This year, Santa’s little helpers have been more than generous and we’ve got a bumper crop of wonderful Christmas short stories for you – from the dark to the whimsical and all stops in between. So put your favourite Christmas jumper on, pour yourself a mulled wine, grab a mince pie and sit down for another great criminally festive read.
Did we say whimsical? Hold on to your hats and hang on for the ride. Starting today, we’re serialising a wonderful fantasy crime story by one of our associate members, Alan Roderick, involving Mari Lwyds and Calennigs as you’ve never seen them before, and featuring Astrid Price, rugby international turned private eye in a Wales you might or might not recognise.
(HAVE YOURSELF) A VERY CYMRU CHRISTMAS by Alan Roderick
It seemed to be a Christmas like any other Christmas. Male Voice Choirs were being arrested for disturbing the peace, Trespassers were being Persecuted, drunks were hanging from the lampposts, calling for their mams, all that kind of thing. The Mari Lwyds had been out and about for the last few days, making their rounds, the Calennigs were piling up on people’s mantelpieces, the Christmas Card Merry-Go-Round was in full swing.
Outside, the weather was cold enough to freeze the genitalia off a monkey living in the Welsh Mountain Zoo, but there was no sign of snow, much to the chagrin of local punters, who had been betting heavily on the City being covered, with a thick blanket of whiteness, by the morning of December 25th. What was that about a fool and his money? Complete strangers were bitten by the sentimentality bug and wished each other Nadolig Llawen (Merry Christmas), every opportunity they got. The pubs and drinking houses were crowded with revellers, the roads jammed with cars, last minute shoppers thronged the streets, shoving and jostling one another, eyeing up the bargains. Every other juke box was playing Aled Jones’s Walking In The Air. (That boy had a lot to answer for.) As the Queen of England might have said, it was enough to make one sick. The annual Christmas madness was upon us again.
Down below, in The Lying Cod, Stakis Theodorakis had been touting his festive fare for some time now – battered fish with a sprig of holly on the top. Meanwhile, on the morning of Christmas Eve, I found myself munching on a Cymru Delicious apple and flicking idly through the bumper December edition of The Welsh Detective. All over the Republic, it seemed, gangs of men dressed as Santa Claus, were accosting passers-by, giving them what they claimed to be ‘genuine Celtic’ Christmas cards and then charging them a Welsh pound for the privilege. More than once, things had turned nasty.
As if this was not enough, men disguised as Christmas Puddings were brandishing bunches of mistletoe in the faces of young (mostly attractive, it has to be said, all right, only attractive) women, and then demanding to be kissed. Elsewhere, somebody or other was busily ‘liberating’ Christmas Trees from their rightful owners’ back, and sometimes even front, gardens. When challenged by public spirited members of the public, they simply claimed that they were acting on orders from the council. Otherwise the usual false bonhomie filled the air.
All of a sudden, I heard a loud noise and commotion coming from down below. At first, I took no notice, thinking it was just the usual dissatisfied customers, demanding their money back with interest, but it got louder, and then came Stakis’s voice, calling my name. I grabbed my rounders bat from the desk and hurtled downstairs.
The scene that met my eyes needed a Welsh-speaking Rembrandt or Vermeer to do justice to it. In one corner, stood Stakis Theodorakis, brandishing his fish fryer high above his head, in an attitude of defiance, but looking as if his heart wasn’t really in it. Behind him, and looking as if they didn’t want to be there either, was somebody wearing something that, to my trained eye, looked suspiciously like a Father Christmas costume.
They were both staring at a man with a fiddle in one hand and in the other, the reins of a horse. I say horse, but in reality, the fiddler was leading a white sheet surmounted by a horse’s skull. Man and horse were advancing menacingly towards Stakis and Father Christmas. Behind the horse’s head apparition, stood three other men. They were all dressed in the traditional Mari’s dirty, ragged clothes.
I’d seen some Mari Lwyd parties in my time, but never one like this before. These men were not like the usual Maris you saw roaming the streets at Christmas time. Yes, these men wore flat caps and mufflers, but the mufflers covered the lower part of their faces, and, in their hands, they gripped stout cudgels. This group of Mari Lwyd revellers was adopting a decidedly threatening, and not very Christmassy, tone.
“Get out of my shop, or I’ll call The Republicans,” said Stakis, in the bravest voice he could muster, and waving the fish fryer at no one in particular.
“Go ahead, by the time the police get here, we’ll be long gone,” said the fiddler.
“You’ll have to go through me first,” I said. Only now did the people in the room seem to notice me. It was as if I had broken the spell holding Stakis and the Mari in thrall. Everyone turned to look at me.
“Hey, Scrooge” said one of the men, “it’s Astrid Price, you know – the rugby player.”
“So it is,” said the fiddler, the one they called Scrooge, sounding less than impressed. “Keep out of this, Price,” he said. “We‘ve no beef with you.” There was a slight twang to Scrooge’s Welsh, but I couldn’t quite place it. What was it? It sounded like North Cardigan to me.
I fingered my rounders bat carefully, weighing up the odds. One, maybe one and a half – Stakis was a fryer not a fighter – and Father Christmas didn’t look as if he was going to be much use, against… how many? Five? Six, if you counted The Horse’s Head itself. I hoped the Republicans weren’t very busy this afternoon…
Scrooge must have been thinking the same thoughts as he said, “give it up, Price, There’s only one of you against six of us.”
“Hey, what about me,” said Stakis, “don’t I count?”
“No, fish fryer,” said Scrooge, “you don’t. So how about it, Price? What do you say? You know you don’t stand a chance against us. Play your cards right and we might even sing you a Christmas Carol before we go.”
“What did you let them in for, Stakis?” I said. “they’re supposed to sing verses before you let them in.”
“I didn’t let them in,” said Stakis, “they burst in before I could stop them, they frightened my one customer away. Besides, they didn’t sing any verses.”
“That’s right,” said Scrooge, “We don’t do verses – in Welsh or English.”
Spoilsports, I thought, party-poopers, I was looking forward to exchanging Welsh verses with you, but I said, “Do what you said you were going to do, Stakis, “Call the Republicans, I’ll handle this till they get here.”
“Bad move, Price,” said Scrooge, “you’re not at the Millennium Stadium now, you know.”
“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” I said, “remember the time of year – where’s your peace and goodwill?” Maybe they were drunk, I thought. (In my experience, peace and goodwill usually go out the window after a few pints.) That’s what I hoped, at least, but somehow I doubted it. “Love and light under the mistletoe, that’s what I say.”
“Rowlocks” said Scrooge.
“What?” I said, shooting him a puzzled look.
“Rowlocks,” he said, “you know, those things they put the oars in. (Don’t ask me, I’ve no idea either, it must be the latest in phrase in North Cardigan) “Now, give us the girl,” he said, “she’s the one we’re after.”
I shot him another puzzled look. Girl? What girl? What was he talking about?’
Scrooge must have noticed my bewildered glance as he said, “the girl, give us the girl, the one in the Father Christmas costume.”
Oh, that girl, I thought, as, right on cue, the Father Christmas costume spoke for the first time.
“Don’t let them take me, Mrs Price,” it said. Scrooge was right. She was a girl. I could tell by the voice, professional training, you see, it works every time.
“You heard the lady,” I said, “leave the shop now, while you still can.”
Scrooge laughed, but I didn’t feel like laughing with him.
“Right, Price. You asked for it,” he said. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He turned to his men. “Tiny Tim, Cratchit, Marley,” he said, “get the girl. Mrs Cratchit and I will take care of Astrid Price. (I’d never heard a Mari being called Mrs Cratchit before, but there’s a first time for everything, I suppose.) You can forget about going to Midnight Mass this year, rugby player. I’m going to put you in hospital instead.”
“You don’t want any chips, then, before you go?” said Stakis, but Scrooge ignored him.
He turned to his followers, “are you ready?” he said.
“We’re ready,” they said. They, too, spoke in the distinctive North Cardigan way.
“Right then,” said Scrooge, “let’s do it.”
And then, I couldn’t believe my eyes, they launched into their own version of the Haka. I was prepared for anything and everything, but a Welsh Haka…? Well, this was something new. I would have laughed if it hadn’t been so serious, but I’ll say this for them, it was a terrifying sight, the Mari Lwyd prancing and neighing, the others jumping and chanting in Welsh, not Maori, (something along the lines of “you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, mate. What’ya gonna do about it? Surrender now and you might just get off with a good kicking” or words to that effect, this Cardiganshire dialect was sometimes a little hard to follow) and waving their cudgels.
They poked their tongues out, they bulged their eyes, they stamped their feet and slapped their cudgels together, shouting and grunting ferociously, all the while. If they were trying to intimidate us, and they were, they were doing a good job of it. Stakis and the girl looked suitably shaken and I didn’t blame them. As for me, I’d seen the real thing on the rugby field, the genuine All Black article (except those girls didn’t have cudgels with them, as I recall) and they didn’t faze me. Then, almost as soon as it had begun, it was over. In a last, grand finale, they leapt high into the air, their legs folded beneath them.
Well, they had thrown down their challenge. It was up to us now to accept it. I knew the attack would not be long in coming and it wasn’t.
“Come along, Mrs Cratchit,” said Scrooge and took a step towards me, closely followed by the horse. I thought rapidly. It’s not a real horse, I told myself. It’s only a man in a white sheet wearing the skull of a dead horse. When he charges, if he charges, pick your spot Astrid, and give him something to remember you by.
“Get ready, Stakis,” I said, “you too, Mother Christmas.”
I held my bat steady, ready for Strike One, and prepared to sell myself dearly, when I heard the welcome sound of an approaching police siren. It sounded very near. The Mari Lwyd party must have heard it too, as they looked at their leader. The noise of running footsteps getting ever closer helped him make up his mind
“Right,” said Scrooge, “we’re going, but we’ll be back. You haven’t seen the last of us, Price.”
“I can’t wait,” I said, “ I’ll get some oats in for horsey here,” but they were gone, scattering in all directions. Once they had removed their scarves, I doubted very much if the police would ever catch them. From a distance (and even from quite close up) one Mari Lwyd party looked very much like another.
“Phew,” said Stakis, “that was a close one.”
He was right, but I didn’t like to tell him so. I looked past him and the Penclawdd Cockles he had on special offer and turned to Mother Christmas.
“Do you want to see the police?” I said (for some reason, I wasn’t quite sure why, I didn’t think she would) “or would you prefer to wait in the back room until they’ve gone?”
“Oh, the back room, please, Mrs Price,” she said, “I don’t want to blow this out of proportion.”
“Right,” I said, “Stakis, get Mother Christmas in the back room. I’ll fob the police off with some story and we’ll take it from there.”
“Okay, Astrid,” he said and took the girl’s arm. Now, I looked more closely, I could see she was about twenty-one, twenty-two and with a pretty, sympathetic looking face. She looked tired, almost exhausted as if recent events had been too much for her.
Once the police had gone and Stakis had called his assistant to take charge of the shop, I was able to turn my attention to the girl in the back room. The Republicans hadn’t been too happy to be called away from their dancing around the Christmas Tree, and looked frankly suspicious, when I told them a masked Mari Lwyd party had attempted to steal all Stakis’s takings, but they promised to do their best to find them. They, and I, knew that was so much Christmas baloney. By now, Scrooge and co. were long gone, probably planning their next move. Still, it was nice to receive an official Christmas card from the force, signed by the Chief Constable of the Welsh Republican Police, and featuring a sniffer dog in animated conversation with a holly and ivy bedecked lamppost.
Mother Christmas was sitting on a chair, drinking a cup of tea, with Stakis sitting opposite her in his best Mother Hen mode. They looked relaxed and, if not quite happy, more confident than they had been just a few, short minutes ago. I wasn’t so sure. I didn’t think Scrooge and his friends would be back any time soon, but it might not be safe here. You couldn’t be too careful. We, or rather I, had to decide what to do next, but there were a few questions I needed to ask first.
“Now then, what’s all this about?” I said, “I can’t keep calling you Mother Christmas, Miss….?”
“Moriarty, Mrs Price, Anwen Moriarty. I work for the department store, Jones, Jones & Jones, you know the one in the High Street?”
I nodded. I spent a lot of time there with my face pressed up against its window, particularly when I was not on a case and short of money.
“As you rightly guessed, I’m currently playing the part of Mother Christmas. Jones, Jones & Jones like to keep up with the times, and they thought it would be a good idea to do something different this year. Father Christmas is so old hat, don‘t you think? The future definitely lies with Mother Christmas. Anyway, I’m a student, you see, and I need the vacation work. It’s not too bad. I’ve got my very own grotto and six elves to keep me company.”
“Sounds great,” I said, “but why were those men after you? They weren’t just interested in your costume, were they? They didn’t look like connoisseurs of Christmas Past and Present to me.”
“They wanted this,” she said and pulled out a small ivory box from the folds of her costume. As she opened the box, Stakis let out a long, low whistle of astonishment.
“Well, I’ll go to the top of Snowdon,” he said.
As for me, well, you could have knocked me down with a combine harvester. We both stared, open-mouthed, first at the box then at the girl.
To be continued…
Stay tuned for the second part of (Have Yourself) A Very Cymru Christmas on Friday 17th and the final part on Sunday 19th
If you’d like to read more about Astrid Price by Alan Roderick, you can order ASTRID INVESTIGATES: The Complete Astrid Price Short Stories here.
Find out more about Alan on his Amazon page.