Frost at Midnight

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HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM  ELIN GREGORY!

Frost at Midnight – Tuesday,  24th December, 1968

The ancient church was glowing with candles, its warm purple-grey stones almost covered by swags, garlands and bunches of greenery through which the green men peered as though amused by the antics of the worshippers. Dafydd Jones, farmer at Hen Cwrt in that parish, smiled as he sang up at them. He had provided much of the holly and all the mistletoe that studded the decorations with rubies and pearls. He and Colin Wilson, lodger at Hen Cwrt as far as anyone else in the parish knew, had spent most of the afternoon yesterday hanging the greenery. He felt that he was entitled to a smile or two.

Christmas, and especially this midnight service, was his very favourite. It fell in a lull between ploughing and harrowing the fields ready for next years wheat and the six weeks of sleeplessness that was lambing. All around him were other men and women, determined to enjoy this well earned holiday. In pews in front and behind, they sat, well wrapped in their tweeds, men with caps on laps, the ladies with their best hats tilted on newly permed hair. Underfoot too, and outside in the graveyard, were generations of Joneses and Jenkinses, Pughs, Harrhys and Progers who had shared this midwinter break. Sixteen eighty-nine or nineteen sixty-eight, it didn’t make much difference to sheep, Dafydd thought, nor to those who worked with them. But the modern age, now, had its perks. The Electricity Board had promised to bring a line right up into the valley. Up as far as the church and even beyond to Hen Cwrt. It would make a big difference. He would no longer have to remember to buy batteries for the cherished transistor radio he took to the lambing shed for company. He remembered a time when there had been only the sounds of the farm and maybe his own voice raised in song. As it was raised now, blending its strong true baritone with the other voices around him, but especially with Colin’s lighter tenor to his right that felt for but never quite seemed to find the right note. Life had changed far beyond the conveniences of electricity.

They sang all the old songs, rocking the rafters with the power of it, as the minutes ticked by to midnight. When they fell silent and the Reverend Evans began to speak, Dafydd leaned back in the pew. After a careful glance around he let his right hand fall and, secretly, linked his fingers with Colin’s where they lay waiting on the age polished oak between them. Colin smiled and squeezed, shifting to let a fold of his coat cover their linked hands. Even tonight, even here with their vicar reminding everyone of the utmost importance of love, they had to keep that space, that little distance between them. Dafydd returned the squeeze but continued to look down the aisle to where the Nativity scene had been set up. Large Victorian plaster models, beautifully painted – Mary awed, Joseph looking as shell shocked as only a new father can, shepherds rustic, kings regal and the angels with arms and wings spread, their ecstatic faces lifted to Heaven. All those were old favourites and familiar from Sunday School, but it was the animals Dafydd particularly liked. The sturdy donkey, ears drooping with tiredness, sheep and their lambs – Herdwicks from their extravagant fleeces – and two large patient oxen, which would surely have been cudding quietly at that time of night, filling the stable with the intense scent of fresh grass.

They sang again before taking their leave of friends and neighbours, most of whom spoke in English out of courtesy to Colin. Many of them thought Colin was staying at Hen Cwrt because it was cheap and not too far from his place of work in Radnor. Only a few knew otherwise – that Dafydd Jones, confirmed bachelor of thirty three had finally found someone with whom he wished to spend the rest of his life – and of those few, some appeared unconcerned but others avoided him unless, as tonight, they were forced into reluctant civility. There weren’t many of them but somehow the terse goodbyes and frosty glares took the warmth out of the truly affectionate farewells of others. Dafydd smiled and spoke mildly but wasted no time in leaving. On an icy night like tonight it was safer to walk than to drive and Hen Cwrt was only a mile across the fields. They pulled on hats and gloves, turned up their collars and strode out across the graveyard to the stile. Once they had put the first field behind them they could walk together, rather than yards apart, and Colin took Dafydd’s arm, his gloved hand settling warm in the crook of his elbow.

“You don’t mind, do you?” he said. “This ground is rough.”

Dafydd smiled because the sheep cropped pasture wasn’t, but the excuse was a good one.

Cloud shadows moved slowly thrown by a gibbous quarter moon. Dafydd glanced up at the bright arc of it, uneasy as he remembered the news that men were up there now, circling around it. Three Americans, highly trained, carefully selected. Dafydd wondered if anyone cut them dead as they left church.

When they reached the farmhouse and opened the door, Fly bounded to meet them. Dafydd exchanged his good coat and cap for the old one he used around the yard.

“So cold tonight,” Colin complained rubbing his hands together he opened the firedoor of the Rayburn to stoke it up. “I don’t know how you stand it.”

“I’m used to it. Why don’t you put the kettle on while I check on the ewes?” Dafydd suggested and whistled to Fly but paused at the door to look back, smiling with content to see Colin, quite at home, opening the pantry.

Dafydd made sure that the skim of ice on the water trough was broken and that the bale of hay he had broken for the ewes earlier hadn’t been trodden down into the frost. Most of his flock were sleeping. Only a few raised their heads and just one bleated, a soft unworried mmmrrr. Above, the clouds had thinned and everything was stark black or shining white under the brilliant nail paring of the moon and its accompanying astronauts. Yes, they were so high, so distant, like gods looking down on the miserable sinners while below in the valley, the last lights were winking out. There went the pub. There the Pugh’s place – they were probably having difficulty settling the kids. There went the Jenkinses. Now it was just Dafydd, Fly, the sheep and the men in the moon – and, inside, Colin singing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” a little off key.

The singing broke off and Colin shouted. Dafydd ran. He was half way across the yard when Colin reached him, Dafydd’s little transistor radio buzzing static in his hand.

“What? What is it?” Dafydd demanded, for Colin had no coat and big as he was, was already beginning to shiver.

“No – no listen!” Colin tilted the radio and the signal fizzed before settling to a calm American voice reading something familiar.

And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters

“What’s that?” Daydd asked.

“It’s them,” Colin pointed up at the sky, looking round, his finger tracking across until he had found the moon. “The Apollo chaps.”

“Oh.” Dafydd listened, looking at the plastic and metal box in Colin’s hand rather than the hard edged arc of the moon. He listened to the quiet voices, thinking not of gods and judgements but of ordinary men far from home, and yearning for the touch of a loving hand.

“And from the crew of Apollo 8, we pause with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.”

Dafydd looked up at the sky, then at Colin who was smiling at the moon, his face filled with pleasure.

Gogoniant i Dduw yn y goruchaf,” Dafydd murmured, “and on earth peace, goodwill to all men.”

“Amen,” Colin murmured, looking up into the star strewn sky. He had dropped his hand and the radio had gone off station again so Dafydd took it from him and turned it off to save the battery.

“Thank you,” Dafydd said. “Tonight I needed to be reminded that bendithio Duw made the world and everything in it – including you, cariad, and me – and saw that it was good.”

“We’re good,” Colin said with a grin. “Come here.” They both looked around, first, then laughed because there was no one to see unless one of those astronauts had a very long telescope. Colin’s hands on Dafydd’s face were icy but his mouth was warm, his tongue warmer still. Dafydd held him close until they both shivered, not with cold this time.

“Inside,” Colin murmured against his cheek. “Come on. It’s nineteen sixty-eight! Inside, we can do what we like.”

“God bless Leo Abse,” Dafydd replied and gave Colin’s arse a good hard squeeze before they turned towards the house. Inside would be cocoa and kisses and, with any luck, a reason to be more than seasonally joyful before sleep.

The End

Elin Gregory can’t remember a time when she didn’t tell stories; her very first were written and illustrated in crayon. Now she types but still enjoys getting the crayons out when there’s time. She’s married, has grown up kids and works in a museum. The only thing she doesn’t like about her job is that it gives her too many plot bunnies. 
Elin will be giving away: a sheep pencil, a sheep noughts and crosses set for displacement activity moments when trying to find inspiration and a copy of the Lady Llanover cookbook of 1867 including lots of recipes for mutton. Leave a comment to be entered into the drawer and the winner will be announced on Christmas Day.

The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this yet - write them down and I’ll ask you to email them in on Christmas Eve.)

10. In the film, in what store did Kris Kringle play Father Christmas?

33 Responses

  1. Ah! Lovely heartwarming story. So many different themes but the message is clear, we are but tiny specks in the greater scheme of things. But wherever we go, whoever we are, He loves us no matter what.
    I remember the Apollo 8 mission very clearly. As a child of 12 I was absolutely fascinated and I’ve loved anything to do with space travel ever since. Smashing story, Elin.

  2. That was a powerful little story. I loved the contrast between the life in the village below with the amazing event of Apollo 8. I too remember that so clearly and the impact it left with me even as a child. But its the village and the men on that cold clear night that had me in sniffles. So lovely. Thank you.

  3. Oh, that was lovely that was.

  4. I have a big happy lump in my throat. The dark and quiet, and the lights going out, and the cold peace, of the sheep and the men, and the dog… Thank you.

  5. This is a really charmingly descriptive piece of writing. Lovely to read.

  6. Fantastic, It made me tear up. Thank you for sharing and Charly for pointing it out. I was transported like magic into that little village .
    Thank you.
    Adela

  7. Charming. You certainly have evoked rural, midnight services as I recall and cherish them.

  8. Beautiful! It must have been an exciting time to live through, on the cusp of change in so many ways (all right, I was alive then, but at only one year old I think I can be forgiven for not having taken a lot of notice!)

  9. Wonderful story, Elin. I have to admit I had to look up Leo Abse, so not only have I been entertained by your charming story, I’ve also been given some new information :).

  10. I loved this ~ oh of only I could say so much in so few words ~ brava

  11. Ah, I loved this so much — I spent far too long watching one man and his dog yesterday, so was grinning at how my life has been filled with sheep ;) Your writing is just beautiful :D

    • I love “One Man and his Dog”. You have to love a show where a man can breathe “lovely lovely bitch, that” and mean it quite sincerely.

      Thank you SO much for the encouragement. I’m going to have to try and write the sheep out of my system some time but they, and the men who care for them, are important to me.

  12. That is really lovely. How thankful I am to live in a time when this little bit of hearth and lvoe is possible. And you did such a superb job.

    Thank you!

    Nan

  13. I know that a call has gone out for the Historic Christmas anthology for next year. Is there any way that this could be included? This is such a gem that I would love to read it each and every Christmas.

    • Oh, what a compliment! Thank you.

      I have no idea whether this would be eligible since I believe that appearing here would count as it having been published. But I have copied the call for subs put out by Jeannette de Beauvoir and I might try and write something else for the anthology if I feel brave enough.

    • I made sure jeannneette heard about this mandate. I am helping her market the call for submissions.

      I certainly second the recommendation.

      Nan

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