The coco pinchard boxset.., p.94
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       The Coco Pinchard Boxset: 5 bestselling romantic comedies in one!, p.94
 

           Robert Bryndza

  I sat down heavily on the side of the sofa. I’d been so excited to get the plans last night that I’d forgotten we still had to make the damn thing.

  “So we’re screwed?” I said.

  “Coco. No toilet language, please.”

  “Sorry, Meryl.”

  “I’ve watched the Blue Peter video and I’ve been planning,” said Meryl seriously. “I think we can do it, but we can’t waste any time. We need to make a couple of Tracy Islands, maybe three to cover ourselves.”

  “Three?”

  Meryl came and sat beside me.

  “I’ve just been on the phone with Handy Mandy,” she said. “Handy Mandy divulged to me her top-secret drying method for papier mâché.”

  Meryl paused for dramatic effect.

  “What is it?” I asked.

  Meryl glanced around furtively, as if we were two ladies from the French Resistance hiding in a bunker.

  “Bake it in the oven at eighty-five degrees for one hour,” she whispered. “We’ll need to monitor the temperature – any deviation from eighty-five degrees and the game’s up. We can’t take our eyes off it for a second. Are you with me Coco?”

  I nodded seriously and tried to keep a straight face. She checked her watch.

  “Right. You need to get dressed. We’re going shopping.”

  We were first at the supermarket when it opened at half past seven. As we dashed round with the trolley, I felt like an awful mother. Here I was with no present for Rosencrantz and attempting to make a substitute with ordinary household junk – washing-up liquid bottles, tin foil and old cardboard boxes, for God’s sake! I had to thank Meryl for her steely resolve and for guiding the trolley round when the tears in my eyes blurred our route.

  Meryl left me to go through the till, whilst she went to a pay phone and rang Ethel. We needed someone to keep Rosencrantz out of the house.

  “Mum’s not at home,” said Meryl when I wheeled the trolley out with all our purchases.

  I was relieved. I didn’t want to have to explain about Ethel boycotting the Nativity play.

  “Chris is away on a cruise and Daniel’s only got one good leg,” I said.

  “It’ll have to be Tony then,” shrugged Meryl.

  “Tony?”

  “Yes, it will do him good to spend some time with Rosencrantz, give him practice for…” Then Meryl was silent. She always dismissed the friendly enquiries she got about her having children, saying things like they’d just bought new carpets and a baby would cause havoc.

  “So we’ll get Tony babysitting,” she said, pulling herself together. “Next stop B&Q.”

  We arrived home just after ten dragging bags full of Christmas shopping, Tracy Island shopping and a six-foot Scotch pine in a bucket.

  “Christmas tree! Yay!” yelled Rosencrantz.

  He was disappointed when he heard he was going out for the day with Uncle Tony.

  “Is he my uncle?” asked Rosencrantz.

  “Of course he’s your uncle!” said Meryl. “He’s married to me, and you know I’m your aunt.”

  Rosencrantz looked surprised that the slightly pervy man who came every Christmas was related to him.

  “What should I do with him?” I heard Tony whisper to Meryl.

  “Get to know him, take him to the zoo or something,” hissed Meryl. “Just bring him back in one piece.”

  I nervously kissed Rosencrantz goodbye, and then Meryl pulled me into the kitchen. She had laid everything out and was mixing up a gloopy paste in a bowl.

  “Flour and water for the papier mâché,” she trilled. “The Blue Peter Tracy Island starts with a square of cardboard from one of those big boxes from the supermarket. Then on top you build up layers and layers of papier mâché to make the shape of the island.”

  It was slow, messy work, especially as we were making three islands. Daniel was helped down the stairs to reluctantly to lend a hand. Ever the practical one, Meryl made a lunch of cream cheese sandwiches with crisps, then washed the tubs up for the next phase of Tracy Island. The control tower lookout was made from an upside down cream cheese tub with square stickers to form windows.

  By mid-afternoon the kitchen was a mess of flour and water paste and scrunched-up newspaper, but we had finished the main work on three Tracy Islands. One went into the oven on a very low heat, whilst the other two went upstairs into the airing cupboard.

  We’d just finished clearing away the glue and paste when Tony came through the front door with Rosencrantz. Tony was soaking wet, and his lips were blue.

  “My godfathers! What happened?” cried Meryl, pulling him into the living room.

  “He fell in the Emperor penguin pond,” said Rosencrantz matter-of-factly.

  “Emperor Penguin pond?” asked Meryl

  “L-L-London Z-Z-Zoo,” shivered Tony.

  “He got pecked a lot too!” said Rosencrantz gleefully.

  I noticed peck marks on Tony’s nose, and on top where his hair was thinning. I grabbed him a blanket off the sofa, and Daniel hobbled over to the fire and attempted to put some more wood on.

  “Daniel, sit down,” I snapped. “We can’t have any more accidents!”

  “Tony! Come upstairs and get those wet clothes off,” instructed Meryl.

  Tony shuddered as she led him out of the room and up the stairs.

  “Did you know Uncle Tony buries dead people in the ground?” said Rosencrantz. “And if they don’t want to pay extra for him to dig a hole, he burns them in a big oven!”

  “Well, it’s a bit nicer than that,” said Daniel.

  “The oven!” I cried, noticing a faint burning smell.

  Rosencrantz sniffed the air.

  “Oh Mummy, are you cooking again?” he said, sounding dismayed.

  “What do you mean?”

  “Well, it always goes wrong!”

  “Oh no! The Tr—” I stopped myself in time and ran into the kitchen, just as the fire alarm began to beep. The room was filled with smoke and a hideous burning smell. I yanked open the oven, and black smoke poured out, spreading across the ceiling. Without thinking I grabbed the grill pan and pain shot through my hand. I dropped it on the floor and ran to the sink, plunging my hand under the cold water.

  “What was that, Mummy? I’m not eating it!” said Rosencrantz, peering at the remains of the Tracy Island that never was, the top blackened and the bottom a saggy, glutinous mess.

  “Ow, ow, ow! Shepherd’s pie,” I lied.

  Rosencrantz gave me a look. Then we heard a scream from upstairs, and feet thundering down the stairs. Meryl rushed in, her head covered in what looked like grey vomit.

  “Quick, move. I need water! Before it sets!” cried Meryl, running over to the sink. She shoved her head under the tap and turned on the water. “I went to the airing cupboard to get towels for Tony,” she hissed at me, pulling what I now realised were gloopy lumps of papier mâché out of her hair. “I forgot what we’d put in there to dry, and they both came tumbling out and landed on my head!”

  “Both of them!”

  “Yes! They’re both ruined. Oh, it’s setting!” she cried. “If this flour and water paste sets in my hair, I’ll never get it out! I’ll have to shave my head!”

  “I can’t believe Uncle Tony buries people in the ground, and gets paid for it!” said Rosencrantz, oblivious to the chaos. “I was going to ask him if he’d ever buried anyone alive by mistake but he fell in the penguin pond…”

  We put Tony, Rosencrantz and Daniel in the living room and got to work on clearing up the mess. It took two hours. The carpet on the landing would have to be replaced, and poor Meryl didn’t get to the sink fast enough. Her hair set into a solid, spivvy quiff. At four-thirty we sat with a stiff whiskey and a cigarette each, even though Meryl doesn’t usually smoke, and we made a plan.

  Buy new materials and start again from scratch.

  Leave the menfolk here with money/telephone numbers to order a take away.

  Move Tracy Island operations to Chris’s house.
He has a huge double catering oven he never uses, a sauna, and one of those upright salon hairdryers you can sit under. All of which could come in useful drying papier mâché.

  Rosencrantz was quite excited when I said that Daniel and Tony would be looking after him.

  “I’m going to ask Uncle Tony loads of questions,” he grinned. “Do you think he’d take me on a trip to Milton Keynes to see some dead bodies?”

  “Well, maybe that’s not the nicest thing to do at Christmas,” I said.

  “Yes,” he agreed sagely. “What about the day after Boxing Day?”

  I kissed him and promised we’d have lots of time tomorrow.

  I packed an overnight bag, lent Meryl a baseball cap and we set off for Chris’s house, unsure of when we would return.

  Thursday 24th December (Christmas Eve)

  Meryl was quite enchanted by all the Disneyana at Chris’s house. We spent most of the night working in his huge kitchen, making three new Tracy Islands. The first perished in the oven, but the amazing news was that the second and third fared much better in Chris’s walk-in sauna. The dry, hot atmosphere was perfect, and as of three o’clock in the afternoon the papier mâché was drying nicely.

  I was making us a well-deserved cup of coffee in the kitchen, when I heard Meryl talking in the hall. Then she poked her quiffed head round the door with the phone held against her cardigan,

  “Coco! What’s this about you banning Mum from Rosencrantz’s school Nativity play?”

  She put the phone back to her ear,

  “What’s that? No, I know, Mum. You’d never smoke in Rosencrantz’s bedroom… Of course I’m fine. You didn’t know about the effects when you were expecting us.”

  Meryl listened then put the phone back to her cardigan.

  “Coco! The top of my head wasn’t flat when I was a baby!” I looked at Meryl with her rock-hard quiff of hair.

  ‘Well, I might have been a little angry,” I said “but I never banned her from—”

  Meryl put the phone back to her ear.

  “What, Mum? You’re not coming to Coco’s for Christmas… You’re going to stop at home and eat Spam salad!” She handed me the phone. “She wants to talk to you.”

  I took the phone. “Ethel?” I said.

  “I ain’t settin’ foot over yer threshold. I know when I’m not wanted,” she said, and she hung up!

  We tried to ring her back, but we kept getting the engaged tone.

  “I think you need to sort this out, Coco,” said Meryl sternly.

  “Look, me and your mother don’t see eye to eye, that’s not a secret,” I said.

  “Coco, Mum thinks the world of you! I wonder if it’s you with the problem?”

  I went to protest but Meryl raised a hand.

  “Why don’t you drive over to Catford? Explain truthfully how much you want Mum to be there on Christmas Day.”

  “Truthfully?”

  “Yes, Coco. It wouldn’t be Christmas without her. Now go. I’m the craft expert. I’ll stay here and supervise Tracy Island.”

  It was gone six o’clock when I pulled up at Ethel’s house in Catford. The street lights were broken so the row of grimy terraced houses was doused in gloom. A distant police siren screamed, and the windows leading away from Ethel’s house were all dark. There was a tiny glow coming from behind the curtains in her front room.

  I took the passage along the side of the house. The light was on in the kitchen, casting a rectangle of yellow in the back yard. I went up to the door and banged on the glass.

  “Oo is it?” came her voice a moment later.

  “It’s Coco,” I said.

  There was a pause.

  “I’ve got nothing to say to yer!” she shouted.

  “That’s a first,” I said. “Seems you’ve had plenty to say over the years.”

  I hammered again on the door.

  “I’m not going until you open up, we need to have this out!” I shouted.

  A minute later Ethel opened the door. She was wearing her flowery housecoat and had a fag on the go. She dragged me inside.

  “Jeez, keep yer voice down! The neighbours’ll think I’ve got the bailiff round, or, worse, that I’m behind on me catalogue payments!”

  “I do not look like a bailiff,” I said.

  “They come in all shapes and sizes: small and, in your case, big.”

  The kitchen, as ever, was warm and cosy. A little fire was glowing in the hearth and Christmas cards were dotted along the mantelpiece. A clock in the middle chimed the quarter hour, and I could see her rent book poking out from behind.

  “That’s enough. I’ve had enough of you, Ethel. I’ve tried and I’ve tried until I’m blue in the face. You don’t like me – I get it. And you know what? I don’t much like you. All I’ve ever done is love your son. All I’ve ever got is nastiness from you. And as for not coming to the Nativity play… Well, it ends now, you hear me?”

  Ethel regarded me for a moment and took a drag on her cigarette.

  “You want a cup of tea, love?” she asked.

  “Didn’t you hear what I said?”

  “Or something stronger?”

  “I’m driving,” I said, exasperated.

  She ignored me and left the room, coming back with two large schooners and a bottle of sherry. She poured two glasses.

  “Sit down, love,” she said. I pulled out a chair at the blue Formica table. “Not the ripped one,” she added. I pulled out the chair beside it and sat. We both took a sip.

  “I will say I’m sorry. I know you weren’t smoking in Rosencrantz’s room.”

  “An’ I never would,” she said. We drank in silence.

  “Look, why don’t we just agree that we don’t like each other and then move on.”

  “I don’t dislike yer, love.”

  “Then what?”

  “I just don’t wanna lose me son.”

  “You haven’t lost your son, believe me.”

  We took another sip. I went on.

  “I wish you’d come to Rosencrantz’s Nativity play. It’s not on that you used it to make a point. You can throw as much shit as you like at me, but don’t you dare upset Rosencrantz.”

  For the first time ever, I saw Ethel looked chastised.

  “Sorry, love. So ‘ow was it?”

  I told her about Rosencrantz’s Nativity play. Ethel burst out laughing. It emerged with a rattle from her chest. She threw her head back and slapped her leg.

  “I’d ‘ave given anything to ‘ear your little Rosencrantz say I’m not a pleasant fucker during a Nativity play! Must’ve brightened it up for all the parents.”

  “Yes, well…”

  “Did Chris tape it?”

  “No, he didn’t video the performance.”

  “Performance! I’ll say,” she squawked, dissolving into even more laughter, which then turned into a coughing fit.

  I couldn’t help it, I began to laugh too.

  “Oh Coco. What am I gonna do with you?” she said when we’d calmed down a bit.

  “What do you mean?”

  “You’re a resilient cow.”

  “Thanks.”

  “You remember when you first came in this kitchen?”

  “Yes.”

  “All those years ago. I thought you was wet, a right wet weekend. But you’ve proved yerself you can be a tough old mare.”

  “How is any of that a compliment?” I asked.

  “You need to be tough in this life. I know my Danny can be pretty useless,” she said, “but ‘is heart is in the right place. ‘E just needs nurturing, ‘e’ll come good.”

  “I’ve nurtured him for years, and I’m still the breadwinner,” I said. “I thought when we had Rosencrantz things would change.”

  “The slowest tree bears the best fruit, Coco.”

  “But I’m worried we’ll starve before he produces anything edible,” I said.

  Ethel poured us more sherry.

  “Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe that ashtray squashed
all the good brain cells,” she said with a grin.

  “Look, Ethel. It would make Rosencrantz and Daniel, and Meryl and Tony… and me very happy if you’d come for Christmas tomorrow.”

  “Tomorrow? I’m coming tonight! I ain’t gonna get on a bus tomorrow.”

  “What?”

  “I always stay up your place on Christmas Eve, Coco. It’s tradition!”

  “So you were coming all along?” I said.

  “Course I was love, and now you’re here, you can give me a lift.”

  Before I could say any more, Ethel bolted upstairs and returned with her suitcase and a Tesco bag full of wrapped presents. I’d been lured over as a bloody taxi!

  As we crossed the river, the fairy lights on Chelsea Bridge shifted and clattered in the breeze. I drove slowly along the embankment so we could look at all the houses with Christmas trees in the window. I realised my house was far from looking Christmassy.

  As we approached Piccadilly Circus, it began to snow. At first it was blown across the road like icing sugar, but it quickly began to settle. As we turned the corner by the huge statue of Eros, last-minute shoppers were lugging bags, rugged up against the swirling snow. The Christmas lights were beautiful, and their reflections moved slowly across the windscreen.

  The traffic lights turned red, and a swarm of shoppers spilled off the kerb weaving through the stationary traffic. The huge signs advertising Coca Cola and TDK changed the eddying snow from red to blue and back again.

  “’Ere, Coco love, iss gonna be a white Christmas after all,” said Ethel looking up in wonderment.

  When we got home the house had been transformed. It was warm and clean. A fire was burning, and there was a Christmas tree glittering with lights and decorations.

  “We made ourselves useful,” said Tony, red in the face from whiskey. The peck marks on his head were now turning purple. He hitched up his trousers and gave me a kiss on the cheek.

  “And I made Daddy a crotch!” said Rosencrantz, indicating Daniel standing by the tree with the broom under his arm.

 
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