• Robin Horsfall

A Soldier's Christmas Carol.

A Soldier’s Christmas Carol

A true story.

December found him embroiled in the endgame of a long war in Mozambique. The Russians had pulled out and left the war torn country to fend for itself. Nine months earlier along with other former British soldiers he had accepted the rank of Major in ‘Frelimo’, the Army of Mozambique.

That year had been a difficult one. The country was starving, foreign aid was pouring in but it never got to the interior unless it was in the hands of corrupt merchants who sold it at the local markets. There was no wildlife to eat it had all been wiped out by the nation’s hungry people who were never short of an AK47 rifle and 7.62 ammunition. He had seen his soldiers die of malaria because they were on half rations. The food had been stolen before it got to the front line. One soldier who had been caught stealing food was ruthlessly whipped as punishment, when asked if it was worth it he said “Of course sir”.

He looked forward to taking a break that Christmas, he couldn’t go home to his own family until January, it wasn’t his turn. His wife and three children would have to enjoy Christmas without him. His baby boy Oliver was only one year old and wouldn’t notice but the other two were older Charlotte was six and Alex eight, it would affect them a lot. He missed them desperately but he was only doing the best to make a living he could the only way he knew.

The east coast of Africa was two hours drive away through enemy occupied territory but his fellow officer and friend Roger thought that making the trip on Christmas Eve would be worth the risk. Roger knew of a store at the docks in Nacala where he could use their European cash to buy luxuries that they hadn’t seen for some time.

They drove quickly and made the journey without encountering the enemy and arrived in time to fill a cold box with meat, ice, water, beer and champagne. Once the cold box was stored away safely for the next day they went to the old Portuguese Cathedral for the Christmas service. The church was full of worshippers but they felt uncomfortable dressed as they were, in uniform. In Africa in those days anyone in uniform was regarded with suspicion by friend and foe alike. They left the church and made plans to enjoy a private Christmas dinner for two on the beach the next day.

Waking late they drove the short distance to the coast where they found a fisherman who had caught a good sized Grouper which was excellent to eat. A little haggling and they had procured their meal for the day. Now they wondered where to go to cook it?

He drove the blue Safari Land Rover along the perfect, sandy beach until he found a lonely spot about twenty metres from the sea and sheltered by palm trees. There wasn’t a soul in sight, a perfect place to barbeque the fish, drink the booze and relax away from the discomforts of war.

He began to hang his string hammock from the trees when the first local man arrived. The man made his greetings and asked for some water which was provided without quibble: it was the polite thing to do. Within minutes the empty beach began to fill with other people who all requested a share of his food. Although he did share, it became clear that if he didn’t get stuck into his meal very quickly there wouldn’t be much left. Becoming resentful he began opening the beer and drinking it quickly spilling it down his bare chest, he was tempted to tell them to go away. “Couldn’t a man get one bloody day alone and eat his food without someone demanding a hand-out?”

He raised yet another beer to his lips and looked along the beach to see a little boy kicking a cheap plastic football. The boy was about two and a half, three at most and completely naked with an untreated hernia bulging at the front of his abdomen. A few feet away looking out at the sea sat the child’s tired, young mother: she had the proud air of dignity. She had seen the worst of life and managed to survive. On her lap was a small parcel wrapped in newspaper. As he watched she opened the newspaper to reveal a small piece of bread and called out to the child. “At least somebody has brought something to the party” he mused.

Roger was busy cooking the grouper on the barbeque surrounded by about six men who watched his every action with hungry anticipation. Roger seemed nonchalant and quite happy with their company. He however was not, he watched Roger and the revellers with a furrowed brow. The uninvited guests all had a beer now, his beer and it was clear that they were going to eat his Christmas Dinner. Anger welled up in his throat, just as he was about to speak up his attention was drawn downwards to a movement by his feet. There looking up at him was the little boy. In his right hand was the small piece of the bread his mother had given him. The child raised his tiny hand high above his head and offered to share the piece of bread. Smiling weakly he declined the generous offer and walked a few steps away to the beach to stare at the sea. Something in his throat wouldn’t move, gradually he relaxed and took a deep breath holding his emotions in check. He brushed a tear from his cheek the way men do when they hope no one will notice.

The message of Christmas had finally broken through.

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