It’s an occupational hazard for those of us blessed with a grey-to-white beard! ‘Hey Santa!’ from teenagers, or a rather more awed approach from younger children. I once had a long conversation with a little lad in Gap, France, with his mother in the background, encouraging me to keep going; great fun for me as well as him.
Today was surprisingly different.
Cycling along the shared path by the river, I rang my bell to warn a lady with her two dogs that I was approaching; they were occupying the whole path. Smiling, she got out of the way, saying to the dogs, ‘There boys, it’s Father Christmas come to say hello.’
Those finds set my memory going. Years ago I used to care for a garden behind some offices; the building had been a private boys’ school until about 1920. From time to time I would find glass marbles or copper halfpennies, sometimes Victorian ones with both lighthouse and sailing ship behind Britannia on the reverse, but the find that stays in the memory was easily overlooked, more prosaic yet more poignant.
When clearing St Tydfil’s churchyard forty years ago I was struck by the number of clay pipe stems in one corner, till Trevor told me that the shop next door had been The Three Salmons pub. Pipes were sold cheaply to patrons, or given away with tobacco, so one that was drawing poorly would be snapped and tossed over the wall.
This one that turned up in the office garden must have had a story to tell, for it bore the legend ‘St Omer’. My predecessor, I guess, would have returned from the Front in 1918 and resumed his gardening work. When his pipe broke, he thought little of it, but took a short walk to The Three Tuns, where a beer would have been most welcome, and a new pipe waiting for him. Did he feel that throwing the French pipe away was another short step away from the trenches?
A few weeks ago, digging in the back garden, I turned up a small toy cat, what my daughters used to call a China animal. Friday by Friday, each of them collected a set of dragons, ducks, horses or cats from a tiny shop near where I worked, each animal brought home in its own tiny paper bag. At 10p apiece they provided hours of imaginative play. When the girls saw this relic of their childhood there were gasps of delighted recognition.
Delight, but puzzled delight for us when the good people from Regency Floors brought us a white Scottie dog found wedged between the floorboards they were renovating. None of us recognised him: a Monopoly counter perhaps, but not one we had ever played with.
At Dylan Thomas’s Boathouse in Laugharne/Llarregub a cabinet displayed half a dozen toys unearthed in the garden, including a Dinky car like one my cousin Anthony used to let me play with. Good to think of those children playing in the garden: the toys a concrete reminder that A Child’s Christmas in Wales would have been blessed, even with little by way of material things, as ours were in Birmingham.
Domestic archaeology, unearthing happiness! Dylan praised Laugharne/Llarregub for its smallness in a small land, smiling under the Principality of the Sky. Delight is beyond measure, a tree from a mustard seed.
Careering down a path where perhaps I should not have been cycling, I enjoyed a Wordsworth moment. No golden daffodils, no lake, no trees to speak of, just the end of a hornbeam hedge up against a hideous galvanised steel fence. But miles from any field, between the concrete path and the base of the fence, there spread a single plant of the scarlet pimpernel, turning to face the southing sun.
Not so long ago, maybe forty years, this path was a field path, this land was part of a farm. The soil was disturbed when the new fence was put in, no doubt to protect the school children from whatever dangers might lurk on the path. Even an earthbound constellation of red dwarfs.