One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the
sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant
speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that
I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights
when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve
nights when I was six.
All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a
cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street;
and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and
I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In
goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays
resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs.
Prothero and the firemen.
It was on the afternoon of the Christmas Eve, and I was in Mrs.
Prothero's garden, waiting for cats, with her son Jim. It was
snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my
memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers. But
there were cats. Patient, cold and callous, our hands wrapped in
socks, we waited to snowball the cats. Sleek and long as jaguars
and horrible-whiskered, spitting and snarling, they would slink
and sidle over the white back-garden walls, and the lynx-eyed
hunters, Jim and I, fur-capped and moccasined trappers from Hudson
Bay, off Mumbles Road, would hurl our deadly snowballs at the green
of their eyes. The wise cats never appeared.
We were so still, Eskimo-footed arctic marksmen in the muffling
silence of the eternal snows - eternal, ever since Wednesday - that
we never heard Mrs. Prothero's first cry from her igloo at the
bottom of the garden. Or, if we heard it at all, it was, to us,
like the far-off challenge of our enemy and prey, the neighbor's
polar cat. But soon the voice grew louder.
"Fire!" cried Mrs. Prothero, and she beat the dinner-gong.
And we ran down the garden, with the snowballs in our arms, toward
the house; and smoke, indeed, was pouring out of the dining-room,
and the gong was bombilating, and Mrs. Prothero was announcing ruin
like a town crier in Pompeii. This was better than all the cats in
Wales standing on the wall in a row. We bounded into the house,
laden with snowballs, and stopped at the open door of the
Something was burning all right; perhaps it was Mr. Prothero, who
always slept there after midday dinner with a newspaper over his
face. But he was standing in the middle of the room, saying, "A
fine Christmas!" and smacking at the smoke with a slipper.
"Call the fire brigade," cried Mrs. Prothero as she beat the gong.
"There won't be there," said Mr. Prothero, "it's Christmas."
There was no fire to be seen, only clouds of smoke and Mr. Prothero
standing in the middle of them, waving his slipper as though he
"Do something," he said. And we threw all our snowballs into the
smoke - I think we missed Mr. Prothero - and ran out of the house
to the telephone box.
"Let's call the police as well," Jim said. "And the ambulance."
"And Ernie Jenkins, he likes fires."
But we only called the fire brigade, and soon the fire engine came
and three tall men in helmets brought a hose into the house and Mr.
Prothero got out just in time before they turned it on. Nobody
could have had a noisier Christmas Eve. And when the firemen turned
off the hose and were standing in the wet, smoky room, Jim's Aunt,
Miss. Prothero, came downstairs and peered in at them. Jim and I
waited, very quietly, to hear what she would say to them. She said
the right thing, always. She looked at the three tall firemen in
their shining helmets, standing among the smoke and cinders and
dissolving snowballs, and she said, "Would you like anything to
Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in
Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past
the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day
in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse
parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English
and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the
duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills
bareback, it snowed and it snowed. But here a small boy says:
"It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked
it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea."
"But that was not the same snow," I say. "Our snow was not only
shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out
of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and
bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses
like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely ivied the walls and
settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb
thunder-storm of white, torn Christmas cards."
"Were there postmen then, too?"
"With sprinkling eyes and wind-cherried noses, on spread, frozen
feet they crunched up to the doors and mittened on them manfully.
But all that the children could hear was a ringing of bells."
"You mean that the postman went rat-a-tat-tat and the doors rang?"
"I mean that the bells the children could hear were inside them."
"I only hear thunder sometimes, never bells."
"There were church bells, too."
"No, no, no, in the bat-black, snow-white belfries, tugged by
bishops and storks. And they rang their tidings over the bandaged
town, over the frozen foam of the powder and ice-cream hills, over
the crackling sea. It seemed that all the churches boomed for joy
under my window; and the weathercocks crew for Christmas, on our
"Get back to the postmen."
"They were just ordinary postmen, found of walking and dogs and
Christmas and the snow. They knocked on the doors with blue
knuckles. . . ."
"Ours has got a black knocker. . . ."
"And then they stood on the white Welcome mat in the little,
drifted porches and huffed and puffed, making ghosts with their
breath, and jogged from foot to foot like small boys wanting to go
"And then the presents?"
"And then the Presents, after the Christmas box. And the cold
postman, with a rose on his button-nose, tingled down the
tea-tray-slithered run of the chilly glinting hill. He went in his
ice-bound boots like a man on fishmonger's slabs.
"He wagged his bag like a frozen camel's hump, dizzily turned the
corner on one foot, and, by God, he was gone."
"Get back to the Presents."
"There were the Useful Presents: engulfing mufflers of the old
coach days, and mittens made for giant sloths; zebra scarfs of a
substance like silky gum that could be tug-o'-warred down to the
galoshes; blinding tam-o'-shanters like patchwork tea cozies and
bunny-suited busbies and balaclavas for victims of head-shrinking
tribes; from aunts who always wore wool next to the skin there were
mustached and rasping vests that made you wonder why the aunts had
any skin left at all; and once I had a little crocheted nose bag
from an aunt now, alas, no longer whinnying with us. And
pictureless books in which small boys, though warned with
quotations not to, would skate on Farmer Giles' pond and did and
drowned; and books that told me everything about the wasp, except
"Go on the Useless Presents."
"Bags of moist and many-colored jelly babies and a folded flag and
a false nose and a tram-conductor's cap and a machine that punched
tickets and rang a bell; never a catapult; once, by mistake that no
one could explain, a little hatchet; and a celluloid duck that
made, when you pressed it, a most unducklike sound, a mewing moo
that an ambitious cat might make who wished to be a cow; and a
painting book in which I could make the grass, the trees, the sea
and the animals any colour I pleased, and still the dazzling
sky-blue sheep are grazing in the red field under the
rainbow-billed and pea-green birds. Hardboileds, toffee, fudge and
allsorts, crunches, cracknels, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan, and
butterwelsh for the Welsh. And troops of bright tin soldiers who,
if they could not fight, could always run. And Snakes-and-Families
and Happy Ladders. And Easy Hobbi-Games for Little Engineers,
complete with instructions. Oh, easy for Leonardo! And a whistle to
make the dogs bark to wake up the old man next door to make him
beat on the wall with his stick to shake our picture off the wall.
And a packet of cigarettes: you put one in your mouth and you stood
at the corner of the street and you waited for hours, in vain, for
an old lady to scold you for smoking a cigarette, and then with a
smirk you ate it. And then it was breakfast under the balloons."
"Were there Uncles like in our house?"
"There are always Uncles at Christmas. The same Uncles. And on
Christmas morning, with dog-disturbing whistle and sugar fags, I
would scour the swatched town for the news of the little world, and
find always a dead bird by the Post Office or by the white deserted
swings; perhaps a robin, all but one of his fires out. Men and
women wading or scooping back from chapel, with taproom noses and
wind-bussed cheeks, all albinos, huddles their stiff black jarring
feathers against the irreligious snow. Mistletoe hung from the gas
brackets in all the front parlors; there was sherry and walnuts and
bottled beer and crackers by the dessertspoons; and cats in their
fur-abouts watched the fires; and the high-heaped fire spat, all
ready for the chestnuts and the mulling pokers. Some few large men
sat in the front parlors, without their collars, Uncles almost
certainly, trying their new cigars, holding them out judiciously at
arms' length, returning them to their mouths, coughing, then
holding them out again as though waiting for the explosion; and
some few small aunts, not wanted in the kitchen, nor anywhere else
for that matter, sat on the very edge of their chairs, poised and
brittle, afraid to break, like faded cups and saucers."
Not many those mornings trod the piling streets: an old man always,
fawn-bowlered, yellow-gloved and, at this time of year, with spats
of snow, would take his constitutional to the white bowling green
and back, as he would take it wet or fire on Christmas Day or
Doomsday; sometimes two hale young men, with big pipes blazing, no
overcoats and wind blown scarfs, would trudge, unspeaking, down to
the forlorn sea, to work up an appetite, to blow away the fumes,
who knows, to walk into the waves until nothing of them was left
but the two furling smoke clouds of their inextinguishable briars.
Then I would be slap-dashing home, the gravy smell of the dinners
of others, the bird smell, the brandy, the pudding and mince,
coiling up to my nostrils, when out of a snow-clogged side lane
would come a boy the spit of myself, with a pink-tipped cigarette
and the violet past of a black eye, cocky as a bullfinch, leering
all to himself.
I hated him on sight and sound, and would be about to put my dog
whistle to my lips and blow him off the face of Christmas when
suddenly he, with a violet wink, put his whistle to his lips and
blew so stridently, so high, so exquisitely loud, that gobbling
faces, their cheeks bulged with goose, would press against their
tinsled windows, the whole length of the white echoing street. For
dinner we had turkey and blazing pudding, and after dinner the
Uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, put their
large moist hands over their watch chains, groaned a little and
slept. Mothers, aunts and sisters scuttled to and fro, bearing
tureens. Auntie Bessie, who had already been frightened, twice, by
a clock-work mouse, whimpered at the sideboard and had some
elderberry wine. The dog was sick. Auntie Dosie had to have three
aspirins, but Auntie Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of
the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush. I would
blow up balloons to see how big they would blow up to; and, when
they burst, which they all did, the Uncles jumped and rumbled. In
the rich and heavy afternoon, the Uncles breathing like dolphins
and the snow descending, I would sit among festoons and Chinese
lanterns and nibble dates and try to make a model man-o'-war,
following the Instructions for Little Engineers, and produce what
might be mistaken for a sea-going tramcar.
Or I would go out, my bright new boots squeaking, into the white
world, on to the seaward hill, to call on Jim and Dan and Jack and
to pad through the still streets, leaving huge footprints on the
"I bet people will think there's been hippos."
"What would you do if you saw a hippo coming down our street?"
"I'd go like this, bang! I'd throw him over the railings and roll
him down the hill and then I'd tickle him under the ear and he'd
wag his tail."
"What would you do if you saw two hippos?"
Iron-flanked and bellowing he-hippos clanked and battered through
the scudding snow toward us as we passed Mr. Daniel's house.
"Let's post Mr. Daniel a snow-ball through his letter box."
"Let's write things in the snow."
"Let's write, 'Mr. Daniel looks like a spaniel' all over his lawn."
Or we walked on the white shore. "Can the fishes see it's snowing?"
The silent one-clouded heavens drifted on to the sea. Now we were
snow-blind travelers lost on the north hills, and vast dewlapped
dogs, with flasks round their necks, ambled and shambled up to us,
We returned home through the poor streets where only a few children
fumbled with bare red fingers in the wheel-rutted snow and
cat-called after us, their voices fading away, as we trudged
uphill, into the cries of the dock birds and the hooting of ships
out in the whirling bay. And then, at tea the recovered Uncles
would be jolly; and the ice cake loomed in the center of the table
like a marble grave. Auntie Hannah laced her tea with rum, because
it was only once a year.
Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the
gaslight bubbled like a diver. Ghosts whooed like owls in the long
nights when I dared not look over my shoulder; animals lurked in
the cubbyhole under the stairs and the gas meter ticked. And I
remember that we went singing carols once, when there wasn't the
shaving of a moon to light the flying streets.
At the end of a long road was a drive that led to a large house,
and we stumbled up the darkness of the drive that night, each one
of us afraid, each one holding a stone in his hand in case, and all
of us too brave to say a word. The wind through the trees made
noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in
caves. We reached the black bulk of the house. "What shall we give
them? Hark the Herald?"
"No," Jack said, "Good King Wencelas. I'll count three." One, two
three, and we began to sing, our voices high and seemingly distant
in the snow-felted darkness round the house that was occupied by
nobody we knew.
We stood close together, near the dark door. Good King Wencelas
looked out On the Feast of Stephen . . . And then a small, dry
voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long
time, joined our singing: a small, dry, eggshell voice from the
other side of the door: a small dry voice through the keyhole. And
when we stopped running we were outside our house; the front room
was lovely; balloons floated under the hot-water-bottle-gulping
gas; everything was good again and shone over the town.
"Perhaps it was a ghost," Jim said. "Perhaps it was trolls," Dan
said, who was always reading.
"Let's go in and see if there's any jelly left," Jack said. And we
Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the
fiddle, a cousin sang "Cherry Ripe," and another uncle sang
"Drake's Drum." It was very warm in the little house. Auntie
Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about
Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her
heart was like a Bird's Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and
then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the
moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the
lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear
the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I
turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close
and holy darkness, and then I slept.
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