Sunday, December 26, 2010
By 11 am on Christmas morning we were on Newgale Beach. The sky was cloudless, the sea transparent turquoise, frost on the pebbles. We walked to clear our heads from the night before.
Our neighbours had invited us round. Lovely people, honest friends; they drink too much, and so did we. It was the strawberry daiquiris that did it for Jane, or was it the Sambouka shots? I steered clear of those and consequently was in a better state. In truth, neither of us was that bad, but when Dylan woke at eight and said can I sleep a bit more before its Christmas, I thought, 'perfect child'.
His brothers were less patient. It was them who got up first. Then breakfast, stockings, big presents; the usual mess of wrappings on the floor and me frantically shoving it into plastic bags. We lost Dylan as soon as he unwrapped his Gameboy - I expect him to be fixed to the screen till Friday. The older boys were on form too: grateful, attentive to their brother, nice presents for their mum - well done. A typical family Christmas, I thought, nothing special.
Then I remembered the night before.
Another neighbour had been there too; farm labourer, a bit boisterous but no edge to him. Two years ago his wife ran off with another bloke, leaving him with the debts she'd run up as well as their two pre-school sons - for good measure she also left two teenager daughters from her previous relationships. One of the teenagers has since returned to her natural father.
The other has remained with our neighbour. An ordinary kid, she was thrust into the role of surrogate mother to her little brothers. And judging by what we saw on Christmas Eve, she does it naturally enough: calming, cuddling, explaining. Father Christmas will come tomorrow she said - after me and your Dad come back from doing the milking. She scooped up her brothers to get them ready for bed.
You're not really going milking tomorrow? I asked when she returned. And she looked at us with clear eyes and a soft smile; It's not that bad. We'll be finished by five thirty and the boys will sleep through. She went on to explain that she does this every weekend and holidays, though not on school days as her GCSEs are coming up. It'll be harder in the sixth form, but I don't want to milk cows all my life. No more was said; I was lost for words.
As Jane and I walked the beach we talked about how different lives can be; how lucky our kids are, ourselves too. It was her calm acceptance that struck us most; her willingness to do what was right; the responsibilities ahead of her years. My Mum is coming round tomorrow afternoon she had said. It's good the boys see her, but I won't stay while she's there.
A kestrel soared along the cliff edge, searching the tide-washed sand. The air was so clear we could see Grassholm, twenty miles off shore. It appeared like a dark circle , weirdly undercut, as if a ball had been stuck to the horizon. Even through binoculars it was difficult to make out why this was - eventually I realised the distant surface was miraging; the island was reflecting its own shape into the water.
The kestrel kept looking, hopeful of some carrion perhaps. I wanted to stay but we had to hurry: visitors coming, the turkey in the oven, the table to prepare. It all seemed a bit tame in comparison.
As we turned to leave a tanker was rounding the west of Skomer, its stern fading into the mist.