‘Did you see that old boy with his dog who walked right through the middle of where we were playing?’ asked David as they drove home.
‘Certainly did!’ replied Lynne. ‘His dog came and sat on my foot while he was putting money in my tin. Not that I was complaining – it was the warmest my feet have been all evening – I was tempted to shove the other foot under too!’
Lynne firmly believed that you can only moan that you’re freezing when you’ve experienced the bone-chilling cold you get collecting for two hours with the Salvation Army band at Christmas. She was numb from the elbows and knees down, and even though they had the heating in the car whacked up on full it would be hours before she could feel her toes again.
Later on having changed out of her uniform into her favourite red plush onesie and matching slippers, her husband put a drink down in front of her and she snuggled up in the armchair with a magazine full of heart-warming festive stories. As she gradually began to thaw out, she found her mind wandering back fondly to her own first encounter with the Salvation Army that Christmas.
Twenty years ago she was a founding member of the ‘I hate Christmas’ club for Croydon North . She’d been teaching for just over three years and much as she loved her job – being surrounded by thirty hyper-active five year olds getting excited about Christmas could be very draining. Then there was Michael. They’d called it a day in August near the end of the holidays, and although she was pretty much over him, she didn’t like being single again. Christmas wasn’t just for the children as people often claimed; it was for couples and families and grandparents, not for sad singles who felt isolated from other people’s happiness.
The only way to prevent feeling sorry for herself was to keep really busy, and do lots of things for other people – no point spoiling the festive season for her family and friends. Well it was either that or hibernate until March but that doesn’t pay the bills. Which was why she found herself walking along the High Street that chilly December morning on her way to the Army hall – having agreed to drop off the copious amounts of crisps and cakes left over from the end of term parties. She’d been assured it would soon get used up in food parcels and for people dropping in to the food bank. Being jostled by crowds in all the shops and having to endure the piped Christmas music blaring out of every speaker had not left her in the best of moods. Why would anyone in their right mind want it to be Christmas every day? The sooner it was over, the better!
Pushing the door open she was confronted by a hive of activity. The charity shop was full of people searching for a bargain, then down at the other end some tables had been set for teas and coffees and then in another little room at the back, some ladies were sorting boxes of food and labelling them up. An elderly lady took the bags of goodies from Lynne with a smile, introduced herself as Bessie, and offered her a coffee. It seemed rude to say no, so she accepted a drink and sat down. It was quite relaxing watching other people working, and after all, she didn’t have anywhere else to be.
A CD of Christmas carols was playing and she recognised the tune of ‘Silent Night’ drifting into the room. She didn’t know why but it was a song that always made her feel a bit emotional. ‘For goodness sake girl! Pull yourself together!’ she said to herself. ‘You really don’t want to sit here in a Salvation Army hall at Christmas looking sorry for yourself – there’s probably a law against it! Quick – smile an ‘I don’t need to be converted thank you, me and God are just fine’ smile at everyone.’ Meanwhile she muttered a silent prayer ‘Now listen here God, if anyone comes over and tells me “Jesus loves me” they will find themselves adorning the top of the Christmas tree – is that clear?’
Well – the Good Lord knew better than to ignore a threat like that so he tried something different. He nudged Bessie towards the nearest tray.
‘Will you have a mince pie love?’ she asked. ‘You’d better get in quick before the ravenous hoards get back from carolling.’
‘Bessie’s baking is legendary round here – I’d grab a couple if I were you!’ called out one of the other ladies with a chuckle.
Brigadier Bessie hadn’t been in the Salvation Army for nearly eighty years without knowing a thing or two, and she knew exactly what this dejected-looking young lady needed. If she could get her to stay for a few more minutes the band would be back – and if the sight of the lads on the cornet section in their uniforms didn’t perk her up then nothing would!
Right enough, a few minutes later a group of young bandsmen barrelled into the hall in search of food and a hot drink. After they’d dropped their instruments off, hugged Auntie Bessie and commandeered an entire tray of mince pies, the boys came over and introduced themselves. It turned out Lynne vaguely knew Craig and his brother from when they were at the local school anyway, and she taught in the same age group as Sam so they were soon swapping tales of glitter and snot – which is apparently all teachers ever deal with.
Before she went, she’d promised she would come back the following Sunday for the Carols by Candlelight Service and she certainly went out looking a lot happier than when she’d come in.
Bessie looked over affectionately at ‘her boys’ – young David had hardly said a word, just blushed and smiled -he was always so shy. She’d probably need to give him a nudge too.