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A Christmas Story

I am typing this on 2nd January 2021, and there is good news and bad news. Let’s leave it to the media to discuss the bad news. Among the good news here in France is that we are no longer compelled, every time we leave the house, to carry an Attestation de Déplacement Dérogatoire signed and dated and with the relevant box ticked (to show why we aren’t at home). There is too much bad news to mention here. Let us all hope for better things to come.

Every year, we display the Christmas cards that reach us by snail mail. There are fewer than in previous years, thanks to online greetings, but many people bypass email and go to the trouble and expense of posting their greetings, because they know I recycle all our cards in aid of Combat Stress. My 2020 favourite is Brian and Alison Lister’s picture of a socially distant robin on a snowy branch in their garden in County Durham. Social distancing is a sore point with me. Our cherished stoneware flagons, goblets and serving dishes languish in the cupboard for lack of merry gatherings where handshakes, hugs and bisous spread goodwill rather than contagion.

I did not put up Christmas decorations this year because of the Pestilence – what’s the point when socialising is not allowed? However, our friends Antonio and Monique at Marcilly put their Christmas village on show, despite the lack of visitors to admire it.

Every year, I write a short story for friends and family. My 2020 story features James Bond’s stay in Charity Cottage in 2013, but I have chosen to share Angels Unawares, which I wrote several Christmases ago, because I firmly believe in angels.

Digression: I have propounded a Theory of Mitigation. Remember the Fairy Godmother at Beauty’s christening? Well, my guardian angel watches over me in life-threatening situations. Regular readers will be familiar with my digressions and footnotes and will find plenty in my story. Please enjoy, share with like-minded friends and family, and I hope that 2021 will bring blessings to you all.

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Angels Unawares

In a letter to the Hebrew Christians, Saint Paul urges them to be hospitable towards strangers. The King James Bible renders this as: ‘Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.’

If you Google ‘angels unawares’, you will find dozens of variants of this verse. The most recent comes from the International Standard Version (2012) and says: ‘Stop neglecting to show hospitality to strangers, for by showing hospitality some have had angels as their guests without being aware of it.’

Here is the story of a visit from an angel. It begins, in true storytelling tradition, on a dark and stormy night.

It was mid-December and the first blizzard of winter was running through its repertoire of sound effects. The Butterworths were safe and warm indoors, watching television. Suddenly, they heard, above the howling wind outside and the blaring music indoors, ‘Amazing Grace’ played slightly off key.

‘I hate that doorbell,’ said Pat Butterworth. ‘Sixteen options and not one of them in tune.’

‘Never mind that,’ said her husband, Bill. ‘Answer the door, Hayley, but keep the chain on. And if it’s Jehovah’s Witnesses, you can tell them to piss off.’

‘Oh, Dad.’ said Hayley, ‘You can’t turn anyone away on a night like this.’

She got up from the sofa and opened the door, dutifully keeping the security chain in place. A tall stranger in a long blue hooded cape stood there while the snow swirled around him.

‘Do Mr and Mrs Butterfield live here?’

‘Our name is Butterworth,’ said Hayley.

‘Oh dear,’ said the stranger.

‘Mum, Dad, there’s a man here asking for a Mr and Mrs Butterfield.’ She turned to the stranger. ‘Would that be the Butterfields at Four Winds Farm or the Butterfields in Trafalgar Road?’ Hayley had a newspaper round and knew everyone on her patch.

‘He’d better come in. No use letting the cold air in and the expensive heat out,’ said Bill.

The stranger smiled gratefully as Hayley unhooked the chain and opened the door wide. He shook the snow off each sandaled foot before stepping indoors. Sandals in December! thought Hayley, as she showed him into the living room. Pat switched off the television and gestured to the stranger to sit down. He slipped off his hood and a cloud of red-gold hair shook itself gratefully and settled on his shoulders. Pat decided he looked harmless, if a little eccentric.

‘Which Butterfields are you looking for?’ she asked politely. ‘We could look them up in the phone book.’

‘That would be kind,’ said the stranger. ‘T. Butterfield.’

‘That’ll be the Butterfields at 27 Trafalgar Road,’ said Hayley, ‘but they’re ex-directory. Leanne Butterfield told me. Her mum insisted after they started getting naughty phone calls. But I could show you their house on the street map. It’s not far from here.’

‘Not before we’ve given our visitor a cup of tea,’ said Pat, her hospitable instincts asserting themselves. ‘Bill, put the kettle on, please. Hayley, get the best cups and saucers out.’

She bustled into the kitchen and peered inside various old biscuit tins. She found half a defeated-looking angel cake, sliced it and arranged the slices on a china plate. Bill filled the teapot and poured milk into a jug. Pat dug out a tray and gave it a swift wipe. In for a penny, in for a pound, she thought, and added the tray cloth that Hayley had embroidered at school with much muttering and pricking of fingers. The stranger followed her into the kitchen.

‘Let me help you with the tray,’ he said.

‘Thank you,’ said Pat. ‘You’re an angel.’

‘Oh dear,’ said the stranger. ‘I’m supposed to be incognito.’

And that is how the Butterworths entertained the Angel Loriel, an insignificant member of the Heavenly Host.

‘I’m on detached duty,’ he said. ‘There’s no place for me in the angelic choir – tone deaf, alas. I auditioned on the dulcimers, lutes, harps, cymbals, trumpets, pipes and gentle soothing flutes [1]. I couldn’t even play the cymbals, because my sense of rhythm leaves much to be desired. So I was seconded to the Annunciation Squad.’

‘Hail Mary, full of grace,’ murmured Hayley dreamily. Bill looked sharply at her. She grinned widely and shook her head.

‘Oh, Gabriel did that annunciation,’ said the angel. ‘They wouldn’t trust a nobody like me with anything so important. Gabriel visited Mary and Zechariah – not to mention Daniel earlier on, then Muhammad somewhat later…We don’t always do an annunciation in person, of course; we often send the message in the form of a dream or a minor incident which sets the person thinking along the right lines.

‘Divine births and holy books are thin on the ground, but our Innovation Squad has inspired countless inventions and scientific advancements. The trouble is, the Enemy has a large workforce too. While we were encouraging Newton and Faraday, Edison and Alexander Fleming, the Enemy was busy too …They took me off Innovation when I led Clive Sinclair astray with the C5.’ [2]

‘I remember the C5,’ said Bill. ‘It was like nothing so much as a kiddy car with a battery.’

‘Precisely,’ said the angel. ‘So they called me back to Headquarters for reassessment. Well, being tone deaf I couldn’t do composers—’

‘Composers?’ queried Pat.

‘Yes indeed. How else do you think Bach churned out a glorious cantata to order every week? There are fewer of us on music duty nowadays, which is the reason why the Enemy seems to have all the best tunes. The same goes for painting and sculpture – compare the Sistine Chapel with Tracey Emin’s award-winning unmade bed [3] …Well, I was on poetry duty for a while, until I rang the doorbell while Coleridge was dreaming up ‘Kubla Khan’, inspired by one of my colleagues—’

‘So you were the person from Porlock!’ [4] exclaimed Hayley. ‘We did ‘Kubla Khan’ in English Lit last term. I thought it was terrific, especially the flashing eyes and floating hair.’

‘Guilty as charged,’ said the angel. ‘I was taken off poetry duty, along with several hundred other operatives who were redeployed to fight the Enemy’s Politically Correct Movement; which is why so few so-called poets nowadays can actually rhyme and scan … No, I do Innovative Cookery now, specialising in making the most of fairly scanty ingredients. How do you think Yorkshire puddings came about? A cupful of flour, an egg and a little milk will feed a hungry family.’

‘You can say that again,’ said Bill. ‘When I was a lad, our Yorkshire was always served first, with plenty of gravy. By the time you’d got outside a slab of that, you didn’t need much meat – and there were always plenty of roasties and veg from the allotment.’

‘Yorkshire pudding is one of my successes,’ said the angel, ‘and it happened quite by accident. I was lost on Ilkley Moor in a blizzard just like this one. I saw a light and trudged towards it – we aren’t allowed to fly on detached duty – and found a cottage. I knocked at the door and an old woman answered.

“Come in out of the cold,” she said. “I can only offer you tea – there’s nowt in the house save a handful of flour and a lump of lard, but the kettle’s just boiled, and you’re welcome to warm yourself by the fire.”

‘Well, I had one of my inspirations. “If you look in the henhouse you will see that your brown hen has laid an egg. Now give me the flour, and the milk you were going to use for the tea, and a little cold water…”

‘There was a black-leaded range with a kettle on a lazy susan, and an oven with a gleaming brass handle. I made sure the oven was piping hot, then I put the lard in a baking tray to heat. I mixed the egg and the flour and beat in the milk and water and a pinch of salt. Then, when the lard was sizzling hot, I poured in the mixture and slid it back into the oven while we enjoyed our tea without milk. Half an hour later we had the first Yorkshire pudding ever. Of course, the secret ingredient is air, otherwise your pudding won’t puff up properly.’

‘Do you usually visit people in person?’ asked Hayley.

‘Sometimes, but we often use dreams – meringues, which are basically egg whites, sugar and air, are one of my successes. Flashes of inspiration are part of my stock in trade. Rosy Rabson’s curry puffs came to her when she was wondering what to do with yesterday’s curry, an egg and some leftover pastry. That was a good one. Margarine [4] is something I am less proud of.’ He nibbled at his angel cake. ‘This is … interesting,’ he said. ‘Did you make it yourself, Mrs Butterworth?’

‘I used a cake mix,’ admitted Pat. ‘I’m a hopeless cook. Hayley, see if you can find the packet in the bin.’

Hayley disappeared into the kitchen. There were rustling noises, then she reappeared with a brightly coloured packet. It showed a juvenile angel holding a cake on a plate. The caption read ‘ANGEL CAKE – just add an egg.’ The real angel examined the list of ingredients.

‘No angelic involvement here,’ he said regretfully. ‘And the egg is the only natural ingredient. Well, now for Mrs Butterfield. Thank you for the tea.’

‘What are you going to tell her?’ asked Hayley eagerly.

‘I am not at liberty to say,’ said the angel primly. ‘But look out for something exciting and innovative on the cake stall at your Christmas Fair next week.’

‘Mum needs you more than Molly Butterfield does,’ said Hayley.

‘Judging by this cake,’ said the angel, ‘perhaps you’re right.’

And that is how Pat Butterworth’s angel cake was the talk of the Christmas Fair, and the following May won Best Cake in the County Show.

[1] Traditional carol ‘The Garden of Jesus’

There angels sing in jubilant ring,
With dulcimers and lutes,
And harps and cymbals, trumpets, pipes,
And gentle, soothing flutes.

[2] The Sinclair C5 was a battery electric vehicle invented by Sir Clive Sinclair and launched in the United Kingdom on 10th January 1985. It was a battery-assisted tricycle steered by handles on each side of the driver’s seat. Powered operation was possible making it unnecessary for the driver to pedal. Its top speed of 15 miles per hour (24 km/h) was the fastest allowed in the UK without a driving licence. It sold for £399 plus £29 for delivery. It became an object of media and popular ridicule and was a commercial disaster, selling only around 12,000 units. You can watch the original TV advert on YouTube.

[3] You can see Tracey Emin’s unmade bed on the Saatchi Gallery website. A virtual visit of the Sistine Chapel is available on the Vatican museums website.

[5] Coleridge claimed that he heard the whole of ‘Kubla Khan’ in a dream. He woke up with the poem still singing in his brain and began writing furiously – until he was interrupted by a person from Porlock. Stevie Smith had her doubts about this.

It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong
(But often we all do wrong)
As the truth is I think, he was already stuck
With Kubla Khan.

He was weeping and crying, I am finished, finished
I shall never write another word of it,
When along comes the Person from Porlock
And takes the blame for it.

[6] The Emperor Napoleon III of France offered a prize to anyone who could make a satisfactory substitute for butter, suitable for use by the armed forces and the lower classes. French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès invented a substance he called oleomargarine, the name of which became shortened to the trade name ‘margarine’. My dad used to say that those who ate margarine pronounced it with a soft g; those who would rather die a cruel death than allow it to pass their lips pronounced it with a hard g. This, he added, was a shibboleth, along with table napkin/serviette, and some people considered it important.

Rosemary Border Rabson

In 2005 Rosemary Border Rabson and husband John Rabson emigrated to the Morvan in rural Burgundy, where few other Brits have ventured. Their chief preoccupation is Charity Cottage, a holiday home-from-home in their garden at Maré le Bas which they run in aid of Combat Stress (money donations) and Help for Heroes (free accommodation). Since 2012, when Charity Cottage won the Daily Telegraph’s Best British Charity award, the total amount raised for Combat Stress, comprising UK royalties and donations from visitors to Charity Cottage, is nudging £10,000.

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