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Read an extract from Christmas for Beginners by Carole Matthews

 

Christmas for Beginners packshot

 

Chapter One

 

One of the alpacas has eaten the Baby Jesus. I’m not sure which one. Frankly, they all look the picture of innocence, but I know them better.

‘I’m going to be watching your poo very closely over the next few days,’ I warn them. The thought troubles our troupe not one jot. Johnny Rotten, Tina Turner and Rod Stewart all stare me down. Rod gives a delicate little burp. Perhaps he was the perpetrator. He looks like the sort who wouldn’t think twice about scoffing down the Messiah. I will find out.

But, more pressing, what will I now use for the new-born reputed saviour of mankind, destined to be the centrepiece of my nativity tableau? Stupidly, I paid the vast sum of sixty-five pounds on eBay for a lifelike doll which clearly looked tastier than I could ever have imagined. Now all that’s left of him is a few chewed remnants of plastic that provide evidence of his untimely demise.

‘Did you see the culprit, Little Dog?’ I ask. But my faithful one-eyed terrier mash-up simply bares his teeth in his usual rictus grin and doesn’t dish any dirt on the alpacas. He knows, though, and he knows that I know he knows.

While I’m still musing on it, Lucas crosses the yard and comes to stand next to me in the barn. He’s sixteen now and, though he’s not my son, he might as well be, as I harbour all of the same maternal feelings for him.

‘You OK?’ he asks.

I nod towards our troublesome trio. ‘These guys will be the death of me.’ They all give us doe eyes and flutter their long lashes, feigning innocence. I snort at them. ‘Don’t give me that.’

‘Butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths,’ Lucas observes.

But we both know better.

I acquired these guys when their owners moved abroad. They’re pack animals and came as a job lot. How could I turn them down? I’d never owned alpacas before. I thought they’d be sweet, fun. I was wrong.

Tina is definitely our diva and rules the boys with a rod of iron. She’s chocolate-brown with an impressive pom-pom of hair which she likes to toss about. Rod is white with skinny legs and knobbly knees. He’s usually to be found humming and gazing into space and is our most contented alpaca. But that’s not saying a lot. Johnny Rotten is definitely channelling the punk rocker he’s named after. He has a tan coat with hair like a Mohican in a shade that’s almost orange. Despite being pampered like the rest of them, Johnny will bite you as soon as look at you. Actually, I wouldn’t mind betting that he’s the one who chowed down Jesus. Hmm.

Before we go any further, I should also tell you how Lucas came to be under my loving care. Here at Hope Farm, as well as taking in disadvantaged animals, we look after troubled kids too. We’re not your usual farm. Far from it. We don’t have crops or animals that we (whisper) eat. Instead, we offer alternative education for students who can’t cope or are currently excluded from mainstream schools. I set this place up as a charity a few years ago now and we take in kids – mostly teenagers – who have behavioural difficulties, mental health issues or are on the autistic spectrum. That’s how Lucas arrived here too.

Originally, Lucas was brought to the farm by his father, Shelby Dacre, who was at the end of his tether with his wayward son who had been expelled from his private school for anti-social behaviour. Their relationship had been strained since Shelby had recently lost his wife to cancer. Lucas, understandably, was floundering without his mum and getting any form of communication out of him at all was an uphill struggle. In Lucas’s eyes his father hadn’t mourned his mother sufficiently. Shelby had dealt with his grief by dating much younger actresses and submerging himself in his work. Lucas, at a terrible time, had been largely left to his own devices and had grown angrier which manifested in challenging behaviour. Instead of pulling together, father and son had grown increasingly apart – to the point where Shelby no longer felt able to deal with his disruptive son. That’s where I came in.

When he arrived here, I hadn’t expected to bond so easily with Lucas. He’s difficult, testing, terse, uncommunicative, moody – all of the usual teenage behaviour – but we connected straightaway. He talked to me when he couldn’t speak to anyone else. We have kids with all kinds of problems here, but I could instantly see that beneath the angry façade, there was a lost and lonely boy just wanting to be loved. And love him I do.

Equally surprising is the fact that I love his father too. It’s fair to say that love found me later in life. At thirty-several, having lived the life of a loner, this was a new experience for me. The fact that I’m a borderline recluse meant I had no idea who Shelby Dacre was when he first rocked up here. But, yes he’s the Shelby Dacre, star of Flinton’s Farm soap opera and national treasure. In my defence, I don’t even own a telly, so have never watched a soap opera in my life.

Falling in love wasn’t easy for me, as we’re totally different people. But Shelby is such a confident, outgoing character that he’s brought me out of my shell and I think I offer him something more real than the world that he generally inhabits. They say that opposites attract and it’s certainly the case in our situation. Our lives couldn’t be more different. For Shelby, it’s filming, glamorous parties and adoration. For me it’s recalcitrant kids, awkward animals and a day that always features manure.

We’ve only been together for a few months, but he has changed my world in so many ways. The best part is that Lucas has transformed from the sullen, uncommunicative teenager he was. Over the last few months, our bond has grown and we’ve become ever closer. It would kill him to admit it, but he’s blossoming here and I feel that he’s teaching me as much as I’m teaching him.

 

Chapter Two

 

I should also explain that we’re fairly new to these premises – Hope Farm mark two – as we lost the original farm when the dreaded railway line, HS2, was set to come trundling right through our home and school. It was Shelby who came to the rescue and for that I’ll be for ever grateful to him. He saved me, my animals and the kids who rely on me. He plays a romantic hero in his soap opera and to me he’s one in real life too.

When we moved to the new farm, my old dilapidated caravan didn’t survive the journey and collapsed into an uninhabitable heap. Shelby insisted on buying me one with all mod cons. You’d love it. It’s very shiny. As it turns out, Lucas loved it too. He’d been living mostly alone in a cottage in the grounds of Shelby’s manor house, just a short journey from here. After his day at the farm, he’d linger longer, sometimes staying for supper until Shelby or his driver could collect him. I’ve never crossed that professional boundary before with any of the kids, but Lucas and I got on so well.

When it was clear that Shelby and I were going to be together, I asked if Lucas could stay over occasionally if he wanted to as I now had the luxury of a spare bedroom. It was a weight off Shelby’s mind that his son wasn’t going home to an empty house when he was working late or away for a few days at some showbiz event. After one night of staying here, Lucas never went back home. After some relentless cajoling from me he’s now an apprentice here, studying Animal Management, and is acing it with minimal effort. He’s proved to be both a natural at it and a huge help to me on the farm. I hope that Lucas may have found his niche. He’s a bright boy and the only person who sabotages him is himself.

Lucas, however, still blames everything on Shelby and isn’t convinced by his father’s altruistic behaviour. At best, they have a tetchy relationship. At worst, they go at it all guns blazing while I play the referee. It’s something of a work-in-progress. In all other areas, Lucas is an angel – albeit with slightly wonky wings. He’s become a valuable member of the team here and the other kids really look up to him.

Yet, despite the turn-around in his behaviour, Lucas likes to look the rebel and is still firmly attached to his signature Goth clothing. Today he’s sporting a Sex Pistols T-shirt, ripped bondage trousers and, the only nod to the farming life, green wellies. Even though he’s generally outside in all elements, his face is still as white as the driven snow. His black eyeliner and red lippy only serve to make him look paler. He’s carrying a bucket and a spade that’s nearly as big as him – though with all the physical work he does here, his skinny, gangly frame has started to fill out a little. He puts down his tools and climbs onto the first rung of the metal gate, the only thing that’s keeping our alpaca crew from running amok – something they love to do with every given chance. They all come up to nuzzle his hand in turn.

‘What have you been doing now?’ he says to them. ‘You’re making Molly frown and you’ll give her wrinkles. More wrinkles.’

As if I care. I’m a stranger to anti-ageing creams. In fact my bathroom is shockingly short on the usual unguents. The outdoor life is my beauty regime. I like to think of myself as fresh-faced and natural when I’m more likely wind-blasted and sun-baked. Though I think since this bolshie bunch of alpacas arrived they’ve been ageing me in dog years.

I fill Lucas in. ‘You saw our beautiful Baby Jesus? I only put him down for a minute and one of them had him for breakfast.’

‘That was short-lived. Naughty alpacas,’ Lucas says with a wag of his finger at them. ‘There’ll be a special place reserved for you in alpaca hell.’

‘I don’t think you’re taking this seriously,’ I admonish. ‘The Hope Farm Open Day and Nativity is rushing up towards us at an alarming rate and we are woefully unprepared.’

‘It’ll be fine,’ Lucas says with all the nonchalance of a Gen Z teenager who cares not for traditions. ‘You worry too much.’

He’s right. And I’m the only one that does worry. Everyone keeps telling me it will be fine, but the thought of an open day with nativity combo is already giving me sleepless nights. I don’t know why I let myself be persuaded to do this. I’m too malleable by half. I’m not even a Christmas person. Usually I spend it alone with the animals. I don’t possess any decorations. I’ve never had time for it. Much as I try to ignore it, this year, I fear, will be very different.

The whole open day thing was, of course, the bright idea of my trusty sidekick, Bev Adams. She’s what I like to think of as my link between Hope Farm and the outside world. Bev has been here at my side for years. She’s like a mum and a sister all rolled into one and, with the exception of Lucas, the closest thing to family that I have. When my guardian, Auntie Hettie, died and left me bereft and adrift, Bev was the one who helped to put me back together again. My dear friend is about fifteen years older than me – in her mid-fifties – but is as fit and as strong as a twenty-year-old. If you’d seen her throw hay bales around or wrangle a stubborn sheep, then you’d know. Bev’s an ex body-builder and is still in great shape, although the only exercise she does now is here on the farm.

Even though I’m supposedly banned from taking in more rescue animals, we’ve recently re-homed two donkeys – also Bev’s idea: a mother and daughter called Harriet and Hilda. They are sweetness personified and came from a lady who was too old to look after them any more and wanted a caring home for the pair so they wouldn’t be separated. Cue an invitation to enjoy bed and breakfast on a permanent basis at Hope Farm. I’m so glad that we took them in, though. However, on the downside, our delightful donkeys do seem to have provided the inspiration for Bev’s desire to throw open our doors to the general public and share our work with them in a festive manner. The thought fills me with terror. I’m not what you might call a people-person – unless they are people with troubles.

But there’s no holding it back now – Christmas and our nativity are going to happen whether I like it or not.