The regulars were arriving for their slap-up Christmas dinner. Some faces glowing, others uncertain and sad. Damp coats steaming on the hooks above the radiator. Winter-chapped hands fumbling with paper hats.
It was the monthly meal for the homeless provided by our church and I was one of the team. Every month we served a three-course meal, but tried to make it extra special at Christmas, with crackers, decorations, music and gifts. Most of the folk did have some sort of accomodation and we asked for no proof of need, but just welcomed all who wanted to be there. And it was moving to see who came and how homeless the heart can be.
That was back when our own home was a two-bedroom flat in Stirling with two pre-school boys filling the space and my writing desk wedged a couple of feet from my pillow. So when I got an email from Kirsty Williams, BBC Scotland radio drama producer, asking if I had any ideas for a story about food and memory, I didn’t have to ponder. She was curating a series called The Madeleine Effect inspired by Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in which eating a madeleine, the small French cake, transports him to the past.
Not long before, I had heard a story from a local family that had shocked me. And so, being the magpie writer that I am, I borrowed elements from those events and kneaded them into my experiences of the homeless meal, along with other images, stories and memories that appeared like seasoning on the shelf of my imagination – or indeed rose out of the loaf unbidden – until the tale Broken Bread was formed.
As the Christmas angels said, Be Not Afraid. No unsuspecting people were harmed in the writing of this story. Names, cultural backgrounds, events and identifiers are all changed. People sometimes think they recognise themselves or others in my writing, but they are usually not the people I had in mind. Perhaps we all recognise ourselves in stories. Perhaps we should.
Broken Bread was read beautifully on Radio 4 by the very fine Scottish actor Gary Lewis, who I know best for his role as the father in the film Billy Elliot. Alas, the recording is now buried in a BBC archive and not available to hear anymore, but I still have the text. I’m extending it to you now as a gift. In order to download it, you will have to sign up for my newsletter, but you can unsubscribe straight away and still keep the story. I won’t tell anyone.
Or you could stick around and enjoy the conversation. There is always news of the happenings from my desk and beyond, what I’ve been up to and where I’m headed (if only I knew) as well as special offers and opportunities for subscribers only. And if you respond, I will write back. So come and swap tales with me, break bread in spirit, share life. There is always room at the table.
Wherever you are, at the end of this strangest of years, may the season of light in darkness bring your heart home.