Updated: Dec 24, 2019
Maggie Mattheson: Min-spy Christmas Special
‘Why do you need me here? You could’ve come to this on your own.’
Maggie and Joshua shuffled their way towards the centre, trying to avoid the tweed-covered knees protruding from hard wooden seats in the fifth row in the Frampton-on-Sea village hall. They were there to see the W.I. Christmas Fashion Show, a fact Maggie had only revealed to her great grandson a few moments before.
The hall was packed but they had spotted two free seats in a good position. Maggie removed her coat, folded it up and sat on it, trying desperately to ignore the pain in her left hip and right knee as she lowered herself down. The coat would help make sitting for an hour or more bearable. As a former spy, she had done hours and hours of stakeouts in the past in freezing cold rooms with nothing to sit on at all. Now, she almost went into panic mode if her bottom came into contact with anything that felt like it had not been quality tested for comfort by a pea-sensitive princess. It made no sense to her: she had considerably more padding on her backside than she used to have so why the fuss now?
Joshua settled in beside her and she noticed he did what she always did which was to take a few seconds to glance around, sussing out his surroundings. That habit was ingrained into him as it was into her. Always on the lookout, always working. He was confident and capable, far beyond his young years.
He was also astute: Maggie did not need her great grandson with her at all. She was well used to doing things on her own and certainly no wallflower. Having a bit of company was nice but she had brought him along just to enjoy his reaction, particularly when the models – none of them under seventy – started to strut their stuff down the temporary cat-walk which had been erected that morning for the show.
‘Don’t go on, Joshua. I’m sure the powers that be in the Secret Service can spare you for a couple of hours. Anyway, I think you’re going to enjoy this. We won’t have long to wait; it’ll be starting soon.’
‘There’s no sign of action yet. Everyone is still nattering away.’
‘That doesn’t mean anything. That’s what we do, people of our age: natter. It’s the only reliable way you can tell if we’re still alive. The noise levels will get worse when it all gets going – this lot’ll be louder, even more excitable. Plenty of bitching about the models. Half of them only come here to slag off their friends. The other half, like me, have come to see whether Barbara is going to remember to come out with her top on this time. Last year, I thought she was wearing a buff coloured novelty Christmas jumper, one with two sorry looking red-nosed reindeer which had lost their antlers. Barbara didn’t notice, bless her. She got the biggest cheer of the night!’
At that moment, a scratchy sounding version of Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ struck up on the PA, too loud by far for anybody other than the cohort of elderly women who filled the hall. It invoked an immediate response; a hundred pair of arms rose up and started swaying from side to side, some of them in time to the music, some of them not. Between the waves, there were glimpses of beaming festive faces as Noddy belted out the chorus.
It was not Maggie’s favourite song so she sat back in her seat and took the opportunity to look at the Christmas decorations that adorned the ceiling and walls. The vicar and her hoard of helpers had gone to a lot of trouble to deck the hall with not only boughs of holly but every other conceivable plant that was still green at this time of year. There had been a lot of pressure this time round to use natural products over plastic based items, but Maggie could not help think it was more ‘Tarzan’ than ‘Santa’. It was attractive, yet part of her yearned for something that spoke to her of the Christmases she spent with her late husband, Frankie – when they were both at home and not on a mission in different parts of the world – which Maggie always ensured were crammed with every Christmas cliché imaginable.
She had set the tone on their first Christmas as a married couple in the pokey bedsit they rented in London by tearing in half and hanging up a pair of her old tights on the back of two chairs either side of the two-bar electric fire they had bought with virtually their last pennies. She had wanted to put apples in them but Frankie had objected on the basis that there was no way he would eat one after it had sat overnight in the foot of her old tights. They compromised on a potato in each. There was less hanging than was ideal because of the weight of the potato and stretchiness of the elastic but it served the purpose. She added to them a few Brazil nuts the local greengrocer had given her, a comb for Frankie, a hairbrush which he had got for her and a bar of soap which she split in two. For Santa and his reindeer, she laid out a saucer of milk, a carrot and digestive biscuit – she was no baker and mince pies always were well beyond her culinary skills. She had shaken Frankie awake at three o’clock that Christmas morning, the excitement of opening the one present they had bought each other too much for her to contain.
Having being forced to give up their first child when he was a baby, she made sure Christmases with their second – a daughter – were extra special. Frankie had one red line he eventually persuaded her not to cross which was to wait until at least 4 o’clock before she woke everyone up to shout, ‘Santa’s been!’. As money became more available, they added to the traditions. Frankie would serve bacon and eggs after looking in their stockings (red knitted woollen ones Maggie had bought at a Christmas fete). There was always plenty of turkey, bowls filled with Quality Streets and (bought) mince pies. At midday, she and Frankie would enjoy the obligatory snowball drink with the impaled cherry on a cocktail stick precariously balanced on the rim and then tuck into whatever alcohol Frankie had managed to get from his, rather dodgier, Service contacts. They sat down and watched the Queen’s Speech at 3pm, played games and then finished in front of the TV with one of the Christmas films that Maggie always slept through. (She was 54 years old before she found out that Steve McQueen’s ‘Great Escape’ did not end up him making a great escape). And, most importantly of all, they had the house decorated in tinsel of the gaudiest colours imaginable, strings of lights that did not work properly, and odd-shaped silver, gold and red dangly things which she bought in Woolworths every year. These were designed to neatly concertina up and be stored away afterwards, only to be un-concertinaed, tangled up, ripped and thrown away the following year.
The song finished and the hubbub resumed. Shaken out of her reverie, Maggie picked up her handbag from the floor and held it out in front of her, gripping the sides firmly.
‘What are you doing?’ Joshua asked.
‘I’m making sure Maureen can see my new bag.’
‘You know Maureen. She works at the nail bar. Clears up the clippings three times a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday.’
‘How would I know that?’
‘You told me that the Service knows everything about everyone.’
‘Well, I don’t think I quite said that. I said it was similar to in your day in that we had a wide network of intelligence but that fibre optics enabled systematic analysis of terra-bytes of data in nanoseconds with resultant enhanced profiling and targeting.’
‘And my response was?’
‘You said, “What?” as I recall.’
‘My point exactly.’ Joshua opened his mouth to say something then shrugged and closed it again. Maggie had this effect on people: the ability to make them think that what they were saying did not make sense, even if they were convinced at the start that it did. ‘Ooh... the curtains just twitched. I bet that’ll be Dawn having a sneaky peak. She’s so nervous. I told her she shouldn’t be. If you’ve got a good body, flaunt it. That’s what I say. Flaunt it before you haunt it.’
‘Flaunt it before you haunt it? What does that even mean?’
‘Show it off before you kick the bucket. I thought you were kids were into the old patois?’
‘That’s not patois. You just made that up.’
Maggie raised an eyebrow then lifted her bag higher up so that it rested in front of her chin. She peered over the top of it, her eyes sweeping across the rows in front until, eventually, she spotted one of the ladies she knew from the bowls club she used to attend turning round and having a chat to someone behind. (Maggie had let her membership at the bowls club lapse since returning from the mission she had been on with Joshua. The last occasion she had been down there, she had had a blazing row with the membership secretary over his refusal to let Mrs Khan join and had threatened to not only shove the jack up somewhere where it would not be found but also his own set of bowls, leather holdall and his brand spanking new, white, multi-surface grip bowling shoes).
She nodded and smiled at the lady, giving the bag what she thought was a subtle waggle to draw attention to it but, to the uninitiated, might have seemed more akin to the F.A. cup being held aloft at Wembley.
‘Is that Maureen?’ asked Joshua.
‘No, but she’ll do until I see Maureen later.’
‘Yes. Do, as a substitute bag-admirer. I’ll be able to tell from her smile whether she likes my new bag or not.’
‘And that’s important, is it? That she likes it?’
‘Course it bloody well isn’t. But it’s why people are here: to display their chattels. Look, she’s smiling and, oh, waving too. She definitely likes it or is pretending to.’ Maggie gave a thumbs-up, pointed at it and mouthed: ‘I just got it from that new shop near Debenhams in Ipswich, twenty per cent off, made of faux-leather but good quality.’ To her, it was obvious what she was saying, but it only drew a confused look.
‘You have no shame,’ said Joshua.
‘I’m conforming, Joshua. Come on, you should know all about fitting in. Isn’t that what good spies do?’
‘We’ve spoken about this before. It’s a fine line between conforming and showing off, one that you have a habit of not conforming too at all by just simply showing off.’
‘For such a young man, you are such an old git. What’s wrong with you? Come on, relax a bit and enjoy the show.’ Maggie suddenly sat up as a woman, dressed in a blue-pink tartan skirt, white blouse and matching tartan jacket appeared from behind the curtain. ‘Oh, that’s great. It’s Tania doing the compéring.’
‘Is she good?’
‘Not at all. But it’s her brother-in-law that provides the clothes and she insists on presenting the fashion show. She’s, um..., unique. You’ll see what I mean in a minute. And the theme is tartan again! I wonder if they’ll finish with Scottish Paul playing his bagpipes.’
‘Scottish Paul? Let me guess: he’s not really Scottish, right?’
‘No. Nor is his name Paul. It’s Derek. But he does have bagpipes, of sorts... and asthma, unfortunately.’ Joshua opened his mouth, about to speak, but Maggie stopped him. ‘Don’t ask. Just appreciate the commitment and effort he puts in. This whole experience is classic. You’ll soon learn why I wanted you to come. I wonder if the microphone will work this year.’
It did. There was a shriek of, ‘Helloooo, ladies!’ and then Tania launched into, not so much of a patter, more of a splatter as she attempted to disperse superlatives to all corners of the hall. ‘Welcome to the fantastic, formidable fl... um...,’ at this point she glanced down at the card she held in her hand before continuing, ‘no... festive, frightening... that’s not right... what does that say?’ She stopped and reached for her reading glasses which she had strung around her neck. ‘Let me see... is that fractious... no, that can’t be right.’ She took her glasses off and used them to zoom in and out towards the card. ‘Oh, blessed glasses. Sorry about this.’ She turned round and called out, ‘Joan... Joan...’
From behind the curtain the crinkled face of a woman appeared, so low down that Maggie thought she must have been sitting on a chair. The face was followed by the rest of Joan, one of the tiniest women Maggie had ever seen, dressed in exactly the same outfit as Tania. At an impossibly slow pace, she walked out to join the hostess. Obviously keen to maintain her stage presence, Tania held her ground and waited, offering an apologetic smile to the audience before bending down and showing Joan the card. ‘What does this word say, Joan?’
‘Hang on, I’ll get my glasses.’ With that Joan did an about face and shuffled off just as slowly, presumably to find her glasses. In the meantime, Tania picked a point at the back of the hall to stare at with a fixed smile as if it was all perfectly natural and planned.
‘Why doesn’t Tania just carry on?’ whispered Joshua.
‘She’s very meticulous is Tania. Likes to get things right.’
‘But nothing’s happening.’
‘I know! I told you it was worth watching. I expect Joan will be back in a minute.’
The audience sat, for the first time that evening, in silence waiting for Joan to re-emerge. This time, when she did, it seemed to Maggie that her face was even lower down the curtain, but at least she had reading glasses on. The slow journey out began again and she reached centre stage where Tania handed her the card and pointed to the word. Joan looked at it then beckoned her to bend down so she could whisper in her ear. There was an obvious light bulb moment for Tania but she waited for Joan to walk off again before exclaiming, ‘formidable, festive... Frampton... I should have known that. Frampton’s got a capital letter. Yes, welcome to the fabulous, formidable...,’ a quick check with the glasses again, ‘... festive Frampton fashion show!’ She held her arms out, the cue for the audience to burst into rapturous applause.
‘You’re right,’ said Joshua. ‘This is priceless.’
The rest of the card must have been more legible as Tania gave a brief summary of the proceedings with no more help from Joan. This did not make it any less entertaining for Maggie. Tania’s voice was very proper, but only to the extent that it sounded like someone doing an impression of someone acting a scene from Pride and Prejudice. Maggie had met Tania several times and knew her background and real voice. Brought up in Manchester, she was less, ‘Mr Darcy!’ and more ‘My arse, eh?’ As she thanked the models in advance and the Women’s Institute for their support for the event, her voice flip-flopped from Hyacinth Bouquet to Vera Duckworth.
But this was only the prelude to the main event as Tania finally introduced the first model: ‘And now, fresh from doing a jig in the Highlands of bonny Scotland, I present to you Glenda!’
The curtains were swept back to reveal the rear view of a woman slightly hunched over, fiddling with a belt. The round of applause that came from the audience startled her into action and she did a quick about face, smile firmly painted on but belt still undone. The belt was a simple affair, black in colour and probably not designed to be the main fashion statement. It did have a function, however, which was to prevent the green tartan bell-bottomed trousers she was trying to wear from falling down, something Glenda was acutely aware of as she began her parade out into the audience which sat either side of the catwalk.
‘Are they told to keep putting their hands on their hips like that?' asked Joshua. ‘She keeps changing arms.’
‘Her trousers are too big by the looks of things. She’s trying to pull them up one side at a time so we don’t notice and somehow make it part of the routine. Not easy. I have full respect for her.'
Tania had moved to the side of the stage to allow Glenda the freedom she needed. As the hapless woman began to walk away from her and towards Maggie and Joshua, she resumed her commentary: ‘Daphne is wearing a chiffon blouse from the Edinburgh based Dante summer collection. The pleated knee-length skirt with pink braiding complements her pink sandals, from the same collection, and is ideal for those warm Scottish summer evenings we all know and love.’
At this point, Glenda, who in her thick woollen green and red cardigan, black boots and green coat was busy not being Daphne on a warm summer’s evening, attempted a three-part manoeuvre which nearly worked. She reached the end of the catwalk and did a 180 degree turn whilst flicking the matching red scarf back over her right shoulder. The third manoeuvre would have been the part that was keeping the left side of her trousers up. As her left hand came off to throw the scarf over, the trousers on that side began to slip down. Maggie had to admire Glenda’s professionalism. With trousers once more in danger of heading south, she quickly reached over with her right hand, hoiked them up and began her walk back towards the curtains, slightly quicker and keen to get to safety before anything else happened. Unfortunately, she had lost the rhythm of using the hands on the same side as where the trousers were falling down. With her hands crossing over and an over-exaggerated hip-sway, it looked like the lower body was performing its own variation of the Macarena. Tania did not seem to notice Glenda’s predicament, busily pointing out the benefits of the light but resilient fabric of the skirt which was suitable both on a cool wash and at higher temperatures.
‘It’s different,’ said Joshua trying not to laugh. ‘No musical accompaniment at the moment?’
Before Maggie could answer, the first line of the Skye Boat Song blurted out from somewhere in the wings before cutting out abruptly. By this stage the next model was on her way – Daphne judging by the outfit she was wearing; Meryl according to Tania. Her most notable fashion accessory was the crutch.
‘She’s done well,’ said Maggie. ‘Her hip operation was only two months ago. You have to admire her tenacity.’
‘She looks a bit wobbly.’
‘That’s more likely to be the gin.’
The music kicked in again, drowning out Tania’s attempts to describe the wrong clothes. Daphne reached the end and then carefully turned around to be met by two new models – far more sprightly than she, advancing towards her with some intent. These were obviously the ‘top team’, picked to convince audience members they could look twenty years younger if they chose the right mixture of tartan skirts. To the sounds of ‘Donald, where’s your trousers?’ they jigged their way down. With little room to pass by, Daphne must have decided that she was best to hold her ground and hope there was no collision. With arms above their heads, the models somehow successfully spun past Daphne and continued their dance at the end of the catwalk to great cheers and applause. Maggie joined in, nudging Joshua who looked as delighted as she felt.
The evening continued with some disappointingly slick displays from the models and Tania, who, after a word from Joan was finally in sync with the clothes actually being shown. These successes were mixed in with more near misses and enjoyable moments. Paul and his bagpipes were as bad as Maggie had hoped. It was hard to tell whether it was Paul or his bagpipes that were making the honking and wheezing sounds that filled the hall. The grand finale with all twenty models on stage and standing all along the catwalk took a while to set up – there was the prospect of a fight breaking out as two of the feistier members vied for pole position on the catwalk – but there was a standing ovation at the end of it.
‘That was superb,’ said Joshua as they filed out of the hall. ‘I loved every minute of it.’
‘I knew you would. Did you get everything you needed?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Did you get all the information you needed?’
‘I may be eighty,’ said Maggie, ‘but I wasn’t born yesterday.’
Joshua coughed, a rather embarrassed sound which told Maggie she was on the right path. She waited, anticipating he would continue.
‘Yes, if you must know, I did get what I wanted. What we wanted. How did you know we were after someone?’
‘Joshua... even if I told you the W.I. were hosting a fashion show with an array of supermodels performing party tricks and serving caviar in the interval, you still wouldn’t have come. I’m a spy, remember? Trained to notice things. So, is it a Russian or an agent from one of the middle eastern countries?’
‘Neither. But I’m afraid that’s all you’ll get from me.’
‘Fair enough. I know which one it was, though. It was the model that limped because she had different footwear on. One stiletto and one boot.’
‘Maggie, I’ve been on the interrogation course and survived harder grillings than you can give me. I’m not saying any more.’
‘What about the slightly dumpy one who kept breaking wind?’
‘Oh, I know! The one which came out in tights but had no skirt and knickers on.’
‘Maggie. She was wearing leggings and you know as well as I do that it was supposed to be a sporran.’
They had managed to wend their way to the exit by now. As they came out into the chilly air and the distant sounds of carols being sung somewhere, Maggie noticed, by the side of the hall, an unmarked white van. She ignored Joshua’s pleas and made straight for it, squeezing down the side and past the two open doors at the back. Coming out of the side door was a figure she immediately recognised. Despite her diminutive size she was making it difficult for the two considerably larger men either side of her who were having to stoop as they tried to frogmarch her out of the hall. She was cursing in a language totally unfamiliar to Maggie. In the end, the men stood upright and lifted her off the ground, her legs kicking out in all directions as they eventually got her into the back of the van. The men joined her inside and the doors were slammed shut before the van pulled away and out onto the main Frampton sea front road. Maggie could still hear the woman’s voice as it rounded the corner.
Maggie turned to Joshua. ‘Joan! I should have guessed. Well, well. I hope she was worth the effort.’
‘Oh, she was definitely worth the effort. Have a good Christmas, Maggie.’ Joshua then mimicked zipping his mouth up and made to turn away. Maggie grabbed his arm and pulled him back. ‘I’ll make one comment only and then say no more.’
‘I doubt that but go on.’
‘This Joan... bit old for the spy game, isn’t she?’
Maggie is the star of my book, Maggie Mattheson: Back in Service.
I am hoping to find a literary agent in the New Year who would be willing to put my book forward for publication. If you enjoyed this short story about Maggie – set shortly after the book finishes – please like and share this widely.
Please direct people to:
www.ianhornett.com/blogs where you will find Maggie and other entertaining blogs.
If you have the same level of I.T. skills as Maggie, please do it the old fashioned way. Tell your children, aunties, uncles, parents; the hairdresser, the bus driver, shop assistants in every shop you go into; your butlers, scullery maids and footmen; shout from rooftops, next to rooftops, under rooftops, anywhere you feel able to shout from. You don’t even to be anywhere near a rooftop, if you prefer. Just shout about Maggie Mattheson.