The weather was bitterly cold. Algy stamped his feet and swung his arms to keep warm as he scanned the street, looking for a taxi. Small flakes of snow, whipped into flurries by the biting wind, stung his face and settled on the pile of parcels at his feet.
Impatiently Algy looked at his watch. He only had a short time before Biggles would be back from Brooklands with Ginger and he wanted to get back to the flat before they arrived. With the weather worsening, he reflected, Biggles might have to return earlier than he had promised and Algy did not want to run the risk of spoiling the surprise he had planned.
At last he spotted a taxi with its For Hire sign lit up and he hailed it vigorously. The driver saw him and swung into the kerb.
"Where to, Guv'nor?" asked the driver as he helped his passenger safely stow his purchases in the cab
"Mount Street," instructed Algy and settled back for the short journey.
He checked his watch again when he paid the taxi fare, thinking he was cutting it fine. Juggling the parcels, Algy made his way briskly up the stairs and rang the doorbell with his elbow.
Mrs Symes opened the door. "Captain Lacey!" the housekeeper exclaimed when she saw him. "Did you forget your key?"
Algy edged past her. "I didn't want to drop the parcels, Mrs Symes," he explained. "The shops are a nightmare! The world and his wife seem to think there'll be nothing left for Christmas if they don't buy it now! Do you know," he commented as he put the parcels down on the hall table to remove his coat, "I'm sure I saw two women coming to blows over a handbag!"
The housekeeper shook her head sadly. "I don't know what's happened to people's manners these days," she observed. "Would you like me to put these in the drawing room, sir?" she asked, indicating his shopping.
Algy shook his head. "They're Christmas presents," he told her. "I'm going to hide them in my wardrobe. I'd like you to forget you've seen them," he instructed. "I want them to be a surprise for young Ginger."
Mrs Symes smiled fondly. "I don't suppose he had much of a Christmas before," she surmised. "I don't think he had much of a life at all, in fact," she mused.
"It will certainly be different for him this year," opined Algy as he gathered up the boxes. "Bring some tea and scones to the drawing room, Mrs Symes," he ordered. "I need a pick-me-up after all that scrimmaging! Major Bigglesworth will be back shortly and I must get these stowed away before he arrives."
As Mrs Symes went to her kitchen Algy took the results of his shopping trip into his room. He smiled as he imagined the look on Ginger's face on Christmas morning when he opened his presents.
There was so much that Ginger needed, reflected Algy as he hid the gifts at the back of his wardrobe. Although still small, the boy was growing quickly and needed new clothes as well as the accessories which he and Biggles took for granted.
Satisfied that the surprise would be complete, Algy emerged and headed for the sitting room, ready to do justice to Mrs Symes' cooking. He had just settled down with his feet up and a cup of tea, when he heard Biggles arrive. Algy put his feet down with alacrity, knowing his cousin frowned on such informality.
When Biggles entered the room, followed by Ginger, Algy was sitting demurely on the sofa. Biggles glared at him. "Did you get your errands done?" he asked meaningfully.
Algy smiled and nodded. "What about you?" he responded.
Biggles opened the cigarette box and selected one of the contents before stamping across to the mantelpiece and seizing a spill to light up. He drew the smoke down into his lungs and expelled it gratefully before replying. "The weather was foul," he observed, "and I left my cigarettes here."
Behind him, Ginger, catching Algy's eye, grimaced. Algy suppressed a smile.
"The traffic was dreadful," continued Biggles, warming to his theme, "and the streets seemed to be full of lemmings intent on committing suicide. Christmas!" he exclaimed disgustedly as he flung himself into an armchair.
"Did you get to meet Captain Carthorne, Ginger?" asked Algy before Biggles could complete his Scrooge impression with "Bah! Humbug!".
The lad shook his head, disappointed. "He wasn't there," he explained. "There was a note on the clubhouse door saying the flying school was closed down until after the New Year."
"I see," murmured Algy softly, understanding some of Biggles' frustration. He patted the seat beside him. "Come and sit down, Ginger and have some scones," he offered.
Ginger wasted no time in accepting the invitation. He grabbed a couple of scones and then blushed when Algy offered him a plate. Guiltily, he glanced across at Biggles, but his mentor was examining the afternoon post.
"There's one here for you, Algy," observed Biggles, holding out a large white envelope.
Algy had seen the crest on the back and looked at the address. As he expected, he recognised his mother's handwriting. He drew a deep breath and started to put it in his pocket.
"Aren't you going to open it?" asked Ginger curiously.
Algy smiled ruefully. "I suppose so," he acknowledged, tearing the envelope with his finger.
"It looks important," observed Ginger. "What does it say?" he asked eagerly as Algy drew out a sheet of thick writing paper.
Algy scanned the flamboyant script and looked at Biggles. "My parents have invited you and me home for Christmas," he announced.
Ginger looked from one to the other and said nothing. There was an embarrassed silence.
After what seemed an age Biggles broke it. "Tell them I can't come," he told his cousin shortly. "I have other commitments this year."
Algy's face broke into a smile. "We have other commitments," he amended cheerfully.
"You don't have to refuse," Biggles pointed out stiffly. "You can still go. They are your parents after all."
"What, and have to sit through five course meals in full evening dress, making polite conversation to debutantes who have a face like a horse?" asked Algy incredulously. "Whatever gave you the idea I enjoyed that?"
Ginger looked at him uneasily. "It is Christmas, Algy," he offered tentatively. "Aren't you supposed to be with your family?"
Algy smiled indulgently. "Biggles is my family – don't forget, he's my cousin," he reminded the youngster. "And you're our family, too, now. We can all have Christmas together."
Ginger looked dubious. Biggles, lighting up his second cigarette, mused resignedly, "I suppose you're right. We might as well make the best of it."
"The most of it, you mean," suggested Algy meaningfully as Ginger blushed with embarrassment.
Biggles had the grace to look slightly abashed. "Yes, of course," he responded with more enthusiasm. "We'll get a tree and a turkey."
Algy sniggered. "It'll be like the old days in 266," he grinned. "We'll decorate the flat; Ginger can help me make the paper chains."
Biggles looked at the glowing tip of his cigarette reflectively as the smoke curled up to the ceiling like a wraith from the past. "There were some good times in the Mess, weren't there?" he murmured quietly. "Perhaps we've forgotten that side of it."
"That's settled then," concluded Algy firmly. "I'll go and see if Mrs Symes is able to do us Christmas lunch. If not, we'll book in at the Royal Aero Club or the RAF Club. One or other of them is sure to be doing something." So saying, he disappeared into the kitchen to reappear shortly with a broad grin on his face.
"Mrs Symes says she'll be delighted to cook our Christmas lunch," he announced. "She says it's good to have you at home for a change."
The remaining days before the Festival sped past in a blur of activity. Algy and Ginger chose the tree while Biggles went out turkey hunting. The activity brought back memories of the bird he had struggled to bring home to the Mess in France and his mood began to lighten. Entering into the spirit of the festivities, he took Ginger shopping to choose a present for Algy and even managed to be patient while the boy dithered about making his choice.
"Do you think Algy will like them?" asked Ginger tentatively when he had finally settled on a pair of cufflinks engraved with a depiction of the Supermarine S6b which had won the Schneider Trophy three years earlier.
"I'm sure he'll be delighted," Biggles reassured the lad. "Very tasteful."
"It's a beautiful machine," observed Ginger wistfully. "Wonderful lines."
"Very elegant," agreed Biggles, handing the box to the shop assistant and requesting it to be gift-wrapped.
When the purchase was completed, he took Ginger home.
"Leave it to me," Biggles told the lad when he voiced his concern about hiding his present from Algy. "I'll see he doesn't get a look at it until Christmas Day." Biggles put the small box in his pocket and inserted his key into the lock.
"Now go and help Algy with the decorations," he urged as he ushered the boy into the sitting room.
The tree had already been set up in a corner of the room, awaiting the candles and baubles which lay in a large cardboard box at its side. Algy was cutting strips of brightly coloured paper when Ginger entered. He had obviously been busy for some time, judging by the number of pieces piled on the table.
"Just in time, Ginger!" exclaimed Algy. "I'm just about ready to start gluing."
Ginger looked puzzled.
"Making the paper chains," explained Algy. "Didn't you decorate your home at Christmas?"
The moment he said it, Algy could have bitten his tongue.
Ginger shook his head. "Me Da' didn't go much on Christmas," he muttered. "Except to get drunk."
Algy regarded the lad compassionately. "Then I'll show you how to do it," he offered gently. "Here's the glue pot."
Under Algy's instruction Ginger quickly got the hang of producing the chain decorations and soon the room was festooned with the bright creations.
"There!" exclaimed Algy. "That's looking more festive, isn't it?"
"It certainly is!" agreed Biggles as he entered. "Anybody would think there's a celebration coming up!"
Ginger looked at him uncertainly, but Biggles was smiling. "Let's do the tree and finish the job. Then you can put the star on the top, Ginger," offered Biggles.
They set to with a will and soon the tree was glittering with shiny spheres and glass icicles. Algy seized Ginger round the waist and lifted him up so that he could place the tinsel star on the topmost branch of the fir.
Ginger looked at the result of their efforts and could not help being touched by a sense of wonder. Even Biggles seemed mellow, he thought, and Algy seemed positively euphoric.
"I've got some last minute shopping to do tomorrow, Ginger," announced Algy. "Would you like to come with me?" His eyes flicked across to where Biggles was pouring three glasses of sherry at the sideboard and he mouthed, "so we can choose Biggles a present."
Ginger flashed him a grateful look, but replied with feigned nonchalance, "Yes, I suppose so. It's too cold to do much else."
Biggles came across with the tray and offered a drink to Algy. Turning to Ginger, he held out a small glass of sherry. "Seeing as it's Christmas," he observed, "you may as well join us, laddie – but don't get into the habit of drinking," he warned. "You are under age."
Ginger took the proffered glass. "Divven't worry," he told Biggles grimly. "I don't want to end up like me Da'!"
Biggles' lips twitched. "I don't think there's much danger of that, laddie," he reassured the boy, but immediately dispelled Ginger's pleasure by automatically reminding him that it was 'don't' not 'divven't'.
"A toast!" proposed Algy quickly to spare Ginger's blushes. "Here's to A Happy Christmas!"
"A Happy Christmas!" echoed his companions.
The glasses clinked together. Ginger watched Biggles and Algy covertly as he sipped the fortified wine. He was still learning about the rituals that the airmen took for granted.
Algy caught his eye and smiled. Ginger guiltily put his glass on the tray, barely touched.
"A bit of an acquired taste, eh, Ginger?" commented Algy, emptying his glass.
The lad nodded, grimacing slightly.
"One I expect you'll acquire in time," observed Biggles gathering up the tray, "but not just yet," he cautioned. "There'll plenty of time for that when you're grown up."
"I'm in no rush," confirmed Ginger to Algy's amusement.
Biggles glanced at his watch. "Almost time for dinner," he observed. "Off you go and wash your hands, Ginger," he ordered.
Obediently, the lad got up and made for the bathroom.
"Don't be so hard on the boy, Biggles," advised Algy when the door had closed behind Ginger. "He's trying so hard. He's come a long way in a short time."
Biggles lit a cigarette and drew in the smoke deeply before expelling it vigorously toward the ceiling. "I know," he acknowledged. "You're right. I'm just finding it difficult to adjust to being …" he hesitated, searching for the right word.
"A parent?" suggested Algy.
Biggles looked at him in horror then sighed. "Yes, I suppose you're right," he acknowledged. "I'm just not prepared for the responsibility."
"Rot!" countered Algy with vigour. "You've never shirked responsibility in your entire life! What's so different about taking charge of Ginger that you didn't do every day in France?"
Biggles looked at him aghast. "I gave people orders that might have sent them to their death!" he exclaimed. "That's not at all the same thing!"
"A lot of people might think it's a whole load easier dealing with a 15-year old child who can't do enough to please you …" pointed out Algy, looking sidelong at his cousin.
Biggles made an incoherent noise that might have meant anything.
"Besides," Algy pursued his theme, "if things had worked out between you and Marie, you might have had a son Ginger's age. Try thinking of that when you feel trapped by what you have taken on," he commended perceptively.
Biggles' face drained of blood. He felt as if Algy had hit him, but he could not dispute the veracity of his cousin's calculation.
"I'll bear that in mind," he ground out through strained lips, then turned on his heel abruptly and went out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
Algy reached for a cigarette and blew reflective smoke rings. He knew he had touched a raw nerve, but he felt it had to be said. He was just contemplating lighting up for a second time when Ginger's head appeared round the door.
"What's the matter with Biggles?" the lad asked tentatively when Algy beckoned him forward. "I saw him go out. It isn't like him not to say where he was going, and dinner will be ready any minute; he doesn't normally upset Mrs Symes. I didn't dare talk to him," Ginger continued, "because he had a face like thunder. He slammed the front door as well," he added, perplexed. "He always tells me off if I don't shut it properly."
Algy looked at the lad sadly. "Biggles and I have been discussing old times," he said vaguely. "It's brought back memories and some of them were painful." Seeing the flash of anxiety in Ginger's eyes, he hastened to add. "It's nothing really to do with you. Sometimes old wounds never heal."
"Was Biggles wounded in the War?" asked Ginger curiously.
Before Algy could reply, Mrs Symes came in to ask if it was in order to serve the first course. "I thought the Major was going to be in for dinner," she commented in a disappointed tone. "It isn't like him to change his plans at the last minute."
"I don't suppose he will be long, Mrs Symes," Algy told the housekeeper. "If it won't spoil, delay serving for about five minutes. I expect he will be back by then."
Mrs Symes looked vexed, but made her way back to the kitchen without further comment. Algy's prediction came true sooner than he expected, for as the housekeeper entered the hall, Biggles came in the front door. His mood had softened slightly and his apology went some way to soothing Mrs Symes' ruffled feelings, but dinner was a somewhat sombre meal as the diners ate in gloomy silence, each wrapped in his own thoughts.
The comrades dispersed shortly afterwards to get what sleep they could. Ginger lay awake for a long time, wondering about the complexity of the man who had become his guardian and despairing of ever living up to Biggles' exacting standards. 'Just as I seem to be making progress,' reflected Ginger, 'I always manage to do something to irritate.' He sighed. Life was a lot simpler when all he had to worry about was keeping out of his father's way and dodging the keepers in the woods. "I'll make Biggles proud of me if it kills me," he murmured into his pillow as he drifted into sleep.
The following morning Algy was alone at the breakfast table when Ginger arrived. To the lad's query Algy merely replied that Biggles had got up early and gone out, but had not given any information about where he was going or why.
Ginger digested this news in silence.
"Have you got any idea what you want to get Biggles for Christmas?" asked Algy as he spread marmalade on his toast.
Ginger drew a grubby piece of paper out of his pocket. "I've made a list," he said earnestly.
Algy suppressed a smile. "May I see it?" he requested, Meekly Ginger handed the scrap over.
Algy glanced at it. The pencilled list had many crossings out. He was pleased to see that Ginger's spelling had improved considerably since the boy's first efforts at note writing, although he still had a little way to go.
"Hmm," said Algy at last. "I see you've crossed out a lighter."
"I thought he already had one," admitted Ginger. "The same with a cigarette case."
Algy nodded. "And I agree," he concurred, "that socks and handkerchiefs might not be all that welcome. He usually gets those from my mother."
"The trouble is," confessed Ginger, "I think Biggles has just about everything."
Algy smiled. "It's much easier buying for someone who needs things," he admitted, "but you are not going to give up easily, are you?" he teased.
Ginger shook his head. "I thought I might buy him a book. They've brought out a new one about the War …" his voice tailed off when he saw the look in Algy's eye. "Perhaps that isn't a good idea?" he queried.
"I think you'd better not resurrect memories of the War, Ginger," advised Algy sombrely. "You saw how Biggles reacted yesterday. Some things are best left buried."
Ginger nodded vigorously. "You're right," he averred with feeling. He frowned. "Is there anything you can suggest?"
Algy paused for a moment before replying thoughtfully, "Biggles is very fond of his Bentley."
Ginger looked at Algy open-eyed. "His Bentley? What could I buy for his Bentley? A travel rug? A picnic basket?"
"Those are good ideas," applauded Algy. "For something a bit special, how about a mascot for the bonnet?" he suggested.
Ginger blinked. "Do you think Biggles would like that?" he asked wonderingly.
Algy grinned. "I happen to know that he's been contemplating getting one for some time. He'd like one of those that will light up. They are a bit pricey, but we can share the cost."
"How pricey?" asked Ginger suspiciously.
"Four guineas, the last time I looked," replied Algy nonchalantly.
"Four guineas!" exclaimed Ginger in horror. "That's a fortune! The trouble is," he continued practically, "I haven't got that much, so I couldn't buy it without asking Biggles for some of the cash he's invested for my education. Apart from ruining the surprise, I don't think he'd let me have it."
"I said we'd share the cost," Algy pointed out. "You don't have to pay half. How much have you got?"
Ginger fumbled in his pocket and drew out some coins. "Ten and sixpence," he counted. "It's all I've managed to save from my pocket money."
"That's alright," Algy reassured him. "I'll pay three and a half guineas and you can chip in the last half guinea. It can be from both of us."
"It hardly seems fair," murmured Ginger, spreading marmalade on his toast.
"I can't expect you to pay full whack," Algy assured him with a smile, "when Biggles keeps such a tight control of your finances."
"He doesn't want me to squander the £500," muttered Ginger. "He wants me to be responsible with money and use it for my education."
Algy nodded. "I know. He has a point, you know," he told Ginger.
Ginger acquiesced with a slight nod. "He has my best interests at heart," he acknowledged. "It's just …" he paused.
"Just what?" queried Algy.
Ginger struggled to put his thoughts into words. "Just that sometimes I can't do right for doing wrong," he admitted eventually.
"It's a big adjustment for Biggles," Algy pointed out, "as well as for you. He feels responsible and he's still getting used to it."
"I do try …" began Ginger plaintively.
Algy clapped him on the shoulder. "I know you do and you've done extremely well," he praised the boy. "You have such a lot to learn, but you're making great progress."
He stood up. "Now, if you've finished your breakfast, we'll nip along to Fox and Nicholl and see what they've got in the way of mascots. Here -" he held out three sovereigns, four half crowns, a florin, a shilling and a sixpence. "Put this with your money so you can pay for the present."
Ginger looked at Algy with gratitude, feeling grown up. The lad threw his napkin on the table beside his plate and made sure all the money was safely in his pocket before accompanying Algy to the hall.
Muffled up against the cold, they went down onto the street and Algy hailed a taxi, instructing the driver to take them to the well-known Lagonda dealers.
When they alighted outside the showrooms, filled with gleaming machines, Ginger hung back.
"Come on, Ginger," urged Algy. "Let's get inside. It's perishing out in the cold. What's the matter?"
Ginger took a deep breath. "Nothing," he replied and pushed open the door.
A salesman came over and enquired of Algy if he could be of service. Algy indicated Ginger. "My young friend is interested in buying a mascot," he informed the man.
The salesman looked Ginger up and down contemptuously. "I think sir is unaware how much the mascots cost," he murmured unctuously to Algy.
Ginger bridled. "I understand the ones that can be wired for illumination cost four guineas," he ground out. "My money is as good as anybody's."
The salesman looked at him in some surprise. "That is correct," he admitted.
"Then perhaps you will be kind enough to show us some samples so that we can make a choice?" suggested Algy pointedly. "Or do we have to patronise some other establishment?"
"Of course not, sir," the man countered obsequiously. "Please step this way." He led the comrades to a glass display case with a selection of French glass mascots.
"Lalique is one of the most renowned artists in this field," pointed out the salesman smoothly. "I can assure you, you will not find a better selection elsewhere in London."
The range of glassware was impressive, but eventually Ginger and Algy settled on a streamlined creation. When it came to settlement of the bill, Ginger paid over the cash with a certain amount of satisfaction.
"Have it gift wrapped and sent around to this address," ordered Algy offering his card bearing the number of Biggles' Mount Street flat.
The man glanced at the name and address and his manner became if anything even more obsequious. "Certainly, Captain Lacey," he oozed. "It will be with you this afternoon."
"See that it is," enjoined Algy. "Now, if you wouldn't mind calling us a cab …"
"Of course, Captain Lacey," the salesman crooned, hastening out into the street.
Ginger caught Algy's eye and smiled. Algy shook his head. "If he could have managed to work 'the Honourable' in, he would have," he observed bitterly. "Pah!" he ejaculated. "The toady! I can't stand people who grovel."
"He certainly changed his tune," admitted Ginger sotto voce as the man came in to announce that a taxi was waiting.
Ginger followed Algy into the street, bowed out by the fawning salesman.
They settled themselves into the back of the taxi and made the short journey back to the flat.
Biggles was in the sitting room, smoking a thoughtful cigarette when they arrived home.
"Had a successful shopping trip?" he enquired.
"Yes, thanks," divulged Algy. "It was educational, anyway," he added dryly.
Biggles cocked a questioning eye at him. "How so?" he queried.
"Money talks," replied Algy grimly, "and a title still makes people think you're something special."
"Ah," sighed Biggles softly, his glance flicking briefly to Ginger who had seated himself in the armchair near the fire and was busy reading the edition of Popular Flying which Biggles had discarded earlier.
"What about you?" asked Algy.
"I went to the RAF Club," replied Biggles. "I bumped into a few people I knew in France and had a drink for old times' sake." He stubbed out his cigarette abruptly. "I think it will be good to celebrate Christmas again for a change," he declared. "It reminded me that we had some very good times back then, despite everything."
Algy smiled nostalgically. "We certainly got up to some high jinks," he reminisced, causing Ginger to look up in surprise.
Algy caught his eye. "We were only two or three years older than you," he told the lad. "And we never knew if we'd be around the next evening. It meant we enjoyed ourselves while we could when we weren't flying."
Ginger looked at Biggles curiously, but stifled the many questions which sprang to his lips.
The doorbell interrupted their recollections. After a brief interval Mrs Symes came in with a brown paper parcel, neatly tied up with string.
"This was delivered for you, Captain Lacey," she told him, holding out the package.
Algy thanked her and disappeared with the carton. Biggles looked at Ginger for an explanation.
"I think Algy was making a point," suggested Ginger perceptively. "The salesman was a bit above himself, so Algy made him send it round."
Biggles looked at his protégé approvingly. "I think you're right," he breathed. "The fellow came over all oily when he discovered Algy's title, did he?"
Ginger nodded. "I didn't see why Algy wanted it sent round at first," he continued, puzzled, "we could have taken it with us easily, but the chap's manner changed completely once Algy handed over his card. He became really …" Ginger hesitated, trying to find the right word. "Fawning," he decided eventually. "Suddenly nothing was too much trouble; Algy even made him get us a taxi and the bloke seemed only too pleased to do it!"
Biggles laughed. "RHIP," he commented, causing Ginger to look completely mystified.
"Rank Hath Its Privileges," explained Biggles as Algy returned.
"Has Ginger been telling you about Mr Castrol?" he enquired with a smile.
"Was that his name?" asked Ginger innocently.
Biggles and Algy burst into laughter causing Ginger's cheeks to burn with mortification as he realised belatedly that it was a proprietary brand of oil.
"Might as well have been," grinned Algy, his wink taking the sting out of their reaction. "I reckon we could have run the old rotaries on the unction he gushed."
"I bet it made you feel as sick as the old castor oil used to," observed Biggles jovially.
"Certainly did," agreed Algy with a shudder. "I can't abide grovellers."
Ginger, watching the interplay between the two airmen, silently added another piece of information to his rapidly expanding cache of knowledge and filed it away for possible future reference.
"Let's go out for lunch," exclaimed Biggles suddenly, standing up. "I'll treat the pair of you to a slap-up meal at the Royal Aero Club. Go and tell Mrs Symes we won't be in, Ginger," he ordered.
Obediently, the lad went to the kitchen where he found the housekeeper busy preparing the vegetables for their midday meal. Mrs Symes took the news that the household would be out to lunch philosophically. "I hope you'll all be in for dinner," she remarked. "It would be a shame to waste the food."
Ginger nodded. "I'll suggest we eat in tonight if there's any debate," he offered, "but I don't have a lot of influence over the decisions that are made," he added ruefully.
Mrs Symes smiled at him fondly. "You're a good lad, master Ginger," she told him. "You run along and enjoy your lunch. I'll make sure the vegetables won't spoil."
Ginger returned to the sitting room, where Biggles and Algy were waiting for him, their overcoats over their arm and their hats in their hand.
"Hurry up," urged Biggles, rather unfairly, thought Ginger, since it was Biggles who had sent him on the errand that caused the delay, but the lad's mentor seemed to be in high spirits as they made their way to 119 Piccadilly. Now that he had decided to enter into the spirit of the festive season, Biggles seemed determined to do it wholeheartedly.
Ginger trotted along beside the airmen, having occasionally almost to break into a run to keep up. He was not sorry when they reached the steps of the Aero Club and entered the famous portal. Ginger stood admiring the Schneider Trophy, won outright in 1931, which was displayed on a table in the foyer while Algy and Biggles handed his and their outer garments to the cloakroom attendant.
"Tremendous achievement, eh, laddie?" commented a hearty man who had just emerged from the dining room.
Ginger nodded. "Certainly was, sir, and a wonderful machine, the S6B," he replied respectfully.
"Going to be a pilot?" asked the genial gentleman with a smile.
"Yes, sir!" exclaimed Ginger with feeling.
"Good for you," acknowledged the stranger. "Are you waiting for someone?"
"He's with me, Harold," Biggles claimed, coming up to the pair. "Allow me to introduce my protégé, Ginger Hebblethwaite." To Ginger he said, "this is Commander Harold Perrin, the Club Secretary."
"Pleased to meet you, Commander," responded Ginger dutifully, holding out his hand.
Commander Perrin shook Ginger's hand gravely, then revealed why he was nicknamed Harold the Hearty by giving a exuberant laugh. "By golly, you've got him well trained, Biggles. He'll be a credit to any self-respecting aeroplane!"
"As long as he doesn't get carried away with American slang," murmured Biggles dryly, much to the Secretary's amusement, steering Ginger toward the dining room.
Lunch was an enjoyable occasion, livened up by Biggles' good cheer and Algy's natural bonhomie. Ginger wondered vaguely if Biggles was testing his progress, but he felt he had acquitted himself well in this social milieu, remembering how to use all the cutlery and observe the conventions. Algy caught his eye.
"Having a good time?" he asked with a wink.
Ginger nodded contentedly, looking sidelong at Biggles who had lit up after his meal and was trying to attract the attention of the waiter to pay.
"Biggles seems happy," he remarked.
Algy nodded. "I think he's made up his mind at last," he mused vaguely as Biggles signed the chit. Seeing Ginger's puzzled look, Algy continued, "to make tomorrow a Christmas to remember."
Ginger went to bed that night, wondering what the following day would bring. He lay awake for a long time, speculating what Christmas with Biggles and Algy held in store. At Algy's insistence, he had suspended a stocking at the foot of his bed, although what good it would do, he had no idea. It hung there limply, just discernible in the low light. Ginger tossed and turned as sleep became ever more elusive. Suddenly, he was wide awake, his nerves alert as the door to his room opened silently. Ginger lay still, holding his breath. A tubby figure with a long white beard entered and made its way to the foot of his bed. Ginger could scarcely believe his eyes as the intruder filled the stocking from a small sack. He pinched his arm beneath the bedclothes, thinking he was dreaming, but the pain told him he was wide awake.
Ginger closed his eyes quickly as Santa Claus looked his way. When he opened them again he was alone. He threw back the covers and looked in the stocking. It was bulging with nuts, oranges and some small wrapped presents. Ginger went back to bed, telling himself he was imagining things. Santa Claus did not exist, he knew that.
Outside in the corridor, Algy removed the cushion he had stuffed in his waistband and took off the false beard, revealing a broad grin. Divesting himself of the rest of the Father Christmas outfit, he crept downstairs and joined Biggles in a late-night drink. Presents were piled high underneath the tree and the fire was crackling merrily in the hearth.
"Satisfied?" asked Biggles caustically as Algy entered.
"Yes," replied Algy unrepentant. "I've always fancied playing Santa."
Biggles shook his head sadly and handed his cousin a glass of whisky. Algy sank back in the armchair and raised the glass of peaty spirit.
"Here's to a Happy Christmas!" he proposed. "And to organising Ginger's flying lessons when Pim gets back in the New Year."
"Actually, I did that when I went to the RAF Club," replied Biggles when they had touched glasses for the toast. "Pim happened to be there so I arranged it with him there and then. Ginger will commence his flying lessons and ground engineer's instruction in February when Pim starts up again and take his tests as soon as he's old enough to get a licence."
"That will be an excellent Christmas present when you tell him," remarked Algy, sipping his drink. "He'll be thrilled."
Biggles stared into his whisky broodingly and remained silent.
"What's the matter?" queried Algy.
"I'm just wondering what's going to happen when Ginger has his tickets. Will he want to stay?"
"Why shouldn't he?" asked Algy. "He idolises you," he told his cousin bluntly, "and he's desperate to win your approval. The only way he'd leave would be if you threw him out."
Biggles lit a cigarette and drew on it thoughtfully. "Perhaps I ought to plan for three of us in future," he mused.
"It will mean quite a change to our lifestyle," admitted Algy, "but I think it will be worth it. Ginger will make a good contribution; he's bright, industrious and he won't be a child forever."
Biggles took a deep breath. "You're right," he acknowledged. "As of tonight, I shall consider him a permanent fixture to be consulted in our future decisions."
"I'll drink to that!" exclaimed Algy, holding up his glass. "To Ginger!"
"Ginger!" echoed Biggles.
"Did you call me?" came a small voice from the doorway moments later. "I couldn't sleep," explained Ginger as he came into the sitting room in his pyjamas. "At least, I thought I couldn't, but I must have," he continued, rubbing his eyes. "I had such a peculiar dream."
"Santa been disturbing you?" asked Biggles with a knowing smile.
"Yes!" exclaimed Ginger incredulously. "I'm sure I saw him, just like in the pictures! Long beard, hood, sack – everything! Only I know it isn't possible."
"Why not? You've been good, haven't you?" asked Algy, amused.
Ginger looked at him askance. "Santa doesn't exist!" he insisted. "He's not real!"
Algy chuckled. "Sometimes, at Christmas, there's a bit of magic in the air, Ginger. Why not suspend belief and enjoy it?"
Ginger looked unconvinced.
The clock chimed midnight. Biggles took an envelope from under the tree and handed it to Ginger. "Here," he told the lad. "Happy Christmas!"
Ginger accepted the missive and at Biggles' bidding, tore it open. His face went white, then flushed red as he took in the contents. "I really am going to learn to fly!" he exclaimed.
"You certainly are," Biggles told him. "I'm looking forward to having a third pilot on the team."
For a moment, the import of the words went unheeded. When they sank in, Ginger looked at his mentor with delight. "You really mean that?" he asked breathlessly.
"One thing you should have learned by now, Ginger," Biggles told him earnestly, "is that I am not given to saying things I don't mean!"
"It's Christmas Day," pointed out Algy. "Why don't you open the rest of your presents?" he indicated the pile under the tree.
Ginger clutched the letter informing him that he had been accepted for lessons with Captain Pim Carthorne at Brooklands and looked at Biggles gratefully.
"I've had the best Christmas present I could ever have had," he murmured with feeling. Then, remembering his manners, he added hastily, "not that I don't appreciate the other gifts, of course!"
Algy smiled indulgently. "I understand. Happy Christmas, Ginger!"
The boy sighed contentedly. "It certainly is!" he responded delightedly. "Thank you both! 1934 will be the Christmas I'll remember for the rest of my life!"