Short Story: Christmas with the Stars by Jon Gower
They only just managed to judge the competition in time but everyone agreed that it had been well worth the stress. And for once they even saluted the various local councillors who had dreamed up the search for the most Christmassy village in Wales, and managed to spell Chrismassy correctly in all the publicity and found suitable prizes for all the contestants.
The competition had been launched in Newtown on a grey day in November when the river Severn was an overworking fog factory. But there was a spirited speech by the chair of the local government association, who had just the sort of lager-induced belly to plump out his rented Santa costume and they had decked the sports hall with boughs of holly in keeping with the spirit of the occasion.
‘He looks like a mutant robin,’ muttered Jeffrey Crowe, the reporter from the County Times who had seen it all before and was as celebratory at this time of year as the Grinch. He was the sort of septic old hack who liked nothing more than watching an ice-skater slip on a turn and he still enjoyed his favorite seasonal scoop.
He was the one who reported on the council’s big gritting lorry being stolen, with a snow plough attached to the front of it and the council’s livery and contact details emblazoned on the back and on both sides. Vanished without a trace it had! But as he sipped his mulled wine and enjoyed the hyper-buttery mince pies made by Maddie Winter, the winner of the All Powys Bake Off, there was a certain thaw in old Jeffrey’s heart.
When he filed his piece later that afternoon he found that his prose was a little bit purplish and there was a modicum of enthusiasm that had crept in, unbidden like a spider:
All the Welsh local authorities have bandied together to generate some festive joy for all the people of Wales. The chairman of the Welsh Local Government Association, Mr Gavin Thomas announced the details at Newtown Sports Hall today. Mr Thomas was resplendent in full Father Christmas garb as he explained that every community has three weeks to decorate their villages, streets or town squares. On the eve of the Winter Solstice a distinguished panel of “elves” will visit each and every entrant during the course of a single day to award a special prize to the top dozen locations. Each of the lucky twelve winners will benefit from the services of Happiness Co-ordinator who will ‘banish all the winter blues, bringing peace to all, backed by a small grant and the services of at least one elf.
The response was beyond gratifying. The good folk of Senghennydd decided to build the biggest bird table in the world. Three local joinery firms from further down the valley, from Abertridwr and Caerffili, helped them construct an ingenious wooden tower with 27 levels and full of mirrors such as those in budgie cages to allow the birds to preen. The entire edifice was draped with great waterfalls of ivy leaves, which ran green down the sides and attracted woodpigeons to gorge on the berries.
By judicious use of niger seeds and three hundred plastic nets containing suet mixed with peanuts donated by the local Rotary they were able to organise a fly past of blue tits, green sprays of siskins and bright charms of goldfinches, to coincide with the judges’ visit, with the local brass band playing an arrangement of ‘Lark Ascending’ as pianissimo as it’s possible to be with trumpets.
The enthusiasm was contagious. In Grange Gardens, Cardiff, some Somali kids created The Kindness Pavilion in a riot of colours, decorating the outside with images of refugees from Syria, calling each one a friend and running a cake factory with the help of 918 locals to raise money to help them.
People came in droves and an old musician appeared at the end of the afternoon to give them each an instrument, an exquisitely decorated oud by way of a little thank you. The young women and men went home strumming rudimentary chords and began to foment an idea for next year, feeling happy they had made so much money for their friends. They didn’t care about the competition any more because they felt they had already won.
In Marloes, Pembrokeshire they resurrected the tradition of singing wren-songs and they managed to create a choir which included everyone who lived in the village and which sounded positively angelic.
In Bethesda local- boy-turned-musical-guru Gruff Rhys created a community space opera called ‘Amser Hedfan i Alffa Centawri” about an old slate quarryman who built a working rocket out of a piece of pipe left behind by someone laying a gas main. As if that wasn’t enough his beloved band the Super Furry Animals got back together to perform with the backing voices of a dozen primary school children who made costumes out of Bacofoil and made strange noises on gazoos when they weren’t actually singing like herald angels on a beautiful, zany set designed by Pete Fowler.
Ingenuity became contagious and ran like wildfire the length and breadth of Wales. Reporters from some forty countries came to report on what they soon dubbed “the most creative country on earth,” especially when places twinned with their counterparts in Wales started to get involved. The people of Timbuktu, twinned with Hay-on-Wye sent a hundred jars of perfume made from local flowers and extracts, which they opened one at a time in a nearby cave.
People swore you left your cares behind when you stepped into the powerful fug of gongolili, souchet and cultivated ylang ylang. The judges were given a little phial each, as giving presents was not against the rules but positively encouraged. After all this was about Christmas.
The winner was undisputed and indeed celebrated with all enthusiasm by the other contestants.
The village of Adfa in mid Wales had taken advantage of the very chilly weather, making a toboggan course by diverting three streams down a local hill and when the water had frozen solid they turned it into a series of ice-chutes down which local teams slid like all billy-o on an array of amazing sleds.
The local YFC had made sleds out of old tractor tyres and shaved off the treads for maximum speed while the man who lived in the caravan in the trees that hardly ever came out turned up with two other unidentified men carrying a full Olympic bobsleigh in racing car red.
Jeff from the County Times notes this all down old school in perfect shorthand from what they laughingly called the press stand but nothing could prepare him for the team from Noddfa, the old people’s home because they appeared in the ricketiest thing, a cross between a Venetian gondola and untorched bonfire, with sticks and slats of wood sticking at all angles as if the maddest carpenter had been at work. But when they got to the starting line the old folk acted in consort, working as an almost mechanical team, shining the bottom of their whateveryoucallit with chamois leathers and getting chattery with excitement about the speeds they would surely reach.
Shirley Bassey sang Hen Wlad fy Nhadau on cue to start the live TV coverage and she was joined by all the villagers in perfect harmony, even the deaf retired postman Daf As a Post who mouthed all the words with gape-mouthed vigour. The teams were all helped to the top of the slope by members of the Urdd. Once they were in position they waited for the bark of the starting pistol. Jeff noted it all down, licking his soft pencil as if it tasted good.
The teams’ various sleighs and sleds slid down the hard ice of the trackways, gaining speed. The tractor tyres seemed to have too much drag and although the farmers started quickly they seemed to readily lose momentum so the young lads who held on to the guide-ropes were soon a crestfallen bunch. The proper bobsleigh on the other hand went like greased lightning. Ten seconds into the race and all the observers and supporters thought it was a foregone conclusion.
Until, that is, the Noddfa Racers started to edge ahead, up to sixty miles per hour now, maybe more and heading for the incline which was meant to slow them down. But instead of gravity exerting its pull the aged adventurers put on extra speed, shooting upwards now with only 300 metres of track remaining. And when they got to the end of the icy track they catapulted off the end and kept on going, rising as if the oddly-shaped vehicle had sprouted invisible wings. And they kept on gaining height, aiming for the stratosphere without a care in the world, as they shrugged off life’s infirmities and headed for the stars.
When they were way, way, way, way up there – beyond any oxygen or mortal reponsibility – they saw an old man, Edgar Jones from Llan Ffestiniog, set in the slate fields somewhere down below, drifting across their path on his home-made rocket, trailing streamers of tinsel and clusters of party balloons. ‘Nadolig Llawen,’ he shouted, his words eaten up by the chasmic silence as he went on his astral way.
Leaving them in the dark of night in an entrancement of stars. Raiding some old memory bank the Noddfa astronauts – as they had surely become – remembered an old carol, a Welsh one they had learned in school. And they serenaded the departing Edgar as he turned into a speck somewhere in the direction of Alpha Centauri. ‘Dawel nos,’ they sang, in this miracle of a night, then repeating the mantric words ‘dawel nos’ to the accompaniment of the enormous lack of sound so typical of space.
Meanwhile, the earthbound journalist who had seen them leave a hill near Adfa set about writing a Christmas story that no one would ever believe. About a silent night filled with the tinkling music of stars and how he was sure he had seen something up there when he looked.
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