The coco pinchard boxset.., p.89
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       The Coco Pinchard Boxset: 5 bestselling romantic comedies in one!, p.89

           Robert Bryndza
 

  Like politics, a week is a long time at St Duke’s, and the teaching staff were more concerned about a pending redundancy. Whispers were going round about who it would be, and Miss Bruce was getting a kick out of knowing it wasn’t her. She sat watching everyone from a ripped armchair under the window, chomping on a blackened banana.

  Marika came up to me by the tea urn, and asked if I was okay. I said that Daniel was at home, working the phone and trying to get hold of another Tracy Island.

  “What about you? You look like you haven’t slept a wink!” I said, noticing how exhausted she was with dark circles under her eyes. “I’m sure you’re safe from the redundancy,” I added hopefully.

  “It’s not that. My electricity has stopped working,” she said quietly.

  “Marika, it went down to minus five last night!” I cried.

  “I know.”

  “Has the circuit breaker tripped?”

  “My landlord hasn’t paid the bill,” she said.

  Marika went on to say that she hadn’t got a phone, so I insisted she came back home with me at lunch time to use ours and get it sorted.

  When we came through the front door, Daniel was lolling on the sofa, still in his dressing gown, watching Sons and Daughters.

  “Cokes, you didn’t tell me you were coming back,” he yelped, leaping up, smoothing down his hair, and making sure nothing was hanging out of the gap in his pyjama bottoms. I introduced him to Marika.

  “Hello,” he smiled.

  “What have you found out about Tracy Island?” I asked.

  “Um, I’ve got some good leads,” he said.

  “Like what?” I probed, taking in his breakfast things which were still on the coffee table.

  “I think I’ll go and, er, get dressed… I don’t normally loll around watching Australian soaps all day,” he said before bolting upstairs.

  “He should be organising Christmas, not watching bloody crap on TV,” I grumbled when he’d gone.

  We’d stopped off on the way back and bought jacket potatoes, and we sat on the sofa eating them out of the containers.

  “Does he have a job?” asked Marika, through a mouthful of potato.

  “Yes, he writes music for pantomimes and plays. He’s a composer.”

  “Is he writing something now?”

  “No, he finished for Christmas,” I said.

  We chewed for a moment.

  “When does he start again?” asked Marika.

  “I’m… not sure, he’s looking for work,” I said.

  Marika looked at me for a moment and went to say more, but I changed the subject and phoned the electricity board. I found out that Marika’s landlord owed £195. Marika paled when she heard that.

  “My rent is supposed to be all-inclusive!” she said.

  I asked her if she could pay it over the phone with her credit card and then get the money back from her landlord, but she said she couldn’t afford it. I then offered to pay, but she wasn’t having any of that. I put the phone down and there was an awkward moment broken by the front door bell.

  I went to answer it, and came back through into the living room with my best friend, Chris. Marika looked a little shocked when she saw what he was wearing: a floor-length yellow and sky blue tartan winter coat and Ray-Bans.

  “Just call me Mother Christmas!” he said, waving a piece of paper and handing it to me with a flourish.

  “What’s this?” I asked, taking it from him.

  “It’s a distribution list!”

  “What?”

  “Dad gets daily print-outs for his catering business. You know, when he’s got merchandise coming in at the docks, blah blah blah.”

  “Why would I want to know about what’s arriving for your dad’s catering business?” I asked.

  “Daniel rang me and told me you were looking for a Tracy Island. So I asked my father to pull a few favours with the freight import companies, and I can tell you that there are two thousand Tracy Islands due to dock in Portsmouth later today!”

  “Two thousand?” I gasped, scanning the paper he’d given me.

  “They’re for the whole country, Cokes. But the good news is that Hamley’s toy shop in Regent Street is scheduled to receive two hundred tomorrow morning. They open at nine.”

  “Oh Chris!” I said, hugging him.

  Marika stood shyly by the sofa in her smart work suit and stockinged feet.

  “Sorry! Marika, meet Chris,” I added, letting him go.

  “Are you a social worker?” asked Chris, taking in her off-the-peg work suit and shaking her hand.

  “No. I’m a science teacher,” said Marika.

  “What’s that accent?” asked Chris.

  “Slovak,” said Marika.

  “You’ve got gorgeous cheekbones! And your hair is to die for!” he cried.

  He unbuttoned his coat and underneath was wearing a denim three–piece-suit with sliver buttons and a red necktie. He reached into a pocket and pulled out a roll of fifty-pound notes.

  “I also wanted to give you this, Cokes, to add to Rosencrantz’s building society account in my capacity as godfather,” said Chris, peeling four fifties off and handing them to me. “It’s from me and Benji. Benji is my new boyfriend,” he added to Marika. She nodded, still rather shocked at the encounter.

  “Have you seen Cats?” asked Chris.

  “Yes. I live above a Chinese restaurant and cats visit the rubbish bins all night,” said Marika dourly. Chris looked thrown.

  “No, I meant Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats – in the West End. Benji, my new boyfriend, he plays Rum Tum Tugger, the arrogant Tom… And he gets on like a house on fire with Elaine Paige. He’s promised he’ll arrange for me to meet her. She’s apparently very tiny, Elaine. Benji reckons she could fit through my cat flap, which is quite ironic, don’t you think?”

  Marika looked totally confused.

  “Look, Chris, we’ve got to get back to work. Thanks so much for the Tracy Island list and the money for Rosencrantz,” I said.

  “And you’d best get down to Hamley’s early tomorrow, Cokes. Dad says loads of people have been told about this,” added Chris.

  Daniel came back downstairs, now dressed.

  “Hi Chris,” he said.

  “Hi Daniel. What happened in Sons and Daughters today?”

  “I don’t know. I didn’t see it all,” said Daniel defensively.

  “Chris has found out Hamley’s is getting two hundred Tracy Islands tomorrow,” I enthused, “And he’s given Rosencrantz two hundred pounds for his building society account.”

  “Thank you,” said Daniel, although he didn’t seem pleased. “Nice suit,” he added. “I saw a guy wearing one just like it when I went out yesterday.”

  “Where?” asked Chris.

  “Marylebone High Street. He was pushing a Christmas tree along in a wheelbarrow.”

  Chris looked annoyed.

  “Bugger! I knew my tailor was a lying bastard as well as a perv. I can cope with being felt up when he measures my inside leg, but lying about this suit being an original. I need to have words… Right, I’d best be off, Cokes. Lovely to meet you Marika.” Chris gave a surprised Marika a kiss, buttoned up his coat and left.

  “In case you hadn’t realised, Marika, that was your first encounter with a gay man,” I said.

  Marika laughed and Daniel scowled and went off upstairs.

  “Did you order a turkey? And what about a tree?” I yelled up, as he took the stairs two at a time.

  “I will,” he shouted.

  “And we’re going to Hamley’s in the morning, early. So ring Ethel and ask if she can come and stay tonight so she can be with Rosencrantz tomorrow.”

  “Yes!” he shouted moodily.

  Marika and I stood awkwardly in silence for a moment in the hall. Her eyes flickered to the two hundred quid I was holding. I stuffed it in my pocket and we made our way back to school.

  Saturday 19th December

  When we left the house this morni
ng at six o’clock it was pitch black outside and the orange light from the street lamps could barely make it through the freezing fog.

  “Now don’t be shy about pushing people, and if someone falls over in the stampede don’t help ‘em up,” said Ethel, handing us a flask of tea at the front door. “Particularly you, Coco. Yer far too nice fer yer own good.”

  “I’m nice too,” protested Daniel.

  “No, yer like me, son,” said Ethel.

  “I don’t know when we’ll be back,” I told her.

  “I can be ‘ere all day. Rosencrantz will be fine, love. Just bring ‘im back Tracy Island,” said Ethel.

  We took a taxi and arrived on Regent Street at quarter past six. I thought we’d be ridiculously early, but when we rounded the crossroads at Oxford Street, I could see crash barriers had been erected around the entrance to Hamley’s and a substantial number of people were already waiting. I joined the back of the queue, whilst Daniel went along to count how many were in front of us.

  “We’re one hundred and ninety-eighth,” he said when he came back.

  “It’s going to be close then,” I groaned.

  Over the next couple of hours, we drank our tea and stamped our feet to try and keep warm. As it started to get light, the canopy of Christmas lights above us flicked off and the line continued to grow, snaking back past us and vanishing round the curve of Regent Street. An aggressive silence hung over everything, punctuated by a BBC television news crew moving past the line to document the Tracy Island mania. At one point they stopped in front of us, and a bright light came on above the camera, illuminating a windswept-looking couple. They perked up when they realised they would be on telly, saying they’d driven down from Norfolk at two o’clock this morning in the hope of getting a Tracy Island for their son, who is in a wheelchair. I felt rather guilty about the thoughts I’d had of pushing them to the ground and walking over them both. Then the BBC television crew moved past, and the couple from Norfolk were silent.

  At quarter to nine, it was light with a thin fog still hanging in the air. I noticed a little old man working his way down the line, holding a pile of leaflets. At first I thought that he was a born again Christian, or one of the touts for open-top bus journeys, but I noticed that almost everyone he stopped beside was rooting around for spare change and buying a leaflet. I told Daniel to keep our place, hoisted myself over the barrier and went down to him.

  “What’s that you’re selling?” I asked.

  “Maps, of the inside of Hamley’s,” he said. He had on fingerless gloves and an old winter coat. His nose and ears were sprouting tufts of grey hair.

  “How much?” I said.

  I saw that the maps were hand-drawn, and had been photocopied badly.

  “A pound,” he replied.

  “A pound?”

  “There’s seven floors in Hamley’s. Do you know where the Tracy Islands are going to be?” he demanded.

  “No. Do you?”

  “No,” he admitted. “But with this map you’ll find ‘em quicker, won’t you love?”

  I agreed he had a point and forked out a quid. I took the map back to Daniel. We went into a huddle and pored over it, deciding that Tracy Island would probably be on ‘Boys’ Toys’ on the fourth floor, or ‘Boxed Games’ on the third, or, ideally, that they’d have piled them up by the front door.

  “The latter makes sense, surely?” I said.

  “Yeah, we’re all here for the same thing!” said Daniel.

  I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned, and there was a tiny woman behind us with an immaculate brown hair in a bowl cut, which made her head look like a polished conker.

  “This is the queue for Hamley’s?” she asked.

  “Yes. You’re one-hundred-and-ninety-ninth,” I said. The woman looked confused. “For the Tracy Islands,” I added. “There’s only two hundred, apparently.”

  “Don’t tell her that,” hissed Daniel through his teeth.

  “No, I’m here to buy the Sylvanian Families Treehouse,” she said.

  “Do you have children or grandchildren?” I asked.

  “Neither. I thought the Sylvanian Families would be nice company to have in the house, you know, over Christmas. They’re much easier to keep than live animals. Believe me, I know. I had a hamster. So what’s Tracy Island?”

  Daniel gave me a look. I gave him a look back to say this woman was obviously a bit mad, and so it was okay to tell her. Then I briefly explained about Tracy Island mania.

  “But there’re plenty of Sylvanian Family Treehouses? I don’t want to spend Christmas alone again,” she asked anxiously.

  “I’m sure they’re plenty,” I said, smiling.

  She smiled sweetly back. Suddenly a ripple of voices ran through the queue and then, Hamley’s was open! The line began to surge forward. I hooked my handbag over both arms and got ready to shop. The queue slowed and I could feel a push from behind.

  “It’s not me, dear,” said the little lady. “They’re pushing from the back.”

  “Don’t crowd us!” I snapped at the people behind, but they returned a determined stare.

  As we moved past the windows of Hamley's, towards the main entrance, there was a puppet of Lady Penelope behind the glass in her elegant pink drawing room with a cigarette in a holder. Parker stood to one side, proffering an ashtray. Who’d have thought kids would be still be interested in all this in 1992, puppets on strings? I thought.

  The queue surged forward again, and we were at the door! Someone dressed as a giant teddy bear came out of the entrance with a man in a policeman’s outfit. The man from Norfolk barged inside, knocking the huge teddy bear over, blocking our path. The woman from Norfolk took no notice and managed to scoot round him and through the door as the policeman got the bear half up, but the bear was too heavy and fell back down pulling the policeman with him.

  “Why have they put bloody costume characters here?” I shrieked. They were now blocking the doorway. “Oi, Plod and Bear, move your arses!”

  I went to step over them, but the policeman grabbed me by the arm. Daniel managed to leap over them and get inside.

  “Hey! Get off,” I said.

  “Madam, you need to cool it,” said the policeman.

  “I don’t need some out-of-work actor in a stupid policeman’s costume telling me what to do,” I snapped.

  The policeman kept his grip on my arm and used the other hand to pull out his ID.

  “Ah…” I said, reading that he was indeed a real policeman.

  “Yes, ah,” he said.

  “I’m very sorry,” I apologised and tried to pull away.

  “Not so fast, madam,” he said.

  The giant teddy bear had now righted himself and people were streaming past. I pulled harder, but the policeman held on to my sleeve. People were swarming past either side, bashing us back and forward in a little dance.

  “Let me go!” I cried.

  “Not until you calm down,” he said, red in the face.

  A very tall man rushed past, smashing his shoulder into the back of the policeman’s helmet. It slid forward over his eyes. I managed to yank my arm away, and I ran for it into Hamley’s.

  There was chaos: people were surging and crowding through the shop, which was packed with Christmas toys, piled high, lights winking and blinking.

  “Coco!” I heard Daniel shout.

  I looked round and saw him being carried upwards on an escalator packed with people. He mouthed something.

  “What?” I yelled.

  He mouthed again. I still didn’t understand. He rolled his eyes.

  “Basement!” he shouted.

  “They’re in the basement?”

  He nodded, and then vanished as the escalator took him up and out of sight. I spied a neon arrow on the wall where the basement stairs led down. The crowd had heard Daniel and headed that way too. I felt a small, strong arm push me out of the way. It was the little Sylvanian Families lady who had been behind us in the line.


  “What are you pushing for? I thought you wanted a Treehouse?” I said.

  But she was gone, towards the neon arrow. I followed and the stairs took us all round twice before we were in the huge electronics department in the basement. The crowd fanned out.

  “Where are they?”

  “Tracy Island?”

  “Where have you got them?” people were shouting.

  I ran blindly to one corner, but there was just a rack of Game Boys and posters. I felt like I was on The Crystal Maze.

  “The Tracy Island toys are on the fourth floor!” said a harassed sales assistant, cupping her hands around her mouth. Half of the people on the shop floor surged towards the stairs, and the half on my side went to the lift. A big man stabbed at the button, and we waited for a minute until the lift doors opened with a ping. Twenty people piled in, and there was shouting and pushing as the remaining few tried to squeeze behind us.

  “Get out of the way, the door won’t close,” shrilled a highly-strung female voice. I realised a moment later it was me.

  The people refused to budge until the little Sylvanian Families woman gave the three people who had their feet in the lift door a hard shove. With no obstruction, the lift doors closed and we began to move up. A mirror on one side displayed our wild faces. A woman with long mousy hair blew a tendril away from her face and looked as if she were going to cry. The lift slowed and I braced myself.

  The doors opened and we were off again. Shouting out, “Where are they?” we zigzagged through shelves until, at the back, we saw a big blown-up poster for Tracy Island, and below it, a dwindling pile of boxes. I lunged forward, shoving people out of my way. Someone was standing on the back of my maxi-length coat and I couldn’t move forward, so I sloughed it off like a snakeskin and kept moving.

  Finally I made it to the front and there were three left. Two hands went out and grabbed two of the boxes, and I got the last one! I got it! I clutched it tight to my chest and hurried to the till to pay.

  A sales assistant stood there, dumbfounded at the crazy sweaty people. She wanted to take the box from me to scan the barcode, but I wasn’t having any of that. Nor would I let her put it in a bag for me. She gave me a receipt and a carrier bag, and I carefully put my Tracy Island box inside. Then I remembered I didn’t have my coat. I found it in the centre of the shop floor, covered in mucky footprints. I put the bag down on the floor, and bent down to pick up my coat. Then the little old Sylvanian Families lady whooshed over and crashed into me, dropping the carrier bag she’d been clutching.

 

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