Christmas ’73 found my friend and I stranded in Bangkok, we were supposed to be in Singapore, all presents, cards and letters awaited us there but no, there we were in Bangkok, with an imminent financial problem looming. A possible rabid dog bite in Nepal had kept us tied to Kathmandu to see if said dog was mad or bad. Now in the middle of an OPEC inspired global meltdown we were precariously perched in a gloriously beautiful country, sans tickets out (these were floating in a pail of water somewhere in London having been mistaken for an IRA bomb).
Airports closing across the world like collapsing dominos, unable to rev their planes, let alone fly them with no oil. Each day I walked the two miles to the travel agency. Had the tickets arrived? Had the airport closed? Each day I booked two seats out in hope and each day I cancelled them with a lurch in my guts, which owed nothing to the dysentery bugs that had taken up residency down there, back in Kashmir. Re-walking the two miles back in increasing heat to our room I would count out a rapidly diminishing pile of cash with gloomy dread. Money we had, in Singapore! Each day I battled smiling indifference at the bank trying to get it transferred to where we actually were. No deal. We would have to make do.
‘Oh to hell with it, it's Christmas’. With abandon we haggled the market traders for a small cooked chicken, two tomatoes, a couple of Chinese leaves, a minute pineapple (small but oh so sweet) and a mango, to drink? a pint of chocolate milk. A feast fit for the gods. We would indulge in said feast, after a swim in the pool and the opening of a small gift, each costing practically nothing. At night we would explore an American Methodist missionary midnight service. This last was to prove to be an eye-opening experience of casual exuberance, so new to us, bred to the cold stone solemnity of English carols. The choir and congregation, clad haphazardly in shorts, tee shirts, flip flops, or maybe full evening dress complete with sequins and tails, galloped through the carols with the rip roaring celebration I had always thought they deserved, lifting this particular English soul with them.
But before we sang in the night scented church with its rolled up walls, we sat around the pool nursing a coffee which would have to ‘do’ for a few hours yet. We were to be entertained by the pupils of a local American run convent. We might as well, we shrugged, what else was there to do that cost nothing, and did not involve too much exertion in this extremely humid city. They came, first the ten year olds all giggles, wriggles and eyes wide, staring unabashed at an eclectic mix of pale Europeans in varying degrees of dilapidation who tried not to cry openly as the tots led us through a piping rendition of ‘White Christmas’. What did they think while singing to us of snow and sleigh bells I wondered? They filed away to thunderous applause. Then came their seniors, and, in a land of stunning female beauty, these stood out. A dozen young teenagers as smooth and innocent as any angels, skin glowing, hair shining, petite, delicate and graceful. Their navy and crisp white uniforms hung with a natural neatness. What were we to hear from them, maybe some traditional Thai songs? We waited with anticipation.
A pause and then they opened their mouths and in perfect sweet harmony the aching beauty of Silent Night soared to the languidly warm heavens. Did Mohr or Gruber ever imagine their combined talents would decorate a tropical evening so well?
Gut wrenching, our breath stilled. Never before or since has so simple a carol so hammered the heart.
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