The coco pinchard boxset.., p.32
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       The Coco Pinchard Boxset: 5 bestselling romantic comedies in one!, p.32

           Robert Bryndza
 

  “Coco! Open up!” rumbled the voice, knocking harder. “It's so cold.”

  My heart was in my throat as I edged closer to the door. It was even colder in the hallway, my skin was stinging. Any moment I’ll wake up, I thought, as I slowly reached out and turned the key.

  The front door swung inwards and a terrible figure lurched towards me. It had wide bloodshot eyes and a sunken mouth. It was white from head to foot and dressed in some kind of robes.

  “You took your bloody time,” it growled.

  I screamed, my knees gave way, and then everything went black.

  It was bright when I woke up. Coloured lights swam into my vision and I was lying under the Christmas tree. I could hear Rocco barking and Marika’s face came into view.

  “Coco! Are you all right? I was so worried.” She was holding out a glass of brandy. Rocco rushed forward and started to lick my face. I took the glass and slowly sat up. Ethel was on the sofa with a towel round her. Blazena was wiping what looked like plaster dust off her face with a flannel and a bowl of hot water.

  “Ethel got up for a cigarette,” said Marika. “She forgot that there isn't a balcony and fell into a skip full of polystyrene and plaster dust.”

  Fero was fiddling with the radiator, trying to warm up the flat. I stared at Ethel.

  “Jesus! Are you all right?” I asked.

  “I made it back up in the lift, I'm fine,” said Ethel, sheepishly. “I survived the blitz, you know.”

  Blazena took Ethel’s grubby hands in hers and started talking, and wiping tears from her eyes.

  “Woss she sayin’?” said Ethel.

  “She's very upset,” said Marika. “She thinks she’s a terrible hostess, allowing one of her guests to fall out of the kitchen.”

  “Iss fine love,” said Ethel patting Blazena's hand. “It was like landing on an eiderdown.”

  “I thought she was a ghost!” I said, taking a big gulp of brandy.

  “Yeah, I'm the ghost of Christmas future, love. I predict you'll get stuck into the Quality Street and end up with an arse twice its size!” said Ethel. She let out a cackling laugh which turned into a coughing fit.

  Blazena said something to Marika.

  “Mum thinks Ethel should go to hospital.”

  “No, iss just a bit of plaster dust,” said Ethel, descending into another coughing fit.

  “Maybe she should go,” said Marika.

  We all piled into my car and drove Ethel to Nitra hospital. It was very modern and clean and she was whisked through a series of scans and blood tests by a nice male doctor who even spoke English.

  “This woman is in perfect health!” said the doctor in English, as if Ethel were some kind of medical miracle.

  Blazena clasped her chest in delight and gave a prayer of thanks. I kept my mouth shut. How does Ethel keep cheating death when every day perfectly wonderful people die in terrible accidents?

  We finally got to bed at five in the morning.

  Friday 24th December 22.45

  TO: chris@christophercheshire.com

  It seems a near death experience hasn’t given Ethel much pause for thought. She’s still the same moaning old bag she was before she plunged four storeys into a skip. From the moment she woke up this morning, she’s moaned. She’s moaned about the food, she’s moaned about the water being too hard, and her bed being too soft. She’s moaned about the television being switched off and that she’s missing Noel’s Christmas Presents. She’s even moaned about Blazena and the fact she didn’t wash her hands properly before cooking! She’s also convinced Marika’s family is talking about her behind her back. They’re not, of course, they’re just concerned after what happened last night.

  In Slovakia the Christmas tradition is to fast all day and then eat a meal of fish and potato salad in the evening. At 2 pm, to try and distract Ethel from whining about this, I suggested we Skype Daniel.

  “Ooh yeah, I miss my Danny boy,” said Ethel.

  I put my laptop on the living room table as Daniel pinged into view. He was sat in his flat, in Croydon!

  “Hey Mum, Cokes,” he said. He was lolling on his sofa in his dressing gown with a can of lager.

  “Why aren't you at Meryl's?” I said.

  “Oh, she's been discharged from hospital.”

  “She's better?” I said.

  “Yeah. It seems all she needed was a couple of good nights’ sleep and some pills.”

  “What about Wilfred?”

  “Tony's brother and sister stayed on. The roads were cleared, so I offered to come home and lighten the load.” He opened a tin of Quality Street, put on his glasses, and started reading the little card with all the different chocolate descriptions.

  “Didn’t anyone think to tell us?” I said.

  “Look at that,” he said, ignoring me. “They got rid of the Peanut Cracknel and the Chocolate Toffee Cup… ooh, but there's a couple of new ones!”

  “I'm bloody missing everything being stuck 'ere!” grumbled Ethel.

  Blazena came in with a beautiful little plate of fresh fruit she’d sliced especially for her, but Ethel turned up her nose saying, “Yer lucky getting Christmas on yer own, Danny. This lot eat fish for Christmas lunch. FISH! No turkey, or spuds, or sprouts!”

  “Ooh fish, that’s an idea. Hey, I might get sushi,” Daniel grinned. “And eat it under the Christmas tree with my tin of Quality Street. Remember Coco, you always used to say that would be your dream Christmas lunch!”

  Something snapped in me, and I pressed End call.

  “Ere, get Danny back on the blower,” said Ethel. “I want to find out what them new Quality Streets are… What yer doing?”

  I had logged onto Ryanair's website.

  “'Ere, that's today,” she said as she saw me click departure date on the 24th December.

  “Marika,” I called out. “Would you please get Ethel's passport from our room.”

  A moment later she came through with the passport.

  “'Ere, very funny Coco,” said Ethel.

  She watched me booking her a flight leaving from Bratislava Airport in three hours’ time.

  “Now ‘ang on…” she said.

  “What are you doing, Cokes?” said Marika.

  “Giving Ethel what she wants… Priority boarding YES. Wheelchair assistance YES. Insurance NO. Car hire NO.” I hit confirm purchase and then print for her boarding pass.

  “Right Ethel. We're leaving in ten minutes,” I said.

  “'Why did yer do that?!” she gasped, her mouth flapping in shock.

  “You've moaned all day about being here, in front of me and Marika and Blazena and Fero. Think of it as my Christmas gift to you.”

  Ethel stared at me open-mouthed. I went to the guest room and began to pack her suitcase. A few minutes later, she came in.

  “I don't think I should go,” she said.

  “Well, you should have thought of that.”

  Then Marika came in.

  “Coco, is Ethel really going back to London?”

  “Yes,” I said, zipping up her wash bag and putting it in her case.

  “What should I tell my mother?”

  “Tell her Ethel wants to be at home with family, her daughter is ill… It’s the truth.”

  I’ve never seen Ethel lost for words and she watched silently as I fastened the suitcase.

  A few minutes later Blazena knocked on the door and came in with some food wrapped up. She wiped tears from her eyes and wished Ethel well with her sick daughter.

  “Um… Marika, tell yer mum, thanks for ‘avin me,” she said in a small voice.

  We took the lift down in silence. Marika looked between Ethel and me awkwardly. When we were outside I loaded up her case and brusquely cleaned ice off the car.

  When we were on the motorway, I dialled Daniel's mobile number and put my phone on loudspeaker. I told him that Ethel would be arriving at Luton Airport at nine thirty this evening, and that he must pick her up. He started shouting, but I hung up.
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  We made it to Bratislava Airport in just over forty-five minutes and I pulled into the car park. It was quiet with the most beautiful starry sky.

  “Ethel,” I said turning to her. “Merry Christmas.”

  She opened her mouth to say something but thought better of it and got out. Marika followed and helped her with her case into the airport terminal. Half an hour later Marika came back. I was on my fifth cigarette. All the adrenalin was flowing away and guilt was taking over.

  “She went through security and they've got her in a wheelchair to take her on the plane,” she said awkwardly.

  “We should make sure the plane takes off okay,” I said.

  We sat smoking in silence until the plane rose above the glass terminal and off into the sky, its lights winking in the darkness.

  “Shit, Coco. I can’t believe you did that. You stood up to Ethel,” said Marika.

  “Or did I just turn an old woman away at Christmas?” I said, chewing my lip.

  “Depends how you look at it,” said Marika. “It's not English Christmas Day until tomorrow. It's still Christmas Eve. And you got her priority boarding.”

  “She has had it coming for SO long,” I said, but I didn’t sound convinced.

  Dinner was being served when we arrived back at the flat, and Marika’s sister Adrianna and her husband Stevko were there.

  “Coco! It’s wonderful to see you again,” said Adrianna, giving me a huge hug. She looked as dark and gorgeous as I remembered her.

  “You look great,” said Stevko, equally dashing.

  We took our seats at the table, where a whole fish had been steamed and beautifully garnished, surrounded by bowls of soup and potato salad. We said a short prayer in Slovak, then Blazena turned her attention to me and started speaking earnestly.

  “Did Ethel leave because of falling off the balcony?” translated Marika.

  “No,” I said.

  “Does she hate the Slovak people?”

  “Not at all!”

  “Was it because the flat isn't good enough, or are we not good enough?” translated Marika again.

  I felt very awkward. Blazena began to cry. She wiped her face with the back of her hand. I made Marika tell them the truth, which took several minutes. Afterwards they sat in silence.

  “I can’t believe we missed meeting Ethel,” said Adrianna. “Now I’m more intrigued than ever.”

  Blazena started making the sign of the cross and muttering darkly. Stevko raised his eyebrows at me.

  “She says she is praying for Ethel, a child of the Lord, all alone on Christmas Day,” translated Marika. “She says even the innkeeper let Mary and Joseph stay in the stable.”

  “I hope you told it right,” I said.

  “I tried to spin it as best I could, but the fact is you did chuck out an old woman at Christmas.”

  “You know Ethel! You're supposed to be on my side!”

  “You asked me to tell them the truth so I told them the truth!”

  “Well, if you’re in the mood to tell the truth, tell them about quitting your job!” I said.

  Adrianna and Stevko looked shocked. I'd forgotten they understood English.

  “Damn! Sorry Marika!”

  “You quit your job?” said Adrianna, and then repeated it in Slovak.

  Suddenly all hell broke loose. Blazena slammed her fist down on the table and started shouting at Marika, her face turning purple. Marika started shouting back in Slovak. Blazena then leapt up and lunged at Marika, but being a large woman, didn't account for her girth and as she lunged, she tipped the whole table towards me and Fero. The huge fish slid off the plate and into my lap. Glasses, bowls and plates crashed to the floor, slopping creamy soup and potato salad over everything. Marika screamed and ran out, followed by Blazena. Adrianna and Stevko went after them and I sat in shock with a lap full of fish.

  Fero leant over and topped up the glass I still had in my hand.

  “Nazdravie!” he grinned and downed his brandy in one.

  Two hours have passed and the row, which I can’t understand, is still raging. I’ve shut myself in the bedroom with Rocco, who is terrified.

  Rosencrantz just sent a text saying;

  MERRY XMAS MUM. LOVE U - UR WONDERFUL - THANX FOR MY KINDLE !

  And Daniel has sent a text saying;

  PICKED UP MUM AT LUTON. SHE’S VERY UPSET. YOU WENT TOO FAR THIS TIME - DANIEL

  Rocco is curled up on my chest with his head tucked under my chin. Thank God dogs don't judge us.

  Merry Christmas, Coco x

  Wednesday 29th December 20.18

  TO: chris@christophercheshire.com

  Marika finally came to the bedroom in the early hours of Christmas Day and shook me awake.

  “I'm still mad at you but I need you to drive,” she hissed. “I’m not staying a moment longer in the same place as my mother.”

  “It's three in the morning,” I said.

  “I don’t care. We're leaving!”

  I quickly gathered my things together. Fero was asleep on an armchair in the living room, which still had the Christmas dinner strewn across the carpet. Blazena had locked herself in the bathroom with her rosary beads. Adrianna and Stevko came down with us in the lift.

  “We’re leaving too,” said Stevko. “I nearly dislocated my shoulder pulling Blazena off Marika.”

  “What was she doing?” I said.

  “Beating me with a Bible,” said Marika, without humour.

  “I’m sorry,” I said. “I ruined your Christmas.”

  “No you didn’t,” grinned Adrianna. “Something always sets Mum off… Last year it was because Fero forgot to buy the tartare sauce.”

  “So she slapped him round the head with the fish,” said Stevko.

  “I don’t think Marika will ever speak to me again,” I said, as she stalked off into the car park.

  Stevko hugged me and ruffled Rocco's tired little head. Adrianna hugged me too.

  “Come back when the weather is nice,” she said. “We’ll go to the house again.”

  I drove slowly, in silence, in the pitch black and snow, Marika barking directions at me with Rocco on her lap. When the snow got too thick and driving became terrible, we stopped at a petrol station for coffee.

  “I'm sorry,” I said. “I'm really, really sorry.”

  “My mother was bound to find out some time. It just might have been better over the phone,” said Marika.

  “She certainly went for you,” I said.

  “She's a crazy bitch, she really got me with that Bible,” said Marika, rubbing her head bitterly. “But it's all okay, she'll go to confession on Sunday, slip the priest a euro and in the eyes of God everything is forgiven.”

  “Where are we headed?” I said.

  “Somewhere that makes me happy.”

  We stayed in the petrol station until the sun came up over the hills. A snowplough had been past a few times, so the rest of the journey was smooth.

  We entered Bratislava by a motorway bridge over the Danube. There’s something about arriving in a city just before the sun comes up. The roads are empty, the day feels new. You feel as if it all belongs to you.

  Marika guided us to a large boat moored by the Danube. It had three decks of white railings and a light shone by the entrance.

  “What’s this?” I said.

  “Our hotel.”

  It was a botel, rather than a hotel. A small pleasure cruiser, now permanently tethered to the bank of the Danube, which whipped past with surprising ferocity. The botel is an old haunt of Marika’s; she used to stay there a lot as a teenager when she came clubbing in Bratislava.

  The woman at reception looked a little surprised to see us when we staggered in just after six in the morning. She hurriedly swallowed the last of her breakfast and fumbled on a board covered in keys to allocate us a room each. Even Rocco was welcome. I’d thought I might have to smuggle him in, hidden in my handbag.

  The last few days have been heaven, wandering through
Bratislava. The old town is full of elegant buildings painted in bright pastel colours, like rows of sumptuous cakes decorated in smooth royal icing.

  We’ve done the same thing every day. Wake up late, eat a huge breakfast and then walk to the main square in the old town and choose a café, where we sit drinking endless cups of coffee and smoking.

  Two days passed before I realised we hadn’t really said much to one another. We were in Café Mayer, which has the air of a 17th-century French salon film: all pink and decadent with a soaring ceiling.

  “Why do we do it?” I said.

  “Do what?” said Marika.

  “Christmas…”

  “Well, we don’t really have a choice.”

  “We do! Yet we spend an inordinate amount of time preparing events for people we wouldn’t spend ten minutes with any other day of the year.”

  We carried on smoking for a bit.

  “You know, you can stay with me,” I said, “if you need to rent your flat out.”

  Marika smiled. “Thanks… I don’t know what I’m going to do about a job.”

  “Well, you’re not going to panic,” I said. “You can stay as long as you need to.”

  “Maybe I could start a company offering Christmas breaks, like what we’re doing now,” said Marika.

  “‘What? The anti-Christmas package deal?” I said.

  “Yes, no relations or acquaintances allowed. Just time spent relaxing, with friends.”

  Rocco barked.

  “And pets, of course,” said Marika.

  “We’ve done nothing for the last few days and it’s been the best Christmas since… well, since Rosencrantz was little,” I said.

  We watched the empty square as snow began to fall.

  “Come on, let’s do a bit more nothing,” said Marika. “We’ve got to get back to the real world soon,” and she ordered us more cake and coffee.

 
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