Yesterday I went to my son’s school carol service, in a cathedral. It was minus three outside. Now, I spent years singing in a church choir, so know about layering: the trick is to put many thin ones underneath so by the time you squeeze on the coat you’re not actually personifying the Michelin man.
My mother and I arrived unfeasibly early. The school operates a strict seniority seating plan, a bit like free bus travel. If your child is in the top year, bouncers nod you through the cheap end, you are waved on by perfectly coiffured ladies holding fluorescent ping-pong bats at the half-way stage, and ushered into gold-plated seating like the VIPs you are. Those of us who didn’t have sex early enough race in our terribly middle-class English way to the most forward available seat, like a genteel interval dash for Glyndebourne ladies’ loo.
This was my second year. Last time I’d been squashed behind a pillar with distinctly Siberian drafts eddying round my ankles. We were ready.
Granny and I beamed at the hovering ushers, spotted two seats in the second row of the legal seating area, and performed a perfect pincer-double-back movement worthy of Monty himself on the Western Desert Campaign. On my right an elegant lady with a hat and coat made from some matching dead animal nodded at my approach, as if I had stuck to her shoe.
It was only then I realised our vulnerability. The first row was reserved for the elderly and deserving. In front of us sat an extremely dapper gentleman in a wheelchair, his carer, and then a bowed chap holding onto the rail with a quivering hand. Looking down the length of the row, I saw the aged and infirm, cloudy of eye and drippy of nose. Little did I know then that they were also uncontrolled of anal sphincter.
Minutes before the first peep of Once In Royal, the dapper wheelchair gentleman (quite sensibly) decided that he required his coat. Frankly I wouldn’t have blamed him if he’d brought a duvet. His carer helped him stand, another woman supported the other side, and they spent the best part of my middle age trying to feed in his arms. It was only when an agitated usher flapped over that they managed to steady the poor chap long enough to get him sorted. I wanted to help, but was boxed in and his carer was so obviously ‘in charge’* I didn’t dare.
All settled, we immediately leapt up to sing the first carol. It was then I first scented an aroma that was to become horribly familiar. If stereotypes are to be believed, the average elderly British person exists solely on a diet of tinned peaches, white bread, tea and fig rolls. Believe me, that combination produces wind of such piquant intensity it sears the nasal hairs of anyone within a ten yard radius. The action of standing and sitting seemed to mimic that of a pair of bellows on the intestines of these good folk, eliciting a miasma of such proportions it was frankly difficult to hold a tune.
And my God, it was up to me to hold the tune. As strident as the middle classes are when you require their opinions on tax or bankers or whether it’s a paw-paw or a guava, ask them to sing a simple Christmas carol and they suddenly make Marcel Marceau seem deafening. Granny, a former opera singer, had no voice after a cold. She can usually fill a cathedral, solo. I had no wingman and was on my own. I did my best, but it’s difficult to fill one’s lungs using the diaphragm appropriately when each intake of breath nearly knocks you out.
By the fourth Lesson, I was comforting myself with the knowledge that they were at least contributing to heating this great cathedral. By the seventh, I didn’t care and was just trying to keep upright. Granny was ok: she was reaping the benefits of her chest infection and couldn’t smell a thing.
And so it came to pass that after the ninth Lesson we did totter out of the cathedral with our offspring and breathe great gulps of God’s good air. My son, who had refused all suggestions of a vest that morning, was blue and shivering in the shorts they insist their smaller pupils wear. I keep telling him to get unionised for long trousers and organize petitions or strikes, but he feels unable to embrace the labour movement, instead choosing to freeze with his brothers-in-knees. All credit to his loyalty. None to his stupidity.
Next year I’m bringing gold, frankincense, myrrh and oxygen.