Christmas is dead. Well, not all of it. There’s still that feeling, you know, when you wake up and the duvet is the same as the one you had yesterday and the same as you’ll have tomorrow, but it’s different, it’s the one you have on Christmas day. Christmas gets into things and makes them special, even the air is full of it. And the whole morning of unwrapping presents and peeling potatoes and, well, all that’s still perfect.
It’s Nana that’s missing. She went thin and frail and passed away this year. This is her moment of Christmas day. It’s after the big dinner, just after we can’t eat any more and just before we go and walk on the beach, no matter what the weather and tide are doing.
This was when Nana gave me my present from her. But it’s not the present I’m missing, it’s her. You know, the bit when you go over and hug her arm. You press your head against her and she puts a hand on you and there’s all the smell of lavender and stuff. It’s all gone, she’s all gone.
I get down from the table, go through the living room and into the toilet. On my way back, I take the same route, but there’s a present right in my path. It wasn’t there before – I’d have trodden on it. There’s something all around me, like the air should twinkle, but I can’t see it, or thin, high sounds, but I can’t quite hear them.
I kneel down in front of the mystery package, bare knees on a pine-needled carpet. The parcel is a perfect cube and about the size of my fist. Mum’s calling me to put long trousers and wellingtons on. People moving, chairs scraping. I jump as she speaks behind me.
‘Quickly. John, we’re going out.’ A pause. ‘What’s that?’
‘I don’t know, mum. I just found it on the floor. Is it for me? Can I open it?’
Mum stands beside me. Fluffy pink slippers. She gasps. ‘Yes, open it.’
I look up. He face is pale, fingers pressed to lips, eyes watery.
‘What’s wrong, mum?’ I get up and hug her hips, press my head against her waist. Her hand is in my hair, stroking.
‘Open it,’ she says, ‘but be very gentle. Don’t tear the paper.’
Reaching down, I feel the parcel weighs almost nothing, like it’s full of air. The shiny surface looks blue or green as I turn it in the light. A slight rustle and I jump again. The parcel unwraps itself to reveal the white surface on the inside of the paper. On it is written“To Mr Kind. Happy Christmas.”
Nana used to call me Mr Kind. Once she saw me trying to swat a wasp. She showed me how to put a bit of jam on my finger and put it near the buzzing fury banging itself against the window. The wasp settled on my finger and clamed down, glass-like wings folded and glittered in the warm sunlight. I took my happy, munching wasp outside and it flew away across the hedge and into the cow field She said I was very kind. Nana also showed me how to take worms from the stone drive after heavy rain and put them on soft soil. We watched one dig its way down, safe from the birds.
‘Mum, the parcel opened itself.’
‘Yes. It’ll do more than that too. Nana used to make special things for special people.’
‘What can it do?’
‘Wait and see. Get your long trousers and boots on. Bring the paper to the beach. Oh, you’ll need gloves and a hat, it’s nippy.’
A squeeze of my shoulder and she turns away, sniffing. She not really upset, I think, just a bit sad when she remembered Nana.
My wellies clomp on the gritty wet stones down to the beach. The adults are all ambling along, talking words that turn to wisps of vapour. Mum is in one of her “I’m just a big kid” moods and, hand in hand, we skip, slip and slide. We giggle quite a lot.
The tide is way out. Lines of seaweed stripe the beach. A fishing buoy, trapped in a pool, bangs against the jagged line of red rock that stands tall in the sand and goes all the way to the water. Normally, I’d go straight there to collect mussels and cockles, but today I’ve eaten too much.
The paper flicks out of my pocket and rattles against the wind. I go to grab it, but it rolls into a tight ball and drops to the sand. Every time I get near it, it dodges away. Mum and I are all shouts and laughs as we run and scramble after it.
The gusting wind doesn’t blow it away, except now, when the ball unravels, flies up to a rock and spreads out. Written in red ink on the white side “You can’t catch me!” has us giggling.
We run to get it, but it folds into a plane and swoops between us, unravels again, turns into a small boat and scoots across a rock pool.
Mum’s helping me over the tall, jaggy rocks. They’re easy when you have bare feet, but wellies slip. The paper balls up again and hides in a big smelly mass of seaweed.
Mum is gasping for breath, arm wrapped round my shoulder. She says, ‘We can’t dig through that lot, we’ll stink!’
I see a cormorant. We’ve scared it. It’s scrabbling to get away, big claws scratching lines on rock and tearing seaweed.
‘Poor thing,’ says mum, ‘its wing is damaged. Let’s go back a bit so it doesn’t hurt itself trying to get away from us.’ She looks back to where dad and the rest are standing in a huddled group, a long way off, all hunched shoulders and flapping scarves. ‘Maybe… Ah, I don’t know what to do. We can’t call anyone to rescue it on Christmas day and, even with all of us working together, the cormorant will panic and fight if we try to help it.’
The magic paper pops out of the tangled weed and into my hand. The cormorant, looks huge and wild so close, shiny and black, a flash of white and yellow below the blue eye that watches us. From the spear-like feathers of its tail to the long and savage-looking hooked beak, it trembles with tension. Nana would say ‘It’s not having much fun” like she used to when a bird in the garden stood hungry and shivering, waiting for her to feed it. One of the cormorant’s wings is folded, the other held out like a huge, crooked dagger.
‘Maybe Nana can help it, ‘ I say as the paper, all balled-up, moves in my hand.
Mum squeezes me. ‘Maybe she can.’
I go to throw the paper towards the cormorant. Instead, the ball dives into the seaweed again. Seconds later and it appears under the held-out wing. The paper unravels, folds around the wing and disappears among the plumage. The Cormorant doesn’t notice, too busy keeping an eye on us. Its head ducks down for a moment, rearranging a feather. It folds its damaged wing back, opens them both, like it’s having a good stretch, tilts its head, and in two huge flaps, it’s off the rock and flying towards the cliffs.
Mum squeezes me again. ‘Are you sad?’
‘I’ve lost my paper, haven’t I?’
‘I think so, John. But Nana gave us both a better present than that, and it lasts a lifetime.’
‘Kindness. Merry Christmas, Mr Cormorant.’
© Gary Bonn: 2011