“Have another chocolate, Gus!” Mrs Vogel insisted, waving a selection box under the boy’s nose. Gus, delighted to have a pre-breakfast treat, accepted eagerly, amused as he always was by the way the spindly woman – his foster mother – pronounced his name: ‘goose’. Her husband was the same, in appearance and with the same funny accent. They were from Europe or somewhere. Gus hadn’t really been paying attention. When he’d been placed with them in November, all he knew was he had to keep his head down and out of trouble and he wouldn’t be stuck in that dreary children’s home for Christmas.
Now, seven weeks later, there he was on Christmas morning, stuffing his face in the home of this strange but pleasant couple.
“Tadaa!” Mr Vogel announced, bringing an enormous plate loaded with fried food to the table. “The full English! For our little Englishman! Go on. Tuck yourself in!”
Gus didn’t need a written invitation. He attacked the bacon and eggs and mushrooms and beans and toast and – it was a prodigious amount for a grown man let alone an eight year old boy. Mr and Mrs Vogel stood watching with admiration. It was the same at every meal time. They would pick at things, doing little more than moving morsels around their plates while he was encouraged to fill his boots. It was no wonder they were so skinny.
At first, Gus thought it might be a money thing. Perhaps they couldn’t afford to feed themselves as well as him, but exploration of their enormous house put paid to that idea. The Vogels must be loaded. Gus began to harbour ideas of worming his way into their hearts, making himself inextricable from their affections, and they would have no option but to adopt him as one of their own. And he would stand to inherit the lot!
The house was huge and grand but it was also miles from anywhere. The Vogels warned him he must never go out on his own for he would surely get lost. He was encouraged instead to stay indoors with his games consoles and giant-sized bags of crisps and boxes of chocolates. It was a young boy’s dream! But after a while, even Gus needed fresh air and so the Vogels would take him out for walks around the gardens, warning him not to stray from their sight or exert himself too much in case of accidents.
They mollycoddled him, he felt, but it really was the lap of luxury and would do very nicely, thank you.
With breakfast over, Mr Vogel poured Gus a tall glass of cream soda with an ice cream float and instructed the boy to keep out of the way while the large dining table was set up for the visitors. Gus installed himself in an armchair in the corner, shooting things on a little screen with his thumbs. The Vogels rearranged the furniture. They pulled out the leaves of the great oak table and then added further trestles to the end to accommodate the members of their extended family who were due at any minute. When Gus had finished all the levels of his game, he looked up to find the room transformed. There was a pristine cloth over the table, gleaming white like a fresh fall of snow. Silver cutlery glinted like ice and all around the edges, gilt-rimmed plates lay like frozen puddles reflecting sunlight.
The doorbell rang, sonorous and solemn. Mrs Vogel clapped her hands twice, despatching her husband to answer it. A moment later, the first of a long stream of relatives trickled in. Uncle Mort, an angular man like a bunch of sticks, was quickly followed by two gloomy women, stout like salt and pepper pots – Gus didn’t catch their names because the introductions were interrupted by the boisterous entrance of wild-eyed Cousin Jojo, who bounded in, pumping hands and slapping backs like a clown running for public office. Each new arrival took a seat around the table. Their talk was all about the guest of honour, that fine figure of a young man, Gus.
How healthy he looks! they marvelled.
Yes, Mrs Vogel grinned with pride. They should have seen him when he first arrived, she said. All skin and bone.
“More meat on the pencil of a butcher,” Mr Vogel quipped to the general amusement of the company.
But look at him now! How he has blossomed! How he has thrived! He was a credit to their diligent care and generosity of spirit!
Gus squirmed, a little uncomfortable under their scrutiny but he was pleased to receive so many compliments.
“Come, Gus, take your seat at the head of the table!” Mr Vogel pulled out the chair. The family applauded as Gus ambled from his armchair, reluctant to leave his games console behind.
He took his seat, blushing as every eye looked to him with anticipation. His stomach flipped; he hoped they weren’t expecting a speech.
The doorbell tolled again. Mr Vogel slid out to the hall. He returned with the guest, the final addition to the feast. Gus’s jaw dropped when he saw the stooped figure and shiny bald pate of Mr Schreck from the children’s home. The others were far from surprised and welcomed Mr Schreck as warmly as an old friend.
“Now,” Mr Vogel stood and addressed the table, “we can begin!”
Everyone nodded. They turned to Gus. Gus’s eyebrows dipped in confusion. He didn’t know what they wanted him to do.
Suddenly, his arms were seized. The salt-and-pepper-pot women had grabbed him. They lifted him onto the table and made him lie on his back. Cousin Jojo and Uncle Mort held him by the ankles. Gus tried to wriggle free but they held him tight.
Over him, the upside-down faces of Mr and Mrs Vogel loomed. Their features seemed elongated. Vulpine. Their lips parted to reveal neat rows of pointed teeth.
Mr Vogel was sharpening a carving knife.
“Keep still or it will hurt more than it needs to,” he snapped.
“Silly goose,” laughed Mrs Vogel.
“Now,” Mr Vogel prepared to make the first cut, “Who wants leg?”
Merry Christmas to all my readers!