I can't bring myself to use the c-word, you know, the word we use to name this time of the year.
With its religious derivation the word is laughably out of whack with our binge of consumption and sentiment. So I'm going to rename the season. And on the principle that it keeps coming back and you can't escape it, I'm going to call it Herpes.
Herpes can be a tough time. I know a couple who have never had a happy Herpes. The problem is family, of course. The husband's family lives in the North Island, the wife's in the south. The two families get on about as well as North and South Korea. So every year the couple has to choose between them and the choice creates ill-will.
But this year they've been naughty. They've told the northern mob that they're spending Herpes with the southern mob, and vice versa. The two mobs loathe each other so fiercely that there is no risk that they'll check with each other.
There is a risk, however, of bumping into one of the southern mob in the street. So my friends have stocked the house to the gunwales and plan to spend Herpes gorging as quietly as possible behind closed curtains, emerging only after dark to walk the dog. I hope they have a lovely time.
My own loveliest Herpes have all been spent alone. The best of the lot was in 1982 when I spent a couple of weeks hitching across the Canadian Prairies. I stopped at a place called Moose Jaw because it was called Moose Jaw and because the temperature there was minus 40. Minus 40 is of interest because:
a. It's the point at which the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales meet.
b. It's cold. At minus 40 it is possible to grasp a metal bar with your bare hand. What is not possible is to ungrasp it without surgery.
On Herpes Eve I decided to hitch to Regina, the nearest township of any size just a mere few thousand miles away. I was wearing two sets of thermals and the best coat in the world. It had the weight and texture of shag pile and it was trimmed with wolverine fur.
After 20 minutes' hitching, I held fears for the tip of my nose and withdrew to the railway station.
The man in the ticket office said there'd be a train at 6pm. I sat down to wait by a furnace the size of a garage in a waiting room the size of a concert hall.
I was the only passenger. At 6pm the man emerged from the ticket office to tell me that the train had got stuck in Medicine Hat. "She's fruz up in the Hat," was how he put it. At 10pm she was still fruz up in the Hat. At midnight the man told me to get some sleep. He'd wake me if the train came. Before settling down, I took a sock from my rucksack and hung it at the end of the bench.
When he shook me awake at 6am, the sock was empty. He told me they were sending a bus. In an automatic photo booth, I took four black and white snapshots of me looking moody on Herpes Day aged 25. I have just looked at them. I find it hard to believe I was ever that young.
The bus driver had been hauled from his bed on a public holiday to drive a single passenger hundreds of miles across snow-covered flatness. Yet he was remarkably cheerful. Perhaps he was relieved to escape Herpes.
A posh hotel in Regina was offering all-you-could-eat goose dinners for $30. I was starving. I followed others in. We paid, then handed our heavy overcoats to a flunky.
When the men took off their coats, they revealed bow ties and dinner jackets. When the women took off their coats, they revealed ball gowns and heels. I revealed thermal underwear.
The flunky did well not to laugh. The maitre d' never looked like laughing. But I pointed out to him that I had paid $30 like everyone else. And I promised to behave. He sat me at a table for eight. No-one joined me. The waiter brought me a whole goose. I ate it with my fingers. It was splendid.
When I left I could sense the maitre d's relief. I went in search of somewhere to sleep the night. The city was snowing and silent and lovely. I hope your Herpes is as happy as that.
- The Dominion Post
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