They stay up late assembling a dollhouse for Angela. Patrick falls onto the bed, pulling Shelagh after him. She runs a hand over her face and says, “Angela’s had a tough month. She deserves a good Christmas.” The new baby has delighted and exhausted his mother but unsettled his big sister, so used to being the focus of attention. Their daughter has been restless and clingy–though Patrick knows too well that being three is hard enough without the challenge of a new sibling.
But even if things had been different, even if Teddy wasn’t snuffling in the basket beside their bed, they would try just the same. They do not spoil their children, but Angela is at just the right age to find the lights and the music magical, to wiggle with excitement about the prospect of what Father Christmas will bring. Timothy would hate to admit it, at fifteen and without any illusions about who puts the presents under their tree, but he loves the discovery morning brings. And as much as she might primly insist that Christmas is to honor the birth of their savior, Patrick knows Shelagh loves the trappings of the holiday; after they tucked the children in bed, he snaked a twig of mistletoe behind her ear and kissed her as she blushed.
Shelagh rests her head on his chest, already mostly asleep, and he strokes his fingers through her hair. “Yes,” he says. “We all do.”
Angela hits their bed with a shriek and a flying leap at seventeen minutes past five in the morning. “Christmas! Mummy, Daddy, Teddy, Christmas!” The baby startles at this and Patrick grabs for his flailing daughter, drawing her against him as Shelagh shifts to settle Teddy.
“Yes!” Patrick says, as Angela bounces in his lap. She is all elbows and knees and knotted blonde hair, her flannel nightgown bunching over her legs as she squirms. “Are you sure you don’t want to go back to sleep?” He cuddles her close, rocking her back into a prone position. “It’s very early.”
“No! Daddy! There are presents!” She sounds like Shelagh, sometimes, when she affects that tone: a little scolding, so affectionate.
“Oh,” Patrick says. “I must have forgotten!”
Angela giggles and tucks her head against him, ready to be carried into the family room, happy to yell to wake Timothy. “You’re silly, Daddy,” she says, and he climbs out of bed and lifts her into his arms.
Shelagh appears beside him, Teddy tucked against her shoulder. “Good morning, dearest,” she says to them both. She kisses Angela’s cheek, then his own.
She’s tired, he can tell. The baby is still so small, so needful, waking them both–but Shelagh bears the brunt of the work, the constancy of caring for their littlest boy. And, unlike with Angela, she now faces the physical frustrations of postpartum recovery and peculiar joys of chasing the toddler now pulling at his ear. Shelagh is holding up well, recovering comfortably, but the smile on her face doesn’t mask the circles under her eyes.
“Did someone say something about presents?” Shelagh asks, pressing her free hand against Angela’s chest.
Patrick has to hold tightly to keep Angela from diving toward her mother. “Yes!” she says, and it is this squeal that summons Timothy. His hair sticks up in every direction as he blinks the sleep from his eyes, drawing his heavy dressing gown over his pajamas.
“I like presents,” he says, indulging and quietly excited, and Patrick cannot help but marvel at the way his son–his eldest son, he corrects, still astonished by the phrase–adores his sister.
“Well then,” Patrick says, “I think we should see what Father Christmas brought!”
And that is when the phone rings.
Nurse Crane is apologetic, of course. She knows he is not on call, knows this is time for family. But the locum was called to another case, and Mrs. Mullaney is presenting transverse and has had a complicated pregnancy, as he knows. She is concerned about so many things.
He wants to tell her to call an ambulance, but if that was what was needed, she would have done it. He can almost hear her protest about his judgment, or men, or something he doesn’t want to hear.
Angela rests against his shoulder, arms snaked around his neck, quiet as he listens. But she knows that phone calls in early morning only mean one thing, and he can feel her tears start before he hears them.
“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” Patrick says and rests the receiver back in its cradle.
“No,” Angela says, as if her protests might change the circumstances. “No, Daddy, it’s Christmas.”
“I know, sweetheart,” he says, rubbing her back. “I am so sorry.” He untangles her arms from his and passes her to Shelagh. “You can see what Father Christmas brought without me!” he says, and he doesn’t know if it will be worse if she says yes or no. He doesn’t want to take this morning’s joy from any of them, but he doesn’t want to miss seeing Angela’s face when she gets the one thing she has been asking for since summer.
“No,” and now it is almost a howl. Shelagh holds Angela tightly against her, both arms wrapped around her back as she sits on the bed, rocking gently. She must have put the baby back in his basket, because all her attention is on Angela with her reddening face and angry tears.
“I’m sorry,” he says again, and Shelagh smiles tightly before ducking her head to press her cheek against their daughter’s hair. Her disappointment is palpable, too.
“You’re not on call,” Tim says as Patrick rummages for something to wear. “This system is terrible.”
Suddenly exhausted again, Patrick says, “You can lecture me about scheduling deficiencies later, Tim.”
It is the worst thing he could say, of course. Timothy, just minutes ago happy to be a child again, turns on his heel and into a petulant teenager. “This is stupid and I’m going back to bed.” Patrick wants to follow, to apologize, to lie next to his son and listen to him breathe, to sleep a little more.
But he can’t. He pulls on his clothes, kisses his girls, and walks out to the car. The clock reads a quarter to six.
Patrick walks slowly up the steps into Nonnatus House. Despite it all–training and experience and two atheists’ spark of Christmas hope–the baby died. He took a breath, maybe two, and that was it. The mother bled badly after that, and in the end there was nothing to do but call the ambulance, call the coroner, think better of calling the church during mass.
And then nothing to do but go to dinner, to try to salvage something of this terrible day.
He enters the dining room, not too tardy, and there is Timothy, a pained but patient look on his face as he chats with Sister Winifred. There is Angela, in Sister Julienne’s lap, indulged, eating pieces of roast with her fingers. He can still see the redness in her face, and he wonders if she has been crying for the last six hours. But at least they are there, healthy and whole, and he has rarely been so glad to see his children angry with him.
But two of his faces are missing, the two he most wants right now, and before he can guess for himself, Tim says, “Mum’s feeding Teddy in the sitting room.” Patrick nods and waves idly to the collected guests and backs out of the room.
Shelagh rests in the corner of the sofa, the baby held lightly against her shoulder, the top buttons of her dress undone. She rubs Teddy’s back, and Patrick can tell from the idleness of the movement that the comfort is as much for her as for the boy; the baby is asleep, or nearly, warm and fed and wanting for nothing. It is his mother who needs this time.
She peers at him, and the skin around her eyes is tight. “Bad day?” she says, reaching the hand that isn’t holding their son toward him.
Patrick nods. “Very.” He takes her hand and squeezes her fingers before collapsing beside her. He pulls on her hand and feels her settle against him; she smells of Christmas pine and regurgitated milk and he presses his face to her hair. “The baby didn’t make it,” he says. “And the mother nearly so, and Shelagh–.”
He doesn’t need to say what he thought, there in that room, holding the baby boy in his hands, losing the fight to save his life. She turns her body against his, pressing her head against her shoulder and shifting Teddy to the crook of her arm. He pulls her closer, hand low on her waist, and breathes them both in.
Shelagh rests heavily against him, nearly dead weight against his chest. She curls the fingers of her free hand into his shirt, twisting it lightly; if this morning she was tired, now she is exhausted. He can feel her fatigue in every breath.
He kisses her head and wonders at the mess he left her to manage. He asks gently, “Did Angela give you trouble?”
Shelagh’s tone is wry. “She told Timothy it was the worst Christmas ever,” she says. He can hear it, Angela’s imprecise diction, the strength of her anger. He hopes Tim didn’t say any of the things that crossed his mind about polio or weddings, but he worries from Shelagh’s tone that he might have.
He hopes fervently this is always Angela’s worst Christmas, that she never has to experience what he and Shelagh and Tim have. He thinks of Tim trying to have a happy Christmas that first year after his mother died, pretending to a cheer he did not feel. He thinks of Christmas morning in the hospital with Timothy, barely breathing on his own. He remembers that same Christmas morning, closing his eyes against visions of what could have been, what should have been–Patrick shakes his head and reaches a hand to steady Teddy’s kicking foot, trying to quiet memory and fear.
Shelagh continues wearily, “Tim nearly slammed the door in her face.”
He doesn’t want to know more. He can imagine it well enough: Tim’s ire, imbued with the righteous perspective of age. Angela’s wails. Teddy’s squalling for supper every three hours. Shelagh’s patience stretched thin, pressing her own disappointment back to see to the children.
But she would never complain that he left this morning, and he loves her for it. If he asked her, she would say, “You’re here now, Patrick, that’s what matters.” She would say, “I would never want you to do anything else.” She would mean it.
He kisses her again. “Well, it hasn’t been our finest,” he says. They should go back to dinner, put on a happy face for their friends and their children, but right now, after all this, he wants only to stay here with her and rest for a moment.
“You fell asleep, Daddy,” Angela says loudly into his ear, and Patrick startles awake. He doesn’t know how long they have been dozing–surely no more than an hour–but it takes him a minute to catch up to his surroundings. Once he does, he sees Angela kneeling next to him on the convent’s old sofa, her face a picture of childish consternation. “You can’t sleep through Christmas,” she says.
Angela puts a hand behind his neck and reaches for her mother with the other, touching Shelagh’s face with sticky fingers, folding herself into her parents’ embrace. “Mummy,” she says. “Wake up. Can we have presents now?”
Yes, it is time to go home, to have the family celebration they all deserve.
Shelagh sits up, pulling Angela against her. Her arms full of their children, she gives Angela a serious look before glancing up to meet Patrick’s eyes. “Yes, dearest,” she says. “I think we can.”