The Lady in the Bauble
Now you two it’s bedtime. Santa will only come when you’re asleep.
‘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 all huddled together reaching towards a small fire, stretching our hands into the warmth. No one spoke because they were afraid, afraid if they had 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 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 hummed the tune and then sang, “Silent night, holy night”. The singing became louder and the chorus travelled like a concertina along the trenches. The words harmonised in the frozen air, sounding like a choir in Salisbury Cathedral. Everyone lifted their heads up and began clapping as if electricity had buzzed around sparking good cheer. 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 ground. We all hushed and everyone went silent, drawn to listen; “Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!”, (Sleep in heavenly peace).
‘Was it angels, did they hear the angels?’
Can you imagine the whole world singing, everyone all at once? The night sky was clear and bright with stars and the frosted ground glistened. Yes, angels were watching and had come to answer all our prayers, for peace on Earth.
A small branch with some leaves had landed on our heads in the afternoon so I 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 the top I put the golden bauble that your Grandmother had sent. She had wrapped it in some woollen socks tucked in a cardboard box along with some chocolate and shortbread. Imagine shortbread baked at home. Everyone around the fire had presents, there were cigarettes and small hipflasks containing whisky 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. He gave me rye bread with wine and he even had some gingerbread with little sweet buttons.
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 candlelight. I put her photograph next to the bauble on the top of our little branch, and saw how her face reflected and flickered in the golden sheen. She was beautiful and I imagined her dancing, she smiled as I watched.
I remembered her words at the train station, she had told me to take care and always do the right thing; please, she had said, don’t be foolish and make sure you come home. Come home safe.
During the night we all slept soundly like snoring hibernating bears.
Next morning, thunderous roars shook the ground and great lumps of soil were thrown 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 tossed skywards by an explosion, and when he landed 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 to blow hard and clear out the stale smell of the dank rubber.
‘What gas, Grandpa?’
‘Yuk! I hate mustard.’
Shussh and listen.
I saw a lad opposite hugging the shelter support, and he appeared so far away through the bottle bottom lenses of my mask. Tears were streaking down through the mud splattered on his face. I shouted to him to get his mask on. He looked at me, then I realised he had dropped or lost his respirator 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 took off my mask and pulled it over his head. He struggled against me, but I forced it on him until he sat down trembling. He was cowering in the dirt, and 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 left the picture. It was raining and great pools of mud had formed sucking at my legs with every step. I crawled to look round each bend and was caked in the sticky mud like a chocolate and caramel tart.
‘I like chocolate.’
I went through 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, I wasn’t alone, and all around it was as if bears were still asleep. Someone flicked a match and lit a candle. There were some of the opposition football players from the day before, and I smelled schnapps and gingerbread. My little packet of shortbread was still lying next to our makeshift Christmas tree with the bauble hanging on top, and the picture of your Grandma tucked beside it. Next to her photograph others had put their pictures of children, families and girlfriends. Miniature faces reflected off the bauble’s sheen like little angels smiling. I reached over and picked up 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, they were mumbling, cursing and hugging at the earth.
I snatched the bauble, and Grandma’s picture then I crawled out into daylight, into the mud and smoke.
‘That’s enough now, it is 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. But all we can really see are our own reflections.’
‘That’s right Mum. Little angels.’