It's snowing on Christmas Eve, and half the men I've ever known in my life are dead. But that was in the war, supposedly a long way away from Oxfordshire, where I am standing outside my brother-in-law's beautiful brownstone house watching the snow quietly cover the hillside beyond. The daylight is dying and it casts the once-white ground in pink, and the pine trees are black against the hillsides, and the truth of it is that the war is not far away because it has followed me here. I am smoking a cigarette, watching the hill, and my mind is slowly counting down the list of men that I once knew, now buried under hills and snow, all of the way from Lorraine to the Rhine. Some of them were my men.
Being an officer is like being a parent; when I left my boys in Paris, despite the Armistice, and despite how many times I reminded myself that they are not my children but in fact, grown men, I felt guilty, and frightened. Land mines don't know that the war has ended, and neither does hunger.
But my wife has a family and I can't live in a dugout forever. Either choice, leaving the boys behind, or leaving Becca to go home alone to her family, would have made me guilty. I tried to choose the more reasonable option. We all have to move on, so I'm told.
So it's snowing on Christmas Eve, war's over. Well, Hallelujah. Everyone's inside playing with trains and decking some halls and I can't take it. So I'm smoking and watching the hillside.
Back in New York, whenever the snow came in heavy enough it stopped the sounds of the traffic and the horses and it was as if the whole world had gone to sleep. It helped me think, or, in some cases, not to think and just be until I felt like thinking again. I came outside in hopes that open air would cure a little claustrophobia, and the quiet would do me some good.
But now I find silence unnerving. I can feel it deep down in me, wound up tighter than a spring, that something is going to happen. There's nothing moving out there. It's just snow and hill. A lifetime ago the quiet probably would have done me good, but silence has become my enemy; because in a trench silence means gas or a raid or any number of frightening, deadly things. Nothing good ever comes out of a silence. Even though I know rationally there are no Germans or wire or anything of the sort beyond the hill, I still can't shake the feeling in my bones that something horrible is coming. Standing in the garden by the little frozen fountain, I fear for my life.
In the house Becca's playing with the kids; If I stand too near the window I can hear them shrieking and giggling and I can barely stand it, so I have moved away across the garden to stand with the fountain and the pink and black hill and the silence. The kids have a Christmas pageant tonight. My little nephews are a wiseman and a shepherd respectively, and tiny Gwennie, my niece, is an angel. She's singing tonight. I don't want to go, in the core of me I don't want to go to that fucking farce, but it would crush the kids if I didn't. I am really not much one for Jesus these days but I figure if I drink enough I can muddle through it quietly.
I dig out a pack of cigarettes and some matches, and light up.
The first thing I think is 'thank God the matches are dry,' and the second thing I think is – ' Is that's the person I ought to be thanking?', and the third is 'really, Neil, that's your Christmas miracle? Your matches are blessedly dry?'
But then no one in that house really understands. They don't know what it feels like to be crouched in a hole, up to your calves in dirty water and piss, and to be thinking 'thank fuck' because those bombs have finally stopped. But the roaring is still in your ears, and you're shaking and your guts are wrenching, your hands are trembling so bad you can't even open the flap on your jacket; you go to light up a penny just to put something in your hands, and you find out your matches are soaked. That's the part that breaks a man. Not the fact that his friends are probably dead, not the fact that he's sitting half underwater in a fucking hole and he can't get out, not the rockets, or the darkness. It's the fucking matches that do it. So I suppose I do have something to be thankful for, there.
The snow is falling fairly steadily now and I wonder if it's this thick down in France as well. I hope the boys on leave have some place to go. The boys in the trenches still at least have each other and a dugout to hole up in. I'm not sure which is more preferable; living in an underground warren or being alone between tall Paris buildings. Either way, not much I can do for them from here. That is why the army gives us lieutenants.
"Hey," says someone behind me, and I nearly jump out of my skin.
Oliver, my brother-in-law, is offering me a sad kind of smile, staying his distance, as if he guesses what's going on. "Sorry if the girls sprang the pageant on you, mate." A pause. "You don't have to go if you're not feeling up to it."
"I'll go," I answer tightly. "It'd break Gwennie's heart if I didn't."
"You've only been back a few days…"
"Can't live in France forever."
"Alright," he says slowly, and he's testing his ground. He's one foot on the thin ice, and he's gauging me. "I just want you to know it's alright if you aren't up for church tonight. It's a hard time to be talking about Christmas miracles. We'd understand."
I shake my head, and I think, no, you wouldn't. Ostensibly they would be fine without me at the pageant, but they would not in any way understand. "Doesn't really make a difference to me where I am tonight. I doubt church will bother me any more or less than being alone here."
Oliver just puts his hand on my shoulder and watches me as I watch the snow.
My cigarette is dwindling and so is the daylight. The sunlight makes sparkling rosés with its last rays along the hillside.
I feel guilty, and I wonder how uncomfortable and helpless Oliver actually feels about this, and I wish I wasn't putting him in this position. "I'm sorry," I say, but I'm grasping at words. "It's Christmas, I know."
Oliver frowns. "Don't be sorry," he says. "It's understandable, truly." A pause. "Listen, Neil. Tell me if there's anything I can do. Even if it's to just shut the hell up, please do."
I sigh and I shake my head. "It's not you. It's Christmas. Just no room in me for peace on earth good will to men. I don't have a whole lot of faith in people."
He nods. "Well, I hope people earn that back in time."
"Hell," I say, "So do I. A body should have faith in something."
"Well, you have faith in Becca."
I say nothing. I suppose my expression says it all. There was a time when I would have drawn definite lines and said I would not have been capable of certain things. I think of sitting in a wet, dark hole, and how a rifle feels in my hands. I think about the click and the roar and the feel of the kickback hitting my shoulder when it fires. But I don't feel guilty about it. I just know myself now, and that's nothing you can say to your brother-in-law while it's snowing on Christmas Eve.
Oliver frowns. He says nothing. Nobody says anything, because there is nothing to say.
"… You have any more scotch?" I ask, finally.
He gives me a small, smile that is not really a smile, and squeezes my shoulder, "Cupboards full." I am very glad that his profession kept him here and not Over There. "Neil," he says then, and he's suddenly very earnest. "Are you sure you're steady?"
"I'm fine," I lie. "I'm just tired."
"Alright. Come on, let's get you a drink." We start inside, Oliver stepping quickly to get in, and my heavy foot falls leaving deep prints in the snow behind him.
When we get to the door we stop, Oliver waits with his hand on the knob. "I'm glad you came up," he tells me, and he puts his hand on my shoulder. I lean on him, just a little. 'I'm so tired,' I want to tell him. That part wasn't a lie.
"Thank you," I say.
He nods. "Anytime."
I ride in the back of the car, holding Becca's hand, but I'm far away out there, in the snow, and the dark, dark night. I am sorry because I would rather be with her, but it is not so easy to come back. We get to the church without any fuss, except for Gwennie who is bouncing up and down so much that her little painted cardboard angel wings are about to shake right off her. Fortunately her mother gets her to the stage before any real damage is done.
We take our seats and I hate my uniform. I feel watched, and I feel pitied, and I feel wondered about. Still, I would rather have it on than regular clothes. My wife takes my hand and I feel it faintly, as though she is very far away.
The play begins and I am barely watching. The scotch has calmed me down from all that coiled up fear I had in the garden. But the sheep and the shepherds and the star in the east don't have my attention; I'm staring at the stained-glass depiction of Christ with his hands spread out and a smile on his face, but I'm not really seeing it.
I'm back in Paris, where I left a few good men in some bad ways. A few drinking, a few in despair. It's Christmas Eve and I hope they at least managed to crawl to a bar or a whorehouse at worst. Some place with lights. It's not a good night to be alone. We don't need a holy night and especially not a silent night. All we need is a night under a roof and out of the dark.
I hope they're weathering through.
And I'm angry again, because here I am in a church watching a pageant with people I don't know and don't care to know, with my wife who I can't even bring myself to talk to, and for the love of God I couldn't even get my foot in the front door here without a healthy dose of Glennfiddich first. I am angry because my family is a unit of men miles away from here, or lives away, men now in pieces, men swallowed by the earth, men who are gone and who left holes in all our lives. And what I have is a few warm shots of scotch, kids playing wisemen and a glass picture of a smiling Christ, well who gives a damn?
I want to cry. I wish I were crying. But I don't, or I can't, and the pageant has reached its glorious finale: Angels we have heard on high, nothing brings back the dead and in excelsius deo.
I close my eyes, and Rebecca is there; she squeezes my hand and I squeeze back.
The glorias cease and the audience claps. I clap along with them, methodically. I'm sure the kids were great.
"We wanted to wrap things up with a special song tonight," says the pianist. "Something maybe we all need right now. Please turn to page ninety-three in your hymnal, and sing with me if you'd like."
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
My wife is singing next to me and one by one voices come from the people in the pews. They sing softly, they sing with difficulty. There are men in uniform, khaki and not olive drab like mine, but uniforms all the same; some sing, some don't, some bow their heads. I lift mine and look at the stage. My two nephews are singing, and little Gwennie with her off kilter cardboard wings sings exuberantly.
Voices break. I can't get words out; I grip my wife's hand. She still sings quietly but turns to me and I feel her fingers on my cheek. What do they know of the thunder of cannons in the south?
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bow my head; "There is no peace on earth," I say -- mostly to myself, but my wife hears me.
"Oh Neil," she says. "I'm here."
I lay my head on hers and shut my eyes and try to forget how cold my boys are, where they might be, curled up under the covers in some brothel bed, or in a dugout far to the east alone, afraid. I try to forget the snow and the silence, to forget the pageant and the damned Glennfiddich and try to just smell the violet perfume of my wife's hair.
"I love you," she says.
"I love you," I whisper.
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
I don't know what I believe, about this smiling stained glass Christ, these tales of shepherds and saviors born; I believe in guns and the monsters inside men, and the brotherhood too, when I think about it. I believe in Rebecca, and I hold her hand fiercely. Quietly, roughly, I add my voice to the choir. Not for any credence lent to the lyrics; I just want don't want to be alone.
So we all sing. Peace on earth, good will to men. And for once, I pray. Not to God, He's not intervening. But to myself, and the men sitting around me. Make it so, Neil. We'll start with you. For the wrong shall fail –
--the right prevail,
With peace on earth. God Almighty, we can only pray.
After the service, Gwennie comes up to me, cardboard wings flapping behind her and hugs my legs. "Did you hear me sing?" she cries.
Becca is on my arm and she lets me go so I can stiffly crouch down to return the hug. Gwennie's arms are around my neck immediately. I just know I'll end up spoiling her when we visit.
And that hits me; a future. Spoiling my niece. Bells keep pealing, nieces need spoiling, the world keeps turning, even if I'm angry about it.
"I did hear you sing."
She draws back. "I only really sang the glorias."
"They were wonderful."
"Happy Christmas, Uncle Neil."
It's not a very happy Christmas. But she doesn't need to know it. "Merry Christmas, darling."
Becca's on my arm again, steady and ever present and lovely as she always is. She keeps me behind as Oliver herds the kids toward the car.
"Darling, are you alright?"
"No." I'm honest this time.
She nods, and embraces me gently, minding my old side wound and I wrap my arms around her.
"You will be," she says. "We all will be."
"I hope so, love."
Up above us the clock strikes midnight and the bells start chiming. In an hour they'll be chiming in Paris, in Coblenz, Berlin. I hear the bells on Christmas day, and though I still do not feel that right will prevail and wrong shall fail, I have a place out of the cold and my wife in my arms.
"Are you ready to go home and have Christmas?"
"I don't know," I say. "But it's coming whether we like it or not now isn't it?"
It's still snowing on Christmas Day as we head to the car.
"We'll have a nice, deep snow tomorrow," Becca says.
"Yes," I say. And I think about tomorrow, and a silent snowy morning, something like home, which is years away from me now. But I can't think in years, none of us can right now. Tomorrow is all I can handle. So for now I'll have to take it as it comes, one day, one Christmas at a time.