Durbar Square

I’m staying in a room in Freak Street that’s little more than a plywood box. I’m not sure there’s much more than corrugated iron between me and the sub-zero December air. In the room next door, a couple of guys with some very pure-looking grass. I spend several hours stoned in the most pleasant way – none of the nausea and toxicity of British hash.

Breakfast standing in the freezing fog in Durbar Square. Not many folk about, and the guy cooking some kind of Asian-style eggy bread on a low charcoal burner is friendly. I breathe in the mist, the cold, and the gorgeous unfamiliarity. I’m just happy.

In a second-hand bookshop, I pick up a copy of Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Travelled.” Happy hours are spent over coffee and in odd corners, just reading, unhurried, un-harassed. Nepal is such a blessed relief after the fractious, pestered journeying through India.

Mike, the guy who’s motorcycled from England, reappears. I last saw him in Jaipur, when three of us rented bikes and saw the Bollywood filming in the fountain gardens.

We celebrate Christmas with water buffalo steak, and begin planning an end-of-season Annapurna trek.

Frosty the Snowman

My gloves are far from watertight, and rapidly soak through with molten handfuls of snow. Kneeling in mounds of it, rolling lumpy, cylindrical balls of it, stripping the ground bare to reveal tracks of surprised-looking grass. Long stains on the trouser knees.

The cold and the wind ice my red ears, haunting possibilities of earache, neglect of scarf or hat. I will assemble a tentative figure of snow, structurally unsound, repeatedly re-built, but eventually upstanding. A couple of sticks and a handful of stones.

Gathering a tin bowlful of snow, mixing with hot chocolate powder in the kitchen, tastes disappointingly watery, and yet repeated year on year in some kind of denial.

The smudge, oily, of coal on my hands, pressing in a row of jacket buttons. It smells faintly of tar and petrol.

The saccharin Christmas carols on an American LP – imagining choirs in artificially snowy shopping malls of neon-lit cityscapes. At the end of Side A, the needle rhythmically hisses against the track end until a grown-up goes through to lift it, gingerly, with the delicate lever. Next up: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Piano

Sitting on the embossed velvet stool on Christmas Day, craning my neck to read the words as Mum played. Good King Wenceslas Looked Out. Or “last looked out” as I always thought…

The mince pies smell of pastry and sweetness and alchohol, and roast goose and sprouts from earlier linger.

It’s cold in the hall here – why no fire or stove through this end, I never understood. I hunch my shoulders against it, and eye the circular, whirring fan heater with longing.

The piano stool contains a couple of generations of sheet music, damp-smelling and dusty Beethoven, Mozart and Bach, along with USA-based Christmas Carols from before the move. Apparently Alice & Laura flummoxed the congregation in Oxford by launching into a solo of Away in a Manger with the American melody.

Some undisciplined guest has dropped pie crumbs on the keyboard. I moisten a finger and lift them off. The pastry dissolves butterly on my tongue.

Playing myself, I feel the wide stretch as my hands endeavour to reach an octave or larger interval, and can almost hear my brain grinding as it interprets the upcoming chords. Is that noise my hypocanthus growing?

Moving the piano from house to house has been a sweaty, scary task. Both my body and the instrument too precious to damage, but so likely in practice to be.

Christmas lights

They were Victorian glass – very old electrical work – beautiful fruit shapes with subtle colours and a damask (?) – by which I mean, dusty, non-sheen – finish. “The fruit lights” were hung in the lower branches of the 12-foot, pungent-smelling, towering tree that stretched up from the hall, encircled by the stairs. I could reach out and touch the prickly needles almost at any level, sitting on the golden ash steps and reaching through the open bannisters.

My other favourites had tiny, intense, coloured lights, which generally placed to the top, up to the angel.

On Christmas Day, lighting the red, wonky tree candles on their silver, scalloped holders and feeling the heat, enjoying the absence of electric light, tasting mince pies and tea, and picking out carols on the piano. Grandparents perching on chairs, and kids distributed on the lower parts of the stairs.

It was always a prickly crawl under the low-hanging branches to reach the on switch in the morning – a tangle of cables from multiple light sets, the tree seeming a bit insecure in its stand, despite tethering, and needles falling off and tangling in my hair and collar. The smell of dust on the varnished reclaimed church floor. “The pink wood”, that was called – Mum and Dad had salvaged it from a demolishing church, and pulled countless nails using the big blue iron nail puller, and sanded and scraped until the pink paint was gone.