You may, if you read Rose’s short story at the start of the month, be suspecting that there is a theme to A Toot Hansell Christmas Cracker. And you would be entirely right. Because, for whatever reason, I decided that I should base the stories on The 12 Days of Christmas.
And you may also be thinking, if you’ve ever read my mangled version of a classic, The Writer’s 12 Days of Christmas, that I have a slight fixation on that song.
I promise I don’t. It just somehow seemed like a really good idea at the time, but I will admit right now that I had not considered exactly how many verses are about birds. There are a lot of birds in that song. Which led to some creative interpretations of said birds, as well as to stories like this one, which use a rather different sort of calling to what was probably intended. Maybe. I mean, no one ever specified what the birds were calling about, did they? They could’ve been on the phone, for all we know …
But before I slink off into the tinsel and leave you in the uncertain talons of Gilbert, I just wanted to say happy holidays, lovely people. Or happy December. I’ll be around on social media, but there won’t be any new blog posts until after Christmas, so I hope you have a lovely time of it, whether you celebrate or not. I hope you stay safe, and look after yourself and each other, and mark the days as much or as little as you see fit. Most of all I hope you’re being gentle with yourselves, and showing yourselves as much love and kindness as you would anyone else. It’s been a long, difficult and complicated year. Take the time now to remind yourself how wonderful you are.
Four Calling Birds
A Toot Hansell Christmas Story
“Who’s a clever boy, then?” Carlotta asked, scratching the parrot’s head. “Who’s the best birdie in the whole wide world?”
“Bertie is,” the parrot croaked, eyes drifting closed in pleasure. “Bertie’s a clever boy.”
“Yes he is,” Carlotta said, and gave him a slice of carrot. “There you go. Eat up!” She turned back to the kitchen, separated from the rest of the big living and dining room by a squat island covered with drifts of icing sugar and almond crumbs.
Bertie looked at the piece of carrot, then at the ranks of amaretti biscuits lined up on the island, and said in a rather lower voice, “Bollocks.”
Carlotta turned back, frowning. “What was that?”
“Bertie want a biscuit,” the parrot said.
“Oh, you are clever. No biscuits for Bertie, though. Too much sugar for birdies.” She started stacking the biscuits in tins, and the parrot sighed.
He nibbled the carrot without much enthusiasm for a bit, then straightened up and shouted, “Show us what you got!”
Carlotta flapped a tea towel at him. “You just behave yourself!”
He gave a low whistle, dancing on his perch. “Gizza kiss! Show us your baps!”
“Bloody hell, Carly,” Philip said, wandering in with his hands in his pockets. “Is that bird ever going to shut up?”
“I don’t know,” she said, slapping his hand away as he reached for an amaretti and picking a different one to offer him instead. “But your language isn’t helping. And I think he’s still settling in.”
“If you say so,” he said, taking the biscuit and looking from it to the one he’d reached for. “What’s the difference?”
“That one’s a funny shape.”
He stared at it. “It is?”
“Work it, baby!” the parrot squawked, and dropped his carrot.
Philip and Carlotta looked at him. “Where did Toni get him again?” Philip asked.
“He was a rescue.”
Bertie wolf-whistled and bobbed his head.
“From where – a strip club?”
Carlotta slapped his shoulder lightly. “He belonged to someone in Leeds, and apparently he was fine until they started building next to her. She used to let him sit on the porch, and the next thing she knew he’d picked up all these expressions from the builders. She’d have kept him, but she runs a day care, so it was bit inappropriate.”
“Kids probably loved it,” Philip said.
“Ooo-er,” Bertie added.
Philip took a bite of the amaretti, scattering icing sugar all over his jumper. “So why do we have him?”
“Toni couldn’t keep him,” Carlotta said. “Not with Emily. Imagine our granddaughter’s first word being bollocks.”
“Or baps,” Philip said, and she poked him in the side. “What? He could’ve just been asking for a salad roll!”
“Behave,” she said, glancing at the clock. “I’ve got to go. Don’t eat any of the good biscuits!”
“I don’t know how you tell the difference,” he said, inspecting the ranks of sweet-smelling amaretti on the cooling rack, but she was already hurrying out of the room. He selected one at random.
“Tap that booty,” Bertie observed.
Philip looked at him for a moment, checked Carlotta hadn’t come back downstairs, and took a biscuit to the bird. “In honour of an impressive vocabulary,” he said, as the parrot took the offering delicately in his beak.
Bertie swapped the biscuit to his claw. “Thanks, mate,” he said.
Philip stared at him. “What?”
The parrot squawked, and turned his attention to the amaretti. Philip watched him for a moment, then went to put the kettle on. Smart birds, parrots. Not smart enough to actually have a conversation, though. He didn’t think, anyway. He peered out the window over the sink as he waited for the kettle to boil. Three crows were huddled on the bird feeder, shoulders hunched against a fine rain, staring at Bertie. Now, there were some other smart birds. Not as mouthy though, which was probably a good thing.
“Bollocks,” Bertie said, as the biscuit broke and fell to the floor. “Bertie wants his biscuit.”
Philip sighed and went to pick it up.
Gilbert crept through the garden, his scales flushed the muted greens and browns of the winter foliage, such as it was. He hadn’t quite anticipated that the gardens would be so bare, and he was worried he might be leaving some very obvious footprints, despite having fashioned tactical socks out of old scales. These left tracks that, when looked at from the right angle in low light (and if one ignored the tail track running between them, and was feeling imaginative), somewhat resembled hoof prints. Maybe. If the horse in question had a rather unusual gait and was slightly pigeon-toed.
He settled himself under the cover of a hedge, watching the bird through the window. It was a little drab, but most unusual, and he was fairly certain that it wasn’t an English bird, which meant it was not only imprisoned inside, but had been kidnapped from its own country. He couldn’t just ignore that. He’d promised Mortimer there’d be no more turkey liberation operations this year (Amelia kept calling it stealing, but she was both such a tool of the establishment and his sister, so that was only to be expected), but no one had said anything about freeing foreign avian prisoners. For one moment he thought of Mortimer’s shedding tail, and how it tended to get worse when any sort of even mildly revolutionary work was involved, then he pushed the thought away. No. He couldn’t let the risk of Mortimer’s bald patch stop him. This bird needed to be free.
And he’d ask Miriam for some more coconut oil for Mortimer’s tail. That would make up for it, anyway.
The man in the plaid jumper spent forever in the same room as the bird, making tea and a large ham and cheese sandwich (Gilbert’s stomach growled at the idea of cheese, but he ignored it. Such were the privations of a freedom fighter). He ate sitting in a large easy chair with his back to the bird while it puttered from one end of its perch to the other, obviously languishing in boredom and despair. The man watched TV and ate terribly slowly, and before long Gilbert was languishing a little himself. There wasn’t even anything very interesting on the TV that he could see – just a lot of people shouting at each other, and bigger people holding them back now and then when they got too excited. He wondered if there were any more birds in the neighbouring houses he could liberate first, then come back to this one. Or maybe some rabbits being held against their will.
He was almost ready to go and investigate, even though he’d reconnoitred the whole street before deciding the parrot was his primary target (there were some hamsters in a cage a couple of doors over, but they were quite small and the cage was quite big, so he wasn’t sure they really needed rescuing. Plus, the odds of Walter thinking they were afternoon tea were quite high if he took them back to the caverns). But just before he gave up his vigil the man finally got up, switching the TV off. He washed his plate and mug, then wandered out of sight, returned with a heavy jacket on, vanished again, and finally Gilbert heard the slam of the front door.
This was it. He scuttled forward, belly low to the ground, his flanks smeared with mud and stripes daubed across his face. He’d even painted his talons green and brown, and taken his tail piercings out in case the glint of light on them gave him away. He skirted a flower bed, took a quick look around, and dashed across the paved patio to the doors.
The parrot was looking at him with interest, and he waved, trying to smile without showing any teeth. Far too many of those he liberated assumed he was going to eat them, and he would never. He was a vegetarian, as befitted a defender of the equality of all creatures. The parrot lifted a foot in return, so that was something. It complicated the rescue efforts when they panicked and started running about the place screeching. He glanced around again, got up on his haunches, and took some tools from a band around his foreleg. He’d had a particularly helpful dwarf make them up, and it was the work of a moment to open the lock. Magical lock picks work even better than the regular ones they’re modelled on.
“Hey,” he said to the parrot. “Don’t be scared. I’m Gilbert. I’m here to set you free.”
“What?” the parrot said, startling him. The chickens never talked back.
“You talk,” he said.
“So do you,” the parrot said. “What are you, anyway? Some sort of iguana?”
“Okay,” Gilbert said, wondering how this changed things. He’d never had to explain the situation before. “Sure. This is cool. Totally cool.”
“Shut the door,” the parrot said. “It’s cold out.”
“Um,” Gilbert looked out at the garden. “I’m going to rescue you. So the door kind of needs to be open for our getaway.”
“Bollocks to that,” the parrot said. “That’s my door. Shut the damn thing.”
“Look – what’s your name?”
“Okay, Bertie, you’re being held against your will,” Gilbert said. “And I think you may have developed Stockport syndrome.” That wasn’t quite right, but he knew what he meant.
“Stock … pot syndrome?” No, that wasn’t it either. “Look, you’re sympathising with your captors and now want to stay, only you wouldn’t if you were thinking straight.”
“Well, you can get right off,” Bertie said, only it wasn’t quite what he said. Gilbert didn’t recognise the word he used, but he thought it probably wasn’t suitable for young dragons who weren’t even in their sixties yet. “Go on. And shut the bloody door behind you, you scaly little git.”
“But I’m liberating you! I’m the resistance! A lone warrior railing against the terrible forces who would imprison you, howling for the freedom of all—”
“You’re letting the cold in!” Bertie bawled, and Gilbert jumped, stumbling onto the clean, pale wood floor in his muddy hoof-socks.
“Oh no,” he said, looking down.
“Git,” the parrot said, then suddenly straightened up. “Shut the door! Quick, shut the damn door!”
“I won’t let you accept your captivity! I can free you!” Gilbert shouted, and scampered toward the parrot’s perch to cut the little leash on his foot.
“Shut the door!” Bertie shrieked, and from outside came the sudden thunder of a feathered invasion. Gilbert spun around, but the crows were already inside, sweeping past the dragon and the parrot to descend on the trays and tins of biscuits, shrieking in delight. “Get out!” Bertie shouted at them.
“Sod off,” one of the crows shouted back.
“Bollocks!” a second one jeered, and the third chortled, its beak already full of biscuit.
Bertie glared at Gilbert. “Look what you’ve done, you complete numpty!”
“Oh, no,” Gilbert whispered. “This is even worse than the turkeys.”
“Get them out,” Bertie insisted.
“Right,” Gilbert said, and approached the crows. Icing sugar hung in a cloud around the kitchen island, accompanied by a few feathers. He was still trailing mud everywhere, but that seemed rather less important than it had a moment ago. “Right, you lot,” he said, trying to sound authoritative. “You have to leave. You can’t be in here.”
The biggest crow looked at him, put its head on one side, and said, “Crow wants a biscuit.”
Gilbert stared at him, then at Bertie, who said something that was definitely unrepeatable. Gilbert had never actually been spoken to by a bird before, and now there were four of them, and they were all kind of rude. This was getting weird.
“Gizza kiss!” one of the other crows shouted, inexplicably, and the rest of them cawed raucously. Gilbert had the uncomfortable (and, he was fairly sure, accurate) feeling that they were laughing at him.
“You have to leave!” he shouted at them. “This is a rescue mission for a captured foreign avian, and you’re ruining it!”
The crows stopped cawing and just stared at him, which was actually no improvement. “You what?” one said.
“You’re going to ruin the mission,” he said, feeling his camouflaged scales draining of colour as a panicked lump rose in his throat. “You’re endangering the movement!”
The crows stared at him for a moment, then one said, “Nice tail,” and the rest cawed in delight.
“Get out!” Gilbert yelled, wondering if he dared try singeing them. But that really went against his non-violent values.
The birds looked at each other, then the largest one said, “Nah,” and they turned their attention back to the biscuits, cawing around mouthfuls of sugary almond goodness and shouting something about baps.
“Cease and desist!” Gilbert shouted. “Stand down! Um … Look, just stop, okay?”
They didn’t even look up, and Bertie shook his head, covering his beak with one claw.
“This is painful,” he said, and just as Gilbert decided he was going to have to free Bertie and make a run for it, leaving the crows to their rampage, Carlotta walked into the kitchen.
“Uh-oh,” Bertie said.
“What the hell is going on?” she screamed, dropping her bag on the floor. The crows launched themselves off the biscuits, scattering crumbs and icing sugar and feathers everywhere. “Philip! Did you leave the bloody door open? I swear to God—”
“Nice buns!” one of the crows screeched.
“Work it, baby!” another yelled, swooping low over Carlotta’s head.
“You!” she roared, and Gilbert cowered on the floor, but she was pointing at Bertie. “You taught them this!”
“Me?” Bertie said, leaning back on his perch.
Gilbert considered the situation, then dived out the door under the cover of the crows, who, crazed on sugar and the delights of home invasion, were swooping around the big open plan room, gleefully screaming expressions he was pretty sure he shouldn’t learn.
“Hey!” Bertie yelled after him. “Get your scaly—” he stopped, looking at Carlotta. “Bertie want a biscuit,” he said weakly.
“You’ll get a feather duster!” she shouted at him, grabbing a tea towel and giving chase to the crows. “I’ll turn you into one myself, you obscene, flea-ridden excuse for a bird!”
“Harsh,” Bertie muttered, and glared out the door at Gilbert, who was lingering on the edge of the patio, camouflaged among the shrubbery. Gilbert gave a guilty little shrug. One had to expect some setbacks. Not every mission could go smoothly. He just wished it hadn’t been Carlotta’s house it had gone so very un-smoothly in. She always gave him extra mince pies before Mortimer could eat them all.
However, one had to consider the integrity of the overall movement, not just the individual mission. He slipped away into the fading afternoon, keeping to the grey shadows of the walls and looking for more victims of captivity.
He’d make her a special tree topper. That should fix things.
Behind him, a crow shrieked, “Show us your baps, love!” and Carlotta gave a war cry that set the crows screaming and him running a little faster. He might make that a tree topper, some baubles, and maybe some of the new jewellery he’d been working on.
Just in case.
Lovely people, may your festive season by untroubled by well-intentioned dragons and foul-mouthed birds! Or only troubled in the less destructive ways, anyway.
And should you wish to grab a copy of A Toot Hansell Christmas Cracker in ebook or paperback, you can do that all your favourite retailers.
Take care of you!