After the walk / The blog

Little donkey(s), little donkey(s)

Let’s face it, I was flattered. A few weeks before the end of the walk we were asked if we’d lead the lantern procession through Aberystwyth, and I said yes without hesitation – what a homecoming honour!

Then we got back, got miserable, and then started to get used to not walking with each other every day. The idea of walking Chico from his field to town began to feel worrying; we were already out of practice and all of the necessary bits of kit had been dispersed into piles called ‘To wash’, ‘To mend’, ‘To scrub with vinegar’. As the day approached my diaphragm started to get tight with nerves, as it had been back in May, for the month or more before departure.

The holy fourI don’t like the grip of anticipation. I much prefer the adrenaline once the worrying event is actually underway – do or die, sink or swim, that sort of thing. As I saddled Chico up in his field I tried to remind myself that the worrying is always worse – the reality was surely unlikely to equal my sense of foreboding. I’d already explained to the procession committee that we’d probably walk on through and disappear fairly quickly into the night, and they’d also agreed that I could bring Flo – the donkeys have not been apart since we picked her up in Cardigan, and I didn’t know what they’d think to being separated. I didn’t fancy finding out so publicly, and Flo makes Chico better behaved, so I added a second ass to the proceedings. Out of the gate, and Chico (reading my nerves?) took off, running down the hill towards the busy main road, with me yelling and dragging and bouncing behind. Bad start!

Chico was skittish all the way to town, a three-hour walk. Flo was Flo, constant, woolly and straightforward. Chico and I wound each other up. What was going on? Was I the same woman who’d only just got back from 1000 miles of daily uncertainty? Was he the same donkey? Had we learned nothing?

We stopped in the castle park so I could put on my Mary costume – another source of worry. Grown-ups don’t dress as biblical characters! Do they? It suddenly seemed a mite presumptuous, walking through Aberystwyth as the mother of god. Thankfully no one had insisted I wear a prosthetic pregnant belly, despite a surprising number of them being offered in the run-up. I’m fairly certain that the costume – a white dress, blue jacket, and pristine headdress (not at all teatowelly) – was made for a child since, as was increasingly dawning on me, grown-ups don’t dress as biblical characters! The neck hole of the dress barely went over my head – I had to take off my glasses and force my way through, a bit like being given birth to, in the blustery darkness. The dress only came down to my knees; I think I looked more like a nurse, or a nun.

Cambrian news photo coverAnd then it was time. Out of the dark and into the piercing lights. We made our way to the front around the crowd of families, all waiting with their lanterns that had been made out of tissue paper, glue and sticks over two industrious weekends in the town museum. The donkeys were surprised by the sudden crowds and lights, but held it together. The choir launched into a carol but we couldn’t see them, obscured as they were by a giant mega-lantern – an alarming six-foot angel, as wide as a phone box, and flashing from the inside. We waited for the signal, the police stopped the traffic, and Chico issued forth a pile of Chico chocs onto the cobbles.

“Hannah! This is ‘Joseph’!” said someone from the procession committee. A bemused man in a fake beard and a striped dress a little like a butcher’s apron was thrust towards us. The police hurried us on, and so we exchanged no more than a “Hi!” and Flo’s rope, for his first and very sudden up-close encounter with a donkey. Poor Joseph – always the most put-upon member of the nativity. He did well, and made me look a lot more like Mary.

We wove up and down the main street in front of the giant angel, enthusiastic carollers and hundreds of lantern-bearers, neither donkey willing to walk at reverent procession speed. The Cambrian News photographer did a good job to get a photo of the holy family as we criss-crossed each other, the road, both pavements, and the badly-timed roadworks.

It’s a short high street, so even with all of the weaving around it was only minutes before we were at the bottom; just as well as I don’t think I’d taken a breath since the park. The crowd around the unlit tree had spilled into the street and the donkeys couldn’t see an exit – they got a little more anxious. The carols behind us clashed with the sound of a silver band somewhere ahead. “We’ll walk through the crowd and disappear!” I hissed to Joseph – nothing had gone wrong yet, let’s keep it that way.

'Goleuo'r Dref/ Lighting up the town' flierI took the lead and motioned to the crowd to part and let us carry on along the road. They did, we were almost clear, and then, as the last two people stepped aside they revealed an alarming sight – the back view of the silver band; immovable, unaware, and in mid toot. We dived around them but the crowd was less able to get out of the way, wedged as they were between the band and Barclay’s Bank. (Amusingly, Barclay’s was holding its own Christmas event inside, their Santa under strict instructions not to show his face outside in case kids saw him at the same time as the town Santa – nominated by the Rotary Club – and had some sort of mass crisis of juvenile faith.)

Not wanting to be left behind, Flo lost her cool and ploughed into the crowd too, trying to overtake Chico, and with ‘Joseph’ clinging powerless to the end of her rope. Thankfully we were swiftly out the other side, donkeys trotting with the edge of panic, down the middle of the road. Chico’s pack saddle slid off sideways – he must have knocked it on something – and I realised I’d cut my finger and was bleeding all over the headdress as I tried to stop it flapping in the squally sidewind funnelled down Terrace Road from the sea. But we were behind the crowd, no-one was looking, no-one was trampled, no-one was bleeding except me – all was well.

Our heartbeats slowed with every step further into the darkness and silence, heading half a mile up the hill to a borrowed field. I left my headtorch off, and apologised to the donkeys, praying that they thought I’d saved them from the chaos rather than deliberately lead them to it.

Later on Mum reported that she’d seen three wise men and a shepherd with a sheep, while enjoying the ceremony we missed. Madame Owen, my old French teacher, was conducting the singing. Having trouble getting the silver band, choir and crowd to sing in time, she kept yelling, “Come on Ceredigion! You can do better than that!”

I’d stuffed my costume into a pannier so as not to be recognised as the out-of-control Madonna, and after settling the donkeys in we walked back down to town, half expecting to be met by an angry mob waving litigation documents. Thankfully the event was over, the mulled wine drunk and the streets empty, although I spotted the now beardless ‘Joseph’ – a nice town councillor called Kevin – thankfully excited rather than traumatised by his evening’s abrupt muleteering role.

The crowds had melted away to their homes or the pubs, leaving the bilingual Christmas lights winking away to themselves. ‘Merry Christmas! Nadolig Llawen! Merry Christmas! Nadolig Llawen!’ I feel I’ve paid my dues to Christmas and should be let off the rest of December.

I headed to the pub and pretended not to see the poo still lying on the cobbles, but the next day Dad reported having come across a young man “in very long winklepickers” shrieking and hopping about at pub closing time, confused by the poo on his shoes. My apologies, young man – merry Christmas!


Thanks to team donkey: Susie, Jane, Linda, Mum, Dad, Christine, and Kevin

Christmas lights photo 2

Christmas lights photo

Mary and Joseph photo

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One Comment

  1. Honestly, Hannah, you should be on the telly. Now there’s a thought….

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