WORD VIEW: Old time season
Johnny’s day had started with his mother ordering him to catch the fowl-cock that she intended putting into the oven the next day. He had chased the bird around the yard for a good hour to no avail; the bird was determined to live to see Christmas Day and the New Year just like everybody else. Finally he had caught the bird with a well-aimed stone and it lay fluttering on the ground.
“I tell you ketch the fowl, not kill ‘e.” His mother had to leave one of her many chores and attend to the fowl right away.
The house was full of activity. Linda, the eldest girl, was polishing the mahogany chairs. She poured the golden liquid diluted with linseed oil onto the cloth shaped like a ball and rubbed the chairs until they shone. Her fingers had turned a bright orange soon after she started.
Marcia, the second eldest, was washing the wares she had taken off the wagon. She had to be very careful since she didn’t dare break anything. Every teacup, saucer or plate represented a gift from her mother’s great-aunt or some cousin. Or they were bought with hard-earned money. It was lashes if she broke anything since there was little possibility of having it replaced.
It was David’s task as the youngest to refill the basin of water his mother had been using to clean the windows. When she had left off this task to see about the fowl that Johnny had obligingly half-killed, David thought he would continue the job. It wasn’t long before the soapy water was all across the floor. The only consolation was that the floor had to be scrubbed anyway before the new, brightly coloured linoleum could be put down. It was at present rolled up and waiting in a corner just where the ham was hanging, tied to one of the rafters.
This spot had been the children’s focus for days. They would stand and gaze at the ham tightly wrapped in its tar-like paper and something looking like netting. The smell of the ham was a promise that made their chores lighter.
Johnny’s next task was to head for the quarry, or the “marl-hole” as they called it. He had already swept the yard to his mother’s satisfaction but the job was not yet complete. He and his friends would be off with their buckets to collect the “snow” that had to be sprinkled around every front door. This was also the time when the boys indulged their fantasies:
“I getting a bicycle fuh Christmas.”
“Who you getting it from?”
Who is you father?”
The answer didn’t matter, since another boy was anxious to chime in:
“I getting a racing-car. It cost a hundred dollars. It is one I could get in and drive.”
And so the claims would continue, becoming more and more extravagant along the journey. It was an unwritten code among them. The boys knew that come Christmas Day, they would all be running around with a flute or a tin soldier or some other inexpensive toy. This was what their parents could afford, this was what they were used to and no reference whatsoever would be made to their earlier boasts.
It was Christmas Eve and the house which had to be turned upside down as a matter of course was being put back in order. The curtains the mother has stitched were hanging and she was now putting in the hem of the last of the girls’ white dresses. The house was redolent with smells: ham, baked fowl, pudding, sweet bread, black cake and sorrel.
Early next morning the children would be awakened by a group of men singing at the window. The singing would be sweet with the tenor and bass. After the men left, Johnny and the children would dress in their new Christmas clothes and walk down the road in the crisp morning air to church.
This was the day they looked forward to each year. When they returned home, they would be allowed certain privileges: among them a whole drink for themselves and almost as much ham as they wanted.
Years later there would be Christmases where there was so much plenty. But there was something unforgettable about those Christmases when nothing could be taken for granted, and when scarcity on a daily basis made every little extra a special gift.
• Esther Philllips is an educator, poet and editor of BIM: Arts For The 21st Century; email [email protected]