Just Another Solo Sunday

Christmas Eve. I have been sitting in the dark watching forgettable TV and feeling sorry for myself. My sister phones me from Canada.

We talk about family matters for a while. Practical matters. She is distracted by her husband who, despite advanced cancer, is determined to drag the washing machine back into position after re-tiling the kitchen floor. Go and help him  – you can phone me back. But no, he’s a man and he Doesn’t Need Help.

She tells me she is going to have to entertain one of her husband’s work colleagues and family on Boxing Day. Last time they saw me I was a weepy mess, she says. It’s embarrassing.

Think yourself on the other side of it, I counsel, knowing I couldn’t do so myself. Remind yourself that it’s only a few hours and then they will be gone. How many hours can they stay?

Well, now they’ve got the two-year-old to think of, maybe five hours…

Five hours! I think.

Five hours! she says.

Maybe you can have a few excuses lined up – things that will get you out of the room for twenty minutes here and there… I’ve run out of inspiration.

We turn to the subject of my solo Christmas Day. I’ll be on my own, Mum being unexpectedly in hospital with a broken hip. Would probably have been on my own anyway, Mum having been in the home since April or thereabouts. Somehow or other I haven’t planned for it. Why didn’t I think to volunteer to muck cats out at the local sanctuary? I know the answer – the cats would be pleased to see me but the worthy women at the cat sanctuary wouldn’t. They would look at me askance as people – and particularly women – tend to do. I was born without the ability to Bond.

We talk about our other sister – how come two sisters can never have a conversation without talking about the third? She will have her family around her – her partner, her daughter and ‘the boys’, ie her son and his partner. We think/hope maybe it won’t be as jolly and wonderful as it sounds. They’ll probably get fractious and bored. The boys will probably wander off somewhere. Couldn’t cope with all those people ourselves, etc. Not that sociable.

But it would have been nice to have had the option.

If we’d been in the same country, she says, you would have been coming to us for Christmas. It would have been only natural, the two childless ones.

Yes, I say. Or we might have taken it in turns to invite? 

I am comforted, inspired even, by the thought of the succession of Canadian Christmases we might have had. I remember my one and only trip to Canada back in the ‘eighties. It was Christmas then. There were plastic reindeer galloping merrily across every front garden (or should it be yard?) and plastic Santas attempting to squeeze themselves down non-existent chimneys. Fake snow decorated every window, real snow fell ‘snow on snow’ into the garden and creatures that might have been squirrels or maybe skunks looped their way along the tops of boundary fences. It would have been nice to be there every Christmas.

It would have been nice…

A bit of a long paddle, though. She is talking about the Atlantic.

She goes on talking and I suppose I am listening and making the appropriate replies, but also I am imagining myself walking on water, skimming the Atlantic Ocean on foot, only it isn’t icy cold and mind-bogglingly, Titanic-sinkingly deep like the real Atlantic but shallow and warm. Yes, I am that woman in the Dior perfume ad – Charlize whatever – and I am slender and young and wearing a gold dress so tiny and yet so beautiful it seems part of me. Water glistens down my throat, and the sun catching it and glinting off it, and I am perfumed and mysterious and splashing my way across calm waters towards a golden sunset.

Midsummer Snowfall

Why did this never happen to me?

Holding thickly-mittened hands with a young (enough to be my grandson) man in perfectly edible yellow jumper, perfectly accessorised with a scarf in avocado green, only slightly made up, hair only slightly enhanced by styling products…  And they’re at a skating rink and she’s got that sweet fair-isle jumper on and that kooky hat and ah, don’t they look nice together and it’s Christmas and all…

Except it isn’t. I’ve been stuck in front of the television set in the middle of a hot, sticky afternoon watching the second half of a film of some romantic novel called Winter by Rosamunde Pilcher. Furthermore, to land on Winter, with all its Christmas frippery, I had to bypass a session on Christmas Crafts on the crafts channel. What’s going on? It’s not even July.

And why did I get stuck in front of the TV on a June afternoon? Wasn’t I half way through planning a story (sheets of green file-paper are scattered on the floor around my computer even now); the cats were due to be fed; four games of WordsWithFriends waiting for me to make my next electronic move. I had worthier things to do.

Could it have been the snow? It looked so real, so crisp, so glistening… Was it the country house with the long, gravel driveway lined with snow-loaded fir-trees and snow-capped stone statuary? Could it have been the romance? Not a lot of romance in my life – maybe I’m starting to yearn for it in my second adolescence – a kind of balancing out? Could it have been the soft-focus… everything? Could it have been the acting?

No, it definitely wasn’t the acting. Despite the fact that the film contained at least four famous actors that I recognised from other things – in which they had been able to act – in Winter they seemed to have switched off normal acting in favour of prolonged, soft-focus, emotionally-charged, silent staring at one another. The stared at one other over grand pianos; on the snow-laden steps of the that country house; over expensive pairs of white skates; reflected in huge ormolu mirrors in London flats with lilies in the foreground; in the stable over chestnut horses; in the drawing room over the half-restored paintings… You could tell they were thinking deep and moving thoughts. But about what?

There are several schools of acting – the Shakespearian kind where everything is  enunciated at you, and charged with great import – the Patrick Stewart/Ian McKellen school, as it were. There’s the Australian soaps style where everything is either gasped or screeched at you and goes way, way up at the end of every line. And then there’s the John Wayne/Hugh Grant strategy – look and sound exactly the same whether playing a cowboy, an Irish leprechaun, a deep-sea diver or a restrained but lovelorn eighteenth century gentleman. Oh, be a trifle bandier (having just got off the horse) when being a cowboy, possibly, and allow the fringe to foppishly flop a bit (having ridden post-haste from Bath) for the eighteenth century. This was the soft-focus-looking-somewhat-wistful school.

So why didn’t I just turn it off? Well, I suppose I’m having a slightly bad day. Some days you just seem to need a too-small, saggy sofa and a romantic film. You need to dine on yoghurt, hacked-off lumps of cheese and cream crackers, and drop a lot of crumbs on the carpet. You need to shed a tear when the patriarch lies prostrate at the bottom of the slippery stone steps in his wine-coloured smoking-jacket – like a rheumaticky, white-haired snow-angel. “I always did like the snow,” he remarks with a faint but rueful chuckle, before expiring.

One of the things reviewers keep pointing out about Jean Lucey Pratt, whose diaries I reviewed in a recent post, was that she “read widely, but not well”.  And it’s true – the many, many novels she mentions in her diaries are all also-runs: long-forgotten stories written by long-forgotten novelists of the forties and fifties. I think this is a bit unfair. Better to read widely than not at all. And as a writer you can learn just as much, probably more, from a bad book as from a good one. And she enjoyed what she read. What’s wrong with that? Maybe I need to defy my inner critic and read a Rosamunde Pilcher. Then I might then understand what was happening in the film.

I just checked out the works of Rosamunde Pilcher online. Apparently Winter is only one of a suite of soft-focus romances called the Four Seasons. So there is a Spring, a Summer and an Autumn featuring the same characters. Fortunately, the others have been shown already. Winter (in June) must have been the last one. Or unfortunately.

Sigh!

pilcher 2

I mean, she does this all the time – slightly pensive, slightly sideways, anticipatory, innocent and yet… wondering

A PAINTED CAT FOR CHRISTMAS

Christmas is turning out to be stinkier than anticipated. I had envisioned scented candles, pine needles – bath salts, maybe – but what I’ve got, in line with my usual quota of luck, is an un-neutered tomcat called Christmas.

My friends don’t know about Christmas yet – so this will be by way of post and email. But they won’t be surprised. They would probably be more surprised to get an email that didn’t mention yet another cat. We’re now up to fourteen. However, two of the residents are elderly – 18 and 20 – so we’ll be back to 12 within the next year or two.

Unless more turn up.

You know how you leave mince pies and a glass of sherry out for Santa Claus? Well, I’ve always left a bowl of cat food out for any moggie vagrants passing through my back garden en route for pastures new. Sometimes the hedgehog got to it first, but that was OK. But after the last one (Kitten, aged 20) I decided not to do it anymore, and not to look out of the kitchen window if I could help it. Every time I look out of my kitchen window there’s another disastrous pussycat just standing there – staring back at me. As if he’s been there for hours, just waiting, just in case I might look out and might be tempted to reach for the Felix.

And there he was – a grubby, black and greyish-brown (presumably he’ll get round to washing, eventually) tom. You can tell an adult tom even from a distance by their general hugeness and square faces.This one was further decorated with strings of those spikey burrs that attach themselves to passing animals, and giant gobbets of gloss paint. It looked as if someone had thrown the entire pot at him, catching him running away. His tail in particular was thick with the stuff. The paint was the colour of ‘seventies bathroom suites – also a ‘seventies Reliant Robin owned by a woman I worked with/for and disliked, but who insisted on giving me lifts. Her car was that colour. It also had a nail just inside the passenger-side door, which seemed to have been placed there specifically to tear a person’s coat as they clambered in. And it was always a clamber as far as I was concerned. I am not a small person (Dad was six foot four) and Reliant Robins are the smallest cars on Earth.

But I digress. See where a painted cat can lead you.

This morning he got to see the nurse, who shaved most of his tail and most of his back. As the clippers began to whirr and chunks of paint-clagged fur started to land on the consulting room floor, far from being offended Christmas became a different cat altogether – stopped all the hissing and growling and behaved – well, like a pussycat. Now he’s asleep on the windowsill behind my computer, one filthy foot pointed in my direction. He has his front paws folded over his chest as he sleeps. See, you got me now, he’s saying, in his sleep. Bald, but at peace with the world.

That’s because I haven’t told him about the neutering. Unfortunately, there are no spaces in the vet’s crowded surgery till January the 4th. Such a long way off, and such an aromatic gentleman.

Luckily, no visitors.

ARCHANGEL WANNABEES (Angels & Other Occurrences 6.1)

“What do you mean, can I drive?” he said. “Course I can drive. I got more motors than you can shake a… wand at. I collect cars, man. I got a Cadillac Escalade –with the tinted windows – a Jeep Wrangler, a Ferrari 612 Scaglietti… and that’s only for starters. And don’t get me started on the motorbikes.”

“I won’t,” said the Angel. “By the way, we don’t do wands – that’s wizards, my man. Our thing’s wings. As you see, I myself am sporting Archangel Wannabees with the peacock-feather insets. I sure be bling-blinging it tonight!” He spun around in order that the footballer could fully appreciate him in all his glory. “And all for your sake, my man. In the hope you’ll agree to my little plan.”

Nice!” said the footballer, genuinely impressed by the Wannabees. He recognised quality when he saw it. “But what was it you were saying you wanted me to do?”

“Drive an ice-cream van from here in Edinburgh to a muddy field Norfolk, please.”

“I would. Anything to oblige. But here’s the thing – I gotta give an after dinner speech in this hotel in ten minutes or so. It’s a charity dinner. Her Indoors talked me into it and you gotta keep on the right side, know what I mean?  People are paying to hear me saying loadsa stuff about – you know – football. I only came out for some fresh air – get my courage up. To be honest it’s not my thing, this public speaking. It’s the voice, you see.”

“I hear the voice, my man. Little on the high side. Somewhat at the squeaky…”

“Yes, OK, OK. I know. I ought to, after all I was born with it. On the pitch it’s not a problem…”

“On the pitch, my man, you is master of all you survey. I’ve watched your games with awe!”

“You watch TV in heaven?”

“Set not required, man. Just look down – see everyfing. You’d like it. Now, you is the greatest British footballer ever, Mr B.”

“Well, I don’t know about that. And there’s the voice. It doesn’t exactly match…”

“… your sun-tanned splendiferousness? Your footballing fantasticality?”

“Well, I wouldn’t… I mean, there was Georgie Best and…”

“You a modest man, Mr B, for all the bling-bling-bling. But – back to ice cream project.”

“But I mean, why? What’s so special about this van, man?” He glanced across at where the angel appeared to have abandoned the giant white-and-strawberry vehicle, on the double yellows, half on and half off of the pavement, next to a damaged parking meter.

“I’d keep an eye out for traffic-wardens. I’ve heard the Scottish ones are like Rottweilers.”

“No sweat – it’s invisible.”

“It isn’t. I can see it.”

“That’s cos I wanted you to see it, man. Ain’t you worked this thing out yet? Thing is, you gotta come to Norfolk. My boss – his pappa has need of it. His name’s Sepp. Short for Giuseppe. His old van’s toast at the mo. Kaput. In a field. In Norfolk, somewhere.”

“Somewhere? You mean you don’t know? Then how am I supposed to find it?”

“GPS, man. State of the art. This baby’s top of the line – got everything. Couldn’t get lost if you wanted. Besides, I’m hitching a ride with you.”

“Not flying?”

“Flying? You joke with me, bro! Think I’m gonna stress out a pair of Archangel Wannabees with the peacock-feather insets flapping four hundred miles to Norfolk on a night like this? Case you hadn’t noticed, man, it’s snowing!

  *

The professor had been sitting like this for a long time, staring at the flickering screen in front of him. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing, simply couldn’t believe it. The Theory of Everything.

After all these years. All these years of fighting against an illness that was supposed to have killed him within two but had crippled him instead. Living inside his head, tirelessly, obsessively searching for this very thing, a Theory of Everything.

How many times had he stared at a miasma of numbers and symbols that made sense only to him and a very few others. How many times, late at night like this, had he willed just this to come forth. The Theory of Everything.

Outside, the snow was falling faster. He could hardly turn his head but could just make it out from the corner of his eye, white flakes in the orange lamplight. He wondered what it would be like, to cast aside this massive, electronic beast of a chair; just for once to be able to walk out into the street, look up at the starry sky, feel snowflakes landing on his face.

It didn’t do to think like that. He returned his attention to the screen, and as he watched the numbers began to resolve themselves into – what? What was that thing with wings? And what was that music? Too much coffee, he thought. Nervous exhaustion, perhaps. Overdone it. These past few weeks he had pushed himself to his limit, working ridiculously long hours in his darkened study.

What am I going to do now, he wondered, a flat mood suddenly replacing the rush of euphoria. What am I to do with the rest of my life now I’ve solved this, the greatest of all the problems? Maybe there won’t even be a ‘rest’. I’ve survived to the age of seventy-three when by rights I should have died two years after diagnosis; and what has kept me alive all this time apart from… apart from this very thing? The search for the Theory of Everything.

“What is this music? What is this I’m seeing? Where are you taking me?”

“A journey, professor. We are going on a journey. Not far – Norfolk. It’s time to pay a visit to a mutual friend.”

The Lambfairy (Angels & Other Occurrences 5.2)

When he saw what stood there, he almost fainted. It was too much. He had hoped for a few more months at least of sanity – maybe increasingly forgetful sanity, but a little more time to spend with Jen and the boy. And now, suddenly, this thing that couldn’t possibly be there. This madness.

“Marcus,” he said, “I think you’d better take me home. It’s my head, it’s … oh Marcus it’s some sort of delusion. I can see a…

Marcus took his arm, but didn’t take his eyes off the open doorway.

“…a lamb, but with wings?” he asked.

“You can see it too?” Could brain tumours be hereditary? Oh no, not Marcus. For the first time in years he found himself praying. Please God, not Marcus too. Not my boy. Please God…

“Yes, Dad, I can see it. It looks like… a Lambfairy.”

The lamb laughed.

Lambs don’t laugh, he thought.

“Lambfairy will do well enough.”

Lambs don’t speak, either.

“Did you… hear that, Marcus? Did it…”

“Speak? Yes it spoke. Um, maybe we ought to say something back?”

What do you say to a lamb with a halo round it and little fluttery wings?

“Hello, Mr Lambfairy,” said Marcus. “How may we be of assistance?” He had heard this phrase in a TV drama recently. It sounded odd – overly formal – but it seemed to mean what he meant.

The Lambfairy laughed again.

Lambs don’t laugh.

“Hello, Mr Marcus. And how are you this fine winter’s night?”

It knows his name. It knows my son’s name.

“I’m OK, Mr Lambfairy.”

“You can be of assistance, actually,” said the Lambfairy. “I just need you both to follow me down the valley – it’s not far – you can see the encampment from here – and I will light the way. I would like you to visit a baby, a new little friend of mine.”

“But that’s the gypsy camp. They’ve been there for weeks. Is it a gypsy’s baby?”

“No, in fact. Well, in a technical sense I suppose He is everyone’s baby.  He is the Son of God. Worth a visit, wouldn’t you say?”

That took a moment or two to sink in. Then, seeing his poor Dad was rooted to the spot with his mouth half-open, unable to take in any more of this fantastic stuff, Marcus took charge.

“Definitely worth a visit, Mr Lambfairy. But why us? Dad’s just a sheep farmer and I’m just a… a boy. We were just watching the sheep because the security cameras… I mean, Dad…”

“Dad cut the wire to the security cameras,” supplied the Lambfairy, becoming slightly impatient now. “Yes, I saw him. Marcus, I am asking you because you are a good boy, and your father because he is a good man. You care for your flock, you care for each other and you care for your mother, Jen. This is a special night and you are special people.”

“Your father is sick. He’s in pain and I feel it. This night I shall give him back his strength.” And at that the lamb rose in the air on its gossamer wings and something – might have been snow, might have been fairy-dust, gold-dust, rainbow confetti or some kind of mirage – but something started to flutter around the older man. And there was all this singing, suddenly, like a whopping great choir in the sky.

“I feel better,” the man confirmed when the singing stopped.

“You are better,” said the Lambfairy.

“But I’ve…”

“No longer.”

It was hard to take in. The man’s mind, circling in confusion, lighted on a relative triviality. “But what about gifts? We can’t go and visit the baby without gifts.”

“Look in your pockets, gentlemen.”

The man felt around in the pocket of his greatcoat and to his surprise brought out a silk headscarf in a paper bag. It was sky blue, with a band of gold and green flowers for a border. He’d spotted it on a market stall this morning and had decided to buy it for Jen. She was a great one for blue, and flowers.

“But I didn’t buy it!” he exclaimed. “I meant to buy it but something distracted me… can’t remember what it was… and I forgot. I meant to. I could have kicked myself when I got home.”

“I know. I saw your intention and I saw your disappointment.”

“So I could give this to your little friend? This would be enough?”

“He will love it. He’s a great one for blue and flowers too, you know.”

Marcus rummaged in his own coat pocket and found, to his surprise, his school craft project – a little chain carved from a single block of wood. He had been working on it for weeks with the help of his woodwork teacher. He’d hoped to finish it for his father, to cheer him up. But only yesterday there had been an accident and he’d ruined the whole project. Somehow or other the chisel had slipped and taken a very obvious chunk out of one of the links. Marcus had thrown it down on the bench in disgust, breaking another link in the process. He’d have to start again from scratch.

Yet the chain he drew out of his pocket was the same chain – any carver can recognise his own work – but as he had wanted it to be. No break. Completed.

Marcus turned it over and over in his hands, lovingly exploring the curves and edges of his handiwork. “This?” he asked.

“Your gift,” confirmed the Lambfairy. “Right, gentlemen. Follow me.”

They were half way down the lane when the man’s phone rang. It was Jen, with an edge of anxiety in her voice.

“I was wondering when you were going to call it a quits, sweetheart? Dawn will be breaking soon and I’m sure any foxes are asleep in their beds by now. I… I’ve been worrying about you. What with…”

“I’ll be home soon, Jen. I’m just having to follow the Lambfairy. It isn’t far.”

“Lamb… fairy? Darling, is Marcus there? Would you pass the phone over to him, just for a minute? I’d just like a word.” This is it, she was thinking. This is the end stage, but come so suddenly. This is what we’ve both been dreading. And he’s out on the hill in the dark, without me.

“It’s OK, Mum,” Marcus whispered. “Dad’s OK – in fact he’s better than OK. There really is a Lambfairy, you see. I’ll explain – well, I’ll try to explain – when we get home.”

“What? Marcus? Marcus, are you there?”

But Marcus had gone. He was following his father and the Lambfairy down the lane, staying within the orbit of its guiding light, skirting round mud and puddles. And now he could see it, the trailer on the far side with the light coming from it, and the animals all around.

(Luke 2: 8 – 15)

THE LAMBFAIRY (Angels & Other Occurrences 5.1)

There would come a day, he knew, when he could no longer remember what it was – the thing he needed to tell Marcus. Marcus knew about the headaches he’d been having recently, but not about that devastating diagnosis – inoperable. He and Jen had decided amongst themselves to protect the boy from the truth for as long as possible.

Heavy duty pain-killers had done a lot to ease the headaches, but already he had noticed himself forgetting or not being able to do certain things. Not people’s names and not the names of his entire flock of Cotswold sheep, which he still had by heart. No, it was silly things like where he’d put the honey jar. Jen had found it in the fridge. She’d pretended she’d done it, making some weak joke about forgetting her own head if it wasn’t screwed on, but he knew it had been him, and she knew he knew. There were lots of little lies – kind, sad little lies – between them now.

He had always done the wages for his workmen himself but this last quarter he’d found himself in a terrible pickle with it, and it really got to him. Jen had found him in tears – a shocking event in itself – and they had agreed that now would be the right time to hand over the farm accounts to Jim Parry, their neighbours’ excellent accountant. They had been thinking of doing just that for some time, was their mutual pretence. ‘Save you the bother,’ Jen said. ‘Free you up to do other, more enjoyable stuff.’

But they wouldn’t tell Marcus. Not yet. Let the boy have this lovely, white Norfolk winter – the last of his childhood; tell him in the spring, maybe. ‘See how it goes,’ said Jen.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘let’s just see how it goes.’

It was funny how, as his short-term memory faded he seemed to be remembering more and more of the past. He was thinking only this morning to the times when he and his father would go shepherding together – real, old-fashioned shepherding out on the hills at night in all weathers. No need for all that nowadays: they had security cameras. The farm had prospered over the past twenty years and they had been able to upgrade in all sorts of ways. They even had a gadget called (oh please, let me remember) a photoelectric cell. If a fox, dog or any other animal broke the invisible beam from this cell, his mobile started ringing. My mobile, he thought, bewildered. A fox enters a field two miles down the road and my phone rings…

Nowadays he puzzled endlessly over things – small things he would just have accepted before. He needed to sort out in his head why things were, why things worked the way they did… These things, they brought him to a stop sometimes. He wanted to get on but found himself motionless, wondering.

From the age of eleven had gone onto the hills at night with his father, and that was when they really got to know one another – not as father and son but as men. That was what he had thought, watching over the sheep, dark shadows dotted over dark fields. I am a man now. There were things his father had told him during those long, sleepless nights that he had not known before. There were things he told his father.

It wasn’t that difficult to disable the security cameras. Just a snip to a single wire. The switch in the barn remained in the “on” position but the screens went blank. He returned to the house doing a good job, or so he thought, of grumbling about unreliable electrics and demanding that Jen to phone the electrician first thing in the morning.

“Marcus,” he said, turning to the boy,“how d’you fancy a rather chilly night out? Old Reynard’s been round a lot recently and I can’t risk him getting his teeth into my… our flock, especially now, with so many ewes in lamb. Of course, if you’re tired I could go by myself but the company would be…”

“I’ll come, Dad. No school in the morning, remember? No biggie.”

No biggie, he thought, no biggie. What on earth was that supposed to mean? Yes, presumably.

*

As they huddled together by the primus stove in the tumbledown looker’s hut he said, “In the old days, you know, there was a custom: a shepherd would always be buried with a Lock of Wool clasped in his right hand so that as soon as he arrived at the Pearly Gates the angels, seeing the Lock of Wool, would let him in. They’d know a shepherd couldn’t get to church of a Sunday.”

“I never heard you tell that story before,” said Marcus. “Do you know any others?”

“Probably,” he said, but he couldn’t think of any. Had he ever known any others, or had they vanished. The thing in his head was voracious, he thought; feeding on memories. “If another story pops into my head at any time I’ll tell it, how’s that?”

“Yeah,” said Marcus. “Good plan. ‘Cos you’re always so busy. It’s nice just to sit and talk sometimes.”

“There was something I wanted to ask you, Marcus” he said. “Something… in the way of… a favour”. Now it had come to it, he wondered if he was going to be able to spit the thing out at all.

“I know, Dad. That’s why you sabotaged the security cameras; so we could do the man-to-man chat thing?”

“How did you know that?”

“You dropped your scarf.”

“Ah… oh, yes. Guilty as charged, Your Honour. But… that favour.”

“I know that too, Dad. The Lock of Wool. You want me to…” His voice sounded odd all of a sudden. “You want me to do that for you when – I mean if  you…. And I will. I’d like to be the one.”

“Marcus, there’s something else,” he said on impulse. “Something your mother and I were planning to tell you, but not until…”

“Dad. I overheard you talking in the kitchen the other night. I know already. Gosh, I’m a bit of a know-all tonight aren’t I?”

And that was all they would say on the subject that night because right at that moment somebody – or something – knocked what little was left of the looker’s hut door.

SNOW AND A SUPERMOON (Angels & Other Occurrences 4.3)

Siobbhán looked back at the ice cream van with something like contempt. ‘You got all the way from London in that? My God, girl, you need to get yourself a proper gypsy trailer, and a nice, strong four by four to tow it with. Move those dresses off the bed, would you, Rawnie?’

The gypsies had at first mistaken them for the police, come to move them on, but the van had saved the day by treating everyone several rounds of its Popeye the Sailor-Man jingle before giving up altogether. This broke the tension. The large, scary-looking ‘menfolk’ turned back to their music, breaking open fresh cans of beer with tattooed fingers – they were having an impromptu party to celebrate the great moon’s visit – and a group of women and girls, summing up Marie’s situation at a glance – shepherded the young couple to a particularly large trailer on the edge of their encampment.

‘We save this one for birthings,’ Siobbhán explained.

‘And for storing our party dresses,’ piped up her sixteen year old daughter Rawnie.

Marie was dazzled by an array of sequins, satin, net and general bling. Neon pink seemed to be the overwhelming favourite, with electric blue and arctic white as runners-up. Rawnie lifted six or seven of these creations off the bed and hung them one by one, on a dress rail. ‘Thousands and thousands of pounds, these cost,’ she boasted. Marie could believe it and was impressed, in spite of the contractions, which were coming more frequently now.

Sepp, in the meantime, was speechless, overwhelmed by glitter and pink and … femaleness. Everywhere he looked was unfamiliar territory. And then everyone suddenly turned to look at him.

‘You must go,’ said Siobbhán, ‘Go join the men.’

‘But I promised my wife I’d be present at the…’

‘That’s the gorgja way, I know, but it’s not ours. We will fetch you after – very soon after.’

‘It’s OK, Sepp,’ said Marie. ‘I know how squeamish you are. I knew you were only being brave when you offered. Go and join the men by the fire. Talk about man-things.’ Man-things? thought Sepp. What man-things do I have in common with a band of huge, tattooed Irish gypsies? But he went, stumbling across rough ground in snow and darkness, and they made room for him in their circle. Someone put part of a tree branch on the fire and someone opened a can of beer and passed it along to him. The man sitting next to him slapped him on the back and grinned. ‘Young man, you’ve no idea what you’ve let yourself in for, and that’s a fact!’ And everybody laughed. Someone picked up the fiddle again, and someone else started singing in a language Sepp had never heard. It was comforting to hear. Something about it reminded him of Ma and Pa in the kitchen, talking Italian together, renewing their ties to each other and the land they had left behind many years before.

And so it was that baby Gesù was born, surprisingly quickly and not at all as planned, in a gypsy trailer somewhere in Norfolk, or possibly Suffolk, whilst outside snow fell and fell, blanketing East Anglia, fiddle music and beer-fuelled laughter echoed around an empty field and a rare supermoon shone in through the trailer window, silvering the faces of the women within.

Except the field wasn’t empty. Later that night, Sepp and Marie lay side by side on the narrow bed, their baby between them in a striped cardboard box that a very expensive gypsy dress had come out of, wrapped in pillow case and covered in a folded shawl. And unseen and unknown to them creatures began to gather around the trailer – a couple of sheep and a fox, a badger, a rabbit and a mouse, an owl on the roof, maybe even a rat or two. Creatures that would normally have hunted or avoided one another waited in the snow, basking in the strange warmth that seemed to be radiating from the trailer, at peace with one another for a night.

And inside the trailer, under the bed, also unknown, a lurcher suckled four new puppies and spiders crept from who knows where, to keep their own vigil.

Marie was sleeping, exhausted.

‘That moon is so bright,’ murmured Sepp, nine parts asleep himself, as a faint, ghostly light shone up from the padded dress box and its occupant, Gésu, his firstborn son.

(Luke 2: 1-7)

Angels & Other Occurrences is a kind of ‘alternative nativity’ short story sequence. To read other stories in the same sequence just click on Angels & Other Occurrences in the Category Cloud to your right.