THIS week, I have tried six times to create a contemporary Christmas story (sort of) for this column in vain. Something cheerful is what I had in mind.
But the gaiety eluded me, because every time the unborn baby Jesus found himself in a distant land where a modern-day Herod, infinitely crueller than his infamous progenitor, was sowing death and destruction on a scale that would make America envious.
Never mind baby boys under two. In the above-mentioned country, in the horrible story that I am not going to write, everyone and everything is a target.
There is not even a possibility of a safe harbour for a modern-day Mary and Joseph. Herod lies about this relentlessly, as if there is no such thing as phone cameras.
The young couple would give anything for a merciful innkeeper to make room for them among the goats and cattle, or maybe a chicken or three. There would be clean drinking water, a luxury they could only dream of, and who knows, leftovers from the evening's soup. Maybe a sandwich to boot.
By the way, the three wise men from the East were wise enough to stay at home. Madness trumps wisdom time and time again, as they know all too well in the story I cannot tell.
Unfortunately, my imagined inn had been laid to waste a week before. I prefer not to think about what happened to the innkeeper and his family.
That's when I decided to abandon the story.
After that I tried to transfer it to South Africa. After all, it's a place I'm familiar with.
My unwritable story is that of 21-year-old Joe and above all of Marianne, barely 19. It could have played out in any year except 2023. I'm sick and tired of 2023.
Joe knew it couldn't be his. It was only the other day that he and Marianne … And they even … No. No, no, no.
He put his hand in his pocket and counted on his fingers. One …two … No. Not a damn, he knew for sure.
He wasn't sure how he felt. Confused, yes, but so what? It was … well, unexpected. He looked for his cues from Marianne, but it didn't help much. She was also confused. Three times more than Joe.
She had already cried a little by then, and had a chance to get used to the idea while she waited for him to come home. “Home" was their room in a shared house.
Joe worked late that night. He and the other sparkies had been struggling for days on end to restore the power supply to Yeoville. The substation had just burned down. It was the week before New Year and half the guys were on leave or drunk at home.
Marianne and Joe met in the kitchen a few weeks earlier. It was a Sunday afternoon. Joe's first week.
She wanted to tell him: “Listen, this fridge is not everyone's, it's mine," but, oh, the poor bastard. Not a flipping clue. Then she said “excuse me" instead of “listen", and “Rosie and I are going to have sundowners on the stoep, if you want to join us".
Rosie went for a walk at Westdene Dam instead. Joe and Marianne clicked immediately. And so on.
A week later, Joe gave up his room and moved in with Marianne. That saved them R1,600 each. It was fine with the landlady — there was a waiting list — but Joe would have to wait until the following month for his deposit.
John, the new guy who fixed swimming pools, gave him R350 for his bed.
Why did those few weeks feel so short and so long at the same time, is what Marianne wanted to know, there where Joe stood and frowned at her, the night she broke the news.
He frowned because she was smiling, which didn't make sense to him.
That nurse. Assistant, actually. Who came to tell her. That is what Marianne was smiling about: the nurse's facial expression while she waited to see if it was a happy tiding or not.
“It's a fuck-up," Marianne said. She didn't understand it at all. There was no way. Her sums also didn't add up, just like Joe's. Impossible.
Marianne didn't even think about the test when she reported to the counter earlier. She was just a little concerned that something was wrong, that's all, and the clinic was around the corner from her work.
She didn't go home right away. Didn't have the strength. After closing time, the nurse came to sit next to her on the wall, a little way away.
“I'm Bethany,” she said. “You shouldn't smoke, actually.” And they sat like that, probably for half an hour. Chatted a little. Not much.
Joe called in sick the next day. He didn't give a damn if the people of Yeoville were going to have electricity for New Year, as the minister had promised.
The clinic closed at midnight. It was New Year's. They were there at half past one, as agreed. Bethany unlocked. Joe waited outside, at Marianne's request.
Marianne squinted her eyes against the sharp lights and only opened them when Bethany said: “Remember, it's far from a baby. Just a bunch of cells.” The light behind her looked suspiciously like a halo to Marianne.
That evening, Joe dragged the mattress to the porch. The landlady was elsewhere. They could do whatever they wanted.
Joe held Marianne too tightly. She let him be.
“Look, Joe, a star," she said, even though she knew it was a firework.
At that moment, in the story I couldn't write, bells rang. There were crackers. The neighbour's dog started barking uncontrollably.
♦ VWB ♦
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