By Paul Jamison

Chapter – 31

Chris’s viewpoint…

I woke on Christmas Eve morning. It had been the first night I’d spent in my new bedroom and I’d slept right through till my alarm bleeped. I thumped the stop button and slipped from under the duvet, crossed to the window and pulled back the curtains. It was a bright very cold and frosty morning outside and I shivered despite the room being warm. I then pulled on my bathrobe and padded across the hallway to the bathroom to take a shower. As soon as I had returned to my room and dressed, I went down to the kitchen to see if anyone else was up and about in the house.

Will was sitting in the window seat, knees drawn up to his chest, nursing a brew in his hands and staring out of the window. I’d learnt that was something he did a lot of on non-school days. He turned towards me as I came through the door and said

“Kettle’s still hot if you wanna brew.”

“Thanks, yes. I’ll make one…  are you having toast or not?” I asked.

“Had some, thanks… I’ll wait and see if there’s a bacon breakfast going when Paul gets down… there just might be,” he replied, grinning widely.

“Oh, yeah, good thought. I’ll just have one slice for now then,” I replied.

“So, d’you like your new room then?” Will asked.

“Oh, yeah, deffo… It’s bigger than I had at my old house, not much, but a bit and I love that posh new shower room. I slept so well in my new bed too,” I explained.

“Yeah… you’ve got a new storage unit thingy too, haven’t you?” Will asked.

Mmm… yeah. Paul found it in the back of the garage. It was s’posed to go in the room that’s now the new shower room. So I got it as it’s not going in there now,” I explained.

“Nah, obviously not,” Will replied. “Are you going to help with Marcus’s move then?” he added.

“Yeah, I think so, that is if there’s some transport and Jamie and Craig come. Are you free too?” I asked.

“Yeah, Jus’s going off to his rellies. So I’m gonna come and annoy you all, okay?” Will grinned wickedly.

“I thought your dad said he’d come over and give Mrs Ashton a hand too. At least I thought I heard him say that on Sunday,” I said.

“Yeah, he did. I’ll go and ask him about that when we’ve had some brekkie.  Now then, do you like Marcus or not?”

“Um… yeah… well at first sight anyway, I do,” I replied.

“He’s a little bit… um… you know…” Will said

“If you mean ‘camp’, yeah, just a little, but he hid that till he knew us a bit, I noticed. I quite like that anyway,” I replied.

“Oh, don’t you think it might mean he’ll get outed at school and stuff like that?” Will asked.

“It might, but there’s enough of us about now for there to be no danger, I think… Don’t you?” I asked a little anxiously.

“P’rhaps… I dunno… It’s just since I got knocked of my bike at the beginning of last term, I’ve been more careful about what I say, and who I tell. That’s all,” Will explained.

“Yeah, I’ll be careful… but I do like Marcus… so far anyway,” I said and added “But, Will, please… I don’t need ‘setting up’, okay?”

“Okay,” Will grinned and added “We’ll see how you two get along and if there’s um… a lack of progress, then me an’ Jus’ll have to see what needs to be done.”

I laughed and said

“I s’pose I’d better make sure there’s some then… Progress, that is.”

We both giggled and then Liam appeared around the kitchen door

“Hi Liam,” we both said.

“Hi, Chris Will,” Liam replied

“Is this your last day at work?” I asked.

“Yeah, I finish at four, then that’s it for me… Well, until uni I s’pose,” Liam replied.

“Yeah, I expect everyone’ll have to work through uni, now that fees have gone so sky high,” I commented.

“Looks like it, or end up thirty or forty grand or more in debt before you even start work. Don’t even know if I’ll be able to go now. It all depends on Dad and what he says about it, anyway,” Liam said as he made himself some tea and toast.

“You’re early today?” I remarked.

“Yeah, I cut it too fine the last couple of days. I mustn’t be late on my last day really, though,” he grinned, as he buttered his toast and gulped down his tea.

“What’re you guys doing today?”

“Helping Marcus to move in, we think. That’s if he calls and asks us to when they get down here. That’s the plan anyway,” I replied.

“Oh, yeah, Craig said he and Jamie’d go over and help too. Oh well, have fun and don’t do anything I wouldn’t… will you Chris.”

“Whatd’ya mean?” I asked, blushing and grinning back at Liam.

“You know getting tooooooooo friendly with Marcus…”

“Oh, that. No, I won’t be. Despite what Will and Jus think. I’m not being railroaded into anything and neither will Marcus.”

“Good for you… hope it works out,” Liam said as he rinsed out his mug, put it in the dishwasher with his plate and cutlery and, after grabbing his coat, shot off out through the back door and off to work.

“What did you and Jus actually do to Liam and Craig?” I asked.

“Oh, not a lot really. It’s just they were soooo slow getting organised. It was obvious they were into each other. There was this weekend when Paul an’ Rick went away on some railway trip. Jus and I sorted out a dinner party here. Liam invited Craig and things definitely hotted up after that. Even more so, after we’d all gone off on holiday on the canal boat at half-term.”

“Doesn’t sound like it was over the top,” I commented.

“It wasn’t really, but left to their own devices it’d’ve taken them ages to get going. They were just pussyfooting around, making eyes at each other and saying silly stuff all the time. It was driving me an’ Jus nuts… I mean, it just was so completely obvious to us that they were well into each other, that’s all.”

“And I s’pose you two are the ‘experts’?” I laughed.

“Oh yes, round here we are anyway,” Will said with so much certainty in his voice that I collapsed with the giggles.

“Wassup?” he queried.

“N… nothing… it’s just the way you said that…” I managed to get out between fits of the giggles.

Just then Paul came into the kitchen and said

“Hi, guys. What’s the joke?”

“Dunno. Hi, Paul, is there a proper breakfast today?” Will asked.

“Good, morning Will, yes if you’d like one. Get the table laid for four please,” Paul grinned and added “You still haven’t said what the huge joke was?”

“Oh, it’s just Will reckons him and Jus’re the experts on boyfriends round here, that’s all,” I managed to get out before starting the giggles again.

“Really?” Paul said grinning at us both and added “And what makes you two think you have claim to that particular title?” he asked still grinning at Will.

“Um… well, me and Jus got Liam and Craig together, after all,” he replied, looking anxiously at me and colouring up as he always did when asked awkward stuff.

“I suppose you two did a little ‘facilitating’, but I’d hardly say that made you, um… relationship experts now, would you?”

“Err… no, not really,” Will admitted.

“And, as for calling Liam and Craig a pair of muppets, you deserved all the tickling you got for that,” Paul laughed.

“Yeah, I know,” Will admitted with a chagrined expression.

Paul put a tray of sausages into the oven while we laid up the table properly for the four of us. And then he sat down to wait.

“You could have put the oven on when you two came down. You’d’ve not had to wait as long then,” he commented.

“Didn’t know if today would be a proper breakfast or I would’ve done,” Will replied.

“Yes, you’re let off. I should’ve mentioned it really. Things got a bit busy yesterday and you lot are going to help Marcus and his mum today, aren’t you?” Paul asked.

“That’s the plan, if they phone and say they’d like some help, that is,” I replied.

We’d just finished laying the table when Rick came into the kitchen.

“Hi guys. So how’s your new room, Chris? Sleep well last night?” he asked.

Will and I said “Hi,” back and I added “The room and new bed’s just brilliant, thanks.”

“Good, so that’s everyone settled… until the next one turns up, I suppose,” Rick laughed.

“I seriously believe that unless there’re some very extenuating circumstances, this residence is full,” Paul said, rather pompously, but still smiling.

“Well, yes, exactly what I said… until the next one,” he laughed outright at Paul’s expression.

“Would you really take in another boy?” I asked.

“It’d depend entirely on the circumstances and if there were really no other choices that’d be better for whoever it might be. I mean there is a limit to the number we can reasonably fit into this house and that we can give the proper care and attention to,” Rick explained and added “We aren’t a professional fostering set up, after all.”

“Yeah, of course…” I replied, thanking my lucky stars I’d ended up where I was.

While we were chatting the cooker timer went off and Paul checked the tray of sausages and reset the timer. He then put a pan of bacon under the grill and got out his egg frying pan.

“Two eggs each, guys?” he asked looking round at us.

Simultaneous “Yeahs,” from me and Will and one “Yes please,” from Rick were the replies.

“Everyone’s hungry this morning,” Paul laughed.

“Yeah, just a bit, plus we need stoking up as we’re going to help Marcus and his mum unload soon, I think,” Will explained.

“Yes, Frank said he’d be in touch about that as soon as he’d heard from Caroline,” Paul remarked to Rick.

“Did Frank say anything about time on that Rick?” Paul asked.

“No, not especially, but I get your drift. Can’t be delayed too long there.”

“Why, what’s my dad up to then?” Will jumped in?

“Nothing serious. He had some things to sort out regarding your granddad that he mentioned to me yesterday, that’s all,” Rick replied glancing oddly at Paul as he did.

“Oh right,” Will said appearing satisfied with Rick’s reply.

About ten minutes later Paul put plates of bacon, sausage, eggs and tomatoes in front of each of us and we tucked into a real full English breakfast. There was silence in the room except for the sound of cutlery on plates for a good few minutes until Will put down his knife and fork and said

“I’ll go over to Dad’s and see if there’s any news from Marcus.”

“Right, okay,” Paul said just as there was a knock at the back door. Rick got up to open the door being nearest and Mrs Sutherland, her mother followed by Jamie and Craig came in all carrying stuff for Christmas.

Paul immediately leapt up to help put the stuff on the table and sort out what needed to be in the fridge I was talking to Jamie and it was a bit of a bedlam of chatting when Will, who’d slipped across to his dad’s when the Sutherlands had arrived, came back with Commander Barnes and more ‘hellos’ were said all round. Then Commander Barnes said

“By the way, I’ve just heard from Caroline Ashton and they’re just leaving the M1 now. So, they should be at the house in twenty minutes. That was about five minutes ago and if we set off in another five minutes from here it should be just about right. Who’s coming to help?”

“We are,” me, Will, Jamie and Craig all chorused.

“I was going to go over and take Caroline to the supermarket,” Mrs Sutherland said.

“You take the boys over. I’ll follow and help out there while you do that,” Commander Barnes suggested to Mrs Sutherland.

“Yes, certainly. Right, boys, get your coats on please, and go down the road to my car. I’ve just to have a word with Paul about this food and then mother and I’ll walk back and we can set off,” Mrs Sutherland replied.

We all did as asked and left the adults chatting about the food and stuff and walked down the road to Craig and Jamie’s. About five minutes later Commander Barnes drew up and Mrs Sutherland and her mother got out of his car and he waved and drove off, I suppose straight to my old place to wait for Marcus and his mum to arrive. Jamie’s grandmother went straight into their house and Mrs Sutherland got her car out and we all piled in and set off for my old home.

* * *

Marcus’s viewpoint…

We’d made good progress down the M1 and had stopped off at services for coffee and bacon rolls about an hour and a half into our journey. I had half watched the junction numbers as we passed by and realised we were not far from where we’d leave the motorway.

“We come off at the next junction, don’t we?” I asked Uncle James as we passed one.

He glanced towards me and the printed off map we’d done from the internet and said.

“Looks like it, just over two and a half hours with that stop for coffee and rolls,” he replied and added “I think we’ll be off the motorway in about ten minutes and at the house in another twenty.”

“Oh, that’s good going, isn’t it, James,” my mum said and rummaged in her bag eventually finding her mobile.

“Yes, no hold ups at all… miraculous in fact,” Uncle James replied smiling. “We’ve been able to do a steady seventy nearly all the way,” he added.

“Seventy! More like eighty,” I laughed back.

“Stop it, you two, we’ve done just fine, so I’ll send Frank a message and let him know we’re just coming off the M1 soon,” she said.

Mum busied herself sending a text and then we waited for the junction signs to appear. About ten minutes later we reached the one mile one and Mum’s phone bleeped. She checked the display and said

“They’ll be at the house by the time we arrive.”

“Good, we can get stuck into the unloading and then after I’ve eaten and had a sit down, I’ll be heading back again,” my uncle said.

“Oh, you’re not staying over tonight as it’s Christmas?” I asked him.

“I’d’ve liked to’ve done, but you’ve got way too much to do without me cluttering up the place. I’ll just be heading straight back. I already had plans for Christmas Day to go to my friends and it’d be churlish and impolite of me not to turn up after I’d accepted weeks ago. After all, this move thing was all very sudden, wasn’t it?” he said.

“Yes, James, I quite understand… But you must come down when we’re settled and see how we’re getting on, all right?” Mum replied.

“Oh yes, no problem with that,” my uncle replied as he indicated to leave the motorway and we pulled into the slip road off up to the roundabout.

I turned over the map we’d printed to find the directions to the house from the motorway and give my uncle directions as he got to the roundabout. A few minutes later we were well on our way when my mum got another text.

“They’re at the house waiting for us,” she said after checking her phone.

“You’re both lucky to have found friends so quickly,” my uncle said.

“Yeah, amazing really. I mean they are all so friendly and nearly all gay too,” I explained.

“Yes, your mum’s told me all about them. You’re very fortunate to have landed in with these people… so, don’t screw it up, will you, Marcus?” my uncle replied.

“Nah, no way!” I replied emphatically. “I just can’t believe it all really,” I added.

“Yes, it all seems too good to be true, really,” Mum said. “I mean, the new job, the house, school for Marcus and a set of new friends all in a weekend.”

“Yes, put like that, it’s quite something. But then, Sis, I always said you were a bit underused at that cosy little solicitor’s place. I mean you were sometimes very busy and you were always paid well, but it lacked a bit of… I don’t know… excitement? I thought so, anyway, but you seemed happy enough there, so that must count for something,” my Uncle James said.

“Yes, that’s true, but it was secure and Marcus and I needed that more then anything back then,” Mum reminded my uncle.

“Yes, I’m not criticising. It’s just that it seemed a bit tame compared to what it sounds like you’re going to now, that’s all,” my uncle replied.

“I’d have to agree with you on that, but time will tell,” Mum said as we pulled into my new road and could see two cars parked up outside waiting for us.

“Looks like they’re all here waiting,” I said grinning at my mum.

“It won’t take very long with all those helpers. It only took us two hours to load up after all,” Uncle James said.

“Yes, but we need to get things unpacked too. Don’t forget we took a day or so over that before we loaded the van this morning,” my mum replied.

Uncle James pulled over against the kerb outside the house, switched off the van engine and we all got out.

“Welcome, you’ve made very good time,” Commander Barnes said as he came and shook all of our hands in welcome.

“Yes, we made a very early start,” my mum said. “But it’s paid off, I think. We won’t be too rushed getting unloaded and my brother’ll be able to set off for home at a reasonable time, especially now we have all you people to help us. It’s so good of you all as well. I mean you hardly know us…”

“Muuuummmm,” I interrupted. “Let’s just get sorted, okay?”

Everyone laughed and my Uncle James went to open up the back of the van and slide the shutter up. All our stuff was there and now we had to hump it into the new house.

My mum had picked up a box of utensils and others had begun to grab boxes too and follow into the house that my mum had now unlocked. Uncle James and Commander Barnes carried in the fridge freezer that was the biggest item off the van into the kitchen and set it in place. I was about to plug it in and switch it on when Commander Barnes said

“No, leave it to settle for an hour or two. The cooling fluids are all shaken up and need to settle down or there’ll be problems later with it working properly.”

“Oh right,” I said, as I plugged it in, but left it switched off.

“Where’s this to go?” Craig asked coming in with a box marked ‘MY BEDROOM’ in blue marker pen.

“Oh, Mum,” I called, “what did you write on your room boxes?”

“MY BEDROOM” she replied.

“Blue marker pen?” I asked.

“No, red, why?”

“That’s okay. Right, blue ones to my room, back bedroom and red marker to my mum’s room, front bedroom,” I announced laughing.

“What’s happened?” my mum came out from the kitchen to ask.

“We both put MY BEDROOM on our boxes, that’s all, but different colour markers so that’s all right,” I explained, giggling.

“Oh goodness thank heavens it was a pack of four colours, not all the same,” she replied and smiling went back into the kitchen with Mrs Sutherland to start organising the boxes that were coming off the van thick and fast.

It took a lot less time to unload with so many helping and the fact that we were on street level and did not have to use the lift to get to our floor like we’d had to in our flat. So, under an hour later the van was empty and my Uncle was pulling down the shutter door and locking it up again. Just then Mrs Sutherland’s car drew up. I’d been so busy carrying stuff I’d not noticed that they were missing. They had gone off to do a supermarket run and the back was full of bags to be carried in full of stuff for our Christmas and the following days.

It took only three of us to carry the six bags of stuff through and dump them all on the table. The kettle had been located by then from a box and a brew was made for everyone.

As soon as my uncle had had his brew and some food, as they’d got some hot things from the deli counter, he got up from the table and said

“I must make a move. It’s almost a three hour trip back and the light won’t last for long now, so I’d like to make tracks and get on my way.”

“Are you sure you won’t stay and eat a proper meal before you go?” Mum asked him.

“No, Caroline, I must get started. It’s been a long day and I want to make it back as soon as I can, return the van, then just sleep,” he explained.

My mum nodded and together we went out to the van to see my uncle off. Then when we got back into the house Commander Barnes said

“Right, Caroline, is there anything more we can do right now?”

“No, you’ve all been amazingly helpful. It’s happened in half the time. We’re both so very grateful to you all,” my mum replied.

“Good, no, we’ve all been very glad to help, especially as it’s so close to Christmas. I’ll be off now, as I’ve one or two things to see to before I go to bed tonight. So I’ll take my leave if I may and I’m sure we’ll see you again soon,” he said.

“I’ll go with Mrs Sutherland,” Will said to his dad.

“Yes, if you would, Will. I’ll see you lot tomorrow then,” he said as he put his coat back on and went out to his car and drove away.

“Wonder what he’s got to do so late on Christmas Eve,” Will said to us.

“Dunno,” I replied and added “Perhaps he needs to wrap your Christmas presents?” I suggested.

“Hmmm… he wouldn’t have to rush off for that… It’s not as if I’m round there much, after all. He could do that anytime,” Will mused out loud, looking decidedly puzzled.

We walked back into the kitchen where Craig, Jamie, Mrs Sutherland and my mum were unpacking all the food and putting them away. I started to unpack a box marked kitchen utensils and asked Mum where she’d like them put.

“Pots and pans and any dishes, bowls, or casseroles in the cupboards either side of the cooker, utensils and cutlery in the drawers either side of the cooker,” she replied.

“Yep, got that,” we all said back and continued with unpacking stuff.

After about another half an hour we had sorted the kitchen and Jamie and I went to my new room with Chris to sort out some of my stuff. It had been completely repainted so was not looking the same as when Chris left there. It took us only another thirty minutes to unpack my bedding, get it on the bed and my clothes into the wardrobe and drawers. That done we went back downstairs to see how everything else was going.

“You know, I think that’s the bulk done now. I am so grateful to you all,” I heard my mum saying as we went back into the kitchen.

“I’ve got your TV connected and working okay,” Craig said as he came in from the living room.

“I just can’t believe how good everyone’s been,” my mum sniffled a little as she leaned against the kitchen worktop.

“Time to call it a day. We’ve all done enough and must let Caroline and Marcus find their feet and settle in,” Mrs Sutherland said as she filled the kettle and switched it on to boil.

“Now all you’ve to do tonight is put that shepherd’s pie in the oven for thirty minutes and cook a few frozen veggies that we bought this afternoon and are outside the backdoor in minus… I don’t know what, but you didn’t need a freezer for them today,” she laughed.

That broke the tension and my mum laughed and made a pot of tea and we both sank into kitchen chairs around the table.

Mrs Sutherland said “Okay, boys, into the car. Time we were all off. Give Caroline and Marcus time to settle. Bye, Caroline, Marcus, I’m sure we’ll all see each other again soon enough.”

“Yeah, see you Boxing Day for the Harry Potterthon, okay?” Chris reminded me.

We both got up and waved them off from the front door, my mum continuing to thank everyone again. I just bumped hands with the guys and said

“Seeya then,” as they returned the bump and said the same back as they went to their car. A few seconds later they were gone and me and mum were alone in our new house.

* * *

Paul’s viewpoint…

“Right, what comes first?” Rick asked as soon as Frank, Mrs Sutherland and her mother had left.

“Vegetables… or rather twenty potatoes to peel and quarter then put them into the biggest pan we have slightly salt and stand in the utility room till tomorrow,” I replied grinning.

“Oh, only twenty, that’s eighty roast potatoes, you know,” he replied laughing.

“I know and how many gannets have we got who regularly go through four five or six roasties each?” I replied.

“Yes, okay, if everyone had six we’d still only need seventy-two,” Rick protested.

“Yes, so we do a few extras in case of accidents, that’s all,” I explained.

“All right, I’ll do twenty large spuds, peeled and quartered,” Rick said resignedly and added “So, what’re you doing?”

“Carrots, Brussels’ sprouts, cauliflower,” I answered.

Rather you then me with those sprouts, they’re plain fiddly,” Rick replied, as he counted potatoes into the sink, rinsed and began to peel them.

“Well there you are then, so stop complaining,” I joked back.

“What’re you feeding the hordes tonight?” Rick asked as he peeled.

“I’m not cooking tonight. Stuff that for a lark. I’ve got pizza ordered. Yes, I know, junk food, but it’s not an everyday thing, so fine every once in a while,” I replied a little defensively.

“No, I wasn’t going to say a thing…” Rick giggled back.

“Oh no, I bet,” I laughed.

“What else’ve you to do today,” Rick asked.

“Oh, only prepare the stuffing, cranberry sauce, pigs in blankets, um…”

“Pigs in blankets, what the hell are they?” Rick asked.

“You ask that every year. They’re pork chipolata sausages wrapped in streaky bacon and roasted in the oven… yummy!!” I replied.

“I’ll get the boys to do the table this evening. That’ll keep ’em busy till bed time, I hope,” Rick said.

“Yeah, if you would. I’ve no time for that and all this as well.”

“I know, and it’s good the starter and pudding’s’re already sorted by the Sutherlands.”

“Yes, very much so. It looks big enough to feed an army,” Rick joked.

“Oh, I expect it’ll all go over Christmas Day and Boxing Day. I’ve no worries there… we’ve a houseful of them for this Harry Potter thingy, so they’ll want some food from time to time I’m sure.”

“Bound to, they’re teen boys, stands to reason,” Rick laughed and continued “How the hell did we get into all of this?”

“Oh, it was a complete accident. You know that. Any regrets now though… Seriously?” I asked.

“Nope, none at all… You?” Rick asked.

“Nope, not at all.”

We worked on side by side, for another hour preparing all the veggies. Then I made a start on the cranberry sauce preparing the fruit and simmering it till ready. I transferred that to sauce boats and covered with cling film and put them in the spare fridge in the garage that we occasionally used for parties to cool wine… Oh another life, that seemed a long time back. We’d not had a party for over seven months now. Then I prepared two trays of twenty-four pigs in blankets ready to roast, and after covering those, I also put them in the garage fridge. When all that was accomplished, both Rick and I sat down and had ham sandwiches with pot of tea for lunch.

After we’d eaten and cleared away the debris from the preparations of earlier, I prepared the sage and onion stuffing mix and then put that in the fridge too in a cling film covered bowl.

I then noticed that it was almost 3 pm on Christmas Eve. So I switched on the radio to listen to the traditional service from Kings College Chapel of the nine lessons and carols. Rick and I listened to the music together. That finished at about four thirty and just then the back door opened and Liam breezed in from work.

“So, all done for the year?” I asked as he dumped his coat and a backpack onto the floor and sat down at the table with us.

“Yeah, all done for good… Well, till I need a job for uni, that is,” he explained.

“That’s a little way off yet,” I replied.

“Only eighteen months now,” he said, grinning.

“Right, we’ve got pizza coming for supper. I’m not cooking tonight. There’s too much preparation to be done. When the others are back I’ll show you all what needs to be done. Mainly we want to get the dining room all set up for Christmas dinner,” I explained.

“I wondered when we’d do the big setting up,” Liam replied as he got up to make himself a brew.

“Well you and Will’ve done it before, so you can get stuck in anytime. Rick’ll get the extra sections for the table out for you and we’ll put them in. We’ve four chairs to carry up from the Sutherlands… we haven’t enough here for that number, but it’ll all be fine, all right,” I said.

“Right, so if we get it set up and then go for the chairs, they won’t be in the way while we’re laying up the places,” Liam observed.

“Well thought through,” I said approvingly. “Good, you’re in charge there.”

Liam smiled and continued to drink his brew. Once done, he collected his things and said

“I’m off to change and shower. I’ll be back down in a bit to get started, all right?”

“That’s fine. We’ll see you in a while,” I replied as Rick just nodded and smiled.

Liam had barely gone to his room before there was a knock on the back door. I got up to open it and found Will, Chris, Jamie and Craig outside all holding a dining chair each.

“Come in quickly, don’t want to heat the driveway,” I said laughing.

Rick got up from his chair and opened the garden room and said

“Put them all in here for now, then after we’ve set the table up we can put them in place, guys,” he said.

The boys put the chairs down and Rick closed the door to the garden room and asked

“All go to plan with Marcus and his mum?”

“Yeah, easy, everything’s moved in and they’re busy unpacking stuff now,” Will answered.

“Mum did a supermarket run with Mrs Ashton so they’re all set up till after Christmas now,” Craig said and added “We’ve to go now. Mum wants us at home this evening, seeing as this is our first Christmas without Dad.”

“Of course, we’ll see you all tomorrow at around 1 pm please. Christmas Dinner will be at two, okay? Have a good evening. Happy Christmas, guys,” I replied.

There was a round of farewells and Happy Christmases and Jamie and Craig left for home.

“Okay, gang, Go and sort yourselves out, change whatever. We’ve pizza tonight, but before that we need to prepare the dining room for tomorrow’s dinner,” I said.

The boys drifted off to their rooms and around half an hour later they were back down in the dining room and under our supervision we inserted the extra table leaves and laid up the places for Christmas Dinner. We’d just about finished counting out the piles of dishes and plates that’d be needed for each course and setting them ready on the sideboard when the doorbell rang and Rick went to answer it. It was the pizza delivery. So with willing helpers the five various pizzas were taken to the kitchen and quickly consumed, after which Will and Liam sat down to watch Christmas Eve TV. Rick went upstairs, I imagined, to wrap presents as he never ever had them done till the last minute and I was in the kitchen with Chris tidying away the remnants of the meal and crushing the pizza boxes for the recycling bin.

Chris was very quiet and just sitting at the kitchen table watching me work.

“All okay? Chris” I asked as soon as I was aware of his eyes on me.

“Um, no… not really. I mean, I’m not ill or poorly, it’s just…”

“It’s all so final when new people move into your home?” I asked him quietly.

“Mmmmm… yeah…” came the reply from a tear stained face.

I quickly sat down beside him and placing my arm around his shoulder just gently held him to reassure him. He just melted into my shoulder and cried for a minute or two. Nothing needed saying. I was mentally ticking myself off for not being more available for Chris’s emotional needs… He’d just seemed so resilient. He’d bounced back from his injuries, handled the funeral and all the trauma of where he’d be living all apparently without stress, but it had obviously not been as straightforward as that, as was now patently obvious.

Will appeared at the kitchen door and was about to speak when I held up a warning hand to shush him. He simply nodded, took a long look at Chris and helped himself to a Coke from the fridge before re-joining the others in the sitting room.

After a little while Chris’s face appeared again from where he’d buried it in my shoulder and a wan smile appeared and he said

“Sorry for being a wuss…”

“Now listen here, it’s not being a wuss at all when heavy stuff catches up with you. You’ve had more than most to cope with since your birthday. Immense upheavals, lots of uncertainty and you know it’s still your house, but just not your home for a while. Your home is here with us and the others, until you’re old enough to make your own decisions,” I said quietly but firmly to give him the assurance he needed.

“I know that really. It’s just that…” he trailed off.

“Yeah, I know life can do that. Do you really think that just six months ago Rick and I imagined we’d have a houseful of teens by this Christmas and twelve for Christmas dinner tomorrow? Believe me, nothing was further from our thoughts. It’s all been what life’s thrown at us. Can’t promise to get everything right, but how’ve we done so far?” I asked.

Chris gave a wonderful smile and replied “Pretty good I’d say,” and giggled. Then appearing to be thinking and counting on his fingers, he gave me a look and said “Twelve?”

Just then we both heard a car pull into the drive next door and muffled conversation as doors opened and shut as people went inside next door.

“Sounds like Commander Barnes is back,” I commented.

Then a quiet smile appeared over Chris’s face and he blew his nose, dried his eyes and said

“Someone’s Christmas present has arrived?”

“I couldn’t possibly comment. It’s against the rules of Christmas,” I said grinning and added “If you’ve sussed anything at all, just keep zipped, okay?” I said trying to put on a fierce face.

Chris just burst into more giggles and said

“No way… I won’t say a thing. I just can’t wait to see it, that’s all. If it’s what I think… Oh wow!” Chris said just as Rick appeared in the doorway.

“Everything all right?” he asked seeing Chris’s reddened eyes.

“We’ve had a little chat and things are okay again,” I replied.

“Things a bit much today Chris?” Rick asked.

“Mmmm… yeah. Just a bit, I’m okay now though,” and added “I’m going to go to bed. I’m awfully tired and I want to have fun tomorrow. Thanks, Paul,” he said, smiling as he got up and left the room to say goodnight to the others in the sitting room, before heading up to his bed.

“The reality of bereavement I guess?” Rick asked.

“Yes, a bit of a wobble. He’s done so well. All we saw were the injuries and fixed those, but sometimes forget what’s going on inside. I think he’ll be just fine though. He genuinely seems to like Marcus so who knows…”

Just then Liam and Will came out of the sitting room and Liam paused at the bottom of the stairs to say

“I’m off to bed. See you all on Christmas Day.”

“Night, Liam,” Rick and I replied, followed by Will who turned to me and asked

“Chris okay?”

“He’s had a bit of a downer. All hit home a bit today with new people now in his old home,” I replied.

“Yeah, he was very quiet today. I mean he did loads of helping, but he was looking at Marcus lots too. Marcus asked him how to use the shower as it was totally different to what they’d had before. I reckon Chris would’ve jumped in with him, given the chance,” Will giggled.

“Just be there for him if he needs someone to talk to. I know he talked to you a lot before the funeral and he does talk with Jamie too but he’s a quiet one really and it’s easy to miss that things aren’t right,” I said and glancing at the clock said

“I think it’s time for bed, everyone. Good night.”

“Night Rick, night Paul,” Will said as he climbed the stairs to his room.

Rick and I spend about another thirty minutes or so tidying up and making sure all was now ready for the dinner the next day and then noticing the time I took down two small liqueur glasses from the cupboard and opened a bottle of port I had on the worktop, and pouring two glasses handed one to Rick and together we raised them just as our kitchen clock turned midnight.

“Happy Christmas, Rick,” I said as I took a drink.

“Happy Christmas, Paul,” he replied.

We drained our glasses, put out the lights and headed for bed.

Many apologies for the delays in getting chapters out. I've had difficulties at home that have prevented me from writing. The final Chapter, no 32 should be out in a few weeks time. I thank you all for staying with the story and for your emails. I believe I have replied to you all now. I do so much appreciate hearing from you and for your thoughts and ideas on the goings on with the boys.

All the best, Paul Jamison October 2011.

 Email Paul