A Croft Christmas
Shortly before midday the archaeology student dressed and left the flat. During the walk and tube ride she tried to keep her gaze on the ground before her so she didn't have to see any contented couples strolling the pavement hand in hand, or similarly happy families inside flat windows.
Being Christmas, that was a bit harder than usual. Most people were cheerful, smiling and greeting strangers in typically non-Londoner fashion.
Once inside the Nine Bells, Lara quickly removed her Winter woollies and put on the rest of her work uniform. Accompanying the mandated, cleavage-flashing white top, black slacks and apron was today, she discovered, a cheesy Santa hat with flashing pompom.
She still was examining the latter when her boss stuck his head around the corner. He was sporting a similar piece of headgear, she noticed.
"Croft, Happy Christmas!"
"Merry Christmas, Mr Ansell."
"You have a good morning?"
"Good. Thank you for doing this, by the way."
"It's no problem, sir."
"Glad to hear it. Now finish getting ready. We need serviettes and crackers on every table. They'll be here soon."
Lara was the only barmaid who had volunteered to work the Nine Bells' special Christmas lunch.
The pub was a dive, and it frequently became dangerous on Friday and Saturday nights as beer flowed and machismo levels rose accordingly. There were occasions where Lara had leapt unthinking – and very foolishly – into the middle of a fight to break it up. Other times she had found herself on her knees next to a heavily bleeding man, applying pressure with a towel while she waited for an ambulance to arrive. Her public school education was broad, but no classes or extramurals (not even first aid) could prepare her for the horror dispensed with a broken bottle.
But there was a different type of patron at the Nine Bells too – men and women for whom the establishment was their local; their only option for social stress relief. The pub wasn't in a good area, and many of the regulars Lara served were struggling financially, on the dole, alcoholics or simply discarded pensioners with nowhere else to be. It was for these customers that Charlie was throwing his annual Christmas lunch.
The burly proprietor of the Nine Bells could pass for Agrius or Oreius any day of the week but he had a soft heart. Even if it was hidden under a crusty shell of crisp crumbs, booze residue and a decade's build-up of thick black cooking grease. As gruff as he was, as often as he yelled at her, Charlie Ansell was a good man.
She got to work.
It turned out that what she suspected was true: working on Christmas Day was just the distraction she needed.
The dinner guests – invite only – were truly grateful. And the atmosphere was really quite cheerful. It was easy to get caught up the toasts and bawdy jokes and off-colour Christmas carols.
While she was returning used side plates to the kitchen she felt her phone vibrate inside the front pocket of her trousers. Balancing the crockery on one arm, she hauled out her mobile – hoping to God it wasn't some syrupy holiday greeting from Alex.
She felt a jolt pass through her as she read the name and the message below it.
Wish you were here.
Exhilaration spread out from the centre of her chest, just as a smile spread across her lips.
Before she could respond to the text though, Charlie barked, "Croft, get off your phone. I'm sure you have a dozen boyfriends to string along but the roast potatoes aren't going to serve themselves."
It was while she was dishing out the potatoes to elderly Mrs Jacobi that the widow said, "Lara, give me your hand and close your eyes."
The barmaid obliged.
She felt something soft being deposited in her palm. When she opened her eyes again, there was a wad of red tissue paper there.
"Merry Christmas, dear," the old woman smiled up at her. "My apologies for the wrapping. I battle with me hands these days."
Lara knew she did. Her fingers were afflicted by a permanent tremor. It was heart-breaking to see her fumbling with a knife and fork, and nobody to help her.
Not that she seemed at all troubled by her ailing body at that moment. The old woman was beaming at Lara.
"Open it, dear."
The archaeology student parted the folds of paper. In the centre of the crumpled nest was a simple silver bracelet. Lara plucked it free and appraised it between her index finger and thumb. It was vintage; that much was clear by the tarnish and mangle of scratches marring the smooth surface. It was exquisite though, with evidence of supreme craftsmanship. Delicately engraved ivy crept along the edges. In places she could even see veins in the leaves, spreading out from the midrib; but so finely incised that when the light shifted it was easy to think that they had never been there at all, and were simply a trick of the eye. A marvellous illusion.
Mrs Jacobi explained, "I know you like your history. It was my grandmother's. From the time of Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. You see? You can read the inscription there."
Lara returned the jewellery to its wrapping and held it out to the old woman.
She frowned, "Mrs Jacobi, I can't accept this."
"Of course you can, love."
"No, I can't. This – " She felt herself tearing up. Her one single Christmas present and it was from an elderly widow who Lara had done nothing for but serve the occasional shandy and plate of chips. "Mrs Jacobi, this is too much."
The old woman took Lara's hand in her palm and closed the girl's fingers over the bracelet.
"You've always been kind to me, dear. More so than me own daughter and granddaughter."
As Lara opened her mouth to object, Mrs Jacobi added, "I always wanted the bracelet to go to someone who appreciates it. It would make an old woman very happy if you'd accept it."
The way she was smiling at her, so sadly… Lara nodded and slipped the gift inside her apron.
By 3pm the celebration was winding down. The last round of drinks had been ordered and the flaming Christmas pudding served. The wall-mounted TV that normally blasted football or horseracing was set to the Queen's Christmas Message instead.
Lara tried to remain inconspicuous during the broadcast, and for good reason.
Sam had unthinkingly revealed her friend's aristocratic heritage the last time she stopped by the pub, and now Charlie and his patrons wouldn't let the English girl live it down. It had been bad enough when they thought she was posh; the teasing became much worse when they found out she was a bone fide blueblood.
As the address was drawing to a close, Charlie yelled so that everyone could hear, "Croft, you ever have tea with her?"
Everyone started laughing.
Trying to ignore the fact that she was suddenly sporting cheeks as red as her hat, Lara responded, straight-faced, "No, Mr Ansell. But I played polo with Harry once."
The room hushed. At the same time, the sparkle in Charlie's grin sputtered and died.
If only the twitch to her lip hadn't given her away.
Charlie roared, "You cheeky blighter."
That earned her a slap on the back, but it did a lot to win people over. She chuckled along with them.
Less than an hour later, the festivities were over. Lara had received many more unexpected gifts by that point. Most guests had tipped generously. As for Charlie, he pulled her aside and presented her with a fat envelope. He was murmuring – for once a teddy bear instead of a raging grizzly, "I know I give you a lot of grief, girl, but you're a hard worker. Thank you."
Then her shift was done.
Lara was alone in the back room, stacking empty bottles and putting away the pub's rarely used special occasion crockery.
She gazed at her phone wistfully. It was too late to message Sam. Not that her flatmate would have any qualms about it if the roles were reversed but Lara didn't feel comfortable about sending a text when it would be after 1am in Hokkaido.
Instead, she removed Mrs Jacobi's bracelet from her apron and began scrutinising the treasure.
Her boss's bark made her jump. He was standing in the doorway.
"What are you still doing here?" he demanded, though his expression was more exasperated than angry. "It's Christmas fer Godsakes. Go home; enjoy the rest of yer day."