The Black Country - Book 1 Chapter 5

A Maskell Christams

By Chris Snape

On Christmas Day I went out front with my father's shovel and cleared a path through the snow from our front door to the road. The sound of metal scraping against the wet footpath reverberated in the narrow space between the houses. Chink. Scrape. Chink. Scrape. I worked steadily, cutting with the shovel, lifting the snow and tossing it to one side, thrusting and cutting again. The cold seeped into my boots, through two layers of socks, and started hurting my toes. My fingers were numb inside my gloves. I made my way towards the road while next door Old Man Simpson, who lived on his own, waved through the window at me, grateful for my labour.

He raised his thumb and called out, 'You'm doin' a great job, me old cock!'

Sometimes he would come out and give me sixpence and say, Go spend that at the shop. Then, snatching at my arm with his bony fingers, But spend it wisely. It's a wise man who knows how to spend his money well.

On the street everything was quiet. The houses appeared derelict because the occupants either lived in back rooms or had already gone out for the day. Each facade was blank, like a body with the breath gone out of it. The clouds, opaque and yellow, threatening more snow, hung low over the rooftops.

When I was finished I leaned against my shovel and remembered the old man digging for vegetables across the street from Eric and Maureen's house. Then I thought, This is what I love best about Christmas -- the cold, the snow, the clean air, sounds carrying for miles, the light on a clear day like crystal.

After breakfast Grandpa Maskell arrived to take us to Sussex Avenue for the Traditional Maskell Family Christmas. My father sat in front next to him while I sat in the back with my mother, my head inside a knitted balaclava, a thick scarf wrapped around my throat. Grandpa had the heater on full to clear the ice off the windscreen. He drove carefully, his face thrust forward, eyes watchful, so we wouldn't slip on the ice.

At Grandma's, as well as the usual Maskell family in attendance -- me, my mother and father; Grandpa and Grandma Maskell; Eric and the now enormously pregnant Maureen; and Stephen -- there was, significantly, Jane. I think our Stephen's going to marry her. She was wearing a crimson knitted jumper with the pattern of a Christmas tree on the front, all green leaves and orange baubles, a yellow star fitting neatly between her breasts. She was standing in the kitchen, leaning against the counter-top with her arms folded, her long hair falling across her shoulders, talking to Grandma Maskell who was turning a wooden spoon casually inside a pot.

Seeing me, Grandma Maskell let go of the spoon and bellowed, 'It's me little babby. Me little babby's come to see his Grandma on Christmas Day. Me Christmas is now made perfect.'

She clasped my face between her hands, pushing my cheeks together, and planted a huge wet kiss on my lips.

Jane, perhaps influenced by the maudlin spirit of the holiday, or by my grandmother's gushing display of affection, or maybe because she was starting to feel like one of us, sank to her knees and embraced me. She squeezed me against her bust, and, with my head on her shoulder, I breathed her in. Her jumper smelled like new -- it was a Christmas present -- and there was the smell of flowers and soap.

'It's very nice to see you,' she said, kissing me on the cheek, leaving behind a full impression of her luscious lips, wet and cold and beautiful.

'Isn't this just grand?' Grandma Maskell said. 'The entire family together all at the same time.'

She asked if Father Christmas had visited my house and when I said yes he had she wondered if he'd left anything behind. I listed my toys one by one, counting them on my fingers.

'You must have been a very good boy this year,' she said, 'to have been so spoiled.'

'An exceptionally good boy,' Jane said.

She let go of me and climbed to her feet and eased herself back against the counter-top.

'I think he came here, too,' she said, refolding her arms.

'He certainly did,' my grandmother said. 'He knew you'd be visiting. Just like you do every year. To make your old grandma's Christmas special. He left some things for you under our tree.'

'And there was something at my house with your name on it,' Jane said.

'Goodness! Old Santa's been around.'

Feeling happy I went into the living room and sat in front of the coal fire watching the coals burn on the other side of the glass door. The tree was in the corner beside the television and underneath were boxes and boxes of things all wrapped in coloured paper. I wanted to go over and shake them, but I knew it would spoil Grandma Maskell's fun. She would want to see my face when I opened my presents. She wouldn't want me to work out beforehand what they were.

My mother and Maureen had gone into the sitting room, which was on the other side of the house, to talk about babies. Stephen was out in the coal shed filling the brass bucket for the fire. I didn't know where my grandfather was. The last I saw of him was when he dropped us off. Maybe he was buying bottles of beer at the club over the road, which opened for a few hours on Christmas morning so the locals could wish each other well. I could hear my grandmother in the kitchen singing, 'O he did whistle and she did sing,/ And all the bells on earth did ring,/ For joy our Saviour he was born -- ' and then Jane's sweet high-pitched voice joining in with, 'On Christmas Day in the morning.' It made me smile to hear them so happy together.

In the living room Uncle Eric was saying to my father, 'I suppose you'd be mad to fly when you can get a free holiday at sea.'

'That's exactly what I thought,' my father said.

'Ten pounds. I can scarcely believe it.'

Eric's face was much gentler than my father's, the flesh around his eyes softer, the lines of his mouth more affectionate. It was the face of someone you'd be drawn to if you were in a crowd and lost and seeking directions.

'You're a lucky b_____, you know that.'

Grandpa Maskell came in from the kitchen struggling out of his coat. 'It's b_____ cold out there,' he said, saying cood. Eric turned in his seat, said, 'Where've you been?'

'Nowhere.' No weir.

'You can't come in from nowhere. You have to have been somewhere.'

'I've been over the club fetching some bottles to have with our dinner.'

Much later Grandma Maskell shouted 'Dinner's ready!' and came into the room carrying a large silver platter with a turkey that was steaming and golden-brown. Jane followed close behind with a large bowl of roast potatoes and another of vegetables.

'You do the carving, our dad,' Grandma Maskell said, her voice quivering with a sense of the occasion. 'The rest of you can all find a place at the table.'

We sat down and pulled the crackers, making them go bang, removed the paper hats and put them on our heads and recited jokes printed on small pieces of paper, laughing not because they were funny but because someone thought they were funny enough to print, or maybe they couldn't think of anything better, groaning and clicking our tongues and saying things like, Who thinks of these things? And there was the dinner. The sort of dinner you eat in a dream about Christmas, decadent and plentiful, glowing and steaming under the electric light, diamonds of light on golden turkey skin, and dark pudding hiding three-penny bits. A dinner to make you weep when you're hungry and without means.

In the aftermath of the meal Grandpa poured out the first of the beers while Grandma Maskell cleared her throat and said, 'When I was a working lass.'

She leaned in close to me and said, 'It was a very long time ago. Even before I met your grandfather.'

'Ancient history,' my father said, but nobody laughed.

'The manager used to carry a jowl full of lambswool round the factory for everyone to drink. It was a Christmas Eve tradition.'

'Lambswool?' I said, disgusted.

'Not real lambswool. You can't drink real lambswool. You'd be sick.'

'More like choke to death,' Stephen said.

'It was made with roasted apples and strong ale and sugar and spice. The manager carried it in a large earthenware jug, ladling it out to everyone, until it was all gone. Then we all stood by our machines and sang carols.'

'That never happened to me,' my father said.

Eric nodded at Grandma Maskell. 'She said it was a long time ago.'

'Ah,' Grandma Maskell said. 'A long time before you was born.' A long time befower yow wus bowun.

Grandpa Maskell picked up his knife and jabbed the point at my father. 'These days they don't do a lot of things as what they used to. The old world's passing away. The one your mother and I knew.'

'What do you think about lambswool?' Stephen asked Jane. Because she went to university everyone thought she was an authority on things.

'I've never heard of it,' she said.

'They don't serve it at the council,' Stephen said.

'What about your fruit truck then?' Maureen addressed Eric. 'Who gives you a drink at Christmas?'

`Unless the apples crush themselves,' Eric said, and left it at that.

Grandpa Maskell said, 'Stop winding your old mother up and listen to what she has to say. There's things she knows about you've never even heard of before. Just because you haven't seen it on tv or up at the college --'

'The university,' Stephen said.

'-- doesn't mean it's not true. There's plenty things you don't know about.'

'What about you, our Dad?' Grandma Maskell said.

'I know all about lambswool. Lovely it was. Beautiful. But that's not all we had. My father and mother used to drink mulled wine made from elder berries. They toasted the Quicken tree, which was supposed to give protection against witches and demons. Terrified of them, people were. It was thought such creatures roamed these parts at one time.'

'They still do,' Maureen said, 'only now they're called skinheads.' She poked her tongue out and pulled a silly face and everyone laughed.

'You can laugh,' Grandma Maskell said. 'It's me who can't laugh when I hear them smashing bottles in the gutter in the middle of the night.'

Everyone except me was reclining lazily, sprawling against the backs of their chairs, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, the metallic blue clouds hanging over their heads like a brewing storm. The men patted their rounded bellies and, saucer-eyed, belched quietly. My mother and Maureen tapped their glasses with long painted fingernails, the glass going clink, clink, clink. Jane sat very straight with her hands folded together in her lap, her lips curled slightly into a smile, watching all these people who were still new to her life. I could tell just by looking at her that she liked where she was, felt that she belonged.

'We've decided, Alison and I,' my father said, 'to settle in Adelaide.'

There was silence for a matter of seconds only, but it was a very strong silence, completely still and featureless, like being on the surface of the moon. It is a peculiar thing about northern winters that on a still day, when the wind is absent, there is absolutely no sound which is not man-made. No birds flapping their way across the garden squawking directions at each other, no branches bending and scraping together. It is a world without sound.

'The fire,' Stephen said, because not even the sharp crackle of burning coal could be heard.

Jane said in her soft voice, 'Heap on more wood! the wind is chill; But let it whistle as it will. We'll keep our Christmas merry still.'

Everyone looked at her and her face flushed red and she stared down at the table.

'Sir Walter Scott,' she said, and all the adults nodded and made affirming sounds. Only Stephen and I adored her.

Stephen said, 'Keith, put some coal on the fire, will you?'

'Put the gloves on, lad,' my grandfather said. 'And use the tongs. We don't want you getting yourself burned up on Christmas Day.'

Grandma Maskell nudged my grandfather. 'You do it. He might hurt himself.'

'He'll be alright.'

'Stephen. You do it for him.'

'Leave him be,' my grandfather said kindly. 'He'll do an alright job. Won't you, Keith?'

I went over to the fire, plucked Grandpa Maskell's gloves off the hook on the wall, and slipped my hands into them. Though such were their size that I struggled to lift the handle to the door. They felt cavernous. My hands were small creatures inside a cave. As the door opened a rush of warm air hit me in the face. I took the coal nuggets one by one from the brass bucket -- the gloves we too awkward to allow for anything more -- and tossed them into the fire, keeping my hands well clear of the coals already there, the ones glowing red and white.

'Use the tongs, our Keith,' Grandma Maskell cried nervously, her palms flat against her cheeks. She was a silent movie heroine waiting to be rescued by Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton.

'He's alright,' Stephen said. 'He's doing alright.'

In our part of the world to be told that you were doing alright was to be given the highest accolade of them all. I was built up, proud of my modest achievement, bursting at the seams.

'Look at him smiling!' my grandmother said. 'He looks like the Chesire Cat himself!'

'What I was saying,' my father said as I closed the glass door to the fireplace, 'is that we've decided to settle in Adelaide.'

Grandma Maskell, narrow-eyed and skeptical, turned her gaze on him. She looked troubled. 'Adelaide?' she said. 'Where's Adelaide? I don't think I've ever heard of such a place.' She looked round the table, staring into everyone's face, and when she came to Stephen she said, 'Is there such a place?'

Stephen shrugged and frowned.

'It's the capital of South Australia,' my father said.

'Does a state have a capital?'

'This one does.'

'I thought Sydney was the capital.'

'Of South Australia?'

'Of the whole country!'

'Actually,' Jane said, 'I think it's Canberra. Canberra is the capital city of Australia.'

'There's a plane called a Canberra,' I said, but everyone ignored me.

'But Sydney has the bridge.' Grandma Maskell said.

'It's not the bridge that makes it the capital,' my father said, stifling a laugh.

'On all the programs, the ones on television, they always show Sydney.'

'It doesn't matter what the capital is,' my father said. 'We're going to Adelaide.'

'What on earth for?' Grandma Maskell said. 'Why go to a place you've never heard of before?'

'We've heard of it,' my mother piped in.

Maureen laughed and said, 'We all have now.'

My father gave her a look and smiled.

'There's someone there,' he said. 'A bloke I used to work with. He went a couple of years ago. Him and his wife. I wrote to him and he's been writing back.'

'Who went there?' Grandma said.

'Johnny Newley. You never met him. He makes it sound like a nice place. Very quiet. And small. He says it's an over-sized country town.'

'I thought you'd be going to Sydney. I've been picturing you in Sydney.'

'One place is as good as another if you've never been there.'

Now everyone talked at once. Most people, excluding only Grandma Maskell herself, thought it was a pretty good idea that we were going to Australia. There was nothing left for us in England, they declared to a man and almost to a woman, and there were far better opportunities for us in the Antipodes. Especially for me. Grandma Maskell said that she couldn't get used to the idea of us living so far away she might never see us again. My father tried to reassure her that one day we would all return for a visit, but Grandma Maskell wanted to know how long it would take before we managed to save enough money to come and see her. I guess my father failed terribly, especially since Grandma ended up by crying and telling us it was a frightful thing we were doing, taking her babby away.

It was almost dark out when Stephen raised his fist to his mouth and coughed very loudly and rapped his glass with the edge of his knife, creating waves of something important about to happen, radiation pulsing out from the centre of the table. When everyone looked up he said, his voice deep in ceremony, 'I'd like to make an announcement.'

But everyone seemed to know what he was about to say, having been expecting it each in their own quiet way, having worked it out by interpreting hundreds of weighted glances and casual hand grabbings and whispered truths.

Grandma Maskell said to my father, 'An announcement? What's he want to announce?'

My father said, 'Wait and see.'

'An announcement,' my grandfather echoed, and grinned in his timid self-effacing way.

My mother and Maureen elbowed each other and bared their teeth at Jane, who pretended she hadn't seen them and sat staring at the light fading from her glass.

'We're all ears,' my mother said, and when Stephen smirked sourly at her she continued with, 'Come on, Stephen, tell us.'

Stephen, embarrassed, shook his head. 'You're not making this any easier.'

'Ignore them,' Eric said. 'Just tell us what it is you want to say.'

'I would if I could get a word in edgewise.'

'Come on, our Stephen, be a man,' Maureen goaded him. 'Make the announcement. Get it off your chest.'

'Tell us!' my father called out.

'I'm trying to but no-one will let me speak,' Stephen protested.

Grandma Maskell sliced the air with her hand, cut it in two. 'Leave him be,' she said. 'Can't you see it's nearly killed him to get this far?' 'Be quiet, all of you,' my grandfather said. 'You're frightening the poor lad. Soon he'll shut up altogether and we won't know what it is he wants to say to us.'

Through all of this Jane sat calmly, her serene expression never changing. She moved only to take hold of Stephen's hand, to give it an affectionate squeeze, the pressue in her fingers telling him that he was doing alright.

Everyone waited. My mother and Maureen grinned at each other. It was what being a family was all about, the teasing and the goading, not letting people off lightly, making a minute or an hour or an afternoon into an occasion that everyone would remember for years to come. It was memory making, myth conjuring, making sure no-one would ever forget.

Stephen took a deep breath and said, 'Jane and I have decided to get married.'

The moment was frozen in time, just for a second, then Grandma Maskell lifted her face to the ceiling, where a fresh cutting of mistletoe hung from the light fitting, raised her fingers to her lips, saying, 'I knew it, I knew it,' her face transfixed, paying homage to an unseen god. The men all stood in unison as though rehearsed, offered their hands across the table to Stephen who took them in turn, sweaty palms clamped together, squeezing hard, shaking vigorously, bonding the moment. Maureen and my mother squeezed Jane's arms and cooed over her. I smiled because it made me think of those pidgeons in the theatre.

Grandpa Maskell, brushing a finger against the corner of his eye, said, 'A toast.'

Everyone raised their glass into a high circle that concentrated the light from the lamp in each rim, making a constellation of beer glasses, the Maskell Nebula. We all chanted together, 'Stephen and Jane.'

This went on and on, everyone carried away by what was happening, glasses drained in quick succession, reaching for more beer, slapping each other on the back, talking in raised voices about how lovely it will be to have a wedding in the family, Stephen sitting back relieved and smirking, until Eric said, 'When are you planning to --?'

For the first time Jane spoke up, saying, 'November.'

Grandma Maskell said, 'A November wedding? But it'll be cold!'

'We don't care,' Stephen said.

He draped his arm across Jane's shoulders and suddenly, together, they appeared different. Something fundamental, something too basic to name, had happened to them. They looked as if they belonged together, even more than they had before, so there was the knowledge that whatever had been keeping them together before now, before this Christmas Day in 1970, didn't matter because only now did it all become legitimate and the cement begin to thicken.

'We won't be thinking about the weather,' he said.

Grandma Maskell said, 'Whatever possessed you to choose November?'

'It's a nice-sounding month.'

Grandma Maskell blinked and said, 'Is that it?'

Stephen nodded.

'A nice sounding month?'

'Oh, leave them alone,' Grandpa Maskell said. 'It's their wedding. They can have it whenever they like.'

My grandmother, bewildered, shook her head. 'But a wedding in November.'

'To a November wedding,' my father said, and everyone raised their glasses again and repeated his words.

'When I was a young girl over in Wednesbury,' Grandma Maskell said, her eyes misting over, 'all the girls used to peel apples, ever so carefully because they'd need the peel to stay in one piece, and when they were done they'd throw the peel over their shoulder so it landed on the ground behind them. Then they turned round and looked at the way the peel was lying on the ground, the shape it was making, and they could see a letter, the first letter of a man's name, the man they would eventually marry.'

Maureen snorted and Grandma Maskell said, 'No, it's true. Some of my friends tried it and it actually worked. There's lots of things in this world that we don't understand. They just happen.'

'Did you try it, Grandma?' I said.

'Not me.'

Grandpa Maskell was rolling a cigarette from a tin of tobacco on the table in front of him. 'Your grandmother,' he said, 'had her own way of finding out who she was going to marry. The new moon told her.'

Grandma clicked her tongue and said, 'Get out of it.' Gerrout of it.

'On the new moon she put her knickers under her pillow and sang New moon, show to me who my true love shall be. That night the man who was to be her husband appeared in her dreams.'

Jerking her thumb at my grandfather, Grandma Maskell said, 'He's daft, he is.'

Grandpa Maskell finished rolling his cigarette and closed the lid to his tobacco tin, pressing down with his fingers until it clicked into place.

'Only trouble was,' he said. 'It wasn't me. It was Tommy Cooper.'

Everyone laughed, peals of it going round the table, getting louder, contributed to by how the day had turned out and how everyone was relieved because it could have been so much worse all of us knowing that it was our last Christmas together.

Grandma Maskell slapped my grandfather across the head with the flat of her hand. 'You and you cock-and-bull stories,' she said. 'Tommy Cooper wasn't even born then.'

Then, scraping his chin with her fingers, she said, 'I'll always remember how I first met me old man here. We both worked in the same factory. I was down in a pit with a couple of other girls and he comes over and says hello. I took one look at him and I was lost. Standing there with his hands on his hips he was, looking down at me. He was the most handsome man I'd ever laid eyes on. He wasn't tall, but he was beautiful, a real looker. And he didn't have time for anyone but me neither. Not after he'd set eyes on me. Dumped his fiance to go out with me and I was ashamed to take him home because his folks were well-off. They owned a shop.' She said this as though the fact still impressed her. 'My family was almost destitute. My father scraping a living making nails, all of us, my brothers and sisters and me, going hungry, sometimes no food on the table. Terrible when you work so hard. And the house in ruins compared to the Maskells's.'

She breathed deeply, clearing her head, and continued, 'Any road, we were married at St. Peter's in Tipton in nineteen-thirty-five.'

'Do you think you did the right thing, Gran?' Jane said.

Grandma Maskell looked pleased that she'd been called Gran at last, seeing as how she'd known all along how it would turn out.

'Oh, my word,' she said. 'Did I do the right thing? In my whole life it was the rightest thing I ever did.'

Eric raised his glass and said, 'I'll drink to that!'

Stephen and my father did the same thing, only Stephen said, 'To my mother and father, without whom, etcetera, etcetera.'

A while later my grandmother said, 'Well, this appears to have turned into quite a Christmas.'

She looked at us all, each one of us a separate and integral part of the family Maskell -- even, as it turned out, Jane.

'And I'm afraid that it may be the last one like it.' Her voice breaking, she rummaged through her apron pocket for a tissue, which she crushed into a ball and used to dab at her eyes, rolling it across the weathered skin. 'Why can't things stay just the way they are?'

She drew herself in, took a deep breath, raised her massive chin.

'There's big changes in store for us in the coming year. Eric and Maureen will be having their first babby. John and Alison and Keith are leaving.' She sniffed loudly. 'And now our Stephen and Jane are getting married.'

Everyone sat silent and embarrassed.

Eventually Grandpa Maskell touched my grandmother's arm, his lumpy fingers resting on papery skin, and he said gently, 'It's a good thing that Stephen and Jane want to get married, and that Eric and Maureen are having a babby. It's the way it should be.'

My grandmother gulped and said,. 'Of course it is. Only families should get bigger. They should grow. Not get smaller like ours.'

She looked at us, taking us all in with a sweep of her eyes, and said, 'Our family is shrinking!'

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