I’d just come back from Europe, so it may have been the jet lag. Whatever the reason, even after a reminder email from the Wesleyan’s Writers’ Conference organizers, I’d left my blankie at home. I regretted it the moment I stepped into the frigid dorm in the college’s most modern student sleeping quarters. The bedroom, designed for one, was big enough to house a multitude, and they’d air-conditioned it accordingly. It was huge, modern, and expensively furnished with a bed so high I felt like the princess and the pea, in danger of falling off my mattress when I tossed restlessly in the queen-sized bed, causing Continue reading
Like me, Alan Beechey was born in England and grew up in London, not far from where I lived, as it happens. He lives in the US now, and I met him at the Unicorn Writers’ Conference, where he was giving a talk on how to write crime novels. I wanted to read one of his books immediately, because he made me laugh. I know you’re thinking it’s all about that British sense of humor, but I think you’ll find his mysteries, which take place in London, refreshing and a bit off-beat. Being a person who likes to start a series at the beginning, I read his first book, An Embarrassment of Corpses, and enjoyed it so much that I’ve got the next two sitting on my electronic To Be Read pile.
And if you want a taste of his sense of humor, you could do worse than check out his blog.
GC: When did you start writing novels, and what made you choose crime as your genre?
AB: I dedicated my most recent book, This Private Plot, to my late parents, and I note there that my mother started it all by giving me The Mysterious Affair at Styles (Agatha Christie’s first Hercule Poirot whodunit) when I was twelve. I reconnected with the world of crime as a college student when I read P.D. James’s Death of an Expert Witness, having heard it reviewed on the BBC. And after a couple of misguided attempts at get-rich-quick screenplays with friends, I switched my mystery-reading habit to a mystery-writing habit when I settled down to write my first novel, A Nasty Little Murder. Never heard of it? It’s crap, and it was rightly never published, despite being shunted around several British publishing houses. But it taught me what voice not to use.
GC: Do your fans love your books more for your characters and plot, or for your sense of humor?
AB: From the letters and emails I get, it’s clearly the characters, which is the way it should be. Plot and humor should flow from characters and their situations – or at least look like they do by the time you’re finished. Although I am pleased when readers note that there is, in fact, a plot, and I hope a good one. I’m writing a mystery, not a soap opera.
GC: How did you come up with the extraordinary names of your characters?
AB: I found several of them in the old four-volume London telephone directory. “Strongitharm” – presumably a contraction of “Strong in the arm” – which is the name of one of my lead characters, came from those. Ever since I was young, I’ve kept notes of good names, or words that aren’t typically names but could be – belfry, welkin, moldwarp, mormal. The last review of This Private Plot that I posted on my blog was by the magnificently named Sue Millinocket. That’s going on the list. There are also a few bad jokes shoved in (Mark Sandys-Penza? Hoo, Watt and Eidenau? I mean, come on), including a particularly filthy one in the name of the company Oliver works for in the first book. Nobody’s noticed so far. (GC: Must go back and look…)
GC: Of all the characters in all the novels, which is your favorite?
AB: Effie. They’re called the “Oliver Swithin” mysteries, but she’s almost the co-hero. Effie Strongitharm is Oliver’s girlfriend, but also a Scotland Yard detective sergeant, who works for Oliver’s uncle. I work harder on Effie, because it’s a challenge for a male writer to create a convincing female character, especially a woman working in a sexist, male-dominated environment like the police. Her appearance, especially her unruly hair, is based on that of a much-loved girlfriend from my teenage years (who tolerates her fictional incarnation), but her character is every woman I’ve ever loved, and her insecurities are probably mine.
GC: How much promotion did you have to do once your books were published? And what’s the most effective way to promote a book, in your view?
AB: How much did I do? Not enough. It’s never enough, these days. I have a blog, I contribute to other people’s blogs, I do signings and readings . . . Still not enough. I think I’m destined to be a boutique. Maybe it’s enough to have a few devoted fans. One of them even tattooed my initials on her back. (If you’re reading this, hi Rebecca!)
GC: What’s in the works? More of our hero, Oliver Swithin?
AB: I’ve started the next Oliver Swithin novel. I’ve also had a non-Swithinian short story published, one that started out as a romance, but inevitably became a mystery. But the past year has thrown up a few distractions, some good, some bad, so I don’t currently have a good chunk of writing time on my schedule. This will, of course, all change as soon as someone offers me a couple of million for the screen rights to An Embarrassment of Corpses, or the BBC decide the Swithin series is a worthy successor to “Lewis” or “Midsomer Murders.”
All is forgiven. Read on to find out why…
My friends Ben & Beth Oak were kind enough to send me the Police Blotter of the crime of which I was suspected. Here it is, courtesy of the Minuteman newspaper:
Last Friday, the Guardian published this great inspiration for those of us with writer’s block. Even blocked, surely you can write a 140 character story, right? here’s the beginning of the article. You can see the whole thing here.
We challenged well-known writers – from Ian Rankin and Helen Fielding to Jeffrey Archer and Jilly Cooper – to come up with a story of up to 140 characters. This is their stab at Twitter fiction
I know I said that if I lived to 100 I’d not regret what happened last night. But I woke up this morning and a century had passed. Sorry.
He said he was leaving her. “But I love you,” she said. “I know,” he said. “Thanks. It’s what gave me the strength to love somebody else.”
She smiled, he smiled back, it was lust at first sight, but then she discovered he was married, too bad it couldn’t go anywhere.
I opened the door to our flat and you were standing there, cleaver raised. Somehow you’d found out about the photos. My jaw hit the floor.
A year ago my husband Jay and I were going to sell the house on the lake in New Hampshire. It’s really too big for us. Mostly, there are only the two of us there, and the house will actually sleep 10 or more, so you can see the logic. I don’t really want a house that will sleep 10 or more – because then the ten people show up and need feeding.
So I was pleased when Jay finally decided that it might be fun to sell and a bit less thrilled when he decided we’d build something new. I remember the last time we built a house. I say we, but actually it was Jay who designed it, which is why I only have a quarter of the single closet we ended up with. Jay turned the other closet into a sauna when I wasn’t looking. (There’s a whole earlier post about that.) Anyway – what really made the prospect of a new house appealing was the fact that there was a piece of land further down the lake with that most highly prized feature: a beach. And not just any old beach but a long one with white sand, where in summer Jay would be able to lounge around reading a book under an umbrella and in winter he’d be able to drive his snowmobile out without (much) chance of falling off it and breaking something.
So we cleaned up the house and put it on the market. People liked it a lot, but the price was too high, they said. (Jay never prices a house to sell – he prices it to keep.) And, they said, they wanted a lawn, not the ecologically correct wildflowers and ferns that graced the back. And the horseshoe pitching thingy that was a long alley covered in mulch, which had never been used (why did I buy him those horse shoes?) was an eyesore. Plus, the house really needed power washing, and there were a couple of little things that needed fixing here and there…You get the picture.
After brooding for a few days, Jay decided he’d give it his best shot and immediately hired someone to do the power-washing, someone to fix the master bathroom shower (it came off in his hand, Jay said, about a year ago), someone to touch up the paint, and someone to turn the back garden into a lawn.
But once he’d started, he couldn’t stop. He had three huge bushes moved into the wilderness near the garden. He hacked down shrubs and tiny saplings that threatened to block the view (in 2037, if they’d lived). He and our middle son built some stone steps and a wooden railing down from the terrace to the new lawn. Jay bought a lawn-mower. (It seems like only yesterday, but it was actually 1984 when he swore he’d never touch one again…) Our house was ready to go back on the market. And then came the news – the beach property that we liked had been sold. To someone else.
After brooding for a few days more Jay made a decision. We didn’t need to buy a beach. He would make his own. We have the falling apart remains of an old stone jetty that joins the shore at the bottom of the garden. It was strewn with rocks and boulders, but this didn’t deter Jay. He press-ganged two of our sons into removing the rocks that were making this so unsightly (and, quite possibly, holding the jetty together). This took a couple of weeks. And then came the sand. Eight tons, I think he said, in a huge pile at the front of the house. It all had to be taken to the back by the wheelbarrow load. That took another day or so. And the result?
I’m not sure it’s quite big enough for the 10+ visitors that will descend on us as soon as the news gets out. But Jay will think of something.
You remember the lions, right? Those gigantic marble thingy’s that protect our house in New Hampshire from harm? And who am I to argue with that? After all, nothing dreadful has happened there since we got them.
Except. My ever-shopping spouse bought another house, the way you do. This one’s in Phoenix, and he’d seen it a few times because one of our friends (and his business colleague) lives there. You got chocolates for Christmas (or Hanukkah, or whatever.) I got a house in Phoenix. A house I’d never seen.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not one to look a gift house in the mouth. How could I, from 2,670 miles away? (I looked it up.) But last week seemed like a good time to go and check the new Palazzo Wilson out, so we did. A mere 12 hours, door to door, and we were there. It is a lovely house, I cannot deny it. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a fireplace, and views of the Phoenix Mountains – even the chance to climb them if you must – they’re at the end of the road.
But there was something missing. Furniture. So we spent last weekend we trolling up and down the boulevards of Phoenix stopping at every designer furniture consignment store in town. And there are many of them. We did get some furniture, and arranged for it to be delivered. And then Jay saw them. The final things we needed to make sure our Chi was OK.
Two stone lions.
I let him buy them. I knew it was hopeless to protest. And they were a kind of nice green-ish colour which I thought I could live with. We managed to drag them back to the house with us, and here’s a picture of them at our front door.
Oh, you can’t see them? Hang on a second…
I feel safer already…
I know you’ve all been pining for an update about Ernest and Mabel, the two marble lions that my husband Jay bought in a mad moment in Vietnam. (Click here to read that post if you missed it.)
When last seen, they were standing among a forest of other white marble flora and fauna (not forgetting the odd Venus or cherub) in the showroom of the marble factory in Da Nang. We took it on faith that they would indeed be sent to us via freighter. And in December, we finally got word that they were in…Los Angeles.
But, said the man, we’ll be trucking them over to you as soon as we can. It was the day before we left for the Panama Canal and Peru that the call came through…from Arizona.
They’re here, said the man. In Arizona, we asked. “
No that’s just my cell phone. They’re in Boston, and we can deliver them soon.”
“Not today then?” asked Jay hopefully.
“No, but we can do it next week,” said the man. Luckily we had Fred and Bertie still at home before they returned to their respective studies. Jay briefed them on where the lions should go and we left for points south.
It wasn’t long before we started receiving irritated emails from Fred (and he insists I quote these word for word, because he’s not impressed by my (occasional) lapses into poetic license. (I don’t know what he means.)
“Firstly, the lions. No one has contacted us about them yet. Either on the home phone or one of our cell phones. I thought they were supposed to have done so by now. We have no means for contacting these people, so if you do, maybe you could pass it along to us.”
I suggested he leave it for a couple of days. A couple of days later:
“The freight people… want to bring the lions in on a tractor-trailer. Which Bertie and I are both skeptical about. We don’t think the vehicle will be able to safely get down the driveway and back out again without hitting trees, rocks or some other obstacle. If I remember correctly the cab is 12′ and the trailer is 48′.” (And Fred always remembers correctly…)
A day later:
“The lions are evidently in two separate crates on a single skid. The skid weighs a total of 800 lbs. We assume the crates are about 400 lbs each. Making them probably unmovable by us. The person I spoke with today suggested we could meet them somewhere and they could put them in our truck. I’m not really sure, so I thought I’d see what you thought.”
I suggested the freight people might have a fork lift on the back of the truck. Jay suggested they back down the quarter mile distance from the main road to our house (with a bend in the road).
All the suggestions failed, and eventually Fred threw up his hands in disgust (figuratively, Fred). We arrived home from our travels to find a message waiting for us from the freight man. He was about to charge us for storing the lions, since we hadn’t arranged for delivery. Jay soon sorted him out.
And the lions arrived. When I first saw them, they were standing in their wooden cage listing drunkenly to one side exactly where the snowplough would hit them. (Luckily snow has been rather thin on the ground, literally, this winter.) Jay had phoned our snow-ploughing guy, Matt, who was looking for work, since there wasn’t any ploughing to do, and Matt was due to arrive within hours to unpack and place the lions where we wanted them.
Jay paced around the outside of the house, trying to decide where to put them. Finally he called me outside to see what I thought.
“What about here?” he asked, pointing to the spot where they were already standing. I wondered whether to let them be run over by the snow plough. But I knew they meant a lot to Jay, so I hinted that perhaps they should be closer to the house.
“There,” said Jay, pointing to the path closer to the house.
“I think they might block the path unless we turn them sideways. How about on the porch?” I suggested. “Then they’d be out of the rain.” (As if that would do them any damage…)
We agreed on the porch, and Matt and his team of three muscly guys managed to get them there. Here’s the picture to prove it.
There is one thing, though. Jay decided we should name the lions something other than Ernest and Mabel. That was fine with me. I’d only been joking about the names.
“How about Leo and Lucy?” he suggested. “Or Lenny and Louise?”
I was looking at the lions as he said this and a sudden thought occurred to me. You’ve probably spotted it already. Both our lions are boys. I pointed this out.
“Never mind,” I said. “I’m sure two gay lions would be great for our Chi.”
They still don’t have names.
When I first started writing this “Christmas” letter it started “It’s November, and…. Then it morphed into “It’s December and…”
Fact is, you’ve probably noticed that, in fact, “It’s January and…although I’m sitting here looking at a deceptively placid and sunny lake, we’ve already had at least a foot of snow here in New Hampshire. And that was quite a shock for us when we returned from our longest vacation ever in early November. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As I think I mentioned last time, Jay and I had taken a cruise to Alaska last year (2010) and Jay liked it so much he booked another for the whole family to go to the Caribbean in February. And so we went. Fifteen of us. Actually, Freddie and Bertie couldn’t make it, since they had to stay at their respective universities. When we said we would be traveling with six grandchildren, they seemed somewhat less disappointed to be missing the trip…
Here’s a picture of the band of seafarers, and considering it was taken at 11 at night, it’s a miracle that everyone looks more or less awake!
It turned out to be a great trip. We visited San Juan (very Spanish), Grand Turk (very sandy), and St Maarten, which Jay and his daughters had visited regularly in the 1970s. Determined to recreate this past paradise, Jay rented a truck (sorry, minivan) and we set off to find the fabled beach house of yore. After several wrong turns and dead ends, we found the beach.
It was a stone’s throw from the airport, which in the 1970’s didn’t matter, because the planes were small and relatively infrequent. Now, the roar of jets probably drowns out the local birds. Still, the view was lovely, and Amanda (left) and Heather (right) had fun trying to decide which of the now huge beach houses had once been the cottage they rented.
Back on dry land (in Florida) Jay and I decided we needed a vacation, so we drove down to Key West, the most southerly point of the continental United States. Key West is famous for Ernest Hemingway (who spent most of his time in a local bar or fishing), Harry Truman (who spent his time gambling – either playing poker or taking important policy decisions) and Key limes. We ate a lot of Key lime flavored things – pie, of course, ice cream, barbecue sauce, dips, crisps, crackers, soap…oh, no, wait, we didn’t actually eat the soap. But you get the drift.
And talking of drift, our next stop was Sanibel Island, also off the Florida coast, and famous for its shells. When people told me they went shelling on Sanibel, I had visions of dangerous military activity, but the American verb, ‘to shell,’ means to look for shells. I dutifully did this, wandering up and down the beaches and coming home with a few bedraggled samples. Jay did much better than I did. He walked into the nearest shell shop and bought several magnificent specimens (probably from Thailand, of which more later).
From March to July, we more or less behaved ourselves, but we got itchy feet again in August, and decided, on the spur of the moment, to drive to Canada. We spent our first night in Ottawa, a city I had seriously prejudged. I think I expected it to be a completely modern city, purpose built to be the capital. I was probably mixing it up with Canberra or Brasilia. Anyway, it turned out to be delightful, historic (the changing of the guard with real Coldstream Guards) and beautiful. We’ll go back, I’m sure.
Next we visited our best man and his wife in Toronto. I had always told Carl that I thought he might actually have been the best man, but that since he was already taken… We had a wonderful time before we set off for Niagara Falls, which Jay and I had never visited together. All the hotels there now have windows facing the Falls, which meant we had a terrific view, and even though I managed to prevent Jay from shopping in Niagara itself, he managed to discover the tiny town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, from which he came away with armloads of Christmas presents for the family.
On the way home, I noticed we weren’t travelling in the right direction. I put this down to the fact that Jay’s sense of direction leaves something to be desired, and hinted that if we travelled east rather than south we might get home sooner. “Hall of Fame,” he muttered under his breath. And I thought he’d forgotten. He knows it has been a lifelong dream of mine to go to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, and so he was taking me there. Wasn’t that sweet of him?
After we returned I was off again for my third visit to my indomitable 91-year-old mother in London. Bertie decided to come too, and due to our impeccable talent for organization, we left on separate planes one day apart. We saw each other briefly in London, but while we were there, Hurricane Irene terrified the airports into closing, and we ended up flying home two days late. And in fact, we flew home to Montreal (about three hours drive from New Hampshire) because there were no flights available to either Boston or New York. Jay drove the three hours to meet us, which was noble of him, and the four hours back, since we got lost in Montreal’s one way system for an hour on the way out of the airport…
September saw us at a Yankee Red Sox baseball game in Boston. This is dangerous turf for a Yankee fan (Jay) especially if he’s taken there by his daughter Amanda, her partner Barb and their family (avid Red Sox fans). The Yankees had been losing all season long, and I had prepared myself for a stressful game by downloading a copy of War and Peace onto my cell phone to read when the going got tough. To my surprise, Napoleon had barely decided to invade Russia when the Yankees started to win, and continued to do so until the end of the game. Rejoicing ensued, especially on my part, since I would have had a two hour drive home with a despondent Yankee fan, and that’s no fun.
Just as the leaves were turning their usual gorgeous colours here in New England, we left for Indochina. Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, to be precise. Now that we’ve got the cruising thing down, we decided to try a couple of different kinds of boats, One was a junk on Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, a unique part of the world (UNESCO says so). Another was a trip down the Mekong River from Cambodia to Vietnam in a new river cruiser, something like to paddle steamers of old to look at, but with all mod cons. (Air conditioning, hot water, fitness center – where, by the way, people stuck their heads in to laugh at me as I desperately tried to shed the pounds I seemed to be gaining on board). It was a good thing we were traveling by boat – Cambodia and Thailand were both suffering from the worst floods they’d had in a long while. It was a fascinating trip and we were glad we’d been able to see Vietnam and Cambodia in particular, before they become industrialized and their old way of life is lost.
Jay was thrilled that we managed to get some clothes made in 24 hours, and that he succeeded, after much haggling, in buying two huge marble lions, which he expects will be gracing our front doorway any time now. Ernest and Mabel are shown at left…
It turns out that Jay is a firm believer in feng shui – no, I didn’t know that, either – and the lions are going to improve the chi flowing into our home. So long as they keep Jay from breaking anything else, that’s okay with me. Maybe it’s working already, since this is the second break-free year in a row!
In Thailand, we went to visit some elephants, and soon (rather too soon, in my opinion) found ourselves riding them bareback around a large paddock. The mahouts were kind to us and didn’t laugh too much, though they did take quite a lot of photos, which was rather mean, since we looked incredibly silly. The high spot, however, was painting with the elephants.
Hearing about this, I visualized the elephants slapping paint on a large wall, with us looking on and feeding them the occasional Danish pastry. Au contraire. They painted with paintbrushes, watching our hands as we sketched the design on an easel, and copying it with the paintbrush. Jay got a bit carried away as you can see here. I am not even going to attempt to explain what it’s meant to be.
While in Vietnam, we hit the first of November. This is significant, because I had signed myself up to write a 50,000 word novel in the 30 days of November, and if I were going to succeed I’d have to start on vacation. So there I was, in the back of the bus, typing away on my laptop. Unbelievably I did it. I now have a printed copy entitled Horrible First Draft. Funny title for a novel, you might think, but I maintain it has a certain ring to it. And maybe the next version will be called Slightly Better Second Draft.
Two weeks after our return I was off to London again, which is one reason this letter is so late. My mother is battling on, living on her own, criticizing the Tory government and attending the vicar’s coffee mornings and afternoon teas. The assistant vicar got married while I was there, and my mother and I went to the wedding. But only after she’d insisted on having a new hat. Well, one must dress for a wedding, it goes without saying.
Then came Christmas and the New Year. My daughter Helenka and her children went back to Connecticut, and our other daughters Amanda and Heather and their families came for New Year’s weekend. So it was a very busy week (meals for 12 every day…)
However, my reward for this virtuous life was that we left on January 5th for a cruise through the Panama Canal and on to South America and Machu Picchu. I had my fingers crossed that Jay wouldn’t fall off this fabulous Inca ruin high in the Andes. And told him he’d better not buy a llama, either, no matter how nice a pet it might make. Progress report next year, or sooner if you sign up to follow this blog. 🙂
Here’s hoping you have a very happy and healthy 2012!
I entered this piece in a contest called ‘Tis the Season, and came second. So much fun (and there was a cash prize…). Every word is true, I swear. Hope you like it! And you can read the other winning stories here: http://echook.com/
by Gabi Coatsworth
It had been at least thirty years since my husband Jay had last worn the outfit. Well, it wasn’t exactly the same outfit, obviously, because he’d mislaid the original years ago. But this one was a faithful replica, and as he thought about how he would look in it, a slow smile spread across his features. He stared at himself in the mirror, and remembered.
The last time, two little girls had been involved. They had been so trusting, innocent really. But Jay knew he wouldn’t be able to fool them forever. And so it proved. The next time Jay had tried to hoodwink the girls, the older one, Amanda, sophisticated beyond her years, looked him straight in the eye as he lifted her onto his lap.
“You’re not really Santa, are you?” she asked, with an accusatory stare. “You’re my daddy.”
Thirty years later, Jay was ready to try again. Actually, it was I who had encouraged him. He had been feeling grouchy, as he always did with the approach of Christmas. The tree I had ordered was too big for the stand they had used for years. The only string of Christmas lights that was working was the one he hated, the multicolored one that blinked on and off all the time. He hadn’t been able to find any icicles to hang on the tree.
“I’ve had it with this tree. Christmas shouldn’t be so complicated. I don’t know why I bother,” Jay groused as he carried the box of ornaments into the living room from the attic.
I gave him a shrewd glance. “You know,” I remarked, “I think one of the reasons you don’t really enjoy Christmas is that you keep hoping it will be the same as it used to be when the girls were little.”
“Nonsense,” he snapped, and headed into the kitchen for something to drink.
Returning into the living room, where I was now hanging ornaments on the tree, he handed me a glass of Cabernet and sank heavily into the leather recliner by the fire. He balanced his glass on the arm of the chair.
“It’s always some psychological thing with you, Gabi,” he said. “I enjoy Christmas, of course I do. By the way, that silver ornament needs to go higher up. It looks wrong there.”
I persevered. “Well, this Christmas should really be fun – we have the girls coming over. So Heather and Ned will be coming with the children. And Amanda with her fiancé.”
Jay tried to enthuse.
“Sure, it’ll be great. I’m looking forward to it, honestly.”
I let the subject drop.
A few days later, walking through the mall, my eye was caught by a brightly colored window display in one of the stores. Santa Suits – one size fits all, I read. Heading into the shop, I took a box from the stack near the door. The contents promised to include a jacket, trousers, belt, hat, beard and even some kind of fake boots that would fit over the wearer’s own shoes. I opened the box and took out the scarlet pants, lifting them up to see how much room there would be in the waist. After considering the pants for a few moments, I decided I’d take a chance that they’d fit. After all, if Jay didn’t like the suit, I could always bring it back for a refund.
Early on Christmas morning, Jay crept off to the kitchen to make me a cup of cocoa, while I pretended I was still asleep. He had been bringing me a cup of cocoa in bed every Christmas Day for years. While he was banging about in the kitchen, I took out the suit and laid it on the bed. When he came back into the room, he stared at it, speechless. Putting down the cup of cocoa, he sat on the edge of the bed and ran his hand over the jacket. Then he picked up the Santa hat and tried it on.
“Ho, Ho, Ho,” he chuckled, giving me a distinctly un-Santa-like kiss.
Heather and her husband Ned arrived around three o’clock, towing Natalie, aged three, and the baby.
“Grandpa,” Natalie shouted the minute she was inside the house, “Pick me up! Make me fly!”
Jay laughed and bent down to help Natalie take off her coat. “Okay, here we go,” He swung Natalie around, then gave her a hug before returning her to the floor.
“Hey, Grandpa, what are we going to do now?”
Jay shot me an enquiring look as Natalie hugged him around the knees. I indicated the tree surrounded by presents, with a sideways nod of my head.
“Okay, sweetheart,” Jay extricated himself. “Let’s look over here, shall we?”
Hand in hand, they walked over to the tree.
Shortly after, Amanda and her fiancé arrived. I served hors d’oeuvres and drinks, while Jay and Natalie handed round gifts from under the tree. Soon Natalie was happily playing with a new doll.
Jay drew me aside.
“I think now’s the time,” he said. “I’m going to get changed in the downstairs bathroom, so don’t let anyone come in. By the way, do you have a cushion I could use for padding?”
“Are you sure you’ll need…” I paused. “Here you are, darling.” I grabbed the smallest cushion I could see. “Sure you can manage?”
“Piece of cake. See you at the front door in about five minutes.”
I returned to the living room, and passed round a tray of canapés. Every so often, I would look towards the front door, but no-one appeared. Smiling brightly at our daughters, I excused myself and hurried towards the bathroom.
A series of muffled curses greeted me as I neared the door. I knocked on it. Sudden silence, then Jay hissed, “Gabi, is that you?”
“Yes. What’s the hold-up?”
“Goddamn suit! I don’t know why they design them like this. They used to be much better. This is some foreign rubbish, I bet.” Jay sounded a bit breathless.
“Shh, they’ll hear you,” I was speaking in a stage whisper. “Do you want a hand?”
“Come in for God’s sake. Look at this. I can’t put these stupid boot things on.”
I opened the door, took one look at Jay and stifled a laugh. He was trying in vain to bend over.
“I think perhaps you’re meant to put them on before you put the cushion under your jacket,” I offered. “Why don’t you sit on the toilet lid and I’ll help you with them.”
The curly white beard which covered the lower two-thirds of Jay’s face was thankfully stifling some of his further comments. Glaring at me balefully, he did as he was told, while I sorted out his footwear.
“There, I think that should do it,” I said, straightening up. “Sure you can cope now?”
Jay stood up and looked at himself in the mirror over the washbasin. He tugged at the beard, which had slipped around under one ear. Finally, more or less satisfied with his appearance, he gave me a ticklish kiss on the cheek. “This used to be so much easier, didn’t it?” he grumbled, as he sneaked out of the back door.
In the living room, the grandchildren were getting fractious as the afternoon wore on. As I walked back in, I winked at Heather whose apprehensive look was quickly replaced by a smile of relief.
A bold knocking came at the door.
“I wonder who could be calling on us today?” I said. I looked at Amanda. “You weren’t expecting anyone, were you?”
Amanda shook her head, and pulled her camera out of her handbag.
“Hey, Natalie, did you invite someone over without telling us?”
“No, Grandma, really.” Natalie was looking a bit anxious.
“We’d better see who it is then. Come on.” I walked over to the front door, followed by Natalie and Heather, who was holding her hand.
As the door opened, a large red object with a top covered in white curls suddenly burst into life.
“Ho, Ho, Ho,” it roared. “It’s me. Santa Claus,” Santa added helpfully.
Natalie stared at him, delighted and then appalled. She stuck her thumb in her mouth and ducked behind her mother’s skirt. Heather bent down, laughing.
“Don’t be scared, sweetie. It’s only Santa Claus. Do come in, Santa,” she added.
Santa Claus was over the threshold and dropping a sack on the floor before Natalie could quite believe it.
“What’s your name, little girl?” he asked.
“I’m Natalie.” She looked for confirmation to her mother.
“Delighted to meet you. I think I was at your house last night, wasn’t I?”
“Oh yes! You brought me a My Pony set and lots of other stuff.” Now Natalie was beginning to enjoy herself. “But why are you here?”
“Come and sit down with me and I‘ll tell you.” Santa sat in Grandpa’s favorite chair, and pulled Natalie onto his lap. “The reindeer and I were on our way home to the North Pole, and Rudolph stared to complain that he was hungry. So I was wondering whether you might by any chance have a carrot or two I could give him?”
Natalie looked at me hopefully.
“Do we Grandmama?”
“I’m sure I can find some.” So much for the roasted carrots I had been planning to serve with the turkey.
I returned a few minutes later, to see Santa reaching into his sack.
“Since you are being so kind as to give me some carrots for Rudolph, maybe I can find a little something in here for you, young lady.”
He pulled out a package and handed it to Natalie.
“And here’s something for your little sister, too.” Natalie wasn’t interested. She was busy tearing off the wrapping of her gift, to reveal a pink tutu with matching tights.
“A ballet dress,” she breathed, clutching it to her chest. “Thank you, Santa.”
“Well,” said Santa, sounding regretful, “This has been very nice, but I’m afraid I must get going. Mrs. Claus will be wondering where I am.”
He stood up.
“May I have a hug, young Natalie?” he asked, scooping her up.
Natalie obliged, wrinkling her nose a bit as she landed among the white curls of Santa’s beard. Santa put her down, and turned to wave, before the door closed behind him.
“I wonder where Rudolph and the other reindeer are?” asked Natalie.
“Oh, I expect they’re out there in the woods, looking for something else to eat,” I said.
“Can I look?”
“Of course. Stand up here on this chair. I’ll hold you.”
Natalie frowned in concentration as she peered through the glass. It was twilight now, and there were shadows among the trees.
“I think….I think I see them, Grandmama.” Natalie pointed into the sky.
“I do believe you’re right, darling,” I said, kissing the top of my granddaughter’s head.
“Grandpa, can you see them?” Jay, looking flushed with exertion, was striding back into the room.
“See what, sweetheart?”
“Santa’s sleigh and the reindeer.”
“Darn. You don’t mean to say I missed them? Just my luck. Come here and tell me all about it.”
“Well, Rudolph was feeling hungry…”