Cradling a coffee to my lips like a prayer in a begging bowl, I sat alone, half hidden behind a pillar and a potted palm. The owner of the hotel, a friend, kept throwing me reassuring glances. The lights on the huge Christmas tree twinkled and raucous laughter and the smell of beer drifted in from the public bar next door.
A pretty dark eyed Polish waitress and the owner’s son and daughter smiled as they rushed back and forwards from the bar, fussing around thirty elderly residents from a local nursing home who sat at a long table drinking tea and coffee, clinking their teaspoons as they relaxed after their annual Christmas meal.
Some sat very still, their hands clasped in their laps, their eyes rheumy, dreaming perhaps of Christmases past. One dignified man in a tweed jacket and sombre tie smiled and thanked the waitress graciously for every small service. A bald man with ruddy cheeks leaned over to chat to friends who had to strain to hear, their lined faces creased in smiles.
“That’s them comin’, Charlie!” shouted one of the regulars at the bar and my heart started pounding. A group of bustling schoolchildren in school uniform was herded in by two teachers, one anxiously smiling, the other firmly issuing orders in a hushed voice that brooked no opposition.
Tall gangly boys with dishevelled uniforms jostled with nervously giggling girls as they took off coats and scarves and flustered around, gathering sheet music and producing shining brass trumpets and trombones from black leather cases lined in red velvet. One lad heaved from a heavy case an accordion that was almost as big as him. Several of the girls spotted me, smiled, whispered to my daughter, nudged her and pointed: “Look! There’s yer mum!” She saw me, broke into a sunny grin and waved a shy half wave as I smiled back and fought to stop myself grinning like a doting idiot. Her teacher leaned down smiling and whispered to me “You’ll be glad you came.” One of my daughter’s classmates started to announce the short programme. “Thank you for inviting us to come here to entertain you today.”
A short dance routine, a brass band Christmas tune, a boy playing Flower of Scotland on the accordion. I listened with half an ear, clapping loudly at the end of each performance but ever aware of my beating heart and the faces of the old folk. From behind the pillar, I couldn’t see my daughter, sitting on the floor with her friends. Only those who stepped up to perform were in my line of vision. The old folk clapped each child, each performance till their fragile hands must have ached. But one old lady in a pastel coloured cardigan didn’t clap; her face intense and panicky, she searched the faces of the youngsters, stirred perhaps by memories of Christmas concerts gone by, looking for and not finding the face of a child long gone.
And there she was. My baby, standing tall and proud in front of the assembled choir of young people I’d known since they’d played with sand and plasticine at playgroup. Nearly as tall as me now, silver tinsel in her blonde pony tail, the same intense look in her pale turquoise eyes that I’d seen in every photograph of me growing up. My friend Charlie looked over, saw me struggling with a lump in my throat and the throb of unshed tears as my girl began to sing. “It was on a starry night…” and then he looked at me, looked back at my daughter, stunned. He’d never heard her sing, knew only that I was a proud mum, knew that like him, I’d lost my elderly mum before she’d had the chance to know her youngest grandchildren. “And the angels sang for him…” The public bar fell silent. “The bells in heaven rang for him…” As her golden voice wrapped itself around everyone in the room, I felt my mother’s arms around me, holding me together. I saw the faces of those proud old people transfixed and tears streaming down their faces. After her last note had faded away into silence, there was a pause before the whole room started clapping.
The children gathered up their instruments and sheet music, chatting and giggling proudly and my daughter came over to me, her face beaming. She grew anxious when she saw my blotchy face but when I smiled, unable to speak, and pulled her to me, she stroked my hair with a wisdom beyond her years and gave me a huge, silent hug.