Ian McMillan: The carol singer who held her piece

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A carol singer is walking down a Yorkshire street on a December evening, deciding which house to sing at, which house looks like it will yield the most loose change or the best mince pies.

A quiet lady is sitting in her front room doing her Christmas jigsaw, the one she’s had since she was a child in the big farmhouse on the other side of the valley. It’s a scene of some carol singers in the snow singing outside a house, holding those traditional carol singers’ lanterns and huge scrolls of music. There are notes coming out of their mouths and rising into the frosty air like birds, and these notes are the hardest bit of the jigsaw because they all look the same.

The carol singer approaches the quiet lady’s house. Let’s be honest: he isn’t the greatest singer. He wouldn’t win the X Factor or even the Y Factor. He likes the look of this house: it’s detached, the garden is well-kept, a light glows in the window and he can see the faint image of a Christmas tree through the curtains. He walks down the path and stands at the door. A security light comes on and it’s as though he’s on stage.

The lady notices the security light has come on and she wonders if it’s the cats from next door; they seem to have worked out that if they wander by the house they can make the light come on, and then they can sit and clean themselves and make mewling noises and chase each other. There’s a cat in the jigsaw puzzle, a cartoon cat with some sheet music in its paws, singing away as loud as it can.

The carol singer doesn’t need sheet music; he’s only going to sing one verse of We Three Kings anyway. Then he’ll knock at the door and see what happens. He clears his throat operatically, hoping to get the attention of whoever. The quiet lady only has a few pieces left for the jigsaw; those fluttering notes in the middle, weaving in and out of the snowflakes, it’s almost as if they’re alive. She puts a couple more in. Just one left now, one elusive piece. And she can’t find it; it must have fallen off the table. The security light is still on, she notices. The cats must be sitting now, watching.

The carol singer starts to sing. All his notes are flat, and they change keys more than a prison warden. He’s keen, though, and his voice is loud and the words are clear. The plot of the first verse is a simple one and the carol expresses it well and the gist is that there are three kings and they’ve come a long way. They haven’t got a sat nav but they’re relying on a light in the sky. They really, really like the light in the sky.

The verse is over almost before it’s begun. That’s a shame, thinks the quiet lady, because she was enjoying it. The carol singer knocks on the door, a rhythmic and impatient sound. The lady hesitates for a moment then opens the door. The carol singer stands framed in the security light and she hands him a pound coin. “Thanks for the song,” she says, smiling.

The carol singer notices something on the floor; the wing of a bird on a jigsaw piece. He bends down, picks it up and gives it to the lady. The puzzle is complete. And so is Christmas.