Thursday, 13 December 2018

‘This night will be bad . . . and tomorrow...' by Alex Marchant


In a week’s time, on the eve of the winter solstice, I’ll be starting one of my favourite annual traditions. Winter isn’t my preferred season (late spring/early summer with their young green leaves and revving-up sunshine are far more to my liking), but even I’ll admit there’s something magical about midwinter. It doesn’t have anything to do with my pagan forebears, or with the fact that Christmas comes hot on its heels (...possibly not the most appropriate metaphor), simply that it’s the setting for what is probably my favourite book.

Since I first read it at the perfect age of eleven, The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper has occupied my number 1 spot – and is the book I’ve most often returned to. Forget Lord of the Rings, Cancer Ward, Gone with the Wind or War and Peace. Something has regularly drawn me back to read TDIR (and not just that it’s quite a bit shorter than my other faves!). So much so that over the past two (three?) decades, it’s become a tradition to read it just about every year. Starting at Midwinter’s Eve...

That’s not just the date I begin to read. It’s also the title of the first chapter – and the start of the adventure that is about to confront our hero.

DGKoSYuWAAE_SEV

Will Stanton is an ordinary boy who wakes up on his eleventh birthday to discover – no, not that he’s about to go to wizarding school, but that he is – well, perhaps that would be telling. After all, you may not have read this classic children’s fantasy book, steeped in the Arthurian and other legends of the British Isles, which was one of the major influences on J. K. Rowling, creator of that other famous eleven-year-old hero.
First published in 1973, The Dark is Rising has also been a major influence on my writing. And for me it’s the quintessential Christmas book, even leading to the development of certain Christmas traditions within my own family.
The main tradition related to it, though, was my own private one – at least I thought it was. Virtually every year, I read the book day by day as the action unfolds. From the opening scene in the growing dusk of Midwinter’s Eve, through the glistening-white snow-covered morning of Will’s birthday, to the Stanton family’s ‘solemn rituals’ of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and the dangerous rising of the Dark through to the Twelfth Night – each evening from 20 December I settle myself down to read the appropriate chapter(s).
However, a few years ago I discovered I’m not alone in this yearly Midwinter ritual. First there was an article in The Guardian by a journalist who follows the same pattern (and had also thought that she was alone in doing it – until the comments flooded in). Then I discovered The Dark is Rising Sequence Worldwide Readathon on Facebook organized by the intrepid Danny Whittaker for the 40th anniversary of publication. (OK, I came to it rather late, not in 2013, but Danny was good enough to start up another annual tradition so it’s been going a few years now…) More than 300 people have signed up http://tdirreadathon.blogspot.co.uk/

And last year the Circle grew wider still, as a chance Twitter conversation between Rob Macfarlane (@RobGMacfarlane), author of the beautiful The Lost Words, and Julia Bird (@JuliaMaryBird) back in November 2017 was joined by thousands of other twitter users. It led to them setting up another worldwide reading group, which was followed from 20 December to 5/6th January using the hashtag #TheDarkisReading. https://juliabird.wordpress.com/2017/12/06/thedarkisreading-a-midwinter-reading-group/

 DD4OdVHXkAE8pA0

A musician even wrote a soundtrack to accompany the reading too. As Handspan@AnalogueRob said: ‘Each track of my TDIR soundtrack is tied to a specific passage in the book, so during #TheDarkIsReading you’ll be able to stream tracks on the day they occur in the story. They’ll each be online for 24 hours and then disappear again, like the book of Gramarye.’ (To understand that last comment, you may have to read along…)

This social media business is a wonderful thing – bringing together people from far-flung lands with a common bond, much as the Old Ones themselves come together occasionally ‘out of time’ … but that’s getting ahead of myself (a day beyond Twelfth Night, if the truth be told).
I’m not sure whether the whole thing will be happening online this year – or whether it’ll be back to just me and my battered paperback ... which is waiting, exactly where I left it last January, on my bedside table, somewhere towards the bottom of my TBR pile...
If the readathons do happen again, though, do think about dropping by if you’re passing on Facebook or Twitter – even if you haven’t read the book – yet. But, just remember – do watch out for the rooks …
Image result for rooks in snow
Rooks in Snow, by Kate Osborne


Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Slogging Through the Mud -- Bronwen Griffiths


I was talking with a fellow writer last month. It was a ‘golden’ day – not like today which has been cold and windy, with showers that hit the skin like stones. What we were talking about on that lovely autumn day was something we called ‘golden novels.’ What we meant is that sometimes the novel or story we are working on feels like slogging through mud while the novel we just have an idea for shines and beckons in the distance. But the reason this novel shines is because we haven’t tried to write it yet. It’s only an idea, a concept, even if in our minds it is perfectly formed. But we know that once we set down to work on it, our new ‘golden’ novel will lose its shine just like the one we are working on now.



The hard truth is that writing is a challenging mental process. It requires a great deal of us – uncertainty, vulnerability, discipline, and play. And therein lies a problem. Because in order to write we need to get into a state of flow and in order to get into a state of flow we need to accept that our writing won’t be perfect. If we constantly wear our critical thinking hat, we will get stuck at the ideas stage or in the editing stage – unable to move forward. Stuck in the mud, in other words.  

In the back of most writers’ minds is the question of the ultimate success or a failure of the novel. That fear of failure can all too easily stop us in our tracks. Fear of success can also hamper creativity. Which is why that ‘golden’ novel, like the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow, is always out of reach.

There’s nothing wrong with thinking about the next novel or story while you are still in the middle of another one. I do that all the time. I keep a notebook to jot down ideas. Some of those ideas may turn out to be my next book; others may not. But it’s too easy to get stuck in the ideas and planning stage and never move forward. Because it’s good fun. There are no barriers. No one telling us this works but this does not. However, in order to complete the project it is necessary to move from thinking to action – from ideas and notes to words on the page. This requires discipline. We have get those words down. A thousand. Ten thousand. Fifty thousand.

Action requires risk. Think of it like standing at the top of a high diving board. What are you going to do – dive into the water below or scuttle back down the ladder? (And believe me I have scuttled down that ladder many times). Perhaps you aren’t quite ready for the high dive. All right. Then settle for diving off a lower platform. Or go to lessons to learn how to dive so that you are less afraid. Or perhaps you are happy to jump but have no idea what to do afterwards. Writing is like that. Just like life. We must to learn to dive in and take risks but we must also slog through the mud.

Bronwen is the author of two novels and a book of short stories. Her flash fiction has also been widely published. 
           

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Why we should send cards at Christmas: Misha Herwin





Are Christmas cards redundant? When we have so many other ways of wishing each other “Happy Christmas” do we really need to send brightly painted pieces of cardboard to family, friends and neighbours?
I would say most definitely “Yes”.
Christmas cards aren’t just about the season, they are a way of rec-connecting with people you don’t often see. On my list are work colleagues from years ago, friends I made when living in Jamaica who now live great distances away, but with whom I still have a connection. There are also older family friends and for them more than anyone the Christmas card is an important reminder that, whatever their circumstances, they are still part of a wider community and there are people out there who care about them.
The annual buying, signing and sending also has an important function. Like many people, I always buy charity Christmas cards so that the money I’m spending goes to a good cause. Some of my cards I deliver by hand, it would be crazy to post a card to my friend next door, but the majority are posted. When I go to the Post Office I might wince at the horrendous cost of the Christmas stamps, but it all helps to keep a valuable service going.
As for the writing of cards, I have a list that I tick off. A list that changes over the years as I lose family members and friends, each name brings with it a moment of sadness and recollection which feels so apt at this dark time of the year. On the other hand there are new additions, a nephew has got married, new friends has been made, a baby has been born.
When Christmas is over, the cards take on another life. Some are cut down and used for tags for next year’s presents, others donated to the supermarkets for recycling, while those that depict angels are saved to be displayed on the shelf above the crib as part of the angel chorus.
    



Monday, 10 December 2018

The Sense of an Ending | Karen Kao

I think a lot about the craft of writing. The poem, the essay, the short story and the novel each have their own internal rules, all of which are to be broken if a writer wants to achieve something new. Lately, my obsession has become short form. The short story has all the same requisites as a novel: voice, characters, arc. But because it’s short form, everything must be compressed.

You don’t have hundreds of pages at your disposal, maybe only a dozen at most. So you haven’t got the time to paint a sweeping landscape or people a multi-generational cast of characters. You may not even have enough space to get through a single day. Short story writing is about choices.


Not that I know much about the matter. Only three of my short stories have been published and I have enough rejection letters to paper a small whale. But I try anyway. I read and listen. And as soon I think I’ve figured it out, I hear the admonishing words of John Gardner in The Art of Fiction (p.3):
When [a writer] begins to be persuaded that certain things must never be done in fiction and certain other things must always be done, one has entered the first stage of aesthetic arthritis, the disease that ends up in pedantic rigidity and the atrophy of intuition.
Yikes. What then is a writer to do? Luckily Gardner gives all of us writers an out.
Every true work of art – and thus every attempt at art (since things meant to be similar must submit to one standard) – must be judged primarily, though not exclusively, by its own laws.
So what sorts of laws are there?

beginning, middle and ending

A great deal of the art of the short story is to do with exits and entrances – when you jump in; when and how do you dismount.
That’s a great description by Sam Leith on the craft of short story writing and all its predicaments. Where should the story start? When is it over? Which arc bridges the beginning and its end?


Lydia Davis writes stories so short that some are no longer than a few lines. So that’s two, maybe three pen strokes to create a whole world, characters and action. Like this one from the collection Can’t and Won’t (p. 235):
My Childhood Friend
Who is this old man walking along looking a little grim with a wool cap on his head?
But when I call out to him and he turns around, he doesn’t know me at first, either – this old woman smiling foolishly at him in her winter coat.
Other stories from Can’t and Won’t don’t sound like stories at all to me. They could be better described as vignettes, prose poems or sometimes just a gag. But given that Davis is one of the icons of our time, it’s hard to quibble with how she chooses to break the rules. As my writer friend Megin put it:
She’s one of those who give me permission to do what I want/need. I was so surprised when I first read her, what could constitute a story. If she’s allowed to do it, why can’t I?
Maybe it’s just me, but I like more tension in my fiction. Oddly enough, I don’t care whether that tension is resolved. In fact, I have a particular weakness for short stories with an ambiguous ending.

  

When does it end?



Let’s take “The Night in Question” by Tobias Wolff. I heard it on The New Yorker fiction podcast as read out loud by Akhil Sharma.  It’s a classic story inside a story. Frances has spent most of her childhood protecting Frank from their abusive father. Now an adult, Frank has found God. He tells his sister about a sermon he heard.

A father gets an unexpected call to work the night shift and, because he’s alone that night, he takes his young son along. His job is to raise the movable bridge for water traffic and lower it to allow cars and trains to pass. There’s a train on the way when the father realizes his son is missing. He knows that the boy has gone into the machine room to play among the crunching, grinding, unforgiving cogs and gears. Should the father lower the bridge, thus saving the lives of all those on board the speeding train, or does he leave the bridge open to save the life of his son?

We never find out. Frances refuses to hear the end of Frank’s story. All she wants to know is, if it were me, you would save me, wouldn’t you Frank?


Wolff doesn’t tell us the answer to that question either. And that’s what’s so wonderful about his ending. There is a finite number of ways this story could go. You could plot it out yourself with a dotted line like the one the roadrunner draws just before Wile E. Coyote gets clobbered.

Drive It Off the Cliff



Another great example of an open ending is “Herman and Margaret” by Vi Khi Nao, first published in Glimmer Train, issue no. 90. Herman is a war veteran, now missing a leg, his wife and any more reason to live. He’s en route to Hoover Dam in his wheelchair where he intends to throw himself off the edge. Margaret has the same plan though she’s traveling by RV, all 489 pounds of her.

Herman and Margaret arrive at their chosen departure point. Improbably, they meet. Tenderly, they fall in love. Life has suddenly become worth living. Tomorrow will be another day. But before dawn can come, Margaret must pee.
In the dark, she cannot see, but she steps just far enough from Herman, lifts her dress, and pees. And, then, without realizing it, she walks right off the edge and into the abyss.

light at the end of the tunnel

  John Gardner says (p. 194):

The novel’s denouement … is not simply the end of the story but the story’s fulfillment.
When I attended the Paris Writers Workshop in 2014, Lan Samantha Chang was the leader of the fiction workshop. She described the function of an ending in a way that has stuck with me ever since, a grain of sand inside the oyster of my mind. She said that an ending should send light all the way back to the beginning.

Note: The Sense of an Ending was first published by Karen Kao on her blog Shanghai Noir.

Sunday, 9 December 2018

'Be With' by Julia Jones


Mum with 'Mr Cuddlebear'
a present from her great granddaughters.
There's more than one way to 'Be With'. 
I think my mother may be dying – or perhaps she's 'just' seriously ill? She has an acute urinary tract and kidney infection, her lungs are crackly, her throat full of mucus.  She hasn’t eaten or drunk for several days and her breathing is rapid and shallow. She can no longer get out of bed, is alternately restless and drowsy, confused, hallucinating, dehydrated, delirious. She thinks she’s dying -- but she often thinks that (most nights, when I leave her). Is this time different?

I know so little about death.  When I go to the internet and consult the Marie Curie site I see Mum’s symptoms checking almost all the boxes – but also these may equally well be the manifestations of her severe infection, diagnosed ten days ago. So there’s no let-up in the struggle to get the antibiotic medication into her, as she spits and claws and hurls abuse the nurse or myself. ‘Not so much wrong with her lungs then,’ commented one of the carers after it had taken three of them to achieve a wash and necessary pad change.

I say ‘no let-up’ but I’m aware that people in Mum’s situation can be admitted to hospital for antibiotic medication to be given intravenously and also to be re-hydrated via a drip. I talked to my brothers earlier this week and we are agreed on refusing these options should they be offered, even if hospital admission would prolong Mum’s life – until the next time. Strictly speaking I’m not totally certain that we have the correct bits of paper that give us this right of refusal: ours is an ‘enduring’ not a ‘lasting’ power of attorney which means it’s old-style and more concerned with money than with welfare. We’ve always tried to ensure that Mum takes her own decisions (even when they’re not such good ones) but now she is no longer be deemed to have the mental capacity to refuse consent to treatment, as I discovered on a recent emergency trip to hospital. What I also discovered that day, however is the potency of her ‘preferred place of care’ form, which an enlightened GP helped her to sign several years ago. It allowed her to state in advance that she would prefer to be treated in her own ‘home’. How this form will stand up to real pressure I’m not sure but I watched the relief on the face of Mum's care home manager when I told her that Mum's potential refusals had been written down in advance.

Mum's 94. Her dementia is 'severe':  will this now become 'end stage'? I’ve seen others of her peers shuttled in and out of hospital in their last months of life, apparently caught in a system that doesn’t find it easy to recognise the term Give Up. I don't criticise other people’s choices (if they had a choice) but this hospital-home commute wouldn’t be right for Mum. Her survival chances are finely balanced; could go either way. So I’m treating her current illness as a practice for The End and the rest of the family seem willing to play it this way. I'm grateful to them.  

Be With is a book by novelist and poet Mike Barnes and is sub-titled Letters to a Caregiver. It’s already been published in Canada and will officially be released here in February 2019 by Myriad editions. Barnes, who also lives with bipolar disorder has been the principal caregiver for his mother Mary for several years as she copes gallantly, not always successfully, against her dementia. That’s one of the finest things about this book; Barnes's generously expressed admiration for his mother as she struggles with this extraordinarily intimate illness. ‘All people with dementia, and some of them strikingly, show depths of sensitive awareness, resilience rising to heroism and a capacity for joyful relatedness that is almost entirely missing from public discussions of their condition.’

'Joyful relatedness' is a beautiful phrase. And true. I’ve witnessed these moments of connection with other of Mum’s neighbours in her dementia suite and felt blessed by them.

Mike Barnes is the oldest of five children. His second sister Sue returned from living abroad part way through their mother’s illness and now shares the responsibility and concern with him. The other three are gone, vanished from their mother’s life. ‘Where are they?’ his mother used to ask, looking at their photographs, ‘Why don’t they come?’
‘She didn’t ask it often, and never with an edge of accusation or grievance […] It was, horribly, an honest question.’ Barnes says that he gives evasive answers.

Why do some people abandon their nearest relatives in his way? No doubt there are as many individual answers as there are relationships. We can't know or judge.  There are social and cultural factors as well; our post-Victorian rejection of anything that can be categorised as 'duty': our late twentieth century determination to achieve autonomy and personal fulfilment, especially if we happen to be female.  Sometimes I have felt defensive about my choice to visit Mum twice a day  – and often to prioritise these visits over other opportunities and invitations. Does it make me a saddo? Like deciding to be a stay-at-home mum instead of the first female governor of the Bank of England?  
You know that I'm joking but would you agree that there often seems to be a polarisation in our public discourse around Elder Care: either you dedicate yourself to managing the entirety of your dependent person’s care 24/7 or you hand it over and bunk off? Either you're Horton theElephant or Mayzie the Lazy-Bird. Perhaps we'll be thinking about these questions in a more nuanced way when we've watched Jimmy McGovern's Care tonight on BBC1. Or perhaps we'll all be more distressed, confused and obscurely angry than we are already.

What I've learned from other people in  John's Campaign over the past four years is that socially, culturally, individually we almost always get on better when we think in threes instead of twos: the person in need + the person with professional expertise + the person with individual insight born of love (or long acquaintance). More than fifty years ago novelist Margery Allingham was advocating a similar 'Triangle of Care' in The Relay (Beloved Old Age). Allingham developed her own concept of a handover period when an older person, approaching death, relinquishes their autonomy and a younger person, running alongside accepts the baton of responsibility -- whilst being enabled to maintain their own course and pace by the professional, paid-for skill of others. This has helped me constantly in the struggle to keep momentum in my own life (and family) whilst also being 'With' my mother in her last years / months / days -- whatever they may be.


Dedication in Pebble
Mike Barnes and his mother's experience of professional care appears generally to have been unhelpful and unhappy. We've been luckier: could I have written Pebble this year without the reliability of Moat House care staff? No I could not. Their trustworthiness has given me back big areas of my life. When I have done my Mum-shift for the day, I am clear and concentrating on something of my own, without the buzz of anxiety and guilt sounding too loudly in my mind. Going twice a day is not for everyone but there are so many other ways to stay involved and also to support one another. Because my brothers have made their own different but reliable arrangements I can always answer Mum's questions with a 'Yes he lives in Scotland but he'll be here to see you next month and meanwhile look at this lovely photo of his little girl' or 'Yes he comes to lunch with you, and here are his lovely flowers.'

That's all, it needn't be hard.  There's physical., in-the-room 'Be With' and there's the emotional support as well -- the clear assurance that whatever you may forget about yourself, others have not forgotten you. It's also massively helpful to the most regular visitor to know that there are others to talk to when you're worried; others who know and care, even if not so often physically present.

In Mum’s current situation, where we may either be rehearsing for her life's end or actually experiencing it, the ‘Be With’ message takes a new twist. Societally, there is a general feeling that no-one should die alone (though they very often do) and we applaud initiatives such as the Anne Robson Trust which attempt to counter this. Hospitals and care homes assure me that they 'always let them (ie families) stay at end-of-life' -- though it's depressing to discover how often this goes wrong. Death is a subfusc caller and dementia always terminal.

I hate the 'let them' phrase. Why should it ever be thought acceptable to impose restrictions at any time when people are in need? Who could ever say to a spouse of sixty years standing or a son or daughter of many decades 'Sorry, you'll have to go now. Visiting hours are over' -- ?

I liked Mike Barnes's book because of his constant reiteration that, hard as it was to be his mother's primary caregiver, yet he was gaining understanding, insight and experience that would never otherwise have come his way.  As Margery Allingham put it 'this is personal and private  and exactly as important in one's own story as one's marriage or the birth of one's child.'

Yet death is the obverse of birth in that you cannot be accompanied. Already as I sit next to Mum, practising through this illness, I can feel her getting further and further away, fighting her own body, going where I cannot -- and do not wish -- to follow.  Yet, paradoxically, when the time comes that we are certain she is getting close to the end of her life, it will matter even more to her family that there is someone with her. We may attempt to keep a more constant watch beside her – though statistics show so many people slip away to death in the brief moments when the people they loved have left the room.
  
To some extent we're doing this already. My oldest son emailed to say that he’d heard Mum was ill and therefore was planning to visit this weekend. 'She isn’t necessarily dying' I replied, knowing he lives at a distance and has a lot else happening in his life. 'I know, but I’ve been meaning to visit and I would have come at Christmas anyway so, when I heard she was ill, I thought I’d bring my visit forward by a week or two. I’m only coming because I want to.' He’s with her as I finish writing this. I hope the day comes that Mike Barnes’s siblings make some similar phone calls to 'Be With' their mother because they want to -- for their own sakes as well as for hers.

'How people die remains in the memories of those who live on,' as Dame Cicely Saunders said. Meanwhile I hope that all we're doing this week is practising our togetherness skills.  

It's my second brother Nick's birthday today.
He's a regular visitor and when he's not there
 he's represented by his flowers.




Saturday, 8 December 2018

Nine Things I Learned Along the Way • Lynne Garner

My new updated cover
I self published my first collection of short stories, Anansi The Trickster Spider in January 2014. Since then I've self published a further four collections of short stories. With each one I've discovered something new. So, this month I decided to share some of my those things with you. So, in no particular order:

One:
It always takes longer than you think! So, be patient you'll get there in the end.

Two:
Take time to get the right cover and if you can then get someone to design it for you. Also remember to think about what it'll look like as a thumb nail image.

Three:
Keep up-to-date with all your paperwork. Especially the important stuff for example W-8BEN (this ensures you don't pay US tax). To find out how to complete this form click here.

Four:
Keep an eye on your sales. The resellers for example KDP don't always get it right and don't be afraid to get them to check. I've done this three times and on one occasion they discovered I was correct and I received a nice little back payment.

Five:
Sell your book in every format you can get it into and on every platform. Why miss out on the chance to sell your book? It can take time to achieve this but I've found it's worth it. I've still not managed to turn my books into audio books, but it's being planned for next year.

Six:
I've found one of the best places to sell my paperbacks is at the talks I give to local groups such as the WI or the U3A. So, when the booking is made I always ask if it's ok to bring my books. Sometimes I may sell none whilst on some nights the sales go into double figures.

Seven:
To make your book the best it can be get it professionally proofed/edited.

Eight:
If you're creating a paperback version then order a proof and check every page. I've done this every time and even though the digital version is checked and rechecked something always sneaks in.

Nine:
Research the keywords and categories for your book on Amazon and the other platforms before you upload your book. Or if you're like me and the genre you write in is the same or very similar then keep a note of those you've used before. It'll save time when you come to upload your manuscript.

I hope this has been useful. And if you've learned anything during your adventure with self publishing please feel free to share.

Lynne

Blatant plug time

Check out my various collections of short stories (available as ebooks and paperback):

Fox of Moon Meadow Farm (ebook 99p/99¢ - 10 stories)

Hedgehog of Moon Meadow Farm (ebook 99p/99¢ - 10 stories)

Ten Tales of Brer Rabbit (ebook 99p/99¢ - 10 stories)

Ten Tales of Coyote  (ebook 99p/99¢ - 10 stories)

Anansi The Trickster Spider (ebook £1.49/$1.49 - 16 stories)



  

Friday, 7 December 2018

Nativity by Bill Kirton

Guido Reni - Adoration of the Magi. (Public domain)


Various things (such as Man-flu) have been eating up my time so, with profuse apologies, I'm recycling a seasonal post from my own blog back in 2008.

It doesn't ask the usual questions, such as 'What is Myrrh, and who the hell brings it as a present?' or 'Where were Health and Safety when that innkeeper got his licence?'

No, it’s the actuality of the experience of those concerned that preoccupies me. For a start, there’s no agreement between the two registrars who recorded the birth. You’ve got Matthew’s quick note saying: ‘Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise; When, as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph, her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.’

Fair enough, a reasonable sort of reaction from the bloke. If there’s a bun in the oven, you’d prefer it to be yours. But along comes the obstetric angel Gabriel, tells him it’s cool and that the Holy Ghost did it, so Joseph says he'll still marry her.

Then, between 25 and 50 years later, in Luke’s version, it's a different story. Gabriel visits Mary, not Joseph, and gives her the test result. But whichever account you prefer, it’s hard not to feel that Joseph’s getting a bad deal and I think it’s legitimate to speculate on how that crucial exchange between the engaged couple went.

Joe was a hard worker so he was in his shop, putting the finishing touches to a sleigh. Most of the time, there wasn’t much call for sleighs in Galilee but they’d become part of the traditional trappings of that certain time of the year. He was rather surprised when Mary arrived, flushed and slightly breathless.

There was no greeting. Her first words were just ‘Look, Joe. Don’t get mad.’
     Joe was surprised.
     ‘Why should I, sugar lump?’ he said.
     He noticed that Mary was avoiding eye contact, looking intently at the runners of the sleigh, smoothing her fingers along them, but too quickly, in a rather agitated way.‘What’s the matter?’ said Joe. ‘Another of your dreams, is it?’
     Mary shook her head. Joe was puzzled. This wasn’t like her. Her days were usually spent quietly beside the river, making Moses baskets out of reeds. She was an untroubled soul.
     ‘What then?’ he said.

Mary took a deep breath and found the courage to look directly at him.‘Oh Joe,’ she said. ‘We’re going to have to get married.’
     Joe smiled.‘I know, Babe,’ he said. ‘We’ve been planning it for ages. We’ll …’
     ‘No. Now. Right away, I mean.’
     Joe was an honourable man and he’d resisted forcing his attentions on Mary so the idea of bringing his marital rites a bit closer wasn’t unattractive but this was sudden, unexpected. She’d shown no such urgency before.

‘Why?’ was all he said.
Her answer was a bombshell.
‘I’m pregnant.’

Joe dropped his adse.
     ‘Pregnant?’ he said. ‘But, I thought you was a virgin.’
     It was a sure sign of the stress he was feeling. Joe was usually a stickler for grammar but in extremis his working class origins rose to the surface.
     ‘I am a virgin. I am, Joe. But I’m still pregnant,’ said a desperate Mary.
     Words such as ‘dirty little scrubber’ pushed their way into Joe’s mind but he bit them back.
     ‘Well, well,’ he said. ‘In that case, you’d better go and marry the bloke what done it.’
     ‘There wasn’t any bloke,’ said Mary.
     ‘Oh, Act of God, I s’pose,’ sneered Joe.
     ‘Yes,’ said Mary. ‘Listen, last night, I was in bed asleep, and suddenly I woke up, and there was this bloke standin by the bed. With big wings stickin out the back. He said… Well, he said he was an angel. Called Gabriel.’
     Joe paused for a moment, then shook his head.
     ‘And you fell for it, did you?’
     ‘Honest, Joe. He never touched me. He never even put down his harp. He just said I’d found favour with God, and I was going to have a baby boy. Said I was goin to be visited. By the Holy Ghost.’
     ‘That was his mate, I suppose,’ said Joe, wanting to believe her but burning with jealousy.
     Mary reached out and touched his hand.
     ‘This is special, Joe,’ she said. ‘I’m goin to have a baby boy. And he’s gonna be king. And he’s gonna rule over the house of David for ever. And I’m to be blessed among women. Oh, and we’ve got to call the baby Jesus.’
     ‘Jesus?’ said Joe, the sarcasm dripping from each syllable. ‘Huh, you should’ve realised he was havin you on when he said that.’
     Mary frowned. ‘Why?’ she asked.
     ‘It’s obvious, innit? I mean, if he’d said... Kevin or Arthur or somethin, it would’ve made sense. But Jesus? Christ!’
     Mary couldn’t hold back her tears any longer. It broke Joe’s heart to see them. He did love her so much.

‘There, there,’ he said. ‘Alright, listen. Just … just tell me what else he said.’
     Mary sniffed.
     ‘Well,’ she said. ‘We’ve got to go to Bethlehem to have him.’
     ‘Bethlehem?’ said Joe. ‘That’s bloody miles! And there’s no obstetrical units there or nothin.’
     ‘I know,’ said Mary. ‘We’ve got to have him in a stable and lie him in a manger.’
     ‘A stable and a manger?’ said Joe. ‘That’s ridiculous. Bit of a cock-up if you ask me.’
     Mary nodded, still sniffing back the tears. ‘Well, he said it’s the first time they’ve done a saviour.’
     Joe put his arm round her and, with his other hand, stroked her hair.‘When’s it due?’ he asked, his voice now gentle.
     ‘Sometime around Christmas,’ said Mary.
     The two of them sat there, each trying to come to terms with the change in their relationship, a change that was only fully evident to Joe when he suggested that, since Mary was pregnant anyway, they might as well go to bed. Together.
     ‘No, Joe,’ said Mary, in her special, little girl voice. ‘I’ve got to be the Virgin Mary, remember?’
     ‘How long for?’ said Joe.

‘Two thousand years. At least.’