Monday, December 10, 2007
It was nearly midnight when Gabriella landed in a snowdrift in Millie Perkins’ garden.
Millie was in bed, propped against her pillows sipping Irish coffee. The bedroom was as cosy as an oven, tucked as it was under the thatched roof. The bed-head was against the brick chimney that carried the heat up from the kitchen range below. If it hadn’t been for her tabby cat, who curled against her stomach, purring and kneading threads from the eiderdown and making a good book-stand for one of the Mills and Boon romances she was fond of reading - Millie wouldn‘t have heard a thing.
Leonardo lifted his head and meowed a complaint. As a result, the book fell sideways to the floor in the middle of a rather crucial scene, where the hero was about to declare his love - and slid under the chest of drawers. Leonardo kept on staring towards the chintz-curtained windows, his hair ridging along his back like one of the hairy caterpillars who appeared in the spring to devour her lettuces.
Millie admitted to a twinge of alarm as she rose from her bed and slid into the sheepskin slippers her daughter had given her for Christmas. It had been naughty of her to open the gift in advance, but as she could tell from the shape of the parcel exactly what was in it - well, she didn’t see any point in waiting.
Not that there was anyone to tell her off. She’d be spending this Christmas alone. Her beloved granddaughter had gone into labour early, so neither could be with her. Millie was thrilled to think her first great-grandchild would be born on Christmas Day, though - and they’d rearranged the celebration for New Year, instead.
Twitching the curtains open a chink she peered out into the garden. Leonardo leapt on to the window sill and pawed the chink wider so his head would fit through it and he could satisfy his own curiosity.
For a moment Millie didn’t see anything, especially what she was looking for, the tell-tale footsteps in the snow to signal an intruder. She took a moment to admire the scene. It was so Christmassy, with snow plastered on the tree branches like icing sparkling on a cake. It had been ages since they’d had a white Christmas. It seemed fitting somehow, when her great grandchild was due to be born. It also reminded her of her childhood, when Christmas cards were magical concoctions of stage coaches, robins, angels and sparkle dust.
“Good, grief!” she exclaimed when snow flurried up from the drift. A small winged creature crawled out from a hole and sneezed, sending a shower of golden sparks shooting upwards. When they settled Millie saw that the creature glowed. It seemed to be injured as it crawled across the snow, dragging its wing behind it.
Leonardo growled deep in his throat, rear ended himself swiftly to the floor and took refuge under the bed. His yellow eyes glared out from the darkness like alarmed lanterns.
“Don’t be such a cowardly custard,” Millie said, and reaching for her glasses, exclaimed, “I do believe it’s a fairy!” She’d never expected to see a real fairy and felt rather excited about it. What a wonderful tale she’d have to tell to her great grandchild.
Still, she decided on caution, picking up the wooden spoon as she shuffled past the Christmas tree with its coloured lights and tinsel, and the gaily wrapped parcels underneath.
The night cold was bitter after the warmth of the cottage. Her breath puffed out in a cloud of vapour. She shivered, pulling her beanie down round her ears and drawing her shawl a little tighter when the church clock in the village struck twelve.
The creature was a cute little thing, the size of a small doll. She had bedraggled blond curls and feathery wings, and if she hadn’t had such a peevish expression on her face she would have been quite pretty.
“Don’t just stand there,” she snapped. “If I don’t get warm soon, I’ll perish.”
Millie eyed the thin shift the fairy wore. “You do seem unsuitably dressed for winter.” She lifted her gently from the ground and into her shawl. “You must let me look after you.”
“Not too tight, one of my wings is already damaged. If it doesn’t heal I won’t be able to get there in time for the birth.” The creature looked glum for a few seconds. “Then I’ll have some explaining to do.”
Millie retraced her steps, securing the door behind them. She placed her small charge on the kitchen table then pulled up a chair and stared at her. She remembered the story of sleeping beauty. “I hope you’re one of the good fairies.”
The creature put her hands on her hips and sizzled with red sparks. “Fairy!” she snorted, stamping a bare foot. “My name’s Gabriella and I happen to be an angel, one of the cherub types. I’m in a hurry, so if you’re going to help me let’s get on with it. Oh dear.” Her temper evaporated. “I miscalculated badly. If I don’t get there on time the baby will have no soul and I’ll be disgraced. She began to look around her in panic. “Have you seen my soul bag? I had it in my hand when I hit the tree branches.”
Thoughts of snuggling back into her bed fled Millie’s mind. “If you don’t mind me saying, you don’t seem ... well ... competent enough for such an important task.”
“It’s my first assignment since my exam,” Gabriella said miserably. “If I fail, they’ll send me back into the nursery, and it will be an eternity before I can attempt to graduate. This is my second attempt. Last time I gave the wrong soul to the wrong child. They wouldn’t take the fact that I suffer from dyslexia into account.”
Millie had no idea what dyslexia was, but hoped it wasn’t infectious. “Goodness, that seems a bit harsh.”
“This time I have to succeed, or die in the attempt.”
Millie felt quite sorry for her. “I expect your bag’s still in the snowdrift, dear. I’ll go and look for it, then perhaps I can sew your wing back on for you.”
The bag was lying in a puddle of melted ice near the gate. It pulsated with blue and white light. Warm to the touch, Millie felt quite calmed by it.
“It’s a wonderful little soul,” Gabriella explained when she went back in. “This colour is rare and they’re in high demand. The baby will be equipped to become a healer - if its body survives the birth and if the soul doesn’t run out of energy. It should enter the host body before birth, really, but there’s a bit of leeway.”
Millie felt hopeful as she remembered her own great-grandchild. “My granddaughter is in labour at the moment.”
Gabriella smiled slightly. Taking a bit of paper from her pocket she squinted at it and said with great importance. “This soul is for a baby called Mary Saint.” She clapped a tiny hand over her rosebud mouth. “Forget I said that.”
Millie tried to forget it as she sewed the wing back into place with the neat hemming stitches she learned as a child - but she couldn’t help being a bit envious because the rare healing soul wasn’t destined for her great-grandchild. The operation must have hurt Gabriella, but she didn’t make a sound, which was rather brave of her, Millie thought. She appeared exhausted afterwards.
“I’ll have a short rest, then I must try and finish my journey. The child should be born about six am.”
Millie made Gabriella a cosy bed in one of her new sheepskin slippers. She kept watched over her, mainly because Leonardo had come downstairs, and was very interested in what the slipper contained. He had that look in his eye - the one he got when he thought he was still young and stalked birds.
“If anything happens to that angel I’ll throw you out in the snow,” she warned, and he jumped on her lap and rubbed his chin against hers and purred because he knew she’d do no such thing, and he’d got what he was after, anyway - her undivided attention.
Just after six the phone rang. Millie snatched it up. As expected, it was her daughter. “The baby’s a boy. He’s very tiny and the doctor doesn’t think he’ll survive.” Tears sprang to Millie’s eyes. “They’ve transferred them to Saint Mary’s, they’ve got a specialist baby unit there.”
Millie’s eyes snapped open. “Saint Mary’s!” It had to be more than a coincidence. “You mustn’t give up hope,” she said, trying not to sound too excited. “It’s Christmas, a time when miracles happen.”
She gently shook Gabriella awake. The angel wasn’t very responsive. Her eyes were dull and she was trembling. “I’m afraid I’ve caught an infection of some sort. I’m too sick to fly.”
A very strange idea formed in Millie’s head, one she wouldn’t have acted on under different circumstances. “Oh, you won’t have to fly. I have transport.”
She’d kept Frank’s old motor bike shiny and clean, but hadn’t been able to bring herself to part with it. Now and again she kick-started it, and until five years ago had ridden it to classic vehicle shows. She just hoped she could still remember how to drive the thing - her reflexes weren’t exactly what they used to be.
The leather flying jacket, hat and goggles - which had once belonged to her husband, and had flown all over Europe in a Spitfire during world war two - fit her with room to spare. Frank would have a fit if he knew what she was up to. Perhaps he did, though. Sometimes, he unexpectedly dropped by the cottage for a chat.
“Frank,” she said out loud, when she was pushing the heavy bike out of the garage. “You’d better help me with this thing. Our great-grandson’s life is at stake.”
The motor bike kick-started after a couple of backfires, which left sooty black rings in the snow. Millie let the engine run for a while, gazing down at Gabriella, tucked into the depths of the side-car in her sheepskin bed. The angel had lost some of her glow.
Millie ran her hand over the bike’s tank, remembering the summer days of her marriage, when she and Frank had toured the countryside on it. They’d had a wonderful fifty years together. She still missed Frank, even though he’d been gone for several years. These days, marriage didn’t seem to matter much. Millie couldn’t understand why people were reluctant to make a commitment to each other when they were in love - she couldn’t understand it at all.
The handlebars wobbled as she put the bike into gear and moved off in a cloud of smoke. But by the time she’d cleared the village - waving to an astonished vicar who was walking his dog before the early service - she’d gained a little confidence.
The roads were clear of snow, and the traffic was light. The dawn was cold, the air crisp. Soon, Millie’s fingers and feet were numb and her cheeks were glowing scarlet from the cold like a couple of ripe plums.
Behind the curtains of the houses she passed, she imagined children waking to excitedly delve into Christmas stockings. Turkeys would be stuffed and fitted into ovens, port decanted, carols sung and brandy flamed on Christmas puddings decorated with sprigs of holly.
Smoke curled up from chimneys. She waved to everyone she saw, shouting out, “Merry Christmas.” Bursting with seasonal cheer she drove into the hospital grounds and parked her vehicle in a space reserved for the hospital administrator, a Mr Merryweather. It was a name which conjured up a jolly, plump face smiling with benevolence.
Millie had a moment of doubt about Gabriella, who appeared quite spiritless. “Are you all right, my dear? You seem to have run out of sparkle.”
Gabriella gave her a wan smile. “The soul has lost a bit of its lustre. I’m trying to conserve the strength I have left. We should say good-bye now, Mrs Perkins. Don’t let anyone see you when you go to the nursery. Someone might try and stop you.”
“Oh, I thought you’d be spending Christmas with me, to recuperate before your journey home?”
“It’s impossible now, I’m afraid.”
When Millie realised why it was already too late. She’d sleuthed her way into the nursery and was gazing down at her tiny grandson. Born a month early, he was wired up to an extraordinary machine which bleeped rather erratically. He wore a little blue beanie on his head, which was rather sweet, and which brought a lump to her throat. He was totally captivating, and resembled her late husband, Frank, right down to his skinny, wrinkled legs.
She sensed Frank beside her now. “He’s going to make it, you know.”
“Yes, I know, Frank.” She’d seen the miracle herself, the almost imperceptible stream of life that had rippled through his body when Gabriella had anointed him with the soul. The light had grown too bright for her eyes and she’d closed them for a moment.
When she’d opened them again the angel had gone. Millie hoped the silent prayer she’d said for her would reach the right ears.
She and Frank kept watch together as the erratic bleeping of the baby’s heart strengthened. A nurse bustled in, her eyes intent on the monitor. She didn’t seem to notice her and went out again. Then, one tiny clenched fist waved in the air. The baby’s skinny legs quivered and stretched. His eyes opened and she thought she caught a glimpse of Gabriella.
“Thank you, Gabriella,” she said, and smiled.
It was a long journey back, but the cottage was warm and welcoming. Leonardo had become bored with his own company and had knocked a few coloured balls off the lower branches of the tree to amuse himself. She poured herself a well deserved glass of sherry, and was in the process of hanging the balls back on the branches when a laugh tinkled from somewhere above her.
“Gabriella?” She stopped what she was doing and stared at the top of the tree. In place of the dusty fairy Frank had won at the fun-fair several years before, was a tiny glowing angel. It twisted and turned in prisms of light. “Gracious!” she said and stared suspiciously into her glass.
The vicar dropped by later. She sensed he was as alone as she, so she invited him for lunch. She told him about Gabriella, showing him the sheepskin slipper, slightly luminous now, and the angel on top of the Christmas tree as evidence. He didn’t laugh at her, just told her she must be very special to have seen an angel, then went on to ask her about the motor bike.
She told the vicar all about her life with Frank, and allowed him to ride the bike up and down the road. He looked dashing on it. She thought she might bequeath it to him in her will.
She drank rather a lot of sherry that afternoon. So did the vicar - for his voice was slurred at the evening service, which didn’t really matter because most of the congregation had slurred voices as well. So, “While shepherds watched their flocks by night,” irreverently became, “While leopards washed their socks so bright,” it was sung with a great deal of gusto and laughter.
Millie began to giggle. The vicar smiled broadly at everyone, and when the carol was over he said he’d been inspired by the faith of one of his parishioners. He preached a fine sermon about Christmas miracles and angels who watched over newly born babes.
Her daughter rang her later in the evening, and she was jubilant. “The baby’s going to be fine, the specialist said. They’re going to call him Francis after dad, and Samantha and Joe have decided to get married. Isn’t that wonderful?”
“Wonderful indeed,” Millie said, knowing nothing else could surprise her this Christmas. As she said to Frank a little later, when she was having one of her private chats with him.
“Who would have imagined a fallen angel would land in my garden at Christmas?”