Ian McMillan: ... and the smile he gave her masked a rising tide of panic

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Look at this lovely, some might say touching, others might say uplifting December scene; we’re at a Christmas market in a Yorkshire town and a dad has taken his little lad to shop while mum goes on a trip to her sister’s in Gloucestershire. The dad’s brow is slightly furrowed, and so, in a childish parent/child echo, is the little boy’s.

The dad’s brow resembles a ploughed field because just before his wife went off to Gloucestershire, he asked her what she wanted for Christmas and she said “Surprise me!” and the smile he gave her in return masked a rising tide of panic because those two words are often guaranteed to strike deep and burning fear into the Yorkshireman’s heart. Surprise me: oh no. The lad is frowning because he’s trying to learn his lines for the Christmas play at school in a couple of week’s time; he’s an Innkeeper and he has to say, “Yes, what I can do for you?” and then he has to say, “There’s no room at this Inn since we got that good review on the internet!” Yes, it’s a modern interpretation of the tale.

The lad’s way of committing the lines to memory is to repeat them over and over again in a sing-song voice like an auctioneer. “Yes, what can I do for you?” sounds quite well when it’s sung, although the “room at the inn” line hasn’t got enough rhythm to convey in music. A few shoppers look at the boy benignly and the words “Bless him” can be heard.

The dad is at a loss what to buy for his wife as a surprise. He looks at a huge plant at a flower stall, a plant that looks like it might eat lumps of raw meat or passing cage and aviary birds. Would she like that? She likes plants. Is it a bit big? Would she see it as an appropriate surprise? He moves on. The boy is saying the lines louder, now and the repetition is starting to irritate his father. “Could you keep it down a bit, please?” he asks, using language perhaps more appropriate to the office than to a conversation with a boy. The boy pulls his woolly hat down lower over his eyes because that’s what he thought his dad meant.

The older and younger males of the family patrol the Christmas market’s many and varied stalls and at each one the dad becomes more confused. A novelty chocolate Eiffel tower? A set of pyjamas with I’M SLEEPY etched into the material ? A sponge?

The lad says “Dad, can you listen to my lines? I think I’ve got them right!” and the dad, in his confusion, says “Yes” and then, in the middle of the market with the shoppers in a tidal wave of carrier bags, his son says “And can you be Joseph?” and the dad knows what to say because he’s practised the lines in the house but he’s a bit embarrassed to perform in the open air but then an old man who seems to have suddenly appeared says: “Go on, say them: it’ll make him happy. And she’d like a scarf from that stall there” and then he seems to vanish into the crowd.

Let’s leave them there: the father and son saying the lines and then the dad buying the scarf that his wife will love. And who was the old man? The Spirit of Christmas? Maybe. Maybe he was.