It’s been a very different Christmas. While mixed with varied and pleasurable times, we can’t deny that there have been empty periods where we have felt far from family and familiar surroundings. Our social calendar, however, has seen its busiest use since we came. First, there was the Nurses’ Christmas Dinner Dance, held in Jamestown Community Centre. Bring your own crockery and cutlery and, for £10 a head, you could eat as much curry, ham, breaded chicken drumsticks and salad, followed by jelly and homemade ice cream, before dancing it off to the local DJ’s choice of music covering the last three decades. All the doctors and their families attended and the youngest of the children, not quite two, particularly enjoyed the music and dancing opportunity much to the delight of the locals.
During a pre-Christmas Thursday antenatal clinic I became aware of excited voices and music gathering outside the hospital. I excused myself to go and have a look. The St Paul’s primary school Christmas procession was about to start. The children, staff and many Mums dress up as elves (or even as a Christmas tree in one case) and walk down into the centre of town accompanied by floats playing Christmas music. Sweets are sold, money collected for school funds and all have a great time. The sky was blue, the sun high and warm, yet it really did begin to feel a bit like Christmas, seeing so many animated little faces enjoying the dressing-up and attention too.
“Lindsey the Christmas tree”
The singing preparations of the past two months culminated in two events. First, the Carols Afloat spectacular on the RMS St Helena on 12 December where the small singing group, Bug-Eyed Tuners (the name derived from the locally caught fish, the big-eyed tuna) performed along with other local individuals, young and old, and some of the gallant ship’s crew. Even Santa Claus paid a visit appearing round the ship’s funnel and dispersing sweets to the audience accompanied by an ‘elf’ playing the accordion! The proceeds of the evening were for various local charities and the captain had been very generous with the raffle prizes. Alan was chuffed to bits to be the winner of one of the prize ‘packages’ containing six bottles of wine and two boxes of chocolates. It was almost one in the morning by the time we got to the end of the queue to board the launch to take us ashore. The customs officials were still there and interested to record the contents of Alan’s wine box, though there was, as an exception to the rule, no duty to pay.
The Little Angels from Harland Primary School 🙂
The “Big Angels” of the Bug-Eyed Tuners….
….. and the “Bug-eyed boys”: Rob, Joe, Ian and Lewis
Saturday 14th was the day of the Christmas Bazaar held in the New Horizon’s yard next to Donny’s bar, Leo’s Place and the St Helena Coffee Shop. We were a bit late getting going and I made an impulse decision that this was the day I would ‘do’ Jacob’s Ladder. Leaving the car at the top of the 699 steps, we set off down to slope. At first, it seemed rather easy but somewhere between half and three quarters of the way down, my legs started to shake uncontrollably. It was then a very slow walk to the Bazaar, by which time there was little left to buy, which was good in that it meant that a lot had been sold to raise money for worthy causes. An aside: the next week I was wearing my long-owned and often-worn East white blouse when I passed the island’s defence lawyer who complimented me on how good I looked in the blouse she had donated to the second hand clothes stall at the Christmas Bazaar! It was a funny moment! After the Bazaar experience we walked around the recently decorated shops and picked up some treats for Christmas. All the time, I was worrying about how I was going to get back up the ladder as I could hardly face the stairs in The Emporium. We met a few people we knew who, instead of offering us a lift back up to Ladder Hill top, said how important it was to do the ladder in both directions as this eased some of the muscle sufferings. Hmmm… After finishing shopping, we returned to the Coffee Shop and spent over an hour there chatting with various people while I reached a point of acceptance about making the ascent. Then, with our shopping bags too (!), we headed off for the climb; 35 steps at a time – each step an average of 28 cm (11 in) high – then a rest. It took over 20 minutes and I certainly would not have managed it without the railing on either side which eased the step up every time. How glad I was to reach the top and collapse into the car! I think that will be my only venture up and down Jacob’s Ladder this time. I’ve no desire to chase the running total of one of my colleagues who has achieved 61 ‘ups and downs’ in his eight months on St Helena; one climb for every year of his life!
Christmas Bazaar in action – seen from a quarter of the way up Jacob’s Ladder
There was not long to rest aching legs, as we were off to the pantomime! Prince Andrews school, the island’s secondary school, was the location for ‘Snow White’, with a cast of young and old, saints and ‘incomers’. The physiotherapist was the Wicked Queen – totally out of character to her normal polite and friendly self. John, the pharmacist was fabulously flamboyant and obviously loving every moment of being the equivalent of the panto dame, in drag as the castle cook. The dwarves were all children under ten and did a great job playing their roles. Snow White was a local teenager, very pretty as are so many of the girls here. She played her role confidently but was rather let down by Prince Charming who had not managed to learn his lines at all, and looked rather less than suave and charming. A number of our friends had helped with making the props and costumes; others were involved in the music production. The audience was responsive and the whole occasion was fun – an excellent outing.
The following day was the second opportunity for the singers I’d rehearsed with to show the results of our preparations when the joint choir that gets together annually to perform a longer piece of Christmas music gave its first rendition of ‘There’ll always be a Christmas’ at St James’ Church. We had a final rehearsal before the concert and then a mince pie break before giving the performance. Having worried that there might not be many mince pies on island I can reassure all that the saints know how to make great mince pies. There is no shortage of mincemeat either. One can find Tesco, Robertson’s, Asda, Spar and South African varieties in the shops.
Straight after the performance, some of us headed on to The Mule Yard for the traditional ‘Carols sing-along’ with the Salvation Army Band. The Mule Yard used to be just that when the East India Company were in charge, a grassy area close to the water but lower down at the level of the moat under the castle. There the mules would wait to be loaded or unloaded with goods bound in or off the island.
There was a much better turn out for this Christmas event, possibly two hundred or more people of all ages and types. Interspersed with the communal carols, which had a bit of a “Christmas Eve late night service full of jolly drinkers” atmosphere as the Mule Yard bar was open as usual, some brave people performed solos – vocal or instrumental. I was sitting on a wall further away from the lit up massive gazebo structure covering the band and seated audience. Children in shorts and T-shirts ran up and down in and around the shadows of the trees, families grouped together chattered all the time, from time to time the sound of the waves perpetually running over the rocky foreshore and occasionally hitting the sea wall penetrated through the music. In the enveloping warm scent-filled dark atmosphere where I was seated all these observations added up to a Christmas experience unlike any other I have encountered.
On the following Wednesday, we repeated the “Christmas cantata” at St Mark’s Church in Longwood, close to Napoleon’s enforced abode in Longwood House. I was called out in the middle of the performance to talk to the doctor on call about a pregnant patient. The community nurse who came to find me drove me to Longwood clinic about a mile away then took me back to the church in time to join the last five minutes of the rendition. There was a baby due the same day and people were asking as soon as the singing had finished if that was why I had to leave; but that baby did not arrive until early on Boxing Day!
Mary, Lauren and Josie in good voice!
I had been in Longwood two nights earlier, out for dinner with the Community Health Clinic staff: more curry, ham and chicken drumsticks. I sat amongst people I work with every day and who I normally have no problems communicating with, and struggled to understand a word they were saying to each other. I understood for the first time how much they have moderated their language for my benefit! Still, they are lovely company and I could not wish to work with more helpful, pleasant colleagues.
On Friday 20th, the Festival of Light took place. This is an annual procession from the top of Jamestown, outside the hospital down the mile long hill to Parade Square outside St James’ Church. We had booked dinner at 2onMain, close to the church and invited Lewis and Lauren to join us. Even Jack came too and slept the evening away, despite the noise and bright lights outside, in his buggy at the back of the restaurant. Somehow, I had managed an ethereal, white light event with candles and angelic singing. This could not have been further from the reality. Strong beating percussion, throbbing bass lines, piercing synthesiser melodies with flashing coloured lights and all kinds of illuminated Christmas images: Santas in abundance, elves, reindeer, polar bears assaulting the senses and brightening up the night. In the middle of it all, Emma and little Klara from Sweden appeared dressed for St Lucia Day in white with a crown of candles, looking serene and angelic – a calming balm for the jingled nerves!
Emma and Klara with Emma’s parents and Agnesa
The choir had one more ‘mini’ performance as part of the ecumenical carol service on the Sunday evening before Christmas, which took place outside the court house in Parade Square. One highlight of this event was listening to two children, belonging to friends from both singing groups, sing Away in a Manger to the gathered audience. They were the only two brave enough to go up to the front when all the children present had been invited to do so. Mum and Dad have lovely voices. Both sang solos in the Christmas cantata, so it is not too surprising that these youngsters also sing beautifully. What amused me is that five minutes earlier while their parents had been performing, they had been squabbling away in the audience, fighting over who could wear Mum’s cardigan.
Then Christmas Eve arrived, and with it a new baby just after one in the morning. This was the baby expected on Boxing Day, and proved to be the first boy of my cohort of babies delivered. All went well and I appreciated the lie in the following morning. We had little pressing to do, so spent the day looking at the view a lot, reading, emailing, doing a jigsaw. I had made over 30 Christmas cards from paper bags, raffia, reused wrapping paper, and cut up file dividers. Periwinkle was decorated with paper baubles made at Shape (the centre for people with learning difficulties of all types), a small garland of brown paper Christmas trees, winter pot pourri brought from home, the cards we had received, an advent calendar bought for 50p at The Moonbeam gift shop and the little coca cola tin angel we bought in Cape Town, now hanging from the living room ‘chandelier’. We were invited down to Val’s home (the owner of Periwinkle) in Jamestown for mince pies and nibbles, which, I thought, worked out well as then we were going on to Carlos (the surgeon) and Heidi’s home for turkey and trimmings, Guatemala style. The minute we walked into Val’s she enquired about our dinner plans. Apparently, ‘nibbles’ in St Helenian talk means rather more than crisps and a few nuts (à la “coktajl” in Kosovo) and she had been busy making St Helenian fishcakes, quiche and salad as well as mince pies! With her encouragement and the tasty goods on offer, we managed pretty well though were still sent away with more mince pies. Val told us a little about her life on the island, and her years with Pat, her husband who sadly died a year ago. Pat was instrumental in helping the author of the book on flowers and plants of St Helena that Alan gave me on first arriving here, to get around the island collecting all the information he needed. Indeed, the book was a posthumous dedication to him and another Saint.
Despite feeling already full, we also managed to do justice to the lovely meal Heidi and Carlos had prepared in their ‘Veranda Villa’ home at the top of Ladder Hill. They had a real Christmas tree on display inside, while outside, a creative garland Heidi made from plastic carrier bags was hanging from the veranda fence, on show to all the vehicles coming through the Ladder Hill gateway just before the right-angled bend up to Half Tree Hollow. Carlos gave us a tour of the recently restored house, they have recently moved in to. It is certainly a good ‘catch’ as far as island accommodation goes and, if we had been staying for longer, the kind of place we would have been happy to call home. Still, we were equally happy to be in Periwinkle and to head home later on so that I could, during the night time free download hours, buy last year’s Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings College, Cambridge. I had been so disappointed that, despite trailers through the day on BBC World Service stating that this year’s event would be broadcast live, it ended up being Focus Africa for us instead. My letter to BBC World Service complaining about this confusion and the disappointment it created has gone unanswered….
Christmas Day dawned with bright skies, amazing sea shades and sky patterns. We listened to the 2012 Nine Lessons and Carols as we got up and going, preparing to go to spend the morning with Lewis, Lauren and Jack who had generously invited us to share their Christmas Morning Barbequed Breakfast tradition. What a lovely and different time we had: standing on the veranda watching the whale sharks out in Jamestown Bay, playing with Jack with some of his new toys, drinking fizz and fruit juice cocktails and watching Lewis do an excellent job cooking the bacon, sausage and eggs-in-onion shells ready for brunch. We enjoyed so much feeling part of a family Christmas, sharing the fun of present opening under the Christmas tree and relaxing in the company of this family who are becoming so special to us. They were heading out to at least two more invites from lunchtime on.
Alan and Jack chill with new toys
The Christmas Brunch Spectacular
We returned home to quiet Periwinkle, looking forward to Skype conversations with all the family and a relaxing day with no set agenda apart from planning our end of trip holiday in the Cape. All plans for Christmas Dinner were abandoned as we were still so full with the feasting of the morning and the previous evening.
The second baby boy had arrived at six in the morning on Boxing Day, so it took me a while to get going once I’d had a catch-up sleep. Our Christmas festivities ended with Boxing Day drinks at Joe (the vet) and Teeny’s home in Gumwood Forest, shared with Ché the spaniel and Dougal the cat as well as other humans who were popping in to their ‘at home’. Joe is a true enthusiast about his work, always a mine of information about the interesting conditions he encounters in animals on the island, including some that cross over to humans such as leptospirosis. We chatted on about things medical, human and animal, then move to music as Teeny is the island’s music teacher based at Prince Andrew’s school, as well as the ‘director’ of the Bug-eyed Tuners. In the two years she has been on the island, she has contributed enormously to the pupils’ opportunities for music playing and studying. Despite a limited budget, she has created all kinds of ensembles (vocal and instrumental), found donations for guitars and flutes, enlisted other musical adults to teach their instrument to interested pupils and inspired the youngsters to feel confident, despite still being ‘beginners’, to perform and enjoy the experience. We heard the results at the school Christmas concert the week before. There is such potential amongst the youngsters and we wish for Teeny all the strength and support she needs to continue her excellent work.
The Shape stable scene outside St James’ Church – note the amazing newspaper ball sheep