A Christmas romcom in which llamas play a small but significant role
by Stephanie Dagg
Praise (sort of, and largely coerced) for Fa-La-Llama-La
“It’s all right.” Caitlin Dagg (daughter)
“Best thing I’ve ever read.” Christopher Dagg (tactful husband who knows which side his bread is buttered on)
“Ho ho ho!” Father Christmas
“Pffft!” Passing French person
From llamas and other camelids:
“Very good, but I think there should have been more llamas.” Lady Windermere Coulemelle (woolly llama – yes, all llamas are woolly but some are woollier than others and are a distinct type of llama)
“Enjoyable and entertaining, but I worry that the scene involving llamas spitting paints a somewhat negative stereotypical image of camelids.” Ted of Les Fragnes (huacaya alpaca)
“The parts with llamas are brilliant. Mind you, the bits with humans aren’t too shabby either. But I’m still a bit confused as to what this Christmas thing is exactly.” Lulin of Les Fragnes (a classic llama, the less woolly sort)
“I expected there to be alpacas too. Where are the alpacas? What’s so special about llamas? Why do they get all the attention?” Ciara (Suri alpaca)
“Still on the first sentence.” Grainne (huarizo i.e. llama/alpaca cross, daughter of Lady Windermere Coulemelle, very sweet and gentle but not too bright)
Disclaimer This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to anyone living or dead or in-between is entirely coincidental. I’m not a vet, and whilst I draw on some real incidents that I’ve experienced during ten years of breeding and raising llamas and other animals, and have been on a llama management course with input from a vet (and which involved putting my hand inside a llama pelvis, although not still attached to a llama), do not take anything I write as official advice. Always consult a vet.
“How are you fixed for the next week or so?” my cousin asked.
Talk about a silly question. I glowered at the phone.
“Joe, it’s nearly Christmas,” I reminded him. “I’m temporarily living with my parents, as I know you know. I will be eating too much, which is bad since it will go straight to my hips, and probably drinking too much, which is also bad, but given recent events I’m not sure I care. With any luck I’ll forget about them.” Joe made a sympathetic noise.
The events I was referring to are as follows. In the last six months I’ve been ditched by my fiancé a mere two months before our wedding, made redundant from the job I adored, but, the worst of all, lost the best gran in the world.
I sighed and resumed the conversation. “So how am I fixed, Joe? I will be bored rigid watching ancient films and losing at Whist and Monopoly to Mum, Dad and Pop. The only highlight will be taking poor old Patch for walks, providing he stays awake long enough, and feeding the guinea-pigs.”
“Funny you should mention that…” Joe sounded sly.
“What, feeding the guinea-pigs?” I frowned.
“Yes.” He paused and I waited, intrigued, to be enlightened. However, Joe changed tack. “But first, how was your birthday?” he asked conversationally. Despite my name, Noelle, I wasn’t born on Christmas Day. I was due to be, but arrived an impatient three-and-a-bit weeks earlier. However, my parents had set their hearts – or at least Mum had – on a seasonal name for child number three. So although I arrived the same day my older brother and sister were excitedly opening only the second window on their Advent calendars, she stuck with Plan A. Sometimes when I explain this to people, they give me a slightly disapproving look and make me feel that I have my name under false pretences.
“Quiet, but nice,” I reported. “But I’m pretty sure you’re not phoning long distance to hear about our bar meal at The Dog And Ferret. In fact, I’m not sure why you’re phoning at all. You usually Facebook me. Not that it’s not nice to have a chat, of course,” I added quickly, “although it’s expensive I imagine. How’s Florida. And Caspar, of course?”
“Awesome, in both cases.” Joe’s smile floated across the ether. He was totally besotted with his latest boyfriend, Caspar, a charming Californian lawyer Joe had met in London recently at some West End show or other. Caspar had been on a business trip but taken time out to soak up some British culture. Love had blossomed and now Joe was meeting Caspar’s folks and experiencing an all-American yuletide.
“Come on, spill,” I urged. “About why you’re interested in my guinea-pig-related skills,” I added quickly, in case he began to go on about his obvious happiness. I was still at the bah-humbug stage when it came to hearing about romantic bliss.
“I have urgent need of your expertise with South American mammals.” Joe could be a bit pompous at times. “One of my house-and-pet-sitters was lined up for a last-minute crucial job but she’s gone down with shingles, and I’m stuck. I’d step in myself, but well, it wouldn’t be very practical.”
I’d forgotten about Joe’s latest business. Joe was a serial entrepreneur, full of great business ideas but without the patience to stick with any one of them long enough to actually make any real money from it. He’d get it established and start to be successful – but then get bored and/or think of something that would get him rich even quicker. I’d heard Mum mention his latest combined house-and-pet-sitting enterprise a couple of times but had imagined that he’d moved on from that by now.
“Yep, it seems a bit extreme you having to fly back from the States to feed some guinea-pigs,” I agreed. “I can do that. Where do you need me to go?” “Oh thank goodness, you’ll help? You really don’t mind not being home for Christmas?”
“Joe, you’re part of this family – what do you think?”
“I know, but Auntie Mary does make amazing mince pies.”
My mum was renowned for them, it was true.
“And the Christmas cake she made last year, that was to die for. Best ever, and the chestnut stuff—” “Joe! I thought you wanted me to take this job. Stop reminding me of all the good food I’m giving up for you. You’ll make me change my mind.” I was only half-joking. “So, where are these South American mammals then? Somewhere nice? Not too far, I hope, it’s murder travelling at Christmas-time.”
Just two days to go till the big day. The roads were already clogging up.
I wasn’t prepared for Joe’s answer.
I let that sink in for a few seconds.
I didn’t know whether to be delighted at the exoticness of Christmas abroad or dismayed at the idea of having to go so far. My car was old and not massively reliable. Plus the CD player didn’t work any more, and neither did the radio. I was in for a long, silent drive… No, exoticness won out.
“Paris?” I asked next, hopefully. I could imagine an old, doting French woman with a houseful of guinea-pigs being prepared to pay for me to come from the UK to tend to her precious pets while she went to visit a distant close relative, or even a distant distant one. Who cared, I would be abroad. Maybe I’d even see the illuminated Eiffel Tower twinkling in the distance from the apartment window…
I snapped out of my reverie. Joe was saying something.
“… about six hours.”
“I need to leave in six hours?” I yelped in alarm.
“No, you can set off tomorrow morning, but earlyish, mind. I was saying that when you get to France, you’ll have a drive of about six hours. I’ll email you the address and all the details. It’s a farm in deepest Creuse. The key is in a jar under the flowerpot. The fee will be in an envelope on the kitchen table. There are a dozen… animals to look after.”
“Um, what is the fee? Will it all be mine?” I hated to sound mercenary, but I was pretty hard up at the moment.
“Normally I’d take a ten-percent cut, but since you’re my cuz and you’re helping me out of a hole, you can keep it all.”
“Four hundred euro.”
Wow, four hundred euro for feeding twelve guinea-pigs and getting to see France, although sadly not the Eiffel Tower, over the festive season. Brilliant.
Hang on. There had to be a catch.
“How long for?”
Not so bad.
“I’ll make the bookings and send you the link for the ferry tickets,” Joe confirmed.
“Great, I’ll go and tell Mum and Dad the news.”
I wasn’t sure how they’d take it. Mum would be horrified that I might be missing Pop’s last Christmas, the blackmail she piled on every year, but she doted on Joe and would be pleased I was helping him out. Dad would be relieved to get me out of the house for a while. He loved me and my brother and sister dearly but was a firm believer in absence making the heart grow fonder. He’d done his bit bringing us up and being there to dry our tears and do our woodwork projects for us, but once we reached adulthood, he felt exonerated. It was time for us to move on. Plus, I suspect, he felt ganged up on. Not actively by me, but Mum did tend to use me to back up any claims she made. “Noelle and I think that the bathroom needs repapering,” or “Noelle and I don’t want to watch rugby all evening,” were just two examples from yesterday alone. I could see Dad’s point. He’d be humming as he did the oil and tyre pressure checks on my little Fiat in the morning.
“Excellent, it all sounds great. So, love to Caspar and Happy Christmas,” I said cheerily, about to hang up.
“Noelle!” Joe interjected quickly. “Um, about the guinea-pigs, they… they’re, er, not guinea-pigs.”
“They’re not?” I was confused. “But you said—”
“South American mammals. Those were my words. You just assumed it was guinea-pigs.” He tried to force a laugh. “It’s, um, actually… llamas. Bye Noelle!”
The line went dead.
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