Christmas was meant to be a time of peace and goodwill to all men. But all Father Christmas could think of now, was how damned hard that was to bring about. This year he'd not even been given one day's respite. The moment he'd got back from delivering the last of his presents, his brand-new state-of-the-art cordless telephone – ironically enough his own present from Santa – had started ringing. By the end of January his agents all over the world had phoned in with well over a hundred cases for which his help would be needed.

He had begun his tour in early February, as soon as he was assured that production for next year’s presents was well underway. By Easter he had visited three continents and dealt with a majority of the cases his agents had been unable to resolve. But dealing with humans was beginning to take its toll, so he took a one week holiday before moving on. Now, he was on his Dole and the last case before returning home. It was not, he hoped, the most difficult case he had faced, but it was the most saddening.

It was in Dole he had inaugurated what to date had proved to be one of the most effective ways of bringing never-would-otherwise-fraternise groups together. The idea was the brainchild of a local radio station, planted into one of their DJ’s mind after a particularly long evening of soliloquising on the way home from a late-night party. The previous year this DJ had announced over the air the death of Santa. He really had used the word death, although what he meant by it was, of course, the fact that Santa had never really existed. Meeting this man at the gates of the local park he accompanied him to his home which they reached some thirty minutes later. The man was unusually quiet making Santa’s task all the easier. By the time he entered his house enough arguments were planted into his mind for the soliloquising to go on all night. Just days later the man went on live to announce Santa’s resurrection and his Goodwill Plan for that Christmas. The idea was simple: anyone who would be spending Christmas alone could phone up the radio station, as could any person or family who wanted to open up their home, however lowly or humble to another human being.

That first year things had been difficult. Several families phoned and expressed their willingness to open their house to others, but just two or three were willing to actually take up on the hospitality. To increase chances of getting more people the following year, the station had decided to interview each of those involved to talk about their experiences. That’s when things began to unravel. One of the men was extremely dissatisfied with his experience and equally extremely verbose in his condemnation of the project. If he could not be prevailed upon to change his mind, the programme, due to be aired on the 1st August would be cancelled and the whole project would shelved. Apparently, the old man felt he had been completely ignored. The family played out their Christmas much like they would have done every year, without a thought for his presence. Dinner was some kind of traditional Greek dish, very meagre fare in comparison to what he’d been used to in previous years and they’d not served a drop of wine explaining that they never drunk it themselves. He’d stayed long enough so as not to be impolite and then beaten a hasty retreat.

Once Santa had interviewed the family concerned he realised he was up against a typical case of mutual, cultural insensitivity. They had moved to France just six months previously and were not aware of all that was involved in receiving strangers in this most gourmet of countries. All they had wanted to do was to open their house for a lonely stranger in need, and share what they did and had with them. Yet, he had been so impolite turning his nose up at everything they offered, , and finally leaving after just one hour, just as the singing and dancing was due to begin. They had even had the chance to get to know each other properly, they complained.

With the greatest of pleasure Father Christmas wrote out the two checks: the first, a six week course in cultural discovery including a wine-tasting at one of France’s greatest cellars, for the exasperated family; the second, a finely bound tome on Greek including a voucher for an evening’s gourmet entertainment at a specialist restaurant.

The headline jumped off the page and did a little song and dance act. Only then did it succeed in penetrating my already somewhat feeble state of mind. I'd been on a binge with the boys. True that was days ago. But it might have been yesterday, for every time I tried to think about what happened only darkness reigned.

How could anyone be so stupid? Okay, you break into a drinks depot, you patronize it, so to speak. Mind you I'm not sure if the word patron actually fits those who don't pay. Okay, so you break in, drink, get drunk and then...? Well, even I in my weakened state realise that the last thing you do then, is to visit your friend to invite him for a drink. Why not? But isn't it obvious. You're friend is a policeman. And it's his job to catch those who committed the crime.

And yet, the newspaper article left no room for doubt, neither did the handcuffs around my wrists. But I still wonder how it happened.

Puzzling Along

Sitting at the table Jeffrey tried to make sense of what lay before him. Over 10 000 pieces. And that, only because he had been very sparing cutting them up. Had he really taken each episode, he could easily have ended with twice that number. Usually, it wouldn't have been a problem. He was a keen puzzler, and the greater the challenge the better. But this one was different. Different, because today, he did not have an overall picture to help him. Why was life so difficult to piece together?

Three days later Jeffrey's frustration was greater than ever. It wasn't that he found it hard to connect the various pieces together. On the contrary, there seemed to be a plethora of possible combinations. But once he had put several different pieces together, he realised the emerging picture just didn't make sense.

It was his grandson who provided him with the solution. Jeffrey had accompanied Jay to the weekly soccer practise. There was a boy Jeffrey had never seen before. He was quick and had a pretty strong boot, but seemed to lack some of the basic techniques. On his way home he questioned Jay who couldn't hide his disappointment.

"He's useless. He thinks he's the greatest player in the team and some things he really can do better than most of us. But he just kicks the ball anywhere and we never know what he's going to do. And when the ball goes miles away, he throws up his arms in delight as if that was what he wanted to do all along. With him in your team it's like playing with no plan."

It wasn't until he sat down once again to his puzzle that the full significance of those words hit home to Jeffey. Wasn't that exactly what he had been doing all his life. Muddling along, kicking the ball of life anywhere, and trying to make do with whatever resulted from his efforts. No wonder, he was failing so abysmally to make sense of it all. Something was going to have to change.


Leaving work early had never been one of Stan's habits. He could have tried to mask his departure, but that would have been futile. He could imagine only too well the whisperings which would have started the moment the door shut behind him. But today, Stan couldn't care less. His work had been his whole life. Now he was going to have to look for something more important.

Maybe sport was the answer. Rugby was, of course, out of the question. At his age it would probably do him more harm than good. Running would probably fit the bill. Several of his friends had taken up running in the latter half of their life, some even after retirement. Of course, no championships or anything like that. But it did give them the chance to open up their lungs.

What was it the doctor had called it? The word had meant nothing to him, so he had trouble recalling it. But what he couldn't forget were those words which had gone round and round in his head like an old vinyl record with a scratch in it.

"The best thing you could do now, is find some way of exercising your lungs day by day. The more you exercise your lungs, the better you will be able to cope."

Lungs! It was that word that had convinced him it could be nothing serious. He wasn't a smoker, never had been. Not even one single drag. Lung disease was only for smokers. So he'd be okay. He knew it instinctively. So the doctor's news came as a far greater shock. And what was he going to tell Erna and the kids. He hadn't even mentioned having been to the doctor's. For how long could he keep this to himself?

He stepped out from the staircase into the office car park. Then he changed his mind. If he was meant to exercise his lungs, then he'd forego the car; at least for today. At this time, he might even be quicker on foot than by car. Maybe he could get a bicycle. Like in his university days. He could do another charity ride, gather the boys together one last time. What an idea for the reunion they'd been planning! Scotland's team of 78, the front row leading the way. Passers-by turned and stared as he burst out laughing at this sight. Laughter, he thought. That would do the trick. But how can one laugh in the face of a horrible death?

The lights turned to red and Stan darted across the road. The thought did come to him that it might be easier to just lie down there and then and let come speeding car finish the job off there and then. But Stan was a fighter and he didn't want to end like that. Once across the ring road, he cut into Silk Street and crossed the footbridge into the old city. It must have been months since he was last in the part of the city, yet its charm was already beginning to rub off on him, when he stopped short in front of the window of a run-down music shop and began to read:

Bagpipe lessons.
Beginners welcome.
Enquire within.

The bagpipes! There couldn't be a more Scottish way of exercising his lungs. He remembered accompanying his father to the games at Murrayfield and watching the pipers perform their magic before the game. He'd always dreamt of being one of the them and stepping out before the cheering crowds. But music had never been his forte, so it had remained little more than a dream. Then came the rugby and the day he did step out in front of the crowds; not in a highlanders' kilt but in the blue jersey of Scotland. Just the one cap, and he'd hardly been a roaring success. Gareth Edwards, the Welsh scrum half had rung rings around him on that day. But the pride still shone in his eyes as the pipers led the crowd in a rendition of Scotland the Brave.

Success in rugby also brought success with the girls, and most of his weekends were spent at the country dances sizing up the local talent as the pipes invited scores of young ladies to take the floor. And when a young piper swept away his beloved Aggie, thoughts of 'if only' once again occupied his mind. Then, he met Erna, and life settled down. True, they'd had pipers at their wedding. What self-respecting Scottish couple wouldn't. But even then he had too much on his mind for dreams.

Until today. It took a good ten minutes for him to make up his mind. Then he pushed open the front door and entered into the bowels of the shop.

"Good evening, I'm interested in the Bagpipe lessons you offer. And I'd like to buy my own set of pipes. What do you recommend?"

Ham felt himself the luckiest mouse alive. It wasn't every day that someone came into the shop and bought a mouse. Hamsters, yes; guinea-pigs too. Even rats would have ranked higher on the pet-shop's best-seller lists than mice. But for Ham - he had taken the name in a bid to try and persuade the customer that he was more like a hamster than a mouse - that had changed that very morning. He was chatting away with one of his neighbours who had gone into a sulk over the dwindling food supplies the new help was giving them, when she came into the shop and straight up to the mice cages. She, young, blonde, with a pretty face and such hypnotic, blue eyes that you could forgive any self-respecting mouse for falling in love with her. She wanted a mouse, she explained to the shopkeeper. She had always wanted a mouse, but her mother had never let her have one. Now, she had her very own flat and she was going to buy a mouse, nothing else would do. The words sent the mice into a flurry of activity. Each one wanted to look its little best, in particular the males. And obviously Ham managed to make himself look his very best, for after a brief moment of despair when it seemed the girl might, after all, go for the little pink mouse, she asked the shopkeeper to give him that cute, little white one in the corner.

That was now over six hours ago and Ham was still floating somewhere between the sixth and seventh heavens. As soon as she got home the young lady took him out of the box the shopkeeper had given her and put him in a delightful little cage she had prepared just for him. Not that he had found much rest, as yet. Several times that afternoon she had lifted him out and cuddled him in her tiny, cupped hands. She would carry him into the kitchen and hold him up to the small so that he could drink, promising that tomorrow she would buy him a proper water drip. Once she even lifted him up to her face and stared at him with her bright blue eyes. It was obvious they were made for each other and Ham remembered a story he'd once heard his mother tell him about an animal who had been changed into a handsome prince upon being kissed by the prettiest girl on earth. Well, he had the prettiest girl, now if only... And that was when it happened. Ham wasn't quite sure how or why, all he knew was that he was standing there tall and proud watching his beloved turn and flee in fear at the unusual turn events had taken.


Last Sunday the menu read:

Kir Royal (Sparkling Wine with blackcurrant liqueur) and petits fours.

Entrée: Poached Egg Soufflé served with pâté and salad.

Main Course: of Salmon filet served with Chardonnay Sauce, rice and fresh vegetables. Side Salad.

Bottle of Jura Chardonnay 2006 (a local speciality)

Plate of Cheese with Cracker Biscuits or French Bread

Cheesecake with fresh, home-made ice cream and raspberries

A glass of Champagne (offered by the house to celebrate the occasion)

Coffee and mints

All this while cruising down the river Saône enjoying the beautiful countryside. It was, after all, our wedding anniversary so we indulged.

Pardon Me!


"Hi Jean, it's lovely to see you."

"It's great to see you too. And you're looking so well."

"You too. How long has it been?"

"Oh, it must be over a year now. You just sit down and I'll get you a nice cup of coffee."

"Oh please, I'd much rather have something cold."


"No, I'd prefer something to drink please."

"Water then?"

"Yes, I suppose. I mean water'll be fine, I guess."



"Hi darling, how's your day been."

"Run off my feet. I've hardly sat down all day. We were run off our feet at the shop and when we finally did get some peace, I had to go to the travel agent's and get some brochures for the cruise we're thinking of doing. Then, when I got home Jean called round. I met her on my way back from town She was just in Aber for the day so I insisted she drop by for a little chatter. Didn't say much though. To be honest, she was a bit strange. It's only now that I've had a chance to look at these brochures. And I'm really excited about them. There are some fantastic destinations."

"Are you sure, we can afford one?"

"What do you mean? And take that funny grin off your face. Of course, we can afford one. We've been through this a thousand times. And don't forget it was your idea in the first place."

"I'm sorry love, it's just I got a rather strange phone call from Ron. He wanted to know how he could help us in our difficulties."

"Our difficulties?"

"Yes! Jean rang him up the moment she'd got home after your visit together. She had some coak and bull story about you're being... shall we say, less than the perfect hostess. Apparently, all you offered her was water."

"But that's crazy I offered some of the home-made raspberry squash I made last week. But she didn't want any."

"Well, she's saying you only offered her some sort of vegetarian snack and when she insited on a drink, you gave her nothing but water. She feels pretty insulted and told Ron, she never wants to come here again. He took the matter in a completely different light. He thought we must be in dire straits. He phoned up to offer his help."

"But what on earth gave him that idea?"

"Well, he knew you weren't usually miserly. And was sure, you hadn't intended to insult Jean. So he figured vegetarian snacks and water could only mean we were little short of financial ruin."

"But... I mean... Well, what could have given them that impression?"

Dear Mr. Grantham-Bell,

Thank you for your very detailed report which I have just finished reading. I regret not being able to fulfil your wish and replying within 24 hours, but the vagaries of communication here in the heart of the jungle meant that I only received the report this morning. In addition, your numerous suggestions for change are most thought-provoking and require time to digest and to filter. Rest assured that I shall give them the required thought and provide you with a detailed reply as soon as possible. But permit me now to explain how your visit was perceived here in Boganga.

I'll admit that most of the co-workers here, both national and expatriate, are puzzled as to the motives behind your visit. They picked up on a few statements made in your welcoming address: wanting to see first-hand what was going on; desiring to get to the heart-beat of the organisation; your need to listen to the project co-ordinators and their concerns. They listened to and picked up on a number of these, but, I'm afraid, they found behaviour incompatible with your desires - hence their perplexity. A few examples will suffice.

Your decision to cancel your visit to Leballam caused great consternation. I realise I may be partly to blame for this but if you look over our correspondence you will see that I pointed out several times the impossibility of completing a 100 Km round trip in 2 hours, given the state of our roads, not to mention that the afore-mentioned 2 hours would scarcely suffice to get a true impression of what was going on there. Insult was then added to the already existing gloom when you hired a plane to fly over the dispensary to take photos. After all, you had to have something to show the supporters. But pristine, photogenic buildings is certainly not what this project is about, and the workers felt brushed aside.

I do not know how well you feel your meetings with each of the project managers' went, but most of them were very unhappy at having only fifteen minutes to spend with you. In a country where establishing a relationship is of far greater importance than talking business, your lack of real concern was transparent. Several consider your trip to have been worthless since discovery takes time, time which you weren't willing to give. In addition, I am not sure if you are aware that you, yourself, set the agenda for each of these meetings by having your pre-defined set of questions, and not taking an interest in what others had to say. I might at this point be permitted to point out that most of the recommendations in your report only serve to scratch itches which do not actually exist. But had you been attentive to what the managers had to say, maybe you would have come close to recognising the real problems we're facing.

Finally, I will not try and claim that the financial help you extended to several of those in need was not appreciated. Due to the drought of the last three years food supplies are at an all-time low and seed has to be imported at very high prices. Your aid has certainly made a big difference to many here who are struggling to keep their families alive. And each of these families has specifically asked me to thank you on their behalf. However, your refusal to kneel with them on the mat around a hot pot of Chai with them only served to further the impression that you showed little interest in them as people, despite your generosity.

Sir, let me finish by saying I am proud of ComeToMyAid International. I am proud of the work we have done here and the way we are bringing hope and support to thousands of families in this apparently God-forsaken part of the world. I am also proud of my own part in that work.

I am? At least, I was. But now I find myself seriously having to reconsider my position. So if I might be permitted to make one final request, I would beg you not to answer this letter by email within 24 seconds. Change, lasting change requires time.

Yours sincerely,

U.R. Hope
(National Director ComeToMyAid International)


Heights of sublimity, depths of depravity;
Untold limitations, yet countless opportunities;
Majestic beyond compare, paling into insignificance;
Anonymous, yet love by the creator of all;
No one can sound the depths of this being.

That's me folks. Oh yes, and you!

Change is dream, once even hope
Hope like a beacon; fading, enthralling
Keep going, you can, you will;
All is lost, since nothing remains.

then twice,
then followed another
I lived, believed, grasped,
felt all well, at last,
until eternal optimist, eternal pessimist became
nourished by doubt of failure
hope's flame put out
I lie down,
I quit

Life, experience, knowledge: trinity of enemies
campaign with loud slogans: change futile,
become what you are, desire nothing else;
weeds which strangle hope's last breath.

One More Day

They spread themselves out over the scanty expanse of green in front of the terminal building. This was the perfect ending to what had been a near perfect holiday. Five days exploring various sites, meeting new people, immersing themselves in the rugged beauty of the Welsh countryside. Under such circumstances, even speaking English had come easily. And, of course, the weather. They had seen the pictures, they knew what to expect. Luscious, green vegetation didn't come from days of burning sunshine. But even on this last day the sun smiled benevolently down upon them, just as it had done for four of the five previous days. What more could they want? Well, actually, there was one thing, but that too was on its way as they started to unpack the picnic bags raising eyebrows from more than a few passer-bys. One last picnic, one last memory.

"I just wish we had decided to stay that extra day. After all who needs a day to rest up after a holiday like this."

The sentiment was echoed by all as the bread spreads were passed from hand to hand.

"Mind you," piped another voice, "I'm glad we found that place that baked French bread. Imagine having to put up with rubber bread for five days. I guess there are some things we French will never get used to."

"Then again, this wine is excellent. I never thought I'd say that about a wine not from France."

Everyone raised a glass and toasted to that. Sweet praise indeed, thought Daffy - the only Welshman in the group. The trip to the vineyard had been one of their objectives from the start but they'd very nearly missed out. In fact, it was only due to the good graces of the vintner that they'd been able to see it, at all. Even he had forgotten that everything closed earlier over here. Then again, they'd made it his worthwhile. Each one had parted with at least one mixed box and some had bought a box of each variety.

"This, for the airport!" the vintner had waved cheerfully, thinking the more he improvised on his English, the likelier they would be to understand. Now the last drops were gone and one by one they collapsed back in the grass for a very French siesta.

"Daffy, give us a few of your Welsh tunes to dream along with."

Daffy got out his mouth organ and soon the notes were floating up passed their ears up and out over the sea towards France, as the others closed their eyes in forgetful bliss, as the final call for the missing passengers had gone out with no reply. Their luggage was taken off the plane. Their yearning for one more day in Wales was to be granted after all.

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