We spill out of our house, noisy and chattering, calling ahead and behind – have we got everybody? Are we all here? Stevie and Weaze are still in the house, ostensibly sorting the dogs. Really, topping hip flasks.
We’re going up the hill towards St Ethelreda’s, where the children are in the Nativity: El is Mary and Jess is The Star. We’ve all been drinking port and eating Warwickshire Extra Strong, and an amazing Oxford Blue with home-made quince jelly. All apart from Little Sausage, who is not yet two and prefers crumbed chicken goujons.
We’re forced single-file as we hurry up the Jackie Chan, and I feel a squinch of pleasure as we see the church on our left – ancient windows lit gold, promising the carols of childhood. The Sausages are up ahead, crossing the Hornton road with the buggy, and Lulu and Giddyup and I hurry to catch them, our heels loud on the pavement, our breath misting in the night air.
Inside, it’s already packed, almost the whole of the right pews full of Horley children in costume – an entire population of sheep, kings and angels, faces bursting with importance and excitement. The older village children are up on the stage, in thick Christmas jumpers and bobble hats. They all look very serious as they survey the milling congregation below, and there is no fidgeting. Stalwart church types whiz to and fro, organising extra heaters, sorting out service sheets.
‘Patrick!’ stage-whispers a tall older lady in tweed. ‘Who on earth are all these people?’
‘Tourists,’ answers a younger man, steering her towards a heater. Extra benches are appearing now, from out of the Vestry; newcomers continue to pour in.
We nip quickly into the left aisle, with me on the end, so I have a good view of Mary and the Wandering Star. On the stage, above the children’s heads hangs a glitzy cardboard star turning slowly on an invisible string. It should look deeply naff, but instead it’s oddly touching, and just as it should be.
‘I must take notes,’ I mutter, thinking of a scene in my book. I pat my pockets, and realise I’ve forgotten my little notepad. Far worse though; I’ve forgotten the ‘thank you’ flowers for Tess and Brenda, both of whom spend weeks rehearsing the children and planning the Nativity. I clap my hands to my mouth in case I swear, and then see Stevie has arrived at the bottom of our row.
‘Go home!’ I mouth. ‘Forgotten, forgotten!’
Stevie rolls his eyes and grins. He mouths back ‘silly cow’, shaking his head as he edges his way out of the pew. The organist – fabulous organist – is playing In The Bleak Mid-Winter, and Lulu and Giddyup have found me a pen for my notes.
I sigh with pleasure, looking round at the glossy bunches of holly with their blood-red berries, the fat white candles flickering in the draught from the constantly-opening door. We can smell the mulled wine with its oranges and cloves, warming for after the service, and the burnt-dust smell of gas heaters. There’s a steady roar of conversation from the impious, and occasional yelps of laughter from the inebriated. Lulu and Giddyup are making up names for people to go in the blog, and keep collapsing with giggles.
‘Yarp, yarp, yarp,’ says Giddyup, as one of the more handsome stalwarts pass, flapping his arms. He pauses by our pew, one hand in his pocket, the other held crooked like a teapot. ‘Lord Yarp,’ she says, her voice low. ‘Completely perfect.’
The church is stuffed full now, and everyone is waiting. Opposite our pew is a school-buddy with her two pre-schoolers, Charlie and Holly, who are dressed as a shepherd and sheep respectively. They wriggle on their mother’s lap, anxious for the off.
‘Where’s the vicar?’ someone says, in puzzlement. One of the Stalwarts leap to the stage, and the congregation watch expectantly. He exhorts us to enjoy the Nativity, then purses his lips and asks us not to clap.
And then the whole thing is under way: one of the serious crew on stage is up and solo-ing Royal David’s City, then we’re all on our feet, feeling our way through the tune, tackling the high bits and trying not to break on the impossible ‘And’s.
It soon becomes evident that there will be no vicar, but that the service will be done entirely by the children of Horley. Somehow the readings and carols take on greater meaning, as we hear words spoken since we were children ourselves, and heard by our own parents, and grandparents, who in turn heard those words before we were even thought of. We get to that bit in The Bleak Midwinter about cherubim and seraphim and tears are falling down my cheeks, taking with them my mascara and my self-conciousness. By the final verse, the beauty of the words have affected everyone, and hands are squeezed, glances exchanged. Forgiven. Loved.
In turn, the children appear in their places: Mary is visited by a star, the Inn Keeper is duly knocked up. Every time there’s any action on the stage, Holly the Sheep makes a bid to join in, and her mother catches her by the ankle. We’re belting through O Little Town of Bethlehem, and Holly the Sheep is prone in the centre aisle, crawling commando-style towards the action. Her mother pulls her back on her belly, trying to sing at the same time. On our row we sway with laughter, and I wipe away yet more tears.
Angels arrive and the children break our hearts with ‘Away In A Manger’. Holly finally escapes and gets on stage, standing pleased as punch and baa-ing, waving and smiling to an adoring crowd. My Elle gets the giggles, and her Baby Jesus, (Thomas: a huge brute, once mine), won’t fit in the manger. She squashes him in, and he springs free, his chubby plastic arms waving.
Soon we’re onto Hark The Heralds, and I wish I was standing near Chris Howell, Tess’ husband, because I like his singing. I can hear some voices doing lovely fancy bits and I wish I could gather all the singers up so I could hear them properly together, without the awful braying coming from a few rows back. But then our local choir-mistress, Debbie, comes forward to lead the Serious Crew in Gaudete, which is the first ever time I’ve properly listened to a madrigal. It is a moment like glimpsing the most beautiful face, or eating the most perfect mouthful – astonishing and fleeting, leaving me wide-eyed, blinking. It’s immensely hard not to clap.
Then one of the Serious Crew boys stands up on his own. He puts his hands in the pockets of his tracksuit bottoms and sings the opening verse of ‘Silent Night’, his expression transformed – radiance beams from thy holy face. We all join in the second verse, fortissimo.
It seems so quickly that the kings do their bit (complete with brilliant tantivy on the trumpet) and we’re belting out God Rest You Merry Gentlemen, the children trawling congregation for the collection. All around there’s the chink of change. There’s a flash of orange and gold down our row, and the women all swivel forwards to see which of their men gave a tenner. Stevie’s laughing, so I’m guessing not us.
We’re all giving it welly to Come All Ye Faithful (once a year, at any rate), and then the children are all up on stage, posing for photos and it’s time for the mulled wine, mince pies and didn’t-they-do-wells.
I can feel my cheeks are flushed from all of the emotion, and I surreptitiously rub mascara from beneath my eyes.
‘So lovely,’ we all say. ‘So lucky.’
Jess speeds past, blowing a kiss and stuffing her mouth with sweets. She joins the rest of the children, all of her little buddies, now rioting unchecked behind the blue Vestry curtains. Lord Yarp is supervising the snuffing of candles, Stalwarts are gathering chairs, abandoned service sheets. There’s great talk of the new bells, and when they’ll be ringing.
I’m just upending my glass when Stevie catches my eye, gives the nod. We wrangle the daughters into coats.
‘I’ll see if they want help with the glasses,’ I say. ‘See you in a minute.’
The ladies manning the mince pie station tell me not to worry, it’ll all be dealt with in the morning. I’m relieved, thinking of the washing up waiting at home, the presents still unwrapped, the Christmas cake still un-iced.
”Night,’ I say. ‘Thank you, thank you.’
Outside the air has crispened, and feels wonderfully cool on my face. I’ve no torch but I don’t mind, I know every step of the way home. I think of the packet of crumpets in the bread-cage, and of how I’ll make a pot of tea and Stevie will’ve done the fires. The children will be in their nighties, and Country File will be on the telly. I quicken my step, smiling into the darkness.
Happy, happy Christmas. To one and all.