‘Perfect!’ Carol thought as she held the red evening gown against her body, and peered at her reflection in the mirror. ‘The colour brings out the blush in my cheeks. Six metres of soft diaphanous georgette! I could have kept it in moth balls, as a souvenir of my visit to India. But that would have been such a waste. I’m glad I got it made into a gown.’
She pirouetted in front of the mirror, the pleats of the flowing gown swirling around her ankles in a seductive whirl. The tiny golden spangles on the skirt winked mischievously at her.
‘I’m sure many eyes will be turned in my direction this evening. The gown will weave its magic on anyone who dares to come near.’
Carol was to sing the Cantique de Noel at the Christmas Eve service. She had been a member of the choir for many years, and was often called upon to sing solo on important occasions. As she buried her face in the soft material, a thrill of excitement shot through her.
‘Red is the colour of joy. Something tells me this Christmas is going to be different. Everyone believes that it is a season for miracles. Perhaps something miraculous is going to happen in my life.’
She carefully laid out her gown on the bed and rummaged in her trinket box for matching accessories – a ruby teardrop shaped locket on a thin gold chain, with earrings to match!
Then she went into her living room to see that all was in order. Last night she had stayed up late to put up her Christmas tree and hang up the decorations. Wreaths of emerald tinted holly leaves with clusters of scarlet berries hung over each window. The tree in the corner looked festive with trinkets and baubles, stars and little angels. Each little bauble brought memories of happy Christmases gone by. Multicoloured festoons of lights fell over the tree like a shower of blessing.
Carol’s eyes inadvertently strayed to the niche in the wall. A finely crafted silver bell hung from a slender stand.
‘Sixteen years…….,’ she reminisced, ‘Each Christmas I put it there to remind me of something beautiful that happened in my life – A dream that quickly vaporized into nothingness. Yet each year, when I unwrap that bell, I feel a pleasant warmth coursing through my veins. It was the nearest I came to falling in love.’
She gently touched the bell, and its merry tinkle filled the room.
Many years ago on an Alaskan cruise, Carol had met Christopher. He was a dashing young fellow with a captivating smile and a charming personality. They became inseparable for the duration of the cruise.
“Let’s make the most of everyday,” Chris had said, “I’m staring death in my face and this cruise is to prepare me for the inevitable. I want to take my mind off my troubles and truly enjoy myself.”
Carol’s heart went out to the young man. “I wonder what ails him. He looks perfectly healthy to me. Perhaps he has Leukaemia or some kind of malignancy which is in remission now. He’s too young to have a heart problem unless it’s some congenital defect. I can’t probe though I’m aching to know. He doesn’t want to talk about his illness and I must respect his privacy.”
Carol decided she would do her best to keep him happy and in good spirits. She regaled him with her repertoire of humorous jokes, and was ready to assist if he needed help. But in spite of what was ailing him, he was jovial and didn’t moan about his ailment. And the cruise for both, was a memorable one.
Carol remembered how Chris slipped his hand into hers when the ship navigated the treacherous narrow passages between huge mountains of ice on either side.
“This is Nature’s wonderland,” he said, throwing an arm around her shoulders as miles of shimmering glacier came into view. “So exciting, adventurous and unforgettable, especially when I have such a beautiful girl beside me.”
Eight days sped by in a whirl of activities. And soon it was time to say ‘goodbye.’
As he stood there waving to her, he looked hale and hearty.
‘I can’t believe he’s living on borrowed time. There must be some mistake in diagnosis’
Carol steeled herself to keep the tears from falling. It was July when they parted company. There were no strings attached and no promises to keep.
But in December that year, Carol felt the urge to make contact. Hoping to renew lines of communication with him, she had sent him a Christmas gift of the silver bell on a stand. She waited impatiently for his response. Instead, the gift came back marked ‘Returned to sender. Addressee cannot be traced.”
Carol had wept. She was sure that the worst had happened and Chris had succumbed to his illness.
‘I can’t believe it. Such a young man in the prime of life! I know I will always cherish the memory of our friendship in my heart. But tonight I shan’t think of Chris. This is no time for sadness. It’s a day to be happy. I feel a lilt of my spirit as if something beautiful awaits me. I guess it’s the joy that Christmas always brings.’
She hummed a familiar carol as she got ready for the evening. Her hair cascaded down to her shoulders, forming a soft halo around her face. A touch of powder to her smooth, flawless skin, and a tinge of colour to her lips and she was ready.
‘Not bad at all,’ she thought, as she looked again into the mirror. ‘An ageless prima donna!’ she laughed, ‘But now I must do justice to my song.’
The little church was packed to capacity. The music of old familiar carols filled the air. Young voices blended with old in adoration of the Christ child. Petty troubles were forgotten. The love that was manifest at Bethlehem so many years ago illumined the hearts of the worshippers.
Then Carol stepped forward, and as her clear voice echoed down the aisles, the congregation fell silent. It was a voice poignant with feeling.
“Oh Holy Night…………It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth”
She looked radiant in her red flowing gown. Her eyes sparkled with an ethereal light. Oblivious of the congregation, she had spiritually transported herself to Bethlehem’s manger, and was worshipfully singing to the new born King.
Long after the song had ended, there was pin drop silence in the church. Carol felt warmth pervading her whole being.
‘This is worship,’ she thought, ‘I feel God’s arms enfolding me in His love.’
She slipped out of the church soon after the service, and headed for home, not waiting to chat with friends.
‘Tonight I want to be by myself. I want to prolong that feeling of oneness with my Lord.’
She took the telephone off the hook, then poured herself a small glass of wine. She cut a slice of the cake she had baked and sat down to enjoy herself.
The knock on the door coincided with her first sip of wine.
‘I’m not expecting anyone tonight. I’ll just ignore the door bell,’ she thought.
But the caller was persistent. ‘Not another drunk asking for charity I hope.’
Through the key hole she could see a stranger.
‘He may be a thief for all I know. Mugging single women has become a popular pastime for unruly elements. I’m not opening the door.’
Then she heard her name.
“Carol, I’d like to speak to you for a few minutes”
Somewhere from the depths of her memory came recognition of that voice. But where? She couldn’t remember.
The man was dressed in a dark gray suit, and a knee length coat which he hugged against the biting cold. He had a receding hairline and a bushy moustache, and Carol wondered who he was. Then he smiled, and her heart missed a beat.
“Oh my God! I thought you were dead. You said you had only a few days to live.”
“I thought so too but I survived. I never believed I’d come back alive after Operation Desert Storm.”
“Desert Storm? But I thought you were ill and ready to die.”
“I was preparing myself to die but not from illness. I was among the first batch of troops sent out to Iraq. We were to fight until Kuwait was liberated.”
“But that was years ago. Where were you all this time?”
“Aren’t you going to invite me in? I’m freezing. Must I complete my story on your doorstep?”
“I’m sorry I kept you standing outside. It was the shock of seeing you again. It was like seeing a ghost. Please come in.”
“This is a friendly ghost. Miracles happen even today,” Chris said, smiling mischievously.
“How did you track me down?”
“I wasn’t looking for you at all. I live in New York and was down here for a business meeting. I had planned to leave soon after. But we couldn’t cover the whole agenda and decided to stay overnight and finish tomorrow. As it was Christmas Eve and I had nothing better to do I thought I’d attend the service. The surprising thing is that I seldom go to church. I don’t know what brought me there today.”
As Carol rustled up a quick dinner Chris told her of his long stint in Iraq.
“Forty two days to be exact and it was just awful. I had never seen so much bloodshed and death before. War is the worst thing that can happen to humankind. Bombing on both sides, air raids, killing of innocent civilians, Scud missiles launched indiscriminately, and both sides involved in spreading disinformation. It was a nightmare that robbed me of my sanity.”
He winced, as though remembering those days was painful.
“I was a nervous wreck after I returned. They said I was suffering from a severe case of post traumatic stress. I had to spend months in a psychiatric facility before I could reach any semblance of sanity. So you see, I was as good as dead.”
“Oh you poor thing!”
Carol reached out and held his hand across the table. I can imagine what you must have gone through.”
“No you can never imagine it unless you personally experience the terror. It made me physically drained, mentally disturbed and emotionally bankrupt.”
“But your war experience happened many years ago. Isn’t it time you put it behind you?”
“I have, but it has taken me years to come back to normal. Finding a civilian job wasn’t easy either. It took me several years before I could hold down a job. But now I’ve settled into a good job and I’m happy.”
There was silence as they tucked into their roast chicken and potatoes. Then Chris said, “I don’t know what brought me to your church tonight. I didn’t even know that you lived here. But I believe everything happens for a purpose. Your voice sounded angelic. There were tears in my eyes as the words of your hymn penetrated my thoughts. Could an omnipotent God come down to earth to save a useless guy like me? As I listened, I knew it was true. This sense of liberation is simply indescribable.”
Carol’s face had taken on the crimson colour of her gown.
“You must be having a fever,” Chris said, all concerned, “You look so flushed.”
“I had the feeling that something very special would happen today.”
“It has happened,” Chris said, “I found you, and you made me look at Christmas in a new way. I never thought I’d see you again.”
They held hands across the table. She felt the strength of his grip as he looked into her large brown eyes.
“Merry Christmas!” she muttered.
Sometime when she had recovered her poise, she would tell him about the silver bell.