For most people in Europe, Christmas 1944 would be ‘celebrated’ in much the same way as previous Christmas days during this war. Austerity was the normal state, with many families rustling up what they could from their meagre rations to mark the occasion. While many found a kindred spirit developing in their communities at these times, many others were homeless through the bombing and many had lost friends and family both at home and in the armed forces. It was difficult to see how any celebrations could be justified at all. There was, however, the celebration of hope – hope that the war would be over this year and that normality would return, if that normality could ever be possible again, or recognisable. There were many people, for whom, Christmas was a time of particular hardship and pain, as they remembered loved ones who had gone off to fight for their freedom and would never return. Mags and Andy were two such people. As farmers of a smallholding on a quiet Scottish island, they were isolated from a lot of the day to day wartime hardships, and their camaraderie with the rest of the island community ensured that they had many friends looking after their interests. For all that, however, it didn’t heal the hurt. It felt just as bad to lose a son in the war on Arran as it did in Glasgow, London, or Berlin. Klein and all their friends on the island knew this as they awoke to Christmas in 1944.
Christmas morning dawned cold and clear, and after exchanging seasons greetings over breakfast, Mags, Andy and Klein started preparing for the afternoon and evening meal down at the old corner plot where everyone would gather to celebrate Christmas. The newly gifted radio from Klein was blaring out from the living room, where it took pride of place as the centrepiece of the room. Klein noticed that the picture of Jim standing next to a Lancaster undercarriage wheel was now
sitting on top of the new radio. Mags, Andy and Klein prepared their contribution to the dinner tonight and spent most of the afternoon packing up the huge pot of stovies, the vegetables, and putting the finishing touches to the oil burning lanterns. Klein recognised the familiar smell of the lantern oil as Andy decanted it from large cans to small bottles. Klein took a sniff as he and Andy poured the thick, dark, golden liquid into the bottles and remarked,
“Sandy seems to have an endless supply of this oil. You must all eat a great deal of chips, yes?”
Andy sniggered and replied,
“The fryers on the mainland, well most of them anyway, haven’t caught on to all the potential uses for old chip fat. They actually give tons of the stuff to Sandy to dump for them. He told them he has a safe dumping ground for it, here, and they very innocently supply us with all the fuel we can use! They actually come over with tankers full! He collects it all and we use it in every engine on the island, mixed with a little paraffin – some even use it to heat their homes with, there is so much of the stuff. Petrol and diesel has been almost unobtainable here since the start of the war and yet we run about in our cars and vans constantly. The people over on the mainland think we have an oil well here!”
Klein laughed and said,
“Well, actually, you have!”
They both laughed as the last of the bottles was filled and they carefully packed them into a crate before collecting all the foodstuffs and loading everything into the little Austin van. They all then got changed and the three of them climbed into the little van and headed down to the garden square where most of the townsfolk had already gathered and the party was just starting. It was extremely draughty in the van, with it’s back window blown out, as Klein tried to huddle down behind the provisions and the still warm stovies in the pots. Andy parked the little van across the road and they were first greeted by Sandy and his wife, Morag, who wished them all a ‘Merry Christmas’ and then helped them carry all their foodstuffs over to the square.
It was just getting dark and there were lanterns lit in the square already, and doing an effective job as Anne and Gordon McCulloch had already set up their tables of beer and wine and everyone seemed to have a bottle of some description in their hands. George and Beverley were there too with their table creaking under the weight of tea mugs and a huge tea urn, with great clouds of steam billowing out from it into the cold night sky as each cup was poured. Beverley had a talent for making fine soup and as well as the tea, had prepared no less than three varieties of piping hot soup, which was going down well in the cold square! Klein was impressed by the sheer amount of food and drink on offer as he carried the contributions brought by Andy and Mags and set them up on a table beside Anne and Gordon. Mags and Andy began firing up the brazier to heat the huge pots of stovies while Klein went around adding more lanterns around the square and lighting each one to illuminate the square as if it were daylight. Soon the square began to smell like the inside of Sandy’s chip shop as the lanterns gave off their familiar odour! All over the square there was the glow of coals from braziers and steam and smoke drifting up and the warmth started to radiate out and take the chill out of the night air. The breath of all the villagers, as they chatted and laughed, puffed out and all the time the noise of music and dialogue became louder as others arrived to add their contribution to the atmosphere. Within about an hour, the party had well and truly got under way and the townspeople were sufficiently nourished with the food and the cold-numbing effect of the alcohol.
Klein walked along the edge of the square by the trees and stood back from the scene for a few moments just to soak up the ambience, and as he gazed over this simple gathering, he was struck by the camaraderie of it all and how these people all pulled together to make Christmas a special event worth celebrating, even in this wartime. Klein wondered what a ‘normal’ Christmas would be like here, if this was the austere, war-stricken version! He sat on a hay bale at the edge of the square, watching the faces glow in the lantern light, steam from conversational breath and the myriad of hot food and drink
receptacles, snake up into the dark and clear night sky. From the far end of the square a fiddle band struck up some rousing traditional Scottish dance music and before long there were people up dancing and pulling and twirling each other around in a way that Klein had never seen before. As the fiddle players fingers defied the cold air to ever-faster and rowdier playing, he noticed Andy and Gordon in among the dancers, keeping up with the best of them in a rousing display of highland dance, which, if not strictly technically correct, was still the best representation of it that Klein had ever seen. Klein couldn’t help but tap his foot in time to the music and as he watched smiling and laughing at the antics on the square, Mags and Anne came over and sat down next to him, carrying over a small box of ‘B17’s’.
“Ah, here he is!” exclaimed Anne.
“We thought you had buggered off and left us!” she said thrusting out a suitably chilled bottle in Klein’s direction.
Klein laughed, seeing that Mags and Anne were already feeling the effects of the B17 brew!
“No. Definitely not!” Klein replied,
“I am just watching this spectacle and enjoying the atmosphere. It looks dangerous, yes?” Klein said , referring to the dancing,
“I read sometime ago that ancient Scots used this dancing as a way to execute their enemies.”
“No!” Exclaimed Mags,
“Where did you learn that shite?”
Klein decided to keep the joke going,
“Yes, this is true. I learn this in school in Germany. They would invite their enemies over to parties like this and dance them to death!”
Anne and Mags laughed and Anne replied,
“You know – you may have a point there! I mean take a look at McCulloch,” Anne said, referring to her husband,
“If he doesn’t stop waving those arms about like that, he will definitely have a casualty on his hands!”
Klein then wondered about the black-out restrictions, and how this would look from the mainland.
“Does this not violate your black-out?” he asked.
Mags laughed and replied,
“It sure does. However, they’ve given up on us over there,” she said, referring to the mainland,
“They take the attitude now that if we are bombed then it’s our own stupid fault! They reckon that the light here will fool the Luftwaffe into thinking it’s the city and they’ll aim for us and not them!”
Anne then added,
“That’s our air raid warden over there, incidentally!”
Anne pointed over to a rather drunken looking man dancing around, still wearing his white armband with the letters ‘ARP’ on, his white, tin helmet, was upside down on a table, being used as a receptacle for his wife’s home-made cinnamon biscuits.
Klein laughed and shook his head,
“You seem to do whatever you like here. I like this, how you say, anarchy!”
“Well it’s hardly anarchy, but I guess we just ride our luck, here, until it runs out eventually,” Anne replied. Klein, still smiling, said confidently,
“The Luftwaffe would never bomb here, or mistake it for the city, no matter how many lights you had. Our maps and photographs were very good and very accurate. They followed the main road on the West coast from England, up past Birmingham, all the way up to Glasgow. The shipyards are so easy to spot – even at night.”
“No shit?” replied Mags,
“You mean they just follow the bloody road like a car would?”
“So how the hell do you get past the coastal defences on the Channel? And all the air bases? Surely someone sees and hears the ’planes?”
Klein shrugged his shoulders,
“I do not know. As I remember, most of the time our trips up here were relatively straightforward - and of course, I got up here this time without much trouble. I did not think too much about being shot down, even over Glasgow.”
Mags and Anne looked at each other with some confusion and Anne said,
“It’s almost like they are allowed to come up and bomb the shit out of us!”
“Well, that’s stretching it a wee bit, but I must admit, it does make you think!” and took a sip of her ‘B17’ while staring out into the square,
“Maybe they are let through to keep us on our toes, to ensure we don’t get too complacent, in case we dare to take another viewpoint on all this carnage. It wouldn’t do to side with the Germans and fight the ‘auld enemy’ that way, would it?”
Anne stared at the fires blazing away in the square and muttered, quietly,
“The bastards,” contemplating the horror of anyone allowing their own country to get bombed and people being killed just to keep them on ‘your’ side, and being kept hungry to fight back.
“I suppose the rationing serves a purpose too, then?” Anne asked.
Mags thought for a second and replied,
“I suppose so – keep us alive but hungry, literally, to fight. It’s the one thing that will ensure we fight, if we have to do it to get fed.”
Anne shook her head and looked over the estuary thoughtfully with a slight frown on her face.
After a short silence between them, Klein said,
“If this is the celebration you have at Christmas, what is New year like? I know the Scots have a reputation for celebrating New Year. I know. I have read your Ra-bb-ie Burns.” Klein struggled with trying to get ‘Rabbie’ to sound as Scottish as he could!
“New Year is similar to this,” Mags replied,
“Although everybody gets rat-arsed even more!”
Once again Klein struggled with some of the more colourful dialect that his hosts used!
“Ratarss-ed?” Klein questioned, making it all one word.
“Aye – you know: Pissed, drunk, blootered!” Anne chipped in, before adding,
Klein laughed as Mags turned to Anne and said, almost congratulatory,
“Oh, aye – ‘shit-faced’ - I forgot about that one. That’s a good one, that is,” as if they were compiling a list of words and phrases for some intellectual word game.
Anne raised her bottle and said,
“Here’s to the end of the war and to us millionaires in Whiting Bay!”
“I’ll drink to that!” Mags replied, as they clinked their bottles together, before draining the last of the contents.
Christmas Eve, 1944, passed in a similar vein to previous war-time Christmas Eve’s in Whiting Bay, with a party, music, dance, food, drink and merriment. Klein thought about all the things that should be happening back home and wondered when he would ever see it again as he eventually slipped into an unconscious sleep, catalysed by several ‘B17’s’ . .
Andy MacLaren awoke at an undetermined time to discover that at some point during the night, something, or someone, had come into the house and repeatedly smashed some heavy object over his head and had given him a thirst that was seemingly insatiable. Mild drunkenness was something that was not unfamiliar to the islanders since the start of the war. When ‘home brew’ started as a cottage industry, however, it was difficult to remember that the average alcohol tolerance before total inebriation, was reduced considerably once the ‘B17’ came on the ‘market!’ As Andy lay there contemplating how to get up without making the room spin any faster than it already was, he looked over at the corner of the room, where, under a loose floorboard lay his and Mags’ pension. He smiled to himself and ran over the last few months events in his mind and decided that this Christmas was indeed special after all. Despite losing Jim, there was much to be thankful for – Klein’s ’plane was just the
icing on the cake, financially, but he realised that they had been able to pick themselves up and carry on without too much heartache. This was undoubtedly down to looking after Klein and ensuring that he got a fair chance at a new life, hopefully soon, in a new Germany, providing there was anything left of it. They had been so pre-occupied with keeping Klein hidden and looking after him, that the grieving process had been a lot less painful than it probably should have been. Indeed, it was starting to look as though some positive aspect could come out of all this after all.
Eventually Andy got up and headed into the kitchen where Mags and Klein were already up and having breakfast, despite it being around 10.30 in the morning, although both appeared to be operating at a much slower pace this morning, too!
Andy sat down at the table.
“I feel like shit,” he said simply.
Klein looked at him and replied,
“Me too, although I don’t think I am feeling the same as you!”
Mags got up to get Andy a mug of tea and they all sat around in silence for the next half hour or so, as they slowly tried to get themselves back to some degree of well being after the previous nights excesses!
Mags stared at the table, trance-like, as she sipped her tea and said,
“Don’t forget, there is still the New Year to see in.”
“Oh, bloody hell!” Andy said as he laid his head on the table.