The coco pinchard boxset.., p.87
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       The Coco Pinchard Boxset: 5 bestselling romantic comedies in one!, p.87

           Robert Bryndza
 

  “Christmas wasn’t like this in the old days, was it?” I asked, leaning my head on his chest. I pressed the ice pack to my throbbing eye and grimaced.

  “What do you mean?” said Daniel.

  “There never used to be this one Christmas toy that everyone HAD to have. I remember getting a doll’s pram, and another year I got a pretend iron and ironing board.”

  “One year I got an Action Man, and everyone went bonkers over the fact his eyes could move from side to side,” said Daniel.

  “Tracy Island apparently plays electronic sounds too. We’ll have to remember batteries… Do you think we’ll get one?”

  “Course we will, Cokes. Mum’s known this Bert bloke for years – he’ll come through tomorrow, don’t you worry,” said Daniel. “And I can organise Christmas,” he added.

  “You will? You’ll do everything this year?”

  “I promise. You don’t need to lift a finger. I’ll get the beds ready for when Meryl and Tony come to stay, and sort the tree, the decorations, the turkey. And I’ll buy frozen. It won’t be a live one,” he said. Despite everything, I laughed.

  “That was the strangest Christmas, when Ethel brought a live turkey. I wish I’d taken a picture of my father’s face,” I said.

  “Mum couldn’t face killing it…”

  “She could quite happily kill me though,” I said, adding, “She thinks I’m a bad mother, for going back to work.”

  “Well, I know that you’re doing it for us,” said Daniel. He pulled me close and gave me a kiss. “You know, Cokes, Mum does love you too, deep down,” he added.

  “It must be very deep down,” I sighed, taking a big gulp of whiskey. “Daniel, could you have a word with her, nicely, and maybe suggest she doesn’t have to be here every evening when I get home? Of course you should see your mother, but she’s been here most days for the past four months and…”

  There was the soft sound of snoring: Daniel had fallen asleep.

  “You have perfect timing,” I said. I drank the last of my whiskey and tried to get comfortable, balancing the ice pack on my throbbing eye.

  I woke at six the next morning with the alarm screaming and me soaking wet. The ice in the tea towel had melted. The only upside of all this was that I sounded suitably groggy when I phoned Miss Marks to say I wouldn’t be at school.

  “Mrs Pinchard, you do know it’s the Christingle assembly?” said Miss Marks incredulously. I said I did. She asked me again what was wrong, and I repeated that I had been concussed.

  “How exactly, Mrs Pinchard?” she asked sharply.

  “It’s none of your business how,” I snapped, losing my temper. “I have a concussion, and I have been advised not to come in to work.”

  Miss Marks never quite believes when a teacher is ill, so they tend to over-explain their symptoms. On several occasions a note has come through to the staffroom saying that someone will be off ‘because they’ve been on the toilet all night’. I can’t imagine this happens in a bank.

  “The Headmaster won’t be pleased,” she said. I caught sight of my reflection in the hall mirror and saw that I had a black eye coming up where I’d struck the doorknob. I had a sudden surge of confidence.

  “I’m not pleased either that I’ve had a nasty accident, Miss Marks, and I have been advised on medical grounds to stay at home. If you have a problem with that you can take it up with… with…” I scrambled around in my mind for the name of the teacher’s union I was paying to be a member of.

  “The NUT? AHDS? ASCL? The UTU?” asked Miss Marks sarcastically.

  “Yes. Them,” I said and put the phone down. I hoped my black eye would turn into a right shiner before I went back to school tomorrow.

  We got Rosencrantz ready for school, and I kissed him goodbye at the front door.

  “Mummy, why is your eye all black? Did you look through one of those joke telescopes?” he asked.

  “Yes, I did,” I lied.

  “Wow! Can I try it? Where is it?”

  “It’s Mr Cohen’s from next door. He popped round earlier to play a joke on Mummy,” I said.

  “You wouldn’t think Mr Cohen is into jokes, he always looks such a bloody misery guts!” said Rosencrantz.

  “Rosencrantz, don’t be rude!”

  “I’m only saying what you said the other day,” said Rosencrantz.

  “Well, Mummy shouldn’t have said that…”

  “Come on son, we’ll be late for school,” interrupted Daniel. They both gave me a kiss and I watched them for a moment, Daniel and his little doppelganger walking off, chatting away. My heart was fit to burst with love.

  Whilst Daniel walked Rosencrantz round to school, I dug out the AA Road Atlas and plotted our course to the mysterious lay-by on the route to Dover. We set off in the car just after eight, picking up Ethel in Catford on the way. There were miles and miles of roadworks along the dual carriageway towards Dover. The digging for the Channel Tunnel terminals was causing chaos. Daniel sat in the front with me, reading the map, and Ethel was in the back. Although she didn’t sit back, preferring to peer through the seats and eyeball me in the rearview mirror.

  “Put yer foot down, Coco!” she said. It was ten to ten and the van was due to stop in the lay-by at ten.

  “Ethel, we’re bumper to bumper in this queue,” I said.

  “Ain’t there a back road?”

  “We have to stay on the dual carriageway, because that’s where the lorry is stopping,” I said.

  Ethel leaned through the seats and honked the horn.

  “No, Mum, don’t do that,” chided Daniel, pulling her hand away.

  “They shouldn’t be doin’ this, digging tunnels under the Channel,” muttered Ethel darkly. “They’re openin’ a Pandora’s box. The French will be able to walk to England, an’ the tunnels’ll be flooded with rabid dogs!”

  The cars in front began to move and we inched forward. The dual carriageway was reduced to one lane and we were crawling along beside a row of traffic cones. Daniel poked his head out of the passenger window.

  “It’s okay, it’s just up ahead,” he said, pointing past the rows of cars stretching ahead to a lay-by appearing over the brow of the hill. We inched forward some more, and could make out a stationary lorry. The line of cars began to move quicker.

  “It’s fine, we’ll be there in a couple of minutes,” I said, changing up to second gear.

  “Me an’ Bert go way back, so you let me do the talking,” said Ethel for the fifteenth time that day. “‘E’s a very reliable bloke. So were ‘is homing pidgins, they were always the first back.”

  A roadworks van passed in the blocked-off lane beside us, and came to a stop parallel to the lay-by up ahead.

  “Tha’s Bert! Tha’s ‘im,” yelled Ethel in my ear, as a balding man with a paunch climbed down from the lorry. At the same time, two blokes in hard hats got out of the roadworks van. I was about to turn off the carriageway into the lay-by, when one of them walked into our lane with a huge stop sign on a pole. He planted it on the ground and I applied the brakes. The other bloke was now shifting the road cones, creating a gap through to the empty lane next to us and blocking off the lane in front.

  “Hang on, what’s going on here?” said Daniel. The bloke holding the sign then flipped it round to the green ‘GO’ side, and indicated I drive through the gap into the next lane.

  “We’re being diverted,” I said, not knowing what to do.

  “We can’t go, Coco, we’ll miss the bloody lay-by!” cried Ethel, leaning through the gap in the front seats.

  A car behind honked its horn. The bloke in the hard hat waved at me to move. I wound down my window.

  “Sorry, I need to get to that lay-by!” I said, pointing at the lorry. Bert was now unlocking the back.

  “GO!” he shouted, waving at me. More cars started to honk behind.

  “Don’t go, Coco!” squawked Ethel, grabbing my arm through the gap in the seats.

  “I’ve got to go! I’m blocking the
road!” I screeched.

  “But it’s Bert, look, ‘e’s got the bloody lorry open!” cried Ethel.

  There was a muffled clatter as the back door of the lorry whooshed up, and we could see pallets of coloured boxes swathed in shrink wrap. The bloke with the ‘GO’ sign up ahead was now very angry and yelling, waving his arms. A cacophony of honking was coming from behind.

  “Shit!” I shouted.

  I put the car in gear and turned into the next lane. The diversion led us across two lanes and through a gap in the central reservation! We emerged in a lane on the opposite side of the road. We stopped parallel to the lay-by at a set of temporary traffic lights, which were red. A giant truck started to cross, piled high with earth.

  “Bert, you cheeky bastard!” shouted Ethel in my ear.

  She pointed across the central reservation, past the rows of cars to where Bert was sticking a large square of cardboard to the side of the lorry. Printed in marker pen he’d written: TRACY IRELANDS FOR SALE.

  “Bert told me it was just a trusted few people! I never liked ‘im, nor his scrawny diseased pidgins!” Ethel squawked. Four cars and a small van left the queue and turned off the road into the lay-by. “Do something, Coco! There’ll be none left!”

  “Will you stop your mother shouting in my ear,” I snapped to a helpless Daniel.

  “Coco, yer bloody useless!” cried Ethel.

  “What can I do? We’re on a dual carriageway! You want me to abandon the car and walk?” I yelled.

  People were now getting out of their cars in the lay-by and congregating around the back of the lorry.

  “Well, if you won’t, I will!” declared Ethel. She opened the car door and jumped out.

  “What are you doing, Mum?” yelled Daniel.

  Ethel made for the metal barrier of the central reservation. She hitched up her skirt and hooked one leg over.

  “Why did you have to go and put that idea in her head?” said Daniel.

  “Oh, it’s my fault, is it? Ethel, this is a dual carriageway!” I shouted.

  “Yer too bloody soft Coco!” she shouted back. “I survived the Blitz. I can survive crossing a bloody road!”

  “Weren’t you evacuated to the Lake District?” I’m not too sure why I felt it relevant to contradict her, but she was ignoring me and was now straddling the central reservation, skirt hoiked up with her huge grey knickers on show to the line of cars behind. A couple of windows wound down and a huge bloke in a white van shouted, “Nice arse, grandma! You escaped from the funny farm?”

  “You shut yer mouth, you fat bastard, I’m Christmas shopping!” shouted Ethel.

  The traffic light was still red, and the lorry carrying dirt had nearly cleared the lane in front.

  “Go and get her, Daniel, the lights are going to change,” I said.

  He jumped out of the car and went round to grab Ethel but she managed to get her other leg over the central reservation and climb down on the other side. She dashed between the stationary cars and into the lay-by. Fifteen or twenty people were now congregating around the back of the lorry, waving cash at Bert.

  “Come on, Danny! There’s gonna be none left for little Rosencrantz!” called Ethel.

  Daniel was now over the central reservation and running around the cars to join her in the lay-by.

  Seized with a crazed fear of losing out, I unclipped my seat belt and abandoned the car, leaping over the central reservation to join them. Ignoring the fat bloke behind who was still laughing.

  There was an undignified tussle at the rear of the lorry. People were pushing and shoving, and Ethel was squaring up to a tiny little woman with fuzzy grey hair. In the interior of the lorry was a fast-dwindling pile of Tracy Islands. Ethel fought her way through and clambered up into the lorry, smearing what looked like engine oil down the front of her coat. Before Bert could stop her, she seized one of the last boxed Tracy Islands.

  “Coco, ‘ere, I’ve got one,” she shouted, throwing it to me at the back of the crowd. Luckily I caught it.

  “Ethel, get down,” said Bert.

  “’Ow much, Bert?” she asked.

  “Sixty,” said Bert, who was taking fistfuls of cash in one hand and handing out the last few Tracy Island boxes with the other.

  “Sixty quid, Bert? Ain’t they in the shops for about thirty?” shouted Ethel. He reached the last of the Tracy Islands, and then the wooden pallet was empty. I clutched the Tracy Island box to my chest.

  “It’s sixty quid, Ethel. I could get skinned alive for doin’ this!” said Bert.

  “I’ve got fifty-five ‘ere, Bert, take it or leave it,” announced Ethel, putting her hand in her coat and pulling out a bundle of notes.

  “The RRP is £34.99,” shouted the old lady with the fuzzy hair, “but I’ll pay sixty-five!”

  “It’ll be RIP for you if you don’t keep yer trap shut!” snarled Ethel.

  “I’ll pay seventy!” yelled another lady in a red woolly hat.

  “Seventy-five,” chimed a young couple in matching winter coats.

  “Bert. You owe me,” frowned Ethel.

  Bert wiped his face, looked at the cash Ethel was holding out, then took it.

  “We got one, we got one!!!” said Daniel, turning to me with a grin.

  “The littlun’s gonna be made up! ‘E’s gonna get a Tracy bloody Island on Christmas Day! Only the best for my grandson!” grinned Ethel as Bert helped her down from the back of the lorry.

  By now the lights had changed to green. There was crazed honking and the road workers were screaming at us to get back into our car, which had three doors open and the engine running. We didn’t care though. We had Tracy Island!!

  When we finally got back home, we sat round the kitchen table with a pot of tea and some fruit cake.

  “You did well, Ethel. Thank you,” I said as we stared at Tracy Island in the middle of the table. The box was so colourful. I wiped away a tear.

  “Rosencrantz is going to be thrilled,” said Daniel, his bottom lip trembling.

  Ethel’s face crumpled in tears and she got up.

  “Well, I can’t ‘ang around ‘ere gas-bagging’, I’d best be off. Don’t get up Coco, love.”

  We all composed ourselves, feeling a bit embarrassed.

  “Would you like us to get you a taxi, Ethel?” I asked.

  “Gawd no, love, I’ll get the bus.”

  “Thank you, Ethel. I know we don’t…”

  “Save yer breath for blowin’ out candles, love. Where Rosencrantz is concerned I think we’re in agreement,” she smiled.

  She patted me on the shoulder and then Daniel showed her to the front door. When he came back he grabbed my hand and gave it a squeeze.

  “It looks like Thunderbirds are go!” he smiled.

  Wednesday 16th December

  We had a few too many celebratory drinks last night, so when I woke up I was hungover and my black eye was very pronounced. To quote Rosencrantz, I looked like I’d been looking through Mr Cohen’s joke telescope again. I debated leaving my face bare, but decided to slap on some foundation, otherwise the kids in my class wouldn’t let me hear the end of it.

  I arrived in the staff car park and checked my reflection in the rearview mirror. I realised I should have put on some lipstick and eyeliner. I was a rather odd, pale colour. The Ripper must have seen me arrive because he was waiting by the school entrance when I reached it. His cold blue eyes were arctic.

  “Mrs Pinchard. A word. In my office,” he snapped.

  I followed him inside, past Miss Marks sitting at her desk with a smirk playing across her pointed face. I’d never been in The Ripper’s office before. It was vast and rather bare. A couple of certificates dotted the walls, and on a bookshelf there were a few spider plants which looked like they’d been read their last rites. I could hear muffled shrieks from the playground outside, but the windows had blinds drawn against the weak December sun.

  He motioned for me to sit at his large, polished wood desk. He sat opposite and
stared at me. His eyes seemed to see into my head, poking around inappropriately at the folds of my grey matter.

  “You informed Miss Marks yesterday that you were ill,” he said, finally.

  “Yes. I had a concussion… Is it a concussion or just concussion?”

  He shrugged. “You’re the English teacher, Mrs Pinchard.”

  “I had concussion, Mr Sutcliffe,” I said, wishing I hadn’t covered up my black eye. I looked like an odd-coloured liar.

  “A concussion at home?” he asked.

  “Of course, where else would I be concussed?”

  “I don’t know. A car accident? Your car looks fine though. Did you go to hospital?”

  “No.”

  “Then how did you know you had concussion?” he asked. I paused.

  “I was under the impression I only need to provide you with a detailed sick note after my third day of absence?” I said.

  “Of course,” he smiled. “I’m just checking you’re okay. I know that concussion can make one forgetful.”

  “No, I’m fine. Apart from the grammatical mistake re ‘a concussion’ or ‘concussion’.”

  I was babbling now. He opened his drawer and pulled out a copy of The Sun. A page had been marked with a yellow post-it. He opened it, and placed the newspaper on the polished desk in front of me. The headline read: TRACY ISLAND MANIA! He tapped at a picture with his manicured hand.

  “This woman looks a lot like you, Mrs Pinchard,” he said.

  I looked down in horror at the double-page spread. Pictures from around the country showed empty shelves in toyshops, fights breaking out in queues at the till, and it included a series of photos taken yesterday at the lay-by. I leaned into the picture: tiny images of me, Daniel and Ethel could be made out amongst the throng at the back of the lorry. Who’d been taking photos? A lurking journalist? Miss Marks?

  “Do you think so?” I said. “That photo is a little blurred…”

  “And that’s your husband, yes?”

  “Um, is it? As I said, it’s very blurred…”

 

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