Last night the West Country was dark, wet and windy. The front door was swinging open. I saw a light was on in a downstairs room. I padded down the stairs.
My daughter, staying with us this Christmas and unable to sleep, was recalling the tracks of her years for some kind of Facebook relay. Once nominated, every day for a week you choose a track and explain what it means to you. She was stuck for an entry for Christmas,
I would have no such problem. For me, Christmas is Valentine’s Day, “If that makes sense”, as my daughter would say.
My grandfather, Alf, ran two large families. On our side he had four children who gave him a total of 12 grandchildren. I don’t know how many he had on the other side: we weren’t allowed even to ask about them. I only knew that there must be lots of kids and they lived up the Arterial Road, which my grandmother, Bette, insisted was called, “The Artillery Road”, because she would have liked to move the artillery up it to fire on the other side.
Driving along the A127 we would sometimes pass Grandad, cycling along the carriageway on his fixed wheel Reynolds 531 machine, refusing to use one of the first purpose-built cycle tracks in the UK. My father would hoot a greeting and Grandad would wave his fist angrily in reply.
Grandad Alf had run a jazz band. He was pianist. At dances the band would be obliged to play swing, especially In the Mood. To calm things down after repeats of the Glen Miller hit, they would play a slow tune to smooch to. The favourite was My Funny Valentine.
The whole family on our side would meet up for Christmas. After dinner, we relaxed with Alf playing the grand piano. We small kids were allowed to sit underneath. At first we would recognise the tunes, then he would extemporise. Finally he would be back on track with My Funny Valentine. Gran Bette would start to sob, knowing what was coming, sighing, “No, Alf, no. Don’t.”
A final, upbeat version, and then the piano lid would slam down. Alf would stand up and the dreaded announcement always followed: “I’ve got to go to the other side.”
He would ride off and I would imagine him crossing over to the other side of the dual carriageway, but what did he do when he got there? Would he just cross back again?
One of the first singles I ever bought was Sara Vaughan, My Funny Valentine. Then of course, I had to have Chet Baker singing soulfully, only matched for pathos by Matt Damon in The Talented Mr Ripley. Now I play Wynton Marsalis, usually once a week.
The final line is, “Each day is Valentine’s Day.” That includes Christmas. To come to terms with it all, I wrote it as a poem. In the morning I’ll go and look for it. If I find it, I’ll add it here.