The girl had a quiet dignity about her, slim fingers cradled her swollen stomach thinly covered by a filthy blue dress, her eyes stared without seeing.
Trolleys rattled past, all action and bustle, overstretched staff sleepwalking their way through the familiar chaotic routines of the run down city hospital.
Like a trapped bird she paced the box of glass and painted steel muttering her silent torments and refusing with a gesture of exasperation a sagging chair offered to her by a lively young nurse.
A broken strip light flickered and crackled as if it contained an angry trapped wasp and a nauseous mingling of strong disinfectant and wax polish pervaded the air.
Dr Bateman looked at the orderly, rubbing his eyes he tried to focus on the problem.
“She can’t be more than sixteen, how many weeks did she say she was?”
“She didn’t, I don’t think she speaks any English, she hasn’t said much but I’d say they’re Arabic or some such.”
He gestured towards the middle aged man slumped in an adjacent chair.
“You say he’s her husband?”
“Well just an impression really, now I think of it.
He well, looks a bit well, old”
The orderly shrugged and left dragging a scuffed and battered wheel chair back up the corridor.
“It’s bitter out tonight.” chipped in the little nurse nervously smoothing imaginary wisps of hair.
“Look it’s an accident and emergency department not a refuge for the homeless and disaffected!”
Her face fell and he hesitated for a moment, then more gently.
“Oh get onto social services then! I don’t want to be the ‘Evil bastard’ who chucked ‘em out to freeze on Christmas Eve.
Where’ve they gone anyway?”
The nurse turned, pushing through the crush of bodies she craned to see two figures slipping through the heavy doors, out into the dark anonymity of the street.
“Leave it” said the doctor, catching her by the arm “There’s more than enough to do here.
Don’t beat yourself up because you can’t change the whole world.”
The street sparkled menacing, grim inhospitable. Windows opaque with frost mistily, proclaimed the season’s greetings in a bawdy procession of coloured tat. Factories and offices slept darkly, their sides a patchwork of lit billboards.
The couple staggered in their hasty flight. He gripping her to him, to prevent her falling.
Distant churches called both the righteous and the winos to midnight mass, crouched in unhappy proximity on waxed Pugh’s, trembling in the glow of candles and archaic glaze.
On the corner of Beteham S.T the girl slumped against the wall with a dull moan. Her face creased with the sharp insistent pains of labour. Her breath came in short bursts hanging in little clouds in the cold air. He looked on helplessly searching the shadows for some ray of hope, a nameless miracle.
Further up the street a door opened grating on unsteady hinges. The figure of an old women squinting into the street- light, limped forward and turned towards the couple. Her frail body struggled forwards in its mishmash of ill-fitting clothing.
“Is she unwell? I heard a noise, can I help?”
Her voice was soft and cultured, belying her tattered appearance.
The man answered in a foreign tongue and gestured desperately towards the girl’s swollen belly. Gently taking the girls other arm she smiled and pointed towards the dimly lit doorway.
Inside was an old mattress, a few worn blankets and an open fire that dimly lit the room.
She bustled about humming softly to herself, then after rapping a blanket about each of them she disappeared through a curtained doorway and returned carrying two chipped mugs of steaming liquid.
“Here slip this down, it will warm you and give you strength.
“Lizzy” She said pointing to her self and smiling.
“Maria!” gasped the girl, her voice tailing off, as another spasm overtook her.
Light shone in from the shattered and partly boarded window. The child’s bright inquisitive eyes watched the pigeons busy among the rafters in the flickering shadows.
Curled around him his mother slept on, clasping a tiny finger to her lips.
The steady gaze of the man never left them, eyes soft with tears.
Lizzy built up the small fire still puzzling over the events of the night, a loud tapping on the door leading to the street caused her to stiffen then rise unsteadily to her feet.
Startled awake the girl bunched up her knees and pulled the child still closer.
“Lizzy!” A gentle voice called.
Lizzy’s face lit up.
“Jeffery is that you?”
“Yes Lizzy it’s me.”
“What brought you Jeffery, on so cold a night to visit an old friend?”
The door opened slowly and the room filled with intense silver light.
A tall gaunt figure moved stiffly into the room. He wore the vestments of a priest, worn and thin as his face, eaten away like the life that ebbed from him, but his eyes glowed with purpose.
“The star Lizzy, have you seen the star? It’s like…….” Excited his breath came in dry short gasps the words dieing on his lips as he stared transfixed at the glowing faced infant and his mother, so beautiful and pure in the light, it seemed to radiate from them.
Darkness hovered and crept in the dark alleys at the back of Steelem road.
In the icy pools of shadow someone moved. A figure pulled itself up on one arm. Wide eyed he watched the clouds roll angrily in the heavens. Finally they split and were seemingly crushed by shafts of intense light that turned night into day.
“What is it Bert, those lights? I’m scared…… It don’t seem right.”
Bert rubbed his eyes with a tattered sleeve, feeling sure he was dreaming.
“I don’ know Sam” He rasped and exhaled breath rank with stale sickly spirit.
Amongst the sodden cardboard, a hooded figure tried to shake his fuddled head and rouse sensation in his gloved hands. He drew in a sharp painful breath of freezing air and staggered to his feet. His face the colour of ash he strained his eyes to see, half terrified yet fascinated unable to move he stared.
Glowing shapes illuminated the night sky. Radiating from these almost human forms were wavering lines of flame and iridescent colour.
Frozen with fear, Sam began to cry silent tears, was this death, were these his last moments?
But as the strange light touched his face beautiful sounds filtered into his mind.
A quiet stillness, an unfathomable joy and peacefulness, as if a great healing soaked up all the pain and bitter cold of the streets.
The light grew brighter and brighter circling their heads in a wild dance, yet they felt no fear. Just a filling up with sounds so beautiful, more than any music or spoken word could ever be. Light reaching far up into the heavens, so bright now, that they could look no more, shading their eyes cowering once more amongst the damp sodden cardboard.
Milo the last tramp to stand looked out over the wavering half lights of the city. He turned smiling, blinking back unfamiliar tears.
“Follow the star!” he shouted, pointing the glowing firebrand of light hanging over the city. “Follow the star!”
Each silently fell in line, and as they walked from the shadows, more joined them; from allies and doorways; from bed-sits and tenements; from hovels and houses; from the distant woods and canal pathways; from country roads and villages; each looking for an answer and a purpose.
On and on they walked relentlessly, towards the poor mean buildings, bathed in the strange and beautiful light.
The Prime Minister of England was just sitting down after Christmas lunch with his family when his secretary told him he’d an urgent call.
“There’d better be a good reason for this Smithers,” He shouted rising unsteadily.
Entering his dimly lit office he pushed a large indignant black cat from his polished wooden desk. It spat at him and let out a low dull growl.
“Get out you harpy” He hissed coughing on his after dinner cigar.
Scowling at his secretary he grudgingly snatched the phone.
“What is it Boulingbrook? It had better be good!” He paused then spluttered
“Nonsense, serious politicians can’t be goaded by the tabloid gutter press’s ramblings.” More shaken than he admitted though, he sank slowly on to a plush red chair behind him.
“I don’t care where they say the greatest leader this century will come from, I’m going nowhere on Christmas day.
Haven’t you got a life man?” His hands began to shake and feeling a little queasy he loosened his tie.
“Heavens just let me have a minute to think….
Erm look Bouls’ if you really think this is that important well, if you do find your ‘er well….. Yes whatever!
Well keep me informed so I can make the right kind of overtures.
That’s the ticket good man.
Be sure to come straight back to me on this one now won’t you?
How many men did you say you had on this?
Three was it?
All astrologers eh?
Well get to it man, no time to waste.”
As the phone went dead he had a nagging feeling that Boules might not play him straight on this one.
Staggering unsteadily up from the desk he paused and inhaled deeply on his cigar. The ash fell into his cupped hand and he stared distantly whilst exhaling a cloud of white smoke.
Slowly a smile replaced his blank expression. He became for a second transparent, unmasking a dark form, rotten, putrefying like something long dead, a terrifying image of malevolent hatred. Cupping his face in his hands he struggled with some unseen horror, but when he lifted his face he was once more just a tired old man sitting at a desk.
The secretary took the receiver with shaking hands.
“Stop staring man and get immigration on the phone! Damnable tie” he wrenched it from his neck and flung it at the astonished man.
“Tell ‘em we’ve a problem with some extremely dubious asylum seekers. No, no red tape just a nice quiet job we don’t want any trouble with the press.
Oh and tell M I 5 to get an urgent message to the president.
If things go wrong we might have to get Old Nick re-instated in Iraqi so we can pull off the final faze.
Lets face it Smithers, it’d be damnably hard for me to pull off an execution in this day and age.”