Friday, 25 December 2009

Carols, a story for Christmas

Happy holidays to you all! It being the 25th of December, I thought it was time for a short story, encapsulating the spirit of Christmas.

But perhaps it doesn't...


The children sat across the table from him. The eldest seemed almost motherly towards the other two, though she was young enough herself, so young, a child really, her hands wrapped round the cup of hot chocolate (when had he last made that?) to warm them. Protective of the other two, but with eyes full of trust when they met his.

Next to her was the younger girl, not yet ten he imagined. Self-assured, though, somehow, well beyond her years. And the one with the best voice of the three, clear and pure. She smiled at him as his eyes settled on her face.

And finally the little one, the boy, incredibly young to be out in the dark. Not that it was late – little after five, he guessed, though he’d been asleep when the children had come knocking and he’d not yet checked the time. He felt he knew that little boy, who’d not wanted to be left out, who’d wanted to tag along with the other two despite the dark and the cold. He pulled the dressing gown tighter at his throat at the thought, and pushed his toes deeper into the slippers, warm though it was indoors. When he’d been five or six himself he too had always wanted to be with the others, out doing the things they were doing, not left behind at home while they were enjoying themselves. And no doubt the eldest, the one he thought of as ‘Miss’ – and yet that seemed unfair: she seemed warmer, kinder than so prissy a nickname might suggest – took pleasure at being given charge of him.

‘So,’ he asked, ‘do you do this each year?’

‘Oh, no,’ the girl with the voice replied, ‘this is the first time. And it’s only because Daddy’s been collecting for the lifeboats. We thought it would be fun to help.’

He smiled. At first it hadn’t seemed fun at all. He’d been deeply asleep, not something that often happened these days, and the knocking had startled him and irritated him. It had been light when he fell asleep and in the dark he’d had trouble finding his slippers. Struggling down the stairs had been difficult, and he’d felt a twinge of returning pain that he’d blessedly forgotten for the short time of his sleep.

When he pulled the door open, he was in little mood for joy, and more than ready to complain at being disturbed. But he’d been greeted by three children’s faces, vaguely familiar from having seen them in the streets or green places of the estate, all illuminated from below by the candles they carried in glass jars.

‘Sing a carol for you?’ the eldest had asked.

‘Why… I don’t know…’ he’d replied, and then he’d looked around. There was a sprinkling of snow on the ground, a slight smell of snow in the air. The street lights shone on the wet surfaces of the roads, the children’s candles were reflected by the snow-covered leaves. And though it was cold he felt freshened by it.

‘Why, yes,’ he said, ‘please. I’d like that.’

And then they’d sung In the bleak midwinter of all carols to choose. Christina Rossetti’s words somehow never failed to move him for all their mawkishness, and Gustav Holst’s music fitted them so well. Suddenly he was drawn back to a different world, one where music and even more than that, poetry, had meant so much to him.

The elder girl and the boy joined in every other verse but the middle girl did the rest as a solo and her voice was quite extraordinary for someone so young. She sang softly but the purity rang in his ears and somehow the sound seemed to rise and fill the air around them. He remembered Christmas Eves at home with his parents when they’d listened to the King’s College choir from Cambridge, on a record which year by year grew more cracked, singing The Holly and the Ivy and I saw three ships and he wondered how people could make such sounds with their voices.

‘Would you like another one?’ they asked him. He realised then that they’d finished their song and were watching him.

‘Yes, indeed, that would be nice.’

‘What would you like?’

‘Whatever you’d most like to sing,’ he told them.

They sang him Good King Wenceslas and he smiled at the memory of teaching it to his son, who’d been so keen to learn the words. He’d particularly liked the strong verses, the ‘bring me flesh and bring me wine’ which he would sing in the deepest voice he could manage, playing the king. His son. Those were the days when he had a family. His son was still close to him even though so far away geographically. He was travelling towards him right now, though it was a time when most would have wanted to stay with their own families. He hoped he wouldn’t be too late, that he wouldn’t have made the sacrifice of his family Christmas and yet not be with him on time.

Afterwards he’d invited the children in for hot chocolate, and had enjoyed fussing around in the kitchen, looking for the chocolate powder, relieved to find he had enough milk. Now they sat around the table looking at him.

‘Are you brothers and sisters, then?’ he asked.

‘Alice and I are,’ said the eldest, ‘but John is from the house next door. We thought it would be fun for him to come too.’

‘It’s been great,’ agreed John.

‘But we can’t stay long,’ she went on, ‘we have to get him home.’

‘Of course, of course,’ he told them, ‘drink up your chocolate and I’ll put some money in your collecting box.’ His wallet was on his desk. He found a few coins and then thought ‘what the hell – what do I need it for?’ and pulled out a note too. When he put them all in the children’s box, they looked at him with huge eyes.

‘Wow, Mister,’ said John, ‘thanks. That’s great.’

‘You sang so well for me. You’ve given me a marvellous time.’

And they had. One brief moment had given him back something he hadn’t felt for many years – the magic of Christmas, so often drowned by its tawdry commercialism. It surprised him to have that feeling back, one last time.

From his front window, he watched the children running home, delighted with their takings, looking forward to tell their parents how well they’d done.

He smiled and turned to go back up stairs, still buoyed by the joy of the carols, which he’d always felt were much the best religious songs. But the pain was getting worse and his morphine was upstairs. He knew he wouldn’t be suffering long, and he smiled at the irony: for once, there was little comfort in the idea that an unpleasant experience soon be over.

The children with their candles had been a spark of light and the pleasure had stayed with him. Once he was back in bed, he would be able to wait for his son in rediscovered peace.

So far his last Christmas was turning out better than he’d expected.

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