It’s midnight, six minutes past if my watch is accurate, and I stand at the lych-gate of St Philip’s Church listening to the congregation murder Silent Night without any shame or sarcasm. I put out my cigarette on the nearest headstone – Rose Etheline Linnehan 1923 to 1968, most beloved, will be remembered – and examine the wooden carvings on the gate. Oak leaves spiral and interlock, come together and grow apart. Beautiful, with so much time and effort involved; like a long and difficult love letter to death.
The congregation close their mouths and give my ears a break. I hear footsteps, the crunch of boots on ice, and here she is, trotting up the path from the direction of the nearest public house no doubt, looking red-cheeked and cherublike in her fluffy blue coat and white bobble hat. She stops in front of me and curtsies.
‘Mary, you’re pissed,’ I say.
‘It’s Christmas Eve.’
‘The phrase is Merry. Merry Christmas. Not Totally Trashed Christmas.’
‘I’m walking! I’m talking!’ She points to her feet, her mouth. ‘I’m here for Mass. Just as you want. It’s all just as you want.’ She wraps her arms around me and breathes out sweet cider.
‘Not this year. You’re too late. Go back to the pub.’
‘What? Shut up! It’s bang on twelve!’
‘Thirteen minutes past now.’
‘Really? We could just sneak in though.’
‘Joe, it’ll be fine. We can hold hands in the back pew. I promise not to throw up in the collection plate this year.’
The organist plays the opening chords to The First Noel, and the congregation take their deep, collective breath to start singing. At that moment, in the pause before the people put their tongues to the roof of their mouths to form the starting syllable, it comes to me that nothing has changed in 2000 years. Mary is always sorry, and I am always angry. And our son never did come home again, perhaps because he couldn’t stand to be around us.
I light another cigarette, and blow holy smoke to the sky.
‘You shouldn’t smoke so much,’ says Mary.
‘What difference does it make?’
‘None. But it’s not… nice.’
‘I see you’ve been working on your vocabulary for the past year.’ Seeing her, even just for one night of the year, leaves me confused for the next three hundred and sixty four days. She looks so young, with that blush to her face that a thousand artists haven’t quite managed to get right, and I hate her because we are still here, and love her, because we are still here. ‘No, what have you been doing, then, really?’
‘Mainly in America. You can still find real believers out there.’
‘The last of a dying breed. I wonder if we’ll finally come to an end when the last church gets bought up and turned into luxury flats.’
‘He’ll be back before then,’ she says, with the certainty of a mother. ‘You shouldn’t doubt him.’
‘Hard not to, after all these years.’
‘He’s your son!’
‘No, actually. He’s not.’ I sigh, and stub out the cigarette. Sorry, Rose Etheline Linnehan, but you weren’t remembered. Nobody cares what you did, or how you lived, and if you went to church every day and rubbed your knees raw by bending to pray; nobody down here, anyway. Up there, well, that might be a different story. If you are looking down and gasping at my treatment of your final resting place, then I apologise.
‘I can’t believe you’re still harking on about that old chestnut,’ grumbles Mary. ‘If you’re not going to be pleasant to me I’m going back to the pub. An eternity on Earth is so much easier to face with a pint of Woodpecker.’
‘You said yourself – it’s not an eternity.’
‘Sometimes it feels like it, though, doesn’t it?’ she groans, and I’m reminded of that long journey to Bethlehem, with her panting and muttering the entire way. How strange that children nowadays sing a delightful little song about a scrawny donkey that I had to beat with a stick for ninety-six miles.
I take her hand, and kiss it.
‘We could get back together,’ she says hopefully. ‘Maybe that’s what he’s waiting for, before he’ll come back down. A sign that people really can forgive each other. Even us.’
‘Then he’ll be waiting a while yet,’ I tell her, and lead her through the lych-gate, up to the church. We slip inside the doors as the congregation sings the last verse of The First Noel, take the back pew, and twine together once more to remember a star-filled night when we became the most famous and most irrelevant parents that ever were.