“It’s the new neighbours,” Carol said, draining her G&T and tossing her head in the direction of the Old Rectory. “Competition,” Noel nodded. His jaw – perceptible perhaps only to his wife – took on that set of determination that still gave Carol a little flutter in the abdomen.
Competition wasn’t welcome. In the eight years that they had lived in Little Finching, the Blythes had established themselves, quietly but firmly, as the area’s top ticket socially. Their Christmas parties, in particular, were a local legend. The whole village came to pay tribute to their exquisite good taste and generosity, to knock back their vintage ’poo, get groggy on their mulled wine and marvel at the buttery shortness of the pastry on their abundant mince pies. The Blythes always had the biggest Christmas tree, the most tasteful baubles and the largest collection of hand-cloved pomanders in le tout Gloucestershire.
The first whiff of trouble had come when the Christmases moved in next door. They were friendly enough. If anything, too friendly. “Christmas by name, Christmas by nature,” the husband had said that first afternoon in early autumn, standing in their doorway in his golfing sweater, beaming away. “Hahaha! Just my little joke. Call me Derek.”
Carol had looked the man up online. That really was his name: Derek Christmas. Made his pile, so to speak, from Carpet MegaStore and gave more to charity most years than Noel earned – as she established by adding up the numbers on the coffee-table-sized cheques he was photographed handing to various hospitals. Nothing, they discovered as they politely rebuffed his ceaseless invitations to a “drinky-poo” or a “little libation”, seemed to put a dent in his wretched good nature.
More to the point, as the first chill of winter set in, it became clear that the name/nature thing was more than a joke. First there’d been the e-vite: he was mounting a Christmas party – a rival Christmas party! – just the day after theirs. Everyone was invited. And then, just a couple of days into December, the first decoration appeared.
“A nose!” Noel had exclaimed, appalled, as he peered through the window. “His house has a nose! A blooming red flashing nose the size of a VW Beetle!” Then came the antlers. Something had to be done.
The Old Rectory grew a colossal flashing Father Christmas; the Blythes responded with a subtly lit nativity scene with life-sized figures carved from artfully distressed driftwood. The Old Rectory blazed with electric fluorescence; the Blythes started doing everything by candlelight.
“Wassailers,” Carol said as the big day drew nearer and the festive fandangles next door grew in every imaginable way louder. “We need some proper wassailers out front, jolly well wassailing.”
Wassailers were duly hired. And when all 10 were in full voice, they nearly drowned out the sound of Wizzard drifting over from the speakers in the Old Rectory’s full-sized sleigh.
Then, of course, there were the trees. The Old Rectory’s – on the front lawn – was so enormous that a cherrypicker had to be hired to position the child-sized angel on the top. The Blythes had theirs indoors, against the double-height glass doors they’d put in during the conversion, festooned with authentic Victorian paper bunting and illuminated by no fewer than 120 real candles.
Looking back, of course, the paper bunting/candle conjunction should have rung some alarm bells. But then again, alarm bells were exactly what it did ring. The revolving blue lights of the fire engines made a pretty Christmas Eve addition, had anyone been in a mood to appreciate it, to the man-made aurora borealis from next door.
And so it was that bedraggled, defeated and temporarily homeless – the fire had taken out the ground floor and most of the mezzanine level – the Blythes accepted their neighbours’ earnest injunction to join them for Christmas Day.
“You a leg or breast man?” Derek asked, gunning his electric carving knife. “Hahahaha!”
Noel – was that a tear in his eye? – looked benignly into the middle distance and raised his tumbler of eggnog.
“God bless us,” he said. “God bless us every one.”