A crescendo of banging rises above the sound of the radio. Maggie’s butter-smeared fist must be deep inside the turkey; Dougal can hear the roasting tin rattling in unison with the choir.
‘I can’t hear you,’ she yells.
Dougal pauses halfway up the cellar steps, and sighs. Maggie’s been wrestling with that poor bird since teatime, even though it will be many hours before he needs to push its bacon covered carcase into a hot oven. ‘I’ve to get ahead of myself,’ is Maggie’s chant, time and again.
Dougal carries a battered box through the door and places it carefully onto the kitchen table. He leans past his wife to turn down the sound of congregation and organ locking horns over the higher notes of Hark The Herald Angels Sing.
‘There you go, hen,’ he says, lifting the sellotape-scarred lid and rummaging inside; ‘I knew I could fetch it.’
Maggie has armed herself with more butter. She pushes a greying fringe from her eyes and frowns up at Dougal. A holly-covered apron is wrapped like a battle banner around her twiggy form, the legs of the turkey protruding pinkly from her unrelenting grip.
‘And what would that be?’
‘The lights and all. Remember, last year, we didnae bother?’ He smiles at the glistening yellow smear across her forehead.
‘Alec’ll be in any minute,’ says Maggie vaguely, wiping another lump of softened butter across the back of the turkey, ‘wanting his tea.’
Dougal plugs in the fairy lights but as he half expects, there is no magical transformation. He drops onto a chair and starts to twist each Lilliputian bulb, searching for the loose connection. Down in the cellar are the LED lights that Alec brought back from New York on his last trip – maybe two, three Christmases ago; a cold, harsh light.
Dougal’s stiff fingers twist another bulb. Too modern, had been Maggie’s judgement on the matter. Not her idea of Christmas, and none too flattering. The new lamps were tidied away into the cellar with all the floating detritus of family life: always in charge of festivities is Maggie McDonald.
Another tiny bulb, another infinitesimal twist, and the old string of lamps bursts into tiny incandescences of gold, fuschia and emerald. Maggie’s buttered hands come together in a soundless clap, and for Dougal her rare smile is enough.
‘Aw, now, that’s pretty,’ she says. ‘We’re getting there, aren’t we; we’re getting there. When’s the lad back?’
Storms have driven across the North Sea, are battering the coastline above Kirkaldy. The wind buffets the walls of the McDonald house, but the air within is thick with resinous warmth. Not everything has changed quite yet, thinks Dougal; we always did get our tree too big. Too dear, as well, at nearly thirty, cash, but Alec makes it special.
The lanky teenager manning yesterday’s farm stall had pushed Dougal’s notes into the rear of his jeans and hefted his old schoolteacher’s purchase onto the roof of the little Passat.
‘Easy on the pedal on the way back, Mr McDonald,’ he grinned, throwing the towrope back towards Dougal, ‘dinnae want you two taking off in the gale,’ and with that the boy winked at the pale moon of Maggie’s face, pressed against the side window of the car.
‘Our laddie’s flying home, Christmas Eve,’ said Dougal, nodding his head towards the trussed up tree, pulling on the rope to tighten it. His fingers were clumsy with cold as he struggled with the final knot.
‘Och, it’ll be a belter for yous, then, anyways.’
The boy gave the roof of the car a farewell pat as the engine started.
‘Did you catch him, Mags? That lad was just a wee bairn of Caitlin’s, last time I looked.’ Dougal glanced behind him as he pulled back out into the traffic, but the boy had already moved away. ‘Tossed it up there for us like it was nothing.’
They followed their usual route home along the coast road, and Dougal marvelled as always at the strength of the boil on the swell, while Maggie, indifferent, crossed off words on one of the incomprehensible lists she had started to scrawl on the edge of the Herald each morning.
The lights threaded through the branches to his satisfaction, Douglas switches the table lamp off and steps back to admire his artistry. In the kitchen, O Come, All Ye Faithful is swelling towards its final crescendo. The radio cuts out just as Dougal is about to declare the organ the victor, and he counts the few seconds that drop from the mantel clock before Maggie wanders into the sitting room.
‘That’s me - oh!’ In her dark eyes the tiny candle bulbs glow as if, quite suddenly, she has been transformed from within. ‘Let, me, let me.’ She drops onto her knees to rummage like a child amongst the decorations, as though she has never seen the tissue covered baubles she wrapped two years ago, the bent-winged fairy with its tinsel wand, the fat Santa that Alec made in primary school, the wire-legged robins that have perched on all her Christmas trees. As she rises, she stumbles, a box of glass teardrops rattling like icicles.
‘Oh - will you look at these, Doug.’
Douglas detaches the fragile ornaments from her slippery grasp.
‘In a minute, lass. Let’s get those hands washed first.’
In the end, it doesn’t take him long to dress the tree. Maggie is no longer up to balancing on a chair, so Dougal places the ornaments for her, pausing from time to time to see if his wife will notice that the tin soldier is standing higher than usual, or that in a trivial act of defiance - or honesty, he is not sure which - he has placed a trumpet on the spire rather than the battered angel that has dominated their last thirty-eight trees. But Maggie has lost interest in the decorations; she is perched on the edge of the sofa, her hands turning as rhythmically as the drum in the washing machine Dougal has learnt how to use.
‘Did you say when, Doug?’
Maggie’s newly cleaned hands make a papery sound as they tumble in her lap. Her anxiety’s like one of those waves, thinks Dougal; could swamp us both.
‘He’ll be back for supper,’ he replies, moving the chair away from the decorated tree. ‘There. Now what do you think of that? Bonny, I call it.’
Maggie does not look up. She has begun to stroke a length of silver tinsel across her lap, brushing its metallic layers as though she is smoothing hair from the brow of an infant pupil. Her own hair is more grey than blonde, these days, streaked with white at the temples.
Dougal knows that the rising gale will hit their coastal cottage, shake the ink-dark conifers beyond the window, rattle the bleached wooden gate on its stiffened hinges. The multi-coloured glow from the tree is kind to his wife; it softens the hollows of her thinning face and slides gently over the purple depths behind her collarbones, stopping only to flicker on the tinsel, and on the wedding ring that rolls across the silver strands in easy repetition.
The tinsel drops from Maggie’s lap as she jerks upright.
‘Alec needs to be in bed before I can finish his sack. For Pete’s sake, Doug, why did you let him go out at all?’
The old toysack probably lies buried somewhere in the cellar, stored in one of the boxes filled with discarded Airfix and outgrown books. Or perhaps it is only the recollection of a sack that remains with Dougal, and Alec’s treasured hessian bag with its handwritten label has long since disintegrated into musty threads.
He gives his wife’s back a reassuring rub as she halts by the Christmas tree, angular and disconsolate. Her vertebrae are easily located; they slip and slide like sea-worn pebbles under his careful touch.
‘Everything’s wrapped, and ready, Mags.’
Hail drives against the window like something or someone is tapping to get in.
Maggie is humming carols as she places frozen sausage rolls in concentric circles on a tray, occasionally breaking off to admire the pattern made by the pale pastry oblongs against the dark metal, the ritual and rhythm of cooking so deeply embedded within her that a kind of peace has settled over the kitchen. Dougal has wiped the turkey carcase clean of the worst of the butter and buried it in the rear of the fridge, concealing it behind the half-steamed Christmas pudding.
The fridge and cupboards are over-full. Part-time supply teaching pays him little enough and that all stopped now that Maggie needs him, yet she filled yesterday’s shopping trolley as fast as he could empty it; double cream, cut-price ham, orange juice, a glittering white candle in the shape of a reindeer that she clutched with a fierce possessiveness all the way home. Couple of nights, that’s all he’ll stay at most, thinks Dougal. And she’ll eat but a scrap of it.
Dissatisfied with the circles, Maggie has taken all the rolls from the tray and tipped them, violently, even viciously, into a little heap on the kitchen side. Now she has begun to hum once more as she starts yet again to re-arrange the pastry, this time in orderly rows, like words in sentences, or beds in a ward. The sound of the telephone breaks her concentration; she pauses, one roll pinched between forefinger and thumb, her head tipped to one side, like a sparrow faced with an overlarge crumb.
The signal is poor; Alec’s voice floats in disjointed fragments above snatches of shouted conversation and bursts of laughter. As Dougal covers his free ear and strains to catch the words, the cottage lights flicker in warning.
‘No, I understand, lad. Better not to take the risk.’
Dougal leans his forehead against the doorframe as he listens to his son’s hurried tone, absorbing the shadow of New York that has so gradually stolen across that familiar inflection.
Below him the hall table holds a small stack of post; a snowman in a tartan scarf grins jauntily at Dougal from the uppermost card. He’s not sure which is worse, this year’s thinned-out pile, or its ersatz messages: I’ll call you… we hope to see you both soon.
‘No, no, that’s fine, Alec; we’re looking forward to it.’
The warmth of the crowded bar hangs in the air for a moment, and then the call disconnects and around Dougal there is just the sound of the wind and the emptiness of the hall.
Dougal has taught High School science for more than forty years; he is not a man for empty wishes or tinsel-winged angels promising hope and salvation. Moderate cognitive decline, they judged it. Cells have begun to shrink and die; neurotransmitters are declining, winking out. Last year Maggie had stood in this very hall, pored over signatures, relationships, lifting the inked-up cards to her face in an effort to conceal her fracturing memory. This year’s dwindling heap has largely passed her by unnoticed, but to Dougal it is as though a giant eraser has begun to obliterate both their lives.
I can’t keep him in the dark any more, thinks Dougal, placing the telephone down across the snowman’s gap-toothed smile.
‘Change of plan,’ he manages. ‘Flight landed safely. He’s stopping with friends; be up for lunch tomorrow.’
His words drift across the kitchen and seem to vanish as if he had never spoken. Maggie is looking blankly at the frozen pastry square in her hand. The lights flicker again, then switch off and on; as the tray reappears, Maggie, reanimated, places the sausage roll down in its allotted space at the end of the row and moves towards Dougal.
‘Is someone dropping by, then?’ she says, wiping her hands on her apron. ‘Only Alec might have to give up his room.’
In that moment the power fails completely; Maggie’s quizzical face is extinguished with a brutal suddenness that makes Dougal catch his breath. Her hands beat at the air as she searches for him, for the worktop, for some locating beacon; her rapid breathing fills the gulf between their bodies in the thick night that has just descended.
Maggie’s snowy reindeer is alight, its flame softening the antlers; one branch has already begun to slide tipsily towards its nose. In the flickering candlelight the decorated tree casts the shadows of a forest across the walls of the sitting room, as though the house, the very fabric of their life together, is about to turn inside out and dissolve into wind and rain.
Dougal has placed Maggie on the sofa and tucked his coat over her legs for warmth. He drops onto the tartan cushion beside her and feels Maggie searching under the coat, pushing against his thigh; in a mockery of old intimacies, their hands find one other, and fuse together.
In one of those fleeting moments of lucidity that he will come to dread, Maggie’s fingers tighten, as though, just for a moment, a bulb, secured, has flared again. She pulls his hand towards her and presses it, palm down, across her chest.
‘You ken Blind Man’s Bluff, Doug? At Christmas, just the three of us?’
Yes, tying a scarf across Alec’s eyes, twisting the little boy around on the spot until he laughed for dizziness, watching him stumble around the furniture and stretch for arms and legs kept always, tantalisingly, just beyond reach.
‘It’s like that,’ she frets. ‘I’m fearful of the tricks, you know. When I can see straight everything will be there for the finding again.’
When it was Dougal’s turn Maggie would slip the scarf around his head and pull it tight, so that even with his eyelids open against the soft wool he could perceive nothing but faint pinpricks of light, indistinguishable from one another; must feel his way around a world made suddenly unfamiliar, must experience that fleeting disorientation each time the scarf was pulled from his eyes, when he would find himself staring at a piece of furniture or Maggie’s grinning face as though encountering it for the very first time.
‘Whisht,’ says Dougal, rubbing his thumb gently against the back of her hand. ‘Whisht, now, hinny.’
Beside him Maggie’s breathing gradually deepens, her head slipping down against his shoulder. Dougal glances at the dark form of his outstretched legs, a solid outline that anchors them both to the flickering gloom of the little room. In front of him there is the sombre triangle of the darkened tree, and beyond that, the wall of the sitting room, the garden, the street, the blacked-out town and storm hit coast; all in a state of suspended animation, waiting for the power to reconnect; waiting for the morning. Dougal tips his head back against the cushion and allows the sound of the gale to blow his own memory where it will.
Within moments it has abandoned thoughts of Alec, of the downtown apartment that swallows half a salary, the fixed term contract that his son says is safe as houses, good as guaranteed. Half-reluctantly, it strays from Maggie, his plans for meals to tempt her appetite, the hundred and one ways he can presently conjure to keep her restless spirit occupied and safe; it forgets the mornings when she struggles to avoid her pills, yesterday’s angry refusal to let the reindeer pass the scanner. For a moment, his mind ceases to anticipate the years ahead that are already lost to them, its apprehension of the time when he can no longer tolerate the punishment of being, yet not being alone.
Instead, images are stirring in his frontal cortex, recollections that lie deeper than the day his son was placed, vernix-smeared, into his arms, rest further than the echo of an autumn morning when the wind snatched at NUT banners and sunlight sparked off a strange girl’s yellow curls.
Somewhere an eight-year-old boy still sits in the dark on the edge of his mattress, cloaked in his candlewick bedspread, certain that the morning will bring Action Man, boxed with dog tag and army manual. December’s unforgiving gale rattles the small windows and whistles around the slates; its draught lifts the corner of the old curtain and blows against the side of his face.
Dougal McDonald’s obduracy will see him red eyed when tomorrow’s sun lifts, cloud-wrapped and empty-handed. But right now he listens not to the storm but for the inevitable clatter of reindeer on the roof, armed with an unshakeable faith.