This was a special project. With Christmas on the horizon, I knew that Story a Week would need to participate somehow. The answer became a Christmas special. At first, it was a concept about having a regular story with new characters centered around Christmas. But then my mind hit the point that part of Christmas is family. I'm already enjoying my real family this season, but there's another family that needs love: the Holdsworth family.
The Holdsworth's have been around in my life for many, many years. They something of a staple in my writing. They've had a lot of time to be developed in my mind and I'm quite attached to them. Humphrey, Richard, and Dolores are very real to me.
Moving on, it became apparent that the Christmas special would need to be another Adventure of Humphrey Holdsworth and Richard Aldwinkle. And so it is. I could not be prouder of the result! Read on! I promise you'll love it!
Christmas time. Oh, Christmas time. Everyone loves it, don't they?
I most certainly do.
Oh, it's stressful, and, oh, it's chaotic, but it's Christmas. It's a time of giving, it's a time of friendship, and it's a time of family. I love it. And the stress and bloody hell that comes with it is all worth it. Sure, you doubt it while it's happening, but in the end, you're always filled with that cheery, fuzzy, Christmas-y feeling. And this was all especially true of last Christmas.
It was the afternoon of Christmas Eve and all hell had broken loose at the Holdsworth home. The plan was to have a very simple family gathering with just a few of the relatives and, of course, Richard. Oh, Richard is my husband Humphrey's best friend. Somehow that mutt has managed to tag along with Humphrey his entire life; even somehow leeching off Humphrey's Oxford education. I'll never understand it, though I've tried. So, there'll be my father, Humphrey's parents, Richard and his wife, Delilah, Humphrey and I, and our son, Dennis.
I was already frustrated with the weather. I had hoped for a nice snow, but instead we got ourselves rained on. It almost never snows in London, but sometimes one can get their hopes up for the impossible. The results are always, of course, catastrophic. Still, I didn't let that get to me. I'm the wife, after all, and, even in our “modern household,” I have things to do. Humphrey can't make toast, much less prepare a goose and all that goes with it. For the evening dinner, I was preparing a roasted goose, a few vegetables, a pair of casseroles, and a ham. And also, I had to try and get the house in order.
Now, let's get this out of the way: I'm a perfectionist; especially when it comes to having company over. It is my house and I will have it presentable. I know that I let it get to my head and I know that I can be a pain in the buttocks about it, but once everything is perfect, I can really enjoy my Christmas. Part of the proverbial Christmas spirit for me is a job well done. Truth be told, I enjoy getting myself stressed out. It's a good kind of stress. And the payoff is always worthwhile.
As I chopped up a potato, Humphrey came into my kitchen and asked, “Honey, look, I understand you want things perfect, but do I have to wear this God-awful sweater?!” He pushed his glasses back up his nose.
“Yes, Humphrey, we've talked about this,” I pulled over a second potato and began to chop away. I looked up to him and saw that red Christmas sweater. I suppose that had I been in my right mind, I would have seen that it was rather tacky. In fact, I know now that it is rather tacky. Nevertheless, having the family all wear a Christmas sweater was part of my vision of a perfect holiday.
“But it's so scratchy!”
“Put a shirt on underneath it,” I started chopping loudly, hoping he would notice that I had a knife. “Maybe a nice tie.”
“No buts,” I held the knife up as I took another potato. He would have to get the message this time. “You're going to wear that sweater.”
“Now, what time are the Aldwinkles coming over?”
“I told Richard that we would start at six.”
“But we aren't starting until seven...” and then it dawned on me. Of course. This is Richard we're talking about! “Oh, smart thinking, love.”
The telephone rang.
“Could you get that, darling?” I asked.
“Of course,” Humphrey went into the living room and answered the old-fashioned telephone we had. I listened in, but could only hear his side, “Hello, mum!” … “Oh, yes, everything looks simply smashing.” … “Well, what time are you and dad coming-?” … “Oh.” … “Well, I don't-” … “Right.” … “Oh, sorry to hear about that.” … “So, you can't come?” … “Well, we'll miss you then, mum.” … “It's alright, we'll have to get together some-” … “Right, goodbye.” As soon as I heard the click of the phone, I heard Humphrey bellow a sigh.
“Was that your mum?” I asked. Of course, I knew who it was, but I like pretending not to hear.
He walked back in, “Well, um, my parents won't be coming.”
“Why is that?”
“Well, mum said that Snuggles has broken his leg and-”
“They're not coming because of their ferret?”
“That's what she said.”
“They're not coming because of a damned rodent?!”
“You know how much they love that ferret,” Humphrey was, I believe, trying to defuse the situation. Fat chance, love.
“I don't care how much they love that stupid rat!” I chopped as hard as I could, this time cutting my thumb. “Ow!” I exclaimed as I recoiled it back .
“Ooh, are you alright?”
“I bloody hate Christmas!” I snarled as I made my way over to the sink to was it off.
Humphrey followed me, “You don't mean that, darling.” He turned on the faucet for me.
I sighed as I put my hands under the water. He put his hands in with mine. At first, I just tolerated it; I didn't like it. But as he helped me wash off my hands, I remembered just much I love how smooth and warm his touch can be. I remembered how much I love my husband. And because of that, I remembered what the season was all about. I, ever so slightly, smiled and said, “You're right, dear. I don't hate the holidays. I'm just so stressed out over it all.”
“I know, I know,” he said quietly. “And everything's going to be great. You can't stand my dad's jokes anyway.”
I laughed, “There's always a bright side, dear.” I kissed him on the cheek.
But, of course, our little moment was ruined.
“Mum! Dad!” Our twelve-year-old son, Dennis, called. “Horatio's in the tree again!”
To make matters worse, the doorbell rang. I said, “Ugh, Humphrey, you take care of the door and I'll get the cat.”
Now, you're probably thinking that Humphrey should have taken care of the cat so that I don't get my hands dirty. Well, that's exactly the problem here. Horatio hates everyone. Except for me. And Richard, actually. But he's beside the point. Where he should stay. As soon as I walked in, I found Dennis standing in front of our Christmas tree trying to lure Horatio out. It wasn't working. He tried putting his hand out to grab the cat, but it lashed out its paw and hissed. “Mum!” Dennis exclaimed. “That idiot cat of yours won't get down! And he's eating the branches!”
“Oh, dear,” I wiped my forehead. Then I switched to my higher-pitched pet voice. Oh, come on, we all have one! “Horatio! What are you doing in my tree? Why don't you come down? Here, come to mummy,” I reached in and gently grabbed my cat. He immediately started purring. “Oh, that's a bad kitty. Don't get in the Christmas tree. You're not an ornament! No you're not!”
“Mum, you look like an idiot.”
“Quiet, Dennis,” I set the cat down and he scampered away. “Now, go back in your room and get your sweater on.”
“Oh, but I don't want to wear that idiotic-”
“Do not start!” I snapped.
“Fine,” Dennis groaned as he walked off.
“Dolores!” A very familiar, very warm voice exclaimed. I knew it immediately. I turned to see my father, Lionel Travers, walking into my home with a bright grin. He set down the suitcase in his hands and then wrapped his arms around me. My father is a terrible hugger, but I loved being with him. “Oh, I've missed you so much, Dolores!” He let me go.
I asked, “Well, you're here early, how was the trip?” There was still about an hour to go until dinner.
“Well, it was good!” He kept his warmness up somehow. “Customs at the airport was faster than usual and the taxi ride was a breeze!” He had come from the airport because he lives in America now. New York, specifically. He went there with my mom once on vacation and loved it very much. So, he decided to retire there. I've never seen my dad happier. I've wanted to visit him there for a while now, but simply never had the opportunity.
Humphrey walked into the room and set down my father's luggage, “You pack light, don't you?”
“Always have!” My father smiled as he gently rubbed his fairly rotund belly. “Oh, yes, Humphrey! I heard you got that job! How is that working out for you?”
“I'm going to let you two catch up,” I smiled as I turned back for the kitchen. “We'll talk later, father!”
“Oh, we must!”
As I turned, I noticed the disarray on the tree. Ah, yes, the cat's mess. “Dennis, when you get the chance, get in here and straighten out the tree!”
“Okay!” I heard coming from somewhere. Good enough.
In perfect timing, as soon as I walked into the kitchen, I heard the oven go ding! The goose was ready! I put on my oven mitts and was delighted as I pulled out the poor, dead, cooked bird from my oven. It looked absolutely fantastic (if I do say so myself). And it was perfect because all I had left to do was put the chopped potatoes into a baking pan, pour the mix over them, and add water. I never let anyone outside the family know that I use a mix for my potatoes, so consider yourself lucky.
And don't tell anyone!
I'm serious, I have a knife and I'm not afraid to use it.
Of course, I had to finish chopping a few potatoes and I got that done without a hitch. I put them into my glass baking pan, put on the mix, and put them in water. Perfect! But there was still the issue of the dinner table. I sighed, but then realized that I have a husband, a father, and a child to do that for me. I still needed to get myself proper. So, I called, “Humphrey, Dennis! I need you to get the table set!”
I walked past Humphrey and father as I went to the bedroom. I knew that they had heard me because they were walking to the dining room. I also knew that they would probably screw something or another up, but I decided that I would cross that bridge when I got to it. I got to the bedroom to find Horatio all snuggled up on my bed. “Scamper off!” I said as I pushed him off the bed. I love my cat, but I don't love his hair all over my bed.
It didn't take me long to put on my make-up, my perfume, and my sweater. As I looked in the mirror to try and make myself look good, I found it difficult to find perfection. Was it the hair? Perhaps the lipstick? No, no, no, none of these. It was the sweater. In some form of weird personal-appearance feng shui, my sweater managed to offset the balance of my entire look. It was then that I was convinced that Christmas sweaters are a force of supernatural evil. Despite this, I am so profoundly stubborn that I would not ever remove my sweater because that's the way I decided to have it before and that's the way I will have it now. I know I'm stubborn and grumpy. You can't say I'm not self-aware.
And then the doorbell chimed. I knew exactly who it was: Richard and Delilah Aldwinkle.
Being the good hostess, I pushed open the bedroom door and went down the stairs to find my living room finally in order, the dining table set to a reasonably (but not perfect) standard, and... Richard. Humphrey and my father had let him in, apparently. I told them how I feel about strays....
But anyway, I then noticed that there was no Delilah... actually, that's not so surprising. I said with an imperceptibly false smile, “Richard! How nice you could make it!”
“Hullo, Dolores!” He then looked down to his chest and then back to me. That was when I noticed. We were wearing the exact same design on our Christmas sweaters. Dear God. “Nice sweater!”
“Oh, um, you too, Richard,” I said, completely revealing my discomfort. All at once I regretted the whole sweater ordeal. Of course, Richard, Humphrey, and my father were laughing it up. But then I saw the good news, “Oh, Richard, where's Delilah?”
“Oh, she couldn't make it. You see, she doesn't like the cold so much.”
“It figures,” Humphrey chuckled. “Seeing as she's cold-blooded and all.”
“If it were sunny, I'm sure she could bask outside, but alas we're in London,” Richard sighed.
“Ah, well, I guess I'll have to meet her some other time!” My father smiled as he gave Richard another one of his disastrous hugs. For some reason, Richard and my father got on great. I would never have expected my father and Richard to get along, but alas. When my father let go, he asked, “How have you been, Richard ol' chap?”
“Just dandy, Lionel, and yourself?”
“I need to go and finish with the food,” I whispered to Humphrey before returning to the kitchen. Things went swimmingly here. I got each dish looking proper and presentable, and then set them on the table. I took a step back and smiled. I remember that smile well. There were actually quite a few mixed emotions; all of them pleasant, of course. I was content, happy, and relieved. There was one more though. One which I thought I had experienced fully, but I was wrong. I'll get back to that later, though!
The doorbell rang.
“Now, who could that be?” I heard Humphrey saying as he walked to the door. I walked into the living room.
“Oh, I know who that is!” Richard exclaimed just as Humphrey opened the door. Standing at our doorstep was a man dressed in rags and dust. He was completely unshaven and missing several teeth. Actually, that's not uncommon in England. His general stature and appearance reminded very much of a velociraptor. Curious.“This is Mister Cody!”
“Hullo,” Mister Cody wheezed.
“Um, what is Mister Cody doing here?” I asked.
“Ah, I forgot to tell you,” Richard said. Don't kid yourself. There wasn't a hint of embarrassment or remorse or anything in his voice. “Mister Cody lives on our street. He's homeless you see-”
“You mean, 'I smell,'” I joked.
“That too,” Richard sighed. “He's homeless and I took pity on him so I gave him your address and told him to come!”
Humphrey interrupted, “Well, my parents aren't coming, so he can have their portion of the dinner!”
“Now Dolores, let's be charitable! It is Christmas Eve after all.”
I saw his point, but only accepted it reluctantly. This Mister Cody was not a part of my plan for a perfect Christmas Eve dinner. “Fine, but I have a feeling we're going to regret this,” I whispered to my husband.
“Um, thanks for, um, having me,” Mister Cody wheezed. “Was afraid I, um, wouldn't have a proper Christmas at all.”
“Join the club,” I quipped before turning to a false cheeriness, “Well, dinner is on the table and ready to be served!”
“I say we get started then,” Humphrey said before leading us all into the dining room. He took his seat at the head of the table, I sat next to him with Richard on his other side. Mister Cody, of course, sat next to Richard, my father next to me, and Dennis finally showed up and sat at the other head.
And then it hit him, “Wait! Who is that?”
“Don't be so rude, Dennis!” I snapped.
“Sorry, mum, but who... gah, what is that smell?”
“This is Mister Cody,” I explained evenly. “He is Richard's guest.”
“Humphrey, I believe we should begin,” I said licking my lip.
“You're right,” Humphrey smiled politely. “Mister Lionel... dad... would you do the honors in saying the blessing?”
“Of course,” my father stood from his spot and bowed his head. We all bowed our heads. “Our God in heaven, we thank you for this meal. We thank you for the meal provided for us here tonight. We thank you for sending your son, Jesus Christ, down to earth to show us all how to live and to ultimately die for our sins. We thank you God for that we can be together as a family. And we thank that Mister Cody could join us and we pray that we can be a blessing unto him, father. In your name we pray, amen.”
“Amen,” we all repeated as my father sat.
Except for Mister Cody, who flatly put it, “I don't believe in God.”
Humphrey ignored him as he stood up with the carving knife. He smiled and then said to us all, “Doesn't this simply look scrumptious?”
“Oh, it does indeed!” My father exclaimed.
“Well, let's get this goose carved!” Humphrey said excitedly as put the fork into the breast of the bird. I could only watch as he skillfully cut pieces off.
“Save a leg for me, dad,” Dennis said.
“I'd be much obliged to have a thigh,” was my father's request.
After a silence, Mister Cody said, “I'll have the neck.”
Humphrey simply acknowledged his request and continued cutting pieces of the goose. All the while, the side dishes were passed and everyone got their fair portion. It wasn't until after I had filled my plate that I looked up to see Mister Cody eating with his hands. I squirmed before I finally spoke up, “Excuse me, but could you please eat with your fork?”
“Huh?” he noticed the food in his hands and then looked down to his fork. “Oh, sorry, yeah, I'll start using it then.”
“Thank you.” I'm not rude, you know. Well. Usually not.
“This turkey is simply delicious, dear,” my father said.
“It's goose,” Dennis corrected him.
“Don't correct your grandfather,” I gave Dennis the eye. He hates eye. Everyone hates the eye. I hate the eye. It's scary.
“Oh, it's quite alright, I'm terrible at poultry,” my father never seemed to lose his sense of humor, although, I could tell he was genuinely annoyed with Mister Cody. It actually takes quite a bit to get on my father's nerves. He was a social worker for so many years, so his patience is exemplary. I expected him to try and get to know Mister Cody, but I believe to this day that my father shared my expectations of a perfect Christmas. This Mister Cody figure was ruining that.
Mister Cody finally stopped his meal and then simply stared at it. I watched him for a minute, but said nothing. Richard finally asked, “Something bothering you, Mister Cody?”
“No, it's, um, actually, I just wanted to say how much, I, um, really apprishyaight letting me, um, eat with you, yeah,” Mister Cody wheezed.
“Well, it's not a problem at all,” Richard answered before Humphrey or I could. And that's a good thing; I probably would have said something nasty and Humphrey would have said something awkward. And of course, Richard's courtesy was misplaced. Therefore, this was a no-win scenario.
Kobayashi-Maru. I'll bet you weren't expecting a Star Trek reference, were you?
Despite this, I felt a certain sense of warmness for having done some kind of charity for Christmas. Isn't that what it's about? As I realized this, I set down my fork and, likely impulsively, said, “Mister Cody, you're welcome to come by here whenever you need something.”
“He is?” Humphrey's eyes went wide. I slapped him on the arm, “Ow! I mean, yes, you're welcome anytime!” He grinned. I gave him the eye. The grin disappeared and was replaced with a false, yet believable “warm smile.”
In my family, we always believed in exchanging gifts on the evening of Christmas Eve rather than Christmas morning. The reason we did this was because we prefer to leave Christmas for the Lord. It's not a common practice, but it's one we hold to. As soon as dinner was over, we moved our way into the living room. My father slipped away and grabbed his gifts from his suitcase. We all sat down and began the process of giving to one another.
Dennis, was, of course, the focus of the evening. The grandkids are always the center of attention. I remember that year we got Dennis an Xbox and a few games. His grandfather gave him a few games as well. We made one of his dreams come true. As a parent, we always love seeing our children happy. And Dennis was truly happy.
Humphrey and I bought my father a jacket; a very nice jacket. It was something of a casual sportcoat, which he wore all the time. He appreciated it. Richard bought my father a... I don't remember, but it was stupid and I suspect he had it in his closet for ages. You see, Richard is the master of the regift. What is a regift? When someone gives you something you don't want and then you give said gift to another. It actually got worse this year.
You see, about four years ago we gave Richard a red scarf. It's quite a unique item, actually, we got it hand-knit. When Humphrey opened his gift from Richard, you can guess what was inside the bag. Yes, the bloody scarf. Being the polite people that we are, Humphrey and I decided not to mention it. A few weeks later, we actually decided that we would give the scarf back to Richard and see if he notices. Humphrey and I even placed bets on it. I bet him his choice of dinner out on Richard not noticing. It was vice-versa if he did.
And what did I get? My father gave me one of my mother's old frocks. Now, that sounds like a horrendous gift, but you see, my father is a terribly sentimental pack rat. When my mother passed on, he kept absolutely everything of hers. It all had some value to him, especially her nicer clothes. For my father to give me one of mother's frocks is a very big deal. I honestly came very close to breaking in tears. I was happy then. But my father was even happier than I was to see me experience such joy. My father was not always such a selfless man, but sometime when I was a girl he changed. I think he finally came to grips with real responsibility.
Humphrey's gift to me was thoughtful as well. I've always had a thing for William Blake's poetry. In fact, Humphrey actually used William Blake when we were going out. He figured out exactly how to impress me. Blake is strange, but there's a beauty to his work. And there's a certain mystery to it, which I love. Anyway, Humphrey bought me an old leather-bound collection of Blake poems and paintings. Sure, I owned a copy of all of the poems in some form or another, but this collection was something special. A normal husband would have bought me jewelry or something clichéd like that, but Humphrey knows me much better and for that, I love him very much.
To Humphrey I gave something he had been wanting since he was very young. Now, this will sound ridiculous to you as it does to me, but it's what he wanted. I gave him a pair of plane tickets to Africa and a pass to go on safari. It wasn't for me to go with him, it was for Richard. He and Richard had been planning a trip to go to Africa to hunt lions since kindergarten. I cannot explain it nor can I really find a reason to warrant it. However, I have never seen my husband quite so gitty. I knew I had hit the right note. Richard was happy about it too, but I really don't care.
And from then on, we shared a moment laughing and enjoying the “Christmas spirit” together. Do you remember before when I mentioned that I was feeling that I would explain later? Well, this is it. There is no word for it. It's a feeling of warmth, but you can feel it in the coldest of temperatures. It's something that only comes together in the right moments. It can't be duplicated, replicated, or reciprocated; it's something mutual. And that's what we had there; that's what I felt in that moment.
Humphrey and I sat together holding one another at the fireplace. Dennis and Richard occupied the telly trying to figure out Call of Warfare 6: Modern Duty, or something like that while my father tried desperately to understand exactly the appeal in video games. I never understood either, but Dennis loves them and that's that. All I can hope is that Richard doesn't see Dennis's Xbox as an excuse to come over more often.
That moment is one I will never forget.
I'll also never forget how it was very rapidly shattered like thin ice under a sumo wrestler.
My father suddenly noted, “Where in God's name is Mister Cody?”
My eyes shot wide as we heard the front door slam closed. Humphrey was the first off his feet (my hero) and at the door. I followed at a distance as he threw the door open and stormed out. A few seconds later, he came back inside and said, “Oh, it's no use, he's gotten too far.”
I had a hunch about why Mister Cody had run. I went to the bedroom to check and I was right. Every last bit of my jewelry was gone. And you know me: I should have been furious. My night should have been completely and utterly ruined. I should have gone off on Richard, Humphrey, and everything in between, but I didn't. I wasn't angry. No, not angry... it was something else. I tried to be angry. I should have been angry. I had every right to be. Richard... oh, Richard.
But instead, my dear father came to me and he pulled me tightly into one of his awful hugs and he whispered to me everything he used to tell me as a little girl when I had a bad day, “It's going to be alright, I promise. I'll make sure it all goes right. And you did nothing wrong. Things simply happen sometimes. I love you.” I cried. I cried for a long time. I can't remember exactly how long, but I learned there that it isn't the quality of the hug that matters; it's who's giving it. I can't tell you how wonderful it felt to be in my father's arms. After so many years of playing the grump, I found my place to break down and let it all out. Actually, I had it all along. I just never realized.
As soon as my father let go, I found that my husband hadn't left my side at all. He was there the whole time, doing what he should. When my father let me go, I found my hands in Humphrey's. He pushed my air out of my eyes and told me, “Whatever was lost, we can replace, darling. We can make Richard pay for it, if it will make you feel better.”
I remember wiping tears as I looked deep into his eyes. For a second, I broke that. I looked over to my father, who still stood by me, waiting to see if he was needed again. And that was when I realized, and I said it aloud, “Even if Mister Cody had stolen absolutely everything we own, it would be a price worth paying for this moment; to be reminded of just how much I'm loved and how much I love you both so much.”
I went back into an embrace with Humphrey. My father sat down on the bed and put his hand on my shoulder. This was another moment I will never forget.
But sometimes things do have a happy ending.
Suddenly, there was a pounding on the door. Humphrey looked into my eyes one last time, as if to tell me that he wouldn't leave if I still needed him. But I nodded and let him go. He arrived at our front door and I tried my best to listen in, but couldn't hear a thing. Finally, the door closed and Humphrey came back in, holding a black bag. “That was the police, Dolores. They caught Mister Cody and they made him return everything that was stolen!”
“See, it's not so bad after all!” My father exclaimed with a big smile.
For some reason, I felt petty crying over it all. We returned to the living room and enjoyed each other's company until very late at night. It was picturesque, really. But it wasn't until a few days later that I actually realized that I wasn't crying over lost jewelry or my plans for a perfect holiday coming under constant attack. I was crying that night because I felt as though I was losing that perfect feeling I mentioned before. Sometimes when you get so high up, it just hurts all the more when it comes crashing down.
But do you know what I also learned? It's a price well worth paying. There are some feelings, some moments, that are worth all the hurt and price to have because they are so once-in-a-lifetime. And even still, these feelings and moments can't come close to the value of the people that make them.
And that was Christmas last year at the Holdsworth home.
Addendum: Richard didn't notice the scarf.