Friday, 31 December 2021
Wednesday, 29 December 2021
Friday, 24 December 2021
“Cold enough for you, Sophie Sayers?”
Billy banged the bookshop door behind him, stemming the icy blast that had heralded his arrival. Hector slapped one hand down on the trade counter just in time to stop a pile of bookmarks taking flight.
I smiled at my elderly friend as he plodded across to his favourite table in the tearoom. “A bit of cold weather doesn’t bother me. Spending my teenage years in the Scottish Highlands has set me in good stead for the worst a Cotswold winter can throw at me.”
When Hector winked at me, I could tell he was about to launch one of his ‘wind Billy up and watch him go’ conversation starters.
“Ah, but what about a Wendlebury winter?”
Billy took the bait. “My old dad used to say, when it’s jacket weather in Slate Green – ” he was referring to our local market town down the hill – “it’s overcoat weather in Wendlebury Barrow.”
Hector got up from his stool and strolled over to the tearoom counter to collect the coffee I’d just made for him.
“Or to put it more scientifically, living on top of the escarpment is colder than living below it.”
I wedged a mince pie onto Hector’s saucer as he picked up his coffee before starting to prepare Billy’s customary cappuccino.
“But nowhere in England gets as much snow as we do in the north of Scotland. In winter, there’s often enough to make the main road to Inverness impassable. All along the road, there are poles at regular intervals, height marked so that you can see how deep the snow is at any point.” I paused while the milk steamer hissed. “It’s when you can’t see the poles at all that you’ve got real problems.”
Billy unfurled the stripey blue scarf I’d knitted him, extracting its ends from deep inside the armholes of his jacket.
“You’re too young to remember the long winter of 1963. The village was cut off for a fortnight. By the time the first tractor finally got through from Slate Green, our cupboards were bare.”
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I sprinkled cocoa onto the top of Billy’s coffee through a Christmas tree template.
“Of course, in them days, we still had several working dairy farmers in the village, so at least we had milk. The dairy lorries couldn’t get through to collect it, and the farmers were glad to supply it to us rather than waste it. I thought we was going to end up like one of them roving tribes in Africa that I’ve seen on telly, who live off their cattle completely, drinking their blood as well as their milk.” He took a slurp of his coffee and smacked his lips in appreciation. “What do you call them, Hector? Gnomes?”
“Nomads,” said Hector, suppressing a grin.
I cleaned the nozzle of the milk steamer with a cloth.
“So what do you think of Carol’s advice that it’s too cold for snow?”
Carol Barker runs our village shop and is almost as full of dubious country lore as Billy.
Hector pursed his lips.
“It’s not a question of temperature. It’s just too dry for snow. Not enough water in the atmosphere, even though there’s plenty under foot since that downpour a couple of days ago.”
Billy stirred the remains of the cocoa tree into his coffee.
“I just feels sorry for them young lads who’ll have sledges for Christmas with no snow to slide ’em on.”
“And lasses too,” I put in, flicking the switch to make a drink for myself at last. I try to set Billy straight about equal opportunities when I can. His response showed how much effect I’m having.
“At least the girlies will like the pretty patterns left by Jack Frost.”
Hector took his coffee back to the trade counter, where a man was choosing a couple of book tokens from the display rack.
“But what about you, Sophie Sayers?” Billy enquired. “If it’s so snowy up by your folks, how will you get home to see them for Christmas? I don’t suppose they’ll want planes landing up there, slipping and sliding about the place, engines all frozen up.”
“It’s a good thing I’m not a nervous flyer.”
“I just remember how upset your Auntie May was when she couldn’t get up to Scotland to see you one snowy Christmas, a few years before she left this earth, God rest her soul. That Christmas ended well for her, though. I saw to that.” *
(*see Christmas Ginger )
“Don’t worry about me, Billy.”
I dropped a lemon and ginger teabag into my favourite cup and filled it from the kettle.
“I’m staying down south this year, spending Christmas Day and Boxing Day with Hector at his parents’ house. Then we’ll both fly into Inverness for Hogmanay.”
“What sort of hog is that?”
“You know, Hogmanay. The Scottish New Year. In Scotland, New Year is much more important than Christmas. They even have an extra public holiday on the second of January, to give them longer to get over it.”
“Drunken so-and-so’s. But it looks like you two will have the best of both worlds, eh? The heart of their families is where everyone should spend their Christmas, and now you’ve got two families between you, lucky blighters. Since my cousin down in Slate Green * died this summer, I ain’t even got one.” He turned to Hector. “I bet your old ma will be glad of the extra company what with that brother of yours still being upside down.”
“My old ma, as you so unchivalrously call her, is at least fifteen years younger than you, Billy. And as I’ve told you before, despite being down under in Australia, Horace is as much the right way up as we are.”
Horace is Hector’s identical twin, with the addition of the suntan and taut musculature that come from his job as a tour guide in the outback. He is as adventurous as Hector is reserved.
I pulled the pencil out of my ponytail and began doodling a koala in a Santa hat on my order pad.
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“Hector, do you think Horace will have his Christmas dinner on the beach?”
Instead of answering, he got up to attend to a customer needing help in the languages section.
“If you ask me, an Australian beach is a a poor second to an English hearth and home.”
“So what about you, Billy? Where will you have your Christmas dinner?”
I tried to think whether there were any other old people on their own in the village who might welcome Billy’s company for Christmas dinner, but I drew a blank. Even Joshua, next door to me, so frail that he hardly leaves his house, was planning to go to his nephew’s.
Billy wiped a speck of froth from his chin with the cuff of his tweed jacket before leaning back and clasping his hands across his tummy.
“Ah, well, I’ve decided to start my own tradition. The Bluebird is where I shall be filling my boots, beside Donald’s roaring fire, kept warm at his expense, with no obligation to do the washing up. I hear Donald’s missus does a lovely turkey roast with all the trimmings, plus Donald tells me you’ve never seen a pudden burn as bright as when he fires his up. Never skimps with the brandy.”
“Well, if a publican can’t rustle up a good flambé, who can?”
I doubted Hector would be as reckless with his favourite tipple on Christmas Day.
The shop phone trilled, and Hector returned to the counter to answer it.
“Mum, I’ve told you before, please don’t ring me in the shop unless it’s an emergency. It isn’t an emergency, is it?”
His parents are at least ten years older than mine. They’d retired to the seaside town of Clevedon in Somerset a few years before, leaving Hector to turn their antiques shop into a bookstore. With Horace abroad, Hector feels solely responsible for their parents’ welfare. As an only child myself, I understand.
Trying not to look as if I was eavesdropping, I emptied the dishwasher, arranging the clean cups, each branded with the name of a book and its author, on the old pine shelves behind the tearoom counter. I’d just started sorting the cutlery into the vintage coffee cans on my counter when Hector put down the phone, stalked over and slumped down on the nearest chair.
“So it’s Christmas dinner at mine, then.” He sounded glum.
“Why? I hope your parents are OK?”
Billy sat up straighter, his interest piqued. “P’raps they’ve had a better offer. That brother of yours flying them down to his place?”
Hector sighed. “No, they’ve volunteered to spend Christmas Day serving meals to elderly neighbours who live on their own.”
“Then you must come to mine, Hector,” I said, hoping I didn’t sound as pleased as I felt. I get on well with Hector’s parents, but I’d been daunted at the prospect of spending Christmas Day with them. “Christmas dinner in my cottage will be lovely and cosy.”
Hector pointed to the ceiling, indicating his flat above the shop. “But my place is more private. As it’s upstairs –” he pointed to the ceiling, referring to his flat above the shop “– we’re not overlooked.”
I started folding paper napkins on the counter.
“But I like being able to see families going past the window on their Christmas Day walks, and the kids on new bikes and scooters.”
I hoped the thought of sharing our turkey with my little black cat, Blossom, wasn’t putting him off. Hector is definitely a dog person.
“There’s always The Bluebird,” put in Billy. “You’re welcome to join me at my table.”
Without replying, Hector returned to the trade counter to serve a young woman with an armful of children’s books.
Billy leaned towards me and tapped the side of his nose.
“Trust me, girlie,” he said in a low voice, “if you want a restful Christmas, use your feminine wiles to lover boy there to treat you to Christmas dinner at the pub. It’ll save you time and trouble, and you won’t have to worry about burning the turkey or singeing your sprouts.”
I wasn’t sure which of Billy’s assumptions offended me more: that I’d do all the cooking or that I lacked the necessary skills. Then I realised it had been a few weeks since we’d last eaten at the pub, and suddenly it seemed a long time since breakfast.
“Perhaps we’ll take a look at Donald’s Christmas menu tonight. Besides, aren’t the St Bride’s School carol singers due to come to Wendlebury then? That’ll get us all feeling nice and festive.”
Billy sucked his teeth in apparent disapproval. “Bloomin’ posh kids. I don’t know why they always come a-begging round here. Though to give ’em their due, they do sing like angels, unlike our church choir.” Frank, the choirmaster, insists on welcoming all who want to sing. His inclusive approach produces some interesting results. “Of course, they don’t have Walter One-note to contend with.”
To be fair, Walter is always word-perfect, but tends to anchor the choir like the great tenor bell in our parish church tower, striking a single low note while the smaller bells ring the changes.
I wondered what the boarding school girls made of Billy. But before I had a chance to defend them or Walter, a couple of tourists waved to me from another table, and I grabbed my pad to take their order.
* * *
As we made our way from my cottage back up the High Street towards The Bluebird, I snuggled up to Hector for warmth. The weather had turned even colder since I’d come home from work, and Hector must have got chilled through walking down from the shop to call for me.
“It may be cold, but at least it’s peaceful and pretty,” I remarked.
Hector stopped walking to gaze about us and raised a declamatory hand.
“’Tis calm indeed, so calm that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness.”
“Eh?” I said.
“The secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles
Quietly shining to the quiet moon.”
“Coleridge,” he added cheerfully, resuming his brisk walk. Frost at Midnight. Lovely poem. One of my favourites.”
“Oh yes, of course. And speaking of frost, don’t you love Robert Frost’s poem about snow?”
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening:
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”
“At least Coleridge didn’t have to venture out into the cold night. He stayed indoors, writing by the hearth and watching over his baby son asleep in his cot. We can go there, you know.”
It was my turn to stop abruptly in my tracks.
“What, you mean have a baby?” In the chilly air my voice rang out louder than intended. I’d been wondering lately what a family Christmas would be like if Hector and I had children, but I hadn’t dared mention it to him. I wasn’t sure if either of us was ready for that. We hadn’t even spent a Christmas Day together yet.
Hector coughed and ran his free hand over his mouth, as if to erase his last remark.
“No, to Coleridge’s cottage, I mean. It’s not far from my folks, off the Minehead road. It’s owned by the National Trust now, and his sitting room looks as if he’s just stepped out for a moment. Even his baby’s cradle is still there, or at least an authentic replica.”
“But not his baby,” I added, trying to make light of my misunderstanding, while secretly picturing an old-fashioned cradle beside the hearth in my own sitting room, Hector working on one of his novels at my aunt’s writing desk nearby.
I was grateful when Hector took the conversation off at a tangent, dispersing any awkwardness.
“Which would you rather go for a walk in, frost or snow?”
“Frost,” I said at once. “It’s much prettier. Beneath the full moon tonight, it’s as if the village has been dusted in the finest glitter - the cars, the pavement and the drystone walls. Those evergreens in Mrs Mill’s front garden look as if they’ve been dipped in egg white and rolled in powdered sugar, like they do to cocktail glasses in fancy bars.”
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Hector wrinkled his nose.
“Promise you’ll never try that with my brandy. Anyway, don’t let yourself be deceived by how pretty it looks. Frost is a mixed blessing in the Cotswolds. If the temperature dips below zero soon after rain, the drystone walls shatter as the water they’ve wicked up expands to form ice. By tomorrow morning, there’ll be cascades of stone tumbling from the walls onto the pavements. Still, it keeps George Wall in business.”
I let go of his arm to pull my forget-me-not blue beret down over my ears, which were starting to turn numb.
“Surely Wall isn’t his real name?”
“No, it’s Walinski. He’s from Poland, but he’s made a nice niche for himself around here as a drystone waller. He’s in work all year round.”
We turned up the pub’s front path just in time to see the St Bride’s School minibus reversing away from the car park entrance to avoid driving across sheet ice on the tarmac. From within the minibus came a muffled roar of enthusiasm from the excited girls, who were waving and hammering on the windows to attract our attention. We waved back, before PE teacher Joe Spryke completed a neat three-point turn before rejoining the main road to park beside the village green.
“It’s too cold to stay out here to listen to them,” said Hector. “We’ll catch them when they do their set inside the pub.”
When he held open the door of The Bluebird for me to go in first, a golden glow spilled out into the frosty night, reminding me of old paintings of a light-filled stable beneath Bethlehem’s dark skies. I glanced up, almost expecting to see a single bright star above the pub roof, before remonstrating with myself for blasphemy – me, a Sunday school teacher too, and author of the previous year’s village Nativity play. The play hadn’t gone according to plan, but at least it all ended happily. *
(*See Murderin the Manger )
The good-natured noise within the pub soon distracted me from any thoughts of that dramatic debacle. Almost all the tables were taken by lively groups of family and friends, including several staff outings from Bristol firms, seeking the cosy delights of a traditional country pub in winter.
In the darts corner, Billy had just thrown the deciding shot in a match. He staggered slightly as he passed his empty tankard to his opponent, claiming the refill that was his prize. As he spotted our arrival, he steadied himself on the back of the nearest chair.
“Evening, Sophie, evening, Hector!” He gave us a cheery wave. “If you want a masterclass in how to spend a convivial evening without ever having to put your hand in your pocket, come and join me.”
Hector tutted as we headed for the last empty table on the opposite side of the room.
“Tomorrow, sweetheart, you’d better make Billy’s elevenses a black coffee.”
|Photo by Immo Wegmann on Unsplash|
* * *
* * *
Just as we had finished our plates of delicious chicken casserole, the front door opened wide to admit a crowd of pink-cheeked St Bride’s girls, led by Louisa Price, their music teacher. Then came Gemma Lamb, the English teacher, and her boyfriend Joe Spryke. We knew most of the school staff and some of the girls from their visits to the bookshop and tearoom. After their traditional carolling tour of the village, the girls had come to warm up singing in the pub. Donald set down on the bar the tray of refreshments he’d had ready for them: large glasses of wine for Louisa and Gemma, small ones for the older girls, and soft drinks for the younger pupils and Joe as designated driver. No-one was more pleased to see the carol singers than Donald.
“Come on, girls, let’s start with my favourite!” He folded his arms and leaned on the bar to enjoy their performance. Even the hubbub in the darts corner quietened down to allow the lilting melody of ‘Three Kings from Persian Lands Afar’ to soar up to the old oak rafters.
When that carol was over, Donald brought us our puddings, and we addressed ourselves to fragrant ginger sponges and velvety custard to the tune of “Past Three O’Clock”.
During the third carol, ‘As with Gladness Men of Old’, a couple of the girls began to circulate among the tables, rattling red collecting boxes for the charity Shelter. Most people willingly contributed, but as Polly held her box out to Billy, he thrust both hands behind his back.
“You can’t expect a poor old man like me to subsidise the likes of you,” he protested. “Christmas is a costly time. I’m saving my cash to pay for my Christmas dinner.”
“Go on, you mean old goat,” said Bert, one of his darts chums. “You’ve not had to buy a drink all night. You’re positively rattling with spare change. Anyway, they’re not collecting for themselves, like we used to do when we were nippers. Look at their collection box: it’s for the homeless. Whatever else you are, you’re not homeless. Cough up and be done with it.”
Hands on his hips, Billy turned on Bert.
“It’s not as if these girlies can’t put in money of their own. They’re all loaded. Remember, I used to be a gardener up at St Bride’s, remember, and I’ve seen their parents dropping them off in fancy cars. If these kiddies want to raise money for a charity, they should get their dads to flog their personalised numberplates and chuck the proceeds in the pot. I’d let ’em keep the cars.”
His tone of voice suggested he thought that a generous concession.
The pub had fallen silent for the first time since we’d arrived. Bert clapped Billy on the back.
“Come on, Bill, no need to be like that. Sorry, girls. Don’t mind him, silly old git.”
Louisa stepped forward to address Billy, her clear, authoritative teacher’s voice ringing out for all to hear.
“Actually, the parents’ cars are irrelevant. The girls are contributing to the cause themselves. It’s a St Bride’s tradition that any pocket money left over by the end of this term goes into their chosen Christmas charity. You can be sure every girl in the school has donated from her own purse.”
As Gemma was standing close to our table, I took the opportunity to put in a quiet word on Billy’s behalf. “Please excuse him, Gemma. That’s just the drink talking. Billy’s actually very kind. He’s been nothing but generous to me since I came to live in Wendlebury, and he’s always helping village kids.”
Fortunately, Gemma had seen Billy in the tearoom when he was sober and relatively well behaved.
“Don’t worry, Sophie, I’m sure the girls will take it in their stride. Besides, it looks like his mates are putting in extra money to make up for his refusal, so I reckon we’ll come out ahead.”
Donald was less forgiving. He lifted the bar counter flap and strode across the room to lay a hand firmly on Billy’s shoulder.
“I think you’ve had enough for one evening, Bill. I suggest you go home and have a spot of supper to mop up all that free beer you’ve been quaffing.”
He marched Billy to the back door to avoid being seen decanting a drunk onto the High Street. Billy remained unrepentant.
“’Tis better to give than to receive,” he called to the girls over his shoulder. “Easier for a rich man than a camel. Or the eye of the thread.”
The girls giggled at his slurred mangling of the familiar Bible quote, suggesting his rant hadn’t upset them. Then they returned their empty glasses to the bar and trooped out after Louisa to sing a few more carols on the village green before returning to their school.
|Photo by Michael Cummins on Unsplash|
* * *
* * *
When Donald eventually came to remove our empty pudding bowls, he was still trying to justify having chucked Billy out, even though as a legally responsible publican, he had done the right thing to eject a visibly inebriated customer.
“Billy never stays much later than this anyway. He’s always been early to bed, early to rise. Raised by his mother who was raised by candlelight, he told me once, and she always kept the same hours as the sun. Just as well my customers aren’t all like that or I’d be broke.”
Hector had been reading an interesting book about the history of sleep* (*At Day’s Close by A Roger Ekirch) and for days he’d been quoting odd facts.
“Why do you think we call twelve o’clock midnight?” he said now to Donald. “In the olden days, we would have been halfway through our night’s sleep.”
Donald looked wistful.
“I should be so lucky.”
“Poor Donald,” I said, watching him return to the bar. “I bet he never gets enough sleep in a job like his.”
Hector touched his foot against mine under the table.
“Now that gives me an idea. Fancy an early night, sweetheart?”
Before I could reply, an anguished shout came from the back door. Bert had just flung the door open after going out to smoke a roll-up in the car park.
“Quick! Someone help! Billy’s spreadeagled on the ice, and I can’t get any sense out of him.”
Hector and I were first to reach Billy. Then Joe Spryke and three of the St Bride’s girls came running along the lane from the village green where they’d gone to sing their last few carols. They must have heard Bert’s anguished cry when he discovered Billy’s prostrate body in the car park.
Kneeling down on the tarmac, I realised the hard ground was cold enough to penetrate through Billy’s thin overcoat. His eyes were closed, his body motionless.
“Billy!” I grabbed one of his ungloved hands and wrapped both mine around it for warmth. “Stay with us, Billy!”
His head lolled towards me, then his eyes half-opened, making me gasp in surprise. He squinted at me for a moment.
“You’re no angel!” he declared, sounding as if he felt short-changed.
Hector, kneeling beside me, snorted with laughter, probably from relief at seeing a sign of life.
“I never said I was,” I replied, hoping Billy hadn’t noticed my silent tears.
When Hector put his arm around Billy’s shoulders ready to raise him into a sitting position, one of the girls, Polly, put her hand on his shoulder to stop him.
“Don’t move him yet, Mr Munro. Not till we’ve checked his vital signs and looked for broken bones.” She turned to one of her friends. “Katie, can you please go back into the pub and ask Donald to lend us some blankets?”
Katie paused only to slip off her own coat and spread it over Billy’s body before making a dash for the back door.
Billy eyed Polly with suspicion as she lifted his wrist to take his pulse. “You’re no nurse, neither. You’re just a kiddie.”
“Not as such, but we’ve just done first aid as an extra this term, and you’re the perfect guinea pig for us to practise on.”
I’m constantly astonished at what useful skills the girls learn at St Bride’s
Polly turned to the other girl. “Suki, where’s your torch?”
As the girls launched a flurry of tests, Joe crouched down and cupped his hands round Billy’s reddened face to warm it. Billy began to ramble.
“Do you know, as I lay here just now, I heard angels singing, angels bending near the earth. I knew it couldn’t be the church choir, because there weren’t no Walter One-note. Unfurling their wings, they were, and such wings, soft and white as a washing powder advert, sparkling in the moonlight!”
As Katie returned with an armful of blankets, Hector and I exchanged concerned glances.
“The stars in the sky were twinkling, like the angels had left a trail of silver dust where they’d descended from the heavens. They were coming to sing me to sleep, while the good Lord looked down from above with his great moon face.”
Polly slipped a slender hand beneath his shirt and pullover to feel his chest.
“Hmm, his body temperature’s a bit low, so I’m not surprised he’s confused. But at least his heartbeat is sound and his breathing isn’t at all laboured.”
Suki switched off her torch. “Dilated pupils too, so good news all round. If he had extreme hypothermia, his pupils wouldn’t be reactive to light. I think it’s safe to say it’s a mild case. After all, he hasn’t been out here very long. If we warm him up gradually and thoroughly, he should be all right.”
“Well done, girls,” said a familiar voice, and I looked up to see that Gemma had come to stand beside me, leaving Louisa conducting the final carol of the evening.
“Billy must have heard you girls singing on the village green,” she said. “Mistaking your voices for a heavenly choir is as high an accolade as you can get. Miss Price will be chuffed about that. But Joe, we really need to get the girls back to school. They’ve got to pack tonight before they go home for the holidays in the morning. Sophie, can you and Hector see Billy home safely?”
“Sure,” I said. “His cottage is only just down the lane.”
Joe patted me on the shoulder in appreciation.
“Good thing the girls covered hypothermia in their extra lesson last week. I thought December was a good time to teach it to them, but I didn’t expect they’d need to deploy their new skills and knowledge so soon.”
“Lucky it wasn’t our term for car maintenance, Billy, or else we’d have had to jump-start you,” said Suki.
Her friends giggled.
“Or change your spark plugs,” laughed Katie.
“You leave my spark plugs alone,” grumbled Billy, a welcome indication that he was starting to perk up.
With Hector and me supporting him on either side, he rose unsteadily to his feet.
“I don’t have the words to thank you girlies,” he was saying. “If only I had some mince pies or even biscuits at my cottage, I’d invite you back for a proper thank you.”
Gemma waved her hand dismissively.
“That’s very kind, but the girls are just glad to have been of help. Aren’t you, girls?”
“Yes, miss,” they chorused.
Billy dipped his hands deep into his trouser pockets, brought out two handfuls of small change, which he held out to the girls.
“Here, put that little lot in your collection box. I don’t know what I was thinking when I said all that nonsense earlier. I pity anyone who has to sleep outside on a night like this. Though strange to say, if hadn’t been for them angels, singing, if I’d lain here much longer, I think I’d have drifted off to sleep myself.”
“Falling asleep without a care: classic symptom and outcome of hypothermia,” said Suki, now serious. “And it’s a sleep they don’t wake up from.”
Just then, Donald came marching across to join us, clutching his mobile phone. I don’t know what had kept him so long – perhaps fear of what he might find?
I’d misjudged him. He’d been on the phone to the local doctor.
“I’ve just tracked down Dr Hastings,” he informed us. “He’s down at his son’s house in Slate Green just now, but he’d be happy to call in on Billy when he gets back to give him the once over if you like. But he said we shouldn’t hesitate to call an ambulance if we think it’s necessary.”
“I’m not going nowhere in no ambulance!” cried Billy. “If they takes me off in one of them things, I may never see my cottage again!”
Suki shook her head.
“If the patient refuses to go, an ambulance won’t take him. If the emergency services hear someone saying they don’t want an ambulance, they won’t even send an ambulance out for you.” She raised a forefinger. “But here’s a handy tip: if you’re ever in that position, just say the patient has had a blow to the head and isn’t in a fit state to make decisions. Then they’ll have to come.”
Donald raised his eyebrows at Billy.
“I’m storing that up for future reference, Bill. A blow to the head can be arranged if you start any more of your malarkey.”
As Hector and I began to escort Billy home, the girls headed back to the village green, their crisp accents carrying perfectly in the still night air.
“Shame there wasn’t any paradoxical undressing,” Suki was saying as they left the car park.
“Para what?” asked one of her friends.
“You know, in severe hypothermia when people start taking off their clothes.”
I was thankful Billy hadn’t got that far.
|Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash|
* * *
* * *
Once we were inside Billy’s cottage, I headed for the kitchen to boil the kettle and make a pot of tea, while in the sitting room Hector stripped off Billy’s damp outer layers. For the sake of the old man’s dignity, Hector covered him with blankets from a pile on the end of the sofa, before bringing me Billy’s wet clothes to hang up to dry on the ceiling rack. Then I filled a hot water bottle that I’d spotted hanging from a nail on the back of the kitchen door and took it into Billy to apply to whatever part of his body needed it most.
Hector followed behind with the tea tray, which he set within Billy’s reach on the hearth, before stoking up the embers of the log fire and adding a few sticks and a big log.
“While you drink your tea, can I fetch your pyjamas and dressing gown from your bedroom?” I suggested.
Billy stared into the fire as it started to catch.
“I ain’t got one.”
“What, no bedroom?”
I didn’t mean to sound so shocked.
“No, pyjamas and stuff. Of course I’ve got a bedroom, but at this time of year, I prefers to kip on the sofa at night in me clothes.” That explained the pile of blankets. “I mean, what’s the point in wasting the embers of the fire downstairs by sleeping in a cold bedroom?”
“No central heating,” Hector mouthed to me behind Billy’s back.
I had no answer to that, so sought another way to warm him up.
“Then what can I cook for you to eat? Have you any tins of soup?”
“I ain’t got much in, foodwise, just now. Don’t worry about me. Just give me an extra big slice of cake with my elevenses tomorrow.”
“That won’t do, Billy. You need a hot meal inside you tonight. Hector, can you run back up to the pub and see whether Donald’s got any of that chicken casserole left?”
Billy licked his lips, giving away just how hungry he really was.
While Hector was gone, I made a point of keeping Billy talking to make sure he was properly himself after his earlier confusion. His monologue about the right way to build the perfect fire (as opposed to Hector’s technique) assured me he was back to normal.
As soon as Hector returned, Billy tucked hungrily into Donald’s casserole.
“Maybe that’s why I slipped earlier,” he said, scraping the last drop up with his soupspoon. “Insufficient ballast. Hadn’t had no tea before I went to the pub.”
“Speaking of eating,” said Hector, “I’m afraid there’s bad news about your proposed Christmas dinner at The Bluebird. Donald just told me he and his wife are taking Christmas Day off. They’re exhausted, poor souls. They’ll be closing at midnight on Christmas Eve and not reopening until Boxing Day.”
“The lazy lumps!” cried Billy. “Now what am I to do?”
I knew Carol’s shelves were overflowing with festive goods.
“I’m sure you’ll find everything you need for a Christmas dinner in the village shop,”
“Not a working oven, I won’t,” said Billy. “How am I meant to roast a turkey when the only things in my kitchen that aren’t bust are the kettle and the toaster?”
I caught Hector’s eye, and he gave me a scarcely perceptible nod.
“In that case, you’re very welcome to join me and Hector for Christmas dinner. A turkey’s far too big for two people anyway, even allowing plenty for Blossom.”
Billy looked from me to Hector.
“You sure, boy? I don’t want to be in the way of you and love’s young dream here.”
“Don’t worry about us,” said Hector, reaching for my hand. “We’ll have plenty more Christmases together, won’t we, Sophie?”
I smiled and squeezed his hand.
“Yes, I think we will.”
|Photo by Libby Penner on Unsplash|
* * *
* * *
The day after his icy fall, when he opened his front door to take in his morning pint of milk, he found a large cardboard box on his doorstep. Inside lay a sturdy Christmas cake, topped with three white fondant angels playing golden harps. The enclosed card from Suki explained that all the girls had made Christmas cakes, and as her younger sister was also a pupil, and their family didn’t need two cakes, he’d be doing them a favour by taking the spare one off her hands. Also in the box was a bag of mince pies of different shapes and sizes from all the girls in the choir. They’d donated one each from the batches they’d made to take home to their families.
|Photo by kevin turcios on Unsplash|
Then on Christmas Day, under my Christmas tree – the tree that I’d bought from Billy and Tommy Crowe, the lovable teenage rogue who was his sidekick of the moment, just a couple of weeks before – lay two squishy parcels with Billy’s name on: jaunty Royal Stewart tartan brushed-cotton pyjamas from me and a midnight-blue fleecy dressing gown from Hector.
These weren’t the only treats that lay in store for Billy that day. Following an elaborate roast turkey dinner at my cottage, followed by turkey sandwiches and Dundee cake at Hector’s flat, more festive treats lay in store for Billy. Waiting for him by his front gate when he got home that evening was a large brown-paper parcel with The Bluebird’s compliments slip sellotaped to it. Inside was an expensive pair of Wellington boots with extra deep tread to guard against any more slips.
“There’s someone with a guilty conscience,” said Billy wryly, when he told us about them on the first day we opened the bookshop after New Year. “I bet in future Donald will be scattering a lot more salt in his car park during cold snaps.” He gazed at his wellies for a moment before looking up me. “You know, I wasn’t wrong about the angels watching over me that night. But now I’ve learned that in real life, angels ain’t necessarily got wings.”
This story was inspired by the lyrics of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” by Edmund Sears.
Links from asterisks in text:
Debbie's StorySong from 20: Christmas Ginger:
Billy’s late cousin is mentioned while still alive in It Doesn’t Feel Like Christmas - https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com/2019/12/it-doesnt-feel-like-christmas-by-debbie.html
Murder in the Manger - https://books2read.com/u/bWBNo0 (the Books2Read universal link for all ebook retailers worldwide)
At Day’s Close by A Roger Ekirch - https://wwnorton.com/books/9780393329018 (publisher’s link showing multiple retail sites)
|© Laura Young|
Debbie Young is the author of nine hilarious, heartwarming novels about community life in the Cotswolds, where she has lived for 30 years. The Secret Ministry of Frost brings together characters from her two series of novels, the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries and the Staffroom at St Bride’s School stories. A novel from each of these series has been shortlisted for the Selfies Award (2020 and 2021), awarded by publishing industry news service Bookbrunch for the best independently-published fiction for adults in the UK. She also writes novellas, novelettes and short stories. Her most recent book is Mrs Morris Changes Lanes, a romantic comedy with a touch of magical realism. She is currently writing the third St Bride’s School novel, Scandal at St Bride’s.
Debbie is also an authority on self-publishing. She is a UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors, a course tutor for Jericho Writers and a regular contributor to Mslexia, the magazine for women who write. She is a frequent speaker at events for readers and writers, judges many writing competitions, and runs the annual Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival.
To find out more about Debbie Young’s books and writing life, join her free Readers’ Club via her website, www.authordebbieyoung.com, and you will receive a free ebook of her novelette The Pride of Peacocks as a welcome gift.
Lyrics for It Came Upon a Midnight Clear ( © free )
It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, goodwill to men,
From heaven's all-gracious King."
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.
Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O'er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o'er its babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
And ye, beneath life's crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!
For lo!, the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.
Notes on the carol at Wikipedia here:
You might also like cosy mysteries written by Helen Hollick
Amazon Author Page: https://viewauthor.at/HelenHollick
|A Mirror Murder|
set in a north London Library
in the 1970s