Here’s a not-your-average Christmas story. I should know. I was there.
The crackling strains of Silent Night filled the room from the antiquated radio. It was a German recording of Silent Night, very close to the original score that had been composed by Franz Xavier Gruber in December 1818.
‘Could you turn it louder?’ I asked Matthew.
He nodded, glancing at me in that uneasy way of his that still gave me goosebumps of desire, even after all these years.
While he fiddled about with the volume control on the radio, I walked over to the latticed window and levered myself up onto the cushioned seat carved deep into the thirteenth-century wall. Resting my back against the stone, I gazed at the stars that were blinking in Morse Code upon the milky tapestry of hills and forest surrounding our cocooned citadel. I kept my eyes fixed to the interstellar winter’s dance, allowing my ears to feast on the glory of the simple waltz-like melody written for soprano and alto voice accompanied by French horn, with violins and choir joining in the chorus.
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, alles schlaft, einsam wacht,
Nur das Traute hochheilige Paar, holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaft im himmlischer Ruh, Schlaf im himmlischer Ruh!
It was sung at a slightly quicker pace than one normally hears it, making me yearn to sway to the rhythmic melody that had been written to celebrate the joy of Christ’s birth. Didn’t mankind always feel the need to dance when there was a celebration?
I looked round at Matthew. He was sitting on one of the armchairs in front of the log fire, leafing through The Rule of St Benedict. His long black cassock reached the sheepskin rug by his feet. I was disappointed that he’d put it back on after getting out of bed. Our bed. Just for tonight. Tomorrow life would return to normality – Matthew back to his monastic life at Greystones Abbey; me back to my family in Birmingham. Home. But tonight, this was our home. Castle Leeming Preparatory School, now emptied of all pupils and staff for the Christmas holidays. Just its Benedictine custodian and me, the heathen girl who could not let go. Nor did he want me to. At least so it seemed. Just for tonight.
“The blizzard’s completely gone now,” I commented, wishing he’d put down his bloody monkish book.
He glanced up at me from his armchair, then at the snow-cornered window. “So it has.”
We were finding it hard to talk to one another, despite the love wrestling that had gone on between those tangled sheets scarcely an hour earlier. I turned back to the stars and re-tuned my ears to the hypnotic call of Franz Xaver Gruber’s divine little waltz.
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, hirten erst kundgemacht.
Durch der Engel Halleluja, tönt es laut von fern und nah:
Christ, der Retter ist da! Christ, der Retter ist da!
Humming along to the famous tune that had charmed generations young and old on both sides of the planet these past two centuries, I again looked round at Matthew. Apparently St Benedict hadn’t held his attention for long, because his book was now resting on his lap and his eyes were on me, haunted by that same pensive expression I had caught on his face so many times over the past twelve years. It was as though he were fondly recollecting a past we’d never had.
Our eyes met, and at last he smiled.
‘Isn’t this a lovely version of Silent Night?’ I asked. ‘Doesn’t it want to make you dance?’
‘Dance?’ He raised a rebuking eyebrow. ‘Leah, it’s a Christmas carol. About the birth of Jesus. It’s not meant to be danced to.’ At least his voice sounded a little less constricted.
‘Oh, yes it is. It was originally written as a waltz, and was danced to by the young resident priest of the Salzburg congregation where it was first performed. Apparently the person he waltzed with was his sister-in-law.’
‘Really? I never knew any of that.’
Sliding off my window seat, I walked over to him and said, ‘That’s because you’re a Philistine, Father Matthew Haddon. So come on. Let’s dance.’
He laughed uncertainly, but nonetheless put his book on the floor and stood up. Taking my outstretched hand in his, I wrapped his free arm round my waist and pressed myself to his body as we started moving to the beat of the timeless carol. One two three, one two three … it was so natural, I couldn’t understand why congregations over the centuries hadn’t spontaneously risen to their feet every time it was sung, converting the church aisle into a joyful dance floor.
As we swayed round the dimly lit room in rhythm to the music, Matthew asked, ‘Is it true, the story you just told me?’
‘About Silent Night being originally written as a waltz?’
‘No, of course not. I made it all up.’
He stopped dead in his tracks. Holding me at arms’ length, he stared at me with the disapproval of a public school house master. ‘You can’t make jokes about things like that!’
‘I wasn’t joking. I was just telling you a story that I wish were true.’
‘Okay then, so if you don’t want to dance, let’s look at the stars instead.’
I guided him back to my window seat. Together we levered ourselves onto the richly brocaded cushion: Matthew at one side and me at the other. I smiled at him, then returned my eyes towards the night sky. A particularly bright star twinkled in synchronised timing to the ternary beat of the carol. It was perfect. The music, the stars, the hills, the forest, and the castle, which sheltered us from the world. I didn’t want the music to come to an end. While the strains of the soprano and alto voices lasted, with the muted French horn accompanying them, I didn’t have to think about imperfection, or endings, or life beyond tomorrow.
My life was now, with Matthew. Not Father Matthew, just my Matthew – together with the stars and the music, all locked together in a seamless winter’s tale.
The above extract is from my novel, ‘For Some We Loved ‘