A CHRISTMAS STORY – PART II

I hope everyone who celebrates at this time of year had a wonderful Christmas.  How quickly a week has gone by!  

As promised, here is part II of my Christmas story; THE THREE WISE GIFTS.  

If you missed Part I, you can read it here.  

I hope you enjoy this,  and I wish each and every one of you a Very Happy and Healthy New Year x

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SATURDAY 24 DEC

Christmas Eve came and went with a blur of colour; the decorations, music, food, and some laughter all seemed to brighten up the shadows from the previous day. The afternoon produced a medley of smells and delights from our kitchen, and both Sylvie and Paul seemed to put the disappearance of the earring behind them. Accusations and bad thoughts had dissipated in the glow of the moment and Simon insisted on finishing a myriad of household chores with Tim, both of them in a red Santa Claus hat;  the two girls giggled in a huddle most of the afternoon. Anticipation ran high and the whole atmosphere seemed festive to the rafters, but Sylvie brought us all back down to earth just before supper, when we were stretched out about the roaring fire.

“Sophie,” she solemnly asked above the idle chatter of the television,”do you remember when you lost that puppy all those years ago, just after Christmas?” She put her glass of wine down carefully and watched my reaction.

The question floored me completely, and I had to stop my ongoing calculations for the Christmas Day ‘food and beverage arrangements’ in order for my brain to work correctly. The memories came flooding back, rushing in like dark floodwater after a great absence. It had been my first Christmas with Simon and the whole of my family, and he’d bought me a beautiful yellow Labrador puppy as a present. Two days after Boxing Day it had disappeared one cold wet morning, and no amount of searching had found the poor thing by dark that night. We were living in Devon then, and a much younger Sylvie had just returned from a six-month stay in Eire, where during a workshop for artists an old woman had taught her to use a gift that Sylvie never knew she had. What she had done that night had amazed us all. The whole family had talked about it for months.

“Yes,” I replied finally, slowly, “I do remember.” I looked at her and Simon stopped what he was doing by the wood-basket and stood up. He remembered as well. We looked at each other, and then at Sylvie.

“Stupid me,” he said, taking up the conversation, “why didn’t we think of that before? Do you still…” and his voice trailed off as we watched Sylvie put her fingers to her neck and start to unclasp her fine gold chain.

The two girls and Tim were watching with interest by now, and as they did so, the necklace came off and a small attached golden ring appeared out of Sylvie’s shirt.

I blurted it out as I could’t resist the question. “Do you still,” and I hesitated for several seconds as Sylvie turned to look at me, “do you still” and I could’t remember the term so Sylvie answered for me.

“Divine? Yes, of course I do.” and she smiled at me softly. I watched in fascination as the ring swung on the chain. I had forgotten all about this, it had been so long since we had seen Sylvie. The children were mystified, and Katie voiced the question for all of them.

“Mum, what’s going on?” and they all gazed at the ring, too. Paul was sitting quietly in the background, and I realised with a quick thought that he had probably seen this scenario a hundred times. It was Simon who explained, my mind was still wondering about the possibilities of what we were about to try.

“Divination, my dears,” he boomed at the children, “is the practice of procuring information from a mystical or divine source.” He stopped. “I think,” he then added and looked at Sylvie for affirmation.

She looked up at him, and nodded. “Quite correct, Simon,” She looked at the children and added, “and that is how we found your mother’s dog all those years ago when it disappeared.”

“WHAT?” they all cried in unison, and the three of us explained in turn what had happened. How Sylvie and her ring on the chain had determined that the puppy was close by, to the west of the house, and in a dark place. How her questions to the ring, and the answers it had given her, had led us all in a torch-lit column down a bank below the tree-line at the end of the garden to a road, which passed under a bridge 500 yards to the west of the property. There, in the archway of the bridge, was an old service door that had slammed shut in the wind, and behind it had been a cold, lost and very sorrowful four month-old labrador puppy.

“OH WOW!” said Emma, and she clutched Katie’s hand in excitement. Even Tim looked impressed, though slightly dubious. We watched as Simon stoked the fire a little and then we all went through to the kitchen to see what Sylvie could conjure up. There was a babble of voices as a chair or two was drawn up and I explained softly that we were going to have to be silent if my aunt was going to be able to do anything. She settled into a chair, and asked for a candle to be put on the table.

“What’s that for?” asked Tim.

“That will show me if there are any currents of air, Tim,” explained Sylvie, “and it gives me a target to focus on.” I didn’t remember this, but assumed it was something she had learnt since that night so long ago. “I will ask the ring some questions; you won’t hear them, they will be in my head, but you will see the ring move on the chain – if you’re all silent.”

We watched fascinated as Sylvie went quiet, the candle flickering softly as it danced light on a circle of bright expectant faces. The chain and the ring hung down silently, unmoving at first, and then, after several seconds, it slowly started moving in a soft clock-wise circle. It stopped, quivered, and then made a low movement from left to right. Sylvie’s hand never moved or quavered, and the candle flame stood straight and proud. Everyone watched in utter awe, mesmerised by the surreal scene and the subsequent soft movements of the ring. I realised that both Emma and Katie had their mouths ajar, while Tim, typically, watched quizzically for any sleight of hand. Sylvie sunk further and further into a place where we could not go, her eyes slowly closing. I knew under the table that my hands were clenched. The ring continued to tell its story in a series of arcs and lines, responding to energy we could not see or understand. Then, when we least expected it, Sylvie opened her eyes in a daze and slowly lowered the chain and ring to the table. She shivered and I stretched out a hand and rubbed her shoulder. The children were still silent, faces turning this way and that at us as we moved.

Simon asked for all of us, “Did you find anything, Sylvie? Anything to go on?”

My aunt looked up at us, a soft smile playing at her mouth, and she nodded. “Yes, I learnt some things for certain; there are also a couple of ambivalent hints and one mysterious answer, too.” Her face clouded over in puzzlement at the last part.

We waited for further information, all of us quiet and slightly dazed ourselves. I was sure the children were both fascinated and disbelieving in equal measures.

“Firstly, the earring is close by. It is somewhere within the village. It has not been found by anyone, or so I think. That question was difficult to answer for the ring.” She looked up at me with another smile. “However, no one here has the ring or knows where it is. It has not been stolen.” And there was an unequivocal loosening of Paul’s shoulders in the background. I felt enormously relieved too.

“What else, Aunt Sylvie?” asked Emma in a tremulous voice.

Sylvie turned to her, and looked steadily at my youngest daughter. “I asked a set of regular questions of the ring, Emma, ones that I know how it reacts to. And then, I always ask two or three difficult ones. Sometimes it is hard to read the answers, though.” she paused and had a sip of her wine, which Simon had thoughtfully brought through for her. I felt like a glass myself, but it was far too early and I still had supper to cook.

Sylvie continued, “In this case I think it revealed the following. The earring is to the west of us, and, this is difficult, but I think the ring was trying to explain that it is in danger. I can’t explain it. It’s somewhere hidden, too – it is not out in the open. That was about it.” and she unclasped her hands. We all looked at each other, and it was Tim who spoke for all of us. “It must be in the bakery then, in the pram, or something, surely?” and I had to agree. If it was not in the open then it had to be somewhere where Nadia could find it ?

I spoke up, “The bakery is open tomorrow morning, Sylvie, I’m going in to get some bread for lunch, so I’ll tell Nadia and Robert all that. Thank you so much for trying!” and she smiled again and started to put her necklace back on, the children still watching her avidly.

“Can you tell us some of the other things you’ve found, Aunt Syvlie?” asked Emma and everyone turned back to the sitting-room and the fire as Christmas Eve continued on its merry way. I rather fancied that both Sylvie and I were in better cheer than we had been, too.

 

SUNDAY 25 DEC

Christmas Day was a beautiful sunny affair, with a succession of perfect ingredients, and made all the more interesting by the presence of our uninvited guests. Now that Paul was no longer the terrible highwayman I had once unfortunately suspected him of being, he and Sylvie thoroughly relaxed and it seemed the world smiled with us. Even Nadia had cheered up when I told her what Sylvie had found out. She had not batted an eyelid when I explained the divination from the previous evening, because she then told me that her grandmother had also had the same gift. I understood then. As I walked back home, church bells tolled and early spring flowers dotted the roadside. It was unbelievable weather, and I was sure we were going to pay the price.

Our Christmas lunch was a delicious mix of English and French traditions, with two typically small French-size turkeys lying in the midst of an array of treats from the market and our garden. Time passed in a blur and by four o’clock we had cleaned up and were set for opening the array of wrapped gifts under the tree. Simon and I had managed to conjure up some presents for Sylvie and Paul, and it was with some anticipation that we worked our way through the small “funny” gifts to the last of the packages, the serious ones. Tim’s was so obvious to the eye that we had hid it in the garage and and when it came though, he knew instantly from its length and shape what it was.

“A fishing rod,” he cried out in delight, and eagerly unwrapped it. He’d wanted a new rod for something called ‘spinning’ and it was with some trepidation that Simon had entered the angling shop in the big town to procure an item of which he had no knowledge at all. I watched with a similar amount of trepidation as Tim opened up the package. Was it the right thing?

Amazingly it was, and when we then added to the gift a fishing-reel that the shop owner had recommended, it became the perfect present. It seemed Tim finally had something to go after the ‘pike’ with in the river. Whatever they were.

Katie and Emma waited eagerly for their turn, and Katie’s face was a beam of delight as she unwrapped something she had been after all year – a metal-detector. Drawn by her love of history and her keenness for anything old and ancient, she had muttered a full twelve months about the treasures we were sure to have lying in our garden. As she stood there, fitting batteries into the control box, Simon gave her a lecture on laws and local statutes.

“You can only detect on our property without permission, Katie. You can’t go around anywhere else without permission, and you HAVE to stay away from what the police call antiquities. Your only excuse in France to have one of those things is to say you’re looking for lost personal items, okay?” and he glared at her. Katie smiled back, and said, “Dad, I know all this. Don’t forget Giles has one too,” and I knew her best friend would teach her all the ropes. It was a strange choice for a gift, but it was something she had always wanted, and heaven knows, there might well be something to find in the garden.

Emma was last, and this was the present I had thought of all those days ago. She unwrapped it slowly, totally bemused by the diagram and words, and it was only when Simon explained what it was that she squealed with delight and tore it open. At long last she was going to be able to photograph her birds, and possibly, an otter. We’d bought her a static wildlife camera or ‘trail-cam’ (as the box proudly proclaimed), which she could set up, leave in place, and then collect photos from whenever she wanted. It was a dull-brown plastic affair, but she eagerly read all the blurb on the box and proclaimed that David Attenborough’s job was under threat, and she’d need a bigger SD card for the photos. Luckily, Tim had cleverly thought of that and told Simon and I what else to buy. We were set for a gallery of images of immense national importance, I suspected! I told Emma so and there was a nod from a head that was too busy examining a small book of instructions to reply intelligibly.

I looked up at Simon, and he smiled back at me. I grinned in reply; Christmas success again!

 

MONDAY 26 DEC

Boxing Day, as the English like to call it, was another fine day of blue skies and warm sunshine, and after a huge long lunch of cold delights and half a bottle of fine cognac for the adults, we marched down to the boathouse late in the afternoon to help Katie position her camera just by the spot where she thought she had seen the otters a week or so before. Tim had lent her a long metal stick from his fishing arsenal that the camera seemed to screw onto as though made specifically for the purpose, and after adjusting the angles, she declared it ready and turned back for the house. She had spent the day testing and playing with it so like most children she was now at ease with what it could and should do. I looked back at it from the kitchen windows and saw she had set it cleverly well back into the bushes so well I could hardly see it.

“What have you set it up for, Em-Pom?” I asked.

“Movement, Mum,” she replied with a voice full of safari-experience.

“What about the flash, won’t that scare the otters away?” I tried another tack.

“It’s an infrared flash, mum. Animals don’t even notice it apparently. I’m sure we’ll see something tomorrow morning.”

And that was that.

 

TUESDAY 27 DEC

The breakfast table was a solemn affair that Tuesday morning. At first light when most normal, sane and intelligent people are still asleep, Emma had been down to the river bank and come back to the house with her SD card. I came down to a kitchen aglow with light and a sad long face at the table, peering into a computer.

I went over and stood behind her, and saw a series of photographs that were mostly darkness with an odd branch or two – except for one. It showed two bright spots in the darkness.

“Eyes, mum; otter eyes,” Emma said determinedly. “That’s the otters, I’m sure of it!”

I grasped her shoulder through her dressing gown and squeezed it tightly in agreement and support. “I reckon you’re right, Em-Pom”, I said, “are you going to try again tonight?”

“You bet I am,” she said, and looked up at me. “I learnt a bit – I don’t think we quite put it in the right place. It needs to aim a bit more to the left, as I think the otters came in from the right and went across the whole section before the camera went off. I’m pretty sure that’s what happened, anyway.”

It sounded good to me.

After breakfast, Sylvie and Simon announced they were going in the car into town. My aunt wanted to look around and see the sights, including the church and the town hall, a 17th century sandstone building of some considerable delight. Paul asked if he could go, and at the last minute I joined them. Wednesday was market day and we were short of vegetables. I needed some potatoes and greens, if there were any, and if push came to shove I decided I’d do something nice with a red cabbage, ginger and bacon. It would be an easy shop and we could all have coffee afterwards.

Leaving the three children engrossed with projects, we zipped along the river in the car and within 15 minutes we were strolling across the town square to the gaggle of small marquees and trailers that made up the winter market. There was a scattering of locals and then a clutch of heavily dressed visitors, almost all French. Some of the cars lining the squares were decorated with Parisian number plates, and there were even a pair of very new and shiny Harley Davidsons. Christmas in the country, I wondered out loud, and Sylvie heard my comment and turned to smile.

Simon drifted off across to the fish counter and Sylvie and I headed for the vegetable lady, a woman who I had got to know well over the years. I frequently found more in my basket than I had paid for and we always chatted. I’m sure it was because of Emma and Katie that we found such ready friends. Anyone would do almost anything for them.

I sent Sylvie down one end to choose some fruit and I started with the potatoes. Paul hovered behind me with the basket and my bag and we whittled down the list as we moved down the trestle. There was a solidly-built man in his late sixties or so alongside me, with a beret and a pull-along basket, doing the same. I noticed his hands trembled as he reached out for the vegetables, and he was sweating heavily, despite the breeze. He looked at me nervously, and his lips trembled, his eyes vague and misty. I leaned towards him, concerned, and asked, “Ça va, monsieur?” and immediately cursed my mistaken familiarity.

He looked at me, pale-faced and with a questioning look on his eyes, and I wondered what on earth was going on. Even as I watched, the bag of turnips in his hand dropped to the cobbles, his eyes rolled back in his head and he fell with a soft bang against the trestle table, sending baskets and boxes quivering and shuddering. There was an outcry of alarm from the vendor and the man gasped, held aloft by his buttocks on the edge of the table; immediately he gasped again and simply fell forward against me, both of us falling to the ground in a heap. I managed to keep my head from striking the cobbles as I fell, and instinctively clasped the dead weight of the stranger above me so he too would not do the same. With a thud he rolled off me onto the cobbles and I became aware of a vague musty smell of sweat, garlic and wine. I then shrieked, as only a woman who has been forced into a heap by a strange man can do. I regretted the sound immediately and became far more interested in what was happening to the man than me. I sat up to find two or three people already trying to sit him up, but there was no life in his body and he sagged against them, his head lolling to one side. A hubbub started; of people in fear, of people giving advice, both typical of a crowd of adults faced with a sudden and unaccustomed situation. I shut my mouth and watched the man as he started to die in front of me, disbelieving that this was happening to anyone; least of all to him, a poor wretched soul out shopping for turnips, and to me, an innocent buying vegetables for my children.

There was a commotion behind me and someone struggled through the gawping people, someone with authority and urgency. Whoever it was brushed against me as they passed and even as I pulled aside in recognition of their progress I gawped in amazement as well, my head stuck out at an angle like a parrot, my mouth flapping like a wind-less sail as I knelt on the cold cobbles.

It was Paul. Lithe, slim, alert, he passed me by with no effort and went straight to the man and knelt beside him, carefully setting down my basket and my bag as though he had all the time in the world. He lifted a hand to the man’s face and opened the near-cadaver’s mouth and leant in closer. It took him but a second and I saw his other hand was already on the man’s wrist, taking a pulse. He turned away and looked around, his mouth already asking, “I need someone to talk with me to this man,” His head turned from one side to another, looking for someone, and then he saw me. “Aunt Sophie, can you help?” and even as I opened my mouth to reply I was too slow, for a man in a beautifully cut coat was already there, saying in perfect English that he would be glad to help, and what should he do?

“Call an ambulance, please,” said Paul. “Tell them a man is ill and might have had a heart attack. Please also ask everyone here if there is anyone with an aspirin in their bags.” and with that he turned back to his patient. He motioned to the people holding the dying man up to let him slip down prone onto the ground, and as they did so he undid the man’s clothing about his neck, put two fingers under the man’s chin, and gently tilted his head back. There was movement behind me and I felt and heard Sylvie as she got hold of me and brought me to my feet. I turned to her, questioningly, and she nodded, forestalling the question.

“Yes,” she said in a low voice, “he knows what he is doing. He does evenings and weekends with the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade – he’s done it since he was 12. He wants to be a paramedic, did I tell you that?” and I gawped further, aware that I was truly in danger of losing my tongue to fresh air. My head was still struggling to come to terms with the events of the last two minutes and already I was way out of my depth.

I turned around to see a woman handing a small box to the well-dressed man, and Paul asking him the strength of the tablets. At the same time he was pulling aside the man’s coat and shirt to expose his chest. I watch in fascination as this sixteen year-old boy effortlessly controlled a situation that had made most of the adults present almost hysterical.

“250 mgs,” said the well-dressed man, and I could see someone next to him talking into a mobile phone with some vehemency.

“Ah, good,” said Paul. “We don’t need them now, but keep them for when this man starts to breathe again,” and I wondered at the fluency of his competence and confidence.

Paul knitted his hands together, and pushed firmly down on the man’s chest, waited, and then pushed again. He was muttering under his breath as he did so, and I realised he was counting; he continued for what seemed like an eternity before he stopped, leant forward, pinched the man’s nose and breathed hard into his mouth. There was the sound of someone sobbing in the background, and several people, I realised, were praying where they stood.

Paul let go of the man’s nose and started the pushing routine again on the man’s chest, casually saying to the man alongside him, “Thank you for your help, monsieur – is there an ambulance coming?”

“Oui, it will be here very soon, young man, well done and thanks to you also.” The man smiled at his own inadequacy; the two of them looked like two battle-field medics, entrusted with the power of life and death at an inopportune moment. It was a totally surreal situation, and Paul looked up at me and smiled as he finished the series of pushes, grabbed the man’s nose and leant into his mouth again.

There was a frenzied murmuring about me from other people as Paul continued his ministrations, some people incredulous at events, and others bemused, perhaps even in shock.

Three minutes later there was a cough from the man as Paul knelt up after another round of breaths, and a chest visibly moved of its own accord. A sudden rise in volume from the surrounding watchers indicated a renewed surge of hope, and Paul asked his assistant to help him sit the man up slowly. Someone brought a large box against which the man could lean, and Paul and the well-dressed Samaritan leaned closer in consultation and advice. I saw a tablet being passed to the man and heard the words “….chew slowly….”. There was a half-hearted attempt at some applause from the knot of people at the fish stand, and I looked across to see Simon watching, his eyes wide with amazement.

“Come on,” said Sylvie, and we went across to Simon.

“Golly,” he said inadequately, ending the word with a resounding exclamation. “Where the heck did he learn all that, Sylvie?” and he seemed in as much shock as the poor victim. Before my aunt could reply there was a shriek of blue emergency lights from the street directly across from us and an ambulance mounted the curb at speed and headed across the square towards us, scattering pigeons as it did so. Everyone stopped to watch as the vehicle slid to a stop and two blue-suited men jumped out and ran round to the back doors, opening them to release a third paramedic who wrestled a trolley out of the open doors.

“I guess the cavalry has arrived,” said Sylvie with a grin, and she looked on proudly as her grandson’s patient was gently rolled onto the telescopic gurney and wheeled into the back of the ambulance. Everyone stood up, some pressing forward to shake Paul and his new friend’s hand, and an old lady even bent down to pick up my basket and bag, handing them to me as I approached and made the appropriate sounds of ownership. There was a sound of the doors closing, and one of the paramedics came over to Paul, asking questions, to which his well-dressed companion replied at some length. There was a smile from the paramedic, a hand was outstretched and Paul’s shoulder was grasped in appreciation. There was a murmur of thanks and the man ran back to the cab, jumped in and the ambulance took off with a shriek of blue lights again. The whole affair had barely taken ten minutes from start to finish, and I was no nearer buying vegetables – which was the least of my worries. I looked at Paul, leant forward and hugged him. I could feel him blushing as I murmured, “Well done young man, I think you made your grandmother very proud!” and I stood back so Sylvie could give him a hug too. I realised too that there was a whiff of the garlic, wine and musty sweat combination now wafting from Paul’s clothing, too.

Turning, I saw the well-dressed man standing close by, watching, and I said,”Thank you and well done to you too!” and he smiled back as well. There was some confusion for the next few minutes as we rearranged ourselves before setting off home. I couldn’t be bothered with the vegetables, or any fish, and I don’t think anyone else did either. I needed to get home and find a dose of reality. A coffee too. Perhaps a medicinal cognac even, for I was truly exhausted with the watching of it all.

Back home, the three children listened in awe as we recounted the events of the morning to them, and Katie took Paul’s hand and announced he was “Very cool.” The young man had the decency to blush, and Emma leaned forward to kiss his cheek with some fervour, a litany of “wow’s” and “gollys” sending us all into giggles. Tim acted like a proud father and declared that Paul was a super fella, and we listened with interest as Paul explained what he had done for so many years, the levels which he had reached, and what he wanted to do. When he also told us that he was the proud owner of several awards, I felt not a jot of surprise.

“Is that the first time you saved a life, Paul?” I asked with some interest. Before he could reply, Sylvie interrupted.

“No, it’s not, but he won’t tell you anything so I will instead. He brought a child back to life at the beach one summer, two years ago, at Poole. And I think he saved someone from bleeding to death at a car rally somewhere – though that was an official function in uniform. Am I right?” and she looked at her grandson with some affection.

Paul nodded affirmatively, blushing, and I could see Tim become very pensive. Knowing my son only too well I suspected we were about to see some interest in medical affairs from our own son, too.

The highs of the day dwindled rapidly away on a strange note. After supper, as I was sitting writing a letter at the kitchen table, Tim came downstairs and wandered over to sit beside me.

I turned to him with a look of query, and he slid closer and whispered, “You know my coins, mum….the ones in my vase by my bed?”

I nodded, and my heart gave a lurch. “What’s happened to them?”

Tim glanced at the sitting room, and then back at me. “They’ve gone. All my 2 Euro coins. All gone. I had about 20 of them and they’ve just disappeared. They were there when Paul came to sleep on the camp-bed, but they are certainly not there now.”

I looked at him, distraught, and wondered again at the turn of events. What on earth was going on? Was Paul a double-faced bandit? Did we have a thief in the house or not?

 

THURSDAY 29 DEC

Two uneventful days later and sometime after a cup of tea in the late afternoon, I was washing the mugs at the kitchen sink when I saw Tim go past in some wellies, carrying his new fishing rod. I tapped on the window, and he turned and came back towards me with a grin.

“Off to catch a whale, darling?” I asked with a similar grin, and he smiled broadly.

“Aw, mum, don’t be silly. I just want to have a cast with the new rod. I managed to go into town and buy some line for the reel and a new licence for next year, you see. Oh, and Emma gave me a Rapala for Christmas too, so it needs a swim.”

I must have looked completely confused at the last point, for he added, “A Rapala is a plug, mum. An artificial bait. Here…” and he tugged at his pocket and showed me a small wooden fish in a box with spikey hooks.

I looked closely at it, and shrugged. “Can’t we just eat that?” I asked. “It’ll save you from getting lost in the dark and the fish won’t suffer, surely?” and I gestured at the gloom that was creeping inexorably amongst us.

He laughed at my little joke and replied, “I just want to give it a test swim, mum, that’s all. I haven’t had a chance to use it yet,” and he turned away and went down the path.

I watched idly as I finished the cups and put them away, and then stood there making a shopping list for New Year’s evening as he cast several times across the river. The water by the boathouse was wide, maybe 40 feet across, and I knew from summer swimming that in places there were some parts that were deep enough for me to be out of my depth. Even so I was totally unprepared for what happened next, for as I watched there was suddenly a yell and looking hard through the gloom I could see Paul walking quickly down the bank, his new rod bent nearly in half.

“Oh my goodness!” I muttered and ran for the door in excitement.

Out in the garden I sped down the path as best as I could, and ahead of me I could see Paul struggling with something huge on the end of his line. There was a splash, far out in the river, a shrill noise from the reel and then a muffled curse from Tim that sounded very rude. He stood back from the edge, the rod straight in his hand, and I stopped my gallop across the lawn. He heard me and turned around.

“It’s gone, Mum, it’s bloody well gone,” and he sounded so very miserable that I forgave him his curse.

I walked down towards him and he turned back to the water and reeled in his line. I saw the little artificial bait come out of the water and Paul was examining it closely as I got close.

“It’s bent the hook out, Mum,” and he showed me the straightened hook. “Blast, blast and blast.” I preferred these curses to the other, I decided. “Still,” he added, “At least I know there are pike in the river. Golly, it wasn’t half massive!” and he turned to me with a grin.

“I’m assuming you will be here for the next three days then?” I replied

“5.00am tomorrow morning, Mum. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.” he replied, quoting my favourite saying.

We turned together and went back up to the house, my hand over his shoulder and the rod tucked over his.

 

FRIDAY 30 DEC

In the end it was nearly 10.00am when Tim finally went down the river. We’d had to wait for the rain to ease off and he and Emma had sat nursing a cup of tea each while the water had run down the kitchen window. She was just as anxious to check her camera, still waiting for her first otter photographs. The others were playing cards, some devious game of Paul’s device and although I was pleased to see him coming out of his shell I still could not understand why Tim’s coins had disappeared. I was struggling with something I was not capable of dealing with, and although I had not said anything to Sylvie I was starting to wonder if the boy was schizophrenic, perhaps. Or some there was some other relevant medical term.

Watching brother and sister going down the path past the winter wisteria, I wondered yet again about the earring, too. Was Paul involved, or not ? I watched the couple reach the bank, and Paul went one way to the right while Emma went the other. I saw the little wooden fish fly out across the river, and I wondered idly how long it would be before the rain started again. The horizon looked black and although the rain we had received in the morning had done little to the river, I knew full well that it rose quickly during rain, and it would almost certainly curtail Tim’s piscatorial activities for a couple of days.

There was a burst of laughter behind me and a scraping of chairs. Sylvie stood up and Paul asked her something to which she pointed at me and said, “Ask Sophie, she’ll probably say ‘yes please’ !”

I watched as Paul crossed the room and stood before me. He asked, “Aunt Sophie, do you want me to go and get some bread for lunch ?”

Taken aback by the request, I nodded. “Sure, wait a second and I’ll give you some coins.” and I turned and rummaged in my handbag. “It’s very kind of you, Paul – you might like to take a coat – I think it’ll start raining again soon.” and we both looked out the window at the weather.

Immediately, I realised that Emma was running along the bank, her little legs a blur and her mouth opened wide in noise. Looking right to the boathouse I could see no sign of Tim, but knew instinctively that he had fallen into the river. Whirling, I ran for the door, leaving Sylvie and Paul with their mouths open in the kitchen. Springing it open, I sprinted down the path, acutely aware that I was wearing hard soles on a wet path, my breath gasping in my ears. Emma disappeared behind the big hyacinth bush at the end of the boat-house and I burst past it a second later, aware of a high-pitched squeal in the air.

I stopped and stared, for Tim had not fallen in the river. Instead he was leaning heavily against the fence-line that went down into the water by the small ramp, his rod again hooped into a terrible arc as something huge and angry tossed water back and forth in the middle of the river. The squeal was coming from Emma’s mouth, and it was a noise of excitement.

“Oh my!” I said in a loud voice, and Tim turned to me, his face working the words out excitedly.

“MUM ! There’s a landing net in the boat-house, can you grab it please ?” and there was that little shriek again from the reel on his rod.

I ran back to the double doors of the boat-house and pushed them open. In the gloom there was a jumble of odds and ends, but I saw the net leaning against the back wall. Stepping over the assorted booby-traps that men like to leave in boat-houses, I grabbed it and went back outside a little cautiously. Paul had moved upriver a little and I could see an enormous mottled flank drifting on the surface ten feet out from him. There was a thud of footsteps behind me and I realised that Sylvie and Paul had come down to help as well.

Gradually Tim worked the fish closer and I realised that this was a monster by anyone’s standards – this was the biggest fish I had ever seen in the river, its sides blotched with green and brown, and a huge yellow flecked eye that regarded us all impassively. Its head jutted out at the pull of Tim’s line and I could see the tiny bait half in and half out of its maw.

“Mum,” gasped Tim in exhaustion and nerves, “Mum, put the net in the water and don’t move. I’ll bring the fish to the net and you just lift it up a little when I say – is that okay ?” He reeled in a little more line and there was another splash from the monster.

“Um, okay,” I replied, somewhat shakily. I had never done this before, and my inexperience must have showed, for Paul came down to me by the water’s edge and said, “I’ll do it if you want, Aunt Sophie. I’ve done some carp fishing back home. I think this will be pretty much the same…” and he exchanged words with Tim in such a way I knew I was instantly an unnecessary party to the whole affair. Somewhat gladly I relinquished the net to Paul and went up the bank to stand by Sylvie. Paul proved his worth immediately to Tim by walking into the cold water up to his knees, oblivious to the fact that his shoes and trousers would take all day to dry out.

“Is a carp one of those big goldfish things ?” I asked Sylvie out of the corner of my mouth.

She nodded in reply, her eyes fixed to the scene in front of her. The fish was arcing across the river, out of sight below the surface, and the rod bowed over at its rushes, the reel squealing occasionally. Suddenly the leviathan reappeared on the surface and wallowed there, and Tim rushed ten feet down the bank past Paul to a different piece of grass and leant the rod in a different direction. I watched, fascinated, aware that Emma was also with us, jumping up and down on the spot, and suddenly the fish was arrowing in under the pull of the line, straight towards Paul who, without batting an eyelid, simply slid the net under the fish and lifted the handle with a quick motion so the pike was trapped in the folds of mesh. There was a holler of delight from him and Tim, and the proud captor came down to the river, walking into it up to his knees as well. I hoped to goodness that the fire was ready to be lit; I could see plenty of steam in my future.

The boys clustered around the net and there was a lot of noise. Pulling it in to the bank we all looked on in awe as they slid it up the grass to a safe distance from the main flow of water and Tim put a hand in and gently drew out the biggest fish I had ever seen. He reached in his pocket with the other hand and it reappeared with a pair of pliers; with a quick twist he took the hook out of the fish and he and Paul crowed with delight.

“My Lord, Tim,” I interjected, “we’ll never eat all of that !” and he and Paul looked up at me and laughed.

“Mum, we won’t keep this – as soon as someone’s taken a photo she’s going back in. It’s not the ‘done thing’ to kill pike !” Sylvie had heard the same words, and understanding the need quicker than I did, she took her phone out of her pocket.

“I’ll take a photo, boys, hold that wonderful fish up a little !” and there was some jostling and heaving on the bank, Tim at the pointy end where the teeth were, and Paul cradling the tail. I was just getting accustomed to the size of the fish when they finished photographing it and they went back down the bank through the mud to the water with it. I shook my head with amazement. How could a fish that big live in our little river ? Was there enough for it to eat ? I watched carefully as Tim took the fish out a little into the knee-deep water and then held it there, turning its head upstream into the flow of current. There was a kick of its tail a moment later and reluctantly he released his grip on the monster and it slowly sank out of sight with another kick of its tail.

The boys turned to each other and exchanged a huge hi-five while Emma beamed with the excitement of it all. She gave Tim a hug as he came out of the water and I had to admit that it was a very exciting thing to have witnessed. They both pored over Sylvie’s phone and Emma went back down to the get the net from the water’s edge.

“OH!” she exclaimed, and we all turned round at the tone of her voice. “What’s this in the net?” and she dragged it up the bank to the boys. We all peered in. There, right in the depths of the bag, was another fish, a tiny thing of 12 inches or so in length. It looked remarkably similar to Tim’s capture, though just much smaller. It was also bleeding and seemed dishevelled. I stood back, confused.

“Golly,” exclaimed Tim in a loud voice. “The old girl was hungry, imagine that, Mum.” and he looked up at me. I must have looked completely clueless, for he carried on in explanation.

“This little thing was breakfast, Mum, and the Rapala my fish ate just now was a mere snack. This is a baby pike, and my big girl gobbled it up this morning, but then threw it up now at the end of the fight,” and he reached in and lifted out the small, limp corpse. I understood now.

“Ah, can we eat that one then ?” I asked dubiously, and the boys laughed again.

“No !” he grinned. “This is not fit for man nor beast probably – I would think the stomach acids will have got to work already,” and I suddenly realised why the fish was so dishevelled. “I’ll throw it back for the crayfish,” and he leant back with his arm outstretched.

“STOP !” yelled Emma, and we all stopped.

“Can I keep it for otter-bait ?” she asked. “It’d be perfect for that, I could set the camera up in just the right position and everything !” and we all saw the sense in her plan immediately.

“Yea, that’s a great idea, Em-Pom!” said Tim, and he handed her the poor small fish.

“You’d better keep it in the fridge till this evening, Emma,” I said. “I would’t leave it on the bank all day, a heron will come and eat it or something.”

And at that there was a huge clap of thunder overhead and the heavens opened. None of us had kept an eye on the weather and it had crept up on us unsuspecting. Shrieking with delicious terror we all headed up the lawn to the shelter of the house. Tim wrote the estimated weight of his pike down in his diary later that day at 20lbs or so, though Paul, who seemed to know a little more judging by his tales, told us it was nearer 25lbs. Whichever size it was, it had been a veritable Christmas monster fit for Santa himself !

 

SATURDAY 31 DEC

I woke at the first signs of light to a tremendous noise, a banging and hollering from what I assumed could only be a crowd of elves and goblins, and I rolled over towards Simon in sleepy confusion only to find an Emma-sized ninja leaping through the gloom of the bedroom at us. It arrived on the bed with a shriek and a howl of delight, and then it attacked us with a long string of gibberish and excitement. Confused, I sat up better, and so did Simon.

“OTTERS !!!!! WE HAVE OTTERS !!!” yelled the ninja, and everything fell into place. We had otters in our river, and the ninja, having dismembered and murdered everyone else in the family, had come to tell us.

Down in the kitchen, the computer screen glowed in monotone at us, and in perfect focus a big dog otter lay on our bank, mouth agape with our small dead pike in a stage of some dismemberment. It may not have been a prize-winning shot, but for the Emma ninja, it was the end of her quest. There were many other photos too, covering the course of an hour or so, from a stealthy start and the discovery of the bait, to an ending where Mr Otter, Mrs Otter and a pair of pups had consumed the poor little pike, danced to some invisible beat, and then played out a series of Olympian wrestling bouts.

“Oh my goodness,” I said inadequately, “someone will want to know about this, wow !” and the Emma Ninja danced a little jig of glee.

By breakfast time we realised the rest of the family were still alive and we pondered the change in the weather over coffee, pancakes, toast and home-made fig jam. Dark skies loomed overhead as they smuggled rain in from the south-west, and Tim came back from a reconnaissance mission to the river’s edge to report that the water level was up 12 inches and there was no way a fish would see anything an inch in front of its face. I blithely pretended I understood everything he said and made him a matching set of pancakes to ease the pain.

By mid-morning Simon and I had done most of the work for our New Year’s meal and I headed into the village to pick up bread for lunch, as any good french citizen would do.

It was Robert who served me, and I knew from the gloomy look he gave me that all was not well.

“No news then ?” I asked cheerily.

He shook his head, muttered something in some colloquial tongue, and passed me two baguettes.

I was saddened to hear this, immensely so. “Will you still come tonight ?”

“I’m not sure,” he replied, rolling his eyes both in sorrow and resignation. “It’s a long story, the earring, it means so much to them all.”

He stopped and looked at me. “If I say maybe, but most likely not, does that make sense ?”. I understood completely. What was the point of a New Year’s eve if one could not make a New Year’s wish ?

They did come. Nadia was silent for most of the evening, saddened by her Christmas turn of events, and unmoved by the glee and cavorting around her. It was not a big party, just us and half a dozen friends, including Janine from the town hall and her husband. Nadia’s despair transmitted itself to the adults, and despite the children and teenagers running amok, we all sensed a feeling of doom as midnight approached. We ate, made the right noises, but I felt so immensely sad that at one stage I burst into tears with Sylvie.

It happened to coincide with the moment when Robert, maudlin with wine, was also in the kitchen. He looked at me as I sniffed sadly into Sylvie’s shoulder, and he came across to put his hand on my shoulder.

“Cher Sophie, do not worry, Nadia will be okay, we will find the earring one day.” His deep gallic eyes filled with moisture and the look on his face made my heart ache. Nadia came into the kitchen too, and she came across and hugged me.

“It’s not your fault, Sophie, don’t worry, you’ve done your best. I’ll go before midnight, don’t worry…” and she wandered away across the kitchen with Robert.

Emma was the next visitor to the kitchen, dragging Janine along by hand. “You work in the town hall,” she was saying, “so perhaps you should be the first to know, Mum will tell you – we have otters in our river, mum, don’t we ? “

I had to agree, so I nodded. “It’s true, Janine, we do.”

Janine looked at us, “Impossible,” she said. “there have been no otters here since before the war.”

Emma danced her little ninja dance around Janine, “No – we have OTTERS !! We have photos, you know !”

And at this Janine grew flustered. She grew even more flustered as Emma brought out her little computer and opened up her photo application. In fact, Janine’s eyes grew positively enormous as Mr Otter and family danced across the screen in images of grey. I stood back and thought proudly about our Christmas presents and how they had worked so wonderfully. Even Nadia came and stood beside me to watch the display of furry nature while Janine, overcome by the evidence, cooed and aahed.

It was precisely at 11.46pm, just as Simon came into the kitchen to warn everyone that the bells were striking soon, and just as I had turned away from the computer and the crowd of people ogling our furry denizens of the waterways, that Nadia SCREAMED.

I whirled around, ears ringing, expecting to see a man with a scythe, or a tiger, perhaps, only to see Nadia pointing to the computer and a photograph of Mr Otter eating the backbone of our little pike.

The room had frozen into a tableau worthy of Marcel Marceau. Faces looked at Nadia as she pointed, mouth now working without volume, at the little screen of Emma’s notebook. I had a millisecond in which I wondered whether I truly was going mad, when Nadia said, quite distinctly, “There – there is MY earring.” and my world reached an infinite level of muzziness.

We all crowded around the screen, without a murmur, everyone seeking an answer to Nadia’s madness, but slowly, like a man finally realizing a the shape of a holographic 3-D puzzle, we all saw what she was seeing. There, on the grass, as if tossed by a casual passer-by, was a glowing tear-drop shape. It was reflected in the infrared flash as clear as a bell. I stood, looking at it, and as I did so, Nadia turned to Emma and asked, “Cheri, where were these photos taken?”
We ran for the water’s edge, a motley crew of 20 people or so, and I suspect not all of us were totally convinced of the validity of Nadia’s claim. Torches winked and beamed in the rain, and Tim and Paul were foremost in the crowd as we reached the river’s edge. However, it was with some dismay that I realised that water levels were much higher than the day before, and the bank where we had released Tim’s huge pike were now under water. The rain fell steadily and out in the dark the main current of the river hissed and bubbled at us. In the light of the dozen or so torches and phone-lights we all regarded the dark rushing water.

It was Emma who led the way, moving along the bank and then gingerly wading out a little to demonstrate where her camera had been.There was little current where she was but the water swirled around her thighs and even though she was holding Simon’s hand I still feared for her sanity. Tim voiced my concerns and said loudly, “We haven’t a hope of finding it. It could be anywhere.” We all looked at each other, and then at Nadia, who was standing forlornly on dry land. I knew she would have swum the channel if needed to find her earring but here in the dark, with floodwater inching its way into the garden, I wondered what on earth we were going to do. Paul and Tim inched out to join Emma and three pairs of hands reached down to the grassy bank, now out of sight under the brown water, reaching this way and that. Nadia stepped gingerly out into the water and started looking as well. Everyone else was silent, all of us thinking of a solution.

Katie had one. She stepped forward and said loudly, “I’ve an idea, let’s use my metal detector !” and we looked at her in astonishment, and there was a barrage of talk all at once, which Simon then silenced with a comment.

“It won’t work underwater, Katie. I’m sorry sweetie, but it’ll just short out immediately. I know there are detectors that can work underwater but yours can’t. They’re very expensive, the underwater ones – Mum and I did a bunch of homework…..” his voice trailed off, sadly. It had been a good idea for a second or two.

Katie looked glum, and Nadia’s face, so bright a minute ago, crumpled in despair. I stood there, feeling the rain pour down my neck, and felt an urge to burst into tears again.

Suddenly Paul stood up. “Uncle Simon, I have an idea.” We all looked at him in hope as he continued.

“It’s only for minute or two, and it won’t be for long, but surely we could,” and he paused as he re-thought his idea through. “If you have some electrical tape, and a bin-bag, surely we could just put the head of the detector in the bag for a couple of minutes – it’ll stay dry for sure for that long….” he looked at Simon steadily, his voice trailing off.

“Oh my !” exclaimed Simon enthusiastically, “That might well work !” He turned to Katie but she was already nodding in agreement.

“Go on Dad, try it ! I don’t mind if it goes wrong, it’s all in a good cause !” and she waved her arms in agitation.

“I’ll go Dad,” said Tim, and he climbed out of the water and was off across the lawn, his wet feet sloshing as he ran to the garage. We waited patiently, Nadia in Robert’s clasp, and still the rain fell steadily. There was a bump against my back and Sylvie muttered,”I know what the ring meant now, I’ve worked out what happened.” I looked at her in turn.

“You think the earring is really here ?”

“Oh yes, it makes sense,” she replied. “I’ll explain later, but it makes so much sense….”

There was a shout and we looked up to see Tim running back down the garden, and within a minute the bin-bag was secured in place about the head and shaft of the detector, and Katie was scanning the ground to check it still worked. Before we could even think, there was a chattering beep from the machine and Katie reached down to pick something up. She held it to the torchlight and we all saw it was a coin.

“It’s a 2 Euro piece,” she exclaimed. “Whose is that ?”

“Hurry, Katie, please !” uttered Nadia, and she urged Katie on. The girl looked at the water and then at me, and I watched with bated breath as she started down the bank into the dark river. The dark shape of the metal detector’s wrapped head descended into the murkiness and Katie spun slowly in a circle before looking up.

“ Where do I look ?” she asked, and Emma and Tim both answered in unison.

“There, right where you are !”

“A bit to the left, perhaps,” said Emma, and the torchlight flickered on the surreal scene as Katie slowly bumped her way to the left a little, the metal detector reaching down to the grassy bank under 12” of muddy water. There was complete and utter silence from everyone else, and all that could be heard was the river, murmuring to itself as it rushed westwards into the night.

Tim spoke up, “Go further out, Katie, it might be too shallow where you are,” and the poor girl waded a little deeper. I knew I was standing exactly where I had watched the fish being caught, and I knew Katie was close – it all depended where the otter had eaten the fish though. Had it moved it along the bank a little or not ? Emma piped up next to me, and I realised she also knew where the otter had been, for she was the one who had placed the camera.

“I’m standing right where Tim’s stick held the camera, Katie,” said Emma. “You’re right there, just twirl around where you are ….“ and there was a squawk from the control box of the metal detector. There was a whoop of joy from someone, but the noise ceased and Katie turned back, the water gently bubbling around her legs. The noise came again, and as Katie steadied the swing and held the metal-detector steady in one place, the squawk turned into a low howl of noise. She lowered the head, down further until it was sitting on its target and Tim splashed his way over to her and reached down into the darkness.

“Lift it up a little, Katie’” he urged as he fumbled in the depths. “up a bit more, I can’t get my fingers under it, just lift – ah, wait,” there was a gasp from all of us as his hand emerged from the water, tightly clasping something.

“Don’t move, Katie!” said Simon, “Stay where you are, just in case…”

Tim reached the bank and went up to Nadia; torches winked and dazzled him, but he stood before her and held out his hand and she reached out and gently unfurled his fingers, hoping beyond hope. There, softly glowing the lights, lay her earring, unblemished and untouched, the moonstone’s ethereal beauty reflected in our eyes.

Suddenly there was much noise. A lot of it. Katie can running out of the water, her legs scattering droplets everywhere and was hugged by Robert and I. Nadia stood there, tears streaming down her face, and Sylvie and Paul clutched hands. Emma did her little Ninja dance up and down the bank and Tim and Simon competed, word for word, trying to find the most specific interjection of delight. It was bedlam.

Suddenly there was a firework down the river, soaring above the trees and I hastily looked at my watch.

“Everyone, up onto the lawn, let’s leave Nadia alone,” I cried. “It’s midnight, give her some peace,” and we slowly made our way back to the house, leaving the slight figure of Nadia alone on the bank as she made her midnight wish, tears of joy coursing down her cheeks. I stopped in the middle of the lawn and watched with Robert; his hand reached for mine.

“Thank you Sophie, thank you,” his voice was gruff with feeling, and I looked at him.

“We didn’t do anything, Robert, really – we had nothing to do with this.”

Sylvie’s voice came out of the darkness behind us, “I think we have a fish to thank, Robert. It gave up its life for that earring,” and I suddenly wanted to hear Sylvie’s theory.

“What do you think happened?” I asked carefully. Sylvie came forward to explain.

“I assume that Nadia lost her earring on the bridge, quite probably when Paul knocked into her. I think it flew into the water and one of the fish that Paul was watching was that little pike. It swallowed the earring thinking it was something nice to eat, and in turn it got eaten by the huge fish that Tim caught. When Emma laid her bait for the otters, the earring was all that was left when they’d finished.” The facts rushed out of her, and then her voice slowed and stopped; I stood, my mouth open at the treacherous trail of nature she had revealed. It made sense, of course, crazy though it seemed, but I could see no other way the earring could have come to our river bank.

Sylvie continued, “Of course, what the ring was trying to tell me now makes sense too; the earring was indeed hidden.”

I gasped a little at that, and then laughed at the absurdity of it all. The animals, the presents, the weather and the trail of intrigue.

“Oh, and to think,” I stopped, and looked at Sylvie, who smiled back at me gently. “I wonder where Tim’s coins have gone then,” and she looked at me startled.

“Coins? What coins?”

Emma’s little voice piped out of the darkness, “That was me mum. I took them,” and she came down to join us, all of us aware that Nadia was also coming back from the river towards us.

“YOU?”

She giggled. “Yes, I borrowed them so I could hide them in the garden for Katie to find with her metal detector. I’ll bring them all back, I promise.” and she giggled again.

There was a bombardment of noise from the village and our faces were suddenly lit by a shadow of bright colours as a whole bunch of fireworks soared into the sky. The New Year had finally arrived, and to compliment the bang of exploding pyrotechnics there was a loud sympathetic pop from the kitchen window as Simon opened the midnight champagne. I realised the bottle would not last long, and as Nadia reached us I saw her eyes were dry and there was finally a smile on her face.

I leaned forward and whispered, “Happy New Year, Nadia,” and she just looked at me and her smile simply grew broader.

38 thoughts on “A CHRISTMAS STORY – PART II

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