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Ali Smith: Do you call that a Christmas present?

Sunday 21 December 2008 01:00 GMT
(C L Mallison)

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me: a whole month whose daylight ended at roughly half past three. I looked out the window and watched it fall.

Great, I said. Really cheery present. Thanks.

Pleasure, my true love said. On the second day of Christmas, my true love dragged into the house a skeletal-looking tree with its roots all earth and almost all the leaves already off its branches. What was left of the leaves, dry, near-dead, spent the rest of the afternoon dwindling off it on to the living-room carpet.

You know me so well, I said.

My true love looked pleased, tucked its roots into a pot of earth and filled the saucer at the base of the pot with water.

On the third day my true love came into the house shouting, close your eyes! close your eyes! put your hands out, both your hands, palms upwards, flat!

Another of your so-called presents? I said, eyes closed.

My true love put something so cold into my arms that it was as if I'd just been gifted coldness itself. It was heavy, and slippery, and it burned cold all through me wherever it touched me. It was like holding pain. I opened my eyes. I was holding a large slab of white ice about the size of (and a lot heavier than) a West Highland terrier.

Do you like it? my true love said.

Your retail talents are dreadful, I said. Darkness. A bare tree. Ice. Can you maybe next time buy me a jersey or a scarf or socks or a hairdryer? And look. This present is melting all over the floor. It isn't going to last half an hour, even.

Well obviously. I mean, that's the whole point, my true love said.

You are joking, aren't you? I said.

On the fourth day, my true love stood outside in the cold and dark and sang a song at our house. "Then why should men on earth be sad?" my true love sang. "The holly bears the crown." My true love's gone mad, I thought. I was worried. We were new to each other. Maybe it wasn't true love after all, I worried. Then I went through to heat up some wine and sort out some cakes or something; it was cold out there. On the fifth and sixth days, one after the other, my true love took me to the theatre, to two full houses of roaring laughing children, and adults who'd been changed back into raucous children, by a man dressed as a woman and a girl dressed as a boy. Then the girl dressed as a boy suddenly rose off the stage on a wire and soared up into the gods of the theatre. I put my hand up and felt my own face. It was wet with tears. I was embarrassed. I looked round to see if anyone had noticed me crying. All the faces round me were shining too.

See? my true love said in my ear.

On the seventh day, my true love kept me up really late watching films one after the other. One was about a family who are supposed to move house, but the plan changes on Christmas Eve, when the father suddenly understands that they're all happier where they are. The other was about a ruined, desperate man with no money who is given a lot of single-dollar notes by everybody in the town he lives in, so that his business will be saved. My true love and I went to bed at four am, dizzy with tiredness and happy endings, singing a song together. Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Can we do this again some time? I said. Yes, my true love said. Every Christmas. On the eighth day we stayed awake late, telling stories of Christmases past. We told each other about Christmases we'd spent with family, and with other lovers, and Christmases we'd spent alone. I thought about the old, old story, about the cold birth of the outsider, no room at the inn, the poor people and the rich people bringing the right gift, and the kindly animals too, and all of them following nothing but the light of a star in the night sky.

(On the ninth day I cancelled the things I'd ordered online so proficiently in October: the new widescreen TV, the Estonian turtle doves, the iPod, the specially flown-in Brazilian calling-birds, the hens from France (very expensive) the geese and their eggs, the noise-cancelling headphones, the oven-ready roast swans, the performing lords, ladies, drummers, pipers and maids and the second DAB radio (for the kitchen; there's one in the bathroom already). On the tenth and eleventh days I wrote many emails in an attempt to get my money back for the cancellations. I got most of it refunded; I'm hopeful about the rest.) Meanwhile we hung lights and decorations in the bare branches of the tree in the house. They looked like a promise of leaves, or fruit. Then out we went for a walk in the dark. It was frosty. It was the time of year when things could change their nature. When we looked down we saw the streets beneath our feet were paved with scattered constellations. The windows of the houses we passed gave yellow light out into the darkness. And already, my true love said taking my arm, we're past the shortest. Light is shaving the darkness off already, a couple of minutes a day. Have you noticed?

No, I said. (I was almost sorry; the windows lit up in the dark looked so fine.) So this, in the end, on the twelfth day, is what I gave my true love for Christmas: several logs of wood and a small wrapped box, smaller than the palm of a hand. My true love took the logs and put them down, looked at the box, looked suspicious and said, What is it? It'd better not be five gold rings. I hope you know me better than that.

Open it, I said.

Perfect, my true love said.

My true love shook out one of the matches. We lit a fire in the hearth. It started small and grew good and strong. The light it gave off made our shadows move companionably all night behind us on the warm walls of the room. '

And a partridge, I sang (and my shadow did what I did, but as if I had a larger self).

In a pear tree, my true love sang back in the light and the dark.

Ali Smith's new book, 'The First Person and Other Stories', is published by Hamish Hamilton

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