Haggis; torso; Swallows and Amazons; Moby Dick

Jamie’s Quest

Chapter Eight

“Oh, fuck!” I heard Jonathan say, not under his breath. I wasn’t quiet awake but there he was all in the nude with Alistair handing him a pouch thing, shorts, rugger shirt, a top and sweatpants. Poor Jonathan looked half awake like me as he was struggling to get dressed. Still, I knew he couldn’t complain. Dad had said there would be a run and his word was law! When we were in Athens both Jonathan and Alistair had to do a run each day with Dad and at least two of the young soldiers who usually mounted guard. What I thought was funny was that the girls didn’t usually get up early while we were there but were usually hanging over their balcony watching and giggling when the sweating group reappeared. “Sex-starved” was one comment from Alistair which I didn’t understand but it had made the soldiers laugh that day. As it was when he wasn’t really liked I didn’t ask what he meant. Perhaps I might ask now he was so much better-tempered.

Alistair must have seen me looking with half-opened eyes. “See you later, alligator!” he called out as soon as Jonathan was dressed ready to go. He grinned at me. “Lucky you, nice warm bed! Breakfast at half past nine It’s just on eight now! Happy Christmas!”

Wow! Christmas Day! Presents! But I must dropped off again as the next thing I knew I was being covered with sweaty clothes. As I woke and turned my head a pair of rugger shorts ended up over my face. “Oh, bollocks!” It was Jonathan, of course. “Why is Dad fitter than me? How can he do eight miles at that pace? He’s ancient!” There was a pause and that pouch thing didn’t hit my face but landed on top of the pile on my chest. I saw him grab a towel from the shelf and disappear out of the door. A shower I supposed. I shifted all the bits and pieces onto the floor and some of the bits like the sweatpants weren’t little. I waited. It wasn’t long before he was back rubbing himself all over with the towel. He saw me looking at him. “Move over, Jamie, I need a nice warm bed for a while!”

He grabbed hold of me as he lolloped into the bed. He was still naked and I had my jamas on. But, still, he cuddled me to him. “Oh, you’re nice and warm,” he whispered. “Oh Jamie, why aren’t I so good? Even Alistair kept up better than me. I know he does cross-country but I felt so awful.”

I put my arms round his neck. He sounded so sad. I thought about that word. “Perhaps you ought to practise more,” I whispered back. “I can’t run like you but if I could I would practise with you.”

His cuddled me tighter. “I know you would, my Jamie,” he said close up to my ear. “I must do better, though.”

As he said that another huge nude monster descended on us and the duvet was lifted. “Come on, Jamie,” it said, “I need bed and a nice cuddle, too!” Of course, it was Alistair. As I had forgiven him I got out of my tangle with Jonathan and put my arms round his neck. In the end we three were all coiled up and I felt I was really wanted. Poor Jonathan, though, how could I help him? But that would have to wait. Alistair was laughing.

“So, I was abandoned last night. Where did you sleep?” He must have meant Jonathan.

“Fool! In here of course. Couldn’t count on Dad not coming up to wake me. What would have been said if he’d found me in with you?” He said with a rather strange tone in his voice.

Alistair laughed again. “Nothing, my dear, we are kissing cousins you know, as they say in Yankee-land, and we have shared a bed many times in the past with full knowledge, remember? Though with jimjams on, usually. Until they came off,” he added more quietly.

“Watch it!” Jonathan said that really sharply.

“I like you both without jamas on,” I said, “You’re both nice and muscly to hold! Makes me feel nice, too.”

I didn’t know why I said that but they both guffawed straight into my poor ears. But I did like cuddling them with no clothes on. Perhaps I should wriggle out of my jamas? I thought I hadn’t better. I didn’t have muscles like them and my winkie, I mean my penis, wasn’t like theirs. I hoped I would be like them when I became older. Later. That word again. I didn’t want to fidget but I needed to pee. I just said I needed... They knew what I wanted so I clambered out of the bed and went to the bathroom. Someone hadn’t flushed the loo after their pee as it was all yellow. I wondered if that was Alistair as he had come in after Jonathan. Anyway, I was a good boy and pushed down the handle when I finished.

I went back to my bedroom as quietly as possible. Huh. The pair of them were taking up most of the bed. I stood at the side. They hadn’t heard me come in and were talking almost with their heads under the duvet.

“As I said, you’d better get some running in. Two or three times a week. Just playing rugger isn’t enough.” It was Alistair.

“Yeah, I’d better, I felt such a fool this morning puffing and panting. Those last two miles did me in. I feel really down.” Jonathan sounded quite sad. There was a shift of bodies under the duvet as it moved up and down a bit

“Too true, nothing’s stirring. Must be too much of the other as well...”

I was getting a little chilly. The central heating wasn’t fully on yet. I interrupted whatever Alistair was saying.

“....Let me in, please, it’s cold out here.” I lifted the duvet. All I could see was a bare back and bum. There was another upheaval and a squawk from Jonathan ‘cause he ended up on top of Alistair and as I got in I could see he was being clutched tight as Alistair even put his legs round his.

“Here you are, Jamie, plenty of room now. Come and get warm ‘cause your dear brother’s like a fiery furnace now.”

I put my arm round him, too. Yes, he was warm.

“You’d better let me go, Ally,” Jonathan whispered. “Eruptions might occur...”

“...Ooh, dearie, back to normal are we? Signs of life?”

I saw Alistair lick Jonathan’s neck as he let him go and Jonathan rolled off away from me. I had to move nearer the edge of the bed. Great lumps! Not only that but Mr Lion had disappeared. I hadn’t better fidget and look for him. I was more awake now. Perhaps I should sit up a bit and read. It was just about light enough. But, I’d finished my book.

Alistair must have thought I was fidgeting. He turned his head to me. “Are you OK, Jamie?” he asked. “Sorry we take up so much room but we all have to get up soon.”

Yes, it was my bed and there were three of us in it! I had lost Mr Lion and I hadn’t got a book to read! And someone had thrown all their sweaty clothes over me! Alistair must have realised I was unhappy, too.

He did shift over a bit then turned his head more and then put an arm under my shoulders and held me. “What is it?”

I must have sighed because his arm tightened his hold. “I’ve lost Mr Lion and I’ve finished my book and I haven’t got anything to read and someone used me as a clothes-horse and my bed’s all full up and Jonathan’s sad...”

Well, that did it. Two great lumps moved all of a sudden and I was enveloped in a huge hug. I was breathless for a moment. Jonathan was kissing my cheek and Alistair was nuzzling my ear on the other side.

“Jamie, I’m not sad,” Jonathan said, “I want to do my best and sometimes it doesn’t seem I can. I don’t want to let Dad down and it must have been obvious to him I was struggling at the end of the run.” An arm went over me to hug him, too. “Sorry about the togs,” he continued, “I was in a bit of a temper. Just me, not with you. Anyway, you’ve got plenty of books on the shelf.”

“I’m sorry I moaned,” I said, “But I’ve read all those books. I need another new one.”

Alistair nodded against me. “What would you like? All Jonathan seems to have are old textbooks and thick tomes on how to march in straight lines without tripping over your bootlaces!”

That did make me giggle and even Jonathan laughed. “You know I don’t read much but I like adventure stories,” he said. “You know that!”

“Stu Barclay in our room said he liked Sherlock Holmes, would I?” I asked.

Both nodded against me. “Even I’ve read a couple,” said Jonathan. “Grandfather’s got some in his study. He let me have them to read so ask him.”

“Good idea,” said Alistair, “Much better than all those Law Reports he points at every time I go in there.” I got another squeeze from the pair of them.

We just lay together quietly after that. It must have been at least ten minutes later when Alistair whispered he’d better go and get dressed ready for breakfast and the opening of presents later. That woke me up! Then I remembered. Mum had said we were not to be impatient as we had to wait until Grandpa, Grandma and Alistair’s parents arrived before we had Christmas Dinner at half past one! I think she said they would be here by half past twelve. Drinks and opening presents then! Yes, and we would have to listen to the Queen’s Christmas broadcast at three o’clock. No one stirred even though Alistair had said that about getting up. I was comfy just laying there between the two hulks. No! I mustn’t think of them as that. They were my brother and my cousin, big as they were!

“Better think of getting up now,” Jonathan said quietly some minutes later. “I need food and it’s past nine o’clock.”

“Gotta look a bit smart, I suppose, with all the grown-ups around today,” Alistair said as he slid out of bed. I was facing Jonathan as he got out the other side. I saw him look at Alistair.

“Quite a bit of growing-up still to be done there,” Jonathan said and laughed. Something hit him on the chest. It was Mr Lion! My Mr Lion had been thrown! Luckily Jonathan didn’t throw him back as he caught him as he fell down.

“Here you are, Jamie, he’s all safe and sound even after that villain used him as a missile!” He handed Mr Lion back to me. Yes, he looked OK.

“Sorry, Jamie, I didn’t realise what it was. It was by my foot. It must have fallen out of bed.”

I pursed my lips. Alistair had thrown Mr Lion. Mr Lion was not ‘it’, he was ‘he’! Still Alistair had been friendly otherwise. I would forgive him.

“I‘d better bugger off and get dressed,” Alistair said using that rude word, “I’m starved, too, and breakfast calls!”

As I turned to get out of bed so Alistair disappeared out of the door. It was a good job we were the only ones up here as he didn’t even bother to put a towel round his waist. Goodness, his thing did flop around as he turned and waved.

“Well, powerhouse has gone,” said Jonathan. “You’d better go and wash and I’ll get dressed as I’ve had a shower.” He smiled at me. “I feel better now and I need food.”

I smiled back. I was happy now, too. I took my time getting washed and dressed and then after Jonathan went off downstairs I put the duvet straight and placed Mr Lion on my pillow. When I set Jonathan’s pillow straight I found a strip of soft toilet paper folded up under it. I knew he often tore some off to blow his nose instead of using a hankie but why put some there? I hadn’t better move it. Still, I was hungry, too.

Even the girls were down for breakfast. Of course, they all, including Jonathan and Alistair would have jobs to do helping Mum to get the place prepared for Christmas Dinner and making sure all was tidy before the others arrived. Mum must have been up very early ‘cause as I went into the kitchen I saw her peer into the Aga where a huge turkey was quietly roasting. Of course, Mrs Grantly wouldn’t be coming to help Mum today with any cooking.

Dad was busy peeling potatoes and Great-Aunt Cassie had a pile of carrots ready to be scraped and cut. I was shooed into the breakfast room where the four others were shovelling cereals down their gullets as Alistair described their actions. He got sneers from Jacky and Caroline but a raised loaded spoon from Jonathan with that heap disappearing into his open gob!

I chose cornflakes and hoops and a banana to slice on top. There was also a pile of toast but I thought I would be lucky if I managed to get even one piece as Alistair had already finished his bowl of cereal and had taken two slices which he began to butter. He was being kind because he put those on the plate next to my bowl. He nudged me and smiled.

Caroline looked at me and winked. “I think the worm has turned,” she said with a grin.

“He’s a nice worm,” I said.

This made Jonathan laugh. “Couldn’t agree more. A nice wriggly little worm.”

I looked at Alistair. “Comparisons are odious,” he said screwing up his nose. What did that mean? I wouldn’t ask. But then he smiled at me again. I was liking Alistair more and more.

Breakfast went on. It was like at Kinloch all one heard was the chomping of jaws, as Stu Barclay said one day and made us giggle and chomp more. That made me wonder how my friends from there were enjoying Christmas Day morning. Peter said his older sisters would be at home. I think they were older than my sisters but I wasn’t sure. I knew Cheng and his brother Huang were going to London to their guardians as their parents lived in Hong Kong and Stu Barclay was just with his mother as his father worked abroad somewhere. Stu looked a bit sad when he said goodbye in our room. I don’t think he saw his father very much. Watson McPhee lived somewhere outside Edinburgh but I didn’t know where. Grandfather had a friend who was Dr McPhee, he was old, but he might know. Then there was that horrible boy, Prothero, not a friend of mine, who had stolen Peter’s pound coin. At least Peter had got that back. I had heard that Pop Stars had plenty of money and Prothero said he had plenty, so why did he steal? And how would Jonathan deal with him in his squad? It was strange. I knew I was thinking more not only about me but also my family and my friends, and even Prothero. Was this all part of growing up? Something else to ask Jonathan and Alistair. Oh, but Alistair had said he would cadge a lift from his parents back to Perth on the day after Boxing Day. He had said he’d only bought a single from Aberdeen to Edinburgh so everything helped. Jonathan had laughed and said ‘Typical tightwad!’.

I was just putting some marmalade on my second piece of toast when our silence was broken. “Jamie’s got nothing to read, he’s finished Treasure Island. Any suggestions?” Alistair asked the question.

“Nothing girly,” Jonathan said nudging Jacky who was sitting next to him. “And he doesn’t want Noddy and Big Ears either as I don’t suppose you’ve finished reading it yet with all those long words in it.” I thought Jacky was going to hit him with the spoon she was holding. Good job she didn’t as it was loaded with marmalade.

“That was your favourite wasn’t it?” Caroline said from the end of the table away from him. “Thought it was about you, I expect.” She flicked her own ear just peeping out from her hair. “Or perhaps you’re Noddy.” She waggled her head.

“He’s more likely to be Peter Pan as Grandma Drummond says boys never grow up,” Jacky said and edged away from him a bit. “Or Peter Rabbit as he does like carrots and rabbits have big ears as well!”

Jonathan was being teased. Looking at him he did have rather large ears. I hadn’t better say anything and bit into my toast.

“Be sensible or be quiet,” Jonathan said and gave Jacky a sideways haughty look. “I have read all those and I know Jamie has, too. I enjoyed the Peter Rabbit books and I am also very fond of rabbit stew.” Jacky squirmed next to him but giggled as well. “Now, something he’d like.”

Alistair was grinning. “I’ll be sensible,” he said, “What about Moby Dick. I bet Grandfather has a copy somewhere.” He turned to me. “It’s about a ship’s captain and his hunt for a giant whale...”

Caroline was laughing. “...Don’t tell him any more especially the end.” She smiled at me. “You’ll like it. A bit old-fashioned but even I enjoyed it.. ..And the end’s quite exciting.”

“So, youngster, that’s sorted,” Jonathan said giving me a thumb’s up sign. “Males to the rescue. Sensible suggestion from your cousin, what else would you expect?”

“Thank you, I’m sure, “ I said. I’d heard Alistair say that when he was laughing about something with Jonathan. I hoped it was alright to say it. It must have been as Alistair patted me on the arm. All was quiet then as we steadily finished breakfast. Jacky and Caroline were first to finish and as they went into the kitchen I followed them. It was jobs for all Dad said as he was cleaning brussels sprouts now. I wasn’t let off as I was told to make sure the drawing-room was tidy. No books, magazines or papers hanging about, all put away. See that the pile of presents was stacked neatly and switch on the Christmas tree lights. While I was in there Alistair and Jonathan came in with two small easy chairs to make up the number needed for sitting after Christmas Dinner. Somebody had already put those special wineglasses for champagne on the table by the window. I wondered if I might be allowed some.

I think I made a good job of the tidying and the lights all came on so I went along to the kitchen again where Dad was looking at a piece of paper. He must have finished cleaning the brussels sprouts. I told him the Christmas tree lights were on, he nodded and then I stayed silent as he and Mum started discussing the seating arrangements for Dinner. Dad was laughing as he said it was a good job Mrs Cathcart would be coming otherwise we would be thirteen, an unlucky number. I’d heard that before but I didn’t know why. I would have to ask Alistair that as well as I didn’t think Jonathan would know. Anyway I liked Mrs Cathcart, especially as she let me go in the Rolls-Royce when the man from the garage came. I liked her cats as well though Jonathan had said the smell in the car was caused by cat’s pee! There were three of them and they were Siamese and valuable so Mum said. Jonathan had said Mrs Cathcart had tons of money and I knew her husband had died even before Grandma Sinclair. Jonathan had also said Mr Cathcart had made his money through the War but I didn’t know what that meant either. So much to learn.

My sisters were told to start laying the table in the diningroom. The table had been extended and would have two on each of the two ends and five on each of the longer sides. Jonathan and Alistair had to arrange the chairs and I was sent along to Grandfather’s study to collect his breakfast things and to ask if he had the Moby Dick book on his shelves. Dad said this when Jonathan had told him about my lack of anything to read. Dad had nodded and said I would enjoy it.

Even though it was Christmas Day Grandfather had a pile of papers on his desk and he didn’t look too happy when I knocked and he had said ‘Come in’. He did smile when he saw it was me. I went over to the side table where his tray was.

“Ah, Jamie, set to work like me,” he said still smiling. He pointed down at the papers. “Even on Christmas Day my work still has to be done. A rather awkward case has come my way.” I saw there were two folders of papers by the side of the ones he was reading. “I mustn’t tell you what it’s about but these are called depositions and I have to read, learn and inwardly digest all of them.” He gave a little laugh. “I think it might even be worse than being at school.” He took his glasses off and polished them with a white handkerchief. “But you’re enjoying things there so far?”

I didn’t know if that was a question. “I like what I have done so far,” I said, “I like learning and I have friends, but I like being at home as well.”

Grandfather was really smiling now. “Well, your report on your first term at Kinloch has been very good. Mustn’t make your head swell but you seem to be top in mathematics and geography in your class and pretty good in other things as well.”

Mum hadn’t told me all that, just that I seemed to be doing well. I did like all the sums we had to do and I wanted to visit most of the places we heard about in our geography lessons. I had found out where Hong Kong was. I didn’t have to ask Cheng because I found it easily in the atlas we had for the Geography lessons. It looked just a tiny place where it was below China. Cheng said it was British but was going back to be part of China and his father was going to move to London before that happened. It sounded strange. But then Scotland was joined to England and Jonathan had said once there were some people who thought Scotland should be a separate country. I did understand that because I saw that France and Germany were joined on the map but were different countries.

“They keep you busy, eh?” Grandfather asked. I nodded. “I wouldn’t want you to miss out on anything with your classmates and friends so I think we’ll forget about the piping lessons. That is, for the moment. I’ll contact Mr Muir and tell him not to worry.” He put his glasses on again. “You must keep the chanter, though,” He looked up towards the ceiling. “Consider that a pre-Christmas present.” He smiled at me again and held up a finger. “Keep it safe, it’s quite valuable. I suppose I’ll have to find something extra for the others. Post-Christmas presents for them.”

I was still standing quite silent. At least I hadn’t been told to work harder like Jonathan. I looked up at the shelves behind where Grandfather was sitting. Yes, there were lots of books which I had been told were law books but there were at least three shelves with ordinary books on them. I spoke up. “Please, I’ve finished my book and Alistair said I might like Moby Dick...” I didn’t have to say any more.

Grandfather laughed and nodded. “Herman Melville, eh? There’s a copy over there. Might be a bit odd in places but just ask if there’s anything you don’t understand.” He had pointed at one of the shelves. “There’s lots there. My collection of old detective stories mainly. Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown and quite a few by Agatha Christie. A bit later for most of those I would say.” Ugh! That word again. But I couldn’t complain. “I know,” he continued. “How about A Jungle Book? Bottom shelf.” He laughed. “It was your mother’s favourite book when she was your age. Oh, and your Aunt Vanessa’s as well. It’s alright, it’s not a book just for girls. I think it’s not all the original but there are some good illustrations.”

I went over to the shelves and soon spotted both books. The Jungle Book looked a bit tattered as its paper cover was torn. The other looked pretty old and had a thick dark binding. I put both carefully on the tray. Grandfather watched and then held up both hands.

“That’s much too heavy for you. Go and get one of the others to carry the tray and you take the books.”

I was rather glad Grandfather had said that as I realised I might drop something if the tray was too heavy. It already had a mug, a plate, a milk jug and a bowl on it. I picked up the books and thanked Grandfather for them. He smiled again and pointed at his heap of papers and things. “Another mug of coffee would be welcome to help me get on with these.”

I had messages to deliver so went along to the kitchen first. Mum was busy stirring something in a big saucepan on the hob, Great-Aunt Cassie was washing what looked like parsnips in the sink and Dad was sharpening a big carving-knife. He saw me with the two books and no tray. I had to tell him quickly what Grandfather had asked for or he might think I was being lazy. “Grandfather has lent me these but says the tray might be too heavy for me to carry and he would like another mug of coffee...” I managed to get all that out in one breath. Dad just laughed.

“One thing at a time,” he said and put the knife down. He went to the door. “Jonathan!” he called out, “Tray to be collected from Grandfather’s study.” He turned to the door of the breakfast room. I saw that Jacky was in there folding a stack of linen napkins ready for the dinner table. “Jacky, make a mug of coffee for your Grandfather, please. There’s coffee in the big thermos. Just add a bit of milk and Jamie can take it along.”

Everyone under orders as Jonathan said when we had jobs to do. I couldn’t put my books down on the kitchen table which had piles of plates ready for the warming oven of the Aga as well as three big covered saucepans. I carried the books into the breakfast room and there was just room on the table for them there. I said to Jacky I had The Jungle Book as well and pointed to it. She said I would like it as it had been a favourite of hers. I waited while she poured the coffee. There was another jug with milk still on the uncleared breakfast table and as she knew Grandfather liked his coffee dark she said she would only add a little of it.

She held up the mug. “There you are, Jamie, all ready.” I was ready, too, but at that moment Jonathan came hurrying into the breakfast room.

“Nowhere to put this!” he said but took the crockery and cutlery off the tray and put it amongst the rest of the clutter on the breakfast table, nearly pushing my books off. He put the tray leaning against a leg of the table and went out quickly. Jacky shrugged her shoulders and wrinkled her nose, ‘Boys!’ she said. I took the mug from her but waited a moment.

“Mum!” Jonathan had called out as he disappeared off through the kitchen, “Are we elderly teens allowed wine with the grub?”

I heard Mum snort and Dad laughed. “A thimbleful for all those over the age of ten and a quarter and in full possession of their faculties,” Mum said very firmly. Jacky giggled and pointed to the door. As I went through to the kitchen Dad patted me on the back.

“Sorry, Jamie, the CO has given her orders. We can’t have you sliding under the table like Major MacPherson did at the last Burns Night in the Mess.”

I was puzzled. I knew about Burns Night. It was where people had something called haggis to eat with what Mrs Grantly called ‘neeps and tatties’ and drank whisky and recited poems by Robert Burns. I had had some haggis last year for my supper and it tasted strange, but I think I enjoyed it. Mum said I mustn’t ask what was in it as that was the maker’s secret. I certainly didn’t have any whisky. Anyway, I had listened while hiding under the kitchen table when Mrs Grantly was telling of a Burns Night Supper which Mr Grantly had attended and two of the gentlemen had had to be helped to catch taxis after drinking too much. I knew what she meant as Grandfather always had a taxi when he attended a lawyer’s dinner but I didn’t think he drank too much to be helped. I suppose if you drank too much you might fall off your chair. I had reached Grandfather’s study after thinking all that. Perhaps I wasn’t too puzzled.

Grandfather said he was very grateful for the coffee. “I think I’ll call it a day when I’ve read this one.” He screwed up his nose as he pointed to the paper in front of him. “This is enough to put any sane person off their Christmas Dinner.” He did laugh then. “That means I mustn’t read any more after this one!” He took his reading glasses off. “Are you looking forward to Christmas Dinner, or the presents?”

I looked at him. Funny question. “I think both,” I said, “It is only once a year.”

“My, that was a very straightforward answer, good for you!” he said and rubbed his long fingers together. “But you’ve got a birthday soon as well. February the third, eh? Two days after mine. Pity you’ll be at school so we can’t share things like we’ve done in the past. Goodness, you’ll be nine!” He shook his head. “I remember when your Mum brought you back from India. The last of my five grandchildren and you all make me proud.”

Five, that was right. Four of us and Alistair. He was the only one in his family. Why were there four of us in our family and only one in his? I hadn’t better ask Grandfather but I suppose I could ask Jonathan.

“I think I’ll rest my eyes for a few minutes before the others arrive,” Grandfather then said. I knew what that meant. He would have a nap. He must have guessed I had thought that. “I need to rest a bit,” he said, “I started on this lot at four o’clock this morning. I was so busy I didn’t even hear Santa Claus arrive.” It was my turn to screw up my nose. I hadn’t believed in Santa Claus since I was six.

“I’d better go,” I said. As Grandfather had finished his coffee I would be polite. “Shall I take the empty mug away for you?”

“Most kind,” he said and pushed the mug closer to the edge of the table. “Would you ask my dear sister to see if I’m awake at midday, please. Must get tidy in time for the influx.”

I liked that word. It would be interesting to make a list of all the words I knew even if some were rude and others I didn’t like, like ‘later’. I think it would be a long list but not as many words as in the big dictionary on Grandfather’s book shelf. I picked up the mug and nodded as he smiled at me and waved me off. Perhaps Grandfather wasn’t so stern as I had thought before.

Great-Aunt Cassie was still in the kitchen stirring a bowl which I think had cream in it. I noticed there was a bottle of brandy next to the bowl. I gave her my message and she and Mum laughed. “You can lick the whisk once I’ve finished this.” she said. Mum said ‘Remember there’s brandy in it’. Great-Aunt Cassie just waved a hand at her and carried on whisking. She winked at me as she poured in a good amount of the brandy, whisked on a while then hit the whisk on the side of the bowl and handed it to me. There wasn’t much sticking to the wires but I got my tongue around them and it tasted good. “OK?” Great-Aunt Cassie asked. I nodded and said ‘thank you’ and handed her the whisk. “There, Alison, he’s still standing,” Great-Aunt said over her shoulder to Mum. When Mum turned she gave me a thumb’s-up. I grinned. Everybody seemed to do that ‘thumb’s-up’. I must try it, too

I thought I’d better see what was happening in the dining-room so walked in to find everyone busy. The twins were setting out all the cutlery and side plates with the neatly folded napkins on them. Jonathan had a cloth and was polishing wine glasses ready to be placed by Alistair. Just as I went in Dad came along with a sheet of paper and a batch of pieces of card.

“Ah, Jamie, another job for you,” he said and gave me the piece of paper. “That’s the table plan. I’ve printed out the name cards so when laddo has put the wine glasses around put the appropriate name card leaning against a glass. OK!” He handed me the cards. “Must rush, I’ve got a batch of e-mails just come in. Even Christmas Day, the Lord help us!” He was gone before I could say I understood.

I saw Jonathan look at Alistair and shake his head. Both Dad and Grandfather busy on a holiday. Anyway, I was busy, too, as they were. Alistair had started with one of the end tables and I saw from the list that Grandfather Sinclair was next to Jacky with Alistair next to her at the beginning of the long side. I put the list down and sorted the cards. I saw I was between Mrs Cathcart and Great-Aunt Cassie on one of the long sides. Mum was on the other end which was near the door to the hallway with the two hot trays on the other table by the hot trolley. Jonathan was next to her and I expect his job would be to fetch the hot dishes and put them on the mats on the tablecloth by the serving spoons. Dad would have to carve the turkey, but I guessed he would already have done some slices and put them back again. I had watched him do that last Christmas and it was very clever. All was well. Alistair had set the glasses and I put the name cards in place. I saw we had soup spoons so that must be what Mum was stirring in the big pot.

“Better keep out of the way,” Alistair whispered as I put the last name card carefully against the glass by his place. “Take your books upstairs. We’ll come up and tidy ourselves later. Luckily it’s not too formal so I’ll just put on a clean polo.” He grinned at me. “I’m looking forward to a good feed, aren’t you?”

I nodded. “And there are presents first,” I said.

Jonathan was just finishing putting a load of plates in the hot trolley. “All done here. Better see if there’s anything else.” He held up a finger. “Yep, matches to light the candles in the candelabra.” The two candelabra set as table decorations I knew had been wedding presents to Grandfather and Grandmother and were prized possessions. Just then Mum came through with two boxes.

“Mustn’t forget the crackers!” she said. “Last job for you, Jamie, one each and don’t make the girls screech by making them bang near them when they’re pulled.”

Why me? It was Jonathan last year who set them off shrieking and Dad had helped him as I know they deliberately moved the crackers they were pulling with their partners nearer to Jacky and Caroline. Girls are funny, the bangs didn’t bother me. What I liked best though were the paper hats and little gifts and the stupid jokes. I remembered “What do frogs wear on their feet?”, ‘Open-toad sandals’ and “What’s a snowman in the summer?” ‘A puddle’....Would I like them now I was older? The others had laughed when they read them out and they were all older than me.

I finished putting the crackers around and scuttled off upstairs with my books. I could hear Jonathan and Alistair chatting in Jonathan’s bedroom so being nosy I went along to the door. Good, it was almost closed so I could listen and perhaps learn more things.

“...Hope things go OK with your friend Tuddy,” I heard Alistair say. “Is he military-minded?”

There was a moment or two of silence. Then Jonathan said “He’s not sure what he wants to do. His dad is another lawyer and his mum’s a doctor. He thinks he might like to do engineering as he’s good at maths and physics though he keeps quiet about it.”

“Clever-clogs, eh?” Alistair gave a little laugh. “And you’re good friends, eh?”

“The best,” said Jonathan and I heard no more. I crept into my room, moved more clothes off my easy chair, sat and opened The Jungle Book. I started by looking at the pictures. It said at the beginning there had been a film and these were drawings of the characters. I liked Mowgli the little Indian boy and there was a big bear. I found he was named Baloo. So Mowgli had been brought up by wolves. That’s strange because Mr McWilliam had said about Rome in Italy and that was founded by two men who had been brought up as little boys by a wolf. I remembered their names, Romulus and Remus. I wondered if the man who wrote about this boy in India had known the other story? I looked at the name on the cover: Rudyard Kipling. That was an odd name.

I heard someone calling my name. I went out and looked down the staircase. It was Jacky. She was holding a book and waved to me to come down. Of course, the girls had their room on the floor below and Jonathan said there was an unwritten rule ‘we never encroach on each other’s territory’. More good words there, too. Jacky was laughing.

“We think you’ll like this one, too. Have you read it?” She handed me the book.

I looked at the title. ‘Swallows and Amazons’. No, I hadn’t read it. I shook my head.

Jacky gave me a thumb’s-up, too. “That was Mum’s as well, so don’t lose it.” She turned and was off.

This was good, I had three books so had plenty to read. I liked the look of this one Jacky had given me. There were pictures of boats and boys and girls in them. Which one to read first? I decided on the one about Mowgli as it didn’t look as difficult as the others. I meant the others were thicker and this one had plenty of pictures.

I must have been reading for some time and enjoying the story even though the tiger, Shere Khan, wanted to eat the boy. I knew lions were fierce, too, but my Mr Lion was my friend and I hoped, if he was real, he wouldn’t want me for his dinner! Anyway, next thing was Jonathan coming in looking much happier.

“It’s twelve o’clock so must look tidy as the others will be here soon,” he said as he picked up a clean polo shirt from his stack of clothes. He held up a finger. “Don’t forget, as you’re the youngest gentleman present...” He grinned at me as he said that. I liked that description of me! “...you have to escort Mrs Cathcart to the table after we’ve had the drinks and opened the presents. OK?” I knew that was the custom as I had had that task last year. Mrs Cathcart had rewarded me with another five pound note. It was OK as I knew she had given the others the same before she left.

I stood and put my book down and looked in the mirror. I thought I looked tidy enough as I’d put a clean Kinloch top on as the two shirts I’d had before I went to the school were rather tight. I must be growing!

Jonathan pulled off the shirt he had on and stood and showed off the muscles on his arms. I noticed he had sort of lines and lumps above his belly-button where I was quite smooth. Brigstock had told us after we had PE in the gym one day that he was going to exercise and get a ‘six-pack’ like his oldest brother. Peter had asked him what he meant and he said they were stomach muscles in a pattern. Should I ask Jonathan if that was what Brigstock meant? Why six? I counted four lumps on Jonathan and perhaps two smaller ones.

I pointed at him. “Is that a six-pack?” I asked.

He grinned at me. “Where on earth did you hear that?” he asked and then held up both arms and the lumps sort of twitched.

I told him what Brigstock had said and he made the lumps wriggle again. “If you keep fit and exercise then when you’re older you’ll have the same.” he said and laughed. “All boys want muscles but you have to work hard to get them. All our room do weight-training to make sure they grow. Here, stand up and thump me there. Right in the middle of my torso.” He pointed to the middle of his stomach and made a fist. “You won’t hurt me but you’ll see how solid they are.”

I didn’t want to hurt him so only punched him lightly. I felt my knuckles hit something quite hard. “You can hit harder than that,” he said, so I did. He did say ‘Ow’ that time and my hand hurt a bit. “That’s enough, Jamie, or I’ll change your name to Muhammad Ali!” He did laugh then. I knew who he meant as I’d seen a picture of the boxer in a magazine Stu Barclay had. So muscles were something else for ‘later’!

He had just put the shirt on and was combing his hair when Alistair came to the door. “Activity below,” he said, “We’d better go down.” I was ready and led the way down. We didn’t rush and I heard the pair giggling behind me. I ignored them as usually they would have lumped and jumped down the stairs. As we reached the bottom Jonathan whispered to me, “Remember, the perfect gentleman!”.

Grandpa and Grandma Drummond with Uncle Hamish and Auntie Vanessa had arrived and were already in the drawing-room. Grandfather Sinclair was at the front door and letting old Mrs Cathcart in. “No cats!” Jonathan whispered which made me giggle as well.

Dad was already in the room pouring out the champagne and Jacky and Caroline were there, too, ready to hand the glasses around. We boys greeted everyone and Mum pointed at a glass which was half-filled and smiled at me. That was mine. I remembered what those special glasses were called; ‘flutes’, just like the instrument. I wondered why?

Anyway, there were trays of tidbits, too, and everyone was chatting. I was patted on the shoulder by Uncle Hamish and I thought Auntie Vanessa was going to kiss me but whispered she’d talk to me later. We all managed to find a chair to sit on and the champagne flowed as Alistair said and winked at me as I saw he had a third glass. I just had my half a glass. It was a bit sharp but I liked seeing the bubbles.

After a while Dad rapped on the table. Grandfather Sinclair stepped forward and said a welcome to all and then announced it was time to open presents. Goody!!