I can tell I’m not going to get any sleep tonight, not least because I slept all day. But also my head is racing…. the colours still rushing past, the free-falling lurch in my stomach sensation just growing more intense…
My host writes music, so at times like this she’d probably start song-writing. Some of her best songs appear in the dead of the night. I cannot write music, but understand also the absolute power of music.
And so I smile sadly, yet warmly, and always painfully at a memory in the ring…one Christmastime…and now I’m listening to christmas carols to remember the children.
Our host was one of the ‘lucky’ ones; she went to school, had a home…didn’t live full-time at that hellish place. Therefore, she spent a great deal of time telling stories to the children of life outside of the ring. She didn’t tell them too much about the abuse she suffered; they knew that anyway. But she’d tell them stories of the sea, of the sound of the sea crashing onto the beaches. She’d sometimes sneak in sweets so they had a taste. She’d tell them about school, and try to help them read and write. It was quite extraordinary how in that place, such normality managed to ensue.
But mostly, her stories would be told through music. It reached those who couldn’t understand, and from a young age our host noticed how music could touch the damaged souls of many…where they may have been left alone in their hell without the music.
One Christmas-time, she told them about Christmas. About what it really meant, but what the ‘normal’ world did at Christmas time. She told them about presents, told them about the huge christmas dinner, and the carol singing. Now, in truth Christmas was always a traumatic time for them, and the children were as aware of christmas as our host was, but for all the wrong reasons. To try and help them cope with this particularly extreme time of year, our host would sing carols and christmas songs to them, until they learnt them.
Their favourites were ‘merry christmas’ ‘jingle bells’ and ‘rudolf’ because they were fun, but also ‘O Holy Night,’ ‘In the bleak mid-winter’ ‘away in a manger’ and especially ‘coventry carol.’
One day, they were in their room, having spent the day being abused and tortured. They’d always do something to distract them, whether that be story-telling or quiet singing, or simply hugging and watching the stars through their window. On this night, they decided to sing through ‘their snow songs’ as they called them, and very very quietly sang through the carols. It was truly very haunting, in hindsight, and also exceptionally moving.
They were heard, however, and two of the men came into the room – clearly looking for a reason to do something to any/all of the children. The children froze and huddled together; it was always more frightening if the men came back once they’d been sent to the room, because the abuse was supposed to have stopped for the day…if they came back, then they were angry rather than planned.
A few more men gathered, and it was clear some of them were drunk. Looking back on the memory, I can feel the icy fear in our blood, the way our heart felt sick as it beat, and the hopelessness that we could only hold each other’s hands and avoid eye contact at all costs.
But then one of the little ones, still desperate to believe the men might love her properly one day (she was perhaps 3/4 at this point) said, very quietly, “you like to hear our snow songs?” then, before the men had chance to say a word, she very quietly started to sing Coventry carol. The rest of the children, including our host, froze for half a second…and then one by one, joined in. It was the most fragile situation, and yet the most beautiful and tragic all at the same time. The men just stared; the children were supposed to be terrifed, not singing!! They went through Coventry Carol twice, all quiet and haunting frightened children and the notes just hung on the air…haunting music…. then they went through the other carols, ending on Away in a manger.
The men looked stunned, shocked, angry and speechless all at the same time. The children were of course not supposed to know these songs, but hadn’t really broken any rules in simply singing them. But they’d found themselves in a terrifying and dangerous situation, and just…..sang? Sang to their abusers for…what reason exactly? I still don’t really know what went through the little girl’s head at the time. But something about the way the children all sang to the monsters truly captured their innocence, bravery and hurt for me. They saw danger and didn’t scream, for knowing it was pointless…and as a rule they didn’t fight back unless absolutely necessary. The music had moved them and helped them, and somehow they felt the music might move and help the abusers, too.
There was just something haunting and heart-breaking about watching a group of little, damaged children just sing quietly to their abusers…. and the abusers just frozen to the spot by the whole thing. It took them totally off-guard, and the songs were sang and just floated through the air…the tone of the song held by pain and yet also by hope. The whole thing was just…haunting. There’s no other way to describe it.
The abusers remained frozen…but one eventually thawed and slapped the little girl, as way of showing who was boss still. But that was all. Silently, the men left. Whatever had been in store for the children was forgotten. The haunting, moving and heartbreaking singing from the children had touched a nerve with the men…and for some, they were never quite the same.
This is the memory I feel whenever I hear those carols. I know my host has the same memory too. There’s a far sadder tale relating to Coventry Carol but now is not the time. Now is the time to free-fall, as I am doing…but hear those carols, hear the haunting voices of those brave little children again, and be reminded of the incredible power of music…. what horrors those carols prevented that night I will never know, but god bless that girl and her powerful, yet simple, way out of such a desperate situation.