On the First Day of Christmas: an original short story by Maggie O'Farrell

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This short story forms part of our Six Tales of Christmas series. Learn about the authors and find more exclusive fiction here.

The partridge is a surprise.

“For you, my dear,” our neighbour says as he steps through the door, beaming, opening a box.

There is a whirr of feathers, a strange, distressed cry, and something bursts upwards. Mother cringes, the servant girl screams and I leap upright, causing my needlework stand to fall, which in turn topples a tray of coloured silks.

“Whatever is it?” I cry.

The neighbour stands, holding a pot containing a twigged bush, the red tide of a blush creeping up from his collar. ‘It’s… it’s… a partridge.”

“I see,” I say, recovering myself. The crimson-legged bird is now perched on the chandelier, its black eye cocked towards us. My brother, in his time, shot so many of them. Rows of them used to hang, trussed up by their ankles, wings unfolded, necks loose, in the kitchen.

I wonder fleetingly what the bird sees from above: four faces tilting upwards, the chalk-white line of my parting, the nervous clench of the neighbour’s hands, the arc of embroidery silks on the floor, like a fallen rainbow. “And this,” he says, handing me the twig in the pot which, I now notice, bears two pears.

“Oh,” I say. Mother has stated that I should be more amenable.

“Let him think he has your full attention,” she whispers to me over breakfast (she has a horror of servants overhearing). The implication that we need him, his estate, this marriage, hangs in the coffee-scented steam between us. “Make him feel as if he is the only man in the room.”

“Well,” I snap, without thinking, “he is.”

Mother turns her face away and eases a handkerchief from her cuff. I sigh. One must be so careful, ever since my brother died.

To please her, more than anything else, I try to be amenable when the man comes. I sit with my work in my lap as he is shown into the parlour. Careful, amenable, I say to myself, as he struts across the carpet, as he brings out from behind his back a silver cage, inside of which are two black-beaked birds, bobbing and nodding their heads in a most confused way.

“Turtle doves,” he says, with an air of triumph, bringing his heels together.

There is a pause. I am concentrating so hard on keeping the smile on my face that I am unable to speak.

Mother steers smoothly into the void. “How thoughtful,” she says. “We did so enjoy your delicious partridge.”

His face falls. “You don’t mean to say…” he stops.

I bend over my embroidery to hide my smile and start ripping out my mistakes.

The next day, he doesn’t come in person but sends French hens in a wicker basket; the day after that, some calling birds arrive. The hallway is filled with strange noises, the tuning-up of an avarian orchestra: a cooing, a squawking, a chirping. Feathers litter the parquet like commas adrift from their clauses.

“What does it mean,” my mother mutters as she stands at the window, “his obsession with birds?”

Of course, she is all smiles when he comes with rings, gold circles, which he slides on to each finger of my left hand.

It is, I think, the first time we have touched. His skin is cool and pale as clay; the fourth ring slips from his grasp and rolls under the table. He has to get down on his hands and knees to retrieve it and I see a place on the back of his head where the hair is thin, transparent and I catch myself wondering if he is older than we think.

I daren’t look at Mother; I know her face will be relaxed, approving, alight with hope. Rings, she will be thinking, are an apt gift. Not like birds.

But the next day, there are more: six long-necked geese, packed into a crate, querulous, vivid-beaked, damp-footed. Mother lets out a shriek and sends them straight to the kitchen. The following afternoon, seven swans are sighted on the weed-choked lake, a card signed by him slid under the door.

I confess a certain fondness for these swans. Their implacable sideways gaze, the lush, icy sweep of their wings, the way they appear to glide without effort while, beneath the water, their feet must be paddling with frantic energy. They are all front, these birds, I think to myself as I turn to survey the south façade of the house, all appearance.

I am eyeing the battlements, crumbling and lichenous these days, the cypress walkway, overgrown and nearly occluded, and I am remembering how my brother used to carry me upon his back, along these paths, when I was small and he was not yet a young man, not yet running up debts and gambling and worse. The nap of his coat was smooth and I had to grip the rounded bones of his shoulders, press my face to the clipped hair of his neck. Hold on tight, he used to say to me as we turned a corner, the words tossed over his shoulder like a scarf. Hold on.

A sudden sound makes me turn my head. A low, mournful groan.

I blink. There are eight cows being led up the main carriageway. My suitor brings up the rear, fastidiously adjusting his hat. When he catches sight of me, he waves, jerking his arm back and forth in the air as if we are aboard different ships, separated by seawater.

Cupping his hands around his mouth, he shouts something about milk or milking. Then: “Tomorrow there will be dancing!”

Please God, no, I think.

That night, I wait until the house is asleep. I tiptoe down the stairs and out through the kitchen. I pass a lone goose, nesting in a saucepan, head curled under its wing. I let myself out of the rear door.

I am five miles or more away, it is four days until Christmas, dawn bleaching the sky, and I put my hands in my pockets and discover the five gold rings, tied up in a handkerchief, and the yellow pears. My mother: she must have known I couldn’t go through with it, must have known I had to leave.

I cup a pear in each palm and keep walking, towards the rising sun.

This Must Be The Place by Maggie O’Farrell (£14.99, Tinder Press) is out now

Illustration: Clym Evernden