The Christmas tree stood slap bang in the centre of the village green, in the sturdy socket where the maypole was fitted in its turn.
It was a handsome tree, if barely decorated and wholly lacking Christmas magic.
Em found its sheer joylessness offensive, and said as much to her best friend as they sat in Agnes’ cozily disordered sitting room enjoying hot chocolate with marshmallows on top.
Agnes scratched her head. “You may have a point. No. You do have a point. Even the little kids aren’t interested. It’s just a big old tree with about ten dim lights on it.”
“Precisely. And that doesn’t feel right somehow.”
“Not your fault, Em. It’s Covid 19 – robbing the world of delight.”
“I know it’s not my fault. But neither were most of the rest of the things we have dealt with in our years.”
Agnes had known Em for a very long time. “What are you up to Emmeline Vanderbilt?”
Nobody said ‘yet’ but it hung in the air like the proverbial elephant.
Agnes applied herself to her hot chocolate in the vain hope that Em might forget all about the Christmas tree. It wasn’t as if Em was even a particularly Christmas-y female, deeming the festival to be a triumph of consumerism, so perhaps there was even hope. No more was said on the subject but Agnes was left with an itchy feeling in her skin, and the uncomfortable certainty that Em was very rarely willing, or able, to leave well enough alone.
Two days later, all of the Little Botheringham seven sat together in Ellen’s house. When everyone had a glass of a very nice red wine, courtesy of Em, and a handful of Lilian’s Caribbean spiced beer nuts, Petunia asked the question that five of her sisters had been edging round.
“Okay Em. What gives? You called an emergency meeting, and we all sneaked in here so nobody knows we are breaking the Covid rules. But now you are sitting there all tight-lipped and giving us nothing. Talk, will you…”
Everyone else sort of winced, although Petunia seemed unphased and regarded Em with one upraised eyebrow. For a moment, Em’s reaction hung in the balance then she shrugged and grinned.
“It’s the Christmas tree.”
Agnes groaned. “Why ain’t I surprised.”
“Because you know me quite well. And because you know as well as I do that the tree is a damp squib this year.”
To just about everyone’s surprise Ginny smiled fiercely. “And it should be magic.”
“Precisely.” Em grinned at Ginny finding it hard to see any trace of the downtrodden creature who had entered their lives a year and a half ago. Now Ginny was sleek and glossy and perfectly well able to stand on her own feet – although she had lost none of the kindliness and care for others that had been the best part of her while she was still an ordinary mortal.
Ellen sighed. “Okay. It’s a given that the tree is crap. Partly because of the bugs and stuff, but mostly because the parish council has decided the tree is ‘common’ and not inclusive, and a lot of the bastards are still sulking about the golf club they thought they were going to get.” “True, and eventually we are going to have to get people on the council, but that won’t sort out today’s problem.”
“What will?” Agnes spoke with unusual sharpness. “We can’t be doing anything dramatic. It’s not important enough for that.”
“Not important?” The others rounded on Agnes, who leaned back in her chair and laughed fatly. “Right. We now know that everyone is on board.”
Em leaned over and patted her friend on the thigh. “You crafty old bat,” she said, not bothering to hide her amused admiration, “it’d have taken me two hours of arguing to get this lot in line, but you got them with three sentences.”
“Everybody needs an ology – mine is psych.”
“Yup, you are certainly a psychopath.” That was Petunia again. The class clown.
“Cycle path? Well her ass so wide enough to ride a bike over.” Lilian cackled at her own wit.
“At least I ain’t so skinny that I have to by my clothes at ‘bones are us’.”
“Nah. You get them at ‘rent a marquee’ don’t you.
By now the loud girls were howling with mirth and Em had visions of a very long day. However, someone else took a hand.
“Shut up you lot. Let’s hear what our beloved leader has in mind.” Jamelia seldom spoke so firmly and it had the desired effect. Silence fell, and six pairs of expectant eyes were turned on Em.
“Okay. I have looked at our options and we don’t have that many. But. I think I have a plan that works. A Children’s Christmas sponsored by The Ladies Circle. Socially distanced. Outdoors. I can get that Tristram to provide a big screen and some electrics, also he is willing – after a bit of arm twisting – to put a couple of his apprentice assholes on making a film of the children doing their schtick in lieu of the abandoned nativity play. All done on something calked Zoom of which I wot not.”
Agnes nodded. “So far so good. What else?”
Lilian stuck up a skinny arm. “Some proper barbecue? Loaded rolls and maybe hot chocolate?”
“Something of that ilk.”
“Music. Will have to be recorded. Otherwise we will run foul of the rules.”
The spate of shouted suggestion and counter suggestion was both loud and protracted, and it might have gone on even longer if Em hadn’t chosen to exert her influence as Queen. She concentrated briefly and her aura made itself felt. The room gradually quieted and Em inclined her head to Jamelia, who had been quietly writing in her ever-present notebook.
“Right. Tristram and his kiddy film. I reckon Agnes is the best one among us to keep an eye on that – being the one with most children. Food and drink. Lilian, Petunia and Ellen. With Lilian in charge.
Invitations you can leave to me and Ginny. That means Em is in charge of doing something about that deplorable excuse for a Christmas tree. Which is what she intended all along.”
“Indeed. Are we in agreement then?”
All hands were raised.
“What date are we looking at?” Lilian asked. “I need to know. Food and all. And budget?”
“December 18th. The kids last day at school. And the budget is flexible. Whatever you can’t get donated we can cover.”
Ellen put her hand up. “How about if the children get to keep their hot chocolate mugs? I know a potter who has madly overproduced Christmas ones and I’m sure she could be persuaded to do us a deal.”
“Good thinking. Hot chocolate and maybe gluhwein?” Lilian nodded, then she gave Em a sharp birdlike glance. “I won’t spend too much of your money dear.”
Ginny looked hard at Em.
“Why do I have the idea there is something you are not telling us?”
Agnes laughed. “Because there is always something she isn’t telling us. We just have to hope she ain’t bitten off more than she can chew.”
Em was offended. “When did I ever?”
“You want a list?”
The room dissolved into helpless laughter and Agnes poured everyone a fresh drink.
There wasn’t a lot of time to get the thing off the ground, but vampires have huge resources of normally untapped energy to call on so everything got done in a timely manner. Even if a couple of young computer nerds did learn rather a lot of really fruity language, while some local businessmen found themselves wondering precisely how they came to agree to sponsor such a small event…
The night of December the eighteenth saw a lorry creeping quietly down the village street and a crew of burly young men in orange coveralls converging on the Christmas tree, tutting and swearing. A couple of extremely powerful arc lights made the green as bright as day and the young men soon stripped off the paltry excuse for decoration that had halfheartedly draped the tree, replacing it with a fairytale concoction of silver and white – with hundreds of tiny artificial candles on the ends of the branches. Within the hour they were gone, although anyone truly observant might have noticed one of their number calling at Em’s house and having brief conversation with the lady herself. But those who are observant are also wise enough to not ask questions.
Friday morning, and a steady stream of hefty young men, under Lilian’s acerbic guidance, set up the barbecues and lit the charcoal in the huge braziers that would add warmth as well as the scent of herbs and roasting chestnuts to the event.
Promptly at two-thirty another lorry crept into the village, but this one parked at the edge of the green. Agnes went and had a word with the driver, who accepted a large pack of untidy sandwiches and raised one oily thumb.
Agnes phoned Em. “Everything is in order here, and the tree looks lovely. But where’s the magic.”
“You are a bigger kid than the kids. And you’ll just have to wait and see.”
Em ended the call and sat down with a bit of a bump. Erasmus dropped from his perch to land on her shoulder.
“It will work,” his coolly precise tones echoed in the vaults of her head. “The small ones owe you, and they know it. They will not fail. And besides which they are quite looking forward to being angels instead of demons.”
Em was comforted, even if she couldn’t help a small niggle of worry. Erasmus laughed, not unkindly. “Your kind can never quite give up the insecurities of being human. But perhaps that is for the best, you are enough of a force of nature without fancying yourself infallible.”
“You are such a comfort to me. Not. But, on the other hand, how does an overripe banana grab you?”
“By the testicles.”
Em went to the kitchen.
It was six o’clock when Agnes banged perfunctorily on Em’s back door.
“I’m coming. I’m coming.”
Em emerged, wrapped in the softest of shearling lamb and booted to the knee in conker-bright leather.
“Show time,” she said brightly before shutting the door and leading the way towards light and brightness and good smells.
Two hours later: the Christmas film had been watched and applauded madly, while an inordinate amount of pulled pork, hot chocolate and booze had disappeared down the throats of young and old alike. The church clock struck eight and as the last chime fell into the night the lights on the green went out, as did the village street lamps. The sudden dark might have been frightening if it wasn’t for the music that filled the air. Then a voice spoke.
“All the stars in the heavens came to bless the child who lay in a manger.”
And the sky was filled with twinkling stars coming from the direction of the church to fly round and round the tall tree. At first the light reflected from the silver bells and streamers, but then…
“Look. Look.” It was the voice of a child. “The stars are lighting the candles on the Christmas tree.”
Sure enough, one by one, the hundreds of candles on the tree were springing to life as the ‘stars’ flew dizzily round and round. Then, one by one, the shining stars flew away, back towards the church where it was outlined by a rising moon.
As if that was not magic enough a great voice cried out from the sky. “Come Dasher, come Dancer, come Prancer, come Vixen, come Comet, come Cupid, come Donner, come Blitzen, come Rudolph.”
And there He was – on his sleigh perched atop the lorry which had brought the cinema screen and electronic wizardry to the village. He stood, tall and strong, throwing brightly wrapped gifts into the crowd.
As the lights in the village slowly blinked back on, a cloud briefly crossed the moon.
When the children looked again, Santa was gone, and so were the shining stars, but the gifts on the ground were real and the candles flickered and gleamed on the Little Botheringham Christmas Tree.
Season’s greetings from Little Botheringham – and a reminder that Much Dithering in Little Botheringham, with more tales of village life and vampires, will return sometime in the New Year…