‘Dim uchelwydd, dim lwc.’
AN OLD WELSH PROVERB – NO MISTLETOE, NO LUCK
‘Now, the most important topic on tonight’s agenda – a date for my daughter to the Mistletoe Dance.’
I shrink in my seat at the side of the stage. There are some benefits to your mum being leader of the town’s resident committee, but this is not one of them.
‘Mum,’ I hiss. ‘That is not the most important thing, tonight or any night.’
Before I’ve finished, Mr Arkins, a pensioner who runs a dinosaur shop and remains permanently in character by wearing a dinosaur costume at all times, has raised his hand.
‘Thank you, Mr Arkins,’ my mum says smoothly. ‘I was hoping for someone a tad younger, but we’ll keep you in mind, seeing as Essie is determined to go alone this year. It’s nice of you to volunteer. Again.’
I cover my face with my hands. Just when I think things can’t get any worse, an old gent dressed as a dinosaur takes pity on me. I begged my mum not to do anything embarrassing tonight, but no parent ever listens when they can embarrass their offspring in public, do they?
‘Well, you know where to find us if you’re at a loose end on the twenty-third of December and want to take Essie to the Mistletoe Dance. I promise she scrubs up nicely and doesn’t always have flour on her face.’
‘Mum!’ I wonder if anyone ever has, actually, died of embarrassment? If not, I feel it’s a distinct possibility tonight, and I rub a hand over my cheek self-consciously. I’m almost positive I checked myself in the mirror before leaving the bakery, but flour on faces is a regular occurrence. See also: sprinkles in hair, chocolate on clothes, icing on forehead.
‘Right then, the next topic of tonight’s meeting – there is no mistletoe in Mistletoe Gardens.’
‘Mum,’ I hiss again. ‘There’s plenty of mistletoe. There’s just nothing else.’
‘Oh, yes, I know, but it sounded delightfully theatrical, didn’t it? Got to engage the crowd.’ She titters and turns back to said crowd. ‘Usually the local council would’ve begun the makeover of Mistletoe Gardens by now, but it’s already late November and they haven’t started yet. Tonight we’re joined by Mervyn Prichard, leader of Folkhornton council, who has come to offer an explanation for their tardiness this year.’
Mervyn Prichard is sitting next to me at the stage edge, and he audibly gulps as Mum invites him to her podium at the front of the town hall. He’s wearing a hard hat and a neon safety vest and looking like he wishes they were
both bulletproof armour. I have a bad feeling about what he’s going to say. Surely the only reason to wear a hard hat indoors is if he’s expecting people to throw things at him.
Mistletoe Gardens is the best thing about Folkhornton. Throughout the year, it’s just a park, a Victorian-era green space at the edge of town, but every December, it’s transformed into a winter wonderland. Once the leaves have fallen from the trees, the only thing that remains in the bare boughs are the masses of mistletoe that give the park its name. The council workers string fairy lights around tree branches, and there’s a circular walkway that passes underneath every tree, illuminated with glittering Christmas lights. The gates open after dark and blissfully happy couples come to walk beneath the mistletoe, sharing kisses at the base of every tree. There’s an old legend that says anyone who kisses under the mistletoe on a December night is guaranteed another year of love and happiness in their relationship.
And that’s certainly true in my family. It was my great-great-grandmother who sowed the first mistletoe back in 1848, and every generation since has a romantic story of sharing kisses with a significant other in Mistletoe Gardens every Christmas. Except for me. I’m thirty-six and still the only member of my family who’s never had anyone to kiss under it. A fact that my mum never lets me forget.
Mervyn Prichard’s knees look like they’re shaking as he approaches the podium and looks out at the gathered Folkhornton residents. As a council leader, he must be used to addressing large crowds, although maybe there’s not always a bloke dressed as a dinosaur sitting in the front row. That’s enough to make anyone nervous.
‘Now the thing is…’ He swallows and if I didn’t think he was about to tell us something horrible, I’d take pity on him and offer a glass of water. ‘Unfortunately, due to financial constraints, Mistletoe Gardens is no more.’
A gasp of shock floods through the crowd.
‘There will be no winter wonderland this year. The council have taken the decision to flatten Mistletoe Gardens completely in January, and then construction will begin on a new apartment complex, which will provide
many jobs, bring new people to the area, and reinvigorate our town. I’m sure you’ll all agree this is a much more sensible use of the space.’
Even though I had a feeling something bad was coming, I didn’t think it would be this bad. This is awful. I can’t imagine our little town without Mistletoe Gardens. On those magical December nights, it becomes a Christmas market too. Local shopkeepers set up stalls to sell a selection of handmade goods, crafts, and food and drink. Mum and I have a stall for the bakery, and I love spending December evenings there, serving loved-up couples with heart-shaped spiced shortbread, gingerbread iced with a mistletoe pattern, and mince pies topped with fondant holly leaves, sipping hot chocolate, and vicariously experiencing the romance of Mistletoe Gardens.
The anger in the room is palpable. I was joking when I thought people might start throwing things, but some residents are definitely looking around for projectiles.
Mervyn Prichard is obviously getting worried too. ‘Mistletoe Gardens no longer earns its keep. It’s costing an increasing amount to maintain, and the winter wonderland isn’t as popular as it was in years gone by. Tourists simply aren’t interested these days. And the silly myth about a kiss under the mistletoe granting couples another year of health and happiness… No one really believes that. People don’t believe in magic any more. No one will miss Mistletoe Gardens.’
‘I’ll miss it,’ someone says near the back of the hall and it starts a chorus through the residents.
‘Well, I’m sorry, Mr Prichard, but that simply won’t do.’ My mum approaches the other side of the microphone. ‘The resident committee will not allow you to destroy the only green space this town has. Where will we go to eat our lunch on summer days? The only place we can walk our dogs, or have picnics, or that children can kick a ball around. Where will we have outdoor yoga classes with our friends?’
‘Where will I hold my Wild Crochet Club?’ Beryl, who owns a knitting shop, asks. ‘Wild’ suggests an outdoor crochet group, and while that’s exactly what
it is, ‘wild’ can also be applied to some of their more interesting creations. She’s sitting at the front, merrily crocheting a zombie version of Santa.
‘The only things who have any lingering attachment to it are the pigeons who attack anyone daring to walk through with a cone of chips,’ Mervyn continues. ‘It’s dead space sitting at the edge of our town – space that can be well used in other ways.’
‘There has to be something we can do,’ Mr Arkins pipes up, his words muffled behind the dino suit.
‘You can’t wipe out such a huge part of our town’s history without letting us have a say!’ Lynette from the chemist shouts. ‘That park has stood there since Victorian times. Queen Victoria once kissed Prince Albert underneath our mistletoe! That must give it heritage status! Who of us here hasn’t kissed someone we love under that magical mistletoe on a cold December night?’
Well, I haven’t, but now isn’t the time to mention it, or my mum will be asking for volunteers to kiss me, not just to be my date for the Mistletoe Dance.
‘Folkhornton council makes decisions for the good of the town, and I am confident you’ll all come round in the next few months, even if you can’t see the benefits now.’ Mervyn Prichard sounds anything but confident.
‘Condescending wazzock!’ Mum gives him a look capable of turning a cow into a hamburger at ten paces.
Similar shouts erupt from the others, although few of them stick to descriptions as polite as ‘wazzock’.
‘Let’s talk about this like civilised people, from one leader to another.’ Mum gestures for Mervyn Prichard to step behind the stage curtain with her and then flaps a hand at me. ‘Essie, take over!’
Take over? Me? There’s angry murmuring throughout the residents and I have no idea how to calm them down. I approach the podium on shaking legs, listening out for a yelp in case she wallops him. It wouldn’t be the first time.
What am I doing here? I was supposed to be leading a round of brainstorming for
Santa’s replacement grotto, not getting to grips with a room that’s been left reeling, and trying to referee a fight between my mum and a man who’s been her rival since secondary school. From friendly competition to a love-hate relationship to full-on loathing.
‘Um, so…’ My mum is a natural public speaker who thrives under the adoration of expectant gazes. I am not. ‘As you know, Santa’s been evicted from his usual spot in the supermarket, so we need to find a new home for his grotto this year…’ I nod to the man on the right side of stage, in full Santa regalia despite the fact there isn’t a child in sight.
There’s yelling coming from backstage and it’s absolutely plain that everyone wants to listen to that and not to me. My face has gone so red that it’ll camouflage completely with my hair, which I’ve just dyed a bright Christmas red in honour of the festive season.
Eventually, my mum emerges, smoothing her skirt down with a satisfaction only usually felt after despatching a particularly large spider found lurking in the bath, and Mervyn scuttles out after her, rubbing his arm like it really did descend into violence.
‘While we appreciate resident feedback, Folkhornton council is committed to doing what’s best for the town, and this new apartment complex will bring in a level of investment unseen for decades. The decision is final – the contracts are signed.’ He looks around uneasily.
My heart sinks. ‘What about the winter wonderland this year? If the build isn’t starting until January, there’s still time to get everything set up this Christmas – one last time. You could at least give Mistletoe Gardens the send-off it deserves.’
‘I’m sorry, Miss Browne, it isn’t worth the time, manpower, and cost of sending out a team of workmen. Tourists won’t come – just like they didn’t last year, or the year before, or the year bef—’
‘We could do it!’ Mr Arkins calls.
‘Yeah, we’re not giving up on it! We could decorate it ourselves,’ someone else says.
Mum looks to the gathered residents. ‘We need to show them that Mistletoe Gardens means something to this town. Folkhornton wouldn’t be Folkhornton
without our magical mistletoe and our December nights spent underneath it. Essie’s right – it deserves a decent send-off at least.’
Everyone’s looking at me expectantly, and I’m not quite sure how I got in the middle of this. The mistletoe is our family’s legacy. There are two framed photographs on the wall in the bakery – one of the gingerbread house display my great-great-grandmother made for Queen Victoria’s arrival, and one of Queen Victoria herself eating my great-great-grandmother’s gingerbread in Mistletoe Gardens on the day she came to Folkhornton to officially open it in 1848.
Murmurs of potential tourist-attracting events rustle through the crowd, and they’re all good suggestions, but none of it is enough. We don’t need a series of events to get people talking – we need to do something spectacular. Something bigger than the council’s new apartment complex. Something that’s going to make people sit up and take notice of Mistletoe Gardens. Something that’s going to go viral on social media, that’s going to put our story of magical mistletoe onto a world stage.
Mistletoe Gardens started with gingerbread… Maybe it should end with gingerbread too. A karmic full circle thing. A send-off to mark its departure in the same way it began.
‘How about gingerbread?’ I suggest so quietly that only a few people in the front row hear. ‘A display like my great-great-grandmother made to celebrate the opening. We could recreate that. Use the old Victorian recipe she once used…’
‘It’s a little small, Ess. I can’t see tourists travelling for miles to visit a few modestly decorated gingerbread houses…’
‘Small!’ An idea flashes into my head in full living colour. ‘That’s it! Not small! The opposite of a small gingerbread house display! A giant gingerbread house! A life-size one!’
The murmurs that crackle through the room this time suggest I’m a few fries short of a Happy Meal, but the idea gathers speed so fast that I forget I’m in front of a microphone and barrel onwards. ‘Think about it – we’ve got a Santa without a grotto and we need to do something big for Mistletoe Gardens, even if it’s only a final goodbye. No one’s going
to talk about a few events, but people are going to talk about a real-life full-size gingerbread house. People are going to visit Santa if his grotto is inside a gingerbread house. It’ll be a nod to what my great-great-grandmother did for the opening day – gingerbread, but modernised. And hopefully it will attract the kind of crowds that Mistletoe Gardens attracted back in the day because we could do with even a fraction of the people shown in those old photographs!’
‘Is a life-size gingerbread house even possible?’ Mum side-eyes me.
Maybe I should be worried that my mum who – when she’s not busy terrorising council leaders and trying to set me up on dates – is head baker at Dancing Cinnamon bakery doesn’t think it’s possible.
It must be possible… right? ‘We make gingerbread houses all the time. Why can’t we work on a slightly bigger scale? A really, really big scale?’
The thought makes me feel like a child again. I can imagine the wonder of staring up at a life-size fully edible house towering above me, peaks of bright-white royal icing and twinkling gumdrops of giant proportions.
But when standing on a stage in front of a crowd and getting overexcited about something, deathly silence is not generally the desired response.
‘Oh, come on. Where’s your imagination? We need something that’s going to get people talking about Mistletoe Gardens – something that people are going to come to see. If there’s nothing we can do to save Mistletoe Gardens, then we can at least send it out with a bang.’
‘That bang might be our ovens exploding, Ess,’ Mum whispers. ‘Do you have any idea how much gingerbread that’s going to take? How much time it will take to put it together – if it’s even possible to get a structure of that size to stand up?’
Well, no, because I haven’t thought about the logistics yet, but I’m a firm believer in ideas coming at exactly the right moment and things working out when you need them to. I’m fizzing inside at the idea of building a gingerbread
house to such a large scale. ‘Can you imagine how magical it would be for a child to go to visit Santa in a real gingerbread house? The smell, the look, the taste. It would be like something from a fairytale. A part of a winter wonderland that no one will ever forget.’
‘Wouldn’t it get wet in the rain?’ Edna, the retired librarian, calls. ‘This is South Wales, we’re not known for our dry and sunny winters.’
Oh, snowdrops, I hadn’t thought of that. You can’t leave gingerbread outside, it would melt in the first shower, and she’s right, we’re not short of rain in this valley. There has to be a way around it… ‘The old bandstand! It’s more than big enough to fit a house in, and it’s got a roof, so the gingerbread would be protected.’
‘And what about that sleety, driving rain that comes down sideways with howling wind?’
‘We could put something around the edges… a circus tent or something. I don’t know. It’s a spur of the moment idea, obviously it needs some planning first, but it’s the best plan we’ve got so far…’ As usual, I do not excel at having confidence in myself and my ideas. I was hoping for a slightly better response than the indifferent mutterings that sweep through the audience.
‘Ess, who’s going to do this?’ Mum sidles closer and whispers from the side of her mouth while projecting a bright smile outwards. ‘You?’
‘Of course. I’d love to. What an amazing way to spend December and honour our family and the tradition our grandmother started. She sowed the first mistletoe – it’s brought a lot of joy to Folkhornton over the years. If it’s going to be the last time, people should remember her.’
‘I can help,’ my best friend and co-worker, Saffie, says from her seat in the front row.
‘You can’t both do it! What am I supposed to do for staff at the bakery? There’s only the three of us and you know how often I have to dash out for my resident committee duties.’ Mum’s face contorts in distress. ‘Do you have any idea how long this is going to take? Do you even know how
to build a life-size house out of biscuits?’
‘No, I haven’t got a clue, I’m going to need help on that front, a builder or someth—’
‘Right, attention, folks!’ Mum claps her hands in front of the microphone, so loud that it attracts the attention of not just this room, but probably a fair half of the rest of Wales too. ‘Essie’s volunteering to build the gingerbread house, but there’s the small issue that she doesn’t know how. Anyone out there have experience of building houses?’
In slow motion, every eye in the room swivels to a corner at the back. Slouched in a chair at the furthest edge of the room is Joseph Hallissey Junior, owner of Hallissey Construction, a building company well known around this area. Joseph, who always attends these town meetings but never speaks or offers any input whatsoever, has a black baseball cap pulled so far down that I doubt he can see out, a black scarf pulled so far up that it covers most of his face, and he seems to be shrinking in his chair under the weight of so many gazes.
No one speaks. The entire town hall is waiting for him to volunteer his services, but his arms fold and his cap sinks lower.
The silence stretches out, and my mum isn’t one for patience. ‘Mr Hallissey! You are a builder, are you not? In fact, you’re the only builder in Folkhornton. Would you be so kind as to offer some advice?’
‘Maybe he’s asleep,’ someone murmurs.
My mum does the deafening crack of a clap again, loud enough to wake ancient mummies in the Egyptian pyramids, never mind any napping builders in the vicinity. And he’s definitely not asleep. His arms have pulled his black coat even further around his body and he’s sunken so low in his chair that he might be trying to slide off it and crawl away unseen.
‘Mr Hallissey!’ Mum barks again.
‘No.’ The cloud of blackness in the corner finally speaks, muffled from under the baseball
cap and scarf. Just the one word, which to be fair, is more than he’s ever spoken before.
Mum gasps into the microphone. ‘No?’
He doesn’t respond, but he looks like he’s hoping to make himself so small that he’ll simply disappear.
‘But Mr Hallissey,’ Mum booms into the microphone, but she’s making things worse. This is obviously not a man who wants to be the centre of attention. I can sense the discomfort pouring off him in waves. ‘Your father would’ve loved a project like this. Won’t you at least consider it?’
He gets to his feet, pulls his cap up and his scarf down, and looks around the room. ‘It’s impossible. You’re insane.’ His gaze falls on me and lingers for a moment. ‘No. No, no, and no. And in case it wasn’t clear the first time – no.’ He sits back down with a clunk, refolds his arms, pulls his scarf up and his cap back down.
A man of few words. Joseph Hallissey has always been an odd one. His father, Joseph Senior, was the life and soul of town meetings, always throwing around ideas and meeting challenges with spark and enthusiasm, but he died a couple of years ago, and Joseph Junior moved into town and took over Hallissey Construction. He comes to every meeting, like his father used to, but he sits silently in the back corner and offers no input or opinion. He never even bothers with the free tea and biscuits.
The room is silent, like everyone’s unsure what to make of having heard him speak for the first time, and I realise my mouth has gone dry from having his attention on me.
‘Okay, well, we can’t win ’em all,’ I stutter, trying to get everyone’s focus back to the task at hand. ‘I’m sure there are plenty of builders who’ll be willin—’
‘Your father would be ashamed of you!’ Mum bellows into the microphone.
The whole room turns to look at Joseph again.
‘Mum! You can’t say tha—’
‘No, I will say it. We all knew Joseph Senior, much-loved friend and neighbour that he was. He’d be mortified to see such rudeness from his son. You are an embarrassment to your father’s good name!’
‘Mum!’ I try to cover the mic with my hand. My cheeks have gone red on Joseph’s behalf.
She’s still wrestling the mic away from me when Lynette pipes up. ‘Hear, hear!’
‘Joseph Senior was the kindest man,’ Mr Chalke from the shoe shop says. ‘Would’ve done anything for anyone. He loved this town and he loved Mistletoe Gardens.’
Joseph’s father was the kind of loud and overbearing Welshman who made himself a friend of everyone. There was no one who didn’t know him. A nice man, of course, and quite clearly the opposite of the one currently looking like he wishes the ground would swallow him whole.
‘Look, no one has to help us,’ I say loudly into the mic, sending whistling feedback reverberating through the room. ‘People are busy at this time of year. I can find someone else, it’s no bother.’
‘You shouldn’t have to! Not when there’s a builder right here who doesn’t even have the decency to offer advice.’
‘Oh, I’ll offer some advice all right.’ Joseph Hallissey gets to his feet again. ‘You can’t build a house out of gingerbread and you definitely can’t do it in three weeks. Don’t be so stupid.’ His eyes fall on me again, and then he turns around, jams his cap so far down that it looks painful and stalks out. The room is stunned into a silence punctuated only by the loud swinging of the door behind him.
‘Well, I never…’ Mum says. ‘No wonder he doesn’t speak to anyone if that’s how rude he’s going to be.’
‘You were rude to him! You can’t use someone’s dead father to shame them into doing something they don’t want to do. He isn’t obligated to help with this – no one is. That was unfair.’ I’m half-tempted to run after him and apologise, but what would I say?
‘We can find someone else,’ I say instead, but it falls on deaf ears as they all start muttering about Joseph. My mum has never had much of a filter with words, but even she must’ve been able to see that someone crossed a line there, and it wasn’t him.
‘If I may?’ Mervyn Prichard rises from his seat next to Santa. ‘You’re all missing a fairly
important point here. You can’t build a life-size gingerbread house.’
I turn to him, glad of someone getting the conversation away from the unpleasantness with Joseph. ‘Do you mean that from a legal standpoint or because you believe it’s impossible?’
‘I don’t believe it’s impossible, Miss Browne – it is impossible.’
‘Nothing’s impossible at Christmas.’ I give him a grin. ‘Do we have your permission to use the bandstand in the park?’
He ums and ahs, twisting his fingers together, but he eventually answers. ‘If you want to waste your time, effort, and presumably a great deal of money on ingredients, then the council will have no legal objections to your project. Mistletoe Gardens will be razed to the ground in January. What you do with it in the meantime is up to you.’
‘Hurrah!’ Santa cheers and stands up too. ‘The only thing we need is a little belief in Christmas magic!’
‘We can do this,’ I tell everyone. ‘I just need a couple of days to work out a plan and find a builder. Hallissey Construction are not the only builders in the universe. As soon as I get home, I’m going straight online to find a whole slew of builders who will jump at the chance to do something so fun. There will be millions of them. We’ll be holding builder auditions by the end of tomorrow. It’ll be like a Bob the Builder set around here!’ Let’s hope none of them know Bob the Builder is an animated programme most favoured by those under three years of age.
I smile broadly at the sea of faces looking back at me, hoping the doubts don’t show on my face, because internally, I’m wondering what I’ve got into here. It seemed like such a good idea at the time, but Joseph Hallissey’s reaction and Mervyn’s ‘impossible’ comments have left me feeling overwhelmed and like I’m grasping at straws.
I can bake gingerbread until the cows come home, but I don’t know where to begin when it comes to building a house with it. There’s a good possibility I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, in more ways than one, and this cannot be another ‘big idea’ that turns out to be a big mistake.
Queen Elizabeth I is credited with creating the first gingerbread man. At a banquet in the sixteenth century, she had gingerbread figures made in the likeness of her guests.
Okay, there are no builders. Most of them were polite enough to say they were booked solid for December, and some of them were kind enough to wait until after they thought I’d hung up the phone to start laughing out loud. Most of them thought it was a practical joke.
‘Thanks for your time.’ I sigh as I hang up on the twenty-third construction company I’ve tried this morning and cross out the final name on my list.
Mum’s baking the day’s stock and Saffie’s covering the shop floor, and they’re both expecting me to go and tell them we’ve got a choice between several builders when the reality is that we have none.
I traipse down the stairs from the flat above the bakery where I live, wondering what on earth to do now.
‘From the look on your face, I’d say not many builders are interested in using gingerbread as a construction material,’ Saff says gently while Mum’s out of earshot.
‘None of them took me seriously. Not even one would discuss it.’ And the mountains of screwed up paper littering my living room floor are proof that I have no idea what I’m doing. Badly sketched house ideas with pencil lines drawn through them where I’d tried to work out how to divide them into small enough pieces to fit into the bakery ovens. I’ve made a lot of gingerbread houses over the years – customer commissions, display pieces for the shop, but the biggest I’ve ever made would fit on a small cakeboard.
Failed gingerbread house designs weren’t the only thing haunting my dreams last night. I can’t get Joseph Hallissey’s face out of my head. When he stood up that last time, ...