The dog curled up beside Angelo’s chair raised his head and grumbled softly. A moment or two later there was a knock on the door.
It was late. The only light in the room came from the dull glow of the fire, burned down to its embers. The room away from the fire was chilly.
A rush of wintry rain gusted through the small crack of the open door. A man stood there, a soldier, dressed in a battle stained uniform, a thin blanket cast about his shoulders. Against the dark night, Angelo could see a pale face, cheeks hollowed out, eyes sunken in their sockets. War made old men of young boys. Angelo guessed that he couldn’t have been much older than sixteen or seventeen.
“Trade?” the boy asked in hesitant Italian.
A notice had filtered through the village just that morning that they were not to trade with the soldiers encamped a few miles out of the village. Food was scarce enough. Angelo, however, had developed a taste for chocolate. H e loved the sensation of it melting on his tongue. It was in short supply and the British soldiers seemed willing to trade their rations for a jug of milk or few ounces of polenta.
Angelo opened the door wider, gesturing the boy to come into the kitchen. The dog dragged himself to his feet and sauntered over to sniff at the gloved hand offered to him.
The boy shed the back pack he had been carrying, placing it carefully on the kitchen table. He pulled off his gloves, chaffing his hands together, before setting about untying the leather cords.
A brass embossed box nestled on the top of items of clothing that had been carefully folded and packed in the duffle bag. It was either a new box, or something that the soldier took care to look after. It wasn’t eaten by rust, or tarnished by mud. On the lid of the box the head of a young girl surrounded by a laurel leaf garland stood out in relief. A sword and scabbard decorated one corner of the box. There was something written in Latin along the side that Angelo couldn’t quite make out. The wording was flanked by battle ships on a stormy sea.
The boy opened the box and tipped the contents onto the table. He lined up a pipe, a lighter, and a small envelope of tobacco in front of him. A box of twenty cigarettes in a yellow monogrammed wrapper was pushed into a back pocket. There was also a bullet pencil, a packet of sweets and a slab of chocolate still in its wrapper.
Angelo bent down to pick up a card that had slid off the table and floated to the floor. It was bound with string.
“That’s from Princess Mary! It’s a Christmas card!” The boy was proud of the card, smoothing it down with his finger. Last month, so he had been told, the princess had created the Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Christmas Fund. Everyone had been willing to contribute. All those who wore the King’s uniform and were serving overseas on Christmas Day 1914 were honoured with a “gift from the nation”.
There was one last item tucked into the box. It was another card. This one was made by hand from a small rectangle of cardboard. Angelo could see that it had been cut from a cereal box and had been folded over. The coarse card had been decorated with simple pictures. There was a typical manger scene with a Madonna and child surrounded by bright yellow halos. A number of other characters appeared on the card.
“That’s my brother, Kenneth.” The boy pointed to the first figure in a group of four. It had a round smiling face with wild, curly brown hair. “This one here is my mother, Elsie. That’s my father, George. He is a school teacher so he isn’t fighting in the war. And that’s my sister Elizabeth. She made it for me.”
Angelo traced the letters along the bottom, forming the words with his lips.
“Merry Christmas, Christopher…may Jesus keep you safe and bring you home.”
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