Josiah worked his way down the dark row of terraced houses, wishing, on reflection, that he had brought a torch with him. ‘Why do people insist on keeping the number of their house a well-kept secret?’ He thought, bitterly, as he peered at one front door after another. Having established that the one he was currently looking at was No. 9, and now knowing, after a fruitless search on the other side of the road, that odd numbers were on one side of the street and even numbers, the other, then the next house along must be No. 11, despite the absence of any information confirming or denying this fact. Therefore, by a process of elimination, the brightly lit house with the television blaring must be No. 13, which was his destination.
After two attempts at raising the latch on the gate to the front garden, he realised that the only realistic way to gain access was to lift the gate bodily and move it to one side. He skirted around the overgrown bush that occupied much of the garden and finally accessed the front door. He pressed the bell twice but could hear no sound within, although it would have been remarkable to have heard anything over the din of the television. Despairing of the bell push, he knocked firmly on the door. This seemed to generate some reaction.
“I think there’s someone at the door” A female voice announced.
“I never heard nowt!” An older female voice responded.
“Well, you wouldn’t, you’re stone deaf!” The first female voice pointed out.
“I am not deaf!” The older female bellowed.
“Then why’re we yelling over the top of the television?” The first female shrieked.
“I’m not yellin’” The older female yelled, “Any road, I’m not expecting no-one”
“You’re sure it’s not more of them drunks from that ruddy pub of yours?” The first female voice queried.
“They’re not drunks, they’re good friends” The older female said in a hurt tone.
“Well, drunks or not, I’m not letting them in! ARCHIE! THERE’S SOMEONE AT THE DOOR!” The latter part of the sentence was delivered at a volume enough to wake Josiah’s usual clients.
“AW, CAN’T YOU GET IT? I’M BUSY!” An irritated male voice responded.
“GET YERSELF DOWN HERE YOU IDLE LITTLE…” A fortuitous blast of music from the television drowned out the, undoubted, pejorative term.
There was the sound of heavy footsteps making their reluctant way down the stairs, then the sound of boxes and other items being moved out of the way of a rarely used door. Finally, the door creaked open sufficiently to afford a view of the top half of Archibald Thurble’s head.
“Oh! Hello Mr. O., didn’t expect you!” He exclaimed, dragging the door slightly more open.
“Good evening, Archibald, and Merry Christmas!” Josiah smiled at his flustered employee.
“Is there a problem? Do you need me to come in?” Archibald asked, frowning.
“No, not at all, Archibald, and I do apologise for descending on you, unannounced, in this manner. However, since you were kind enough to call on me last Christmas, I though it only right to return the compliment”
“Oh, right! Well, come in, come in!” Archibald, with great exertion, managed to drag the door sufficiently wide open that Josiah could, by edging in sideways, gain access to the hall. A manoeuvre not made any easier by the parcel he was trying to conceal behind his back.
“Come on through to the kitchen” Archibald motioned Josiah to follow him down the hall, “I’d say go into the front room but you can’t hear yourself think in there”
Josiah nodded and followed him. The kitchen, once lit, had the appearance of the aftermath of a party. There were bottles and opened packets everywhere. Archibald cleared a seat for Josiah and made a little space on the table adjacent.
“Sorry about the mess, Mr. O.” He apologised, “I’ve not had chance to clear up since dinnertime. Can I get you a drink?”
“There’s really no need, Archibald” Josiah responded with conviction.
“Oh, you’ve got to have a drink at Christmas, Mr. O.!” Archibald affirmed, “after all, you saw me right last year when I came round to you, what with that brandy and invisible coke stuff”
Josiah smiled at Archibald’s memory of the soda he had with his drink.
“I’ve got cans of ale, or lager if you prefer?” Archibald suggested.
“I think not, thank you” Josiah shook his head, firmly.
“Ginger Wine? Crème de Menthe?”
“No, thank you, it really isn’t…perhaps a sherry?” Josiah congratulated himself on alighting on something that would be, at the very least, reasonably palatable and also likely to be available.
“Sherry? Right, hang on!”
Archibald vanished into the front room, only to be interrogated by the two female voices.
“Who was it, Archie?” The younger voice asked.
“It’s Mr. O., my boss” Archibald attempted this in a loud stage whisper.
“What Old Jeremiah?” The older female joined in.
“Don’t be daft, he’s been dead years! It’s his lad what runs it now. What’s Josiah doing round here at this time of night?” The younger female asked.
“Dunno! Just to say Merry Christmas, I think. ‘Ere, where’s the sherry?” Archibald rejoined.
“Your Nan’s got it over there”
“Oh, right!” There was what sounded like a scuffle, followed by, “will…you…let…GO OF IT??!!”
More scuffling, followed by the door to the front room bursting open and a dishevelled looking Archibald reappeared clutching a half-consumed bottle of sherry.
“There you go, Mr. O.” He said, triumphantly, “Cream Sherry! It should be alright, it’s British. We don’t usually have it in the house, seeing as how me Nan’s a bit too fond of it, if you get my drift?”
“I really wouldn’t want to deprive your grandmother…” Josiah began.
“No problem, Mr. O.” Archibald insisted, pouring a generous slug of sherry into a tumbler and placing it before Josiah. Archibald fetched himself a can of something vaguely Germanic from the fridge and plonked himself down across the table. “Well, cheers Mr. O., Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas to you and yours, Archibald!” Josiah took a tentative sip of his sherry and instantly regretted it. “I do apologise for dropping in, unannounced, in this manner, however I do have an ulterior purpose” Josiah smiled and reached behind him to produce a suitcase-sized, gaily wrapped, box.
“Is this for me, Mr. O.?” Archibald asked in astonishment.
“It is indeed, Archibald, but there is a caveat”
“I’ve never had one of them, Mr. O.?” Archibald said, doubtfully.
“No, Archibald, a caveat is a condition, if you will” Josiah attempted another sip of his sherry before continuing, “I do not, as a matter of course, buy presents for my employees, other than the traditional bottle of sherry as part of one’s Christmas Box” A sherry, he reflected, that he was now, unexpectedly, getting back. “However, in light of recent conversations we have had about your new hobby…”
“Me drumming?” Archibald said, looking puzzled.
“Indeed, your drumming. Well, in light of that, coupled with my chancing upon this item whilst shopping with Ms. Knight at one of those discount supermarkets…”
“Oh, I know, like where they’ve got all that stuff down the middle, you mean?”
“Precisely. Well, it was whilst perusing those items…”
“Me Nan got one of them electric lady shavers from there. It was that cheap, it cost us more than she paid for it for us to put the batteries in”
“Others have remarked on the value of their offers” Josiah nodded.
“Mind you, it didn’t last long! We had to take it back and they said as how if they’d known we were going to use it for hedge trimming, they’d have sold us summat more suitable”
“Hedge trimming?” Josiah looked surprised.
“Yeah” Archibald nodded, “all I can say is, whatever we’d have bought would have had its work cut out!” Archibald nodded toward the door to the front room, meaningfully.
“Ah yes, well ahem” Josiah blushed, slightly, “be that as it may, returning to my purchase…” He handed the parcel over to Archibald who eagerly unwrapped it.
“Oh wow, Mr. O.!” He exclaimed, eyes wide with excitement, “it’s a drum kit!”
“Well, in a manner of speaking” Josiah nodded, “it has some of the functions of a full drum kit, whilst also being able to fit onto a desk or small table. As you will see, it contains a snare, three toms, a bass drum of sorts and even a crash and ride cymbal. Quite remarkable in something so compact.”
“Oh, it’s brilliant Mr. O. I don’t know what to say!”
“It is, of course, electronic, which means that, a rather fortunate aspect of the equipment is that it can only be heard via headphones, which I imagine will something of a relief to your mother and grandmother?” Josiah grinned.
“That’s fantastic, Mr.O. I’ll be able to practice proper now”
“Won’t have to set up a kit back at the Chapel of Rest” Archibald said, slyly.
“That was never an option, Archibald, as you know” Josiah said, firmly.
“I know, Mr. O., just my little joke” Archibald grinned like the Cheshire Cat.
“As I said earlier, Archibald, there is a caveat. You must not mention this to any of the other employees”
“Not even to Egbert?”
“Particularly not to Egbert!” Josiah snapped, “I would not want the others to be jealous, to feel envious, or believe that I was favouring you in any way. This was an impulse purchase on my part, nothing more. As you know, I have always tried to encourage the development of further skills in my workforce and, even though it is unlikely that your percussive abilities might be realistically applied to your occupation, the act of learning is sufficient in and of itself”
“Got you, Mr. O.” Archibald nodded, “Mum’s the word! I thought, if you were going to be anywhere tonight, you’d have been round at Ms. Knight’s?”
“She has elderly family to visit” Josiah explained, “we were able to exchange gifts this morning, however”
“Oh ar, what did you get her?”
“A rather fine pair of gloves.” Josiah smiled at the thought.
“Gloves? Is that all?” Archibald looked surprised.
“They were handmade to my specific design, so yes, Archibald, that was all!” Josiah frowned.
“Oh right, fair enough” Archibald nodded and took a slug from his can, “I got Electra some perfume. Don’t they have some weird adverts for perfume and stuff these days?”
“Although I tend to eschew commercial television channels, as far as possible, I am aware of the promotions to which you refer” Josiah nodded.
“Have you seen that one where that film star bloke drives into the desert and chucks a spadeful of sand over himself?”
“I don’t think I have had the pleasure” Josiah said, doubtfully.
“Actually, I think that’s for an aftershave, now I think of it, but it could be for anything to be honest! There’s another one now, where he’s still in the desert but he’s surrounded by wolves and he’s playing the electric guitar!”
“How odd!” Josiah observed.
“Well, yeah, ‘cause where’s he going to plug his guitar into, in the middle of the desert? He’s got a big bank of speakers and stuff an’ all. Then all the wolves start howling and you can’t blame them really, can you?”
“No, indeed!” Josiah chuckled.
“Then there’s this other one where this girl looks at you, a bit stern like, and says ‘And you, what would you do for love’” Archibald did a strikingly good impression of a femme fatale, “I’ve always said what I’d do is kick her into touch a bit sharpish, ‘cause she strikes me as being a bit, what do they call it nowadays?”
“I believe the term that is employed is ‘high maintenance’” Josiah frowned.
“Yeah, that’s it! Mind you, I reckon you could say the same about Electra!” Another swig from the can.
“What perfume did you select for Ms. Ryder?” Josiah asked, attempting to change the subject.
“Ah, well, they’ve all got these weird names now, haven’t they? Plus they come in these odd bottles! Any road, I was down the market and I saw this one in a black bottle (which I thought would be right up her street, given she’s an undertaker an’ all) and it was called ‘Buster which I thought sounded the business. I couldn’t read what else it said on the bottle, ‘cause it was imported and it were all in foreign”
“Well, it sounds promising” Josiah suggested, diplomatically.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought” Archibald nodded, “she’s not so impressed though. Turns out it’s drain unblocker”
“I told her, at least it’s useful, but she’s not all that chuffed. I’m going to have to get her summat in the sales, else I won’t hear the last of it” Archibald pulled on his can, vigorously. “Can I get you another, Mr. O.?”
“Thank you, but no Archibald. I have taken up far too much of your Christmas Day as it is!” Josiah emptied his glass, stood up and straightened his coat, “perhaps you would be kind enough to convey my thanks and the compliments of the season to your mother and grandmother?”
“Yeah, I’ll do that, if I can make meself heard. They’re watching ‘Strictly Come summat or other’ and you can’t hear yourself think ‘cause me Nan has it up that loud” Archibald said, glumly.
“It sounds like a very robust form of entertainment” Josiah observed.
“Well, it’s alright” Archibald conceded, “right up until me Nan decides to have a crack at the tango, then we have to hang on to all of the ornaments, else it’ll end in tears!”
“Goodnight, Archibald. Thank you for the drink. I’ll see you bright and early the day after tomorrow”
“Night Mr. O.” Archibald prised the front door open for his employer, “I’m looking forward to it. I’ll be glad of the rest!”
Josiah looked at him, quizzically, and set off in a marked manner.
“Not that it’ll be a rest, ‘cause I’ll be working hard, obviously!” Archibald called after him, hopefully, then slammed the door shut and said, “Bugger!”
Merry Christmas to one and all from Josiah, Archibald and me!