Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Xmas Carol

Sacred Heart Home
Bushtick. Essexvale. Southern Rhodesia.
It is the 25th December 1949, Xmas day. We are excited, very excited as the nuns have announced that we are going to have a "Xmas party". It is our first, and "Xmas party" are new words in our lives.
At midday a stream of cars arrive. We set up our customary chant '"moti cars - moti cars - moti cars -
["moti cars" - Meaning - motor cars - ] The occupants are all white strangers. One of the cars has "Toc H Society Bulawayo Branch" emblazoned on its side.
They engage us. Balls, nets racquets and other sporting things are produced. We spend an incredibly exciting afternoon learning and playing new games as well as "old games" like foot races. Winners are rewarded with prizes of balls, puzzle sets and other occupational toys.
As evening falls there is a fireworks display. It is our first time to see fireworks. We go mad with excitement and "ooh - aah", shout, giggle and laugh at every stage. And then ... then the Xmas party - that we have all been waiting for. When the door of the hall is opened we are greeted by an unbelievable sight. The walls and ceilings are festooned with brightly coloured paper trimmings, sparkling baubles and twinkling fairy lights. It is like a dream. Many are dumbstruck and have to be jeed up ' " - common child - isn't it nice - are you not happy - ?"as we stand there, bug eyed and enthralled at what we are seeing. Of course we are happy, more than happy, thrilled to the bone, little hearts are bursting, minds are numb.
We are given Xmas hats to wear. We look at each other sheepishly, giggle and then start to laugh ... and laugh ... and heckle each other ... tease and heckle ... and laugh some more - the happy laughter of children whose hearts are singing a song not sung before. Invited to sit down we are served our Xmas dinner. A lady approaches me with a tray of rice, meat, fish and vegetables presenting in ways I have never seen. We are invited, entreated, cajoled into making choices. It is hard work for our benefactors. We have never seen such fare before. It is overwhelming to little minds. Spoilt for choice, little brains battle to cope. In the end we get there and eventually we are all tucking in, prodding each other and pointing to this and that on the plate of the other with Xmas hats requiring constant adjustment.
After the main course one of the sisters excitedly calls out "children ... children ... quiet ... quiet please ... Father Xmas is coming ... Father Xmas is coming - " Little voices peter out in obedience. A hush descends and soon everything is as quiet as a cathedral at midnight. We look around us, and each other ... looking everywhere ... for Father Xmas. The lights go out and the room is now lit only by the twinkling fairy lights on the Xmas tree in the corner. The atmosphere is almost unbearably charged as expectancy and disbelief contend in little minds and hearts.
And then we hear a sound
 ... a sound on the roof ... from a roof that has never made sounds before. It is a rasping sound of something, someone there. "Oh children" Sister Leonora calls out "did you hear Father Xmas arrive on the roof on his sleigh with his reindeers ... all the way from the North Pole ... I heard it ... yes I can hear it ..." She is answered in so many voices. Some are bright retorts - "yes Sister - yes". Others are forced whispers from mouths hampered by overwhelmed minds. Others simply look wide eyed at the nun and slowly nod ... ever so slowly ... as they struggle to believe ... that a dream is coming true.
Moments later the room is filled with a voice booming out - "Ho, ho, ho - ho, ho, ho ... hello children" As the lights go on we are struck with the sight of Father Xmas swaggering into the hall, ruddy faced, bearded, in red/white garb and a big red bag over his shoulder just as we had seen him in so many pictures. "Come ... come children ... -" he booms out - "Sister tells me that you have been good children ... very good children ... come and get your Xmas presents ... "
The base of the Xmas tree is now covered in boxes of different size and shape, all brightly wrapped and alluring. One or two of us rush forward, others have to be encouraged, even led by the hand. In the end we all get our presents, brightly coloured boxes held tightly, turned and examined from every angle with disbelieving eyes.
Opening of the presents has to be quite vigorously encouraged. Soon the room is awash with the sounds of squeals, giggles and happy little voices as we make acquaintance with our presents. Mine comprises a dinky toy car, a jig-saw puzzle and a book titled "Under Drake's Flag" by George Arthur Henty (1832 -1902). In the months that followed the adventures of Sir Francis Drake (1540-96); the first Englishman, admiral and buccaneer, to sail around the world, captivated and enthralled me and my school mates who would gather around every evening in order to hear me recount what I had read. To this day I have never received a more welcome gift.
Pudding is then served. The lady puts a plate in front of me. She invites me to help myself to ice cream. I have never seen ice cream before except in pictures. I hesitate. She spoons a huge dollop of ice cream into my plate. "Have some jelly" she says pointing to a tray of jelly in all shapes and all colours. "Help yourself ... " she says entreatingly. "You can have as much as you like ... yes you can have as much as you ... " she repeats. I look at all the jelly in front of me ... bright ... quivering ... of so many shapes ... of so many colours ... quivering ...  .
I burst into tears. So did one or two others.
What an incredibly wonderful first Xmas that was. A special mass was later held to ask Almighty God to bless the good men and women of the Toc H Society, a blessing that they richly deserved, having given up Xmas with their families to drive out and bring unbelievable magic and joy to others, little hearts beating on the fringe of society.
The next evening we spend firing off fire crackers that we had been given the night before. This is an awesome experience as "bang", "crackle', "whoosh" merge with "oohs", "aahs" other sounds of enthralled children.
Sister Radigoon does not share in our excitement. She sits on a chair to one side silently fingering the beads of her rosary. Then she calls us to sit in front of her as she has a story to tell. Her hazel blue eyes glisten under the night sky, brimful with tears as she recounts a story of nights, many nights of terror
 ... of the drone of aeroplanes drawing ever closer ... the sound of their engines heralding the terrible carnage to follow ... the chatter of anti-aircraft gunfire vainly trying to fend off the menacing approach of the birds of death.
Then the world would explode as the first bomb hit
 ... and then another ... and another ... building to a crescendo of sound ripping out roofs, flattening walls ... exposing the occupants ... men, women, children ... crying, screaming and scurrying around like so many ants whose ant heap has been blown open. And then the fires ... fires everywhere ... coming in a blood chilling "whoosh" ... waves of blinding light and searing heat ... fire storms swamping the world of the scurrying people ... enveloping all and sundry ... singing, burning and cremating ... amidst the screams, gasping, choking and moans of utter despair.
We listen uncomprehendingly to this incredible story of the bombing of the German city of Dresden on the nights of the 13 and 14, February1945, just four years before. The story comes in fits and starts as this good woman struggles to tell it in a voice that often breaks as she gropes to find the words to describe that which was just indescribable ... how night was turned to day in a process of burning alive, cooking alive, incinerating alive, tens of thousands of ordinary human beings.
There is no anger, only pain, anguish and terrible sadness. After being led in a prayer to ask for forgiveness
to those who did the bombing and to welcome the souls of the victims into His kingdom we go to bed, minds and hearts bursting with the experience of what had been a wondrous Xmas and numbed in sadness for the German people of Dresden.
We are too young to see the irony and pathos of a situation where a German nun was now tending to the unwanted progeny of the very people who bombed her people to death. 

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