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Word from Wormingford

07 December 2012

Ronald Blythe takes the bus to make some seasonal purchases

EACH December, I wander about the town in search of the charity-card shop, this time as I come, reassured, from the dentist. And there it is, with a lady sweeping its pavement, and its racks of greetings and fearful diseases, snowy churches, and Renaissance nativi­ties. And there, as usual, is my baptismal Suffolk church, covered in drift - only serendipitously "different".

Looking for a familiar scene, I find, centre-stage, Great Aunt Agnes's and Uncle Fred's grave­stones. He had died early from Western Front gas. She had been low in our estimation, feeding us with bread and butter instead of cake when we called after a three-mile hike through the prickly cornfields.

Her house was a clapboard wonder. We stepped down into it when we called. Remote faces from the trenches stared at us as we parked, good as gold, on her slippery couch as she sawed away at a home-made loaf, holding it against her stout body. But here she is, in the charity-card shop, next to good-looking - they always said - Fred. I bought two packs.

The white cat mutters at birds. She has come inside until the spring. Bullfinches and robins whirl around the new feeder. The farm track has stopped being a river. Washed sparkling clean, it dries out in a cloudy sun. I take a memorial service for a neighbour in a packed church. "Afterwards in the village hall". And so it goes on. Life. And just as it always did. For, as Ludwig Wittgenstein said, "Resting on your laurels is as dangerous as resting when you are walking in snow. You doze off and die in your sleep."

Having finished a new book, may I not rest? "At rest" was the popular epitaph in a country churchyard. How they toiled! Now they "sleep". And so soundly that Barry's mower never wakes them up. I trust that my ashes won't "sleep". I run my eyes over their trunks ap­pre­hensively. So far, so smooth. So alive! Even in December.

I cast away the old Lectionary. It is my first Advent gesture. Whom have we here? Anyone know? Ambrose, Nicholas Ferrar, John of Damascus, Mary . . . with child? We sing the Advent hymns, sonorous with titles. "Come, thou long-expected Jesus." I begin the clearance of sodden leaves - and find patches of pink cyclamen. Dead sticks have rattled down. Late roses have pushed through the guttering. Last year's Christmas puddings have made their presence known.

Shopping on the eight-o'clock school bus, how different things are! What used to be a zoo on wheels is now part silence, part murmur. Forty or so teenagers. Pairs of lovers, solitary dreamers, youngsters giving nothing away but simply travelling - like the boy in Thomas Hardy's poem with the train ticket in his hat. At Bures Hamlet, buses from opposite directions have to squeeze between the banks, and people who are reading look up.

I rode on these buses when I was 12. When we passed the Treble Tile pub, the conductor would call out "the Terrible Tile" and laugh at his wit. Everyone smoked. We rode in a travelling ashtray. But the views are exactly the same. And we still say "Thank you" to the driver as we get off. He calls me Sir. Old women call him Dear. I read Patrick Leigh Fermor's The Traveller's Tree, careful not to forget my stop.

Village Hours, the latest collection from Wormingford, is out now (Can­ter­bury Press, £14.99 (CT Bookshop £13.49); 978-1-84825-237-0).

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