I spotted it in a junk shop in Bridport, a roll-top desk.
The man said it was early nineteenth century, and oak.
I had wanted one, but they were far too expensive. This
one was in a bad condition, the roll-top in several pieces,
one leg clumsily mended, scorch marks all down one
side. It was going for very little money. I thought I could
restore it. It would be a risk, a challenge, but I had to
have it. I paid the man and brought it back to my
workroom at the back of the garage. I began work on it
on Christmas Eve.
I removed the roll-top completely and pulled out the
drawers. The veneer had lifted almost everywhere — it
looked like water damage to me. Both fire and water had
clearly taken their toll on this desk. The last drawer was
stuck fast. I tried all I could to ease it out gently. In the
end I used brute force. I struck it sharply with the side of
my fist and the drawer flew open to reveal a shallow space
underneath, a secret drawer. There was something in
there. I reached in and took out a small black tin box.
Sello-taped to the top of it was a piece of lined notepaper,
and written on it in shaky
last letter, received
January 25, 1915.
To be buried with
me when the
time comes." I
knew as I did
it that it was
wrong of me to
open the box,
got the better of
my scruples. It
Inside the box there was an envelope. The address
read: "Mrs Jim Macpherson, 12 Copper Beeches, Bridport,
Dorset." I took out the letter and unfolded it. It was written
in pencil and dated at the top — "December 26, 1914".
I write to you in a much happier frame of mind because
something wonderful has just happened that I must tell
you about at once. We were all standing to in our trenches
yesterday morning, Christmas morning. It was crisp and
quiet all about, as beautiful a morning as I've ever seen, as
cold and frosty as a Christmas morning should be.
I should like to be able to tell you that we began it.
But the truth, I'm ashamed to say, is that Fritz began it.
First someone saw a white flag waving from the trenches
opposite. Then they were calling out to us from across
no man's land, "Happy Christmas, Tommy! Happy
Christmas!" When we had got over the surprise, some of
us shouted back, "Same to you, Fritz! Same to you!" I
thought that would be that. We all did. But then suddenly
one of them was up there in his grey greatcoat and waving
a white flag. "Don't shoot, lads!" someone shouted. And
no one did. Then there was another Fritz up on the
parapet, and another. "Keep your heads down," I told the
men, "it's a trick." But it wasn't.
One of the Germans was waving a bottle above his
head. "It is Christmas Day, Tommy. We have schnapps.
We have sausage. We meet you? Yes?" By this time there
were dozens of them walking towards us across no man's
land and not a rifle between them. Little Private Morris
was the first up. "Come on, boys. What are we waiting
for?" And then there was no stopping them. I was the
officer. I should have stopped them there and then, I
suppose, but the truth is that it never even occurred to
me I should. All along their line and ours I could see
men walking slowly towards one another, grey coats,
khaki coats meeting in the middle. And I was one of
them. I was part of this. In the middle of the war we
were making peace.
You cannot imagine, dearest Connie, my feelings as
I looked into the eyes of the Fritz officer, who approached
me, hand outstretched. "Hans Wolf," he said, gripping
my hand warmly and holding it. "I am from Dusseldorf.
I play the cello in the orchestra. Happy Christmas."
"Captain Jim Macpherson," I replied. "And a Happy
Christmas to you too. I'm a school teacher from Dorset,
in the west of England."
"Ah, Dorset," he smiled. "I know this place. I know it
very well." We shared my rum ration and his excellent
sausage. And we talked, Connie, how we talked. He spoke
almost perfect English. But it turned out that he had
never set foot in Dorset, never even been to England.
He had learned all he knew of England from school,
and from reading books in English. His favourite writer
was Thomas Hardy, his favourite book Far from the
Madding Crowd. So out there in no man's land we talked
of Bathsheba and Gabriel Oak and Sergeant Troy and
Dorset. He had a wife and one son, born just six months
ago. As I looked about me there were huddles of khaki
and grey everywhere, all over no man's land, smoking,
laughing, talking, drinking, eating. Hans Wolf and I
shared what was left of your wonderful Christmas cake,
Connie. He thought the marzipan was the best he had
ever tasted. I agreed. We agreed about everything, and
he was my enemy. There never was a Christmas party
like it, Connie.
Then someone, I don't know who, brought out a
football. Greatcoats were dumped in piles to make
goalposts, and the next thing we knew it was Tommy
against Fritz out in the middle of no man's land. Hans
Wolf and I looked on and cheered, clapping our hands
and stamping our feet, to keep out the cold as much as
anything. There was a moment when I noticed our
breaths mingling in the air between us. He saw it too
and smiled. "Jim Macpherson," he said after a while,
"I think this is how we should resolve this war. A football
match. No one dies in a football match. No children are
orphaned. No wives become widows."
"I'd prefer cricket," I told him. "Then we Tommies
could be sure of winning, probably." We laughed at
that, and together we watched the game. Sad to say,
Connie, Fritz won, two goals to one. But as Hans Wolf
generously said, our goal was wider than theirs, so it
wasn't quite fair.
The time came, and all too soon, when the game was
finished, the schnapps and the rum and the sausage
had long since run out, and we knew it was all over.
I wished Hans well and told him I hoped he would see
his family again soon, that the fighting would end and
we could all go home.
"I think that is what every soldier wants, on both
sides," Hans Wolf said. "Take care, Jim Macpherson.
I shall never forget this moment, nor you." He saluted
and walked away from me slowly, unwillingly, I felt.
He turned to wave just once and then became one of
the hundreds of grey-coated men drifting back towards
That night, back in our dugouts, we heard them
singing a carol, and singing it quite beautifully. It was
Stille Nacht, Silent Night. Our boys gave them a rousing
chorus of While Shepherds Watched. We exchanged
carols for a while and then we all fell silent. We had had
our time of peace and goodwill, a time I will treasure as
long as I live.
Dearest Connie, by Christmas time next year, this
war will be nothing but a distant and terrible memory.
I know from all that happened today how much both
armies long for peace. We shall be together again soon,
I'm sure of it.
I folded the letter again and slipped it carefully back
into its envelope. I kept awake all night. By morning I
knew what I had to do. I drove into Bridport, just a few
miles away. I asked a boy walking his dog where Copper
Beeches was. House number 12 turned out to be nothing
but a burned-out shell, the roof gaping, the windows
boarded-up. I knocked at the house next door and asked
if anyone knew the whereabouts of a Mrs Macpherson.
Oh yes, said the old man in his slippers, he knew her
well. A lovely old lady, he told me, a bit muddle-headed,
but at her age she was entitled to be, wasn't she? A
hundred and one years old. She had been in the house
when it caught fire. No one really knew how the fire had
started, but it could well have been candles. She used
candles rather than electricity, because she always
thought electricity was too expensive. The fireman had
got her out just in time. She was in a nursing home
now, he told me, Burlington House, on the Dorchester
road, on the other side of town.
I found Burlington House Nursing Home easily enough.
There were paper chains up in the hallway and a lighted
Christmas tree stood in the corner with a lopsided angel
on top. I said I was a friend come to visit Mrs Macpherson
to bring her a Christmas present. I could see through
into the dining room where everyone was wearing a paper
hat and singing. The matron had a hat on too and
seemed happy enough to see me. She even offered me a
mince pie. She walked me along the corridor.
"Mrs Macpherson is not in with the others," she told
me. "She's rather confused today so we thought it best
if she had a good rest. She has no family you know, no
one visits. So I'm sure she'll be only too pleased to see
you." She took me into a conservatory with wicker chairs
and potted plants all around and left me.
The old lady was sitting in a wheelchair, her hands
folded in her lap. She had silver white hair pinned into a
wispy bun. She was gazing out at
the garden. "Hello," I said. She
turned and looked up at me
vacantly. "Happy Christmas,
Connie," I went on. "I found
this. I think it's yours." As I was
speaking her eyes never left my
face. I opened the tin box and
gave it to her. That was the
moment her eyes lit up with
recognition and her face
became suffused with a sudden
glow of happiness. I explained
about the desk, about how I
had found it, but I don't think
she was listening. For a while
she said nothing, but stroked the letter tenderly with her
Suddenly she reached out and took my hand. Her
eyes were filled with tears. "You told me you'd come home
by Christmas, dearest," she said. "And here you are,
the best Christmas present in the world. Come closer,
Jim dear, sit down."
I sat down beside her, and she kissed my cheek. "I
read your letter so often Jim, every day. I wanted to
hear your voice in my head. It always made me feel you
were with me. And now you are. Now you're back you
can read it to me yourself. Would you do that for me,
Jim dear? I just want to hear your voice again. I'd love
that so much. And then perhaps we'll have some tea.
I've made you a nice Christmas cake, marzipan all
around. I know how much you love marzipan."
The Ant and the Cricket
A silly young cricket, accustomed to sing
Through the warm, sunny months of gay summer and spring,
Began to complain when he found that, at home,
His cupboard was empty, and winter was come.
Not a crumb to be found
On the snow-covered ground;
Not a flower could he see,
Not a leaf on a tree.
"Oh! what will become," says the cricket, "of me?"
At last by starvation and famine made bold,
All dripping with wet, and all trembling with cold,
Away he set off to a miserly ant,
To see if, to keep him alive, he would grant
Him shelter from rain,
And a mouthful of grain.
He wished only to borrow;
He'd repay it tomorrow;
If not, he must die of starvation and sorrow.
Says the ant to the
cricket, "I'm your servant
But we ants never
borrow; we ants never
But tell me, dear cricket,
did you lay nothing by
When the weather was
warm?" Quoth the cricket,
My heart was so light
That I sang day and night,
For all nature looked gay."
"You sang, Sir, you say?
Go then," says the ant, "and dance the winter away."
This ending, he hastily lifted the wicket,
And out of the door turned the poor little cricket.
Folks call this a fable. I'll warrant it true:
Some crickets have four legs, and some have two.
Online Lessons with Spoken text and correct pronounciation