The Chinese New Year

Fee-Ying Liu is a little Chinese girl. On every New Year’s Eve, Fee opens wide the doors and windows of her house as Mama said the old year could then easily leave the house. Fee loves the Chinese New Year. On this day, she wears new clothes and goes out with her parents to watch the colourful parades that snake through her town. Fee’s favourite is to watch people dress up as dragons and perform the dragon dance, while others marched along the streets with lanterns in their hand. All homes are decorated with lights, colourful confetti, flowers, and bamboo plants. Fee enjoys helping Mama put up the colourful festoons. Sometimes even Daddy helps. Like always, this year too Fee will have many friends and home. Mama has prepared sweets and special dishes for them. But Fee is m the red envelope that her parents will gift her at night. It’s a lucky charm money for Fee to buy new dolls.

The Cold Planet

Thousands of miles from Earth is the planet of Fliptune. Fliptune gets no sun, and is therefore always cold and dark. It is inhabited by creatures who resemble dinosaurs. These creatures use torches to see. One day, a young Fliptunese called Neila put the wrong batteries in his torch. Suddenly the torch lit up and its bright golden rays travelled through the universe and touched planet Earth. The light hit a boy named Bamby. Even before Bamby could understand what was happening, he got sucked into the light and went higher and higher and landed on Fliptune. Neila watched wild-eyed. He had never seen a human before. Bamby was equally surprised. “It’s so cold and dark here,” said Bamby. “We don’t get the sun,” lamented Neila “I can get the sun for you,” replied Bamby. He lit the torch once again and helped Bamby return to Earth. Bamby took out a huge mirror and reflected the sun’s rays towards Fliptune. Now Fliptune was never dark and cold again.

The Man Who Saved the Moon

One night, a foolish man was crossing the forest. He had been walking for some time and felt tired and thirsty. When he came upon a well he thought he would quench his thirst. He bent down to pull the water out. He saw the reflection of the moon in the well and sighed, “The moon has fallen into the well. I must save it.” He quickly fetched a rope and a hook to pull up the moon. He tied the hook to the rope and then dropped it into the well. Suddenly, the hook hit a heavy stone. “Aha, I’ve got the moon,” thought the foolish man. The man pulled hard. He pulled and pulled and pulled. But the stone would not budge. Suddenly, the stone moved and the force made the man fall flat on his back. He lay there unconscious for a while and when he regained his senses, the first thing he saw was the moon was in the sky. He said, “Thank God I saved the moon.”

Little Nick

Nick the deer lost his way in the woods. He had been wandering with the rest of the deer but had managed to stray away from them. He was lonely and miserable. One day, while looking for his family he found himself in a farmer’s field. He made his way to the people standing in the yard. The farmer’s dog barked at Nick at first, but Nick was such a friendly
little deer that he soon made friends. Everyone welcomed Nick. The farmer’s children loved his soft brown eyes and spotted skin. The farmer let him stay with his cows. Soon Nick and the other animals became good friends. Nick was happy but he still missed his family. One day, while playing, Nick looked out into the fields and saw a herd of deer. “That looks like my family,” he said with great hope. Indeed, it was his family. Nick thanked all the animals in the field and said goodbye to them. Everyone was sad to see Nick leave but they knew that they could not keep him away from his family.

Mitty’s New Friend

Mitty the kitten lived in a big house. She had many friends—Bob the bumblebee, Betty the butterfly and Bitsy, the little sparrow. Mitty loved her friends. She played with them, shared her food and on cold nights let them stay in her house.
One day, while Mitty was lolling in her garden she heard a soft purr. She peeped round
the corner of her house. To her surprise she found a plump little kitten, just like her. “Hello.
My name is Gidget and I am your new neighbour,” said the kitten. “Yippee!” cried an excited
Mitty. She clapped her hands, swished her tail and hopped around in glee. “That’s not
becoming of a lady like you,” said Gidget sternly. “Watch me,” she purred, walking daintily.
“You are clever! What else can you teach me?” asked Mitty. “Oh, I can teach you numbers
and all about colours,” replied Gidget. Just then came Bitsy tweeting. “Let’s go and play,
Mitty,” said she. “Meet my new friend Gidget,” said Mitty. “This ugly sparrow is your friend?” asked Gidget. Mitty was surprised to hear Gidget talk like that. Bitsy was hurt and she went away.
After some time Bob and Betty came fluttering their wings. “Hey Mitty, let’s have lunch.” “Hi! Betty, Bob, meet Gidget, my new friend,” said Mitty. “Hi Gidget,” said Betty warmly. But Gidget did not reply, instead she looked at Mitty and asked, “Will you share your lunch with this big old butterfly?” Mitty was shocked. “Now that’s enough,” she protested. “You will not speak to my friends like that,” said Mitty and walked away in search of her friends.
Bob, Bitsy and Betty called an urgent meeting. “It seems Mitty has forgotten us in favour of her new friend,” they lamented. Soon Mitty arrived. “I am sorry, my friends,” apologized Mitty. “Your new friend is very rude,” protested Bitsy. “She called me old and big,” complained Betty. “Betty you’re the most beautiful butterfly in the world and Bitsy, you’re not ugly,” exclaimed Mitty. She added, “Gidget is very rude, I will not talk to her anymore.” Mitty wiped her friends’ tears and all were happy to be together again.
After some time Gidget arrived. Everyone looked at Gidget cautiously. “Friends, I am sorry,” said Gidget. “We don’t need a rude friend like you,” said Mitty. “Oh Mitty! I thought I was so clever till I came here and found that knowing about colours, numbers and etiquette is not enough. One has to have a good heart and be a good friend,” explained Gidget. Mitty and her friends watched wide-eyed while Gidget continued, “Oh Mitty you might not know many things but you are a good kitten. Looking at you and your friends I have learnt so much. Please accept my apology.” Mitty and her friends looked at each other. They knew Gidget was not lying. “Okay, we accept your apology, but there’s one condition,” said Mitty sternly. Everyone held their breath. “You have to teach us all about colours and numbers,” said Mitty smiling. All the animals laughed aloud. Gidget became a good friend and a great neighbour.

Starving Makes It Fat

Matthew stepped onto the scales. Trish, the coordinator, read out his weight. He’d lost three pounds, bringing him to his target weight. He got the loudest cheer of the night. He smiled modestly. Under cover of writing down his achievement on his Weight Warriors pocket card, he looked the women over.

He’d already had four of them: Angie, Claire, Jane and Sonya. He could have had Trish too, but he never did coordinators. They were inclined to be vengeful and more intelligent than their clients. If he got Sharon in the sack tonight, he wouldn’t have to come back next week. He glanced at her. She blushed. He looked around the room. Angie simpered, Claire grinned, Jane looked down, and Sonya refused to catch his eye. A good haul. Of course, they were oblivious to their collective nature, each thought herself the only recipient of his attentions – these women didn’t boast about sex. He could never have got away with it if they did.

Sometimes, when he looked at women, he saw them composed of food. Claire, the fast food queen, with vanilla milkshake flesh-tones, and hair the stringy, bleached texture of reconstituted French fries. Jane: cocoa-colored skin and candy pink lips. Sonya – a dairy maid with dimpled hands like cheese fingers, and acres of creamy curves.

He timed his exit so Sharon was shoulder to shoulder with him. More accurately, her shoulder – mottled but solid, like prime beef sausage – brushed his elbow. She was nearly as wide as she was tall, and her blonde moustache showed how inefficient facial bleach could be. Matthew wished she waxed. Smooth skin was much easier to transmute in his imagination, especially with his eyes closed.

‘May I offer you a lift home?’ He spoke gently, both to avoid startling her if she was skittish, and to ensure the other women didn’t overhear.

Tonight Sharon would be his J-Lo. He hoped she wasn’t a grunter. It was hard to imagine Jennifer’s sultry tones and lavish love-gifts of Rolex and iMac, if the woman beneath him was honking and squealing. He hoped she wasn’t a virgin either. He hated the tedium of it, and deflowering was always followed by much emotional guff. He began to hum under his breath, ‘I should be so lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky, I should be so lucky in love.’ Sharon giggled.

Five hours later, tired and smelling of the magnolia shampoo that was all he could find in Sharon’s bathroom, he escaped. It was easy to get away.

‘Sharon, I’m so sorry, I don’t know what came over me. You know I’m getting married soon? It’s why I’m at Weight Warriors – to lose weight before the wedding. I just couldn’t resist you, but please … can we pretend it was just a wonderful dream? I love my fiancÈe and although she could never match up to you physically… well, she’s blind, and so ….’ No fat woman ever impeded his departure once he mentioned the sightless bride-to-be.

He sat in the car and dictated a long message to Liz’s mailbox. Now it was over to her. Tonight’s Fat Fighters was his last meeting in Stroud. He would be home with her in three hours. They’d have two weeks together before it was her turn to come up here. He swung the Volvo around Stroud’s rain-slick streets. Overweight women appreciated a big safe car. The seduction started there, in a seat that didn’t cramp them, riding a suspension that didn’t groan under their bulk, with space to relax and appreciate how Matthew attended to them. The car was his introduction to their bedrooms – and it worked every time.

Lazily he calculated the takings. Twenty women in five weeks. Monday night: Weight Warriors – six women. Tuesday night: Lighter Ladies – six women. Wednesday: Yoga for Weight loss – only three women bedded there, a disappointing score. Thursday’s Fat Fighters – five women, all of them coy and respectable. His quota was met; twenty bed-post notches meant he could go home to Liz and relax for a while. He grinned to imagine how much money they would make from these lovelorn fatties, then scowled, remembering the strenuous evening with Sharon. Catching sight of his forehead in the rear view mirror, he relaxed it immediately. Women fell for his boyish, tousle-haired sensuality. He couldn’t afford frown lines.

For a while now he’d been wondering how they would make their money when he couldn’t do this any more. Nobody stayed young and charming forever. He found it ever more wearisome to superimpose imaginary women on the chunky bodies he seduced. He’d never failed yet. But one day, morbid obesity would defeat him – the tickle of a walrus moustache would not translate in his mind to the silky tresses of a visionary inamorata and he would wilt … forever.

Liz said not to worry. She said she was thinking about what scam to operate when he ceased to conquer weight-challenged women. He should feel reassured, but he didn’t. Suppose Liz decided he was expendable?

He pushed the thought back into the mental crevice from which it had crawled and resolved to think only about money. Money was his aphrodisiac: if all else failed he could imagine the women – Buddha-like – were composed of soft buttery gold. Infinitely attractive. Then the bigger they were, the better.

*

‘Good morning, may I speak to Miss Claire Henderson, please?’

‘Speaking.’

The voice was bright, conveying feminine bubbliness. There was nothing to suggest the speaker was six stone overweight. Liz pondered that, as she continued the conversation. Very few women had fat voices.

‘Miss Henderson, are you able to speak privately, or would there be a better time to call you?’

‘Why, what’s this about?’ Most of the bubbles had popped now, replaced by flat urgency. Liz always wondered how many of them expected what was coming next. What proportion of the large unloved had a premonition of certain punishment for their one horizontal transgression? Suppose she just said, ‘Two weeks ago you had sex with my Matt. You must have known he didn’t want you for your looks. Now he wants payment for services rendered and I’m ringing on his behalf to collect.’ How many would pay up? But that would be the lazy approach. Dear Matt had worked hard, now it was her turn.

‘Miss Henderson, I’m afraid it’s not good news. Mr. Matthew Helme has asked me to contact you on his behalf. Are you alone?’

‘Yes. Yes I am, what’s wrong?’ Now the voice was leaden – old, and at least as heavy as its owner.

‘Possibly nothing. I do not wish to alarm you unduly, however …’ Liz allowed the pause to grow, opening a crack in the universe through which the woman’s worst fears could crawl. ‘… I am sorry to say Mr. Helme has a communicable disease.’ Another pause. Sometimes the women rushed to fill it, sometimes they were mute. Neither response reliably predicted their future conduct. Some garrulous ones baulked at Liz’s fees and refused her appointments, while silent ones could cave in swiftly, handing over cash for three or four ‘repeat treatments’.

‘He is deeply ashamed. He has paid for you to have a private consultation with me to establish whether he has transmitted any infection to you. This consultation will be completely confidential and avoid the need for you to visit your doctor or a clinic for sexual diseases.’

Liz used ‘clinic for sexual diseases’ to shock the women into submission. Miss Henderson was no exception. She accepted the first appointment offered to her. Liz hung up before the woman could bid for reassurance. Time for a reward: she hit the media player button on her laptop and the rich sound of JosÈ Carreras singing Nessun Dorma filled the room. She loved Carreras – he had a voice bigger than himself, unlike Pavarotti whose voice was smaller than the man.

The Regency office in which she sat was a sweet gem of architecture. Mellow brick and paned windows wrapped her in the comforting illusion of old money. It was on a short lease, of course. Six weeks. The scam always started with the short lease. She flicked through the spreadsheet, checking the future office rentals.

After Stroud, it was Taunton. Matthew – dear boy – would have bedded all the lardy ladies he could manage, and Liz would spend a fortnight dispensing placebo treatments at £500 a pop from an office in a barn conversion. Then Telford, a rather austere but impressive office there, and then they’d be off to Spain. Matthew would need to restore his tan and Liz liked the Algarve. It gave her a chance to inspect the half a dozen villas which brought in enough genuine income to keep the taxman at bay.

She logged onto the Internet and updated the appointment diary. When Matt got up, he’d be able to see how many of Stroud’s largest ladies were already wriggling in the net. Then she checked her e-mail account.

Normally she was good at spotting spam, but this time a message got past her, and she found herself confronted by a hideous image. A pale, huge woman, to whom a robe clung in obscene detail. It molded over lumpy nipples that showed bruise-purple through the white fabric. It clung to vile curves, delineating not just their general form but hugging even the cellulite craters and deep ominous dimpling on the woman’s upper arms and thighs. Her legs were spread and between them the seaweed tendrils of pubic hair smeared nightmare undertones on the wet cloth. The woman’s expression was blank, her eyes were closed, her skin maggot pale.

Liz stared, transfixed with horror. Her thoughts whirled round the giantess like sparrows caught in a storm. It would be better if the behemoth were naked. The clothing gave spurious dignity to her gargantuan ugliness. It was terrible to think people paid to look at this vileness. Even worse – was this the kind of thing darling Matthew had to deal with? Poor boy, no wonder he was exhausted at the end of a seduction period. Suppose a woman like this rolled on top of him in bed? He’d never get her off.

She shook her head free of the gruesome picture, deleted the e-mail, hit the pause button so Carreras vanished in mid-note, and moved on to the next call. Angie Blake was about to have a nightmare come true.

*

Matthew checked the diary. Liz had surpassed herself. Every woman he had penetrated in Stroud had taken up her offer of a free private consultation with Dr Elizabeth Cavella. He wondered if any would dare refuse the treatment Liz prescribed: three courses of sugar pills discreetly posted on receipt of check.

Today he had to go to the Carvery for lunch. He’d be back on duty soon and he needed to be at least thirty-five pounds overweight for the Taunton diet circuit. The thought of eating made his gorge rise, but he’d force down the garlic bread, roast chicken and New York Cheesecake. He used as much imagination on meals as he did on women. As he ate fried food, he imagined fresh sardines, charred over a fire on a Spanish beach. In his imagination the rich sauces became piquant olives, and the creamy, sugared coffee turned to sharp wine from an Algarve vineyard.

*

Claire Henderson was a nervous eater. Since discovering Matthew might have given her the almighty hellish clap, she’d put on six pounds. That was the first thing she said.

Liz sighed before speaking. Far too many of them were like this. Didn’t they understand the severity of their plight?

‘If you have contracted syphilis you need not worry about your weight. Before it kills you, the disease will reduce you to a bald-headed stick.’

Henderson, whom Matt had nicknamed The Stroud Sow, had gone a vile shade of dirty white. Her skin was exactly the color of a peeled banana, but much less appetizing.

Liz had a special seat for the women. They must be properly cowed and humiliated to be convinced to hand over money on a regular basis and the seat was a major instrument of their suffering. An old birthing chair, patented in the 1950s, it had levers and cogs to realign her victims. They sat down as fat women, and she turned them into vast mounds of supine blubber. The ultimate refinement of this nastiness was the way the women were reflected back to themselves in the chair’s chrome surfaces and levers. She polished it herself and transported it in a van Matthew drove. Few women survived the chair with self-esteem intact.

Once the Stroud Sow was installed, Liz pulled on surgical gloves and resumed her patter. In the back of her head she could hear dear JosÈ singing ‘Some Enchanted Evening’. The Sow might wish it was ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair’ but a simple rinse and run wasn’t going to work for her – she was about to invest in a high maintenance regime.

‘Of course, you’re very lucky to have caught me. In a month’s time I’m closing my private practice. I shall be running a fascinating research program for a pharmaceutical company – it will take up all my time. I shall support any clients already on my books but I shall not take on any new ones. Now …’

She poked vaguely at the Sow’s nethers with a wooden tongue depressor. Then with great care and ceremony she placed the instrument in a clear bag, labeled it, and stripped off the gloves. Only then did she return the victim to an upright position.

‘We should have results within a week, or – if you wish to pay for premium service – I can have the analysis completed by six this evening. Rapid analysis costs seventy pounds for the lab and my courier costs are another hundred, so adding in my time to call you at home tonight … let’s say £200?’

The Sow, weeping, handed over £200. Liz laid out the programme.

‘If you should be unfortunate enough to have contracted the disease, you have two choices. You may go to your own doctor and request treatment or …,’ in the long pause, the victim’s frightened eyes welled again with salty terror. ‘I can prescribe it for you privately, and confidentially.’ The Sow’s gusty sigh of relief rattled papers on the desk. Liz continued inexorably.

‘Some cases clear in twelve weeks, more intransigent ones can require twenty-four or even thirty-six weeks of treatment. Each treatment regime will cost you £500 and is supplied by mail. At the end of a course of treatment I will send you a small kit to use and return, to see if we have succeeded in eradicating the disease. Each kit costs £500.’

Here she paused. The Sow nodded so vigorously several of her chins began random Brownian motion, shivering sideways or galumphing up and down at eccentric angles. Liz frowned and continued.

‘Today’s consultation has been paid for by Mr. Helme. He wishes me to convey his sincere regret for any distress caused to you. Is there anybody with whom you have had sexual contact since then?

It was a hundred to one against, of course, but every so often one of these behemoths had been inspired by Matt’s attentions to trap another man. It was easy to double the income from one appointment by arranging to ‘examine’ the poor fool. The patient shook her head dolefully. That was no surprise, generally if they were fat, they were also stupid, gullible and naïve. They were scared to consult their own doctors and they had too little life experience to see they were being gulled. Normal people, non-fat people, would never fall for this kind of thing. She knew it served them right.

‘Good,’ said Liz, ‘then we don’t have to notify anybody else. If you’d like to rearrange your clothing I’ll ring the laboratory on my mobile and organize a priority analysis.’

Once outside, Liz inhaled the wet Stroud air greedily. She would give the pig-woman long enough to poke through the papers on her desk. If the Sow was inquisitive, she would be reassured by a letter asking Dr Liz to sit on a Royal Commission, tickets for the Ballet, a receipt for the annual servicing of a Porsche. All forgeries, of course. Liz was good at this. She knew how to cover her back. Even if one of the women had second thoughts, she would remember Dr Cavella had already left general practice to administer research, so there would be no obvious way to check up on her credentials.

She texted a quick message to Matt, reminding him to buy sun-cream for their Algarve trip. She’d missed a call while she was dealing with the Sow, but when she hit the replay button there was nothing but a strange underwater sighing, like whale song. She deleted it.

*

Matt stared dolefully at his chicken. It reminded him of the ruched hips of a big woman with poor circulation. The kind of woman he knew only too well. The cheesecake was pale and flat, like a face with features smoothed by excess weight. Raisins took the place of small eyes, glinting with hurt and shock. For the first time, he failed to finish his dessert. He looked at the cheeseboard: crumbly pale slabs, rich golden mounds, sheeny acres of pallid soft calories, like the spread limbs of victims. He stumbled from the restaurant without leaving a tip.

*

The Sow was sent off, lumbering and fearful. Liz turned to lunch. She lifted a vacuum flask of bouillon from her bag and opened the fridge to extract a box labeled ‘medical supplies – refrigerate’. From it she took a bag of pre-packed salad.

As she sipped her soup she studied the hand holding her spoon. Wrist-bones showed elegantly through amber skin that diet and sun kept lean and glowing. Matt called her his ‘gazelle’. She’d never been fat, not even plump, even though for a while she’d seen a fat woman in the mirror. She despised people who had blubber, except for sweet Matt of course, when he was bulked up for work. She knew he worried about the drastic weight swings their scheme required, but she’d said dieting had never done her any real harm, which reassured him.

Idly she flicked up the laptop screen, wondering if he’d emailed her. It didn’t look like it. But he had installed a new desktop image. Sweet boy. It was of marble or perhaps ice. Something blue-white and chilly anyway. The draperies of a Greek statue? Wind-sculpted snow in the Arctic? She shivered, peered closer. She saw a blue hollow like … a navel? Diagonal lavender shadows were folds of white fabric drawn across a body. It was a close-up of the disgusting female she’d seen in the earlier e-mail. It must have contained a virus that had invaded her machine. How ghastly.

She slammed the laptop shut. Suddenly she didn’t feel hungry. She’d make up a few treatment packs to post out and then have some salad – she didn’t want to get too thin. She was in control of her food, of course, it didn’t control her anymore. No, she’d learned that lesson. It was understandable that she’d lost her appetite when she saw that grotesque monster, that hideous creature, on her computer screen. Involuntarily her eyes turned to the closed laptop and she shivered again. First work – then lunch. She was managing her diet, she would eat; she wasn’t making excuses to skip a meal. She didn’t do that anymore.

*

Matthew felt fat. Gravity pulled his six course meal down, and his heart with it. He was soundly, roundly, utterly, depressed. He sat in the car for a while, trying to summon the energy to drive. Big lunches always did this, drained his vitality and left him prostrate with melancholy. Eventually he turned the key, wishing Liz would hurry up and think of another way to make money.

*

Liz looked at the neat pile of padded brown envelopes – discreet and lucrative. She wondered how much longer Matt could play his role. One of the women hadn’t followed up on her last test kit by placing a new order … odd. Liz flicked through the address labels, unwilling to open the laptop and look at the spreadsheet of names there. It was Cynthia Edwards, first course completed two weeks ago, kit used and returned to the PO Box that Liz maintained for just this purpose. Liz had sent out the standard letter, saying Miss Edwards wasn’t yet clear of disease but a new treatment would probably ‘resolve the situation’. No reply. Which one was Edwards? Oh yes, the Grantham Gargantua. Probably the biggest woman Liz had ever seen. The chair had creaked and groaned under her weight like a foundering ship. Rich too. It would be a shame if she didn’t pay for a new course of treatment. Something else about the Edwards woman nagged at her mind. Manacles. That was it. When Matt got to the huge woman’s huge house he’d found a pair of handcuffs hanging over the front door. He’d wondered what he was getting into – but it turned out handcuffs were the woman’s logo, meant to show how businesses were manacled to the big software companies. Edwards had described herself to Matt as the key that unlocked the cuffs of business. She’d said she hated the way people were tricked into paying for things they didn’t need and couldn’t use, just because technology moved so fast.

Her phone beeped, probably Matt ringing to tell her what he’d had for lunch. She grabbed it. The same sound again … eerie sighing, long bubbling ripples like waves on a beach. It must be a fault. She looked at the screen and saw an image forming with portentous slowness. Maybe it was an advertisement. Scuba-diving? Tropical holidays? A beach holiday would be fun – they could skip Spain this time and go to the Caribbean. The image resolved into a pallid arm, pale as marble, monumental, powerful. It flexed and turned as though reaching for something. It dripped water. The huge wet hand plunged out of the screen, fingers spread wide ….

Liz felt her throat constrict. A vast power squeezed her airways shut. Scooting backwards on her wheeled chair, she tried to escape the pressure on her throat. Her hands fluttered around her neck, the bird-like bones no match for the strength that held her. Terror congested her face and panicked her heart into surges and troughs. By degrees she quieted until she sat still, eyes wide and dark, staring at nothing. Her hands fell to her sides, shaping a gentle composition of loss. Even in death she was elegant.

*

Matt felt a bump. Had he run over something? Surely he’d have seen it though. He glanced in the mirror. Nothing in the road. Another bump: harder. Was something trapped beneath the car? A third bump, this time a bang on the grille so violent it made the steering wheel shudder. He thought he saw a vague white shape. He shook his head hard. Too much food had made him slow. He needed to pull over and work out what had happened.

The next blow struck the car from behind, so it jumped forward, kangarooing along the road. In the rear-view mirror Matt could see a huge dent in the boot. He struggled to regain control, but the vehicle jounced along as though pummeled by a giant fist. Fenders crumpled and dints the size of footballs appeared in the bonnet and wings. Within seconds the car had banged off the road and embedded itself in a grove of trees. The airbag inflated and deflated, but Matt was past saving. His neck had snapped and his head hung at an obscene angle, eyes gazing sadly down at his well-nourished frame.

*

‘Sarge, you remember that Edwards woman?’ W.P.C. Carter asked.
‘It’ll be a cold day in Hell before I forget her,’ said the Desk Sergeant. ‘The nastiest suicide I’ve ever seen. What kind of person handcuffs themselves to the steps at the deep end of their own swimming pool?’

‘A rich person?’ quipped Carter before returning to her task. ‘Anyway, there’s a report here that relates to her. Except …’

‘Except what? Don’t start what you can’t finish, and that includes sentences.’ The Sergeant had an aphorism for every situation.

‘Well … you know that vehicular death I queried? The man who’d driven his Volvo into a wood? The reason I asked for details was the trace evidence suggested he’d hit somebody. No victim was found, but Scene of Crime Officer reported it was a person wearing a cotton garment impregnated with chlorine. They found blood, pool-water, and clothing scraps adhering to the car.’

‘Did they really?’ The Sergeant paused for a second, shook his head, and carried on filling in the Day Book.

‘The Edwards woman had cuts on her legs and hands, remember? When we queried them, the pathologist said they were ‘inconclusive’. They must have happened post mortem, because they hadn’t bled, but there was no evidence of anything in the pool that could have caused them.’ W.P.C. Carter wasn’t sure where she was going with this conversation. She didn’t like anything about it. The Edwards suicide had been a grim business.

They’d been called to the house by a hysterical cleaning woman. Cynthia Edwards had climbed into her pool, cuffed herself to the steps and sat down to die. She’d been a big woman, huge in fact. They’d had to drain the pool to get her out. There was no obvious reason for her to have killed herself. She was rich and solvent, and apparently she’d seemed happy enough recently. Her business as an internet technology consultant was lucrative enough for her purchase a substantial mansion on the outskirts of town. Until around three months ago she’d even been a member of some diet club. She’d recently visited a Harley Street clinic, which refused to disclose anything – except to say the health concern which had brought her to them was a false alarm. She had not been unwell and was not suffering any disease that could have triggered a death-wish.

The immense bulk of her, sitting implacable and pale, under the lucent water had haunted the officers called to the scene. There was something horribly powerful about her, even in death. Something stubborn and forceful projected from her, and surrounded the scene with a tangible, threatening misery. Worse than all of it was Kylie in the background, warbling ‘I should be so lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky ….’ You had to be irredeemably sick in the head to commit suicide to the sound of Kylie Minogue.

‘So – the way I see it, Sarge – we’ve got a car that drove off the road after hitting somebody wearing cotton clothing and dripping pool water and we’ve got a dead woman in a pool wearing a torn cotton robe, with lots of cuts and grazes. Doesn’t that sound odd to you? The only problem is, we found Cynthia Edwards dead, about … um … two days before the crash.’

‘W.P.C. Carter, if I were you, I’d keep my wilder imaginations to myself.’ The Sergeant moved closer though, to peer over her shoulder at the fax. ‘What’s that then? That’s not a hit and run report.’

‘No, it’s not. It’s a murder. Elizabeth Cavella; the wife of the man who died in the car crash. She was found strangled in her office earlier today. The analysis of the fingerprints on her neck shows the killer was very large and covered in chlorine.’

‘Odd,’ said the Sergeant.

‘Mmm, something else too,’ Carter shivered. ‘The same music playing at all the scenes: the swimming pool, the car stereo and the laptop – all belting out Kylie Minogue, singing ‘I Should Be So Lucky’.

The Gift of the Magi

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing left to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the look-out for the mendicancy squad.

In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”

The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, the letters of “Dillingham” looked blurred, as though they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.

Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a grey cat walking a grey fence in a grey backyard. To-morrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn’t go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling – something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honour of being owned by Jim.

There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier-glass in an $8 Bat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.

Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. Her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its colour within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair. Had the Queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out of the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her, rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.

On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she cluttered out of the door and down the stairs to the street.

Where she stopped the sign read: ‘Mme Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds.’ One Eight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the ‘Sofronie.’

“Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.

“I buy hair,” said Madame. “Take yer hat off and let’s have a sight at the looks of it.”

Down rippled the brown cascade.

“Twenty dollars,” said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.

“Give it to me quick” said Della.

Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim’s present.

She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation – as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim’s. It was like him. Quietness and value – the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 78 cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.

When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task dear friends – a mammoth task.

Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.

“If Jim doesn’t kill me,” she said to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do – oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty-seven cents?”

At 7 o’clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.

Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit of saying little silent prayers about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: “Please, God, make him think I am still pretty.”

The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two – and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was with out gloves.

Jim stepped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.

Della wriggled off the table and went for him.

“Jim, darling,” she cried, “don’t look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold it because I couldn’t have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It’ll grow out again – you won’t mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say ‘Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and let’s be happy. You don’t know what a nice-what a beautiful, nice gift I’ve got for you.”

“You’ve cut off your hair?” asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet, even after the hardest mental labour.

“Cut it off and sold it,” said Della. “Don’t you like me just as well, anyhow? I’m me without my hair, ain’t I?”

Jim looked about the room curiously.

“You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air almost of idiocy.

“You needn’t look for it,” said Della. “It’s sold, I tell you – sold and gone, too. It’s Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered,” she went on with a sudden serious sweetness, “but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?”

Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year – what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.

Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.

“Don’t make any mistake, Dell,” he said, “about me. I don’t think there’s anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first.”

White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.

For there lay The Combs – the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped for long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise-shell, with jewelled rims – just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.

But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: “My hair grows so fast, Jim!”

And then Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, “Oh, oh!”

Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to {lash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.

“Isn’t it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You’ll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.”

Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.

“Dell,” said he, “let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ’em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.”

The magi, as you know, were wise men – wonderfully wise men – who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

The Coachman’s Painting

A coachman who served in the king’s palace was also a talented artist. His paintings looked real and alive. Once he painted a portrait of his sister. The painting was so beautiful and life like that he kept it in the royal stable. And whenever he felt sad and lonely. the coachman would talk to the painting. People thought that a woman visited him every night. When the king heard about this he decided to find out the truth for himself. One night. he visited the stable. When he saw the painting, the king fell in love with the beautiful woman. He asked the coachman who it was. He was charmed by the coachman’s sister’s beauty and married her amidst pomp and splendour. The coachman moved into the palace and they lived happily ever after.

The First Monkey

Once there lived an old woman and her grandson in a hut. The old woman worked hard to feed her grandson and herself but her grandson was a lazy boy. He did not help her in her work and took her money and spent it all on his friends.

One day, he came home hungry. “Where is my food?” he demanded. Alas! The food was not ready. He became angry and finding coconuts lying on the ground, threw them at his grandmother. “Food’ Food! Food!” he chanted stamping his foot. The good behaviour fairy was passing by. “I’ll teach this boy manners!” she thought. She waved her magic wand and whoosh . . . the boy turned into a furry animal with a long tail. When his friends saw him they threw stones at him. Lo! They too turned into animals. The people drove them out of the town.

The boy and his friends then began living on trees and came to be known as monkeys.