A long, icy drive through B-roads adn fields and such to the approach, slithering up a long single-track and poorly tarmacadamed lane over a sheet of black and white ice, snow, the lot. A staggery, slippery run to the church where the bells had just stopped ringing, to find that thankfully there was still a lot of milling and chatter going on, allowing us to slip into the choir stalls just in time. We may not live here any longer, and none of us sings with the choir any more, but we still sit with them every year at this one service, sight-reading the choir’s solo carol arrangements and belting out all the old favourites from the front of the church as if we belong. Which, in some ways, we do.
I know by heart now almost anything we might be expected to sing – that odd arrangement of Silent Night, sung in the original german; Praetorius’s (is that his name?) Quem Pastores – I could have laid bets on who was doing the solo and won quite a lot of money; I remember one year there were supposed to be eight of us taking turns to sing solo lines from this piece but gradually they dropped like flies and little six-year-old me, on the altar steps, wrapping my tongue round all that Latin and doing my best to project my tiny little voice right round that cold dark church, somehow managed to make a pretty good stab at it; a rather jaunty setting by Gardner of The Holly And The Ivy; Lo He Comes – yes, it was all there. Beautiful. The only proper service my atheist family goes to all year – the Nine Lessons; intonations of calls and responses and the Lord’s Prayer and sitting and standing and those beautiful, lilting words of Luke, the lessons. Finished with the Willcocks O Come All Ye Faithful, with the brass fanfare and all.
Then we shuffle out into the church hall for mince pies and mulled wine, doing my best to pretend I was a rah and a successful human being: ‘Oh, I’m at Uni Town, doing Blah, it’s a four-year course, yup’ (my dad’s new ruse), ‘it’s fascinating, I’m hoping to get an internship or a placement or something this summer with Local Big Pharmaceutical Company, well, of course one worries about the ethics’ – I couldn’t have brayed more if I tried, but then Mrs Rah is all ‘well, My Son is a Chorister at Blah, and he’s doing ever so well’, and they’re all doing it. I quickly realise just what I’m doing and despise myself for it and stick to just asking questions of people and talking about for goodness’ sake anything other than how successful a human being I am yet. The other more subtle line of questioning a lot of these people go in for is the dreaded Love Life one – they’ve started Marrying Off Daughters, and I suppose I’m old enough now to qualify for serious interrogation about whether I’ve got myself A Man yet.