THE small town of Skelmere Junction, in the English North Country, isn’t easily come upon, particularly since the closure of its railway connection.
It is, by all accounts, a much quieter place than was once the case. Indeed on some nights it is said to lie silent in its rural and unstirring valley. Save, that is, for the soft clink of bulbs on various wire-strung lights swayed by the wind that cuts over the neighbouring mere.
In its day a hub of the wool trade, Skelmere has vanished from almost all maps, its name erased from timetables for buses as well as trains. Forgotten in its frost pocket, it might be said.
Improbable as it seems, its Christmas illuminations are perhaps now its claim to fame (if that’s the word: some might favour another).
If yours is a wandering nature it’s possible that, one evening, you might find yourself entering Skelmere’s still-pretty squares and straying down its narrow ways, thereby witnessing the aura of those hanging lanterns in person.
For the present, what follows, as far as the events are known, is an account of how those lights – ‘curious’ is an adjective some have used – came into being. Or maybe that last word should be… beings.
You, dear readers and perhaps rovers, can be the judges of that.
‘NOW Harold, don’t go taking any of what I’m about to say personally,’ Walter Wheeler began – shuffling some papers while seated at his desk in the mayor’s parlour.
Harold Watts didn’t like the sound of that. If ever a word was loaded it was personally. It was a stab in the back and a punch on the nose at the same time. That’s the kind of word it was.
‘… but you and me need to have a conversation…’
Conversation. There was another. A wheedling, weaselly word. Typical from the tongue of a politician like Walter Wheeler (even if he was only mayor of Skelmere Junction). Not having a conversation was what it really meant. Being told was an appropriate translation.
‘… about the lights,’ Wheeler said and looked up.
Up to that point Skelmere’s first citizen had avoided his visitor’s gaze. Now he studied Watts keenly, to see how his words had sunk in.
‘The lights?’ said Watts, nonplussed. ‘What about them?’
Harold Watts hadn’t expected this. When Rosie Dawes rang to ask him to come to the town hall – for ‘a spot of business’ in the mayor’s parlour – he’d formed an entirely different impression. In his mind, the receipt of some award had loomed large: a scroll signed by Wheeler, sherry afterwards, maybe even an alderpersonship (if that was the term).
He’d been up a ladder, angled rather awkwardly, against the spire of St Hilda’s. Right beside the weathercock. Installing a new lightning rod which now poked past the bird’s back in a way that made it seem, to Harold at least, like the shiny old rooster had been skewered for a spit-roast.
Reaching in a pocket for his mobile, he’d almost slipped.
Weirdest thing was that, despite the height, the signal had been terrible: Rosie’s voice somehow scrambled: a strange, throaty, furry sound, lisping and clicking in Harold’s right ear.
‘Yes!’ Watts had said loudly before ending the call. ‘YES!’
‘What about the lights?’ he now repeated to Wheeler while tusking and tutting in his head. The Christmas lights? Was that it? Blumin eck! The money he’d paid to dry-clean his suit! Cheek for his pains from the girl on the counter.
‘Terylene?’ she’d said, looking at the label. ‘This must be an old one.’
And how it now reeked. Like the purple bergs in the urinals at The Swan. He’d seen Wheeler back off as he walked in. The bloody pen and ink.
‘Well,’ his host continued, ‘there are some in the community who think it’s time for… a change.’
Watts leaned forward in his seat. ‘A change?’
‘And as mayor it’s my job to listen to what folk are saying. And, frankly Harold, folk are saying rather a lot.’
Wheeler put on some specs, took a sheet from the pile in front of him, began to read aloud.
‘“Dear Mayor, I’m asking you for pity’s sake to put a stop to our town’s annual humiliation in the form of its so-called Christmas lights. To say that the illuminations’ (Wheeler negotiated the word syllable by syllable) ‘of Skelmere Junction have seen better days would be a gross…”’ Wheeler mumbled for a moment, moved on. ‘“The Santa and sleigh, which has been strung across High Street these past twenty years, is now so lacking in bulbs that on its last outing it resembled nothing so much as a scarecrow on water-skis. It’s time you pulled the plug on the whole…”’
He stopped, looked up, gave Watts an embarrassed half-smile.
‘Well, perhaps that one does go a little far. Native of these parts if ever there were. But that’s the tenor. And I have to tell you Harold, the writer’s not alone.’
Wheeler picked up another letter.
‘“Mr Mayor, The near blacked-out state of the snowman in Bridge Lane last year was obscene. His flashing carrot nose…” And I think I can safely leave that one there. Marjorie Potts, the wool shop,’ Wheeler indicated. ‘Needless, I’m sure.’
Watts heard Wheeler in stunned silence. So this was their game was it? Not a thank you, a handshake and the right to graze sheep on Sowerby Road roundabout, but a stab in the back – cuts, multiple wounds – with poisoned pens. Just like Julius Caesar. Skelmere folk! Nothing but—
‘Ay now, Walter…’ Watts reared.
But Wheeler was off again with another missive. ‘“The reindeer on the lamp standard outside my shop has been leaping there so long the animal must be positively arthritic”’ (This last the mayor pronounced as if invoking the name of an ancient king.) ‘“Any humane electrician would have had the thing put down be now.”’
Watts could contain himself no longer. ‘You don’t have to tell me who that’s from. Clive Ashton! The swine! Been after my contract for years!’
‘But he’s a butcher,’ said Wheeler, looking up. ‘What’s he know about electrics?’
‘Exactly!’ said Harold, eyes swelling in their sockets (rather like lightbulbs, Walter Wheeler thought).
‘Not for him!’ Watts followed-up smartly. ‘For his brother-in-law. Over at Sowerby Sands. Does lights ont seafront… after a fashion.’
‘Now don’t go blowing a fuse, Harold. I told you not to take it personally.’
There it was again, thought Watts – that word. Oh he’d bloody well take things personally with Clive Ashton all right. There’d be no more pork sausages from his shop. Or chops on a Saturday. Harold Watts would be up the supermarket from now on, like every bugger else. ‘Shop Skelmere’? Be damned!
Wheeler was reading again. ‘Reverend Wilson. “I’d like to put on record my appreciation of the work done over the years with regard to our Christmas lights by Mr Harold Watts.”’
Ah! Now that was more like it, thought Harold. At least the vicar knew which side his bread was buttered. Quite right too. A respectable note went on St Hilda’s collection plate every Sunday. Same in his father’s time, and his grandfather’s.
‘“But the angels on the clock tower are looking more shabby than seraphim,”’ continued Wheeler. ‘Whatever that means,’ he said, glancing at Harold. ‘“And (for several years now) we’ve had two wise men rather than three in the nativity on the railings. I don’t wish to sound ungrateful but…”’ Wheeler let the letter peter.
‘Is that it?’ Watts asked.
‘Need I go on?’ Wheeler replied.
Watts saw the look of a man whose mind was already on his haddock supper. And doubtless there was a grumble in his pile from Stanley Sugden about the state of some illumination outside his fish bar: a wild exaggeration about something battered or burnt-out.
Watts wondered for a moment if it was Sugden who’d cooked-up the whole thing. He and Wheeler were committee men: the Loyal Order of the Skels. The town’s ‘friendly society’, or so it styled itself. It met upstairs at The Swan. Men only. Watts had only ever been an infrequent attendee. He tried to remember if he’d renewed his subs.
‘May I now speak?’ he began.
‘Of course,’ said Wheeler, knowing full well what was to come.
‘My family has been doing the Christmas lights in this town since 1901,’ said Watts.
‘I know that,’ said Wheeler.
‘And it was my great-grandfather who brought electricity to Skelmere Junction in 1896.’
‘I know that also,’ said Wheeler, with a sigh. ‘Appen it’s a fact you’ve acquainted me with more than once.’
‘You could actually say that, in so far as Skelmere Junction exists on any map, it’s because we, the Watts family, bloody well put it there. Electricity is in our blood. It’s in our name.’ Harold’s eyes were blazing now. ‘It was the Wattses, it might be said, who took Skelmere out from the Dark Ages. A fact some folk round here seem to have forgotten. Perhaps they need reminding, Mr Mayor.’
Wheeler didn’t care for the colour that Watts, in his anger, was turning: a kind of electric blue.
‘Ay! Come on! Calm down! There’s no need for any of that Mr Mayor stuff tween thee and me.’
Wheeler sought to soothe things. ‘Glass of water?’ he asked.
‘No,’ Harold snapped. ‘Water and electrics don’t mix. Everybody knows that.’
‘Well you’re the expert,’ said Wheeler. ‘It’s all double Dutch to me. Fret about changing a lightbulb meself. First thing the wife says is “Call Harold – he’ll know”.’
Wheeler sensed Watts brighten, the mood lighten (a little).
‘What I’m wondering,’ he began, ‘is whether – not for this year (too late for that, I’ll warrant) but the Christmas after – there might be… another way – a middle way, so to speak.’
‘Middle way?’ asked Harold.
‘I’ve had a letter,’ he picked up a lavender-coloured sheet (one that Harold fancied Wheeler had clearly set aside) ‘from Lavinia Bloom. Runs that shop int square – boutique, I think she calls it – Guiding Light. Candles, smelly stuff, that kind of thing.’
‘I know it,’ said Harold. ‘Only been there five minutes.’
‘Two years, actually,’ Wheeler continued. ‘And in my opinion the kind of forward-looking business this town needs (albeit some folk seem keen enough for it to die on its feet). Ask me, that lady’s planted something here.’ He paused, searched for a phrase. ‘Sown a seed.’
‘What?’ cried Harold. ‘Cheesecloth blouses! Tank tops crocheted by kiddies in some ruddy sweatshop! Water bottled from backyard tap! That’s our future, is it? Give over Walter!’
‘Don’t knock it, Harold. Tourists love it. The wife swears by her bath salts. Reckons they’ve done wonders for her lumbago. Nepalese, or summat.’
Wheeler went back to the letter.
‘Anyway, she says “Dear Walter” – Wheeler coughed – “I mean, Mr Mayor… Although relatively new to Skelmere I hope you won’t mind me pointing out that the Christmas lights are a little jaded.’”
‘Jaded!?’ Harold exclaimed.
Wheeler continued: “‘Could I possibly suggest the creation of something more in keeping with our times that would also establish Skelmere as a shining beacon’” – Wheeler repeated this last description (with evident relish) – ‘“for the whole district. I am happy to offer my services in support of same. Yours truly, Lavinia Bloom. PS If your wife…” Oh—’ Wheeler cut himself short. ‘No need to bother ourselves with that last part.’
Harold said nothing, sat in silence.
‘So, all I’m asking,’ Wheeler began, ‘is that you call on Lavinia’ – he corrected himself – ‘Ms Bloom, and talk about what might be done next year. Too late for us to do owt this Christmas, as I’ve said. No doubts you’ll be busy anyroad – sorting out spare bulbs for your reindeers and snowmen, and whatnot.’
Wheeler stared at Watts. Eventually Harold spoke. ‘So what you’re saying is: this Christmas is my last.’
‘Well, yes. I mean no. No. I mean… maybe,’ Wheeler said.
With this Harold rose and made for the door, leaving the panelled parlour and its glowering portraits – among them his heavily-whiskered great-grandfather Augustus – behind him.
Wheeler called after him. ‘Go see Ms Bloom. As for this Christmas… well, go out with a bang.’
The door slammed. The letters on Wheeler’s desk blizzarded against him, the links of his chain rising and falling in a soft plinking shuffle.
The voice of Rosie Dawes, at her desk in an ante-room, came through the intercom. At least, Wheeler thought it was her voice. The line was weighty with fuzz, static. More a growl than a trill.
‘How did he take it?’
‘Personally,’ Wheeler said.
That night, in the heavy, gloomy lounge of the villa built by his great-grandfather (a property undeniably imposing though always having a certain chill at odds with its pioneering place in the history of electricity) Harold Watts looked down from its hillside vantage point to the community of Skelmere Junction lit-up below.
Was it not now, at hours such as this, that Skelmere – on the shores of the darkened water from which it drew its name – was at its most beautiful?
He gazed upon the lights of the little town, with awe.
Yes, in the day it still wasn’t half-bad compared with many places – even allowing for some of the fangled stuff and ways that had come in. But at night—at night, nestling there… twinkling, as it did… It was like… Bethlehem.
‘And all the work of the Wattses,’ he whispered, in the drawing-room’s cold air.
He drew away from the window and took from a shelf one of several albums relating to his forebears. He turned the leaves, lingered over certain of its contents: old monochrome images, pamphlets, bookmarks, badges from flag days (their pins rusty), yellowed cuttings from newspapers: Josiah Watts, brother of his great-grandfather, illuminating a paddle steamer that plied the mere, ‘gay bulbs burning brightly from bow to stern’… Julian Watts, a cousin – his very name a nod to the family’s obsession with energy – who’d apparently been mad as a hatter but had supplied the engineering nous for everything from the signals on the steam railway to the circuit board for Skelmere’s first road traffic light and staged a spectacular son et lumiere – The Snow Queen – against the walls of the town hall. It had drawn farmers and folk from the hills for miles around… Harold’s grandmother Augustina – another great Watts – pivotal to the introduction of telephony to Skelmere (at a time when interest was switching from the wool trade to charabancs of trippers). ‘The lady who connected Skelmere Junction to the world,’ stated the caption of a foggy photo that accompanied a printed obituary…
The page went dark, flashed back, dulled again, then reappeared as, above Harold, the ceiling light flickered.
The bulb began to dim in an all too familiar way. For, although the Watts family had worked wonders for little Skelmere, the wiring of their own residence had been their private shame. As the last of their line Harold, unmarried and heirless, had felt little compulsion to act beyond a never-ending series of patch-ups and solderings with nightly descents to the cellar and its rust-crusted fuse box, always undertaken to the same incantation. ‘Cobblers and shoes, cobblers and shoes, cobblers…’