by John Morrison


86: A Child is Bored

Christmas is finally here. A visitor from distant planet Zob, enjoying a brief stopover on Earth during one of those whistle-stop 'three galaxies in a week' package tours, would be scratching his pointy green head in puzzlement. Why, he'd wonder, do the people in the streets look so glum and brow-beaten, especially since the people on the advertising posters seem so happy? If Christmas is all it's cracked up to be (and he's read all about our festive season in the tourist brochure) then why aren't all the Earthlings laughing? But he's unfamiliar with planet Earth, of course, so he can't be expected to understand our idiosyncratic ways.

Let's hope he doesn't venture into the Grievous Bodily Arms, where life is seen through the bottom of a beer glass, darkly. In theory, at least, a resident of Zob should feel at home here, amongst drinkers who bear more than a passing resemblance to the cast of Aliens. But appearances can be deceptive; the regulars are clannish and don't take kindly to strangers. Or women. Or children, unless they're tall enough to reach the bar and can afford to buy a round. Or lefties. Or students. Or nancy boys. Even folk from neighbouring towns get short shrift here. So the regulars are unlikely to extend the hand of friendship to someone from another galaxy altogether, unless they're looking for someone to drive the getaway car.

Milltown's supermarket is crammed with last-minute shoppers. To avoid embarrassment or distress to his more affluent customers, the manager has made a few discreet changes to the checkouts. In addition to the usual 'Ten Items Or Less' queue, there's one specifically for paupers, with their 'Cheap & Cheerful' own-brand products and 'pick & mix' selections of root vegetables. Single blokes are segregated too, so that the contents of their baskets - mostly snack noodles and TV dinners for one - won't depress those in a more festive frame of mind. Another queue is reserved for old biddies who gabble incessantly, and wait until their shopping is bagged before they even start to look for their purse. It's a process that can take five minutes on a good day, maybe half an hour if they happen to come across any photos of their grandchildren.

A new 'customer care' initiative - a creche for men - is proving to be a big success. Most men would rather have a boil lanced than be dragged kicking and screaming around a busy supermarket. Especially at this time of the year. And it's not always possible to leave men at home, unsupervised, with the ever-present possibility of them playing with matches or overdosing on cream sherry and liqueur chocolates. The creche offers a spacious play area, well provided with soft-porn magazines, socket sets and an assortment of power tools, where men can safely be left for an hour or two while their partners get on with the shopping.

Once the supermarket has closed on Christmas Eve, the only place that stays open throughout the holiday is the all-night petrol station. It offers a last opportunity for busy executives to buy thoughtful presents for their loved ones. So there are children in Milltown who'll wake up on Christmas morning to the disappointment of finding their stockings filled with tubs of Swarfega, furry dice and five litre cans of high-performance engine oil.

On Christmas morning all our carefully nurtured notions of sexual equality seem to evaporate. Women feel a primordial pull towards cooking the mountain of food they've bought. And men feel an equally primordial desire to let them. Their half-hearted attempts to help (just standing around, getting in the way, saying “Is there anything I can do?”) never fail to get the required response. “Why don’t you go for a walk?”, the women suggest, in the tone of voice they generally reserve for addressing half-witted children.

And what a splendid idea that is: to escape the Christmas mayhem to follow the gritting lorry around a chilly and almost deserted Milltown. The tiled roofs of our little terraced houses look like they've had a light dusting of icing sugar. Breath turns to mist in the cold; frosty pavements are bruised by the footprints of early risers. Christmas lights wink beguilingly, adding some welcome colour to a monochromatic winter's morning.

Milltown isn't just a small Pennine town; it's a state of mind, a theatre of the imagination, located somewhere between Yorkshire and Fairyland. A place to which people with unconventional lifestyles have gravitated over the years, ostensibly to 'get themselves together'. So, almost by definition, these are people who haven't yet managed to get themselves together in any meaningful way. No matter how untogether you are feeling, there'll be plenty of folk in Milltown whose private lives are even more chaotic than yours. It's a vaguely comforting thought.

Milltown is full of good-hearted people who are striving to live sanely in a crazy world. If some of them contrive to miss their objective by a country mile... well, there's no disgrace in that. At least they've tried. And if some of them should choose to believe that the source of their misfortunes lie with the alignment of the planets, rather than their own fecklessness... that's understandable too. Once they've wandered off the narrow path of rationalism, to play non-competitive games in the Elysian fields, it can be hard to find their bearings again. They may not know where they are, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're lost. "I am a Child of the Universe", they insist, "and I have a right to be here". "Not on my fucking land, you don't", says the farmer, in no mood to debate the matter, "so bugger off, sharpish, or I'll set the dogs on you".

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