First Look Book Club
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Suzanne Beecher

Dear Reader,

It's my favorite time of year at the book club, because I get to announce the winners of this year's Write a DearReader Contest! 

I read hundreds of entries every year in my annual Write a DearReader Contest. This year's First place entry, written by librarian Deanna White, tells a beautiful story that my heart just couldn't let go of. I must have read her entry five or six times, and each time I smiled. 

Congratulations Deanna! Thank you so very much for sharing this story... 

She shuffled into the library every Saturday morning and bee-lined straight to the newspaper section. Well into her nineties, her fragile frame was draped by a green housecoat that stay-at-home moms wore zippered up over their day-clothes once upon a time. The housecoat was faded, worn and weary--on the verge of becoming grey--but in another lifetime I imagined the color was a festive Christmas green. 

Mrs. Green Housecoat was followed in every Saturday by Mr. Kind-Heart, her middle-aged neighbor who lived across the street from her and told me with a shy smile as he peered over his glasses, "her husband passed away and she doesn't drive anymore." While Mrs. Green Housecoat devoured the newspaper, Mr. Kind-Heart requested DVD's for her to watch at home, "She loves the old musicals," he told me the first week I met them, "and the old black and white movies." 

Over the course of a year, I looked forward to Saturday morning exchanges with this eccentric couple. We talked about her favorite musicals, Mrs. Green Housecoat loved, "My Fair Lady, Sound of Music, Guys and Dolls, and Singing in the Rain." I shared with her my favorite black and white classics, "Pride of the Yankees" with Gary Cooper and "Gas Light" starring Ingrid Bergman. Their weekly visits were sunshine on a rainy day. 

Mrs. Green Housecoat's petite face was framed with a silver, wavy bob worn like the starlets of the silent-movie era. When she smiled, her whole face wrinkled up into a thousand tiny crevices, such as a vintage map etched with highways, roads, and mountains, and revealed missing teeth from her radiant smile. One day, as we scoured the stacks for movies, I pulled out Elvis Presley's "Blue Hawaii", holding it out to her like a gift. She glanced at the title and casually stated, "I knew Elvis," and I chuckled aloud as if she told a funny joke. Then she continued, "When I was a young girl, I worked for MGM Studios," her eyes twinkled with delight and her cheeks flushed a glowing pink of a first crush. She paused for a moment as if she were searching through the library in her mind that held volumes of precious memories forged over a lifetime. Suddenly, she leaned into me as if we were childhood friends exchanging conspiratorial secrets on the playground, "One day he walked in and looked straight at me and said, 'Hey, Good Looking!'"

In that moment, Mrs. Green Housecoat was transformed before my eyes. I no longer saw the shriveled woman with faded clothes and a worn-out body, instead I saw a young girl in the prime of her life with golden curls, pink cheeks and red lipstick. I saw a young, strong woman with smooth skin and a curvy frame that could fill out a pencil skirt and a snug-fitting sweater like Ann Margaret in "Bye-Bye Birdie". I also became fully aware of the fragility of life--that one person holds thousands of precious memories, countless adventures, and a million beautiful stories that weave a history of their past. 

After the initial COVID quarantine passed and we could return to the library, I expectantly waited for Mrs. Green Housecoat and Mr. Kind-Heart to walk through the door on Saturday mornings. Unfortunately, I never saw either of them pass through the library doors again. I now work for another library, but I often remember the flash of her smile and the twinkle in her eyes as she recounted the fabulous stories of her youth and I wonder at the goodness of  Mr. Kind-Heart who with his selfless act of generosity, provided Mrs. Green Housecoat with as great a gift as Elvis Presley did all those years ago. 

– Deanna White
First Place, 2022 Write a DearReader Contest

Thanks for reading with me. It's so good to read with friends.

Suzanne Beecher

P. S. This week we're giving away 10 copies of the book A Murder At Balmoral: A Novel by Chris McGeorge. Click here to enter for your chance to win. 

(continued from Wednesday)

Jon had observed that the entire family seemed to be on rough ground, or at the very least rougher than usual. Not one for eavesdropping, it was still impossible for Jon not to hear the short snippy conversations and the curt untoward remarks to one another, coupled with the fact that the Windsor family had not all been in the same room for quite some time.

Princess Emeline had arrived just two days ago from her home in Yorkshire, more than a week after she was due to arrive, which was likely due to the fact that she would understandably rather be spending Christmas with her beloved. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Princess Maud's family unit had been at Balmoral for nearly a month and never usually stayed in one place for so long. They were positively bouncing off the walls.

The King and Princess Marjorie always avoided each other, and Jon was not unaware of the disdain they shared, set against the backdrop of a love that they couldn't quite remember but must have been nice at the time. Marjorie had become something of a blizzard herself the last decade, and although Eric's true feelings were often hidden behind rhetoric, Marjorie frequently attempted to tell anyone and everyone exactly what she thought about her family when she had had a tipple – and tipples were becoming a startlingly regular occurrence.

Analysts reported Princess Marjorie's change in demeanour towards the King as well as his (and officials') consistent denial to allow her the title of Queen. Jon had not known this to be a part of legislation until it had become relevant, but while a Queen's husband was not the King, a King's wife was usually the Queen, so in that context, it was slightly odd that Marjorie was still a Princess. The Princess Royal, but a Princess nonetheless.

A timer buzzed as if the universe were reminding him of what he should concern himself with. He thought on what that particular timer had been for, and then checked the duck and turned the oven down, setting a new timer for when he had to check it again. He used egg timers, and colour coded them with miniscule Post-Its. He coded the timer red. Now he just had to remember what red meant. He put it on the side.

Next, Jon prepped the turkey. The bird had been seasoned two days ago so it would be as succulent as possible. Firstly, he carefully pierced the skin and lifted it, spreading a homemade garlic butter underneath. Then, he wrapped the turkey in the finest Scottish pancetta that money could buy. He prepped the shallots, garlic, and carrots that would be cooked in the tin with the bird and then put them inside it partway through cooking. Finally, he arranged the roasting tin, and put the turkey in the oven. He spun a timer to the desired length of time, coded it yellow, and put it next to the other one.

The bread sauce was a major component – King Eric's favourite. As a chef, Jon saw the value in all types of different dishes, ingredients, condiments and components. He knew that, although he had preferences, everything had its place in world cuisine. There was one exception, however – Jon could not understand how anyone could even tolerate bread sauce. The mere name, bread sauce, made Jon feel queasy, but the King practically begged Jon to make it every Christmas.

Jon continued to do what he could for his other tasks – the other components of the dinner. The gammon had a green timer. The soup had a purple timer. The pudding had an orange one. When Jon was done, there were six egg timers on the prep table.

He stopped for a moment to update his list of jobs, using the towel tucked into his waistband to dab at his brow. He knew that he was overdoing it, but what else was to be done? He sat down for a moment to catch his breath. Out of the corner of his eye, he spied a figure standing in the archway at the entrance to the kitchens. There was only one person it could possibly be – who had a habit of popping up at the worst times.

Tony Speck announced his arrival, unnecessarily, with a severe clearing of the throat. His mountainous frame had been pressed into a crisp black suit – happily denoting his role as head of security – and he was currently zipping up a blue Parka that was somehow even smaller for him than the suit. Taking a break, Alleyne? He was an odd specimen – an ex-SAS powerhouse who was now being house-trained with a newly acquired pencil moustache. Jon didn't like the fellow, but even he had to concede that it was hard not to feel safe around him. I trust everyone has had their breakfast. His voice was devoid of anything denoting character, which in a way was all one needed to know about him.

I took the King his breakfast personally. I highly doubt Princess Marjorie will rise until dinner. Prince David requested no breakfast last night. And the Princesses were quite adamant that they wanted to prepare their own.

Speck sighed, forcing Jon to meet his gaze. It involved peering upwards, even though Jon was quite far away. Speck seemed positively repulsed. Princesses getting their own breakfasts? Jesus. And you let them get it, did you?

I wouldn't know. Breakfast is usually served in the kitchens closer to the bedrooms. Are they even awake yet? Jon inspected at the clock. It was 8 a.m. Where had the time gone? He couldn't be standing here making idle chit-chat.

Princesses going to the kitchens? The exact same diction and tone. It was really rather impressive. They'll be popping to the shops next.

Well, let it be known that the royal revolution started with a bowl of cornflakes, Jon snipped. Is there anything else you need?

Yes, Alleyne, I need you to go down to the drawing room and make sure everything is well for the rest of the day.

Jon could not quite believe what he was hearing. Sir, I am rather busy here. Could you not do it? Or ask - He stopped there. There was no one else, no other name to finish that sentence with. It was quite the adjustment to realise this.

No, Alleyne, I am going to patrol the grounds. Hence the Parka. A blizzard such as this would make a perfect cover for some kind of assassination attempt, don't you think? Look, I know this situation is not ideal but it is what it is. So, be a sport and do as you are told.

Jon's eyes fell on his list. There was too much to do, but Speck was of a higher rank and Jon did indeed have to do what he was told. He looked back up, to see that Tony Speck was already gone, fleeing to a less chaotic place – a blizzard.

Jon took a long and steady breath out before ripping off his jacket and stuffing the timers into his pockets.


The Knack to Stoking a Fire

Jon would let Tony Speck know, but going to the drawing room at that point did have its advantages. He took the service lift up (so early in the day to fear the stairs, but there it was) and stopped off at the pantry to retrieve the King's favourite brand of whiskey – Anchor Haven Single Malt. Jon always made sure that they had a brand-new bottle for the occasion, as the King made a tradition out of everyone having a glass of whiskey to raise to a toast before his after-dinner speech.

The King hated to watch himself on television, so instead at 3 p.m. as the rest of the country was sitting down to hear his address, he wrote a special address for his family. It was often long, humorous, and best enjoyed slightly tipsy.

Jon carried the Anchor Haven bottle to the drawing room, moving slowly to conserve his energy, and quietly slipped inside. If one had any confusion over what time of year it was, the grand drawing room of Balmoral would very quickly set them straight. Colour and joy assaulted the brain on entrance and did not relent for one's entire stay. The large room had been decadently draped in lavish Christmas decorations that had been in the royal household for decades, from ancient hanging decorations dangling from the ceiling and faded tinsel around the fireplace to cracked baubles littered on the imposing Christmas Tree by the window. Even the two chaise lounges in the centre of the room had been adorned with Christmas cushions and there was a smaller version of the tree on the coffee table in between them.

Tony Speck would probably remark that this room represented how they got to this point. Christmas was always Eric Windsor's favourite holiday, and he seemed to revel in his authority over it. The family had decorated this room, using the decorations they wanted, meaning that the place was dressed as a traditional family Christmas instead of a Hallmark card. Eric often said that Christmas was the only time of year he felt like a normal person.

Outside of the trip to Church on Christmas morning, which was a moral duty but also a royal one, the family could be left alone. This Christmas, for obvious blizzard-related reasons, the Church trip had to be called off, which no doubt Eric secretly enjoyed. The entire day was to be their own, and this year especially due to his startling recommendation.

It wasn't hard to understand that King Eric would eventually ask to be left alone at Christmas, dismissing the staff. Jon wasn't expecting anyone to actually agree to this, but a planning committee had been liaising with the Royals, and eventually they had all come to an agreement. The Royal Family would celebrate Christmas alone with Tony Speck as their only protection – well, and the high walls and gates of Balmoral – and Jon to serve them dinner.

(continued on Friday)

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