A Table for How Many?
It was Christmas morning and PC Phil Bellamy awoke in a cold and empty flat. Because he didn't have to go to work, he snuggled down for a few more minutes, but the phone rang. He raced into the hall and grabbed the handset. "Gina?"
"No, it's Steve. Happy Christmas! You are coming to the Aidensfield party, aren't you? You can't spend Christmas alone."
"And a happy Christmas to you, but I don't feel like socialising, Steve. I'm best left alone; I just want Gina to ring but she's not answering my calls. I want to be here if she rings."
"She'll ring the pub! She'll know where you've gone. So, you'll come? We're expecting you, you can't let your mates down!"
There was a long pause before he sighed. "Yeh, all right, I'll come then," but he didn't sound at all enthusiastic. "Don't expect me to be the life and soul of the party!"
PC Alf Ventress was working over the Christmas break. Mrs Ventress had gone to see her sister and so he had volunteered for duty, which allowed Bellamy and Steve to have the day off.
In Ashfordly Police Station that morning, the phone rang and Alf answered it. "Right, yes, we'll keep an eye open. We know Charlie Appleton well enough. You think he might try to get to his mother's?"
And so Alf received the news that Charlie Appleton had escaped from prison; he wasn't considered dangerous but he must be captured, even if it was Christmas Day. As he set about circulating the message, Alf sighed. He hoped this didn't stop him going to Aidensfield; he'd made no other arrangements for his Christmas dinner.
"It's good of you to help out, Babs," Oscar Blaketon beamed at Steve's glamorous mum in her tight, low-cut dress. Hardly the sort of thing for kitchen work. "With Gina away, things are hectic."
"Pleased to help; I've come to Aidensfield because I don't want Steve to be on his own at Christmas."
"He wouldn't have been. Nobody need be on their own in Aidensfield, Babs, not even the local bobby! Anyone living alone is welcome to Christmas dinner in this pub - it's a tradition."
"Even occasional incomers like me?"
"Especially occasional incomers like you! Now, the turkeys are doing nicely but we've got the table to check. Keep a space for Mrs Appleton. I know she's cancelled because her son promised to take her out but, if you ask me, he'll not get Christmas leave from prison. We need 27 settings, counting you and me. You do that while I open the wine. They'll start arriving any minute now."
The pub's dining room, with its blazing log fire, decorations and Christmas tree, was so welcoming. It boasted a long table replete with gleaming wine glasses and a holly centrepiece, with colourful paper hats and crackers at each place setting. With snow forecast on the moors, Oscar Blaketon and his helpers had managed to get everything prepared in time. And, like the tradition in moorland homes, a spare place - in addition to Mrs Appleton's - was always set in case an unexpected guest arrived. In the North York Moors, no one was turned away from the Christmas table.
"Every singleton in the district is invited," Blaketon told Babs. "We've invited Phil Bellamy, too. He's on his own with Gina being away, then there's Dr Merrick, Bernie and Vernon - not forgetting David and that dog of his. He insists on bringing Alfred, otherwise he'd be on his own. Your Steve's coming, isn't he? Alf Ventress is on duty. Mrs Ventress has gone to her sister's, so we're expecting him, but Sgt Merton and Jenny have gone to friends."
Almost as he spoke, the first guests arrived and, quite suddenly, the festive bar began to fill with people and noise. Volunteers were dispensing the drinks, leaving Blaketon and Babs to look after the meals as, within minutes, the Aidensfield Arms was brimming with people, all excited by the arrival of snow. Blaketon checked their names; once everyone was here, they could start.
Among them he found Steve. "Your mum's a great help, Steve. There's only Ventress and Bellamy not here. I saw Alf this morning and he's definitely coming unless something crops up, and I'll give Bellamy another few minutes."
Steve said: "I rang Phil earlier, he said he'd come but didn't sound very enthusiastic. It is snowing now and I hope he doesn't use it as an excuse."
"He needs company - somebody to cheer him up. He's not been himself, not since Gina went off to Liverpool."
"She's not returning his calls, he's rung umpteen times but hasn't had a single word from her, no word about her pregnancy. His work's been suffering, his mind's not on the job. I hope he cheers up, he was all for having Christmas dinner by himself."
"We can't let him do that! I'll give him another 10 minutes."
Before leaving his home, Bellamy had rung Gina's number in Liverpool yet again; whoever answered said he would get her to ring straight back, but she hadn't. With no Christmas card and no festive message from her, he felt close to tears. And very lonely. But the Aidensfield Arms would mean more sad memories... it wouldn't be the same without her there. He almost rang Blaketon to say he wouldn't be at the party but didn't like to ignore Steve's efforts. And Alf's. Alf had told him in no uncertain terms to get himself there! He couldn't let them down, they were his friends. His only friends, it seemed! And so he set off in his car. But as he drove across the moorland hills out of Ashfordly, it began to snow. He wondered if he should abandon the trip - he couldn't get himself into a party mood, anyway. Then, as he got closer to Aidensfield, he spotted a phone box.
It was near Mrs Appleton's moorland cottage, so he pulled up to ring Gina's number one more time. If she wouldn't talk to him now, he'd go back home and be miserable there. There was something in the fridge he could warm up, and a few beers. As he parked, Mrs Appleton emerged. A white-haired widow, 60 if she was a day, she collected a log from her wood pile. Bellamy raised his hand in greeting.
"Happy Christmas, Mrs Appleton!" he shouted, as the falling snow intensified.
"It might be for some!" she retorted, dressed as if going to a party.
"You're going to the Aidensfield Arms?" asked Bellamy.
"I was, until that no-good son of mine said he would get Christmas leave. He promised to take me out today as a special treat, he said. So I cancelled my place at that party. Now he's rung to say he can't get here in time. Unreliable as ever, he is; you did right to lock him up for stealing those cars."
"He won't qualify for leave, will he?" asked Bellamy.
"Don't ask me. He just said he'd see me today," she replied. "Anyway, I've some cold roast beef so I'll cope."
She hurried into her cottage clutching the log as the snow thickened. Bellamy entered the kiosk and rang the number he knew by heart, but there was no reply. It rang and rang and rang. With tears beginning to well in his eyes, he replaced the handset and left the kiosk to find Mrs Appleton outside. "I've a bit of ginger bread and cheese and a glass of whisky, if you want it, Mr Bellamy, and that cold beef. If you're on your own, we could have a nice Christmas dinner together."
All sorts of emotions threatened to envelop him and he now realised his own sulkiness was very petty. Mrs Appleton had been let down far more than he; he'd even arrested her son and got him sent to jail, yet here she was offering kindness and hospitality.
"Tell you what," he said. "I'll come for my ginger bread and cheese later if you'll come to the party now. You are all dressed and ready!"
She didn't hesitate. "I'll get my coat."
While she was inside the cottage, Alf's police car appeared and it came to a halt outside Mrs Appleton's; Bellamy saw it contained another man - Charlie Appleton.
"Hello, what have we here, Alf?"
"Charlie decided to come home for Christmas but overlooked the fact that he was locked up," said Alf. "He went over the wall last night and I've just picked him up. He'd hitched a lift to Elsinby. He forgot there aren't any trains or buses on Christmas Day. I came to tell Mrs Appleton what's happened. Can you believe he wanted to take her out for Christmas dinner?"
"I'm taking her to the Aidensfield party, Alf. She's upset that he's let her down again."
"And this carry-on means I'll miss the party!" said Alf. "I've got to put him in the cells."
"Can't it wait an hour or two, Alf? If we take Charlie to Aidensfield with us, we can all have our Christmas dinner," laughed Bellamy. "That's if he promises not to do a runner; there are plenty of cops to keep an eye on him, anyway, and there is a spare place, there always is."
"How about that, Charlie?" Alf knew the prisoner had heard this conversation. "I promise!" Charlie said from the car.
And so, before Mrs Appleton realised Charlie was outside, Bellamy returned to the kiosk and rang the Aidensfield Arms.
"Oscar? It's Phil Bellamy. I'm on my way, I got delayed. Alf's with me. We're bringing Mrs Appleton with us - and Charlie - they've had a change of plan."
Bellamy was more cheerful now. He felt sure Charlie wouldn't let them down. But the important thing was that Gina might still ring to wish him a Happy Christmas...
We would like to thank TV Times for allowing us to reproduce this story, written by Nicholas Rhea for their Christmas 2003 edition.