A Memorable Christmas

Tales of a Space Age Kid
by Guy Jones
Copyright 2020 Guy Jones. All rights reserved.

Christmas 1968 was memorable for several reasons. Firstly it was the last Christmas before Barny’s family moved away from Manchester, to a place that Barny was trying hard to remember the name of, but was failing on account of it not sounding like any other place name he was familiar with.

Moving away was exciting in itself. Exciting in a sort of terrifying way, if you asked Barny, which of course no one ever did. Exciting because it was going to be new and different. Terrifying for exactly the same reasons. It was going to mean leaving his friends behind and the house they were moving to, which he had seen once, was clearly haunted. Barny knew that because Terry, his elder brother and the fountain of all human knowledge, had said so. “It looks haunted. Just like in films,” Terry said with impeccable argument winning logic, when they got back from the Sunday drive to go and look at it.

Christmas 1968 was also exciting, and therefore by definition, memorable, because Apollo 8 was to lift off on 21st December and was going to the Moon. It is fair to say that Barny was not entirely sure what that meant. Terry told him that it was an important thing because no one had ever been to the moon before. Terry had pointed at the moon, which was at the time only a thin slither of light, and said, “That is where they are going and it is a long way.

“No, it is much further than going to Anglesey, cos it will take them 3 days to get there. Anglesey only took us 3 hours.”

Being all knowing, Terry knew about these things, although Barny was a little disappointed that he didn’t know much about the astronaut’s arrangements for the toilet, although he was quite clear that nipping out and finding a quiet spot behind a tree in a lay-by on the A56 was not an option, even if it was a case of imminent and explosive travel sickness. As for how they would organise the making of fish finger sandwiches, stuck in the back of a car for 3 days ... “6 days. They have to come back as well” without their mother to make them, was beyond Terry’s current research on the subject.

Despite the obvious gaps in Terry’s knowledge, Barny was willing to take his word for it that it was both exciting and a little terrifying that 3 strangers were going to the moon.

“They might meet aliens. Lets hope they don’t bring them back,” Dad said in an attempt to frighten the children, in a joking sort of way, which was lost on Barny who didn’t know what an alien was so consequently couldn’t see how it would be frightening if the astronauts brought one back and wondered instead if Father Christmas had already wrapped the Wigwam he had asked for in the letter he wrote and posted in the Santa Post Box at school.

The other reason that Christmas 1968 was exciting though not at all terrifying was that it was forecast that it might snow and that the forecast was for it to be proper snow. Forecasting, Barny had learnt is what weathermen do and is chiefly about filling up the bit at the end of the news before proper telly started. Dad didn’t know why they bothered putting them on because they were always wrong, and if he was as right about things as often as they were, he would go out of business.

Barny did not know what ‘not proper snow’ was like, but he did know what ‘proper snow’ was.

‘Proper snow’ was cold. ‘Proper snow’ could be pressed into snow balls and thrown at people, who would generally find it funny, unlike when you threw almost anything else at them. You could make snowmen out of ‘proper snow’ (though Barny never had) and slides on the pavement that Auntie May, and Mum and Dad would tell you off for and put salt on it like they did on slugs. ‘Proper snow’ made Dad grumpy because it meant he didn’t have time in the mornings, what with having to de-ice the windscreen, start the car with the crank handle, because the battery had gone flat and run the engine for 10 minutes to stop it stalling at the traffic lights at the bottom of Slade Lane.

But above all, ‘proper snow’ made Christmas look like it did on the cards that kept arriving in the post and were ceremoniously opened at the breakfast table along with an announcement of who they were from, why they were important and as often as not why they weren’t getting a card from ‘us’ this year.

Barny was looking forward to ‘proper snow’ at Christmas.

Apart from all that, it was Christmas, and for 5 year old Barny, 9 year old Terry, 7 year old Sam and 3 year old Sally, just being Christmas was enough to make it all rather exciting.

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Christmas started at school with the singing of special songs that only got sung at Christmas, apart from the endless practising that had been going on since Bonfire night. Barny was told that this was called rehearsing and that it didn’t mean that Christmas had actually started after Bonfire Night, so he shouldn’t get too excited. Barny was particularly fond of Away in a Manger. He didn’t know what a manger was, although Miss West, who always wore a pink house coat, told him it was what sheep ate their breakfast out of. Whilst this information was useful in a general educational sort of way, Barny was struggling to work out under what circumstance he was likely to use it in general conversation. He tried referring to his breakfast bowl as his manger, which didn’t go down too well with Dad who was in a grumpy mood, because his windscreen needed scrapping and he couldn’t find where he had put the crank handle, and wasn’t going to allow that sort of talk at the breakfast table.

Also the lessons changed. Maths lessons became Christmas Card making lessons or calendar making lessons. A calendar, Barny learnt was something that told you the dates of the year and they looked a lot like Christmas cards, except they didn’t fold, had a little booklet with lots of dates in them, stuck on the front and didn’t have snowy scenes on them, except Barbara Carlton’s, who had not listened to Miss West when she quite clearly said, “The pictures on your Christmas Cards need to be snowy, because it snows at Christmas. Your pictures on your calendars don’t want to be at all snowy, even if it does snow on your birthday, Barbara Carlton.”

Barbara had to sit at the back of the class as a warning to others who might not listen properly in the future. Barbara never got to finish her calendar for 1969.

They also spent a lot of time making decorations, particularly coloured paper chains and cardboard angels which they covered in stuff called crape paper, which felt unpleasant and looked cheap, possible because it was.

Apparently it was bad luck to put up the decorations before the last week before Christmas, although it wasn’t bad luck to spend hours making the things.

Outside school Christmas started to become real at the beginning of December, when shopping for Mum became a bit of an obsession. Barny, Sam and Terry had to go with Mum because she didn’t want to leave them at home. She left Sally and the dog with Auntie May, who wasn’t a real auntie, just a neighbour who was forever sticking her nose into things that didn’t concern her, but dragging Sally around town would have been too much and May did have her uses.

Shopping was generally about being dragged from one department store to another, waiting for Mum to make up her mind which saucepan or woollen cardie she wanted while being endlessly told to be quite.

But this was Christmas shopping.

The shops were filled with Christmas music and decorations that were beyond the jurisdiction of Miss West and had gone up at the beginning of November. But most importantly, whilst the toy department was completely out of bounds during normal shopping, during Christmas Shopping, a visit to each and every toy department was positively encouraged. During which they were subtly observed and not so subtly interrogated as to the kind of toys, in the unlikely event of them having a free choice, they might actually want.

Above all other things, the thing that made Christmas Shopping different, was the bewildering variety of Santas around the city centre. And on one very special Christmas Shopping trip, very much and the tail end of the Christmas Shopping season, a trip when even Sally got to come with them, it was announced, after several weeks of formal and not so formal requests, “can we go an see Father Christmas?” they were finally going to go and see Santa.

There was a long queue. So long that Barny was not convinced that there would be any presents left by the time he finally got to see the great elf himself. The queue started outside the Grotto (that is the place where Santa lives), then went into a large dark room where the queue snaked around to make it even longer.

In the room there were twinkling lights, snowmen and penguins the size of Dad and several Daleks. Barny wasn’t too sure what a Dalek was, other than they were scary and Dr Who spent a lot of time trying to get rid of them, although they kept coming back. This of course brought into question the allegiance of Santa. If he had Daleks guarding his secret lair maybe he wasn’t quite the nice guy he was made up to be. This played on Barny’s mind as the queue slowly moved along. So much so that by the time they finally arrived at the inner sanctum of the Grotto, Barny, who was painfully shy anyway, found himself unable to speak.

Terry and Sam, who were far more experienced at the ‘Seeing Santa’ charade and consequently far less confused by the presence of the evil invaders from the planet Skaro in the magic grotto, rattled off a list of things that they wanted Santa to bring. An Action Man, more Meccano, a Scalextric set, an Airfix model of a Spitfire, a new bike and some Crazy Putty like David Ainsbury got last year off his Great Aunt from a place called New York.

Sally just sat there and giggled “I want Baby Steps,” while playing with Santa’s beard.

Having asked Barny the obvious question 3 times and received no answer, Santa, who smelt strongly of pickled onions and stale beer, gave up, gave Barny a selection box, put him down from his knee and beckoned an elf or a pixie or a dwarf or some such creature, to hurry Berny and the others to the exit, so the next batch of eager kids could spill the beans to their favourite stranger.

Eventually, as Christmas got closer, the day arrived when Miss West announced that there were enough decoration and it was time to start putting them up around the class room. This announcement marked the point at which any attempt at actual education ceased. There were stories. There were games played. There was an awful lot of colouring in and drawing of rather bad pictures. But there was little that anyone could reasonably describe as ‘teaching’ taking place.

Then on the day before they broke up for Christmas, Miss West took off her pink house coat for the first, and as it turned out, only time in the school year, and led her class into the Hall where they sang Away in a Manager badly, to the rest of the school and an assortment of parents, not including Barny’s mum, which was terrifying though a bit exciting too. In the evening there was what was called a Christmas Party at the school, which involved Miss West’s class going back to school, wearing their Sunday Best and a ‘party hat’ that in Barny’s case was made out of a shoe box wrapped in Christmas wrapping paper making it look like a Christmas present and making Barny feel a bit of an idiot.

The most memorable things about the party, not all memorable in a positive way, were: going back to school in the dark; the curled sandwiches which tasted like nothing Barny had tasted before or hoped to taste again; the arrival of Santa, minus his entourage of Daleks, who smelt this time of mustard and cheap sherry and somehow reminded Barny of Mr Wilson the caretaker in the way he walked.

On the way home with Mum, clutching a selection box from Santa, Barny looked up into the sky and noticed that the first flakes of the forecast snow were beginning to fall. He knew from all the Christmas adverts on the telly, that this meant that Christmas had finally, actually, begun, for real and everything.

The next day school broke up.

Barny said Merry Christmas to Linda Jones and Barbara Carlton, John Turner and Brian Griffiths.

He knew it wasn’t just Merry Christmas. He knew it was goodbye. But he didn’t really know what that meant. Not really. So he stuck to Merry Christmas, which felt like the grown up thing to do.

And then it all got really exciting.

It began to snow proper snow. Barny didn’t think he’d every actually seen proper snow falling before. It had always happened when he was asleep and no one ever woke him up to watch it. This time he could watch it out of the window in broad day light.

On Saturday Apollo 8 took off. A man called James Burk (a name that Sam thought was funny) told the family all about it as they watched the telly and Dad told them that it was important and exciting and terrifying all in one.

Sunday Granddad Taylor came round and they had a large roast and Granddad got drunk so did Dad and Mum told them to stop arguing in front of the children who were promptly sent to bed. That night it snowed proper snow again.

Monday Barny made his first ever snowman and Dad bought a Christmas tree and put it into a pot ready for decorating the next day.

On Tuesday, Christmas Eve, they decorated the tree with baubles from an old cardboard box.

Mum had something to say about each bauble. One she had made at school when she was Barny’s age during a thing called the war. Another had been her Grandmother Fletcher’s who had died the year before and Barny thought he just remembered going to see her that summer and she smelt of custard creams and unwashed things. Another was the last one remaining from those that had been given to her by her friend Sally, who she talked about a lot but never saw, as a wedding present.

Terry and Sam and Barny and Sally were allowed to each choose a quality street from the newly opened tin. Mum made some mince pies and Dad cracked open a walnut, that was rotten so he got into a bad mood and the dog weeded on the carpet.

Then it was bath time. Afterwards they put out a mince pie, a glass of sherry and a carrot for Rudolf and it was off to bed, with a hot water bottle each.

Of course no child worth his or her salt, was going to sleep on a night such as this.

It was Christmas Eve. It had snowed. Apollo 8 was going round the moon which hung in the air, a thin slither of silver, and any moment Santa would be racing across the sky with reindeer, sleigh bells and sacks full of presents.

Barny, Sam, Sally and Terry sat on Terry’s bed by the window with the curtains open, waiting for the first sound of bells and reindeer hooves and the arrival all their hopes in 4 great pillow cases full of childhood joy. They talked in whispers. As much in awe of the magic of the occasion as to make sure that Dad didn’t hear them and shout at them to go to bed this instant.

“Santa isn’t what you think he is,” Terry said, with the air of someone about to divulge a long kept secret. As the eldest, Terry knew things so Barny had learnt to listen. Sally played with her teddy and Sam just stared at the moon.

“Santa isn’t a magic elf from Lapland.”

“What is he then?” Barny asked.

“A postman. He is employed by the GPO. In fact he isn’t just one postman. He is loads of postmen.”

“But Miss West says he must be magic. How else can he get to deliver presents to all the children in one night?”

“So how come everywhere you go there is a different Santa asking what you want for Christmas and they all smell different, like they never brush their teeth.” Then to clinch the argument, Terry followed up with, “and why do we go Christmas Shopping with Mum? Why do we buy presents for the Twins and Ann and Uncle Alan and Auntie Enid? Why did Mum buy a Beatles Record for Auntie Lesley and a Perry Como one for granddad Taylor?”

Barny said nothing, but wondered what a pericommo 1 might be. “Why does everyone go Christmas Shopping if Santa is going to bring stuff anyway?”

Barny didn’t know. He waited for Terry to answer his own question, which he was doing more and more these days.

“Because Santas are just a postmen. Everyone buys presents, puts them under the tree and then the Santas turn up on Christmas Eve and just move them around to the right house.” Barny thought about it. It sort of made sense. Maybe not as much sense as the magic Lapland Great Big Elf story made sense, but he could see how it might be at least half the truth.

“I can see it!” Sam said as loudly as he dare. Barny and Terry followed his gaze.

“There!” he pointed at the moon. “Next to the Moon! Do you see it. The rocket! The one with astronauts in it.”

They looked. They looked really hard. They looked really, really hard. And if you look hard enough you will be able to see the thing you are looking for, if you really want to enough.

Sure enough, there is was. A tiny, tiny speck of white reflected light. So small that they couldn’t always see it. Unless they were looking away a little. But, surely it was there. Apollo 8 circling the Moon.

“I hope they don’t bring back aliens,” Terry said with a seriousness appropriate for his more advanced age, and sounding strangely just like Dad.

“What are aliens?” Barny asked. He felt from the way that Terry had said it that they were the kind of thing that if you did bring them back you would be in serious trouble. A bit like bringing seaweed back from Anglesey in your pump bag and putting it in the wardrobe and forgetting about it for a week.

“They are little green men that want to eat everyone and take over the world.” Barny thought he also hoped that they would not bring back aliens, but was too tired to keep his eyes open, besides it was very cold on Terry’s bed, so Sally crept back to her room and Barny went back to his bed, the hot water bottle and the clean Christmas Eve sheets to sleep and dream of the morning and all that it promised.

Waking up on Christmas morning was the most exciting thing that could happen to 5 year old and not in the least bit terrifying.

The pattern of events was fairly well established once you had made it to your 5th Christmas. You would suddenly find yourself awake. Like you had been shaken gently by someone friendly who had just sneaked out of the room.

It would be dark, cold and quiet. A time of night that you never saw at any other time unless you were ill or woke up after a bad dream crying for Mum. A time that felt as unreal and magical as the stranger who had just crept in and out if your bedroom leaving a large weight on the bottom of your bed in the form of a pillow case full of excitement and fun.

The first thing you did on Christmas morning was to just lie there, feeling the weight with your feet imagining the delight as you tore off the wrapping paper of present after present, as quietly as you could so as not to wake Dad who was bound to be in a bad mood and if you ‘got him out of the wrong side of bed’ he would be grumpy all day, which would ruin all Christmas if he didn’t snap out of it, or so Mum said.

Lying in that moment of anticipation, knowing that the presents had arrived, but not knowing what the presents were was by far the best part of Christmas. The longer you could stretch that moment out, the more intense the feeling became, the more exciting the excitement got. You would lie there as long as you could bare it ... and then ... when you could take the anticipation no more, you would spring out of bed, no matter how cold it was ... then everything would go a little bit crazy, a frenzy of unwrapping, and exchanged delight as the opened pressies pile up on one side and torn wrapping paper one on the other got bigger and bigger. Until “Will you lot please be quite it is Half 5 in the morning!” boomed from the parental bedroom.

Christmas morning 1968 was not like that.

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Barny woke with the same anticipation that he always woke with on Christmas morning.

But something was not right.

There was no weight on the bottom of the bed.

Barny stretched out his legs felt to the very bottom of the bed.

Nothing.

He allowed his feet to explore bottom left hand corner.

Nothing.

Then he tried the right hand side.

Nothing.

Santa had not been.

Maybe he hadn’t got there yet. Maybe there had been some delay. A traffic incident involving Santa’s sleigh and the Moon rocket. Traffic incidents were often the cause of Dad being late for all manner of things. The same could happen to Santa. Couldn’t it?

Barny found some comfort in the thought of Santa held up in cosmic traffic. But it didn’t last. The inevitable feelings of self doubt and guilt began to build up. Maybe Barny hadn’t been good enough that year.

He remembered pushing John Turner over in the playground. He had told miss West that it was an accident, but Barny knew deep down that there had been nothing accidental about it. The push had been deliberate and very satisfying.

He remembered stealing a plastic elephant from David Ainsbury’s when David wasn’t looking. It was just before David and his family went to a place called Australia so Barny knew he wouldn’t see him again so he didn’t think it would matter. But he felt guilty and hid the elephant under a loose floor board on the landing and never played with it. But he never forgot where it was and hoped no one would ever find it.

He remembered pooing himself on the way home from school and his mother having to clean him up in a plastic washing up bowl. It had made him feel guilty and guilty is about bad things so he supposed it would weigh heavily with Santa when it came to putting names on the bad list.

Barny decided to check to see if Terry and Sam had got any presents. Surely they had not been as bad as he had. If Santa had left them something but hadn’t left him anything, then he would know how the land lay.

Slowly he peeked out from under his covers, opening his eyes for the first time.

There sat, in the chair by his bed, as bold as you like, expressionless, was an alien in a space suit, with a green face, staring at Barny!

He hid under his covers.

The Astronauts had done the unthinkable. They had brought an alien back and it was sitting next to Barny’s bed. Now it all made sense. The Alien must have frightened Santa off or worse! Had the alien eaten Santa and was just digesting before it decided to eat Barny for afters?

Barny lay there trying not to breath. His heart pounded in his ears so loud he was sure that the alien must be able to hear it.

He listened for any sound of movement around the house. Dad going to the toilet for a midnight pee. The sound of Terry tip toeing across the bedroom floor, ready to rugby tackle the alien and in a life or death struggle, single handily saving the world from the invasion and in the process becoming a national hero. Surely a feat that would lead a grateful nation to replace the presents lost due to the devouring of St. Nick.

But there was nothing. Not a sound. Apart from the beating of Barny’s heart, his rapid shallow breathing and the distant sound of the dog whimpering in the kitchen.

What about Terry and Sam? They were very quiet. Normally on Christmas morning they would be well into the present opening frenzy. Had the alien eaten them too? Barny decided to take another look from under the covers.

Sure enough. Not only was there an alien sat next to Barny’s bed, but there was one next to Sam’s bed and one next to Terry’s. Just the same as the one next to his, except Sam’s had a yellow face and Terry’s had a pink face the colour of Miss West’s house coat.

It seemed that Terry was not, after all, the fountain of all wisdom. Not all aliens were little green men. Some where yellow and some were pink.

Barny slipped back under the covers, not sure if the Alien had seen him or not.

He lay there. The moments stretching into what felt like hours. The darkness and the coldness lingered and everything remained quiet. As quiet as the ...

Barny knew the daylight would come. Eventually. Then help would arrive. Wouldn’t it?

But if there were Aliens in his bedroom, maybe there were Aliens in everybody’s bedroom. Maybe Aliens had already taken over. Had eaten all the grown ups and the only hope was for Dr Who to turn up with his Tardis. He listened for the sound of the Tardis arriving.

Nothing.

Maybe these Aliens were better than the Doctor. Maybe they had already eaten him. Maybe all was already lost. Maybe Barny was the last one left.

He lay there as still as he could, trying not to fall asleep. Wanting the morning to come. But at the same time not wanting it to come because of what news it might bring.

He imagined what it would be like if everyone he knew had been eaten. He would never see his friends again. Barny tried to comprehend the meaning of that. Then he remembered that he was moving away, and he wasn’t going to see them again anyway.

He would never go round to John Turner’s and play with his Action Men again. Or to Brian Griffith’s to play with his kitten. He remembered David Ainsbury and wondered where Australia was. And thought of Linda Jones and Barbra Carlton.

He felt sad.

Slowly, Barny drifted back to sleep.

He woke to the sound of Terry and Sam, quietly and gingerly, unwrapping presents. Barny lay there for a moment. He heard the suppressed excitement as Sam opened a table football game, from Auntie Lesley. “I’ll be Man City and you can be United.”

Barny peeled down the covers and looked across the room. It was light. Not fully light. It was still early but the sun was rising. Terry and Sam sat in the middle of the room surrounded by presents and wrapping paper. They were both brimming with excitement, but trying desperately not to make too much noise. They were both wearing a brand new duffle coat, that looked just like the spacesuits the aliens were wearing, over their pyjamas.

Barny looked over to the Alien on the chair next to his bed. There on the chair was a brand new duffle coat, just like the ones that Terry and Sam were wearing, wrapped around a pillow case full of presents with a green balloon stuffed in the hood.

Terry picked up a present still in it’s wrapping and shuck it to see what it was. Immediately it let out a rather loud and irritating fire engine siren noise.

“Will you lot please be quiet or I am going to cancel bloody Christmas altogether!” Dad shouted from the far bedroom.

Barney smiled to himself. It was Christmas morning, Dad was in a grumpy mood and Santa had not been eaten.

All was right with the world.

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