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The Christmas card I could never reply to

Christmas card

For years, poet Ian McMillan received a Christmas card from a person he met just once - and he has always regretted being unable to send one back.

This story begins at Jersey airport on a breezy night in autumn and ends with an empty space at the front of a bookshelf at Christmas many years later. This story feels small and inconsequential but the more I tell it, to myself and now to you, the more it seems to mean something. Its meaning shifts in the winter wind and in the passing of time but now, as I get into my 60s, it seems to mean that we should stay in touch with each other, but we should remember that to stay in touch we have to tell people where we are.

It was sometime in the mid-1990s and I'd been recording a radio programme on Jersey and I was waiting at the airport for my flight home. I knew that the plane was about as big as a minibus, and I knew that it was a stormy night, and I was nervous.

I sucked an entire pack of mints as I strolled around, trying to get the wind to drop through the sheer power of my will. A man smiled at me and beckoned me over. He introduced himself as Brian and he'd been in the audience for the recording of the show. And he could see that my face was as white as sweaty flour, so he reassured me with simple stories about all the good flights he'd been on and then, because I was blubberingly grateful for his help, we swapped addresses and I said I'd keep in touch. I followed his reassuring shape up the steps to the cramped seats.

The plane wasn't as big as a minibus, it was as big as a trilby hat and it danced through the sky with - I hesitate to use the word - abandon. And I glanced across at Brian and he was just as scared as me but he gave me a shaky thumbs-up which I returned.

And then, weeks after our safe landing, for some reason I lost his address and, for some reason, he didn't lose mine.

And the Christmas cards started to arrive - always a simple design, always with spidery writing and for the first few years they said, "From Brian, we met in Jersey," and then they simply said, "From Brian."

Each year, Brian's was one of the first cards to arrive and each year I gazed at the back of the envelope to see if he'd left his address. But he hadn't, so each year he sent his card into the void and never got an echo back. Every year, though, I remembered the airport and the plane and the words he spoke and his soft voice that helped me into the air.

I think we all get Christmas cards like this - from people who aren't relatives, and they're not friends and, if you look hard enough, they're not really acquaintances. They're people you brushed against briefly once, either literally or metaphorically.

Who was, or is, "Kathleen"? Can you really recall "Mrs Dibb"? "Dennis and Family with Best Wishes" - well, best wishes to you, Dennis, but who are you?


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  • From Our Home Correspondent has insight and analysis from BBC journalists, correspondents and writers across the UK on life in Britain
  • Ian McMillan's story will be broadcast at 13:30 on 23 December and at 23:30 on 25 December 2018 on BBC Radio 4, or listen on iPlayer

And yet, and yet, those people you never see from one decade to the next are there, sitting beside you on the settee when you get their card and they get yours. "Harry and Lizzie Webb." "Dave from Hull." "John Morris" - reminders of shared pasts and promises to meet up.

Brian's card always stood on the bookshelf in front of my collections of translated poems. I like reading poems in translation and they always seem to have glamour and mystery in the same way that, over the years, Brian acquired glamour and mystery, translated as he was from a past glimpsed momentarily, like the sea from that plane from Jersey.

Each year I noted that the card was postmarked York and each year I was determined to do something about it, and each year I never did. Except one year, early in this millennium, I took a chance and sent a card with "Brian, York" on the front, and the words, "Remember Jersey!" on the back. I don't really know what I expected to happen, except perhaps that a postman would know Brian, that he liked to go to Jersey and that a Christmas miracle would happen and Brian would get the card.

And maybe he did, because I never got another card from Brian after that and the space in front of those translated poetry books will remain empty this year, as it has every year since.

Image caption Ian's bookshelf, empty at the front

And the moral to this Christmas story?

Always keep the address. Always remember where people are, and then you can translate those moments of the kindness of strangers into a winter scene and a first class stamp.

Merry Christmas, Brian, if you're listening. And even if you're not.

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Image copyright Ian McMillan
Image caption Ian McMillan with his dad

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