‘A Christmas Gift’ by TF Powys

‘A Christmas Gift’ is the story of a man with van – but also a quietly heretical resetting of the Christmas story. (For a start, it seems to have merged with the one about the Good Samaritan.) The man in question is Mr Balliboy, a recurring character in the West Country fables of T. F. Powys. Mr Balliboy operates a service that, we would now say, connects isolated rural communities to the local market town of Weyminster. From the beginning, pride is in the air: both Mr Balliboy’s, and his customers’. Many people (or at least “a number”) take pride, for example, merely in seeing their names written down. The lonely Mr Balliboy would like to see his own name written on a gift label. He knows this much well before he knows to whom to give a gift, or even what the gift will be. And so “A Christmas Gift” turns out to be a story of pride being brought low – or being redirected, at least. I like its ostensible simplicity but suspect that something more is going on, as its last line, only three words long, perhaps suggests. Powys’s fiction is often like that: biblical in tone, yet somehow off-message. “A Christmas Gift” wasn’t the first of his works I read – my introduction to him being Unclay, a tattered revelation of a novel about Death taking an unlikely holiday, in this same eerie region of Wessex. But it is one I return to, and include in my imaginary anthology of his stories.

First published in An Anthology of Christmas Prose and Verse, Cresset Press, 1928; subsequently published in Powys’s collection The White Paternoster, 1930. Available to read online here. Chosen by Michael Caines

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