A slip of the tongue has unfortunate consequences for a choirgirl

By Capstan

 It was the night before Christmas. Carole Ursula Tanya Emmerson just loved Christmas and was looking forward to another traditional family celebration. The pretty nineteen-year-old university student had come home for Christmas a week before and re-joined the rehearsals of the local church choir in time for the Carol service and the traditional midnight service, in between meeting up with friends and helping her mother, Marianne, with the Christmas preparations.

Carole really was cute; pretty, bubbly, sweet-natured and intelligent enough to be studying History at Cambridge, she had also a love of music and an enchanting voice.  Her spoken voice was soft, clear and cultured, but it was her singing voice that was exceptional, only half-jokingly referred to as ‘the voice of an angel’.

Her family had always been regular churchgoers, although not particularly religious, and church had been a part of Carole’s life since before she could remember. The charming girl was almost always well-behaved and thrived on order and routine.

She loved tradition, and it had been a toss-up whether she would read law, like her boyfriend Andrew, or history, finally deciding on the latter and a career in education rather than the law.

Carole had been amongst the first girl choristers at Saint Martha’s parish church when she joined the choir at ten-years-old. She loved the traditional services that suited the largely elderly congregation, and their seventy-three-year-old vicar, the Reverend Hubert Tanard, with the sung responses and psalms as well as the occasional choral anthem at Christmas and Easter.

By the age of fourteen, she had become the choir’s soloist, and every year since she had sung the first verse of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ at both the Carol service and the Christmas Eve midnight service as a solo chorister. She had, however, not been expecting to do so this year as 13-year-old Martyn Foster was the new soloist and Carole was more than happy to take a supporting role. That was before Martyn’s voice showed the first signs of breaking during the Carol service and even more so during the choir practice on 22nd December.

Knowing how disappointed Martyn would be, Hubert Tanard was supportive but firm when he asked Carole to reprise her usual solo role, and lead in the anthem ‘The Angels’ Carol’ on Christmas Eve. The kindly old vicar then told Martyn he should continue to sing amongst the choir until his voice settled, when he could join the men and, as a consolation, that Martyn could lead the choir into the service, carrying the brass and lacquered-ebony processional cross.

Carole felt sorry for the boy, but her parents were overjoyed that they would once more hear their beloved only child light up the church with her voice.

Andrew had known Carole since their schooldays, when she had joined the sixth form of King William IV college as a day-girl to take her A levels, and he was also home from university. The two sweethearts had arranged to spend Christmas Eve together, as both were expected to spend Christmas Day itself with their own families. He had been invited to join Carole’s family for dinner and spend the evening with them before accompanying them to the midnight service at St Martha’s.

The service was due to start at 23.30, would reach its midpoint as the clock struck midnight, and finish after communion about half an hour later. The Emmersons and Andrew, having passed a pleasant evening, had set off early as Carole would need time to change after they arrived.

Before they left, Andrew was introduced to another Emmerson tradition. Just before leaving for church, everyone was permitted to open one present from under the tree. Carole, as usual, was the one to crawl under the tree to find a present for everyone, with Andrew’s appreciative gaze falling on his girlfriend’s bottom as she did so, the fabric of her bright red mid-length dress tightening over the curves that he had always admired.

Needless to say, Carole selected her present for Andrew and his for her, together with presents for each of her parents from an elderly great aunt. A few minutes later, while Carole’s father David was holding a pair of bright green socks and Marianne a pair of knitted pink gloves, a beaming Carole was now sporting a lovely golden heart-shaped pendant with an anchor and a cross in the design, and a delighted Andrew a golden tie-slide with a silver heart pierced by an arrow. The two stood motionless, lost in a loving embrace, until there was a quiet cough from her father.

“We really should be going.”

After parking the car near to the beautiful old granite church and making the short walk in the moonlight under a starry sky, Andrew was soon sitting on one of the mahogany pews towards the back of the church, with David and Marianne admiring the beautifully decorated church, with the lights and the candles reflecting on the gothic-style stained-glass windows.

At the same time, Carole greeted the other choir members and, removing her coat, started to change into her dark red cassock and snow-white surplice. After brushing her long dark chestnut hair, the transformation was complete, and with a beaming smile Carole looked positively angelic.

At 11.25 pm, the choir made their way into the church and, each holding their hymn-book, lined up behind the ornate processional cross held proudly by young Martyn. Martyn was, however, still annoyed that he was to miss his one chance of singing the Christmas solo, and he blamed Carole. If only she had not re-joined the choir for the services, he was sure he would still have been allowed to sing.

The frustrated young teen was plotting a prank when he went into church to collect the cross. He therefore moved her copy of the music for ‘the Angel’s Carol’ to make it difficult to find. Unnoticed, he had also quietly removed a spare drawing pin from the choir noticeboard, which he had carefully hidden next to his own hymn books in his place in the choir stall.

At exactly 11.30 the organ, which had been softly playing a medley of traditional Christmas carols, paused. The vicar welcomed all to the service and then, at a nod from the organist and choirmaster, Carole’s crystal-clear voice broke the silence.

 “Once, in Royal David’s City, stood a, lowly, cattle shed.

There a mother laid her baby, in a manger for his bed.

Mary was that mother mild, Jesus-Christ her little child.”

Martyn then stepped off, with Carole behind him. Then came the child choristers in pairs, followed by the ladies, the gentlemen, and finally the Vicar. The procession continued until Martyn stopped in front of the altar as the fourth verse ended and the choir filed into their stalls. As the last of the gentlemen passed him and the vicar turned right to stand by his own seat, Martyn turned, advanced back down the nave and placed the cross back in its support facing the congregation. He then, finally, took his place next to Carol in the front row on the organ side as the last notes of the final line of the last verse, “all in white shall wait around” were sung.

The traditional service continued, with the lighting of the final candle in the Advent Crown, and more traditional carols interspersed with readings. As the last notes of the final verse of ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ died away, the clock in the church tower rang out the twelve strokes of midnight. There were whispered Happy Christmases between the congregation and a beaming Carole saw Andrew blow her a kiss.

It was now time for the anthem, and as the vicar announced ‘The Angels’ Carol’ the choir stood. Carole had not noticed that her music was no longer in order. She had been singing throughout for Andrew and looking directly at him. She now saw the music was not on the shelf in front of her but in the mahogany music pocket by her knees.

As she reached for the music, Martyn nudged Carole’s two hymnbooks on the shelf in front of her just enough for her arm to brush them. The two heavy books fell to the floor. One landed flat with the impact resounding around the silent church, whilst the other, even more unfortunately, landed on Carole’s left foot. The brass-edged corner of the heavy book dug into the stocking-covered top of her foot, left exposed by the red kitten-heeled shoes that matched her dress.

A startled Carole let out an uncharacteristic expletive which was clearly heard, followed by a murmured, “Christ that hurt!” that was only heard by those around her as the introductory notes sounded quietly on the organ. Martyn smiled, but the two ladies to Carole’s left and, standing behind her, the elderly spinster sisters Agatha and Agnes Stern, were outraged by the bad language and blasphemy.

Carole, although blushing furiously, was ready for the first sung note and, musically, the piece was perfect as the lines passed between the child choristers and women and the gentlemen. By the end, Carole was breathing a sigh of relief.

Worse was to come, however, because as the choir sat for the reading which was to commence the communion part of the service, Martyn moved the drawing pin from the shelf in front of him to Carole’s seat, point upwards. The sharpened brass easily penetrated her cassock and the dress and panties underneath, burying itself deep into the curves of her right buttock and staying there.

Unable to suppress a squeal, the lovely young lady stood, again drawing attention to herself for the wrong reasons. Her right hand came back. She removed the pin and, without thinking, pushed it into the mahogany shelf as she again took her seat, another act noted with displeasure by Agatha Stern.

Carole was once more blushing furiously, and her eyes filled with tears. She was grateful when, with the service moving to confession, she was able to kneel and bring her hands up to her bowed head in prayer.

The rest of the service passed as a blur for the lovely chorister. She felt some calmness and peace as she herself received communion, but averted her eyes in shame as Andrew and her family walked forward to receive theirs. Finally, with the recessional carol ‘Oh Come all ye faithful’ and its beautiful descant, the service came to an end.

As the choir filed out back to the robing room, and Hubert Tanard turned back towards the main west door to greet his congregation, the vicar was intercepted by the two Stern sisters.

“Hubert! What do you intend to do about that dreadful girl?” It was Agnes who spoke first.

Her sister then followed with, “I have never heard anything like it, not just that dreadful swearing, but then blasphemy! In church and on Christmas day too! And she defaced the pew by shoving a drawing pin into the shelf. Pure vandalism!”

“Ladies, Ladies, calm yourselves. It is Christmas, and during communion Carole asked for her sins to be forgiven, a request that I trust was granted. I suggest we say no more about it,” replied the kindly old gentleman soothingly.

Agnes was not convinced.

“I wonder what the Dean or the Bishop would say if he knew you were tolerating blasphemy in church. If you do not at least speak to her, I shall be writing to them. Perhaps it is time you retired.”

Her sister continued, “A talking-to! That is the very minimum. If she wishes to remain as part of the choir, I expect her to be suitably punished like we would have been when we were her age. I will tell her to wait for you in the vestry.”

With a sigh, Hubert replied, “Ok, I will speak to her after I have said goodbye to the congregation.”

Having won at least a partial victory, the sisters turned back towards the robing room to deliver the summons.

Carole had already apologised to the rest of the choir, been forgiven, and shared Christmas greetings. She had deliberately not said anything about Martyn’s involvement as she was not completely sure how much he was involved. Carole repeated her apologies to the Misses Stern and wished them both a happy Christmas. She was surprised by their response with Agnes speaking for them both.

“Yes, we do wish you a happy Christmas, but forgiveness requires not just words but true repentance. The vicar wishes to see you in the vestry to discuss your appalling language, your blasphemy and your vandalism.”

“Vandalism?” queried the embarrassed Carole.

“Yes, we saw what you did with the drawing pin. How else would you describe it?” added Agatha.

“I’m sorry, I just didn’t think.”

“Obviously!” chorused the two elderly ladies in unison.

“Still, after you have been properly punished and have promised that there will be no repetition, that will be an end to it. Now don’t keep the Vicar waiting.” It was Agnes who, as usual, had the final word.

Carole was waiting outside the vestry door when the kindly old gentleman returned. Hubert opened the door and stood aside to allow the lovely young lady to enter. Carole had her coat over her arm, and the vicar realised that her dress perfectly accentuated her figure as his eyes followed her. No longer the child he remembered from Sunday school and the Junior Choir, but a beautiful young woman. Hubert wondered where the years had gone.

He was about to close the door when Agatha arrived and suggested she join them.

Quietly but firmly, Hubert replied, “Thank you, Miss Stern, but that will not be necessary.” Firmly closing the door, he left the sour-faced old woman waiting and listening outside, now joined by her sister.

Carole took in the familiar layout of the vestry, where countless couples and their witnesses had signed the wedding register, and where she hoped one day it would be her turn. Situated at the eastern end of the church to the right of the altar, she took in the deep red carpet, the gothic stained-glass window, the copy of the famous painting of Abraham and Isaac, the mahogany bookshelves, the large desk with the leather captain’s chair behind it, and the two arm chairs. Seeing the ornate coat-stand containing an integral umbrella-stand next to the door, she hung up her coat. As she did so, Carole noticed the three items in the umbrella-stand; the vicar’s rolled black umbrella, his silver topped walking stick and a curved-handled rattan cane.

The vicar, taking his seat behind his desk, motioned Carole to take a seat in one of the arm chairs.

He spoke quietly. “Happy Christmas, my dear; and thank you. You sang beautifully tonight, as always.”

“Happy Christmas, Sir. I really am most dreadfully sorry, you know, please forgive me.”

“For what are you sorry, my dear? And, surely, you have already sought forgiveness from the Almighty and been forgiven for whatever it is that is troubling you?”

“I am sorry that I swore when my hymn books fell to the ground and that I unthinkingly took the Lord’s name in vain when one of them landed on my foot. I am sorry that I disrupted the service by standing after I sat on the drawing pin and then that I pushed it into the shelf without thinking, after I had removed it from my bottom. I am most sorry that my actions disrupted the lovely service and may have distracted others from thinking about the real meaning of Christmas. Finally, I am sorry that I have upset you, that you will not want me in the choir anymore, and that you now need to punish me. I do realise I deserve it.”

“Well Carole, I confess that I was surprised at your language, and more so when the Misses Stern told me you had blasphemed, although I did not hear this myself. I do hope this sort of thing does not become a habit, now that you are away from home most of the time, and perhaps some incentive is desirable to encourage you to refrain from such expressions in future. I was also surprised to hear about you pushing that drawing pin into the hundred-year-old wood. Tell me, my dear, I assume that you did not deliberately set out to dislodge the books, or have one land on your foot, and you did not then deliberately place a drawing pin on your seat and sit on it.”

“No Sir, of course not!”

“Then this was no more than a series of events that confronted you, unexpectedly and without warning. In each case, your response was merely thoughtless and there was no deliberate misconduct involved. Despite what others may say, I do not think your actions were so very blameworthy. When you sing with us it is really beautiful and glorifies the Almighty and I will always welcome your contribution whenever you wish to join us. Finally, Carole, what do you think would be achieved if I were to punish you, and what punishment do you think you deserve?”

Carole’s thoughts went to the cane standing in the umbrella stand. Her only experience of the cane to date had been the two strokes that she and Andrew had each received on their bottoms at school. This was after the headmaster had seen her spontaneously kiss Andrew after he had given her the present he had bought her for her eighteenth birthday. She then thought of Agnes Stern’s words ‘after you have been properly punished’, and was in no doubt what she would be facing if that redoubtable old woman had her way.

“Well, Sir, I am ashamed of my language, especially in church and on Christmas morning. You said yourself I may need an incentive to discourage me from using such expressions in future. I also think that my being here may be at the instigation of Miss Stern and that she would expect I leave here only after having been suitably punished. Even though I really did not do any of these things on purpose, a token punishment would be ineffective, so it would have to be genuine punishment that would reach to my subconscious. I see that you have a cane in your umbrella stand and I know that if this had happened in assembly at school it is what I would have received. I think that may be our answer, but I will leave this to you.”

At the mention of the cane, Hubert smiled. Both the cane and the walking stick had been left for him by his predecessor when he took over some forty years before. He remembered the white-haired old man saying to him, “I will leave you my rod and my staff to comfort you. You never know when they may be of use.”

Hubert had looked after both items, polishing the walking stick and oiling the cane on the first Sunday of each month. The walking stick had indeed come in most useful when he had been praying alone in church, had missed his footing stepping down from the chancel and badly sprained his ankle.

The cane had also had a positive impact as a silent threat when various youngsters had needed to be talked to about misbehaviour. Was this to be the occasion that it would actually be put to use by him for real? He was unsure and needed guidance.

Hubert stood, smiling as he walked around his desk. “Oh that? It has been there since before I arrived here forty-five years ago as a young curate. It has never been used in all that time. I need to be sure that this is right so maybe if we both kneel together in silent prayer of a few minutes we will know.”

A few moments later, the elderly cleric and the beautiful young lady were kneeling side by side, in silence, with their heads bowed.

Outside the door, Agatha had been joined by Agnes. They could not hear the words, but they knew the conversation in the room had stopped. They were about to leave when they heard a sound that brought smiles to their faces.

After several minutes of silent prayer, Hubert stood, using his hands on his desk to help his tired knees to straighten. He had decided he would cane her if she needed him to.

He had not yet spoken when Carole herself stood and, gracefully and silently, bent at the waist and touched her toes, assuming the traditional punishment pose.

The old priest, who had not wielded a cane since his days as a prefect at school, walked quietly to the umbrella stand and removed the cane. He bent it and proved its suppleness. Then, looking across at Carole, with the red silk dress drum tight across her lovely bottom, and her dark brown hair partially obscuring her beautiful features, he reluctantly but resolutely advanced to do ‘the Lord’s will’.

There had been no warning when the whippy rattan rod bit deeply into the curves of Carole’s silk-covered derriere, as the whistling swish-thwack and the searing impact almost coincided.

A startled yelp was forced from the lips of the teenager. Her hands briefly left her toes and she started to rise before forcing herself back into position, breathing heavily, and with tears beginning to flow at the emotional release.

In thirty seconds, it was all over. Five more times, the chastising rod had impacted on the soft curves of Carole’s bottom, as Hubert caned hard whilst trying to keep the strokes parallel. For the first four, the only sound had been the swish of the cane and the thwack as it struck the submissively presented fleshy backside. Then came a gentle sobbing from the cute creature and a slight shuffling of position as her knees bent and her bottom gyrated just as Hubert brought the cane down for what he had already decided would be the last time.

The combination was unfortunate. Hubert had made the last stroke the hardest and had aimed it towards the lower curves of her bottom. Carole’s movement, however, caused the impact to cross two of the other strokes and the tip to bite deeply into the fold between her right buttock and the top of her thigh.

There was a piercing scream and Carole sank to her knees, sobbing, “I’m sorry! Please, I’m Sorry!”

Hubert looked at the cane in his hand with disgust. He forced the tip towards the handle and pushed with all his force. The half century old wood finally started to yield, and a mark appeared at the top of the curve, before the cane broke in two. Hubert then dropped both parts in the waste bin and then bent over the weeping and still kneeling Carole.

Most gently, he placed his hands under her chin and raised her face to his. She opened her eyes as, now kneeling upright, her sobbing eased and she looked into the kindly and concerned features of the old priest.

“I am forgiven, Sir, aren’t I?”

Placing his hands on the top of her head, the Vicar’s gentle voice administered a blessing and an absolution, and then he helped her to her feet as his arms enfolded her.

Outside the door, the two elderly women smiled to each other and turned away. There would be no need to write to the Dean or the Bishop. Life would go on as before, and they would be back for the morning service.

There was therefore no one outside the vestry when, five minutes later, Hubert helped Carole into her coat, both left the vestry and walked through the church to the west door. Hubert paused, and Carole turned towards him and kissed his cheek. Her hazel eyes were still red but sparkling.

“Thank you, Sir. Happy Christmas.”

“And to you, my dear.”

Carole descended the steps and, noticing her limping, Andrew was next to her in a flash. Sweeping her into his arms, he carried her to the waiting car and she buried her face in his chest. Her concerned parents, who had been waiting for twenty minutes, were stunned by the explanation their daughter gave them, and the drive back to his parents’ house was undertaken in almost complete silence as Carole snuggled in Andrew’s arms.

Finally arriving home, it was a subdued Carole who made her way to bed, declining the glass of champagne from the bottle that had been chilling since they left for church.

It was a concerned father who decided the next morning would be key. One more family tradition had been maintained, and Christmas stockings had been hung at the end of each bed. There were duplicates pre-packed with presents which were switched during the night on behalf of ‘Santa’.

David found Carole’s stocking and removed the softly-wrapped cashmere scarf, which was the top present, and placed it under the tree. He then found the wrapping paper and an A5 pad of Christmas notes, writing a message with his fountain pen in his neatest copperplate writing. He then went to the fireplace and removed a large and rounded piece of coal from the brass coal scuttle. Soon the coal was double-wrapped, and in the top of Carole’s stocking, with the note having been inserted between the two layers.

Half an hour later, David crept into his daughter’s bedroom and switched the full stocking for the empty stocking, before returning to his room to do the same for Marianne’s present, noticing that his stocking also now contained presents. He snuggled in beside his wife and kissed her gently.

David was up again at half past six and carefully laid and lit the fire in the drawing room before returning to bed. At eight o’clock he heard his daughter stir and there was a quiet knock on their bedroom door. It was Carole. True to tradition, she had come to her parents’ room for the opening of the stockings.

Everyone wished each other a happy Christmas again and kissed, but David then noticed that Carole, instead of sitting at the foot of the bed, was lying on her tummy. Each then opened their first present. Carole’s eyes filled with tears as she found the lump of coal. Did this mean that her parents were still cross with her for the previous night? Then she saw the note and read it.

 To Dear Carole,

 This is not a normal lump of coal, and does not mean that you are on the ‘naughty list’.

It is a magic lump and represents all the dark thoughts and worries and bad things in your life.

 Place this lump of coal in the fire whilst surrounded by those that love you. Watch as all the bad things dissolve and turn to ash.

 Then, my charming daughter, enjoy your Christmas and your life.

Carole’s eyes lit up and then, taking her parents by the hand, and each carrying their stockings, she led them to the drawing room to find a roaring fire onto which Carole tossed the coal. With her parents’ arms around her, she watched as the coal glowed and then slowly turned to ash. A smiling Carole, her bottom still stinging, realised this was going to be a good Christmas after all, and picked up the phone to tell Andrew.

The End

© Capstan 2021