The words of the English carol, one she'd sung many times at Chalet School nativity plays over the years, were familiar; but suddenly they made no sense. Nothing made sense. The words, the music, the faces of the other people crowded into the small Catholic church close to where Gisela and Gottfried had temporarily made their home since their arrival in England, all blurred together, overwhelming her every sense until it felt as if the walls were about to close in on her. Unable to take it for a moment longer, she all but ran down the aisle and out through the back door. There she stood, noticing neither the cold nor the rain, struggling to breathe.
What sense did any of it make any more? How could people sing of joy and hope and peace, when their country was at war - a war against the evil regime which had swallowed up her own dearly beloved homeland and murdered her upright, gentle father, kindly Herr and Frau Goldmann, peaceful Vater Johann, and had taken who knew many other innocent lives already? Her baby nephew Florian might never have died if it hadn't been for the long journey to England; and dear Bruno and Friedel had been oh so lucky not to meet the same fate that Papa had done. How many more lives would it take in the years to come, and how many lives would be lost in the battle to defeat it? What sort of a world was this?
What was the point?
She knew that, for so many years, Christmas had been a time of joy and celebration, of the birth of the Christ child and of happy times spent with family and friends, but somehow all of that now seemed as if it had happened to someone else, as if her memories were playing her false and that Maria Marani hadn't been her at all. The people singing in the church at least had hope, and faith, but she wasn't sure that she had either any more. She wasn't sure of anything any more. All she hoped for every day was that night would come soon, that maybe she might be able to sleep at least for a little while, and that the following day might be better.
It rarely was.
Dimly, she became aware of someone beside her, holding her coat, asking her if she was feeling unwell. Who was it? Her mother? No, Gisela. Strong, steady Gisela, who'd coped with everything so much better than she had. Everyone coped with everything so much better than she had. She couldn't seem to cope with anything. She didn't know if she even wanted to keep trying.
"I can't take it any more," she heard herself say. "I can't take it any more."
"Walter, stop fussing, will you? Everything's under control! If you want to do something useful, you can take the children out for a walk for half an hour or so: hopefully it'll stop them keeping asking how long it'll be before we can decorate the tree. I keep saying that they'll have to wait until Grossmutter's ready – and hopefully she'll be up and dressed by the time you get back.
"Gisela and Gottfried and their crowd will be here first. It's a shame they couldn't stay here, but there really isn't room for all of them. But Frieda and Bruno and their crowd won't be too long afterwards: I don't want to be eating too late. I'm hoping that the children might have a nap in the afternoon, but I've got a feeling that they might be too excited. Hopefully they'll be asleep early tonight! Mama insists that she'll be fine with them, and that Tante Gisel and Tante Luise will probably stay with her. So there's no reason we can't go to church."
She walked from the kitchen to the Saal, where her children were supposed to be playing a game but were instead eagerly discussing what they hoped the Christ Child and Father Christmas would be bringing them that evening. "Julia, Max - Papa will take you out for a walk now, whilst Mama makes sure that the food will all be ready for when everyone else arrives. Be good, now. And no taking your hats or scarves or gloves off: it's cold out there!"
Walter Maclaren, pausing only to kiss his wife's cheek, did as he was bidden, whilst Maria ran through a mental inventory of the food. The carp, potatoes and vegetables were all prepared: she just had to remember to put the oven on at the appropriate time! The Sachertorte and the lebkuchen were ready, and she'd also made some of the honey and nut cakes which her father had loved so, to the exact recipe handed down by her grandmother. Frau Mieders would be proud of me, she thought with a smile. The children, in accordance with their mixed British and Austrian heritage, would put out both stockings and shoes to be filled tonight, and of course there would be presents under the tree, which she and her mother, husband and children would all decorate together, as well! And the whole family would sing carols together, just as it had been during her cherished childhood in Innsbruck – all those happy times which were so much a part of her and on which she was now able to look back without pain.
And then she and her dear husband, and many of their relatives and friends, would attend Midnight Mass. It would be at a tiny Catholic church in a largely Protestant area, but there would be little else to remind her of that Christmas of twenty years ago. Today, whilst she'd never forget those she'd lost or those terrible times that she'd lived through, her heart was filled with joy, hope, and thankfulness – and she was again able, as the carol said, in dulce jubilo, in sweet rejoicing, to sing and be glad.