In my last column of the year for the Tetbury Advertiser, I reflect on the strange year that was 2020.
Irrationally fond of round numbers and irrepressibly optimistic, this time last year I was convinced that 2020 would be the antidote we needed to the rigours of 2019. Before 31st December 2019, given ‘2020’ in a word association test, I’d have automatically replied ‘vision’, alluding to the optician’s measure of perfection.
I was also excited at the prospect of a new decade. Could we look forward to our own ‘Roaring Twenties’ – the heady days of economic growth and prosperity that followed the Great War? (Preferably without an equivalent to the Great Crash of 1929.)
Back to the present day, and that neat and tidy number has morphed into a curse. It’s become the standard response on social media to anyone’s report of misfortune.
Car broken down? “Well, it is 2020.”
Washing machine flooded? “2020 strikes again.”
95-year-old film star dies peacefully in his sleep? “Aargh, 2020, what are you doing to us?”
Of course, it’s not 2020’s fault at all. It’s simply the power of association. But who would have foreseen this time last year that so much turmoil and tragedy could be wrought by a microscopic virus and a larger-than-life political leader? (More than one political leader, depending on your personal point of view.)
Neither of these news tsunamis would pass the credibility test I apply while writing fiction. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said while watching the news this year, “If I put that in one of my novels, readers would complain it didn’t ring true.”
To be fair, I stopped trusting in 2020 early in the year, when I read this piece of anti-fraud advice:
“When signing documents in 2020, write the date in full, rather than abbreviating the year to ‘20’, or tricksters will be able to add any further two digits of their choice to suit their nefarious needs. A will dated simply ‘1/2/20’ could easily be changed to ‘1/2/2000’ or ‘1/2/2025’, thus pre- or post-dating a legitimate current document, with life-changing consequences for the beneficiaries.’
Now there’s a great starting point for one of my mystery novels. The only thing is, would it be a hit with my readers? I’m not sure I should take the risk this year. After all, it is 2020.
Roll on 2021 – and I wish you all a very happy new year!
IN OTHER NEWS
But hang, we’ve still got to get through Christmas 2020 first! If you’re finding the preparations particularly stressful this year, with the added challenges of catering for Covid, here’s a little treat that will lift your spirits and put you into a festive frame of mind…
My collection of warm, witty short stories set in the run-up to Christmas will make you laugh and count your blessings.
“A fabulous festive treat! I’m not normally a short stories reader but I adored this little book. So well written, such an interesting mix, and perfect bedtime reading. Put me right in the mood for Christmas. Loved it.” – Jackie Kabler
Just 99p for the ebook or £4.99 for the paperback (or local currency equivalent worldwide), it’ll make you fall in love with Christmas all over again.
With just a week to go before Christmas Eve, most households are likely to be going into overdrive just now, wrapping presents, writing cards and stocking up with groceries for the holiday season. Having lost most of December to illness, I’ve not written a single card yet, and as I type, my daughter, now 12 and old enough to be very useful, is wrapping all my presents for me.
I’d already started panicking about running out of time last month, when I wrote my column for the December issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, which you can read below. But if you’d like an antidote to this dilemma, I’ve also added below my short story, “Christmas Time”, which is one of twelve in my festive collection, Stocking Fillers.
CHRISTMAS LISTS (from the December issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News)
Don’t let anyone fool you that February is the shortest month. It’s actually November.
Being an old-fashioned type, I wait until after Guy Fawkes Night before I start thinking about Christmas. Then, without warning, I discover it’s nearly December, and I’ve still not done any Christmas shopping or written any Christmas cards.
In hope of catching up with myself, in mid-November I ask my daughter (12) what she’d like for Christmas. As she’s already planning her birthday party for next May, I’m surprised she hasn’t yet presented me with her usual A4 wish-list.
“I don’t really need anything.” Her candour is refreshing. She passes the baton to my husband, quizzing him on what he’d like.
“Socks,” he pronounces, with certainty.
“But you’ve got dozens of socks in your wardrobe,” I point out. “You just need to pair them up.”
“In that case, for Christmas, I’d like someone to pair up all my socks for me,” he concludes.
No-one asks me, so I ask myself what I’d like for Christmas. More time, I decide, I just need more time. Then when I flip the calendar over to look at the next month, I discover that my gift has already been delivered: December, unlike November, has a whole 31 days.
Well, that was a cheap round, Santa, but I think your work here is done.
Merry Christmas, everybody!
CHRISTMAS TIME (A short story from Stocking Fillers)
My annual Christmas present from my godmother, Auntie Fay, may be small in size because she has to post it all the way from Australia, but it’s always a tonic that helps me get through the whirlwind of preparing for a typical family Christmas.
No surprise, then, that I can’t resist opening her parcel the moment it arrives. This year, it landed on my doormat on 23 December. Seeing her beautiful copperplate handwriting on the label beneath the showy Australian stamps made my heart skip a beat with excitement. Settling down at the kitchen table, I peeled off the outer wrapper to reveal a small Christmas card bent protectively around a tiny square parcel. I ripped off the glittery paper, sending specks of silver fluttering up around me as if heralding a magic spell. To my surprise, inside lay nothing more remarkable than a slim alarm clock. Its circular clock face bore a stylised world map, reminding me of just how much distance lay between Auntie Fay and me. Around the edge of the clock face ran the slogan “Stop the world!” repeated several times.
I flipped the clock over to see whether it was made in Australia, but found no clue. There were just the usual knobs, time set and alarm set, and three buttons labelled off, stop and snooze. I adjusted it to English time, then twiddled the alarm set knob to match the time so that I could check out the sound of the alarm. It was a pleasantly low vibrating purr that I didn’t think would be audible beyond my side of the bed. Then I noticed a raised pillow-shaped symbol with an arrow pointing to it, suggesting that the clock should be tucked under the pillow for the gentlest, most comforting of awakenings. I liked the sound of that.
Feeling vaguely guilty that, like a badly brought-up child, I’d taken stock of the present before the card, I set the clock down on the kitchen table and opened the card. It showed an unlikely scene of a wombat and a kangaroo exchanging Christmas gifts. What would they buy each other? I wondered. Inside, opposite the printed greeting, the page was filled edge to edge with Auntie Fay’s handwriting, its neat script at odds with the rambling message. She always wrote exactly as she talked.
“Jessie my dear, I hope this little gift will help you get more rest and catch up with yourself. I couldn’t help noticing you looked a little tired in that last lovely photo you sent me of you and Jake and your dear boys, haven’t they grown? More like your father every day, that’s no bad thing, he’s a dear boy too, at least he was when we were small, though always bigger than me, of course. Don’t try to do too much at this busy time of year, will you? Get plenty of sleep and you’ll all enjoy Christmas so much more. Those buttons on the back are there for a reason, you know, so make sure you use them!”
I put Auntie Fay’s card on the kitchen dresser, where it could stand in proxy for her throughout the season’s celebrations. Then I went upstairs to slip her gift under my pillow before getting on with my chores.
By bedtime I was bleary eyed from a long day of channelling the twins’ excitement into constructive behaviour. We really didn’t need quite so many paper chains, but making them keeps six-year-olds occupied for ages. I flung myself wearily into bed, forgetting Auntie Fay’s new clock until I fluffed up the pillows for a soothing late-night read. I showed the clock to Jake, who was sitting up in bed playing Hearts on his tablet.
“That’s cute,” he remarked. “But surely you’re not planning to set an alarm for tomorrow, are you? We’re on holiday! A fortnight without work, hurrah!”
“Are you kidding? I’ve still got all the presents to wrap, mince pies to make, vegetables to peel, stuffing to mix, plus loads of cleaning to do so the house looks half decent for when our folks come round for Christmas dinner. The kids are messing the house up faster than I can tidy. In fact, even if I didn’t go to bed at all tonight, I’d still have trouble fitting everything in.
Jake set the tablet on his bedside table, leaned over to give me a quick kiss, then lay down facing away from me.
“Well, wake me up when you’ve finished, love. I’m on holiday. Night night.”
I set Auntie Fay’s alarm for 7am and slipped it under my pillow.
I woke up to its gentle purring what seemed like moments later. The light was still on, my reading book had fallen sideways in my hand, and there was just enough traffic roaring past the house to confirm that the rush hour was about to begin.
Hazy with insufficient sleep, I pulled the clock out from under my pillow, flipped it over and hit a button on the back to silence the purr. Jake slumbered on peacefully as I threw back the duvet and wrapped my dressing gown around me. The refreshing silence from across the landing told me that, by some miracle, the twins were also still asleep. I stuffed my feet into fluffy slippers and stumbled downstairs to brew a sustaining pot of tea. I needed to be fortified before I tackled my to-do list.
I decided first to take advantage of the continuing peace upstairs to wrap all the presents. Job done, I hid them in the ironing basket (the last place Jake or the boys would think to look) before taking a cup of tea up to Jake. He was still spark out, as were the boys, so I left the tea on his bedside table. As I went back downstairs, I slipped one hand into my dressing gown pocket in search of a tissue, only to discover that I’d absent-mindedly put Auntie Fay’s clock in there instead of putting it back under my pillow. Turning it over to check the time, I realised with a start that it still said seven o’clock. Had I inadvertently dislodged the battery? No, it was still ticking. So why had the hands not moved on?
But I couldn’t spare the time to investigate, so I tucked it back into my pocket and hauled the Dyson out of the broom cupboard. The noise of vacuuming would certainly wake the boys, but it had to be done. Yet as I tucked the Dyson back in the cupboard half an hour later, there was still no sound from upstairs. Suddenly filled with panic, I ran upstairs to check the boys were still breathing. They were, but they were asleep, so I tiptoed back downstairs to start cooking.
Not used to such peace in the mornings, I clicked on the radio for company. I was just in time to hear the BBC’s pips marking the hour, immediately followed by the announcement of the seven o’clock news headlines. Spooked, I quickly pressed the off switch. Surely I’d done at least three hours’ work since Auntie Fay’s alarm woke me up at seven? For a moment I wondered whether it had reverted to Australian time, but that made no sense because the time difference between our countries is more like twelve hours than three.
I distracted myself by setting to work on the mountain of vegetables that I planned to prepare and leave in the fridge, ready to cook on Christmas Day. That job done, I started on the mince pies.
By the time the third batch was cooling on the wire rack I was feeling peckish, so I made another pot of tea and some toast. I thought I’d take Jake a fresh cup. When I nipped upstairs to get his mug, predictably still untouched, I was astonished to find that the tea in it was still as hot as when I’d poured it hours before. It was as if time had stood still.
I sat down on the bed with a thump, not caring whether I disturbed Jake now, and drew Auntie Fay’s alarm clock out of my dressing gown pocket. I didn’t need to look at it to know that it would still say 7am. I turned it over to double-check which button I’d hit to turn off the alarm. One was still depressed. It was the stop button. And then it hit me: with my Stop the World clock, I’d stopped the world.
I had a sudden panic. Was the action reversible? Quickly I hit the stop button again, and as it sprang back up the second hand started to move. At the very same moment Jake awoke.
“Is that my tea? Thanks, love. Happy Christmas Eve!”
All at once, from the twins’ bedroom came sounds of excitable boys on the cusp of their seventh Christmas. Having already completed my chores for the day, I realised to my delight that I could now relax and enjoy the day with them.
By the evening, I was in a mellow mood and unusually calm while bathing the twins and putting them to bed. Then Jake and I enjoyed a relaxing evening watching television with a jug of mulled wine. While Jake was out of the room on a quest for Pringles, I raised a silent toast of gratitude to Auntie Fay for her thoughtful, magical gift of time.
My gratitude to her did not end there. I’d told the boys they were not allowed to wake us on Christmas morning until six o’clock. I had the foresight to set Auntie Fay’s alarm clock for one minute before six. The moment I felt its gentle purr, I slipped my hand beneath my pillow and felt for the stop button. Then I turned over, snuggled down under the duvet and leaned in to the warmth of Jake’s back. Plenty of time yet for a nice lie-in. Christmas Day wouldn’t begin until I was good and ready. Smiling, I closed my eyes.
If you enjoyed this story, it’s not too late to order Stocking Fillers, the book of twelve stories from which it’s taken, in ebook or paperback form. The paperback’s available from various local bookshops, and both ebook and paperback are available to order online from Amazon and all the usual suspects. Just search under ISBN 978-0993087929 for the paperback, or for the title and author name for the ebook.
Yes, I know it’s still only October, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll already have stashed away in a secret place at least one Christmas present, bought early to avoid the rush/grab a seasonal bargain/stop you panicking that you’ll leave it all till the last minute.
In the interests of helping you along, I thought I’d post up on my blog today a free sample short story from Stocking Fillers (note to my American friends: that’s British English for Stocking Stuffers, rather than an indicator of an unexpected foray into erotica). The story that follows, a fun take on the annual Christmas letters that drop through so many of our letterboxes each year, is the first of twelve gently humorous tales in this seasonal collection. Continue reading “An Early Christmas Present: The First Story in My Festive Collection”→
A report on my appearance on BBC Radio Gloucestershire’s Chris Baxter Show yesterday
“I love this book! It’s festive, fun and a bit silly at times!” said BBC Radio Gloucestershire presenter Chris Baxter yesterday, when I was a guest on his excellent afternoon show. “It gets your imagination going, which stories at Christmas need to do.”
I’d been invited to talk about Stocking Fillers, my Christmas book of short stories, and I was thrilled to hear that Chris had been enjoying reading it on the train on his way to work that morning. We talked about the writing process, when I’d started writing them (high summer! – more about that here), and the challenge of writing short pieces.
After that, I was invited to read extracts from some of my favourite stories, which of course I was very pleased to do. I can now describe the book as “as featured on BBC Radio”, which is a terrific endorsement.
As ever, it was a joy to take part in a BBC Radio Gloucestershire programme, and I came away, as always, so impressed with what a great job they do bringing the community together and spreading goodwill throughout the county, not only at Christmas but all year round.
And this time, there was also something else to take away: a request from Chris Baxter for some ghost stories for next Christmas. Hmmm, I’ll have to give that one some thought…
In the meantime, if you’d like to listen to interview, for the next month you can catch up with it on BBC iPlayer here: