Early on Christmas Eve morning, Charles slipped out of the rectory with an armful of trouble and a long list of wishes.
His breath plumed white like the pathway between his new home and his old one, frost glittering in the thin light. Glynn Harber's main school building also glittered in the distance as Charles took a right turn past the chapel.
On any other frosty morning, he’d look for lacy cobwebs spun between the pathway bushes. Today, he was too bleary. Sleep was a rare treat lately so he yawned before saying, “We're going to have a good day. No refusing your naps. No spitting out all of your food. No maggoting at all, okay?”
“Da,” his armful of trouble agreed, sounding far too cheerful.
Charles huffed out a tired breath. "And we’re going to stay out of the house all morning because I really want Hugo to sleep in. He's got a midnight service, and he was up with you for hours last night.”
His armful wriggled, joyful, and Charles held him closer. “So, we'll go to see Keir at the Haven. Get him to help me with my Christmas shopping. I haven’t bought Hugo a single thing yet. Not even a Terry’s chocolate orange or a can of gin and tonic, and those are Christmas breakfast staples. Old Heppel traditions.” He looked down into wide eyes. “No presents for you, I’m afraid. You’ve been so very, very awful.”
The baby he carried smiled, drooling a little, some of the breakfast he’d spat out now crusting his forehead.
Charles only saw perfection.
"Well, maybe we'll find some coal for you. Just one piece for your Christmas stocking. It might encourage you to do better next year with…” He swallowed. “With your next family.” He straightened his shoulders, adjusting a bag stuffed with baby whatnot, and marched towards the Haven. “So we better train you to behave much better before you end up back with us for a fifth time.”
The baby laughed as if that might be a good thing.
Charles grumbled, “Stop smiling, you monster,” before succumbing to temptation, kissing a rosy cheek belonging to a foster baby he would welcome back as many times as it took. “I don’t know how you can be so cheerful. I’m not cheerful one bit after you shouted all night, am I?” he said while peppering a sweet face with more kisses. “I’m down in the dumps. Despondent. Deeply despairing, and all because of your no-sleep, no-eat nonsense.”
The baby laughed again, that gurgle giving this gorgeous morning stiff competition when it came to beauty. And it really was a beautiful day, Charles decided as his bleariness cleared. “Crisp and crunchy with a chance of more snow flurries,” he offered, feeding this child vocabulary like he’d tried to feed him his breakfast this morning, spooning in as much as he could while he still had him. “You, on the other hand, are a maggoty, monstrous, mess-maker.” He shuddered, remembering the state of the kitchen he’d abandoned. “So we must get back well before the social worker’s visit later, or she’ll think you’ve jumped straight from the frying pan into the fireplace, and then whip you away with no notice.”
He stopped dead, holding the baby tighter. “She won't. A little mess probably won’t matter to her, even if she is a bit of a dragon.” At least he hoped it wouldn’t. “And you can wake up as much as you like at night.”
Maybe the baby felt his sudden worry. He stared up at Charles, solemn and silent the same way he used to watch him and Hugo during his first emergency placement with them. During his second one too. He’d only started to smile during his third stay with them. He’d also cried while leaving, wailing over that dragon of a social worker’s shoulder, which Charles told himself wasn’t entirely a bad thing.
“You didn’t know there was a point to crying before, did you? Didn’t believe anyone would come if you called for them.” Snow started to fall. Charles gathered his coat closer around the baby’s snowsuit. “But now you do, and that’s worth a thousand early wake-ups.” He hurried through the woods and then through the Haven’s neat gardens guarded by a lone, red-breasted robin. He didn’t stop to show that bird to the baby, heading straight for the Haven’s front door, which opened just as Charles yawned again.
“How delightful to see quite so much of your tonsils,” Keir said in greeting. “No need for a Christmas present after that treat. What are you doing here so early, Charles?” He stood aside to let him in. “The last time I opened a front door to you looking quite so knackered was after Heligan almost snared you. Don’t tell me the honeymoon with Hugo is over already, and you’re back to your old ways with Rex. Won’t you think of the poor, overworked staff at the sexual health clinic?”
Charles didn't have the energy to be witty. Instead, he opened his coat a little, the back of the baby's snowsuit visible.
“Another one? Is this why I haven’t seen you for ages?” Keir closed the door behind them, the hallway gloriously warm compared to all that frost. “I remember the days when all you used to bring home were crabs. Or dukes with helicopters. Now it's non-stop infants.”
“Rex wasn’t a duke. Still isn’t. And I have zero interest in his chopper these days. I can’t even remember my last erection.” Charles struggled to keep hold of the baby while getting his coat off. “Not with this monster wearing me out.”
“Pass me your new maggot,” Keir offered.
“He isn't new.” Charles turned the baby to face Keir, hating to see what his best friend quickly tried to stifle, knowing the same shock must have crossed his own face when the social worker returned this baby for a fourth time. “It’s not as bad as it looks.”
“I don't know, Charles,” Keir said, taking a closer look. “His lip looks awfully sore. This is little Adam, isn't it?”
“Yes. But I promise that his lip really is a lot better than when we got him back.”
“What happened?” Keir asked quietly.
“He got a nasty infection after his cleft-palate repair. The infection got out of hand. So he's back with us while he's healing.” Charles lowered his voice. “It wasn't noticed fast enough. Spread quite severely, so he needed the whole thing doing again, palate and lip revision. Little lamb.” And that's what Hugo had called him the moment they'd walked onto that hospital ward together to find him. His little lost lamb.
Charles passed the baby over. “Careful with his face, okay?”
Keir held the baby as Charles unzipped the snowsuit and smoothed down cornsilk white hair, smiling until the baby smiled back. “We needed to get out of the rectory in a hurry this morning, didn't we, Adam? Wasn't it lucky this hand-me-down snowsuit fit you? Not too big. Not too small. Perfect, just like you.”
“Thanks,” Keir joked. “But why did you need to get out of the rectory so early?”
Charles tickled the baby’s stomach before taking him back, yawning again while saying, “So Hugo could sleep in.” He headed for Keir's office. “He's exhausted, and it’s his big show tonight. Tomorrow, too.”
“You mean church service?”
“Same thing, really. Everyone knows the words and joins in with the singing.” Charles dodged a low-hanging string of tinsel. “But Christmas has caught me on the hop.” That, and taking turns to be with the baby at the hospital before the doctors agreed to release him. “I still don’t have a main present for him. Hugo, I mean. Or any presents really. This maggot's only getting coal. That’s why I’m here.”
“For some coal?”
“No,” Charles laughed around another yawn. “Because I've locked myself out of my Amazon account, so I thought I could use yours. Sit at your PC and let Adam help me choose something with next-day delivery.”
“There’s no chance of anything arriving tomorrow.” Keir grasped his shoulders, steering him towards the kitchen. “Besides, the computer's in use, printing photos. But I’ll find something Hugo can open tomorrow after we’ve poured some coffee into you. Or found some matchsticks to prop your eyes open.”
Charles ground to a halt in the kitchen doorway. “Oh, sorry, Mitch.”
Keir’s husband posed for a photo with some of the Haven’s brain-injured residents. At least that’s what it looked like to Charles as Christmas music played in the background and a photographer raised a Nikon.
“Sorry,” Charles repeated. “I should have called first, not barged in on your photoshoot, only I left my phone in the bedroom and didn’t want to risk waking Hugo. I didn’t know you already had...”
“Guests?” Keir gestured at the man taking photos. “We’ll have lots more of them later because Ian here always takes the family Christmas photos for us. And his partner, Guy?” A tall man turned from the sink, waving a soapy hand in greeting. “He’s very used to busy kitchens, so one more person won’t make a difference.” He pulled out a chair at the table. “Sit, Charles. Or we could find a bed for you.”
“For me? Why?” Charles settled the baby on his lap.
“Because you look like you could sleep standing up.”
“I don’t need a nap. I’m fine.”
“Sure you are.” Mitch came over, his kiss rough with stubble, his hand on the baby’s cheek huge but gentle. “And just how fine is this little one.” He crouched, peering between Charles and the baby. “This is Adam, isn’t it?”
It warmed Charles that both men remembered after so many months and other foster children. But then they’d both seen Adam before his first cleft lip repair, and after. That change had been dramatic—must have left an impression. These fresh stitches left another. Mitch met his gaze, his own troubled.
“This happened while he was back with his family?”
Mitch murmured, “It was their third chance with him, right?”
Charles nodded again.
“Social services surely can’t risk another.”
Charles shook his head. “I don’t see how they can.”
“So he’ll stay with you.”
That sounded like a full stop. A conclusion. A happy ending that Charles had to shake his head at again. “There’s a long line of families ahead of us waiting for adoption. Lots and lots of Mummies and Daddies.”
Adam chose that moment to show off his new trick, pointing at Charles. “Da.”
One of the residents shuffled closer. “Baby wants a Pringle?” He held out a tube while, across the table, the photographer captured his kindness.
“No, not for baby, thank you, Justin.” Charles pointed at the child’s mouth, wincing. “They're a bit too crunchy for him while he’s healing.”
Another resident sidled closer, clutching a baby of her own, her brow furrowed.
Charles reassured her, patting the back of the dolly she held as carefully as he held little Adam. “My baby’s going to be fine soon, Mary. He’s going to get so big and strong now that he’s able to eat more.”
Adam reached for the toy bottle of milk she also carried, his little mouth opening and closing.
“See? That means he’s getting hungry.” Charles reached for his bag, rooting in it for the second breakfast he’d brought with him. “I just need to work on getting him to eat more instead of spitting it all back at me.”
The man at the sink dried his hands, coming to crouch beside them. “Your baby won’t eat?”
“He’s not mine,” Charles said as Adam fussed. “But no. Not enough, anyway. He, uh. He’s slipped down the weight chart since we last fostered him.” He rooted in the bag some more. This man's nose was apparently a good distraction. Adam stopped fussing, grabbing for it and cooing.
The photographer seemed to find that funny, laughing before asking, “Can I take some photos for you?” He waggled his camera, then hesitated. “He's already super-cute, but if you wanted, I could do something about those stitches.”
"You mean airbrush them away?" Why that got to him, Charles couldn’t say. He also couldn’t say why realising he’d left the baby’s breakfast on the kitchen counter suddenly seemed cataclysmic. It all came out in a rush.
“I haven’t got a single decent photo of him, and I don't mean because of his revision. I couldn't care less about that. You're right, he's absolutely gorgeous exactly as he is. But now I wonder if anyone does. Have photos of him, I mean. Loved him enough to take them, no matter what he looked like." More spilled out. "I haven’t brought his breakfast with me either, only his bottle, which isn’t enough when he needs to catch up so badly. I’ve left our kitchen a complete bomb site, and I haven’t even bought Hugo a Christmas present, plus I—”
Keir spoke up, offering a different interpretation. “You haven’t had a moment to breathe lately? Or you haven’t asked for help until today? And the whole time you’ve been worried about this maggot losing weight and not eating?” He lifted the baby from his arms. “Luckily for you, we have someone right here who’s cooked in plenty of hospital kitchens. Guy?”
“How old is he and what can he manage?”
Charles watched Adam reach for Guy’s nose once more. “Almost nine months. And he can only manage soft things while he’s healing, but he’s terribly fussy.”
Guy rolled his sleeves up. “Leave it to me.”
And, for once, Charles did, sipping the best coffee he’d ever tasted while Keir entertained Adam.
Mitch hustled residents to help him find toys and cushions and, before Charles knew it, they’d made a cosy corner on the floor for him where Adam sat between Keir’s legs. He pointed to Charles. “Da!”
“I’m here.” Charles joined him on the floor just as Adam lurched forward to rock on his hands and knees.
And maybe today wasn’t a complete, giftless disaster.
Charles got to see this baby who’d had a tough start crawl for the very first time.
Joy forced him to blink fast a few times, and Charles scooped Adam up as Guy delivered a bowl of something fragrant that was a surprisingly vivid colour.
Guy sat beside him with another bowl. “A simple dahl pureed with last night’s sweet potatoes. Baby food is so bland. A tiny bit of spice and colour might make all the difference. It's mild though, and I added a good dollop of Greek yogurt.” He stirred the contents of the other bowl. “And this is more yogurt with cinnamon and stewed apple. You hold him and I’ll help shovel it in.”
Guy making faces every time Adam batted his nose must have been the perfect distraction. Both bowls steadily emptied, and as Mariah sang in the background about what she wanted for Christmas, Charles got his next gift of the season.
The baby ate, and his spirits lifted.
Once the baby was cleaned and changed and cuddled, Charles followed Keir through to a lounge with Adam’s post-meal bottle. The room held another table, more of the Haven’s residents quietly stamping robins onto wrapping paper as Ian took their photos.
Charles hesitated. “I don’t want to distract them. I could give him his milk in the kitchen. Or you could give it to him while I help Guy clear up.”
“Or,” Keir suggested, “you could snuggle up on this recliner right in front of the fire and keep an eye on Mitch for me while I print Ian's photos. Stop Mitch from being a diva in every photo.”
Charles couldn’t find the will to argue.
The recliner was so comfortable. The bottle of milk must be perfect as well. Adam drank, the quiet of this cosy room only broken by murmurs from the craft table. By Mitch’s low rumbles of guidance. By the snip of scissors, and by the clicks of a shutter as the photographer captured more Christmassy moments.
Logs crackled and hissed in the fire but Charles barely noticed, so tuned into each of Adam’s slow swallows, to his small sounds of appreciation, and to the burp he let out once finished.
“All by yourself,” Charles whispered. “You are so very clever.”
He set the bottle aside before smoothing down cornsilk fluff that might stay as blond as Tor Trelawney’s, or that might darken one day. He did that for quite a long time, knowing that he should get up instead of reclining the chair even further.
I still need to shop for Hugo.
Or he could trust what Keir had promised.
He’ll find something for me.
Somehow, here, where it was so warm and cosy, belief rolled in.
Charles watched the baby’s eyes drift closed as the same tide took him.
And, for the first time in weeks, Charles slept without worry.
He woke to a poke in the eye.
To a pat on his cheek.
To what very much sounded like a question.
“I’m here.” Someone had draped them both with a blanket, tucked so the baby was safe beside him. Charles studied a sweet face. A snub nose. Those wide, wide eyes, all without noticing stitches or scars. Without seeing hand-me-down clothes or the remains of dahl in his hair. Not a single imperfection registered, and his real truth slipped out.
“I do love you.”
The baby squirmed, one sticky hand finding his lips next, patting again. Of course, Charles kissed it because if fostering had taught him anything, it was to make hay while the sun shone. But it had also taught him another lesson that registered as a clock chimed.
He lurched upright. “It’s three o’clock?”
They’d both slept for hours.
“We can’t be late for the dragon.” He really couldn’t, especially if she was coming to…
He moved fast then, even though he’d rather not hand Adam over.
Please, not today.
Charles said goodbye and thank you to a pair of kind strangers who helped repack his bag while he zipped Adam back into his snowsuit.
Keir emerged from his office. “I’ll give you a lift back.”
“Nope. No car seat.” Charles passed him the baby so he could put on his coat. “It’s only a fifteen minute walk, if I hurry.” He kissed Keir’s cheek. “Thank you. I feel so much better. Could you do me a favour and let Hugo know that I’m on my way? And don’t worry about finding a gift for me. When we get home, I’ll tell him that we’ll just have to do presents after Christmas.”
Keir laughed, his honk startling the baby who reached for Charles.
He took him, loving his fierce, tiny cuddle. “What’s so funny?”
“You really don’t have to worry about presents. All Hugo will ever want is you.”
He waved Charles off.
Charles waved back, then wrapped his coat around Adam as he retraced his steps through the Haven's gardens. “Now all we have to do is get home quickly so I can clean the kitchen before the social worker breathes fire at me. Or whips you away before she absolutely has to.” He reached the woods, hesitating at a fork in the path. “Doesn't everything look different now the snow’s settled?”
“Da,” the baby said, pointing to the left.
“Yes,” Charles said, aiming to sound decisive. “Da is the right way.” The path was definitely prettier with its fresh dusting. Also longer than Charles remembered, the sun still glinting, but not as brightly, lowering already.
Charles followed a path he wasn't convinced had been quite so overgrown this morning. Or as winding. Their fifteen-minute walk turned to thirty as he told the baby about past adventures.
“So, I walked through another wild part of the woods, looking for Tor—” A wild part of the woods that this spot might resemble if the trees still had all of their leaves. “—and I ended up in a hollow quite a lot like this one.” Charles turned in a slow circle, his heart sinking, aware the clock was ticking.
Aware too that he was just as lost as last time.
He perched on a fallen tree trunk and gave himself a pep talk. “I know exactly where we are now.”
“Yes,” Charles said firmly. “I do. This is where I found Tor, minus one of his Wellington boots. And it’s also where someone very special found me.”
The baby wriggled, excited. “Da da!”
“Yes. Your dada.”
Here, deep in the woods with only a baby listening, it was easy to call Hugo that. Easy to voice a wish Charles had kept inside for weeks now. One that had hovered over the hospital crib while he’d worried and Hugo had prayed. A wish that kept him awake even if Hugo took on the night shift. “Or at least he would be your dada if we got to keep you.” Because out of all their foster children, this one would be the hardest to let go again. “He’d be the best Dada for you on the planet.”
“You too, Charles.”
Charles shot to his feet, turning into an embrace that came with a kiss for them both. That also came with relief, even as he insisted, “I wasn’t lost.”
“No,” Hugo agreed. “Of course, you weren’t. I didn't think so for a single moment, because if you were lost, you would have whistled, wouldn't you? Three times, like we’ve practised. Or you would have sung, like last time.”
The baby patted a scar that had been starker the last time Charles and Hugo had been here with another lost lamb held between them.
“So you weren’t lost, and I wasn’t worried one bit, but I thought it wouldn't hurt to come and walk you home regardless. And if we hurry, we might not keep the social worker waiting. There’s still time.”
Not enough though.
Not if she’s coming to tell us Adam’s moving on. Maybe for good, this time.
Charles trudged beside Hugo, every footstep heavy. “I just wish…”
He didn’t get to finish, no need to when Hugo said, “I wish too, Charles.”
“For Adam to stay with us?” Hugo nodded. “I wished every day in the hospital. Have wished every night on my knees too. I can’t help thinking that wishing is another word for something I do daily to share my cares and worries. They’re heard, Charles. Each and every wish that I make. I’m sure of it, even if they aren’t all granted. There’s no harm in wishing, so you keep doing it because you aren’t wishing for yourself, are you?”
Charles shook his head.
Hugo found the baby’s mittened hand, so tiny in his big one. Found Charles’ mouth as well, his kiss reassuring. “You’re wishing for him, and that can’t ever be a bad thing. Can’t ever be selfish. Not when you’re wishing for wheels to turn in his favour, not ours. And if that means he goes to another place of safety, all those wishes still count. Still stack up. Still add to a tally of hope for his brighter future. But, wishes can only go so far if they’re silent.”
“You think so?”
Hugo nodded, his arms wrapping Charles and the baby once more. “If we're both wishing for the same result quietly, all on our own, in our most secret, silent moments, maybe it’s time to voice them. State that we’re here for him, loud and clear. Long-term, Charles, even though that wasn’t an option for us while my work was unsettled. But that isn't the case anymore, is it? So how would you feel if we had that conversation with the social worker?”
“Right now.” Hugo pulled away and straightened. “Because if she’s coming to let us know he’s moving on again, I can’t let that happen without fighting for him.”
Charles cleared his throat.
Held the baby closer.
Had to clear his throat again.
I do love you,” he finally managed. “But if we’re sharing secrets, you need to know that I haven’t bought you a single Christmas present. Not even a chocolate orange.”
The baby did too, showing them another brand-new trick, clapping his mittened hands together.
And somehow, that made facing the unknown possible because they were together.
The sun had almost gone by the time the rectory porch lights came into view. So did the social worker’s headlights. Charles was so relieved they hadn't missed her that he actually braved her wrath and hugged her.
“Oh! Merry Christmas to you too,” she said, her gaze on Adam who showed her his new trick, clapping first and then pointing at both men.
“And a very Merry Christmas to you, too,” she said, her smile less stern than usual. “Someone seems much more alert and vocal.” She followed them up the path to the front door. “And maybe a little bit spoiled by Father Christmas.”
“Da!” Adam pointed at a box of presents wrapped in familiar paper stamped with robins.
Hugo picked up the top gift, reading its label. “It’s for me. Says to open on Christmas Eve.”
He did that in the kitchen, thankfully no longer a breakfast bomb site, every surface clean and tidy, and if Charles had ever loved Hugo more for tidying up his muddles, he didn’t know when.
Or maybe he did.
The kitchen lights hid nothing, Hugo’s usual calm expression suddenly as raw as the first time Charles had met him, and just as sliced through. And yet beside him, the social worker’s face did something quite different, all of her stark lines softening.
“Those are some very special moments.”
Hugo nodded, silent for once, wrestling with emotion Charles understood as soon as he saw what Keir must have printed and wrapped for him.
This folding frame usually lived in Keir's office, holding photos of his family, his parents on either side with a young Keir in the centre. Now it showed a different family.
To the left, Hugo beamed at their wedding, a close-up full of love that Keir must have captured. To the right, Ian had caught the moment Adam showed off a new trick, only he'd focused his camera on Charles. On his joy and delight. On the pride he still felt. “Adam crawled today.”
Hugo’s voice came out thickly. “So I see.” He took the baby in his arms and kissed him.
Charles studied the middle photo, the social worker’s silence prompting him to stutter. “I-I didn't mean to go to sleep. Someone tucked a blanket around us. And I had my arms around him. Adam was quite safe, I promise.”
“I don’t doubt it. He looks as snug as a bug.”
Ian must have used a soft-focus lens—this image of Adam asleep while nose-to-nose with Charles was blurry. Or it was until he blinked. “I was just so tired.”
“And that's why I wanted to see you both,” the social worker promised. “To check in on how you’ve been coping. On how Adam’s progressing.” She touched the photo frame again. “I can see he’s doing beautifully, but now that he’s officially moved from the fostering register to the adoption list, I also wanted to check in with you about his change in status. Because this was only ever meant to be a temporary arrangement, but... it's where he's thriving.”
Hugo wished aloud for them both then.
For all three of them.
For their whole family.
“We’d make it permanent tomorrow if that meant keeping Adam.”
Charles decided he must have been wrong—this social worker was nothing like a dragon.
When she smiled she really was quite lovely.
If you haven't met Ian and Guy before, you can find their story here: His Last Christmas in London.
Like Charles, I left writing this until the very last minute.
Thank you so much, Louise, for your swift read through, and Valerie for your invaluable and much appreciated American sense-check.
Any remaining nonsense is all mine.
Wishing you all a season of peace and happy reading,
Con Riley © 2022
All Rights Reserved.
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