Friday, December 25, 2020

A Nativity, 2020

This came from some Twitter speculation about the Virgin Birth, and about Joseph’s acceptance of it, and from a year where hope has seemed in very short supply.

A Nativity, 2020


20th March 2020


Congratulations Mary! You have been selected to receive a very special present!

Mary marked that email as spam and slipped her phone into her locker. An infection risk, these days, and nobody wanted to be the person bringing the killer virus into the care home.

She went through the ritual of disinfecting and protecting herself, a ritual that had become horribly familiar in a short space of time. A fortnight ago everyone had thought it would all blow over. She’d cracked jokes with the residents about bumping elbows and not laughing too loudly.

None of them seemed very funny right now.


26th March 2020


Joe watched Mary stuff her laundry bag into the washing machine and set it going. Yesterday’s scrubs were on the radiator. His were on the airer, which took up far too much room. He had to move it so he could get to the microwave, and then move it back to see the TV.

“We need a bigger flat,” he said.

“We need a lot of things,” said Mary, as she washed her hands, muttering a begrudging Happy Birthday under her breath.

She collapsed onto the other end of the sofa, laid her head back and closed her eyes for a moment. Her hair was still wet from her shower at the Home. “How’d it go? Did you break up with him?”

Joe shrugged, more lightly than he felt. “Yeah.”

“How’d he take it?”

“He said... he’s a dick.”

“No, he didn’t.”

“Not in so many words, but what he said means he’s a dick.”

Mary reached out, and then fell back. They worked and lived together, but over the last few weeks everyone was terrified to touch. It was one thing dressed up like something from a disaster movie, in plastic visors and horrible ventilator masks and gloves and plastic aprons… that wasn’t touching. Not really. But even giving your flatmate a hug, when you we’re both freshly showered and in clean, uncontaminated clothes, and as sanitised as possible… these days that felt weird.

“Takeaway?” she said instead.

Joe thought about his finances. Dire, but they were supposed to be getting overtime payments. “What do you fancy?”

Mary dragged her phone from her pocket. “We could—oh for heaven’s sake.”

“What?”

She showed him the screen. “Mary, a great honour is due to you…”

“So, it’s spam?”

“It’s every damn day. I keep reporting it and it keeps coming. Mary, a great honour. Mary, you have been chosen. Mary, we must inform you of a great joy…”

“Is it a bequest from a Nigerian prince?”

“Nah, they’re all Middle Eastern addresses,” said Mary. “You fancy kebabs? I could eat a kebab.”


3rd April 2020


“How’re you doing, Gabe?” said Mary, shouting through her mask. The horrible things made her ears hurt at the very thought of them these days. Under her latex gloves, her hands were raw from constant washing.

“Can’t complain, Mary,” said Gabe, who had terminal cancer and knew it. “Especially with you looking after me. What an angel you are, Mary, love.”

Mary checked Gabe’s chart. His morphine level didn’t seem to have been raised.

“I do my best, Gabe. All anyone can do,” she told him.

She checked his dressings and his pulse, gave him his hourly cocktail of drugs, made sure he was comfortable.

“Mary,” he said, as she filled out his chart.

“Hmm?”

“You shall receive a great gift, Mary,” said Gabe.

She didn’t look up. “That right?”

“He has blessed you, child.”

“Who? Joe? What’s he done, found some toilet rolls on eBay?”

Gabe didn’t answer.

“People keep telling us to only buy what we need, but I don’t know, I don’t exactly count how many I use a week. I just buy them when I’m running out. Or I did, anyway. Got a four-pack the other day. Felt like Christmas.”

She looked up. Gabe wasn’t just quiet. Mary had worked in the care home long enough to know what his stillness meant.

“Oh Gabe,” she said, but she didn’t pray or kiss a crucifix or anything, because who could believe in God at a time like this?


28th May 2020


7pm, regular as clockwork, the cacophony of saucepans and bells and some enterprising soul with a bugle. People standing outside their doors clapping and cheering to thank the NHS and care workers.

Mary shouted, “Some of us are working nights,” and pulled her pillow over head.


9th June 2020 


“I’m sorry,” said Joe as Mary continued retching in the bathroom, “but the guidelines say if one of us is feeling unwell we both have to isolate.”

“But being sick isn’t on the list of Covid symptoms,” said his boss.

“Do you really want to risk it?” said Joe, and went back to binge-watching Schitt’s Creek.


28th June 2020


“We’re sorry,” said the automated voice, “but we can’t take calls right now. Due to Covid-19 please do not come into the surgery. To book an appointment, please use Patient Access. If you don’t have Patient Access, please go online to find out how.”

Mary glowered at the website, which told her she’d have to go into the surgery to get an access code for the app that meant she wouldn’t have to go into the surgery.


4th July 2020


“No, I’m sorry,” said Mary, once she’d stopped laughing. “That can’t be right at all.”

The doctor shrugged, or maybe her screen had frozen. “You can get a test from a pharmacy,” she said. “Blood and urine tests at the surgery are not very easy to do right now, but a pharmacy pregnancy test is pretty reliable. If if it says positive, it’s probably positive.”

“I work in a care home,” said Mary. “Negative tests are everything right now.”

The doctor laughed bitterly. “And if you can get hold of one, won’t you tell me how?”


5th July 2020


“Well, the doctor was wrong,” Mary said, staring at the pregnancy test with its cheery little smiley face. What was there to smile about?

It was clearly a false positive. There was no way she was pregnant. She’d get another test tomorrow.


6th July 2020


“Manufacturing default,” she said to the little plastic stick. “I should complain to the company.”


7th July 2020


“You have got to be kidding me,” said Mary.

A row of little plastic sticks covered the bathroom counter. Some of them had smiley faces, some of them had plus signs, some of them had the word PREGNANT written in capital letters.

“Are you okay?” said Joe from the hallway. “Do you want me to get one of the cystitis tests from the Home for you?”

Mary opened the door, showed him the sticks, and burst into tears.


10th July 2020


“And how is everything where you are?” said Aunt June, having filled him on her allotment and Aunt Helga’s new interest in crochet.

“Oh, you know,” said Joe. “Work work work, spend half our time decontaminating like we’re in a disaster movie, Mary thinks she might be pregnant, my sourdough starter keeps dying.”

A slight pause, then June said, “Just checking, but you didn’t name your sourdough starter Mary, did you?”

Joe sighed. “He’s called Herman,” he said. “Mary’s my flatmate. She says she can’t be because she hasn’t been with anyone, but she did like a hundred tests and they were all positive.”

“Well then,” said Aunt June. “Must’ve been a star in the East lately.”


17th July 2020


“Probably about fourteen weeks,” said the midwife. “Which puts your due date around… oh! Look at that. Christmas Day.”

“I repeat,” said Mary, “that you have to be kidding.”

The midwife had all the PPE Mary wore every day, and the tests she’d done were probably less invasive than a lot of the daily tasks Mary did at the Home. With the notable exception that Mary had never had to check if one her patients was pregnant.

“We’ll book you in for a scan. I’m afraid right now we’re asking patients to come in by themselves if at all possible. You can have someone wait for you in the car of course. Do you think that will be all right for you?”

Mary didn’t have a car. She’d made it here on the bus, wearing a mask and gloves. Joe had an old rust bucket that took them to the supermarket during those inconveniently early hours when essential workers were prioritised in supermarkets.

“Mary? We can sort out a video link to the father if you like.”

Mary shook her head. “That won’t be necessary,” she said, faintly.


25th July 2020


“Is it a boy or a girl?” asked Joe, peering at the photo she stuck the the cork board.

“It’s a baby,” said Mary. To Joe it looked like a black and white potato, but he nodded as if it was perfectly comprehensible.

“Well, congratulations,” he said.

“For what?” Mary looked tired. These days they were all tired, but it seemed worse on her. She kept maintaining she couldn’t be pregnant, but here was the evidence, in literal black and white.

“Well, babies are always good news,” he said. “I’d love a baby.”

“Really?” Her hand was on her stomach now, slightly more rounded than it had been. She didn’t seem aware of the gesture.

“Yeah. Always wanted one. Never found the right chap.”

“You could adopt?” said Mary.

“What, on my own? No. I suppose I’ll just have to be Uncle Joe,” said Joe, and Mary said, “Try not to be too excited about this.”


20th November 2020


“But you said it was just the Covid Stone,” said Beryl.

“You’re not even married,” said Peter.

“I knew it,” said Rita.

Mary smoothed her plastic apron over her belly, which was approximately the size of a beachball, and said, “No, I’m pregnant. And I’ve got to go on leave now. But look, there’ll be a vaccine soon. They said so on the news. And everyone here will be the first to get it.”

Some of the residents cheered. Others muttered darkly about Bill Gates. Of course, the Home had excellent wi-fi.

“We have hope,” Mary said. “I know this year has seemed endless, but we have hope.”

Her baby had no father, no money, no future and not even a past, but she supposed there was always hope.

“And will you be back, love?” asked Rita. “After the baby?”

“I hope so,” said Mary, who had no idea. There was a flat pack in her bedroom that promised it would be a cot one day. Joe had bought a rainbow babygro.

“Can you bring him in to show us? I love a baby,” said Beryl.

“What baby?” said Peter.


2nd December 2020


“Aunt June says we can go to her,” said Joe, as Mary flicked morbidly through Netflix. “For Christmas. With the new rules. Be nice, won’t it?”

“Spose,” said Mary.

“Ever so nice, Aunt June,” said Joe. “Got that cottage in the garden so if we have to isolate we can do it there but still go out into the garden with her for a cup of mulled… er, apple juice.”

“Can’t wait,” said Mary.

“And her wife is lovely. Helga. Midwife for years. Been knitting for the baby, she says,” said Joe, watching Mary’s glazed eyes.

“Mmm.”

“Or crocheting. I don’t know. Mary, babe, are you all right?”

Mary shrugged. “I’m having a baby I can’t be having,” she said. “What do you think?”

Joe and Mary had worked the same shifts for ages. He knew when she was at work and at home, and given their working hours and pay, there was little in between the two. He’d have known if she brought someone home. But there must have been a night that slipped his mind when Mary had found a fella. There must have been.

“Are you sure,” he began, but when Mary looked up at him he stopped asking her who the father was. “Are you sure you want to watch Call the Midwife, babe?”


22nd Dec 2020


“Look, so long as we stick to the cottage we can go,” said Joe. “June will bring us dinner to the door and we’ll have a live FaceTime any time we need her, okay?”

“We can FaceTime from here,” said Mary. Her back was killing her.

“I know,” said Joe, and his face nearly lost its sunny expression. “But June is all the family I have. She’s home to me. I need to go, Mary. Please. We can be there in a couple of hours. We know how to be safe.”

Mary sighed. 25th December was the due date, but Joe promised her Helga knew what to do if the baby was born. Which she still didn’t entirely believe was going to happen.

It couldn’t be true. Nine months made no difference to her acceptance of the facts. But the baby she probably wasn’t having could probably be born here or in St David’s.

“You’ll make a note,” she said, “of every service station along the way. Which I’ll need to pee in. And if we get stuck in traffic—”

Joe grinned and brandished a bedpan.

“I hate you,” she said.


23rd December 2020


“The ports are what?” said Joe.


24th December 2020, mid afternoon


“All right, I accept we should have stayed at home,” said Joe, turning his back as Mary grumbled about the bedpan again. Cars and lorries thundered past in a hurry, every one of them doubtless with a very good reason to be on the road.

“You said you wanted home,” said Mary. “We might as well go to your Aunt J—oh. Oh. Um, Joe?”

“Yes?”

“Um, how far are we from your Aunt June?”

Joe turned to look. Mary’s dress was soaked.

“Close enough,” he said.


24th December 2020, later afternoon


“It’s all the rain, you see,” said the police officer, peering into the car as said rain hammered down on him. “Floods everywhere.”

“We just need to get to a hospital,” said Joe.

“Hospital, you say? Well, nearest one is quite a way from here if you avoid the flooding. And I hear the roads are full of lorries. Backlog from all the ports being shut, you see.”

“That’s,” Mary said through gritted teeth, “not helpful.”

The officer peered in. He had a face covering and a plastic visor, spattered with rain. “No, I see that,” he said. “Well look, I’ve called for an ambulance, but I want to reassure you I’ve been there when all my children were born. I’m sure we can get through this. I’m Officer Shepherd, by the way.”


24th December 2020, early evening


“Guys you’re not going to believe this,” said Joe from the screen, “but my flatmate has gone into labour while we’re stuck in traffic. We’re somewhere near Dunstable I think? There’s a police officer here and I’ve gone around asking if anyone is a doctor but no one has said yes yet. If anyone sees this, and you can send help, please do!”


24th December 2020, late evening


“...and now his heartfelt video has gone viral,” said the news anchor. “Hundreds of offers of support have poured in, from a GoFundMe to people trekking across the fields to offer blankets and tea to the young mother. The clip has been retweeted by Beyoncé, RuPaul and Queen Latifah, prompting the hashtag #ThreeQueens on social media…”


25th December 2020


The lights of several cars illuminated the scene, reflecting brilliantly off the rain on the windscreens like thousands of tiny stars, as Mary cradled her new child in her arms and Joe wrapped a blanket around them both.

“And this is Joe,” said Mary, “who will be your uncle or father or best friend.”

“Or maybe all three, because you’re very lucky,” said Joe.

“And here is Officer Shepherd, who will be your godfather,” said Mary, and Officer Shepherd beamed.

A tiny starfish hand clutched her finger, and Mary knew she would move heaven and earth for this child.

She looked up, and realised that, in small groups, under umbrellas, wearing home-made face masks, a crowd had gathered. Many carried bags, blankets, toys and foil-covered food.

Quite a few of them seemed to be filming her.

“People have brought you all sorts of gifts,” said Mary to the huge, unblinking eyes of her baby. “Because people are kind, even when everything seems terrible.”

“And does this little one have a name?” said one of the onlookers.

Mary looked down at the baby who had come from nowhere and been born during the worst year anyone could remember.

 Above, the first rays of light broke through the darkness, and a new day began.

“Hope,” she said. “Your name is Hope.”

1 comment:

  1. Lovely. Absolutely lovely Kate, and encapsulates the year x

    ReplyDelete