The Gift: Second Candle (Day Seven)

Peter and Alana have spent the day shopping for Christmas presents. The task is always a challenging one. Peter’s family is small and easily pleased but Alana’s is another matter. She has two brothers and one sister, and they have their respective partners and families to shop for. This year her oldest brother Simon, the only unmarried one in the family, is bringing a girl; it’s not unusual for him to bring a girl once, although it is unusual for him to bring one a second time. This girl, Stacey, has never been to a family gathering before and will probably not come to another one, but Alana needs to treat her as if she is already a part of the family. And so Alana has spent hours searching for an appropriate gift to buy a girl she has never met, finally settling on a bag that looks stylish enough for most girls but neutral enough not to offend against the vagaries of personal preference – quite an accomplishment really, but the process has exhausted her so that, by the time she starts looking for a present for her niece, she finds she has no energy left to give much thought to it and, in the end, can only stare at aisles and aisles of toys and books with a vacant gaze that sees everything and takes nothing in. It takes Peter’s intervention to actually choose something, and then requires a coffee, consumed in almost complete silence, at one of the more quiet shops on the perimeter of the shopping mall to regenerate them both enough to head home.

By the evening, they are both exhausted, eating dinner in relative silence. From time to time they try to make conversation but most attempts end in one of them snapping at the other or misunderstanding what was said. Silence seems preferable. It isn’t long before Alana takes herself off to their bedroom. Peter, unsure, stays in the living room for a while longer, flicking through channels on the TV until he realises that he has not paid attention to anything that he has watched for the last ten or twenty minutes and so decides vaguely that it might be time to sleep.

When he goes to their room, Alana is sitting in bed in her nightie, the lamp on, flicking through the pages of a book.

“What are you reading?” Peter asks her.

She absently tilts the cover over so he can see it: her old children’s Bible, a book that has sat on their shelf for some years untouched.

“What story are you reading?” he asks.

“Hannah,” says Alana. “Samuel’s mother.”

Peter tries to remember the story; something, he recalls, about a woman praying desperately at the temple and the priest telling her to “stop making a drunken show of herself”. He remembers that phrase well from the Good News Bible of his childhood; the rest of the story is vague.

“Do you want to read the story to me?” he asks.

Alana closes the book and puts it on his lap.

“I’m tired,” she says. “I think I’ll just go to sleep.”

She turns off the lamp and rolls onto her side.

Peter sits in bed for a time, strangely unable to make the decision to lie down and sleep, tired yet made strangely alert by Alana’s aloof responses to him. It has been a long day for them both, he knows, and the glimpse he caught of a packet of tampons in their shopping bags this afternoon has confirmed what he, by instinct, already suspected; he knows to tread carefully on days like this. And yet the the ordeal of the afternoon’s shopping has left him tired and impatient. His mind as he sits there is continually drawn to Alana’s repeated rejection of most of his attempts to help her that day and he thinks, not for the first time, that, if he must be brought along to help her shop, he should at least be allowed to have some input, otherwise he is nothing more than a glorified mule there only to help carry the bags. They would still be there in the children’s section of the store staring blankly if he hadn’t stepped in and chosen the Christmas storybook that caught his eye at just the right moment. Something about the book had appealed briefly to a shared sentimentality and Alana had agreed that the present seemed perfect. And so she had bought the present, in that action making a brief though unacknowledged concession to Peter’s judgment. And then, only moments later, her mind had returned to the question of Stacey’s present and whether or not it would make her or, more importantly, Simon, happy; how fleeting that moment of success could be.

Absently, he turns on his bedside lamp. Thoughts of the storybook they bought Eliza have reminded him of the children’s Bible on his lap – had Alana put it there for him to read, or was she just too tired to put it away herself? – and so he begins to flick through it, not through any great interest in what it contains but because he would rather do something than sit in bed and stew on his thoughts. His eyes brush over the dedication page – To our dear daughter Alana, on her fifth birthday – and moves over Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Moses, arriving at the page where Hannah’s story is told. He glances at Alana; briefly softened by the sight of her sleeping, he decides to go into the living room to read and not disturb her. Switching off his lamp, he tiptoes out of the room, the children’s Bible in hand, sits on the couch and begins to read.

Go to Day Eight

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