Exclusive Christmas short story: The Quick Child, By Jane Rogers

The Man Booker longlisted author presents a short story for Christmas exclusively for The Independent on Sunday and Independent.co.uk

This is a story about the power of a child: several children, actually. Some might call it miraculous, and talk of transformations; but others, more pragmatic, would put it down to good timing, or just plain luck. They might even simply say, "That's life." These witnesses do not connect their own sightings with those of others. Each imagines his or her experience to be unique. And naturally, on the day in question, many people saw children, as they went about their lives. In fact, to call them witnesses, to leap to conclusions about visions, to dare to use the word "miraculous", is certainly to overstate the case. These are, after all, ordinary people, in a perfectly ordinary place. Please judge for yourself.

It happens on a winter's day in a Pennine mill town. The low sun slants across the moors and the air is cold and clear. Fields on the shady side of the hill are white with frost and steam-puffing sheep. On the flanks of the valley huddle churches, pubs and schools. At the bottom, new estates have been shoehorned into the sites of razed cotton mills. Rows of stone Victorian terraces face one another stolidly across the railway line.

Sarah Garside is going into Manchester on the train. She has taken the day off to go Christmas shopping. The train is crammed with other shoppers and commuters, their bags, their babble, the hot fug of their breath. She feels nauseous, as she has done every morning this week, and this afternoon she has to see her father. Dread of the visit weighs her down. She leans her head against the cool of the window, pulling her bag in closer to her legs. The man next to her is not respecting her personal space. He's yammering into his phone, and his elbow is only inches from her chest. She gives up trying to remember what she has to buy.

When she visits the care home, her father will be angry. He will be demanding his book and his glasses, as if she has hidden them on purpose. He will be complaining about her mother's untidiness, as if she were still alive. He will be making unforgivable racist remarks about the night staff, and she will not be able to silence or remonstrate with him because, although many parts of his mind are in ruins, the part that rises fiercely to an argument is singularly well-preserved, and if he can detect that he has irritated or upset her, he will launch a full-scale attack. She must buy some new pairs of Boots reading glasses. He will swat them aside and call them cheap tat, but once she has gone, he might settle to enjoy a page at least of the newspaper, before he mislays or treads on them. There is nothing she can do which will fully erase the sense of betrayal he feels, that she has put him into care; even if she visited him every day, instead of twice a week as she does, still he'd nurse his grudge. And nothing she does assuages her own guilt.

She and her partner, Kumar, never discuss their parents. It is only in the last month that she has even met his: they were stiffly polite, but, of course, they hated her. She pretends to herself that there's no point in introducing Kumar to her father, because Christopher would only forget him. But she knows in her heart that a Bengali son-in-law is something Christopher is unlikely to either forget or forgive. She will begin to show soon. Her father must be told.

The man beside her has interrupted his call to take another one. An order is delayed. He doesn't give a toss if the system is down again, he wants it sorting. Now. Sarah tries to imagine him as a boy. A slow, trusting little boy, perhaps; the butt of jokes and teasing. She remembers the boy they used to call Quick, in her class at primary school. They called him Quick because he was slow. How cruel children are. But every villain was once a little, tiny child in his mother's arms, she tells herself. She was once a little, tiny child in her father's arms, and he was kind and funny, and knew how to put on a different voice for every animal Dr Dolittle spoke to.

The train pulls in to Manchester Victoria. As she shoves, and is shoved, through the train door and onto the platform, she catches a sudden clear glimpse, through the crowd, of the child. He is smiling at her. A beam of a smile, wide and warm as sunshine. He has straggling blond hair, which might be curly, if it were shorter. Blue eyes, and chubby hamster cheeks. He is maybe two years old.

For a moment, she is dazed. She feels the corners of her own mouth lift in happy response, her head swivels to follow him as a sunflower follows the sun. Quick – he's gone! All she can see are the retreating legs of the woman pushing his pushchair. All she can see are the shoulders and arms and legs and feet of the jostling crowd on the station platform.

Trudging up the steep grey steps to the bridge, still keeping half an eye out for him, she becomes aware of the unfamiliar configuration of her own face, and lets the smile drop. It leaves a residue of sweetness, like the trace of honey on your fingertips when you have screwed the lid back on and put the jar away in the cupboard.

She blinks. Her father. She will ask for his outdoor clothes and she will walk him to Ahmed's Newsagents to choose a paper. Kumar's brother will be behind the counter; she will try, if she can, to introduce them. Whatever comments he passes on the dossers and shysters they encounter en route, she will smile and hold her tongue. When they get back to his room, she will tell him that she has some wonderful news. She sees herself teetering on a cliff edge, arms spread, eyes squeezed shut, drawing one last deep, juddering breath before she jumps. But how can he not be happy about a child? The boy's smile warms her still.

...

In the town's newsagents, Abhik Ahmed is on automatic pilot. He has already rolled up the shutter, untied the newspapers and placed them in the rack, and methodically stacked the fresh milk in the fridge, behind what is left of yesterday's. He has binned the sandwiches which are past their sell-by, reserving two cheese-and-tomato for himself and Sunita, since they both enjoy these toasted. He has served five customers; newspapers, bread and milk, a chocolate bar and a cheery "let's hope it stays fine today". But now he hears his mother's voice rising querulously in the kitchen, and Sunita's low tone calming her, and the guilt flares up. When Sunita brings him coffee he tries to stroke her arm, but she does not meet his eye. "I shall take my mother to her hospital appointment," he tells her, "if you can mind the shop."

"Of course." Sunita does not ask him again to accompany her to the hospital, although they both know the special clinic is this afternoon. He is selfish. He is afraid. His heart is a cold stone lodged in his chest.

When he goes to help his mother out to the car, his father announces that he is coming too; "I can wait with her. I will find out what the doctor says, she will be forgetting."

"I do not forget," says his mother angrily.

"But I will stay myself anyway," Abhik points out. "I have to drive her back."

"You come back to your work at the shop, we will telephone you when we need picking up."

"But Sunita is in the shop."

"Sunita should rest," says his mother. His mother is tireless – relentless – in her assumptions about Sunita's condition. Sunita is not pregnant.

"It is not necessary for us to keep you from your work," says his father. He speaks as if the work is difficult and important, though Abhik knows he feels nothing but contempt for it. A doctor, a dentist, a schoolteacher, these are proper professions for a man. Why must you be a shopkeeper?

Because the training takes too long and costs too much, father, and because I must look after you and my mother, since my brother seems incapable of earning a living. These are the things which are never said. As for his work as a local councillor – that they laugh at openly. Why would anybody work for no pay? He keeps his political ambitions secret.

In the car his mother starts. "Your auntie has found a nice girl for your brother. Devout and unspoiled, pretty, she is sending the photograph to your email."

"Mother, you know Kumar's not looking for a girl."

"Pull down the sunshade, this light is blinding. How can you see to drive?" demands his father.

"A girl for a wife. This is for a wife," insists his mother.

"You know he is with Sarah."

"Watch out for that bus," says his father. "He's trying to pull out."

"If he flies home to meet this girl, Kumar will forget Sarah." She pronounces the name as if it dirties her mouth. Kumar will not forget Sarah, he is devoted to her, and more to the point, she is pregnant. Which they are keeping from the parents until they "come round". Abhik calculates that they have now officially known of Sarah's existence for one month, and no signs of coming round are in evidence.

Sunita, meanwhile, cries herself to sleep at night. Allah be merciful, he prays, give us a little comfort. He cannot agree to do what she wants, and yet her unhappiness is eating him alive.

"Mother, Kumar is 28 now –"

"Still young!"

"And he's been with Sarah two whole years."

"He will never hold his head up, living with such a girl."

"She will tire of him," butts in his father. "White women do not stick to one man. She'll move on soon enough."

"They care for nobody," declares his mother. "They don't even look after their own parents.'

"True," his father agrees, "their parents are left in old people's homes to rot."

"He is wasting his youth on this creature. She has trapped him, but she needs to know her spell can be broken. Your auntie has also posted me a remedy."

"A remedy!" Abhik glances at his mother in the mirror and hides his laugh.

"Yes indeed," says his mother indignantly. "A powerful remedy against witchcraft in love, with pure ingredients certified by a doctor."

"This is the 21st century," Abhik tells her. "It will be impounded at customs."

"Do not disrespect your mother," warns his father.

"It is hard to respect idiocy, even in the old," flies out of Abhik's mouth before he can prevent it.

When they reach the hospital, his parents inform him that they will take a taxi home. They expect him to argue, but he refuses to give them the satisfaction, and turns and drives straight back the way he has come – childishly, irresponsibly. Selfishly.

There's no need to go back to the shop just yet, Sunita won't be expecting him. He can at least use this morning to catch up with some of his council business. He leaves the car in the marketplace and calls on a couple who are locked in an acrimonious dispute with their neighbours over a collapsing party wall. It is impossible to resolve their grievances. Then he walks across the park to check a complaint of vandalism. As he climbs the rise onto the playing field, the cold wind in his face makes his eyes water. He feels exposed up here in the harsh sunlight; like a dark insect scuttling across a sheet of paper, like something shameful that should only come out at night. Now the sun is at his back, his own long shadow stains the ground before him. He stares across the valley, at the bleached contours of the moors; in the town below, reflected sunlight glitters up from windows, hurting his eyes. He is insignificant and futile and has done everything wrong. It is as much as he can manage to put one foot in front of the other.

A rustling in the hedge, as he heads down the steps towards the old town hall, causes him to look up. For a moment, he thinks it is a bird. Then a little boy pushes his way through to stand on the path in front of him. Abhik stops. The boy stares up at him, his dark eyes searching Abhik's face. For a moment, Abhik thinks he knows him, that the boy is the son of some half-forgotten cousin. There is a family resemblance – in fact, he could even be looking at his own younger self. The gleaming black hair, the serious expression .... Suddenly, a woman's voice calls, "Amal! You win! I give up – Amal?" and the boy laughs, and dives quickly back through the hedge.

Abhik finds himself reaching for the well-placed bench beside the path. He lowers himself to the seat. He blinks at the sunshine slanting through the silvered branches of the trees. His heart is racing, he is a boy again. He remembers spinning on his heel and running. He remembers winning easily and laughing. He remembers racing past the beggars on Ganaktuli Road and promising himself that when he grew up he'd feed and heal them all, because he was going to be a famous doctor, the kind who finds cures for all diseases.

As his heart steadies, he listens to the silence around him. There's not a sound, not so much as the rustle of a fallen leaf, not the single chirp of a sparrow. No sound of running feet. No echo of distant laughter. The boy has gone. There is no boy. The silence expects.

This sharp winter light affords an unusual level of clarity, he thinks, and rises decisively to his feet. Heading back to his car he phones his father. "Can you mind the shop this afternoon?"

"Your mother is getting the date of her next appointment. She is talking to the secretary."

"Good. Fine. I'll come and get you now. But can you mind the shop this afternoon?"

"Are you sure you would like to leave your shop in the care of idiots?" enquires his father with dignity.

Abhik laughs. His face feels amazed by it, as if he has cracked open. Sweetly. The cracking of a shell, a carapace, a straitjacket that has imprisoned him. "Yes please, Baba. I would like to leave the shop in your capable hands. There is something I have to do." He arranges where he will pick them up, and then he phones Sunita.

"I will come with you this afternoon."

"To the clinic?"

"Yes."

"Abhik? You will come to the fertility clinic, really?"

"Yes."

"You will agree?"

"I will agree."

There is a small silence. Then a whisper. "Thank you."

As Abhik drives towards the hospital, the boy's unguarded, all-seeing, trustful eyes are still bright before him.

...

Christopher Garside stands, completely at a loss, staring through the plastic-framed window into the low-maintenance garden of the nursing home. He has just requested a cup of tea from the small black woman who makes his bed, and she has laughed at him. Is it because he has the time wrong? Someone has tidied away his watch. Is it because she doesn't make the tea? Is it not her job, perhaps? Or is there some other, greater and more terrible foolishness, such as his flies being undone, his bed being wet, or some even greater indignity which he cannot yet imagine? She laughed because he is old and stupid and doesn't know what. She is an ignorant bitch, yes, as inhuman, unfeeling and ungrateful as – as that wretched girl Sarah. Oh yes, how much sharper than a serpent's tooth it is, to have an ungrateful .... He starts. There is something moving in the hedge. Something coloured, not grey of bird or squirrel, or even marmalade of cat. Something quick and bright – there – there! Just there between the leafless twigs – bless my soul, a little boy! Holding the hedge apart with his little arms, peering out at Christopher as cheeky as you please – pearly teeth, and a warm shock of dark chestnut hair that flops into his bright brown eyes. He's wearing a smart red jacket. What a splendid little chap, grinning at Christopher as if he has known him all his life. "I say!" says Christopher, "Whose is the little boy out there?"

The woman comes to the window, her arms full of dirty sheets. "Where?" she asks.

"There!" says Christopher, "just there, playing hide-and-seek in the hedge. Is he yours?"

"Mine!" she laughs. "I haven't got any children."

"He's just behind that bush –"

"Can't see him, I'm afraid." She shrugs.

"Dammit. He's gone."

The woman lets herself out of his room with a quiet, "See you tomorrow Mr Garside," and the smile on Christopher's face lingers as he remembers what a very pretty child Sarah was, with her bright brown eyes and her cheeky smile. She'll be here to see him soon. She is a good girl, really. It is not everyone among these old codgers who has a pretty daughter to visit twice a week. The remarkable thing about children, he thinks, relishing this sudden lucidity, is that each one makes us new again.

...

Sarah Garside has felt it. A quick flick, like the tail of a goldfish when it turns at the side of its bowl. A flick, a quick flutter, a butterfly fluttering lightly in her belly. With trembling fingers she phones Kumar with news of the quickening. In answer, he laughs delightedly; he'll come home early, he'll cook her favourite chicken masala to celebrate. The warmth of his voice at the other end of the phone steadies her.

Her father is in an astonishingly good mood. He has greeted her affectionately, he has allowed her to cajole him into his outdoor clothes with only the tiniest murmur of complaint against the brown coat which he claims cannot possibly be his; he has expressed pleasure at being out in the sunshine, and now he stands docilely in the newsagents, waiting for her to select his papers. It is only when she comes to pay that she realises Kumar's brother Abhik is not behind the counter: the man behind the counter is their father. She doubts he will recognise her. "Good afternoon Mr Ahmed."

"Sarah," he states. He does not smile.

She should not give herself time to think. Just do it. Do it. "Please let me introduce my father. Christopher Garside. Dad, this is Mr Ahmed, he – he's –"

Christopher smiles affably. "D'you have a little boy living here? Your grandson, perhaps?"

Mr Ahmed stares at him.

"I saw a marvellous little chap this morning, playing in the hedge, I believe it was the hedge at the end of your garden."

"Sadly sir, I have no grandchild. Two sons, but no grandchildren."

Sarah passes a five pound note to Mr Ahmed. Christopher is momentarily distracted by a semi-naked woman splayed across a magazine cover. He carefully turns the offending item over. "Disgraceful." He looks up at Mr Ahmed. "Pity. I only have the one daughter myself but, as you see, she's a dab hand at taking care of her aged Pa." He picks up his pile of papers and begins to head for the door.

"Yes indeed," says Mr Ahmed. "But we cannot choose our children." He rummages in the till and Christopher halts in the doorway and turns back.

"Don't despair, old chap. I daresay you will have one, you know. A grandson. And he's sure to be just as jolly as this young fellow I saw."

Mr Ahmed looks up. "Thank you." He meets Christopher's eyes and, after a moment, he smiles. "A pleasure to meet you, sir."

Sarah fumbles with her change. She is so tongue-tied she can only nod and smile in farewell. Outside the shop, her father announces, "You don't come across that very often these days. Proper old-fashioned courtesy. I wouldn't mind them if they were all like that."

Sarah opens her mouth to remonstrate. Closes it. Opens it again. There is no time like the present. Now, she urges herself. Now. "Dad, there's something I want to tell you."

...

When Sarah leaves, Christopher sinks back into his chair by the window. The early darkness has fallen, there is nothing to be seen outside now except the reflected lights of a Christmas tree in someone's garden. He feels perfectly exhausted. Good job she has gone. What a lot of fuss. For a moment he enjoys blankness, vacancy. She has told him too many things and asked too much of him. She never stops to think, it is inconsiderate of her. He lets his eyelids close.

After a while he rouses himself. There is certainly something to think about. Yes. A baby. Or was it that little boy in the hedge?

From the depths of his mind there rises a memory, as clear and as perfect as today is indistinct and fragmentary. He is a young man, full of energy and purpose. He is running down the stairs to let the doctor in. Upstairs in the bedroom his wife is crying out in labour. The midwife claims she is "nearly there". Christopher has run the gamut from anxiety to distress to terror to exasperated fury at his own irrelevance. Madeleine's cries cut him to the quick. Now the midwife has summoned the doctor, just to be on the safe side, and Christopher lets him in.

"Thanks for coming so quickly, doctor. The midwife tells me all's well, but as you hear –"

"She's a screamer, eh," says the doctor comfortably. "Nothing wrong with that. Just show me where I can wash my hands, will you?"

"But she's been doing that for an unconscionably long time."

"It helps some women," says the doctor, "to vocalise the pain. Don't worry, it is a constructive noise."

Surprising himself, Christopher laughs. "What an awful palaver. You'd think she was the first woman ever to give birth."

"Well it is her first time, isn't it? Is she not entitled to a little fuss?" The doctor shakes his dripping hands, and Christopher searches for a clean towel. He feels like a traitor. And the noise upstairs even seems to have stopped. "I didn't mean –"

"Of course not," says the doctor kindly. "But what – all things considered – what could there ever be, more important than the birth of a child?" He reaches to take the towel from Christopher's outstretched hand and Christopher thinks what a likeable, trustworthy fellow he is. From upstairs there is the sound of sudden movement, then comes the midwife's joyous cry:

"Quick! It's a girl!"

Sarah. His girl Sarah. He could cradle her head in the palm of his hand. Her infant eyes stared at him from another world. What could there ever be, more important than the birth of a child, eh.

There was something about the little boy in the hedge. And something about a baby? He sifts, patiently, waiting for it to surface. It will come to him. Like a promise of happiness, shortly to be fulfilled.

Jane Rogers is the author of seven novels, including 'Mr Wroe's Virgins' (and the subsequent BBC2 adaptation), 'Island', and 'The Voyage Home'. Her most recent, 'The Testament of Jessie Lamb', was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Arthur C Clarke Award. Her new collection of short stories, 'Hitting Trees With Sticks', is published by Comma Press

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