Love came down at Christmas,
love all lovely, Love divine;
love was born at Christmas,
star and angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead,
love incarnate, Love divine;
worship we our Jesus:
but wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token,
love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
love for plea and gift and sign.
I went to see an old lady yesterday. She was only eighteen when we first met. In fact, precisely fifty-nine years ago, she was halfway through the pregnancy that would see me born into the world. Our bond in those far-off times was physical, necessary and traumatic. Today it is emotional, and it grieves me to see how much frailer she is than even last year.
My mother still lives in Birkenhead. This is the town where I was raised. It is the same town, but it is not the same place. I have a habit you see, being the sentimental person I am, of treading old paths. I do this especially at this time of year when memories shine with an almost mythological glow. Having taken leave of Mum with a cuddle and a kiss, and a few bob to help her through, I turned the nose of the car towards the old places.
There are some locations that are hard to identify now. The detritus of progress has elbowed some of them out of the landscape entirely, but here and there, dotted around the streets there are spots that hold cherished thoughts. Over there is the bus stop under the canopy of Central Station where I waited (next to the Milk Machine offering half pint cartons for a shilling) aged four, for Dad to finish work at the Lairage and with Mum take me up to the Co-op to meet Father Christmas for the first time. It was a dark and a cold night, but as with all the trials and tribulations of childhood made bearable as we walked hand in hand in hand. I see no children tonight. I see no parents taking time to introduce their offspring to the magic and mystery of the Season.
A full six years passed by before we landed in our first house; our own house. There is still a flutter in my stomach as I turn into the one-way street that it now is and see the familiar face of Number 4. An end terrace, conjoined with a half dozen other homes, it always has the look of being huddled together with them, shoulder to shoulder against the chill of the wind. Or maybe it is against the inexorable thing we call progress. There was a time you see (our time) when the front windows would shine and shimmer with multi coloured lights, cheap things, made in Hong Kong and bought for reasonable money at the Market but to a child’s eye they brought something of heaven down to earth. There are no lights this year. I heard it said that people now live there whose origins lay in sunnier climes than ours. As I drive past the gate where I used to sit on the post on warm summer days I feel almost as if the old house is reaching unseen arms out to me with a sigh and a plea, “Come home. Come back…….”
Of all the schools that I attended, only one survives. It is some distance away from the old town of Birkenhead. The Parish Church nestles a stone’s throw away, still planted squarely on the spot where it has stood for the best part of a thousand years, in a green and leafy corner of what became a sprawling Council Estate. Once upon a time it was a tiny hamlet; a few cottages, a school and the church within whose embrace all were made to feel safe and secure. It hasn’t changed that much. It seems to have held itself together like an aging spinster who sternly refuses to wear jeans or to colour her hair and is simply content to be who she is. My most vivid memory of this place is of running home at the end of one school day; it must have been sometime around Christmas, having heard the story of Scrooge and Marley’s ghost, I was made aware for the first time of the possibility that the spirits of the dead are not bound by the laws of physics and that at any time I might feel the icy fingers of an obnoxious spectre invading the collar of my shirt. Happy days.
I find it difficult to linger in these places. The longer I stay the more apparent it becomes that the focus of my thoughts no longer exists. I say to myself that next time I shall do what the Wise Men did and go home by another route. The world has changed and the life-scape into which I was birthed has been largely erased by a mixture of inevitability, necessity and design. (How you see the exact portions of that equation will reveal who you are!).
There is something sacramental about place. A sacrament is defined as an outward sign of an inner spiritual reality, and I suppose that when I revisit the places of my youth I am attempting to maintain a bond with those days that have long departed, never to return. Yet, they are my days and I would mourn forever the loss of any capacity to pause and spend a little while with the folk who were with me there.
I am becoming too sentimental. I do not consider that a fault, more the product of a capacity to imagine. As I hit the motorway, my appetite for remembrance sated, my Jaguar purrs to 70mph and more and I cast a glance into the mirror in the direction of Mum’s little place. A multitude of little stars shine against the night sky. I know that having spent some hours with Mum today her own thoughts will have carried her back to the days when Dad was still here. Like Joseph, he was older and disappeared peacefully from the landscape of our lives some ten years ago. I hope that she can still, amid the addled thought processes of an ageing mind recapture the thrill of the first time that she ever took me into her arms, wrapped me in swaddling clothes and laid me down in the manger of her love.
Peace be with you and to all those who live in your hearts. JWP