Glancing up at the Christmas lights and seasonal decorations, Arthur scowled and continued down the cobbled street. He always felt torn at this time of year. He liked the warm glow, but had less time for the origin story, and even less for all the fluffy excess. He drew up his coat collars and pulled his woolly hat further down. The street was thick with holiday shoppers. The growl of buses and their splashing wheels punctuated the city’s late afternoon background hum. His thoughts slipped into a melancholy furrow. Yes, he liked the festive traditions, twelve days of Christmas and all that – but found it next to impossible to believe that a world of angels and miracles might actually exist. First year student philosophy hadn’t helped. Neither did seeing the latest celebrity author title in a bookshop window. Surely any angel worth his salt could magic that away.
He almost tripped over the old homeless man slumped at the street corner – and immediately apologised. “Ach, don’t worry about it” said the tramp, a rosy-faced individual. Arthur offered to buy him a coffee. “That’s kind of you” the fellow replied, “but you look more in need of it than me.” From his coat pocket, he pulled out a small bottle and gave it to Arthur. “Try this. Just a wee dram of something. It’ll do you good. Promise.” “Er, thanks” replied the student, nonplussed. “I’ll take it with me if that’s ok”.
He carried on down the street. He of course had no intention of drinking an unknown liquid from a stranger – but was intrigued all the same. He turned back a moment – the tramp was gone. He scanned the bobbing pedestrians: nowhere to be seen. “Strange”, he thought. The bottle was exquisite. And though he was a sensible chap, his curiosity at that moment got the better of him. Twisting the lid, he put the rim to his lips, and in one quick movement gulped the contents down. It was smooth and fiery like a good malt whisky, with a hint of syrup. He felt it warm his throat, stomach, then limbs, fingers and toes in a delicious unfurling wave. He looked around him. Passers-by still trudged by grim-faced, and the red buses looked as grimy as before; but inside he felt different – though he couldn’t quite put his finger on how.
He turned down a cobbled alleyway. Thick flakes of snow tumbled down in the orange glow of an old street lamp. As he walked, they became larger, and the glow warmer and brighter. Suddenly he found himself lifted off his feet and drawn into their swirling midst. The street scene below became small. “Goodness!” he thought, “that must have been strong stuff”. But he had no time to rationalise further, before being overwhelmed by the wonder of what he saw. The fabled uniqueness of the (now saucer-sized) snowflakes was plain: a fabulous variety of fractal swirls, spokes, branches and crosses. Slowly Arthur became aware that these flakes were like people – which surprised and amazed him very much: each one unique, beautiful. And not just some people, but everyone. Even his landlady Mrs Thorpe, who he didn’t much like at all. Truly a troubling revelation.
The next thing he knew, Arthur felt himself being drawn out of the lamplight and up above the parapets and gargoyles, until a cluster of spires rose into view. Amid the eddying snowflakes, their pointed shapes were transfigured. Pinpricks of light sprang from their tops, and as he watched, one by one these fiery points shot up into the night sky and exploded high above, like huge Roman candles. He hadn’t been to a firework display for a very long time, and this strange sight brought all those childhood memories right back. It was turning out to be a very strange evening indeed, he decided, as remnants of the smoky odour dispersed.
He felt himself floating gently earthwards again. He then became aware of a warm flickering light, and turning, saw the small latticed window of an old pub. What felt like the crest of an invisible wave swept him through the window and into the midst of a raucous ceilidh. He had scarcely got his bearings before he was pulled into a spinning knot of dancers, blazing with a lava-like glow and beaming brightly. Arthur felt his usual social stiffness melt away as they embraced him, their heat enveloping him. It was like sinking into a warm water bed. For the first time in his life, he even found he could dance a few steps. It was the closest he had ever come to experiencing, not mere fun or happiness – but joy.
When he finally came to, Arthur found himself sitting on a coat in the snow, leaning against a cold college wall. In front of him he saw flakes still falling, the glow of a lit window, and a single spire piercing the night. Strange recollections were fading fast. But inside, something had changed. As he watched the people hurrying past, he felt an appreciation and compassion that he hadn’t known before. He saw that the spire was like a finger, pointing toward the possibility of truths ‘out there’ of which he’d been sceptical, or unaware. The window glow held the promise of a celebration that would not end at ‘throwing out time’. Through the chill night air floated the muffled strains of a college evensong. He got up, dug his hands into his pockets, shook his head and smiled to himself, and walked towards the music.
For BBC Upload. A seasonal tale of revelation and discovery.
Image by pasja1000 at Pixabay