From the author: The story of a Christmas party almost ruined by a thief, and the unusual ways people come together to save the day.
"We've got a problem," Tom called as he came through the door, glasses steaming in the fug of the kitchen.
"Do we now, what's wrong?" Kate asked, pecking a kiss to his lips.
"Lizzy's run off with the kitty."
"Come again?" she said, eyebrows going high.
"She's done a flit, looks like it was a couple of night ago from what they're saying at the yard. Taken the whole kitty for the party and gone."
Kate sat down, placing his plate in front of him. Scooping up his fork he dug in, keen to get fed before he had to be back behind a wheel again – the cold got to you on a long shift. She mirrored him, picking hers up only to push the food around. The fork went back down and she moved to braiding her hair, pulling it loose of the pony tail to twist it between her hands and pile it back up on her head. She picked the fork up again and stared at her plate, spearing a potato viciously before pushing the other bits around with it.
This was not a good sign.
"What are they going to do?" she asked eventually, her stew segmented on the plate.
"I don’t know, they haven't said yet. Probably try to do the best they can with the petty cash."
"That'll only be a hundred quid, Tom, less this time of year. All them kids, disappointed."
"They couldn't know she'd do a runner."
"No, they couldn't. Course they couldn't, you don't expect someone to do something wicked like that," she agreed, nose scrunched up in disapproval. "There's got to be something that can be done about that though, it's a poor time of year to see little ones upset. You can’t let Christmas be spoiled."
"I know the room is booked and paid for, that had to be done early or it'd have gone. So there's a room at least." He shrugged, watching her continue to assault the vegetables. They'd been married long enough that he knew that look, knew she was plotting something, but he wasn't about to poke at it. They were busy enough between the busses and the shop, maybe she'd get distracted with the Christmas rush. People always wanted things, wreaths for the door, wreaths for graves, a nice centrepiece for when they'd burnt the turkey....
"You go back and finish your shift love, I'll think on it. Tell the other gents that if they can all do a plate of something then the food would probably be sorted – a plate of sandwiches each would feed everyone. Maybe someone could bring along crisps."
"I'll suggest it. They'd like that. And someone can bring music, old Harry used to DJ on the side so he'll probably have something."
“See, we’re halfway there already.”
He smiled, pecking a kiss to the top of her head and slipping back into his reflective jacket as he went out the door. He liked lunches at home, even if they were in a bit of a rush. Kate would only close the shop an hour and they made the most of what it gave them, you had to when you were busy.
Tom was hallucinating. It could happen, he knew, too much rushing and not enough sleep could make your brain do funny things. He just finished doing back shift and had the Mill’s early run this morning, and with trips to the flower market lately, he was lucky to get four hours. It had caught up with him was all.
Why else would he be seeing elephants?
“Close the door, you’re letting in a draft,” Kate said over her shoulder, mouth half full of pins. She had moved her sewing machine into the shop front and had rolls of material round her - green and pink and blue and rainbow. He was used to some of that in the shop but not with elephants too.
“Love, am I seeing things?”
“Well that’s what your eyes are for so I hope so.”
“Why are there elephants in our shop?”
“There aren’t, there’s elephant shapes. They won’t be elephants until you start stuffing them. You’ll need a wooden spoon for the legs, and the trunks are a bit funny.”
“Alright. Care to explain while I do that?”
“Well I had some material left over from the hobbie horses I made for the church raffle and I was looking at patterns. These only take five parts and the ears, and the eyes can be embroidered on, so it’s not going to take long to do. And if you do the stuffing then it’ll be even less.”
“These are for the party?”
“There’s nearly a hundred kids going.”
“Ninety four, I checked with one of the mums. She’s going to take care of the decorations, she has some left over from the school disco, there’s three dishes worth of jelly in the fridge and a plate of sandwiches are being brought by all - she’s ringing round to make sure people know to bring them.”
“How’ve you managed all that?” he asked, perching on the side of a counter and holding an elephant shape up to inspect it. The floppy ears lolled down, bright pink and cheeky. There must have been thirty already sewn up, waiting for the stuffing, and the shapes of others dotted between buckets of flowers.
“Just a bit of a push here or there, you know what it’s like.” Her brows were still drawn down in concentration, pedal of the sewing machine creaking in protest.
“Is this because of you know what?”
“Maybe it is. Maybe I don’t like that. Those kiddies don’t need to know that though.”
“You’ll not get the money for the material back, petal.”
“That doesn’t matter, Tom, I’ll not see nearly a hundred kids have their hearts broken at Christmas. I’ll not see eighty families have their money stolen and nothing to show for it either. It’s a wicked sin, I’ll not stand by and see it done.”
She was flushed now, tears in her voice if not in her eyes. He moved over to her, putting an arm over her shoulder and resting his chin on her crown, pressing a kiss to her hairline.
“It’s ok, love, I know. You don’t want them disappointed.” He hugged her back, feeling the tension in her shoulders.
“No, I don’t. And they won’t be. I’ve managed that lot this afternoon, I’ll have the rest of them done by nine o’clock. If you start stuffing them I can be doing the eyes when you’re finished. We’ll be done by one o’clock, two at the latest.”
Two o’clock was when Tom got up to do the Mill run, and would be when he had to get washes and shaved so he could get out of the door and have the bus ready. Two o’clock would mean he’d been awake for a full day and the rest of that run, pushing close to the thirty hour mark. It meant Kate would only have four hours before she was up again to open the shop for the next day, they were opening early so they could close for the party.
He looked at the elephants around her, and the hunkered tension of her in the seat.
“That sounds good. Do you want me to cook the tea or will we do that once the bodies are done?” he asked, leaning his cheek onto hers.
“Wait till we’re done and see how we feel.”
“Ok. Did you get a chance to do the wreath for your dad?”
“Yes, it’s over there.” She jabbed a thumb at the window, a dark loop of holly studded with deep red berries and glints of silvered pine cones. It perched in the glow of the streetlight, a tempting display for anyone looking. You wouldn’t guess it was for one of her own if you didn’t know it.
Tom knew though, knew she hated the graveside and the bitter loss so close to Christmas. She has been eight years old when her father died, too little for such a heartbreak so close to the holiday. The shock had turned her blonde hair black, a story her brother told with reverence.
“Do you want me to head up with it now?” he asked, watching her hands move with the machine.
“No, you get a spoon and get on with these, you can do that tomorrow. It’ll not spoil overnight.”
“Alright love, will do. Cup of tea?”
He trotted off to the kitchen, clicking on the kettle and collecting the cups. He opened the fridge to be met with three casserole dishes, wide as the shelves they were on, full of jelly. Their food shoved down into the salad drawers, the cheese relegated to the sink.
That was a lot of sugar. Between that and pink elephants it was going to be quite the party.
This story originally appeared in Ravenskald.