Laurie drew breath suddenly as the woman stepped back from the counter without looking and banged into his bad leg.
"Sorry," she said. Her apology was cursory, made without even looking at him as she moved toward the shop door.
"Yes, sir? What can I get you?"
It was his turn. "I came in last week and asked for a chicken to be put by for me, if you were able."
But the butcher shook his head. The look on his face told the news even before he spoke.
"Sorry, sir. Everyone wants one for Christmas but I wasn't able to get enough in. I did manage to put a couple of pork chops by for you, though."
"Yes, of course," said Laurie pleasantly.
He supposed the chickens had been kept for families. His mood brightened though as he saw the pork chops the butcher brought from the back of the shop. They really were nice large ones. Laurie passed over his ration book along with the money, so the coupons could be clipped. Neatly wrapped in waxed paper and tied with a bit of string, the chops joined the rest of his shopping in the already bulging string bag, and Laurie left the butcher's heading homeward. He'd had no trouble finding carrots and potatoes and turnips. The grocer had also had a fresh supply of Brussels sprouts and some chestnuts. Roast chicken would have added a special touch but, even with pork chops, they were all set for a special meal tomorrow. He had saved an end of a loaf of bread to use for stuffing, along with a bit of dried sage.
He had just placed the bag on the step and was fishing in his pocket for the front door key, when it opened. His landlady.... Laurie's heart sank. He could be caught for ages, if he weren't careful. She was the one thorn in the rose of their flat: a nosy busybody who loved to gossip. Somehow Ralph always seemed able to charm her more effectively – well the uniform helped, he supposed.
"Hello, Mr Odell."
"Mrs Higgs, how are you?"
"Very well, thank you, though I am in a bit of a hurry just now. I was very glad to see you coming up the street, as I have to go in a minute or I'll miss my bus. I'm spending the holiday with my sister's family, you know."
Laurie did indeed know; he had heard all about it last week when he had picked up his post. It was one of the little irritations of living in a building originally intended to be a large house, which had subsequently been converted to flats. They were all quite separate, which was a blessing. No sharing of the bathroom or kitchen, like the last flat Ralph had had. However the post was delivered through one common letterbox in the front door; and it was a rare occasion when anyone managed to get to it before the landlady, even when it arrived before they had gone to work.
"This just came for you." Mrs Higgs proffered an envelope. "It's lucky I saw you before I went out. I wouldn't have wanted to just leave it."
No, Laurie thought, of course she couldn't have done that, even though there was a small entranceway table that would have been perfectly suitable for the purpose.
"Thank you," he said, dutifully, knowing what was expected of him. He shoved the letter into his right pocket without looking at it. "You are too kind."
Mrs Higgs smiled. "That's all right, then. I know how it is; you at the Ministry and your friend in the Services, both having to work over Christmas. Letters from home are little enough comfort; I couldn't let you be without it, even if it has made me later than planned. I really must be going, though. I'm sorry; I know how much you enjoy our chats, but I definitely need to catch the next bus." She reached behind her for a Gladstone bag. Laurie politely held the door open for her as she stepped through, and a moment later she was gone.
Laurie picked up his bags, and made his way slowly up the stairs to the flat he shared with Ralph. It didn't take long to put the shopping away. Ralph wasn't home yet, though a glance at the clock showed it wouldn't be long before he returned. Laurie made a pot of tea and settled into a comfortable chair in front of the fireplace. He shivered slightly and reached over to light the gas fire before he pulled the letter, slightly crumpled now, from his pocket.
It was from his mother. He recognised her handwriting. He wondered why she was writing now. She had been disappointed when he told her he had to work, but understood it was for a good cause. He'd visited three weekends ago, in some sort of compensation. It had been an uneasy visit, full of awkward conversations with Mr Straike, who insisted on calling him 'Lawrence'. At the station, just before he'd boarded the train to come back home, his mother had handed him a little round tin with a small fruit cake "to have at Christmas" she'd murmured, as she hastily pressed a kiss on his cheek before he mounted the steps. She wrote every week, chatty letters full of detail about her visits round the parish. He'd received one only two days before; he hadn't been expecting another until next week. Laurie slit open the envelope carefully with a letter opener he had received from Ralph last Christmas.
'Dear Laurie,' the letter began. It went on, in the usual fashion, to discuss preparations round the parish for the holidays, but departed from formula abruptly once his Aunt Olive's arrival was mentioned. He read on in amazement. '...so you see it is the most marvellous idea for a lovely get-together....'
Laurie looked up in mild surprise when Patch jumped up and snatched the letter from his lap.
"Down boy!" Ralph's voice had an air of authority that the dog responded to, even as he ignored Laurie's efforts to push him off the chair. Ralph stood at the door to the flat; Patch's lead dangled from one hand. Laurie realised he'd been so engrossed in mulling over the contents of his mother's missive, he'd been oblivious to the passing of time.
"Get everything you wanted at the shops?" asked Ralph, as he pulled off his coat and hung it on a hook on the wall beside the door.
"Pretty much," replied Laurie. "No chicken, of course, but the butcher had some nice thick chops."
"Sounds good," said Ralph, pouring himself a cup of tea before sitting in a chair opposite from Laurie. He stretched his legs out till his feet rested against the outside of Laurie's, sandwiching them between. "Interesting letter?"
"It's from Mother."
Ralph lifted one eyebrow in enquiry.
"She's come up with an idea how we can visit for Christmas."
"Oh, yes," said Laurie. "She says: 'bring that nice friend of yours too, if he hasn't gone to see his family.' Here," Laurie handed across the letter, "have a look."
It only took a few minutes before Ralph had finished reading and looked at Laurie. "Do you want to go?"
Laurie contemplated his hands, looking a bit sheepish. "I'd rather just be with you. I know it's Christmas and one is supposed to be with family.... Do you want to go?"
"You're my family." Ralph stood and placed the letter on the mantel over the fireplace. "Perhaps we can join them for New Year." He rested his hand briefly on the top of Laurie's head and stroked his hair gently. Laurie smiled, and stretched his neck like a cat as Ralph's hand rubbed it.
"New Year's it is, then. We'll be our own family this Christmas."