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Callum was never directly involved in the affair himself, thank goodness. Even the premier Christmas Specialist of MacRobert's World has to draw the line somewhere. He first heard about it one Christmas Day from Lady Lydia of Stonehouse, and saw the dreadful result just one year later on the barren plains of Yytterby.
'That dreadful Irene Fotheringay. She bribed the vicar, that's plain enough,' Lady Lydia snorted. 'Well, I ask you, just look at that brat of hers.'
Callum looked at the gurgling infant in the crib, then across to the spare and elderly Baroness Holmium. 'Hers?'
'Her second daughter's number three,' snapped Lady Lydia 'Or would it be her third daughter's number two? One or the other. No, I'm wrong, Dorothy was the Baron's second daughter by his first wife. His first died in the Holbrook raid of course.'
Callum blinked. 'His first wife?' This was getting confusing.
'No, no, his first daughter. His wife ran off with a juggler from Verona. No, I tell a lie, he was straight out from Home. That was what attracted her to him.'
Callum decided not to pursue this.
'Anyhow, did you ever see such an ugly child?'
'Oh, well!' Callum was not a renowned baby-fancier. When you took into account how cuddly young animals could be, and how disgusting human babies appeared by comparison, it was a constant puzzle to him why the human race hadn't long since died out.
'You know,' he said. 'It's a constant puzzle to me why the human race hasn't died out.'
'Margery just threw herself at that poor man,' said Lady Lydia. 'He hadn't a chance.'
'No, I meant oh, never mind.' Callum gave up.
'She's as thin as a rake, you know. I wonder the doctor didn't forbid it.' Lady Lydia surveyed her own ample curves complacently.
Callum MacRobert shrugged. As Infant Jesus's went, the baby in the wooden crib was acceptable enough. Indeed the aristocratic nose, plain long on Margery Fotheringay, fitted the part of the Christmas Baby rather well.
'Imagine choosing that over Mrs Lee's latest! The sweetest little things imaginable. Doodoo's babies are always so pretty.'
At least the creature didn't scream all the time, like the one at, where was it? Place stank of cider. He was getting as bad as Lady Lydia. Sodbury Heap, that was it.
'Bribery and corruption. That's Irene all over. Oh, hello vicar!' Lady Lydia nodded to a white-haired old gentleman of rectitudinous mien and drew Callum to one side. 'That was the only way she ever passed her school exams.'
'Oh, surely not.' Callum wriggled uncomfortably.
'I ought to know, we were in good old Grunters House together. Great friends in those days.' She leaned forward confidentially. 'Makes out she's a spring chicken, but she's six months older than me, you know. Always has been.'
Callum spotted an avenue of escape. 'You've both lived on MacRobert's all your lives, then?'
Lady Lydia admitted it. 'But I happen to know she's hoping the Baron dies pretty soon, so she can take a trip Home and end up six months younger.'
Callum let it go. He was never sure just how much relativity his pampered clients understood.
Later, the Christmas Specialist found himself buttonholed by the Baroness Holmium. 'That Lydia Thorndike. Always did get above herself, even at school. Made a complete fool of herself over Leonardo Syzygy, the ballet teacher. It was grotesque. She was even fatter then than she is now.'
Callum made a noncommittal noise.
The Baroness took no notice. 'Look at her fawning over Bishop Twotwistle. You know why she's doing it, of course?'
Callum shook his head.
'Wants to get her baby in tight for the Yuletide Festival of the United Provinces of Newest Amsterdam, Polder Keep and Lesser Downhampton.'
'It's the biggest nativity play of the year. And Lydia's niece Antonella expecting any day. I'll bet the old bitch thought she'd snaffled the part here too, what with buttering up the vicar and all. She actually had the nerve to congratulate him on his sermons, eight weeks running. I ask you. Have you ever heard the old codger preach?'
Callum made a vaguely negative face. 'What er went wrong?'
'Ha! Little Niecie couldn't perform on schedule.' The Baroness's chuckle was almost a cackle. 'Poor old Loveless Lydia!'
Callum struggled to keep a straight face. It would never do to react to the insults his client were wont to hurl at each other. The men were all right, of course; on a world where warfare was the principal pastime, they respected his professional neutrality. But the women! Always trying to drag him into their petty rivalries.
'It was very kind of your daughter to er offer a substitute,' he ventured. Perhaps the Baroness had found a way of interfering with poor Antonella's pregnancy. He wouldn't have put it past the old biddy. He wouldn't have put it past any of them. What a crew!
It was nearly two months before Callum heard any more, except for the flurry of interest when Antonella's baby Gina made its belated appearance. The United Provinces, not having seen fit to retain his services, had one of the least successful Christmases in living memory.
It was generally admitted that the Christmas Eve Carol Concert was excruciating, that the Christmas Day Service was tedious, that the Christmas Dinner was indigestible, and that the after-dinner entertainment was laughable in the worst possible sense. It would never have happened if Callum MacRoberts had been in charge.
But it was equally admitted that there was one bright spark, one touch of joy to lighten the load of the Season of Goodwill. The Nativity Play.
Not that the setting was particularly beautiful or the acting anything special. True, one of the Three Kings lost his crown bowing to the Holy Child, and displayed a notable regality in picking it up and sticking it back on again.
No, it was when Mary held up a gurgling Infant Jesus for shepherds, wise men and audience to admire that things really hotted up.
As Callum heard it afterwards, Lady Lydia of Stonehouse jumped out of her seat yelling, 'And who the blue blazes put that in there?'
Her niece Antonella had hysterics. 'My baby! Where's my baby Gina? What have they done with my baby?'
And Baroness Irene of Holmium called 'Bravo! Bravo!' and clapped and applauded vigorously.
An unpleasant brawl ensued. Eventually, baby Gina was found, fast asleep on the bottom shelf of the hymnbook cupboard in the vestry, none the worse for the loss of her starring role. Her understudy was being sick over the Virgin Mary.
The Bishop was reason itself. 'Now then, Lady Lydia, we could hardly cast a girl as Baby Jesus, could we? It wouldn't have done. We can only be grateful to the Baroness for pointing it out just in time. So fortunate that dear Margery was at hand.'
Lady Lydia had not been appeased. 'Damn her eyes! How the devil was I to know this silly girl would whelp a daughter? It was supposed to be a boy.' She turned on her niece. 'And what your poor husband will have to say, I shouldn't like to imagine.'
Antonella sniffed and cradled her daughter. 'He doesn't mind a bit. He adores Gina.'
Lady Lydia snorted. 'We'll see about that! First we sue that cretin of a doctor. Who is he?'
'Just a doctor. From Holmium Keep, I think.'
'Holmium! I knew it! Irene Fotheringay. She put him up to this.'
'Oh auntie, don't be silly. She couldn't possibly.'
'Just wait till your Uncle hears about this.'
Stonehouse Keep took umbrage and blamed the House of Holmium. Holmium and the rest of the Rare Earths Association took umbrage back. It was a diplomatic incident: this on MacRoberts' World where diplomatic incidents almost invariably lead to a fight.
Perhaps it would still have blown over, if the Baroness hadn't booked Margery's increasingly gurglesome son into Stavenger's Nativity, and if Lady Lydia hadn't pulled a switch at the last minute. Even then, disaster might have been averted, if only she'd chosen somewhere else to leave the surplus baby.
In the event, it was Callum's friend Miss Grey who found him in the pen with the Christmas piglets. Understandably, this rubbed his relatives the wrong way. It wasn't just that he might have ended up on the dinner table; there was also the suspicion, doubtless exaggerated, that this was what Lady Lydia had actually intended.
After that, conversation, as they say, became general: no nativity play or baby show across the whole of MacRoberts' could open without its hordes of rival mothers from Stonehouse and Holmium. Dirty work was rife. Here a bribed jury. There a terrorised judge. Here an abducted baby. There a nobbled filly.
Inevitably, every contest ended in an ugly scene, with torn hair, scratched faces and fresh business for dressmakers, decorators, and beauticians. Hell hath no fury, thought Callum, like a mother whose baby has just lost out to Mrs Jones's pimply offshoot.
The non-combatant keeps retaliated: a plague, they said, on both their houses. Stonehouse and Holmium were sent to Coventry, their women banned from travelling to the other keeps, their daughters left on the shelf, unable to marry outside their clan. Before the year was out, the menfolk of the keeps realised that it had to stop. The whole structure of civilisation was threatened. There was only one way to clear the air. The Habitat Authority concurred.
So on the appointed day, green-jacketed infantry squirmed into position alone negligible declivities, artillery ranged behind hastily bulldozed berms. Habitat Authority marshals strode back and forth in their blue and white helmets. A whistle blew. A red flare rose.
And on the barren plains of Yytterby, the War of the Christmas Babies began.
© Paul Birch, 20th Dec. 1994.