The man on the merry-go-round says it's not cold enough for snow today, but she feels so frozen she knows that anything could happen. If she stands still, the chill starts to creep up through the worn-smooth soles of her boots and she can sense the earth beneath her hardening into deep midwinter. Little Davy strains at her hand like a puppy on a leash; so anxious not to miss a minute of his promised ride that he shucks off his fleecy mitten like a slipped skin, leaving her clasping it helplessly. He weaves around her legs and she fretfully strokes the back of his head.
'Get his hair cut,' Devlin recently ordered her, 'I don’t want people thinking my son's a little ladyboy.' But she can’t bear to clip Davy's wayward curls, afraid that without that scruffy halo, his soft baby face will set into his father's harsh lines.
She lifts Davy up onto a pink spotted wooden horse and seats him carefully in the worn saddle, folding his hands around the barley-sugar twist of pole, its gilt rubbed dull by thousands of small hands. As the calliope music wheezes into life, she's seized by the fear that her son will let go, and raises her hands to snatch him back, but she's too late and the merry-go-round creaks and grinds into action, bearing him away. She steps back and watches him whirling round, up and down; but her camera winks too slowly to catch his delighted giggles, the fleeting wave of his sausage-plump fingers.
She shuffles her feet surreptitiously to uncramp her toes and forces a smile as Davy spins by; she doesn’t want the merry-go-round man to see her sudden brimming tears. The wooden horses wheel past with mad staring eyes, stark scarlet gashes of nostril and mouth, and the tinny music swirls mournfully round her. She shivers as the melancholy notes trail across the town square. She has a fancy that their heartbreak hangs in the air like the frosted breath of the shoppers, that each possible future is balanced on a knife-edge, that all the bright laughter could tip over at any moment into hysteria. When she sees the twinkling lights reflected in Davy's eyes she fears that just one wrong move, one slip from her and the day will end in tears.
At the edge of the square, a pool of light in the lengthening shadows, a street magician ripples and stacks cards for his audience, flick-flack, just like that, then cuts the pack. He flashes his Ace, completing the trick, and the circle of chilly shoppers stamp and clap politely. The magic-man has a certain sort of shabby dash about him, with his white silk scarf and long black overcoat; the kind of suave sweet-talker her husband would instinctively hate on sight. She listens to Davy's chatter and idly watches the man, admiring the grace in those deft long-fingered hands, noting the way the silver flecking his close-cropped hair seems to glitter in the streetlights. The magician feels the weight of her stare and looks up; he catches her eye. She's smiling at something Davy just said to her, has her head tilted fetchingly to one side. She does not mean to offer a come-on, but still she sees that swift hot flash of interest in the man's eyes, his instantly answering grin.
She turns her face away, guiltily aware of his attention. She checks her watch; she should be home cooking Devlin's dinner by now, but Davy is clamouring at her side, tugging her hand. He's spotted the funhouse, a fatly swaying inflatable thing, sickly-pink as coconut ice and soon another pound is spent. She follows Davy into the funhouse, chewing at her lip as she calculates how many days must pass before she can safely ask Devlin for more money. The funhouse throbs and shivers with every thump of its generator, black mould creeping across the condensation-clammy walls. She follows Davy down the greasy slide into a scant layer of grubby, squashed balls. It's bruise-dark outside now, and she wonders if the attendant will forget about them, let the generator stutter to a halt until the empty funhouse sinks like a collapsed balloon, squatting malevolently down on its haunches.
Davy's all snug in his snowsuit and chattering happily, oblivious to anything but the pure moment he occupies, extracting every scrap of pleasure from his little treat. Tears stab at her eyes, closing her throat. She doesn't want to cry again, not in this place, while Davy's being so funny, so sweet. Love brings her to her knees and she crouches down to hug him close. She feels his warm breath and soft lips on her cheek and wishes she could reabsorb him into her body as easily as she made him. Even when she was pregnant, she knew Devlin's anger; saw him eye her belly speculatively, then carefully aim away from the swelling bud within her, smashing his fists towards her face. She'd hoped that Devlin's wedding-ring on her finger would dissolve his jealousy, but the act of possession only seemed to stoke his rage. She'd had to stay indoors for a week that time, her face too swollen and plum-purpled for any make-up to conceal. And even now she hides from the mirror, tries to skim her lipstick across her mouth without looking into her own eyes, too afraid of what she will see there.
As she scurries with her son back through the darkening town, the opening door of a coffee shop wafts out blessed warmth and a sweet fragrance that makes her stomach curl and heart flutter. It's not really a luxury, she tells herself, not on a night like this. She presses nearer the condensation-rimed window, gazing longingly inside; the swoosh of steam rising from the coffee machine, the trays of cakes and pastries glistening under tall glass domes, promising warmth and blessed sweetness. Even Devlin couldn't begrudge me a hot drink when I didn't stop for lunch, she reasons, when I've been out buying Christmas presents for his family all afternoon, when I feel so cold, so lonely, so very close to tears. She looks at Davy’s pale face and tells herself that he needs warming up too, before they head back. She carries her child into the bustling contentment of coffee-shop chatter and laughter, of tea and cake, full shopping bags and weary feet. She feels herself thawing and wants to stay here forever, a coffee-shop vagabond, feeding Davy on biscotti and hot chocolate.
She doesn't believe in coincidence, not any more, but suddenly the magician is behind her in the queue, laughing his low merry laugh and fanning out his cards again. Davy looks up at that dark-stubbled face in amazement, politely picks the proffered card. The magician gathers the pack and turns to her, his eyes calm and sure and holding hers, as deep and dark as the evening sky. His hands fumble slightly, and he blows on them; pretending his fingers are cold while he secretly stacks the deck. Now he's laughing again, his head thrown back, and the gleaming lights send harlequin flashes of red and green and gold dancing across his skin. Another turn of the cards, and there, just for her, is the Queen of Hearts, so beautiful and proud, not afraid of her angry Red King, but smiling fearlessly over one smooth shoulder at the Jack, her son, still clasped in Davy's hand.
The magician nods at her, and she knows that he sees the cracks in her make-up, the dry rot beneath her respectable facade. Her face burns scarlet and she ducks her head, turns quickly away to pay for her tray of little comforts. In the smoked mirror-glass behind the counter, she looks back, steals a glance at the man, so tall and dark beside her, and his eyes catch hers in the mirror, and he drops her the ghost of a wink. Then he laughs gently and shakes his head and orders his cappuccino to-go. Under his nightshade gaze, the Barista's mouth becomes a curling bracket of smiles and even her wrist is loosened, shaking an extra sprinkle of chocolate onto each pillow of milk-froth, frivolously tracing out a heart, a star, an angel; dispensing the vanilla-sweet powder with a suddenly lavish hand.
Davy, now drowsily owlish with warmth, slurps his chocolate through a straw, and like a rush of warm blood an old memory pierces her; of eating sweet peppery biscuits in a café as misted-window cosy as this. Her father is by her side, a secret parcel bulging his coat pocket, and she, on the cusp of knowing that Father Christmas doesn't exist, is flushed with relief that Daddy has remembered to buy her a present. She drinks, and the hot chocolate flows through her body, warming out the knots, her resolve firming even as the whipped cream and marshmallows melt.
She wonders what the neighbours will say, if she finally leaves Devlin. What a shame, they might whisper, such a nice little family, but of course she always looked too young, too flighty; was there another man do you suppose? But no, she sniffs; they won’t notice a thing, not until the 'For Sale' sign goes up on the house. They turn blind eyes when she limps Davy's buggy along their tidy street, when Devlin shuts her in the house for days on end while her bruises fade. He could hurt her a hundred ways, a hundred times, and no-one would miss her at all.
She wants to tuck Davy deep within her belly again, carry him safely away so she can start all over again. Carols play all round her, some stern, some sentimental; she feels them jarring easy tears from her eyes. It seems a crying shame to leave the presents that she's saved for, shopped for, wrapped so lovingly. Davy doesn’t need those things, she tells herself, he simply needs to be safe. If she wrecks this Christmas for him, she can at least make sure that all the rest are better. She tears at a broken fingernail, gnawing on her dilemma.
The magician slips back into the night and already his face starts to slide from her memory's grasp. But she remembers the heat of those dark eyes on hers, the strange warming sensation that grew in her belly. I can just bundle Davy into the car and drive, she thinks, then keep driving as far as I can. Perhaps, if my family know what Devlin's really like, they'll be there for me. And if not, then maybe I can find somewhere else that will take me in. She checks her watch; calculating, planning. There’s still an hour until Devlin's due from work - if she goes now she could grab Davy's things and maybe some of her own; take too few for Devlin to notice the empty spaces and realise they've gone for good this time.
As she heads back to the house that she's never called home, she is mentally packing her bags. Davy settles down into his car-seat, his unmittened thumb wedged firmly into his mouth, smiling at the brightly-lit houses flashing past the car window, out-twinkling the stars. As a child, she always loved these evening car-rides best; when the lights were lit, but the curtains were left undrawn, allowing her curious stare to penetrate the windows of each house, each life, set before her like an illuminated stage. She'd guess at each family's history from their pictures and plants and soft furnishings, then wonder if she'd ever meet them, if their lives would cross and intersect, or if she would remain forever unknown and separate beyond that glass. She watches the houses flash by, looking eagerly through for a brief glimpse of people living their own dramas, dreaming their own dreams; visible through bright windows for one instant then vanishing behind her. A yearning for her childhood seizes her again, and with a pang so sharp that she almost cries out, she remembers Davy at breakfast that morning, his sweet face crumpled in squashed-tomato rage, punching his baby fist into the soft flesh at the top of her arm, the way he's seen his daddy do, too many times. Not my Davy, she resolves, not my boy.
Her house is unlit and empty, the blank black windows mirroring back the dark wide sky. On the cold doorstep, she rummages for her keys, fingers stiff and uselessly groping, but her pocket is empty. Panicked thoughts scramble over one another, slipping fearfully on black ice. We'll have to sit in the car until Devlin gets home, she worries, Davy will freeze out here on the doorstep.
Then – no, she hisses, not again, not this time. I will find the house keys, then I will go; I'll load the car and make a run for it, and hope to God that people understand. I'm not waiting here for Devlin to come back, praying he’s full of the right kind of Christmas spirit. She falls to her knees, not caring who sees her, fingers raking through the powdering of ice crystals crisping the lawn and the path. Let me find those damn keys, she begs, before Devlin gets home, so I don't have to see his mouth tighten, his mask slip, then when we finally get inside, face those fists... She's heard of men who apologise, who promise that each time is the last. Not Devlin. It's always her fault and she deserves it, for being so stupid, so slow.
She scrabbles in the frosted grass again, and the cold-throb in her finger reminds her how she tore her nail that morning. She struggled then to move the brimming rubbish bins, to put them out for emptying, but now she shoves them impatiently aside and underneath, at last, there are her keys, shining silver in the streetlight. She holds them up in a triumphal wave, relishing their weight in her hand, hearing their merry jingle. Her neighbour, an old man she has never dared speak to before, is methodically salting his icy steps, and turns in surprise.
'I thought I'd lost my keys,' she calls to him, brandishing them happily; too exhilarated to care that he's staring.
'Looks like your Christmas has come early then,' he smiles, and she knows he will remember her face, if anyone ever asks, will remember this last bright moment.
This is the turn in the road, she thinks, my sign to proceed. And suddenly magic hangs in the air once more, fragile as a snowflake, fleeting as a stranger's smile, and it's the kind of night when anything could happen, where the future is poised precariously, as if on the fine edge of a card. She checks her watch again, and now its pale face gleams with hope. There's still time.