I wasn’t ever what you might call a fan of Christmas, it encourages unruly behaviour in my opinion and two weeks off from school is a ridiculous amount of time for children to be away from the classroom. When my own offspring were growing up, I suppose there was a bit of purpose to it. I can still remember the look on my daughter’s face when she unwrapped the slide rule and calculus tables I had bought for her…
Yesterday I was on my way back to the car from a rather frustrating Christmas shopping trip when I was assailed by a familiar voice.
“Xmas Shoe! Get your Xmas Shoe!”
My old nemesis was waving the Christmas edition of the Big Issue at me dressed in a Santa hat.
“Get your Xmas…. Oh…. it’s you!”
“Yes it is. And the word is Christmas – not Xmas. I do so hate that!”
She grinned mischievously at me revealing all three of her teeth.
“All right, your Lordship.”
I was instantly concerned. Surely this old harridan hasn’t seen a copy of the Honours List ahead of me?
“It is the festive season. Goodwill to all men and all that. I’m willing to let bygones be bygones,” she caroled. “Christmas Shoe, get your Christmas Shoe…. That better?”
I opened my mouth to reply, but decided it wasn’t worth it. Instead I pulled a £5 note from my wallet and exchanged it for a copy of the magazine. She fumbled in her pocket, but I shook my head.
“No…. keep the change. As you said, it is the festive season after all.”
There was a wicked glint in her eye as she extracted the most appallingly battered piece of mistletoe imaginable and held it aloft.
“Well in that case, you can have a little kiss instead,” she trilled, puckering up and closing her eyes.
While her eyes were still shut I fled.
I arrived home just as Old Mrs Mort returned from her assertiveness class. This is a worrying new trend, especially as much of her homework seems misdirected at me. Her tutor always gives her a lift back from the community hall and was escorting her up the drive as I locked my car.
“You!” yelled old Mrs Mort at the top of her lungs.
I winced, but felt compelled to turn and face her. “Yes? Can I help you…?”
“Yes. You, Badders, I have something to say to you!”
Oh Lord! Whatever now? Why must she shout? People were peering through windows at me as the tutor egged her on.
“Merry bloody Christmas..!” she hissed vehemently.
The tutor beamed. “Very good, Lucy, but perhaps a little too forceful. Try it without the swearing next time.”
Old Mrs Mort crossed her arms and glared at me for a moment before flouncing off towards her front door.
“What’s the matter with you?” my wife enquired as I walked into the kitchen.
“Old Mrs Mort just wished me a Merry Christmas…”
“It felt like being threatened!”
“Don’t be silly. I think it’s wonderful the way she’s coming out of her shell these days.”
I’m not convinced. Of course I blame Smith. These home edders have a nasty way of winding up public opinion – especially against me. Did you see the MPs handing in those petitions the other week? They practically spat out the name “Bad-Man” when they made their proclamations.
“Never mind all that. I can’t seem to find the right present for you this year.”
“Smellies will do,” she said without lifting her head from her economic science activity.
“I’d intended to get you a new ironing board. A high tech version I heard some children discussing the other day. They said it was small and very desirable.”
“Did they?” she looked up amazed.
“Well, in that awful modern vernacular they use. You know the kind of thing they say. They don’t describe anything as ‘good’. They don’t even use words like ‘cool’ or ‘rad’ anymore. Things they think are good are called ‘fit’. They don’t use words like small either, they say ‘cute’ or ‘twee’.”
My wife put down her spoon for a moment and looked at me thoughtfully.
“Badders, what exactly did you hear them say?”
“I can’t remember the full conversation only that they kept on about this ‘twee, fit board’. They were very impressed because they also described it as ‘twee, fit-plus’! I went and asked about it in the kitchenware section of the Co-op.”
My wife’s shoulders appeared to be shaking. “You asked about a Wii Fit Plus in the Co-op?...”
“Yes. You know I think the lad in there must have some kind of educational disability. He tried to sell me some games console or other.”
“Probably home educated,” she laughed.
“No, he wasn’t, I asked. Very odd…”
I was alone that evening as my wife was helping the Rev. Thomas rehearse the children for the church nativity. I had offered my services, but it seems the Rev. Thomas declined. Apparently they will be using a live lamb and for some reason he didn’t want me anywhere near it. I told him I thought it was high time that whole guinea pig business was dead and buried for good, but he went a funny shade of puce and told me that it was – under the vicarage apple tree.
There was a ring at the doorbell and I hurried to answer it. Outside in the porch were two spotty youths. One was sporting a Santa hat and the other wore some kind of hairband with antlers sprouting out of it. As I opened the door they launched into the most tuneless rendition of a carol I have ever heard.
“Good King Pencil’s lass chucks out,
On the feast of Steven,
When there’s no clay roundabout,
Deep and crispy seasoned.”
A collecting tin was rattled in my face and apart from a loud sniff the youngsters stood in sullen silence.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Carol singing, innit,” the taller lad muttered. He rattled the tin at me again.
“Is it? I hardly think one mangled verse qualifies it as that. Sing another one.”
The two lads looked at each other in horror.
“No, we just sing that one…” the tall one said
“..And then people gives us money..” the second lad finished.
“To go away, presumably!” I stated. “No, that’s not good enough. Sing another one. Go on…”
The two lads looked at each other in confusion before one of them launched half-heartedly into There Is a Green Hill Far Away.
“Stop! That’s not a Christmas carol. It’s sung at Easter.”
The tall lad shrugged. “Same fing…”
“No it most certainly is not! Christ was born at Christmas and he died at Easter.”
“Cor… he din’t live very long did ‘e… How’d he do all them things he done in three months?”
The other lad turned on him, “You ignorant pillock.” He turned apologetically back to me. “Ignore him, he’s fick.”
“Go on then. You tell him why he’s got it wrong,” I instructed.
The smaller lad drew a deep breath and said smugly, “Cos he was a magician, wasn’t he. He dun magic, like that bloke on the telly.”
“What, Merlin? Wicked!”
I shook my head slowly. I didn’t want to ask the obvious question, but it has become second nature these days.
“Are you by any chance, home educated?”
“Home what? Wassat about then?”
“Elective home education is when your parents de-register you from school and undertake your education themselves.”
Both lads became extremely animated.
“WHAT!!! Why didn’t I know about this? And that’s legal is it?”
“Well… actually I…”
“And you say you don’t have to go to school? Sweet!”
“No but you see…”
“Cor, wait till I tell Darren…and Stew… they’ll go mental, man!”
“Yes but you have to understand…”
“Oh wait, wait, what about Sophie! Oh we got to tell Sophie, she’ll love this!”
I felt I was losing control of the conversation somewhat. “And Sophie is…. Someone’s mother?”
They both laughed. “Oh not ‘alf! Ben’s mother.”
“And Ben doesn’t like school I take it?”
“Nah, mate. Ben don’t go to school, he’s too young innit.”
“Then I don’t understand. Why would his mother be interested in home education?”
“Cos she’s still at school, ain’t she. She ‘as to leave Ben with her old dear when she goes!”
I could feel a headache coming on.
“You got any leaflets, chief?”
“Leaflets on this Selective Home Edu-whatsit. You got any?”
“Phone numbers… to ring… for info, you know?”
“Ummm, well, I have the phone numbers for a couple of people I could let you have…”
“…and the Smith family next door are home educators. They could probably give you lots of information…”
“Really? Blindin’… come on Chris lets go round. Cheers mate!”
“Yes but what I really…”
“You done your good deed for the day, chief. Thanks to you there’ll be several happy kids come the New Year.”
“But… wait… didn’t you want some money…” I called weakly.
“Eh? Oh… nah don’t worry about that – the info you’ve given us is worth more than a couple of coins. ‘Appy Christmas!”
I watched them walk up the drive and turn into the Smith’s garden. Moments later I could hear the excited babble of their voices as Mrs Smith invited them in. I sighed a breath that seemed to draw every last ounce of my energy and closed the door. A sound from the lounge reached me and I scratched my head. Glancing at my watch I could see it was still too early for my wife to have returned. That left only one possibility. Autonomous Ed! I’ve hardly seen the ungrateful, tom cat for weeks. He seems to divide his time between Miranda Smith next door and Old Mrs Mort, but he still sneaks back into the house when he thinks I’m not around. Snatching my umbrella from the hall stand I rushed into the lounge brandishing it and snarling.
“I’ve got you now you fat, ginger traitor!”
I was greeted by the sight of Ed Balls sitting in my favourite armchair and tucking into a mince pie. He looked greatly affronted and put a hand up to his hair.
“I wouldn’t say I was ginger!” he mumbled through a mouthful of pastry. “Perhaps a touch of strawberry blonde, I’ll grant you…”
“How did you get here?”
“Hmm? Oh, through the kitchen. I could see you were busy with a couple of lads at the front door so I sort of … sneaked in the back way. I try to avoid kids if I can. I didn’t think you’d mind. Then there were these mince pies on the table and I thought I’d just try one… or two… they’re very good.”
I dropped onto the sofa opposite and released my grip on the umbrella. “And why are you here?” I asked wearily. I perked up as a sudden thought occurred to me. “Is it to do with my knighthood?”
Ed Balls tapped his nose conspiratorially and hissed a “Shhhhhh” that sprayed pastry crumbs all over the carpet.
“Well if it’s not that, then what?”
He looked offended again as he patted his pockets, coming up with another mince pie. “These really are very good. I’ll bet your wife does scrumptious sausage rolls too. I suppose there aren’t any of those in the kitchen?” he asked hopefully. I just stared at him and after a moment he put the pie down on his knee and brushed the crumbs from his fingers.
“I only popped around to wish you a Merry Christmas and to thank you for all you’ve done. I don’t know if we’ll get all the proposals through in time, to be honest. I’m quite surprised at the level of campaign these home edders have put up in opposition. God help us if they ever form their own political party. Still looking on the bright side, at least the select committee gave us a rubber stamp whilst presenting the home ed loonies with the illusion of democracy. Oh and I wanted to show you this…”
He ferreted around in an inside pocket and produced a badly folded piece of paper which he handed to me. When I unfurled it I found myself looking at a very professional graphic design for a marketing campaign. Two happy children in uniform were giving a thumbs up, whist written on a blackboard behind them were the words ‘EDUCATION = sChOOL’
“What do you think? ‘Education is cool’ get it? We promote school as being cool. The kids will love it. Can you understand how it works? The word ‘cool’ is within the word ‘school’. Clever, isn’t it?”
“Mmmmm,” I grimaced.
“See the ‘s’ and the ‘h’ are in lower case….”
“Yes I do understand, it doesn’t require a degree in quantum mechanics!”
“…so that the letters in capitals say ‘COOL’.”
“Yes, yes yes. I said I understand.”
“Yes, but do you really get it? I’m trying to say that school is cool.”
“Oh for crying out loud!” I thrust the paper back at him. He smoothed out the creases on his knee and grinned at the image in delight. Pie crumbs were wedged between his teeth.
“What home-edder wouldn’t want to be back in school if it’s the cool place to be? I know how kids minds work see. It’s probably harder for you to understand because you are so much older. I still speak their language. It’s all about being down with the youth. Wait till these posters start going up in April.” He tapped his temple. “Psychology, Badders.”
“Actually, I don’t believe youngsters particularly use the word ‘cool’ anymore. I believe they use the word ‘fit’.”
A little frown creased Ed Balls brow. “Well that’s stupid. Anyway it doesn’t work. ‘EDUCATION = schFIT’…. No, that’s rubbish, Badders. You obviously don’t know anything about marketing.”
I ran a weary hand over my goatee. I was developing that dull ache in my soul that seems to be a feature of my dealings with Ed Balls.
“Perhaps you won’t need the campaign,” I offered. “Not with my recommendations going forward.”
He took a fresh bite of pie and sprayed lumps of it as he continued, “I’m worried that we’re going to be beaten by the clock ultimately. Only so much we can achieve this side of the election.”
“But you could be re-elected.”
He went into a choking fit so severe that I had to beat him vigorously between the shoulder blades. He peered up at me through streaming eyes. “Good Lord, Badders, you could have killed me!”
I sat back down as he dabbed his eyes with a silk handkerchief that had ‘Balls’ embroidered on it.
“Actually,” he lowered his voice. “There was another little reason I popped round. As you know the papers have had a field day with all this expenses nonsense. Now it seems one of them has got a hold of my telephone bill and has been going through it with a fine tooth comb.”
I was really puzzled now. Telephone bill? What did that have to do with me?
“They may well be wondering why I was phoning a certain number so regularly back in the summer…. To be precise…. phoning your number…”
“My number?” I asked. “But you only called once as I remember.”
“Officially, yes… but… unofficially…”
“I honestly don’t understand what you are….”
“Could I speak to Mr Bedpan, please?...” Ed Balls droned in a high squeaky voice. “Or how about telling Mr Batman his dinner dinner dinner is ready…”
As the penny dropped I felt my eyes widen in astonishment. “It was you? All those crank calls, they were all you?”
Ed Balls looked so shame-faced he almost stopped eating. “Sorry,” he shrugged.
“Sorry? You’re sorry? Have you any idea how rude I was to the Rev. Thomas?”
“Ah… that wasn’t me.” He waved a finger.
“Well I know that now, don’t I? It’s a bit late now! Why on earth did you do it?”
“Bit of fun?....”
“No – there’s more to it than that. OK, let’s have it. Come on!” I demanded.
“Well there were all these freedom of information requests being made about you…. And we wanted to block them, you see… and we couldn’t think of a good enough reason, you understand and then….”
“And then someone, I forget who… it might have been me… anyway, someone suggested that if we could claim that you felt vilified and harassed then we could blame the home edders and… and…this really is good pastry, are you sure there are no sausage rolls?”
“It’s nearly Christmas,” my wife informed me a few days later. “If you want to send anything to anyone not on my list you’ll need to do it today.”
“I thought we could send something to Ed Balls,” I said flatly.
She favoured me with a narrowed expression. “Huh, after the other night? A whole batch of mince pies he ate, you know that, don’t you. A whole batch. I had to bake more!”
“Yes, I was thinking we could send him a pie. He loved your pastry.”
“A pie?!? Well, I suppose so… what do you want me to put in it, I haven’t got much mincemeat left.”
“No, I’ll sort out the filling.” I said, standing up and going to fetch my coat.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m just popping round to the vicarage. There’s something in the Rev. Thomas’ garden that would be perfect. Where’s the shovel?”