That was the year when we were in great danger. We'd left everything to the last minute. I'd even finished work and we still didn't have a Christmas tree. My friend John told us about a farm that could maybe help out. I drove out there on a day when driving was a mad thing to do. People were were walking in the middle of the road because the pavements were compacted with ice. Old people stepping carefully down the centre lines as gingerly as if they were taking a constitutional through a minefield.
The last hill to the farm, I could see that the surface of the road was slicked with ice. But the idea of returning home empty handed was too difficult to endure. Besides, I was already committed, the car rolling down past a farmyard where I'd once seen a farmer with a long beard and a battered hat holding a willow stick like a wizard's staff and he was smiling as the snow fell on him. I rolled on in low gear and prayed that no-one was mad enough to be coming from the other way. One touch of the brakes and I'd surely lose control. Here I was, a sober man of the world, risking death or totalling my car for a Christmas tree.
I reached the farm in question. I blotted the idea of the return journey from my mind. There was no way that I could drive up the track, so I left the car by a stack of logs and started to walk. Something about this part of the world slows the heart. I knew the people around here and once, used to live among them. Oh, the eccentric goings on I could tell you about!
There was one old farm where the kitchen had a wooden table and the farmer's wife, pipe clenched between her teeth, used to butcher her own cattle. The chairs in the kitchen were coated in dog hair and mud. But the front room was like an antique shop with fine carpets and immaculate furniture. They only ever used the room on Christmas Day. Her husband was a strict teetotaller and frowned upon his wife's smoking. Except for Saturday nights.
They had a brand new Skoda that they kept in the barn for funerals and special occasions. The wife referred to the car as the Sekonda but I don't think that she ever tried to put it on her wrist. Saturday nights they'd drag the pigeon-splattered tarp from the car and drive down to the village inn. Then her husband would drink pint after pint and smoke a packet of twenty. He wouldn't stop until he finally lost consciousness and had to be carried out to the car which must have been hard going considering that he weighed in at twenty stone.
Another farmer used to wander around his fields on Christmas Eve. He carried a torch under a red silk handkerchief in the belief that he could fool Father Christmas's reindeer into thinking that he was Rudolph. One year, as a diversion, he walked to the main road with a screwdriver. His plan was to prise up the cats eyes and take them home so that he could look after the pretty lights.
Then there was the young farmer who was a tobacco enthusiast. He chain smoked all week and switched to cigars on Sundays. 'We've got too soft', he said. 'Look at all they old people in the graveyards. Most of them smoked and it never did them any harm'. Expanding on his theme, he said 'besides. If you're outdoors all day I don't think it's so bad for you. Might be bad for all them people who work in offices though.' Thank God he was a farmer and not a doctor.
I pushed these thoughts from my mind as I approached the farmhouse where I hoped to put an end to the great Christmas tree crisis. After all, it was a tree I needed and not an eccentric farming almanac. The house seemed very sleepy but smoke was rising from the chimney. I knocked at the door. It was opened immediately by a little old lady who had trouble speaking. Eventually, after finally succeeding in persuading the toffee to move to a part of her mouth so that she could make some kind of sense, she said that I'd have to go and cut the tree down myself. Normally, her husband would go and do it but he'd dropped dead that morning. Did I mind? She handed me a saw and pointed up the track to where the trees were. Naturally, I wanted to ask her if she was alright, but she'd unwrapped another toffee and popped it in her mouth making further intelligible conversation impossible.
I entered the silence of a December pine wood. The Christmas trees were fit for Trafalgar Square but I eventually found one that would fit in the car. I got to my knees and started to saw. Three strokes in something clamped down on my shoulder. Startled, I looked round to find myself face to face with a white horse. It didn't want to let go of my shoulder. The more I tried to pull away, the harder it worked its teeth in.
Next year I'm going artificial. The family won't like it, but then again, not everyone was too happy when Dylan went electric.