As my Christmas present to you, here is a new free short story, available to read right here on my website, set in the world of the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries. It’s not a murder mystery, just a bit of feel-good fun that will transport you straight into Hector’s House, the Wendlebury Barrow village bookshop, as Sophie and friends get ready for the festive season.
I originally wrote this story at the request of Helen Hollick, to feature on her blog this month as part of her fun series of stories inspired by songs. To read the rest of the stories in her series, with a new tale by a different author every day in December, visit her Discovered Diamonds blog here. And here’s the link to where my story appeared there on 20th December.
IT DOESN’T FEEL LIKE CHRISTMAS
“It doesn’t feel the least bit like Christmas,” I complained to Hector as I added another couple of books to our window display of festive gift ideas. The sky was a pure, clear forget-me-not blue, the air was still, and the sun beamed down fit to melt the fake snow on the inside of the glass.
“Just think of it as a green Christmas rather than a white one,” replied Hector, closing the door behind a departing customer. “After all, we’re giving a new lease of life to all that packaging material.”
Whenever either of us had a moment, we’d uncrumple the kraft paper that came wedged into our suppliers’ boxes to stop books getting damaged in transit and iron it on the stockroom table. Then we cut it into A2 sheets to make it more manageable and put them at the centre of the children’s play table in the bookshop’s tea room, alongside Christmas stencils and coloured felt tip pens. Hey presto – environmentally-friendly Christmas gift-wrap! Complimentary gift-wrapping of all books purchased in Advent encouraged locals to do their Christmas shopping at Hector’s House rather than in town or online.
“That’s child labour, that is,” declared Tommy, breezing in through the door as I stepped back from the shop window.
Although local teenager Tommy is a regular visitor to the bookshop, he comes not for the books but for the company. More often than not, he tries to blag a free milkshake. Occasionally, when flush from helping old Billy with odd jobs, he actually pays for one. We’d seen more of Tommy than usual this week, after their lucrative double-act hawking wheelbarrows of holly, ivy and mistletoe around the village.
Tommy sat down on one of the child-sized chairs at the play table opposite his little sister Sina. His gangly legs ranged either side of the table like a young giraffe’s.
“How much are they paying you to do that, Sina?”
He jabbed a grubby finger at her orderly rows of holly leaves. I thought he might put her off, but she was not so easily deterred, continuing to loop her green felt pen along the edge of the stencil.
“Nothing, and I don’t care, because it’s fun. Actually, I think we’re lucky Hector’s not charging us to do it.”
Hector cleared his throat.
“And it’s helping a good cause, Tommy. Two good causes, in fact: the environment, by finding a good use for paper that would otherwise go for recycling, and the church’s Christmas appeal.”
When Tommy looked dubious, I explained.
“Hector’s donating the amount he’d usually spend on gift wrap to the charity’s Christmas appeal.”
“And very grateful we are too,” said the vicar, emerging from the non-fiction section with a couple of hardbacks. He set them down on the trade counter and took out his wallet to pay Hector. “It’s astonishing how many people forget to bring money for the Christmas service collections, or who find themselves short of cash once they’ve all finished their Christmas shopping. Priorities, my dears, priorities…”
While Hector gift-wrapped each book, the vicar took a seat at one of the tearoom tables.
“Cappuccino, please, Sophie. I think I’ve earned it after hosting the village school’s visit to the church this afternoon.”
Sina laid down her green pen and beamed at the vicar.
“Yes, that was fun, especially getting a chocolate decoration each off the Christmas tree.”
Tommy pulled a sheet of paper towards him and picked up a black pen and a snowman stencil.
“You lucky duck! We never do anything like that at my school.”
Tommy had long since left the village primary school and now attended the nearest secondary school a few miles away.
“Chocolate wasn’t the prime purpose of the visit,” said the vicar. “I invited the children for a sneak preview of our crib.”
Each year, the vicar brings out an ancient set of china figurines to recreate the Bethlehem nativity scene. There’s also a charming model stable, lovingly crafted in elm by some parishioner long since departed to the churchyard.
He’s not daft, the vicar. Inviting the schoolchildren to view the crib is an effective way of enticing whole families to come to his Advent and Christmas services, persuaded by their children’s delight in the traditional tableau.
Sina folded her arms.
“Yes, but it was a con, because the baby Jesus wasn’t even there.”
Tommy drew a fierce expression on his first snowman, making it look like a chubby Halloween ghost. For a moment I thought he’d added two noses by mistake, then I realised they were fangs.
“Maybe today was the baby Jesus’s day for playgroup.”
He glanced up to check Sina’s reaction to his joke. Her expression was stern.
I hoped a young visitor hadn’t pocketed the baby Jesus during the school visit. I could understand the temptation. There may have been no room for him at the inn, but he’d fit perfectly in a Sylvanian Family playhouse.
The vicar sighed.
“The thing is, Sina, Jesus isn’t born until Christmas Day, so we don’t add him to the crib till then. Come to the morning service on the twenty-fifth and you’ll see him then.”
I was ashamed to have forgotten that detail, despite having been a Sunday School teacher since Easter.
As I set the vicar’s coffee on his table, Sina raised a forefinger to herald a bright idea.
“Why don’t you just put his scan picture in the crib in the meantime? That’s what people do who can’t wait to see their real baby. My auntie had a scan picture of her baby in a frame on the mantlepiece for months before it was born.”
“Who’s just been born?” asked Billy, entering the shop for the second time that day. “Christmas babies always follow a good spring.”
“The baby Jesus,” replied Sina. “Only he hasn’t been born yet. That’s the trouble.”
“You’re two thousand years behind the times, girlie,” said Billy, touching his cap to the vicar. “Don’t that pesky internet teach you anything useful?”
“Coffee, Billy?” asked the vicar.
“That’s very kind of you, vicar, but I’m here on a mission.”
“That should be your line, shouldn’t it, vicar?” said Hector, as he opened the till and tipped a bag of pound coins into the cash drawer. “What are you after, Billy?”
Billy untied his scarf. I was pleased to see he was wearing the one I’d made for him during the recent village craze for knitting.
“I’m after the right book for my old cousin Maurice.”
Hector had heard tales of Maurice before. “You mean the one you haven’t seen for twenty years?”
“Aye, that’s the one.” He wagged a finger at Hector. “You know I’ve been buying him a book here every Christmas, ever since you opened this shop of yours. So don’t you go implying I’m neglecting him. I wouldn’t do that, not with so few of my family left alive, God bless ‘em.”
Like Tommy, Billy rarely buys a book, treating Hector’s House like a social hub rather than a purveyor of fine reading materials. But that’s okay. The best bookshops are much more than the means of buying a book – they are at the heart of the community. That’s one of the reasons I love working here. Well, that and Hector. Soon after I started working here, Hector became my boyfriend as well as my boss.
Hector came out from behind the trade counter, rubbing his hands together.
“So, what’s it to be this year, Billy? If I remember rightly, last year it was a collection of nature notes for every day of the year. Lovely woodcut illustrations, I recall.”
“Yes, and what a fine idea of yours that was. If Maurice has been using it properly, he’ll have read a little bit each day and that’ll have made him think of me all year round.” Billy lifted his cap to scratch his head. “But I don’t know about this year, Hector. What can I give him?”
“Poor as I am,” returned the vicar, quick as a flash.
I smiled at the reference to my favourite Christmas carol, which I’ve loved since I first learned it at primary school.
Hector consulted the non-fiction shelves for a few moments, then pulled out an astronomy guide with a map of the night sky for every week of the new year and an anthology of 365 poems.
“It must be hard to live at a distance from your relatives,” I said gently.
My parents live in Inverness, hundreds of miles from our Cotswold village of Wendlebury Barrow, so I thought I knew how he must feel.
“Aye,” said Billy, taking the books from Hector to examine. “Especially without a car. That’s the only reason I regrets never learning to drive.”
The local bus company runs services as far as Slate Green, our nearest market town, but that’s all. To travel further afield, you have to change at Slate Green, and even then you can’t get beyond a radius of about ten miles.
“I don’t want a heavy book, mind.” Billy weighed the two books up against each other, one in each hand. “Postage ain’t cheap these days.”
I was curious as to how far flung Billy’s relations were. I knew he’d lived in Wendlebury all his life, although his brother had left as a young man.
“So where exactly does this Maurice live, Billy?” I asked. “Is he still in the UK?”
I wondered whether he’d emigrated, like Hector’s twin brother Horace.
Billy passed both books back to Hector with a shake of his head.
The vicar slammed his coffee cup down on his saucer.
“What?” he and I cried together.
I fetched a cloth to wipe up the vicar’s spillage.
“But you get the bus to Slate Green to go shopping at least once a week,” I pointed out. “How come you’ve never found the time to call on him?”
Billy shuffled his feet.
“He ain’t been to see me neither. It ain’t my fault. Besides, we always used to meet at our mums’ houses. His mum was my mum’s sister. His mum or mine took turns to cook Sunday dinner and we’d all sit down together, both families. But them days are long gone, and so are our mothers. We was both so upset after they died, just a few weeks apart, that we never really got round to making new arrangements. We missed them too much, see. It just wouldn’t have been the same without them.”
The vicar took the cloth from me to dry his saucer.
“That’s a great pity, Billy. I’ve seen this happen far too often after a bereavement, just when you need your family most.”
Tommy looked up from his sheet of gift wrap. His latest row of snowmen had the threatening air of Mafia hitmen.
“Don’t you like each other, then?”
Billy sat down opposite the vicar, his shoulders slumping.
“Bless you, no, boy. We was thick as thieves when we were your age. Always up to mischief in the village.”
“I wish I had a thief to be thick with.”
Poor Tommy. No other boys from his class lived in the village, one of the disadvantages of being raised in a small rural community.
“We had no end of make-believe games, neither – pirates, cowboys, Robin Hood.”
The vicar set down the cloth and reached across to rest his hand on the frayed cuff of Billy’s ancient tweed jacket.
“Then I think this Christmas you should start making up for lost time. I’ll run you down to see him any time you like. You have only to ask.”
Billy’s face softened. “Well, if Hector would just buck his ideas up about the right present…”
Suddenly Hector’s face lit up.
“I know just the thing!”
And with that he dashed out of the shop.
The others looked puzzled at his unexpected departure, but when I heard Hector opening the front door to his flat at the side of the shop and running up two flights of stairs to his top floor, I knew what he was about.
Moments later, he reappeared in the shop doorway, breathless and triumphant, holding up a vintage hardback copy of Treasure Island. A colour plate on the cover showed a fierce-looking Long John Silver, complete with wooden leg, crutch and parrot.
Billy’s mouth fell open.
“Ah, now that’s what I call a book.”
When Hector put it into his hands, he gazed at it with the rapture of a starving man reading a gourmet menu.
I came out from behind the tearoom counter to appeal to the children.
“Now, who wants to give Billy their paper to wrap his cousin’s present in?”
To my surprise, Sina had laid aside her holly leaves unfinished, and was now scribbling in black pencil on a small square of plain white paper.
“I’m afraid it’ll have to be Tommy’s snowmen, Billy.”
Billy peered at Tommy’s handiwork.
“They’ll do very nicely, thank you, Tom.”
He took the paper to the trade counter for Hector to do the honours. When the vicar drained his coffee cup and got to his feet, I realised he was planning to drive Billy to see Maurice straight away, before he could change his mind.
“Just a minute, vicar,” cried Sina, laying down her pencil and pushing back her chair. “Here, I’ve made this for you. I know how much you’re looking forward to Christmas and the baby Jesus and stuff, so here’s something to keep you going.“
The vicar took the square of paper from her hand and turned it this way and that, narrowing his eyes.
“Ah, I see. It makes sense now I’ve spotted the halo.”
When he showed it to me, I too was at first puzzled by the array of fuzzy, broken lines, with just a dark kidney-shaped blob at the centre. Then it clicked.
“Oh yes, of course! Baby Jesus’s scan photo! Well done, Sina. Very imaginative.”
Sina beamed and went back to colouring in her holly leaves, humming contentedly.
As the vicar escorted Billy, wrapped gift under his arm, out of the bookshop and into his car, I went to stand behind Hector at the trade counter, reading over his shoulder. He was logging Billy’s purchase in the sales ledger he keeps for the second-hand book collection stored in his flat.
“You know what, Hector?” I said, draping my arms over his shoulders and clasping my hands on his chest. “Suddenly it’s starting to feel like Christmas after all.”
Hector closed the ledger and laid his hands gently over mine.
“So it is. Merry Christmas, sweetheart.”
Like to read more about Christmas in Wendlebury Barrow? Try the third Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, Murder in the Manger, a gentle festive mystery with a touch of seasonal romance.
The ebook is now available to order from all major ebook stores, and the paperback can be ordered from Amazon or from your local bookshop.
- Click here to order the ebook or paperback from your local Amazon store.
- Click here to order ebook from other retailers such as Kobo, Apple and Nook.
- To order a paperback from your local bookshop, quote ISBN 978-1911223221.
And if you’ve not yet tried the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, find out about the whole series here on my website.