It had been a bad year. The economy was still not back on its feet, people had very little money and jobs were hard to find.
In a small village in County Waterford two young people tried to make the best of a bad lot in their own way. Joey was a carpenter. He’d always grafted hard, and had built up a good reputation, but he’d been unable to get steady work lately, as the building trade had been desperately hit by the recession. He managed to just about keep body and soul together by taking whatever jobs came up, and he lived in a tiny bedsit and drove an old banger of a car, a ten-year-old Ford Fiesta, which was his pride and joy.
Mary had just finished school. She had done really well in her Leaving Cert, but she lived with her Mum and Dad, and the financial downturn had affected them very badly. They owned a little local shop, and business hadn’t been great. A supermarket had just opened a little bit down the road, a big, multi-national chain, and people who used to do most of their weekly shopping at Mary’s Mum and Dad’s shop now hardly ever went in. Mary would have loved to have gone off to college, but she felt it was better that she stay and help out. Her Dad couldn’t afford to pay someone to come in anymore, so Mary worked as many hours as she could, and helped her Mum about the house.
Mary never complained about this – she watched her friends head off every Sunday on the bus, or by train, to Dublin or Cork or Limerick or even in to Waterford City or Carlow, and there was a part of her that wanted to be going with them – but her mother had a saying: what’s for you won’t go by you, and she knew that, when it was right, she’d find her way in the world. She knew something special was meant for her, and she was happy that it would find her in its own time.
The highlight of Mary’s week was when she and some of her friends travelled into Wexford town on a Saturday night. Her Dad closed the shop and ten, and he always gave her a few euro for herself – it wasn’t really wages, just enough for a few drinks and her share of the petrol (it had gotten so expensive, everyone had to chip in) – but what Mary really enjoyed about these evenings was being able to just forget about her troubles for a few hours, and simply have fun. She loved music, loved to dance, and for her, there was simply nothing like being on the dancefloor, part of that crowd of moving, smiling, happy people. She felt the music wash over her, almost like a physical thing, and often wondered if this was what heaven might be like.
One Friday night in February, Mary was at the bar of the night-club, ordering a drink, when she caught the eye of a tall, dark-haired man, a few years older than herself. Mary’s friends always told her she was pretty, but she was very shy, and she smiled back at this tall, brown-eyed young man, and then went back to her table.
‘He likes you,’ Lizzie, her best friend whispered to her. ‘That’s Joey Davidson. He’s a chippie, lives on the Enniscorthy road there. He’s nice, you should go over and talk to him.’
And, when she looked again, Mary saw that he was tall, and had hands with long, clever fingers, and that there was a gentleness and sadness about him, and she decided she would go and have a chat.
When the last piece of music ended, she and Joey were still talking. He drove her home that night, and they sat in his car and talked until the sun came up.
She saw a lot of him after that – he would come into the shop and keep her company when he came in after work – when he had work, of course – and while he didn’t make a nuisance of himself, he let her know that, if she wanted to go out for a walk or a cup of coffee, he was always available.
Mary had had boyfriends before, but she had never really been in love, and she wasn’t even sure if this was it. She knew she liked Joey, and that he liked her, but she was still very young, and for her the most important thing was the shop, her parents, and her friends. It was nice having Joey, but her Mam warned her that he was a bit older, and had probably seen much more of life than her, and that it wasn’t wise to rush in to things. Mary laughed at that – she had no intention of rushing into anything with anyone.
A Tuesday evening in the beginning of May. Mary had just finished locking up the shop. It had been a long day, and she was looking forward to having a cup of tea, a sandwich, and watching something stupid on the TV. Her Mum had left the heating switched on for her, and the kitchen was warm and snug as she ran water into the kettle. She sat it back in its cradle and switched on the socket, when she realised there was a man sitting on the couch. She wanted to scream – there had been a series of break-ins locally, and everyone knew her family owned the village shop, so she was convinced this was a thief. Yet as she stood, wide-eyed and terrified, he simply sat there, unmoving, smiling at her. He was seated, but she could see he was very tall. He had long fair hair and a neatly groomed beard, and he wore a long black coat and black jeans and boots.
‘Take the money,’ Mary said. ‘Just don’t hurt me.’
The stranger actually laughed, and somewhere in the back of her befuddled mind, Mary thought it was quite a beautiful sound.
‘Hello, Mary,’ the man said, and she felt a shiver run right through her. His voice seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere. Even though she’d grown up looking at this room every day, suddenly she could see things about it she’d never noticed before – it was as if she was seeing it for the first time, with new eyes – colours in the wallpaper; a filigree of spiderweb about the light fitting; a tiny beetle peeping out from under the cooker. ‘You are a very special young woman,’ the man continued. ‘You’ve been chosen for something very important.’
‘Who are you?’ she asked, and her voice shook with fear. ‘What do you want?’
‘I want to offer you congratulations,’ he said.
‘What do you mean?’ Mary asked.
‘You’re going to have a baby, Mary,’ the man said, his voice like music. ‘It will be a little boy, and he will grow up to be a great man. God has chosen you to be his mother, Mary, because of who you are. You are strong, and good, and when things get difficult – and they will – you will know what to do.’
‘I can’t have a baby …’ Mary said, tears springing to her eyes. ‘…I can’t …’
‘You are pregnant now,’ the man said, and he stood up then, and she knew who he was and there was a bright light, and she knew nothing more for a time.
Joey looked as if he was going to be sick.
‘You’re pregnant,’ he asked.
‘Are you certain?’
‘I got one of those tests. They’re 99.9% accurate, according to the box.’
Joey swallowed, hard. ‘That’s still point one of a per cent in your favour.’
‘I did it three times. I’m going to have a baby, Joe.’
They were sitting in his car, looking at the river as it rolled by, gray and cold and full from the rain.
‘Who’s the father?’ Joey asked, his voice hoarse with emotion.
He’s hurting so badly, Mary thought. I want to hold him, but I know he’s too proud for that.
‘I haven’t been with anyone,’ she said, quietly.
‘I’m not an idiot, Mary,’ Joey said, his eyes on the water below them. ‘Please don’t take me for a fool.’
‘I know what I’m about to say is impossible to believe,’ Mary said, touching his arm. ‘But I’m asking you, if you love me, even a tiny, tiny bit, to try and believe me.’
‘What?’ He looked at her now, tears welling in those big brown eyes.
‘I’m to have God’s child.’
‘I don’t think I believe in God,’ Joey said, drily.
‘Well, it looks like he believes in you,’ Mary said, her voice almost a whisper, now.
Joey started the eingine.
‘I’m taking you home,’ he said. ‘I think you need to lie down for a bit.’
Joey dreamed that night. In his dream, he saw himself leading a small, dark-haired, smiling child by the hand through a city filled with angry, bitter people. He loved this child, loved him with a love that was fierce and deep, and, in his dream, Joey knew without question that he would give up his life for him. They reached a huge, tall building, which Joey somehow knew to be a courthouse, and the crowd, which was now chanting and jeering behind, began to crush in upon them. Joey turned to defend the boy, but he felt a tug at his sleeve, and suddenly there was no little boy there anymore, but instead a powerful looking man, with piercing eyes. Joey suddenly realised that he was crying, and filled with a panic he could not control. The man held him close, and whispered into his ear: ‘Mary needs you. I need you. Be a father to me, Joseph. Look into your heart. Do what you know to be right.’
Then the man, whom Joey knew, now, was the son he and Mary would raise as their own, walked into the crowd of baying, raging people, and was subsumed by them.
Joey woke up with a jump and a shout, his pillow soaked with tears at the loss of a boy he never knew he had.
As the months passed, Joey and Mary’s love grew, as did the joy they felt for the child that was growing inside her. They got married in a small civil ceremony, with just two close friends as witnesses, and their parents. They hadn’t the money for a big reception, or a honeymoon, and any money they did have, Mary wanted to keep to buy things for the baby.
‘He’ll need nappies, and a cot, and a buggy and a bottle and steriliser, and clothes, and toys that will help him to learn …’ Mary told Joey when the issue of even a weekend away together was broached. Joey nodded. He knew she was right, and he swore that, when he had managed to get all those things, he and Mary might just slip away somewhere nice. Joey was well aware of Mary’s love of music, and he spotted a major festival taking place in Dublin the following December. Bands from far and wide, from all styles of music, were to play, and the tickets were expensive, but he squirreled away a few euro here and a few cent there, and finally, with more than enough baby equipment bought and stored in every nook and cranny of the ridiculously small flat they had rented, he was able to present Mary with the tickets as a gift.
‘I’ll look like a whale by then,’ she laughed, clearly delighted with the surprise present.
‘The baby isn’t due until January – you’ll be grand.’ Joey said. ‘I’ve organised a B&B near the arena – you can waddle back there any time for a snooze if you need to have a rest. We’ll be fine.’
And so they had something else to look forward to as 2008 drew towards its end.
Joey was worried his Fiesta might give out before they reached Dublin. The traffic was extremely heavy, as word of the festival had spread, and people, not just from all over Ireland, but from many other countries in Europe, had arrived in Ireland’s capital to enjoy the music.
Joey was beginning to get worried about Mary, too. She looked pale and winced every now and again, as if in pain. His young wife never complained, but he knew something wasn’t right.
‘Are you okay, love?’ he asked her for the fifth time, as they drove past the Bray turnoff.
‘I’m grand,’ Mary said.
‘I don’t believe you,’ Joey said, looking at her from the corner of his eye.
‘Our son is lying on my bladder, is all,’ she said. ‘I think I need to use the bathroom.’
‘There’s a petrol station up ahead a bit. I’m sure they have a loo you can use.’
When she emerged from the toilet, as pale as a ghost and walking far too stiffly, he knew beyond doubt that the baby was coming, and that their weekend was to be a little more exciting than he had planned.
The woman at reception in the hospital looked stressed and upset.
‘Do you have health insurance?’ she asked.
‘No,’ Joey said.
‘You’d better sit over there, then,’ the woman said, motioning with her head towards the packed waiting area that filled the lobby area, and then turning back to her computer screen.
‘Can we see a doctor now, please?’ Joey asked again.
‘We’re snowed under,’ she barked. ‘You’ll have to take a seat.’
‘My wife is having a baby,’ he said, trying hard not to lose his temper. ‘She’s a month early!’
‘So are lots of other women today. Take a seat, hold her hand, and I’ll get a nurse to you as soon as one becomes available.’
They sat together on the uncomfortable chairs, and Joey held Mary tightly. Every now and then he felt her tense as a contraction seized her, and felt her pain as if it was his own. Around them were people who had had accidents, men who’d had too much to drink, and young people who’d taken too many drugs. No one had any sympathy for this young couple, far from home and afraid.
After what seemed like hours, a nurse came over to Mary, and after a moment, she led them to a trolley in a crowded corridor.
‘All the beds are full,’ she said, and Joey felt for her, because he knew she was very unhappy with this situation, though there was nothing she could do about it. ‘I’m hoping a couple will free up before the day is out, but I can’t guarantee it.’ She looked at Joey. ‘Try and make her as comfortable here as you can. She has a few hours of labour left. I’ll get an obstetrician to her before long. Okay?’
Joey nodded, and looked about him in misery. The walls of the hallway were lined with these metal beds on wheels, and the people on them were trying to sleep, or just staring at the ceiling, trying to maintain a little dignity. He leaned right over his wife, so all she could see was him, and he whispered to her that it would be alright.
The baby came before any doctor arrived. When Mary cried out, and Joey roared like a bull along with her, nurses rushed over, and a partition of curtains was drawn about them, and then their little boy was in Joey’s arms, and wailing full-throatedly, and Mary was beaming from ear to ear, and somehow the rest of that awful corridor had disappeared and it was just them in their little makeshift room.
‘He’s beautiful,’ the nurse said, taking measurements and scribbling notes on a clipboard. ‘D’you have a name?’
‘I’m going to call him Jesus,’ Mary said, gazing at her new baby.
‘Oh. Unusual,’ the nurse said, checking the child’s pulse. ‘Foreign, is it?’
The news of the birth in the busy hallway spread, and many people came to pay their respects. A group of Polish men, who worked at the local market, and who were there with their friend, who’d had an accident, came and asked politely if they could see the little boy, and Joey stood back and watched as they quietly looked at the tiny sleeping creature, so quiet and content in his mother’s arms. They each laid a hand on the baby’s head, as if giving – or receiving – a blessing, and then quietly left the little family to their tenuous privacy.
Three homeless men, bearded and scruffy, but beaming with happiness and anxious to offer their congratulations, asked, with lowered heads, if they could leave some presents for the new baby – they had combined the meagre bits of change they had in their pockets, and left the small sum of money, wrapped in a piece of birthday wrapping paper. One of them had a cheap bottle of perfume, and another had a little bottle of bath oils he had been keeping for the next time he was in a shelter and could get a hot bath, but he wanted the baby to have it. Mary accepted these presents solemnly, and even allowed each of these rough men to hold her little son for a moment, as Joey watched protectively. Each man left, them, tears of joy in their eyes, moved at the humble scene they had witnessed.
As night fell, Joey was brought a chair to snooze in, but he couldn’t sleep. He watched the gentle breathing of his new son, and listened to the comings and goings on the corridor about them, and prayed for the first time since he was a child that his little family would have many safe, peaceful and happy days together. And in the sky above the hospital, the light of a new star cut through darkness, and astronomers everywhere spoke of white giants and neutron storms and gravitational anomalies.
But anyone who had seen the miracle of birth – the most powerful and wonderful event of all – spoke only of the magic of a new life, and the wonder of what might come.