by John Morrison


87: A Flash of Blue

Christmas is over for another year. It wasn’t just the goose getting fat: the orgy of eating and drinking has left Milltown folk listless and inert. To cap it all, everything we bought in December is being flogged off at half-price during the January sales. It just adds insult to insolvency; since we’re feeling both corpulent and broke, it’s hard to know whether to tighten our belts or loosen them.

We fantasise about healthy food, diet regimes and proper exercise (not merely walking the dog down to the pub, and hoisting a pint). New Year’s resolutions are optimistically made but are invariably broken: a process that’s generally over and done with by the middle of January. One thing's for certain: if the road to hell really is paved with good intentions, then overindulgent Milltown folk won’t be needing an extra sweater in the next life.

Willow Woman frowns, as she maintains her balance on the bathroom scales. Motionless - with one leg straight and one leg bent - she looks like a statue of some Greek goddess. A Greek goddess in a threadbare dressing gown. No wonder she's frowning: she's put on an ounce.

Damien Hill would feel at home in Willow Woman's house: it's the pits. She'd like to do something about the mess, she really would. But there are so many jobs that need doing around the place; since she can't decide what to do first, she never does anything at all. Someone should tell her to get rid of those untidy piles of feng shui books. That would be a good start.

Willow Woman compensates with an active fantasy life for what she lacks in home-making skills. She dreams about a life less cluttered. Cooking candle-lit dinner for jolly friends; swapping recipes; having animated discussions about the vital affairs of the day; not having to sniff the milk before pouring it into a glass.

Her own New Year's resolution is to stop signing up for some new workshop whenever a problem arises, instead of addressing the problem herself. So, with this in mind, she's signed up for an intensive twelve-week course on 'dealing with workshop dependence'. Every Monday, 7-9pm, from now until Spring: it sounds as though somebody has formulated a real money-spinner.

Tempers are frayed in every Milltown household. Children are frazzled and hyperactive from playing too many violent computer games. The women have run through their repertoire of recipes for left-over turkey. Bird tables are crowned with turkey carcasses - it’s like some macabre ceremony - leaving the blue tits and sparrows to pick the bones clean. The men are queasy and disorientated. The holiday drags on, allowing them too much time to mull over important questions, like "why did I spend so much money just to give myself liver damage?"

Life’s familiar tempo has been disrupted over the holiday; some folk don’t even know what day it is. After so much inactivity, the working week has an unaccustomed appeal. Families can survive pretty well on a diet of five days of work and two days of leisure. When those two days stretch into double figures, even the most harmonious families tend to become crabby and argumentative.

The landscapes depicted on the soon-to-be-discarded Christmas cards differ from reality in one startling repect: there’s snow on the cards, but none in Milltown. The truth is, of course, that we are more likely to get white Easters than white Christmases. It’s not that we’re particularly fond of snow, but we’d still be relieved to see some. A winter without snow seems contrary to nature: an unrehearsed departure from a familiar script.

At this time of the year we may get two dozen dreary days in a row: days when the sun fails to make even a cameo appearance, and the clouds resolutely refuse to lift. We tend to get a bit twitchy from sunlight deprivation. Then, without warning, we wake up one morning to find that the world has been washed clean in the night. Instead of lowering clouds in standard-issue battleship grey, the sky is a rich, regal and unclouded blue. There may be a dozen days like this each year - mostly in winter - when the air is hypnotically clear. When we can stand on top of one of the hills that cradle Milltown, and see for miles. When we feel we need only stretch out a hand to be able to touch the furthest horizon.

The air is still cold, and resonates with the slightest sound. Metal studs on a pair of working boots ring out against the cobbles - like a distant blacksmith striking his anvil. The noise of a tractor starting up is so familiar around Milltown that we barely notice it any more. But on a morning like this we register every judder of a determinedly unmaintained engine; the squeal of an unoiled hinge - and an involuntary oath - as the cab door springs shut on cold, careless fingers; the rasping sound of a farmer clearing his throat and depositing a ball of phlegm onto the grass.

Ragged-winged rooks congregate noisily in wind-tossed trees. They can always find something to bicker about. Few sounds exemplify the bare, raw winter landscape like the rooks’ cantankerous croaking. A wren calls loudly from the thorny heart of a hawthorn hedge. Fieldfares soar over frosted fields, far from their Arctic breeding grounds.

A grey heron glides serenely along the river that runs through Milltown, and comes to rest in the shallows. Its movements are slow, stealthy and deliberate: movements that many Milltown folk would immediately recognise as a rudimentary form of tai-chi. The heron strikes - suddenly, effortlessly - to hold up a wriggling fish in its beak, before swallowing it head first. With each gulp, a fish-shaped lump descends that long sinuous neck... then disappears. A kingfisher skims across the water: a flash of tropical colour against the smoke-blackened gritstone facade of an old mill. Yes, there are wonders aplenty, even in the middle of a Pennine winter, for those who can lay their worries aside for a few precious minutes and open their eyes to see them.

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