The old stable was quiet that late Christmas eve night. There was the sheep that had lambed the night before, far too early, asleep in the straw with her skinny and startlingly white twins. The old horse dozing and snuffling gently, occasionally shifting a foot. A couple of half tame farm cats slumbering in the wall-mounted hay rack. And me.
Now that had been a row. Fuelled by the presence of the flaming elf on the shelf, the lack of the Christmas Eve box that "everyone has got, Daddy", the fact that the shop had run out of Brussels sprouts and I should have gone earlier when I was asked, and all the other irritations and tirednesses and not meeting expectations that come along with Christmas, I just exploded. And, so, instead of being lovely-and-cuddly-Christmas-jumper-wearing-reading-stories-in-front-of-the-fire-and hanging-up-the-stockings-Dad, I was in-a-flaming-temper-and-storming-away-from-crying-children-and-hiding-in-the-stable-Dad. And yes, I know, it's not big and not clever and not fair. And I felt horrible. But I knew I couldn't go back in. Not yet. That would show that I was wrong and I wasn't. Well, I didn't think I was. Or was I? Oh, I don't know.
I must have fallen asleep. That's the only way I can explain it. And there must have been a power cut. Because when I opened my eyes the stable was colder and darker, and the light was no longer streaming in from the yard. I sat up; all of a sudden, I'd stopped being grumpy-dad and turned into worried-about-Marion-and-the-kids-dad. I reached into my pocket for my phone, ready to turn the torch on. But it wasn't there. And neither were my trousers. Instead I was wearing some kind of rough fabric tunic, tied round my waist with a piece of cord. I looked out into the yard in the cold light of the moon, and it was my yard but it wasn't. The gates and walls were there but the house was smaller, rougher, more like a hut, and the windows glowed in a soft yellow flickering light, not the harshness of electric bulbs.
I sat back down, abruptly, and that's when I saw her. A girl, she couldn't have been more than 20, holding a baby wrapped up in linen. There were still streaks of blood on his tiny wrinkled face, and she tenderly wiped them away with her thumb. I smelled the tang of blood and shit and sweat and earth and damp straw. The smell of birth. A man was with her, and he looked down with such love and grief at the two faces, one sweat-stained and exhausted and joyful, the other small and perfect and sleeping. I could see the tears on his cheeks and in his beard, glinting in the moonlight.
I looked around, and I swore the sheep and her lambs, and the horse, were watching the figures. Even the cats' eyes glinted green in the darkness. At the door, silhouetted against the frosted cobbles, there was a goat and a cow peering in, and between their hooves there were mice, rats and rabbits, a dove and a couple of hens. The only sound was the purring of the cats.
I stood up suddenly, and hit my head hard on the hay rack. The world flashed white, and the last thing I remember, before tumbling unceremoniously into the straw, was all those sets of eyes looking at me and the sweet sleepy smile of the girl. And then dark.
The cold woke me up this time, and the light – a sharp bright morning, full of frost and sun and farm noises. I was laying in the straw next to the sheep and her twins. I rubbed my head. No bruise. Checked my pockets. There was my phone. And no girl or baby or goats. Just my wife's voice.
"Morning sweetheart," she said. "Assumed that you'd fallen asleep after lambing her – it must have been after two that you came out. She looks fine – daft old girl."
"It's not… Christmas morning… what…"
"You're still asleep – it's Christmas eve, you daft old farmer. Did you have a nip of something to keep the cold out? There's a brew on in the kitchen." She started to walk back to the farm house, and then turned back, a touch of exasperation. "I don't suppose you…"
"Well, we'll just have to…"
The sprouts! And if it was Christmas eve… that was the weirdest dream.
"I'll nip out to the farm shop first," I said, standing up and shaking the straw out of my jumper. Graeme's still got some Brussels, I think. And if not, he can share his. He owes us for letting his tup out early and getting the old girl here up the duff. And how about I get the girls something for Christmas Eve. A book or a game or something? They've actually been quite good, I suppose."
I grinned. And she grinned back. A real grin, rather than the strained smile I've seen a lot lately. As I turned towards the stable door, something white caught my eye. I stooped to pick it up. It was a scrap of white linen, with the fleeting smell of new life. Sometimes, we do get a fresh start. However unlikely it seems.
It was a cold night, that Christmas eve night, as we walked back from the pub. Warmed from the fire and the food and the beer, we hunkered down inside hats and scarves and coats and boots, trying to hold onto the heat as we stepped out of the door. Every surface glittered like diamonds, reflecting the chill light of the distant stars. Behind the long snaking dry stone walls, sheep huddled together, and the night was so still and quiet we could hear them breathing. The hills rose up either side of us, crisp white with snow and bathed in the cold light of the full moon. Etched with the blue-black shadows of the winter trees and the footsteps of the fox.
As we dropped down into the village, the windows of the church glowed with the flickering gold of candlelight and the warmth of centuries-old stained glass. Around the edges of the door leaked light and sound, the sweet melancholy of In the Bleak Midwinter and the quiet rumble of prayer.
Tiny white and blue lights edged the trees, lighting our way as we walked through the streets, our footsteps muffled and creaking in the snow that had only stopped falling a few hours before. We tiptoed into the house, not wanting to break the mood of stillness, and stayed silent, arms around each other, bathed in the glow of the damped down fire and the lights of the tree. And as we stood there, the church bells pealed Christmas through the cold night air.
Writing short fiction, monologues and plays