I mean, nobody would have blamed him for cancelling the wedding. His fiancée, Kelly-Marie confessed she’d been out one night and ended up with a total stranger. A one-night stand: she couldn’t remember what happened. ‘Like a weird dream’ she said. Maybe her drink had been spiked.
But he’s a good guy, is Joe. A bit of a sucker I suppose, but he loved Kelly-Marie and that meant seeing she was alright, even if she had got herself knocked up by another bloke. And anyway, it was almost possible the kid was his.
I was managing this same hotel we’re sitting in now and hadn’t seen them for a few months. They’d moved out of Bath, down to a stone cottage in Glastonbury. Joe had a nice little one-man business, building oak kitchens for rock musicians and the baby was due in December.
So then, one afternoon I get a call. Joe’s coming back to Bath with Kelly-Marie for a big family Christmas: relatives over from Australia. Everyone expected to be there: stand and be counted. You know the kind of thing. Never mind that Kelly-Marie was about to pop; darkest days of winter, roads slushy, shops and streets packed full of tourists and bad-tempered crowds. Joe wanted to be back in Bath.
‘You staying at your Mum’s?’ I asked.
But his mum loathed Kelly-Marie, on account of the bump: ‘No good little tart who’d trapped her lovely Joe’etcetera. The house was full anyway.
‘We’ll get bed and breakfast,’ says Joe,‘Plenty of places. Book in for Christmas Eve then go round the house Christmas Day. Mum’ll be pleased!’ He always was an optimist.
I’d have offered a room here, but we were full. There was a black Gospel Choir from Alabama - the Sisters of Light. Touring Europe - Rock Gospel - that kind of stuff. Plus a load of actors from Jack and the Beanstalk at the Theatre Royal. Not to mention two walking tour groups – ‘Georgian Bath followed by Traditional Christmas Fayre’. And the new Spa had finally opened.
Bath was a tiny tourist city full of jet-lagged Koreans and Japanese, here for health breaks, gazing at the fog and slush and wondering why they’d flown halfway round the world. I’d even had a booking from India: some university professors, arriving Christmas Eve, for a ‘Spa Break’, staying twelve days. Could I supply directions from Bristol Airport and were we easy to find? Well we were easy because Tracey and I had splashed out quite a bit on Christmas lights this year: we had lit-up reindeer on the roof, a Santa climbing up the drainpipe and a great big star over the main entrance.
‘Follow the lights and look for the Star,’ I said ‘– but watch out you don’t end up in the pub!’ They didn’t get the joke. There’s a pub called The Star, see?
So Christmas Eve, Tracey and I were rushed off our feet. The place was heaving. We had tables laid for the Walking Tours who were due anytime. The Sisters of Light had come straight from their gig at The Forum, in their robes, and were on desserts. The pantomime actors were at the big corner table. They’d been out collecting for Charity and were still in their panto costumes. It all looked really festive.
We had a big doorman called Oscar Bull– got the nickname of Ox - guarding the bar - entrance by ticket only - wearing his dark suit and bow tie. You could hear the odd crash and screams of loud laughter, but I wasn’t worried because I knew Ox could handle it. He’s run a residential centre for disadvantaged kids ever since that Christmas.
I was in the kitchen setting out coffee cups for the choir, and Irish coffee glasses for the actors, when my mobile bleeped. Someone in Reception for me.
‘Can’t come just now,’ I said, ‘we’re rushed. Who is it?’
‘He says his name’s Joe.’
‘OK. Send him through.’
Have you ever made Irish Coffees? There’s a knack to pouring the cream so it floats. I reckoned the actors’ Irish coffees would take a whole jug and it would be quicker to mix the whisky in first. Another jug – alcohol free - was gurgling away for the Sisters of Light. Then Joe came in.
‘Hello mate,’ I said, ‘how’re you doing?’
‘Um,’ says Joe, ‘We were hoping you’d do us a favour.’
‘I’m a bit busy at the moment mate,’ I say, ‘But if you wait till it quietens down – where’s Kelly-Marie?’
‘In the car.’
‘Well bring her in!’ I say, ‘Sit in the lounge and have a Christmas drink, on the house!’
‘We got a bit of a problem,’ says Joe. The coffee had dripped through and I stirred a heap of brown sugar into it. Helps the flotation. I reached for the whisky.
Joe goes on, ‘The guesthouse double booked our room. We’ve got nowhere to stay. There’s no space at Mum’s.’He sighed, ‘she don’t like Kelly-Marie anyway.’
‘I can’t fit you in, we’re full and you can see how rushed we are,’ I say, unscrewing the top of the whisky bottle and beginning to pour.
‘Yeah I know. But we got another problem now. The car’s conked out and Kelly-Marie’s started to get pains. And we’re on double yellows.’
‘WHAT?’ I gasp.
‘You’d better watch out,’ says Joe pointing to the whisky, ‘you’ll put too much in!’
I realise I’ve been pouring and the jug’s about to overflow. I jerk the bottle up and say ‘You mean labour pains?’
‘Looks like it,’ he says. ‘So can I use your phone for an ambulance?’
He dialled 999 while I took the Irish Coffees to the choir. The cream floated a treat with all that whisky and sugar in. I’d forgotten the Sisters of Light were teetotal and had ordered the plain coffees but they didn’t seem to notice.
When I get back to reception, Joe’s looking glum. ‘They say it might be a while before an ambulance can get here. They say its best to make our own way.’
‘Ok. I’ll call a taxi.’
So then Tracey storms in. ‘What the hell do you think you’re up to? Can’t you see people need serving?’
When I explain that Kelly-Marie’s outside, with labour pains, in a broken down car - and on double yellows - she rushes out the door. Meanwhile there’s a strange unearthly wail from the restaurant, which sends shivers up our spines. It’s the Sisters of Light from Alabama, warming up their voices. The Spirit of the Lord is upon them – AMEN! - and they’ve decided to give the whole hotel a free Christmas concert. They probably aren’t used to the whisky.
I start ringing up taxis, one ear to the phone and the other blocked with my hand. The first two are busy.
‘You can take my car,’ I say, fumbling for my keys, but then Tracey appears, half dragging Kelly-Marie who’s in a bad way.
‘You’d better ask if there’s a Doctor here!’ she says.
‘Quick! Into the office! There’s a sofa,’ I say, and Joe and Tracey bundle Kelly-Marie, groaning and screaming into my little office behind reception.
No time to worry about what my Area Manager will say about a woman giving birth. I dare say there’s a rule about it somewhere, but I’ve no time to look it up.
Meanwhile a group of large African-American ladies in white robes starts to drift into the reception area and forms a semi-circle: the Sisters are singing ‘Oh Little Town of Bethlehem’ in close harmony.
And I realise I’m going to get to say some words I’ve always wanted to say. So I yell over the noise, very loud and clear:
‘Is there a doctor in the house?'
And one of the Gospel Ladies strides forward and I point her towards the office. Next few minutes, a tipsy Pantomime Donkey staggers in from the restaurant, followed by some Elves, a Principal Boy in tights, and my bouncer, Ox. Apparently they’ve allgot First Aid badges.
Then above the heads of the choir, I see olde worlde lanterns swinging on sticks.
It’s the Walking Tours, shepherded in by their tour-guides. They’d heard the carol singing and decided to flock in and see what’s happening.
Three turbaned and grey bearded Sikhs push through the chatting laughing singing crowd. All the way from the University of Amritsar, via Bristol Airport. They smile and say, ‘We saw your nice star.’
And miraculously, there’s a lull.
The singing ceases, and we all fall silent as the Abbey bells begin to peal midnight and the cry of a newborn baby floats upon the air.
The crowd bow their heads in homage. The Panto Donkey sinks to its knees. I see a tear trickle down Ox’s stubbly cheek and the three professors, clutching their hand luggage in both hands like gifts, stand and smile.
And the operatic voice of the Alabama lady doctor sings out –