Cider with Rosie (part 1)
The week before Christmas, when the snow seemed to lie thickest, was the moment for carol-singing; and when I think back to those nights it is to the crunch of snow and to the lights of the lanterns on it. Carol-singing in my village was a special tithe for the boys, the girls had little to do with it. Like hay-making, blackberrying, stone-clearing and wishing-people-a- happy-Easter, it was one of our seasonal perks.
By instinct we knew just when to begin it; a day too soon and we should have been unwelcome, a day too late and we should have received lean looks from people whose bounty was already exhausted. When the true moment came, exactly balanced, we recognised it and were ready.
So as soon as the wood had been stacked in the oven to dry for the morning fire, we put on our scarves and went out through the streets calling loudly between our hands, till the various boys who knew the signal ran out from their houses to join us.
One by one they came stumbling over the snow, swinging their lanterns around their heads, shouting and coughing horribly.
'Coming carol-barking then?'
We were the Church Choir, so no answer was necessary. For a year we had praised the Lord, out of key, and as a reward for this service - on top of the Outing - we now had the right to visit all the big houses, to sing our carols and collect our tribute.
Eight of us set out that night. There was Sixpence the Tanner, who had never sung in his life (he just worked his mouth in church); The brothers Horace and Boney, who were always fighting everybody and always getting the worst of it; Clergy Green, the preaching maniac; Walt the bully, and my two brothers. As we went down the lane, other boys, from other villages, were already about the hills, bawling 'Kingwensluch', and shouting through keyholes 'Knock on the knocker! Ring at the Bell! Give us a penny for singing so well!' They weren't an approved charity as we were, the Choir; but competition was in the air.
Our first call as usual was the house of the Squire, and we trouped nervously down his drive.
A maid bore the tidings of our arrival away into the echoing distances of the house. The door was left ajar and we were bidden to begin. We brought no music, the carols were in our heads. 'Let's give 'em 'Wild Shepherds', said Jack. We began in confusion, plunging into a wreckage of keys, of different words and tempos; but we gathered our strength; he who sand loudest took the rest of us with him, and the carol took shape if not sweetness.
Suddenly, on the stairs, we saw the old Squire himself standing and listening with his head on one side.
He didn't move until we'd finished; then slowly he tottered towards us, dropped two coins in our box with a trembling hand, scratched his name in the book we carried, give us each a long look with his moist blind eyes, then turned away in silence.
As though released from a spell, we took a few sedate steps, then broke into a run for the gate. We didn't stop till we were out of the grounds. Impatient, at least, to discover the extent of his bounty, we squatted by the cowsheds, held our lanterns over the book, and saw that he'd written 'Two Shillings'. This was quite a good start. No one of any worth in the district would dare to give us less than the Squire.
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