I hadn't been in England long. Christmas was coming and it was frightening to find just how dark it could be by mid-afternoon. In South Africa, the days were light and the nights were dark. Here there was some sort of confusion: days simply evanesced without warning. But the invitation from a distant relative, whom I had not met, to a carol service in north London aroused atavistic ideas of snow and holly, and robins sitting on a spade, images which were very popular on Christmas cards in Johannesburg.
My duffel coat, bought from a general goods store at the bottom of Commissioner Street, was guaranteed, so the Gujarati man who sold it to me said, against all kinds of weather. The duffel coat seemed a little draughty as I left the Tube and started walking; it was acting like a wind-sock, inviting air into my undergarments. Slush was falling; it had the consistency of Choco Milk, a frozen lolly popular back home. We called lollies "frozen suckers", and I was musing on these interesting linguistic variations as I strode through the slush. My feet had become damp almost instantly. It seemed my OK Bazaars desert boots were not designed for this kind of weather, and it was clearly a mistake to wear thin nylon socks.
My second cousin had described herself as tall with mousey hair, and she said that she should be wearing a dark coat. She said she would meet me at the door of the church, ' which she described as a hideous brick building. I hadn't really written down her directions. In fact I hadn't written them down at all. But I remembered "Turn right past bus-station and walk for 10 minutes, until you see large church on right." It was indeed a very large church, poking its crenellations through the freezing fog, and it was in brick.
To prepare myself for English life, for my new country, I had been reading poetry. Louis MacNeice was on my mind as I stood outside the church waiting for my cousin. I mouthed the words "And not expecting pardon/hastened in heart anew/but glad to have sat under/Thunder and rain with you." It seemed appropriately meteorological; for thunder read slush. The slush was hardening into something more lethal. At least 50 people had gathered outside the church. Many of them had dark coats and mousey hair, but none of them appeared to be looking for me, although I stood beaming like the sun going down on the savannah, looking, I soon realised from within my brown duffel coat, like the hick who has come to town. And it was obvious that my duffel coat's protective properties which I had seen did not apply to wind, did not extend to water either. The coat was taking on the consistency of a chamois leather.
I waited for about 10 minutes until I was the last person outside. If my cousin was already in there, I would find her afterwards over mulled wine and mince pies. To be honest, mince pies did not sound too enticing, but I had already discovered that the English ate some very strange stuff: Scotch eggs, toad in the hole, eels and liquor and something called Spam. But I was looking forward to the mulled wine, which sounded suitably Dickensian, and warm. My feet had frozen. The wine might just save my toes from amputation.
I decided I had better go in to the carol service. The church was strangely undecorated, even austere. I had been expecting swags of holly and ivy, candles, a manger and a Christmas tree. The church was full and I had to clamber over a number of people to find a seat up against the side wall. The music began no choir, no organ, no carols, just a recording of an oratorio I didn't recognise. My eye fell on an elaborate plaque on the wall, commemorating His Royal Highness the Mahjarajah of Cooch-Behar. When I got to the point where it read "who was cremated here in l922", I thought how different things were in the mother country. Nobody was ever cremated at our local church, St Martin's in the Veld. But then, why not ? Economies of scale et cetera. Keep the place busy.
At this moment the congregation stood up. A coffin, carried by six men, was moving up the aisle. It was placed on a dais. Various members of the congregation delivered long eulogies to the departed, whose name was Lionel. I was trapped. I assumed a dignified mien; not too difficult with my frozen features. Men, women and children were crying. By the time the fiery furnace opened and the coffin slid smoothly away, I was ready to go with it. And I never did meet my cousin. She hated being stood up and took umbrage.
Justin Cartwright's latest novel is 'The Song Before it is Sung' (Bloomsbury)Reuse content