In a new episode of the Transporting Awkward Items by Bus series, I found myself yesternight trundling along wrestling a Christmas tree. Some Grinches and Scrooges among you may glance at my tree and with an aloof sneer dismiss it as being far too short to be considered in any sense a tree. I ask you to remember, however, what happens at this time of year to people whose hearts are three sizes too small.
This is the first Christmas where I bought a tree myself. Normally I am across the water in the US of A getting a tree with my parents, an act which always feels awkward in the balmy Florida breezes. But this year I will be hosting Christmas in London, so the solemn duty of tree selection falls to me.
Being a child of suburbia, I have fond memories of choosing trees from frozen groves on farms not far from where we lived, trees which my parents and I would return for weeks later to cut down and toboggan across the snow toward Dad’s winter-hardy truck. Even in Florida we would drive to the nearest grassy lot and select a tree to tie into the back of my little car, singing carols at the top of our lungs all the way home. (Except for that first year in Florida where I grimly refused to entertain the idea of pine or fir and insisted on something that reminded me less of the snowy climes of my youth, finally settling on a rather fetching lime tree for our festive greenery.)
How, then, do urbanites gather their trees? The first mystery of this first London Christmas.
Fortunately I live in Wapping, which is basically like living in a tiny village that happens to be enclosed by a large city. We have a local butcher and greengrocer who are doing trees to order and very festive they look, too, arrayed outside the grocer’s shop like a pack of nutcracker-soldiers at attention.
Unfortunately it must be admitted that the flat I share with a friend is not spacious. Floor space, such as that which one might use to reverently place a Christmas tree upon, is definitely not something we have in spare quantities. The local trees are just on too grand a scale for our rooms. No, this tree must be sought afar.
‘Afar’ in this case being ‘quite close to where I work,’ as there’s a flower stall down the road which at this festive time of year stocks wreaths, mistletoe, and trees in varying sizes. There is a middling-sized little cedar in a perfect cone that I reject on the grounds of being just TOO symmetrical. It’s one of those trees that looks fake even though it is real. That leaves the shorter pines and firs. I scoop one up. In the dim light of the nearby Underground station it looks sublime.
The tree, ensconced in a large plastic garbage bag, and I, laden on one arm with bags and the other with the little tree, begin our homeward march. Down Kingsway we go, the tree and I, gathering nary a spare glance as we proceed. I never think of Kingsway as being all that long but the tree despite its miniscule size begins to make its presence known to my arm with urgency.
Down and down and down we go, seeking the right bus stop. I pause for breath and shuffle my bags. It begins to rain. Perhaps, a glimmer of a thought flits through my brain, perhaps a taxi might be a forgivable extravagance for this sojourn? But being both stubborn and impecunious, I wait it out. The bus comes and I board, a very festive if somewhat damp bag lady. Bumpity-bump-bump, bumpity-bump-bump over the hills of perniciously unsnowy London we jostle along.
Then from the bus stop the long march home, rain falling more thickly now as the tree and I round the Tower of London, dodging sluggardly pedestrians checking their phones and splashing through unwelcome puddles. Into the decorous grandeur of St Katharine’s Docks we march, puffing along past boats trimmed with lights. The festive spirit is not very strong within me on this heavy and damp slog. I begin singing grumpy Christmas tunes under my breath. The second and third verses of ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas,’ the ones demanding figgy pudding and refusing to go until we get some, feature large in my mind. On we trudge, past Thomas Moore Square with its blinking strings of lit icicles looking like frost lasers aimed at impaling all the journalists on their way home. Then over the slick little bridge on the ornamental canal, where some swans let me know that they are not fond of tiny Christmas trees wrapped in plastic bags. The rain falls with such determination that I could swear my tree and my coat are heavier now.
At last the tree and I pitch up at home each looking equally bedraggled. In triumph, I arrange the festive little fellow on a table and sit down to admire him.
Whereupon I notice that my little twiglet is rather far from the ideal Christmas tree shape, instead listing to one side in the pot as though it’s trying to climb out. My housemate suggests that from its skew-whiff stance we trim it into a rugged bonsai shape. I glower. “I didn’t notice when I was picking it out! When you look at them from the top down they all just look like big dots, okay?”
We settled for christening it Twiglet ‘Piny Tim’ McNeedles. The Christmas spirit fills vessels of all sizes and shapes.