A little bit of news: a Christmas short story by William Wall
12 Stories of Christmas, Day 3: Glad tidings at a family gathering
I’m bursting with the pudding. I had a lot of turkey too of course. But the pudding is sitting on me. Photograph: Getty Images
I’m bursting with the pudding. I had a lot of turkey too of course. But the pudding is sitting on me. It’s dark outside already and Uncle Mike is only getting wound up. We had all the ballads from him last year. The Boys Who Bate the Black and Tans, The Boys of Kilmichael.
Hi, says my sister Helen, were they all boys or did a few girls bate them as well, Uncle Mike? Mike thinks that’s very funny. So then we had a lecture about women from Helen. I swear to god if this pudding doesn’t settle I’ll end up puking it all over the car on the way home. Pat doesn’t care. You could shovel turkey and spuds and pudding and smoked salmon into that woman and she would still be smiling.
Pat, I say, Pat, will you come for a walk pet?
Ah no, she says, sure Mike is only getting going.
I make a face at her and she winks at me.
My dad is asleep with his hands crossed over his belly. My mother and my sister Kate are in the kitchen. The kids are outside somewhere or upstairs playing. The fire is slacked back and the heat is only murder. I can feel my face as red as a tomato.
But outside it’s just beginning to snow. I’m thinking if I could only get outside and stand under it everything would be ok. The cold would shrink me. I feel bloated. I’m like a balloon. A balloon in the snow gets wrinkly. To be honest I wouldn’t mind just at the minute. I’m half way to a balloon already, making the barber shave me so I won’t be tempted into a comb-over. My mam says it’s happening very young to me. My dad didn’t start to lose his until his fifties.
Just then she arrives with a plate of Christmas cake.
Ah mam, we can’t fit it in. We’re bursting.
Uncle Mike licks his lips. I’d say I’d manage a slice.
Helen takes the plates and hands them around. Pat takes two slices. I would gut her if I could. She’ll be lying beside me all night groaning. Helen’s Cormac comes in drying his hands on a tea towel. There’s something going on between them two, he’s all touchy feely with her today and winking.
Your father is asleep God bless him, don’t disturb him, he needs his rest.
That’s what Mam used to say when Dad was working. He’d come home, eat his dinner and fall asleep over the paper. Your father is asleep, don’t disturb him.
I swear Mam, I’ll explode.
One bit won’t hurt. I want to know what you think of it. I used Darina’s recipe this time.
Uncle Mike says: The turkey bate all this Christmas. I don’t know how you do it.
Mam blushes. It’s all in the basting Mike. It’s the same every year.
A triumph, he says, waving a piece of almond icing like a flag. It was a triumph altogether.
I’m going to get a breath of fresh air, I say.
It’s snowing, says Mam in shock.
I’ll put a scarf on.
A scarf? Put your coat and hat on. And don’t go far, it’s nearly dark.
Out in the yard I can year the voices of the children. My guess is they’re in the barn. I should have warned them not to break the binder twine on the bales or there’ll be hell to pay. Dad told me how much they cost this year and it was meant to sound like a fortune. I’m supposed to know these things. He’d never expect Helen to know the price of hay. Fodder is gone to hell Joe, I’ll have to give up if this keeps up. And in truth the cattle are all that’s left of the farm. He can manage them. The tillage part is long gone to con acre.
Helen is standing beside me. Jesus, it’s cold.
It’s cooling me down, I say. I think I’m going to die of eating.
But you lost weight?
I did. I’m back cross training. I’m going to do a triathlon this summer.
You look great.
Thanks. I’d feel a lot better if I wasn’t a sack of salmon, turkey, sprouts, potatoes, sherry trifle, pudding and Christmas cake loosely blended with half a bottle of chardonnay and a glass of Jameson.
She laughs. Living in the city you get out of the habit of eating the way we do.
You can say that again.
Joe, I’m pregnant.
She’s grinning so I hug her. I tell her I noticed all the touchy feely stuff from Cormac.
Was it so obvious?
You didn’t tell Mam yet I’d say?
I’m not telling her today. I’ll only get it in the neck about getting married.
And are you?
I will in me arse and the price of it. I might do a registry. We have to look into it. We’re in no rush though.
You should tell her. She’ll be happy once she’s over the shock.
Helen took a step out from under the shelter of the porch and held her hands out flat on either side, her head tilted up. I could see snowflakes falling on her hand and melting but staying in her hair. Now that I looked I thought I could imagine that thickening of the waist. My beautiful sister. Her hair was no longer the blond it was in childhood, of course. It’s dyed now, but somehow she managed to get something close to the original. She is smaller than me, and thinner, and the long hair makes her look a bit childish still, from behind anyway.
Cormac is a full two feet taller than her. When her baby is a teenager he’ll be taller than her. My own are getting there and I’m five inches taller than Helen. It’s all the good nourishment. The girls turn out leggy and the boys play hurling and turn into men at 15. Uncle Mike’s eldest is six foot three. He lives in Manhattan and only sees his wife at weekends because they’re both lawyers but they send their two Yankee kids home here for Christmas every second year. In America, Christmas is only a day. His daughter is in the English civil service. She was seconded to the Brexit department and signed the official secrets act or whatever they have. She says it’s a complete waste of time and money.
Listen, Helen said.
Whist. I hear something.
I step out too and immediately I feel the healing power of the cold. The snow is staying now. It falls out of the darkness and into the light. And I hear it too. The children are singing. It’s too faint to make out the words. I look at Helen and she smiles and I take her hand.
I’m so happy for you, I say. You and Cormac. This baby couldn’t be born to a nicer pair.
Oh go away with you, she says. But she hugs me. We’re over the moon.
Arm in arm, shivering a little, we walk around the side of the house and cross the yard to the barn. The children are sitting on bales arranged like a choir and my Ellie is conducting. Yankee Shawn got a wind-up camping lantern from Uncle Mike and he’s winding it to keep the light on. They’re singing Away In A Manger. We watch from the door but before they finish we slip away.
Oh god, Helen says, I want this baby so much. For that. To see them all in there.
As we reach the front door Mam comes out. Joe, Helen, there’s a new weather alert. I’m sending you all home. The snow is down for the night and they’re talking about three days of it.
And then it is a welter of goodbyes. Uncle Mike has a four wheel drive and tells us all to call him if we run into trouble. Dad wakes up and after a few minutes of bewilderment at the thought that we had all decided to abandon him while he was asleep starts putting coats on the children. Mam is wrapping turkey leftovers and slices of cake for everyone. Pat is clearing the snow from the windscreen. I’m collecting the things the kids brought and putting their presents into a bag to take home.
At some point just before everything comes together and the house empties I notice Mam and Helen are missing. The door to the kitchen is closed. Pat has the engine running to warm the car for us. I rush out to her and she reluctantly rolls down the window. I tell her the news and she grins and kisses me quickly on the lips.
We should wait a bit, I say. Just in case.
She grimaces. I’ll leave the engine on. It’s freezing in here. If we get it hot the kids’ll fall asleep on the way home.
She comes back inside with me. Mike shakes everyone’s hand and kisses the children and me.
A happy and a healthy New Year to everyone, he says. He’s about to go out when the kitchen door opens and Mam comes in followed by Helen.
Wait Mike, she says. Helen has a bit of good news.
The kids in their puffy jackets, their faces polished by the cold and the light. Uncle Mike in his parka, Cormac leaning against the door jamb looking anxious, Dad’s eyes flitting from Mam to Helen and back again, Pat coming in and scraping the snow off her feet on the grating at the front door. And outside the silence fills the fields from here all the way down to the sea. Everybody knows snow is magic. It changes everything.
A little bit of news, Mam says again, and she turns around and takes Helen’s hand.
William Wall has published six novels, most recently Suzy Suzy (2019) and Grace’s Day (2018), three collections of short fiction and four collections of poetry including. His work has been widely translated and he translates from Italian. williamwall.net