My sequel to ‘Fa-La-Llama-La: Christmas at the Little French Llama Farm’ will soon be ready.

‘Deck the Halles: Next Christmas at the Little French Llama’ sees our heroine Noelle called on at the last minute to help organise a national llama show in the local agricultural halles, so her partner, famous Australian author Nick, decides to profit from this by launching his latest book there. With just days to go, a stream of visitors turn up on their doorstep with assorted tales of woe and all needing somewhere to stay.

Here’s the latest arrival, an early morning one. (Ivy and Franklin, referred to here, turned up yesterday and are staying in the tiny guest cottage, which Noelle’s mum was in but has vacated for a couple of days. She’ll be coming back, though. Truffle is the stray dog Nick and Noelle have given a home to.)

 

We decided we deserved a half-hour lie-in this morning. But ten minutes in there was a knock on the door. Truffle, who’d slept on a rug I’d put down for him just outside our bedroom door, gave a little growl. So did Nick.

“I thought we’d given Ivy and Franklin everything they needed for breakfast,” he grumbled.

“We did,” I confirmed. “But I think Franklin’s still asleep.”

“How on earth can you know that?” asked Nick.

“I can hear him snoring.” It was true. Even though the cottage was a good ten metres from the house, and both buildings had thick stone walls and double-glazed windows, we could hear an intermittent rumbling sound. I’d been aware it during the night at odd moments when I’d been awake. “Or maybe that’s Ivy?”

“Nah, she’s not big enough to make that colossal racket. Streuth, how can the poor woman sleep through that?”

“It’s probably her at the door then,” I deduced. “Wanting earmuffs, or refuge.” I reluctantly sat up, pushed back the covers and swung my legs out of bed. “I did tell them just to come on into the house any time they needed to. I said we didn’t lock the door.”

“Maybe they’re a bit wary of Truffle. Or me,” grinned Nick.

I grinned back. “Yes, they might be worried you’d think they were intruders and batter them with a boomerang.” There was a conveniently-placed, oversized one hanging in our hallway. “Time to get up anyway.”

I shrugged into my dressing gown and stuffed my feet into my slippers and shuffled off, closely followed by Truffle. He overtook me on the stairs, but waited dutifully until I was head of him again in the hallway. I don’t think he was convinced this was officially his territory yet, or maybe he was a bit of a coward and preferred me to confront strangers on the doorstep. That was fine, as I didn’t want an aggressive animal, all bared teeth and raised hackles. I was perfectly capable of playing that part if necessary.

I plastered a smile on my face and pulled the door open to let Ivy and Franklin in. Only it wasn’t them. Two very tall men were on my doorstep, in matching Tommy Hilfiger skiing jackets that oozed class. They also sported those fur-lined earflap hats, and scarves. It therefore took my as yet uncaffeinated brain a few seconds to crank into gear. Then, from the few facial features I could discern, I worked out this overdressed pair was my cousin Joe and his partner Caspar. Talk about surprise. I thought they were at home in New York city.

I launched myself at Joe and hugged him as best I could through all his bulky layers. Truffle took upon himself to be welcome committee to Caspar and looked up at him adoringly, wagging his tail. Any friend of my new family is a friend of mine, he was saying.

“Come on in,” I invited, after hugging Caspar too. “But what on earth are you guys doing here?”

“Long story short, rats,” summarised Joe, peeling off his jacket, and, after looking around the hallway and not seeing anywhere to hang it up since all hooks on the coat rack were already occupied, handing it to me to deal with as appropriate. And the hat.

“Yes, rats,” agreed Caspar, doing the same with his hat and coat.

I saw now that the boys were wearing matching stylish, as in designer label, yet tasteless Christmas jumpers with lurid designs in garish colours.

“Rats?” I echoed, slightly muffled by the heap of tog rating now filling my arms.

“Hundreds of them. No, more like thousands,” declared Caspar.

“Thousands?” That was me. Being a parrot was all I could do until I could make sense of what was going on. I dumped the jackets and hats on Nick’s chair as we entered the kitchen.

“Definitely thousands,” confirmed Joe, plonking himself down at the table. Caspar followed suit.

“Definitely?”

Both men nodded, so I nodded too.

“But where?” I demanded, still none the wiser.

“Paris,” Joe informed me.

“Ghastly place,” added Caspar.

Well, I could have told them that. True, it had the world’s most stunning architecture, but it was just a city – noisy, polluted, frantic, expensive, full of sour faces, lonely souls, pickpockets and, distressingly, every other phone box sheltering homeless, hopeless people.

At this point Nick padded into the room. Three pairs of eyes regarded him appreciatively; unshaved and with tousled, bedroom hair he did look gorgeous. The still-lingering, post-flu pallor brought his dark hair and eyes into sharper focus and gave him the air of a tragic, unsuccessful poet or starving artist.

“G’day gents,” he said genially, unaware he was being openly ogled by everyone else in the room, apart from Truffle, and managing not to wince at the overdose of Christmas jumper that assailed him. “You must be Noelle’s cousin Joe.” He identified him from the many photos of Joe I’d shown him on Facebook. He duly shook his hand. “And you’re Caspar. Good to finally meet you. Coffee?”

Joe and Caspar nodded eagerly.

“Oh my goodness, you’re probably starving too!” I realised, jumping up. “Breakfast?”

More eager nodding. “Oh, yes please. We were going to stop at a café somewhere for coffee and croissant, but nowhere was open,” said Joe mournfully.

Given the hour, that wasn’t surprising. It was barely eight o’clock now.

I busied myself shoving slices of bread into the toaster. “So, what happened exactly?” I asked.

Nick placed coffees in front of everyone, moved the jackets onto the sofa and sat down in his place, all ears.

“Well,” began Caspar dramatically, “this was meant to be our fairytale Christmas.”

“Fairytale,” verified Joe.

“A week in the City of Light, walking along the Champs Élysées, visiting Versailles, Notre Dame, Montmatre, all those iconic places.”

“Iconic,” agreed Joe.

“So we booked what we thought was a nice hotel, but oh my gosh.” Caspar pulled a face. “It was terrible.”

Nick and I couldn’t stop ourselves glancing at Joe for the inevitable “Terrible.”

“Rats everywhere.”

“Everywhere.”

“Everywhere? Streuth.” That was Nick, if you hadn’t guessed.

“Well, outside, but still everywhere,” clarified Caspar.

“We saw at least three,” nodded Joe.

I frowned. Only moments ago it had been ‘thousands’.

“The fact we spotted some means there are actually loads and loads and loads, even though you can’t see them all,” explained Joe quickly, seeing my scepticism.

“Thousands?” I suggested.

“Probably,” he said darkly.

I’d heard that the floods the city had experienced in the spring had caused a surge in rat sightings and that lots was being done to get the numbers down. But rats are resourceful and people are dirty, discarding litter all over the place, a lot of it with edible scraps attached. Of course they’ll move in if there’s a food source.

“We’ve got rats in our barn,” said Nick brightly but not massively helpfully.

“That’s different,” said Caspar dismissively, to my astonishment. “You expect that on a farm. And they’re not running down the drive or over your garden, are they?”

“No, they’re not,” I said firmly. “Our cats would be too ashamed to allow that to happen.”

“Well, we couldn’t stay at that hotel,” Joe went on. “Not with rats so close by.”

“No. I mean, one might have come up the toilet or something,” added Caspar, and shuddered.

Nick caught my eye and raised an eyebrow. I managed not to smile.

“I’d have thought that would be pretty unlikely,” I said carefully, “but it wouldn’t have been much of a fairytale holiday if you were constantly worrying about it.”

Nick was more direct. “Yup, getting bitten on the butt while sitting on the crapper would really suck.”

Joe and Caspar nodded seriously.

“Didn’t you think of going to a different hotel?” I asked.

“Oh no, not after that. We’ve gone right off Paris,” said Caspar.

“Yes, right off.”

“Not only the rats, but people there said horrible things,” Caspar went on.

“Horrible,” ratified Joe.

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” I exclaimed, genuinely upset. Why couldn’t people just live and let live? My cousin had been at the receiving end of a lot of ignorant hatred over the years simply because of his sexuality.

“Oh, I don’t mean gay bashing,” Joe explained quickly.

“Worse than that.” Caspar looked mortally offended. “I overhead some snooty couple saying our jackets were cheap knock-offs.”

“So cruel,” tutted Joe.

I just sat there.

“So I suggested we pop here, to see my favourite cousin,” Joe smiled sycophantically. “Can you squeeze us in somewhere?”

“We-ell,” I replied cautiously. “Mum’s here for Christmas.”

“Oh, how is Aunt Mary?” gushed Joe.

“She’s…” I couldn’t go blabbing about her having ditched Dad. “She’s dyed her hair,” I said evasively.

“Good for her,” approved Joe.

Dying their hair clearly meant someone was in good form.

“She’s popped over to see Eve for a couple of days,” I continued.

“Oh, is your sister living in France too?” asked Joe. “Goodness, I’m out of touch.”

“She’s on holiday here at the moment, that’s all,” I explained concisely. “And some friends of ours, Ivy and Franklin, turned up out of the blue last night. They plan to be here at least a few days.” I hoped the boys would get the hint, but no.

“Not Ivy of the pet-sitting booking?” exclaimed Joe, referring to the events of last Christmas. My wily cousin had led me to believe I’d be minding guinea-pigs, not eleven normal llamas and one hugely pregnant one. Good job he had, though, as I might not have taken on the job and thus never met Nick. But you’ll know all this if you’ve read ‘Fa-La-Llama-La’.

“My goodness, what a houseful!” enthused Caspar. “I love big gatherings, don’t you?”

Not when we didn’t have enough space for everyone.

Or enough food. We’d done what we thought was our final Christmas food shop a week ago, before it started getting crazily busy at the supermarket. With all these extra mouths to feed that kept materialising, we’d have to make another trip, today or tomorrow. That was the last thing we needed on top of all the llama show and book launch-related activities already scheduled in.

I responded to Caspar with a non-committal, strangled sort of noise.

“So, what are your plans between now and Christmas?” asked Joe.

I stared at him. I was sure I’d told him about the forthcoming camelid show and my key involvement in it, but maybe not. So I quickly filled him in.

“Oh, how marvellous!” cried Caspar. “I know I shall love every minute. Do you need any extra judges or anything?”

I was touched by his enthusiasm, especially as I wasn’t sure if he knew the front end from the back end of a llama.

“That’s all covered by the association running the show,” I assured him. “But an extra pair of hands will be useful here in the preparations. Sir Winter will need lots of grooming.”

“I’ll be brilliant at that,” promised Caspar, unhampered as ever by modesty.

“Brilliant,” nodded Joe.

“Help yourself to more coffee and food,” I told them, getting up. “I need to go and get dressed.”

“Me too,” smiled Nick. “See you in a few.”

We hurried upstairs. I shut the bedroom door behind us then leant against it and groaned.

“What are we going to do?”

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