Craig Austin remembers the poignant cameo of a family at Christmas.
A long time ago in a concrete new town far far away I embarked upon an adventure of a lifetime that I have still yet to conclude. Within this adventure there have been numerous excursions of note, a number of bona fide life-changing encounters, and the occasional cause for regret. A colourful series of late-night forays into the unknown from which I have often emerged bleary-eyed and aglow despite the resultant loss of keys, bank cards and girlfriends. I have learnt much along the way, yet this accumulated life knowledge forms a repository of practical wisdom that I often find myself all too eager to dispense with at the faintest promise of hedonistic thrills. In a perfect approximation of life itself the one truly defining principle that I have learnt above all else is that when it comes to the timeless allure of late night booze-houndery the journey is almost always more satisfying than the destination.
I began this adventure on Christmas Eve, at the age of sixteen, at a point in time when my cursed freckled baby-face had already prevented me from buying my Nan some chocolate liqueurs from Marks & Spencer. I had drunk in pubs sans parents before of course, but only in daylight hours, and only because I had delegated the actual purchasing duties to older looking girls and their tattooed rockabilly boyfriends.
Yet here I was on the night before Christmas in a pub whose reputation for under-age drinking was so publicly and flagrantly celebrated that even Tom Jones’s wife could not fail to have cottoned on to what was happening. Without its guaranteed weekend income comprised of equal parts pocket money and paper rounds, its parent brewery would surely have been asking the kind of stern questions that the local constabulary had routinely and evidently failed to. So, under-age, underweight, and armed to the teeth with the sage guidance of my equally clueless peer group – ‘stand at the bar with a girl’, ‘make sure you specify a brand’, ‘don’t look too grateful’ – I sought to squeeze my way towards the beer taps. A five-yard journey on paper that seemed to take about ten minutes to navigate in reality, under siege as I found myself from a flurry of elbows, lit cigarettes, and the noxious nasal assault of Aramis and Poison.
As I struggled to negotiate my way through the heaving throng, an occasionally disturbing crush of flesh and bone, I found myself pressed up against a variety of girls and boys whom I knew from the restrictive regimentation of school life, their regulation sweaters and skirts replaced under the cover of darkness by tight lurid casual wear of varying provocation, their eyes and lips ablaze with the lawless possibility of it all. The febrile air was heady with the promise of alcohol and the opposite sex, our bodies so tightly packed together that I remember being lifted off the floor and eventually deposited in front of a harassed looking woman in a Santa hat who had clearly reached the end of her patience with this uncontrollable cabal of drunken teenage lunatics.
And though this is the part of the tale in which my attempt to purchase alcohol should customarily end in either personal salvation or inglorious embarrassment, its actual denouement is one that comes packaged in a far more melancholic Christmas wrapping. I got served without any form of interrogation whatsoever, of course; an outcome no doubt eased by the kids to the right of me who somehow succeeded in procuring six pints of Strongbow and black despite resembling a Bugsy Malone casting call.
They were not the centre of my attention though. Not now. Not them, nor the willowy sixth-form blondes, the pissed-up rugby bonding rituals, or the flying glasses. For cast adrift amongst this remorseless sea of teenage abandon sat an anxious looking woman close to tears, a frail and tiny bird encircled by vultures, a woman who could easily have been my mum. A woman sat opposite a man who could easily have been my dad.
In common with the two young children who accompanied them, each wore a colourful crepe paper crown that appeared to wilt under the unpleasantness of it all; a forlorn detail that only added to the perverse Kafka-esque tragedy of their temporary entrapment. These were good people, kind people, considerate people. And as their increasingly disastrous family meal was persistently encroached upon by a baying pack of juvenile jackals, elbows straying into eating space, a tender celebration long-since ruined by an onslaught of spittle, swearing and scorn, I felt a rush of anger build up inside me. A burning sense of injustice and resentment fuelled further by the witnessing of a singularly unforgivable act of depravity that even today remains unsuitable for Yuletide reading.
Yet as the children exchanged terrified glances in the shadow of their parents’ horrified impotence I did what most sixteen year-old kids would do in the same circumstances. I did absolutely nothing. At some point I may even have joined in with the bleak hilarity that sound-tracked their predicament, at the tragic incongruity of it all. Like a man who laughs in the face of disaster because the only alternative is tears.
At some point during that same night a friend of mine would lose his virginity in the graveyard next door, a timeless rite of passage that took place only yards from the celebrated resting place of a man once awarded the Victoria Cross ‘for valour’. Despite being related to that man, I demonstrated no valour. I was not even mentioned in despatches. Yet later that evening as I led back and watched in wonder as the ceiling of my bedroom began to spin (the first and only time that that has ever happened) I began to replay these images in my mind, and periodically I’ve been doing so ever since. In later life, as parent rather than child, and as my relative place in the scheme of things is crowned by a similar crepe paper hat this anonymous family remains a constant provocation for me to populate the void where the piss and vinegar thrill-ride of youth gradually makes way for a quieter and more knowing contemplation. To be a better and bolder person.
It’s Christmas time. There’s no need to be afraid.
Original illustration by Dean Lewis