Original Susan Tate Illustration by Michael N Green
“Where are those extra thick socks?” Susan Tate had her head in the oversized drawer at the bottom of her wardrobe. Eddies of snow swirled around outside and a branch bashed the window as if it wanted to come in from the cold. Charles Dickens lay on the bed curled tight in a ball, just the tip of his tail twitched. He opened one eye and closed it again.
“Eureka.” She held up her trophy and waved them at her cat. Charles Dickens ignored her. She wondered how many pairs of socks she could wear and still fit into her Wellington boots. Once she had tried five pairs, but no matter how hard she tried she could not push her foot in. Susan did not want to venture out of her warm cottage on the edge of the Green to sing carols and hoped they would be cancelled. She had checked her phone ten times and still no message from Charlotte. She was reminded of the adage ‘a watched pot never boils’. Maybe the same applied to a WhatsApp message, it would not arrive but became stranded in the ether somewhere. Were the rest of the choir doing the same?
The choir assembled in the church porch, its solid stone roof protecting them from the weather. Charlotte, choir mistress, head teacher at the local primary school and a keen rambler, handed out laminated sheets with the music and words. A little bit of inclement weather was not going to deter her. Susan’s lantern flickered and spluttered and she wished she had invested in one with a battery like some of the choir. She tried to distract herself by counting through her list of chores mounting up. She made endless lists both at home and work in a vain attempt to put order of some sort into her life, but it wasn’t working. There was still a myriad of tasks: finish writing Christmas cards, post Christmas cards, find a present for Aunt Mary. As a child she had given all her aunts bath salts, but these days as an adult she was expected to be more imaginative.
“Are we ready?” Charlotte called out.
The small group moved out from the shelter of the porch on to the Green. Susan saw several neighbours and friends had come out to hear them. There were strings of multi-coloured lights around the Green and Susan could just make out some of the tinsel and decorations on the benches. Charlotte had organised the children at her school to festoon the benches around the edge of the Green. One had a mass of white pompoms strung across the back, thank goodness the snowflakes that evening were not so large. Another had a Father Christmas; Susan suspected he had been a ‘Guy’ at some point, even so, in the fading light his red suit gave a cheery welcome. The lights from the pub glowed orange and a rush of sound floated out each time the door was opened. The choir arranged themselves with the sopranos on the left, the altos on the right and the small flotilla of male voices in the middle. Charlotte mouthed ‘Good King Wenceslas’ at the choir and turned to the crowd to announce the first carol. The choir took a breadth. Charlotte blew her pitch pipe to give the choir a ‘C’ so they could find their notes. As the note sounded a large Alsatian who had been lying by the feet of his owner, sat bolt upright and began to howl. Two further dogs started to bark. Charlotte turned and gave the offending canines and their owners a piercing look. They paid no attention and continued to yelp. She tried a second blast on her pitch pipe but this just made matters worse. One dog just lay down and whimpered.
“Perhaps those with audio sensitive canines might like to take them to the far side of the Green?”
After some mutterings, the three owners made their way across the Green towards the welcoming warm embrace of the pub. Susan wondered if she had brought Charles Dickens he would have given her an escape route. He was far too sensible to venture out.
A snowflake landed squarely on Susan’s nose which was turning a shade of puce with the cold. She tried wrinkling her nose to dislodge the offending flake. But to no avail. And resorted to balancing both her lighted lantern and laminated music in her left hand while quickly brushing off the offending flake and continuing to sing.
Through the fading light on the Green, she thought she could make out Derek at the back of the crowd. But when she looked again he was gone. Wishful thinking. He had popped into the library a couple of weeks ago at lunchtime and they had had coffee and sandwiches. She had not heard from him since, not even a WhatsApp message. The next carol was one of her least favourites, ‘Away in a Manger’. Charlotte invited all the children to come forward and join in. As if by magic, more laminated sheets were produced and handed out to the mass of multi-coloured knitted gloved and mittened hands. There were insufficient to go round and a hiatus of who shared with who ensued for what seemed like an age to Susan as her feet grew colder despite the layers of socks she had managed to squeeze into. At last order was restored and a chorus of squeaky children’s voices began.
‘Away in a manger
No crib for a bed
The little Lord Jesus
Laid down His sweet head….’
Shouted out words rivalling each other to be the loudest. All out of tune and time. Finally the dreadful cacophony ceased and the ranks of doting parents and grandparents clapped enthusiastically.
“The choir will now take a short break for fifteen minutes. Hot chocolate is available in the church hall. Thank you again to Mrs Hodge and her ladies of the WI for arranging this.”
Past experience had taught Susan there was no point in heading for the hot chocolate, there would be a great crowd and the hot chocolate was usually a rather weak and feeble beverage. Instead she stomped about vainly trying to revitalize the circulation to her feet.
“Hi there.” Susan whipped round to see Derek smiling at her, his bobble hat swaying back and forth.
“The choir is really good.”
“Oh, do you think so, we haven’t done as much rehearsing as usual.” Susan shifted from one foot to the other feeling a little embarrassed with the level of praise.
“I thought this might be useful.” Derek handed her what looked like an extra wide piece of elastic. “It’s a head torch, I use it sometimes when we are doing house clearances. I had it in the car.” Derek flicked a switch on the top of the elastic and a beam of light appeared. “I thought it would be easier to use, giving you a free hand. You wouldn’t need the lantern. You seem to be having trouble juggling it as well as the music.” He held out the torch looking straight at her with that disarming smile of his.
“Oh, what a great idea, how marvellous, fabulous.” Susan realised she was gabbling. A shy grin spread across her face. “Yes please it would be a great help, I’ll give it back at the end. Were you planning on staying to the end?”
“Come on everyone places please.” Charlotte called, clapping her hands and directing them back for the second half. Derek fixed the torch around Susan’s head and switched on the beam. Tentatively she handed him her lantern.
“Would you mind holding this till we are finished?”
“Delighted. I’ll walk you back. It might be slippery.”
Susan did a metaphorical jig inside.
The second half was to begin with ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, thank heavens no more howling canines thought Susan and most of the small children had been taken home into the warm. But then she noticed a couple of the basses and one soprano were singing a different tune to the rest of the choir. A fellow alto whispered in Susan’s ear.
“Frank, Paul and Mavis went to the Bull and Buttercup for a quick one rather than risk the hot chocolate and have forgotten which tune we are supposed to be singing. It was discussed and agreed at the last rehearsal we would sing the traditional Holst version and not the more trendy one by Harold Darke. Charlotte will be furious with them.” Charlotte was already staring at the choir with her most stern look.
After a couple more carols Charlotte turned to the audience or perhaps spectators was a more accurate term and announced: “Let’s get everyone involved, help keep you warm. The next carol is ‘God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen’. Have you all your sheets?”
Some diligent souls pulled out pieces of paper in various states of crumpledness. Charlotte waved her left arm at a lad who was standing holding a large holdall.
“Hand them out please, Terry.” Susan noted the irritation in Charlotte’s voice.
“Now everyone, 1 – 2 – 3 – 4.”
‘…God rest ye merry gentlemen
Let nothing you …’
The audience started but before they had finished the second line.
“No, No, No, that won’t do. Let’s try again. Please all after 4. Not before and not half a beat after. 1 – 2 – 3 – 4.”
It was certainly an improvement, but by no means perfect. Susan hoped Charlotte would not make them start for a third time. She caught Derek’s eye and a wide grin spread across his face. Quickly she tucked her head down behind the laminated sheet, hiding any potential giggles.
“Thank you everyone, wonderful uplifting singing. We wish you all a Merry Christmas and safe journey home.” Charlotte said.
There was clapping and shouts of ‘Well Done’.
The choir needed no second bidding and small groups split off, some towards the Bull & Buttercup, others joining family and friends on the Green. Derek strode towards Susan.
“Ready to go?”
“Oh yes, my feet are totally numb.”
The walked amiably for a few paces in silence, the sound of crunching snow under their feet. Susan wondered how to broach the subject of a night cap. Then without warning first her left foot and then her right began to slide from beneath her. In what felt like an age but could only have been a second or two, she was falling backwards in an ungainly display of arm waving and a cry of shock. She found herself flat on her back in the snow. She lay still for a few moments taking in the situation.
“Are you ok? Can you sit up?” Derek was looking down at her.
“I think so.”
“Take it slowly.” She grasped his outstretched hand and hauled herself up, gingerly testing each leg before she put her full weight down.
“I don’t think I’ve broken anything.”
“You will be a bit bruised; you went down hard. Take my arm.” With Susan leaning heavily on Derek they cautiously made their way across the Green, taking each step slowly. As they approached her cottage Susan noticed she had not drawn the curtains and sitting on the windowsill was Charles Dickens patiently awaiting her return. Behind him the outline of her Christmas tree was silhouetted, its lights twinkling.
“Would you like to come in for a drink? I have been experimenting with a new mulled wine recipe.”
“Oh, sounds delicious, something hot and strong.”
Susan sat on her sofa, a red tartan blanket over her legs and Charles Dickens curled up on her lap. She could hear Derek in the kitchen warming the mulled wine, opening and shutting cupboards looking for glasses.
“There’s some mince pies in the blue tin on the table.” She called.
A few minutes later Derek appeared with glasses and the tin of mince pies. Susan sat back against the cushions, sipped her warmed mulled wine and let the Christmas spirit spread over her.
Original Susan Tate Illustration by Michael Green