New Year’s Day, 2017
Spirit of Christmas by Jeanette Winterson
It was the night before Christmas and all over the house nothing was stirring because even the mouse was exhausted. There were presents everywhere. Food supplies had been stockpiled like a war-warning. I was staggering under the weight of the Christmas cake – it was the kind of thing medieval masons used to choose as the cornerstone of a cathedral. You took it from me and went to pack it in the car. Everything had to go in the car, because we were going to the country tonight. The more you loaded, the more likely it seemed that the turkey would be doing the driving. There was no room for you, and I was sharing my seat with a wicker reindeer.
“Hackles,” you said. Oh God, we had forgotten the cat.
“Hackles doesn’t celebrate Christmas,” I said.
“Tie this tinsel around his basket and get in.”
“Are we going to have our Christmas row now or shall we wait until we’re on the road and you’ve forgotten the wine?”
I ran and bit your neck. I love your neck. You pushed me away in play – but do I imagine that you push me away not in play these days? You smiled a small smile and went to repack the car.
Soon after midnight. Cat, tinsel, tree with flashing lights, reindeer presents, my arm out of the window because there was nowhere else to put it – you and me set off to a country cottage we had rented to celebrate Christmas. We drove through the seasonal drunks waving streamers and singing about Rudolph in red-nosed solidarity. You said it would be quicker to go right through the middle of town so late at night, and as you were slowly pulling away from the traffic lights down the main street I thought I saw something moving.
“Stop,” I said. “Can you reverse?”
The street was completely empty now, and you took us backwards, until we were outside BUYBUYBABY, the world’s biggest department store, finally and reluctantly closed from midnight Christmas Eve for an entire twenty-four hours.
I got out of the car. The front window of BUYBUYBABY had been arranged as a Nativity scene, complete with Mary and Joseph in ski wear. There was no gold, frankincense or myrrh. The kings were giving Jesus an Xbox, a bike, and a drum kit.
Flitting about in front of the Nativity, her nose pressed inside the window, was a tiny child.
“What are you doing in there?” I said.
“Trapped,” said the child.
I went back to the car and tapped on the window. “There’s a child left behind in the shop – we’ve got to get her out.”
You came and looked. The child waved. “She probably belongs to the security guard,” you said.
“Who are you,” I said.
“I am the Spirit of Christmas.”
I heard her clearly. She spoke clearly.
We looked up and down the strangely deserted street. I was starting to panic. I pulled and pushed at the doors to the store. Locked. No cleaners. No janitors. This was Christmas Eve.
The voice came again. “I am the Spirit of Christmas.”
I was fixed on the face in the window, which seemed to change every second, as though light was playing on it, shrouding, then revealing, the expression. The eyes were not the eyes of a child.
“She is our responsibility,” I said, quietly, not really to you.
“She is not,” you said. “Come on, I’ll call the police as we drive.”
“Let me out,” said the child.
“We’ll send someone, I promise.”
The child interrupted. “You must let me out. Will you leave some of your gifts, some of your food, in the doorway right there?”
“Yes,” I said, and half dazed, I went to the car and flipped up the back and started dragging wrapped shapes and bags of food towards the doorway of the department store.
“You’ve gone mad,” you said. “This is a Christmas stunt – we’re being filmed, I know it. It’s reality TV.”
“No, this isn’t TV, this is real,” I said, and my voice sounded far away. “This isn’t what we know, it’s what we don’t know. But it’s true. I’m telling you, it’s true.”
Suddenly all the lights went out in the window of the store. And then the child was standing in between us on the street.
“Are we dreaming?” you said to me. “How did she do that?”
“I’m coming with you,” said the child. “Where are we going?”
And so, past one o’clock in the morning, we set off again, my arm inside the car now, the child on the back seat next to Hackles the cat, who had climbed out of his basket and was purring. I looked in the mirror as we left and saw our bags of food and gifts being taken away, one by one, by dark figures.
“They are the ones who live in the doorways,” said the child, as though reading my thoughts. “They have nothing.”
“It happens every year,” said the child. “In different ways, in different places. If I am not set free by Christmas morning, the world grows heavier. The world is heavier than you know.”
We drove in silence for a while. The sky was black, pinned with stars. I imagined myself high above the road, looking back on Planet Earth, blue in the blackness, white-patched, polar capped. This was life and home. When I was a child, my father gave me a glass snow-scene of the earth shook with stars. I used to lie in bed and turn it over and over, falling asleep with the stars behind my eyes, feeling warm and light and safe. The world is weightless, hanging in space, unsupported, a gravitational mystery, sun-warmed, gas-cooled. Our gift.
I used to fight off sleep for as long as I could, squinting out of one closing eye at my silent, turning world. I grew up. My father died. The snow-scene was in his house, in my old bedroom. When we were clearing I dropped it, and the little globe fell out of its heavy, star-shot liquid. That was when I cried. I don’t know why.
I must have reached across the car seat then and taken your hand. “What’s the matter,” you said gently.
“I was thinking about my father.”
“Strange. I was thinking about my mother.”
You said, “I wish I’d done more for her, said more to her, but it’s too late now.”
“You never got on.”
“Why is that? Why do so many parents and children never get on?”
You never talked like this. Glancing at your profile, I could see the tension in your jaw. I love your face. I was about to say so, but you said, “Ignore me. It’s this time of year. A family time, I guess.”
“Yes. What a mess we make of it.”
“Of what? Our families, or Christmas?”
“Both. Neither. No wonder everyone goes shopping. Displacement activity.” You smiled, trying to lighten the mood.
A voice came from the backseat. “If only the world could rid itself of some of its contents.” We both glanced round. I realized that the green light in the ca wasn’t the instrument panel; it was her. She was glowing.
“Suppose she’s who she says she is,” I said.
“I am the Spirit of Christmas,” said the child.
I said, “And suppose something extraordinary is happening to us tonight.”
This time you squeezed my hand and I saw the muscle in your jaw lower just a little. I want to tell you I love you, and how much I love you, and that I love you like the sun rising, every day. I know this will embarrass you, so I don’t say anything.
You switched on the radio. Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.
You sang along. “Peace on earth, and mercy mild.”
The voice from the backseat said, “Turn right here please.”
You do. You hesitate, but you do it, because she’s that sort of child. You took the dark bend, accelerated forward and stalled the car.
Just touching down over the roof of a handsome Georgian house, holly wreath on the blue front door, was a sledge pulled by six reindeer.
Father Christmas smiled and waved at us. The child waved back and climbed out of the car. Hackles jumped out and followed her.
Santa clapped his hands. The house was in darkness but a sash window on the first floor was pushed up by some unseen inside hand; three bulging sacks thudded to the ground. Santa Claus shouldered them easily enough and loaded them onto his sledge.
“He’s robbing the place!” you said. “Hey you!”
The figure in red came forward convivially. “We can only offer this service one a year,” he told you.
“What bloody service?”
“In the old days, we used to leave presents, because people didn’t have much. Now everyone has so much, they write to us to come and take it away. You’ve no idea how much better it feels to wake up to Christmas morning and find it all gone.”
“And now what?” you said, half furious, half fazed. “Car jackings for New Years Eve?”
“Well, come and see if you like,” said Santa. “Follow me.”
And so we followed him, he in his sleigh, and we in our car, down a little road until we came to stop before a dark and wind broken cottage. Santa and the Spirit of Christmas went to the house and opened the front door. They went inside. Then Santa came out of the cottage, stooping slightly under the weight of a moth-eaten bag. He was holding a mince pie and a glass of whiskey. “Not many people leave anything these days,” he said, downing the whiskey in one gulp, “but I know this house and they know me. Pain and want must vanish tonight. Once a year is all the power I am given.”
“What power?” you said. “Where’s the child?”
Santa gestured back at the cottage, its windows lit up now with the strange green that accompanied the child. We could see quite clearly that the table had a clean cloth on it, and the child was arranging a ham, a pie, a cheese.
Santa smiled, and tipped the sack onto the sledge. What fell out was musty and old and broken. Now the sack was empty.
Without speaking, he offered the empty sack to you and pointed towards the car. He wants you to fill it, I thought. Do it, please, do it.
You hesitated, and then you opened all the doors of the car and started pushing presents and food into the sack. “Give him everything,” I said. You leaned over and started taking things from the back seat, and the car was almost empty now. You handed the heavy sack to the red figure, who was watching you intently.
“You haven’t given me everything,” he said.
The Spirit of Christmas had come out of the house now. The child said to you, “Give him what you fear.”
The moment was still, utterly still. “Yes,” you said. “Yes.”
There was a terrific thud and the bag fell to the ground in a great weight. Santa nodded, and picked up the sack. “It’s time to go now,” said the Spirit of Christmas. And she and Santa departed in a whoosh of the sleigh.
We got in the car and drove back along the track. Beyond the dry stone walls, the sheep were huddled in fields. After a while you stopped and got out. I followed you. I put my arms round you. I could hear your heart beating. “What shall we do now that we’ve given it all away?” you said.
“Haven’t we got anything left?”
“A bag of food behind the front seat. That’s all. I don’t understand any of this. Do you?”
“No,” I said.
“Do you remember when we first met and we had no money at all – we were paying off student loans and I was working two jobs, and we ate sausages and stuffing on Christmas Day, but no turkey, because we couldn’t afford one? Do you remember?”
“God yes, and it was freezing because you were in that horrible houseboat, and you wouldn’t come home with me because you hated my mother.”
“I didn’t hate your mother. You hated your mother.”
“Yes,” you said slowly. “What a waste of life hatred is.”
You turned to face me. You were quite serious. “Do you still love me?”
“Yes I do”
“I love you, but I don’t say it enough, do I?”
“I know you feel it. But sometimes….sometimes I feel like you don’t want me. I don’t want to force you, but I miss your touch, your body, our kisses, our closeness, and the rest too.”
You were quiet. Then you said, “When he, Santa Claus, or whatever he is, asked me to give what I fear, I realized that if everything were still in the car and you were gone, then what? What if our house, my work, my life, everything I have was all where it should be, and you were gone? And I thought, that’s what I fear. I fear it so much I can’t even think about it, but it’s there all the time, like a war that’s coming.”
“That bit by bit I am pushing you away.”
“Do you want to push me away?”
You kissed me, like we used to kiss each other, and I could feel my tears, and then I realized they were yours.
We got back in the car, and drove on through the last miles towards the village. Soon it would be day. A hooded figure was walking by the side of the road. You pulled alongside and stopped the car, opening the window. “Would you like a ride?” you said.
The figure turned to us. It was a woman carrying a baby. The woman pushed back her hood; her face was beautiful and strong. Unlined and clear. She smiled, and the baby smiled. It was a baby, but its eyes weren’t the eyes of a baby. Above us in the sky was a drop-pointed star, and a light strengthening in the east.
You had pulled over now. You put your elbow on the steering wheel and your head on your hand. “Have we dreamed it all? Are we at home, asleep, waiting to wake up?”
“Come on,” I said. “If we’re asleep, let’s sleepwalk down to the cottage.”
The woman and child were ahead of us now, walking, walking, walking.
We got out. You took my hand. We had noticed everything once – the water collecting on the ivy, the mistletoe in the dark-armed oak, the barn where the owl sat under the tiles. Why had we learned to hurry through every day when every day was all we had?
The woman was still walking, carrying the future, holding the miracle, the miracle that births the world again and gives us a second chance.
Why are the real things, the important things, so easily mislaid underneath the things that hardly matter at all?
“I’ll light the fire,” I said.
“Later,” you said. “I’d like to sleepwalk back to bed with you.”
Outside from across the fog-ploughed fields I heard the bells ringing in Christmas Day.