Christmas just doesn't feel complete without a Dave and Morley classic from the late, great Stuart McLean. This Canadian icon may be gone, but his stories live on.
In the middle of November, when Jim Scoffield was cleaning out his attic, he came across a box of children's books he neither recognized nor remembered. He brought them downstairs, intending to do what he always does with books he doesn't want. He was going to take them to the library and push them through the return slot.
By Friday afternoon, the books had made it as far as his front hall, which is where Jim happened to be standing when he spotted Rashida Chudary pushing her daughter, Fatima, up the street in her stroller. Rashida and her husband, Amir, had moved into the neighbourhood in January, and everyone had taken great delight in helping the Chudarys through their first winter. When it snowed, people woke up all over the neighbourhood wishing they could be at the Chudarys' to see their reaction.
Jim grabbed some wrapping paper from where he keeps it, under the sofa, and quickly gift-wrapped the books.
Then he ran outside.
"An early Christmas present," he said, handing the children's books to Rashida and pointing at her daughter.
Jim said the thing about the books being a Christmas present so she wouldn't think he was odd, running out like that. He gave her the books and then he went inside to fix dinner and forgot about them completely.
Rashida didn't, however. Rashida went home and went into a tailspin.
Rashida and Amir are from Pakistan. This was going to be their first Christmas in Canada.
"Jim clearly said it was an early Christmas present," she told Amir that night when her husband arrived home. "Do you know what that means?"
Amir shook his head disconsolately.
Rashida was pacing.
"It surely means this whole neighbourhood gives each other presents," she said.
It was not two days since the start of Ramadan. Amir hadn't eaten since sun-up. His head was throbbing. He couldn't think about neighbourhood gift-giving. All Amir could think about was the carrot muffin he had seen in the doughnut store at lunchtime. He had only gone to the doughnut store to look at the muffins.
"I don't understand why we don't have muffins in Pakistan," he had said when he'd first tried one. "They are truly wonderful things."
Rashida could see that Amir was thinking about food—he had a certain muffin-hungry look about him. She wasn't about to be distracted.
"He was waiting for us…on his porch," she said. She was holding out the books Jim had given Fatima. "They were beautifully gift-wrapped. If Jim did this," she said, "imagine what Gerta Lowbeer will do. And what about Betty the Baker?"
When they'd first arrived in the neighbourhood, Betty Schellenberger had brought them home baking countless times.
"Maybe if you walked by her house tomorrow," said Amir, "Betty the Baker would give you delicious carrot muffins for Christmas."
Rashida snorted. "Amir," she said, "this is not a joking thing. Remember what happened in October."
What happened in October was Halloween, and Halloween was a disaster at the Chudarys'. No one had warned them about trick-or-treating. When the doorbell had rung unexpectedly during supper, Rashida had opened it to find a mob of chanting children. She had thought they were teasing her. Rashida shooed the children away and shut the door as quickly as she could, hoping Amir wouldn't notice.
Children kept coming to the door all night, of course.When they finally figured out what was going on, they were horribly embarrassed. Rashida didn't want to repeat the disaster.
"Amir," she said, "we have to get to work."
Amir and Rashida spent November in a frenzy of preparation. They assembled elaborate gift baskets for everyone in the neighbourhood. Each basket had little packages of aromatic rice and tamarind and homemade chutneys. They stayed up late sewing little cloth bags for the spices.
Things at Dave and Morley's house were more comfortable in the run-up to Christmas. Morley has been paring back her Christmas responsibilities over the years. She has pruned her shopping list. She doesn't do as much baking as she used to. And Dave always does the turkey now. So as Christmas approached, Morley felt uncommonly sanguine about the season. She felt as if she were floating above it, as if she were a seabird floating effortlessly over the waves. She felt such a sense of control that she even sat Dave down one night and they sent Christmas cards to his Cape Breton relatives.
On an impulse, Morley sent a card to Amir and Rashida. By coincidence, it arrived the morning Rashida and Amir finished making their neighbourhood Christmas packages.
"Oh my golly," said Amir. "Not cards too."
Unlike Morley, Dave had been preoccupied with Christmas since the end of October. The neighbourhood arena holds an annual skating party every December—a fundraiser to raise money for a new Zamboni.
Dave went to an organizing meeting. When he set off, he knew he wouldn't be leaving without something to do.
Before the meeting began, Dave overheard Mary Turlington talking to Polly Anderson.
"He flips a few steaks on the barbecue and he thinks he has cooked a meal," she said disparagingly.
She was talking about her husband, Bert.
"Baking," said Polly Anderson. "That's the final frontier. Show me a man who can bake a cupcake and I'm all his."
They both cracked up.
At the end of the meeting, the chairman passed a typed list of jobs around the table. Dave looked down the list and without a second thought said, "I'll bake the Christmas cake."
He said it for Bert Turlington. He said it for Ted Anderson.
He said it for all the men in the neighbourhood.
He said it for men everywhere.
He saw Mary Turlington shoot Polly Anderson a raised eyebrow.
And that's how, on a Saturday in the middle of November, Dave came to be in his kitchen, surrounded by brown paper bags of sultanas and currants and lemons and figs and dates and prunes and nuts and glazed cherries and various sugars. And a giant jug of bourbon. He was wearing a Santa Claus hat.
Morley had taken one look at him and said, "I think I'll take Sam to a movie."
Dave had imagined his family at home while he baked—Sam licking the beaters, Morley with her arms around him.
But Dave and Morley have been married for over twenty years now. Morley knows how these things go.
"So we won't be in your way," she'd said, struggling into her coat. She couldn't get out of there fast enough.
Autumn dimmed and the rains of November arrived and the street lights went on earlier each night. The wind came up and the leaves blew off the pear tree in the backyard, and it was good to be inside. And inside at Dave's house, life was sublime.
Dave had his cakes wrapped in cheesecloth and aging on a shelf in the basement.
Two or three evenings a week he would head downstairs and sprinkle them with a soaking mixture he'd made with the bourbon.
"It is very European," he said one night. "It's like having a goat down there."
Sometimes on the weekends Kenny Wong came over, and they would go into the basement and sprinkle the cakes together.
On Grey Cup weekend, Dave and Kenny watched the entire game without touching one beer. They sucked on half a fruitcake each.
By the middle of December, Dave was ready for the arena. Big time. His cakes were moist and mature and, truth be told, delicious. Dave had eaten two of them. He had nibbled them both to death. He had the remaining dozen lined up like gold bars in a vault.
Amir and Rashida had their gift baskets ready to go too—wrapped in Cellophane, tagged and waiting in the front hall.
But a sense of anxiety had descended upon the Chudarys. Amir and Rashida didn't know when the neighbourhood gift-giving would begin. Knowing nothing about Christmas traditions, they didn't want to jump the gun.
"It wouldn't be right, Amir," said Rashida. "We must wait."
And then there was a party at Fatima's daycare, and all the children were given presents.
That night Rashida said, "I am thinking, Amir, that the gifting has obviously begun. We have not been included because they do not want to make us uncomfortable. If we are going to be part of this neighbourhood, Amir, it is up to us to make the first move."
Amir thought otherwise, and they had a steamy argument about what to do. In the end, Rashida said, "I am going tonight and that is all. If you are coming with me, Amir, you must come tonight."
And so they set off after supper, pulling their wagon full of twenty-eight gift baskets.
When Rashida handed Morley her Christmas basket, Morley experienced a stab of guilt. She was ashamed of herself. She had been working so hard to minimize the hassle of Christmas, and these new neighbours, these new Canadians, had so clearly embraced the spirit of the season.
She invited them in and she put their basket under the tree. Then she said, "I have your present upstairs."
She flew upstairs and, in a panic, grabbed a glass bowl she had picked up at a craft show. It was already wrapped. She had been planning to give it to her mother.
"See," said Rashida to Amir fifteen minutes later as they pulled their wagon along the sidewalk. "They were waiting on us, Amir."
It took Amir and Rashida three hours, but when they'd finished, they had left baskets all over the neighbourhood.
The next morning, Morley noticed a tiny rash in the crook of her elbow—a spot that often flared when she was feeling pressured. While she was drying her hair she told Dave what was bugging her.
"I gave the Chudarys that pretty glass bowl. We have lived right next to Maria and Eugene for eighteen years and we have never given them anything. And Gerta, too. If I give something to the Chudarys, surely I should give something to Gerta."
She could feel the muscles in the back of her neck tightening. As she headed downstairs for breakfast she was trying to figure out when she would have time to shop.
Morley went to a flower store at lunch and bought two bunches of holly. She was planning on taking one to Eugene and Maria next door and one to Gerta. She was planning to do it after supper. But before she could do that, the doorbell rang and there was Gerta—standing on the stoop beside a wagon full of presents.
"I baked for everybody in the neighbourhood," she said defensively.
There was a small muscle twitching under her left eye.
On the weekend Morley dug through her emergency stash of presents looking for something to give Mary Turlington.
"I wouldn't want Mary to find out I gave something to Gerta and not to her," she told Dave.
She found a pair of hand-dipped candles. They were warped. Perhaps, she thought, if she warmed them up, she could straighten them. She took them downstairs and put them in the microwave.
After she had scraped out the microwave, Morley dashed to a neighbourhood store. She arrived just before closing and bought a gift basket of herbal teas for Mary.
On her way home she bumped into Dianne Goldberg. Dianne was pulling a wagon up the street toward her house. The wagon was full of presents.
Morley couldn't believe it. Everyone knew the Goldbergs didn't celebrate Christmas.
Morley said, "What a coincidence. I just put something under the tree for you."
When they got home Morley ducked into the living room ahead of Dianne and slipped the tea under the tree.
"Hey," said Sam, when Dianne had left. "Eugene was here while you were out. He brought a present. It's in the kitchen. Can we open it?"
Morley rubbed her arm. The eczema on her elbow was the size of a tennis ball.
By the Friday before Christmas, Morley had received ten gifts from neighbourhood families, including two baskets of herbal tea identical to the one she had given Dianne Goldberg. One of them looked as though it might have been the same basket.
Her rash had extended down to her wrist.
And then, with only three shopping days left, Morley came home from work and found a small bottle of strawberry-flavoured virgin olive oil from a family down the street she had never met before.
She stood in the kitchen staring at the oil and scratching her arm.
"Damn it," she said.
Unfortunately, that was also the afternoon Dave closed the Vinyl Cafe and came home early to ice his Christmas cakes. His plan was to fit them together like a jigsaw puzzle and seal them with a sugar-paste. The man in the bakery said the paste would harden up like marzipan.
"Tougher than marzipan," said the man.
When the paste had boiled into a sticky syrup, Dave took it off the stove and began to pour it on his cake. But instead of hardening up, the icing flowed around like lava, pooling in the low spots. The cake soon looked like something Sam might have made for a geography project—like a papier-mâché model of the Rocky Mountains.
It hadn't occurred to Dave that the cake surface had to be flat.
He went downstairs and got his belt sander.
It took him longer than he'd thought, but Dave finished icing the cakes before anyone got home. When he finished, he realized his cake was now far too big to fit into the fridge, which is where the baker told him it belonged. The only place Dave could think of that was both large enough and cold enough for his icing to set was the garage.
Ever so carefully he picked the cake up and struggled out, backwards, using his elbow to push open the door. On the way into the garage he stumbled against the door frame and knocked one end of the cake. A piece fell off. Dave headed back into the kitchen. He set the cake on the table. He went outside to fetch the broken bit, but the piece was not where it had fallen. Dave looked around the yard.
And there, heading toward the pear tree, backwards, was a squirrel—dragging the broken bit of cake in its mouth.
Dave squeaked and leapt in the air. The squirrel dropped the cake and disappeared up the tree.
Dave retrieved the piece of cake. He brought it inside and cut off the bit that he thought had been in the squirrel's mouth. He tried to set what was left of it back in place. The more he fiddled with it, the more the piece refused to fit. It was rapidly losing its shape.
Eventually, using a mixture of honey and icing sugar, he made a sort of cement and glued the hunk of cake back on. He used the last of the sugar-paste to cover the join. It was like masonry.
Dave carried the cake carefully out to the garage, the squirrel nattering at him as he walked under the tree. He set the cake on the roof of the car. And he made sure the garage door was tightly closed on his way back inside.
It was an hour later that Morley came home and found the strawberry-flavoured olive oil.
"Every night," she said with exasperation. "Every night I come home and someone else has left a present. What is wrong with these people?"
She was scratching her arm vigorously as she left the room.
Dave, who was sitting at the kitchen table making little marzipan snowmen for his Christmas cake, didn't risk an answer.
Morley came back into the kitchen with her coat on.
She looked at Dave and said, "I'm going to Lawlor's. Anyone else who shows up here is getting chocolate."
As she stormed out the door she said, "Those look more like mice than snowmen. You can't put marzipan mice on a Christmas cake."
Dave waited until she left, then he flattened the ball of marzipan in his hand and threw it across the room for Arthur, the dog.
"Arthur," he said, "I am having a hard time with these mice. I keep squishing their little paws."
Then he said, "Uh-oh."
And he jumped up and ran out the door.
He got to the driveway just in time to hear a squeal of tires, just in time to see the red lights of his car disappearing down the street. With his Christmas cake on the roof.
He began to run down the street waving his hands wildly, calling to Morley.
He was running and waving when she hit the speed bump and the cake flew off.
He was still running and waving when Morley glanced in the rear-view mirror and spotted him.
"Now what?" she muttered.
She jammed on the brakes. The car skidded to a halt. She threw it into reverse.
Dave stopped moving. He watched in horror as the car engine roared and the wheels changed direction and the station wagon reversed over his cake.
He started running again.
But he wasn't alone anymore.
Pounding along the pavement beside him like a racehorse stretching for the finish line, matching him step for step in a rush for the cake, was the squirrel.
"Get out of here," bellowed Dave. Morley thought he was talking to her.
She threw up her hands and then gunned the car—and drove over the cake for a second time.
Dave carried the cake home the way he would have carried a dog that had been hit by a milk truck.
He set it down on the kitchen table.
He picked a piece of gravel out of the squished part.
He got a screwdriver from the basement and a flashlight. He held the flashlight in his mouth and leaned over the cake like a surgeon. It took him twenty minutes to flick out all the gravel he could see.
Then he tried to pat the cake back into shape with his hands. But the icing was too hard and the squished part was too squished.
He felt totally defeated.
What would Polly Anderson say? What would he tell the arena committee? Who would believe that his Christmas cake had been flattened in a hit and run?
He went to the basement and poured himself a glass of the soaking mixture.
He came back half an hour later with a solution.
He would cut the cake into individual servings and wrap each serving in Cellophane—like at a wedding.
No one would have to know a thing.
He got out the cake knife.
It bounced off the sugar-paste icing.
He tried again. The knife began to bend but it didn't break the surface.
He got out his carving knife.
He leaned over it and, using his body weight, managed to get the knife into the cake. But try as he might, he couldn't get it out.
He headed into the basement to find his old electric carving knife. He hadn't used it for years.
When he came upstairs, there was Arthur the dog with his back legs on one of the kitchen chairs and his front legs on the kitchen table. There was Arthur slowly and methodically licking the entire surface of the sugar-paste icing.
When he spotted Dave, Arthur leaned forward and put his paws protectively around the cake.
As Dave stepped toward him, Arthur started to growl.
Dave used a damp dishcloth to smooth out the traces of the dog's tongue on his icing.
He plugged in the carving knife. The first cut was picture perfect. On the second, however, a piece of walnut came flying out of the cake and ricocheted off Dave's forehead.
On the third cut, the carving knife started to shudder. Then it began to smoke, and then it seized up completely.
When Morley came home Dave had just finished the job. He had used Bert Turlington's jig saw.
He pushed his safety glasses onto his forehead.
"Hi," he said.
Morley was carrying a large cardboard carton. At first, Dave thought she had gone grocery shopping. She hadn't. She had bought every box of chocolate miniatures left in the drugstore. And a bottle of cortisone cream.
The skating party was the next night. Dave took his cake up to the arena an hour early and set it out on the refreshment table by the skate-sharpening machine.
He wanted to hang around and serve it to people.
Fortunately, he had to go back to work and close his store.
When he returned an hour later there was a man standing by the arena door. He didn't look happy.
He was holding his jaw.
"Are you okay?" asked Dave.
The man shook his head. "Some idiot baked a fruitcake and left the pits in the dates. I broke a filling," he said.
"You're kidding," said Dave.
When he got to the table beside the skate-sharpening machine, his cake had hardly been touched.
Someone had altered the sign that he had carefully lettered before leaving home.
MAY CONTAIN NUTS, it read.
Except someone had scratched out the word "nuts" and written a new word in its place. His sign now read, MAY CONTAIN GRAVEL.
He was going to go home.
But he spotted Sam waving at him from the ice and he thought, Who cares? He waved back and held his skates up and headed toward the changing room.
Christmas Day is going to be a little strained in Dave's neighbourhood this year. On Christmas morning, Dave will get seventeen boxes of chocolates.
"Oh look," he will say, when he opens the twelfth box. "Miniature chocolates. My favourite."
There will be little surprises like that all over the neighbourhood. Gerta Lowbeer raided her freezer of all her Christmas baking to make the cookie plates she gave to everyone. Gerta's relatives will be stunned when they arrive for their traditional Christmas Day visit to see plates of crumbly Peek Freans in place of Gerta's delectable shortbread.
On Boxing Day, old Eugene from next door will realize he has given away the last of the year's homemade wine. To his horror he will find himself between vintages and will head off to the liquor store for the first time in fifteen years. Dave will bump into him staring morosely at the labels in the Yugoslavia section.
Mary Turlington, who prides herself on her detailed Christmas recordkeeping, will get so flustered with the neighbourhood gift-giving that she will completely forget to buy a present for her husband, Bert.
"I can't believe it," Mary will say, scrolling through her computer on Christmas morning. "I must have deleted you."
The only house where Christmas will go without a hitch will be Jim Scoffield's. When Jim's mother arrives as usual a few days before Christmas, she will be amazed at all the festive flourishes. The hand-dipped candles, the home baking, the Christmas CD.
"It's all from people in the neighbourhood," Jim will tell her. "I've never seen a Christmas like it. People kept coming to the door with wagonloads of presents."
On Christmas Day, Jim and his mother will go out for a walk and run into the Chudarys in the park. They will stop and talk for ten minutes, and Jim's mother will make a fuss over Fatima. As they say goodbye, Jim will look at Rashida.
"What are you planning for New Year's?" he'll ask.
"New Year's?" Amir will say as soon as they are alone. "New Year's! Rashida, don't these people ever stop?"
"It will be all right, Amir," Rashida will say.
"Inshallah," her husband will reply. "Inshallah."
If it is God's wish.
Christmas at the Vinyl Cafe (Viking Canada) by Stuart McLean, $32. 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.