In your absence I imagine you. Home for Christmas, and all that god-awful clichéd guff, except that it isn’t guff at all when you don’t have the cliché, safe and warm and stable, to go on.
Stable, you say inside my head. There we go. It is going to be a Christmas story then.
I look out of the top part, the see-through part, of the bathroom window. It is a bright midwinter morning, still early. There was a clear sky last night and all the shed and garage roofs as far as I can see, all the studio and extension roofs, the house roofs, are white with frost. The trees are still and leafless, the grassblades crisped and bristling all across the back gardens. It’s pretty, yes.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, then, you say.
The census, the crowds, the poor woman on the donkey, exhausted, about to give birth? The star, the shepherds, the kings? This year? Happy post-truth Christmas, happy white (supremacist) Christmas, a sixty-five million people crossing the world no room at the inn kind of Christmas, with a big happy Christmas wish from all of us to eight families from Syria! (that’s how many refugees this city with all its Christmas-white roofs is taking, and they have to fit the bill and be very deserving refugees before they’ll be accepted, whatever that means). Away in a manger no crib for Aleppo, but a happy Facebook Christmas, a YouTube Christmas, a Google Christmas. The seasonal Twitter death-threats are all already out a-wassailing. Night before Christmas, spirit of Christmas, merry little Christmas, bleak midwinter. Frosty wind. Moan. Iron. Stone. The grassblades can glint as much as they like. They’re doing it because it’s cold, that’s all.
This time last year we saw the old year off together and welcomed the new one with the usual champagne and fireworks. We started it as human beings and now we’re ending it as categories on one or other side of a divide so wide it makes the Grand Canyon look like something manageable. Thanks, 2016, for your whole new take on astrology. Year of the Horse’s Arse.
I leave the house. I don’t bother to double-lock it.
I don’t care if anyone breaks in.
On my way to work a Christmas song is blaring out of Poundland. It’s the one with Bing Crosby and David Bowie singing it together. Bowie dead and gone but here he is anyway all up the High Street, and I never much liked this song, always made me think of the Thomas Hardy poem where Hodge the drummer boy of a long-ago war is tipped into a grave uncoffined, dead, young, nothing above him now but strange-eyed constellations. Poor Hodge. He could have done with Bowie, the laureate of seeing strangely, knowing our own strangeness, the man who made us all strange but true, whose Laughing Gnome film, when it was shown on Top of the Pops, was so wild and colourful and zany and unhomely that it had made a girl at your school’s mother have an epileptic fit and have to be taken to the hospital; Bowie, whose zigzag across his face had somehow made my own street, every suburban street, be other colours, be full of unknown possibilities; whose song about the girl with the mousy hair going to the cinema had – as if the dusty thick old ruched theatre curtain down over all our eyes had simply risen – let us see where we really were.
I’d forgotten that Bowie had ever recorded that song, and with Bing Crosby of all people. It tips me back, walking to work this morning in December, into the time when I was breaking up with my first love, Christmas 1982, the air cold and fresh, the roofs of the city we lived in back then white with blackening thaw-marks round the chimneys. She and I were renting a damp and freezing little flat a couple of floors above two shops, a chip shop and a record shop, and the chip shop sent its lardy smell out regardless of the time of day, and the record shop seemed to play on repeat, the whole time we were breaking up (the whole time we went unspeaking up and down the cracked linoleum stairs, or one or other of us sat in the only privacy there was, behind the locked door of the outside toilet out on the staircase landing, where someone at some time or other had burned brown-circle cigarette holes through the net curtain stuff hung over the back of the door), Bowie and Bing singing come they told me pa-rum-pa-pum-pum, along with that other song, the guy who owned the shop played it all the time, Horse With No Name by America. I didn’t like the Bowie/Crosby; I liked it even less for having to hear it constantly when I was unhappy, though that America track, already an oldie by 1982, was a song that had made us both agree, even made us a bit proud – in a rare moment, a little crack of light, crack in the foul linoleum, through which we were still able to be civil to each other, I mean between her ripping the last pages out of all my books (the worst thing she could think to do to me) and me doing whatever worst thing I could think to do to her – that the record shop downstairs from our flat was actually a pretty good one. But Bowie and Crosby and their singing together, we’d taken for granted at the time, was clearly a joke, an anomaly, obviously Bowie dissing Christmas, showing it up for the empty gesture that Christmas truly was. Then we’d finally broken up. Since then I hadn’t gone out of my way to listen to either song again.
Now I walk through the Christmas-cheap streets this morning more than thirty years later, and it may have taken thirty years to dawn on me but I can hear that there’s something unexpected, something enthralling, in a song I’ve always taken for granted too, when all along, unnoticed by me, Bowie was bending the song open and Crosby was holding it steady while he did, and then that soaring harmonious stately part starts where they both leave the song behind or sing a whole other song into it.
Then I remember something so long forgotten that remembering it passes through me like they say ghosts are supposed to. I was in my early teens, thirteen or fourteen. July. Hot outside. My mother was reading the Highland News at the breakfast table. She folded the inside front page in half and passed it over to me.
What? I said.
Friends of yours, are they? she said.
It was a photo of four girls. I recognised them from school; they were all in the years above me. That was Shona. That was Janice. I knew them to say hi to. I knew the other two too. In the photo they were standing in a small group in what looked like an empty field. They weren’t smiling. TRAGEDY OF GIRL’S HOPES FOR HORSE.
The paper said that a couple of weekends ago the girls had gone to the auction mart and one of them (Shona Gillies, 16) had bought a horse with money saved from her Saturday job in the Castle Snack Bar.
I knew she was saving to be able to buy a horse one day. Anyone who knew her knew this about her. I knew the Castle Snack Bar paid the people who worked there a really rubbish wage for very long hours. The paper said she’d gone to the auction mart to see what it was like, because she’d never been and because one day she would be buying the horse she’d been saving up for from it. The others had decided they’d go with her too. The very first horse brought out in front of the Friday livestock crowd was a grey, a poor ill thing, thin, past it, buckled at the legs, bent at the back, one eye black, one eye cloudy. But when she saw it, and saw that it was the local slaughterers bidding for it, and that there were no other bidders, Shona had stuck her hand in the air.
The auctioneer asked her her age. He asked her was she sure. He openly advised her against it. She held her hand up in the air.
She held it there until she’d outbid the slaughterers by a full fifty pence.
I sat in the kitchen reading the paper and I thought, where on earth will she keep a horse? She lives in a street like ours. They’re like us, her family, they don’t just, like, have fields or anything. All they have is what we have, and you can’t keep a horse, not even a small horse, in a council house back garden.
A farmer at the mart, the paper said, had offered her the use of a small paddock for free on his land till she sorted something out and the other girls lent her some of their own money so she could pay someone to deliver her horse to his farm. Then they all went out there and watched from the gate while she led her new old horse out into the mud and the green.
But then, exactly a week after she bought it, the paper said, Shona went to the farm to see her horse and the paddock was empty.
She saw a grey curve on the ground. It was her horse on its side in the middle of the paddock, dead.
It was an inevitability to be expected, the farmer’d told the Highland News. As anyone with any sense who had a look at that horse would know, but all the same I feel for the lassies. It was a waste of their money. The paper reported that he’d dealt gratis with what was left of the horse.
I looked at the picture again. The photo of the girls was presumably taken in the now-empty paddock, unless the people at the paper had driven them out to any old field to take the photo just so it looked like the field the horse had died in.
I gave the paper back to my mother.
They’re not my friends, I said.
It was July. They were lucky. If we’d still been in school and this story had been in the paper, those girls would’ve had a hard time for weeks, for ages people taking the piss out of them. By the time we’d be back at school five weeks from now it’d all be forgotten.
Flog a dead horse.
God-awful small affair.
Those sweet girls back then, I think now.
That sweet girl, bidding all her Saturday money on an old horse so it wouldn’t go for glue till it was ready to go.
When I get into work I hang my coat on the back of my seat, take one of the laptops and one of the earphone sets, sneak into the Ladies, shut myself in the disabled cubicle, plug in the earphones and open a private search engine page on the screen.
In the cubicle in the Ladies in 2016, Bowie circa 1977 is beautiful, feminine, feline, diaphanous, sardonic, unreadable. He has a slight dangerousness about him, a playing-along-for-now. Crosby circa 1977 is as old as you’d expect, his face lined like it’s been folded up too many times. He is almost perversely polite, and unexpectedly petit, thin at the chest. One end of the century nods to the other. Does Bowie know about brother can you spare a dime? Does Crosby know about heroes? One follows the other through ye olde English Christmas stage-set, past the Christmas tree to the piano. They exchange scripted lines all the way. Bowie tells Bing he lives up the road. He makes an Upstairs Downstairs joke; he says he often comes here to use the piano when the master of the house is away. He pretends not to know who Bing is. They pretend to flick through some sheet music on the piano. They choose a song. The Little Drummer Boy.
Afterwards, apparently, Bowie told an interviewer that he did the show because his mother liked Bing Crosby. When he’d got to the studio, though, and they’d told him what he’d be singing was Little Drummer Boy, he’d almost walked out. He said he really hated that song and wouldn’t sing it. To stop him from leaving the studio there and then, they wrote him a couple of new parts for it. When they played these to him he nodded okay. They rehearsed and recorded it all in about an hour.
Every child must be made aware, made to care, fellow man, all the love he can.
Crosby died less than five weeks after making the programme. They showed it that Christmas, 1977, over in America and here in the UK.
They released the song as a Christmas single five years later in 1982.
It is unexpected. It resembles an impossibility. It rises above itself. It makes an old song something new.
I take the earphones out of my ear. I click the laptop screen back on to our home page. I leave the cubicle. I wash my hands. I put the laptop under my arm and I go back out into the office.
Everybody looks tired. But as I pass the desks most people smile up at me and I smile back.
So here’s a Christmas story, then, after all. It’s a duet. It’s in two pieces, a summer piece and a winter piece.
Are you listening? Can you hear me?
One is about hopeless kindness. It’s a gift horse.
Here’s the other: it was Christmas Eve in heaven. The doorbell rang. Bing Crosby dusted his hands together in the hall then went to open the door.
It was David Bowie standing there in the snowy threshold with his arms wrapped round himself as if feeling the cold, though in actuality it was September 1977 when they filmed this and not cold at all.
It was lies.
It was fake.
It was all a pretence.
They both kindly let us know it was, and that they knew it was too.
Then they sang us a Christmas song.
Ali Smith’s novels include “How to Be Both”, which won the Goldsmiths Prize and the Baileys Prize. Her latest book, “Autumn”, is published by Hamish Hamilton
This article appears in the 13 Dec 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016