It's been less than a year since we said goodbye to one of Canada's beloved storytellers, Stuart McLean. Listening to his one-hour CBC Radio show, The Vinyl Cafe, has been an unofficial national pastime since 1994. For many of us, Dave and Morley, the fictional stars of many of his stories, feel like family. Luckily, they're invited to spend the holidays with us one more time in a new anthology, Christmas at the Vinyl Cafe—and here's an exclusive look at one of our favourite stories, best read with a cup of cocoa in hand.
No one in God's great creation gives themselves over to Christmas more than Morley's neighbour Mary Turlington—to the season and the spirit behind it, to be sure, but not only to the season and the spirit: to the whole nine yards, to all the noise that surrounds Christmas.
"I've chosen my Christmas colour," Mary announced triumphantly to her husband, Bert, one night last summer.
"I'm doing cinnamon this year."
Notice it's not "we." Not "we are" doing cinnamon.
For Mary Turlington, Christmas is a solo sport.
"We'll need a copper tree," she said to Bert a few days later.
And catch that shift: it's an important distinction. Mary writes the score, but Mary expects her husband, Bert, to be in the band. By right of marriage, Bert is enlisted, inducted, and suited up.
Mary, who is taken up with and over by Christmas every year, became particularly focused on this Christmas at the end of November.
Until the end of November, Mary believed her mother and her sister and her sister's husband and their four children and her brother and his kids were all coming to her house for Christmas.
But one by one her family had bailed. Her brother got a new job and couldn't afford the time away. Her sister's husband got sick. Her mother said, "I don't know. I don't know. If no one else is coming maybe I should stay home."
Anyone else might have been disappointed. Anyone else so caught up in Christmas preparations might have fallen apart. What's the point? they might have asked. I work so hard and no one cares.
Mary didn't fall apart. Mary dug deeper.
"It means we can do things my way for a change," she said to Bert.
Apparently, Mary, who had been all about commitment, had also been all about compromise.
"I thought I was going to have to do turkey again this year," said Mary. "Emma's so conservative on the question of turkey."
On the question of turkey at Christmas, Bert felt pretty conservative himself. But he was conservative enough not to mention it.
Instead of being unsettled that her plans were unravelling, Mary was becoming unleashed. She was Mary, Unshackled.
"What do you think of henna?" she said to Bert one night.
"Who?" asked Bert.
"If we hennaed your hair," said Mary, "think of how nice you would go with the copper tree."
Mary had, apparently, shifted into some previously undiscovered Christmas gear. And Bert, who had always been delighted by his wife's Christmas cheer, was beginning to feel something that was not delight. It was a bigger feeling than delight, a whirling sort of feeling.
Bert was afraid Mary's Christmas was about to overtake him. He felt like the Cadillac in that song about the little Nash Rambler.
"Beep, beep," said Bert.
"What?" said Mary.
"Oh nothing," said Bert.
As Christmas got closer, Mary set out their collection of Christmas candles—a parade of little paraffin men and women in chipped red-and-yellow choir robes.
"I know they are cheesy," she said, "but I love these more than anything."
The candles had been in Mary's family since before she was born. Mary's parents had bought the choirmaster and his wife on their first Christmas together: a man and a woman singing their little paraffin hearts out. Mary's mother added to the candle collection each time she had a child.
When her children married, Mary's mother added wax figures for each new husband or wife. And then for each of the grandchildren. After fifty Christmases, there were now twenty-three candles that lived, eleven months of the year, wrapped in tissue at the bottom of a shoebox, and spent the holiday season marching along the mantel, the two original candles at the head of the paraffin parade.
Only one candle had ever been lit. When Mary's sister's first husband left her for his aerobics instructor, Mary's mother removed his candle from the collection. She burned it in the front window on Halloween. Then she scraped what remained of the candle off the window frame, wrapped the little wax puddle in beautiful gold foil, and mailed it to the offending ex-husband the following Christmas.
Ever since then, the candles have assumed iconic status. Every Christmas, Mary's mother picks up her candle and says, "Maybe, when I die, you could place mine on my coffin and light it."
"We'll never light them," said Mary. "Never."
Mary found a local welder to make a copper tree. He came to the house to measure their living room in early December. "I'm going to use steel," he said, "but it will be oxidized steel, so it will be copper-coloured. It will look sort of…sort of…" He was searching for the right word.
"Dead?" said Bert.
That was the night Mary told Bert she had settled on scallops for Christmas dinner.
"I am going to poach them in saffron," she said, "so they will look nice with the tree."
That was the moment that galvanized Bert. That was the moment he decided the time for action had arrived.
He was standing in his driveway when lightning struck. Not literally lightning, but close. There was a flash and a loud clap, and Bert jumped back, his hands flying up to protect his head. As he stood there, uncertain what had just happened, a giant set of fibreglass reindeer antlers fell out of the sky and planted themselves in the front lawn right beside him.
Bert stared at the vibrating antlers, thinking how ironic it would have been, given his current situation, to have been taken out by a giant Christmas decoration.
Then he looked up and spotted his neighbour Dave running down the sidewalk with his face covered in soot and his eyebrows singed
"You'll never believe what just happened," said Dave, panting.
It was obvious to Bert what had to be done. Mary needed to be distracted, or Christmas, as Bert knew and loved it, was going to be lost. If Mary's family wasn't going to show up and do the job, Bert needed someone else to take up the slack. Someone to preoccupy her. Someone who rubbed up against his wife a bit, the way her sister did.
"Hey," said Bert. "Dave, good to see you."
And that is why, two weeks later, at two o'clock on Christmas afternoon, Morley looked at her husband across the mess of their living room and said, "If we're going to get to the Turlingtons' on time, we'd better start getting ready."
Dave was standing by the couch in his pyjamas, knee-deep in wrapping paper. He was holding his present for Morley. It looked as if it had been wrapped by a small animal with no opposable thumbs.
"This is for you," he said, holding out the package to Morley. He kicked his way toward her as if it was an October afternoon and he was kicking his way through a leaf-strewn park.
"I love you," he said.
Sam, twelve years old and crawling through the paper toward the back of the tree like a caver, stopped dead and looked over his shoulder at his parents. "Will you two please stop talking like that in front of me? It's inappropriate," he said.
At two o'clock in the afternoon at Dave's house, Christmas was still in full swing.
Next door, however, at the Turlingtons' house, at Christmas Central, there was very little evidence that Christmas had ever happened.
The Turlington twins had already taken their presents back to their rooms and put things away in their drawers and cupboards. And while Sam dove under a pile of paper as if he was snorkelling, the Turlington twins, dressed in their matching Christmas sweaters, were at the dining-room table writing thank-you cards. Eighteen-year-old Adam was sitting on the sofa carefully folding wrapping paper and sorting it into two neatly labelled boxes: one marked Recycle and one marked Reuse. Mary was vacuuming, in a pair of gold kitten-heel shoes.
And now, these two different cultures were about to be brought under the same roof.
Dave and Morley, Sam and Stephanie, were heading up the Turlingtons' walk.
As they stood on the Turlingtons' stoop, Morley turned and took Dave's arm at the elbow.
"Best behaviour," she said.
"Very best," said Dave, nodding earnestly.
He meant it.
They were both thinking of other dinners at the Turlingtons'—of the competitive strain that seemed to hover between Dave and Mary, of the abrasive discussions, political and pedestrian.
Dave took a deep breath.
"Very best," he said again as he reached out and rang the bell.
Mary opened the door. There was an uncomfortable beat before anyone said anything.
Mary was wearing a long black evening gown and gold earrings. Her hair was a strangely artificial shade of orange, sprayed and pulled tightly up into a bun. The expression on her face suggested that she had been expecting the queen but was faced instead with a man from the stables.
If you could have seen inside both of them, Mary in her formal dress and Dave in his cords and a flannel shirt, you could have watched their hearts sinking, both of them thinking, How did I get myself into this? Before either of them had time for a second thought, Dave saw Mary Turlington's Christmas tree for the first time. It had a steel trunk and steel branches and steel needles and steel decorations. Dave, who had been expecting greenery, blinked. To Dave, the tree looked…rusty. The tree looked sharp, like a kind of giant, corroded medieval weapon. Or a bombed-out electrical tower left rotting in the fields of a wartorn country.
These are the thoughts that were tumbling through Dave's mind as he stood in the hall with his mouth open. And the very first words that came out of his mouth were not "Happy Christmas, Mary," or "Mary, you look wonderful." The first words out of his mouth were "My God...what happened to your tree?"
Morley saw Mary's jaw twitch. She thought she heard a faraway whoosh. It was the sound of an evening of merriment being sucked from the house.
Dave glanced helplessly at Morley.
I'm trying, his expression seemed to say.
Morley stared back: Try harder.
Bert ushered everyone into the living room, posing them around the rusting tree, chatting with forced cheeriness. He pulled out his new digital camera. "Everyone smile," said Bert hopefully.
Dave did try harder. In an effort to show Mary that he appreciated her hospitality, he sank his hand into a bowl of gourmet snack mix that was on the hall table. But as soon as he popped the stuff in his mouth he knew he had a problem.
He glanced down at the bowl. There were dried cranberries in there, and what looked like bits of cinnamon stick, but what he had thought were tiny crackers or sweet-potato chips were now looking suspiciously like the stuff you might use at the bottom of a hamster cage. His teeth ground away at what he now realized were cedar shavings. It dawned on him that he was eating Mary's Christmas potpourri. When he looked up to see if anyone had noticed, he caught Mary staring at him from the living room. Instead of spitting into his hand, which was what he had been about to do, Dave smiled gamely and swallowed.
Bert handed Morley a glass of wine and reached for his camera. "Hold it there, Dave," said Bert.
The more Dave tried, the worse things got.
"Just don't touch anything," whispered Morley, taking a clove-studded orange from Dave's hand.
Everyone was in the kitchen. And everyone was busy. Mary was dusting the turkey with saffron. Morley was tossing the salad. Bert was taking pictures.
"What can I do?" Dave whispered to Morley.
"Just be helpful," said Morley. "Look around for something that needs doing and do it."
Dave couldn't see anything that needed doing in the kitchen. He went into the dining room.
There were flower petals and little pieces of bronze-coloured glitter all over the table.
He went to the hall closet and got the hand vac and hoovered them up.
Then he picked up matches from the buffet and headed toward the mantel. One by one, he lit the wicks in the heads of the little wax choir. The twenty-three candles cast a remarkable glow.
A few of the oldest figures burned quickly. The little wax puddles at the tops of their heads sank into their skulls so that the flames of the candles shone through their eyes. It gave them a slightly demonic look. It would be more dramatic, thought Dave, if he dimmed the room lights. Then the candles would be the first thing you saw when you came into the room.
They were certainly the first thing Mary saw when she walked through the kitchen doors. She was carrying a salmon appetizer.
They managed to pick most of the salmon up before the Turlingtons' dog got too much. Dave scooped up the biggest piece and wiped it off on a napkin.
"Five-second rule," he said, grinning.
"Hold it there," said Bert, snapping away.
Somehow or other, they managed to get through the meal. After the candles-and-salmon fiasco, Mary had headed back into the kitchen like an army general determined to overcome defeat in the field. Bert kept jumping up at regular intervals and blinding everyone with the flash of his camera. And Morley hung on to her wineglass like a drowning woman clutching a life preserver.
In fact, by the time the turkey was finished, things seemed to have settled down so nicely that Dave felt it might just be safe to help out again. He headed into the kitchen to see about the plum pudding.
"You'll need more than that," Dave offered as he watched Mary sprinkle the pudding with liquor.
Whether or not she needed more is a moot point. The point is, if Mary had just added a little more, everything might have been all right. But she didn't. Mary wasn't about to let Dave tell her how things should be done in her kitchen.
So instead of adding a little more brandy, Mary looked at Dave icily and said, "That will be plenty."
Dave, moved only by the best of intentions, not wanting anything more to go wrong, waited until Mary wasn't looking and gave the pudding an extra shot of brandy anyway. And Mary, not wanting to be proved wrong about how much brandy you needed to light a plum pudding, waited until Dave wasn't looking to give it an extra shot herself.
So the pudding was well and truly soaked when Mary carried it to the table. She did this with great ceremony.
First she called from the kitchen for Bert to dim the lights. She peeked out several times to ask for adjustments. When the lights were just right, Bert got out his camera and positioned himself at the end of the table. When he had finished focusing on where Mary would be standing with the pudding, he called out to her, and Mary, standing tall and regal, like a monarch carrying an orb and sceptre, advanced out of the kitchen into the dining room, the pudding proffered in front of her. When she got to the table, she lowered the pudding to the table slowly.
Then she struck a match.
There was a whoosh and a flash and the pudding went up like a Roman candle.
A number of things caught fire.
Perhaps most spectacularly, and certainly most alarmingly, the cinnamon-coloured silk ribbon that Mary had wrapped around the bun at the top of her head.
The ribbon acted like a wick, and in an instant, blue flames were shooting out of Mary's heavily hairsprayed hair. She stood stock-still by the table, looking like the Statue of Liberty set alight.
Bert was snapping away like a paparazzo. Unfortunately, it was Dave who put her out. He used a pitcher of eggnog.
It was hours later, after Mary's hair had been put out and the dining room generally hosed down, the twins in bed and Dave and Morley safe at home, that Mary's sister, Emma, phoned.
Mary took the portable phone into the den while Bert finished tidying the kitchen.
"Emmy sent her love," said Mary when she returned. Her eyes were red. She had been crying.
"I guess I miss her," she said. "I hadn't been missing her at all, but I have never had a Christmas without her. Did you know that?"
"Did you tell her about the candles?" asked Bert.
"And the pudding," said Mary, wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her housecoat. "She reminded me of the Christmas the dog ate the turkey. And the year Adam knocked the tree over. Remember?"
"Family and friends," said Bert. " They sure mess up our lives."
"They sure do," said Mary. She was smiling now.
"They sure do."
Excerpted from Christmas at the Vinyl Cafe. Copyright © 2017 by The Estate of Stuart McLean. Published by Viking Canada, an imprint of Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved