Chris Wadsworth
Percy Kelly - Looking East to the Ennerdale Fells
Writer and Art Consultant

13th December 2012

A CHRISTMAS STORY

I know that many of you are waiting impatiently for the next book so as a small present for you all -  here is a short Christmas story to tide you over until it is published. Hope you enjoy it.

 

THE PERFECT PRESENT

 

We should never have come. I could see trouble ahead as we drove into the car park. There were about fifty of them dumped on the forecourt outside the auction house. They weren't in the catalogue. If they had been, I would have binned it the moment it dropped through the letter box. I might have suddenly thought up an important appointment he had to keep, a client to see or an urgent mountain to climb.

There were square ones, battered ones, broken and fractured ones, some with dried up plants and soil in them. A few were covered in lichens, moss and yellow crottle. There were also ten of those toadstool shaped stones that prop up barns. To top it off there were a couple of massive stone eagles perched on balls and a line of Corinthian columns placed horizontally for health and safety reasons to tempt those with delusions of grandeur.

'Let me just look at that catalogue,' he said stretching out his hand before I'd parked the car. 'How did I miss these?'

'Maybe because we came to look at paintings,' I muttered.

His eyes gleamed as he rifled through the catalogue for the second time. They were the eyes of a fanatic. 'They're not listed,' he said. 'Nobody knows about them. If they're included in this sale they'll be a snip.'

Our garden is witness to this trough obsession. It's full of them - with ancillary sundials, bird baths and mill stones. The removal men loved it when we moved house. They needed a separate van to take the weight and used ingenious primitive stone-age methods of putting them in place: industrial sack trucks, crowbars, spades and testosterone fuelled muscle power. They are good to look at but how many troughs does a man need? Of course need doesn't enter the equation with an obsessive.

Oh dear! Auctions are dangerous places.

Clutching a hastily typed auxiliary list swiftly obtained from the reception desk he was back out there eagerly evaluating and gloating before I'd even locked the car.

'Hey, as I suspected - nobody knows about these,' he said as I approached. 'They're late entries; not illustrated, not listed. And there's no reserve. I checked.'

I cast my eye down the estimated prices –some were in mere double figures, others were in the low hundreds. Twice a year I have to think up a gift idea for this ascetic man who only has what he needs, eschews possessions for possession sake and gets rid of anything he can't justify immediately. He only collects specific, very perfect things. Lumps of stone (and me) are the exceptions. I impulsively said I would buy him the trough of his choice as a Christmas gift: problem solved and it would keep him occupied for some time this pre-sale viewing morning – an extra bonus. Like a mother who has put her little one in a creche, I went off to look at the paintings and sneak a quiet cup of coffee: time to think and evaluate in this hour of contentment.

An hour later and he was still out there, oblivious of the sharp December wind, drooling over the largest one – a pig trough. It was big and round, more than a metre in diameter. It was shaped like a vacharin mould - thick rounded circumference dipping smoothly into the moat for the swill, rising up again in the centre like a volcanic plug. I had to admit I'd never seen anything like it before. He didn't notice the ironic tone of my comment.

'I've chosen. This is the one,' he said, eyes shining. Like a man who has just been smitten by love, he was blind to everything else around him. He had forgotten why we had come: he only had eyes for this massive lump of millstone grit. I was already beginning to regret my impulsive offer. This was going to involve much more than writing a cheque for a hundred pounds or so.

Leaving him caressing the trough of his dreams, I rang Mac the Mover – our local miracle man. He can move anything. He was the man who had moved our personal Stonehenge ten years ago. He knew what he was up against. I didn't ask about his hernia.

'What do you reckon this one weighs then?' Mac asked cautiously.

'Quite a few tons – not sure how many' I said quickly and heard the intake of breath, the sucking of teeth.

'Yessss,' he said slowly. He didn't sound keen. 'So it's bigger than anything we've moved for you before eh?'

'Yes, a lot,' I had to admit.

' And you say it's about eighty miles away. Supposing I do come to collect it for you - how are you going to get it on and off my wagon? Sounds like you'll need a crane.'

'You know those electric lift things you have on the back of vans ......' I ventured. He cut me off with a scornful laugh.

'My electric tail gate can't lift that darling. It'd break it.'

Oh dear, life is never simple is it? Why can't he collect stamps or miniatures? I could see costs escalating out of control.

At the reception desk they told me the whole collection had arrived the previous day on a big lorry. It was the lifetime's collection of one man – another obsessive. They pointed out that it was the buyer's responsibility to collect their purchase after the sale. I knew that all too well.

'So how did you get them off the lorry then?' I asked

'There's a contractor on the industrial estate next door. He lifted them off with a crane.'

I trotted round and had a word with him. He'd do 'ours' for twenty quid. But what about our end? No contractor there. I then rang our helpful neighbour who agreed he would and could lift it off with his tractor at the home end.

I felt pleased at my problem solving skills. 'This is what running a business teaches you' I thought smugly. For the first time in ten years I'd got the most difficult man to buy for sorted well in advance of the festive season. I was proud - self satisfied. Hey it would sound good wouldn't it? Friends would ask 'And what did you get for Christmas?' and he would casually reply 'Oh Chris bought me a pig trough'. I laughed at the thought That would be original. Always the drama queen, I was becoming enthusiastic for the first time ever about a lump of stone.

'How far can I go?' he asked as we made our way to the sale the next day. I was letting him do the bidding - all part of the gift package.

'Go as far as you want,' I said indulgently. Well they weren't going to fetch much because nobody knew about them did they? And there can't be that many people in the world who might want a stone trough - especially one of epic unmanageable proportions. The crane man confirmed that nobody else had 'booked' him for any trough lifting. It was in the bag!

People were drifting off when they got to the garden stuff at the end of the second day of the sale, just a few stragglers followed the auctioneer outside while he swiftly worked his way down the lot numbers purging to get off home for his tea. He was firing off the bids in a sing-song rhythm, banging his gavel on his clipboard at a cracking pace; his assistant behind him with matching clipboard was silently recording details as they progressed along the line. Dusk was falling. The few people hanging about were apathetic. The sums achieved were pathetic. At last lot number 1741 came up. I wasn't paying much attention – just tagging on at the fringe gently day dreaming. I was just there to write the cheque. Bidding started at £100 and went up quickly by increments to £1000. What? I suddenly became very interested. I pushed in closer. He still kept nodding, not meeting my eye. I was going to have to mortgage the cat or take in lodgers or something. I was in panic.

'Any advance on £1500?' the auctioneer asked staring intently at him. 'Do I hear £1800 sir?' He nodded. I fixed him with a gorgon stare. There was a pause long enough and quiet enough for me to hear my heart thumping in my chest. Then to my relief another bid came in and he shook his head as the auctioneer's eyebrow was raised once again in his direction. He had his sad face on.

A new bidder jumped in. Where had he appeared from then? £2200 then came from the back quickly followed by a telephone bid, then another and it became a duel for possession. You only need two people who want something badly and - bingo! The hammer went down at £3700.

There was a stunned silence.

'And then there's the 20% commission and VAT - everything on top. It'll be well over £4000' I whispered in commiseration, doing rapid rough calculations. 'And then all the transport costs.'

I'd had a narrow escape.

He had to admit it was the most expensive pig trough on the planet as he walked back to the car, shoulders down, dragging his feet.

'There'll be other troughs ' I said, 'and you have got a lot haven't you?'

'It was unique,' he said ruefully. 'I haven't got a pig trough. There'll never be another one.'

I've got him books, CDs and a bag of Percy Pigs for Christmas. Maybe the latter is one cruel step too far. I might have to eat those secretly myself. What an anti climax. But no matter - it would have been a swine to gift wrap.

Copyright chriswadsworth2012 .

 

 

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