Anyway, I digress. What I really thought would be nice would be to share some Christmas childhood memories. Mine are from when I was that perfect kid in England and my memories are so different that I wonder if today's kids would even understand some of it.
But here goes. If you have read this far down, you will maybe finish the whole blog, although it's long as I now ramble on about one of my Christmas memories. And, although there are a few violins playing in the background, most of it, as true as I can remember, does retain some atmosphere of the times as they were back then. Notice the absence of seat belts, for instance! I hope you enjoy it. I have called this one:
THE WRONG BOX
By Sylvia Clare Brown
By Sylvia Clare Brown
It was the last day of school before the Christmas holiday break. Sister Catherine, thin, pointy, flinty-eyed, told me to stay after closing prayers. Now what? With Sister Catherine you never knew. “Take that look off your face,” was a favorite command of hers. I don’t think I had ‘that look’ on my face, but who knew.
If she kept me too long my mum would begin to worry. And she had enough to worry about already – losing our entire house and contents in the Portsmouth bombing and narrowly escaping death with my brother and me, and our canary, Jimmie. We were relocated to Oxford and were being held captive by the bent, hymn-singing Miss Florrie. She was forced to take us in under the wartime evacuation law and we were housed in two cramped and dark rooms, with kitchen access. And on top of all that, our Mum never knew whether our Royal Naval father, serving on battleships in the thick of things, was alive or dead.
So I waited and worried and trembled. It was OK though. Sister Catherine gave me a note to give to Mum. She must have had a small flash of kindness because she said, “It’s not a bad note. You’ve been chosen. So you can take that look off your face.” I ran all the way home, a good twenty minute trot, now worrying about what I had been chosen for.
Mum read the note. It seemed that I had been chosen, along with two other girls from my class, and three boys from St. Phillip and St. James boys school, down the road, to sing carols up at the Big House, the home of the Squire of Binsey village, about ten miles outside of Oxford. The evacuation law had decimated the number of children in the Binsey village school, so talent for the annual Christmas Carol tradition had to be sought elsewhere. It had been such a major event that it could not be allowed to die. “Been going on for ‘undreds of years,” some said.
The note commanded that I wear something festive and behave well. Nothing was said about my facial expression, though. The event was three days away, on a Saturday. The school grounds man, Mr. Fieldhouse, would be driving his open-backed lorry and would pick up the children at the school at 4 o’clock. Afterwards he would deposit each one of us on their home doorstep. Sister Catherine would be the chaperone.
Mum seemed to think that it was some sort of honor to have been chosen, but I knew better. I could not sing especially well, but I was tall. That must be it. They always needed tall kids to stand at the back and form some sort of backdrop to any event
. My festive outfit was my green pinafore (jumper) with a white blouse and a red bow in my hair. The new white, lace-edged socks, intended for Christmas day, were brought into play and their newness showed up the scuff marks on my black Mary Jane’s. Every resourceful, Mum used stove blacking on them and they looked like new – well almost. And who knew that stove blacking rubbed off on everything it touched – and especially on white socks. My coat was orange, but that couldn’t be helped.
When we set out for school on the big day it was almost dark and there were no chinks of light to be seen anywhere, either in town or country, due to the wartime Blackout Law. Mum fussed and worried as we walked through the twilight. “Will the driver be able to see? How would he know where to bring me afterwards? I was to make sure he stopped right outside our house. I was to stand up straight and sing out. Did I know the words to the carols? Had I memorized them?” I answered yes. It was easier that way. But the other two girls, who I learned were Jackie Brain and Gillian Rowel, and myself had no idea what we were to sing. No one told us anything.
Mr. Fieldhouse and Sister Catherine were waiting by a dark blue, rusty looking lorry. I was the last to arrive, which merited an automatic glare from Sister Catherine. The three boys from SS Philip and SS James were standing around looking embarrassed with their combed hair and clean short pants and long grey socks. They each wore red jumpers under blue blazers. Their mothers had obviously talked. The boys kicked at invisible stones and sniggered with each other as they looked at us girls. Then from out of the dusk a small, intense bundle of arms and legs shot toward the lorry and screeched to a halt, disheveled, dirty and panting. Oh help! It was Leslie Ballard. He lived on our street. As my mother often said, he came from a family well acquainted with the police. Everyone was afraid of the Ballards and there were lots of them. But Leslie was my own personal nightmare. He was said to have been held back in school so he was eight, two years older than most of us, small for his age and a bully. His, wiry, compact frame emanated anger. He was mad at everything and everyone and kicked people just to prove it. If my brother and I saw him coming toward us, we would cross to the other side of the street just to avoid him. Sometimes he crossed too and we got kicked and punched anyway. And now, here he was, pointy faced, almost blue with the cold and already sneering at the rest of the choir. It was rumored that he had killed a small child.. Leslie Ballard came up to me and pinched my arm. I didn’t dare cry . I could be next
My insides shrieked to my Mum to take me home with her but she was already walking away, disappearing into the dusk. The last sight of my mother was to be of her back – and I never got to say goodbye.
Sister Catherine clapped her hands, “Come along, children, up with you, into the back.” Mr. Fieldhouse gave us all a leg up into the bed of the lorry, covered for the occasion with tarpaulins and blankets. Leslie Ballard was the first one, he always pushed into everything. I hung back. I wanted to be the last! Boys sat along one side, girls along the other. Mr. Fieldhouse snapped the back into place, thumped once or twice to make sure it held, and climbed into the driver’s seat, with Sister Catherine next to him.
We drove for what seemed hours. It was so cold and windy in the back. All of our noses turned red. My red bow blew off. The boys’ bare legs turned blue – except for Leslie Ballard’s. You couldn’t really tell with him because of the layers of dirt coating his limbs. He was wearing a too-big brown sweater with a too small brown blazer so he looked like an over-stuffed troll. He frequently wiped his nose along his sleeve and yelled “whatcha looking at?” over the howl of the wind rushing past our ears. He kicked at Gillian Rowel, who had the misfortune to sit opposite him. His sort legs could only reach her drawn up ankles, but it still hurt. I knew from experience. We drove through winding country lanes with no way to see anything in the dimmed headlights on a starless, moonless night. Bare hedgerow branches swiped the edges of the lorry, clutching at us with long, twitchy fingers. The girls screamed. The boys jeered and Leslie Ballard kicked and spewed his horrid threats into the wind. Who could have been so blind as to choose him, of all people, to sing Christmas carols up at the Big House? I later learned that he had not been chosen, but got wind of the event and the promise of free biscuits and cocoa, and just turned up.
Eventually our tortured ride was over and Mr. Fieldhouse drew up in front of the Big House in Binsey. There were no welcoming lights or sounds of merriment from inside. It was dark and cold and silent. Mr. Fieldhouse helped us out of the lorry and we stumbled and fell around on the gravel, cold and stiff and in extreme pain. My fingers had gone white, numbed with the cold and my itching chilblains throbbed against the sides of my shoes.
“Stop fooling around,” Sister Catherine snapped, warm in her long black robes and cape. She pushed and pulled, straightened and brushed us into shape and into a line. “ Now listen to me,” she said. “I have the order of the program. We will start with THE FIRST NOEL, then GOOD KING WENCELAS, then THE HOLLY AND THE IVY. The village singers have some solos. Then we will all sing SILENT NIGHT AND GOD REST YE MERRY GENTLEMEN and that will be it. You know the words. Stand up straight, sing out. Take those looks off your faces.”
She shepherded us through the now open huge front door and into the big hall. A stern looking man in black took all of our coats, except for Leslie Ballard’s. He took one look and probably decided it wasn’t worth the fight. No one wants to remove clothing from a snapping turtle. The hall ceiling went up and up and up, and in the middle was a huge crystal chandelier with thousands of candle holders on it. It wasn’t lit though. All around the ceiling were golden swirls and curlicues and huge oil paintings lined the high hall walls and the walls going up the great curved staircase. No one looked happy in any of the portraits that I could see. To one side of the front door was a table set with cups and big plates of biscuits, a real treat in war time. This was to be our reward. There was a big Christmas tree with colored lights in the center of the hall with piles of red and green gift boxes underneath. Big red bows were pinned to every door around the hall and there was a big wreath on the back of the front door. The Big House staff was all lined up on the opposite side of the refreshment tables. I could see the back of Leslie Ballard’s head as he took it all in. I knew he was making plans to rush the table and fill his pockets.
The village children’s choir was already assembled and looking smug as our rag tag, frozen faced band joined them. They shuffled in place and wouldn’t move around to let us in. Eventually I was shoved to the back. See, I told you!
We waited and waited. The man in black, who I named Mr. Dark, stood by the refreshment table and looked sour. The housemaids giggled and an older lady. in stiff white cuffs and pinafore, shushed them. We waited some more. I looked down at my black stained white socks and was glad no one could see them. We wriggled, sniffed, pushed and pinched and whispered. Leslie Ballard yelled out “HA, HA, HA” for no reason. Sister Catherine and the other teacher, glared at all of us. What was going on?
After what seemed a very long time, a very small, rickety old man started to descend the huge curved stairway, clinging to the banisters and tottering on each step. A nurse held on to an elbow and guided him. Mr. Dark placed a throne chair at the bottom of the stairs. The Squire tottered down the last step and fell into the chair. The grownups let out a big sigh of relief.
Then it was time. We had to sing. We did know all of the words after all because we’d sung them over and over at school during the last week, along with lots of other carols. We sang lustily and in great discord. The tiny man in the big throne chair sat staring ahead. He wore a red vest under his tweedy jacket, and a red bow tie. It made me sad for my own red bow, blown away into the frosty night from the back of a rusty lorry. His slippered feet barely touched the cold black and white marble floor. Three boys from the village school stepped forward and after several false starts and shoving of each other, sang WE THREE KINGS FROM ORIENT ARE. Two girls stepped forward and sang IT CAME UPON A MIDNIGHT CLEAR. Then we all sang SILENT NIGHT, finishing up with a rowdy GOD REST YE MERRY GENTLEMEN, guaranteed to waken any gentleman, merry or not, for a surrounding twenty five miles. The staff did not applaud but just stood there as though there were more to come. The teacher and Sister Catherine looked at each other and then the kind looking Housekeeping lady came over and whispered to them. They nodded. Sister Catherine swung around to face us with her glinty eyes. She fixed them on me and beckoned me out with a bony finger. Me? Did I have ‘That look’ on my face? What did I do? I shuffled toward her, embarrassment reddening my ears.
“Sylvia Clare, you will now sing, WHAT CAN I GIVE HIM, for the Squire. It’s his favorite.” I was stunned. Me? Sing alone?
“By myself?” I croaked.
“Of course by yourself. You know it. We sang it every day last week.”
She gave me a sharp push to the front and turned me by the shoulders to face the elf man in the chair. He stared straight ahead, not at me, thank goodness. He would have seen my socks.
“Sing,” she prodded and then, as I stood in strangulated silence. “Sing up child.”
There was nothing for it but to sing. So, with my eyes fixed somewhere at the top of the stairs, and my knees visibly knocking, I began
WHAT CAN I GIVE HIM, POOR AS I AM?
IF I WERE A SHEPHERD, I WOULD GIVE A LAMB.
IF I WERE A RICH MAN, I WOULD DO MY PART.
WHAT CAN I GIVE HIM? GIVE HIM MY HEART.
I stumbled to the end, aware of the giggles behind me. No one moved. I was mortified. The housekeeping lady looked around and said out loud,
“Er’s made the Squire cry.”
Then quite suddenly everyone began to move about and we were being guided over to the table. Red faced and humiliated, I prayed for invisibility. I asked Sister Catherine where the bathroom was. She took me down a short hall and opened the door to a cramped closet of a toilet. I cowered in there, filled with shame, not wanting to go out and face anyone. I heard the sounds of laughter and clinking of cups and even, possibly, the sound of biscuits being consumed by the dozen. Eventually Sister Catherine came and thumped on the door.
“Come out child, we’re leaving.”
She was standing there with my orange coat and grim look on her face.
“What have you been doing? You’ve missed the cookies.”
She shoved me into my coat and propelled me along the passage back into the big hall. Mr. Dark was standing by the piles of red and green wrapped gift boxes. He handed the green ones to the boys and the red ones to the girls except, when I got to him, he thrust a green box into my hands.
“But, But...” I started to say.
“Get along with you,” Sister Catherine pushed me through the door. I turned to tell her I had the wrong box but she wouldn’t listen. She hustled me to the back of the lorry and almost threw me in. The others were already there, legs stretched out, gifts clutched to their chests.
No one opened their gifts, except, of course for Leslie Ballard. I could hear his ripping off the paper in the dark and throwing it into the wind, to be whisked away to join my red bow. He tore open the box.
“Smashing,” he said and pulled out a pirate’s outfit, complete with rubber dagger. “What you got?” he yelled as he ripped open another boy’s box. It was another pirate outfit, so all the boys got the same thing. For the rest of the journey he stabbed and thrust through the darkness at all of us in turn. He crawled between our legs and shoes to reach every one of us. He caught me a painful thrust in the ear. Gillian Rowel cried when he thrust his rubber dagger with great force across her red box and tore a big hole in the paper. I caught a glimpse of a doll. A beautiful doll. It was probably the same doll in the window of Elliston and Cavell, the big department store in the center of Oxford. I visited her every time we went into town. I wanted her, deeply, achingly. Her big blue eyes were fringed with dark lashes and she showed one white baby tooth in her smile and her dimpled arms reached out to me every time I pressed my red nose to the glass. She even had real hair. I named her Cynthia. And now all I got stuck with was a pirate outfit with a rubber dagger. Tears slipped out and were whipped away by the wind. I was as miserable as I could possibly be.
The other boys did nothing to save themselves or us girls from Leslie Ballard. It was something we had to endure when in his company. He stuffed stolen biscuits into his mouth and spluttered and spat crumbs at everyone. We all shrank back against the cold metal backboards of the lorry and did nothing. We all wanted to live to see Christmas Day. One by one, we were dropped off at our houses until, to my horror and to end a perfectly horrid evening, I was left alone in the back with Leslie Ballard.
“Gimme that,” he said, and snatched my green box. Something snapped in me.
“Give it back,” I yelled and kicked him with all my might with my stove blackened Mary Janes. A big black gash appeared on his calf. In the darkness it looked like blood. He looked at me in amazement as I grabbed back the green box. Then his face changed to pure evil and he prepared himself to take revenge. Now I was dead. I would never get to live a full life. And I never said goodbye to Mum.
I closed my eyes and waited for the fatal blow from Leslie, but instead lurched almost flat as Mr. Fieldhouse brought the lorry to a screeching stop outside my house.
“Thank you God,” I prayed.
Mum was waiting and we were inside without another word to Sister Catherine or Mr. Fieldhouse.
“Well,” Mum said, “taking off my coat and rubbing my cold hands. “How did it go?”
I burst into tears. “I got the wrong box,” I sobbed, “ and I sang by myself and I was so bad I made the Squire cry.”
Mum eventually calmed me down and got the whole story out of me and said comforting things to make me feel better. “Look,” she said, “I know what you can do. You can give this present to your brother. It will be something special you can do for him. That’s what Christmas is all about, anyway.”
Sometimes my mother just didn’t get it. I agreed, though, because the last thing I needed was a pirate outfit complete with rubber dagger. And, after a few hugs and kisses and hot cocoa made with powdered milk and saccharine, I began to feel better.
On Christmas morning, Santa came and left his gifts for us at the bottom of our beds, in the pillowcases placed there the night before. We opened our gifts and made the mandatory squeals of delight, even though I was disappointed that there was no doll, except for the cardboard cut-out one, with paper clothes that you could press on and off. I named her Rosemary.
When came downstairs, dragging our pillowcases behind us and Mum was busy in the kitchen finishing off the special breakfast. She came into the room as we came through the hall door and smiled as she saw my face for there, next to the horrid green gift box was a red one, just like the other girls got from the Big House. I looked up at Mum.
She laughed and said, “The Housekeeper up at the Big House saw what happened with your gift and she found out where we lived and delivered this for you the next day but I wanted the surprise to wait for Christmas Day. Go on. Open it,” she said.
“No. Let Douglas open his first,” I said. I like to drag out good experiences. My brother opened his present and took out the pirate outfit and dagger.
“Smashing,” he said. And then turned back to his model aero-plane kit.
“Well, come on,” Mum said. “I can’t wait to see what you got,”
But I knew what it was. And I was right. She was a beautiful little doll. Her eyes didn’t open and close like the one in Elliston’s window, and she had painted on hair, instead of real hair, but she was lovely and dimpled and smiling and her arms reached out to me and I clutched her to my heart. And I named her Cynthia, anyway.