It’s bedtime now. Santa will only come after you have gone to sleep.
‘Oh Grandpa, tell us a story.’
Only if you both stay still, no jumping around. Come on now, settle under the blankets and listen. Let me tell you about Grandma’s Christmas bauble.
It was a dark wintry night and we were huddled together reaching towards the small fire, stretching our hands into the warmth. No one spoke because they were afraid, so afraid that if they slept they might not wake in the morning.
‘We’ll wake, won’t we Grandpa?’
Shussh, let me tell the story.
We heard singing from across the field. A soft voice that sounded so clear almost like an angel calling, “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht”. Round the fire and in its dim glow I could see faces sink beneath their bowed heads. What of our families at home and all alone on Christmas night? Someone in the dark started to hum and then sang, “Silent night, holy night”. The singing became louder as we all joined in and the chorus travelled like a concertina along our trenches. The words echoed in the frozen air and it sounded like a choir singing in Salisbury Cathedral. Everyone lifted their heads and began clapping as if electricity had buzzed around sparking good cheer. In the flicker of the flames we were smiling.
Over the field the lone angelic voice responded louder and then was lifted by a voluminous crescendo, a multitude of voices singing from across the field. We all hushed and everyone went silent, drawn to listen, Schlafe in himmerlische Ruhe, (Sleep in heavenly peace).
‘Was it angels Grandpa did you hear the angels?’
Can you imagine the whole world singing, everyone, all at once? The sky was bright with stars and the frosted ground across the field glistened. Yes angels as if they were watching and had come to answer our prayers for peace on Earth.
A broken branch with leaves had landed on our heads in the afternoon and I had stood it in the corner of our dugout.
‘Like a miracle, Grandpa?’
Ha, yes a miracle. We decorated it as a Christmas tree with silver paper and on top I put the golden bauble that your Grandmother had sent. She had wrapped it in woollen socks in a cardboard box along with some chocolate and shortbread. Imagine shortbread baked at home. Everyone around the fire had presents some with cigarettes and others shared a mouthful of whisky from their small flasks that warmed and cheered us.
‘Grandpa. Were you there?’
‘Did you see the angels?’
Shussh, you two, listen.
In the morning we waved and walked across the field to where we had heard them singing. They stood up and came out to meet us. I gave them some shortbread and they gave us corn schnapps. I showed them pictures of your Grandma and one of them shook my hand and showed me his photographs of his children dressed in summer frocks. He gave me rye bread with wine and he even had some gingerbread with little sweet buttons from home.
A football was kicked into the air and then it started. They challenged us to a game and we played all afternoon until it became dark.
They did, three goals to two.
‘Oh, the angels won.’
That night we all felt safe and warm. I wrapped up snug in a blanket and before I slept I read your grandmother’s letter by a candle. I put her photograph next to the bauble and saw her face reflect and flicker from the golden sheen on the top of our little branch. She was beautiful and I imagined she was dancing; she smiled and twirled as I watched.
I remembered her words at the train station, she told me to take care and always do the right thing, please she said don’t be foolish and make sure to come home. Come home safe.
That night we all felt safe and slept soundly like snoring hibernating bears.
Next morning thunderous roars shook the ground and great lumps were thrown up into the air. Our football field was torn apart, earth and stones were sent flying and came crashing down along our trenches. I saw someone thrown high into the air and as he landed he became buried when the trench collapsed around him. I could only see his boots.
Run, run, run, everyone was shouting. We ran along inside the trenches to escape the eruptions and kept going until we reached a reinforced shelter.
When the explosions stopped. We sat waiting, silent. Someone shouted gas, gas, gas. I pulled on my mask and took some deep breaths and blew hard to clear out the stale smell of the dank rubber.
‘What gas, Grandpa?’
‘Yuk I hate mustard.’
Shussh you two listen.
I saw a lad opposite hugging the shelter support and he seemed so far away through the bottle bottom lenses of my mask. Tears were streaking down through the mud on his face. I shook him and shouted to him to get his mask on. He looked at me then I realised he had dropped and lost his in the scramble to escape the front line trench. I knew him. He was an Archibald and one of the baker’s sons. Always do the right thing your grandmother had said. So I tore off my mask and pulled it over his head. He tried to take it off, but I forced it on him and he sat down trembling and cowering in the dirt looking like a hideous rubber faced creature.
The bauble, I had to go back to the dugout and get your Grandma’s picture and the bauble. Don’t do anything foolish she had said, but I wanted to see her face and had to have her picture, it was everything. What would she say if I lost it?
‘No ice cream for you.’
I went back along the trench towards the front dugout where I had slept. It was raining and great pools of mud had formed sucking at my legs with every step. I crawled to look around each bend and became caked in the sticky mud like a chocolate and caramel tart.
‘I like chocolate’
I went into a gap in the broken dugout, it was dark, but I saw a tiny glitter of light sparkle from the bauble. There was heavy breathing all around me as if bears were still asleep. I wasn’t alone. Someone flicked on a match and lit a candle. It was the football players from the day before. I smelt schnapps and gingerbread and saw my little packet of shortbread next to our makeshift Christmas tree. The bauble was hanging on the top and the picture of your Grandma tucked beside it. Next to her they had added their pictures of children, families and girlfriends. Miniature faces reflected off the sheen like hundreds of little angels smiling at us in the bauble. I reached across for the shortbread and passed pieces around in the dim light.
Then the roar of eruptions started again and shook the dugout. Everyone huddled into the sides of the hole, mumbling, cursing and hugging at the earth.
I grabbed the bauble and picture and I crawled out into daylight, into the rain, into the mud and smoke.
‘That’s enough now it’s time you two were asleep.’
‘But Mum, Grandpa is telling us a story.’
‘Horrible war stories no doubt, really Dad. It’s Christmas time.’
‘No Mum, it’s about angels.’
‘Oh yes, and if you look into the baubles on the tree, you see Grandma. All we can really see are our own reflections.’
‘That’s right Mum. Little angels.’