Charlie’s latest newsletter – two free stories to start the new year

Happy new year! Wishing all of you all the very best for 2022.
 
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Finishing the year with two (count them!) free stories appropriately for the season, one’s old and one’s new. The old story is in the Cambridge Fellows universe, with Jonty and Orlando celebrating New Year in their unique way. (Fanart care of the wonderful Elin Gregory.)
 

 
Ring in the New
 
“Wind’s getting up.” Jonty called, as he looked out of the sun lounge window—or was it snow lounge window?—at scudding clouds, hounding the winter sun from the sky. “I never thought I’d find a place colder than Cambridge, short of the North Pole, but this is it.” He unraveled the cord to pull down the blinds.
“No, leave it, if you will. I like to see the snow over the water.” Orlando had to shout as well, to be heard over the wind and at a room’s remove. The house on the river belonged to Rex Prefontaine’s mother—she’d come here as a child for long hot summers spent on the waters or down at the beach. She let her family have the use of it, but people rarely came between Thanksgiving and the spring equinox. Only visitors from foreign shores, who’d find a Massachusetts winter a novelty, dared to set out for a sojourn over New Year.
“It’s fine for you to say ‘leave it’. You’re not standing in here, in a draught—you’re cosied up by the fire.” Still, Jonty left the blinds up. It had been a wonderful view out into the sunset, the last remnants of which still lingered on the horizon.
“Then put on a thicker jumper or a scarf or something.” Orlando got up from his chair and came over. As soon as he opened the internal door, the cold hit him afresh. “Ruddy Norah, it feels like the arctic in here. Come back into the lounge like a sensible boy. Look at the snow from there.”
Jonty, for once, obeyed his lover without a fight. “Do you think we’ll get a fresh fall today?”
“I think it likely, given the colour of that sky. We could be stranded.” Orlando didn’t seem too worried. “We have fuel and, so long as the well’s accessible, water. You might run out of chocolate, though.”
“I thought you said we’d always be able to get along the road to the general store. I quite enjoyed trudging up there this morning. So long as they’ve got chocolate I’ll be happy.” Jonty rubbed his hands before the fire’s glow. “And a telegraph, so we can keep home informed. Sorry, Mama, see you in April…”
 
You can finish off the story here.
 
And now for the new…this was written for the local Romantic Novelists’ Association secret Santa story swop (try saying that after a gin or two).
 
Pressure of work. Nicholas could have written the manual on it.
This is what it must have been like being on blockade duty in the time of Nelson. Long periods of boredom interspersed with intense activity, although Nicholas’s work pattern was more predictable than the sailors’ would have been and he didn’t have the stress of waiting for signs of the French leaving port.
Lucia was more equable about things. “It’s the family business, dear. You’ve known what it would be like to take over the reins since you were little.”
She was right. Lucia was usually right, despite having only married into the operation. She’d been a Godsend, though—planning, organising, finding ways to spread the workload more evenly rather than focussed on certain key dates. Good at keeping the workforce happy, too, which was never easy, given how many they employed.
Sometimes he felt…not quite frustrated, more dissatisfied, even though he had been aware of what was expected of him from the moment he was old enough to understand.
“Someday all this will be yours,” his father had said one morning, sweeping his hand to take in the factories, the dispatch areas, the central administrative core and the other parts which kept the business running. Nicholas had only been nine, blown away by the size of what was involved in getting the job done, realising for the first time that his dad would grow old, retire from the board—that was the family tradition—move to the dower house and leave his eldest son in charge. Later he’d realised there’d be pressure on him to produce an heir, as his forefathers had done. None of it was a problem: he’d been born to it, like royalty. The heir to the throne waiting to step into the monarch’s shoes when he abdicated.
Still, Nicholas couldn’t help feeling the business would run perfectly well without him, that he was nothing more than a figurehead, albeit a much loved and appreciated one.
“Lucia,” he said one evening in November, over a post-dinner glass of wine, “don’t you ever feel that we should simply go on a cruise for the whole of December and leave everyone to it? The work would still get done.”
Lucia smiled. “I’m sure that’s so but people would notice.”
“They’d think I was slacking?”
“Not exactly. What I meant is that they’d miss your presence. The boss never goes AWOL at this time of year, even if his main role is to jolly everyone else along and make those keynote personal appearances.” She paused. “Do you really mean it? Is it getting too much?”
“Not so much too much as not enough, somehow. It was all a great challenge at first, what with coping with the increase in demand—we’d been running on fumes for too long—and updating the systems.”
“One of the first things I remember after meeting you was that argument you had with your grandfather about computers. He didn’t even approve of Pac-man.” Lucia laid her hand gently on his arm. “I think that’s when I fell in love with you. I admired your vision and determination to do the right thing, even if it wasn’t the easiest. If the business would continue to operate without you being in the building, that’s because of the work you’ve done through the years.”
“I suppose you’re right. As always.” There was no rancour in the remark: they formed a good team.
“You’ve never been at risk of having a Gerald Ratner type moment, either. Imagine your uncle having been in charge.” Lucia chuckled but it was nothing to laugh about. Bill had a serious case of foot in mouth and could quite easily have made an, “Our products are crap,” kind of remark without realising what the consequences might be.
“Very true. I should count my blessings. There’s always the shutdown for January and time in the Caribbean to look forward to. And Christine coming back from Cambridge.”
The other light of Nicholas’s life, the daughter they’d had after years of trying. Not the first: that child, he or she, hadn’t survived the first few months of pregnancy and after that they’d given up hope. To the extent of warning Nicholas’s sister that at some point her young son might have to be appraised of the notion that he’d be the one in charge of the family firm eventually. Then Christine had come along, beautiful and precious and bright as the dog star.
She’d be home from Newnham and her beloved Natural Sciences soon, to experience her first Christmas as an adult. Some of her friends said the magic had worn off for them but not for her. Stockings, games, the family traditions unique to them, the family gatherings and the proper celebration of the twelve days of Christmas—they’d always made the most of the period up to twelfth night, given how busy advent was. Like several businesses, they kept their company celebration for January, just before the shutdown, when life wasn’t quite as manic. 
“I’m glad uni breaks up relatively early. She can pitch in.” Nicholas raised his hand to forestall any comment. “No, I’m not going to slave-drive her. She can have a few days off before I even drop a hint.”
“Knowing Christine she’ll be wanting to lend a hand straight away. She knows she has to learn the ropes. Irrespective of what your father might think.” Lucia accompanied the remark with a smile but they both knew that what she referred to was a serious matter.
The firm had never been run by a female and Nicholas’s dad had made his feelings known on the point when it had become clear that Christine was going to be an only child. He’d had a touch too much to drink and the old in vino veritas took hold. He’d asked what the company was going to do, how they’d ever deal with such an unprecedented situation given the weight of expectation from both employees and customers. Nicholas wasn’t unsympathetic to what his father had said—it was a big issue, breaking with a tradition that had a much bigger implication than the boardroom.
It had been Nicholas’s grandfather, also present at the discussion and much more sober than his son, who’d fought Christine’s corner most effectively. Hadn’t it been obvious from when she was a toddler, he’d pointed out, that she was a born organiser, showing a damn sight more intelligence and common sense than any of them had at the same age?
“Breath of fresh air, she’ll be, Nick. I hope I’m around to see it.” Whether the remark had been addressed to Nicholas or his dad—all the firstborn sons in the family were lumbered with that name—it didn’t matter. They’d both taken it to heart.
The old man was still around, thriving in his dotage, although it would be unlikely he’d get his wish to see Christine at the reins, unless Nicholas took early retirement. Although…
“Lucia. What do you think about a job share?”
“Me? Whose job exactly would I be sharing?” Lucia’s expression left Nicholas in no doubt that was the kind of thing she wouldn’t be touching with a barge pole.
“Not you. Me and Christine. Not until she’s finished her studies, of course, although I’d like to float it past her before that.” In case she pulls the same sort of face at the notion as you’ve just done.
“I think that’s a brilliant idea. It would be good for you, as well, to put together a career development plan for her. I can help with that if you want.” HR was one of Lucia’s many areas of expertise. “Although it would need to be your thing, not mine. And Christine’s. Ownership rather than imposition.”
Nicholas grinned at her using the slogan. It was part of the management style she’d brought to the company from outside. Even his reactionary father had come to appreciate the way she’d helped modernise the business and re-motivate a workforce for whom the magic had started to be lost.
Lost magic. Perhaps that was partly his problem, too. He needed to reawaken the sense of wonder and perhaps working with Christine, seeing things through her eyes, would be the way to do it. “Do you think she’d like to come out on the big delivery run? I can’t imagine it would be a teenager’s idea of a fun Christmas Eve.”
“Ask her. If I were a betting woman, I’d have fifty on her saying yes. And maybe another fifty on her having been waiting for you to make the suggestion.” Lucia snuggled closer on the large sofa. “She’s her own woman but she’s still her father’s child. Father Christmas’s chip off the old ice block.”
“I can’t help worry, though. What will the children think if they wake and catch a glimpse of her doing the stocking run?”
“They’ll think it’s great, especially the girls. Female monarchs, female Prime Ministers, female Nobel Prize winners, female footballers. Perhaps the world’s more ready for Mother Christmas than you give it credit for.”
 
 
Charlie

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