A CHRISTMAS STORY, THE MAN ON THE UP ESCALATOR
We see him on the Underground. He is riding the up escalators. He is in late middle age. We see his sober suit under a grey, well cut gaberdine coat. We see the firm line of his jaw. We see the short, well groomed, hair. Beside him we see his short, sober, grey suited, well groomed wife.
There are hundreds of us, riding the escalators, thousands. Our grey, intent faces bunched in thought about nothing important, hurrying towards nowhere special. Riding the escalators with our dark, private thoughts of Christmas future. We would not have seen him, much less spared him a passing thought, as he rode the up escalators, sober and grey. Except for one thing. He wears a Father Christmas hat. Those of us on the up escalators stare up at him. Those of us on the down escalators crane around, jostling to gaze at his receding adornment. His slow progress up the escalators leaves a turbulent wake.
He wakes us fellow travellers from our preoccupation. He is a bow wave of curiosity and humour. He lifts the day. We feel gratitude and slow warmth. Here on the escalators, here in the press of a thousand bodies, is this single, scarlet flash of irrepressible humanity. We connect. We smile our response to the bobbing white of his greeting. He responds to our attention, just with a gentle creasing of his eyes and a straight, quiet smile. It is a statement. Here is a man who does not take himself too seriously. Here is a man who can make himself conspicuous, the butt of popular humour, without loss of dignity or self regard. The well cut gaberdine. The deliberate headgear. Here is his statement of freedom and independence.
Maybe, he comes from lands afar, where customs differ, where people do not stand on the right when riding the up escalators. He stands on the left, beside his wife. There is a young man walking up the escalators. He is too preoccupied to be aware of the rising spirits around him. Briefly, he brushes against the man in the Father Christmas hat. There is a moment of confusion, the threat of altercation and ruin. Each of us is pierced by a sense of his fragility, the man in the Father Christmas hat. Each of us feels the puffed membrane of his self regard and airy humour. It could so quickly burst open into mob derision and self reproach. It could rob him of his casually borne independence. We draw and hold a collective breath. The moment passes. He is courteous. The thin line of his smile holds firm, unwavering. Amidst our alarms. We sigh. We know now; collectively, we feel the ground of his light assurance. His self knowledge.
He passes up, off the escalators. He walks coolly out of our lives, arm in arm, as silently as he had come, in his Father Christmas hat. With us he leaves three gifts. His gift of impish humour, to lift our spirits and lighten our Christmas darkness. His gift of awakening into a shared experience. His gift of knowledge, alive within us still.