It’s Monday morning and Neil is in his car, stationary in a four-lane queue of traffic. It’s so long since this has happened, he gets an absurd hit of nostalgia. It’s like the M25! No, it’s like Portsmouth, waiting for the car ferry to France. The marshals in high-vis vests waving you into the right lane. Sitting there with the engine off, waiting, and wishing you’d thought to have a slash. He can see the long low tent with the row of stations that form the drive-through blood clinic. Drive-through—that’s what fooled him. He thought he’d just drive up, get seen, and drive off.
Halfway through December. Unbelievable. It was all kicking off in China this time a year ago, he thinks. And we had no idea. Thought it was just another of those scares, swine flu, bird flu, not our problem. We were busy fretting over presents and Norfolk bronze turkeys and church services. Maybe it’s all kicking off again with this new variant and we still have no idea. All very Advent-y, isn’t it? You don’t know the day or the hour, you never do.
He gazes round the vast carpark of Lindford arena. The low sunshine is catching all the raindrops on the trees. If you squint, it looks like they’re threaded with LED lights. Some kind of scaffolding construction going up. He can hear the clank of poles. There’s a parked lorry loaded with aluminium chairs. Maybe there’s going to be an outdoor socially distanced festive concert? There must be something planned, or they wouldn’t be moving the test centre to the hospital carpark next week. You’d think blood tests would trump concerts right now, but what does he know?
A car pulls away in Lane 1. He feels a little squeeze of dread. Is this the hour and the day for him? The whole queue follows. Then Lane 2. More cars arrive. Three cars ahead of him, Neil sees a hand emerge from a driver’s window to tap ash off a ciggie. The guy in the high vis vest says something into his walkie-talkie. Must be a dull cold job, marshalling. Day after day, standing two metres off, asking people if they’ve had Covid symptoms. At least it’s not raining on them. A fifth lane forms beside Neil. The car door ahead opens, and the driver gets out, mask dangling from an ear, to stub the cigarette out on the gravel.
And we’re off!
Pulse of dread again. Neil’s not really worried. But he’s been persecuted by the auld NHS bobbing up in his Twitter timeline to say ‘It’s probably nothing, but a tummy upset that goes on for three weeks and more could be a sign of cancer.’ Which in Neil’s mind at 3am obviously mutated into ‘it could in theory be nothing, but it’s PROBABLY A SIGN OF CANCER! PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD!’ So he’s had a phone consultation with the GP and here he is.
Another marshal in a mask steps forward and explains the system to Neil. He’s to wear a mask, have his NHS number ready, then drive to the booth he’s directed to, wind his window down, and stop his engine. Neil gives him the thumbs up. Suddenly the Match of the Day theme tune blares from somewhere. Neil jumps half out of his skin. Fecks sake. Jangly, like the monster ice cream van from Hell. He drives forward and waits again. The tune stops abruptly. Now he’s going to have a fecking Sunday School earworm all week. Why don’t you put your trust in Jesus and ask him to come in!
What if he has got cancer? Och, he hasn’t. (But what if he has?)
He’s waved forward to table three. He pulls up, kills the engine and opens his window. A woman in a mask stoops to greet him. Would you look at that! It’s the blonde lassie. The one he sees out running. He reads her his NHS number off his phone, and confirms his name and D.O.B. She won’t know him from Adam, in his mask and out of context. She’s wrapped up nice and warm, but what a job, out here all day in the cold, not in her snug little room at some GP surgery. He bares his arm and offers it through the window. Blue disposable gloves. The tourniquet goes on.
‘Heh heh heh. Was there a memo?’ he asks. ‘Telling you not to say “prick” anymore?’
She chuckles, but maybe it’s in that way you do when you’ve heard it a million times. Then he’s ambushed by a wave of emotion, and he’s gushing his thanks for all the NHS is doing, for her standing out here in the cold all day.
‘Well, the way I see it, my grandparents’ generation had the War. Air raids, rationing.’ She changes the vial one-handed. ‘Now it’s my turn. If all I have to do is get a bit cold, well.’
He can tell she’s smiling behind her mask.
‘Aye, well. Thanks. You’re all heroes,’ he says.
‘All done.’ Blob of cotton wool. He always likes to see skill, the deft practiced moves of someone doing their thing when they’ve done it so often they could do it in their sleep, doesn’t matter where they are, in their consulting room or in a windy carpark. She goes back to her table and sorts things out. He slides his sleeve back down. When he glances up, she’s bending to look in at him again, from two metres away.
‘I can see you’re down for stool samples too.’
‘Aye. All sorted.’
‘Good. Because we’ve got the kits here if you need them.’
‘No, I’m fine.’
The look in her eyes is like a hand on his arm. Reassuring. Kind. She knows he must be scared. His tears rush up.
‘Well, you take care,’ she says.
‘You too. Thanks. Happy Christmas.’
He starts the engine and heads for Turlham Hall, to put the finishing touches to the first room makeover. He’s got the projector in the boot. And there it is, that maddening earworm: Why don’t you take him as your saviour, and let him hold your hand? Is it nothing? he wonders again as he drives. This could be my last week of… It’s probably nothing. But that experience just now was a foretaste of the kindness and uncomplaining heroism that will be there waiting for him if this turns out to be something. Despite the long queues and all the hanging about, he knows it’ll be there. Tears well up again. He realises he’s still got his mask on. He tugs it off and tosses it onto the passenger seat. Follow up appointment next week at the GPs. Not so long to wait for the results. He will strengthen, help and guide you till you reach the Promised Land. Aye, well let’s hope that’s still a long way off, eh?
All across Lindfordshire people are getting ready. We are over halfway through our Advent calendars now. How like a low-tech Zoom meeting they look. The robin in one window, the pudding in another. Nutcracker, holly sprig, shepherds, they look out from their little windows, while the other half still have their cameras still off.
Christmas gleams ahead of us like the stable in Bethlehem, amid the sad and lowly plains of pandemic restrictions. We will meet again, just like the Queen foretold. Five whole days with our loved ones. Our hearts tremble with longing. We might be those trees in the arena carpark, full of quivering diamond raindrops.
In every town and village in the region, foreheads are creased over the Rubik cube puzzle of Christmas get-togethers and what constitutes three households. Do childcare bubbles count as one household, or two? What about single person support bubbles? If (like the Penningtons) you have three children, can they all visit with the children during the five-day window, provided they don’t all come at once? What size turkey should we order? What size ham should we bake?
Chloe prepares to clear out of her little flat in the extension, so her parents can come and stay. Obviously, she and the boys have to stay here for the Christmas services at the cathedral. But they might all head off down to Brose’s parents farm on Boxing Day, and ask Jack to feed the chickens. That should work, unless Brose’s sister wants to see her in-laws as well as her parents, because that would add up to four households. Freddie’s father has invited them all, assuring them that his place is easily big enough for everyone to socially distance. God only knows how much non-compliant coming and going of friends and step-siblings will be happening over in Mansion May, so no thanks.
Infection rates are soaring across the south of England. It emerges that this new strain of the virus may be far more transmissible. We continue to twist the cube this way, that way, singing a festive fa la la la la to block out the familiar sound of back-pedalling from Downing Street as the pandemic bike hurtles out of control once again. Ah yes, when we said three households for five days that was supposed to be a limit, not a target. Of course, you may meet up with your loved ones, but please don’t take advantage of the opportunity. Keep your windows open. Don’t hug your granny. Stay apart, stay safe.
Surely they can’t do a U-turn now? Not now we’ve bought the turkey and done the big food shop! Didn’t we earn this, didn’t we save up for this present with a second lockdown? We were promised!
Not everyone is surprised. There are the steady souls who were never bought into the family Christmas idea in the first place. Not worth the risk. We can have Christmas in May, when we’ve all been vaccinated. The bishop of Barcup phoned his father a week back. ‘We won’t be coming to visit you for Christmas, dad, because we don’t want to kill you.’ ‘Much obliged,’ said Mr Tyler Senior. ‘See you when it’s all over.’
Finally, it’s the last week of school term. The Great Advent Antiphons are upon us. This whole year has been a long successions of Os. Oh no, oh shit, oh dear, oh well. In far off London town (where the pale horse is currently kicking up its heels and having a field day), the government threatens head teachers with legal action if they revert to online provision. We must put our children’s education first! Schools must stay open! Fr Wendy conducts the funeral of one of her husband’s teaching colleagues who died from Covid. From the safety of his home office, a journalist decides that nobody has had an easier more stress-free time of it during the pandemic than teachers. Meanwhile in the US, a man without a PhD ticks off Dr Biden for not preferring to go under the title ‘Kiddo Biden’. Another man combs through Dr Biden’s thesis and finds 200 typos. Important work, this. Science has shown that whenever a less talented man finds an error in the work of a woman, his prowess grows by 0.00001mm. This cumulative increase may be cited as a marker of esteem for REF purposes. Where would we be without this is the kind of academic vigilance and courageous journalism? It won’t be any surprise to hear that these three giants among men are tipped for the prestigious Sharpest Scratch of 2020 award.
Rachel Logan blows her nose. ‘Sorry, mum. It’s been such a nightmare term, and I thought I was just crawling over the finish line.’
She’s sitting at the kitchen table with a mug of tea. She drove home to mum. That’s what you do when you’ve got nothing left and everything’s shit and then the government drops the final straw.
Mrs Logan rubs Rachel’s arm. ‘Oh darling. They’re such a bunch of gits. They’re so… Oh, I don’t know. Let’s get Parva round. He says it so much better.’
Rachel sobs again. ‘That’s the Christmas holidays gone. How am I going to set up testing for January 4th for fuck’s sake? Retired teachers! What if they’re vulnerable? Who’s going to sort out DBS checks? Oh, and thanks for the 30 minute training video!’
‘Maybe they’ll get the army in to help?’
‘Fuck Boris. Fuck them all. Is there any wine? I know there’s school tomorrow, but fuck it.’
‘There’s always wine. But I’ve got a better idea. Come on. Finish your tea and grab a mask.’
‘Where are we going?’
‘It’s a surprise.’
In the vicarage next door, Fr Ed glances through the kitchen window, and sees Mrs Logan’s car drive off. Ed is not worried about Neil’s health, by the way. Over the years, the medical profession has run a battery of tests. They are closing in on a diagnosis of hypochondriasis. You need not worry either, reader. I am not about to crown this annus horribilis with bad news about a dear friend. This has been the tacit contract throughout. You come to Lindford for the consolation of seeing our small fragmented stories embraced by a bigger narrative. They may still be in fragments, but we know whom we have believed, and are persuaded—just about—that everything we have committed is being kept safe against that day. Oh yes, everything’s in pieces all right. This isn’t a proper novel. It is not Stendhal’s mirror being carried along the linear high road. We dropped that with a ghastly crash back in March. Instead, we offer you an improvised disco ball, with tiny squares of reflection, little glimpses into little lives, and scraps of light floating all around like snowflakes.
‘Oh my God!’ gasps Rachel through her mask. ‘It’s magical!’
‘Isn’t it?’ says Jen. She flaps her hands and does a little dance of glee. Rachel can tell she’s longing to spam them both with pats and hugs. Her eyes sparkle over her woodland animals cotton mask as if she’s on something. ‘He’s a total genius. I LOVE HIM! Can you believe, he wasn’t sure we’d go for it? I can’t wait for him to do the other rooms. Thanks so much for recommending him, Elspeth.’
‘My pleasure,’ says Mrs Logan.
The three of them have just gone through the wardrobe in the hotel room, and are standing in the bathroom of Narnia itself. The room was impressive enough, with its four poster bed and velvet drapery. But this! Wow, just wow!
Jen carries on talking a blue streak, the way you do when you’ve barely seen anyone for weeks. She’s telling them about the concept—Victorian Cabinet of Curiosities. Rachel isn’t really listening. Mum can field it, the barrage. Jen’s always been like it, but Covid has sent her into overdrive. All that pent-up hospitality she hasn’t been lavishing on guests: total dam burst!
Rachel explores deeper into Narnia. The walls are dark blue, stencilled with snowy trees, and mirrors set up at angles, so it’s all receding into an infinite forest. A fox, deer, a badger—everywhere you look there are magical details. Trickery, you can’t tell what’s reflection, until you see yourself moving. Other trees, three-dimensional ones, stand in the two farthest corners, their branches meet overhead, where stars gleam. The floor is white, and it glints and sparkles. There’s even an old fashioned lamppost glowing. And look at that—there’s a sleigh bathtub. Well, of course there is! All around, snow falls softly, cast by a projector in the corner.
‘Personally, I’d be freaked out Mister Tumnus is going to trot through,’ says Mrs Logan.
‘We charge extra for fauns,’ says Jen.
‘Where’s the loo?’ asks Rachel. ‘Oh! Ha ha ha, behind the mirror! Clever. And there’s a shower! Look, mum.’
‘Well, let’s hope Aslan doesn’t come any time soon,’ says Mrs Logan. ‘It’d be a shame to melt all Parva’s hard work.’
‘Book me in as soon as you’re open again,’ says Rachel. ‘I want to be the first guest.’
‘You’re on! Let me show you the plans for the other rooms. Have you got time for a glass of wine?’
Rachel and Mrs Logan exchange glances. They both know they shouldn’t really be here at all, meeting up indoors. As it is, Jen’s not managing to stay 2m away, is she?
‘Better not,’ says Rachel. ‘School tomorrow.’
‘No, we’d better be off. Another time,’ promises Mrs Logan. ‘Mwa mwa! Thanks for the sneak preview.’
Jen stands on the drive in the cold and waves them off. They can still hear her calling ‘Bye!’ as they pull out through the big gates. Starved of company.
‘Technically, we shouldn’t have done that,’ says Mrs Logan. ‘But sod it. It’s not like it’s Barnard Castle.’
‘It was the perfect antidote. Thanks.’
They drive in silence. The sick dread is creeping back already, but yes, it was perfect. It reminds her of childhood magic, of Granny taking her to see Selfridge’s Christmas windows. Followed by The Nutcracker. Rachel must have worried about stuff when she was 8 years old. Hell, she must have worried about stuff last year! For the life of her, she can’t think what it was, though.
The golden crescent moon is setting, with the old moon glowing ghostly with earthshine. They pass Turlham church, all lit up, and houses with Christmas trees in the windows. The Red Lion pub is all dark. Maybe they’ve gone bust. Light icicles drip, drip, from cottage gutters. A string of reindeer in a garden. Then dark country road. The car’s headlights catch the eyes of a fox as it stands by the roadside. There’s the moon again, and a pair of very bright stars.
‘Damn!’ says Mrs Logan. ‘Now I want some Turkish Delight.’
Today is the solstice, it is the shortest day, in fact you could almost say it was not a day at all, it was like the sun didn’t rise. There was supposably this amazing rare conjunction of planets tonight but I did not get to see it. The planets are “Jupiter” and “Saturn” and conjunction means they are close together. This does not mean literally close, they just look close in the sky… IF IT IS NOT TO CLOUDY AND YOU CAN ACTUALLY SEE THEM!!!! I am super dissappointed because this rare event has not happened since 1623, it is possible that this also happened 2000 years ago and this is “the Christmas Star” that the wise men saw, so you will totally understand why I am dissappointed. If I’d known it would be cloudy today I would of looked yesterday. SMH. This just goes to show you should always be alert, like the bible says, it is an advent thing.
It has been a super dissappointing week in many ways I am sorry to say. The goverment have done another U-turn and we are not aloud to meet up with two other household for 5 days any more. NB we were not going to do this anyway, it is madness, but lot’s of my friends are gutted. There is a new strain of the virus which you can catch like twice as easily, and now we have a new tear, tear 4, which is basically the same as “lockdown” only the goverment don’t want to call it that, (guess what, everyone knows). This time it is London and the south in Tear 4, not Manchester and the north like per usual.
Attitude of Grattitude
So I am trying to remember to be grateful and to “accentuate the positive”. Here is my list of things to be grateful for:
1. My dad did not die of Covid thanks to the NHS, he is slowly getting better.
2. It is the school hollidays YAY!
3. There is a vaccine for Covid, we will all get it in the New Year. (The VACCINE, hopefully we will not all get covid in the NY!!!)
4. Mum and dad are back together and very amicable and we will have a family Christmas with real turkey (and Tofurkey roast for Leah obvs). Maybe they will get re-married????? I asked mum privately and she said, well we will take it steady, and see how it goes. (Finger’s and toes crossed!!!!)
5. I have an amazing clarinet and I can now play over the break which is awesome, I can play high notes now.
6. So Father Dominick has asked me and Mr Hardman-May to canter at the Midnight Mass!!! We will sing some carols and I will do the descants, plus I will solo the first verse of Once in Royal, plus in O Little Town, I will sing solo in another verse which we don’t normally sing, which Father D wants me to sing. It goes “Where children pure and happy Pray to the blessed Child” it is suited to the tamber of voice (Mr H-M said that, I am not being big-headed or anything) NB This is a great honour, I am super nervous but we will get to rehearse (Guess who will want to come along to “look after me”? LOL LOL LOL)
7. Plus loads of other stuff I for one all to easily take for granted such as food and shelter and education and a good WiFi connection in a world where many go hungry.
8. ONLY 4 MORE SLEEPS TILL CHRISTMAS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
O Oriens, O Morning Star. Splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness. Come and enlighten those who walk in darkness and the shadow of death.
The day arrived, the way these days will—when they least expected it. It came while all three of them were out. Chloe was at the hub all day, offering legal advice, helping with forms and claims. Well, it kept her busy. Distracted her from obsessing about whether she was, or she wasn’t, from being ridiculous, I mean, come on, she was only about three minutes late, it was way too soon to take a test, her body needed time build up detectable levels of HCG. And anyway, she probably wasn’t.
Ambrose was off on a secret Christmas present-related mission, cunningly disguised as a business trip to Lesley on her farm. Freddie had taken both boys to get their hair and nails done ready for Christmas, over at Dapper Dogs in Martonbury. After that he swang by Janey’s and Matt’s to drop off their card and present, then shot across to Gayden Magna to give Ed and Neil their pressie, and then maybe he followed Neil’s BMW to Turlham Hall hotel, so Neil could show him the first stage of the makeover? Yeh, probably he shouldn’t’ve. But you could say it was like work, ki-i-ind of, I mean, wasn’t Neil going to give him a job, soon as he’s had the vaccine? He wore a mask obvs. And oh wow. He so wished he’d thought of this? Maybe he’ll do a Narnia nursery, if…? Coz fair play, Neil totally ripped off Freddie’s Chefchaouean idea for one of the rooms? Like totally piracy? Bastard.
The police came and went. The stench of weed is fading now. You can read about it on the Lindford Echo website. ‘Officers from the Safer Neighbourhood Team carried out the raid. Hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of cannabis plants were recovered from rooms specially designed for growing cannabis. Enquiries are ongoing. No arrests were made.’ You’ll see a stock photo of cannabis plants, and another of the front of the property. Just an ordinary 60s semi, on an ordinary Lindford street, blank windows with the blinds down.
Ambrose is the first home. The neighbour from opposite comes straight across to tell him of the afternoon’s drama. Police vans. Door broken in. Unbelievable! Right here on our street. Ambrose agrees: unbelievable. Did you have any idea? Ambrose shrugs a helpless shrug. He goes into the house. It feels different, the silence. Then he works it out—the relentless hum of the fan has stopped.
He goes through to the back door, and stands in the garden. It’s almost dark. Rain patters on the polythene roof of the henhouse. The hawk-scaring kite swirls and dips on the wind. He looks up at the silent house next door. The upstairs window stands open.
The rain patters. No, whoever it was will be far off by now and still running. It was only ever a long shot. Like opening a tiny window of hope, just opening it a tiny crack. If Ambrose could pray, like Freddie and Chloe pray, he’d send one up now. Go well. Be safe. Today’s antiphon goes through his mind. No evensong tonight, though. Those who sing pray twice. Except he can’t even pray once. But singing is as close as he can ever get, so Ambrose sings.
splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
Oh Morning Star. When we need it most. Oh, oh, oh please. The white breath of his prayer melts in the winter night.
All the wrong food is in the wrong pantries of our land. The wrong sized turkeys in the wrong fridges. Hopes and plans must be downscaled or dismantled. Practically the whole country is in Tier 3 and 4 now. The new strain is everywhere. O Dear, O Dear desire of every nation. Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down! We can only plod on and make our house fair as we are able. There will be a lot of solitary Christmases this year. And a lot or rule bending and breaking.
The diocese teems with secrets. Presents are wrapped and hidden in cupboards. Last minute surprise bouquets and hampers are dispatched to the people we won’t be seeing. There are virtual Secret Santa sessions on Zoom. Unlooked for acts of kindness spring up everywhere. People donate their surplus stocks (thanks Boris) to foodbanks. In supermarkets, distracted shoppers get to the till and realise they’ve left their bags in the car, they’ve not got their Club Card, they’ve forgotten their purse. What a frail thread their sanity hangs by. They would have lost it, but for the patience of the people on the tills. How can they still be patient, still be kind, in all this, when hours are long and jobs precarious and customers so rude and frazzled? Let us salute these frontline workers, and the quiet armies walking the endless miles, up and down vast warehouse aisles, so that our last minute arrives before Christmas gifts will arrive before Christmas.
Shoppers queue in supermarket carparks. Lorries queue in Kent. Cars queue for the drive through blood test centre, or the drive through Covid testing centre. People wait, wait, wait. They wait for the green light over the Tesco doors, for the border to re-open, for the results. They wait for Christmas. They wait for the vaccine. For the back of 2020. For good news. O come, O come. The tiny flame of the Brexit trade deal gutters in the cold wind. Surely, it’s gone out?
My, this is fun, thinks Jane. Just when we thought we might have turned a corner with these vaccines, Covid deals us one from the bottom of the deck! A sneak preview of the chaos we can look forward to in the New Year! We’re pariahs. Country after country bans flights from the UK, and who can blame them. We’ve been shite at controlling Covid, with our trademark too little too late shilly-shallying. France schools us in the art of controlling our own borders. Boom! Kent becomes a lorry park overnight. Now would be the moment to demonstrate how frictionless our world beating customs and border checks are going to be, how seamless the transition will be on January 1st.
God, we’re embarrassing. Did we deserve this? Maybe this is the final inevitable excrescence of Empire. There’s some logic at work, thinks Jane. A very British rough wombat slouching to Bethlehem to crack a sixth form joke in Latin and resign from office, claiming he’s successfully delivered Brexit. Yeah, bet that’s how it goes.
It’s Christmas Eve, 2020. Somehow we’ve made it this far. Looking back, I can’t quite believe it. Miss Sherratt, home from the 4pm Christmas vigil (the midnight was fully booked by the time she got round to it) pours herself a sherry, and looks out across the dark garden. She can see her neighbours’s fairy lights twinkling through the hedge. Then a light comes on in the summerhouse. The rickety old thing glows, glory seeping out through all the cracks. It looks to her like the stable in Bethlehem.
Neil is on his way back from the GPs. He weeps as he drives, because everything is fine. He’s got the all clear. That’s when he hears the news. The Christmas present the nation had stopped believing the PM would deliver in time. It is the thinnest of deals, but it is a deal. He pulls up on the vicarage drive just as the church carillon starts playing Joy to the world. He stands and listens. The wonders, the wonders of his love. Everything is fine. It’s not, obviously. But it still is.
We have all been bent low beneath life’s crushing load this year. We’ve been toiling along this climbing way with painful steps and slow. But come, it’s Christmas Eve. Let us rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.
Freddie and Jess stand in the organ loft. From up here they can see everyone sitting socially distanced, and all the candles on the advent ring flickering. The white candle for Christmas. Father Dominic has finished his homily. In the distance, the town hall clock chimes midnight. Happy Christmas! In a moment they will sing O Little Town, and the hairs on everyone’s neck will stand up as Jess’s clear voice (that timbre!) sings.
Where children pure and happy
Pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee,
Son of the Mother mild;
Where Charity stands watching
And Faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
And Christmas comes once more.
The house is silent now. No drone of a fan next door. Chloe stares. It is the thinnest, the faintest of lines. But it is a line. Oh God! It really is. She could go and bang on their door and tell them now. Or she could wait. She could tell them on Christmas day.