At 4347 words the latest NaNoWriMo novel is making progress. Of course by the end of today I should be on 8335 to stay on target but I feel like I’ve hit a decent pace, at a little over 2000 words a session. I finished chapter one late last night so here is the rest of it, it follows straight on from the previous excerpt…
“Greetings.” the stranger replied. His form was wreathed by the smoke from his own cigarette but he appeared to be a man of medium build wearing a dark suit and black overcoat. His face was shrouded in darkness and I could make little of it though I guessed him to be of a similar age to me or slightly older.
“Hi, ah, are you here for the service? It doesn’t start until eleven.” I said getting level with the pew he was sat in.
“I’m two hours early then. Is there anywhere I can get something to eat?” He asked, without even glancing at his watch to check the time.
“Certainly,” the season of goodwill and my Christian charity came to the fore, if he was a visitor in town and intended to join us for the midnight mass then, I decided, all good courtesy should be extended to him. “The rest of the choir are round the corner at the Skinners for a bite to eat, you’d be more than welcome to join us. I’m just heading along.” I gestured towards the west door with my arm.
“Well that’s very kind of you.” He rose from his seat and started to edge his way along the pew. “You sing in the choir?”
“When I’m here, I only visit occasionally these days. I’m Pete.” I said, swapping the folder and carol book to my other arm so I could extend my right hand towards him.
“Well Peter, you can call me Bel.” The man said, putting his cigarette into his mouth and grasping my hand. It felt cold but his grip was firm and I felt my hand tingle slightly, as I looked down at it he released it and picked the smoking ember from his mouth again. “Lead on, Pete!” I smiled at him and led him to the large wooden west door, turned the iron circlet handle and heaved it open, a blast of icy air washed past me causing me to shiver. I quickly fumbled my zip up and dug in my pocket for my gloves, standing back to allow Bel out ahead of me. He stepped past and stood in the porch, breathing in a draft of the cold night air noisily through his nose. “Mm,” he said “Cold but refreshing.”
“Indeed!” I said, finishing with my gloves and pulling the door closed behind me, cutting the volume of Mr. Stephen’s organ practice from within. “This way,” I said coming down the steps of the porch and onto the wide paved path between the churches gardens to the street. Bel fell into step beside me as I strode quickly along to try and remain warm in the bitingly cold night. It was Christmas Eve and the sky was almost cloudless, a waxing moon hung low overhead filling the church garden with a pale blue light, I could see Orion striding across the sky above and Sirius twinkling like a diamond tipped laser at the end of it’s leash.
We walked through the gate at the end of the path out onto the street and turned right to head towards the Skinner’s house. They’d been putting on a buffet meal and drinks for choir members, and hangers-on, between the rehearsal and midnight mass service for as long as I could remember, all of these little traditions were a great comfort to me and were as much a part of Christmas as opening presents or having a large turkey meal. Bel discarded his spent cigarette into the gutter and pulled a battered looking red packet out of his coat pocket, pulled a fresh one from it and placed it between his lips. He fished in the other pocket for a moment and pulled out a silver Zippo lighter which he flicked open and lit with one fluid motion of his left hand before bringing the orange flame to the end of the white stick.
“Ah, that’s better.” He said as he took a draw while flicking the lighter shut and depositing it back in the folds of his coat. “So, tell me Pete, is it going to be a good service tonight?” He looked over at me and raised an eyebrow, his face was still slightly obscured by smoke but in the orange street lamp’s light I thought him older than I at first had imagined, maybe in his early forties. His eyes, certainly, seemed to be dark and care lines creased their edges. His hair was raven black with flecks of silver, swept back and with a slight wave it reached almost to his shoulders behind him.
“Yes, we’re doing a lovely piece by Gardner which is great fun as well as the usual round up of old favourites. Are you from out of town?” I decided to start gently probing the man, conscious that I would have to introduce him at the Skinners when we arrived there in a couple of minutes time.
“Out of town? Yes, yes. Quite far out of town really, though I’ve been here before. At Saint Silas.” He jabbed a thumb backwards towards the church which did indeed bear that name.
“Really? When was that?” I asked as we rounded the corner onto the street the Skinners lived on.
“I’m older than I look, Pete, it was before you were born!” I looked round at him again and supposed that if he visited in his early twenties, or earlier, then perhaps that was indeed possible.
“Well, you’re welcome back, I’m sure.” I told him, “And here we are.” I pointed at the gate to a house across the street. Every window was lit, streaming warm electric light out into the bitter night and the noise of conversation and bouts of laughter from voices old and young could be heard emanating even from here.
“A truly homely house.” Commented Bel as he tossed his latest cigarette end ahead of him and crushed it under foot, without breaking his stride, as we crossed the street.
“Yes. Er.” I wasn’t quite sure how to broach the subject of his smoking, while the Skinners would welcome him with open arms they were very likely to disapprove of him smoking in the house. Rumour had it that they had expelled the previous church rector to the back garden to enjoy his burnt oblation (as he was fond of referring to them) when they had him round to dinner and he lit up at the table over liqueurs. “There are a couple of other smokers in the choir,” I said, “You’ll find them out the back door once we’re in. The Skinners are lovely but…”
Before I could finish my sentence, and just as we were approaching the front door itself, Bel slapped me on the back and said “No problem, Pete, I quite understand.” and reached out to ring the bell.
Mrs. Skinner appeared at the door a moment later. “Pete!” she exclaimed “About time, come in, come in!” she waved us both in and pushed the door shut behind Bel. The sounds of the party washed over us and the smells of Mrs. Skinner’s fine cooking permeated the hallway making me salivate. “Coats there. Food there. Drinks here.” She said, pointing first at a row of pegs along the hall wall, then into the adjoining living room and lastly at herself. “What would you like? We have everything.” This was her standard drinks invitation and it was very nearly true, the Skinners could be trusted to be able to produce almost any concoction you had every heard of.
“I’ll have a red wine, please, and a…” I looked around at Bel who supplied:
“Single malt.” I repeated, I started the sentence “This is Bel.” But barely got through the first syllable when Mrs. Skinner cut me off.
�Red wine and a single malt, no problem � coming up. You can find everything else yourself? Good good!� Not stopping to hear any further reply she bustled off in the direction of the drinks cabinet (a labyrinthine affair that covered the entirety of one wall in the sitting room and was rumoured to only hold the merest fraction of the couple�s true collection), I heard her apologising to someone as she bumped into them but her voice was quickly sublimated by the general babble of conversation.
I turned to Bel and smiled �Well, that was Mrs. Skinner!� I said by way of half an introduction. �Food�s this way, c�mon.� His expression seemed bemused and now we were in brighter light I saw that his complexion was olive and Mediterranean of perhaps even North African. I led the way into living room in the opposite direction from where Mrs. Skinner had gone and nodded a few �Hello-s� and �Yes we got that pipe fixed-s� to the others already assembled but pretty much made a bee line for the cornucopia of food that was laid out. The vultures had already struck, obviously, I was a good three quarters of an hour later arriving than the rest of the crowd, but Mrs. Skinner aways believed in being over prepared. �Help yourself!� I said to Bel over my shoulder as I picked up a plate and started scooping liberal helpings of potato salad onto it. �As the old saying goes: �stretch or starve�!�.
I didn�t hear his reply as Mrs. Skinner appeared beside me at that moment with a glass of red wine and a glass whisky, both were generous measures to say the least. I dropped my plate onto the table and reached out for them. �Aha! Thank you very much, Mrs. S!�
�You�re quite welcome, though I hope you�ll be sober enough to sing later, Pete.� She finished her sentence with a hiccup.
�I will be if you are.� I dead panned; she smiled stifling another hic and made off in the direction of the kitchen. Her energy at these parties was also a thing of some legend. I turned to Bel and passed him the glass of whisky. �You�re good health and Merry Christmas!� I said to him, raising my own glass.
�And yours, Peter.� He replied raising his glass towards mine. His voice was quiet and sullen though I heard it very clearly over the hubbub of the party going on around me. �I�m going to join the other smokers, see you later.� And with that he walked past me and off towards the kitchen and the back door. I shrugged and decided that whoever he met out there would be perfectly capable of entertaining him and so returned to the job of filling my plate with a view to sustaining myself through the coming festival service.
I must admit that I lost track of Bel at that point, I became involved with a conversation Penny Andrews, a woman two years my junior whom I had always harboured a not-too-secret desire, she too had moved to the city recently and to my shame I had not sought her out but before we headed en-masse back to the church we had exchanged mobile numbers and I felt as if my Christmas was already complete. I also had to contend with and deflect more praise from Mr. Stephens when he arrived half an hour later to make his customary fast dash around the remaining food.
As I had promised the cigarette smoking stranger, the service was excellent, and I was happily humming �O come all ye faithful� all the way home in the back of my parent�s car with my younger sibling, Sarah. It was only as we left the car and went inside to enjoy some mince pies and another drink before bed that I realised that I had not seen Bel at all since he left me to go and have a cigarette and felt suddenly guilty for neglecting to check that my charge had been enjoying himself.
I did not think of him at all the next day � the extended family all descended upon my parent�s house for dinner, which was excellent as ever, and the day finished with some drunken carolling around the piano, I shudder to think what any recording of our efforts might sound like but it was certainly fun there are enough musicians in the family to muster four parts and a pianist.
I spent boxing day rather recovering from the exertions of the previous day. All right, I was hung over and did not escape the comfort of the duvet in my childhood bedroom until past noon. I had lunch with my parents, elder brother Henry, and sister before we each headed our separate ways. I on the train back to Glasgow, Sarah back to Reading and Henry taking a late flight back to London, leaving my parents in peace in the empty nest.
The night of the thirtieth of December, a day before Hogmanay as I was clearing up my flat in anticipation of a party I had decided to throw the following day and, heart fluttering, had sent a text message invite to the lovely Penny, I found the old folder from the organ loft. Looking back I wonder just how much the contents of that folder changed my life but it was already set on this path before I opened it to read the contents.