Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Time and Notion

...because a smile is a valuable thing...and even better when it turns into a laugh...so...

...it seems a good reason, don't you think, for the times of trouble that get to us all...

...my 2014 journal is charged with dream potential...

...including moving in new directions...and some of these things, too...

...and remembering I am a blogger...a writer...

... even though life sometimes gets in the way and I start ridiculous things like embarking on Advent story writing marathons...and so, from me to you...

...and all that Malarkey Jazz!! 

Monday, 30 December 2013

Cutlery and Armchairs

In order to accommodate the Much Malarkey Manor Christmas Tree ( which I have to say was a beauty this year) we have to move the three seater sofa to the cuddle chair position and the cuddle chair to where the three seater usually sits thus making room for Kayleigh's wooden toy chest to slide in the newly vacated space between the relocated cuddle chair and the wall and leave its position in the bay window free for the Christmas Tree. This furniture shifting is good because it also makes me look at the state of the skirting boards at least once a year, go 'Yuk!' and set about them with a hot, wet cloth. I also find a lot of cat fur - can't think why. 

So, we've been sitting admiring the Tree for the last couple of weeks and then yesterday, almost as if our brains were welded together in some kind of spooky one-track psychic synchronicity, Andy and I said to each other, 'Why don't we leave the furniture in its Christmas mode and add an armchair in the space the Tree will leave?'

(It really was spooky - it'll be matching jumpers and walking holidays next.)

What an excellent idea! We have a lovely bay window which gets a lot of light and now we have the wood burner, we have switched off the radiator that sits on the bay window wall, so why not add a lovely armchair? (We are NOT thinking about the logistics of where to put the Tree next year - so just don't ask, eh?)

Well, off we trotted to The Sales. Now, I don't usually do sales, especially ones in places like Marks and Sparks because they are cutthroat, with all those middle-aged women and their sharp elbows and clompy feet. Plus, you never find what you want and end up panic buying yellow culottes or other some such tat.  But, we reasoned, it was Monday and the hardened sale goers would have done their business by now and we'd go and see what was left.

And thus it was that we went to Homebase who had a 20% off day today and we purchased a new high back fireside chair from the Longbourne range which is very pertinent given my renewed excitement vis a vis all things Regency, and Longbourne being the family home of the Bennett's in Pride and Prejudice. We chose 'plum' for colour, 20% discount AND Nectar Points, so win-win all round.

High on the thrill of the chair purchase, I scooted off to see what else there was on offer. And I found cutlery! A good, sturdy set of cutlery. Eight place settings. That's eight knives, eight forks, eight pudding spoons and eight teaspoons. Eight of each! I counted them! A matching eight place set of cutlery. Substantial cutlery. Simple, modern design. Shiny. All matching. Eight of each. Perfect! EXACTLY what I had been looking for. And in The Sale. For the grand price of...(cue trumpet fanfare)

....twelve English pounds and forty nine pennies! £12.49!!!

That can't be right, I thought. The equivalent 16 piece set was priced at £19.99. Half the cutlery for £7.50 more???

So I went to the checkout, clutching my eight place setting of matching cutlery (count 'em!) and held my breath as they went through the blipper. And yes, £12.49 and the set was mine, in all its matching glory. I almost danced the Cutlery Dance of Joy! 

I am going to hide my new cutlery set. No-one but NO-ONE is touching that cutlery 'cept me, especially not the Evil Cutlery Goblin who steals knives, forks and spoons and hides them. I am now bursting with Cutlery Confidence. I can provide matching cutlery for eight people dinner parties! 

They are my precious! 

Today's blog was brought to you by CrazyGolem.com for all your shiny, precious needs. 

Sunday, 29 December 2013

To Resolve or Not To Resolve - What Is Your Resolution?

Well, I have to say that I enjoyed enormously the recent BBC three part series 'Death Comes to Pemberley.' Despite TV doing what they usually do with adaptations of novels, which is to leave things out and add things in and move plot details around in a sometimes brain spinning order, it was a thoroughly enjoyable Regency romp and has re-fired my enthusiasm for all things Jane Austen. 

I often think that Regency England must have been a jolly civilised time in which to live - providing you were nicely middle to upper class of course, and not a pauper or a strident feminist. And if, like me, you are a fan of proper manners and afternoon tea, and frocks which are prettily simple in design and made from delightful stuff like 'sprigged muslin', and trotting along in horse drawn carriages and taking a promenade or two in the Assembly Rooms, then what more could a refined lady require from an historical era? To be honest, if all I was required to do every day was to read and sew and approve the menus for the week, and organise a few flowers I'd be quite happy. I try to do these things in the 21st century, too, but am often encumbered by other requirements like having to earn money to pay bills, arguing with cold-call irritants on the telephone machine and feeling I have to shout for equality in all things lest I let the girls' side down. 

Anyway, I have spent a very pleasant hour or so today absorbing a bit of Regency reading and looking at websites like the Jane Austen Society and sighing over the loveliness of the fashions of the day, and how smart the gentlemen looked. And I think that I might do a mini-research project in order to broaden my Regency knowledge as part of the 'Learn Something New' urge that occurs every now and then and especially around this time of year because it is nearly The New Year and Time For Resolutions.

Do you do Resolutions for the New Year? And, more importantly I suppose, do you stick with them? And if you, like me, are gearing up to plan-making for the New Year (because I can't help it - I love plan making because being a control freak is part of my nature and I rather like me) then how do you go about choosing what to focus upon?

There's the usual boring ones - giving up smoking/drinking/sugar/nail biting etc - and there's the associated health ones which involve dashing to the local gym and signing away a goodly proportion of cash each month for the privilege of running nowhere fast whilst inhaling sweat-stained air conditioning and 'feeling the burn'. Bleuch!! (And when gym people say 'burn' they really mean 'pain' and I am a firm believer in pain being Nature's way of telling you to stop doing something dangerous, and I refer you back to my previous post and the grabbing of the red hot serving plate - now that really was feeling the burn. And pain. So I listened to my body and dropped the plate. Y'see??')

And there are ones to do with learning something new - playing the piano/ trumpet/ euphonium - or how to knit/sew/macramé a frog - or p'raps getting to grips with a new language or sport, or developing better habits, like walking instead of driving and managing your finances more efficiently by not spending the electricity bill money on having a tattoo done. 

Some people decide on something to do with philanthropy or charity, like being nicer/kinder/more patient towards family/ strangers/ abandoned goats. Or fundraising for a good cause by being sponsored to do something like trek across a very dangerous mountain range/ make cake/ sell cake/ eat cake. Or do volunteer work like using one's car as a free taxi service, or proving nutritious meals, or taking in laundry - oh no, hang on, I've been doing that pretty much all my adult life. Might be time to ease back on that one!

Then there are very specific resolutions. Andy, for example, announced this morning that 2014 is to be the year when he 'perfects the bagel.' He started this morning, to give himself a bench mark, and produced  10 very nice bagels. Well, I thought they were anyway.

But then Andy is turning into a baking perfectionist, and thus he embarks on his Bagel Journey and I shall be with him every bite of the way. (And yes, I know there are only 8 bagels in the photo, but he ate one and I ate one and very nice it was, too.)

And me? Well, I am, as I say, still in the planning process and enjoying it enormously because a) I have a lovely new notebook to use specifically for the process of planning (and I do love a new notebook!) and b) I have several ideas rolling around in the old Malarkey brain and some of them are quite thrilling! Also, planning means I get to sit next the wood burner and drink tea and eat the remnants of the fruit cake I made just for me because I am the only person chez nous who likes fruit cake. 

But top of the list so far is definitely 'Regency England - Become An Officianado Of'. 

(P.S When I say 'thrilling' I don't mean things like learning to paraglide, wrestle, tame lions or white water raft. My idea of 'thrilling' is far more genteel than that. Just thought I would make that clear. So you didn't get too excited.)

Friday, 27 December 2013

And Duncan's Horses Did Eat Themselves

Of course they didn't! That would a) be revolting and have no place on the blog of a committed vegetarian and b) be just plain stupid because horses are vegetarians, too and c) be a pretty impossibility I reckon because it is a well known fact that in order to feed a horse any food stuff, one has to place the food stuff on the flat of one's hand so the horse can get a grip with the aforesaid foodstuff with their funny horsey teeth and NOT a grip on one's hand which can be very painful. And you would have to have a very, very large hand on which to place a horse for another horse to eat it from. I rest my case.

The title, of course, is a literary allusion that references Shakespeare's Macbeth, when the night of King Duncan's murder is discussed as being a night of unnatural occurrences. Unnatural for horses to eat each other = unnatural for someone to murder God's representative on earth a.k.a King Duncan. 

And it has been an odd couple of days here at Much Malarkey Manor. Oh yes it has!

Firstly, the weather. The home town has hit the headlines both on the BEEB and in the national newspapers because a goodly part of it disappeared under water when the Medway filled up and had nowhere else to go but up the High Street to Argos and across the one-way system to the Crown Courts. We had to take a detour around the lake in the park on our Christmas Day de-bloat walk because our usual path was under water, the tops of the benches just about showing, and the goose, moorhen, duck and swan populations looking very pleased with the instant extension to their accommodation.

Secondly, there I was in the kitchen managing the military operation, code named 'Cooking Christmas Dinner' when I happened to glance out the window and there, on the patio, was a peregrine falcon!! Well, I did check to make sure it wasn't either Primrose or Daisy in a novelty onesie, but it was definitely a falcon. It soon became very clear it was sitting on a poor little garden bird (species unidentified but decidedly panicky looking). It sat there looking at us looking at it for well over a minute. Heather took a photo, which was marginally obscured by the mistiness of the window because of the steam coming off the steamer that was steaming the Christmas pudding, but the photo was good enough that we could identify the bird as a peregrine falcon and NOT a kestrel as I first squealed - 'Ooooooh look! A kestrel in the garden!!'  The falcon took off, and its little prey escaped in the opposite direction, so whilst I was marginally sorry for the falcon that it had lost its lunch, I was far happier that the little bird got away to live another day. I have seen many birds in our back garden, but never a peregrine falcon. It was very exciting!

Thirdly, I stupidly picked up a very stupidly hot serving plate and stupidly inflicted burns upon my stupid right hand. I am ashamed to say my initial response was to swear in front of my granddaughter, but it was a mild swear word and she has heard worse but not from me, I hasten to add. Plan Immediate Damage Limitation swung into action. Ice cold water, paracetamol and liberal application of tea-tree oil ointment means that today I have the vestige of two small and painless blisters, but did spend Christmas Lunch eating left handed with a fork whilst the right hand sat in a bag of ice cubes on my festive napkin. Honestly, I do think I am starting to go senile.

Fourthly, last night I had a dream during which I opened a cupboard to get a glass because I wanted a drink of water, and the cupboard door slipped from my hand and made a clatter and woke me up. Well, it must have been a loud dream because it woke Andy, too.

'Did you hear that?' I said.
'Yes,' said Andy. 
And I thought, isn't it odd how external noises can become part the dream you are having before you wake up in reaction to the external noise? And then I thought, I had better get up and check for burglars, because I cannot bear to have unidentified noises in the house in the wee small hours. 

So I did my 'Defence Against Burglar' routine which is basically get out of bed and move around very noisily, banging on as many lights as I can, mostly to give warning to the burglar that I have heard them and they have approximately 45 seconds to vacate the premises before I start throwing random objects at their head and screaming a lot. 

As it turned out, the loud noise was a large picture in my arty-crafty writing room falling off the wall and landing behind the radiator. I was very relieved at the lack of burglar, but I still find it fascinating that real life noises can make sense in a dream. It is not the first time this has happened. I must have senses like sharpened steel for the connections in my sleeping/ waking brain to work so quickly. Except the sense that tells me to grab burning hot serving plates with my bare hands, of course. That sense is clearly malfunctioning on a major level.

Fifthly, we had hail stones on Christmas Day. I have an irrational hatred of hail stones. It is like 'rain' and 'snow' are having an argument about who is on weather duty, and they need to jolly well sort themselves out and decide, rather than flinging down projectiles of ice that jolly well sting. And whilst Primrose and Daisy enjoyed darting around their run pecking at miniature ice cubes, I found it all rather unnecessary and was glad it didn't last long. 

Sixthly, we have a new toaster. Andy's sister sent us vouchers for Christmas, and as our current toaster is well over ten years old, much used and given to making strange incendiary-sounding humming noises of late, we decided the time was right to upgrade our toast making facilities. So a week before Christmas we sent off for a new 4 slot all-singing, all-dancing toaster from the Morphy Richards 'Heritage' range, and delivery was attempted whilst we were at the panto on Tuesday morning. So we didn't get the new toaster until today. And in the interim time, the old toaster has been flinging the toast from its slots with great gusto as if to say, 'Look! I'm not past it just yet! Still life in the old toaster. Look how far I can throw your toast!!' It's been like it knew it was about to be usurped. P'raps we'll keep it as an emergency toaster. 

Finally, here is Flora Bijou Mybug - in the zone...

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Christmas Poem!

A Naughty Christmas Ode For Veg Growers Everywhere

Christmas comes but once a year
And brings a glorious meal
With all its component, intrinsic parts;
and I'll tell you the dining deal.

Oh it's not the heft of the turkey
Or the pud with the brandy butter
Nor the roundness or size of your Brussel sprouts
- No! It's the length of your parsnip that matters.

You can get away with limp carrots,
And stuffing all crispy and burnt
Red cabbage can wilt, and Stilton can melt
And gravy with lumps won't hurt

Oh it's not the number of sausages
Wrapped in bacon and done to a shrivel
Nor the firmness of Brussels growing all year round
No! It's the length of your parsnip that's vital!

Crackers may crack and candles may flicker,
Real custard takes time but instant is quicker,
Gingerbread houses impress all who see,
Mince pies taste good with a pot of strong tea.

But it's not all the sweetness and chocolates,
The nibbles and nuts and cheeses,
Nor the bite of your Brussels that matter at all,
No! It's the length of your parsnip that teases.

So if you're growing veg for Christmas,
That most important dinner
Forget the sprouts, they matter not
Just make your parsnip longer and thicker! 

Monday, 23 December 2013

The Twenty Fourth (and Last) Day of Advent - We Wish You A Merry Christmas!

'You've done what???' said Mrs Miggins. 

 It turned out that whilst she was pleased to see Mrs Pumphrey, and to a certain extent, Tango Pete also,  Harold Angel, Merrily Onhigh, seven swans and five leaping lords were 14 guests too many extra. Christmas Eve was all becoming too, too bouncy by far.

'I've invited them all to stay for Christmas,' said Mrs Pumphrey. 'I didn't think you'd mind.'

'Have you see the...the...chaos in the dining room?' said Mrs Miggins, looking about as agog as Mrs Pumphrey had ever seen her. 'It is packed in there! I've had to get Colin Bird and Turtle Dave to go round the entire house gathering all the tables they can find, and Holly and Ivy have been sent to Mrs Bobbinflaxenfluff to see if there is ANY chance whatsoever of her weaving an emergency 24 feet in length table cloth, just so everyone can sit down to dinner together. Titbury Fire and Rescue Service want to do a risk assessment on the number of candles I need to use to provide ambient lighting on the table, and it is a good job that mismatched crockery and cutlery is de rigeur this year because that is all I can provide. And don't get me started on potatoes. When I ask people what veg they'd like for their Christmas lunch they all, without fail, say, 'I'm not fussed about the veg, but I do like a roast potato or seven.'

'I'm sorry,' said Mrs Pumphrey, who truly was because she loved Mrs Miggins and did not like to see her in a domestic tizz. 'I can tell them to go away if you like. Or perhaps they can camp out in the stables? The Leaping Lords really do not have anywhere to stay, and Harold and Merrily have been so kind and helpful in my search for the last L of Christmas...'

'Did you find it?' said Mrs Miggins, suddenly remembering the cause of all this trouble. 'The Last L of Christmas?'

'Yes,' said Mrs Pumphrey. 'I did.'

'And now that you have got it, can you spell Christmas in a way that is more satisfactory than the way we have been spelling Christmas for 2,000 years?' said Mrs Miggins.

'Well,' said Mrs Pumphrey, 'I've tried putting the L in Christmas and all I've come up with is Christlmas, Christmasl, Chrilstmas, and Christmlas, and to be honest, none of them look right...'

'And what does that tell you?' sighed Mrs Miggins, who was beginning to feel a bit worn down by it all. Plus she could smell the pickled red cabbage over-doing in the oven.

'That there is No L in Christmas,' said Mrs Pumphrey.

'And what have you done with your Last L?' said Mrs Miggins.

'I have hung it by the fire place, because it looks a bit like the shape of a Christmas stocking,' said Mrs Pumphrey. 'And the other few Ls I had I've chucked on the fire. They went up a treat.'

'You always were good at adding some few L to the fire,' sighed Miggins, in a last ditch attempt at a pathetic pun that didn't really work but then she was, and always has been, at the literary mercy of the author, so be kind to her.

And so, on the Last Day of Advent, there gathered at Much Malarkey...

Twelve Turkish Drummers,
Two plumbers piping,
Five Lords Morris leaping,
Some Strictly Ladies dancing,
Two Maids not milking,
Seven swans aplombing,
One goose called Merrily,
One engagement ring....(cue hold that note...and...breathe...and continue...)
One Colin Bird,
Many Malarkey hens,
One Turtle Dave
And a tiddled quail called Harold Angel! 

'That doesn't scan very well, does it?' said Tango Pete, who had arrived just in time to hear the magnificent, if slightly laboured, choral finale. Harold Angel was by his side looking embarrassed.

Harold Angel shuffled his feet. 'Ahem,' he coughed. 'Er, actually, I have a confession to make.'

A massive hush descended upon the room. The Turkish Drummers desisted with their drumming, the Pipers stopped checking out the piping on the radiators. The Leaping Lords stopped Morris dancing and the Strictly ladies stopped jiving. Holly and Ivy stopped their bickering and even the swans stopped their hissing and honking.

'What is it?' said Mrs Pumphrey. 'What is your confession, Harold?'

Harold Angel took a deep breath. 'I'm not actually a quail,' he said. 'And my name isn't even 'Angel.' just pretended to be one, when I started out in show biz.  Quail were a rare thing in those days, especially ones that could sing tenor. And I moved two letters in my name to make it sound more exotic. Thus I became an instant hit. And for all these years I have been living a big fat quail lie. I am just ordinary Harold Angle from Pear Tree Avenue.'

'But I don't understand,' said Mrs Pumphrey. 'If you're not a quail, what ARE you?'

'A partridge,' said Harold Angel.

'And so, you see, everything came right at Much Malarkey Manor, just in time for Christmas,' says Primrose. 'Although the weather outside is frightful, the new wood burning stove is delightful. And Denise managed to get through the Twenty Four Days of Advent Story Telling without completely losing her marbles.'

'Some of the jokes were a bit laboured though,' says Daisy.

'But she tried,' says Primrose. 'Which is what writers do. And even though it has been a funny old year, aren't they all in their own way? Life is all ups and downs, and comings and goings, and happy mixed with sad.'

'True, true,' says Daisy. 'Shall I do the honours?'

'Please do,' says Primrose.

'Dear Friends of Much Malarkey Manor,' says Daisy, 'we hope you enjoyed the story. And from all of us - Denise and Andy, Phoebe, Tybalt ,Flora Bijou Mybug, Primrose and me, Daisy - may you have a wonderful Christmas celebration, full of peace and laughter and good cheer, enjoying the company of people you love, and remembering those you love that are not with you. 

With all our love - Merry Christmas and God Bless You - One and All! 

(P.S Because of a VERY demanding and, dare I say, pedantic MMM guest who has wrangled with the authorities vis a vis the proper Last Day of Advent - 24th, 25th??? Who knows? Who cares??  - I have written a teeny poem which I shall publish tomorrow morning as a sort of 'encore' to the whole sorry affair. It is a little bit naughty so do not tune in if you are very easily offended by Brussel sprouts and parsnips. Just saying.)

The Twenty Third Day of Advent - Driving (Or Cycling, Or Flying, Or Sailing) Home For Christmas

It was time to go home. Mrs Pumphrey had her few Ls in her bag and she knew that Santa had a busy day tomorrow and although he would not say it himself, had no more time to spare gallivanting about the sky with a couple of chickens, a goose, seven swans and a quail called Harold Angel. 

'Just drop us off down there,' she said, pointing to a nearby seaside port. 'I can see three ships just sailing in and I am sure we can catch a ride back to Titbury von Streudelheim in one of them.'

'Are you sure?' said Santa, although his face betrayed his relief, because by now he was becoming well and truly hacked off with the swans. 

'Of course,' said Mrs Pumphrey. 'I can't thank you enough for everything you've done already.'

And so Santa bade farewell to the intrepid explorers at the quayside, and they stood and waved him off into the sky. 

'And now,' said Mrs Pumphrey, 'let's see if one of these three ships is heading anywhere near Titbury von Streudelheim.'

As it happened, one of them was. It had a consignment of Christmas goods to drop off (a bit like a container ship from China, only with a considerably smaller load made of less plastic and more knitting) and the captain, one Lord Yorick Über Leonard Entwhistle Nelson, was more than happy to take on board a few extra passengers. 

'Are you any relation to Lord Horatio Nelson?' said Tango Pete, as they climbed aboard the good ship Lollipop. 

'Alas, no,' said Lord Yorick. 'I never knew him. Our shared name is pure coincidence. I am the first sailor in my family. I have four brothers and not one of them has followed me into the navy.'

'What do they do?' asked Mrs Pumphrey. 

'Well,' said Lord Yorick, 'one, Lord Alan, is in computers. Then there's Lord Winston - he's a doctor. Lord Byron is a writer and Lord Richard, well he has a finger in every pie - aviation, music, pharmaceutical products...'

'And you're all Lords?' said Mrs Pumphrey.

'Indeed,' said Lord Yorick. 'Our mother is very proud.'

'You must have very busy lives,' said Tango Pete.

'We do, we do,' said Lord Yorick. 'But we always make sure we get together at this time of year. It's important to spend time with family at Christmas, don't you think?'

Mrs Pumphrey nodded. Standing on the deck of the ship, her journey almost at an end, she was thinking now just how much she had missed Mrs Miggins and the other hens. Yes, it was definitely time to go home.

'And when we get together,' said Lord Yorick. 'we like to indulge in our favourite hobby. Something we started doing as boys and have done ever since.'

'And what is that?' said Tango Pete, thinking it was probably something very manly, like playing rugby, whitewater rafting, or extreme ironing. 

'Morris Dancing,' said Lord Yorick. 'We put on our tight white trousers and our frilly white shirts, cover ourselves in ribbons and jingle our bells. It's very exciting, clashing our sticks and walloping each other with a pig's bladder.'

'I can imagine,' said Tango Pete, who, of course, was not averse to a spot of frill and ribbon and jingle himself. 

'We call ourselves 'The Leaping Lords,' said Lord Yorick. 'We are quite well known on the variety circuit. And each year, in an act of selfless philanthropy, we visit a local establishment and perform our act free of charge. Sometimes it's an old peoples' home, sometimes it's a hospital. And this year,' said Lord Yorick, pulling a piece of paper from his pocket, 'it is a little town in the middle of Titbury von Streudelheim called...Titbury!' 

'But that is our home town!' said Mrs Pumphrey.

'Really?' said Lord Yorick. 'What a coincidence! Of course, our visit will be a flying one, because we haven't got anywhere to stay over. It was a mistake leaving the hotel booking to Byron - always got his head in the clouds, that one. Totally disorganised...didn't occur to him that lots of people would be heading into town at this time of year, visiting relatives and the like...'

'You can stay with us!' said Mrs Pumphrey. 'At Much Malarkey Manor! Mrs Miggins won't mind. We've got plenty of room.'

Well, of course Mrs Pumphrey did not know about the arrival at the Manor of Colin Bird, Turtle Dave, Holly and Ivy, the Pipers and the Twelve Turkish Drummers. She had no idea the place was almost packed to the rafters and that Mrs Miggins was already tearing out her feathers because she couldn't find a set of matching cutlery anywhere in any of the Manor's sideboards. 

But the decision was made. Once they had docked at Titbury town port, the Leaping Lords would meet up to perform in Titbury town square, and the intrepid explorers would go on ahead to Much Malarkey Manor to prepare a jolly Christmassy welcome for their unexpected guests. 

'I can't wait until tomorrow,' said Mrs Pumphrey, squeezing Tango Pete's wing. 'Miggins is going to be so pleased to see us!' 

Sunday, 22 December 2013

The Twenty Second Day of Advent - Kings (Good), Pages (Hither) and (Finally) a Last L or Two.

It was all go at the castle of King Wenceslas when Santa's sleigh arrived. Not quite the Feast of Stephen, (which is what we now call Boxing Day because after 24 hours of being holed up with relatives you don't see from one end of the year to the next you are becoming increasingly tetchy with their so-called 'interesting character quirks' and feelings of violence are arising and there might be fisticuffs before the next tin of Quality Street has been eaten) but close enough that preparations were in full swing.

'Welcome,' boomed King Wenceslas, not unlike the kakapo parrots of New Zealand which sit in holes in the ground and go 'boom!' 'Please make yourselves at home. I'm just overseeing the clearance of all that deep, crisp and even snow by the front gate. It piles up something chronic there every year and makes it very difficult for the villagers to come wassailing. They like a wassail, do my villagers.'

So whilst King Wenceslas trudged out into the snow with his snow shovel (he was a very hands-on king), Mrs Pumphrey, Tango Pete, Harold Angel, Merrily Onhigh, Santa and the seven swans all settled by the massive fire in the main hall and warmed their frozen toeses and noses (or beaks, depending on your species) for the weather had taken a very sudden turn for the cold, unlike today in Kent where it has been alternately lashing it down with rain and bursting forth with sunshine. And quite mild, too, although not mild enough for Andy's panettone dough which is having trouble rising but I am sure it'll get there in the end. 

Eventually, King Wenceslas returned from his snow shovelling, and accepted a mug of hot chocolate from his Page. 

'This is Hither, my Page,' he said, introducing the young man to the assembled guests. 'He is an excellent chap. Always by my side. If I want flesh or wine or pine logs he brings them straight to me. It is almost like he can read my mind.'

'I've read The Book of Pages, Sire,' said Hither. 'It's all in there. How to page.There are pages and pages of how to page. Page after page after page...'

'Yes, thank you Hither. Marvellous!' said King Wenceslas. 'Now,dear Mrs Pumphrey. How can I be of service to you?'

'We were sent by Three Wise Men,' said Mrs Pumphrey. 'They said you might know the whereabouts of the Last L of Christmas.' She held her breath in anticipation of a positive response, for yea verily, not only were they running out of time, they were also running out of blog posts.

'You mean the one that was in Christmas the year before the Christmas that was celebrated with the First No L?' said King Wenceslas.

'Yes!' said Mrs Pumphrey, excitedly.

'Indeed I do!' say King Wenceslas. 'In fact, I can get several Last L's if you've a mind to collect a set. They are relatively common round these parts.'

'But that's amazing!' said Mrs Pumphrey. 'Could I have some to take back to Much Malarkey Manor with me?'

'Of course,' said King Wenceslas. 'Hither my Page will take you to them immediately, won't you, Hither?'

'Yes, Sire,' said Hither.

The intrepid explorers, now full of excitement that their search was nearing its end, pulled on their coats and boots and gloves and hats and followed Hither into the snow. 

'Where are we going?' said Tango Pete as Hither strode out ahead of them, towards a fence that separated a forest from a huge mountain. 

'Under that mountain,' said Hither, 'and to the local public house. It's called St Agnes Fountain. You'll find the man you want there.'

And so they travelled through the forest and down, down a narrow mountain pass into and under the mountain and, sure enough, just as Hither said, they came upon a pub by the name of St Agnes Fountain which was doing a very brisk trade.

'Who are we looking for?' said Mrs Pumphrey.

'The woodsman,' said Hither. 'He should be here about now. His name is Mr Pawman and he spends his days out and about gathering and selling wood. On account of it being very, very snowy here. And cold. And sometimes he picks up a few L's, too. From the LM trees. He sells the m's to the M & M factory down the road.' (You may need to be reading this post out loud to benefit from the full phonic effect.)

'What's he talking about?' says Daisy, looking puzzled, and not because she has been eating sticky gingerbread and making a jigsaw puzzle at the same time and is now covered in bits of oddly shaped cardboard.

'Oh, do keep up!' says Primrose. 'Pawman gathering winter few L? Get it? Good! Now give me that piece of sky.'

And so it was that Mrs Pumphrey was not only able to find the last L of Christmas, but several L's, which she paid Mr Pawman for and placed carefully in her handbag to take back to the Manor just so she could go 'Nya- na-na-na-naaaaaa!' at Mrs Miggins and they could all get on with Christmas, scores settled. 

'Time to go home, I think,' said Mrs Pumphrey. 'Time to go home.'

Saturday, 21 December 2013

The Twenty First Day of Advent - Come Dance Hen (Strictly!)

Now, some of you may be wondering if Mrs Pumphrey will, now she is newly married, take her new husband's name. Will she become Mrs Tango-Pumphrey, or Mrs Pumphrey-Tango. Or will she drop her Pumphrey and be Mrs Tango? Or will she be a modern lady hen and retain her original name because she does not want to advertise a well-known orange-flavoured carbonated drink? 

Well, I can tell you that it is none of these options! 

'Why is that?' says Daisy.

'Why is that?' I hear some of you cry. I shall tell you why. Because although we all know Tango Pete as Tango Pete, his name is not really Tango Pete! Well, his name is Pete, but the Tango bit is pure fiction-in-the-name-of-art. Or more strictly speaking - dance!

You see, as soon as Tango Pete hatched from his egg, he showed a talent for dancing. He chipped his way from his shell and and soon as his little chick feet hit the straw he was tapping and waltzing and jazzing and jiving. And his mother, seeing such obvious talent, enrolled him immediately in the Len Goodhen Academy of Dancing and Fancy Pants Footwork. She had to sell her collection of Royal Doulton in order to afford the fees, but her dedication to her son's talent was rewarded thousands of times over when Pete became the Southern Counties Hen Dance Champion with his partner Olay Jordhen who also modelled skin care products in her spare time. 

And it soon became apparent that Pete's best dance was...

...the paso doble!

I bet you were thinking I was going to say 'the tango', weren't you? Ha! Lots of people make that mistake. For in truth, his nickname grew from his love of spray tan and not the fact he was particularly talented with a cape and bull. He spent much of his professional career on the brighter side of tangerine orange and even after he retired from the ballroom floor to become a professional dance teacher instead, the nickname stuck. 

And now, I suppose, you are itching to know the truth of Tango Pete's real surname. And I can exclusively reveal that his name is, in fact, Pete Spangleboots.

'And there is no way,' chips in Mrs Pumphrey, 'that I am changing my name to Gloria In Excelsis Deo Spangleboots. So I shall remain as I always have, and that is Mrs Pumphrey.'

I hope that clears up any misunderstandings.

And so Santa's sleigh took off from the grounds of Buckingham Palace, slightly cramped now because of the addition of seven enormous swans all now thoroughly stuffed with plums. 

'To the castle of King Wenceslas!' shouted Mr Spangleboots, I mean Tango Pete.

'Not just yet, my love!' said Mrs Pumphrey. 'We are making a small diversion.'

'But I thought you were in an hurry to find the last L of Christmas,' said Tango Pete, lest the good readers had forgotten amidst all the recent excitement exactly why we were on this crazy journey in the first place (because the writer nearly had in a mush-for-brains moment). 

'I am,' said Mrs Pumphrey, 'but we can spare a few hours. There is something important you need to do.'

This got Tango Pete slightly worried, what with this being his official wedding night and all, and him no longer being a spring chicken. 

'I'm not sure I can handle any more...er...excitement today...' he began, as tactfully as he could in a sleigh full of listening ears.

'It's all right,' said Mrs Pumphrey. 'There will be lots of other people there. You won't be alone. 

'WHAT???' said Tango Pete. 'Other people? There with us?'

'Of course,' said Mrs Pumphrey. 'We can't perform without an audience, can we? Where's the fun in that?'

'Good grief!' said Tango Pete, wondering if he had just made the biggest mistake in his life.

'I've chosen some music, too,' said Mrs Pumphrey. 'And costumes, for us to dress up in. They're a bit raunchy, but I thought, 'What the heck! This is a one-night only performance. Let's go for it and to hell with the consequences.'

Tango Pete was aware there was much giggling going on. He could feel a blush a-rising in his cheeks and he was glad he had taken his blood pressure pills because his heart was pounding abnormally fast.

'My dear lady wife,' he said, mustering as much dignity and calm as he could. 'Would you explain, please, exactly where we are going and what we shall be doing when we arrive?'

'Why,' said Mrs Pumphrey, 'to the finals of Strictly Come Dance Hen' of course! We're performing a group dance during the voting interval with all the other professional dancers! What did you think I was talking about?'

Tango Pete, being a gentleman, did not like to say but he, and the sporran on his kilt, breathed a sigh of relief. 

'Will Anton du Beak be there?' he said. 

'Indeed,' said Mrs Pumphrey. 'And Pasha Koblehen, and Karhen Hardy, and Artem Chickvinchev, and Christina Rihenov, and Brendhen Cole. All the greats!' 

'What about Olay Jordhen?' said Tango Pete, thinking it might be a bit awkward if his old partner and new wife were to meet up in the dressing room. There could be sequins at dawn, chiffon at 10 paces.

'It was she who suggested it,' said Mrs Pumphrey. 'They needed another couple to make up the numbers in the group dance and she immediately thought of you. You were the best of your time, my love.'

'But what about you?' said Tango Pete. 'I mean, I know you can do a mean 'Shake Your Tail Feathers' but ballroom isn't exactly your thing, is it?'

Mrs Pumphrey laughed. 'Good grief,' she said, 'I shan't be doing proper dancing! Your ballroom partner this evening will be Olay. I shall be dressed as a magnificent Christmas Fairy and will stand on a podium in the centre of you all. I,' she finished, 'shall be Vogueing!' 

Well, can you imagine the excitement that roared from the sleigh at THAT announcement? It was all posh frocks and dickie bows, feather boas and tuxedos. And soon they arrived at the BBC studios for the final of Strictly Come Dance Hen, and Denise was in the audience waving her 'Go, Susannna and Kevin From Grimsby, Go!' banner.

They'll be on the telly later, Mrs Pumphrey and Tango Pete, if you feel inclined to tune in and watch them. You might have to look closely to see them, because some of the frocks are VERY big, but they will be there. If you truly believe. 

Friday, 20 December 2013

The Twentieth Day of Advent - Down With Swan Upping and A Right Royal Performance

There is nothing like a Winter wedding. Carrots, for example, are nothing like a Winter wedding. Nor are gerbils, shower caps or golf clubs. I rest my case.

Anyway, the excitement was great when Tango Pete and Mrs Pumphrey announced their engagement. There was much back slapping and rib nudging and eye winking and that was just Merrily and Mrs P. 

'So when is the wedding?' said Merrily, as Mrs Pumphrey showed off her engagement ring.

'I'm an old fashioned girl,' said Mrs P. 'So we're getting married today!'

'Today?' said Merrily. 'But there is so much planning to do for a wedding. You need to organise a dress, a cake, bridesmaids, a venue, invitations, bridesmaids, buffet or sit-down, shoes, bridesmaids, hymns, a gift list, a honeymoon, bridesmaids...and...'

'Bridesmaids?' hazarded Mrs Pumphrey.

'Well, quite,' said Merrily, 'but only if you are sure.'

Mrs Pumphrey smiled. 'You can be my bridesmaid, Merrily, but there will be NO hen-do, okay? We won't have time for a start.'

Merrily looked at the same time elated and crestfallen. It is a look that geese carry off especially well. Something to do with them having no discernible eyebrows. 'But don't you want your friends Mrs Miggins, Mrs Slocombe, Mrs Bennett and Mrs Poo to be bridesmaids?' she said. Then, 'and it would be nice to have a hen-do.'

'I have already called ahead to Much Malarkey Manor to tell them the good news,' said Mrs Pumphrey, 'and the girls are very excited and very keen to put together a wedding reception for Christmas Eve. And if you must organise a hen-do then, okay, go ahead. But it will have to be in exactly one hour's time and in the form of elevenses at a nice little bistro cafe.'

'But why the rush?' said Merrily, looking very cheerful now and wondering if she could get away with wearing orange. 'You're not...you know...thingy, are you?' And she stared pointedly at Mrs Pumphrey's tummy.

'About to lay an egg?' said Mrs Pumphrey. 'Good Lord, no. My egg popping days are long past. It's just that, well, Tango Pete and I have been good friends for so long there doesn't seem any point in waiting. Plus Santa has pulled a few magic strings and has managed to secure a Very Special Person to perform our wedding ceremony. And this Very Special Person can only marry us today.'

Merrily was intrigued. 'Who is this Very Special Person?' she said.

Mrs Pumphrey tapped the side of her beak. 'You'll find out in a couple of hours,' she said.

'Okay,' said Merrily. 'Just one other thing - can I wear my tangerine hot pants?'

'Totally inappropriate and totally no,' said Mrs Pumphrey.

Two hours later, and Santa's sleigh landed in no less a place than the grounds of Buckingham Palace itself.

'Her Maj the Queen is going to perform your wedding ceremony?' said Merrily, staring in awe at the massive building before them, and also a little greedily at the lush green lawns upon which the sleigh now stood.

'Yes!' said Mrs Pumphrey.

'But she's the Queen!' said Merrily.

'And thus able to do anything she jolly well likes,' said Mrs P. 'And apparently she owes Santa a favour. Something to do with a corgi doo-doo in St James' Park and an altercation with a dog warden. Anyway, Her Maj is waiting, so let's go-go!'

As the wedding party made its way up the steps to the Garden Room of the Palace, they heard strange noises emanating from within. 

'What's going on? said Tango Pete, who was wearing a kilt of the Balmoral tweed in honour of their auspicious hostess.

Harold Angel, in the role of best quail, shrugged his shoulders. 'Sounds like something is kicking off,' he said. 

Suddenly, the Garden Room doors banged open and a footman came flying out, landing with a thump on the terrace. A familiarly regal voice called, 'Watch out, Steve! They can break your arm with a single beat of their wings, you know!' 

'Good grief!' said Tango Pete, helping Steve the Footman to his feet. 'Are you all right? What's going on?'

Steve the Footman brushed himself down and adjusted his livery. 'Thank you, Sir,' he said, giving a slight bow. 'A mere swan attack, Sir. Nothing that cannot be handled with aplomb and a stick. I have called the Swan Upper. A sterling chap by the name of Mr M.C Tales. He has the aplomb. I have the stick.'

(Mr M.C Tales will recognise himself in this cameo role of the story. Or at least, his good lady wife will!)

'We're here for a wedding,' said Tango Pete.

'And a wedding you shall have, Sir,' said Steve the Footman. 'Her Majesty is expecting you, and is installed in the Throne Room. Along with seven swans.'

'Seven swans?' said Mrs Pumphrey, who was a bit nervous around anything bigger and whiter than her, things like swans, and ghosts and enormous pavlovas. 

'A minor inconvenience, madam,' said Steve. 'They do it every year. For all their beauty, swans are intrinsically stupid birds, and coupled with their tendencies towards violence, they can be rather boorish.'

'Why are they here?' said Tango Pete, as Steve the Footman beckoned them forward towards the corridor that led to the Throne Room. 

'It's their annual protest against the Monarchy eating swans,' explained Steve the Footman. 'They think that just because the monarch is the only person in the kingdom allowed to eat swan, that she does eat swan, on Christmas Day, instead of turkey. Or goose. Begging your pardon, madam,' he said, bowing towards Merrily. 

'Pardon granted,' said Merrily, who was feeling some empathy towards the swans. 

'And every year they arrive and protest,' said Steve the Footman. 'Generally there is a lot of noise involved, and we order the carpet cleaners in to give the Persians a once over, but Her Majesty deals with them with very little other fuss.' And Steve opened the Throne Room door to reveal Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second of Great Britain and the Commonwealth holding seven swans at bay in a corner with a small velvet chair and a pike. (No, not the fish variety - that would just be ridiculous!) 

Several corgis were joining in the fun by barking and what with the swans hissing, it was a bit loud. 

'Do come in,' said Her Maj, casting one eye back and smiling at her guests, yet keeping one eye on the cornered swans. 'As soon as my Swan Upper arrives, we shall proceed with your marriage. Have you decided yet if you are going to love, honour and obey, or love, honour and cherish?'

'Cherish!' said Mrs P and Tango Pete in unison, which luckily bode well for their future happiness.

'Marvellous!' said the Queen. 'I said the same to my Philly. I said, 'Philly, I am the Queen. I am making no promises to obey.'

At that moment, Mr M.C Tales, Swan Upper, arrived. Bowing to Her Majesty, he said not a word, but simply marched over to the swans, opened the bag that was flung across his shoulder, and began to lay a trail of plums from the corner of the room, and out through the door. Steve the Footman followed, giving the occasional swan an occasional poke with his stick, and the swans went silently and obediently, all hissing and protest ceased. And at the entrance to the Garden Room terrace, Santa guided the swans to the sleigh because he thought they might come in handy in a few days' time.

And so Mrs Pumphrey married Tango Pete in a quiet yet regal ceremony in the most auspicious of circumstance. Her Majesty cracked open bottles of her finest champagne and served canapés that she had made herself that very morning. 'Philly made the cheese straws,' she said, 'but I did all the rest.'

And before the happy couple set off in Santa's sleigh towards the direction of King Wenceslas's castle,  Her Maj insisted that they should come to Balmoral for the New Year celebrations as part of their honeymoon. 

'Bring as many guests as you like,' she said.

'Thank you, Your Majesty,' said Mrs Pumphrey, curtsying deeply.  And as she stepped into the gardens of Buckingham Palace, a newly married hen, the sun glistened on the shiny gold ring, and she was very happy indeed. 

Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Nineteenth Day of Advent - Ring-A-Ling-A-Ling-A-Ding-Dong-Ding!

(Editor's Note: Some might say it is pure coincidence that this episode should fall upon the 19th December, because today is the anniversary of the day in 2002 when Andy proposed marriage to Denise over a bowl of carrot and coriander soup. And some might say it is a cunningly thought-out plan by the author in order to recognise this auspicious moment during the story plot. And some might say it is also coincidence that, had Denise's Dad still been alive, he and her Mum would be celebrating their 49th wedding anniversary today. Either way, coincidence or plot, the 19th December has particular marriage resonance and so we continue our story...)

'Are you ready?' said Santa, adjusting the bow tie on Tango Pete's shirt for the sixth time because Tango Pete had a particularly manly chest and its muscular ooomph did nothing to help the bow tie lie flat.

'I am,' said Tango Pete. And even though he trusted Santa to set up the perfect conditions for a romantic proposal, he had also taken the precaution of wearing his lucky underpants. Just in case. It doesn't do to mess with fate, he thought, adjusting his wattles and nuggets. Look what happened to Romeo.

'Ah yes,' sighs Daisy, 'poor Romeo. A star cross'd lover. Fortune's Fool. When that ship went down, and he was hanging onto that piece of wood in the freezing Atlantic I sobbed my heart out.'

'I think,' says Primrose, 'that you might be mixing your Leonardo di Caprio films.'

'Really?' says Daisy. 'Well, either way, he's a marvellous actor. And how he finds time to paint those amazing pictures, too. Moaning Lisa - now there's a gal and a half.'

Primrose stares at her companion. 'Daisy,' she says, 'I am very fond of you, but just shut up,eh?'

Santa had unharnessed two of the reindeer and then reharnessed them to a smaller sleigh, and filled it with cushions and snugly rugs.

'Go and fetch Mrs Pumphrey,' he said.

Tango Pete was trembling in his knickerbockers. (Cockerels always wear knickerbockers. Their legs would look stupid in any other form of pantaloon. So it's knickerbockers. Or Spandex, because Spandex will adapt to the form of ANY leg shape.) He found Mrs Pumphrey deep in conversation with Merrily Onhigh. 

'Would you do me the honour of accompanying me on a little trip, Mrs Pumphrey?' said he, giving a little bow, he didn't know why but it seemed the appropriate thing to do, plus it relieved the wedgie that had occurred in his lucky underpants. 

'What sort of little trip?' said Mrs Pumphrey. 'Only I am rather keen to get to King Wenceslas's castle as soon as possible. It's only 6 days until Christmas and Mrs Miggins will be cross if I'm too late arriving back at Much Malarkey Manor because it's my job to brandy the butter and Brussel the sprouts.'

'We won't be long,' said Tango Pete. He took a firm hold of Mrs Pumphrey's wing and guided her towards the little sleigh because the last thing he needed at this moment in time was for her to start being awkward. If she started being un-co-operative he might lose his bottle completely and some other swine would whisk her away from him, which might be just a little more than he could bear.

'So,' he said, as they settled into the little sleigh and set off along a woodland track, 'what have you been up to recently?'

Mrs Pumphrey looked at him like he was mad. 'You know full well what I've been up to recently,' she said. 'We've spent the last two and a half weeks together.'

Damn, thought Tango Pete, what a stupid thing to say. Classic small-talk faux pas. Try something else.

'Oh, er...yes...well...ummmm...' he continued, 'so...have you read any good books lately? Seen any decent films? Discovered any new sheep?' 

'Sheep?' said Mrs P. 'Sheep?!'

'Did I say 'sheep'?' said Tango Pete. 'Sorry. I meant 'biscuits'.'

'No,' said Mrs Pumphrey. 'To both sheep and biscuits. The last film I saw was 'Despicable Me 2' which was very, very funny and I wouldn't mind it for a Christmas present, and the last book I read was 'How To Be A Womhen' by Caitlin Morhen, which was not funny and is going straight to the charity shop when I get home.'

'What was wrong with it?' said Tango Pete.

'Too much swearing,' sniffed Mrs Pumphrey. 'And drinking and smoking and taking prohibited substances and other such naughtiness. £7.99 wasted if you ask me. And it didn't teach me anything about being a hen that I didn't know already.'

The two would-be-fiances sat in silence for a while. The sleigh jingled its bells and Tango Pete jingled the engagement ring that was safely in its box in the pocket of his knickerbockers. Dusk was falling, and the sky was clear and inky-blue above them, studded with twinkly stars and bathed in the gentle glow of a just-passed full moon. 

And then the most magical thing began to happen. 

'What is the most magical thing you can think of, Daisy?' says Primrose.

'Paul Daniels,' says Daisy. 

'No,' says Primrose. 'I think you'll find it has started snowing.'

'Oh,' says Daisy.

And indeed, snow had begun to fall. It swirled around in gentle patterns dropping softly then lifting up as it was caught by the slight breeze that waltzed though the woodland landscape. And then the sleigh came to a halt beneath a solitary streetlight, like that one in Narnia, land of ice and snow and wonder and magic and bananas. 

'Why have we stopped?' said Mrs Pumphrey. 'I thought you said this was going to be a short trip...'

(Cue Tango Pete riffling in his knickerbockers for the engagement ring.)

'I have something important to say,' said Tango Pete, pulling the ring box from his pocket.

'Only like I said before we really need to get a move on,' interrupted Mrs Pumphrey. 'I really don't know what possessed me to go in search of this stupid Last L of Christmas anyway. It probably doesn't exist and I am going to look a prize plum when we get back to Titbury, and then Miggins is going to be stressed out that I haven't been around to help get ready for Christmas. You just don't realise how much there is to do at the last minute. I mean, you feel like you've been working on preparations for months and Christmas is never going to arrive, then WHAM! There is it, two days to go and you haven't even mulled the wine or nogged the eggs....'

'Mrs Pumphrey...'said Tango Pete. 'Gloria...'

'And Mrs Bennett will be up that ladder hanging lights on the front of the Manor, and she shouldn't, not with her sciatica, and Mrs Slocombe will be at the Ferrero Rocher before the Ambassador arrives and...'

'Gloria Pumphrey!' said Tango Pete, suddenly and with passionate fervour. 'Will you please be quiet! I am trying to propose!' 

(This is exactly what Andy said to Denise 11 years ago. Well, she'd just driven from Kent to Liverpool after a long and horrid day at school and she always over talks at times of deep stress.) 

Mrs Pumphrey stopped mid-chat. Her beak hung open wide, which wasn't the most attractive of looks. Tango Pete grabbed the sudden silence by the throat and went for it. He dropped to one knee, which was no mean feat in a small sleigh full of cushions and rugs.

'Gloria In Excelsis Deo Pumphrey...will you marry me?' 

'Yes,' she said, simply. 'Yes.'

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Eighteenth Day of Advent - A Find Romance With These Chickens

The sun was rising and Santa had put his sleigh down in a nice little town, location undetermined but could be somewhere like Chester, or Hereford, or Norwich, or Bath, you choose because I expect you've all got your favourites whichever part of the world you are in. The intrepid explorers were looking for a good place to have a hearty breakfast because it is hungry work following stars and suchlike, and they didn't want to arrive at the castle of King Wenceslas with rumbly tummies.

Following their noses, they soon found a little cafe open for breakfast. The cafe owner was surprised to see such a motley crew of characters arriving so early in the morning, but she assumed they were a group of university students getting up to university japes and set to cooking eggs and bacon, crumpets and toast, and even a pan of kedgeree. 

As they ate, Harold Angel couldn't help but notice that Tango Pete was being especially quiet. He seemed pensive and faraway, like a Romantic poet sitting atop a rain-lashed mountain, mist gathering around his enormous frilly shirt and hanging like gossamer in his bouffant curls.  

He nudged Tango Pete. 'Are you all right, old friend?' said he. 'You seem somewhat distracted, like a butterfly flitting from flower to flower, uncertain upon which to land, caught up in the heady perfume of each blossom and its uniquely scented glory.'

Tango Pete sighed. 'I am distracted,' he said. 'My head is muzzy, like it is filled with the softest cotton wool that is freshly fluffed to grace the delicate cheek of the highest born lady with the finest cosmetics, a lady whose face was ne'er burned by the sun, remaining that delicate porcelain sheen of palest pale...'

'Oh good grief!' exclaims Primrose. 'Just get on with it, will you?'

'Hush,' says Daisy. 'He is being romantic. He is building up to a revelation concerning a delicate matter of the heart. You can't rush these things, you know.'

'Well, I wish he'd get a bit of a shift on,' says Primrose. 'I've got a bath running. My window of opportunity for story-listening tonight is bijou.'

'...and my heart is under the most magical of spells,' continued Tango Pete. 'I can neither think, nor concentrate, nor organise my mind into any semblance of order to do what is it I know I must do before all hope for my future happiness  is lost.'

'And what is that?' said Harold. 'What is it that you must do?' 

Tango Pete lowered his voice. 'I must propose marriage to the most gorgeous hen in all Christendom,' he whispered. 'I must secure the admirable and delectable Gloria Pumphrey for my wife.'

'Thank goodness for that,' said Harold. 'There was me worrying that another piece of featherage had caught your eye and you'd abandoned Mrs Pumphrey altogether.'

'Never!' declared Tango Pete. 'She is my muse, my light, my angel, my goodness! But before I propose I need to find an engagement ring befitting her great, bumptious beauteousness, her glorious gloriousness, her voluminous voluptuousness.'

'Steady on there, old chap,' said Harold. 'It's barely 9 in the morning.'

Tango Pete stood up suddenly. 'Then I must hie me to a jewellers immediately. I cannot let another day pass for if I do my resolve will melt like that snowman out there.'

'What snowman?' said Harold, glancing out the window on a day that was proving to be remarkably clement for the time of year.

'You see!' said Tango Pete. 'It's vanished already! There is no time to lose. Come with me, dearest Harold. Help me choose the jewel that will secure my true love.' 

'Will you please keep the noise down at that end of the table,' said Merrily, glancing up from where she, Mrs Pumphrey and Santa were hunched over the Guardian cryptic crossword. 'We are trying to concentrate here.'

'Just going out!' declared Tango Pete. 'Back soon!'

And he and Harold emerged from the shop into the High Street of the undetermined town (although I am beginning to favour Norwich.)

The two friends headed towards the best jewellery shop in town - 'Glam Rocks - For All Your Glitz and Bitz Needs.' Inside, they were met by a lovely pink lady pig.

'Hello,' she said. 'My name is Pearl B. Foreswine. How can I help you?'

'We're looking for an engagement ring,' said Tango Pete.

'Something glamorous yet tasteful,' said Harold. He held out his wing and wiggled a feather in a dramatic sort of way, and immediately Pearl slipped a ring sizer on him.

'I'd say you are a size 'N',' she said.

'It's not for me,' said Harold, whipping his wing away. Pearl looked at Tango Pete, her eyebrow raised in an arch of questioning.

'Nor me!' said Tango Pete. 'Well, it is, but not for him...we're not...not...a couple...no...er...it's for my soon-to-be fiancée, Mrs Pumphrey.'

'Oh, I see,' said Pearl. 'Well, one can't assume anything these days, you know. What size would you say your fiancée was?'

Tango Pete looked a little confused. 'Well, she is a bit top-heavy I suppose but...'

Pearl sighed and smiled. 'Not that size,' she said. 'Her ring size.'

'Oh,' said Tango Pete. 'She's a P.'

'That's handy,' said Harold. 'P for Pumphrey!'

Anyway, confusion over and relationships firmly established, Pearl set about laying trays of engagement rings before Tango Pete, listening carefully to his description of Mrs Pumphrey so she could show him the most suitable options.

They eventually narrowed the choice of rings to five.

'Five gold rings,' said Harold Angel. 

'Who'd have thought?' said Tango Pete. He studied all the rings carefully, and eventually made his choice. The ring was placed in a velvet lined box, which was in turn tied with a pink ribbon and placed carefully in a bag. Tango Pete handed over his credit card, and he and Harold bade farewell to Pearl B. Foreswine, and stepped into the street.

'I wonder what the 'B' stood for?' said Tango Pete.

'Bodicea,' said Harold. 'And I got her number, too!' And he winked broadly at Tango Pete, who wished he had half the romantic bravado of his friend, because thoughts of the now imminent proposal were making him feel very anxious indeed. 

'So,' said Harold, as they made their way back to the cafe to find the others and continue their journey, for yea verily it was but one week now until Christmas Day and there was still heaps to get through, 'when are you going to pop the question?'

'Tomorrow evening,' said Tango Pete, determinedly. 'I shall ask Santa if we can stop off somewhere romantic and I shall ask my beloved for her wing in marriage tomorrow.'

'I thought you were going to ask Mrs Pumphrey,' said Harold.

'Oh, hahahah ahahahahaha!' said Tango Pete, giving his friend a friendly roister-doister shove that caused him to fall off the pavement. 

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The Seventeenth Day of Christmas - Provisions and Trouble At The Farm

What with the unexpected arrival of Turtle Dave, Colin Bird and twelve Turkish Drummers, Mrs Miggins was beginning to think she ought to revise her numbers for Christmas Catering. And so she sat at the kitchen table and did a bit of totting up, and it wasn't long before she started running out of wings, toes and nuggets.

'Me, of course,' she started, 'and Mrs Pumphrey, Mrs Bennett, Mrs Slocombe and Mrs Poo makes five. I expect Tango Pete will want to stay, which is six. Then there's Colin and Dave and the twelve drummers, which adds another fourteen. That's twenty. And then Sandie Piper and his wife and their nephew Maris...phew, twenty three!'

Mrs Miggins leaned back in her chair and tapped her pen on the very long list. Little did she realise at this point that she had also to take into account the invitation Mrs Pumphrey had extended to Harold Angel and Merrily Onhigh. Luckily though, Miggins was good at allowing 10% approximations, so she said, 'I think I should cater for 25.3 at the very least, and add another 4.7 for a good round number. So,' she said, trying not to panic that the Christmas Food requirements had just shot up from a manageable five to a potential crisis thirty, 'I had better go out and do some more shopping.'

Mrs Miggins wasn't overly keen on using supermarkets, although she did appreciate their convenience when one was caught short for loo cleaner or pistachios. But for general purposes she much preferred to support local businesses, and so it was that she set off from  Much Malarkey Manor, and travelled through Titbury and out the other side to the local farm, which belonged to and was admirably run by Farmer Seed and his wife, Annie.

Now, when I say, 'admirably run' I refer directly to Farmer Seed who was an enthusiastic farmer, born and bred. His wife, Annie, however, was not a natural farmer's wife. In fact, she was to farming what Ann Widdecombe was to dancing, and whilst I am an ardent admirer of la Widdecombe, I am the first to admit her forays onto the dance floor with the admirable Anton du Beke made even me cringe sometimes. Annie would rather spend her days shopping for cruises or learning Zumba than schlepping around in wellies getting covered in pig poo. No rosy face, apple-cheeked, fine home cooking country girl was she. Cooking was something other people did; Annie could just about bring herself to take a lasagne ready meal from the freezer, remove the box, slam the foil tray in the oven and leave a note for her husband saying, 'Dinner in oven. Gone to Wine Tasting for Beginners.'

Anyway, Mrs Miggins arrived at the farm with several empty bags because at this time of year Farmer Seed sold a vast array of Christmas goodies from his pop-up Christmas farm shop. For the rest of the year, he sold his produce at the Farmers' Market in Titbury, but at Christmas the customers came to him. He hired in extra staff, and it was to the sound of him getting more than a little testy with these temporary workers that Mrs Miggins arrived at the farm.

She almost collided with Farmer Seed as he came storming from the pop-up shop.

'Oopsadaisy!' said Miggins. 'Steady as you go there, Farmer Seed.'

'Mrs Miggins!' said Farmer Seed. 'A voice of sanity, at last!'

'Problems?' said Miggins.

'Nothing the arrival of 5 p.m on Christmas Eve won't cure,' sighed Farmer Seed. 'You just can't get the staff these days. Anyway, come to do a bit of shopping have you? Big houseful at the Manor this year?'

'I should say so,' said Miggins. 'I need cheese, butter, pies, pickles, more veggies than you can shake a stick at, milk...'

'Don't talk to me about milk!' said Farmer Seed. 'And especially don't talk to me about people who say they are milkmaids when it becomes very quickly apparent they don't know one end of a cow from another. Certainly took the cows by surprise, I can tell you. I doubt some of them will ever fully recover.'

'Do tell,' said Miggins, as they walked slowly to the pop-up shop.

'Well,' said Farmer Seed, 'I called Titbury Employment Agency last week...'

'T.E.A?' said Miggins. 'I know it well...'

'...and asked for two experienced milk maids, to help me with the herd. You heard I had expanded my herd this year, did you?'

'Yes,' said Miggins. 'I heard about your herd.'

'So,' said Farmer Seed, 'last week these two girls arrive. Introduced themselves as Holly Prickle and Ivy Creeper, which should have been a warning if ever there was one, but I was in the Christmas zone by then, so I showed them the cowshed and told them to get on with it.'

'And what happened?' said Mrs Miggins.

'Well,' said Farmer Seed, 'I went back after an hour to see how they were doing, and do you know what I found? I'll tell you what I found, Mrs Miggins. I found two so-called milkmaids playing gin rummy in the back of the milking shed, with real gin I hasten to add, and sixty five fit to bursting cows. The noise was terrible!' 

'Why didn't you send them packing?' said Mrs Miggins. They were at the door of the pop-up shop now, and coming from inside Mrs Miggins could hear giggling.

'Small print in the contracts from the agency,' sighed Farmer Seed. 'Always read the small print, Mrs Miggins. Always read the small print. But enough of my problems. Let's get you some shopping.'

The pop-up shop was a veritable cornucopia of Christmas deliciousness. Truckles of 'Whiffy McGee's Best Vintage Cheddar' stood cheek to cheek with bottles of 'Old Twinkie's Best Apple Boomer' cider. There were jars of the award-winning 'Whooza Pickle' chutney, and the biggest parsnips you've ever seen in your life, all the better, of course,for having been harvested after a frost. And behind the counter stood two giggling girls, hunched over their mobiles phones and doing their best to deliver the worst customer service ever.

'My apologies,' sighed Farmer Seed. 'Just ignore them. It's best.'

And so Farmer Seed himself helped Mrs Miggins gather her produce, and he helped her load it into the panniers of her Vespa scooter. And just as he was poking four stalks of Brussels into Mrs Miggins' top box, there came a loud crash from inside the shop, akin to the sound of, oh, I don't know, many eggs hitting the concrete.

'That's it!' shouted Farmer Seed. 'I don't care about the contract! Holly! Ivy! You are both FIRED!!!'

At the sound of his roaring anger, the two girls emerged from the shop.

'Oh no, please don't fire us!' they begged. 'We can't 'elp bein' part of a failing edjucashun system in a deprived society...'

'What are they wailing about?' said Miggins, watching in appalled amazement as the two girls turned into snivelling, grizzling wrecks.

'This is the first job we've ever 'ad,' wailed Holly, wiping her snotty nose up her sleeve.

'Yeah,' said Ivy. 'That's right, guv'nor. Our families is depending on us for money for Christmas. I've got eight brothers and sisters and an incontinent grannie.'

'Yeah,' echoed Holly. 'And our Beaujolais Rose is 'spectin' an X-box in 'er stockin'. If she don't get 'er X-box she'll kick off.'

'I'll give you an egg box in a minute,' yelled Farmer Seed, 'and it won't be the kind you need to plug into a socket!'

Suddenly, Mrs Miggins felt very odd. She felt sorry for these two girls, which was unusual as she never normally felt sorry for anyone. Call it sympathy, call it philanthropy, call it down-right stupidity, but before she could say 'Many Contrafibularities Of the Season Everyone,' she blurted out...

'Come and work for me at the Manor. I'll need some extra help in the kitchen.'

And Holly and Ivy fell upon her with thanks and gratitude, and so did Farmer Seed because he was on the verge of getting out his 12 bore shot gun which would not be very Christmassy at all. 

'Two more for Christmas,' sighed Miggins. 'Better add another bag of potatoes, Farmer Seed.'

Monday, 16 December 2013

The Sixteenth Day of Christmas - Never Look a Gift Gift in the Mouth

The sleigh followed the star. There was a lot of 'Look! Yonder!' and 'Yonder Star! Look!' from the Three Wise Men, who were very keen to shout and point, thereby showing scant regard for the efficacy of Santa's satnav system, which was very top-notch and tally-ho as you would expect from the owner of a cutting edge delivery service. Harold Angel reckoned they were suffering something called 'camel/sleigh' envy and were merely trying to exert their manliness. Mrs Pumphrey wished they would just shut up because she was getting one of her heads.

Eventually, the star stopped. I am not sure that this is scientifically possible, given the various forces that exert themselves in the running of our marvellous Universe - forces like Gravity and Centrifugal and Brute and Star Wars - but then I suppose the whole idea about Christmas is that whatever your inclination, it is a very magical, mysterious and miraculous time of year. 

And so the star stopped, and hung in the sky as if to say, 'Look! Here is where you need to be!' 

The sleigh hovered next to the star and its occupants looked down. They agreed that the sight upon which their eyes rested was neither glamorous nor fancy nor bursting with any sort of grandeur at all.

'Looks like a slightly bigger version of my garden shed,' said Tango Pete. 'Only a bit more ramshackle.'

Down through the sky they swooped, landing on a piece of rough, stony ground just outside what appeared to be a stable. The Three Wise Men dismounted the sleigh and brushed out their robes and straightened their interesting selection of headgear. 

'Oh, my goodness!' said one of them suddenly. 'I left my gift on the back of my scooter! I can't turn up without a gift.'

'Me, too,' said the Second Wise Man. 'In fact, when I slammed on the brakes in my taxi, my gift shot off the front seat and spilled all over the footwell.'

The Third Wise Man sighed. 'I expect my gift has been looted,' he said. 'Probably winging its way to 'Cash For Gold And Fill My Wallet With Wonga' as we speak.'

Well, the Wise Men were in a right old calamity and tizz and hoo-ha. What sort of guests turn up at a stable without a gift? Especially when they were visiting a baby and a Very Special Baby indeed. 

'Aren't gold, frankincense and myrrh rather inappropriate and, dare I say, dull gifts for a baby?' said Mrs Merrily Onhigh. 'Shouldn't you bring something like building blocks, rattles and a dinosaur that makes an entertaining roar when you squeeze its tummy?'

'If I was a baby,' said Harold, 'I'd want Lego, a Swanee whistle and a chocolate orange.'

'It's all symbolic,' said the First Wise Man. 

'And boring,' said Merrily.

Sensing an argument on the horizon, Santa was already rooting around in his Christmas Sack. 'Look,' he said, 'I haven't got a full range of gifts on board because this was just a trial runout before The Big Day, but I do have a box of Terry's AllGold, a bottle of 'Frank' scent by I-Should-Co-Co-English-Channel and some Merrrrr Lip Balm for Men, Keep Those Chapped Lips At Bay, Chaps. Will they do for the moment? I can return on Christmas Eve with the real things. I promise.'

Well, Santa's promise is as good a promise as anyone can get, so the Wise Men accepted the stand-by gifts, bid farewell to the intrepid explorers and set forth for the stable door.

'But do you know where I can find the Last L of Christmas?' shouted Mrs Pumphrey.

Before the Third Wise Man disappeared into the stable, he turned. 'You need to see my cousin!' he called.

'Who is your cousin?' shouted Mrs Pumphrey.

'Wenceslas!' called the Wise Man. 'He is a King, too. He'll be getting ready for the Feast of Stephen.'

'Will he mind us just turning up?' said Mrs Pumphrey.

'No,' said the Wise Man. 'He is a good king. Just make sure you dress up warm. It's really cold at his place. And see if you can pick up some holly and ivy. He likes his halls well decked, does Wenceslas!' 

And here, as an added Christmas extra, as I sit in front of our NEW WOOD BURNER (oh yes!) is Fairy Gonzo atop our Christmas tree!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Fifteenth Day of Advent - Plumbers and Drummers and Potatoes and Plums...and a Camel

Back at Much Malarkey Manor, Mrs Miggins was having trouble with her plumbing. It happens to all hens of a certain age and can usually be dealt with using a firm grip, a sturdy pair of rubber gloves and a poke in the right direction.

However, Mrs Miggins knew that THIS plumbing problem would require a more substantial intervention, and so she was on the phone to the best plumber in Titbury, one Sandie Piper who...

'Hang on one tickety-boo,' says Primrose. 'Would you care to define the phrase 'plumbing problem' more accurately, please? My eyes are beginning to water.'

'Certainly,' says I. 'Since donning her Winter drawers, on account on the weather suddenly becoming very cold, Mrs Miggins had been around the Manor checking all the radiators and the wood-burning stoves and having the chimneys swept because she didn't want the Malarkey guests feeling chilly over the festive season. And when she cranked up a couple of the radiators in the East Wing Art Deco and Art Garfunkel suites there was some very suspicious gurgling going on in the pipes. And so she thought it would be prudent to call in a plumber.'

'Right,' says Primrose. 'Thank you for clarifying that point.'

'You are welcome,' says I. 'And it also reminded her to make an appointment to see her gynaecologist because recently she's noticed that when she sneezes...'

'STOP!!' says Primrose. 'Too much information.'

'I want to speak to Mr Piper,' said Mrs Miggins. 'Yes...the plumber...Titbury 2468...can you put me through? It is rather a matter of emergency.'

The town of Titbury, it should be explained, though very progressive in many other ways, still had an old-fashioned telephone exchange. Any calls made both within the town and to beyond went through Mrs Bobbinflaxenfluff who, aside from being president of the Titbury Weavers' and Knitters' Guild, womanned the telephone exchange. Unfortunately, years of working with wool fibres and overly-loud looms had rendered her slightly hard of hearing, so occasionally a number or a name was misheard and hilarious consequences ensued. Not that this would happen now in this story, of course. Heaven forfend. 

'Yes...thank you...' said Mrs Miggins, rolling her eyes at Colin Bird and Turtle Dave whom she had set to work polishing the parquet flooring in the main hall before they brought in the Christmas Tree, for yes, Mrs Miggins was about to crack open her Christmas cupboard which she'd had prepared and ready to go since August 1st. 'Mr Piper? Hello...it's Laetitia Miggins, up at Much Malarkey Manor...'

'Hello, Mrs. M!' said Mr Piper. 'How can I help?'

And so Mrs Miggins explained the problem, and Mr Piper sucked air in through his teeth and muttered how it was a bit close to Christmas and his diary was really full, and Mrs Miggins said had he forgotten that sticky situation she'd got him out of at the Titbury Carnival, you know, when he'd got stuck in the you know what, and he said he hoped she wasn't trying to blackmail him, and she said he was very astute because that was exactly what she was doing, and he said he could pop round at 11.30 and she said that would be most obliging, thank you very much Mr Piper. 

And so, at 11.30 exactly, because when Mrs Miggins made an appointment you stuck to it to the second OR ELSE, the doorbell rang and there, on the doorstep, stood Sandie Piper the Plumber.

'This is my apprentice,' he said, as Mrs Miggins waved him through to the kitchen, off which stood the boiler room. 'Maris. Maris Piper.'

'Oh,' said Mrs Miggins. 'Any relation?'

'My nephew,' said Sandie. 'We calls 'im Mr Potato Head. Just as a bit of witty plumbing banter.'

'My,' said Mrs Miggins, 'how your days must fly by...'

Sandie took Maris through to the boiler room and Mrs Miggins was about to follow when there was another knock on the door.

Outside stood a camel. Like they do. And Mrs Miggins, being the sterling trooper that she is, did not bat an eyelid. 

'Morning,' said the camel, who was wearing the uniform of the Titbury Postal Service, hat and all. 'Delivery for you. Sign here, please,' and he held out his electronic signing device, you know, the ones that turn a perfectly acceptable signature into something that looks like it has been written by a chimpanzee using a cracked crayon. 

Mrs Miggins signed, and the camel handed her a parcel. 'Merry Christmas!' said the camel, turning to go.

'Can I just say,' said Mrs Miggins, 'that is most unusual to see a camel delivering the post.'

'Oh, this is just a Christmas job,' said the camel. 'My mum made me get it. She said I wasn't coming home from University for the Christmas break unless I got a part-time job.'

'I see,' said Mrs Miggins. 'So you're at university, then? What are you studying?'

'Philosophy and Ethics,' said the camel. 'I have aspirations.'

'Good for you!' said Miggins. 'Merry Christmas!' and she closed the door.

'What's in the parcel?' said Turtle Dave from somewhere behind a haze of beeswax floor polish.

Mrs Miggins opened the parcel. 'Plums,' she said. 'From a good friend in Hampshire.'

'Strange present,' said Colin Bird. 'Were you expecting them?'

'Oddly enough, yes,' said Mrs Miggins.

(Now, those of you who haven't been reading the comments page of the last few blogposts are likely to be scratching your heads over this last occurrence and thinking, 'Well, Denise has truly lost the plot now.' But those of you who HAVE read the comments will know exactly what is going on!)

Any hoooo....the plumbing problem was quickly solved - a stray sock in the lower flange pipe - and Mrs Miggins was so relieved she invited both Sandie and Maris Piper back to the Manor to join in the traditional Christmas Eve party.

'I'll bring the Missus,' said Sandie. 'She likes a bit o' festive flummery.'

Mrs Miggins saw the Pipers to the front door and who should arrive at that very moment but the third set of visitors that day.

'Who are you?' said Mrs Miggins.

'We,' said a small man with a large moustache, 'are the Drummers you ordered. We are from Turkey.'

'The Turkey Drummers?' said Mrs Miggins, who was beginning to think you couldn't make up the kind of morning she was having. 

'Indeed, good lady,' said the small man with the large moustache. 'All the way from Turkey. We arrived last night, and this morning we get our first drumming job. We are very excited! Where would you like us to set up for our performance?'

'I didn't order any drummers,' said Mrs Miggins, inwardly cursing Mrs Bobbinflaxenfluff and her inability to distinguish between the words 'plumber' and 'drummer.'

The small man with the large moustache looked immediately crestfallen. 'But we have travelled many, many miles to experience a Titbury Christmas,' he said. 'And we are paying for our holiday by bringing our Turkey Drummer skills to everyone. We are very good. Very, very good. Once you've sampled some Turkey Drummers, you will never look back.'

Mrs Miggins doubted this sentiment very much, but, she thought, it is Christmas after all and maybe it would be nice to have a full house this year. She sighed.

'How many of there are you?' she said.

'Including me,' said the small man with the large moustache, 'twelve.'

'Of course there are, ' said Mrs Miggins.