Does anyone else feel that January 1st, 2020, was about three years ago? Possibly more? It definitely seems that way to me. I mean, January. Can I even remember January?
Hang on. Um. No?
Eh. It’s been a most odd year, and it very much feels that we’ve all sort of been getting through it the best way we can, collecting face masks and hand sanitiser, becoming emotionally attached to sourdough starters, and wondering if we’ll have any social skills left at all by the end of this (not that I had so many to begin with), all while looking a lot like that Vincent Vega gif from Pulp Fiction. Or that’s how it’s been for me, anyway, and the fact that we’re actually in the last month of the year has yet to sink in. It feels very much like the rest of the year, really, just with more lights.
And even though 2020’s been approximately 1,267 days long, December has still crept up on me with its sneaky tinsel feet. I haven’t done Christmas cards. The decorations are only down from the loft because I was using them for photos. The tree’s still in the loft, because apparently bringing both down didn’t even cross my mind last week, because it was ages till I’d actually decorate (which is probably accurate, to be fair. I don’t even have plans to decorate yet. I’ll probably remember around the 20th). I certainly haven’t given much thought to presents.
However. One thing I have given thought to is Toot Hansell. Because if I’m going to be thinking about festive carryings-on, I fully intend them to be complicated by dragons and well-catered with baked goods.
So here’s the first story from the upcoming A Toot Hansell Christmas Cracker, which will be out very soon!
Well, before Christmas, anyway. I did say December sneaked up on me all creepy-like, remember?
Edit: As this is, of course, a blog from the end of 2020, A Toot Hansell Christmas Cracker is out at all your favourite retailers – and you can get your copy in paperback or ebook here!
A Partridge in a Pear Tree
(A Toot Hansell Christmas Story)
Rose lifted the rum bottle to eye level and scowled at it. Despite such overt intimidation, it remained resolutely empty – or near enough so. There was a teeny bit left, the sort of left behind when one didn’t want to be seen to actually finish the bottle. She grumbled and looked at Angelus, sprawled on the stone floor of the kitchen with his long legs going every which way.
“Who did it?” she asked him. “I bet it was bloody Campbell. Invite him over for a coffee and he stays half the weekend and drinks all my rum.”
Angelus thumped his tail but offered no opinion on the matter. Which, she supposed, was only to be expected. Campbell had brought a new toy in the shape of a Christmas gnome with a squeaker that played “Jingle Bells”. Angelus adored it, and so would not be betraying Campbell. Rose, however, had had to hide the thing in the log store to stop herself throwing it in the fire.
Then again, she admitted to herself as she tipped the dregs of rum into her coffee cup, there was the possibility, however small, that she’d finished it herself. It was the festive season, after all, and what better than a little spiced rum to warm things up?
The festive addition to her coffee was rather pleasant, but it didn’t solve the problem that she had at least another four batches of rum and raisin truffles to make for the winter market, and no rum to make them with. And while rumless truffles might still be acceptable truffles, it rather took the fun out of things. So she put Angelus on his leash, shrugged into her biggest winter coat to guard against the narrow wind scratching at the doors, and headed into town. The Toot Hansell village shop might not exactly stock premium spirits, but it was better than driving all the way to Skipton.
After a brisk jaunt around the village green (avoiding the duck pond, as the geese seemed particularly agitated at the moment, and the ducks had withdrawn to the grass to splash sulkily in puddles), Rose found herself examining two bottles that contained something that looked like rum. She wasn’t sure how far the resemblance extended, however.
“What’s ‘rum-inspired’ meant to mean, then?” she asked the shopkeeper, who shrugged. He was wearing a green jumper with red baubles knitted into it that had seen far too many Christmases.
“I suppose it means that they’ve taken inspiration from rums around the world in order to create an ultimate rum blend,” he said.
“I don’t want an ultimate rum blend. I just want rum. For truffles,” she clarified, in case he thought she was having a party and tried to get himself invited.
“That one’s rum,” he said, pointing a greasy finger at the other bottle. Rose could still smell the bacon butty he must’ve had for breakfast. She examined the second bottle more closely.
“It’s rom,” she said. “With an O.”
They looked at each other for a moment, then the shopkeeper shrugged again and said, “You could just go to Skipton.”
“Ugh.” Rose examined the bottles and sighed. “No, these will just have to do. I’ll take them both.”
“Really?” he asked, then corrected himself. “I mean, of course. That’ll be fifty quid.”
Rose just looked at him.
“Forty,” he offered.
She tapped her gloved fingers on the counter, and he groaned.
“Thirty-five,” he said. “And only because you’re taking both.”
“Daylight robbery,” she announced. “I bet you paid about two quid a bottle for them.” But she bought them anyway. She couldn’t make truffles without rum. And one of them would have to be palatable. She hoped.
The mysterious rum-inspired blend made her eyes twitch, and the rom made them water, but having sampled both of them Rose concluded that no one was really that likely to complain about it. Not once the alcohol was soaked into dried fruit and balanced with dark chocolate and coconut and biscuit. And with a couple of weeks still to go before the market, it gave the flavours plenty of time to mellow. So she stirred a little of each rum into a new batch of chopped raisins, then went back to the mix she’d made earlier and left to rest in the fridge, forming spoonfuls into neat, tight balls before rolling them in more coconut and placing them in haphazard ranks on trays to firm up properly. Her fridge was too full to keep them in there, but the old porch with its leaking window frames was more than cold enough to do the trick. She’d pop them in jars tomorrow, and replace them with the next batch.
She bounced happily to the radio as she worked, a small woman with white hair and skinny, slightly knobbly wrists, and Angelus snored by the rickety cooker, and outside the wind blew but inside all was warm and filled with scent.
Rose hadn’t intended to fall asleep on the sofa, but it appeared the rum-inspired-rom mix was rather stronger than she’d anticipated. That, and the rather inexplicable urge to nap that had started to overcome her sometime around her eightieth birthday. It was ridiculous. All she’d been doing was cooking, for heaven’s sake. She sat up, yawning, pottered through to the kitchen with Angelus trailing her faithfully, and peered into the garden. The early winter dusk had already settled, rendering the bushes dull and the trees skeletal, and everything was painted in shades of cold grey.
She needed logs for the fire, so she pulled her jacket on, still half-asleep, and wandered through the porch to grab the wheelbarrow resting against the wall outside and head down the garden to the log store. A sharp, stinging drizzle had started, and it peppered her cheeks, making her blink and gasp, shaking off the last of the sleepiness. Angelus tore off around the garden as if he’d never seen it before, and she stopped to watch him, smiling as he took a rose bush for a mortal enemy and barked at it hysterically. Then he spotted something else and went to roll in it, and she had to abandon the wheelbarrow, running down the garden and shouting at him to stop. That was the last thing she needed – having to wash fox poo off a Great Dane just before dinner. Angelus saw her coming, yelped, and took off again, his legs flailing and slipping on the wet ground, and she stopped, shaking a finger at him.
“No rolling! No rolling, Angelus!”
A whuff answered her from somewhere in the veggie garden, and she gave up, returning to the wheelbarrow and carrying on to the log store. She half-filled the barrow, careful not to dislodge the hidden chew toy and set off a squawky chorus of Jingle Bells, then carted the logs back to the house, shouting for Angelus as she went.
She was carrying the first load of logs into the house when she stopped in the porch, staring at the trays of truffles. She hadn’t exactly had them in military rows, but now there seemed to be gaps, as if someone had grabbed them up in great handfuls. She dumped the logs, shaking the trays to spread out the truffles and counting rapidly, trying to remember how many she usually got out of each batch. More than this. Definitely more than this.
“Angelus!” she shouted, the word catching in her throat. “Angelus, come here!” But he’d been inside. The door had been shut when she woke up. He couldn’t have— “Angelus!” She almost screamed his name, and then he was there, beaded with rain, tail wagging gently as he stared at her.
“Did you?” she demanded, pointing at the trays. “Did you eat them?”
He cocked his head at her, and she grabbed his collar, dragging him into the house and away from the truffles, searching for her phone. Her heart was going far too fast for comfort.
The vet was still open, and Rose made the twenty-minute drive in under fifteen. She piled into the reception area dragging a reluctant, whining Angelus behind her, and was halfway to the desk before he decided he wasn’t having any of it. He braced his feet on the doormat, trying to pull away, and Rose’s boots slipped on the slick flooring. She yelped, and a man sitting in the plastic reception chairs leaped up to help her pull the Great Dane in. The cat hunched in the carrier next to his seat spat at all of them, then yawned.
“He’s eaten chocolate,” Rose told the veterinary nurse at the counter. “Or I think he has. Also rum. And raisins.”
“Jesus,” the man said, and the cat made a sound that was oddly like a snicker.
Rose gave them both a cold look. “Rum and raisin truffles. They were outside, but some are missing.”
“Was he outside?” the veterinary nurse asked.
“No,” Rose admitted. “But I don’t think anything else could’ve taken them.”
“Alright,” he said. “Let’s get you checked out.”
For a moment Rose thought the nurse was talking to her rather than Angelus, and was about to say she hoped he wasn’t referring to her age, then he came out from behind the counter and led her into the treatment rooms.
Rose was almost certain she heard the cat say, “Jumping the damn queue. Typical bloody dogs.”
It was almost dinnertime when they got home, a rather subdued Angelus following Rose into the house. After working out how heavy the Great Dane was, and with some guesswork on Rose’s part regarding how many truffles were missing, the vet had decided it was unlikely, even if he had eaten any, that it was enough to do serious harm. But, just to be on the safe side, they’d sat there in the reception area until the vet went home, waiting to see if Angelus took a turn for the worse. He didn’t, though. He just split his time between trying to sneak the jar of dog treats off the counter and stealing toys off the display.
Now she emptied a tin of food into his bowl and frowned at him while he wolfed it. “You certainly don’t seem poorly,” she said. He ignored her, except for wagging his tail a little harder, and she sighed. Maybe she’d overreacted. Maybe he hadn’t eaten any of the truffles, and she’d just thought he had. Maybe she hadn’t actually made as many as she’d thought, or she’d dropped some, or even eaten them herself.
She rubbed her forehead, and took her glasses off to polish them. She’d lost her keys for three days last week, and Miriam had eventually found them in a jar of chutney. And she’d found a gardening glove in a loaf of bread she’d baked the week before that, which she was still mystified by. She wasn’t sure how worried she should be about these things. A little dottiness was to be expected, but was this too much? Was there some sort of official scale for these things, from harmless eccentricity to “call the care home”? Did she even want to know if there was?
She put her glasses back on and went to bring the truffles in. She may as well put them away before she scared herself again. And got another hefty vet’s bill.
The light from the kitchen door washed through the porch, catching the spiderwebs in the corners and her muddy boots huddled under the bench. The wheelbarrow still sat outside, and logs were spilled over the floor where she’d dropped them. She’d have to get those in, too. But truffles first. She blinked, and stepped into the porch, staring down at the trays, then went back to look in the kitchen. Angelus was chasing his bowl across the floor, apparently convinced that if he licked it enough, more food would materialise. Rose turned back to the trays. They were empty but for a light coating of abandon coconut.
“Oh,” she said, and started picking the wood up instead. They had been nearly full when she went to the vet. They had. She was sure of it.
Rose lay in the dark, staring up at the ceiling, ignoring Angelus’ snores from the side of the bed. The trays had been full, then a few had gone, then while she was at the vet the rest had gone. She wasn’t confused about it. She hadn’t forgotten. Or she didn’t think she had.
She sat up with a sigh and swung her feet off the bed, grabbing the big poncho she used as a dressing gown and padding downstairs barefoot. Angelus didn’t even move. Some guard dog he was. In the kitchen, she put the kettle on and fished the tea out of the cupboard, watching her hands as she did so. The fingers were still quick, even if the joints hurt some mornings and the skin was loose and fine over the bones. There was no escaping getting older, she thought. And it was nothing to regret, really, but … she just wished she knew what had happened with the truffles.
Sighing, she set the rom-soaked raisins to drain and pulled the chocolate from the cupboard. No point crying over lost truffles.
By the time Rose sat down for breakfast she’d rolled two more trays of truffles, setting them on the high shelf that ran around the porch (after removing an astonishing amount of spiders, three empty plant pots, and a rather dashing hat she’d liberated from a half-forgotten boyfriend and then lost years ago. It still looked better on her than it had on him). She’d also made neat, handwritten labels for the jars she intended to put the truffles in, including a small but clear warning that these truffles were rather more suited to adults than children, especially if consumed in quantity. The whole kitchen smelled of spice and melted chocolate, and she hummed to herself quietly as she spread marmalade on her toast, Angelus watching her carefully. Robins were congregating on the bird feeder outside, skittish in the thin morning light. They flitted back and forth without wanting to settle, and Rose frowned at them, wondering if there was a cat in the garden, and whether cats were particularly partial to truffles.
And then there was a noise from the porch, small but most certainly not robin-like. It wasn’t all that cat-like, either. In fact, it sounded very much like the creak the bench gave when she sat on it to take her boots off. Angelus looked around, his ears twitching, and Rose slipped off her chair and crept to the door. She curled her fingers around it, then jerked it open with a shout of, “Ha!”
Well, that was the plan, anyway, but that particular door could be sticky, and it didn’t open on the first try, so she just jolted her shoulder and shouted, “Ha!” at the blank back.
“Dammit,” she mumbled, and jiggled the handle until the door opened and she could peer into the porch. The trays of truffles were still balanced on the high shelf, but there were damp footprints on the wooden bench and the grey stone flags of the porch floor. Very distinctive footprints, too.
“Ha,” she said again, with a certain amount of satisfaction (and no small measure of relief because, missing keys aside, this meant she wasn’t dotty, or not about the truffles, anyway). She pulled her boots on, shutting Angelus in the sweet-smelling kitchen, then went to stand at the edge of the porch, the day dawning grey and dull about her as she examined the garden. Her gaze settled on the old pear tree near the veggie patch. It hadn’t given her any pears for years, but it cast a nice bit of shade on the nearby bench in the summer. It seemed a shame to get rid of it just because it wasn’t as productive as it once had been.
Rose put her hands in her pockets and walked down to the pear tree, stopping beneath it to look up into the bare branches.
“Morning,” she said. There was no answer, and she sighed. “I had to take Angelus to the vet. I thought he’d eaten the truffles.”
Heavy eyelids the colour of the scabbed grey bark opened, and milky eyes regarded her. “Is that that monstrous dog of yours? He chased me last night.”
“So he should,” she said. “You ate three trays of truffles. Three!”
The dragon sniffed and said, “I couldn’t reach the others. You put them up too high.”
“You weren’t meant to reach them. They’re not for you.”
“Then why were they outside?”
“To cool off.” Rose frowned at him. “Do get down, Walter. My poor old tree doesn’t need a dragon sitting in it.”
Walter sighed and uncoiled himself, dropping heavily to the ground. His talons tore divots in the wet earth, and he shook himself, scattering rain everywhere. His wings were a bit on the ragged side, and his scales had the patchy, ill-fitting look of a lizard that has lost its tail and grown a new one that doesn’t quite match. Rose wasn’t sure just how old Lord Walter was, but it seemed to her that he wasn’t the sort to go in for ageing gracefully. He sat back on his haunches, scraped a raisin from between his teeth, and said, “Do you have any milk?”
“Milk. There’s usually some to wash things down with. Or brandy. Brandy’d be better. Damn cold out here.”
“There’s usually milk?” Rose asked, wondering if Walter was the one going a bit dotty.
“With the cake. Sometimes biscuits. And carrots, although gods know why. I’m not a bloody rabbit.”
She looked at him for a long moment, then said, “Cake and milk.”
“Yes. Or brandy, as I say. Do you have some?”
“You go around stealing cake and brandy from people’s doorsteps.”
“Sometimes hearths,” he said. “And it’s not stealing. It’s tradition.”
“A Christmas tradition?” she asked.
“Well, it’s older than the whole Christmas thing, but these days, yes.” He shook his scruffy wings out and yawned. “Yours was a bit early, but no complaints here. I normally keep an eye on things from early December. Don’t want anyone leaving stuff out too long and attracting pixies. Damn nuisance, they are.”
“But why would people be leaving cake out for you?” Rose asked.
“I said. It’s tradition. People used to leave offerings for local dragons all the time, but now they only remember around Christmas. Sometimes it’s not till Christmas Eve. It’s just laziness.”
For one moment Rose considered explaining who the milk (or brandy) and mince pies were really left for. But Walter sat there on the drenched grass, scratching one ear with a back paw and dislodging old, dull scales that floated to the ground like crystallised feathers, the folds of his ancient skin hanging from his shoulders and his eyes dim but alive, and she didn’t. Because old things are too often forgotten, too often dismissed, and she couldn’t imagine what it must be to watch your entire kind fade from the world. To see them fall from being feared and respected to become nothing more than myth, relegated to stories for children.
But she did know, a little, what it is to be made small and dim by the passage of time, to fade from the notice of those who value only what’s young and new. And, in her opinion, it was completely unreasonable and not to be stood for.
So she just said, “Haven’t you heard of sharing? What if another dragon came along and wanted some?”
Walter snorted. “They wouldn’t. I’m the only one that bothers to uphold old traditions. I even leave gifts.”
Rose looked around pointedly.
“Well, I don’t have any with me. It’s only the start of December!”
Rose snorted. “Tea?” she said, turning back to the house. “I’ve even got some rum-inspired-rom.”
“What’s that when it’s at home?” Walter asked, following her.
“Strong,” she said.
“Well, that’ll hit the spot. Good for the old joints, you know.”
“I know,” she said, and led the old dragon out of the dreary morning and into the warmth of the kitchen, which smelled of toast and tea and all the small special magics of the world.
Stay tuned for more excerpts all the way through to Christmas, and keep an eye on social media for the release date, once I’m actually organised!
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Rebellious Christmas wreaths.
Mysterious welly-dwelling eggs.
A plague of irate water fowl.
And ten ladies of a certain age who are by no means the least troublesome of Toot Hansell’s residents, as far as Detective Inspector Adams is concerned. She’s entirely certain her training never covered dealing with the Women’s Institute, dragons, or festive magic spills.
Not to mention invisible dogs with caffeine dependencies.
But Christmas is almost here. Things can’t go too wrong … can they?
Well. It is Toot Hansell …
Get some dragons in your Christmas with this collection of twelve short stories from the world of the Beaufort Scales mysteries, plus twelve festive recipes!