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When you do your best for love, it feels like Christmas

Chapter Text

December 1917 – Somewhere in France

The War went on. As simple as that, as if it had gained a will of its own. There was no end to it in sight and no true progress from either side. By then, one would be tempted to believe it would probably go on forever.

They had their training together – at last, they had been considered old enough to train – and they had been posted together. Since their arrival they had developed the habit of arriving at the hospital some time before their shift. The sleeping quarters provided little room for anything but actually sleeping. So, on that Sunday, the 23rd December, Kitty had a letter to write and Violet wanted to decorate the nurses’ hall to make it at least a little festive.

Kitty felt a bit under the weather. It had been raining for days, a persistent drizzle that made everything damp and sticky and had a negative impact on everyone’s morale. Matron was sterner than ever, the patients were sad and gloomy, even the food didn’t taste as it should. For the first time since joining the VAD, more than a year ago, Kitty felt she had bitten off more than she could chew. She was writing a letter home, but every sentence sounded false and silly and she was on the verge of throwing the whole thing into the fire.

«If only the rain would stop! God knows we could all do with a couple on sunny days.» - she felt despondent and almost angry, though she couldn’t explain exactly why or at what.

Violet entered the room carrying some green boughs. An old grey apron, several times mended, covered her grey blue uniform, and her hair was damp from the chilly mist outside, curling around her pretty face. She had left her wellingtons by the door and had changed into the rubber soled and comfortable shoes that were part of the uniform. She sat by the dying fire, carefully put her armful of thin pine branches on the floor and started weaving a garland with the help of some red cotton ribbon, while softly singing.

Deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa lalalala lala lala, ‘Tis the season to be jolly, fa lalalala lala lala

Kitty looked up, frowning, from the letter she was writing and managed to smile through her frown:

- I envy you sometimes, Vi. How can you find it in you to sing Christmas carols in here…? It’s all so sad and dreary!

They were in the nurses’ hall of the improvised hospital near the front where both girls had been assigned. It occupied a side wing of a country chateau, and the nurses’ hall was a small windowless room at the middle of two rows of rooms, where nurses could sit for a while, to rest, have a cup of tea or doze off for a while in one of the old leather armchairs. It had a fireplace and an iron woodstove, a few rickety tables and mismatched chairs, and a small cupboard that held the teapots and pans, the plates and cups, the tea and sugar tins as well as a few books and magazines. The ensemble had a dismal look at its best, and in the cold grey light of the December early morning, with the gloomy sound of the wind outside and the unrelenting drizzle that had been going on for days, was the unlikeliest of places to induce carol singing.

Violet smiled at her. Her smile was warm and genuine, and put dimples on her face and a light in her eyes.

- I like singing. When I’m singing, I forget about the War, about the wounded men and the condensed milk – she made a long face here as they both hated having condensed milk with their tea – the smoking fireplace, all the dreary aspects of life…

Kitty liked music but she lacked Violet’s passion. She sighed. She couldn’t remember anything that had the power to make her forget.  

- You are lucky, Vi. I wish I could say the same…

- Do you know what I really miss out here, more than anything?

- Besides fresh milk?

- Yes, besides that. I miss my piano.

Kitty supressed another sigh. She had been writing to her married sister Ada, who was expecting her third chid and taking care of two small children, her husband away at the front. She had been trying to sound cheerful in her letter, God knew poor Ada well needed some cheerfulness, but she was tired of it all. Everything seemed so bleak. «Damn the War!», she thought for the one thousandth time.

Violet had resumed both her singing and her garland weaving. She had already made the patients infirmaries gain a Christmassy tone with some pine branches interspersed with paper lace garlands. Kitty had even heard her scheming with the cook and Madame Daumier, their neighbouring farmer’s wife, about chicken soup for the wounded men, and maybe some brioche.

«She’s got such energy, Violet. I do admire her so…», she thought to herself, as she finished her letter. The kettle she had put on the stove began to whistle as she was addressing the envelope.

- Madame Daumier has promised to teach me her recipe for chicken soup. 

The garland was ready, and Violet had hanged it over the fireplace. Amazingly, it seemed to change the bleak little room, giving it some warmth and a slightly more comfortable look.

- Red is an amazing colour, isn’t it?

Violet was now pinning red paper bows on the leftover pine branches and arranging them around the mantlepiece. She gave a look round the room to appreciate the effect before taking off the grey apron and putting on the white one, with the red cross, starched and immaculate. Then she stood in front of the small mirror, brushing her slightly damp hair, and pinning her veil.

Two other girls entered the room. Nurses on a welcome break from ward work.

- Well, I say, who made the decorations? It’s beautiful, makes the room look nice and welcoming. Who would believe it was possible?

Violet made a mock curtsy and Kitty poured four cups of tea. Gladys brought out the detested condensed milk.

- There’s still some bread. No butter though, only apricot jam.

Margaret spread a spoonful of jam on her bread.

- I keep telling myself it’s Christmas, but …

- I know, it’s hard to believe isn’t it? It doesn’t look like Christmas; it doesn’t feel like Christmas.

Violet poured herself a second cup of tea and cut a few more slices of bread. Thanks to the farm just close by, they had fresh bread every week, even if Madame Daumier was frequently forced to add boiled chestnuts or potatos to the flour. The resulting bread was still very good if a bit more compact than normal bread.

- I’m doing all I can to make it at least look like Christmas! Come on, girls, cheer up! Try to get in the spirit. Think of our wounded soldiers, they need a bit of joy right now…! – and she hummed her Christmas carol yet again – We’ll have Madame Daumier’s chicken soup and homemade brioche for their Christmas dinner. And for our Christmas dinner as well. Think about that!

Two other nurses came in from outside, bringing a gush of cold air and their woollen capes beaded with raindrops.

- Oh, how wonderful, there’s tea.

- And Christmas decorations as well! Why, it almost feels like home.

- Hang your capes here to dry. Kitty is making some toast and there’s jam. Tuck in before work, it’s so cold one needs something hot to start the engines running, so to speak.

***

That evening, as they were ending their work, cleaning the nurses’ hall for the following shift, the wind brought the clear sound of bells, maybe church bells from some village. Violet stopped mopping the stone floor.

- Listen, Kitty! Bells! Now if that doesn’t give you a Christmassy feeling, nothing will.  – she mopped the last bit and pirouetted on the wet floor.

Kitty listened attentively. Bells, yes. Violet brough both capes from the hooks.

– Are you ready? All cups dry and stored? Maybe tomorrow morning we can get some fresh milk on the way…

The crystal sound of the bells made her homesick, but it was a welcome sound, and Kitty was resolved to do her best. Violet deserved it; she was such a brick. There she was, still humming her carol as they walked through the drizzle, arm in arm, heads down against the wind, to their sleeping quarters.