(Just so you know, the little girl’s name is Aibhilin, which is pronounced ‘Aveleen’. One of those Gaelic things, I suppose. If you haven’t read the previous Kat Magic stories this might not make a lot of sense.)
Harry Bird stretched with a groan and ran his hands through hair that was much nearer silver then the mostly brown it had been a year earlier.
“Are you okay, darling?” His wife, Kat, spoke softly, deep concern in her voice. She’d watched her husband slowly regain his former energy and resilience, which he still hadn’t fully attained. “I’m grateful for what you did, but...”
“I’d do it again, Sweetie.”
She sighed. “I know. You show your love in so many ways, but...” she paused and took a deep breath. “I need to pop out and do some shopping as soon as I’ve fed Aibhilin.”
He nodded. “I’d go, you know.”
“You’re getting a little more exercise each day. You’ll get there. But ... anyway. I need to order a tree.”
He chuckled. “I still wonder at your celebration of the Christian festivals.”
“I don’t have a problem with Jesus Christ,” Kat said, “He was accused of consorting with the Devil, too, you know. But Mam and I ... and Aibhilin ... will have a Solstice celebration. You must remember that the tree is actually a pagan symbol. The Christian Church merely adopted existing practices to try to replace previous allegiances. Jesus Christ was probably born in June or July. The early Church celebrated his conception around the time of the Jewish festival of Tabernacles, in September. The Incarnation began with the conception not with his birth. The central act of worship, the Lord’s Supper, is very close to the practice in Mithraic religion. Easter is actually named after a Scandinavian deity, Eostre. Need I go on?”
“No, my dear. I’ll go along with whatever you want.”
“Thank you. Any excuse for a party, no?” Her head tilted. “Aibhilin’s calling.”
“Can’t hear anything. Never can.”
“As I’ve said before, she’s not using her physical voice.”
Kat left the room and returned shortly after, carrying their almost one-year-old daughter, who was looking around with eyes that were gradually becoming green and appeared much too wise for her age. Kat sat, unbuttoned her blouse and unhooked her front-fastening bra.
Harry watched the performance with a smile. “You do that for me, don’t you?”
Kat positioned Aibhilin so she could suck and glanced across at him with a smile. “Of course. I know how you love to watch. These tits ... could even say boobs these days,” she giggled, “there’s so much more of them, I thought you liked small ones.”
“I do. But those are yours, ergo, they’re perfect, whatever size they are. It’s wonderful to watch my remarkable daughter suckling on my lovely wife’s breasts, too.”
Aibhilin let go of Kat’s left nipple and was transferred to the other. Harry continued to watch as a tear trickled down his cheek. Kat noticed, but didn’t remark. Her husband’s emotions had been very near the surface since he shared Kat’s pain as Aibhilin was born. Kat sighed inwardly.
Aibhilin finished her meal and turned in Kat’s arms, reaching for her Daddy. He stood and went to take the infant from his wife’s arms. Aibhilin, lifted to his chest, flung chubby arms as far as she could round his neck.
“Change her nappy?” Harry asked, holding her against him.
“Potty when she’s ready. She hasn’t wet a nappy in a month.”
“Really? How did I miss that? I knew you’ve been sitting her on a potty, but...”
“Yes. I’ve been thinking of putting her in trainer panties. In fact, I’ll get some while I’m out. Will you entertain her for an hour or so? I doubt if she’ll sleep.” Kat stood, stretched up to kiss her husband and the back of her daughter’s head, hair already almost the same flame red as her mother’s.
“Oh, I expect we’ll manage,” Harry smiled. “I suppose I need to fetch the Christmas decorations out of the loft?”
“Good idea. Keep an eye on Aibhilin, though. She’ll want to play with things. Perhaps it would be better to wait for me to get home.”
“I’ll do that.”
Kat left and Harry sat with Aibhilin still clasping his neck.
“Daddy.” Aibhilin didn’t talk much. As she had demonstrated, she didn’t need to. Harry had rarely heard her utter more than ‘Daddy’ or ‘Mummy’, and the latter, he now understood why, was rare.
“Daddy, love ‘oo.”
Tears prickled at his eyes and he hugged the little girl a little tighter.
“I love you too, sweetheart.”
She laid a sloppy kiss on his neck. “Daddy, dow’.”
“You want to get down?”
Astonished, he lifted her down and held her hands for a few moments to let her get her balance. He knew she’d been walking quite well for a month or so. She had crawled, but only for a couple of weeks. When he released her, she headed for the rack of CDs next to his music centre and, apparently at random, selected a disc.
“Sure, darling. What have you got there?”
She held out the disc in its case. “Wan’ dance.” Sure enough, it was a collection of Irish folk music.
He slipped it in the player and set the volume when it started, then sat down again and watched his, not quite one-year-old ... dance. Her balance wasn’t perfect, of course, but her steps and spins, gestures with her arms, fitted well with the rhythm of the lively music.
About half-way through the disc, she paused. “Daddy dance?”
“Not as well as you, sweetie.”
The little girl stood, head cocked in query. Harry had, it’s true, learned to stumble through some very basic dances with Kat, but he had no illusions about his general clumsiness. Nonetheless, he stood and held out a hand to the little girl, who clasped his middle finger. He began to step as lightly as he could, in time to the music, whilst Aibhilin bounced and twirled, his finger providing a necessary anchor to supplement her immature balance.
Kat returned, laden with produce. Even before entering the house she could taste her daughter’s delight in the back of her mind. Inside, she carefully lowered her bags of shopping and, very quietly, opened the lounge door to peer in.
She could see the joy in the toddler’s movement and expression. She could hear the joy in the minds of the two people she loved best in the world. And crept away, so as to not interfere with the moment.
The Solstice, an hour before dawn. Harry’s participation had been discussed at length. Reluctantly, he’d agreed to participate. He’d have been a lot less reluctant had not the dress-code been ‘sky-clad’. That is (for the uninitiated) nude, naked, undressed, in your birthday suit, however you want to put it.
Part of his reluctance had been the presence of Kat’s mother, Rhiannon. Of a similar age to himself, Rhiannon remained an older version of his wife, whom he considered very attractive indeed. Both, to modern expectations, quite overweight, but not to Harry’s eyes. Rhiannon had a few indications of her maturity; her red hair faded, with grey strands in it. But Kat had, eventually, persuaded him to participate.
“Don’t worry about it! If you get an erection – and you may well do so – Mam and I will consider it a compliment. Aibhilin won’t be bothered. And you know we’ll be warm enough.”
“I know. It’s just, well, it takes some getting used to.”
They all wore long, hooded, ivory robes, cinched with a rope girdle, to walk out to the circle in the Birds’ back garden, but disrobed immediately on entering it. Harry sat, cross-legged, on a rush mat at the centre, holding Aibhilin, while Rhiannon and Kat circled in opposite directions, spinning and singing. As the sky lightened in the south-east, Aibhilin began to sing, too, an eerie, high-pitched, counter-point to her mother and grandmother. She pulled away from Harry and began to spin in front of him, still singing, and as she did so, began to glow.
Harry had only once seen anything like it, and it wasn’t a particularly happy memory. However, he remembered the vow he’d taken and remained silent. His disquiet deepened when another glowing figure appeared. Tall, statuesque, beyond beautiful. Viviane. He shifted from sitting to kneeling. He watched, barely able to bear the brilliance of the sight.
Aibhilin lifted her arms to the goddess, who picked her up and held her for a few moments. Aibhilin seemed to be whispering in her ear, though in view of her abilities, that seemed unlikely. But Viviane, still holding Aibhilin, went to Rhiannon. There were words there, though Harry couldn’t understand them. Then to Kat, and, again, an incomprehensible colloquy.
Finally, the two approached Harry. As before, her words seemed to echo in his head.
‘Please stand, husband of Kathleen. Father of Aibhilin.’
Awkwardly, he got to his feet.
‘You have proven your devotion. I cannot reward you, but your daughter can.’
Harry was unable to utter a word. But Aibhilin twisted in the goddess’ arms and reached for her father, who took her and, as the little girl settled in his arms, the goddess faded away.
Aibhilin reached up and placed a little hand on each of her father’s cheeks. Heat spread from there, and throughout his body. The stiffness and the aches, to which he’d become accustomed, disappeared and a feeling of ineffable well-being infused his body.
Consciousness fled, and he crumpled to the ground in a boneless heap, Aibhilin on top still clinging to his neck. The little girl hummed contentedly, unconcerned, but Kat ran to her husband’s side. In the growing, grey, light of the solstice morning, she could see that his face was pink, and the touch of a finger found a strong pulse, so she left them there with a smile and she and her mother proceeded to sing and dance once more, circling the little henge in opposite directions.
They concluded the ritual, and Kat went to her husband and reached out to shake his shoulder, but her mother told her softly, “Let them be. They’ll be fine. Let’s go in and start breakfast.”
Puzzled, Kat followed her mother, leaving her naked husband and daughter sprawled on the rush mat in the centre of the little henge.
Harry was in a warm, sweet-smelling place, and there was a soft hand in his. He looked round to see a tall (a little shorter than himself) young woman with flame-red hair and green eyes, who was holding his hand.
“Hello, Daddy. I’m so happy you could come here with me.”
“Where are we?”
“Here? The summer country. You might call it heaven, I suppose, or paradise, but that wouldn’t be quite correct.”
“We’re not dead, just visiting. Will you come with me? Or would you rather go back to Mama and Gran?”
“I will come with you.”
She smiled brilliantly, and tugged on his hand. He found himself floating, the ground apparently moving under them; they were flying. He looked down. Surely, that was ... Malmesbury. And ... Bibury. Stow-on-the-Wold. Memories of a two-week holiday, the honeymoon after marrying Ruth. They dipped lower and his stomach churned as they rapidly descended to a little cottage. But they alighted in front of it without impact or injury. As they did so, the door opened and a woman came out.
“Harry...” she stood before him, smiling gently, and took his hands.
She released him and turned to Aibhilin. “Thank you.” The young woman smiled, even white teeth gleaming. Ruth turned back to Harry. “I’m sorry I left you as I did. That I wasn’t able to tell you that I love you one more time. That I left you with Rebecca and Naomi. I was worried about you until you met Kat. But when Aibhilin was going to ... be your daughter, she said she’d try to bring you here if she had an opportunity.”
“Ruth, you know I love you too. But somehow, Kat, and now Aibhilin, have brought happiness back into my life.”
She smiled her familiar smile. “Good. That makes me happy too. But you must go, now.”
Harry stirred, sprawled on the rush matting. Aibhilin was a tiny, warm weight on his chest. He held her and sat up, wondering at how easily he did that. It was no trouble at all to get his legs under himself and stand, even with his daughter clinging to his neck.
Entering the kitchen, Kat and Rhiannon looked up from what they were doing with a smile.
“Where have you been?” Rhiannon asked.
“The summer country, according to Aibhilin.”
Two pairs of eyebrows rose. “I suppose it was a dream,” Harry clarified. “I was in a wonderful place and Aibhilin – grown up – was holding my hand. She took me, flying, to visit my ... to visit Ruth. In the Cotswolds. At least, in the summer country equivalent.” He stopped suddenly, and awkwardly tore off a piece of kitchen towel to mop at his eyes. Aibhilin’s grip on his neck, he realised, had slackened. “Aibhilin’s asleep,” he said. “I’ll take her upstairs.”
Once his daughter was safely in her cot, he trotted downstairs, through the kitchen and out to fetch his robe from the circle.
Suitably gowned, and back in the kitchen, he noticed that Kat and her mother were staring at him. “Something the matter?”
“Your hair!” Kat sighed. “Go and look in the hall mirror.”
Harry did so and returned to the kitchen. “You know, I really don’t care. I feel about sixteen years old. I think Aibhilin, um, healed me. Viviane said she couldn’t do it, but that Aibhilin could. I suppose it’s a bit like what you did to me, Kat, in the park. Remember?”
Harry’s daughters, Rebecca and Naomi, arrived a couple of days before Christmas. It would be a little tight in the house, but they would share a room, while Rhiannon would sleep in the nursery with Aibhilin. Having given and received the necessary cuddles from Aibhilin, and having hugged Kat and Rhiannon, they greeted their father with warm hugs too. “You’re looking great, Daddy,” Rebecca, the younger said, “but what’s with the white hair?”
“That’s a bit complicated, darling. But apart from my hair I’m feeling fantastic; better than I have for years.”
“That’s good!” She looked round, as her sister was doing. “You haven’t decorated!”
“Waiting for you two. Kat bought a tree and that’s in the front room, in the bay. We’ve put the lights on it, but nothing else.”
“I shall be the cruel step-mum and force you to do all the work of decorating,” Kat said, but the smile which had no trace on her face was evident in her voice. “You’ll be in the twin room. Mum’s sharing with Aibhilin.”
Naomi nodded. “We expected that. Your Dad’s not here?”
“South America, still. The Amazon rainforest is more important than his family.”
“Oh, Kat...” Naomi embraced Kat again. “That’s so sad. But I suppose from his point of view, protecting the environment is a way of protecting his family.”
Kat held on to her step-daughter, relaxed in her arms. “That’s a way of looking at it. I try to tell myself that. But it’s hard, sometimes, especially times like this.”
They worked together, with Aibhilin ‘helping’. Actually, she really did help, though they’d probably have got done quicker without her. Her fingers weren’t up to delicate work, but she chose decorations and handed them to her step-sisters.
Rhiannon was the undisputed queen of the kitchen, though she acknowledged Kat was perfectly competent in her own right, and everyone contributed in various ways. Christmas itself began with the Christingle service at the parish church. Aibhilin clasped the Christingle, and they took turns to blow the candle out when it kept igniting with no apparent intervention by humans.
The third time it happened, Kat whispered to the toddler, “Aibhilin, please stop doing that. Until it’s time, anyway.”
The little girl frowned, but the candle stayed unlit. At least, her candle stayed unlit. There were a few puzzled expressions elsewhere in the congregation.
Despite Aibhilin’s unusual abilities, there was no way she was going to go to the midnight service with them. Rhiannon smilingly insisted on staying home with her, while the rest of the family went to sing carols. The climax of the midnight service is, of course, the Communion.
Rebecca and Naomi stood to go forward and looked a little surprised when Kat stayed put. “I was never confirmed,” she said with a smile.
Naomi glanced at her father. “I’ll keep her company,” he said. “You go on.”
Kat took and held his hand. “Don’t you want to go up?”
“Not really, Sweetie. I was always, well, sceptical, I suppose. Ruth ... Ruth wanted to go to church, and I went with her; more of a social thing than a spiritual one, for me at least. The girls were Christened and, at the appropriate time, confirmed. That was fine by me. But until I met you I was just going through the motions. I mean, I’ve always tried to be a good person...”
“You are, my husband. You are.”
“Thank you. But not because some person, or organisation, told me how I should behave.” He sighed. “But now, I’ve seen things...” he hesitated. “I’ve had to ... re-evaluate ... my beliefs. But I don’t think I need ‘church’, especially when ‘church’ teaching doesn’t match what I see, in you, in your mother, in our daughter.”
The service ran its course and they left, shaking hands with the Vicar, a young man.
“Mister Bird! I haven’t seen you recently. I remember ... Naomi ... and Rebecca, but I don’t think I know...”
“Reverend Staniland, this is my wife, Kathleen. Kat.”
Kat smiled and held out a hand. “Vicar.”
He took it, returning the smile warmly. “Missus Bird.” Then his expression changed. “Um...” He shook his head. “Perhaps ... in the New Year ... I could visit?”
“Certainly!” Harry put in. “You know where we live. But just give us a call first...”
As they were walking home, Harry took a deep breath. “Okay, Kat. I trust you didn’t do anything bad, but what did you do when you shook hands with the Vicar?”
“Oh, nothing much. Just turned a key in a lock.”
Harry was about to groan as he turned over, but he felt too good. “Baby.”
“NOT a baby, Daddy. Want a cuddle.”
He didn’t sigh, and reached out, eyes still closed, to encounter a warm, naked body. It was not the moment to get worked up about nudity, and he lifted her up to lie prostrate on his chest, then flipped the duvet over them both.
“Love ‘oo, Daddy.”
“Love you too, Sweetie.” He drifted back to sleep.
When he woke, he was alone in bed, though it was still early. He got up, showered, and dressed. Downstairs, Rebecca and Naomi were in the lounge with Aibhilin, who was wrapped up in a teddy bear almost as big as she was. She looked up. “Daddy! Teddy! Naomi!”
“That’s a lovely teddy, Sweetie. Have you had breakfast?”
“Mummy’s milk and porridge,” Rebecca put in. “I’m getting broody.”
His expression was ‘old fashioned’.
“Oh, don’t worry, Dad. Nobody gets me without a wedding ring, and there’s no-one in line just now. But I just love my little sister.”
“Go and get your coffee, Dad,” Naomi added. “We’ll keep Aibhilin entertained.”
His appearance in the kitchen earned him a kiss from Kat, a smile from Rhiannon, with a ‘Happy Christmas’ from both, followed by a mug of coffee pressed into his hand.
“Go away,” Kat smiled, “We’re busy here. Too many cooks...”
Discretion being the better part of valour, he returned to the lounge, sat, and sipped at the coffee. It was warm, but not really hot enough. However, he did his best to conceal his disappointment. He failed.
Aibhilin looked up at her father, peering over the head of her teddy bear, and frowned. He felt growing heat from the mug, then had to shift his grip to the handle before holding the body of the mug became actually painful. The little girl beamed and returned her attention to the teddy bear in her arms.
The door opened. “Darling, your breakfast is ready.” Kat’s head poked round the door. “In the dining room.”
“Mama, hungry.” The little girl’s voice got her mother’s attention.
“What have you been up to to make you hungry? You’ve only just had breakfast.”
“Come on, then. I’ll find you something.”
Harry, with Aibhilin still clutching the soft toy and keeping it from dragging on the ground with some difficulty, made their way next door. When, sitting at the dining table with Aibhilin perched in her high-chair next to him, Kat brought him a plate of bacon, egg, baked beans and hash browns, he told her, “Aibhilin reheated my coffee.”
“Ah. That explains the appetite.” She turned to the little girl. “Would you like some toast?”
Aibhilin nodded vigorously.
“I think Teddy should be sitting on his own.”
The little girl looked rebellious.
“You don’t want him to get stuff in his fur, do you?”
Not much later, Rhiannon appeared with a bowl of scrambled eggs and toast soldiers. “Harry, when you’ve done, why don’t you take Aibhilin to the park for some fresh air? I expect Naomi and Rebecca will keep you company too.”
Harry nodded, happy for an excuse to be out from under foot. He helped Aibhilin with her second breakfast. Kat and Rhiannon would have – if they’d known – told him off, as she needed to practice the use of her hands, which trailed far behind her other abilities. However, she did love to have her father feed her.
They walked to the park. At least, three of them did. Aibhilin walked perhaps a hundred yards before demanding a ride on Harry’s shoulders. In the playground at the park there were several other fathers with their offspring running off some energy. At the gate, though, Aibhilin turned away and trotted purposefully along the path. Puzzled, the others followed. It was most unusual for the little girl to turn away from the swings which were her current favourite amusement. There seemed little point in trying to persuade her to enter the playground – after all, the point of the outing was for her to run around and get some fresh air.