Christmas Prose Competition 2007
The Blessing by mightybagheera
The wind displayed the implacable fury of an irresistible force encountering an immovable object, spreading an unwelcome dirty mantle of sleet and hail on the long-suffering city of Liverpool. The town and its residents took the battering stoically. It was, after all, a common enough winter occurrence, which had to be endured: Atlantic storms had over five thousand miles to gather malevolence and power to themselves before they vented their frustration on the rugged coastline of North-West England.
By the time the storm had penetrated the first few miles inland, the sleet had become a fine, drenching rain and the wind had ceased to bluster and threaten with its angry, animal howl. Blunted by the close, scrum-huddled rows of terraced housing in the city centre, it had lost much of its force by the time it curled around the goods wagons lined up in the Edge Lane shunting yard. Shuttered doors rattled, linkages clunked and clanked.
As it sliced between carriages the wind moaned fitfully: a sad beast, now close to its eventual demise, but reluctant to admit defeat and die without protest.
Did you find out where the Passport Office is?
Not exactly: but once we get to the centre of town someone will be able to tell us.
And they will help us?
Someone surely will.
Leung turned to Mei-Mei and hugged her close, willing his scrawny frame to give her what warmth and comfort it could. Until now, he’d been more concerned with watching for signs of pursuit from the gangmaster and his minions: he hadn't dared to sleep during the last 48 hours for fear of being taken unawares. Finding the Passport Office in the centre of Liverpool was the one way which had been suggested to him as a possible escape from the harsh realities of slavery they had endured for the past six months with the other illegal immigrants working the cocklebeds off the treacherous Lancashire coastline. Getting this far was an achievement in itself: finding the Passport Office would surely prove relatively easy now. He was so tired, he wasn't even sure what day it was, but he knew it was now too late for business. Every office would now be closed, and they would have to wait at least until the following day to apply for help.
Somehow they'd covered the fifty or so miles from Blackpool by sheer willpower. They had no money to speed them on their way, and few possessions to slow them down: the unfurnished, unheated semi-derelict flophouse they had shared with over 100 others did not boast the luxury of a safe place to keep anything of value – even if the 'value' of the object was purely sentimental.
I can't go on.
Mei-Mei placed both hands over her swollen stomach. The thin, cheap fabric of the stained smock she wore was stretched as tight as the skin of a snare drum. Leung placed his hands on top of hers.
Are the pains still coming?
They're no stronger, but they're coming more often. It can't be long now.
Leung looked around: there was little traffic on the road. Considering the lateness of the hour and the bitter winter weather, that wasn't likely to change.
He took Mei-Mei by the elbow and guided her towards the line of freight wagons he could barely make out in a railway siding which abutted the road. Vandals had long since pulled apart the fencing which had been intended to separate the goods yard from the adjacent public park. Security was minimal at the best of times. As the country was about to start a period of close to a fortnight of Public Holidays marking the Christmas and New Year period, tonight's 'security' was non-existent.
No food, no doctor. But we have shelter! he murmured, trying to sound encouraging.
Mei-Mei suddenly doubled over with another contraction and leant on the boxcar as Leung built a stairway of sorts out of crates and other items close at hand. When the worst of the pain was over he took her hands firmly in his own: somehow, she made it into the carriage, away from the worst of the wind and the snow. After walking in sub-zero weather since their last lift had dropped them on the outskirts of the city, the absence of wind was a luxury to the exhausted young couple.
The empty burlap sacks and bale of hay in the corner of the wagon was an unlooked-for bonus.
This is better than fighting a dozen others for one corner of a mattress! exclaimed Leung, looking to find anything positive in their desperate situation. Mei-Mei smiled wanly and shuddered at the memory of competing with up to 30 others, trying to lie comfortably on an inadequate, thin, soiled mattress in a single dark, freezing room.
You need to eat.
So do you, Leung, but we have no money.
You are more important: you carry our child.
Leung filled one more sack with the last remaining straw and cuddled up as close as he could, offering Mei-Mei what residual warmth he had in his skeletally thin frame.
Perhaps it was a hunted animal's survival instinct, stripping away the thin veneer of civilisation: but Leung was alerted to the faint but unmistakeable aroma of cooking food.
Try to relax: I'll be back as quickly as I can!
Kissing Mei-Mei's forehead tenderly, he forced his weary legs to support him once more and slipped out of the sliding door before she could protest, closing it softly behind him.
Preternaturally sensitive, his nose led him to a Chinese takeaway. The combined aromas of hot fat and oriental spices were almost a meal in themselves: Leung realised that it was nearly 48 hours since he had last eaten a thing, and his stomach juices growled painfully at the prospect of something solid to work upon. Without funds, however, he had no idea how to resolve this dilemma.
He stood just outside the door, breathing in the succulent scents of curries and spices, letting the radiant warmth of the kitchen seep into his chilled bones: this much, at least, was free .......
A young Chinese worker concentrated on the final stages of frying a fresh portion of chips to a perfect, golden finish. As he took the skillet out of the seething oil and shook away the excess fat he glanced up and his eyes met Leung's, giving a friendly nod.
Can I get you something?
No thanks, I ....
With a start, Leung realised that he'd been addressed in Cantonese, and had automatically responded in the same language. He'd been in England less than six months, and had spent most of his time either bent double in the back-breaking and dangerous occupation of picking cockles, or locked in an overcrowded room with others from the same background as himself, all of whom spoke one of the many Chinese dialects: inevitably, his English skills were almost non-existent.
Had he heard correctly, or was his tired mind imagining things?
There were no customers in the shop: Leung braced himself and stepped inside. To be indoors, warm for the first time in almost three days was almost too exquisite a sensation. He licked his dry, cracked lips and stammered:
Bong Mong .... help me.
All food preparations immediately forgotten, the young man slung the chips into a warming-tray and rushed around the counter, concern in his eyes, and helped Leung to a chair in the corner, calling into the private quarters behind the shop for assistance. There was an immediate reaction, running footsteps approaching down an unseen staircase.
Even if Leung had been in a better physical and mental state, he would have found it difficult to contribute. The proprietor was agitated and spoke rapidly in Cantonese, but left Leung few opportunities to respond.
You are ill, my friend, that much I can see, and I guess you have travelled far! But you are so cold! Here, you need this warm towel, and a hot drink .... Mae Ling, we need tea! Hurry.... ! How long have you been out in the cold? Have you no home .... ?
Leung stirred, and interrupted the flow of questions.
My needs are not important: my partner is close to giving birth, she needs help ....!
An older woman, accompanied by two young girls, arrived as Leung spoke: a short comment had the girls reaching immediately for outdoor clothing. Leung stood once more, his own condition forgotten as he was galvanised by a final adrenaline surge.
I need to show you: she lies in a railway carriage, it's not far ...
Xian Lu: go with our friend. I will tend to the shop.
It was obvious that the family business was run by the matriarch figure who stood at the rear door. Xian Lu helped Leung to his feet: a warm topcoat appeared from nowhere and was draped around his shoulders.
Doh Tse ..... Thank You.
Pitifully inadequate, thought Leung, but at that moment he was incapable of any logical thought. His overriding concern was for the wellbeing of Mei-Mei and the unborn child. He leaned heavily on Xian Lu as he led the cortege out of the shop and through the park to the railway siding.
It had stopped snowing. The tracks Leung had made through the frozen grassland were still visible, but even without them, Mei-Mei's cries as her labour pains increased, would have led them to the boxcar in which she lay.
She cannot be moved: the birth is too close!
Xian Lu was possibly a year or so older than Leung, but spoke with some authority. Catching Leung's glance, he added:
This isn't the first time I've helped at a birth! Both my sisters have children, born in our little village before we came to England: when you live some distance from any of the big towns, you have to do a lot of things yourself!
We need something to use as a birth blanket.
Xian Lu looked around the wagon as he spoke, but Leung shook his head.
There were some sacks, but as you can see I filled all of them with straw so Mei-Mei could stay warm .... wait! Can you use this?
He pulled a folded, reasonably clean newspaper out of one of the pockets on the overcoat he had been given. Xian Lu nodded.
Better than using a coat and getting blood all over it!
He opened out the broadsheet Liverpool Echo to its centre pages as he spoke, smoothing it out and easing it beneath Mei-Mei's hips, urging her in soft, calming phrases to relax. Her eyes sparkled with relief, hearing a language she understood.
Almost as soon as she relaxed, her whole body tensed once more as a further contraction shook her tiny frame. She moaned, raised her knees, planting the soles of her feet against the planking, and pushed.
There was a sudden gush of liquid: birth waters and blood commingled. One of the girls reached silently over Leung's shoulder and severed the umbilical cord, passing the perfect baby boy to his exhausted mother.
He's not breathing! wailed Mei-Mei. Why isn't my baby breathing?
Xian Lu stripped off the top layers of soggy, bloodied newspaper. The remaining sheets he wrapped securely around the tiny, still body as one of the sisters dumped the straw out of one of the sacks and shook it flat. A few words of command from Xian Lu followed as he swiftly wrapped the sacking around the newspaper, passing the baby to one of the sisters. The girl fairly flew out of the carriage, heading back to the shop.
She is taking him to Oldest Mother: with her, he may have a chance.
Leung looked at Xian Lu, totally lost. Xian held Leung firmly across the shoulders.
Mother has many skills. She will use kimigori, the laying on of hands: maybe she can call the child's spirit back to the world. It is his one chance.
Leung turned to where Mei-Mei still lay exhausted on the remaining sacks stuffed with straw. The light was uncertain, mostly moonlight reflected from the thin layer of snow outside the open doorway, but she did not seem to have lost a great deal of blood during the birth. He exchanged a glance with Xian Lu, then they grasped each other's wrists to form a Fireman's Chair. Together they eased Mei-Mei into a comfortable carrying position and followed the increasingly more well-defined trail of footprints back to the sanctuary of light and warmth. More snow began to fall as they entered and closed the doors: the track would soon be obliterated.
Xian Lu indicated with a nod that Mei-Mei should be placed on the chair placed against the wall for customers' use. He grasped the back and the seat of the chair and waited while Leung took up a similar position opposite him. They lifted the chair with its precious burden and somehow negotiated the narrow stairway to the upstairs flat.
Through an open door, the corner of a bed could just be seen. Xian Lu indicated that this was where they were to take Mei-Mei for further treatment. The two girls (whom Leung assumed were Xian Lu's sisters) stood waiting with a bowl of warm, scented water, towels and a change of clothes.
As they nudged the door open Leung saw that the room contained not one, but two beds. The second bed, further from the door, was already occupied: the tiny frame of the newborn child was on a blanket in the centre of the bed. The woman whom Xian Lu had called 'Eldest Mother' stood on the far side of the bed, rubbing her palms together: she appeared to be mouthing a silent prayer. As the two men laid Mei-Mei on the vacant bed, Eldest Mother spread her hands and delicately placed one on the baby's forehead, the other upon his navel, resting on the newly severed stump of umbilical cord. She bent slowly forwards, bringing her face close to the child's without quite touching it. Was it just Leung's imagination, or did she appear to 'drink' the air from the narrow space between her own lips and the child's? A swift ripple seemed to swirl for a moment, as if the air had become gelid, not-quite visible .........
Slowly, gently, Elder Mother unbent, distancing her head and shoulders from the still, unmoving form on the bed in front of her. She was still mouthing an inaudible litany of sorts as she rose. Leung sensed rather than saw that she was still mouthing words as her breast swelled, indicating that she was inhaling a fresh breath as she spoke.
For a few seconds nothing happened: everyone in the room appeared to be holding their breath, waiting, hoping ..........
A shudder passed through the infant's frame: the tiny chest heaved, pumped once, twice.
His lips parted: a faint, distinct wail of (outrage?pain? triumph, perhaps?) quavered, then settled into a lusty yell. Leung took a stride forwards, genuflected at the bedside and scooped his son up in the blanket on which he lay, placing him tenderly into Mei-Mei's outstretched arms. She guided his lips to his first feed, silencing his cries.
The bedroom door opened, closed: the air was filled with the unmistakeable aroma of chicken soup, tinged with spices. Leung was suddenly aware of how hungry he was.
My sister will help Mei-Mei, while she feeds the baby.
Leung nodded his silent thanks to Xian Lu, not trusting himself to speak without dissolving into tears. Mei-Mei settled into a comfortable position and allowed herself to be spoonfed.
You must treat our home as your own. It will be several days until there are any offices open where you can go for help.
It was clear from Xian Lu's tone that he would brook no argument. Embarrassed, Leung could only nod joint acceptance of their host's generosity.
Have you chosen a name for the boy?
Leung and Mei-Mei looked at each other: they shook their heads in unison.
Downstairs, a clock chimed twelve deep bongs.
A new day begins: December 25th, a day just as special in China as it is in this country.
The child deserves a special name, one which has meaning in both languages.
Xian Lu paused. Leung nodded for him to continue.
Call him Li Yo, meaning Pride. His English friends will spell the name in a different way, but even so Leo will still carry a very similar meaning.
The child chuckled sleepily and was silent. Leung cradled Mei-Mei's head on his forearm as she gathered Li Yo/Leo closer and drifted into a deserved slumber. Xian Lu signalled to his sisters: they left the room with him, three silent ghosts. Unmoving, unseen, in a pool of deep corner shadow, Eldest Mother remained attentive, watchful if needed but not advertising her presence. In her heart she sensed that the tiny stranger was truly a special Blessing, and would touch all their lives.