I haven’t posted any writing for a while. I had intended posting this over Xmas but never got around to it.
When a Christmas card from my folks arrived from England yesterday – we don’t always have the best postal service down here in Africa – it jolted my memory, so I dug this out.
It’s 3400 words, about a ten minute read. It’s a humorous piece and if this is your cup of tea, grab a coffee, and I hope it raises a smile.
The Miruckle, Mirrorcle, Mirickle, Magic of Christmas
There are probably places like Little Haddon in every country: tiny hamlets that wouldn’t interest even the most ardent cartographer.
In some countries they might be called a “One horse town”. In fact, so insignificant are such places that any horse would have left as soon as such a place attracted this sort of label. Otherwise, pretty soon there would be no horses.
The village occasionally underwent a name change, thanks to the handiwork of person or persons unknown, but suspected to be kids from the local junior school.
Over the years it had been known as Little Had one, Lit a don, and Li t e ne.
This last name was supposedly to celebrate the Chinese New Year.
The sign on the outskirts currently stated Welcome to Little Hardon.
The village squatted in a small valley as if trying to be inconspicuous.
Its population fluctuated between around a hundred and a hundred and seventy, depending on the occasional birth or death, boarding school holidays, whether there was a war on in the Middle East this month or if a coach load of Japanese tourists had got lost.
As one would expect of such a place there was no serious industry to speak of. Although, in times past there had been a cotton mill built on the bank on the river.
It had once been called the River Wander. And for good reason. This is probably why the cotton mill did not last very long.
Then, around a hundred years ago, the villagers renamed it the Kiddinright. Mostly because in those days visitors had a nasty habit of remarking upon the River Wander, usually beginning with the words, “You’ve got to be…” It wasn’t a very big river then and isn’t now. In fact, stream might be more appropriate.
However, what the village did have was a brewery; a family owned business that made real ale.
Somewhat unfortunately, the family name was Widdlewell.
Although not a name to instill confidence in connoisseurs of the hop, life, so they say, is about playing the hand one is dealt and seemingly against the odds the brewery flourished. In fact, Widdlewells’ could be found in pubs and off licenses around the country.
Little Hardon was once a refuge for lost souls fleeing the Inquisition and in recognition of those times the brewery produced beers with such colourful names as Bishop’s Blasphemy, Bad Habits and Father’s Fancy. In deference to the Protestant faith they also produced three dark ales; Excommunicated Vicar, Parson’s Appendage and Luther’s Heresy. With the modern trend towards low alcohol beverages, the brewery recently introduced a beer cheekily called Seen the Lite.
Anyway, it was around that time of year when a fat man in a red coat is usually out and about doing a spot of B & E.; although tradition states he must leave things rather than nick anything. And before anyone says, ‘What about the mince pies and the sherry?” we all know it’s your dad that snaffles these, right?
It had snowed over Little Hardon the previous day and the village was under a blanket of white. Something that had not happened in nearly thirty years.
The local vicar declared it a miracle in keeping with the spirit of Christmas.
The geography teacher at the junior school declared it a portent of things to come and staged a one-woman protest against global warming outside the school gates.
This seemed to confuse most people who believed that it was supposed to snow at Christmas.
The teacher also reminded several passers-by that Christmas had its roots in paganism and had nothing to do with Jesus whatsoever. Some of these ‘pagans-by-default’ threw snowballs at her.
The headmaster strongly suggested she take some time off and casually mentioned to the local constabulary that Miss Overbite might be an underground cell for “Al-Kieda,” and should be kept an eye on.
Sergeant Bill Williams said he would have a look in the cells but he was sure he didn’t have anyone of that name.
So now it was Christmas Eve, around 11:30p.m. The village was quiet.
Inside the pub known as Dog’s Abode, the occasionally dyslexic landlord Gerry Widdlewell was bent over the jukebox trying to get it to work.
It looked old but it was not. Underneath its retro-look exterior all its components were computerised. And this was the trouble.
Gerry was not what one would call I.T. literate. The rubber mallet lying on the table next to the jukebox showed he put more faith in the ‘Manchester Screwdriver’ than he did in Japanese technology.
The pub door rattled.
‘It’s open!’ Gerry called.
A burly man wearing a helmet and dark overcoat with three stripes on each sleeve entered amidst a flurry of snow.
The tinsel draped across the brass light fittings above the bar fluttered wildly and the dying log fire was briefly resurrected as a sharp gust of wind caused a few sound effects akin to a well known breakfast cereal.
‘Looks like I’m going to have to fine you for serving alcohol after hours, sir.’
‘Do you see me serving any alcohol, sergeant?’ Gerry asked without turning round.
Bill grinned. ‘No need to be flippant, sir. That could be interpreted as insulting an officer of the law, y’know.’
‘Yeah, right!’ Gerry replied. ‘Why don’t you make yourself useful, Bill Williams and pour me a scotch. And as its Christmas, you can pour yourself, one too.’
‘Much obliged, sir. But I never drink on duty. Besides, your generous offer could be construed as bribery, I’ll have you know.’
Bill glanced at the clock above the bar.
‘Oh, well, look at that! Fortunately for all concerned I just went off shift. I believe you mentioned a scotch?’
‘You know where it is,’ Gerry grunted with the effort of hitting something.
‘Bugger!’ he swore.
Bill took off his helmet, placed it on the counter then walked round the other side of the bar. There was a chink of crystal as he placed two glasses and a bottle of Chivas Regal on the bar.
After pouring a generous measure into each glass he wandered over to the jukebox.
‘What’s going on here, then?’ Bill asked.
Gerry grunted once more, adding one or two very un-Christmas like phrases about jukeboxes and stood up, tugging at his trouser belt.
Bill handed him his glass.
‘Using your usual deft touch I notice,’ Bill nodded towards the rubber mallet.
‘Cheers. Complaints of the season to you, Bill. Can’t get the bloody thing to play. Sister’s eldest installed it yesterday. I asked him to program a bunch of Christmas songs. Thought it’d be a nice touch. And now the thing’s kaput and he’s sodded off somewhere for the holidays.’
‘That’d be Gary, right? The one who said he wants to be a professional musician.’
‘That’s the one,’ Gerry nodded.
‘So how come he enrolled at Art College, then? You said your brother- in-law couldn’t ever get him to even look at a paintbrush.’
‘Apparently all the best musicians begin at Art College, according to Gary,’ Gerry said.
Bill sipped his whiskey, and offered a wry smile.
‘Bet old Mozart never gave the garden shed a coat of whitewash.’
‘Huh! I mentioned something similar but he tells me that these days being a professional musician means having weird hair, glittery trousers and groupies, whatever that is. Sounds like something you might have to sort out with a dose of penicillin, if you ask me.’
‘You’re probably right there, Gerry.’
He tilted his glass towards the jukebox.
‘It’s switched on, right?’ he asked.
‘You think I’m bloody stupid, or what?’
‘Stupid. No. But I would imagine a man who would completely dismantle the program controller on his wife’s washing machine might be a bit more circumspect, especially if he hadn’t first checked the plug. And if he had of he would have realised that his lad had nicked it to make an extension cord so’s he could listen to his hi-fi while he was camping in the garden with his mates.’
A flicker of doubt crossed Gerry’s face. He cast a quick glance towards the jukebox. He smiled. Probably with relief. The plug was in the socket on the wall.
Bill smiled too. He knew Gerry’s reputation as a handyman. It was a bad one. In fact the only thing handy about Gerry was he was always there when you needed someone to pull a pint.
He put down his whiskey.
‘Got a screwdriver? I’ll have a look at it for you if you like?’
Gerry reached behind and retrieved something from the back pocket of his jeans. He handed it to Bill who took it and sighed.
‘You know, if you were after a screwdriver and Henry sold you this you’d think he was barmy.’
‘But he did sell it me. It’s part of a set. Came in a nice presentation box too. Oak it is. We only use it on special occasions.’
‘And this is one such occasion is it?’ Bill asked, examining the engraving on the handle of the silver plated dinner knife.
‘My toolbox is at home. Betty keeps the cutlery with the special crystal glasses behind the bar,’ Gerry said by way of justification.
‘You live upstairs, for goodness sake!’
‘I was in a bit of a rush,’ Gerry mumbled guiltily.
Bill shook his head and smiled.
‘Let’s have a look then, all right?’
Gerry stood aside for his friend.
Bill squatted down next to the wall socket. He switched it off then pulled the plug out. Turning the plug over he grimaced at the scored and scratched markings where the plug screws went.
‘Oh. I see you’ve already checked the wiring then?’
‘I told you it wasn’t the plug.’
‘No. You said you’d switched it on,’ Bill corrected, as he undid the screws to inspect the wiring.
After separating the plug halves a quick look told Bill that Gerry had got that right at least. He screwed the plug back together, pushed it into the wall socket, and clicked on the switch. A few lights went on above him and a brief snatch of some inane musak signalling that power at least had been restored. Standing up again he handed the knife back to Gerry.
‘Best you put this where it belongs before Betty finds out. And I’d give it a bit of a polish first if I were you.’
Gerry nodded and crossed to the bar to replace the incriminating piece of evidence.
Bill examined the jukebox. Behind him, the locks on the oak cutlery case went click. Bill called over his shoulder.
‘Did you read this?’
‘Read what, Bill?’
‘The notice on the front of the jukebox.’
Bill shook his head.
‘Well, I think that answers my question.’
Gerry came to stand next to Bill.
‘This notice here, Gerry,’ Bill tapped the small embossed brass plate riveted next to a slot. ‘About this being a coin operated jukebox.’
‘Oh, that. Yes. I read that. Three songs for a quid. Gary says I should make a pretty penny after a month or two.’
‘But it only plays when you put money in, Gerry,’ Bill explained.
‘Of course it does. I’m not having music blaring all night for free, you know?’ Gerry sounded indignant.
‘So, did you?’
‘I pressed a few of the buttons but nothing happened.’
‘I meant did you put some money in?’
‘’Course not. That’s just for the customers. I own it, so I shouldn’t have to pay,’ Gerry explained.
‘Well …technically, no, I suppose not. But all the money’s yours anyway,’ Bill said.
‘There you go then.’
‘But it still needs a coin to get it to work,’ Bill added.
A couple of dormant switches flipped inside Gerry’s head. He drew breath and his mouth formed an ‘O’.
‘I see. So it doesn’t help just by switching it on?’
‘Not really, Gerry, no.’
Although some circuits inside Gerry’s head were wired in parallel, others were quite obviously in series and thoughts about money travelled a lot quicker than those concerned with technology.
‘Got a quid, Bill? I’ve already cashed up and put the money in the safe.’
Bill gave him a cock-eyed look.
‘What?’ Gerry replied. ‘It’s just to test the thing.’
Bill thrust his hand in his pocket and rummaged for some change.
‘Here,’ he said retrieving a few coins. ‘You can stand me my share in the collection plate when we go to Mass.’
‘That’s all right. Grab a few coins from the small box on the bar,’ Gerry suggested.
Bill turned to look.
‘The Black and white one. Looks like a Labrador.’ He turned to look. ‘Oh. It’s gone.’ Gerry looked perplexed, then angry. ‘Would you bleeding credit it? Some thieving bastard has nicked the charity box!’
‘Was that what that little dog was?’ Realisation dawned. ‘You mean you take money meant for the guide dogs?’
‘Not always,’ Gerry said, sounding hurt. ‘Only when I’m short of change when I go to church.’
‘That’s a criminal offence, you cheeky bugger.’
‘Criminal!’ Gerry was shocked. ‘How the hell can it be criminal? I give it to the church, for God’s sake. It still goes to charity.’
They were interrupted by the muted sounds of footfalls on carpet as someone came down the stairs.
Gerry gave Bill a pleading look and whispered.
‘Don’t say anything to Betty, all right? She’ll have my guts for garters.’
‘All right, all right. I owe you, okay?’
Betty appeared from the passage behind the bar. She smiled on seeing Bill.
‘Hello, you. How’s my favourite law enforcement officer?’
‘I was just about to nick a vicious villain but I’ve decided to cut him a bit of slack. As it’s Christmas.’
‘That’s very generous of you, officer,’ Betty smiled then stood on tip toe to give Bill a kiss on the cheek.
Betty was a petite woman in her late forties.
She looked from one man to the other, and then frowned.
‘What’s going on?’ she asked with wifely suspicion.
Gerry adopted an air of complete innocence that confirmed his guilt immediately.
‘Nothing, my love. Bill was just giving me a hand to fix the jukebox,’ he explained nonchalantly.
‘Mmm. I’ll bet. Besides, I thought you said you needed these?’ She held up a selection of four screwdrivers.
‘We managed without tools. I feel a bit on a nana, actually as it only plays after you’ve put coins in.’
‘I thought that was the case. Come to think of it, Gary said so, didn’t he?’ Betty asked.
‘Well, er, I didn’t think that applied to me. Being the owner and all that,’ Gerry was forced to explain once more.
‘Hah! Knowing Gerry, Bill, he was probably trying to gyppo the thing so he didn’t have to feed money into it.’
‘I wasn’t!’ Gerry exclaimed.
‘Oh well. Are we ready for church then?’
‘Let me just pop upstairs and tidy myself up. Can’t be going to God’s house looking scruffy, right? Won’t be a tic.’
Gerry quickly extricated himself, surreptitiously grabbing the mallet as he left.
Betty smiled affectionately after her husband.
Compared to Gerry, who looked like a man mountain, Betty was tiny. Five foot four in her socks. They looked the epitome of the odd couple.
But they’d been married for over twenty years, so whatever outward appearances might have suggested they had obviously found the recipe for a happy marriage.
Bill used to wonder what it must have been like for Betty; giving up her maiden name to become a Widdlewell. Although it was highly unlikely that Gerry would change his surname, it being the business name and everything, at least Betty could have kept her own name. Or at least added it to Gerry’s. It wasn’t as if this was the Dark Ages?
Well, Bill used to wonder. Up to the time he had asked Betty what her maiden name was.
The pair of them were chatting at one end of the bar one evening many years ago.
Betty was washing beer glasses and Bill was supping a pint.
By way of answer, Betty had given Bill a brief history of her family.
‘My family were originally immigrants, you know?’
‘Really? I would never have guessed you were foreign, Betty,’ Bill smiled.
‘Huh! Foreign. My family’s been here darn sight longer than yours, Bill Williams. Look who’s calling the kettle black,’ Betty retorted, smiling in return.
Bill’s ancestors arrived in the country via the West Indies and fortunately not in shackles.
‘So, where was the old country then?’ Bill asked, helping himself to a handful of peanuts from a bowl on the counter.
‘Ah. So you were a ‘ski’, I suppose?’
‘Right. And when you’re trying to fit in you want to make yourself as un-foreign as possible. So we dropped the ‘ski’ from the end of our name. Just like many immigrants did in those days. Must have been tough for your lot, though, eh?’ Betty said cheekily.
‘De Massa say I issa same as white folk,’ Bill replied in his best mock Caribbean accent.
‘So, you were saying. Your family name?’ Bill prompted.
‘Right. So we dropped the ‘ski’ and became simply the Kumlots.’
Bill nearly choked on his beer.
Gerry returned pulling on a beige check sports jacket that would have looked fine was it not for the red checked shirt and the black and white striped tie.
The other two stared at him.
‘What?’ he asked. ‘I’m not overdressed am I?’ he asked.
There was a slight pause.
‘No…er, you look very… sartorial, Gerry,’ Bill answered.
‘That’s good is it?’
‘You look fine, sweetheart,’ Betty assured as she straightened her husband’s tie.
Bill sniffed then wrinkled his nose.
‘What is that smell?’ he asked.
‘Oh, sorry,’ Gerry apologised. ‘Haven’t worn this jacket for some time, so I sprinkled a bit of Old Spice to hide the smell of mothballs.’
‘Well, if God doesn’t hear you singing tonight he’s bound to smell you, Gerry, that’s for sure,’ Bill said taking a few steps back.
‘Come on, let’s go or we’re going to be late,’ Betty insisted. ‘I want to hear what this new vicar has got to say for himself. Gerry, don’t forget the lights. ’
‘I wonder if they’ll let Winston sing this year.’ Gerry said. ‘Seeing as the vicar is new an’ all?’
‘Hmmf! I’m surprised they haven’t put a stop to him carrying on like that. And in a church too,’ Betty said. ‘He ought to be arrested.’
The two men grinned.
‘That might be a bit difficult, all things considered,’ Bill said. ‘Besides, it’s almost a tradition these days, hey, Gerry?’
‘S’right, Bill. Can’t mess with tradition,’ Gerry agreed.
As they stepped out onto the snow covered pavement, and Gerry fished in his pocket for the door keys, Betty casually remarked.
‘Oh, by the way. The charity box for the guide dogs is at the hardware shop. I asked Henry to put a new lock on it.’ Gerry froze in mid key turn. ‘I think one of the customers has been helping themselves.’
Unseen by Gerry, she gave Bill a huge wink. ‘If we catch the rascal, Bill we will definitely be pressing charges. Hey, Gerry?’
‘Oh, er, absolutely, dear. Bloody heartless what some people will do. Thieving from the blind. Whatever next?’
‘Don’t worry, you two. When we catch him I’ll throw the book at him,’ Bill assured, winking back at Betty.
‘Thanks, Bill. Might be a good idea if the book you threw was the Bible?’
‘Good idea. I’ll have a word with the vicar.’
Gerry may have been a bit slow but he wasn’t stupid.
‘All right, all right! I confess. You two happy now? I’ll put back everything. Does that count as a plea bargain, sergeant?’
‘You have the right to remain silent, sir. But for now I’d advise you save your breath for a few prayers over the road,’ Bill said. ‘And for what it’s worth, I have it on good authority that an angel has been dropping a few coins in the little doggie box on your behalf.’
‘Oh, Bill’ Betty scolded. ‘Now you’ve spoiled the fun.’
As the three walked over the road to the church, back in the pub something went, ‘click’ then ‘cloink.’
A few seconds later, beneath an eerie greenish-red glow, the jukebox began blaring out an old rock song called, “I want a mistress, for Christmas”, by the band AC/DC. Gerry would have been very surprised had he still been in the pub, especially as he hadn’t programmed it onto the jukebox.