Mrs McCreedy's Christmas
I said it to Doug as soon as I got home.
‘Doug,’ I said. ‘I can’t help feeling Mrs McCreedy needs cheering up.’
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Why?’
‘I’m not sure. After she got back from the penguins she smiled much more than she used to – I couldn’t believe the difference. Then there was the thing with Daisy and she became almost what you’d call sociable. But now she’s started to go inward again. Like she’s brooding.’
Doug didn’t answer. He’s a quiet man and doesn’t like to speak until he’s had a good, long think about things. Not like me. I natter on.
I unloaded the shopping into the fridge. Haggis tonight and treacle tart for pudding. Next time I go into town it’ll be turkey, sprouts, mince pies, marzipan and the rest of it.
‘I do wonder if Mrs McCreedy’s lonely,’ I went on. ‘Most people spend Christmas with their loved ones. I mean we have Auntie Mary and Fran and Callum and wee Kevin coming, and even if we didn’t, we’d have each other . . .’
I left a little space here for him to fill, but he didn’t. ‘But Mrs McCreedy will be all on her own in that big house. Like she is every year.’
‘I hope you’re not going to invite her to stay,’ Doug said, looking alarmed.
‘No, of course not, dearie.’
I don’t tell Doug when I have an idea because he will always disagree and you can’t argue with a man who takes three spoonfuls of salt on his porridge. In fact, a few weeks ago, I did invite Mrs McCreedy here for Christmas, because it was the kind and Christian thing to do.
She wasn’t keen, though. ‘Eileen, that is unnecessarily magnanimous of you.’
‘But Mrs McCreedy, you’ll spend the whole day on your own otherwise,’ I pleaded.
‘It is just one day of the year, Eileen, much the same as any other,’ she said. ‘In my opinion this Yuletide jollity that everyone insists upon is overrated. I shall stay here at The Ballahays.’
She does get tetchier when she’s feeling down, I’ve noticed.
It’s such a shame her grandson, Patrick, has to be in Antarctica at this time of year due to penguins having babies. He and his lovely girlfriend, Terry, came to visit Mrs McCreedy briefly in the summer. The three of them talked about penguins a lot and Mrs McCreedy’s face was all lit up. But then Patrick and Terry had to go away again to visit Terry’s parents in Hertfordshire and Patrick’s friends in Bolton, before heading back to the other side of the world.
Anyway, this evening I left Doug wolfing down the last of the treacle tart, because I had to rush off to choir practice. The church hall was freezing, but we’re a hearty troupe and always sing on, despite cold noses and toes. We’re doing a carol concert on Friday: ‘Ding Dong Merrily’, ‘Holly And Ivy’, ‘Angels From’, ‘We Wish You’, etc, and then there’s ‘A Child Is Born Today’, which is a new anthem written by our choir master, Mr Fergusson. The alto line is tricky and there’s one hallelujah I can’t ever get right, no matter how hard I try. The ‘ha’ is especially hard to pitch.
I’d just reached the ‘ha’ when it struck me why Mrs McCreedy is extra tetchy at the moment.
You see, earlier today we had a conversation, which started with her asking me what I’d like for Christmas.
‘Oh, I don’t need anything,’ I answered. ‘I’ll just be happy if Auntie Mary and Fran and Callum and wee Kevin all have a good time. And, of course, I want Doug (my husband) to enjoy himself, too. Oh, and I’d like to get the tricky hallelujah right in “A Child Is Born Today”. What would you like for Christmas, Mrs McCreedy?’
‘I will be furious if you so much as think about spending any of your hard-earned wages on me.’ Then she pushed her glasses further up her nose and muttered, ‘Besides, like you, the only things I really want are ones that money can’t buy.’
‘Such as . . . ?’ I asked, keen to know.
‘Well, a new set of knee joints, for a start. And a nice bendy neck. Eyes that work properly, ears that work properly. And while we’re on the subject, a correctly functioning bladder wouldn’t go amiss. Then, if you really wanted to indulge me, a completely smooth layer of skin and some nice, thick, glossy hair would be lovely. Everything, in fact, that I used to have, many years ago.’ She shook her head sadly. ‘Forgive me if I am becoming maudlin.’
‘Not at all, Mrs, McCreedy,’ I said, although I’m not clear what ‘maudlin’ means. I’d thought it was the name of a wizard in a book, but Mrs McCreedy is better at words than me.
‘I am grateful for having lived a long and healthy life,’ she went on. ‘But I never truly appreciated the advantages of youth until they were gone.’
‘That’s a shame,’ I said.
‘What I resent about old age is not so much the loss of my physical allure as the fact that it’s so much harder to do anything,’ she said with a growl of frustration. ‘For decades following my ill-fated teenagerdom I shunned any activity that one might describe as a “gallivant”, yet now I’ve developed an appetite for gallivanting, gallivanting is no longer practical.’ She sighed a big, wistful sigh. ‘This time last year, I was on Locket Island, Eileen. With the penguins. I had just persuaded Terry to adopt Pip, and our Christmas somewhat revolved around him, I seem to recall.’
Then she gathered herself as if she was waking up and said, ‘Whatever are you doing, Eileen, standing there and listening to me enumerating my woes? There is silver to be polished and I would like to get on with some reading.’
She opened her book in a very pointed way, so that was that.
Anyway, for some reason it was when I hit the ‘ha’ of the third hallelujah that all this came back to me in a rush, and I realized the number-one reason she wishes she was younger. The thing she’d really, really like to do is to go back to Antarctica. She misses the place, the people and the penguins. She misses it all.
At the time it didn’t occur to me to say, ‘Well, Mrs McCreedy, why don’t you go again?’ It’s just as well, because Antarctica isn’t good for her health. It’s bad enough being in a Scottish church hall in December, so I can only imagine what it must be like in Antarctica. She’s eighty-seven now, too.
It’s sad, all the same. I don’t know what I can give her for Christmas that will make it any better.
Another email for Mrs McCreedy. I printed it out, as I always do, and handed it to her as soon as I got in this morning.
‘Have you read it, Eileen?’ she asked.
I clasped my hands in front of me. It was hard to know what to say.
She frowned. ‘It does irk me,’ she said, ‘that you read my messages before I have even set eyes on them myself.’
‘I only check them quickly,’ I said, ‘to, um . . .’
She isn’t what you’d call fragile, but still, I want to know if there’s going to be any bad news so I can make sure she’s sat down with a cup of tea first.
The email is from Terry. In brief: she, Patrick, Dietrich and Mike all well and busy. The first chicks beginning to hatch. Sooty the black penguin and his mate on a pebble nest near last year’s site, taking turns egg-sitting. Seal damage to a fence. Counting and weighing. Rare birds. A message from the TV presenter Robert Saddlebow congratulating the team on their ongoing work with Adélie penguins. Tasty stews cooked by Patrick, who will write soon. No sign of Pip, who doesn’t seem to have returned from the sea . . . but they’re not giving up hope yet.
It’s not exactly bad news, but Mrs McCreedy will be worried about that Pip. (When I was telling Doug about it over my knitting, he asked how they’d recognize Pip anyway because doesn’t one penguin look the same as any other? I said – because I know plenty about penguins these days – that Pip had a special yellow tag on his flipper while all the other tagged penguins on Locket Island have orange ones. So they’d know, without any doubt.)
Mrs McCreedy made an impatient huff. ‘Find me my glasses, would you, Eileen?’
I found them next to the pot of honey and handed them over. While she was reading, I got out the dustpan and brush.
After she’d finished, she laid down the sheet of paper without saying anything, then went to the telephone in the snug. She doesn’t phone many people, so I knew it was probably Daisy’s dad she’d be ringing to find out the latest. Poor Daisy is going through another course of chemo, which means she and her family won’t be visiting The Ballahays again any time soon.
I noticed the hall floor looking dusty, so that’s where I set to work. Mrs McCreedy had left the door open a crack and I managed to catch most of the conversation.
‘Oh, I’m so very sorry to hear that,’ said Mrs McCreedy.
‘Oh no, she must be exhausted,’ she said next.
Then it was: ‘Do give her my love and tell her to remember the penguins.’
Mrs McCreedy always tells Daisy to remember the penguins, how they refuse to be beaten, no matter what. I think Mrs McCreedy is inspired by their strength and determination. You could say she’s a bit like a penguin herself that way.
When she came out of the snug she almost tripped over me, crouched as I was by the door with my dustpan.
‘Eileen, if you want to know how Daisy is getting on, you only have to ask.’
I didn’t need to, though. Looking at Mrs McCreedy told me all I wanted to know. She bit her lip, pulled a handkerchief from the sleeve of her cardigan and blew her nose. It was clear that things weren’t too good for Daisy.
‘Eileen, I should like to come to your concert tonight, if I may,’ Mrs McCreedy announced unexpectedly. ‘I have never been to a choir concert before.’
I gaped at her. ‘What, never?’
‘No, Eileen, I’m afraid not. In fact, there are very many things that I’ve never done.’ She hesitated. ‘Still, I have been to Antarctica and rescued a baby penguin. Not many people can list that in their catalogue of life’s experiences.’
I had to pop home and change, but when I came back I found her by the fire, sipping tea from one of her fancy china cups.
‘Mrs McCreedy, this is for you,’ I said, handing over the present. It was wrapped in glittery paper and tied with the biggest, shiniest bow I could find. ‘You might as well have it early, because it’s mighty cold in that church.’
‘Whatever could it be?’ she asked, unwrapping it.
The knitting pattern was complicated but I’m pleased with the result: a jumper in red, her favourite colour, with three dancing penguins on the front: penguins wearing pink and green bobble hats and scarfs. I knew she’d love it.
She stared at it for a moment.
‘Eileen, it’s . . . it’s quite delightful!’
‘Do try it on, Mrs McCreedy.’
She did as I asked, then patted down her hair.
Somehow the jumper looked very, very chunky on her.
The choir was in good voice that night. I sang gustily, but all the while I was aware of Mrs McCreedy sitting straight as a poker in the third row from the front. She was looking rather unlike herself in that penguin jumper and her mouth was set in a straight line. I suppose she was thinking about Pip still missing and poor Daisy being ill. Then when we launched into ‘A Child Is Born Today’ I found myself wondering about her own child. She never mentions it, but she must have had one, mustn’t she, if Patrick is her grandson? I was so busy pondering that the tricky ‘ha’ flew past, the ‘lelujah’ followed and I was on the ‘Amen’ before I’d even realized it.
During the congratulations, mince pies and mulled wine, Mrs McCreedy got out of her pew stiffly and came towards me.
‘Forgive me for asking, Eileen, but I was not blessed with a musical ear. Did you get your hallelujah right?’
‘I did,’ I tell her with pride. ‘Mr Fergusson is so pleased he wants us to sing it again at the service on Christmas morning. Did you like his anthem, Mrs McCreedy?’
‘Well, I am unacquainted with this genre of music, but to my ear it abounded in discords and gratuitous triplets. However, if Mr Fergusson is satisfied and you achieved your hallelujah, who am I to complain?’
Christmas Eve, and a chilly, bright morning. I’m not sure Mrs McCreedy likes surprises, but all I can do is hope that she’ll like this one.
‘You must at least tell me what I should wear, Eileen, if you will insist on taking me on a mystery trip. Formal, semi-formal or casual attire?’
‘Oh, I should think casual will be fine,’ I reply, knowing full well that Mrs McCreedy actually has nothing I’d call casual except the jumper I made her, and I can’t help noticing she hasn’t worn it again since the concert. She comes down in a smart purple dress and a mohair cardigan, clutching her newest handbag, which is pale gold. She holds the scarlet coat in front of her reflection in the long hall mirror for a moment, then decides on the violet one instead. Her lipstick is very bright and glossy and I think how nice she looks. I only wish she would smile. She seems resigned rather than excited. I hope I’ve not made a terrible mistake.
Anyway, I help her into my car and we set off. I drive slowly, ‘pootling’ as Mrs McCreedy calls it. She doesn’t talk much, but gazes out of the window at the hills rolling past. Luckily there’s no ice on the roads and not much traffic, so we reach Edinburgh at around twelve. It’s only a short walk from the car park to the restaurant. The Royal Mile is looking marvellous strung with glittering streamers and lanterns, and somebody is playing bagpipes in the distance.
‘Lunch out, is it?’ Mrs McCreedy asks. She is trying to be pleased, but her mouth keeps turning down.
‘Yes, Mrs McCreedy, a lovely place called Thurleston House with a view of the Tron Kirk and an extra special . . . well . . .’
I don’t want to give too much away.
‘You seem all a-flutter,’ Mrs McCreedy comments.
It’s true. I’m excited, even if she isn’t.
The shop fronts are a feast for the eyes. We stop to look at a window display, all cotton-wool snow and tinsel. A robin is perched on a wooden sleigh. He’s life-like, but much bigger and sparklier than a real one would be.
‘He’s a cutie, isn’t he?’ I say to Mrs McCreedy.
No answer. I turn round.
Where is she?
She’s completely vanished.
I look up and down the street. It’s bustling with shoppers of all shapes and sizes, but no Mrs McCreedy anywhere to be seen. Thurleston House is only a few doors up. It’s a grand building with two potted bay trees on either side of the entrance, twinkling with white fairy lights. She must have noticed it and gone on in, impatient to find out what the surprise is I’ve got in store for her.
I hurry on. When I push open the restaurant door I’m met by warm, garlicky smells and a stringy sort of man with a blond moustache who asks if I’ve booked in advance.
‘Yes, yes,’ I tell him. ‘But have you seen a smart, elderly woman wearing a violet coat? I think she’s just come in?’
He shakes his head and asks which name I’ve booked under. I speak the name with pride, but I’m anxious now.
He ushers me to a table by the window. Straight away I see that Robert Saddlebow is already there, sitting serenely in front of the wood panelling. He stands up straight away, like the gentleman he is.
Robert Saddlebow is huge. I don’t mean he’s a big man – he’s quite thin and lithe, actually – but he’s been on telly so much that he must get recognized wherever he goes. He’s in his seventies, which is not so very much younger than Mrs McCreedy herself. Mrs McCreedy has always admired him. Never one to be impressed by celebrity in general, she will always tune in when Robert Saddlebow is on air. It’s because he’s a wildlife presenter and she’s very interested in all that. And maybe also because he has bright blue eyes and more than his fair share of charm.
It was Terry’s idea. She’d told me Mr Saddlebow was a kind man and not spoilt at all by the fame and fuss, so she’d email and ask him. She knew he lived in Scotland whenever he wasn’t busy broadcasting round the world and he would actually be in Edinburgh for Christmas, and she found out he was happy to meet up with Mrs McCreedy, bearing in mind all she’d done to help the penguins, so wasn’t that just perfect?
Except it’s not now, because I’ve gone and lost her.
I can’t believe I am standing in the great man’s presence. His silver hair has been combed back, unlike when he’s on screen when it’s usually blowing about, but it’s him. It really is him: Robert Saddlebow. The Robert Saddlebow.
I am so star-struck it’s hard to speak. All I can do is wave my hands around and wobble my jaw. But eventually words come gushing out.
‘Hello, hello, Mr Saddlebow! It’s me, Eileen Thompson, just as arranged – only it isn’t, because Mrs McCreedy is supposed to be here too and she’s suddenly not. That is, she was with me until five minutes ago and I was just admiring the sparkly robin and then I turned round and she’d gone! I thought she might be here with you already, but she isn’t, is she? You haven’t seen her, have you? She’s got glossy red lips and she’s dressed in bright purple woollens and carrying a gold handbag. You can’t miss her.’
‘It appears that I did,’ he replies, lifting one eyebrow slightly.
If she was a young person with a mobile phone I could just ring her, but she won’t hear of getting one. I wish I’d insisted, but you can’t insist with Mrs McCreedy, you really can’t. ‘She’s never wandered off before, but it does happen when people get to a certain age, doesn’t it?’ I’m beginning to panic.
‘Don’t panic, Eileen,’ he says. ‘I’m sure it’ll be all right. I’ll ask the staff if they’ve seen her.’
We check again with the stringy waiter and then all the other staff. No luck.
Mr Saddlebow frowns. ‘She can’t be far away. Let’s try the nearby shops.’ He accompanies me back outside. ‘We’ll work our way down the street. You take this side and I’ll take that side,’ he suggests.
I go into one shop after another. My voice sounds bleaty as I ask, ‘Have you seen an elderly woman all in purple woollens with a gold handbag?’
Again and again heads are shaken.
This is all my fault! I should have kept a better eye on Mrs McCreedy in a great big city like this. I really should.
I’m panting and wheezing and wish I could move faster. My eyes scan the crowds and whenever I see a hint of purple my heart plays leapfrog inside my chest, but then it isn’t her, it’s a boy’s balloon or someone’s shopping bag or a coloured flag blowing in the breeze. I can see Mr Saddlebow racing along in swift, elegant strides on the other side of the road. People stare at him. I suppose they recognize him from off the telly, but he sweeps on. It’s very good of him when you think how he doesn’t know Mrs McCreedy at all.
Oh Mrs McCreedy, where can you be?
The sound of a siren starts up. The tail lights of an ambulance are tearing down the bottom of the street. Please God . . .
I gallop across to the other side and almost crash into Mr Saddlebow as he comes out of a gift shop.
‘Oh Mr Saddlebow. Did you see that ambulance? What if it’s her inside? What if she’s had a funny turn or been knocked down by a bus?’
‘Calm down, Eileen. You often see ambulances in Edinburgh. I’m sure it won’t be her.’
‘Do you think we should call the police?’ I yell, scrabbling for my phone.
‘She’s not been gone more than twenty minutes. I think it would be wiser to go back the way we came. We may have missed her, somehow.’
We start walking up the hill again, still checking all the passers-by in case they’re her. I’m in such a fluster I can’t stop gabbling. I tell Mr Saddlebow how she misses Antarctica, especially Pip, who hasn’t come back from the sea. I tell him how she’s worried he might have died of cold or been eaten by a seal or whatever. I tell him how she has a way with the penguins. But she doesn’t see Pip as just another penguin, Pip is her penguin, who she saved. And she always says he saved her, too.
Mr Saddlebow listens and nods. He’s a good listener, like my Doug.
I tell him she’s sad because little Daisy is ill, and how she (Mrs McCreedy, not little Daisy) is very fit for her age, so she might be anywhere by now. I tell him how fast she can walk because she’s done walking every day of her life apart from when she was ill in Antarctica. I tell him about her litter tongs and how she always takes them with her along the coast path and how she’s very picky these days about buying ginger thins and other biscuits that have recyclable packaging and what a lot of good bakeries we have in Ayrshire.
‘Is she?’ he says, and ‘Does she?’ and ‘Aha,’ and then, ‘You’re making my tummy rumble.’
I feel so bad. Not only have I lost Mrs McCreedy, I have also stopped Robert Saddlebow (the Robert Saddlebow) from eating his lunch.
‘Please, Mr Saddlebow,’ I beg, ‘do go back to Thurleston House and have yourself a nice meal. I’ll just check the castle area. She’s interested in historical buildings, so she may have gone in that direction.’
I leave him and pound onwards up the hill. The sound of bagpipes is getting louder. My heart is going pitter-patter. My breath is noisy too. I’m frantically hoping that Mrs McCreedy will appear among the ancient stones and battlements.
I can see the piper now, swathed in fine red tartan – sporran, socks, kilt and all the gear – blasting his lungs out. Tourists are swarming everywhere . . . but no Mrs McCreedy.
I sink on to a bench in exhaustion and despair.
She was unhappy, I know that. Could the worry about Daisy and Pip have provoked one of her memory blips? Then there were all those things she was saying about being too old to do anything . . .
She likes melodrama and risk, there’s no denying it. My insides go wobbly when I think what she might try. Now this horrid image snaps into my head: Mrs McCreedy standing like a majestic queen on top of the castle and then, in a final act of defiance and purple glory, throwing herself off. No, I mustn’t think it. I won’t think it. I must keep searching.
I pull myself together and totter down the hill again. I’m getting to know the Royal Mile very well.
There she is, before my eyes, just coming out of a pub. I am wild and frantic and sweaty, but Mrs McCreedy, every hair in place, looks as dignified as ever.
‘Oh Mrs McCreedy! Thank the Lord! Thank Heaven! Where have you been?’
Her face is like thunder. ‘Waiting for you, Eileen, in this far-from-salubrious establishment.’
I look at the pub she’s just come out of, which is what Doug would call ‘a spit-and-sawdust kind of a place’. Above the door is a sign that says, ‘The Thistle’.
‘But why . . . ?’ I begin, then realize. ‘Mrs McCreedy, it wasn’t The Thistle. It was Thurleston House!’
‘I distinctly remember you saying we were booked for lunch at Thistle something,’ she insists.
‘No, no. Thurleston, not Thistle.’ It must be her hearing aid needing new batteries.
We walk back down the Mile, and I describe how I’ve been up and down searching this last hour.
She is shocked. ‘O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!’ This must be a quote from Hamlet as she’s fond of those. ‘I offer my sincere apologies, Eileen. It seems I have caused you considerable agitation. Allow me to explain.’
‘No need at all, Mrs McCreedy,’ I answer, though I’d like to know what made her disappear like that.
‘I am in melancholic mode at present,’ she confesses, ‘and this was accentuated when we arrived in Edinburgh by the soulful music of bagpipes. Then a particular strain started up that was a tune my dear father used to sing around the house where I grew up. As you know, my memory is remarkable, and yet I found it maddeningly impossible to recall the name of this tune. I therefore, on impulse, hastened towards the sound to ask the piper himself. Having discovered that it was indeed, as I suspected, “Wild Mountain Thyme”, I proceeded to The Thistle, assuming you would be there. I also stopped for one small purchase on my way. I’d sighted a certain item in a shop window and I have always believed in the concept of carpe diem.’
Her words sail over my head but I’m just happy to see her.
When we arrive, the stringy waiter ushers us in.
‘Ah, this is better,’ Mrs McCreedy admits.
We are both relieved. But Mr Saddlebow is nowhere to be seen.
‘Is you-know-who here?’ I ask the stringy waiter.
‘Voldemort?’ he asks, his moustache lifted slightly by a thin smile.
‘No . . . You know – RS,’ I reply in a hoarse whisper.
He’s not. Apparently he had to leave suddenly, but he’s left a message that we’re to eat anything we’d like and the bill is already sorted.
My joy at finding Mrs McCreedy melts into disappointment that she won’t now have the surprise Terry and I had planned for her.
The menu is full of things like Arbroath smokie cheese soufflé with shaved fennel salad and chermoula-crumbed Scotch lamb with aubergine and tahini puree. Mrs McCreedy seems to approve, especially after a glass of sherry.
‘I am glad Thurly House sources most of their food locally,’ she declares. (I don’t bother to correct her on the name.) ‘Did you know, Eileen, that the ingredients of a typical Christmas dinner, if you add them together, have travelled the equivalent of ten times around the planet?’
My hands fly up to my face as I think of my well-stocked fridge at home.
I am enjoying the food (probably too much), but I still feel low because Mr Saddlebow isn’t here.
When we’ve reached the sweet course – banoffee for me, crème brûlée for Mrs McCreedy – she clears her throat, as if about to make an important announcement. ‘I have been thinking, Eileen, about Christmas and the nature of kindness. I have reached this conclusion: that helping others to achieve their goals is just as important as achieving your own.’ She takes my hand, which is unusual, to say the least. ‘I am deeply touched that you’ve brought me out on what we can at least describe as a semi-gallivant. I am also mindful of your own goals, Eileen. You confided in me that you wished for nothing more than to sing your hallelujah with accuracy and for your kith and kin to enjoy their Christmas. You have achieved your hallelujah with accomplishment and aplomb, not to say finesse. You have only now to ensure festive fun for those you love in order to attain happiness yourself.’
I wonder where this is going.
‘I do believe this sherry is making me loquacious,’ she mutters, then continues, switching to her louder voice: ‘I am in possession of solitude and a spacious, rather picturesque mansion. You, on the other hand, are welcoming a plethora of guests into a small semi on the outskirts of Kilmarnock. I should therefore like to invite you all to The Ballahays on Christmas morning.’
‘What, the whole clan of us?’
‘Indeed, the whole clan of you.’
‘Why, thank you, Mrs McCreedy. That would be amazing.’
I can’t believe this sudden swing of generosity. Auntie Mary and Fran and Callum and wee Kevin will be thrilled to have an old-fashioned Christmas at The Ballahays. Even Doug might enjoy it. I’m just not sure that Mrs McCreedy will.
She’s so good to me. I wish she could have met Mr Saddlebow. It might have given her a bit of a boost.
‘And this is your Christmas present, Eileen. Do me a favour and open it now, then I shan’t have the bother of carrying it around any more.’
‘Mrs McCreedy, you shouldn’t have!’ I unwrap the parcel she’s handed me. I gasp.
Folded in layers of pink tissue paper is a golden shawl. It’s woven from delicate, twisted fibres, sleek and glamorous as anything I’ve ever seen. It must have cost hundreds of pounds.
She smiles. ‘It’s the item I bought while you were rushing around looking for me. I thought you might wear it tomorrow at The Ballahays, for Christmas.’
Sunshine is in the air, blue is in the sky, frost is on the grass and I can’t stop humming those carols. With Doug, Auntie Mary, Fran, Callum and wee Kevin buzzing around me, I feel very Christmassy and merry. They all came to church with me earlier, even Doug, who’s normally not interested. After the service we nipped back home to get ready. I fished out the gold shawl and draped it over my pretty pinafore dress. I climbed on to a stool to try to see all of me in the bathroom mirror.
‘What on earth are you wearing?’ Doug asked, coming into the room in his vest.
‘It’s from Mrs McCreedy, for Christmas, dearie.’
‘Hmmm,’ he said, bringing his eyebrows together.
The shawl looked so very luscious, but I’ll be honest, it did seem to show up all the bulges that I’ve got in the wrong places. No matter how I pulled it around my shoulders, I still looked lumpish. I have to wear it though, don’t I? A promise is a promise.
At least I’ve made an effort. Everyone is looking smart and bright. Wee Kevin is sporting reindeer antlers and, would you believe it, Doug has put on a tie and waistcoat. We spill out of the two cars and barge into The Ballahays hallway. Mrs McCreedy welcomes each of us with a glass of sherry. I’m surprised to see her wearing the penguin jumper I knitted. Her smile is rather forced. Still, I have an email from Patrick that I believe will please her. I press it into her hand.
The email not only wishes her a Happy Christmas from the Locket Island team but also says that Sooty, the black penguin, has an egg that hatched out this very Christmas morning. The new chick is super-cute, Patrick says.
Mrs McCreedy reads eagerly. ‘How splendid,’ she comments. ‘Sooty will be elated. And tell me, Eileen: did you get the hallelujah right in church this morning?’
‘I did,’ I answer, ‘but . . .’ I twist my hands around, feeling rather ashamed and silly. ‘Oh Mrs McCreedy. My mind was running on you and the email and Sooty’s egg so much that I didn’t sing “A child is born today”. I went and sang “A chick is born today”.
‘Eileen,’ she replies, ‘you are pure gold.’
Well, I am not pure gold, for sure . . . but my shawl definitely is!
The Ballahays is festooned with holly and ivy. The fires are roaring at full blast. Mrs McCreedy complains about ‘fake flames’ but they look festive enough to me. Thanks to the efforts of Mr Perkins, the gardener, there are Christmas trees twinkling in both the living room and the snug. Everyone is enchanted, especially wee Kevin. We’ve brought over the Christmas dinner, which I mostly prepared earlier. Mrs McCreedy gives instructions about which cutlery to use and everyone joins in, laying the table, pushing dishes around the oven, assembling the angel chimes and lighting all the candles. I feel proud of my ‘clan’. It’s grand watching them having fun . . . but Mrs McCreedy looks a little removed from it, sitting in the corner in her big penguin jumper.
I head towards her. ‘Mrs McCreedy, can I be straight with you?’
‘This shawl feels too glamorous and beautiful for me, but I’d dearly love to see you wearing it. Please would you . . . ?’ I shuffle out of it and hand it over.
‘It won’t really go with this,’ she says, plucking at her jumper. She pulls it off over her head and looks relieved, slipping the shawl around her shoulders instead. It complements the fine features of her face and her slim figure.
‘Do you know, Eileen, it is rather lovely.’
‘It is, Mrs McCreedy.’
‘But I bought it for you.’
‘But it looks so much better on you. Please, Mrs McCreedy, please keep it.’
‘But that means I have bought you nothing.’
‘Well, you’ve completely made my family’s Christmas,’ I reply, glancing round at the laughing faces all rosy in the sunlight and candlelight.
‘Would you do me a favour?’ she asks. ‘Would you put on this beautifully warm and charming jumper?’
‘Why, yes, if you’re sure.’
I put it on.
‘It fits you perfectly, and suits you so well!’ she exclaims. ‘It would give me great pleasure to see you wearing it about the place.’
It does feel nice and cosy. ‘All right, Mrs McCreedy. I will, if it makes you happy.’
But it strikes me that she still isn’t. She’s helped me achieve everything I wanted, but I can’t make her young again and I can’t get her to Antarctica.
Just as I’m wondering whether to start up a rousing family rendition of ‘A Partridge in a Pear Tree’, there’s a ring at the bell.
Mrs McCreedy look startled. ‘That must be Mr Perkins,’ she mutters. ‘No doubt he’s come for the Christmas wreath I promised his wife.’
I hurry to the front door.
It isn’t Mr Perkins.
It’s Mr Saddlebow. Robert Saddlebow. The Robert Saddlebow. Standing in The Ballahays porch with a bottle of champagne and a flat, square parcel under his arm. My mouth drops open.
Mrs McCreedy glides into the hallway, shining and gorgeous in her golden shawl.
The famous man gives a slight bow. ‘Mrs McCreedy, I presume?’
She turns pink.
‘Why, do my eyes deceive me or is it . . . ?’
She puts out a hand to welcome him. He takes it and kisses it, all chivalrous.
‘However did you conjure this, Eileen?’ Mrs McCreedy asks.
‘I didn’t,’ I stammer. ‘We were supposed to meet him yesterday, but you disappeared and he helped me look for you, and I found you but then he disappeared. But here he is now, and that’s even better!’
Mr Saddebow smiles at me, a smile that reaches every part of his face and especially shines out of those blue eyes.
He turns to Mrs McCreedy. ‘It’s an honour to meet you. May I call you Veronica?’
She flushes again. ‘You may.’
‘I was going to spend today recovering from my last filming engagement,’ he explains, ‘but under the circumstances I thought it would be worth driving here to visit you.’
The circumstances. What circumstances?
‘Allow me to present you with this, Veronica,’ he announces, passing her the flat, square parcel.
She unwraps it with trembling hands.
‘It isn’t . . . ? It can’t be . . . is it . . . ?’
Her hand goes up to her throat.
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘It’s Pip. A photo of Pip, taken by Terry yesterday, as soon as she discovered him. Her emailed arrived while I was waiting at Thurleston House and Eileen was looking for you at the castle. I emailed back and asked her not to let on; I wanted it to be a Christmas surprise. I thought it would be a nice gesture to have it enlarged and framed; that’s what was keeping me busy. There’s your proof, now, Veronica. Pip has come back to the Locket Island colony. He’s alive and well.’
Mrs McCreedy’s mouth shapes the word ‘Pip’ and she turns her back to us. ‘Excuse me a moment. I think I have a bit of fluff in my eye.’
She holds the photo up against the wall. ‘It will have pride of place here,’ she mumbles, ‘and here,’ laying a hand over her heart.
Pip is looking straight out at us from the picture. His head is tilted forwards, his beak slightly open, his eyes shiny as buttons. His flippers are lifted as if he’s just had a good shake and his feet have that waddly look about them, perfectly caught by the camera. Then there’s the white of snow and the blue of mountains and you can make out the shapes of other penguins going about their business in a great mass behind him.
Mrs McCreedy and Robert Saddlebow stand in silence looking at the picture for a long while.
Of course, she invites him to stay for the day and of course he says he couldn’t possibly, but of course she persuades him (nobody is more persuasive than Mrs McCreedy. As I said to Doug only yesterday, Mrs McCreedy could persuade a tiger to become vegetarian if she set her mind to it). Mr Saddlebow joins the rest of us for Christmas dinner – a grand success, and Mr Saddlebow declares I have a way with the sprouts – but for most of the day he and Mrs McCreedy sit on the sofa and chat away about penguins together. They both know Terry and Dietrich the Austrian penguinologist and Mike who is grumpy and dissects penguin poo. Mr Saddlebow is curious about Patrick and I can hear Mrs McCreedy proudly listing his talents.
‘Can I take a photo of you both together?’ I remember to ask. ‘I promised Terry.’
They shuffle together for the picture. I can’t believe I am taking a picture of my Mrs McCreedy and Robert Saddlebow (the Robert Saddlebow) together!
Mrs McCreedy is positively glowing.
‘I wish I could take you back to Antarctica,’ I tell her, feeling a bit weepy.
She smiles. ‘Instead you have brought Antarctica to me,’ she replies, nodding her head towards Mr Saddlebow.
He leaves soon after, but he has stayed at The Ballahays for most of Christmas Day, which is something I will never stop talking about, and when I tell people I won’t forget to mention how he said I have a way with sprouts.
I wonder if we’ll ever see him again. I think we might.
Mrs McCreedy seems tired. I pack Aunty Mary and Fran and Callum and wee Kevin and Doug into the car, telling them I’ll see them back in Kilmarnock soon, after I’ve cleared up.
Mrs McCreedy is on the phone when I come back in. I don’t mean to listen, but I can’t help overhearing the tail end of the conversation.
‘. . . So Sooty is a father now, and Pip, our dear Pip, is safe and well.’
There’s a little space while the person on the other end of the line replies.
‘Yes, if Pip can pull through, then so can you. Always remember the penguins, Daisy. Remember the penguins.’
When Mrs McCreedy comes out of the snug I am adjusting the garland of holly on the door, which wasn’t hanging quite straight.
‘Eileen, in case you wanted to know, Daisy is responding well to her treatment and feels significantly better. She is determined to grow strong for the sole purpose of travelling to Antarctica one day. She wants to meet Pip.’
‘Well, maybe that’s possible, Mrs McCreedy.’
We both turn to look at the picture of the handsome young penguin. Surely Pip’s safe return is a good omen?
‘Eileen, would you stop bustling around for ten minutes? I should like us, the two of us, to raise a glass to toast Daisy’s health.’
‘Of course, Mrs McCreedy.’
We march into the kitchen and pour out two glasses of Mr Saddlebow’s bubbly.
‘To Daisy!’ I cry.
‘To Daisy!’ she echoes, clinking her glass against mine. ‘And to Pip! And to every penguin on the planet! And a merry Christmas to you, Eileen.’
‘Wishing a very Happy Christmas to you, too, Mrs McCreedy!’
I’ve been wishing it for ages, I realize. And I do believe my wish has been granted. At any rate, I find myself singing in the car – about good king Wenceslas, angels, jingle bells, figgy pudding, and even the odd, mad hallelujah – all the way home.
(Note: Pictures I've added to this story are mostly courtesy of Wix free images, but a few are from the covers of my books. The beautiful photo of the moulting penguin was taken by my friend, Ursula Franklin. Check out more of her photos here!)