’ Len wailed. ‘She touched that one. Tell her!’
‘Susan,’ my mother took the wafer and placed it firmly in front of me. ‘That’s your two.’
‘But I wanted that one,’ I said and snatched up an iced angel.
‘She’s got three now,’ Len cried, and grabbed at the box. ‘I’m having three as well.’ Len grasped the tin’s edge and scooped a second chocolate biscuit.
I grabbed my side of the tin and heaved on it, my arm whipped back as Len’s grasp was broken and swept my mug across the table.
‘Watch out for the… Oh God’s’trewth,’ Mother exclaimed as a flood of steaming cocoa spread across the table top. She grabbed up a tea cloth and started mopping frantically. ‘Bed. Now!’ she shouted. ‘Both of you.’
I sat watching the dark brown river flowing off the table top and felt my bottom lip began to quiver. ‘My cocoa,’ I whispered, and then louder, ‘my cocoa! I’ll get you for that, Len Birch.’ I hurled the biscuits and then lunged at him.
Bo darted forward to snatch up this unexpected treat, and then turned to lick up the dribbling chocolate waterfall.
My father hustled Len into the front room and yanked me up from the chair, hugging me tightly, both to stem the tears and prevent me from launching another assault.
A sharp rap at the door caught everyone’s attention; we froze in mid turmoil, and barely had time to turn around before the door opened.
‘Good evening Birch,’ the Guv’nor said. ‘Mrs Birch.’ He held out a large, plucked turkey with both hands.
Bo growled a deep rumbling warning that set his fur ruff trembling; then he caught the whiff of fresh meat. Guard duty forgotten his plumed tail began to wag frantically. He rose onto his hind legs; jaws closing rapidly around the gobbler’s dangling head. The Guv’nor stepped back, and the dog’s white teeth snapped loudly against thin air.
My father whistled sharply, and the dog shot under the table. An ugly silence descended on the room, yet the Guv’nor smiled calmly, as if he noticed nothing untoward. He proffered my mother the bird.
‘Even’n, Sir,’ she said finally. Wiping her hands on her apron, she grappled the huge turkey from him. It was enormous, probably twenty-five pounds and I could see from her dismayed expression that she was wondering how it would ever fit into the oven. At a loss, she bobbed a vestigial curtsey, embarrassed into pre-war habits of domestic service. ‘Thank you, Sir. I’m sorry about the mess, Sir,’ she stammered, ‘but wel…’
‘Busy time,’ the Guv’nor said equably. He smiled at me. ‘Good evening young lady. No hello today?’
‘’Lo,’ I whispered. ‘Sir,’ I added as my father squeezed my arm gently.
The Guv’nor nodded and beckoned his daughter into the room. ‘Close the door Mary-Anne,’ he said. ‘Don’t let the cold in or Mrs Birch will never get her stove hot enough to get supper cooked.’
Mary-Anne sidled in, wary of the strained atmosphere and deposited two wrapped bottles and a tin of shortbread on the only un-cocoa-ed section of table available. Then she caught sight of the front room. ‘Oh Daddy! Do come and look.’ She rushed through the door and stood gaping at the ceiling. Len jumped to his feet as she entered and backed against the wall. She whirled in slow circles, staring at the gaudy array. ‘Daddy, this is simply wonderful. Just like a fairy grotto. And look, the Christmas tree. It’s so beautiful. Can we have some like this?’
The Guv’nor came to look at the swathes of colour festooned across the ceiling and walls, and shook his head in tolerant disbelief. ‘I’m not sure that your mother would see it quite that way.’ He glanced at my father and grinned. ‘Though it is colourful I will say that. Maybe you could hang some in the nursery?’
‘Could I? Oh goody.’ She beamed at all and sundry, clapping her hands and looking far younger than her sixteen years.
‘Do I detect young Susan’s hand here?’ the Guv’nor asked my father.
‘Well… Susan’s been poorly again,’ my father said. ‘It keeps her occupied.’
The Guv’nor laughed, and my father relaxed in the shared joke. The Guv’nor was an ex-military man, and valued hard work and enthusiasm. His lady wife, however, the daughter of a Lord, would never tolerate homemade decorations in her home. Christmas in the ‘Big House’ arrived in a Harrods’s van.
The Guv’nor smiled and patted my head. ‘Yes, of course. Cook said you’d been unwell. My wife sent this for you.’ He pulled a flat package from the front of his coat. ‘Happy Christmas,’ he told me.
I took the package shyly. ‘Thank you,’ I whispered eyes wide. ‘Sir.’
‘Well, Birch, I’ll be on my way.’ The Guv’nor motioned Mary-Anne toward the door. ‘Happy Christmas all,’ he said.
A chorus of ‘Happy Christmas, Sir. Happy Christmas, Miss Mary-Anne,’ followed them into the dark night.
When the door had closed and the sounds of the Land-Rover had faded, my parents turned to each other and sighed relief. Len beat a rapid retreat back to the train-set. Tears forgotten I went to sit beneath the Christmas tree with my mystery package. I glanced toward the kitchen to make sure I was not being observed before tearing a tiny hole in the edge of the paper and peeking inside. Little Women. My pulse quickened. A brand new book all for my very own. I peered in the tiny tear at the glossy colour cover.
A noise from the kitchen made me shove the package quickly under the tree. Tomorrow I would read it. After all, it was Christmas.
(extract from Sussex Tales ((c) Jan Edwards)