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Christmas Story

by Charles Lacey

I've always enjoyed Christmas. Well, who doesn't? There aren't many Ebenezer Scrooges around. But there was one in our village. His name was Major Blacey. He had been a soldier in the Worcestershire Regiment and fought as a Subaltern in the First World War and then as an officer in the Second. And he was a miserable old bugger. He used to walk through the village, leaning on his stick – he'd been injured in the War and was quite lame – and either ignored or glared at anyone he met.

Mind you, in a way I felt quite sorry for him. He obviously missed his Regiment and the company of his fellow soldiers. He'd married in the 1930s but his wife had died giving birth to his daughter. He'd not known what to do with a baby – of course! – and so his sister had taken the child in. The girl had grown up and married, and had three children, one girl and two boys. But it had left the Major feeling very lonely, the more so as his sister had married a businessman from Edinburgh and so his only relatives were living a very long way away.

We lived, my Mum and Dad, and my sister Poppy and myself, in a tiny cottage in the village of Underbelston in Worcestershire. We weren't wealthy, but we were happy. Well, mostly – and who's happy all the time, anyway? But on the whole we didn't do badly. My only grumble about the village was that there weren't any boys my age living there. There were a couple of girls a bit younger and of course they were great friends with Poppy. But no boys.

At this stage I'd better come out to you and admit that girls just didn't interest me. A couple of Poppy's friends tried flirting but it didn't do anything for me. On the other hand, I went to the King's School, close to Worcester Cathedral, and one or two of the boys there... well, in the changing room I had to be really careful where I looked, because if I saw them in the showers it tended to have, shall we say, a rather noticeable effect.

Well, Christmas was coming. The weather – remember this was the English Midlands – was cold and wet, despite which you could see coloured lights and Christmas trees in the windows of most of the houses, including ours. We've always gone to town with our decorations; Poppy and I were sent to the woods to get some holly and evergreens, Mum put them up around the house covered with tinsel; we had a Christmas tree with a set of those old-fashioned lights that look like little candles, and an exciting pile of presents underneath it. Mum had ordered a turkey from Mr George at Windle Farm and of course she'd made a Christmas Pudding in the autumn, flavoured with some of Dad's home made parsnip wine. Mum's Christmas Puddings were amazing. They had that much alcohol in them they'd probably have lasted for three centuries, never mind three months!

One house that we never saw any decorations in, though, was Cratchet House, where the Major lived. Talk at our village inn, the Blue Dragon, said that the Major had not bought so much as a sprig of sage or an onion towards his Christmas dinner. Hearing this, I said to Dad, "Let's invite Major Blacey to Christmas dinner!" I was only half joking. Dad grinned and me and said, "Bet you sixpence he won't come." We shook hands on it. I wrote out an invitation on the inside of a Christmas card, walked up to Cratchet House and put it through the door. Goodness me, that old place felt gloomy! As I walked away I turned and looked back at the house, and I was sure I saw the pale oval of a face looking at me from an upstairs window. I wasn't aware of anyone living there other than the Major, and almost wondered if it might be a ghost. To be honest, I couldn't imagine anyone other than a ghost wanting to live with the Major.

Anyway, the school term ended and I was at a bit of a loss for things to keep me busy. The weather was horrible and I didn't much want to go out. After a day and a half of me moping at home, Mum sent me out on my bike to collect a bag of vegetables from a farm a mile or so out of the village. I got there, picked up and paid for the vegetables and the farmer's wife gave me an apple for myself. They were quite heavy, but I was young and strong, so I put them in my rucksack and started off for home.

Just coming into the village, past Cratchet House, I was surprised to see someone walking towards me. Walking, I said, though trudging might have been a better world. As I got nearer I could see that it was a boy around my own age. As I came up to him I slowed down, waved and said "Hello," but he kept his head down and walked on. I could only catch a glimpse of his face, which was very pale. I don't mind admitting I was disappointed, but kept going and delivered Mum's vegetables before going up to my room to read. I was just getting into Martin Chuzzlewit and finding it hard going, but I liked the characters, especially Tom Pinch.

I was puzzled, though, by my earlier encounter. Could the boy I saw have been the person who was looking out of the window at Cratchet House? But seeing him had started me thinking about Boys in general, and that always led to the same result.

When I'd finished what I was doing – making sure I caught the result in an old sock that I kept for the purpose – it was getting on for tea-time, so I went downstairs. Mum had been baking and there were lots of appetizing smells from the kitchen.

"Oh," said Mum, with a twinkle in her eye, "I thought you'd be down when you scented food. Here, you can have a biscuit, but the cakes are not to be started before Christmas Eve."

Mum's home made biscuits were as good as everything else she made, and I ate two, along with a cup of tea. But I was still wondering about the boy in the village. It was getting dark, so I wasn't going to go outside again, but I thought tomorrow I'd walk around the village and see if could find him again.

Next morning I got out the bike again and set off. The weather was much nicer, cold and crisp but not wet. I pedalled away briskly, thinking I'd have a ride around, starting by going southwards, around the lanes skirting the village and then back in from the north. And as I got back into the village, there he was again. This time I stopped and held out my hand and said, "Hi there."

He stopped and lifted his head. He was very pale, almost ghostly-white, but had fair hair and blue eyes, both of which I found very attractive. He murmured something I didn't catch. "Do you live in the village?" I asked. He spoke again and this time I could hear him, though he had a very peculiar accent.

"Aye," he replied, "I've just come to live here, with my Uncle William."

"Oh. Where does he live?"

"Over yonder, the next house after the Ebenezer Chapel. Cratchet House."

Suddenly I recognized his accent. Mum was very fond of a TV series called Doctor Finlay's Casebook and sometimes imitated Janet, the Doctor's housekeeper. The boy was from Scotland. Well, I thought, Scottish or not, if he's living with that dismal old Major, I feel sorry for him.

"Would you like to come to our house for a cup of tea? Mum makes super biscuits."

He smiled, though it was a very faint smile.

"Aye, I'd like that. But I've to be back at Uncle's before it gets dark."

"That's all right, our house is only five minutes' walk away. My name's John."

"Mine's Robert. Most people call me Bob."

So we set off. I knew Mum wouldn't mind, she worries about my having no friends locally. We got to the cottage and it was warm and snug inside. The kettle was singing on the hob and Mum was putting up more decorations. There was a lovely smell of cinnamon from the latest batch of cooking. I introduced Bob to Mum.

"Hello, Bob. It's nice to meet you. I'll keep on with these decorations if you don't mind, but John will look after you. John, make a pot of tea, please, I'll have a cup too. And get the biscuits from the blue tin."

I noticed that Bob sat quite close to the fire, holding out his hands to warm them. I wondered why he hadn't been wearing gloves, or a scarf. I couldn't imagine that the Major was particularly poor, since he lived in such a big house. But you never know.

So I made a pot of tea, gave a cup to Mum and one to Bob, took one in to Dad. I haven't said anything much about Dad yet, but he's alright. He's a writer and works from home. His Study is a sacred space and no-one, not even Mum, is allowed to touch anything there. But when he's not working, he's good fun. We do things together from time to time; flying kites, for example. And he has a lovely old vintage car, an Austin Ten, which we go out in sometimes.

Anyway, Bob drank his tea and ate a couple of Mum's biscuits, and it seemed to put a bit of colour in his cheeks, unless it was the heat of the fire. But it was starting to get dark outside and he said, "Thank you very much, Mrs Huffam. The biscuits were lovely."

"You're very welcome," replied Mum, "come again if you can, John can do with a bit of young company."

I walked with Bob to the end of Cratchet House's drive, then turned back home. It was pretty chilly, with a bit of a cold wind getting up. I hoped my new friend would find a nice warm room waiting for him, and a hot meal. But somehow I rather doubted it. There was no smoke coming from the chimneys, and only one lighted window.

That was the Twenty-First of December, and two days later there was a rather timid knock at our door. I went to answer it as Mum was busy, and it was Bob standing there, shivering.

"Come in, Bob," I said, standing aside, "get warm by the fire. Haven't you got a coat or a scarf?"

Bob didn't answer, but knelt in front of the fire, thrusting out his hands to the blaze. I went out to the kitchen and put on some milk to boil. I thought Bob might like a cup of chocolate – and I would be happy to join him.

I took the mugs through and knelt beside him on the hearth-rug. He was rubbing his hands together and although his teeth had stopped chattering he was still shivering at intervals. I asked again, "Bob, do you not have a coat or a scarf?"

"No. My Uncle…" and then he stopped.

"Go on," I prompted him.

"Och, well… but please promise you won't tell anyone else. I'm needing to trust someone and you seem really nice."

"Of course I won't tell anyone, if you don't want me to."

"Well, Uncle William is quite well off, as far as we know. But he hates spending money. He mostly eats vegetables from the garden, and if he ever buys any meat it's always the cheapest he can find so it's tough and stringy. We don't have fires unless it's actually freezing, he says wrapping yourself in a blanket comes cheaper."

I stared at him, open-mouthed.

"Aye," continued Bob, it's a bit chilly, this time of year."

"But why are you living with your uncle? Do you have other family?"

"Aye. My parents live in Edinburgh. I was born and grew up there. But I've a wee brother. He name's Tim. He's very sick. He doesn't get out of bed much, and he can't walk more than a few steps now. That's why Dad sent me to stay at Uncle William's. They are afraid he may die, and they need to give him all their attention."

"Oh," I said, and held out my hand to Bob. There didn't seem to be anything else to say. He took my hand and held it for a little while as we knelt together on the rug. Then he said, "But, och, we can make do." And with that he slid backwards into a chair.

I left him there for a few moments while I went to find Mum. She was upstairs, putting away the ironing. "Mum," I said, "can Bob stay to lunch?"

"If he'd like to," she replied, "but it's only soup and bread, and I think there's some apple crumble left from last night, I could heat that up with some custard."

"Sounds lovely, Mum," I said, and gave her a quick kiss before running down stairs."

"Bob, can you stay for lunch?" It's only soup, but it'll be good and filling."

He looked at me as if I'd offered him something totally wonderful. "Oh, can I?" he said, "Yes please."

By this time Bob had got warm through, and Mum was coming down. "Now, you two scoot off upstairs," she said, I've the dusting and polishing to do in here."

That's Mum all over. I don't believe she ever does nothing. Even if she's watching TV she does knitting or something as well. Everyone who visits us says how nice our house is.

Anyway, I took Bob up to my bedroom. He was very interested in the books on my shelves; I suppose with Dad being a writer it's not surprising that I like reading, and I did have quite a good collection even then. I once told someone that my ambition was to have a thousand books. I must have something like three times that number by now!

Anyway, Bob picked out a book – it was Pickwick Papers - and sat in the armchair to look at it, so I lay back on my bed and picked up Martin Chuzzlewit again. In between pages, I took quick looks at Bob. He wasn't one of those boys who turn heads, but he had a nice figure, if it was a bit on the thin side, and his face… it wasn't what most people would call handsome, but I thought it very attractive. His hair was slightly gingery and he had a scattering of freckles over his nose. His lips were full and smiled easily. I started to imagine myself kissing them, and found I had to desist as things were starting to happen down below, and I'd no wish to embarrass myself.

After an hour or so Mum called up the stairs to us to come down for lunch. We had a thick, spicy vegetable soup with home-made rolls. And afterwards there was apple crumble with custard for Bob, Poppy and myself. "Too fattening for me," said Dad. "You youngsters finish it off." Dad was too polite to ask who Bob was, but I introduced him. "Charmed, I'm sure," said Dad as he shook Bob's hand. Dad's way of speech is always a bit exaggerated, but he means well.

After lunch we went back upstairs to my room and read for a while more. Then we started chatting, and I said, "Bob, what will you do on Christmas day?"

"The same as we do any other day, I expect," he replied. At home we always have a good Christmas, but with Tim being so ill I don't know. But I doubt Uncle William will do anything special."

He sat very still for a few minutes, looking into space, and then I saw tears forming in his eyes. A couple of fat drops ran down his cheeks.

What's a boy like me going to do for another boy who is crying? Only one thing was possible. I knelt by his chair and put my arms around him.

"I'm just so worried about poor wee Tim," he said, his voice cracking. "I don't care that much about what I do, but we used to have so much fun together."

I held Bob until he had had his cry out, then gave him a clean hankie out of my drawer. An idea was forming in my mind, but I needed to talk to Mum and Dad about it. Before long Bob had to go as it was getting dark. I lent him a scarf since he didn't have one, and off he went, saying, "Have a really good Christmas, John."

That night over supper I tackled my parents. Dad looked at me in some surprise. "Does this mean you are developing some kind of social conscience?" he asked.

"No, Dad. I just think that Bob will be terribly lonely, and I'd love him to come for Christmas with us, and we can't really ask him without asking his uncle too."

The next day was Christmas Eve, and I wrapped up warm and went on my bike to Cratchet House. I knocked on the door – and the knocks echoed around that great house, too – and eventually the door opened and the Major stood there, tall and grim, looking down his nose at me.

"Well? What do you want? I've nothing to give carollers or folk collecting for so-called charity."

"It's not like that, sir," I answered. "It just that my parents and I thought you and Bob might like to come to our house for Christmas dinner. Mum's a really good cook."

There was one of those awful silences, then the Major said, "No, thank you. I don't keep Christmas, and I don't see why anyone else bothers. Lot of humbug, if you ask me."

And then he closed the door in my face. Well, there was nothing I could do but go home and report my failure. "Well, never mind," said Dad, "We'll have a good time anyway, and I'm sure you'll see your friend again soon."

That night some carollers did come round, a group of people from the village Church, and we gave them hot spiced wine and mince pies. And then for the first time I was allowed to go to the Midnight service. I'm not normally a religious person, but I did say a prayer for Bob. And then we went home to bed, and I don't mind admitting that I was asleep the moment my head hit the pillow.

The next morning I woke early – of course! – and there was a stocking on the end of my bed. As I said earlier, we weren't wealthy by any means, but there were some of Mum's flapjacks, a copy of A Tale of Two Cities which was a book I'd not read before, and of course an orange and a bag of nuts. All very traditional, but welcome nonetheless. I knew if I went into the parents' room I'd only get grunts or snores from them, so I settled down with my new book to wait for them.

Well, I had some lovely presents. A woolly jumper from Mum, another book from Dad, a snow globe from Poppy, plus some things from Grannie and Grandpa. They weren't staying with us this year as they were worried about the weather forecast which was pretty grim. Mum had been a bit miffed about that as she'd catered for them. But I could see their point: the wind had got up and was howling around the house, and it had started to snow, too.

And then Mum was just starting to make "Dinner's nearly ready" noises, and there was a knock on the door. We looked at each other, thinking, maybe Grannie and Grandpa had decided to come anyway. Dad went to answer the door and I heard voices, followed by Dad saying, "Come in. Come in and get warm. Can I get you a glass of whisky? John, come and look after your friend."

It was Bob! Bob and his uncle, Major Blacey. You could have knocked me down, as they say, with a feather. But of course I was thrilled to see Bob again. He was wearing the scarf I'd lent him, but both of them looked very cold. It seemed that the electricity had failed at their house and they had nothing to eat that didn't need to be cooked or at least heated up, so Bob had argued and pleaded and finally persuaded his uncle to swallow his pride and come to us.

We had the usual slap-up Christmas dinner. Dad's sense of humour was on good form and Major Blacey surprised us all by sharing some very funny anecdotes about his time in the Army. After lunch we all went for a good brisk walk, and then the adults prepared to "have forty winks", as Dad always put it. Bob and I and Poppy were banished. Poppy was allowed, just this once, to sit in Dad's study and watch a film on the TV. Bob and I went up to my room. We looked at each other, and then I sat down on the bed. "Come on," I said, "there's room for two."

Bob lay down beside me and went straight to sleep. I later found that he hadn't slept well for some time as it was so cold in their house. I propped myself up on one elbow and looked at him. He seemed younger, and somehow vulnerable. But I hadn't had much sleep the night before either, and having eaten a huge meal and then taken a brisk walk. I, too, dropped off to sleep.

I was woken by Poppy calling through the door, "John, look out of the window."

I jumped up and looked, and there was thick snow outside! I shook Bob awake and he came and looked too. Then Mum called us down to have tea – cold turkey sandwiches, Christmas cake and mince pies. Then the Major – who really did seem to be a much nicer person than we'd thought – harumphed and said, "Well, Mrs Huffam, and Mr Huffam, thank you a thousand times for your hospitality. I think we'd better be making a move now.

After more thanks and farewells they went to the door with Dad. He opened it, with some struggle, and found a wall of white! Well, of course there was nothing more to be said. Our visitors had to stay, since they couldn't even get out of the house, never mind walking home. And even if they'd been able to get back to Cratchet House they'd probably still have no electricity. So the Major had the spare room, which had been prepared for Grannie and Grandad. And of course Bob came in with me.

That night was utterly, completely magical and wondrous. I don't know if God had been listening to my prayers on the previous night, but if He had, He'd answered them, and indeed given a great deal more than I'd asked for. Not only had he given Bob (and his uncle) a much, much better Christmas than they would have expected but Bob and I had ended up wearing nothing but our pyjamas, wedged together in my bed.

We'd just tucked ourselves in, and Bob said, very shyly, "John, can I ask you something?"


"John, do you like me?"

I was glad to be able to be definite.

"Yes. Very much."

"I'm glad. 'Cause I … like you very much, too."

"Mmm. Does that mean… what I hope it does?"

For answer, I felt Bob's lips touch mine. I turned to face him fully, and stretched out an arm, then both arms, and then we were kissing and holding each other. Of course I went as stiff as a stave down below, and I could feel that Bob had the same problem. Not that it was a problem.

That diamond break means you can use your imagination, if you want to, about how we occupied the next hour or so. Suffice it to say that it was very … satisfying. Later on, as we finally settled down to sleep, I kissed Bob again, and then thought back to our first meeting. "Do you know, Bob," I said, "the first time I saw you, I thought you might have been a Ghost."

"Oh, no, John," he replied, very seriously; "I'm not a ghost, I'm your Christmas Present."

Well, things went from good to better. Now that he felt he had some friends in the village, the Major opened up Cratchet House and spent some money on decorating it and getting the garden in order. Bob didn't want to go home, as it would have meant leaving me, so he stayed put and his parents and his little brother came to stay with the Major. I heard from Bob that the Major and his sister, Bob's mother, had quite an emotional reunion; they hadn't seen one another since her marriage.

Little Tim didn't die, but eventually got better. In the end he married one of Poppy's friends. Bob and I are still together. We have our own little house now, but still visit my parents and Uncle William regularly. And as for Uncle William, well! He started going to the Church, and even occasionally to the Blue Dragon for a drink. He made friends with everyone in the village and he proved to be the jolliest old buffer that ever was.

T H E  E N D


This is, of course, a gentle skit on Dickens' A Christmas Carol. I've peppered it with sly references both to the original and to other works of the same author's. Just in case you missed them, here are a few of them explained.

'Major Blacey' is an Anagram of Jacob Marley, who was Ebenezer Scrooge's deceased partner who introduced him to the three Spirits of Christmas.

'John Huffam' were Dickens' middle names.

'Cratchet House' is named after Bob Cratchit, who was Scrooge's much put-upon and underpaid clerk. The boy Bob in my story is of course also named after Bob Cratchit; in the original Tiny Tim was his son, but in my tale he is his brother.

The 'Blue Dragon' inn is borrowed from Martin Chuzzlewit.

The village name of Underbelston is an Anagram of Blunderstone, the Suffolk village in David Copperfield (named after the real village of Blundeston).

I've avoided trying to transcribe a Scots accent, except for a few characteristic Scots words: 'Och' for Oh, 'Wee' for small, 'Aye' for Yes. You have to be a very much better writer than I am to get a Scots accent right in print.

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