A Christmas Angel
It didn’t matter where she was: Jill’s daughter, Sarah, was always the angel. She may only have been nine (although she had already attended three schools) but, sure enough, each Christmas play that rolled round found Jill taking out an old white bedsheet and, summoning the skills she had learnt in Home Economics years ago, forming it into a shapeless tunic and tacking silver tinsel to the neckline, the cuffs, and the bottom.
Last year, Jill had been very cunning and had made the costume too large and just taken the bottom and the cuffs up. Sarah had not noticed and it meant that, when she came home from school today with the not-unexpected news that she would be playing the angel in the nativity play, her mother knew that she could just alter and reuse last year’s costume.
There was, however, one slight problem: since last Christmas, they had moved into the new house. Well, not a new house at all, actually. A house so old it was said that Charles II had hidden in the garden after his father’s defeat in battle a short distance away. It was a charming little cottage, just as it had said on the brochure. But Jill was still unsure so, despite the large deposit and the commitment to a hefty mortgage, she had not yet unpacked. The angel costume must be in one of the boxes that were piled high in the room that might one day be her study.
However, there was a more immediate problem at dinner time, when Sarah put down her knife and fork, and her mother noticed that her bottom lip was beginning to tremble.
“I always play the angel, Mum,” she muttered, looking down at her discarded cutlery as though it was somehow responsible for her misery.
“That’s because you’ve got such an angelic face, Darling,” Jill said quickly, passing over a glass of juice.
“It’s not fair,” Sarah wailed, giving up on being brave and allowing disappointment to engulf her small body. “I’m always the angel. And they don’t even exist!”
Her mother smiled slightly. As yet, there was no inclination in Sarah’s young mind to challenge her belief in God or, for that matter, even suggest that Father Christmas did not exist. But she had decided that angels did not exist, so that was the generous boundary of belief within which her mother had to work.
“Who says?” she asked quietly, but moved over to her daughter and put her arm around her shaking shoulders. “Look, I’ll make you a terrific costume and you’ll be the most amazing angel ever.” She suggested watching a film and found herself sitting with her feet up on the sofa and Sarah’s head resting on her legs as she slept her way through The Grinch. It gave Jill the chance to wonder which of the big pile of boxes contained the costume, and where she could find the tinsel. She was quite certain that the two were not packaged together.
It also gave her the opportunity to think about why her daughter was always cast as the angel, and remember a strange half-conversation she had shared with her teacher when Sarah had been in her first nativity play. She had sat down next to Jill at the performance and begun whispering before the children had taken their place on the stage.
“I thought Sarah might like to be an angel,” she had said. “Like her dad. She’s always telling people her daddy’s an angel.” Then, without invitation, the teacher had squeezed Jill’s hand and moved away to talk to other parents.
It was true: Sarah’s father had died before she was born. Two weeks before, in fact. Jill had gone into labour on the day of the funeral so, instead of saying her goodbyes to the man who had for a brief eighteen months been the love of her life, she had been alone in hospital, giving birth to a child who would redefine her experience of that love. There was a word for children who were born after the death of their father. Posthumous. Jill knew, because she had read David Copperfield.
But, because Sarah had no memories of her father and so any fondness was only what she had inherited from her mother, the excitement of being like him had gradually given way to exasperation that every teacher wanted to cast her as the angel. She had been scandalised last year when, during casting for the Christmas play, Sarah had begged her teacher to cast her as Mary, only to be told that ‘you played Mary last year, Sarah, didn’t you? Let someone else have a turn.’
Later that night, having put her daughter to bed with more promises of a fantastic costume and with ideas of staying up until dawn to create something worthy of a Hollywood Wardrobe Design team, Jill went into the pile of boxes that might one day be a study and worked her way through them. She was still there an hour later, as she heard the church clock (just next door) strike a heavy twelve, followed by a silence she had never experienced before moving into the area. In that silence the rustling of papers and ripping of sticky tape sounded like machine gun fire, and she wanted to hum to herself, but it sounded so loud that she quickly stopped and returned to a silence broken only by her foraging through the boxes.
Because the study was at the back of the house, where the low ceiling ran straight down to the floor, there was a far corner which was in darkness, and Jill wondered whether she had left the box there. There was certainly something box-shaped in the shadows. She moved over, taking a Maglite with her.
There was a box, but it was not one of the ones the removal company had given her. It was a carved wooden box, the sort that you could buy at Christmas Markets around the country and were sold by little old women who looked as though they remembered the birth of the world. She had met her husband by one of those stalls. He was gypsy-stock, she had always joked, but come to think of it, he had never corrected her.
She tried to prise the box open, but there was a heavy lock on the front. Jill shook her head. The previous owners must have left it there, in the darkness, and forgotten about it. Or perhaps they had lost the key and just decided that the box and its contents were worthless without the means of getting into it. When she picked it up, the box seemed heavy, but she could not feel if there was anything inside or hear anything moving when she gently shook it.
One of the boxes behind her pinged open with what seemed to be a deafening crack of breaking sticky tape. She put the box down and walked over to discover, with a feeling of gratitude, that the cardboard box which had come open was the one containing both the old costume and the spare tinsel. Clearly she had been more organised in packing than she remembered. She stayed up until half past two making the costume and, sure enough, when Sarah awoke the next morning, it was to discover that her mother had created the best angel costume she had ever seen. Complete, this year, with cardboard wings which were covered with aluminium foil and then trimmed with silver tinsel.
Two weeks later, Sarah stood on stage as an angel, bringing glad tidings of great joy to the group of shepherds, who could not decide between looking at her and staring out to the audience, as they scanned the school hall for their parents. There was no indication from Sarah that she was unhappy to be the angel, which may have had more to do with the fact that this year’s angel went right through the story and, apart from the Narrator, had the most lines of anyone.
After the play, Jill took her home, via the corner shop where they bought some crisps, and listened to her telling funny stories of the antics that had led up to the very successful performance. She was deciding, she told her mother, that she loved being on stage and, if they were going to stay at the house, maybe they could find a local drama group she could join.
Jill agreed and promised to stay for as long as possible. It was a big promise, much bigger than Sarah appreciated as, wherever they went, she had been unable to shake the feeling that her husband was not dead but had just popped out. Her degree was in psychology so there was no doubt in her mind as to why she had originally responded in that way, that feeling of closeness to the man she had lost never dissipated with time. It was still as though he was going to come back from that ill-fated visit to the supermarket at any moment. She just needed to find the place where he would know where to find them.
Three days later, she was sitting on the end of her daughter’s bed, carefully sizing up the stocking to try and work out what would fit in it. It was the same stocking that she had used as a child, one of her father’s old walking socks, but she still puzzled over just how the gifts fitted so well. Sarah was drifting off to sleep when Jill noticed she was still wearing a necklace.
“Come on, Sarah,” she said firmly. “You know it’s dangerous to go to sleep with things around your neck.” She held out her hand and her daughter, eyes still bleary in the first throes of sleep, removed the black shoelace from around her neck and handed the makeshift necklace to her mother.
Instead of being a charm, the object on the lace was quite definitely a functional key, although in miniature, and Jill could not work out where it had come from. When she asked, her daughter just shrugged her shoulders.
“I found it a couple of nights ago,” she said, suddenly not tired anymore but sitting up and looking hard at her mother. “When we got home from the school play. It was just on the bedroom floor.”
Jill tried to hide her puzzlement, and kissed her daughter goodnight, wishing her a merry Christmas, and reminding her that presents would only appear if she went to sleep. After that, she wandered down the stairs and waited until she was sure that Sarah would be asleep, and then crept back up with the carrier bag full of small trinkets and sweets that would make the old stocking stretch and bulge in all the traditional places.
Once she had completed that – one of her favourite tasks of the year – Jill turned to walk into her own room, when she heard the church bells striking twelve. Christmas Day. They had been ringing out for Midnight Mass just half an hour ago, but she was transported back to the moment two weeks earlier when she had heard the same thing from the study. She dipped into her cardigan pocket and felt the cold metal of the key as her hand clasped around it.
Slowly she crept into the study – taking care not to make any noise at all so that Sarah did not wake up to discover that her stocking had been filled by midnight – and moved into the dark corner. The world was silent once again, apart from the strains of a large congregation and a powerful organ beginning to power their way through the Sussex Carol in the neighbouring church.
“On Christmas night, all Christians sing to hear the news the angels bring.”
She bent down and lifted the box, once again surprised by how heavy it felt. Taking the key out of her pocket, she placed it into the lock and turned it slowly, feeling the metal straining against it, as though it had become used to being closed over the years and did not now want to yield the secrets it had so carefully protected over that time.
“Angels and men with joy may sing. All for to see the new-born King!” The voices from the church continued as she opened the lid of the box and her eyes settled on the only item it held.
An object, colourless and shapeless apart from what her human eyes could see as a gold light that seemed to surround it, and a thousand soft fingers forged together to suggest the form of a feather. If at any moment she tried to focus on the detail, it seemed to blur before her eyes, just leaving her with a sense of awe. When she dared to put her fingers around it to lift it from where it lay, it was heavy and the box became light.
What was it she had been looking for? A place she thought he would be able to find them?
She glanced down at the feather in her hand. Something so pure, so non-human, that she could not begin to comprehend its magnificence and splendour, yet so familiar and comforting that she could recognise with a childlike trust that it had been bestowed upon her with love.
She placed it back into the box but left the lid open so that she could just look at it, full of belief, and trust, and hope.
The choir in the church reached the end of the song with majestic harmony that reverberated around the village: “now and for evermore. Amen!”