Christmas at Uncle Bertie's [1]

Uncle Bertie was the patriarch of the family and once again Christmas was to be celebrated at his farm in Dorset. He had been born in 1900 and so had not only lived at the time of the 1917 communist revolution in Russia but had, in fact, become a communist. He never once admitted to being red but his incessant praise of Russian exploits made it obvious he was a 'closet' communist. Everything Russia did was bigger and better than anything in the West. Vast canals had been dug and rivers diverted, mountains tunnelled or demolished. Everything on a grand scale. Whenever he told me a Russian story, that is, whenever he spoke to me, I always responded in a deliberately dumb way. 'Wow' or 'Gee Whiz' or 'How wonderful.' But it made no difference, it only led him to relate another Ruskie triumph.

It looked as though this Christmas we would all have to suffer Uncle Bertie's Russian rubbish, but I had an idea. On Christmas Eve, in the midst of one of his stories from Russian folk legends, I interrupted him. I asked if it were true the peasants declared at midnight on Christmas Eve, the cows could talk. He said it was a myth from North-Eastern Russia. I said I believed it to be true. Everyone laughed. I then said that Uncle Bertie's stories over the years had so convinced me of the wonders of Russia even this story, despite its incredible nature, very likely had a grain of truth. I suggested we all go down to Uncle Bertie's cowshed at midnight and listen to his cows.

With a lot of laughter, it was agreed we would go to the cowshed at 11.45. Until that time, we celebrated the season singing carols and imbibing some rather pleasant wine, although the champagne was being reserved for Christmas Day.

Just before midnight we headed out for the cowshed with Uncle still praising Russia. I opened the cowshed door by swinging the latch out of its slot. Everyone entered the shed. I remarked 'Better not have any lights on as it might upset the cows.' and 'Don't smoke or strike a match, the hay in here is so dry it would make a giant bonfire.' The cows Daisy, Clover and Tinkerbell were undisturbed and continued chewing their cud and munching hay. I began to sing 'Away in a manger' and everyone joined in. In the almost total blackness I could see the stars shining through the open doorway of the shed. I sidled my way to the doorway, slipped outside, closed the door and tapped the latch down into its slot. Everyone was now locked inside. They could stay there for an hour before I would return to release them. Meanwhile, I went back to the house and sampled Uncle Bertie's champagne and ate a slice of his Christmas pudding.

When I returned to the cowshed I listened to the despondent talk, 'It's no use; we'll have to wait 'til morning when the milk-maid comes in.' and 'No! You will certainly not strike a match to look for something to get us out of here. You'll just have to wait.'

All attempts to force open the door soon ceased. The joviality of the party had also ceased with everyone resigned to waiting for the milk-maid. Quietly, I unlatched the door, opened it a little and slipped inside leaving the door ajar. I edged through the crowd and headed to the back of the barn where I knew there was a heap of soft hay. I curled up in this warm nest and, thanks to Uncle's champagne, was soon sleeping like a baby.

Hours later, I was shaken awake. 'Oh, I went to sleep and missed everything. Did the cows talk?'

'What? You don't know what's been happening? We were unable to get out of the shed until this morning when the milk-maid opened the door. But there's the mystery of it; the door wasn't latched. And another mystery, while we've been trapped in the cowshed someone has been drinking Uncle's champagne and eating his plum pudding.'

'It sounds as though Father Christmas stopped by. But did the cows say anything?'

'No!' and 'Of course not.' and 'Don't be stupid.' were spoken by the disgruntled, tired gathering. After the most uncomfortable start ever to a Christmas, apparently none of the party, including Uncle Bertie, was interested in cows talking.

I seized the moment, 'Ah! Uncle Bertie, I've worked out why the cows didn't talk. Cows use the Eastern Orthodox calendar and it has a later Christmas Eve than ours. We are all going to have to come back down to the cowshed on the 6th of January.'

A low groaning sound filled the shed. Where did it come from? It may have been Daisy, Clover and Tinkerbell mooing but I couldn't say for certain.

[1] My story was inspired by Bertie's Christmas Eve by Saki (H H Munro).

Although my story is a fiction my title character, Bertie, was a real person and that was his name. Another surprising link is that his surname was Munro. He was an Englishman who had migrated to Australia. We both played the same sport, billiards, of which he was very skilful, and his exquisite cueing action was unforgetable. He was certainly a better player than I am although I won the only time we ever met when he was past his prime. And just like the title character of my story, he, too, was a fanatic Russophile.
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