Christmas Prose Competition 2008
Family Concern by Pinniped
The man in the armchair was old and frail, but his eyes were bright.
"So it's your firm now, my dear?" he asked, beaming.
"Yes, Grandad", replied Juliet, still a little embarrassed by the long years since her last visit. "And I'm making sure we uphold the tradition that you started and that Dad continued. I'm taking the business forward too, of course. We're producing a special seasonal selection this Christmas. Look, I've brought you some".
She proffered an exquisite box of fine chocolates, with a satin bow and a glittering spray of mistletoe embossed on the clear lid in white and gold. She watched him closely, hopeful for his approval, but instead the old man seemed distracted. It was a long time before he spoke.
"Did I ever tell you about Tanner Lane?" he asked.
What followed was a long and somewhat rambling account of the old man's childhood. He had been brought up on the other side of the town, near the docks. Juliet shuddered at the thought of the place, and assumed for a moment that it must have been nicer then. Her grandfather soon disabused her of that idea, though, and she realised that the family must have been crushingly poor in those days.
"It wasn't so bad", he said, a little reproachfully. "People were kinder then". Then he brightened, and continued: "Your Christmas chocolates made me think of the event that started it all. I'd never have thought off setting up a confectionary business if it hadn't been for what happened in Tanner Lane".
Juliet listened in bemusement to the tale of a stranger who turned up one Christmas Eve, right there in the middle of her grandfather's street, with a large canvas bag brim full of sweets. Children from all around filled their pockets from it. They would all talk about it with a kind of contented wonderment for years afterwards.
The old man suddenly looked at her intently. "I'd like to give some of these chocolates to today's children", he declared. "Do you think you could let me have a few more boxes, my dear? And would you mind sending Geoffrey round with the van on the 24th? Ten o'clock would be nice".
The way he stipulated the time caught Juliet off guard. Till then she was going to explain that Geoffrey the delivery man had retired years ago, and reassure her grandfather that they'd distribute some boxes on his behalf. Taken aback by this glimpse of the founder's natural authority, she instead found herself agreeing to his instructions.
Over the next few days, Juliet's equilibrium was restored. She wasn't the kind of person to break her word to a family member, no matter how eccentric, and so she resolved to make the most of the marketing opportunity offered by this unintentional and rather expensive bout of generosity. Greg from Sales loaded up twenty boxes of the Christmas selection into his Mondeo estate, and arrived at the appointed time in the opulent suburb with its grand houses. There was a camera in the glove compartment, in case the bored-sounding reporter from the local paper failed to show up.
"Hello Geoffrey", said the old man amiably, adding that his old colleague looked much younger without his moustache. "I sent the man from the paper on ahead".
Greg found this announcement a little disconcerting, because the first photo-opportunity was supposed to be at the riding school, practically next door.
"Oh no, we're not wasting any chocolate round here", said the old man, in the same unexpectedly commanding voice that had thrown Juliet. "My neighbours are an ungrateful lot. I tried giving presents to kids down the lane a couple of years ago, and got a most unpleasant visit from the police for my trouble".
Greg managed to overcome his discomfiture and ask where the chocolates were going instead. "To Tanner Lane, of course", came the reply.
The salesman tried to call his boss while the old man was getting his coat, but Juliet's line was engaged. The voicemail message was abruptly curtailed by the old man's return. He seemed to be wearing some sort of puffer jacket, making his upper body look incongruously large above his skinny legs. During the drive, Juliet called back, but the old man adroitly snatched the mobile phone and thanked his granddaughter for this heart-warming experience, while assuring her that they were getting lots of lovely pictures.
Down in Tanner Lane, the houses were not so grand, but the reporter had certainly done a good job of rounding up the local kids. The street was thronged. For Greg, things were going from bad to worse. He recognised Juliet's own kids among the crowd, and his mind raced to work out how they'd come to be there. It was also pretty obvious that with so many people, twenty boxes was never going to be enough.
"Fortunately I thought of that" announced the old man, opening his coat and pulling out a large canvas sack. "Let's tear off those silly bows and tip them all in here".
Juliet never really talked about the sudden upturn in sales of the new seasonal selection. Sluggish before Christmas, stock completely ran out in the week afterwards. She never mentioned the newspaper article either, but Greg, who had been worrying about his bonus, read it rather more carefully. The old man was strangely absent from all the photos, but every one of them was nonetheless a salesman's dream, with wide-eyed children clutching handfuls of chocolate. The one actually used showed Greg himself surrounded by dozens of them, all skipping with delight. The article ended with a quote attributed to Juliet, answering the reporter's question about why she had done this. "Even though we specialise in luxury chocolates for adults", it said, "we never forget that Christmas is for kids".
The old man folded the newspaper and settled contentedly in his armchair. It was gratifying that his granddaughter had phoned him, even if her thanks were a little grudging. The call had confirmed what he'd sensed already. The firm was in good hands.