It is in your moments of decision that your destiny is shaped.

 

Penny gripped the steering wheel until her fingers went white. ‘George, what are we going to do? Who’d have thought six months after our wonderful wedding that we would face bankruptcy and losing our retirement home in Italy?’

George gently prised her fingers from the wheel. ‘Well, that’s why we’re here. To chat things through with the only two people on the planet who won’t judge us, poppet.’ He rubbed her hands. ‘Come on, Roger will have been in training with the bottle since breakfast time.’

When a ruddy-faced Roger greeted them sporting a grin as wide as the door, Penny smiled. He beckoned them in, guiding them to the huge off-white leather sofas which swallowed them up as they sunk into the luscious cushions.

‘Let’s face it.’ Roger filled up their glasses with rich red Pinot Noir. ‘It’s very plain the facts are stark.’ He pulled at his scarlet braces.

‘Less of the drama, Roger. George and Penny aren’t on trial.’ Daphne said. Penny sniffed and dabbed at her nose with a very damp, tattered hanky. Daphne knelt over and patted her knee. ‘He’s been watching too much daytime TV since he retired.’

‘Very well, but it changes nothing. You, my dear friends and more to the more point, your finances are in the proverbial… poo.’ Rogers’ large rubbery lips puckered and wobbled as he attempted to control his mouth.

Daphne sniffed. ‘Such a way with words, hasn’t he?’

‘Unfortunately, he’s right though,’ George muttered.

‘And you have an acid tongue, love bucket. But I forgive you.’ Despite Roger’s cultured look—he always wore Hugo Boss or Armani, but never together—he spoke with a broad West Country accent that reminded Penny of an old farmer she’d met who dressed in Oxfam seconds. She tried and failed to suppress a hysterical giggle.

‘It’s still snowing.’ George kicked Penny under the table, and she bit her lip. ‘Are you sure it’s a good idea to barbeque today?’

Daphne stood behind her husband with her hands on his shoulders. ‘Ever since he read an article in one of those reprehensible red top tabloids about some American who cooked his Christmas dinner on the patio in minus 20, he hasn’t stopped talking about doing it himself. I find it rather—’ Daphne dabbed at her nose with a linen serviette, ‘rather uncouth.’

Roger nodded like the Churchill Insurance dog displayed in the back of some cars. In fact, with his jowly cheeks and large doleful eyes, he resembled the dog in more ways than one.

‘Red top or not,’ Roger retorted, ‘I have a state-of-the-art piece of equipment. All brushed stainless steel, made in Australia you know. It only cost me—’ Daphne pulled his ear. ‘Ow! It can do everything apart from pour the wine. You wait until I show you my burners! Now girls, don’t you worry yourselves. The men are in charge of Christmas dinner. You sit down, put your feet up, and the food will be on the table in a jiffy. Though we’re not allowed a big bird.’ He stood up and hugged Daphne. ‘She put her foot down. Something about salmonella? Now,’ he rubbed his hands together, ‘where is that Wagyu fillet steak we purchased from Japan?’

Daphne sighed. ‘It’s not his fault, not really. It’s just that they dropped him on his head as a child. Regularly.’

Penny didn’t know what a Wagyu steak was or why it needed to come all the way from Japan. Surely a trip to Tesco down the road would have been enough? ‘What does a candle have to do with cooking a turkey?’

‘S’cuse me?’ George covered his face with his hands.

‘Salmonella. Isn’t it a kind of candle which frightens off the bitey bugs? You know, those yellow ones.’ George gawped at her. ‘You know, for the mosquitoes, in hot countries, not here obviously.’

‘Salmonella, poppet,’ George spoke slowly and deliberately, ‘is a kind of tummy bug caused by undercooked meat. Particularly chicken or turkey. You are thinking of citronella, the lemony stuff.’

Penny ignored Roger, whose face was about to explode turned to Daphne. ‘Can I do anything to help?

‘Not at all, just keep our glasses charged. I think we’ll need all the help we can get,’ she whispered as Roger and George left the room. ‘It looks like you are in for a bit of his “straight talking” as he likes to call it.’

Daphne picked up a bottle of Moet from the kitchen top and turned it upside down. It was empty. ‘He’s been on the ‘shampoo’ since eleven this morning. A celebratory bottle in honour of you coming for lunch. You can tell because his face resembles a boiled beetroot.’

There was a tapping on the patio doors and framed in the window were George and Roger dressed like two drunken snowmen, with red noses and woolly hats and scarves to match.

‘That’s my best burnt-orange cashmere!’ wailed Daphne as Roger wiped the scarf across his nose. Flakes as big as oak leaves fluttered around them. George stamped his feet on the ground, his breath billowing out in front of him.

‘They’re both quite mad.’ Penny said waving. ‘Do you think it’s the male menopause? I’ve read that they can do all sorts of strange things. I’m hoping it will pass George by, I have enough to contend with as it is.’

‘Oh, mad as a box of frogs,’ Daphne agreed. ‘Roger’s been menopausal for more years than I care to remember. He was so desperate to use his new gas BBQ , he only got it at a reduced price because no other idiot would think of barbequing in winter. It’s all he’s talked about for the last month. If I didn’t know any different, I’d swear he’s got another woman. Always out in the garage playing about with all the knobs and things.’

The patio doors opened and an icy chill swept over Penny, resulting in a layer of goose bumps and neutralising her alcohol-fuelled mellowness.

‘BBQs are men’s work, come rain, shine or snow,’ he declared solemnly, teeth chattering. ‘Love bucket, do be a darling and pass me those tongs from the kitchen.’

‘Nice piece of kit, Roger.’ Penny nodded towards the large contraption that almost filled their small terrace.

‘Isn’t she? Only £500 you know, and it came with a recipe book.’ Roger stared lovingly at his new toy. ‘I know a good deal when I see one.’

Daphne rapped at his knuckles with the tongs. ‘Roger! I warned you, Penny and George are not interested in how much it costs, just whether it will produce the gourmet meal you say it will. Now shut the door, all the heat is escaping.’

Penny stared at the small steel dome. ‘Five hundred squid! That could feed a small country.’

‘Or pay off a credit bill,’ muttered George over Roger’s shoulder.

‘Enough, we must be off to hunt and gather, George!’ he boomed. ‘We will return with food for our women.’ Smiles as big as Wallace and Grommet, they thumped their chests and disappeared behind a veil of snow.

Penny shivered. ‘I’m sure they’ll catch their death out there.’ George regularly told her she made a good Scottish Protestant, but she insisted that she could never be a ‘lady of the night’, much to his merriment

Before long, a plate of nibbles was clean of the tiniest crumb and the bottle of wine stood empty.

‘Oops!’ giggled Penny as she stumbled into the kitchen. ‘None left for the cavemen.’

With lips tinged with blue, Roger and George strode through the back door. Daphne beamed as George handed her a plate of perfectly barbequed steak kebabs and pink prawns. ‘I’ll just pop them in the oven, just to make sure. Everything else is ready, but I’m afraid Penny and I got carried away with all the nibbles.’

‘Always one for a nibble, aren’t you, poppet?’ George winked at Penny.

‘Ugh,’ spat Daphne, ‘you pair are always so touchy-feely, like a pair of young lovers.’

‘Just like us, eh, love bucket?’ Roger grabbed her bottom. ‘You weren’t complaining last night!’

‘There’s no need for any details, thank you.’ Daphne blushed to her earlobes as Roger puckered his lips and fluttered his doleful eyes. ‘No.’ She pushed him away. ‘I’ve told you, behave. Penny and George are here for a Christmas meal and a good chat. Not to look at you making a fool out of yourself.’

‘Well, it takes one to know one.’ Roger stroked Daphne’s coiffed hair. ‘Maybe I should take you back to the cave and show you who’s boss.’ Daphne raised a perfectly plucked eyebrow and hit his hand with the back of a fork.

‘Wine, Roger. Now.’

*

‘Cheers!’ They clinked their crystal goblets together, full with one of Rogers ‘special occasion’ bottles.

‘I’m starving, can I tuck in?’ George pinched Penny’s arm. She scowled at him and rubbed at the reddening skin. Eat, he mouthed at her. Please.

‘Now, let’s get back down to the nitty gritty, shall we? So, your business has gone belly up and the bailiffs are knocking on the door?’ Roger stuffed a large piece of steak in his mouth and chewed.

Penny and George exchanged glances. Uh, oh, George rubbed his hands along his thighs. Penny’s going to snivel again.

‘And to think we were told we’d have such good luck because it rained on our wedding day.’ Penny rummaged in her bag for a tissue.

‘But that was only in June,’ Daphne soothed, handing her a linen serviette. Penny took it and blew loudly. ‘Lady Luck will come your way and anyway, you’ll always have that lovely day in Florence to remember.’

‘Yeah, after the storms and the power cuts and losing the translator.’ Penny turned to George. ‘We must have been terrible to have all this rotten stuff happen to us.’

George shook his head. ‘No, poppet, it was a glorious adventure. Well, after the hotel had bailed out the water from our bedroom and we eventually found our car. Oh, and we’d convinced the Italian authorities issuing the permissions to get married that you couldn’t possibly be pregnant at your age.’

Penny lifted her head and glared at George. He tapped her plate with his fork. Distraction was always the best policy. ‘Now come on, eat something. It will make you feel better.’

‘And now the constant telephone calls from the creditors and the debt rescue team,’ continued Penny. ‘I daren’t answer it after my last ‘chat’ with Mr Stalin.’

‘Mr Stalin?’ Roger stabbed another piece of steak, the rich red juice running around his plate. ‘You are joking?’

‘No, I’m not joking, why would I want to joke about any of this? Well, his actual name is Mr Merryweather, but that’s too nice for him. He’s our ‘Financial Planner’ or something like that. More like a Rottweiler on heat. Oh, George, I don’t think I can take any more.’

Roger refilled Penny’s glass.

‘Be nice to have some finance to plan with.’ George switched his empty glass with Penny’s and glared at Roger.

‘Now, don’t you fret, my dear friends. Every problem has a solution.’ Roger tapped his fingers on the table.

Daphne groaned.

‘You just have to make some choices, make some decisions.’

‘Do we have a choice anymore?’ sniffed Penny.

‘Of course you do, we all have choices. Yours just might be—erm—a little limited, that’s all. Of course, we could help with a bit of a loan, but that’s what got you in this mess in the first place, isn’t it? It wouldn’t be fair for us to add to your list of creditors.’

‘Wouldn’t it?’ muttered George.

‘But choice you have. You’ve still got that little shed of a place in Italy?’

‘Our retirement plan?’ snorted George. ‘That’ll have to go.’

Penny sobbed louder.

‘Not necessarily,’ said Roger. ‘Where would you rather live?’

Penny and George looked out at the darkening sky bubbling with snow clouds.

‘Well, why not sell up here, pay off all your debts and start again?’

‘Start? Again?’ repeated Penny and George in unison.

‘Sounds simple, doesn’t it?’ Roger patted his large stomach. ‘Great grub, even if I say so myself. Wouldn’t you agree?’

Penny shook her head as George nodded.

‘And what you need is a P.L.A.N—a plan,’ Roger declared.

‘They’re broke, Roger, not stupid. Don’t worry, Pen, this is the King of Planning. It will all get sorted.’

‘Sorted it will be. Now, isn’t it about time for a spot of karaoke?’ Roger stood up. ‘Where’s that dancing Christmas tree, love bucket?’

Several hours and multiple renditions later of Don Henley’s The Boys of Summer, accompanied by Penny and Daphne on hairbrush mikes, George and Roger removed their sunglasses and propped their air guitars against the wall.

‘Time for a top up.’ Roger appeared with another bottle and wrestled with the cork.

‘To Rog and Daph!’ George and Penny slurred.

‘To the Future,’ said Daphne.

‘To infinity and beyond… and out of the poo!’ giggled Roger as the cork flew off at high speed towards Daphne’s crystal glass display.

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