In a year where personal sacrifice for safety has become normality, I have attempted as much as anybody that I know to restrain the selfish thoughts that creep up on occasion. Yet on a cold Thursday Advent evening, they begin to overwhelm as I am stood on a train station platform. I quiver my limbs slightly in an attempt to fight off the cold and the need for a bathroom break, and can’t help but look across the car park to the dark lifeless pub and feel a twinge of unalterable longing.
The pub itself is not a remarkable one. Owned by one of the region’s large family breweries, it had just had a generic refit that removed some of its lasting character to me. But it is a pub nevertheless and, in the season of twinkling lights and compulsory merriment, every pub comes into its own.
It is a time for the unleashing of ‘80s decorations that wouldn’t dare adorn people’s houses in 2020; streamers and tinsel clung to the ceilings and light fittings. The hastily dusted off plastic tree from multiple decades of yuletide joy comes into its own. The tacky decoration that made the owner smile 20 years ago is back on the mirror.
It is the time for the flicker of fire light seen from outside through foggy windows and steamed up glasses upon entry into every establishment. The warming smell of mulled wine from the back of the bar, that has been heated for days with barely a sale. Regulars that visit so fleetingly the rest of the year have been emboldened to stay for one or two more.
It is the time for scarves and bobble hats of varying local football team and their opponents, with usual fixture structure out of the window. There is a huge variety of Christmas outfits, from those creating an aura of histrionics in a full 3-piece suit to those wearing an unironic Die Hard quote in an attempt to hold tradition but still radiate contempt for forced frivolity.
It is the time of mumbled interactions between regulars and once-a-year crowds. Tuts and disapproving glances from both sides, with one clinging desperately to the bar stool occupied the rest of the year that is now a huge inconvenience to others.
It is the time for friends gathering. The meetings with those that have made excuses for the past 12 months, finally feeling enough goodwill to see their mates. The traditional pub crawls between ageing friends who are doing it for the custom, though the finishing time is becoming earlier and the need for food ever present.
It is the time of the seasonal special from the local family brewer. Dark, ruby, sweet, malty. A little too cold. Barely my usual style. Each pint like eating a full Christmas pudding. But of course, I’ll have another, if we are staying for another, and another, and another, before somebody finally suggests a short.
Then there are the days of braving the high streets for gift purchases. The cold fingers gripping shopping bags on that final trip, relieved by the warm fire of a foot-relieving pub, with a just reward beer for battling the crowds.
All of this before the final Christmas Eve beers, as people slowly slip away throughout the late afternoon and early evening, ready to settle down at home in preparation for the following day. Generic phrases and greetings sound out across the pub, aimed at everybody and nobody in particular. “All the best.” “Have a good one, folks.” “If I don’t see you…”
Now the decorations still adorn the windows. They’ve been hung in so many public houses in an attempt to provide normality. The windows aren’t frosted though as the darkness permeates. The lights glow from upstairs windows, inhabited but with nobody to welcome in.
But still further down the street the decorations haven’t been raised. The sense of normality doesn’t exist behind the locked door. Instead, the new ornamentation only gives the contact details to a local real estate company, in charge of any future.
The unspoken rule is to accept that it has to be different this year to return to those festivities in the next. Yet how do we look forward to a future where the tinsel and streamers never leave the box again and the open doors and bright lights are replaced with apartment numbers?
There will be times when people feel isolated in this unusual period, hoping to be aided by the few days of freedom, the over-exaggerated social bubbles or potential online interactions. But it is here on this breezy station platform, unable to pass the time waiting for the delayed service leant on a bar, that I feel really alone this Christmas.