NOT even Slade's Merry Christmas Everybody, blaring from the juke box, could put me in the festive mood that year.
As I listened, the song seemed to be mocking all of those happy Christmases that had been celebrated before.
I hadn't stepped foot inside The Rose and Crown for years and as I looked around at all those young and, to me, unknown faces, smiling and happy as they celebrated Christmas Eve, I was beginning to realise that maybe I should have left it that way.
What had I been expecting? It being Christmas, I felt sure that there would have been at least a couple of old faces in the Crown; perhaps we could rekindle old friendships and fall into the kind of laughter that we used to enjoy, but there was no one – even the bar staff had changed.
There was indeed, 'no room at the inn,' at least not for an 'old' bloke like me; and I grimaced a little as Noddy sang "Look to the future now, it's only just begun!"
As I sat there studying the foam on my pint, I recalled how those words used to fill me with hope and excitement, as a youngster they had rung as clear and as true as...well, Christmas bells.
Now, for me at least, they sounded empty. I reflected how Christmas had taken quite a few knocks for me over the years but had always managed to remain special. How old would I have been when told that Father Christmas 'didn't exist?' I couldn't remember but the revelation had done little to destroy the magic. No one had convinced me that God didn't exist, so the story of The Nativity, the carols and the sheer mystery of it all still managed to evoke feelings of wonder and of awe in those quiet moments that sometimes seemed to reach out from beyond the tinsel, the lights and the fuss; and I would...yes I would attend Midnight Mass one Christmas – but not tonight.
In my late teens and twenties, Christmas had been a time of great social gatherings and you would always be assured of that sweet Christmas kiss beneath the mistletoe, but what of now? There'd be no Christmas kisses tonight, I thought, as I made my way to the bar.
Standing at the bar in the lounge, one was able to see through into the saloon bar; the bar was always quiet: 'the old codgers' place,' we used to call it. As old as I felt, I wasn't ready for that yet – or, looking around at all those young faces, perhaps I was. It was then that I saw my Uncle Jack, sitting alone in the bar. He caught my eye. I doubted that he'd recognise me, not having seen me for as while, but that night, an almost imperceptible nod of his head told me differently.
Uncle Jack had had something of a tragic life. He'd been a prisoner of war and had outlived too many of his children and I couldn't help wondering what he felt about Christmas these days. I didn't hold that thought for too long as it soon gave way to a feeling of irritation when I discovered that my seat had been taken. What was I to do now? There were no more seats available and I felt horribly exposed standing there among all those strangers. I might as well drink up and go home, I thought bitterly, but an empty flat on Christmas Eve held little appeal.
It may sound unkind to say that it was desperation that drove me to go and sit with Uncle Jack. "Well, yo'me a right un aye yer?" were his first words. I found myself blushing like a teenager, a feeling I hadn't known for a while.
"What?" was all I could say.
"Well, 'iss tuppence a pint chepper in 'ere an' yow've brought it in from the lounge," he explained. "Oh," I said, feeling more and more like a daft kid.
"I do' know what yer ferther 'ud say," he said with a smile. "Well I won't tell him if you don't," I answered and we both laughed.
"Fancy a short?" he asked suddenly, and before I could answer he called out – "bring us a couple uv doubles over Jayne 'ull yer me wench?"
"Anything for you Jack," she responded with a wink and she placed the drinks in front of us. Jack paid; 'ave one yerself," he said.
We each took a sip of our whisky. It was pleasant in the relative quiet of the bar after the hustle and the bustle and the noise of the lounge. The whisky was pleasantly warming and I realised, and with some surprise, that I was actually enjoying myself. Perhaps this is what Christmas was all about after all I thought.
"Room for another, Jack?" I found myself asking. I was surprised at the way I had addressed him as an equal, without the prefix 'uncle;' I found it strange that I'd felt so old in the lounge and yet in the bar, that I was only just starting to grow up.
We supped our drinks in silence for a while. There was nothing awkward about this silence and it was soothing to listen to the quiet conversations that went on around. It struck me then, that after all the trouble and heartache Jack had known in his life, he was still capable of such laughter and now, at this moment of finding such contentment, I found myself sighing with relief.
It was getting late now and I realised, with some satisfaction, that I didn't want to leave. Uncle Jack only lived round the corner but I had a couple of miles to walk.
On my way out, I heard Noddy Holder singing from the lounge again: 'Look to the future now, it's only just begun.' I smiled, perhaps there was hope after all.
43 Drews Holloway