Winter had come to the POW camp with an icy blast. There was not even a scattering of snow to make it worth the cold: only a steel grey sky under which they froze. Feeling the chill of it seeping into his bones this morning, Farrier had rolled himself into his bunk wearing his old, battered flying jacket with the collar turned up about his ears and his thin blanket over his legs like a grandfather. He feels old today: old and cold and tired. His fingers are stiff.
There's a bang on the door and Edwards sticks his head round.
"Christmas has come early," he says, depositing a package on the bed, “and a letter too, you lucky bastard.”
Farrier feigns nonchalance until Edwards is gone. He’s the incurably nosy sort and Farrier has recognised the writing on the battered envelope. The return address on the parcel is also familiar and not from his family. They don't write to him often: his brother never does and his mother sends rather stiff, stilted enquiries about his welfare that are more duty than affection. The letter in his hand should be nothing like that.
Deciding to savour it, he opens the package first. The corners have been dented by the journey and it has already been opened and searched. Still, the contents seem mostly intact. A block of chocolate on top and a tin of cigarettes. His preferred brand too, which means someone went out looking out for them. Squashed around the edges of the tin are a pair of knitted mittens and a pair of knitted socks. He presses them to his face and imagines he can smell the faintest trace of home. Hand knitted, though expertly, he imagines Collins asking his mother to make them, guessing at the remembered size of Farrier’s feet and hands against his own. Wrapping them and sending them. Going looking for the right cigarettes. Against the pain of being separated so abruptly and completely, the parcel feels like an embrace. Stretched by distance, battered and disturbed by a dozen people they may be, but these things were touched by Collins’ hands and now Farrier is holding them and it could almost, almost be like reaching out and touching him. He runs a hand over the tin, feeling the bump of embossed lettering, and wonders if Collins did the same.
For a moment, he is overwhelmed with sharp, choking homesickness the like of which he hasn’t experienced since his first nights at boarding school when he was five.
He is being morbid. It must be the cold weather. He breaks off a single piece of the chocolate and slips it into his mouth to melt across his tongue while he opens the letter. Collins’ handwriting loops across the page. ‘Merry Christmas my love’ he begins, ‘although I don’t know when you’ll get to read this with the state of the post.’
They never talked about the future before Dunkirk. Farrier could have forgiven Collins for moving on to someone new, someone there in the squadron who could be held and kissed in person, but yet he still writes and talks of love. Farrier loses himself in the letter, in Collins’ description of Christmas plans and making the most of the celebrations and how much Farrier is missed. The words are ones he can wrap around him, to keep him warm and sane through the worst and coldest days.
For a moment, the letter takes him away, as if he were truly home with Collins in England. They only had one Christmas together in ‘39 but he can still see Collins now, in a paper hat and slightly drunk, singing Christmas carols just off key. Beautiful and ridiculous in equal measure.
“It’s snowing lads!” comes the shout from outside and Farrier is brought back to the present with a jolt. There are other voices calling, laughing. Strange how snow always changes things. Above the rest he can hear Jenkins singing, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. He’d been a choirboy before the war and still has a beautiful voice. The notes rise, others joining in or falling silent, and Farrier holds tight to his letter and thinks of home.
He wants another Christmas with Collins. He wants to wake him on Christmas morning with gifts and eat a meal together that isn’t rationed. He wants Collins joyfully tipsy and singing, wants him in his arms and in his bed. He must get home somehow. He must.
Not this winter, not with the ground frozen hard and the snow falling, but in the spring he will get away from here. He will get home.