Rhoda had got it into her head that she was going to give a new slant to the whole Secret Santa business. Well, in a manner of speaking! To start with, she most determinedly suppressed any thoughts of Santa. Rhoda was no Scrooge, and was fond of Christmas, but she wasn’t even fond of Christmas in October, when the shops decided it was time to start playing I wish it could be Christmas every day and the expurgated version of Fairy Tale of New York. And as for Christmas in April, well, the mere thought made her shudder. And Secret Santas gave out presents. Rhoda was not going to give out presents, or not the kind that came gift wrapped and took a toll on the bank balance.
Though she was quite an impetuous kind of person, it wasn’t an idea that came overnight. She started thinking about it somewhere around the end of February, when there was that odd time that was neither the end of winter nor the start of summer.
She would reclaim April Fool’s Day. No, she would reinvent it. She would stop hating it and trying not to think about it and would finally lay all the ghosts. There was something about the first of April that seemed to have it in for Rhoda. Well, when she was a child, it had been all the usual stuff, she supposed, but her family seemed to take it to extremes. She’d had a pretty happy childhood, and appreciated this was hardly the stuff misery memoirs were made of, at least not ones that were likely to sell, but something about April Fool’s Day brought out the worst in her family.
Looking back she wondered why on earth she still sometimes carried on falling for it. After all, it wasn’t even as if the family’s pranks were especially original. And that was the point. Maybe she didn’t. But she had to pretend to go along with it when her Grandfather, the prankster in chief, told her that he had grown a yellow radish on his allotment, or when her older sister Charmaine generously said she could put on some of her make-up but she discovered that the lipstick was made to taste of onions, which were Rhoda’s least favourite food. You had to know the rules. You had to be a good sport. To tell someone that you’d seen through them made you a bad sport. To complain made you a whiner. But to have come straight out and said that you knew it was a wind-up was the worst thing of all, and turned you into a right little prig and know it all. Which was odd, really, as most of the year she was told to behave nicely and even Charmaine was quietly quite proud of her swotty little sister doing well at school.
Her Mum didn’t seem as taken with the whole April Fool’s Day business, but when Rhoda mentioned it, she only sighed and patted her arm and said, “Just go along with it, love. It’s only one day a year. And why not play a trick of your own every now and then?”
But that was when the phrase falling for it became all the more unfortunate. Though she felt a bit mean doing it, because he wasn’t a bad sort most of the time, and since her father had upped sticks he had been the man of the house, she tried to convince her grandfather that footballer he massively admired was coming to town the very next day. Before she had barely finished the sentence, she found herself sprawled on the floor, and realised her grandfather had tripped her up. She wasn’t at all hurt, not even bruises, but that wasn’t the point. “Oh, Rhoda, love, haven’t you looked at the clock?” he asked, with a theatrical sigh. “It’s afternoon now. And afternoon is legging up time!” For a long while, Rhoda wasn’t sure if that was a tradition unique to her family or if it was universal, and only found out several years later that the answer was somewhere in between.
There was a spell when April Fool’s day ceased to be so unpleasant, but Rhoda found it merely intensely tedious, though she did once, when she was at university, discover that her boyfriend was seeing someone else (and seeing was the least of her worries) on April Fool’s Day. She told herself, and was to be proven right, that she was better off without him, but it still had to be on that day. On that ruddy day! She didn’t claim to be especially insightful or exceptional, but wondered why people went through the motions of pretending they believed those stories in the paper and on TV about sending a team of mice to the Olympics, or the talking weasel, or even, leaving hypothetical rodents out of it, the discovery of a spring in a Yorkshire spa town that yielded water with 40 percent alcohol, or the tribe discovered in the jungles of the Amazon that walked on their hands as the normal means of getting around. She was working at the local library then, a job she enjoyed most of the time, with colleagues she liked most of the time, but even nice long-suffering Eddie and Angela who had a genuinely brilliant sense of humour had fallen into the April Fool’s Web. Rhoda had mild arachnophobia anyway (which she had learnt from bitter experience not to let on about) and that was sometimes how she pictured it – a great sticky web where unfunny jokes brooded like flies that refused to die. But still she sighed and thought, it will soon be over, and went along with it. Only once did she snap. She had come into work despite having a nasty nagging toothache that refused to yield to painkillers, and when Eddie started off with the spiel about there being an official notification that they were to stop drinking coffee on the premises and only drink herbal tea, she broke in, saying, “Eddie, yes, I do know what day it is, and no, I don’t believe a word of it, and it isn’t even funny!”
The incident passed over without any obvious repercussions or recriminations, and by the time the first week of April was over everyone pretended it hadn’t happened. But Rhoda still decided it was time for a change, especially as there was an opening in the library in a town some twenty miles away. She liked that town, and applied for the job, and got it. Eddie and Angela said how they would miss her, and she assured them it was mutual, and there was some modicum of truth in it, but not much.
It wasn’t a specially arduous commute, but when she saw that a nice little bungalow was available for rent in the town of her new workplace, she decided that she would make that move, too.
She never actually regretted the move, and her neighbours were always pleasant to her, but somehow she could never shake off the feeling that she had just moved in, even after a couple of months, that she hadn’t put down any real roots and made any meaningful connections. And it wasn’t that far off April.
Well, I’ll turn this whole business on its head, thought Rhoda. I’ll make it about helping people, not tricking them.
She thought things out practically, and got herself a cheap pay as you go mobile phone so anyone who knew her usual number (though apart from work she didn’t suppose anyone did, still, it was as well to be cautious for the scheme to work) wouldn’t realise what was going on, and printed herself some flyers. She didn’t have a printer at home, and had to do them on the one at the library, but she got away with it undiscovered. They all bore the heading April Favours’ Day in friendly Comic Sans, but she put different little pictures on each one, and assured people that there was no need to only call on the relevant day. A librarian gets to know things, even if she doesn’t necessarily get to know people. She knew that Mrs Bryant struggled to get to the shops, and though she was theoretically capable of shopping online she did like a friendly face and a chat, especially now you could without being told you were breaking the law. So the flyer she put through Mrs Bryant’s door promised help with shopping and a friendly chat. She knew that Miranda Freckleton was a single mum, struggling to cope with three under sixes, and though she didn’t, in all honesty, relish the prospect, she offered free babysitting. Reuben Maxwell was very hard of hearing, and struggled when he went to the shops or the bank, and though it was hard to word that one without risking offending him or making him feel as if he were being condescended to, as he was a proud man, she thought she managed to get the wording about right. She even offered to help Mrs Aylesbury with her garden, sure that though she was no gardener she could manage to pull up a few weeds and clear some moss, and equally convinced that a tidy and particular woman like Mrs Aylesbury must be upset at not being able to do it for herself.
She delivered them on March 31st, reflecting that though he had passed away some three years ago now, it was her Grandfather’s birthday, so it had a certain appropriateness. He hadn’t really been so bad at all apart from the April Fool’s Day stuff, and they’d have struggled to manage without him. “In a way this is a tribute to you, Grandpa,” she thought, “Though I don’t know if you’d see it that way.” In fact a nasty little voice she told to go away whispered what he might have said about the scheme, and it wasn’t exactly a compliment, but it didn’t do to start listening to voices in your head.
Mission accomplished, she returned to her nice little bungalow, poured herself a glass of red wine, and drank a silent toast to her Grandfather.
April Fool’s Day itself seemed to be passing almost peacefully. Well, the morning, at least. Rhoda’s new colleagues Marsha and Tommy seemed to have no especial interest either in regaling Rhoda with snippets of would-be fooling they had read in the paper or heard on the TV or radio, nor in playing any tricks of their own. It so happened that it was early closing day at the library, when they were only open in the morning, and Rhoda made her way back to the bungalow with a light heart. Maybe the first phone call would come soon! She made sure her new little phone was fully charged and wondered who would be the first to take her up on the offer of free assistance.
But in the end hunger got the better of her, and she was about to go into the kitchen to fix herself a sandwich, when there was a knock on the door. Well, that wasn’t what she had planned, she thought, but maybe somebody had seen her deliver the leaflets, recognised her, and knew where she lived, so it was fine. Well, as long as it wasn’t somebody selling something or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. As it transpired, nobody was selling her anything, and it wasn’t the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but she wished with all her heart it were. Because the knockers at her door were two local police officers, polite but stern, soft-spoken but insistent, who said they had to have a chat with her as it appeared that she had been trying to gain access to people’s property and finances, and even their children, and she had been reported, and would she come along to the station, please, though they were sure they could get it sorted.
This time she definitely could hear her Grandfather’s voice. “LEGGING UP TIME!”