This short story forms part of our Tales of Christmas series. Learn about the authors and find more exclusive fiction here.
I am seven. It is 1978, Christmas time, but not Christmas Day yet, and we are travelling to Oxford in a Morris Minor along a dark section of the A40. The radio has been turned off and my parents aren’t talking and I think my mother’s crying but I can’t be sure because every time I look to see, she turns away and looks out the window, her face lit intermittently by taillights and headlights. My father swears a lot. We have no heating in the car, on account of 1) it being an old car, and 2) the turkey. My mother holds it on her lap, wrapped in a coat. It is frozen and she can no longer feel her thighs but she doesn’t complain because her father is dying and that is why we are rushing.
It’s starting to snow. My mother notices this and mentions it. My sister groans and beds down in a blanket. I don’t say anything. I haven’t spoken in nearly six months since the sponsored silence at school. It’s not psychological I just can’t be bothered any more. On paper, I have raised thirteen thousand and sixty four pounds to help the Vietnam boat people, but no-one will pay up. Never mind Vietnam, people say, what about us?
My father clutches the steering wheel, his face close to the windscreen as the wipers whip across trying hard to dispel the thick fall of snow settling across our vision. I am perched on the edge of the back seat in between my parents. There are no seat belts and should my father brake suddenly, I shall fly past both of them, over the hand brake and gear stick through the windscreen and probably get crushed beneath the tyres. Then they’ll love me.
“What in the f**k sh*t world was that!?” screams my father and the car comes to a sudden halt. I fly forwards and take out the rear view mirror and the turkey.
“Stop messing around,” says my father.
Snow falls in front of the headlights onto the tangled mass in front. Steam rises. The road is empty, no white or red lights, just the sound of soft thuds of snow and the creek of an old car cooling in the chill night air.
Slowly, the crumpled mass moves, stands up in the headlights.
“Bloody Nora,” says my father.
Two large feathered wings protrude from the man’s shoulder blades, the strap padlocked across his fat hairless chest. He reaches into his loincloth and readjusts his balls. He waves.
“Don’t let him in the car, Angus,” says my mother.
He sits between me and my sister and takes up the whole backseat with his bulk and smell of tangerines. He says his name is Keith.
“So Keith, how did you end up like this?” asks my father.
“I was pushed.”
“Pushed?” says my mother.
“Out of a moving van. Mary took my arms, one of the sheep my legs. The stage manager slowed down, and Jesus opened the back door. I never stood a chance.”
“That’s awful,” says my mother.
“That’s TIE for you.”
“Theatre-in-Education. Sheep never want to be sheep, you see. Everyone wants to be an angel. Two weeks from an Equity card, I was.”
“Ouch,” says my father.
“Two weeks,” says Keith quietly and bitterly.
“How old’s the baby?” he adds, pointing.
“It’s a turkey,” says my mother.
“Do you have concussion, Keith?”
It is late when we pass South Park and pull up at the house. Lights are off and we smuggle Keith and his wings out from the Morris Minor under my sister’s blanket. My grandmother greets us at the door.
My sister says, “Nan, this is Keith. We found him on the A40.”
“Happy Christmas, Keith,” says my Nan, and she goes off to find him some clothes.
My father unpacks the car and my mother goes to the middle room where she sees her father sleeping comfortably, but dying. Dying comfortably, I suppose. I watch her from the door. I don’t know what to say. It’s just as well that I no longer speak.
We make Keith a bed on the floor in the front room under the Christmas tree. The room smells of sherry and firewood. My Nan comes in and gives him a large woollen cardigan that she thinks he could wear backwards to avoid his wings. He is grateful, too, for the socks and trousers, and changes behind the sofa for modesty.
“Sorry about all this,” he says. “I’ll be out of your hair tomorrow.”
I sleep lightly throughout the night. I hear everything; the tears, the prayers, everything; but I get up when I hear a door open downstairs. I watch my grandfather leave his room. He shuffles along the hallway in pyjamas that once fitted well. He opens the front door and walks out barefoot into the snow. He looks up and down the road to the lost years that live at both those perimeters.
When I reach the bottom of the stairs, Keith appears in his cardigan. He looks at me and smiles and puts his finger to his lips. He points to my grandfather and follows him out into the still night. They are framed by the doorway. Side by side at the gate. Keith puts his wing around my grandfather. The snow falls, a street light flickers overhead. They do not move.
“Come on,” says Keith. “Let’s go.”
A Year Of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman (£16.99, Tinder Press, itunes.apple.com), out now
Illustration: Hattie Stewart