A Christmas Gift
How, he wondered, could you eat so much and still feel such a deep and empty hunger? He felt there was an answer, but that it lay a long way from the simple act of feeding and yet was as basic and necessary. That it existed somewhere between the spiritual event they were celebrating and the thing it had been turned into: and there was still, surely, the human need to break bread together and accept each morsel as a gift that built and enforced love.
The children sat next to their mother, hypnotized by the entertainment spilling out from the television. Christmas was being dished outas it had been for weeksdevoid of any meaning and waiting to be paid for on easy credit. He looked at their faces: they knew the stuff so well their lips were moving in sync with the actors: The Lord is my shepherd, he whispered.
He'd made several attempts at using the occasion to bring them all together. Games, a ghost story, a walk over the frozen fields: all had been dismissed with an electronic bleep coming from the handheld games as the next form of life marched in an endless but essential sacrifice. Now even they were quiet and forgotten, along with so many other things. All of the presents they'd wrapped so carefully. Christmas eve spent in production-line efficiency. Everything in place: readied weeks before: itemized and double-checked: the evening free of any need or chance of last minute arrivals stepping in from the fog to a glow of comfort and everyone's relief.
Last night he'd told them: "One year, my father made us a model castle for Christmas. It was perfect with towers and a drawbridge that could be lowered and raised, he had painted it all in gray with this rough, stoney type of texture. It must have taken him weeks of secret effort; of course nobody was telling you day in and day out what you had to have back then."
"Don't you start again Simon," Paula had warned him. She and her best friend, Mary, who since her divorce had insisted on joining in on the "magic" of preparing the children's gifts, were getting to the end of their labours. Simon watched as the pile of presents mounted. Stockings had become bin-liners, and each child needed an armchair with their name-tag dangling from it to avoid any confusion in the early morning stampede.
The three of them had sat on the floor drinking from a bottle of sherryhis only contribution to keep the glasses topped up. In fact, it seemed if just about everything had been managed without his involvement. He was being made to feel as if he'd just woken up and found it all there; fallen like night snow but without any beauty or disguise. The slow, even pulses of the Christmas lights held and bathed each of their faces in its best or worst colour, making them in turn appear lovely or grotesque, honest or cunning; Simon found it appropriate to the scene.
"It's a time for children," Mary said, "that's all."
"He wants we should all go around like characters out of Scrooge," said Paula: "That or he's getting religion."
"I just think we have lost the true meaning of what we are celebrating," said Simon, wanting as always to appear calm and patient when Mary was visiting for shallow, and more disturbing for him recently, deeper reasons. "I can still sense and feel the power out there. A collective need and willingness to believe in something. It is just waiting to be tapped, only you have to shut out all the crap and really listen for once."
For a brief moment the three of them had just sat as if waiting, or hoping.
"I have to go," said Mary: "I've a date to keep."
"Not another lucky man," said Paula. "I don't know how you manage it."
Simon tried not to notice the look that passed between the two girls, friends since primary school with too many shared experiences that he could never hope to understand or be a part of. Also, he suspected that Paula was confiding in her about their rows and problems and that nothing was secret between them. They helped her carry her presents out to the car and then stood there as the fading sound of her car finally abandoned them.
"Look at all those stars," he said, gazing into a night where the universe seemed to have contracted and become young and fresh again. "When did you ever see so many stars ?"
Paula had looked up as if trying to see what it was that he was seeing. They stood close together and he reached for her. She allowed herself to be held but turned her head as he tried a kiss. She made an exaggerated shivering gesture and moved away.
"Do you know that most of those lights up there are left-overs from stars that died long before this planet was even born?" He heard their back door open and then close without even waiting for him. He stood there for what felt like a long time searching the heavens for that one bright spot amongst all the rest that may have once been the signal to so much promise. He could find nothing certain except the unfathomable infinity that seemed to mock his imprisonment.
Dinner was finished. The bin-liners were stuffed with ripped and crushed wrappings. His pale, exhausted, bored-looking daughters sat and mirrored their mother. He tried to gauge from their expressions if they felt in any slight way as he did and if it was still not too late to make something more out of the day. For some reason, the deeper he looked the less he recognized any of them; his discomfort began to turn to fear of how easily he could come to loath them.
"This is a great book," he finally said, holding his present open and giving up the struggle to follow its complex loose ends as they entwined into new meanings and possibilities, and allowing himself to be dragged along into the perfect resolutions of the movie: "it really makes everything so clear."
Outside, and unnoticed, someone walked past their door. They lived in the first of a row of terraced cottages. Once they had been the tied homes of the labourers that worked the surrounding fields. The farmer lived in the nearby house that still managed to tower above, and overlook their lives, though the work was done by tractors and they paid rent for the short-term lets. Their next door neighbours had lived in their cottage for thirty-seven years. Stanley had worked on the farm as a boy; he'd moved from the village with his bride to the cottage on their wedding-day. Now, they did the same as each new neighbour: trooping to the farmer's door once a week with the rent and having the privilege every twelfth time of being allowed in to resign the contract.
"I can't imagine going anywhere else until I die," Stanley had told them a short while after their arrival.
"We would like to stay for a long time ourselves, put down some roots," Simon had replied, and noticed an expression on the man's face of disbelief and pleasure at what he judged lay ahead for them.
Stanley still liked to help out on the farm. Every time the farmer came creeping around the cottages, hoping to catch one of the men and ask for another little favour, Stanley would jump at the chance, even if he'd just arrived in from a long day at the feed mill and Simon was already on his way. "That's all right," he would yell, "I'm here now." And then charge off in front of them like one of the working sheepdogs leaving the farmer to dismiss Simon.
On the few occasions when Simon had got to help on one of the jobsusually driving sheep through pools of toxic and evil-smelling chemicals or helping load sacks with the dried and dusty grain for drillingStanley always got to know about it. His first reaction was to ignore Simon's greeting. Then he would keep going in and out of his house making lots of noise hoping to attract his attention. When he did, the job was quickly mentioned. And instantly there would be a story connected to it that implied more than familiarity. Stanley insisted on calling the farmer Boss.
"Me and Boss," he'd say, "did that job once in the year of the great snow. It was so deep we had to walk along the tops of the hedges just to get out to the sheep. Carrying the bales of hay on our backs for their feed. Can you imagine that? Can you picture just the two of us completely cut off and struggling through?"
Simon had asked the farmer, Mr. Wills, one day when he was helping him to drive some sheep along the lanes: "Was Stanley a good worker?" For some reason of either curiosity, or out of growing village small-mindedness it had become important to know. Mr. Wills had eyed the newcomer with his usual slow, market-day assessment before answering.
The sheep farmer was a small rushing man who always appeared to have an insight into the weakness of the people around him and the exact reason for their failures. He felt he was as shrewd a judge of humans as he was of stock. "I knew as soon as you pulled up," he had told Simon once, referring back to their first meeting, "that I was going to let you rent the place. Do you know how? Clean car, tidy kids, no cigarettes in the ash-tray, and both slim. What do some folk expect, coming out here with fags hanging out of their mouths and four stone overweight?" It had been some time before Simon realized that fat probably meant you could not take a long session helping at the top of a hay barn, and that it was hard work cleaning walls and ceilings after smokers. He'd sensed recently that the farmer was beginning to question his decision.
"Stanley was strong enough," he answered slowly: "but always with too much to say; and a bit too familiar. We like to go about our tasks in silence and be alert to the sounds and messages all around. Listen out for their warnings: a good shepherd is a silent shepherd." The sheep stamped and bleated their way to the field as Simon tried to hear.
Simon sensed that the farmer was not telling all: that behind the spotlessness of Stanley's house and garden there must be an untidy truth. No one, he thought, works on a place for thirty years and then stays half-chained to the endless cycle of growth and harvest for free. Stanley's wife appeared even more bound by another invisible force. She spent every minute cleaning and polishing the dingy little cottage until its gleam must have bedazzled her into madness.
They had been amused at first to hear her vacuuming the carpets at four in the morning; now it was disturbing and made him want to pound on the wall. It was another joke to share when she had run about the garden threatening the starlings flying above her clean washing, or been out burying balloons in an attempt to scare away the farm cats from scraping in her soil. "Filthy cats; dirty birds," would be the start, and then get more and more obscene and hysterical until one of them could not stand any more and had to step outside and let her know they were home.
Sunday afternoons were the only time Stanley or his wife ever stopped. They would sit at the top of their garden on a crudely-built bench and stare at the gate. The only person Simon had ever seen arrive was Mr. Wills.
"Boss is here. Boss is here," Stanley always cried. His wife would then rush in to fetch a tray of tea and cakes. The three of them liked to gossip and were resentful of any intrusion by Simon, Paula, or even the children. If any of them did go out, Mr. Wills always said the same thing in his loudest and poshest voice: "And how do you like the new neighbours I've found for you Stanleyare they up to the mark? Do they measure up"?
"We've seen so many," Stanley would always reply, "they come and go so often you can't keep count." Then quickly lead him away with a: "Do you recall so and so." Or what he must have known the farmer liked to hear best: "I can still see your father on his horse looking down to make sure all the gardens were tidy on a Sunday afternoon," as his dumpy wife dangled her legs above the path and trembled with the effort of trying to remain still.
Once Simon hid behind his curtains trying to make out what they were saying. The endless list of names and events were meaningless to him. Also, they measured everything in years. It made him think of how many times they had already moved home and wish that there was some calmness in sight. He looked at himself in the mirrorhiding and trying to spyhe saw the dust clinging to its surface: dulling and making even this image appear shabbier. Outside he noticed that weeds were growing in corners of his garden and starting to seed. "One year's seed: seven years' weed," he thought he heardor had heard before.
Mr. Wills was away for the day. It was the first occasion in the eighteen months they'd lived here that the farmer, his wife and their son were absent at the same time.
"Don't you dare go and buy us anything for Christmas," Mr. Wills had instructed him a week earlier. He'd been lurking in their garden when they returned from another Christmas shopping expedition. "We'll be going off for the day anyway," he said: "so if you are around perhaps you will keep an eye out. Stanley is going to do the feeding and keep a check on the lambing, so everything should be fine." He had stared out toward the distant hill range and woods as if their wildness was waiting its chance to encroach, and listened always for any opening to do so.
"Don't worry," Simon had reassured him, "we'll be here. Maybe I'll take the girls for a walk around."
Mr. Wills had looked even more forlorn and left before anything else could be said. Simon instantly remembered why. One day he'd asked Paula and the children if they would like to come and see the lambs. The farmer had suggested it to him on a bright crisp morning at the start of the lambing season when the newly borns were frisking in the fresh straw and the whole scene appeared idyllic.
Simon had tried to pick a similar day. Paula held the two girls and followed him as he led them to the pens. He'd deliberately timed it so that Mr. Wills and his son would be at their breakfast, leaving him free to show off his new knowledge.
Cara, the youngest of his two daughters had started screaming first. A high-pitched note that cut through the crisp air and then reverberated back off the barn's steel roof. Then Emma had joined in.
Paul had looked in the direction the two girls were staring. "Oh my God," she'd cried, looking at him in disgust as she began dragging the girls back home. Simon had stood there, unable to move, as the echoes of screaming carried on swirling around the yard like the whirlwind he'd once witnessed in the same place.
Next to the large open-ended barn that had been turned into a pen for the pregnant sheep there was another barn partly filled with bales of last year's hay. Just inside its entrance lay the bodies. A tangle of five or six lambs all covered with a slime of blood and excrement. Next to them was a dead ewe. She appeared abnormally large and bloated, with milky white eyes glaring in their frozen agony. Hanging out of her was the head and foot of a partly born lamb.
The farmer and his family had arrived at the run, looking shocked and guilty.
"What was all that screaming about?" Mr. Wills had demanded.
"We're not responsible if anyone gets injured on the farm," Mrs. Wills stated.
"It was a bad night," said their son, trying to explain. Then adding quickly as his mother and father turned on him: "Where you have livestock, you have deadstock."
The film finally finished. Simon loosened his collar. He'd got dressed up: best suit and shirt, patent leather shoes and a silk tie. They were not going anywhere and no one was expected. It was done for the day, but mostly for his wife in the hope of some affection or maybe even passion. Now as the next programme rolled into view and he watched her settle herself and the girls for the next session, he wished he had not bothered. He felt anger and resentment as every slow word spelled out its map to another Utopia as they sat in the void waiting for theirs to suddenly arrive.
Simon knew that if he said anything it would cause a row. And that his clumsy, unrevised lines would carry nothing but a weak resonance of what they considered drama. What was it she had told him last time they'd rowed seriously: "This isn't a rehearsal: this is life." Then, with the melodrama, he'd come to recognize as belonging to the two dimensional world added: "You have a death wish for us all."
"Paula," he began. And was stopped by a loud continual hammering at their door.
Stanley looked flustered and uncomfortable to be there. "You have small hands," he said as Simon closed the door and stood outside with him. He placed his large, callused palms toward Simon.
"Quite small for a man, I guess," said Simon, putting one of his much daintier hands between them.
"One of the ewes has a lamb that is stuck and I can't reach it. I've been trying for hoursshe's getting pretty weak."
"What about the vet?" Simon asked. Mr. Wills had told him to always call the vet if there was a problem and he wasn't about.
"I can only get the bloody answering machine. I've tried Boss, but he'll be an age getting back."
"How about your wife?" Simon knew she had been the daughter of a farm worker. "She's got smaller hands than me, I bet."
"My wife! You haven't got a bloody clue about anything have you? I've got to get backI'm wasting time here."
He moved away leaving Simon still and cold on the doorstep. "I'll come," he called after him. "Just let me tell Paula." He opened the door and listened, without bothering to speak for a few seconds before following.
The ewe was laid on her side and appeared to be sleeping. A short way off the rest of the flock carried on eating or dozing, oblivious to anything that might be happening. Two fluorescent lights hanging from the girders were switched on and bathed the place in a weak yellow wash. It made everything appear gentle and old. Like stepping into a photograph, Simon thought, as his feet sank into the straw and the ground and his movement slowed.
Next to the sheep there was a galvanized bucket and a towel with a bar of soap lying on it. Stanley washed his hands and then pushed one inside the animal. She groaned and tried to lift her head. "I can feel its head and a foot," he said, "but there is not enough room to find anything else. It might be a back leg and mean that the lamb is all twisted. I've tried pulling a bit but nothing moves. I may tear it in half if I try any harder." He withdrew his hand and stood up. He appeared to take notice of what Simon was wearing for the first time. "You can't do anything dressed like that," he said.
"Yes I can," said Simon. "I've never done anything like it before, but I'll try."
He takes off his jacket and rolls up his shirt sleeves. The water is full of mucus and wisps of blood, it is icy cold and for some strange reason the smell of the soap reminds him of his days at primary school.
The inside of the sheep is soft and warm. Simon is amazed at the strength of the suction that grips and draws his arm in. He can feel a hard lump that he realizes is the lamb's head, and then a foot, then another.
"I can find two feet," he says; "two."
"Grab them and pull," says Stanley. "Quickly."
He hears the man's frustration and anger mixed with a desperation to do the right thing. The sheep's contractions squeeze around his arm like a tourniquet and he is drawn further in. A stain of pink begins to seep back into his shirt and a dampness creeps through the crust of dry straw into his knees. His arm aches as if someone has scraped the skin off it.
"I think it's another back leg," he suddenly decides: "it doesn't bend right for a front one."
Stanley sucks in a slow deep sigh.
Then Simon feels something else.
"There are two lambs in here," he says: "I can touch another head."
"She is not carrying twins," Stanley tells him: "she's a single. They all get scanned so we know. This is hopeless; it is not your fault. You need to be born to this sort of work."
Simon pulls his arm out and begins washing himself.
"I'm going to go and find the vet or someone before she's dead," says Stanley. He leaves without giving Simon a glance. The metal gate shakes as he levers himself over it and the noise fills the air like a muffled drum roll. Simon looks down at the sheep; her eyes are becoming glazed and distant. He drops back down onto his knees.
"Come on girl," he whispers.
Inside, he can feel a head and legs. He can also feel the place where legs cross each other and form a tight hold, and a slight way behind that what he knows is another head. He starts to untangle the legs and tries to ease the head backwards. And for the first time that he can recall, he begins to pray.
He does not ask for his life to get any better; or for love that has gone cold to stop turning into hate. He concentrates solely on the sheep and her need. "Please," he asks, bringing two feet into line, "let me get this one thing right."
He gently eases them out. The head follows tightly and then with a rush the whole lamb comes out. A mass of dark blood and other liquids splash over his legs. He wipes the lamb with a handful of straw as it leans against him gasping and trying to bleat.
The next one already has its head starting to come out. He thinks it will jam if he does not get the legs out first. He pushes the head back in and reaches for the legs. "Just this," he breathes, and brings it out with one easy pull.
He notices as he cleans it off that instead of being all white like the first one it is heavily marked in black like a badger. Before he has even finished, the ewe is up on her feet calling both of them to her.
He sits back against the side of the barn and watches them bumping and tugging at her as they begin to feed. Outside it is very dark and he knows exactly where that bright star would be. He hears voices and watches as Stanley arrives at the gate and stands there looking in with a shocked expression on his face. Then Mr. and Mrs. Wills arrive with their son, followed closely by Paula and the two girls.
They are all lined up along the gate watching. He waits, daring any of them to make the slightest sound or movement at this moment and on this day.