CHRISTMAS





For sure it was embarrassing. Thousands of people were packed into the cathedral waiting for midnight mass to begin but five rows of seats at the front were cordoned off, reserved. An old lady clutching a silver-headed cane sat there, that's all. There was a deacon presiding, a middle-aged man who wore a cassock and soft shoes and who had a corpulent face. He patrolled back and forth in front of the altar. For those people standing in the flanks with little or no view, those empty seats were a spit in the eye, there were no two ways about it.

Almost late after the Potts' dinner party we ran in through the main door. Immediately meeting a solid mass of people, I had to genuflect to the back of some colossus in a camel-hair overcoat. My mother recognized the Parsons and silently gesticulated with them, thrown back to behaving like a giggling schoolgirl by the solemnity of the church. Actually it wasn't so bad. You were thinking, one hour standing here, some nice music, then bed and Christmas tomorrow.

With a sure purpose of his own Potts started to push his way further in so all five of us followed. In the shadows of the thick marble columns people were hunched detective-like in their overcoats. Up high the vaulted roof was black with soot; out in the middle the nave was brilliantly lit. There was an army-sized congregation sat there, in arrays, an Asterix drawing of the Roman Army in battle formation.

Potts got all the way to the side chapel near the altar. Here a rack of candles was burning and an old woman was bent in prayer, oblivious of the mass about to start. Potts caught the soft-shoed deacon's eye and winked. The deacon came forward and there was a whispered conversation. Then, starting with Potts himself, we were escorted one by one to those reserved chairs plumb at the front. I think Potts was on the Cathedral Board. When the deacon gripped my arm I felt a cold chill and wondered how he dragged the choristers around.

Then the procession came out, fifty choirboys in red cassocks, seminarians in black ones, celebrant priests in white robes and the Cardinal, a tall, ill-looking man with a large nose. We saw Potts' son and my brother, choirboys together. At the altar the procession broke up, each member found his place and the Cardinal came up to the lectern not ten feet from us.

With a huge rumble the cathedral rose to its feet.

"Brethren, brothers and sisters, loving members of the congregation, at this first, joyful hour of Christmas Day, let us pray."

Then we were stormed. Oh it was a riot. They rushed at us to claim the empty places, that mass of people in the wings. An enormous lady in a head-dress pushed up beside Potts, who was visibly put out. Good Lord it was funny.