There’s only one story to tell at this time of year. It’s the old, old story of a young couple on the road in a beat-up contractor’s van, driving to the place his family used to come from. They’re three months married and nine months pregnant and her folks don’t want to know. The van, one headlight dim, pulls over at service station where the A-road meets the bypass, but it’s well past midnight and the carpark of the Holiday Inn is rammed.
They park up on a loading bay and Joe goes in to see what comforts the last twenty in his wallet might get them. The tank is almost empty and they won’t be going any further tonight.
It’s the cold of a premature winter and the cold of another uncaring receptionist. Maybe it’s their rough appearance, maybe it’s Joe’s obvious poverty, but the woman behind the desk is not going to let them into the lounge, or the restaurant, or the lobby.
It’s while he’s in there, arguing behind the plate glass, that Moira realises the baby’s coming. What she first thought were shivers of cold have gripped her – and then a cramping pain around her that makes her gasp and water comes straight to her eyes. “Joe,” she calls, willing him to turn around and see her through the windscreen and come running back across the paving. But she knows he can’t see her. “Joe, the baby’s here… Joe…” she wails.
When he comes back she is gripping the seatbelt and making moans through clenched teeth. He realises straight away.
“Is she alright, mate?” There’s a man in overalls coming out of one of the units beside the Holiday Inn. A garage.
“She’s having a baby.”
“Bleeding ‘eck. Best get her inside.”
“They say there’s no room in there.” Joe’s panicking. He’s been the strong man for the last six months – but really he’s been dreading that it would end like this. He just needs someone to give him a helping hand.
“You’re right there’s no room. Seems like everyone’s on the road. I should have been home hours ago. She can come in here. I’ve got a waiting room – a little bed I use sometimes. Come on.”
They help Moira out of the van. She doesn’t acknowledge them at all, hobbles, supported by her husband and this stranger, looking at nothing, as they lay her down on the campbed the garageman has. He flicks the kettle on. “I knew there was a reason I stayed tonight,” he says to Joe. “Don’t worry – she’s going to be alright. You jus’ keep holding that hand. I’ll ring for an ambulance.”
But the phone doesn’t connect to start with and when he gets through, they don’t seem to care that a woman is having a baby. “Where’s she from?” asks a voice down the cold phone line. “What’s her trust?”
“I don’t know, do I?” says the garage man. A yell interrupts him. “I didn’t hear,” he says. “Look, send someone quick. She’s a first-timer and there’s no-one here but me and her partner.”
Joe is trying to do what he can. He can see the head of his son, red and striped with dark hair like a bald man’s across his pate, between Moira’s spread legs. There’d been a baby in the family just a few month’s before – Moira’s cousin – but who though to tell him what to do. He just hangs on to his wife’s hand while she shouts and heaves.
So it’s there. In the unheated waiting corner of the garage beside the compressed air tank and with the benison of a Vauxhall up on the lift that their son is born, and when he’s out – it’s mercifully brief bus desperate – the garageman offers a pair of metal-cutting shears to cut the cord and they wipe the little living thing down with paper towels and Moira, in her torn and soaked skirt, clutches him to her exhausted breast and cries with joy and relief.
The garage man doesn’t know what to do. It’s past three in the morning now and he and Joe have been wiping, bracing, holding the young woman as best as they could. He rings his wife, eventually wakes her up, gets her to say she’ll come to help, since a stranger has given birth in his garage.
She falls asleep for a moment, still holding the boy to her. Joe has fetched their blankets from the van, he bag with some clothes, and sits there, in the seats, looking at his wife, in awe of her, of the boy that has sprung out of nowhere and into life… He looks around with eyes drinking in the reality of the world and the garage man makes them both a cup of strong tea with UHT milk.
It’s not long after that they hear the rumble of engines and the shudder and hiss of lorry brakes. Disregard them, initially, but then a face looks around the side of the still open roll-shutters. It’s a guy with a badge that identifies him as a delivery driver, then another man, two more, five or six all trying to get in.
“What do you lot want?” asks the garage man.
The first one in seems to be their chosen leader. “Err,” he hesitates. “Have you had a baby?”
“How did you know that?” asks Joe. “What’s going on?”
“Long story mate,” replies the driver. “Where is he? Where is he?”
Joe doesn’t ask how this stranger knows that the baby is a boy. He doesn’t want to ask anything. Everything seems to be changing in front of his eyes, like he is watching his own life on film. “Over here,” he replies. He leads them to where his wife is now sitting on the campbed, leaning against the wall wrapped in the old van blanket with its oil stains and holes. The baby is in the crook of her arm – a tiny morsel of humanity – not even fully awake. “Moira”, says Joe. “They’ve come to see the baby… They knew. They knew about him. I told you this was meant to be.” He goes to sit with her, puts his arm around his family. “Everything is going to be just like it was promised. I’m sorry I was too slow…”
She shakes her head. “Doesn’t matter, Joe. He’s here now.”
The drivers are standing around in something like a semi-circle, watching, listening. Then, abruptly, one of them kneels down. And the others, drawn by something deep inside, follow.
“Your son,” says one, “Is going to be special. He is special, I mean. Look – I know it’s a funny thing to say. And everyone gets told their baby is going to be someone special. I mean, I’ve got two of my own – I know a bit how you feel, mate,” and he nods at Joe. “But I mean something else. Your baby is the… chosen one.” He looked around at the others for encouragement, dseperate to wring some meaning out of a cliche.
“We got told,” says another. “We got told that we would find a baby in a garage, wrapped in paper towels.”
“Who told you?” asks Moira.
“Angels,” says the first one, shaking his head. “Angels. I was driving, we were all driving…”
“I was pulled over in the layby up Ruggleford corner…” interrupts another.
“Yeah alright – we all saw them, didn’t we.” Nods.
“Angels. Had to be.”
“I thought it was some patrol at first,” said the one who’d been parked up. “Came up, tapped on the window, I rolled it down, then I looked at him… Like, shining. Like he had a light on the inside of his face. And he said…”
“Don’t worry,” interrupted another.
“Yeah – that’s what he said to me too.”
“Don’t worry – I’ve got something to tell you – it’s going to change the world…”
“Told us there’d be a garage – told us exactly where – and when we went inside we’d find this baby, wrapped in paper towels, with his mum and dad, and he’d be…”
At last one of them said it. “The saviour of the world.”
By now the garage man’s wife has arrived. She’s a woman with her own children, grandchildren, sees Moira like a friend of her own daughter, just a teenager, taken unawares, sees herself in her, takes her under her wing. The drivers stay, get out some food, even something to drink, continue to tell each other the story, the music they heard, wonder about this baby – this air-gulping, barely alive frail-fisted little child. Is he going to grow up to do something? To change the world like those angels said? Who are his parents, anyway? Why are they here? Joseph tries his best to be in charge, but the garage man sits him down, gives him a drink of something strong from a paper cup, and when he wakes up the lorry drivers have gone and someone has filled the van’s tank with petrol.