by Dawn Knox
The Matron of the Willows Retirement Home leaned back in her office chair and surveyed the three residents who were seated in a row on the other side of her desk. They reminded her of three naughty children in the head teacher’s office.
Always the same culprits, she thought.
Edith Bentwhistle, the Home’s leisure organiser, her chin jutting out in defiance. Myrtle Mayer, her knitting in her lap and her hearing aids balanced on top, looking from one face to the other as if she wasn’t sure who they were and what she was doing there. And finally, that disgraceful man, Len Malone, who must once have been a badly-behaved schoolboy – and had never grown up. He’d perfected the art of staring innocently into anyone’s eyes and denying anything – and if necessary – everything. If Matron had really been a headteacher, she’d have put him in detention for the rest of his life – or even better, she’d have excluded him. But, as she often had to remind herself, this was a retirement home, and one could not exclude its residents willy-nilly. Nevertheless, standards had to be maintained and the Reverend Forbes-Snell, the vicar of All Saints’ Church in Basilwade, who came to the Willows occasionally for high days and holidays, was not happy and he had demanded – as he’d described it – satisfaction. For a second, Matron had wondered if he was calling Len out for a fight but she’d realised it was merely the sort of language the Reverend used and that he wanted an apology – a grovelling apology.
Matron leaned forward with her elbows on the desk, then steepling her fingers, she rested her chin on top. She took a deep breath and said in as reasonable a tone as she could manage, “So, would somebody care to explain what happened at the Christmas party?”
It was as though simultaneously the air had been let out of three tyres as the people in front of her sagged. Len looked at Edith and Edith and Myrtle stared at Len.
“Edith! Perhaps you’d care to begin, since you’re the leisure organiser and you were responsible for arranging the party,” Matron said.
Edith regained her composure, pulling back her shoulders. She was the feistiest of the trio. “I fail to see why you’ve assumed it was our fault, Matron. After all, we can’t control the weather.”
“The weather?” Matron queried.
“Yes, if it hadn’t been for that freak gust of wind blowing Reverend Forbes-Snell’s robes up like that, they’d never have touched the candle flame. You can’t blame us for that.”
Matron looked down at her steepled hands. “Candles? Really? Surely you know we have rules against naked flames in the Willows. Have none of you heard about Health and Safety?”
“It’s not Christmas without candles.” Len scowled at her.
“And it isn’t Christmas when you set fire to the vicar,” said Matron crisply.
“Oh, we hardly set fire to him, Matron,” said Edith, “It was all under control… or it would have been if Dora hadn’t tried to douse the flames with her gin and tonic. If she’d left well alone, things wouldn’t have become so… critical.” She quailed under Matron’s gaze.
“She’s right,” said Len. “Anyway, Rex rugby tackled him and smothered the flames with the fire blanket before any harm was done. If I may say so, Matron, you’re making it sound like he went up like a Roman Candle.”
“Enough!” said Matron, “Reverend Forbes-Snell narrowly avoided combustion followed by asphyxiation after he got trapped in the fire blanket, Rex suffered concussion and had to go to hospital, the paramedic slipped a disc separating the two men from the blanket and one of the firemen suffered a hernia… And all because you consider candles a vital part of Christmas.”
“That fireman was only injured because he couldn’t stop laughing.”
“That is hardly the point. Now, I want no more of your cheek, Len Malone.”
The three residents hung their heads.
“And who was responsible for that barrage of party poppers?”
Matron watched as Edith’s eyes slid sideways to look at Len. Myrtle was still staring at her knitting.
“So, it was you, Len Malone. I thought so!” Matron said.
“I didn’t say a word!” grumbled Len, glaring at Edith
“You don’t need to say anything, guilt is written all over your face.”
“Did someone mention party poopers?” Myrtle asked, “only I thought I was going to have a heart attack when they all went off! It looked like the ceiling was coming down. And to think Len tricked me into giving him some of my wool…”
“Wool?” asked Matron.
“Yes, he jammed all the party poopers in a row between the wooden arms of two armchairs, tied a length of my wool to each tail and then attached them all to the door handle. When the Reverend came in, they all went off together.”
“Party poppers,” corrected Edith.
“That’s what I said,” said Myrtle.
“Anyway, I told Len twenty party poppers going off simultaneously was slightly excessive,” said Edith with a disdainful sniff, “but he never listens to anything I say…”
“Poor Dora had to be dragged out from under her chair by the ankles. I don’t think she’ll ever be the same again, poor lamb,” Myrtle said.
“Everyone has a few party poppers at a celebration. Honestly, you’re all party poopers,” said Len.
Matron glared at him and his smirk slipped.
“And who was responsible for the Christmas song sheets with the alternative lyrics?” Matron asked.
Edith and Myrtle’s eyes alighted on Len.
“Very creative, I must say. But hardly seasonal… and in fact, very rude,” Matron said.
“I thought they were rather funny, said Len.
“I’m sure you did. However, the Vicar was most upset. Although, it has to be said, not as upset as he was by the Santa Stripogram. I assume that was you as well Len?”
“Well, not me personally I don’t have the body for stripping…”
Matron pinned him to the chair with her stern glare.
“The stripogram was just a bit of fun.”
“As was the plastic frog from the Christmas cracker that the vicar nearly swallowed in the mulled wine…?”
“An accident,” said Len, “but if it hadn’t been for me and my Heimlich Manoeuvre, it could have been nasty.
“And I suppose the superglue was your idea?” Matron asked.
“No, Matron!” Len appeared to be quite offended.
“I’m afraid that was me,” said Edith, “I didn’t realise it was quite so adhesive or I’d never have suggested we stick the paperchains with it.”
Matron snorted, remembering how various residents had inadvertently stuck themselves to teacups, armchairs, side tables and each other. Two residents had become welded to either side of the television remote control which had caused much confusion and an unnecessary call out for the television engineer until the reason for the rapid switch between TV stations had been ascertained.
“And the random pieces of holly that turned up all over the Willows, in the most unlikely of places?” Matron asked, “in my bed, for example…”
“And mine,” said Edith glancing sideways at Len.
“Is it teatime yet?” Myrtle asked.
“Honestly! People nowadays just can’t take a joke,” said Len.
“Well,” said Matron, “I can certainly assure you all this sort of Christmas debacle will not happen next year.”
“You can’t ground us,” said Edith her lips set in an angry line.
“Who said anything about grounding you?” asked Matron. “Next year, I intend to book up for all the residents and several members of staff to go to a holiday camp for a Turkey and Tinsel event. I will remain here in the Willows to keep an eye on things, of course.
The three people sitting in front of Matron listened intently as if unable to believe her words.
“All the residents?” Edith asked.
“That’s what I said,” Matron replied, “At least, all those who have behaved well throughout the year.”
“And those who don’t?” Len asked.
“Will remain with me. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Matron,” the three said in unison.
“Now, I expect you each to write a letter of apology to Reverend Forbes-Snell and then, I think I’ve said all I need to on the matter of Christmas,” Matron said, “I don’t think there’s any need to mention any more of the disgraceful tricks you’ve played over the festive season, Len Malone, and I hope there will be no need to summon you again at Easter. An Easter egg hunt should not be fraught with danger. Neither should we require the emergency services.”
Edith nodded enthusiastically, “I’ll see to it, Matron,” she said.
The three rose and filed out of the office.
Hopefully the letters of apology would placate the vicar and he’d forget his burnt cassock, the plastic frog and his brush with death.
“But you know that man can’t keep out of trouble for long, Matron,” her personal assistant had said when she’d asked him to book the Turkey and Tinsel holiday, “you’ll have to keep him behind. Surely you don’t want to have to spend Christmas alone with Len?”
Matron sighed. She had no doubt Len would be just as badly behaved next year but she had no intention of cancelling Len’s place on the holiday. She was looking forward to a few days on her own, as far from Len Malone as possible.
There was no way she was cancelling his booking to the holiday camp, however badly he disgraced himself during the year. Of course, there was a chance he’d try to improve throughout the year if he thought he’d be left behind, although she doubted it. But next Christmas, she’d simply tell everyone that in the spirit of Christmas, she’d decided to forgive Len and allow him to go – however badly he’d behaved. And then she’d have a peaceful Christmas on her own. Of course, that wouldn’t work twice, Len would work out he could behave as outrageously as he liked with impunity. But so what? Matron would be retiring in June, well before she had to worry about another Christmas debacle. “Ho, ho, ho, Mr Len Malone!” Matron said and let off a party popper in celebration.
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