Christmas is for families, and if you haven't got one, you should avoid it, which is what I do by going cycling through the countryside. On a summer ride, I select a real English country inn and make my booking for Christmas. A real inn is not one of those Cotswold manor houses where the waiters outnumber the guests and you suspect they'd like to spoon up your soup for you to make sure you do it elegantly enough. Nor is it a member of one of those chains that serve steak and kidney pies in dog-bowls with a section of deep-frozen pastry popped on top. It's - well, if you don't know, I can't tell you. In fact, I'm not going to tell you, because they're too rare and too easily spoilt.
Eating Christmas dinner in one of them is like being part of a community, which is much healthier than being part of a family, because a real community tolerates difference. Better still, it's a village community, and I have a romantic attachment to old-fashioned English villages. Villages in other countries are dark, soil-bound provincial accumulations of inbred peasants in dwellings that, whenever they were built, lack both the charm of age and the conveniences of modernity. Riven by ancient jealousies, they suppress all native initiative and ambition, and give the strong impression that they kill and eat any strangers foolhardy enough to stay longer than a week.
But a real English village! With a real English church! And in or near the real English church, a real English War Memorial, to make you wonder, as you read the names of those who gave their lives in the Great War, that there was anybody left to do so in the Second. In some places, of course, there wasn't. Whole families gone, listed neatly one after another in alphabetical order, father, sons, uncles, cousins. Not just the ordinary people, either. The same was true of the Big House, under whose shadow and protection the little Saxon church often huddles. The end of the line, in every way.
One Christmas recently the ride I chose as my Christmas Day digestif took me along the valley of the Coln Brook, a stream flowing east off the ridge of the Salt Way, that ancient track which runs north from Cirencester. It seemed so tucked away, I fancied the Normans had never known about it until they came to write down everyone's property for Domesday Book, and then they found these Saxons quietly going on farming as if nothing had ever happened.
I had eaten early, and it was about three o'clock when I stopped to look at the church in Coln Rogers. There seemed to be someone hanging about under the lych-gate, and I wasn't in the mood for Christmas conversation, having had my ration with the turkey, so I entered the churchyard over a stone stile in the wall. The carvings on it seemed too old and indistinct to have ever adorned a grave, but the slanting sun, which made every patch of lichen throw a sharp shadow, was on the wrong side for me to make them out, so I just locked my bike and went towards the church.
A notice on the door told me that as one of the Coln Brook Group of Churches it had enjoyed a midnight service, but would not see another act of worship for a couple of Sundays. Ready for disappointment, though glad that I would not be disturbed, since a congregation is not the same thing as a community, I tried the handle, and was delighted when it opened. Moreover, the church was warm and full of sun. I admired the Saxon chancel arch, noted the padlocked door of the ancient staircase that would have given access to the rood-loft (before the Reformation swept away almost every rood-screen in the land) and enjoyed the richly coloured pattern which the sunlight left on the wall after passing through the single pane of genuine mediaeval glass more than I did that jumble of ancient fragments itself.
Turning to go, I noticed a simple wooden board, which recorded the names of all those from the village who had served their King and Country in the Great War and gave thanks to the Almighty for the remarkable fact that not one of them had died or even been so much as wounded.
"O Lord, Thy arm was here!" I said aloud, quoting Henry V, and I must confess that it set the hairs on my scalp a-tingle when a voice answered me.
"I can tell ee 'bout that," it said. I turned round and saw a man in his sixties, with the kind of florid face that comes from healthy country living, sitting in one of the back pews, with his cap on, and surrounded by a kind of Christmas picnic.
"It's all right," he said, "I'm Harry, and Vicar knows I'm 'ere. Says it keeps the place safe. I reckon it keeps me safe an' all. And I puts me own shilluns in the meter. Sit 'ee down and join me." He passed me an opened botle of spicy winter ale and one of those universal tooth glasses that delude you into thinking you're drinking less than you are.
"It was Christmas '14," he began, and I couldn't help thinking he looked far too young to be telling this tale, but I held my peace, "and I'd joined up right at the beginnin'. Not that I was eager to do me duty. Far from it. But Martha, the upstairs maid at the Big House, 'ad suggested to me there was another duty I ought to be doin', namely marryin' 'er, and my choice were clear. Any'ow, she got 'itched to a grocer from Ciren a month arter I left, so I don't feel no guilt 'bout that. If she 'adn't, then mebbe I wouldnta come 'ome on leave, though that was a piece o' luck as 'twas. I wasn't due no leave, see, but early one mornin', just as the sun was risin', as they say, the man next to me in the trench gets it clean in the 'ead. Sun on 'is buttons showed 'im up to the sniper, I reck'n. That's the danger in keepin' your kit bright and shiny. You don't catch Harry like that, no fear. He'd told me 'e was goin' on leave, so I whipped out 'is papers, since 'e'd no use for 'em now 'e was goin' 'ome in a box, and wrote in my name. A clean shot, no blood on 'em. Otherwise I couldn'ta done it, see.
"So there I was, back 'ome for Christmas, safe from Martha and safe from the Emperor's Army. I'd only've got in trouble if I'd stayed and played football in Nomansland. I always tended to be a bit of a dirty 'acker, see. Never liked losin'. Now, I don't know if you know 'bout the Mummers' Play, but we do ours a bit diff'rent round 'ere. I mean, it's diff'rent from village to village, - well, everythin's diff'rent from village to village - ev'n though it's all really the same. I mean, I say we do it, but we a'n't done it prop'ly since '14, because - well, you'll see. Three shows we done, every year, one at the Big House, one for the Vicar, and one in the pub. And they all give us a drink. Or two. Or three. We made sure we finished at the pub, since the Vicar di'n't dare be too free wi' the drink, 'cos 'e was allus tryin' to get the Temperance lot to come to Church instead of the chapel.
"Father Christmas comes on and says, Now may you see the Famous Fight between Bold Slasher, the Turkish Knight, and our Saint George, true English wight. Then they go to it, and Slasher gets killed. But Father Christmas says, This is the season, when all must forgive, I summon the good Doctor to make Bold Slasher live. Even St George says, Because 'e fought both well and brave, Let 'im sleep in 'is bed and not in the grave. So the Doctor comes on and does 'is 'ocus-pocus, and then Death 'imself pops up and says, This man is mine, you cannot cheat, I claim 'is 'ead - Ah, but we've got 'is feet! says the other three, and then there's this big tug-o' war, and Death loses, and 'e's told Of 'is weak Power we 'ave no fear, Let 'im stay away for at least a year! Then Father Christmas does 'is speech that's diff'rent every year, where 'e 'ands out mock presents, you know, like a pair of 'orns, all accordin' to the gossip and scandal.
"Well, nobody's s'posed to know 'oo plays what parts, see, 'cos we're all in masks. Of course, you do know, but you don't let on. An' the minute they knew I was 'ome, there was a message left, Would I play St George in my real uniform, 'cos they 'ad a German 'elmet for Slasher, and Jimmy, as would've played St George, was took bad with the flu-enza. Well, I knows Jimmy, and I think it more likely 'twas the fluid-enza, but no matter. We was to meet at the finger-post, by the drive to the Big House, at nine o' th' clock, in costume.
"An' there we all were. Ned, with the big laugh and the big pot-belly, was Father Christmas, and Hulkin' Tom, that used to win bets bendin' iron bars and pullin' ploughs, was Bold Hans Slasher, with a spike on 'is 'ead, and little Bill, that could talk posh when 'e wanted, was the Doctor, but I couldn't for the life of me work out 'oo was playin' Death. 'e 'ad a fine loud voice, though, all 'ollow and boomy.
"So, as we was walkin' back down the drive, arter we'd done the show at the Big House, stridin' out 'cos we 'ave to be at the Vicar's by ten, I asks Father Christmas if 'e knows 'oo's playin' Death, an' 'e says, 'I'n't it Bert?' And I says, 'Bert's not nearly that tall.' And Slasher, 'oo's just be'ind us, says, 'It's Alf, i'n't it?' 'No,' says the Doctor, who's 'avin' to run to keep up with his stumpy little legs, 'Alf's much fatter than that. It's Windy.' Well, that makes the three of us laugh out loud, 'cos we all know 'ow Windy gets 'is name and you can't be in 'is company a quarter-hour without you smell the reason, and there's not been the slightest sign of it from our fellow-player.
"'Well,' says Father Christmas, ' 'ooever 'e is, 'e ain't that fond of 'is drink, for I 'ad 'is first pint arter 'e left it lie, and 'e never complained.' 'And I 'ad 'is second,' said Slasher. 'And I 'ad 'is third,' said the Doctor. 'And I 'ad 'is fourth,' says I, 'which makes 'im a good feller to go a-mummin' with. But I'd still an' all like to know 'oo 'e is, 'cos 'e strikes me as familiar, but I can't quite place 'im.' But I di'n't 'ave long to wait, 'cos at the Vicar's 'e comes out with some extemporaries, some lines of 'is own as ain't in the play as is, and they tells me what I needs to know, and more nor I wants to, an' all.
"'e comes on an' says 'oo 'e is: My name is Death, I stop your breath. I still your blood An' 'eart for good. An' then 'e turns to me an' says, I saw you 'tother day in France. You saw the wonder in my glance, Because I knew it was not there I had to take your life, but here. Be brave, St George, and take your leave. Your life must end this Christmas Eve.
"Well, old Mrs Coussens, as taught me in the village school, allus said that I was a slow study but I 'ad a quick 'ead, and just as well I did. O Death, says I, we well do know That all in time with You must go, But not before we end the show. And since we 'ave one more to give, Just for a little let me live. And 'e bows, and goes back to 'is proper lines, and we do the tug-o'war, and 'ave a thimbleful o' sherry each, which 'e leaves and I knock back 'cos I deserves it, and then we're out in the dark, runnin' down to the pub, and 'e's laggin' be'ind, sure of 'imself, as it seems to me, and I'm sweatin' with a fear I've never known afore, not even at the front.
"''oo is 'e?' asks Ned, and Bill, and Tom, as they catches up with me, pantin', 'cos even though I know I can't get away I'm not gonna make it easy for 'im to catch me. 'It's 'imself,' I says, 'it's the Old Boy, it's Rawhead and Bloodybones in person, I knew I'd seen 'im a 'undred times out there in France, allus out the corner o' me eye, 'cos 'e was comin' for someone else.'
"'What're we gonna do?' asks Tom, and Bill, and Ned, and they means "we", 'cos they're good lads, and fellow-Mummers, and they're not gonna let me face this on me own, and anyway, we've all 'ad five pints of 6X up at the Big House, and a small sherry, and we're not in the mood to take nonsense from no one.
"'We must trap 'im', says I. 'You'll've noticed, 'e can't get in anywhere, without someone lets 'im, and once 'e's in, 'e 'as to be let out likewise. And I know just where we can shut 'im up, for the duration or longer if it may be. Let's make for the church, for 'e doesn't know where our last show is to be, does 'e?' 'I never told 'im,' says Bill and Ned and Tom, and away we go down the left fork of the lane, though we can see the lights of the pub winkin' and blinkin' on our right.
"But the church is bright as well, waitin' for the midnight service, for it's risin' eleven, and the verger's lit the lamps in advance, so's 'e can be down the pub to see our show. Well, 'e'll 'ave to wait a wee while. And we waits too, in the lych-gate, while our fellow-actor catches up with us. And we stand there and smile at 'im, though of course 'e can't see our smiles through the masks, but we're amused because 'e can't go through that gate, less'n we open it for 'im, and that gives us a bit of 'ope.
"So we opens it, and 'e goes through, and 'e waits at the church door, and we adjusts our costumes a bit, just to make 'im feel that 'e 'as to wait for us, and then we open that, and 'e goes in, and 'e seems surprised there's no people there yet to see the show, and we tell 'im that we're early because we want to set up a surprise, and that we want 'im to 'ide, so 'e can spring out all sudden-like and give everyone a good shock, and 'e seems to like that idea - well, 'e would, would'n'e? - and we explain that it wa'n't possible those other places, but that 'ere there's a spot just made for 'im.
"And while we've been tellin' 'im this, Hulkin' Tom 'as gone to the door of the stairs that used to lead to the rood-loft - it's all blanked off at the top, and once you're in, there's no way out - and 'e's twisted off that padlock like it was made o' twigs. And we open the door, and show 'im 'ow snug it is inside, and tell 'im not to make a sound, 'cos that'd spoil everythin', and then we close the door, ever so gently, and in the meantime Bill 'as found this iron bar that was to be a nice new railin' round one of the family graves, and Tom slips it through the rings on the door and the frame and all but ties it in a knot.
"So we tiptoes out, and down the pub, and gives the show of our lives. And when they asks us, 'Where's Death?', I tells 'em the truth: 'e's far away in France, Leadin' poor young lads a dance, So you need never fear That 'e will turn up 'ere. An' that's 'ow it was - till 1920, when some townie friend of the Vicar's with a bee in 'is bonnet about churches wanted to see the staircase and opened the door. 'bout time though, if I'm honest. Mother Barker'd been waitin' a while to die. Lost 'er 'earin', lost 'er sight, and when she lost 'er taste for the drink, the feller opened the door. Mark you, the War went on. See, 'twasn't Death 'imself as we shut up. It was just our Death, our village's Death. And even though 'e come for Mother Barker, it took 'im a while to get back in the swing o' things, so to speak."
There was a click, and suddenly the church went dark, except for a tiny patch of light where the last rays of the sun touched a small cross scratched roughly on one of the pillars.
"You got any shilluns?" asked Harry. I gave him all the loose change I had, and explained that as I was on a bicycle I had better be gone before it became completely dark. He nodded in agreement, wished me a Merry Christmas, and, as I reached the door, added, "Don't go lettin' anyone in, will you?" "Certainly not," I said, and went out into the gathering dusk.
In the half-light of a winter afternoon, all those leaning, moss-covered gravestones had the mystery of megaliths. With the sun gone, an evening mist was rising around them. As I swung myself over the stone stile, I looked towards the lych-gate. The shadows under it seemed to be darker than they ought to have been. I unlocked my bicyle and reflected for a moment on the best direction. If I was to get back to the inn where I was staying before true nightfall, it had to be the road past the lych-gate. As I went by, I cycled slowly, though I did not stop, and looked hard. But I could see nothing.
Hardly surprising, really. It wasn't my village.
2nd November 1997