[writing exercise: maximum 500 words, starting with ‘It was the morning that…’ Apart from the first and last sentence and the second paragraph, this consists of two true stories!]
It was the morning that I thought I might possibly have saved a relationship. We were travelling north and she hopped onto the train as the doors were closing at Monument. I paid little attention at first, noticing only that she was young, slim and pretty. She sat opposite me, her handbag on her lap, long blonde hair falling over her shoulders. I had another five stops to go and had gazed enough upon the tedious adverts above her head, the floor in front of me and the passengers farther down the carriage, so I found myself glancing in her direction repeatedly. Her face was neither happy nor sad – a commuter face, preoccupied, scanning her iPhone in its yellow shell. But then she dropped it into her handbag and withdrew a necklace. A string of silver beads with a Tiffany heart – she slipped it around her neck, fastening it expertly as if she had done this many times before without the aid of a mirror. Straightening the heart so that it hung perfectly centrally over her beige sweater, she felt in her handbag again, bringing out her phone. But this was a different phone and as she scrolled down its screen I wondered whether she had used her journey on the Northern Line to leave behind her morning identity and slip into a new persona: she was now someone with a lover who gave her jewellery and who would notice, when they met, if she was not wearing his gift.
She got up suddenly as we pulled into the next station and was out of the carriage and scurrying down the platform before I spotted the sensible grey ladylike phone left on her vacant seat. An incoming passenger with three large suitcases had delayed our departure and on impulse I snatched up the phone and almost in the same movement slid off the train and into the sea of moving humanity. Moorgate was unknown territory but I had a single purpose and glimpsing a fast-moving blonde head in the distance I set off in pursuit. Weaving around oncoming travellers, side-stepping perplexed tourists – why do they always stop abruptly right in front of you without signalling their intention? – I made it to the exit for the Bakerloo Line and almost ran into the back of her as she delved fruitlessly in her handbag. I held out her missing phone and her face lit up with relief and gratitude. ‘Oh my goodness, thank you so much,’ she said. ‘You don’t know how grateful I am.’ ‘That’s OK,’ I replied, ‘No problem.’
Back on the next train I picked up the evening paper, left folded at the job ads. ‘Wanted’ read the headline in the largest box on the page, ‘Intelligence Operatives’, and at the foot were the employer’s details: ‘MI6’, followed by an address. Perhaps I had done rather more than return a careless young woman’s lost phone that morning?
It is now almost two weeks since the television evening news and the following day’s papers were disfigured by images of brawling shoppers, tussling over television screens and pushing each other to the floor. In scenes reminiscent of the nastiest aspects of political protest demonstrations, apparently ordinary and otherwise law-abiding citizens were reduced to animal-like combat over the spoils offered by retailers on the last Friday of November. What have we come to, that a desire to have some glitzy possession at a knock-down price can so sully the run-up to Christmas? Perhaps, with a stretch of the imagination, it is possible to imagine how a parent, after struggling to make ends meet throughout a tough year, could be so desperate to bring home some prized luxury to their children that they would resort to the bush tactics of a hyena. But would they really be so proud of their catch if their unruly behaviour had been caught on camera for those children’s friends to see and taunt them with – and how do you teach a child to share or to demonstrate good manners when this is the example you have set them? I have no answer to these questions but, in our small market town, as in other places up and down the country, we celebrate ‘Black Friday’ rather differently.
For many years now the last Friday in November has been a festival day; for some time it was known as the Victorian Festival and all the high-street shopkeepers would dress up in period costume, joined by stallholders selling their wares and raising funds for local organisations and charities. There was fun and entertainment, traction engines and small roundabouts for the younger children. Now, however, this winter Friday is also a local school holiday (the ‘Christmas shopping’ INSET day) and although the festival is still a community occasion on which the main street is closed to traffic from mid-afternoon and, after dusk has fallen, the Christmas lights are switched on, there is no longer a Victorian theme. We too have fallen under the spell of increasing commercialism and part of the street is given over to large fairground rides blasting out loud music, stalls selling goods that have nothing to do with the local area and gazebo-ed hot-dog and burger bars that vie with the stands manned by staff from the town’s restaurants. Fortunately, the townspeople continue to support the local stalls and their volunteers, who still come out each year – whether in rain, wind or even snow – to sell homemade cakes and preserves or to run raffles and tombolas. And amid all the noise and sparkle, the local churches also have a presence, offering a warm welcome and even a quiet space to pause and reflect, away from the noise and the weather. We are always delighted at the number of people who come in, whether they sit in the candle-lit church to catch their breath and maybe light a candle or whether their primary purpose is to grab a warming cup of tea and a bacon roll – or even to use our toilets. All are welcome and none of them can have failed to notice that this year, on the pavement outside there was a huge crib. It stood eight feet high, filled with straw and with an illuminated star hanging over one end. This was our festival reminder of the real reason for Christmas – not the cut-price bargains or the thrill of the fairground rides, but a baby who was to change the world for ever.