RICHARD WILLIAMSON Nature Trails December 23

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We sailed away into the night, that Christmas Eve of long ago.

That was how it seemed to the tiny boy in the bed in the attic.

The house was like a ship. Timber-framed, oak boards, latched doors that moved in the dark, the roof with its white covering of snow that now looked like sails.

The north wind made the house move ever so slightly as if on an ocean voyage.

The very walls did creak, beams straining as they had these many centuries.

The house was alive, and glad to be going.

Beyond the windows with their curtains of ice draped into icicles, the stars showed us the way.

Polaris and the Plough glittered from that same quarter the wild geese had flown early on, their wild chorus sweeping across the sky and onwards into silence towards safety and the south.

And outside the street, muffled by deep snow, seemed like white waves rolling us on into a new world.

The single street lamp suspended on its wire tossed in the drifting flurries, and made sparks of red and green and pure crystal coruscating on the flakes.

There were passengers aboard and below decks. My father in his cabin with all its books and manuscripts, his typewriter ready to record the log, his new story about a wild pheasant called The Phasian Bird seemed like the story of the Firebird we had heard on the radio.

We knew this night was a journey for him too, as was every Christmas Eve, back to the battlefields of 1914 when peace seemed in grasp as enemy met enemy and shook hands.

My mother was down there, too, planning puddings that were to boil in white cloth tied up into rabbits’ ears.

Brother John was in his cabin, home from Germany with a strange snapshot he had taken of Cologne cathedral spire rising amid the shattered ruins of the bombing, a gaunt black stab of hope into a terrified world.

Brother Robert with his hopes for Meccano pieces in the Christmas presents soon to come.

Sister Margaret with thrilling stories of seeing her idol film star Rex Harrison in a London cinema. There were sparrows and mice running in the rafters and rigging.

They would listen as Father Christmas crept almost silently into the room.

They would hear the rustle of crinkly paper and pre-war ribbon hoarded from long ago.

They would feel the ship gliding on into a strange bright land that was now almost in reach after weeks of waiting, the shores of Christmas Island, a place seen on the map, a place of refuge in a troubled world. Or as it seemed then, so long ago.