That Bleakest Winter
‘Albert man what in hell’s name are you doing?’ Cyril hissed when one of our flares went up and he could see what I was at.
I turned on him saying, ‘pipe down for pity sake’
‘Come away man before they take your crazy head off’
There was an exchange of forced whispers before I slid to the bottom.
‘You’re starting to sound like an old maid, do you know that?’ I said.
He gave me a hand up, my boots sliding, squelching in the mud. Our faces silhouetted I could see only the whites of his eyes and teeth. I put my hands on his shoulders.
‘You could have got yourself killed’ he said.
‘But I didn’t my old cocker did I? And do you know why?’
‘Because you carry a cloak of invisibility?’
‘No Cyril, it’s because it’s Christmas Eve that’s why. They’ve lit candles along their side’
‘Think about it. Aside from the occasional flare nothing’s been happening for an age. I tell you they’re observing Christmas. Good will to all men and all that’.
‘You’ve finally cracked now. If there was a ceasefire we would have heard about it. Orders would have come down.
He was beginning to nettle me now for sure.
‘Maybe Cyril they’re starting to see the madness of the situation as much as we are. Did you think of that?’
‘Oh that’s the way of it is it? We’ll all go around making up orders shall we?’
‘If you don’t mind me saying Cyril, war has made you a little cynical. I’m for lighting a candle’.
‘Lighting a candle. Never let it be said an English Soldier…’
He grabbed me by the arms.
‘You have gone mad. What about a marksman?’
‘I’m doing it Cyril’ I said, fishing in my pack for the candle.
‘If they don’t kill you one of ours might. Sargent Sullivan is not a man to ask questions’.
‘MERRY CHRISTMAS FRITZ’
‘Are you completely insane?’
His voiced wavered with emotion but I couldn’t stop myself now. I wanted to believe in something beyond the horrors and tedium of our existence.
A shout came back which aside from the word ‘Tommy’ I didn’t understand.
‘There you go’ I said, ‘sounds friendly enough. What do you suppose he said?’
‘Difficult to say what with it being German. Maybe something like, show your face again Tommy and I’ll shoot you’.
I found the candle, lit it. When Cyril went to extinguish it I clinched my fist so he knew I meant business.
I gingerly climbed the rampart
I tried to secure the candle on top of the sandbags, anticipating the ringing of a shot at any moment. Then the strangest words to that most familiar of tunes reached me from across no-man’s-land. It took our side a while to catch on but by the line, ‘Holy infant so tender and mild’ we found our voice and joined in.