I was getting nowhere fast with my article on the film soundtracks of Frank Skinner, so I thought I’d pop over to Colin’s, grab a beer with him and talk some football. When I got there, I found him reading an ad in his favourite paper, seems like they were giving away free Christmas trees. He seemed to be mulling it over. It was part of the Laura Ashley Winter Collection.
“Is it a costume?” I asked.
“No, it’s a genuine tree,” Colin replied. “Norwegian spruce.”
Carol came in from the kitchen, she was baking something out there, it smelt damn good, some kind of chicken tart, I pecked her on the cheek. She’s a Catholic, Carol, and rumour has it that her birth had been a tricky one. They thought they would lose her. They’d had to baptize her inside the womb but the priest who was called in hadn’t accepted the Resolution of the Doctors of Sorbonne (1733), which states that you can simply inject some holy water up inside the womb in case of possible miscarriage, so Carol’s mum’s midwife had had to fish around up there until she had caught hold of a limb. It was Carol’s left hand that was grabbed and subesequently baptized, and that’s maybe why she’s so good in the kichen.
“It says here,” Colin continued, “that the trees will be dispatched between December the sixth and the fifteenth.”
“Does that mean cut down or sent off?” I queried.
“That’s what I’m wondering,” Colin said. “It says they will arrive at your home neatly packaged in a sturdy box by December the nineteenth.”
“Well, that sounds alright.”
“Yeah, but there’s a footnote: After that date please call the delivery line during office hours with any queries relating to the delivery of your free tree.”
“But how can you do that if you’ve already got it?”
“It’s that bit that’s got me worried.”
“Hang on a minute,” I said. “How can it be a free tree if you have to pay for it?”
I’d just noticed those old runic symbols you’re supposed to fill out with your Visa/Access card number. It’s nice to know the Celts were good for something.
“It’s just the postage you have to pay for,” Carol put in.
So, it was her scheme, this Laura Ashley free tree. I’d bought Colin a DVD, The Osterman Weekend, for Christmas and I’d be damned if I was going to put that early Rutger Hauer classic under some Laura Ashley number.
“How much?” I asked.
“Four quid,” Colin replied.
“Three ninety-nine,” Carol put in.
“And what’s this then,” I had taken over the paper by this time, the printer’s ink besmirching my nice clean hands. “Token number fourteen?”
“Yeah, well you have to collect twelve tokens as well,” Colin said.
“Don’t tell me you’re buying this rag every day? I thought you just got it on the weekends?”
“It’s a good offer!” Carol exclaimed.
“Jesus!” I said. “This misbegotten excuse for a newspaper costs thirty-five p!”
Then I started to calculate: twelve tokens at thirty-five pence each made, hang on a sec, four pounds twenty plus four pounds for postage.
“That’s eight pounds and twenty pence you’re forking out for that free tree,” I said.
“Eight pounds and nineteen pence,” Carol corrected. “And besides our Col can keep up with the football results, can’t you Col.”
“And all that clipping out,” I said, my hand mimicking a pair of scissors. “Why you can get a good tree on the corner for twelve quid, and he’d probably throw in some ferns for nothing.”
“What about United losing to Sunderland in the Worthington Cup,” Colin said, shaking his head as though he had the football blues, as though he really cared about that second-rate competition; talk of desperately trying to change the subject.
“I’m not putting my Christmas present under no Laura Ashley tree,” I said, “and that’s final!”
“I’m in the kitchen if you want me, our Col,” Carol said, slamming the door hard behind her. It creaked back open again, they’d never got the hinges fixed since she’d thrown her last fit.
“Now look what you’ve gone and done,” Colin said. “If I end up having to eat burnt pie because of you …”
“Supposing that tree doesn’t arrive,” I said, getting back to the subject in hand. “You’re going to look a right unmanned berk when Carol’s parents come over on Christmas Eve, aren’t you? You should buy a tree on the corner, that’s what you should do, I’ll help you carry it.”
He ummed and arrhed a bit but there was no moving the bugger. He could be as stubborn as a mule when he was under Carol’s yoke.
Two days later Colin rang my bell. My flats up on the second floor. I buzzed him in. It took him a surprisingly long time to get up those stairs. He had a black eye and was trailing an eight-foot tree.
“Jesus!” I said. “Whatever happened to you?”
“A combination of three things,” he began. “One, your lame-brained advice; two, my own inconceivable stupidy for following it; and, three, a boxing glove Carol brought for our Darren.”
Darren was Colin’s nephew. I saw, once again, in my mind’s eye, Carol’s premature, baby-sized left hand being baptized. The priest must have done a damn good job.
“Well, don’t just stand there! You better come in.”
I went into the kitchen and got us a couple of Sol beers from the fridge.
“I’ve only got the Mexicans left.” I said, “Merry Christmas!”
Colin sat down heavily on the sofa, I eased myself into an armchair. The tree lay between us, it had nice brown markings on the trunk. The genuine article. Colin looked up at me slowly.
“Decorations not included,” he said.