In 2010, the weather was as bleak as his prospects. Christmas had always been the time he dreaded. Now at least he had Bob by his side, but his health was poor, and he had no money for food or warmth. There was no choice but to venture out onto the frozen streets to earn enough to pay for his electricity andwith luckto afford some small treats for Christmas as well.
What James learned through this toughest of times was to give his new life with Boband Christmasa meaning it had never had before.
|Publisher:||St. Martin''s Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.60(d)|
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A Gift From Bob
By James Bowen
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 James and Bob Ltd and Connected Content Ltd.
All rights reserved.
The walk home was slow and painful.
It had been one of the coldest Decembers on record and the day before had seen one of the biggest blizzards in twenty years. Six inches of snow had fallen in a couple of hours. Today the pavement was a shiny, rutted, iron-grey sheet of ice. It was absolutely treacherous. Each time I took a step I wondered whether my luck would hold or whether, instead, I was going to fall flat on my face. To make matters worse, every time I placed my foot down, a sharp, shooting pain worked its way up my right leg.
It had been that leg that had brought me out today. It had been giving me trouble all month and earlier that week my doctor had confirmed what I'd suspected; the pain was a recurrence of a problem I'd suffered for a while, deep vein thrombosis, or DVT, in my upper thigh. A year or so ago I'd spent some time in hospital being treated for it. My doctor told me to take some painkillers, but warned that the best thing to do was to stay in the warm until the end of the Arctic weather.
'The cold basically slows the blood down,' he said. 'So it helps to stay indoors.'
'As if,' I had said to myself at the time. 'It's a week or so before Christmas, there's more snow in London than Siberia. How exactly am I going to eat and heat my flat if I don't go outdoors and do some work?'
Reluctantly, I'd taken his advice for a few days. The weather had been so intense there had been absolutely no way I could venture out. But this afternoon the throbbing had got so bad that I'd had to hobble over to the shops near my block of flats to get some more painkillers. It was a Sunday, and even though Christmas was now just six days away, a lot of the shops were closed. So I'd had to walk further to a little convenience store that had a little pharamacy.
It was normally only a five minute walk home, but the slippery surface meant that today it took twice as long. At one point I felt so unsteady I found myself holding on to the walls and railings as I inched my way along. When I finally reached the door of the block of flats where I had lived for the past four years or so I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It wasn't just that I'd safely negotiated the ice rink that was my road. The wind was so cold it had begun to chill my bones; it felt good to feel the warmth of the building.
Even better, the lift was working. We'd had a fancy new elevator with an electric display fitted earlier in the year. It had been more efficient than the old, hydraulic one which broke down all the time. I had been dreading walking up the five flights of stairs to my flat on the top floor of the building, especially given the nagging pain my leg was giving me.
By the time the lift doors opened on the fifth floor I could feel my mood lightening. The comical sight that greeted me when I walked into my flat raised my spirits further still.
Belle had come over to see us. Belle was, like me, a recovering addict. If her life hadn't taken a similar wrong turn to my own, she could easily have been an artist or designer. She was always creating things from odds and ends she found. As usual at this time of the year, she had decided to make her own Christmas decorations and cards. I could see a few of them neatly stacked alongside her already. An array of card, glitter, glue, string and ribbons was now spread out on the small coffee table in the living room. It was pretty obvious that Bob had been joining in the fun; the evidence was right there in front of me.
The first thing I noticed was lengths of ribbon everywhere. I spotted little bows on various cards Belle had made and realised Bob must have nabbed the leftover ribbons while she wasn't looking. It was as if he'd tried to tie a bow around the entire flat; there was ribbon on the carpet, over the back of the sofa and even around the television set. He had completely run amok.
That wasn't the only mess he'd made. I noticed a series of glittery, gold paw prints on the carpet and part of the sofa. I could see that they stretched all the way into the kitchen where he'd clearly popped in for a drink from his water bowl. Then I saw a large gold stamping pad open on the table. It didn't take much to put two and two together. He must have somehow dipped his paws into it. I'd heard of Goldfinger but this was Golden Paws.
Belle was so absorbed in what she was doing that she was oblivious to the fact that Bob had been almost as creative as her.
'I see Bob has had a good time,' I said, taking off my coat and gesturing to the ribbon and paw prints.
She looked non-plussed.
'What do you mean?'
'His paw prints. The ribbon.'
'What paw prints and ribbon?' she said, looking around. 'Oh.'
It didn't take long for the penny to drop. For a moment she looked embarrassed but she was soon convulsed by laughter and couldn't stop giggling for ages.
'Ah bless him. Well you know how he likes to try to get involved,' she said.
Belle loved Christmas and looked forward to it every year. Each year we finished putting up the tree she gave Bob a big hug, as if to celebrate the official start of the countdown to the 'big day'. As far as she was concerned, making a mess with ribbons and glitter was simply part of the fun. I just shook my head, genuinely mystified.
To judge by his behaviour, not just today but throughout the past week or so, Bob was a big fan of the festive season too. It was the third Christmas I'd spent with him and I'd never seen him more excited.
He had always been fascinated by Christmas trees. Our first one had been a tiny artificial tree that you connected to a USB point on a computer. He loved the twinkling lights and would stare at it endlessly, as if mesmerised. For the past couple of years we'd had a slightly bigger tree. It was nothing special, just a cheap, black artificial one that I'd picked up in a local supermarket. It was about three and a half feet high and sat on top of an old wooden cocktail cabinet that I'd found in a second-hand shop years ago.
The tree may have been pretty basic compared to some of the dazzling ones we'd seen displayed around London in the past weeks, but Bob was absolutely obsessed with it nevertheless. Belle would always bug me to put it up at the earliest possible opportunity in December. The moment it came out of its box Bob became a bundle of hyperactive energy. He loved watching it being assembled and decorated and was very particular about how this was done. Each year, when I started dressing it up, he would stand next to me supervising. Some decorations would get his seal of approval, others would not. An angel at the top of the tree, for instance, was a non-starter. The previous year, I'd found a silver fairy in a charity shop that Belle had rather liked but the moment I placed it at the top of the tree Bob started reaching up as if to dislodge it. He had carried on until I took it down. He preferred a simple gold star. So that's what we had again this year.
Bob also liked baubles on the branches of the tree, rather than ribbons. They couldn't be any old baubles, of course. They had to be shiny, gold or red preferably. He liked fairy lights, but they had to be hung correctly so that they were concentrated at the front of the tree where he could see them.
Every now and again, I would try to put something new up, such as a chocolate ornament or a pine cone. Almost immediately he would reach up with his paw or, failing that, jump up on his hind legs to flick at it or remove it. Belle had tried to put some home- made ribbons up this year but Bob had grabbed at them with his paw and dragged them off almost contemptuously. It was as if he was saying, How dare you put that rubbish on my Christmas tree. If Bob wasn't happy sometimes he would simply pull the tree over, sending everything crashing to the floor.
As if this wasn't bizarre enough, he was also really particular about the positioning of the tree. He seemed to like it so that the branches were all separated so that he could see inside it. I had a theory about this. In the run up to the big day, we would start placing small presents under the tree. Bob loved playing with them, sometimes even nudging them off the cabinet so that they fell on to the floor where he ripped them open. In anticipation of this, I actually put up a few empty boxes, simply so he could go through this ritual. My theory was that he hated the idea of not being able to see what presents were lurking at the base of the tree, which was why he would try to move the branches apart if he felt they were clumped together, obstructing his view.
Once the tree was in the right place and correctly decorated Bob would guard it as if it was the most important thing in the entire world. Woe betide anyone who tried to touch or move the tree. If you did he would let out a deep snarl and then reposition it, which was quite something to behold. He would grab a branch with his mouth, then rotate it through a few degrees so that it was aligned at the precise angle he wanted.
This protectiveness could backfire on him at times. He would regularly squeeze himself under the tree, arching his body around its base so as to get a good look around its perimeter. On a few occasions he got himself wedged under the tree so that, when he lifted his back, he tipped it over. It was the same when he pulled it down; it was hilarious to watch. The entire edifice would topple over, sending Bob flying through the air and baubles and other bits and pieces tumbling across the living-room floor. Bob would then chase the loose baubles around, nudging them in a slightly demented way. Of course it was a pain reconstructing the tree so that it was in the perfect position again, but it always made me laugh. That was always an achievement at this time of the year and especially this year.
* * *
Times were tighter than they had been for a long time, which was saying a lot for someone who had lived on the breadline for the best part of fifteen years.
The Arctic weather meant that I'd found it almost impossible to go out to work, busking or selling The Big Issue, for the past week or so. I'd ventured out a couple of times but had either turned back because of the problems on public transport or given up because it was simply too cold to stand around on the streets with Bob. It had felt good to stay in the warm watching the snow falling while Bob curled up by his favourite radiator, but my confinement had come at a high price.
I lived a hand-to-mouth existence, so the fact that I'd been stuck at home meant that I had virtually no money left. There were times of the year when I could have coped with that more easily, but with Christmas around the corner it was a real frustration.
I liked to get ready for Christmas by buying the bits and pieces I needed for the holiday little by little. In a way, I approached it like Johnny Cash's old song, 'One Piece At A Time', about a man smuggling parts from the factory where he worked to build a motor car. There had been a time, during the darkest days of my drug addiction, when I might have resorted to shoplifting as well, but thankfully those days had long gone. These days I was happy to pay for them, even if it was one at a time. So, over the past couple of weeks, the kitchen had slowly been filling up with the little treats and traditional food and drink that Bob and I liked to share at Christmas. Naturally, there was a healthy supply of Bob's favourite rabbit meals along with several packets of his favourite treats, special cat milk and a few extra goodies ready for him to enjoy come Christmas and Boxing Day. For myself I had bought a small turkey crown and a gammon joint, which were both now safely stored in the tiny fridge-freezer in the kitchen. I'd bought them near their sell-by dates but despite this they had been quite expensive, by my standards at least. I'd treated myself to a small packet of smoked salmon, some cream cheese and a small tub of nice ice cream and I'd also snapped up some brandy butter to have with the Christmas pudding I tended to eat with Belle when she came around on Boxing Day. There was also some orange juice and a half bottle of cheap cava that I was looking forward to popping on Christmas morning.
It wasn't a lavish Christmas by any stretch of the imagination – I probably spent a fraction of what the average family splashed out on presents, food and drink. But as cheap as they were, these things still cost money – and I had hardly any.
I'd been preoccupied with my situation for days now. My mind had been constantly churning through the options I had for making some money, not that there were many of them. With the weather as bad as it was, and forecast to get even worse, I felt like I was trapped in some kind of bad dream. I was a big fan of Tim Burton movies and had noticed in the newspaper that his most famous seasonal film was on TV in a couple of days' time. It summed up my situation perfectly. I was living The Nightmare Before Christmas.
As I left Belle to her handicraft and made myself a cup of tea in the kitchen, I was fretting over my situation once more. It must have been obvious because Belle had soon appeared at the doorway with a sympathetic look on her face.
'Come on, Scrooge, cheer up a bit,' she said. 'It's almost Christmas.'
I was tempted to say 'bah, humbug' but just shrugged my shoulders instead.
'Sorry, but I'm afraid the Christmas spirit hasn't quite taken over yet,' I said.
Belle knew me well enough to read my mood – and the probable cause of it.
'I'm sure you'll get some money together before Christmas Eve,' she said, reassuringly.
'We'll see,' I said grumpily.
I took a couple of gulps of my tea then headed back into the living room. I gathered up the ribbon and started dabbing away at the paw prints with a damp cloth. Fortunately, the marks came out pretty easily. Bob was still padding around the place, leaving a golden trail in his wake. I knew this wasn't healthy for him so I decided I'd better put an end to the fun.
'Come on, buster,' I said, scooping him up. 'Time to give you a wash.'
Belle took the hint and started clearing away her bits and pieces. She looked concerned. She was all too aware of the problems I was facing, in particular the most pressing of them domestically speaking.
'Have you got any gas left to heat some water?'
'No, I'll have to put some in a saucepan and warm it up on the electric hob.'
'Actually, can you just go and check the state of the electric meter too,' I said. 'I haven't looked for a bit. I'm afraid to.'
I wasn't exaggerating.
There had been times in my life when I'd been obsessed by all sorts of things: guitars, science fiction novels, computer games, how I was going to 'score' my next fix when I was an addict. At the moment, however, my greatest obsessions took the form of the gas and electric meters that were positioned near the front door of my flat. I'd been forced to have the meters installed after failing to pay my quarterly energy bills in the past. The meters were charged up by pay-as-you-go cards and both needed regular top-ups at the nearby convenience store. I'd add as much money as I could afford to each but, with energy prices rising all the time, it wasn't cheap. I reckoned it cost on average about £2 to £3 a day to keep both of them going during this cold weather. It didn't take long for it to mount up. The one consolation was that I'd already paid the quarterly rental fee I had to pay for the meters at the beginning of December. But during the past week I'd been trying to keep the flat as warm as possible, which had meant the meters were eating money at a horrendous rate. The consequences had been inevitable.
Both meters had an option which gave you £5 of emergency energy. When you reached this point, you had to insert the card into the meter and hit the E button. It would then make three beeps to let you know that you were on emergency supplies. Once that had run out, however, that was that. It was effectively a loan or overdraft, so until you had repaid the £5 plus any extra debt you had run up you were cut off. A couple of days ago I'd been forced to put both the gas and electric on emergency. I knew I had just £5 left on each before I was disconnected, so from that moment onward my life had become ruled by the noises emanating from the meters – and the complicated timetable that kept them running.
Because people might not be able to top up their cards or keys during the night-time, both meters had what the energy companies liked to call a 'friendly non-disconnect period'. This basically meant that, provided you had some credit at the cut-off time, usually 6 p.m., they didn't disconnect you in the middle of the night or on Sundays when it might be difficult to find a shop open to top up your card or key.
These cut-off times had been my major obsession. At 6 p.m. each day for the past few days I'd breathed a huge sigh of relief when the meter made a soft clicking noise that announced the energy supply wouldn't be cut off until at least 9 a.m. the following morning. When it had done so on Saturday, I'd known that I had that night and all of Sunday guaranteed. I'd known that the earliest the supply could be disconnected was 9 a.m. on Monday morning. Since then I'd been through the same traumatic ritual each morning, watching the clock tick towards 9 a.m., waiting to see if the dreaded beeping of the machine signalled that I'd run out of gas or electric. It wasn't good for my nerves.
Excerpted from A Gift From Bob by James Bowen. Copyright © 2014 James and Bob Ltd and Connected Content Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Golden Paws,
2. The Boy Behind the Curtain,
3. Beep, Beep, Beep,
4. Miracle on Upper Street,
5. Smiley Faces,
6. The Office Party,
7. The Ghost of Christmas Past,
8. A Gift from Bob,
Bob Information Page,
About the Author,
Also by James Bowen,