I had probably one of the most joyful, uplifting and loving evenings of my life last night. And it took place in one of the most unexpected places.
We are at the moment holidaying in the ancient county of Cornwall; home of Knockers and Piskies, pasties and clotted cream, tin mines, wild coastline and a once thriving industrial society which once helped shape the world and is now almost entirely vanished, covered as was Sleeping Beauty’s castle in the briars of one hundred and fifty years of neglect and irrelevance. The engine houses which stud this landscape, from the old stannery towns such as Redruth through the open farmland dangerously primed with old forgotten, spaghetti-muddled mine shafts to the wild, inhospitable cliffs of its two coasts are like looming ghostly giants, their true form faded around the edges into a caricature, their original purpose long forgotten, a potent symbol of the fall from great wealth to nothing in just a few generations.
I have a great fondness for this county. It doesn’t sit close to my heart as do Pembrokeshire or my home county of Yorkshire, but we holidayed here as children once or twice and my wife, Nicki, comes from here, so it holds many happy memories for me. Nicki and I were both in the Royal Air Force when we met, and I can remember clearly driving down here to meet her parents after we got engaged. Yes, I know, a somewhat unorthodox way of meeting the in-laws, but it worked for us – and we did have a very long engagement in which to get to know each other’s families.
One of the first places we went out to here was just a few miles away from Nicki’s family home near Hayle. Hidden on a wooded hillside in a farmyard was a little place called ‘Country Skittles’. Skittles is, was, a popular activity in the West Country, all the way down from Wiltshire to the far west. Many pubs would have a skittle alley, often with just one lane, nine wooden pins and a wooden ball – a distance precursor of Fred Flintstone’s anachronistic passion – but popular with the locals and the source of much inter-village competition. The Silver Plough, my own local, still has a well used, albeit for hire only these days, skittle alley. Country Skittles, however, with its four lanes, bar, one-step-up-from late 1980′s British pub grub, multitudinous board games and family friendly atmosphere was something else. Nicki’s dad was quite old and I’ll even then, but her mum was several years younger, fond of the occasional Special Brew and full of life. She had a lovely sense of humour and was a bit daft to be honest, but she was an uplifting person to be around. I first began to get to know her at Country Skittles about twenty five years ago.
Nicki’s parents both died some years ago, their home in Cornwall was sold long before then and apart from a brother in Redruth, Nicki’s ties with Cornwall, like mine with Yorkshire, have turned from bonds to fond memories. We didn’t really come here often until we brought Caitie here on holiday about two years ago; and that was not to here, but further down the coast. This time, we decided to stay just outside Redruth in a converted barn, only a few miles from Nicki’s old family home.
Thus it came to be that last night we went to Country Skittles for dinner and a game of skittles (bizarrely!). The place has definitely been given a significant amount of TLC since we were last here about 15 years ago. The four skittle alleys seemed unchanged, but the selection of board games had increased and there had been a new bar and extra games room added. The rickety old furniture had also, thank goodness, been replaced with your standard pine bar furniture, but this as with the rest of the work, still kept the character of the place. We ate then played skittles, at which Nicki and I both did not particularly well (ahem!) so as not to discourage our little daughter with her little arms, small ball and seemingly unmoveable skittles, but Caitie understandably didn’t quite get the point of a game which seemed so difficult yet so unrewarding. Longer arms, will eventually help, I think.
We then wandered down to the new games room, where we found a game of air hockey, and it was here that a family evening out became something fixed in time. Caitie didn’t fully see the point of air hockey until the moment the air cushion came on. From then on, it was like some hitherto unknown magic came into being as, leaning over the table she began to swipe at the puck, sending it careening off the sides of the table and straight into the goal lot. The yell of delight and the unadulterated joy in her face came from a wonderment that such a device could exist, mixed with a sudden and unexpected sense of physical achievement that the boring old skittle thing just didn’t have. The next twenty minutes were just a non-stop squeal of delight. We played Caitie vs Mummy, Caitie vs Daddy, Caitie and Mummy vs Daddy and Caitie and Daddy vs Mummy. We also had a go at Daddy and Mummy vs Caitie – no prizes for guessing who won that one!
I could watch my little girl for ever. I love to watch her asleep, to watch her play, to read, to make up stories, to do her school work, to run, to just be; but just occasionally, everything else, the noise of life and its interminable distractions subsides and you are in a moment of uniqueness. There’s just you and your family. Nothing and nobody else. I watched my little girl jump and play and laugh with sheer joy and excitement almost continuously for twenty minutes as she, as we, just played together. And as she laughed, so we found great joy in her joy and in a moment of clarity, I saw a glimpse of what life is meant to be.
Of course we can’t live our lives like this all day, ever day. We’d be exhausted, and life, with all it’s challenges is more than just laughter. We grow together through adversity, through struggle, through compromise and, sometimes, just gritting our teeth and holding our tongues. But moments like yesterday evening, I believe, are a glimpse into what God wants for us and what He sees our potential for happiness to be.
As we go through life, we take mental snapshots. Out of the weight of memories locked away in the synapses of our brains, just a few highlights are kept vivid, like a photo sat on the mantelpiece instead of being tucked way on the D Drive. These snapshots may fade a little over time, but the picture remains in sight. Last night was one of those snapshots. Our little girl found joy in her ability to play with her parents at one of their games, she found joy in a little bit of industrial magic, and in the sheer pleasure of having fun with her mum and dad. We found joy in playing together and in a moment of love and undistracted togetherness that will now be a family collective memory; and I believe that for a short yet eternal time, we were a family held together in the loving, joyful arms of Christ.