An amazing entry from our chairman David Strong
Charlotte McDermott comes up with the festive goodies in this wicked little story.
Alan Davie fulfils the brief of a modern take on Dickens.
We called him Jock; he was a short, middle-aged, heavily built man with a shock of dark curly hair. He used to bring his horse into our shop to say hello… and his son was Father Christmas.
The local village shop in those days was a centre of the community, we knew everyone and everyone knew us, a stroll down the high street would be punctuated with many hellos and smiles. They were happy days. But they were also days of great social and political change, the early Thatcher years. We moved into a bustling village, with much of the surrounding rural Hampshire feel to it, a farming community. But within a few years Hook started becoming a mini town, with thousands of new homes being built and the consequent infrastructure chaos.
The village changed, as our shop changed, as the world changed.
Christmas was a wonderfully busy time. We sold everything. There were no out-of-town shops, no superstores, no on-line shopping. Our shop thrived. Everything Christmas: cards, selection boxes, tinsel, decorations, toys, chocolates… Oh! Lots of chocolates: in stockings, in huge 2lb or 3lb picture boxes with pretty Swiss mountains scenes; beautifully hand-made Bendicks chocolates, chocolate novelties in all forms. Rows and rows of jars from Bonds of London, Swizzel Matlow, Bassetts, Maynards, Rowntrees, Cadburys.
We sold cigars, Meerschaum pipes, expensive lighters. We sold books, annuals and magazines, even a selection of LP’s…. And for the great majority of these items we had the monopoly in the village.
We were busy.
But my wife Maggie and I still found time and the enthusiasm to decorate the shop every early December (not before the 1st). We turned our shop into a magical grotto. The windows were taped with black insulating tape and converted into old-fashioned Victorian windows bedecked with snow. We hang streamers and balloons and fairy lights. And the shop was crammed to the full with everything to tempt the impulse buyer.
I worked seven days a week. On Sundays I had a lie in, and I looked forward to that weekly lie in, I did not have to be downstairs on a Sunday til just before 6am.
My one day of the week off, when a relief manager took over, did not start until 9am.
We got to know a lot of our customers quite well. Jock was a village character, he had extensive land out the back near the woods where he kept an elderly pony that suffered from laminitis and he would take him for a therapeutic walk around the pavements… he was only a small horse, probably a miniature, but he could just squeeze into our shop front door and Jock would often come in for his ounce of Old Holborn and packet of polos. We didn’t mind at all.
I became involved in that village life. Too much. I was on the Elizabeth Hall Committee, Gardeners Club, Environmental Group and eventually the New Community Hall Committee. Heaven knows why. Perhaps I just could not say no, perhaps I totally embraced society. I even joined the fight against the building of thousands of new homes. Even though the shop would potentially increase so much in trade. Hook lost that fight. And soon we were delivering papers to plot numbers and streets that were not named. I went from having just a handful of paperboys to 23. And I had to mark up each newspaper round by hand. From a ledger and not from a computer list.
Jock’s son was a master cabinet maker. He worked creating bespoke furniture for a local company and just loved his job. And he loved, and was fascinated by, wood; he was an artisan. Even in his lunchtime break, he would whittle and carve. Day after day, week after week, he would fashion off cuts into little pieces of art. Toys, dolls, little wooden trains, miniature animals, cars, boats. They cost nothing but his time. Nobody in the workshop minded, nor cared. He sanded, painted, varnished and completed his little masterpieces until he had dozens and dozens.
Then each Christmas he would wrap them up. Phone up a local children’s home and arrange a visit. Full costume, full of jollity and philanthropy he would be a surprise Santa for a while... spreading joy and giving of the spirit freely: “But we haven’t booked a Father Christmas and cannot afford to pay you….” “You don’t pay Father Christmas..”
Those were innocent days. Carefree, relaxed days.
But with technology and attitudes changing, with strikes and a war, the world modernised and changed.
The character of Hook changed with the exploding population. It all just got a bit too much for my wife and I.
Our employers extended the shop, we took on more staff, opened longer hours. The local secondary school Robert Mayes went onto continental hours and had an earlier start, employee laws restricting paperboy hours changed, I ended up doing 2/3 often 4 paper rounds myself. Each day.
And we ended up moving to Letchworth to own and run the Station Bookstall. I have lived here ever since. But still recall with fondness those village days that did not last.
It is still there, sitting in a chair.
It is still there
Sitting in a chair.
Sitting in my memory, hidden lost to consciousness.
Way, way back in the darkness of my head, I do never doubt.
But if I concentrate, think hard, I can prise it out.
And then there’s time and numbers…. I feel I need them.
Twenty. Twenty five – maybe twenty-eight.
What year was Paul born? When did we move from there..?
No, it was after that date…
Names are hard.
But in the end; when I try; they come. Eventually.
Names from my past.
All dead now probably. But not in my mind.
Bill and Pat Carr.
Helen and Gerald. WHAT?
Go further back.
Bill Baggs…Vernon Steer...Sheila Girle.
I can’t see their faces anymore. Just names.
And the world is a much smaller place now.
Look them up on the internet.
Google. That’s how.
And their faces are still there, sitting in a chair.
Hook was such a memory.
Twenty five years ago and more.
But it does not flood back.
More a trickle.
In TREES we lived, that was the name.
You can so bet it’s now not the same.
And in my little google play.
I came across a plough and names.
Names that I remember, people I knew
And a new town, a community centre too.
That I helped to build (well, just a slight exaggeration there…)
Look it up.
There’s a picture where
I am turning over the first sod.
And memories do not come flooding back.
More a trickle.
Now there is a pain I feel, a sadness,
That it is such a long time ago.
Does it matter? Probably not.
But those memories are still there, Sitting in a chair.
Since Lockdown Mikey Smith had become a bit of a wheeler dealer. He’d been laid off his job as a roadie for the not very well-known singer Tess Stickles and had been doing his best to get by. It had to be said that he hadn’t done much wheeling or dealing and being a bit of a Delboy did not come naturally to Mikey. He was still kicking himself about the two thousand face masks he’d been offered for a steal back in March but at the time Mikey couldn’t think how on earth he’d be able to flog two thousand face masks. Unfortunately, he had taken on some tickets for an outdoor music festival in July. Which he managed to flog but then had to give everyone their money back when it was cancelled. He was definitely the unlucky type. Mikey’s dream had been to become a guitarist in a rock band, but it had never really come to anything. He still wrote the occasional song and sat on his single bed in his single room and mournfully lamented his bad fortune until his mum banged on the ceiling and told him to ‘Put a sock in it Mikey!’
Mikey still lived at home. Aged 36 this sometimes felt like things had taken a wrong turning on the map of life but considering Mikey had never really set off you couldn’t say he had taken a wrong turning. Anyway, on the upside it meant he kept his mum company, and he was able to keep all of his Star Wars Lego models on display without anyone moaning. His mum had long since given up trying to dust round them or accidentally vacuuming up remnants of the Millennium Falcon. Mikey had never been very lucky in love. He hadn’t had a girlfriend for years and thought it was unlikely he ever would.
Mikey Smith was skint when his old school pal Colin Webb had texted to invite him out for a pint. “Don’t worry Mikey we can’t go to the pub anyway, it’s shut.”
Sitting on a bench outside Costco with a can of Strongbow really took Mikey back and it was the best you could do for fun these days. Luckily, it was pissing down so there were no teenagers around. Too wet for hoodie cladded hoodlums, thought Mikey happily. Mikey and Colin were just cracking in to their next can when who should come out of the chippy but Honest Dan cheerfully brandishing large cod, chips curry sauce and a litre of coke. I think I need to explain to you that Honest Dan’s name was ironic. Honest Dan was probably as dishonest as the day is long, probably more slippery than a toddler in a bathing suit, probably more devious than a dog who knew the secret code to the local sausage factory. Let’s just say, he wasn’t to be trusted.
“Season’s Greetings to you!”
“How’s it going Dan?”
“Not bad Mikey, not bad at all, in fact I think it’s very fortuitous that I should bump into you.”
“Really Dan, why’s that?”
“Christmas trees Mikey, I’ve got two hundred to flog…interested?”
“Where’d you get two hundred Christmas trees?”
“Let’s just say, I’ve got connections.”
“What kind are they?”
“Double spruce, zero drop.”
“I am a bit skint at the moment.”
“Tell you what, you can have them for 250. I’ll drop them round tomorrow.”
“But Dan..I need to ask my mum and we haven’t got the room for…and I haven’t got 250.”
Dan had already slung his hefty bulk onto his racer and was off down the street before Mikey could finish.
Mikey was dreaming about completing the Death Star and then losing a crucial piece of Lego when he heard the warbled angry cry of his mother “Mikey, get down here now!”
Mikey pulled on his dressing gown, stepped into his Wookie slippers, and flew downstairs. His mother stood pointing at the backdoor. “What the shitting hell, Mikey?”
Mikey followed his mother’s gaze and was met with a sea of pine needles, most of which were on the floor. True to his word Honest Dan had delivered what looked like two hundred
Christmas trees, but they were the scrawniest, puniest looking trees Mikey had ever seen in all of his life. It was hard to begin to imagine how on earth Honest Dan had managed to fit them all in, but Mikey couldn’t actually get out of the door to check.
Colin found Mikey round the back of the Co-op looking broken and dejected, like a supermarket trolley with no wheels.
“How’s it going Mikey, you’ve still got a lot of trees mate?”
“If you think this is a lot you should see the back of our garden.”
“Well, I sold one, but the bloke was back after half an hour?”
“His wife sneezed, and all the pine needles fell off.”
At six o’clock Mikey was feeling cold and fed up. It was going to take about ten trips to cart the bastard things back home.
“Excuse me, how much are your trees?”
Mikey looked up and felt the strangest feeling in his chest. He tried to swallow and couldn’t. he tried to speak, and no words came out. The woman in front of him dressed in DMs, a duffle coat and reindeer horns was the loveliest thing he’d ever seen. Mikey pointed at the sign with the price on.
“Would you do me a deal? I want all of them.”
“All of them?”
“Yes, you see the thing is my nan is in a home and I haven’t seen her since March.”
“Well, she’s from Norway and she used to tell me about the trees in her garden all full of lights…I thought if I could get a load of trees then I could fill the garden and she would see it from her window.”
“And the people at the home don’t mind?”
“No they think it’s a great idea, they lent me the mini bus and a friend of mine has given me fifty sets of fairy lights…it’s a long story.”
“So, how much?”
“For the trees?”
“You can have them for nothing.”
“But they’re terrible I should warn you. The needles don’t stay on. Double Bruce Zero Drop my arse.”
“Sorry they’re meant to be….”
“They’ll be fine outside, with all the lights on. Are you sure, about them being free?”
Driving across town to Clegmont House singing along to Shakey’s ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’ Mikey felt giddy with glee. Decorating the trees with all the lights was the most fun Mikey had had in years.
“Do you want to come back in the morning to see my Nanna Astrid’s face, through the window?”
“I’d love to.”
“I’ll give you a lift home if you like.”
“That would be smashing.”
Mikey and Suzie sped across town singing along to Mariah Carey this time. Mikey hopped out and Suzie said she’d be back at eight in the morning to collect him.
Mikey waved, grinning as she disappeared in Clegmont House’s minibus. He suddenly
remembered the rest of the trees in the garden and the fact he owned Honest Dan all that money but who cared? Nothing else mattered because Mikey Smith was in love. He felt a song coming on and rushed upstairs to get his guitar out.
Dave Clarke the Gardener at Clegmont House nearly passed out when he arrived at work. The trees that had been dug up and stolen back in October were back and were decorated with lights. They looked a bit worse for wear, but it was wonderful to see them back. He couldn’t wait to see his favourite resident Astrid’s face. She had been the reason he had planted them in the first place..
Eddy Scarman was not particularly sad when he heard that Greg Marshal, his close associate for many years, had been beaten to death in a back alley. He was angry. The loss of his old friend meant he would have to find a new enforcer. Not an easy or cheap task, especially at this time of year. So, although he finds it distasteful, he will, personally, have to collect rents and, if necessary, evict.
Scarman owns several properties which he rents out at ‘market’ rates. The ‘properties’ are mainly rooms in large houses in the poorer, run-down areas of town. Each room is let with few restrictions and minimal paperwork. All that is required is that the rent is paid regularly and on time.
The loss of his rent collector is particularly irksome at Christmas time, as tenants consider that payment can be delayed and the rent money spent on inessentials like decorations and presents.
Scarman always detests Christmas and this set-back is yet another reason for his hatred.
Every charity, local or international, uses Yuletide to bombard him with forceful demands for funds. He ignores them. It is not his responsibility to pay for others who are stupid enough not to be able to look after themselves.
For the past month there has been an air of false gaiety around town, affected to help the shops extract money from the public and compete with the internet.
His wife, Bridgette, seems to enjoy this, so-called, festive season and expects additional money to spend on trivialities. He generously gives her a little extra, but deducts this from her annual house-keeping account. He notes that she showers even more affection on Tom, their disabled son, at this time of year, as though he deserves more. Scarman considers that he doesn’t deserve anything, as he is a ‘cripple’ and a useless drain on resources.
They had a daughter too, but luckily she left home as soon as she was sixteen and had become something unprofitable like a nurse or something. When she left he reduced Bridgette’s house-keeping by half. Now that he would have to be out collecting rents on Christmas Day, if she should visit, he would not be subjected to her namby-pamby, good will to all men, socialist rhetoric
There are rents to be collected today. But he is sitting, thinking? Wasting time. Time is Money. He should get going. Now that Marshal has deserted him he has no transport. He would have to call a taxi.
---- >< ----
‘OK, guvner. Where to?
Scarman slipped into the back seat of the black cab. He hated taxis, especially black cabs, they were ridiculously expensive. If he had to travel, which he rarely did, he would go by bus or tube. On this occasion, he has no time to waste on waiting or changing or trudging around tunnels.
‘Old Coal Wharf Road, as quick as you like’
‘Is that the river end or the Ritzy Palace end?
‘About halfway down, number 141’.
The Ritzy Palace. That brought back memories from a different age.
He first met Bridgette at the Palace, one Saturday just before Christmas, a long time ago.
Marshal and he had made a bit of money, he couldn’t recall if it was money from a scam or from thieving, and they decided to go to the Palace. They intended to flash the cash and pick up a couple of scrubbers.
When Scarman trawled the dance floor he noted a party of posh birds, who were obviously slumming. One girl in particular attracted his attention. She was not the prettiest or most flamboyant member of the group; she looked slightly scared and vulnerable. He had to admit it, to him she looked desperate. He imagined that he was on to a good thing.
He slicked back his hair and donned his most charming smile and approached her, feigning shyness.
‘Would you care to dance?’ he asked in a voice that he hoped disguised his usual rough tones. She flushed and turned to her friends, who encouraged her to accept. Hesitantly she agreed and followed him onto the floor. He found that she was a very good dancer, possibly even better than him. They swept around floor, their bodies in close contact.
Surprisingly he found himself very attracted to her.
When the dance was over he took her to the bar and bought her a Babycham.
‘Do you come here, often?’ he asked. Corny, he thought, but it would do as an opener.
‘No, this is my first time; It’s my friend Joanna’s birthday so we are having a night out’.
‘I hope you are enjoying yourself. I’ve been here a couple of times, but I’ve never liked it before. Now that I’ve met you it seems a great place’. He smoothed.
Her cheeks reddened again and she asked ‘What is your name? I am Bridgette’.
‘Edward, Friends call me Eddy’
‘Can I call you Eddy, then?’
They continued talking for some time; he fibbed about himself, but she seemed quite genuine about herself.
When her friends arrived, to drag her away; he found he was hoping that she would stay. Unfortunately her friends succeeded, but on parting she formally shook his hand. He found she had placed a piece of paper in his hand with her phone number scribbled on it. He felt strangely happy and he knew that he would see her again.
Marshal arrived with a couple of dolly birds in tow and he temporarily forgot Bridgette.
Scarman did see Bridgette again; he took her to an up-market pub and bought her fish and chips. They met again and again and enjoyed each others company. Eventually she took him home to meet her parents. He was really impressed with her house, it was big and in the best part of town. He realised that there was serious money here. It made Bridgette even more attractive.
He set out to charm her parents and did so convincingly. They married and moved into a pleasant house, bought for them by her father. They quickly produced a strong and healthy daughter.
To celebrate becoming a Grandfather, Bridgette’s father gave his son-in-law a loan for the purchase of a rental property. Scarman’s property business took off and with Greg Marshal’s help, it became very profitable. Profits were further boosted when his father-law died, and he found that the loan agreement was cancelled.
He persuaded Bridgette to finance further property purchases just before the birth of their son.
Tom was born with a debilitating condition which condemned him to a wheel chair for life. Scarman was disgusted by the boy’s imperfection and blamed Bridgette.
He would not accept that Tom was his son and totally ignored him. He allowed ‘the cripple’ to live in the family house (no one could call it home) but would not spend any money on extras that would make the boy’s life more comfortable. He kept such a tight hold on Bridgette’s spending that she could, despite every effort, not help her son either.
Scarman spent more and more time at his office in town and contributed less and less to the household. He restricted the purchase of any home comforts including food and clothing, despite his income increasing spectacularly.
Home life for himself and his family became increasingly miserable.
He became reclusive and embittered.
---- >< ----
Scarman was by no means technologically competent, but he did have a laptop, taken in lieu of rent from a struggling student. He used it sparingly to produce the odd letter, falsify his Tax returns and secretly monitor his income and outgoings.
When he returned from Old Coal Wharf Road he wanted to record the sums collected and note the extra moneys he had begrudgingly given his wife for Christmas. He flipped open the lid switched on and waited whilst the aging machine stoked itself up.
Eventually the screen displayed an annoying mixture of news items and adverts. One advert shouted that ‘Seniors were obtaining Huge Benefits’ by logging onto a certain website. He guessed this was a con but decided to take a look, just in case there was something to be gained.
The site turned out to be promotion for a funeral director offering discounts for pre-booking. Scarman had no interest in this so he clicked a key to return to the main menu. When the image on screen failed to disappear he tapped another key, then another, but still the text and pictures remained. He was unable to switch off the machine.
The image on screen gradually resolved itself into a video of a long, shining black hearse labouring up a hill to a remote cemetery. A mist shrouded the graveyard.
As the mist cleared he recognised, his wife, his daughter and his son. Bridgette looked immaculate in a well-cut black suit, a veil partially covering her stony expression. His daughter, also beautifully dressed, was almost smiling as she waited for the coffin. The only member of the group who displayed any obvious emotion was his diminutive son Tom, who was crying openly and clutching his mother’s hand. Scarman noted that ‘the cripple’ was seated in a top-of-the-range electric wheel chair.
It was obvious that he was witnessing his own funeral. He was momentarily scared, but fear soon gave way to anger. Why were there so few to witness his passing? Were his family’s clothes newly bought? How much did that wheel chair cost? In fact how much was the whole fiasco costing? Was it his money that was being wasted?
The scene in front of him began to change; the coffin was being taken to a remote, overgrown corner of the graveyard to a lonely hole in the ground. There was no sign of a headstone. There was, though, another mourner at this grave side. Scarman was horrified to see that it was Marshal.
As the coffin was roughly lowered into the cold, cold earth, Scarman experienced, violent shaking and a feeling of claustrophobia. Now he was really panicking, he threw the lap-top to the floor and stamped on it. At last the images were gone.
---- >< ----
He sat trembling for at least twenty minutes. Had he really seen the future? If so perhaps he should do something, before it was too late.
Trudging home along the wet and windy street he was aware of the cold penetrating his old overcoat. He was also aware that his fellow pedestrians were glowing with happiness and excitement despite the weather. Could he, he wondered, ever be like them; what would he have to do?
He opened the front door to the cold and dismal entrance hall. He didn’t announce himself and did not expect a greeting from the family. Normally he would go straight to his first floor office, where he would continue working and wait for his wife to bring him soup at the appointed hour.
This evening he decided to walk down the corridor to the kitchen. He could hear laughter which immediately stopped when he opened the door. The room was warm and cosy, his wife and son were huddled at the kitchen table, covered with strips of multi-coloured paper. They were making Christmas decorations. He was about to express his disapproval when his daughter appeared from the larder. ‘
‘What are you doing here?' she said.
He opened his mouth to reply angrily ‘It is my house’ but he found himself saying, ‘I thought we might go out this evening, have a meal and buy a Christmas tree and a turkey.’
This was received with a suspicious silence by mother and daughter. Tom, though, clapped his hands and laughed merrily.
Much to everyone’s surprise they ate at Mc Donald’s. Scarman was not impressed but he said nothing, the rest of the family thoroughly enjoyed the unusual treat. They went to the butchers where Bridgette chose a turkey, slightly bigger than was really necessary. A Christmas tree was purchased, along with some baubles and bells.
Scarman was pleased to see that all were smiling and happy. He saw a glimpse of the Bridgette he had met at that dance hall so many yeas ago and he found he was smiling too.
When they got home Scarman unlocked the meter cupboard, turned up the central heating thermostat and replaced the fuses for the ‘non-essential’ lighting and power. Immediately the house became more inviting.
‘Thank you, Dad’ said his daughter and gave him a kiss on the cheek, something she had not done for over twenty years.
Tom wheeled himself over and gently squeezed his father’s hand.
‘I will cook us the best Christmas dinner we have ever had, Eddy’ said Bridgette looking into his eyes.
Scarman found that tears were running down his cheeks. Why had he dismissed the family for so long?
He would reform. He resolved not to be so distant and miserly. He would pay for medical treatment for Tom. He would be more considerate to his tenants. He would donate to charity.
He would be the husband and father his family deserved.
This would be the first Happy Christmas time of many.