The day had been short, lit by a mocking sunlight that refused to admit Christmas cheer into its long black shadows. People now churn through the streets of the City, pushing home, diving here and there from the crowd to chance a last-minute bit of gift shopping. The dark evening barely intrudes in the continuous stream of headlights, streetlights and the bobbing rectangles of phone screens, frantically being consulted for opening times, stock levels, last trains.
At the perfect moment, it starts to rain; not hard, but a grey drizzle filling the air between people. Some prepared for this, and a fungal bloom of umbrellas fountains out of the crowd. Others simply curse the season, goodwill be damned, and laugh silently when the gusting wind catches at the umbrellas, sending them pinwheeling down the streets, owners chasing them like errant children.
In the blooming drear, faces turn to the ground. The knot of commuters, hands thrust in rain-ragged pockets, stop thinking entirely of Christmas, of the tinsel-haunted tree casting overlapping shadows on the walls of their living rooms, of presents yet to be wrapped, of the slow unwinding of time over the next week. If you saw them from above you might mistake them for a crowd of monks, drab-robed and heads bowed, shuffling through the cloistered night.
Then, a type of miracle. The small type, performed by ordinary humans. A choir begins singing, slow and rich, and as they walk the cold, agitated commuters are enveloped by the gentle warmth of Silent Night. A memory, skittish in the changeable mood, darts into the heads of some. An unheated church, golden candlelight wavering in age-smoothed rosewood. A pervasive smell of polish, and dust rising from the prayerbooks tucked into the pew ahead, from the horsehair-stuffed, embroidered cushions on the floor. The drone of the organ, the cracked voices of the congregation – unused to church attendance, muffled up against the cold of the winter on an unfamiliar evening journey to this strange, comforting place – as they tentatively join the choir in song.
The night freezes. Christmas, delicately through the streets, stretches fingers, touches down. On calmer winds the rain, already icy, becomes snow. Its glittered upswing, caught in lights so recently tormenting eyes, nudges the memory further. The choir sings on. Around them, deep winter flows back, pushed to the edge of a circle of frail peace. Voices in the crowd, uncertain, wavering, pick up the song. Not chancing the high notes, but joining as a litany against the dark. All is calm. All is bright. The snow rushes to their just-moving lips, melting in a kiss, sealing the unthought contract written in candlesmoke and the last echoes of a note.