Mr Tompkins’ Christmas puddings were, everyone agreed, quite the equal of any they had ever tasted. Even the parents of the current owner of the bakery, whose recollections of childhood grew more fanciful with each passing year, admitted as much in their less guarded moments.
Behind the shop was the storeroom, and here each pudding waited patiently for three years, each lovingly fed and tended through its adolescence. Come the second week of October, he and the lads from the shop next door loaded the van, drove out and released them into the wild.
Demand always outstripped supply, no matter how many the old man managed to turn out each year. Many bought them to store in pantries and cellars to age for several years longer, like fine wines laid down for future generations. Connoisseurs considered another five or six years optimal. It was not unknown for the elderly and infirm to bequeath them to favoured parties in their wills.
Spooning the mixture into his array of bowls, he dropped an old silver coin into every sixth pudding. This was a fairly recent improvement, allowing twenty-first-century families a chance to observe what he considered one of the more desirable aspects of a Victorian or Edwardian Christmas. The only difference being Environmental Health's insistence that he fastidiously scrub and sterilise the coins first. His parents considered this a gross infringement of civil liberties, denying free-born English persons the right to contract botulism by any means they see fit.
He commenced work on them annually on the sixteenth of May, or the following Monday if it fell at the weekend, partly, at least, to celebrate Honoratus, patron saint of bakers on his special day. Tompkins was never a religious man but remained happy to accept any help, whether temporal or spiritual, in getting everything mixed up and ready. He couldn’t remember where he gleaned that snippet of information, but it appealed to his sense of humour and mischief. He always began at about this time of year, anyway.
Almost a year ago, I visited his shop, as I usually do several times in any week.
“This time next year”, he began, “we’ll be putting on the centenary batch. I’d like to do something to celebrate”.
I asked what he had in mind.
“Like the lottery”, he said, “but with puddings. I could do with a bit of help. I'll need to borrow your money-head”
By this, he meant my knowledge of old coins. My parents told me they fascinated me from as soon as I could be trusted not to eat them, although my memories of that time are hazy. I was nine years, four months and thirteen days when the Bank of England Museum opened. Three days later, Dad took me to London to see it. Other than spending using contemporary currency, my interest waned as I grew older, but was rekindled when our first was born. I own nothing valuable, but years of wading through catalogues and books written by and for collectors while growing up left me with a rough idea of what to look out for. When Tompkins discovered my interest in numismatics, he invited me to inspect his haul of inexpensive coins. He had accumulated them over the last twelve months while trawling casually for job lots on eBay. He wondered if the sellers might have missed anything interesting. Bonding over these tiny fragments of history, we quickly became fast friends. For several years, we thought we might become fathers-in-law to one another’s children.
“I need to find a couple of coins worth about two or three grand each to go in two at random. Like the golden tickets in that Willy Wonka film. I’ll add a quid to the price, which will more than cover it. Hopefully, nobody will swallow them”.
Almost every year he received at least one complaint from someone who did just that. Invariably there were also a couple more from people who grumbled that, despite the ‘Warning, pudding contains small silver coin of the realm’ notification inside, theirs was missing. With the former, he advised them to allow nature to take its course, while the others received a replacement from the little bag he kept locked in the bottom drawer of his desk in the office. I counselled him many times about stashing it somewhere more secure. He had none of it, insisting there were more valuable items laying about throughout the bakery. To him, they were the equivalent of cracker novelties, of insufficient consequence to offer concern.
A couple of months later, I found just what he had in mind, even though he didn’t know it, and bought them on his behalf. He asked me to look after them until just before the glorious sixteenth. The evening before baking day, at five to closing time, I strolled into the shop, passed behind the counter and went to his tiny office. There I waited, eager to hand over the treasure he was preparing to bury in a glorious mixture of dried fruit and brandy where they would rest for at least the next three years.
“Is that them?” he asked.
I admit I had hoped for something more than that.
“They look just like all the others to me. Oh well, stick ‘em in the bag with the rest, busy day tomorrow. Coming for a drink?”
I declined the invitation and went straight back home where Jackie was just putting tea on the table. I told her about my brief visit to the bakery and confessed to feeling a little hurt by his lack of interest.
“Not everybody shares your passion for old money, love”, she said.
“He'd not be able to identify them if I tipped them all out on the table in front of him”.
“Not your problem. Did he have his glasses on?”
“I don’t think so, what’s that got to do with it?”
“You know he can’t see a thing without them. The fewer people who know about it, the better. If he can’t recognise them, he won’t be tempted to show the rest of them tomorrow. At least he’ll be more certain of them ending up in a pudding than in someone’s pocket”.
I went to bed feeling better, slightly mean for the harsh thoughts directed towards my friend earlier. Waking half an hour earlier than usual, I decided to pop into the bakery on my way to work and see how they were getting on. On arrival, there was a police car outside. Mr Tompkins stood on the step of the side door looking flustered and rather cross.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
He pointed to the frame on his left, which contained a lot less window and more open space than the last time I saw it. “Somebody got in last night”.
“Did they take anything?”
“Oh, no”. Surely not? “Did they get the..?”
“Yep, knew what they were looking for, alright. How they knew it was there beats me”.
It felt tactless to mention that everyone in town knew when the baking commenced, and it would hardly have taken Sherlock Holmes to deduce that the stash of old threepenny bits and sixpences would be on site ready for the first batch to appear soon after dawn the next morning. I kicked myself for handing over those coins last night. If only I had brought them this morning instead.
“Can’t be helped”, he said. “The insurance will cover it. We’ve got all the receipts. How quickly can we get more coins?”
“The ordinary ones, no problem”. About five or six years earlier he delegated all the buying to me. I was already some way ahead for the next year. “Who knew about the valuable pair?”
“Just us. I can’t remember telling anybody else. Our families, perhaps. I doubt they even know what they’ve got. You’d better go before Mr Plod decides he wants to talk to you. I’ll call you when they've gone”.
He told me later they stayed for about another hour, after which he started work on the puddings, keeping a tally of how many with coins he needed to make up later. I told him I’d call round later with those I found at home so he could use them in the morning.
I’ve only seen my friend flustered on a couple of occasions under extreme duress. Still, I was impressed by his philosophical demeanour when I arrived. I started buying up the coins again as soon as I got back, nabbing anything under a pound which would do the trick. Rummaging through various piles of paperwork and envelopes, I unearthed a few more which got away through lapses of concentration or sloppy filing.
When I dropped them off, he told me he had found a hoard of them in his bedroom that he must have forgotten from another year, and thought we could probably ease off on the panic buying for the moment. It must have been a pretty big bag. The Tompkins house was as tidy as his office at the bakery was shambolic, and I wondered where he could possibly have put it for them to have lain unnoticed for any length of time.
The police filed their report and stopped concerning themselves with what, to them, was just an everyday break-in, which they were unlikely ever to get any further with. The insurance company coughed up once we sorted out the receipts and paperwork. They were most unhappy about the prizes, though probably only as much as I’d been. Eventually, they agreed to cover those as well, and Mr Tompkins banked the cheque along with his takings during the busiest pre-Christmas week of the year. He decided to scrap the centenary lottery after the break-in. The stars were against it, he said.
And so, here we are, three years later, in the centenary year of his great grandfather’s first batch of puddings. The great man took his first dozen to the market and, to his surprise, sold them all. My friend and his helpers now turn out a few thousand every year and could shift three times as many if they had the time and storage capacity to make and look after them. Their packaging was unchanged in twenty years, but this year they sported a fancy silver label announcing the special anniversary, alongside its neighbour advising caution against the potential choking hazard. He worked extra hours throughout the spring and early summer so he could take his wife on holiday, their first in over a quarter of a century. He came into a bit of money, he said, and it was burning a hole in his bank balance. She had wanted to go abroad for as long as he could remember, so he decided to take her somewhere they’d never forget. On his return, he told me they enjoyed it so much they intended to do it again next year, but perhaps somewhere not quite so exotic.
He called me on Christmas Eve in the afternoon, just before I knocked off for the rest of the year.
“Swing by on your way home, I’ve got something for you”.
The call was not unexpected, it's become quite a tradition, although I aim not to take it for granted. The rest of my family dislikes Christmas pudding. It hardly seemed worth buying a huge pud just for myself, so a few years ago he started making little ones for me to thank me for my help in sourcing the coins. On arrival, he greeted me with a broad smile and handed me a full-sized one..
“The littl'un didn’t turn out right”, he said. “Have this, they get better every time you warm them up again, anyway”.
I thanked him very much, handed over the small gift I’d carried around all day for him, then set off to do the last bit of wrapping and tidying before the big day.
Christmas dinner is my favourite meal of the year. I used to eat until I could barely move, but this year I was saving a bit of room for the centenary special. Jackie did the rest of the cooking and preparing. She always left me to sort my pudding out, so I read the cooking instructions in advance to see how long this mighty beast would need. While she was busy the evening before, I crept into the kitchen and scurried away unnoticed with one of our larger pyrex bowls to stop it being filled with peas or sprouts while she served the big meal.
Quite apart from the difference in flavour, texture and quality, a primary distinction between a supermarket pudding and one of Mr Tompkins’ was the inadvisability of sticking the latter in a microwave. Every lucky pudding contained a card advising the recipient of its presence, but the outer packaging advised caution in case a stray fell in accidentally, or it was moved incorrectly during the maturing process.
Despite buying all the coins myself, and handing them over dispassionately, I could hardly wait to see if I was going to get one of them back. To my immense joy, I saw the card under the top layer of greaseproof paper as I peeled it away. When they were little, the children always became very excited when they scored the fortune-telling fish from the crackers. This was my equivalent of that thrilling moment.
Unable to tempt any of my family to join me, I cut myself about a sixth and dolloped it into the nearest clean bowl. Before putting cream on, I poked around to see if I could find the tiny flash of silver. It didn't seem to be in this helping. Maybe tomorrow.
“Look Dad! It’s there”. Our son pointed to the crumbling cascade of steaming dried fruit from where I’d taken my slice. Turning the plate around to look, I missed it at first. Sure enough, there it was, just a tiny sliver of the edge protruding. I picked up a clean teaspoon and surgically removed the little beauty. It was slightly larger than the sixpences and threepenny bits which formed the bulk of our buying, which puzzled me at first. Before I even fully exposed the little blighter, I realised what it was, and my heart started racing.
“Are you alright, love?”
“Oh, er, yes, just got a bit of fruit stuck in my throat”, I fibbed.
“Well have a drink, then”.
“Let’s have a look”. Our daughter was always willing to show interest where others struggle to do so. I wiped it off carefully and handed it over. She looked closely. “I haven’t seen one like that before, I don’t think”.
I’d only seen one example before myself. I never expected to come across another, let alone own it. The crafty old devil.
“You look like you’ve just won the lottery”, my wife said. “Is it a good one?”
With a mouthful of Mr Tompkins’ famous pudding, on my favourite day of the year, I simply nodded, having just discovered a side of my old friend I never previously imagined.