This story featured on BBC Radio Cumbria a few years ago. It is, I like to think, a timeless tale. Very nearly...
Mary sat shivering in the corner. It had been a terrible journey. She was cold and wet and could feel the baby moving inside her. She knew it wouldn’t be long before he’d be born and of course she’d always known it was going to be a boy. Joe reappeared with a cup of steaming something and handed it to her.
‘Here, drink this,’ he said, ‘it’ll warm you up.’ He put his arm round her and pulled her close. She smiled weakly at him and took a sip; some sort of herbal concoction, bitter and sweet at the same time. Joe lifted the shawl back round her shoulders. She wished she was at home and that they hadn’t risked the journey, not at this time of year and in her condition. Now here they were on the outskirts of the town Joe’s family had originally come from and a long way from their village and the little house they’d set up together,
He took the cup from her as she felt the first of her pains and said he’d go and find the landlady to help her with the birth. She’d said she would when they arrived, apologising that because of the time of year and the big occasion that had brought everyone into town she couldn’t offer them one of her decent rooms; they were all taken, she explained, except the one they now found themselves in. It was cold and had no running water, but was still far better than being outside where the mist was now thicker and icier than it had been only minutes earlier.
‘Hello?’ Joe called out across the yard, ‘Can you give us a hand here?’ The landlady, who’d introduced herself as Beth King, scurried from the kitchen of the main house, wiping her hands on her apron. The mist parted like the red sea as she passed through it.
‘Is it time?’ she said. ‘I’ll fetch the towels and hot water.’ Joe had never known why these things were necessary whenever a baby was about to be born but, as they were always called for, he guessed they must be. Beth disappeared again into the swirling fog, emerging again moments later with what turned out to be a box of towels and cloths, followed by Mr King with an urn of scalding water.
‘Now don’t you men get in the way’ Mrs King commanded, taking charge. ‘Make yourselves useful by…’ she paused as she helped Mary make herself more comfortable, ‘by making yourselves scarce.’
‘C’mon son,’ Mr King said to Joe, ‘we’ll leave them to it. Come and warm yourself up in the kitchen.’ Joe had thought he wanted to be with Mary as she brought their son into the world, and was shocked, now it came to it, at how easily he allowed himself to be talked out of it.
‘You go,’ Mary said, teeth chattering. ‘We’ll manage.’ She had reached the point that she didn’t care whether he was there or not. She just wanted it over with.
Frank dragged two old chairs across the flagstones and up to the range. He passed Joe another of his herbal infusions. ‘Not a night for travelling,’ he said.
‘No, indeed,’ agreed Joe. It was madness really to have attempted it but they’d felt they’d had no choice. They’d felt compelled to make the trip back to the little town from where the Carpenter family hailed. Everything had been fine when they’d left that morning, with a couple of bags each and one for the baby, even though neither of them thought he’d make an appearance quite this early. He wasn’t due for another week or two so they were fairly confident they’d be back home before he arrived. It had been a sunny day, if a little chilly, when they’d set off and although Mary found the journey uncomfortable, they were sure they’d arrive before nightfall. But they hadn’t counted on the mist that had started to roll in in the late afternoon. Before they knew it, they couldn’t see any further than a few feet in front of them, the sides of the road completely obscured. Joe was frightened for his fiancée, her fingers digging deeply into the side of her seat, and for their unborn child. He didn’t know what to do; he couldn’t stop where they were, wherever that was, but it would be equally dangerous to carry on. So he was relieved when, through the mist, he could just make out the lights from the farm where even now he sat warming himself. Cautiously, he’d steered them down the track towards the building, somehow avoiding the dark, mist-shrouded ditches on either side and reached the farmhouse without incident or accident. Frank answered his desperate knocking and called his wife once he’d explained that, yes, they did usually have rooms, but that on this night, of all nights, they were all taken. ‘But you must come in,’ Beth had said. ‘We can surely sort something, Frank.’ And she had fussed about preparing the room in the outhouse, explaining how it wasn’t normally used in the winter. But for Joe and Mary it was a godsend, saving them from returning to the road, and a place for Mary finally to rest.
Now, in the drowsy warmth of the kitchen, Frank busied himself stoking the fire and clearing away dishes, while Joe, exhausted after an eventful day, dozed by the fire.
He woke suddenly. A cry from the squat little building outside – a baby’s cry. He rushed out into the yard, bumping into Beth in the still swirling mist. ‘You have a beautiful baby boy!’ she cried. ‘Mother and baby both well. Come and see.’ Joe pushed passed her and into the tiny space where Mary and his new son waited for him. He kissed her, feeling guilty he had felt so tired himself after the greater ordeal she had gone through, and picked up the little bundle, the baby wrapped in the towels Beth had insisted on earlier. ‘Take him into the house, keep him warm’ she said. ‘His mum and I will be there soon.’ If, as he crossed the yard again, Joe had looked up he would have seen the solitary light directly above him, moving slowly across the night sky, the only thing visible through thick, clammy fog. Intent instead on the new-born cradled in his arms, a sense of peace such as he’d never known before had overwhelmed him.
He re-entered the kitchen to be met by a veritable host of people: Frank had rounded up his other guests – Mr and Mrs Sheppard and the D’Angelos – to greet the new arrival. ‘Oh, he’s lovely,’ murmured Agnes Sheppard. ‘Such a beautiful bambino,’ cooed Gabrielle D’Angelo, as heavenly voices drifted through the air, the angels themselves marking the birth of this remarkable baby. On the Welsh dresser, next to the radio from where the strains of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ came, the kitchen clock showed it was well after after midnight. Christmas Day; Mary and Joe had a Christmas baby.
Mrs King brought Mary into the kitchen and Joe passed their son to her. Agnes produced a toy lamb from somewhere and perched it next to the baby in the crook of Mary’s arm. ‘It was for my granddaughter,’ she said, ‘But I can knit her another one.’
‘So,’ said Mrs King, ‘what are you going to call him?’
‘Well, there’s only one thing I can call him,’ Mary said. ‘He has to be J.. J… J,’ she stammered as nerves and exhaustion finally got the better of her. ‘We’re going to call him J-Justin,’ she said, ‘after my favourite singer. Aren’t we, Joseph dear?’