Give Someone You Love a Christmas Goose
by Fanny Adams
Story #11 in the Emma universe
"DECK THE HALLS WITH BOUGHS...."
"That reminds me, did you get the holly?"
"Uh...huh la la la la la la la la TIS THE SEASON TO BE JOL-LY, FA LA LA LA LA...."
"DON WE NOW OUR GAY APPAREL...."
"BODIE! I'll get evicted. Keep it down."
I dunno, when the mood strikes it's hard not to sing at the top of me voice...particularly as I've been blessed with a fantastic high baritone. Ray on the other hand makes dogs howl when he croons. Christmas. I love Christmas. Pressies.... I was shaking one marked "To Bodie from Ray" when he snatched it away from me and glowered--a passable imitation of Cowley when we told him that we'd not been able to bring 'em back alive.
"Serve you right if you break it," he snapped, shoving it back under the tree. "And then you'll have nothing at all from me."
"Nothing?" I asked, all sugar and spice and discreetly roving fingertips which made him shudder even though he didn't want to. "Not a thing?"
"Not a single, bloody, godforsaken, sodding present will I give you if you don't stop making this more difficult than it already is."
"Well thanks Ebenezer, I'll remember the good cheer when I'm in bed tonight." I released him and he went arse-first into the pile of wrappings that littered the floor around the tree. "DECK THE HALLS...."
Why are you being so difficult?"
"Why aren't you being easier?" I asked, very snappy.
He sighed and looked up at me with that look that I can't resist--the look he knows I can't resist--and asked for a hand up, which I gave half-heartedly. I like him better prone...or perhaps supine. "It's just that with the family and all. Bodie, do you realize that this is the first real family Christmas I've had since I was a kid?"
"The other years have all been dry runs, eh?"
"You know what I mean," he said as he began to gather up ribbons and scraps of tissue and flecks of glitter that he might just as well have left. And of course I did know what it was he meant, but I wasn't about to let on that I did because it wasn't a subject I wanted to tackle. Not really.
"And you," he said with another of those patented Ray Doyle looks he fixes you with when he's about to make a point, "you ought to be happy to have a family."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean, as if I didn't know," I snapped at him, picking up the tiny scraps of paper that fluttered out of his grasp as he made his way to the kitchen to chuck out the trash. "How long have we been married anyway?" I asked him, because of a sudden domestic feeling. I remembered Mum and Dad having discussions like this.
Ray grinned and smacked my cheek very lightly.
"Pratt. I want this to be special for all of us. Bodie...especially you and me. This is our family, not just mine. It's all we're likely to have now we've made the choice to be together."
It was true, of course, and it melted me a little...a lot. Dear God, if I'd loved him any more at that moment, I'd have vaporized. Cowley once said to me in an unguarded moment that Ray had brought back all the human parts of me that I'd buried years before, and he was more right than he knew. Ray made me human and all too often the human bits of me hurt because of him, because Ray is very human as well, and tough and difficult with it. But I loved him dearly.
"Or until you go off the pill," I teased.
"No fear. I'd have meself fixed."
"Mmmmm." He put his arms around my waist and we leaned against each other, me resting my chin on the top of his head. It was warm and family and loving between us, and had been for a long time, and yet we still hadn't made the commitment, still hadn't put 'us' before Bodie or Doyle or the damn job for that matter. Sometimes it seemed we never would, and some of those times I was glad of it. It's never an easy thing to share all of your life with someone--only a few times in my life had I ever even considered it. With Ray...well, I guess I'd have to say I've wanted it since the day we met, but it took me years to know that. "What do you want for Christmas, little boy?" I asked, feeling expansive and hoping that Ray wasn't feeling expensive.
"You really want to know?"
"I asked, didn't I?"
"Then I want, right now so you can't run away from it, the story of your life with no fabrication. I want to know who you are, William Andrew Philip Bodie."
I winced at that one, half at the name I think. "Wouldn't you rather have a million pounds?" He shook his head. "A new motorcycle? A new job?" All negative. "Do I have to?"
"Yes." It was a heavy thing, his 'yes' was and I wasn't at all sure that I could tell him everything, The problem was that Ray always knows when I'm lying to him.
"Can I get a drink or something first?" I asked, trying to buy time. "I'll fix tea. Start talking."
Well, I had in mind something more bracing, so while he had the kettle on I downed a double malt. Thus fortified, I bashed on.
"You know my name and how old I am and that I grew up in Liverpool. My mother died when I was ten and as far as I know my father is still alive, but I haven't seen him since I left home at fourteen." Ray opened his mouth to ask a question, but I shushed him. "Questions later," I told him. "I have three sisters, all older than I am. Elizabeth is the eldest and she's a nun...."
"My God, Bodie!"
"Shush. Then there's Vick, and Caro who's only two years older than I am."
"Victorine," I corrected.
"Sorry, Victorine, Caroline and William. It sounds like the cast of a regency romance."
"Sink me if I haven't had a passion for the haut ton all me life and never understood it 'til now," I said in my best Percy Blakeney accents. "Are you going to listen or make fun of my family?" He carried in the tea tray and set it on the table in front of me. He fixed me a cuppa, indicating that I was to continue unmolested.
"Our father never really wanted a family. All he wanted was Mum...that's how much he loved her. She obsessed him. He worked like a demon to give her everything she desired--fine house, servants...oh yeh, I had a nanny and everything. But all Mum really wanted was her family. Vick's like that too." I saw my mother in my mind--a thought-picture I hadn't seen in years. "Granny Bodie lived with us too and Mum was good to her. Dad hated her, Granny I mean, hated her for taking Mum away from him, for taking some of Mum's love. You can imagine how he felt about us."
"Was she beautiful?" Ray asked. I couldn't remember, really. She was just Mum.
"Must have been, I suppose, but I didn't know. I thought she was beautiful, but then all kids do, don't they? Didn't you about your mum?" He smiled. Ray's mum was beautiful...even now she made heads turn. I decided that it was a damn shame that she wasn't going to be spending Christmas with us, but as she had a new beau who had taken her to Rome for the holidays, I wasn't about to make a fuss. (She said it was a religious pilgrimage, but I think we all knew better. My God, the Doyle family!) "She acted beautiful which is more important. Anyway, he tolerated us when she was alive, but after she died all the bitterness and the hate he'd stored away all those years kept coming to the surface in strange ways. It started with Eliza. He kept trying to make her into another Mum, trying to dress her in Mum's clothes and jewels and such. I think he tried a couple of times to get into her bed, but Eliza is a no nonsense woman. I saw them once on the landing about midnight and she was bashing him with a broom...." Ray looked a little shocked and very sympathetic, not understanding that after all these years and all I'd seen, it only seemed a little sad and funny to me. "Vick got married when she was sixteen and had half a dozen kids probably, only I never saw any of them because Dad disowned her for marrying a labourer. After Eliza left home to marry God, it was only me and Caro which was all the same to Dad who used to chase us around the house with a hammer on bad nights. Shame I wasn't big enough to take the thing away from him. Dad was big...six five and seventeen stone." Ray whistled low.
"You're lucky you made it to fourteen, old son," he told me. "Without getting squashed."
"So Caro and I ran away together one day. Her to a boyfriend...Caro had a lot of boyfriends, I think, and me to join the merchant navy. It was mad, of course, because I was too young to join and too small to pretend I was older than I was. So I found this ship that wasn't too particular about the hands they took on, and I signed aboard, thinking I was going to have great adventures and come home rich and famous at twenty. God I was a dumb kid," I said bitterly. I'd forgotten how stupid I'd been...how naive.
Ray didn't say anything, but he snuggled against me, his warmth very comforting as always.
"Couple of days into the trip I had to face a few realities about life on board a ship. It was dirty, difficult and dangerous, and the rule was that if you weren't big enough to say 'no' and back it up, you were fair game. I think that's why they took me on, now I think of it. I was a pretty kid, if a little naive." Bless Ray for not asking questions just then. This was hard enough.
"It got better, though, when the captain took an interest. Kept the others off me, he did, for almost two years until he found a boy he liked better. That's why I jumped ship in Dakar--wasn't about to go back to being regimental wife if I could help it. Wonder how Geraldine Mather would have dealt with that little revelation. Anyway, I wasn't getting rich and I did so want to be rich. It wasn't long after that I met Taylor Houghton...that doctor I shacked up with."
"The one who used to take your pulse, you mean? Who thought you were a perfect physical specimen?" He chuckled...that wicked, thick, suggestively sexy laugh of his and I shuddered involuntarily. "She was perceptive, that one," he whispered, and we came very close to ending the story of my life in East Africa.
About ten minutes and some fairly passionate necking later he pushed me away and buttoned my shirt then his own. "Later," he ordered. "I want to hear the rest."
"Oh, bloody hell...Ah...Taylor, Taylor...Oh, yeh, so I met her at a bazaar in Nairobi."
"Hoi, how'd you get from Dakar to Nairobi?" he asked.
"So she took me home with her. I dunno if it was pity or an eye for a likely looking lad. She said that a woman is in her sexual prime at thirty-five and a man at seventeen and we were perfect together."
"Thirty-five, was she?"
"Close as made no difference, and one hell of a sexy woman. Of course this is twenty-twenty hindsight, mind. At the time I hadn't had much experience with women...most of it bad and the rest indifferent. About the same as with men, really. All the girls I'd known had been prostitutes from the ports of call we'd put into. Hell, I've been sucked, fucked, robbed, beaten, knifed and cheated by whores in more countries than most people have ever heard of. Taylor was a new experience. She took me home, washed and fed me and made me work for my pleasures, and I learned a lot about women...some of it more clinical that I'd cared to know, but she was a doctor after all. I often wondered what happened to her."
"Sounds like a good thing. Why'd you leave?"
"Why'd you leave the woman who was keeping you?"
"Got tired of being someone's pet," he confessed with a ragged grin. "Yeah, I see."
"Right, adventure called and I still wasn't rich even if I was wearing silk suits...as long as I hadn't bought them, they weren't mine and I didn't lay claim to them."
"What pretty ethical standards," he said with mock admiration, and for a minute I was angry with him for judging me and finding something missing according to his standards. It passed quickly, though. If Ray has a fault it's probably being too quick to judge. I've gotten used to it.
"If you're implying that they were too pretty for a mercenary, you may be right. I've always had expensive tastes, though, and I've never expected anything from anyone. Does that make you feel any better about my life?" I was feeling snappish and defensive, despite the fact that I was used to Ray's little moments of waspishness. I could feel the tension in him where he rested against me.
"I'm sorry, Bodie, I didn't mean to sound so superior...or so nasty."
"S'okay, Goldilocks. I'll just snap your neck next time with my patented mercenary position."
For the next half hour I told him about the little jobs--gun running, smuggling, all the independent work I did in Africa before I got recruited by Tadzio to fight in Angola. I had just reached that point when I noticed that it was nearly time for the family to start arriving, and I told him that the rest of the story would have to wait until after the children were nestled all snug in their beds, and so were we.
He was disappointed, but the excitement of Christmas took hold and he seemed to forget all about my chequered past immediately he got up to check the Christmas goose, roasting merrily in the oven.
Just before six, the doorbell rang and thinking it was Emma and Alec and the kids, I rang them in without checking. It was Murph at the door looking harassed but happy. "Not going to get a chance to see you tomorrow," he explained, dropping the gifts he'd brought onto the couch. "I'm going down to the country to spend Christmas with Moll." He flushed a little and grinned charmingly. "Getting married. The Cow said yes."
"You're marrying Cowley?" Ray and I yelled in unison. Damn fine team, we are. Murphy looked like he wanted to murder us both.
"Molly, I'm marrying Molly, you twits!" he shouted, chasing after us into the kitchen where he stopped and sniffed the air. "Ray's learned how to cook something other than spaghetti?" he asked.
Over Ray's howls of protest I congratulated Murphy, then Ray did the same. It was nice. Murphy deserved his happiness even if it was going to call a halt to those pleasant little threesomes that we occasionally managed. We all realized that fact at about the same moment and stood around in the kitchen looking everywhere but at each other, and distinctly uncomfortable with it.
"So...what's on the menu?" Murphy asked, bending over to peer into the oven for lack of anything better to do. The moment was irresistible and Ray and I did not resist--we didn't even try. Ray, who is faster than I am, reached the target before I did. Murphy yelped, pitched forward and cracked his head against the oven door. As he reeled backwards, he did half the deed for me, backing into my hand very neatly. The sound he made was...startling.
"Give someone you love a Christmas goose," Ray and I chorused, collapsing into a fit of uncontrollable laughter while Murphy's face went from white to red and finally back to a pleasant tan.
"Very funny, very funny. I don't think you deserve any presents this year."
"Awww," we said.
"My God, you really are twins."
We followed him out to the couch where he'd left the packages and were each handed a neatly wrapped parcel. "Greetings of the season and so forth," he said as we tore at the wrappings. Both gifts were the same--a photo of the three of us in silver frames.
"That's the one I like so much," Ray exclaimed. "You said you'd lost the negative."
It was a good picture and I hadn't seen it before. "When was this taken?"
"This summer at that training session that damn near killed us all," Ray reminded me. Sure enough, it did begin to look familiar to me. We three were sitting, half sitting half lying really, against a fallen tree. We'd been in training for almost a fortnight by then and had gone beyond exhaustion, so what showed in our faces was a sort of transcendental peace. Ray was the scruffiest of all, having let his beard grow along with his curls. He was grinning and squinting at the cameraman and he looked decidedly elfin. Murphy leaned against Ray looking for once less than immaculate. His hair was long and his smile was sweet and silly and sleepy. I was asleep, my head in Doyle's lap.
"Ray likes it because you've taken off your shirt and your hair is long and curly," Murph pointed out to me. I was very tan in the picture. "Who took this?"
"Molly. She was fascinated. Said that in eighteen months of trying she'd never been able to be that close with any of us. I think that's when I started to fall for her."
"Lucky lad. Did you tell her the whole truth?"
"What?" Again the famous Bodie-Doyle chorus. "Murphy, you didn't," Doyle alone this time.
"I did. She asked. She sussed there was something going on."
"She's got a kink for that sort of thing, eh?" I teased.
"Bodie, mind your manners," Ray snapped. "It's Murphy's fiancee you're maligning."
"I'm not maligning. There's a lot of women who get off on that sort of thing y'know."
"I think Molly does," Murph admitted.
"She ever ask to watch?"
Ray shot me his 'what-am-I-going-to-do-with-you-?' look and apologized to Murphy who was trying not to laugh. It was a legitimate question, I thought.
"No, but that doesn't mean she won't. Look, ah, I don't quite know how to say this, but I think that our little tete-a-tete-a-tetes have to stop."
"Say no more, mate."
"We figured," Ray told him. "No problem."
"However," Murphy continued, and I found myself trying unsuccessfully not to grin, "I do think that one more for auld lang syne wouldn't come amiss, do you think?" There was one of those wicked smiles playing around the corners of his mouth that made him look like a schoolboy who's just set fire to the Headmaster. "Shall we make a date for New Year's?"
"What about Molly?" Ray asked.
"Oh, I don't want to invite her along."
"That's not what I meant! Christ, you've been around Bodie too long. I mean, won't she want to spend New Years with you?"
"Can't. She's got a family thing to go to. I was invited, but I begged off for the same reason. Well," he said sweetly. "You are sort of family, aren't you? Look at that picture." He was right, of course.
We all said yes and made a date, and were getting the tiniest bit aggressive when the bell rang again and this time I was sure it was Emma and Alec. Rather regretfully we let Murphy go and welcomed the others.
I hadn't seen them in a bit...since Justine was born, really. It was a shame too because I'd started out with all sorts of good intentions about Michael, about seeing him regularly and being as much a Dad as I could under the circumstances. I guess I felt a little guilty because I hung back from him, afraid that I'd already forfeited the right to be his father. Bless him, he stalked me and threw himself at me with the loudest, most wonderful squeal of "Daddeee" I'd ever heard. "Good lungs," I quipped, but inside I was melting. Ah hell, I thought, what's the use of being a tough guy if it means you can't hug and kiss the only baby you're ever likely to have? So I hugged and kissed the little bugger until he started yelping 'smished, smished' and wriggling away. "Too tight, Daddy." That settled and out of my system, I managed to ooh and aah over Justine who was a perfectly lovely little girl with cat's eyes and bright red curls. I chucked her under the chin and she grinned at me, and I thought that this parenting business was great. Might want to take it up sometime.
"That's not a smile, Bodie, it's gas," Ray said over my shoulder, and before I could protest that it was my great charm with the women, Justine gave a little belch and Emma wiped her mouth.
"Sorry, love," she said. Alec was grinning like a Cheshire cat.
We had a great dinner--all the Christmassy things that Ray or I could think of starting with the goose. It was nice too because nobody tried to keep me from playing Dad with Michael. I knew that Em and Alec loved him and considered themselves his parents, but I was his Da and it was fine with them if I acted the part to the hilt. It was okay with Ray too who was the one who really worried me. He's a little on the jealous side is Ray. Maybe it's the green eyes. Besides, he was playing Da...or very young Grand-da with Danny who looked more like Ray every day. Those two were kindred spirits if ever there was such a thing. Sometimes when Ray teased me about being Danny's father I wondered where he was finding me in there amidst all that Doyle. Maybe it was more a case of wishful thinking than anything else.
Later, while Danny and Michael were opening some of their gifts (ours that night, Emma and Alec's and Father Christmas's the next morning) I watched Em and Alec, and realized that they were happy together which is something I hadn't considered before. I was willing to bet that they loved each other in that matey, comfortable way that old married couples seem to have; not unlike the way I feel about Ray.
"So when's the next baby due?" Ray asked as he rocked Justine in his arms, looking very domestic and fatherly.
"We're going to try for another in the spring," Alec explained. "Danny and Michael wanted a Christmas baby this year they said, so we thought one for next Christmas might be nice." A wickedly funny man is Alec, with a straight-faced delivery that would put Cleese to shame. Why is it, I wondered, that very tall men are always either outrageously funny or hopelessly dour? No in between. He was also outrageously young-looking. Alec Crawford was damn close to my age and he looked about twenty-five. There were times when Em looked older than he did.
"Can we stop by at George's, do you think?" Emma asked. She was curled up against Alec, one hand slipped up under his jumper. It was eerie how much like Ray she looked at that moment. "I'd like to wish him a Happy Christmas and take him a gift. Danny's been asking after 'Uncle George' as well."
"Tomorrow you mean?" Ray said. "I don't see why not."
"I'm sure he'll be happy to see the whole family.... Just so long as he doesn't have to feed the lot of us."
"Feeding you, Bodie, is a major project."
Finally the boys were finished opening gifts and playing with the wrappings, so we cleaned up the flat and followed Em and Alec back to their house where we were to spend Christmas morning. We keep Christmas in half a dozen places it seems.
It was late by the time the kids were in bed. I got to tuck Michael in while Ray did the same for Danny. "Daddy...."
"Do you say your prayers before you sleep?"
"No I don't. Do you?"
"Sometimes." He had a little frown on his perfect face. "Mama (I wasn't sure who Mama was anymore since he called Em Mama too) said I should if I wanted to, but not if I didn't want to."
"That's very sensible," I agreed.
"Sensible. It means smart. Mama is smart. So are you, poppet." He grinned at me. It's unnerving to have your own smile shot back at you.
"I like being smart, Daddy."
"Yeah, well, it's nice work if you can get it." Seeing that I'd confused him once again, I decided to drop that line. "If you go to sleep now, morning will get here sooner." That was an old line my Mum used to feed to me, but it always worked. I mean, morning did arrive a lot faster. I gave him a goodnight kiss, surprised as always by the smell of small-child, all milky and powdery and not unpleasant, and by the fact that he was substantial in my arms, not some tiny phantom, or a perfect little Bodie doll. Michael is one of the few things in this world that has ever made me want to weep with happiness.
That was my dose of the sentimental sloppies for the year, I decided as I leaned against the door outside Danny's bedroom and waited for Ray to finish telling Danny a bedtime story. Danny is a fiend for stories, particularly if it helps to delay the inevitable date with the sandman. Finally I heard Ray lay down the law. He sounded tired--I can usually hear it in his voice. He came out of the bedroom and sighed. "Worse than any six," he muttered.
"And you wouldn't trade him for twelve."
"Wish Mum was here," he said.
"Oh I bet she's having a marvelous time visiting shrines and having religious experiences," I offered. Ray punched my arm lightly.
"You're such a sex-maniac, Bodie. Doesn't that warped mind of yours ever run to higher things?"
"How high?" I asked, sliding a hand down to crotch level on him. "This high? Higher?" I kissed him. "Would you be happy if every time I got on my knees it was to pray?"
"Insufferable, incorrigible, indecent...."
"Don't kid yourself," he snapped, but he was smiling.
Emma looked ready to sleep, so we made our goodnights and retired to the bedroom she insisted on keeping for us. It was nice-sized and dominated by a bed that would have caused an angel to fall from grace--a carved oak four-poster hung with white muslin and brocade. It must have cost a bundle, and when I remarked along those lines to Emma, she let drop that Alec was worth a bundle so not to worry. Later I found out that he was the younger son of a younger son (and so forth back to Ethelwulf, I think) all of whom had done better than the firstborn of the house; so while he was leagues away from a title, he had quite a lot of money of his own. Emma always was the jammy little tart just like Raymond. (I mean, he had me, didn't he?)
Ray snuggled down beside me in the little nest he liked to make of the bedding on cold nights and said: "Continue." Damn him, I thought, it was like him to remember unfinished business in bed.
"How about after?" I began, half knowing that it was useless. "There's not much more to tell."
"Then you'd best tell it now because you'll fall asleep after and I'll never hear it. Continue."
So I did. "I met Tadzio down in Port Elizabeth. I wasn't doing much of anything, rather bored actually, and his offer seemed exciting. He was putting together a group of Mercs to work in Angola. The pay sounded good and the possibility of dying has never particularly bothered me, so I said yes."
"So what was it like?" Ray asked. Was it possible that I was discovering a closet soldier-of-fortune in my lover?
"Easier than the Foreign Legion--not so regimented. You finish a job, you leave. Easy. Dangerous, yeh, but so is CI5, so is getting up in the morning sometimes."
"Or going to bed at night," he added.
"You're not going to give me details?"
"They'd bore you to death, Ray, I promise." Or make you sick. You don't want to know, I thought. Don't push, Ray. "I killed some people I didn't know, I made some money. Just like anything else. Nine-to-five in the jungle. Work is work."
"Bodie.." He wrapped an arm around my chest. "Go on, what happened then?"
"I got homesick for the green hills of my country. No, seriously, the climate started to affect me. You know that government workers are sent home after a few years for their health? Well, it's a damn good thing because Africa will kill you if you stay too long. I had all sorts of parasites and bugs and felt about ninety-five most of the time, so I decided it was time to head back to the more civilized climes. Besides, I wanted to wear a three-piece suit again."
"Vogue pour homme," he teased. "Well, yes. Why not?"
"I didn't come right back home though. I bummed around France and Switzerland a bit first. Made a fortune at chemin de fer and lost it at the roulette table."
"I never knew that. I never knew anyone who made a fortune at the casinos."
"Not too difficult, really, if you've got the time and the money to start play."
"And you got that from...."
"Bodie, you ought to be ashamed."
"When I have a little more time, I promise you I'll devote a whole hour to shame. Do you want to hear the rest of this or not?" He nodded and did that thing that always made me edgy, he scratched an itch...my itch...without my telling him that I had one or where it was. The people who say (with a trace of awe) 'You two can almost read each others' minds, can't you?' don't know the half of it. "So, I finally came back to U.K. and decided that the paras was the place for me. I mean, I'd never jumped out of a plane before."
Ray groaned. "Because it's there, right?"
"Essentially. Look, I don't mind the military. They look after you and all. If you get killed, they'll plant you. It's a little like having a large, fractious family." Family. There it was again. The older I get, the more sure I am that I've been looking for a family all my life. "From there to the SAS, which was as strange an experience as ever I've had, and then...."
"Wait, what d'you mean?"
"They're all quite mad, you know, all the lads in the SAS."
"No, really?" He had that ironic little twist to his mouth that made me want to kiss him. I did.
"And the rest you know. Let's make love before Father Christmas arrives. We wouldn't want to shock him."
"Bodie, you're a fraud," he said, but I wasn't going to ask him to explain, because he'd already begun using his mouth for other things.
Naturally, I have no intention of describing what happened next...not in so many words. Still, what happened to me may be instructive from an emotional viewpoint. We were fucking--me on top and Ray on his back with his legs wound around my waist, and there was a moment just before I fell over the edge when I thought that I could die just then and not feel I'd missed any human experience. I guess it's so far beyond love that it may be what some folks call a religious experience. Since I'm not the type for bible-punching or miracles or revelations, I just have to call it complete happiness and let it go at that. Only this time it hit hard and I started to get a bit misty...oh hell, I started to cry, which is not me at all. In fact, it's so un-me that I scared Ray who kept asking if I was okay, and patting my face and kissing me. I rested my head against his chest (There's something comforting about Ray's chest. Maybe it's the fur.) and tried to get hold of my emotions.
"Have to quit those damn hormone shots, I guess," I said to his left nipple which tightened nicely with the warmth of my breath.
"Got me, Sunshine. You learned a little more about me than you'd bargained for."
"That you're made of marshmallow inside? I knew that."
Yeah, I thought, and the reason is that I'm still a bewildered ten-year-old inside. Ray once said that I have all these locked rooms inside me, and there's a lot of slimy things behind the doors. He's right; and when that kid takes a walk past those doors he gets nervous. Maybe Ray thought that I'd unlock some of those doors tonight and all those slimy things could slide away into oblivion. No chance. Ray wouldn't want to hear some of the things I've seen and done and had done to me. That was my Christmas present to him too.
"You have a Christmas wish?"
"I've already got it," I said.
"Father Christmas will be very annoyed," he said, sounding like he was on the edge of sleep.
"Yeah, well I told him I wanted a new car. Should keep him busy for a while." Then I must have slept because the next thing I knew it was morning and the boys were bouncing around on top of me. Dangerous, that. I had to use the loo.
"Da, Bodie, Father Christmas was here. Come and get your presents!"
I gave each of them a kiss, promised to come out as soon as I'd been to the W.C. and promised a slow death if either of them bounced on my bladder again. Ray just pulled the covers over his head and moaned.
The day was gorgeous, clear cold and sunny. Ray's mum called from Rome and wished us all a Happy Christmas and talked to Emma for almost half an hour. "It's spooky," Ray whispered as we watched Emma from the fireplace. "It's like two teenage girls when they get together."
"Mum just needed to be liberated, is all, and who is more liberated than Em? Or Em's Da," I added quickly.
By noon we were ready to descend on The Cow en masse, armed with three irresistible children, an armload of presents and Christmas goodies, and Emma who ruled George with an iron whim. As always, he pretended to be surprised to see us.
"How nice. What a surprise!"
Ever the diplomat, Danny put in his two cents. "We came here last year too, Uncle George."
"Doyle cheek," Cowley muttered under his breath.
"Bodie cheek too," he snapped when he caught the smile I was trying to suppress.
"I coached him of course," I told him. "Happy Christmas, sir."
And, of course there were presents all around. For Danny there was a set of books--Robert Louis Stevenson, stuff I grew up on. For Michael, a teddy-bear that must have been Rupert's twin brother. Old George really got off on the delight in that little face.
"H'lo Rupert," Michael said, a death grip on the poor thing.
"That's not Rupert, Sunshine," Ray said, hauling Michael into his lap. "That's Rupert's brother."
"Yes?" All eyes that kid.
"Yeh, and he'll tell you what his name is."
Michael, bless his perverse little heart (which he inherited from me probably) held the bear to his ear and listened for a moment. "He says his name is Rupert just like his brother," he announced. There was a snort of laughter from George. He liked seeing Doyle get his comeuppance from the elf-baby.
Emma and Alec showed off Justine to an admiring crowd then volunteered to leave, but George wasn't having any. "You'll stay to dinner, of course," he decided. I have this suspicion that George has been looking for a family all his life as well. So has Em, come to it, and Ray, and all the others who spend the day with Cowley; all of us who think of him as fearless leader, or Da or some other benevolent (reasonably...by comparison anyway) figure of authority. Personally, I can't think of anyone I'd rather give my respect and loyalty to. And bless George, he plots and plans and makes our lives twist and turn according to some master plan of his own...if there is a God it's probably George bloody Cowley or someone very like him.
So, by the end of the day, we'd all had our doses of sentimentality and good fellowship. It was heady stuff and I think we were all glad it happened only once a year. The rest of the time it got channeled into the famous CI5 orgies. I found myself wondering how old George dissipated the energy, but that was a subject not to be dwelt upon.
When darkness began to fall, we lighted the tree and Alec built a fire.
I liked that time best, maybe because it reminded me of my own childhood before Mum's death. Well, you can't go back, as Thomas Wolfe once said, and I never have; not physically because there's nothing there for me, and not emotionally because it's not a healthy place to be. The future? Well, I've never been sure that there is one for the likes of me and Ray, so the present is our best bet. It's pretty good, really, all things considered. I rewrote my letters the other day. My will too. That's about as far as I'm willing to plan though. Thing is, I'm starting to hope that I'll be around long enough to see Michael grow up. Maybe that's my Christmas wish.
I wonder if I'll get it.
-- THE END --