THIS WHOLE CIRCUS (Angels& Other Occurrences 6.3)

This whole circus was getting to be a pain, truth to tell.

The Professor’s chair had had to be lifted up the trailer steps with him still in it, which had taken four of the burliest and most heavily tattooed of the gypsy menfolk. The four were also somewhat surly, not because of the muscles and the tattoos but because they had been up very late last night drinking beer and home-made hooch round a camp fire, playing the violin and singing and entertaining a nervous father-to-be. They had hangovers, and the chair was very heavy and fitted through the trailer door with less than a knife-blade’s clearance.

And then there was the Indian gent in the puffy jacket and worn-out trainers, brandishing a rolled-up something or other in a lengthy cardboard tube. Too light to be a shotgun. The only visitors they ever had, normally, were the polis or the bailiffs. They were not well-disposed towards visitors. And all this had happened since the ice-cream van turned up, with the Italian-looking fella and his highly pregnant lady. And now there was the baby as well; the birthing trailer was out of use just when several of their own women were about to give birth. It was all very inconvenient.

And now there were two ice-cream vans, the old, clapped out one and a brand new, giant, pink-and-white new one sporting more chrome and silly mirrors than you could shake a stick at, and artwork like you’d never seen – angels and lambs and some Indian goddess in a long pink frock – couldn’t deny it was effective, but what was all that to do with ice-cream? The thing’d draw the polis here like bees to a honeypot. You could probably spot it from Lynn, up here on the hill.

And driven here by this blonde fella in the dinner jacket and black bow tie, who was obviously one of those agency look-alikeys. Couldn’t be the real thing: apart from anything else this one’s voice was too deep. Big, booming actor-ish voice, like that Blessed chap from Z-Cars with the beard, or one of those opera singers. Genuine fella had a much higher one than that. They never can get that right, these look-alikeys. Was he going to want beer? The Indian in the anorak and the chap in the big chair had already refused. Too early in the day, so they said. When was it ever too early for a free can of lager?

What were they all doing here? Why should three men, who had obviously never set eyes on one another before, suddenly turn up in a muddy field demanding to see a chit of a girl and her baby? Babies were just babies – welcome, precious and loved, of course – but women were always having them, popping them out like shelled peas. What was so special about this one?

How could a famous footballer have even known their van had broken down in a field in Norfolk, and why would he have bought them a new one and driven it here himself, overnight, all the way from Scotland? And the Indian gentleman – he had brought his own gift – a pink, rhinestone-studded jacket – obviously a market knock-off. Yet he had handed it to the girl as if it was the most precious thing in the world. And, to her credit, she had accepted it as if she truly believed it was. She had laid it tenderly beside the child, where it lay in its padded cardboard box, and reached out to touch the man’s arm.

The footballer look-alikie fella – well, he had brought the van. Pretty big gift, that one. He had handed the keys to her husband, the Eyetaliano, Sepp, who had gone out to look at it. He was in there still – probably gawping at everything with his mouth wide open. It was an ice-cream van and a half, that one.

But the old van was of more interest to the gypsies. They had earmarked it for spare parts, then the scrap metal merchant. They had already costed it down to the last pound. At least they’d be getting something out of all these shenanigans once everybody left. Which would be soon, please God.

But the Professor – he didn’t seem to have brought anything. Just sitting there in that big old chair, thinking. Except that, down the arm of the chair there was – now, what was it? He was bringing it out now. Only something small. One of those computer things – what do they call them, now – a memory stick? Or would that be a dongle? And he seems to be holding some sort of conversation with the child. How does he think the baby’s going to understand him? Babies don’t understand plain English let alone something coming at them through a gadget that makes a man sound like a Dalek. And then – and then he’s reaching out. How is he reaching out, when a moment ago…? And now – he’s standing up. How is he standing up? He’s putting the little computer thing beside the child, and he’s laughing, as if there’s some sort of a two-way conversation going on here.

“You must already know the Theory of Everything, sir, but I’m giving it… I’m leaving it to you, and it’s for you to decide whether you let it be known to mankind. This, as you know, has been my life’s work, and I’m giving it up to you.”

“You didn’t need to heal me. I came here because the angel brought me. I didn’t expect anything. I just hoped for, maybe, peace.”

“Now, sir? Do you know, I believe I will leave my chair behind for the gypsies to dispose of. I will walk to the nearest town and purchase a back-pack and supplies and I will back-pack around the world!

“Seventy-three? Do you think that feels old to a man who can suddenly walk and talk again? Why, a hundred and ten would not be too old for me to circumnambulate the globe!”

Circum- what’s he on about?

*

A small girl had been peering through the trailer window. She had the beginnings of a cold and was wiping her nose on her sleeve at intervals. “What about the others?” she asked her father?

“What others?”

“The other three inside. Nobody’s looking at them.”

“What other three? What are you blathering on about now, Maisie?”

“The very tall black man with the wings, and the green-eye-feathers; the lady in the pink dress with the two elephants and all the golden bangles, and that thing made of numbers and squiggles like a cloud – the one that came in with the bent up chair-man. Why’s nobody taking any notice of them?”

“Tell me the truth now, chavi. Would you have been eating them mushrooms again?”

(Matthew 2: 1 – 12)

ARE YOU LONESOME TONIGHT? (Angels & Other Occurrences 6.2)

Raj takes out the Genuine Elvis Jacket for the last time, though he is trying not to admit it is the last. This is his one and only treasure and he keeps it on top of his wardrobe, wrapped in many layers of tissue paper, and the whole inside a heavy-duty supermarket bag. Every so often he brings the Jacket down, unpacks it, dusts it with a soft cloth and checks it for moths and spiders. He does the same now, trying not to know it is the last time. But the trying isn’t working, and tears run down his cheeks. He holds his face away from the jacket as he cries. There must be no salty marks. That would lessen its value.

The jacket is in the softest of leather and a rich and variable pink that exactly matches the wondrous sari of Lakshmi. Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, prosperity, fertility and power – none of which has come to Raj in his middle-aged lifetime. Lakshmi, who is greatly loved, and whose picture remains on his bedroom room wall. A rare beauty, she is seated upon a lotus flower; two of her four hands hold up smaller lotus flowers, the remaining two shower coins into a bowl. To her right and to her left are elephants, their mighty trunk raising a golden pitcher, showering water down. No need to worry, he tells her, I shall take you with me. I shall keep you in the picture at all times. This is what I know: the day after tomorrow some men will arrive, and they will take away the house. This is because I have no money left in the bank. I told you, didn’t I, that my taxi was hurt in an accident? She was so badly hurt that I could not drive her again. It is my fault for picking the wrong insurance company. They would not replace my vehicle and I have lost my livelihood.

I have lost our home. And now I have no money and the mortgage persons are coming to claim back the part of my house which is theirs – which is most of it. But I promise you will be coming with me, my lady, wherever I am going. Raj did not elaborate on this, because the truth was that he had no idea where that might be. For all he knew, in a day or two’s time he and Lakshmi might be sheltering together in shop doorways.

He had purchased the Genuine Elvis Jacket from a place on the internet, with an inheritance from his father. It was the largest sum of money Raj had ever had and he’d spent every last rupee of it, and more, on the Genuine Elvis. One single, mad, foolish press of the button and it was his. It had come with a folded paper, something called a Provenance. The Provenance was signed by the King himself, or so it claimed, to confirm that this was, genuinely, his own jacket. Raj’s English had not been good enough at the time for deciphering the convoluted legal English it was written in, and had hesitated to ask an English person for fear of being rebuffed or looking a fool. A small part of him feared the jacket might not be Genuine after all, but he had never let himself dwell on that.

Nowadays his English is greatly improved but he continues to resist the temptation to unfold the Provenance. Instead, he plays and re-plays his collection of Elvis Long-Players on the ancient record player he found in a second-hand shop soon after he arrived in this country. He knows the words of all the songs by heart. He combs his hair back into a passable Elvis quiff. He copies the way the great man used to curl his upper lip into a snarl and the way he did the ah-ha-ha in the middle of some of the lines. He grasps and imaginary microphone and serenades his mirror image, and Lakshmi, and when he does so he escapes for a while. He is no longer an impoverished Asian taxi driver in a shabby Norfolk town, with persons coming to repossess his property. He is The King himself. Glamorous. Rhinestoney. Revered.

And now he is about to give away the Genuine Elvis because Lakshmi has instructed him to do so. She appeared to him in a dream last night and was most beautiful, and most insistent that this be accomplished. He is to give the Genuine Elvis to a baby, just born in some sort of gypsy trailer in a field, over Thetford way. It sounds most unlikely, but if Lakshmi commands it, it will be his privelege to do it. Delicately he unpeels her poster from the tacky stuff holding it to the wall. Gently he rolls her and places her into a cardboard cylinder. “I must trust you to show me the way, my lady.”

It is a longer journey than he imagined. It takes him all day. He has not really planned how he will get there, perhaps not caring much whether he arrives or not. He sets off as he is, unshaven, in trainers and thick socks, a puffy anorak and a woolly hat. He catches a train, then a bus, then another bus. He stops people and asks them when he gets confused, no longer discouraged by these grim, white English faces; their foreignness to him, his own to them.

He has brought no food, but someone on the first bus feels sorry for him and hands him their sandwiches. Someone else gives him a cup of tea from their flask, and a small bottle of water. They seem to know he is on a journey of some importance, and what he needs. At last the bus sets him down at the edge of a smallish wood, snaking up the side a small hill. And now, he senses, it is time to walk. He does not know which way to go but Lakshmi, in her cardboard tube, feels confident; she urges him this way and that and he obeys her. He keeps his mind empty so as not to interfere. With increasing frequency he shifts the carrier bag from one hand to another. The Genuine Elvis has been getting heavier and heavier the nearer he gets to his destination, and now is beginning to feel like it weighs more than the world itself. The plastic handles cut into the palms of his hands.

As Raj follows, his feet become sore, his lungs become short of breath and his ribs hurt, but something like peace has entered his heart. Lakshmi is with him, showing him the way. He has no idea at all where they are heading, the pair of them. Yet it feels like coming home.

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.

NOW ON KINDLE: Angels & Other Occurrences

I thought I’d forgotten how to do it, but no. It’s been so long, but – guess what? I published another e-book.

The Angels & Other Occurrences sequence is already scheduled to appear in La Tour Abolie at the rate of one new story a day – and probably won’t all have appeared by the time you read this. So, if you’re desperate to read the whole thing in one go right now, or just fancy a copy of the whole shebang tucked away on your Kindle for that somnolent after-sprouts/far too many chocolates hour on Christmas Day afternoon, now’s your chance.

Pssst: heads up to La Tour Abolie readers:

It’s FREE to download for five days, starting Sunday 6th December.

If you do decide to download and can find time to post a review on Amazon – thank you so much. Reviews can make quite a difference – though I fear there’s little prospect of that sunshine holiday in the Bahamas even if I sell one or two between the end of the five free days and the disappearance of Christmas.

But one of these days! I’ve got the straw hat and the sunglasses, all ready…

Update: 13th December

The free download period has now ended, unfortunately. But I’ve put Angels & Other Occurrences back on at $0.99 (or equivalent sum in other countries) which is the lowest Kindle Direct allows.

 

 

 

SNOW AND A SUPERMOON (Angels & Other Occurrences 4.2)

So the idea had been to escape the Great Flood of London by taking Marie to stay with cousin Beth and her husband Zak up in Yorkshire. There Marie could have the baby in peace, safe in the knowledge that Beth had only six months earlier given birth to her own son John. It had seemed like a good idea at the time – and to be fair, there hadn’t been a lot of time for planning. It had been a question of grab the transport and go. If only the transport hadn’t happened to be Beppo’s ancient ice-cream van with the dodgy electrics. If only they weren’t now lost in a narrow lane somewhere in Norfolk, with dusk falling and snow threatening. They were never going to make it.

Sepp looked at his watch. Four-thirty, and the darkest month of the year. His thoughts strayed to London. He’d tried to get a signal on his mobile phone a minute or two back – no joy. Whatever was going to happen in London – the barrier being breached, his and Marie’s extended family and all their friends – all still there, though moving to higher ground – it must be happening right now. If only he could get online… but no, he must concentrate on Marie and the baby. He had been watching her out of the corner of his eye. He had a horrible feeling her pains had started, but she wasn’t saying.

‘Are you OK?’

‘Yes, just… a touch of indigestion… probably. But maybe we should try to find shelter for the night. We were never going to make it to Yorkshire, were we?’

‘With the benefit of hindsight, no, my angel.’

She laughed. ‘You can still make me laugh. That’s why I love you, Sepp.’

‘You mean that’s the only reason?’

‘That’s just one of them. But let’s get a move on before this old van conks out altogether. You look out the driver’s side and I’ll look out of this side, and we’ll stop at the first house we come to with a light in the window. Agreed?’

‘Agreed. Thank goodness for this moon – so big and bright. At least we’ll have moonlight on our side. And now that snow’s beginning to lay, we’ll have… snow-light as well.’

‘It’s a supermoon. I saw it on the News before we came away. It’s when the moon comes really close to the earth. Every fourteenth full moon or so there will be one… oooooow!’

‘Marie, you’re a mine of information, but that’s not indigestion!’

‘No, I’m afraid… I’m afraid…’

‘Next house with a light on.’

But there were no houses. The lane seemed to be going on and on for ever, twisting and turning, taking lengthy diversions round fields – or what might be fields if you could see them. The high hedges obscured their view. If anything the lane seemed to be getting narrower. It was obviously rarely used since a line of grass was growing in the middle of it, in the places where the tarmac had broken.

‘I hope to God we don’t meet anything coming the other way. I don’t fancy reversing this thing back to the last passing-place.’

‘Have we actually passed…. Ooooooow … a passing-place?’

‘I can’t remember. Oh come on, there must be a house somewhere down here. Plenty of sheep, plenty of donkeys, but where are all the human beings?’

‘It’s not London, you know. It’s just… sparsely populated.’

‘This isn’t sparse – it’s deserted. There is nobody!’

‘Look, this side – a gateway.’

She was right, there was a gate –one of those metal farm things with bars, held together with a loop of thick, frayed rope.

Beyond the gate was a track, and almost into the woods at the bottom of the track, lights.

‘Could it be a farm?’

‘I don’t know. Those lights – they’re all dotted about, not like normal windows. It looks odd. Maybe it’s those – what do they call them on the Fens? Will o’ the Wisps.’

‘I don’t think Will o’ the Wisps would be that square, Zepp. And they’d be jiggling about, wouldn’t they? Aren’t fireflies supposed to dance? Anyway, I can hear music.’

‘Creepy, heebie-jeebie-type music?’

No, Irish-type music. Fiddles, accordians and stuff. Owwwwww!

‘Good enough for me,’ said Sepp, jumping out to open the gate.

‘Fiddles it’s going to have to be.’

SNOW AND A SUPERMOON (Angels & Other Occurrences 4.1)

‘We’re lost, aren’t we? Why don’t you just admit it?’

Sepp sighed. ‘OK, I admit it, we’re lost.’

‘Here’s me about to give birth any day now and here we are together, alone, in an ice-cream van, in the middle of winter, somewhere in Norfolk or possibly Suffolk, and night’s coming on. Typical man, too proud to stop and ask directions…’

‘Well, who would you have me ask? I mean, there’s the sheep in the field over there. I do believe we might have passed a donkey or two half an hour back. Would you like me to reverse all the way back up this lane, because it sure enough isn’t wide enough for a three-point turn.’

Sepp glanced across at Marie, twisting uncomfortably in the high passenger seat of a vehicle never designed for pregnant ladies. She was close to tears, he realised.

He reached across and took her hand.

‘Sorry, sweetheart. I forgot about the hormones. Of course you’re worried, and I admit I’m worried too. I’m desperate to get you and… junior there… to a safe place. I’m sorry I got us lost. You know me – East End boy – find my way around the East End, no problem, but East Anglia’s a whole different ball game.’ He was trying to inject some humour into the situation. Trying to reassure her that he was still capable of looking after her. Except he wasn’t sure himself.

‘We’ll be OK,’ he said. ‘Whatever happens – and even if we are lost – you’ve got me. And the baby’s got us.’

They had been forced to leave the city in a hurry, four hours ago. Beppo had lent him the ice cream van. ‘I’m only thinking of myself, Giuseppe. If you’re going to come into the business with me once all this flooding business is over, we’re gonna need the van. Selling ice creams from a bicycle – not so good.’ This was the first Sepp had heard of joining Beppo in his business ventures. Ice cream was only one string to Beppo’s bow – there was the hot-dog stand, the baked potato franchise, the… he sometimes found it difficult to keep track of it all. Beppo was a business wizard, a real East End boy, on his way up. Sepp understood that Beppo was making him a very generous offer, in a roundabout sort of way. He gave his cousin a hug. Once the present danger was over, it might be a life-saver. A week ago he had been laid off from his job as a joiner on a building site. ‘I don’t want to let you go, Sepp,’ the boss had said, ‘but the housing market’s going seriously downhill at the moment. Just can’t afford to keep you on.’

He had not told Marie about this. She had enough to cope with at the moment, without getting all steamed up about how they were going to cope financially. Now he wouldn’t need to tell her. Beppo had saved the day.

But right at the moment he had to focus on finding them somewhere to stay the night. They were obviously not going to make it up to Beth and Zak in Yorkshire before nightfall, and the baby might come any time now. If only the Thames Barrier hadn’t decided to fail right now. Why couldn’t it have waited for a few days, till after the baby? The barrier was supposed to protect Londoners against flood tides and now… Now the weather people were announcing a tidal wave on it’s way towards the capital. The barrier, they said, whilst it might delay serious flooding for a while, was not going to be adequate this time. It was an unprecedented high tide. Those in lower-lying districts should evacuate to higher ground. If possible Londoners should evacuate the city altogether. At this point the News programme cut to a map, panning slowly over it. Sepp looked, but he didn’t need to. Their ground floor Council flat was just a few short streets away from the river. You couldn’t get more low-lying.

‘The young, the old, the sick and the vulnerable should go to stay with relatives in other parts of the country,’ the news-reader said. ‘Government advice: set out now. Evacuate now if you have the option to do so.’

Within minutes a text arrived from Zak:

Sepp come to us bring Marie. Beth so worried. Throw few things together get moving. Spare room ready. Come now.

The van was far from ideal. It had been sitting on Beppo’s driveway since the autumn and the battery had gone flat. Beppo had jump-started it and, hopefully, it had recharged itself by now. Hopefully. It wasn’t too reliable at the best of times. Something wrong with the electrics. Sepp just hoped the van wouldn’t start treating them (and any bystanders) to impromptu performances of its ‘Popeye the Sailor Man’ jingle, as it tended to do when its ‘electrics’ were on the blink.

FLYING WITH GABRIEL (Angels & Other Occurences 2)

Marie pulled up the collar of her coat, then fished a thick scarf out of her bag and wrapped it round the outside. March was not particularly warm in London, even at midday when the sun was doing its inadequate best to dissolve the last traces of snow. Marie loved snow, but not when it got this old and weary-looking, spangled with city grime. Unfortunately she would have to take off her mittens to eat her sandwiches. What was it today – she unfolded her mother’s crinkly baking foil – cheese and cucumber. She was chilly and hungry, but more importantly she was happy. Out of the office, if only for an hour; away from that word-processor and the piles of files. This was her quiet time – no longer Marie David, a secretary working for an international aid organisation – just Marie, alone in the Little Park, with her angel.

She came here every lunchtime, unless it rained. On rainy days she went to the library café and read a paperback over a cup of ill-made tea. They didn’t seem to mind her bringing her own sandwiches. But she liked the park better. It was only a small one, by London standards, and not exactly secluded. You walked up one of two shallow runs of steps and into a circular space of formal flower beds. Sometimes the Council gardeners would be at work, planting and discarding, their truck parked up on the pavement for pedestrians to squeeze past. Pansies were favourite, and geraniums. At the moment it was daffodils and crocuses. The daffodils were more advanced, the crocuses only just beginning to show white and purple heads through sharp green leaves. And in the centre was her angel.

Technically the angel was a war memorial. Beneath its stone feet were listed citizens of that part of the city who had died in the First World War. Marie sometimes wondered whether they would recognise it, those citizens, if they were permitted a brief return. All these high-rise offices, the gleaming plate-glass windows. The angel seemed small and lost, beneath them, not exactly neglected but left in peace. Pigeons perched on his shoulders, leaving strings of white behind. Lichen grew in the folds of his stone robes and moss about the base, for most of the day this place, overshadowed by skyscrapers, was cool and damp. Marie liked the angel. She always tried to sit facing him so that she could look into his face, though sometimes that bench was taken. In a way, they conversed.

Maybe others had been put off by the chill in the air, because today he and she were alone in the little park. She breathed deeply, separating in her mind the smell of new grass and young flowers from car exhaust fumes, separating the silence between them from the chaos going on outside. She felt suddenly very happy: and the angel came to life. It was not as if he moved, exactly, but as if he began to give off warmth. He was shimmering. So many colours! She gasped.

Marie, he said, you must not be afraid.

Who are you? she asked, in her head, although she knew.

You know me. You know me well, for I have been here all along. Some call me Gabriel, but I have many other names. Sometimes I have no name. I bring special news for you, Marie; you are blessed – favoured of God. He has seen into your soul, and He has chosen you.

Chosen me? She was afraid now. What could God want her to do? What could she possibly do that a God might want?

God has given you a baby son. Your boy will be great, he will be wonderful. He will become a king, of a kind you cannot imagine. He will reign forever and his kingdom will have no end.

There must be some mistake, she whispered. You see, I am… Sepp and I were waiting… We’ve been together since school. We love each other, but we were saving for a deposit on a flat, waiting till we could marry. I know it’s old-fashioned, but…

Gabriel, Sepp won’t understand if I have a baby. He’ll think, he’s bound to think… Marie thought about her mother and father, who trusted her. She thought about her sisters, her brother, her aunts and her friends. She thought about Sepp and his vast, affectionate Italian immigrant clan. They would all think…

How could this have happened? she asked. For she knew it must be the truth. Something inside her had been transformed as the angel came to life. She could already sense that tiny speck, the child inside her.

God is not bound by human realities. He has given you this child, both to cherish and to mourn. I can tell you that Beth has also conceived, and is now in her sixth month. A boy, also.

Beth? Marie remembered her distant cousin Beth, up north in Yorkshire. Beth with the cheerful smile and the tired eyes, married to ex-hippie Zak. The two branches of the family had drifted gently apart. She hadn’t seen either of them for years.

But Beth is so old… I mean, I thought they hadn’t been able to… Marie didn’t understand any of it.

Poor child, said Gabriel, and she felt his infinite compassion. He stretched out his hand to her. Fly with me now, he said. Be at peace. All shall be well.

And so it was that they flew, out over the city. They flew through the cold Spring air, tracing the winding course of the Thames and circling the grey suburbs. Together they looked down on palaces, lakes and other, greater parks. Marie felt this great city and indeed the whole world as Gabriel felt it, not as a maze of unknown streets and strangers but as a whole, a beating heart.

*

Giuseppe, she said, using the name she had first known him by, I can only tell you the truth. But it’s a truth you will not believe and Sepp, I am so afraid to lose you.

THE BIRD OF LIGHT (Angels & Other Occurrences 1)

At the midway point in the ancient spiral staircase, looking down into the little courtyard with the fountain, Martina paused. She liked to keep an eye on her staff, but discreetly. What was he up to now? Zak appeared to be enraptured – staring into space. For goodness sake, she thought, how difficult can it be to go in with a plastic bucket and a little shovel and remove a year’s worth of coins from a fountain, skim off a few floating leaves? Not exactly rocket science, even at his age. At once she felt guilty. Fifty-eight wasn’t that old, and what she had just thought was ageist. Fierce, when necessary, Martina did at least try to be fair to her staff, and honest with herself.

The main gates should have opened five minutes ago. Gatehouse had radioed up – punters queueing nine deep outside. Pushchairs, kiddies and cameras all over the place. It was the end of September and the start of the castle’s Autumn Flower Festival. Sunny it might be, with that low, intense sun of autumn, but it was none too warm to be standing about outside. The castle looked fantastic at this time of year – red, orange and gold leaves carpeting the lawns and lakes outside; and in every room that was open to the public, one and sometimes several huge, dramatic displays of autumn flowers and foliage supplied by all the top groups in the county. People looked forward all year to this Festival; they wanted in – and in was where she needed them to be. The castle had lost money last season – combination of a dismal British summer and the failure of the static balloon as an attraction. Unfortunately, that had been her idea. Balloons went down a storm back home in the States but for some reason people here didn’t seem to want to pay £25 for a ticket, to be tethered at treetop height, not flying anywhere. It had been a blunder, and she was desperate to make up for it. No one, as the Foundation had obliquely pointed out, was indispensable.

They were waiting for Zak, just Zak. What on earth was he staring at, sat on the edge of the fountain, bucket and shovel in hand? Oh come on Zak, she thought, don’t make me come down there and tell you off. I don’t have time.

Zak was looking at the Bird of Light. There was always light in the central courtyard. It was a strange place for that. When the sun was shining it reflected randomly off the leaded glass panes of the surrounding windows. Sometimes the light dazzled him (his eyes were not too good, nowadays). Sometimes the windows looked blind, like they’d grown cataracts. Cataracts of light. It had been, for him, a place of worship, yet what he was worshipping he could not have said. But suddenly, today, there was the Bird.

He had turned his back, to begin on the coins and leaves, but somehow he knew it was there. He knew something was there. Just afraid to turn round. Terribly afraid. It was watching him. Even with his back turned he could see… unusual light. Light cascading off the walls, bouncing off the cobbles. Light shining on the fountain, light crashing into other light. He couldn’t explain it. It wasn’t natural.

Turn, Zak.

It was a soft voice, but he hadn’t turned.

I am here, Zak. I have something to say to you.

He kept trying to shovel up the coins. Delusions? After all these years? How long have I been sober? Will it never let me go?

It’s good news, Zak. Please turn.

It was the ‘please’ that did it. He turned. And saw the Bird. At least that’s what it looked like. What it might have been. Except it was so tall. Could birds be tall. White wings, but they gave off light. It must be…

It’s about Beth.

And now it was replaying in his mind, the night he met Beth. It was if the Bird itself was controlling his memories.

They had met in the Station Hotel. He’d been drunk, as usual. He was rehearsing his last order. Time for another one, Joe? He was rehearsing his walk across the room to the bar which, by this time of night, felt like being on a fairground ride. So many chairs. And the chairs seemed to tilt and move. So easy to trip and then… there wouldn’t be another one. Joe would tell him he’d had enough. Joe would call him a taxi and pay for it himself. Joe was a good bloke.

But this night, there was this girl. He didn’t remember her coming in but there she was, perched on a bar stool, chatting to Joe as if they were old friends. Yet she’d never been here before, he was sure of it. She had long hair. Fair. Real fair, not dyed, that almost-mouse colour. She had dropped her carpet-bag at her feet. It was battered, that bag. She had been places.

And there was that picture again, the one he had seen before. He had seen her in some African market, or somewhere like Zanzibar. She was ahead, then she turned and smiled. Such a beautiful smile, and for him. And at her wrist there were bangles of all colours. They glittered in the sun, and the sky behind her head was so very blue, like no sky he had ever seen before. The Bird brought this back to him.

And then something strange had happened. Her train pulled in and he watched her get up to leave and he was thinking, that’s it then, she’s going, but she didn’t go, or least not at once, no, she stopped and came over to him, and she stood in front of him, looking into his eyes, and she said, My name is Beth. Come with me.

And then she was gone, and he couldn’t believe it had happened. He must be imagining. And then… Zak was up and staggering full pelt towards the door, chairs scattering in all directions as the room rocked and swerved around him. He was running across the gravel, he was heading for the platform. The whistle blew, train doors were slamming. He had to make it to that train; he had to catch her…

He had something to say to her. Good news. Such wonderful news.

She was fifteen years younger than him, but after that she never left his side. They had travelled the world for a while, then did what others do. They found a house and married, and tried for children. But the children hadn’t come.

They’d had all the tests. He’d assumed it was him, being so much older, but it wasn’t. There was something wrong with her. She’d had operations, and tablets, and tests. Nothing worked. Beth hardly ever mentioned it nowadays, but he knew it still hurt. Yes, he had wanted children by her, but she… It was something different for women, a greater grief.

It’s about Beth. Good news.

When he emerged from the courtyard he was dumb. The Bird had punished him for his disbelief. How am I to know? Zak had asked. What proof can you give me? I am getting old and Beth – she’s getting on. Forty-one next birthday. How can this happen?

His name will be John, said the bird. His name will be John. He will touch no drink. He will give you both great joy. He will be filled with light – this light. He has come to prepare the way.

The way for what? Zak was trying to say. Only no sound come out.

*

Today of all days, thought Martina, as she followed Zak in the ambulance. She guessed it must have been a stroke – something in the brain department – yet he was walking OK – in fact there was a  spring in his step. But, she thought, people don’t just suddenly forget how to speak if they’ve got nothing wrong. Maybe something less scary, like laryngitis. But it wasn’t as if he’d had a sore throat, even – not that he’d mentioned. And the man seems so ridiculously, insanely happy. Positively joyous. What sort of lunatic would be happy on their way to hospital? Poor Zak, she thought, he’s got a wife and… now she thought about it she wasn’t sure. He had never mentioned a family. But definitely a wife.

Martina reached across and laid a hand on his arm, hoping to reassure. For all his faults, she had a soft spot for Zak. He was a sweet old guy. He smiled at her – the biggest and broadest of smiles. And there was this weird kind of shining-ness about him.