Miss Bell: Jolly Wassailers
Christmas has never lost its wonder. On Christmas Eve, I am a child again, tingling with the anticipation of something marvellous.
My brother used to laugh at me, God rest his soul. You know how boys can be. Not that he was a boy at the time, but a grown man, bluff with self-importance and proud in his military coat. He visited me one Christmas, and made no attempt to hide how backwards and provincial he thought we all were. "Tuneless children singing carols," he said, "and a shabby vicar in a crumbling church, preaching second-hand sermons."
It is not good to speak ill of the dead, so I will refrain from saying any more about that.
Christmas morning unveils the true mystery of Christmas, as hymns are sung in a vault of stone that has seen worship for over a thousand years. We are a family, not a village, and we come together not merely in worship, but in fellowship. The snow is thick this year, and I am not as sprightly as I used to be, but I would not miss the Christmas service for all the perfumes of Arabia, to misquote the unfortunate Lady Macbeth.
But Christmas Eve… Ah, Christmas Eve… That is when the children come. "Tuneless children," my brother called him, but I recollect that he used to pull the legs off spiders when he was a boy, and people who do such things invariably have no heart. I would rather hear a dozen tuneless six year olds falter through a song meant just for me, than hear the best choir in the world sing distantly on the wireless.
For they are all my children, you see. For forty-five years, I taught at the village school in Huntercombe. I would be teaching there still, but the authorities in their infinite wisdom suddenly decided that I should have retired years ago. They closed the school after they had got rid of me, claiming that it was too small to be viable. Now the little ones are sent off by bus to larger schools in Eton and Windsor, and it breaks my heart to see them waiting at the bus stop, so tiny and so overwhelmed. The bigger ones need to spread their wings, of course, but the little ones need safety and security and a teacher who loves each and every one of them.
I have no children of my own. I never married, but I have loved. I was sixteen years old when my sweetheart died in the Spanish flu. I am not one of those foolish girls who have read too many romantic novels, and swear to never love again. I mourned him for a while, and got on with my life, but young men were thin on the ground after the Great War, and there were far too many young women. I hoped to marry, but it was not to be. I hoped to have children, but we do not always get what we want in this world, and neither should we.
My brother had an opinion on it all, of course. Men do not like educated women, he used to tell me whenever he saw me. Women are supposed to sit at home sewing and fluttering like butterflies, with nothing in their heads more substantial than thistledown. According to him, I threw away my chance to find a husband when I decided to train as a teacher.
Perhaps he was right. Had I not become a teacher, would I have married? Perhaps I would have. Would I have been happier? Would I have been happier…?
It is easier for these modern girls. Modern girls can go to university, and so many careers are open to them. They talk about feminism, and they demand the right to do anything that men do. The old men in the village disapprove, but I say good luck to them. I have seen many changes in my life. Not all of them are good, but some of them I cannot do anything other than approve of.
Sometimes I think I was born fifty years too early. Sometimes, when the nights are cold, and I am still alone, I weep.
Not today, though. Today is Christmas Eve, and, like the child that I was so many years ago, I am sitting by the window, gazing breathlessly out at the stars, waiting for the distant sound of music.
Some would call me a heretic for preferring Christmas Eve to Christmas Day. After all, the Eve is just the preparation; Christmas Day is when we celebrate the birth of Our Lord. Like the schoolmistress that I am, I could tell them that our ancestors believed that a new day started at sunset. Christmas Eve was Christmas Day. The miracle has already begun.
My coins are ready. "Nasty new-fangled decimal things", the other old girls call them, but I am not one of them. I hope I never get so old and set in my ways that I despise a thing just because it is new. As a teacher, I saw the world anew every single day, through the eyes of a child. This world was meant to change, not to stagnate. I am not supposed to think this at seventy. I am supposed to be a stick-in-the-mud, a… what do they call it now? A square? I will never like their modern music, and these modern hairstyles will always seem a little strange to me, but I am glad that they are happening. I am glad that the world is still alive, and that my children will bear the flame after I am gone.
They are late. Sitting here, waiting, I am distracting myself with memories, but the children are late. It is probably just the snow, though. Walking will be harder, and there will be more talk at the other houses. We are all so excited at the thought of snow on Christmas Day. We are English, and we talk about the weather even when there is no weather to talk about, so how much more must we talk about it when it lies six inches thick, like a child's most magical dream.
Ah, they come! I see the light of the lantern, as warm and welcome as home on a winter's day. Mindful of tradition, they will sing outside, like wassailers out in the snow, begging the maid to trip to the door and pull back the pin. There is no giggling as they prepare themselves, not like that cheeky pair of lads from across the Common, who sang one line of We Wish You A Merry Christmas and expected money. I made them stand on the doorstep until I had taught them two verses of Once in Royal. I gave them their pennies, though. One has to encourage all children, even rascals. Today's haughty businessmen and crusty old gentlemen doubtless scrumped apples in their day. I know my brother did.
Even these children, so solemn on my doorstep, have done mischief in their time. Stephen Stanton was once a devil for climbing other people's trees. I once found Max Stanton with young Anne Evans behind my rhododendron, although the poor dears were only ten and had no idea what boyfriends and girlfriends were supposed to do once they were alone in someone else's flower bed. Mary was always a vain one, and young James can be a terror, although he has a heart of gold, and is mortified if he thinks he has truly upset someone.
They are singing in Latin, bless their hearts. They cannot sing something as simple as O Come All Ye Faithful to their learned schoolmistress, oh no. Like five year olds proudly presenting me with an apple, they sing it in Latin, and then follow it up with some French. It is so delightfully touching and so beautifully childish. My eyes fill with tears. My voice will be husky when I answer the door, but I will make no attempt to hide it. It is not English to display too much emotion, but it is not human to hide it altogether, as I used to tell my children as they struggled so desperately to be brave.
The singing is finished. I move to the door, not as fast as I used to be, and open it to their beaming faces. "Beautiful," I tell them, truthfully. "Beautiful."
There is no Stephen today, of course, for he is away with the Royal Navy, and not a child any more. Max has apparently stayed at home writing a letter to his girlfriend, or so James gleefully told me, rolling his eyes, before Mary butted in to tell me that Gwen was washing her hair in case her sweetheart came round. How they grow up! I could tell Max's sweetheart a thing or two about Max, of course, but I never will. Sometimes I think that a teacher learns more secrets than even a mother, and all of them are cherished, and kept with trust.
Paul is here with his flute, of course. I still remember the day he first discovered music. He was painfully shy when he started school, in total contrast with Robin, who was always the first to put his hand up, undaunted by the fact that his answers were wrong as often as they were right. It took me days to coax more than two words out of Paul, but one day, when the older children were having a recorder lesson, he wandered up and picked up a spare recorder and started to play. It was far from perfect, of course, but after just an hour, he was better than any of the older children. His earnest little face had transformed, too, swept away with the joy of music. After just a few weeks, I had to get the county's peripatetic music teacher to come in to give him extra lessons. She started him on the flute after six months, and that, as Mrs Horniman would say, was that.
A teacher should not have favourites, of course, but I think Paul would be one of mine. I have a soft spot for all of the Stantons, though, and not just because they sing carols in foreign languages every Christmas Eve. Robin reminds me a bit of my brother, though without all the less desirable character traits that my brother exhibited. Mary is somewhat lazy and too concerned with her appearance, but she is fourteen, and fourteen is such a regrettable age. James is bright and lively, and never lies. Barbara is pretty, and was popular with the boys even when she was seven, but has a sharp intelligence hidden behind that pretty face. She once told me that she wanted to be a teacher just like me, but I expect that has fallen by the wayside now she is grown.
Young Will has the collecting box, and is holding it quietly at his side, as if he is ready to receive my coins, but reluctant to be seen to be asking. I put my money in, and he smiles at me. It strikes me suddenly that I have not seen him smile this way before. It is a genuine smile, with no inhibitions, but it seems somehow more complete than a child's smile, like a smile born from total knowledge. I smile back, and his smile turns into a grin, and he is a child again, the boy who started school six years ago, the last of his mother's enormous brood.
I taught Alice, too. She is a grown woman now, of course, with a horde of children, some of whom are already grown-up. She is older now than I was when I taught her, but, in my mind, she will forever be a child. I look at her sometimes in church and think, That is a middle-aged woman, and then my perception shifts, and I see a little girl whose dress is stained from playing on the grass. I wonder how she sees me. In my mind, of course, I am still a young woman, with my life ahead of me, and full of hope.
These children before me have yet to map out their lives. I wonder what paths they will choose to tread. Paul will follow his music, of course, and Max his art. The others have yet to make their choices, but they are good children, from a loving family, and I am sure they will succeed in whatever they choose. More importantly, I am sure they will be happy.
I look at them one by one, and each of them smiles, as if to say, Yes, I will. Only Will is solemn, no trace now of his earlier smile. I have never been prone to superstition, but it worries me. It is as if he is saying that, of all of them, he alone will not be happy. Ridiculous, of course. The carols made me emotional, like a silly little girl.
Will was always a mystery, though. He was quiet, but never shy. Everyone liked him, but no-one named him as their best friend. He was bright, but never showy. He did excellent work, but in a way that somehow encouraged people not to notice it. I saw his worth, but I was never able to coax it out of him, so that others would see it, too. He was taken from me too early, when the authorities made me retire. I hope the teachers at his new school are not overlooking him. I have sometimes thought of writing to them about him, but I know they would dismiss it as the twitterings of a mad old schoolmistress, relic of an older time.
I hug him now, and send him on his way, and then the others, one by one. It is not a farewell, though it feels like one, for Christmas Eve is special. I will see them all in church tomorrow, and barely a week goes by without one or other of them calling round to have a chat, or to ask if I need any shopping done. I expect they think I am as old as the hills. Compared with a little one like Will, I am.
"Goodbye!" I call, as they head out into the snow. "Goodbye!"
But Will lingers, the last of them all. "You were my first teacher," he says earnestly, not like a child at all. "I am learning again now, from others, but I will never forget what you taught me. Thank you."
By the end, he is blushing, like the child that he is. I ruffle his hair, and he hurries after his brothers and sisters, pleased, no doubt, to be hidden by the darkness.
Cold as it is, I stay at the door, and listen to the sound of them singing to other people, other houses. Now that no-one can see me, I can cry freely, the silly old lady that I am. They are my children, and always will be, and I love them. I love them.