English: Christmas Eve 2009 at Slaithwaite Hall The first house at the entrance to the hamlet of Slaithwaite Hall, cut off by the heavy snowfall. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Just those few quiet moments.
Fifteen minute old fire, crafted from sticks that were a schoolroom chair, a hedgerow ash and a ceiling lath and small jig-saw lumps of damp, glistening coal. There’s the regular, ignition roar of kindling turning to real fire, the drying of the moisture turns to steam and joins the outlaw procession of smoke up the soot-lined flue. A small tumble in the grate. A stir as the pear twigs at the window adjust their pose, tap the glass in the cold December wind which buffets the ill-fitting front door.
An inner wind moves too. An inner breath. And in less than a breath I am aware. My eyes look on something different. Something that was. Something that was here. That happened here. Not in sequence. Nothing so sensible as narrative. But impressions. Fleeting but deep. And I am certain of all that I behold. Am beholding.
The quiet unassuming but magisterial roar of the up draught, tickling the orange flames, making them dance faster, higher. Not those in the here and now. Those are present, but not. I am taken by the movement of young, hopeful flames. Not the flickering shadows, but the flames. That fire-tango movement as they grow in strength, take hold. That dragon breath noise carried across the years. I sense a boy, become the boy. He’s crept into this room; used only for high days and Christmas, and crouch by the fire. Crept secretly into it just after the fire has been lit. The long damson drop of damask blackout curtains. The dull golden reflections of fire leaping in the doors of the rich wood sideboard that holds the turned wooden bowl with its treasure stack of wonderful nuts and scented tangerines, so rare, oriental and opulent.
He’s not in here for the nuts, for the fruit. Just to savour the delights of the peace that his room emanates. The order. The adulthood country he fears but longs to come to, though he cannot explain why. Or the depth of the need.
And … another sound, leaking into my ears from way back then. So familiar to him that he rarely hears it. Only when the house is still – as it is now. Fleeting moments of profound soul-peace. The steady bass tock, tock, tock of the clock. The pendulum fascination of the passing, counting time. A time machine that is not.
He’s back from the farmyard. From the milking, the measured company of gentle shaped cattle, bowed heads swinging as they move down the lane back to the meadow, exhalations backlit by the sun coming up, low, welcome and fast; beating back the frost that will linger all day in hedgerow shadow and ditch depth.
Then his grandfather is in the room too. At the same time – and not. He is there to savour the cigars he has just once a year. A Christmas treat and tradition. The boy loves the feel of the smoke. The sensations it arouses, the bitter but perfect perfume. One that will remind him of both Christmas pasts and his grandfather for time to come. For as much of as for ever he will be allowed.
In the background, shimmering lightly, the branch of holly that served as Christmas tree, , cut from the Christmas Eve hedgerow, complete with berries, bright Rudolph red and holy dark glossy leaves, paler beneath. Held in place by rough red-clay bricks wrapped in Christmas wrapping paper, cheap but cheerful tissues. The shadows of the stags antlers, a gift from the lord of the manor the boy had been told, that reached down from the hall wall, between the two rural Highlands pictures. The heavy carved walnut framed oval mirror hanging above the mantelpiece that would hold the cards sent by closest friends and relatives.
Then the room is dark. The boy must slip out before his absence is noticed. At the brown varnished door he pauses, looks back. To the glowing tiles that surround the fire grate, orange and rich and friendly. To the mat stretched out in front of the polished hearth, butting up to the fender.
In looking around the room it as if he senses my presence – and perhaps it is so. He would not know me then. Could not recognise me in his innocence. But he had wisdom, even then, that and an open mind that needed adventure and faith. I think I see him smile. Smile and nod before he opens the door.
He will come back to this room in the future. Stand before a fifteen minute old fire in the country of adulthood and look back. See himself smile at what he almost sees.