“Clear off, you vandals! Break into a church would you? No respect!”
The boys did not look very old, probably nine or ten. They turned and saw him, a tall, skinny, scruffy figure in ragged clothes waving a gnarled old walking stick at them.
“Ha, ha, it’s Father Christmas!” one of them yelled.
The boys scarpered, galloping across the snow with all the energy of youthful deer. He muttered under his breath as he finally reached the church door. They had broken the lock. He pushed, and the old door creaked open. Least I’m not going to wreck the place, he mused; perhaps the young rascals had done him a favour.
It had been bitter cold that night, a distant radio from somewhere in the packed hostel in town had announced “The worst winter in fifty years …” No room at the inn, how ironic, he had thought, perhaps he would find a stable of his own somewhere.
And here it was, not a cattle shed, but the old hilltop church. He marvelled at the silence inside, the pews eerily empty, strewn with a sparkling decoration of spiderwebs. Wandering up to the altar, he was surprised to find the statue of the Virgin and Child, old, with peeling paint and chipped wood. They had been abandoned, shame, he thought, nobody cares any more, not in this modern age.
He sat down on the front pew. It was dry, but cold. Ah well, just you and me, My Lady, keep safe, nighty night. Soon he was lying flat out, sleep descending like a shroud.
“Charlie! Charlie! Sit up now, the service is about to start!” He awoke and sat bolt upright.
“Anna?” he asked, it had sounded exactly like his sister’s voice. He was suddenly six years old again, and the family were gathered with the other villagers for Midnight Mass. He had been allowed to sit next to his grandparents. They owned the big farm which gave them the privilege of occupying the front pew.
Yes, Anna was staring down at him, the older, but not always wiser. The church was filled with holly boughs. Candles flickered cheerily in sconces around the walls, the shapes of the congregation dancing like happy spirits against the stone. The vicar swept up to the altar in his robes, followed by the choristers, intoning his favourite carol, Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Oh life was so perfect, so simple, way back then.
“Charlie, come on, wake up, old son!” the paramedic called. “He’s stone cold,” she turned to her colleague, “Probably came in to shelter last night.”
“Yeah, such a shame, on Christmas Day too, poor thing!” he commented.
“He’s got a smile on his face though, hope he passed on with a nice dream.”
“Charlie, Charlie, come on, it’s Christmas! Let’s go home and open the presents!” Anna’s voice was crystal clear now.
“Coming!” he called, and took his sister’s hand as they walked up the aisle of the old hilltop church.