10th December – Papernut Cambridge, Wooden Walls and a short story by Natalie Hudson

Both of today’s bands are projects convened especially for this project.

I’ve known Ian Button for years, he’s been in a million bands. He’s on a record in your collection you just don’t know it, most recently he plays in Rotifer on drums alongside me on bass. Although if you want to hear more of what Ian does on his own try googling ‘Anthony Anderson’.

Papernut Cambridge – 93 Million and 1

Here’s what Ian has to say…

Ian Button – vocals, guitar, harmonium, programming
Will Twynham – organ, synths
Mary Epworth – percussion, whistling
Robert Halcrow – baritone horns

When Darren first mentioned this project I didn’t have any thoughts of doing a song myself…but I let the idea gnaw at me for a bit, and one day I finally did come up with a song. I wanted to get some friends involved too so I sent the basic song to Will, Mary and Rob who came up with some great synth/perc treatments and brass lines, recorded them and sent them back to me.

Papernut Cambridge is the name of a band I dreamed about once. They were playing a gig with another band called Elvis Breakdown. I wrote a song about them in 1996, but this is the first actual incarnation of them in the real world. – Ian Button

Rob Halcrow also plays in the excellent Picturebox who can be found here http://picturebox.bandcamp.com/

Here are Wooden Walls. It’s Christmas in their universe too. – Darren

Here’s what Wooden Walls have to say…

Sometimes simple things stick, whether it’s long dark nights or philosophy from the mouths of babes. We might not have heard it right. Springs’s around the corner, but you can still enjoy the cold. Honest.

Wooden Walls – Winter’s Not So Long

http://woodenwalls.bandcamp.com/

When I originally asked my friends for contributions to the advent calender I was asking friends for any creative contribution. Not just songs, Natalie Hudson has written us a story and Kendal Gaw (what a name) has illustrated. – Darren Hayman

The Bet

Words: Natalie Hudson

Pictures: Kendal Gaw

The four of us met every Christmas Day for lunch – Steve, Emily, Alex and me. It was a tradition that started the year after Emily and Alex got married. Steve and Emily were my oldest friends. I had first met them at Manchester University ten years ago, when we lived together in halls. I was a typically sullen English Literature student, and they were the only ones who seemed to tolerate my frequent withdrawals from social occasions and insistence on playing terrible goth records every time they came to my room.

I had expected that the three of us would lose touch after university but somehow we never did – Christmas was the day that bound us together. My parents had both died when I was much younger and Steve, who was resolutely single, maintained that at nearly 30 he was too old to spend Christmas Day with his parents. After graduation, Emily joined a small publishing firm and met Alex, who she married four years ago. And now – well, they always joked that if they had to spend Christmas Day with just each other for company, they would probably end up killing each other. They all lived in London, but I had moved to Moseley, just outside Birmingham, for a quiet life and a steady job at the local council. For most of the year I felt alienated from their London lives and the steady stream of gossip about former university mates. Christmas was the only time when the roles reversed and they all gravitated towards me, if only because I was only one with a flat and dining table big enough to host the mountains of festive food.

Each year they would make a fuss about travelling up on Christmas Eve on inevitably delayed car and train journeys, and I would quietly look after the cooking, with a little bit of help from whichever recipe book I thought might impress them that year. There is something innately satisfying about seeing a proper meal come together and watching your friends eat it. Most days I subsist on ready meals and toast, and this was my annual opportunity to show the others that I wasn’t a total failure at life. The predictable “So why haven’t you got a girlfriend Dave?” questions would usually start to roll as soon as the first glasses of sherry had been drunk. Producing a master-basted turkey, or the Turkey Shield as Steve christened it one year, was a helpful way of making everyone forget their embarrassing questions and instead coo over my cooking skills.

Of course, they never asked Steve the same question. He was a self-proclaimed “lad”, an (imaginary) bedder of women and a drinker of beer. If any of us asked him about future plans, he would proudly state that he was married to himself, his X-Box and the pub. It would have almost been funny if he wasn’t such a faded cliché. In comparison, I suppose I looked like a more hopeful bet for future commitment.  I didn’t drink, visited my nephews and nieces regularly, had a Sainsbury’s Nectar card and – in high-profile situations such as Christmas – could cook an edible meal. In their eyes at least, I was a veritable catch for someone.

This year’s Christmas was set to be no different than usual. The plan, as it was every year, was to scoff down Christmas lunch, chase it down with several large leisurely brandies and then indulge in a little snooze through the Queen’s speech while Emily and Alex did the washing-up. At some point, Emily would eventually drag Alex off to the bed in the spare room, and Steve would reluctantly go out in the cold to retrieve his sleeping bag from the car, before bunking down on the couch for the night. The only non-drinker, I would make my usual appearance early next morning with a cooked English breakfast and an assortment of hats and gloves for our Boxing Day ramble around the park at the bottom of my garden.

My garden. In reality it was a large communal grassy area accessible to the three houses immediately bordering it, of which mine was one. It housed a small lake and a couple of benches, and then, adjacent to this and separated by iron railings, there was the larger, public park which hosted a folk festival every summer. The residents – myself included – took great delight in sneaking into the festival for free. I think, technically, that we were allowed to attend for free anyway, but it felt like a greater thrill to try and sneak through the gate when no-one was looking.  Unbeknown to my Christmas guests, there was apparently due to be some sort of Boxing Day fete or concert in the park this year. I was looking forward to seeing their faces when I took them down to the garden, unprepared for their hangovers to be shattered by the sound of chatter and poorly amplified music.  All told, everything was shaping up for it to be a classic Christmas – Steve had promised to bring some of his new, home-brewed beer and even Emily and Alex had seemed to be getting on better than usual during the year. There was even talk of a baby, according to Steve.
Looking back, I should have spotted the tell-tale signs when Alex and Emily arrived. Her normally round face was drawn, and his was set with a grim determination as they carried their bags from the car. But this wasn’t unusual, they were always bickering – and besides, I felt confident that things would improve once Steve turned up. How wrong I was. If anything, his boisterous arrival, flagged by a crate of beer and a torrent of bad jokes, seemed to make things worse. He was in a typically exuberant mood but, rather than laughing along, Alex glowered at him as he launched into his annual jokey routine about them being an “old married couple”, and the joys of his “freedom.”

Eventually, I managed to drag Steve away to help me prepare drinks, but each time we returned to the living room the atmosphere seemed to have cooled a few degrees. Emily and Alex were simply sitting there, not even looking at each other, in awkward silence. Emily pretended to look through my John Lydon photo book, while Alex stared moodily into his glass of wine, making a swirling motion with the stem.

When we finally sat down for dinner, with several glasses of red wine having already been consumed, I feared the worst.

“”So how are things with the flat for you two?” Steve asked. I could see his right cheek twitching, a sure sign that he was feeling uncomfortable.

“Fine. If you’re asking why we haven’t moved yet, the fact is that we haven’t found anywhere. We don’t know where we’re moving to yet.” snapped Alex.

We all winced slightly at this one. Emily and Alex had been planning to buy their own place since before they married, but hadn’t been able to find anywhere they could afford. Emily was a PA and John had left publishing for post-graduate study, supposedly studying for a PHD and writing a book on Jane Austen. Money was always a sore topic for them.

“Anyway, how about you Steve, how’s the bachelor pad?” I asked. I had never felt so uncomfortable at my own dining table before.

“Yeah it’s OK, “Steve offered timidly. He had bought his own flat that year. “I mean, I’ve had to make lots of sacrifices to pay for it, but it will be worth it. I mean, it is worth it already.”

I nodded along. I knew there was no chance I would ever be able to buy a flat of my own, mainly because I wasn’t prepared to make those sorts of sacrifices. I liked my records and travelling too much. Besides, I knew that no tiny new-build I managed to scrape together a deposit for would ever match the space and majesty of what everyone called my “bohemian” flat, with its extravagantly tiled floors, winding corridors and 70s décor. The rent was ridiculously cheap, and I was still harbouring a secret wish that the old lady landlord night leave it to me when she died.

Alex’s vitriolic response shook me out of my daydream.

“Oh yes, you would know all about sacrifices wouldn’t you?” spat Alex, accusingly.

“Al”, Emily was reproaching him, resting her hand on his forearm, but he continued, unabashed,

“What have you really ever sacrificed eh Steve? Oh yeah, staying in for a few weekends is really going to help you save thousands and thousands, isn’t it? Don’t tell me you bought that place yourself. The bank of mum and dad clearly helped out didn’t they?”

I looked at his glass and the empty bottle next to it. Had he really drank an entire bottle of red wine himself? Like me, Alex’s parents were dead, and he seemed to bitterly resent anyone who got financial hand-outs from their family. “Trustafarians” was what he called them. I could sense the millionth rendition of his speech about trustafarians coming up and groaned inwardly. Alex could be boorish and obnoxious at the best of times, but the wine just magnified it.

“Have you really ever sacrificed yourself Steve? Properly? To someone you love?” This was getting embarrassing. I raised my eyebrows at Emily, who by this point was looking down at the table, her cheeks burning. Why wasn’t she stopping him, or trying to calm him down? This wasn’t what was supposed to happen at Christmas. The nearest the four of us had ever got to arguing before was when Steve tried to cheat at Monopoly.

I looked at Steve, expecting him to try and laugh his way out of it, his usual trick. But no, he was looking at Alex quite intently now.

“What are you saying?” he said quietly.

“You know what I’m saying. I’m not an idiot – I know what you get up to.” I saw Emily make a slight shrugging gesture at Steve.

This was getting weird.

I stood up.

“Anyone for dessert?” I asked, trying to lighten the mood. Unsurprisingly, I was ignored.

“I don’t know what on you’re on about mate. I think maybe you’ve had too much to drink. We all have,” Steve was joking now, and relief fleetingly passed across his face. He did a fake yawn.

Casting an apologetic look in my direction, he added:  “Sorry Dave, maybe let’s have dessert later yeah?”

We started to clear up the dishes, but Alex stayed sitting, staring at Steve for a minute, before picking up his glass and swigging the last bit of his wine. He set down the glass and looked round intently at all of us.

“Sorry guys, got a bit intense there, I think it must have been the wine talking. Me and Em will wash up, and then let’s go outside yeah?”

“Actually Steve, I have a little proposition for you, if you’re game?” he added slyly.

His voice sounded odd, and it was an odd thing to ask. No-one seemed to breathe or move for minutes, almost as though we had been captured in a freeze-frame, and I certainly didn’t expect what came next.

I didn’t expect Steve to say, albeit somewhat nervously, “Sure mate, you’re on.”

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Alex and Emily washed up while Steve and I sat in the living room. Or rather, I sat while Steve paced nervously around on my Moroccan rug.

“What was he going about? He sounded crazy.”

He wouldn’t look at me.

“Come on Steve, tell me. If there’s going to be a fight, I need to know. I don’t want anything kicking off here, I could get thrown out.” Actually, I was thinking more of my collection of 12 inch records, stacked neatly next to the sofa and in a ripe position for angry people to pick up and throw at the nearest wall. I bit my lip anxiously at the thought.

“I’ve been sleeping with Emily.”

It came out so quietly I almost didn’t hear it.

“What did you say?”

Steve whispered again, slightly louder this time.

“I’ve been sleeping with Emily, and she’s leaving him for me. She wasn’t going to tell him until New Year’s Day, but I’m presuming he’s found out somehow.  God knows what he’s on about now. If he tries to fight me outside I’m off. I won’t get into it, don’t worry.”

I flopped back in my beaten-up leather chair, suddenly feeling as deflated as the cushion beneath me. So this was it. After ten years of friendship, my so-called urban “family” were about to split up and do a runner on me. Well, I wasn’t going to let it happen.

“I’m sorry Steve, but you’re going to have to sort it out. Go into that kitchen right now and talk to him. Confess, whatever it takes. I’m not having another Christmas ruined like this.”

Just at that point, the door swung open and Emily and Alex were stood there, wrapped up in the brightly coloured woolly coats, hats and gloves I had laid out for tomorrow. Emily had wrapped her scarf so tightly around her neck and face that only her eyes and a few strands of her blonde hair were visible.

“Come on then you two, let’s get outside.”

Alex’s voice still sounded odd. It was artificially cheery, bordering on manic. I exchanged a scared glance with Steve as we trundled through the corridor to my kitchen patio doors. John had somehow already found the keys and unlocked them.

Pulling on our coats and boots, we followed them out onto the patio and into the garden. It was around 3pm, almost dark but still with a hint of the day remaining. There were a couple of concrete lampposts near the lake, but they didn’t cast much light.

Unconsciously following Alex in a line, we walked in silence for a minute or so through the wet grass until we came to the lake. He stopped suddenly, gesturing at us to do the same.

“Let’s stop here. Steve – you know how I said I have a proposition for you? Well, here it is – do you want to make a bet with me?”

Even in the dusk I could see that Steve’s face had paled.

“Not really Alex, sorry – I don’t do bets.”

“Hold on – you play computer games, play around, drink loads – but you don’t do bets now?” he answered sarcastically. “Well, I want to make a bet, so I’m going to. And it’s up to you whether or not you take part. I’m doing it anyway.”

“See the water?” He pointed at the lake, which was perhaps twenty metres across and completely covered with ice.

“I’m going to walk to the middle, and stand there for a minute, and then walk back. When I stand there, I want you to come and join me.” His eyes were fixed firmly on Steve’s, a slow smile spreading across his face.

“That’s stupid,” I heard myself say, “It’ll crack and you’ll fall in, don’t be such an idiot. No-one ever walks on it. Look, I know there’s something going on but can’t we just-“

“Let me finish my bet Dave”, Alex’s voice was dangerously low.

He continued. “If you don’t walk and meet me, then I’ve won. If you do come and meet me, and dare to come on the ice, then you’ve won.”

“What’s the prize?” Emily asked weakly. I had forgotten she was there.

“You know what it is, Em. It’s you. I would literally do anything for you – let’s see if our Steve here is willing to do the same. If he is, he can keep you. If not, then he has to promise to back off. I know what you’ve been doing with him, but I know it’s not what you really want.”

Steve and I looked at her expectantly, expecting her to deny it, to shout back at him or to do anything than what she actually did, which was to simply say:

“Go on.”

Steve was indignant. “You are joking, you can’t seriously be expecting me to do this? Come on, we’re not at school!”

By the point, Alex had already started to gingerly make his way across to the middle of the ice and was now standing there, looking jubilant, his arms outstretched in a victory gesture. My heart was in my mouth, I knew the water beneath the lake to be at least several feet deep and riddled with knotted weeds. If he ever fell in, he would literally have to be winched out.

“He’s got a point though,” To me, Emily’s voice sounded whiny and pitiful, but Steve was looking at her adoringly.

“What would you really give up for me Steve? You haven’t acted any differently since we got together, you’re still such a lad. How do I know you’re going to change, really?”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. What was this, some kind of sixteenth century duel? I made a mental note not to ever get myself into such a ridiculous situation, not even if a girlfriend was the end result.

Shaking his head, Steve walked slowly to the edge of the pond. He put one foot carefully on the ice, testing its firmness beneath his heavy boot. I squeezed my eyes shut and prepared myself for the sound of a crack, but none came.  He added a second foot, held his arms aloft and prepared his right foot to take another step forward.

Emily was biting her thumb nervously, her eyes firmly fixed on Steve. No-one was looking at Alex. Just then, the crack came. It appeared by Steve’s foot, and slowly, sharply spread out to the centre of the lake. Panic ripped across Alex’s face as Steve stepped quickly backwards onto the verge, his boot tangled in some rushes.

The cracking sound came again, only much louder this time, and we all stood, rooted to the spot, watching in horror as the ice started to break up around Alex. The main crack grew, branch-like, into dozens and dozens of little cracks around him. I could see the water moving underneath the ice, greedily licking the surface, as though preparing to swallow him up. I had seen the water moving when I came to the lake yesterday, why I hadn’t I intervened when they made the stupid bet?

Before we could do or say anything, the ice gave one last final cracking sound and gave way beneath Alex. There was barely even a splashing sound, It was as though he had been sucked into the water. He didn’t even have chance to properly scream, it happened so quickly. We saw his head bob up as he presumably tried to lift himself up, but the hole was so small, he wouldn’t have even been able to get his arms properly up and over it.

Within seconds, there was no sound at all, and Alex had disappeared. We all continued to stare at the lake, eyes fixed on the spot where he had been standing just moments ago. I imagined looking down at the water from my window – it would look like a giant cake with ice-white frosting, and a hole where someone had dipped their finger in the middle of it. I started to scramble for my phone in my pocket, but Steve and Emily both held my arm. There was a moment’s silence as we turned to each other, hardly daring to meet each other’s gazes, and I knew what they were trying to tell me. I looked up nervously around at me, at the windows of the two other houses. They were darkened – I knew the owners had gone away. In my house, I was only the flat owner to have stayed around for Christmas. Everyone else was at least ten years younger than me, or students, and had gone back to their real homes for Christmas. But this was my real home, and I liked to stay here.

Reluctantly dragging my eyes back to the ominous hole, I thought of the recriminations, enquiries, and fuss that would result if we helped John out of the lake.

“I don’t think anyone has seen what’s happened, “I whispered, “Everyone’s away.”

There was a gulping noise, like a small strangled cry, and it took a second to realise it had come from me.

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The three of us silently made our way back into the house and sat around, watching it grow dark outside. I poured out huge whiskies, including one for myself, and that night we all slept in sleeping bags in the living room. I don’t think any of us wanted to be alone.

The next morning, holding each other’s hands for comfort, we walked down to the lake. I kept half-expecting Alex to jump out at me, or scream “surprise” at us. The hole was still there, but if you stood on tip-toes you could see that the water beneath it had started to freeze over again, and the large crack leading up to the hole had almost melded back together. I remembered some tarpaulin that the landlady kept in a shed and, standing timidly near the edge of the water, the three of us shook it out over the cracks, slowly sliding it along the ice as far as the hole. The shouts and music of the Boxing Day fete rang out from the park, and we worked quickly and efficiently, hearts beating fast in case someone should peek through the railings and ask why we were covering up a lake with an obvious hole in it.

Later that day, they travelled back to London, Steve driving them both in Alex’s car and, in a fit of paranoia, I threw out every item of crockery that Alex had used during lunch. Surprising though it sounds, we didn’t talk much about what had happened in the weeks that followed. With his parents dead, and no other close relatives that he hadn’t already alienated, Emily simply told their friends that Alex had discovered her affair and moved away. It was scary how little anyone seemed to care. A couple of months later, Spring came and Steve and Emily, now living together, came to the house.  We stood together, peering out at the lake, as we had done just three months previously. The ice had melted, but of course Alex was nowhere to be seen. I tried not to imagine his cold, white body tangled with the weeds below the surface and knew that Emily and Steve were doing the same.

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Christmas this year is going to be completely different. How could it not be? Steve and Emily have the baby now and this year we’ve got a new tradition – no more boozy afternoons and pointless television watching.  After lunch we’re going to go down to the lake to say Happy Christmas to Alex.

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