I can’t remember why I was late leaving school that Monday, but by the time the 130 bus left Vauxhall Road the evening was full dark with the kind of solidity that only midwinter can bring. It was the limbo that used to exist between the end of the school day at 4.00 and people leaving work at 5.00, so the bus only picked up a handful of passengers as it lumbered through Lye Cross and Colley Gate and I had my pick of the seats.
This was a luxury. Usually I was with a group of friends who were the nemesis of officious bus conductors, jostling and shoving, our chatter bright and our laughter raucous as we let off the steam we’d accumulated over seven hours pent up in the gloomy panelling of the classroom. This evening I was alone, so I made straight for the top deck, front seat, left hand side. From this vantage point I could both watch the road ahead, which was practically the same as driving, and keep a weather eye out for anything in the shops or side streets that might be of interest to a twelve-year-old boy with an enquiring mind an an overactive imagination, such as the Carlton racing bikes in Woodruffe’s window or the skulking youth clearly on his way to burgle a darkened house in Quarry Bank.
The Midland Red bus was its own little world. Soft yellow lighting caused the slubby brown seats and chromed poles and handrails to be reflected in its windows, so that you felt enclosed, as if by a force field, dispassionately observing the pedestrians and traffic, like a scientist cataloguing alien life-forms.
I had on my new blue overcoat, which I was particularly proud of as it had a flap over its breast pocket that I thought gave me some of the dash of a younger John Steed. This effect was almost certainly undermined, however, by the red-and-green-quartered cap which was regulation wear for the lower school. If you dared to be any where outside the school without it, prefects delighted in giving you “hymns”. This was our school’s version of lines, for which you were required to copy out selections from “Songs of Praise”, five or ten depending on the severity of your offence. Even though there were apparently no prefects in the immediate vicinity, my cap was still pulled low over my brow, because you never knew when the beggars were going to materialise.
I lolled on the seat, watching the world slide by. Next to me was my briefcase with that night’s homework in it: a chapter of Tales of the Greek Heroes to read for a test tomorrow, a page of equations to solve and five sentences to translate into Latin. That lot would take about an hour and a half. I looked at my watch. With a bit of luck I’d be home in time for Sexton Blake at 5.25; Perseus and Flavia would have to wait. Lulled by the rocking of the bus, I slipped into an habitual daydream about being an international adventurer who saves the world and gets the girl.
I had just outwitted a clod-hopping police inspector by stealing a fabulous diamond from a hitherto impregnable vault when we juddered to a halt at a set of traffic lights. I peered out beyond the reflection in the window to check where we were, and my heart gave a leap. Just to my left, and almost close enough to touch, the fir tree that was a permanent fixture at the bottom of Mucklow Hill had been miraculously festooned with strings of coloured lights. They were the size of domestic bulbs, in red, blue, yellow and green and were bobbing gently as a breeze stirred the branches.
Of course. It was 1 December and the start of Advent. I luxuriated for a minute in a tumble of happy memories: Christmas carols, paper streamers, the smell of pine sap in the house, Brazil nuts and “Eat Me” dates, mysterious lumpy parcels in red and green paper inexpertly hidden on the top of a wardrobe and, best of all, the prospect of the end of term: a homework embargo for the last three days and then two and a half weeks at liberty.
I smiled to myself with the sheer joy of being alive and made myself a promise. From now on, I’d observe this as a special day every year. For me, it would always mark the official start of the Christmas season with all that entailed: the festivities and the presents,naturally, but also, most especially, a time when we could all look forward with hope.