Harvey lumbered through the door with the elegance of his full weight. He dropped the small case on the kitchen table where Jud already sat.
- You gonna cheat this year as usual?
Harvey looked offended.
- What do you mean as usual? I never cheat when I don’t have to. Besides that you’ll never catch me. I’m good.
- I reckon I caught you last year.
- I didn’t cheat last year.
- When I got up to make the tea. You shifted things around a bit. I was in a worse state when I got back.
- Vivid imagination. You just had a shocker that’s all.
As Harvey took his seat and opened the case Jud rose and went to the stove to put the jug on.
- I’ll only brew between games this year.
- Good plan. Less paranoia that way.
Jud plugged the half full jug in and picked up a box to offer Harvey.
- Christmas tart?
- They’re not tarts. They’re mince pies.
- No I was asking you if you were a Christmas tart.
They both laughed heartily.
The four-wheel drive lurched from side to side as it negotiated the uneven ridges of the track through the trees. The branches overhanging the track scrapped and clattered on the roof and bonnet as the car surged on. Davey swung from side to side in his seat riding the ridges with the car and leaning into the on-coming corners. He slowed as he approached ford and eased the nose into the water gently. The car sat high but he didn’t want to cause a large wake and test the seals unduly. The bottom was flat and the water made a pleasing hiss as it parted and flowed either side of the passing vehicle. Climbing out the other side the track disappeared into trees again. The sun flickered through the leaves and branches and danced on the dash in front of him. He was starting to feel it was his Christmas again.
A final rise in the tack and the car burst out of the trees and the river lay before him. It was almost as he remembered it. Clear, gently flowing, bathed in early morning sun. He stopped the car and quickly surveyed the banks. Up and back on both sides and once more to be sure. Not a sole to be seen anywhere. This was his river again this Christmas.
Opening the glove box he took out the tobacco packet and papers. As he carefully rolled his smoke he could feel the speed of his heart settling quietly into the peace of the occasion. The smoke went to a grinning mouth and waited on its flame.
Chester sat diligently on the end of the couch with a plate of cut ham and savouries on his lap. His knees were forced together by the other three people who had made the couch their own too. There was a general hum of polite conversation in the crowded room. Everyone seemed to know each other or so it seemed to Chester. The other couch dwellers were all from the same family and each seemed to take it in turns to smile at Chester between sharing common memories with each other. There were a group of children who didn’t seem to be eating and continued to run through the room, chasing each other with various plastic weapons and shouts.
Chester tried to operate his knife and fork with his elbows tucked into his sides to avoid disturbing the young woman next to him. She in return seemed to lack his inhibitions and worked with elbows flying as if he wasn’t even there. She twice knocked food off his folk and once sauce from the savoury splashed his jersey, staining it enough to make him wonder just how noticeable it was to others.
Mrs McQuillan came over to the couch with a plate in one hand and a glass of wine in the other.
- Got everything you need Mr Clark?
- Oh yes thankyou. Marvellous.
- Make sure you help yourself to more. It’s all got to be eaten.
- I’m doing fine thanks.
Mrs McQuillan smiled even wider and put down her glass so she could lay a hand of Chester’s knee. He wanted to recoil but there was no room and it would be impolite anyway. He chose to fix a grin on his face and nod rapidly at anything that was to follow. Mrs McQuillan knelt down and leaned in towards him more.
- Charles and I are so glad you were able to join us. We really couldn’t bear the thought of you all alone in that flat for Christmas. It was just unthinkable. We hope you’ll come every year and be part of our extended yuletide family. You’ll find we’re all a happy bunch to be around and soon you’ll get to know the others. The Jansens here come every year. Have done for about six years now.
The others on the couch all nodded with smiles and full mouths then went straight back to their plates.
- So let me know if there is anything I can get you. Charles says he doesn’t mind dropping you off later so don’t you worry about getting home.
Chester was worried that his smile and nodding was failing to conceal the nervous sweat breaking out on his forehead. Mrs McQuillan gave an extra pat on his knee, another bulbous smile and retreated to the food-laden table and other guests. Chester let go an inner sigh and tried to slow his breathing down without making it too obvious to those around him.
- God help me, he thought.