Charles Heppel’s heart only skipped beats for three good reasons. The first was waking up daily next to his hot and holy husband. Their foster son was an equally cuddly reason for Charles to rub a hand over where his heart now pitter-pattered. So what if little Adam had played merry hell with their love life? A year of blue balls was worth getting to soothe his midnight crying—crying that Charles could almost hear now, which made no sense given it was the afternoon in central London, not bedtime at home in Cornwall.
Besides, Adam was safe and sound with Hugo.
Charles checked his watch. It was hours past the end of the medical checkup that had clashed with this Christmas school trip. He checked his phone next, finding no new messages after his husband’s last text.
Hugo: Adam is perfectly on track just like you thought. All is well.
But that wasn’t the truth, was it?
All wasn’t well. Not at all. It couldn’t be, not while Charles still heard crying.
It must be someone else’s toddler wailing between the roar of double-decker buses and the beeps of black cabs inching through streets thick with Christmas shoppers. Regardless, his heart skipped beats for a third time as he jumped to a horrible conclusion.
“Oh, no. Someone’s missing.”
His chest seized, and one of his helpers noticed.
“You okay, Charles?” Keir called out from the end of the rope strung between them. Each of Glynn Harber's youngest students held a hoop tied along it. Charles counted their heads as Keir passed his own hoop to another helper to join him. His voice dropped when he reached Charles. "Don’t tell me you’ve only just realised it’s almost Christmas. Did you forget to buy Hugo a present again like last year?”
“No. I didn’t forget.” That would be impossible given his classroom in Glynn Harber had looked like an explosion in a tinsel factory for the last month. Plus, Charles had been much more organised this year. “I bought his presents ages ago. I’m fully prepared to give his stocking a thorough stuffing.” He truly was, and if Hugo didn’t appreciate the fruity lube gift pack Charles had wrapped for him, or the marzipan crabs he'd found on Etsy, he’d surely love the compass engraved with the date of when they’d first found each other. “They’re already wrapped and well hidden behind my Love Island box sets. He’ll never look there.”
“Well, you're looking deathly for some reason.” Keir squinted. “You do know that I'm only standing in for your holy hubby today, don't you? If you’re about to expire, I won’t give you the kiss of life like he would. Although we are opposite a church, and there’s a hospital at the end of the street, so I suppose you've chosen the right place to potentially meet your maker."
Charles whispered, "I don't need the kiss of life, Keir. Your tonsils are quite safe around me. They always have been.” Good grief, it would be like snogging one of his brothers. “And having seen you in a lip-lock with poor Mitch, that’s probably a blessing. I've seen Dysons with less powerful suction.” He counted heads again, thankfully reaching the correct number of children. His heart eased, his huff of relief a cloudy gust in the crisp air. "And there's no need to call a priest or an ambulance for me quite yet. I thought I'd lost one of the little ones, that's all."
"Again?” Keir’s eyes narrowed. That meant more teasing was incoming. “Wouldn’t only losing one be an improvement on your track record? You know, after you once lost an entire class on a school trip?”
Trust him to remember that disaster.
"That was years ago." Charles sniffed. "And it happened when I was under a tremendous amount of professional pressure from my last head teacher." They both shuddered at the memory of his ex-boss. "And I didn't lose those children. Not really. The train doors shut between us, that's all. Another door opened and I found them within moments." Charles counted heads one more time. "Not that Mrs. Godalming would ever let me forget even one of those awful seconds."
"Mrs. Godawful, you mean." Keir shuddered again. "How that mean and bitter woman ever ended up as the head of a school is a mystery to me. I mean, shouldn't actually liking kids be crucial? She was mean to the core, especially at Christmas. Remember the fuss she made about you teaching her little ones the alternative words to Jingle Bells? She was such a bad-tempered witch—"
He stopped when little Maisie Dymond tugged on his sleeve. "What's that?" Keir crouched beside her disability pushchair. "Witches know all about nature and can be kind and lovely people? Well…" He flashed a help me look at Charles. "You're probably right." He listened again. "But no, I don't think witches have wings like fairies, Maisie. I'm not certain they can fly at all unless it’s on broomsticks like in storybooks."
Here was a chance to get back on track.
Charles gathered his class of children closer, every one of the little darlings still holding the rope like they'd practiced back in Cornwall. "First of all, well done for not letting go. Not even once. I know it's tempting with so many interesting things to see in London. And especially well done to Tor and Hadi for being such good examples to the younger ones."
Both boys straightened, their chests puffing as Charles gave the rope a little wiggle. "You were all great on the train, and wonderful in the museum. We even made it to the toilet in time without making a single puddle, which is a Christmas miracle. None of that was maggoty behaviour. I think we're more like a caterpillar today. One with a long body and lots and lots of legs, only we're an extra-special caterpillar that has wheels too." He tucked a blanket tighter around Maisie's legs and then tapped his lips as if thinking. "And what do caterpillars turn into?"
"Butterflies!" Maisie beamed, which was a bright spot of sunshine in this soon-to-darken city.
"With wings, like in our class project."
"And that’s why we’re in London, isn’t it? To investigate things with wings.” Charles tapped his lips again. "We found lots of wings in the Natural History Museum this morning. Which creature had the biggest pair of all?" He nodded along with their answers. "And the smallest?"
The hustle and bustle of London couldn't drown their suggestions, and neither could Mariah Carey singing a Christmassy tune as a department store door opened nearby. Charles spoke over her fluting high notes. "I wonder if we'll find some more wings before it's time to catch the train back to Glynn Harber?"
“Charles Heppel!” Tor thundered. "There!" He pointed across the road at the church Keir had noticed, and it turned out that Maisie wasn’t the only sunbeam in this city. Light struck one of the church windows, illuminating a stained-glass angel.
“Oh, that’s brilliant, Tor. The padre would love those wings, wouldn’t he?”
A someone’s missing pang struck Charles all over again.
Hugo would have loved everything about this school trip. He would have known how to read all the Latin names at the museum, and he would have done a much better job of steering the children through the gift shop than Charles had managed. Now he had no cash left in his wallet and could still hear faint crying.
He looked around, checking his children. They were all happy, little faces aglow, their eyes shining with reflected Christmas lights that flickered from each shop window, and yet that crying tugged at him.
So did a ping from his phone.
Rex: Heard you’re in the big smoke. Fancy a night of blisteringly hot sex?
Frankly, Charles would settle for a whole night of unbroken sleep. All he really wanted from Santa this year was for Adam’s molars to break through his gums for once and for all. That might stop his nighttime trouble. Charles yawned before dictating a whispered reply.
Charles: Blisteringly hot sex? Only with my husband, thank you. By the way, did you forget this was a group chat? Heaven help you when Dev reads your smutty offer.
He took a few photos with his phone of the children's wonder and of London's hustle and bustle to show Hugo and Adam later, then another message popped up.
Rex: It was Dev’s suggestion. He thought a night between our sheets might make for a welcome early Christmas present. But anyway, enjoy Kensington Gardens.
Charles frowned for a moment, but not at the idea of Dev's shared-bed suggestion. "It's no surprise that Rex has corrupted that poor lamb," Charles murmured. "But how on earth did he know where we're headed when I only decided this morning?"
In fact, visiting the palace gardens had been Hugo's suggestion while he'd spooned porridge into Adam that Adam had spat back just as quickly. But their toddler had found making that mess funny. He hadn’t been one bit tearful, not like someone else’s toddler who still cried in the distance.
It tugged at Charles, not letting up.
He couldn't ignore it.
Instead, he said, "Okay, everyone, let's all keep looking for more wings on the way to our last stop," and he headed towards the sound instead of to the gardens.
Their caterpillar continued inching its way through Christmas shoppers who grumbled when it stopped to admire pigeons, every single child cooing along with Charles. Then they made aeroplane sounds after Keir pointed out metallic wings soaring way over their heads.
The shops thinned at the end of the street. So did the crowds, thank goodness. Fewer people grumbled when they made another stop beside the hospital Keir had noticed. A wall there was covered in graffiti, or maybe street art was the right word for these images depicting medical staff with wings and halos. "Because that's what some people call nurses. Angels," Charles told the children. "Why do you think that might be?"
The discussion he had next wasn't why he'd brought these children to London, but given time, more of the children than he'd expected shared stories of care they'd received or care they'd witnessed. And here was the amazing thing about working with kids—they told the truth exactly as they saw it, reminding him that the world was full of chances to be one of those caring people who stuck in their memories for them.
Getting to do that never got old, and since having little Adam to nurture? To love and keep safe forever? This next came out sounding a touch rougher than usual. "Caring really can feel like unfurling wings, only not just for flying. They're very good for wrapping around worries. For being a safe shelter. Isn't that nicer than being mean or horrid?"
Caring also came with heartstrings that were easier to tug on every time he heard crying, like now. He turned. And after planning a surprise for all of his children?
Charles got one of his own.
Outside the hospital entrance, a woman held the source of all that weeping and wailing. The child looked the same age and size as Adam, but that wasn't what struck Charles or what made him mutter a name quietly.
He cleared his throat and called out louder.
“The witch?” Keir must have handed off his end of the rope again. He joined Charles. “No. It can’t be.”
"Yes, it can. It is. Take my place for a moment, will you?" Charles strode across to the hospital entrance. "Mrs. Godalming?" he asked again, only to be greeted by a second surprise in as many minutes. For the first time ever, his ex-boss didn't look at him with disdain or impatience. Her eyes weren't bleak and beady. They swam, full of raw emotion.
He nodded. He also opened his arms.
Who knew why, after he'd spent so many months on what felt like a perpetual naughty step in her classrooms? He only saw what she showed him right here and now—pain battling with fear for a loved one like the children had described nurses helping, and didn't he know what that fear felt like after Adam had needed so much medical attention?
How often had he held back tears as she did now? It didn't matter. All that did was her lurch into his arms and Charles did what felt natural. He gave them both a cuddle before asking, "How can I help?"
What followed came with hitching breaths and with a slow walk back to join his caterpillar.
“My daughter…” Mrs. Godalming looked back at the hospital. “We haven’t spoken for a while.”
Charles ignored Keir's unsurprised grimace. Instead, he asked, "So this is your grandson? He looks around the same age as my son." Using that title always set off an internal flutter of pride and pleasure. "And he looks about as heavy. Pass him over to give your arms a rest." He opened his arms again, and this time she handed over her grandson, who stopped crying. And with that weight lifted, maybe she felt able to let go of some more.
“We had a falling out a while ago. Then I had a call about an accident. I came straight from work.” She glanced back. “She’s having her arm set under anaesthetic. Won’t be back or awake for another hour or so. We were in the waiting room, only he wouldn’t stop crying.” A passing bright red double-decker almost drowned out the reason. “He doesn’t really know me.”
"Does the hospital have your number? Your contact details?"
Charles came to a decision. He was also glad that he’d walked in the wrong direction. It meant he got to ask this. “Do you know the way to Kensington Gardens?”
She nodded again.
“Then don’t be alone. Show us the way and come with us. Only for an hour.” He chanced a smile. “Someone responsible needs to make sure I get these children there in one piece and don’t lose any of them.”
At least that helped her to sketch a weak smile.
"Then we'll get you back here in plenty of time, I promise."
And that’s how Charles ended up at his destination, which was everything he’d hoped for.
Lime green parakeets flocked in the palace gardens, each one of his children brave enough to hold an apple for them to peck at, and wouldn't they always remember this London visit where they saw real wings flutter from only inches’ distance?
"I did a risk assessment," he promised his ex-boss. "That's why they're all wearing gloves and I have wet wipes and hand gel. I still decided the risk of getting pooped on was worth it for this learning opportunity." For their little hearts and souls too. "Cornwall has a lot going for it, but it doesn't have parakeets like these."
"That's where you're based now?" Mrs. Godalming held an apple of her own, her grandson watching a vividly coloured bird peck in the same way this woman used to peck at Charles daily. She'd chipped away at his will to live, at his belief in his vocation, only now she looked desperately sad and worried. She also looked up at him—at her grandson too, who sucked his thumb, his head now resting against Charles’ shoulder. "He likes you."
"It's the glitter." Charles touched his beard, sure there would be some in it. "Guaranteed toddler magnet." He also told the truth as he saw it. "And he's desperately tired." He rubbed the toddler's back, feeling tension leak from his little body the same way it did from Adam's, worn out after a tantrum. "Stress does that. You must feel wretched too, but it's going to get better."
Her eyes welled again. She also clenched her jaw, which should give Charles work-related flashbacks, but he kept going. If the last few years had taught him anything, it was that change only happened when more than jaws unclenched and opened. Plus, he had a holy role model for marching into trouble with his arms wide open, ready to drag hurting people back to safety. “Did you two fall out about anything important?”
She looked about to justify whatever had led to this schism with her daughter. Then she shook her head, a tear spilling.
Every dam needed an outlet, so Charles kept going. “And you were the person she asked the hospital to contact?”
This nod caused a few more tears to spill.
"And she'll need help for a while with this one?" He settled the now-sleeping toddler in the pushchair while Keir helped Maisie to hand-feed birds with all the other children. Charles adjusted the harness and covered this toddler with a fluffy blanket, murmuring, "Then perhaps you could all give yourself some grace, at least until after the holidays." He straightened, doing his best to channel Hugo. "Everything can be forgiven and forgotten for a few weeks, yes? Give yourselves a chance to get to know each other again." Children could forge such strong links between warring people. "Maybe it's a blessing that this happened at Christmas. You'll have time away from work to—"
“Focus on what really matters?” She fixed him with the beady look he remembered. “That’s what she told me I never did. That I was always focussed on my work, or on her exam grades. But I was all she had, the only person keeping the wolf from the door. It was always down to me and me alone to make a good life for her. Of course, I wanted her to have an easier life with more options."
Didn't that shine a different light on her ruling her school with a rod of iron instead of Luke Lawson's desk drawer full of Kit-Kats?
Her final comment came out much more weakly. "She said she'd never do that to her own child. Never make him feel as much pressure."
"And yet you're the one she asked for today," Charles reminded this woman who had once made his life hell on earth. "I know I didn't understand what a driver love could be until…" He pictured his last sight of Hugo and Adam that morning, his husband unshaven with porridge drying on his pyjamas, Adam waving goodbye after some sloppy toddler kisses. "I imagine you two might understand each other a little better if you take this chance to reconnect, and if you both do a bit of listening and letting go. That's what my husband always tells me."
That someone’s missing feeling chimed inside him, and he checked his watch.
"And now it's time for me to go back to Cornwall to find him." And to hold Hugo really tight for as long as he could before his Christmas duties ramped up. "Let's walk you back to the hospital now."
"No need," Keir said. He also took hold of the pushchair handles. "I'll make sure Mrs. Godawful gets back."
If she heard his mistake, she ignored it, and wasn't that what Christmas so often involved—ignoring minor fallings out or major squabbles, at least for a few days?
He hoped she'd get to mend a few fences while her daughter's fracture knitted. He also had no idea why Keir had made that "I've got this" offer or was smiling quite so broadly until Luke Lawson spoke from behind Charles.
"I've finished with the older students now, so I'll take it from here."
The best boss Charles ever had took the end of the rope from him and counted heads. "All present and correct, as always. Thank you." Luke nodded at Mrs. Godalming. "He's such a safe pair of hands. I don't know what I'd do without him."
Feathery wings fluttered inside Charles at this praise given in front of someone who once described him as hopeless. Now he only hoped she’d find a way to bridge the gap in her family. “But what—?”
"Am I doing here?" Luke gestured at the children. "Making sure we maintain the correct adult-child ratio. You know, because you aren't coming back with us?"
"Of course not. Your Christmas break starts now." Luke pointed behind Charles who could only assume his caterpillar of children left safely for Glynn Harber. He could only hope that Mrs. Godalming found a happy ending to her own stressful story as well. He didn't watch any of them leave. He couldn't, not once he looked in the direction that Luke had pointed.
And as for all those feathery wings beating against the inside of his ribs? Surely they belonged to whichever angel had flown Hugo here along with Adam.
“That’s me,” Charles said thickly. This didn’t come out sounding any smoother now Charles pressed his face against Hugo’s clerical collar. “What are you doing here?” Just as quickly, he added, “Don’t read our group chat with Rex and Dev.”
"Too late," Hugo murmured, his broad chest expanding as if he was breathing in Charles. "But isn't it kind of them both to offer up their Kensington house to us for the weekend and to babysit tonight so we get an evening alone together?"
It was. It truly was.
The someone’s missing feeling that had dogged him all day melted like the first snowflakes of the season.
“Merry Christmas, Charles.” Hugo’s lips brushed his temple. “I hope you—”
Adam interrupted, shouting, "Birdy!" And so what if it was loud enough to pop his eardrums, and drowned out the end of Hugo's sentence? Charles didn’t care. He'd ask Hugo to repeat it later.
He was too busy getting his first and best present of the season, a kiss from his son and husband.
(Until next year!)
And if you haven't had enough Christmas reading, you can revisit Kensington Gardens (minus Charles) in the second book of my Christmas collection:
Con Riley © 2023
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