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Christmas in London

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Photo: Jasper James

We’re at Royal Stratford East, a typical old London theater, except it’s far from any theater district and it’s not the same size as the London theaters you know. Only the seats are similar—red plush, almost comfortable. Everything else, including the stage, has been collapsed to about half the usual size. The balcony hovers close to the stage. The red velvet curtains are downsized, as are the gilded plaster swags against the red walls, and the chandelier, in proportion to its surroundings, could have been nicked from a family dining room. All this is endearing and delightful, because it reminds you of exactly what a person wants as a kid— a kid-size but otherwise grown-up place to go. It also reminds you that what a grown-up wants at Christmas is to feel like a big kid.

’Tis the season to be jolly, and that was the plan my old friend Elizabeth and I had made: 12 days of seeing plays, window shopping, visiting friends, and walking around in flaky snowfalls. Elizabeth’s daughter, Sara, and her boyfriend, Alex, had just moved to London. On Christmas Day, we’d drive to the Cotswolds. There would be a snowman to build, goose to feast upon, and scotch to drink beside a fire.

We’ve been here over a week now. And angels we have heard on high are starting to mumble bah humbug.

On Christmas Eve Morning, Elizabeth arrives from across town to meet me at the Dorchester so we can pick up our car. We call the rental agency to tell them we’re on our way. They say that the reservation has been canceled. Since the vehicle was meant to take the four of us to the country for Christmas, this news causes us to freak out a little. And while freaking out a little, we have a big fight, which is brought to a conclusion by the brilliant idea of asking the Dorchester concierge for help. But we are glum about the prospect of his finding a rental car on Christmas Eve.

In less than half an hour the concierge calls. "Which would you prefer, a Rolls-Royce or a VW Golf?" A black Golf GTI is delivered to the hotel, and I check out, exuding gratitude. Now Christmas Eve can begin, with "Carols by Candlelight" at the Royal Albert Hall. I’m anticipating an atmospherically dim, hushed, and reverent affair. Instead we get the Mozart Festival Orchestra, well-lit and dressed in powdered wigs, 18th-century jewel-colored frockcoats, knee britches, and buckled slippers. They behave like the creatures of the present they are. Between every two or three carols, the conductor tells corny jokes (one of which is actually about cornflakes). The carols themselves are delivered merrily—there is no other word—and in quantity. Both singers and orchestra show an easy sense of ownership of the music, as if their intimacy with songs written by their forebears centuries ago gives them the liberty to move them right along as they please. The pleasure of singing "Joy to the World" with the chorus makes me feel a little chagrined, on account of my apostasy—this happens every December—and happy in spite of it. Perhaps my Puritan ancestors could have had more fun by staying Anglican and staying home.

After the concert, we walk along Kensington Gardens to the Milestone Hotel for a nightcap in a parlor with just the right amount of English fuss to its decoration. A fire burns, though the mild weather doesn’t warrant it, and a keyboardist, tucked in a window between the curtains, softly plays holiday tunes. On our way to the taxi stand, we pass a parking lot as a gray cat shoots from between the cars in pursuit of another cat. Outrun, it turns back—and proves to be a large gray fox. The animal out of place seems like a premonitory vision.

Still, I don’t see how this could have anything to do with my waking up at four in the morning on Christmas Day to be violently ill. Flattened, I try talking myself out of it for a few hours until everyone else is up, then gamely slump in a chair while presents are opened. James Brown roars "It’s a Man’s World" from the CD player. Toast and coffee do not tempt me. Only a cup of miso soup kindly provided by Sara makes possible getting dressed and creeping down to the car. For the next two hours I sip the British version of Gatorade as Elizabeth drives us through a misty morning to the soft hills and honey-colored Cotswold stone cottages of Gloucestershire and on to Bournes End, near Stroud. At the appointed meeting place, from which our host will guide us along narrow roads to his house, Charles Landry steps from his car. "Dahling!" he cries, and thrusts his entire torso through Elizabeth’s window. Kisses and introductions and hilarity and warmth ricochet around the car.

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