Chimes at Midnight
By Misha Herwin
There was something wrong with the landing. Feet juddering against concrete, he felt his ankle go. Clawing at the rusty swing to save himself, pain, hot white electric, shot down his arm. His pinions were torn. On the left side only, but it made the wing unstable, his whole body listing to one side as he dragged himself onto the broken bench at the side of the playground.
This was not how it was supposed to be. There were broken bottles, piles of fag ends, dim figures at the edge of his vision, blank faced buildings rearing up around him. Above them, however, beyond the miasma of orange light, the stars were still sharp, the message clear. He had to go on.
Shuffling like an old man, bent under the weight on his back, he inched towards the road. Passing the boys, their hoods low over their faces, he hoped, but their auras were dark, closed in on themselves.
In the High Street, Santa and his reindeer dangled over late night revellers. Girls in skimpy dresses, boys in T-shirts, lurched, bottles in hands, towards the door of a club. A blast of warm air, a throb of music: it was a place to hide but already the bouncer was moving towards him, his eyes hard, face fixed.
Beyond the centre all was quiet. Curtains drawn, awaiting the morning. Iron railings gave him purchase. His foot failed, he was on his knees. He leaned his head against metal so cold it burned, and let out his breath. His eyes were closing, lids shutting out the glow from a basement window. The area door opened. A fat little woman dressed in red, her face framed by white fur stood on the threshold.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” she said.
“Me?” His voice was harsh, his throat raw.
“You,” she said briskly, “are late. Come on, in you come. ” She did not watch as he eased himself down the steps, on his bottom, feathers scraping against the damp stained wall, bunching together to squeeze through the narrow entrance and into the light.
The room smelled of cinnamon and pine. Candles flickered on the Christmas tree. White berries shone against the green of the mistletoe. A small dragon slept beside the fire. On the mantelpiece, a large bird fluffed its gold feathers and preened. In a patchwork chair beside the hearth a teenage mother fed her baby. A marmalade cat lay at her feet, purring as a brown curly haired dog licked its ears.
“We haven’t managed a lion and a lamb, this year, but the lads from the playground will be here in a moment, then you can do your stuff,” the fat little woman said.
“I don’t think I have the strength,” he began, his body collapsing onto a three legged stool.
“Nonsense. Here.” And she handed him a honey cake.
“You don’t need me,” he said, as his bone began to knit, his feathers ruffle in the sudden blast of air that came in with the boys. Behind them came a gaggle of girls, teetering on impossible heels. A tap at the window and a slender white horse slid in after them, the horn on its forehead shimmering as it lowered its head. The old woman smiled and shook her head.
“I need you all,” she said. The clock struck mid-night. The dog raised its muzzle: “Happy Christmas,” it said.