Previous Challenge Entry (Level 2 – Intermediate)
Topic: Christmas Carols/Carolling (10/02/08)
TITLE: Away in a manger
By Anne Linington
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Summer sandals had been replaced with slippers which she scuffed along the shiny linoleum corridors. She soon realised that you could always tell the patients from the visitors by what they were wearing on their feet. Perhaps Christmas would bring a new pair of slippers bought by the hospital's League of friends who tirelessly raised funds throughout the year.
Visitors were few in this red- brick Victorian hospital three miles from the nearest town. Topped with a clock tower that could be seen much further away, it spelled fear and uncertainty for those who had never entered its gates before. It was a self-contained community with its own laundry and kitchens, from which the smell of boiled cabbage would emanate by mid-morning.
She had always secretly feared that she might one day be admitted here, as a cousin had suffered a breakdown and been treated with ECT. This she resisted at all costs, opting for medication and occupational therapies, but basket-making on Tuesday afternoons was beginning to bore her.
As Christmas approached, she learned from long-stay patients that one of the Consultants would dress up as Father Christmas to distribute the presents, and then stay to carve the turkey. This was a sacrifice for him and his family, meaning their own celebrations would be much later in the day.
On Christmas eve, with the huge tree decorated in the entrance hall, news passed from one to another of the impending arrival of Carol singers, the choir of a local Church. She heard them begin to sing in the hall, and then at the entrance to each ward, before arriving in the lounge where she and other patients had gathered.
A young choir member cautiously distributed “Bethlehem” Carol sheets, and some patients searched pockets for their glasses, whilst others opted to just listen. They sang through a repertoire of carols; “Ding, dong merrily of high”, “Hark the Herald angels sing” with the sopranos soaring to the top notes, and the gentlemen taking the lead in “While shepherds watched”.
When everyone was all sung out, and the prospect of hot mince pies approached, the Choir leader turned to the patients and asked if anyone had a particular favourite they would like to choose. Several buried their heads in the carol sheets, or avoided eye contact in some other way. But from somewhere deep in her memory came “Away in a manger!”. Soon the request was on her lips and found agreement in the kind eyes of the Choir leader. There was hardly a dry eye in the room.
As the Carol began, she was transported in her memory back to her childhood home, where she stood beside the upright piano. Mother had a selection of sheet music in the stool and books of Carols that would come out each Christmas. With the family photographs arrayed atop the piano and the Christmas tree in its usual corner, they sang “Little Donkey”, “Mary's Boy Child” and her favourite “Away in a manger”. She was word-perfect from an early age, and loved the times that she stood tall and sang her very best. Secretly she would have loved to train as a singer, but from their council home and modest income that dream would never be realised.
The following Christmas she returned as a visitor to the hospital, and told her story, how the singing of “Away in a manger” had unlocked something deep inside her, beginning her steady recovery to health and a return to her family and community.
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