The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
This is a work of fiction. The events described here are imaginary; the settings and characters are fictitious and are not intended to represent specific places or living persons.
"Are you sure you can't do it? Know anyone who can? ... No. Thanks, I think."
"Oh shit," I said aloud to myself.
"What's wrong, Derek?" Anne asked.
We were sitting in my office drinking coffee when I had the phone call. Anne works in an office near my base. She or I get coffee from an outlet across the road most mornings. We had been sharing a morning coffee break for years.
"That was the Christmas lights supplier. We had placed an order for some lights to replace those lost in the storm just before Twelfth Night, but they can't source our major sign 'Merry Christmas'. According to them there is no demand and everyone now has Season Greetings to be inclusive."
"What's wrong with that?"
"It isn't the 'season' it is Christmas. We don't need to be inclusive. The mosque and he synagogue are OK with the lights being for Christmas. We have lights for Eid and other religious festivals as well. Christmas can be Christmas, as it has been in our town for nearly 100 years."
Our Chamber of Commerce has provided Christmas Lights in our High Street for nearly 100 years. Each recent year has become more difficult because of increasing safety regulations and the change in ownership of the shop premises.
The regulations are a nuisance and expensive. Meeting them, and proving that we have, is now more than half the overall cost of installing and removing the lights. In a previous decade the lights would be put up by many Chamber members under the direction of an electrician. Now everyone working on the lights has to be a qualified and certified electrician with public liability insurance. Instead of thirty people it was now four.
But the changes in shop ownership might eventually kill the project entirely. In the 1920s almost all the shops were independents and owned by the shopkeepers. Those that were on leases had local landowners. But now? Many of the shops had been replaced by nationwide outlets or banks. Their property managers would not allow the Chamber to fix lights to their buildings, and if, as was becoming more usual, the freehold was now owned by a City-based property company, they would not even allow our Chamber members on the property.
When the Chamber of Commerce first put up Christmas lights we had fourteen strings of basic coloured bulbs across the street. Now because of the changes in ownership we could only have eight strings with some awkward gaps. The 1920s members had all been church-going Christians, Church of England, Catholic, and other Protestants. They had set up a window dressing competition as well and all displays had to be related to the nativity -- no Santa Claus or horror -- Simpsons related themes.
The only concession to a commercial Christmas had been introduced in the mid-1930s - our 'Merry Christmas' sign that was across a side street. That was the main pedestrian access to the High Street from the town centre car park. It had taken many hours of discussion to concede that. Everything else was a Christian theme with angels and two signs: 'Peace on Earth' and Goodwill to Men'.
The 'Merry Christmas' sign had been replaced in the late 1990s as had most of the lights. But that sign had been wrecked by this year's storm and couldn't be repaired. Now, apparently, no one could supply a replacement.
I swore aloud. I don't normally swear. Anne came round my desk and gave me a hug. That was pleasant but I was still annoyed.
"Is it that bad, Derek?" Anne asked.
"Yes. There is a Chamber meeting on Friday and if I tell them they can't have 'Merry Christmas' they will have a meltdown. Back in the 1990s when we suggested 'Happy' instead of 'Merry' nearly half the members threatened to resign. No Christmas sign at all? I'm in trouble, Anne."
Anne pulled my wheeled chair away from my desk before she sat on my lap and hugged me harder. That was pleasant. Anne has been a friend since we started school together. We had never been more than that. Neither of us had been attractive youngsters, just plain and ordinary, but we had liked each other as fellow nerds. Anne had been a maths nerd. I had been a mechanical nerd, taking machines apart and rebuilding them better.
She had joined the local council in their finance department, getting accounting qualifications which she extended until she decided to set up by herself. She does my business accounts, and those of many other Chamber of Commerce members. I had taken an apprenticeship as an electrician and now employed eighteen fully qualified ones, ten part-qualified ones as electrician's mates, and four apprentices.
"Derek? Have you got a picture of the old sign?"
"Yes. On my computer I have got pictures of last year's switch on..."
I found the folder and the picture of the old 'Merry Christmas' sign. I blew it up so Anne could see it.
"Um," Anne said. "I wonder... Have you any larger pictures?"
"Yes. Somewhere in that filing cabinet I have the specifications and full size drawings."
"Could I borrow them?"
"Of course. Why?"
"I think, but I'm not sure, that I might have a solution for your problem."
"That would be great and even better if you know before Friday's meeting. I don't want to tell the Chamber they can't have 'Merry Christmas'. I'll be the most unpopular member."
"OK, Derek, Dig then out and give me a couple of days, please. I can try. I can't promise but maybe..."
"Maybe would be better than nothing, Anne."
Anne kissed me. I found the original paperwork and gave her the folder.
Anne came back the next day.
"I've asked my colleagues at the artists' place. They think they could make a sign for you, preferably solar powered, but they need two things."
"About one hundred pounds for materials..."
"Me, Anne? What for?"
"They also have a crisis. They run a class for life drawing and their male model has moved away to marry. They want you to replace him for three sessions until the end of the Summer term."
"Me? But I am hardly a suitable model, Anne. I'm middle-aged, battered, with a spreading waist..."
"They know. But the model that left was possibly too perfect. They think you will be a more interesting challenge."
"Challenge? I suppose I would be. I'd have to be naked, I assume?"
"Yes, Derek, for about an hour each time."
"For how many students?"
"There are six of us."
"Us? You're one of the six, Anne?"
"Yes. You know the other five women, Derek, and they know you."
"OK, if I must. I'd be embarrassed but if it helps me with the Chamber? I agree."
"Thank you, Derek. The first session is this evening at half past seven. I'll cook you a meal afterwards. OK?"
"You know I will do almost anything for one of your meals, Anne. You are a great cook."
"But not good enough to stop my ex-husband going off with a younger model, Derek."
"He was a fool who didn't appreciate what he had, Anne. I do, and always have, since we were at school together helping each other with our homework."
"We have been friends almost all our lives, Derek, and tonight? After the meal, I 'd like to try us as lovers as well."
"If that's part of my reward for being a model, I'll be a model whenever you want, Anne."
"OK, Derek. I'll see you about seven twenty-five outside the Arts club. Put an overnight bag in your car."
"An overnight bag?"
"Yes. If I'm going to be looking at a naked you for an hour, I want a whole night in bed with you."
Anne hugged and kissed me and left before I could respond.
I was nervous when I met Anne. She hugged me before taking me inside to meet the other five members of the nude drawing class. Meeting them made me even more embarrassed. All of them, except Anne, were wives of Chamber Committee members.
A quarter of an hour later I was sitting on a chair, stark naked. Apparently they didn't expect their model to stay absolutely still and he could talk. I had to answer several questions about my scars, particularly the one on my back.
"Ladies, all the scars are from shrapnel in Afghanistan," I said. "The one on my back? That was caused by a piece of shrapnel that went right through my shoulder. I was treated at a field hospital and was back on duty thirty-six hours later. When I returned to the UK I was offered plastic surgery to reduce the appearance of the scars but since they are normally under my clothing I couldn't see the point."
"They make your body more interesting -- from an artistic point of view..." One of the women said.
"And the fact that you aren't self-conscious about them," Another woman added.
Not self-conscious? Possibly not about the scars of battle, but being naked in front of women I knew very well? That was awkward for me even if I was beginning to relax as the time went on. At the end of the hour I was relieved to be able to get dressed again and have coffee and cakes.
When we left all six women hugged me and three kissed me. That gave me an erection that I was grateful I hadn't had while naked. I had been too embarrassed. Anne and I walked to my car with her hand in mine.
"I don't mind you being hugged and kissed while I'm with you, Derek," Anne said. "But not when I'm not."
"That's unlikely, Anne, surely. The others are all married to my friends."
"But not all of them are happy with their marriages, Derek. They might see you as a possible alternative."
"Me? But why? I'm not attractive. I never was."
"You are your own boss with a large house and successful business. At our ages that appeals far more than looks. But I'll protect you."
"And who protects me from Anne?" I asked.
"You've never needed protection from me, or I from you. We have been friends from when we first went to school and have looked after each other ever since. Even if you spend the night in my bed, you are at no risk. I'll be gentle and careful."
The meal at Anne's house was wonderful, superbly presented and cooked. It had been made with love.
In bed, as promised, Anne was gentle. I hadn't been with a woman in bed since my wife died over ten years ago. I went to sleep with Anne against my back with one of her arms over my body. I liked that.
At the Chamber meeting on Friday, the Christmas lights were a late item on the agenda because there were months to go. I explained that our usual supplier couldn't replace 'Merry Christmas' but that I hoped the local artists could.
"Derek?" the President asked, "Is the price worth it?"
"One hundred pounds? Paid by me, not the Chamber? I think so."
"Not that, Derek, but what you have to do for them. My wife says she now knows your body better than mine, or even her own."
"So does mine..." Another member said. "And I have to look at a nude drawing of you stuck on a kitchen cabinet."
"Thank you, Derek. If we couldn't have 'Merry Christmas' our members would be revolting. Are the other replacements OK?"
"Yes, President. They should be delivered in three weeks."
"Thank you, Derek. Next item?"
In the bar afterwards I had to put up with some comments about my nude modelling but they weren't serious. Most understood that what I was doing was for the Chamber, even if they wouldn't have been willing to do it themselves. However I sensed some resentment from the members whose wives were members of the art class. Apparently the wives had expressed appreciation, not of my body, but my willingness to help and some were jealous of Anne. I was glad that there would only be one more Chamber committee meeting before the end of the Summer term.
Before my next modelling session I had two more nights with Anne. As before, her meals were wonderful, and she was considerate in bed, not expecting too much from an out-of-condition middle-aged man. I was beginning to think that having Anne's naked body pressed against my back was even more enjoyable than the actual sex. Her presence was comforting and showed her love.
The next modelling session was easier for me. I didn't feel quite as self-conscious as the first time even if having six women concentrating on my body was slightly unsettling. Afterwards Anne had to rescue me from the other five who were even more demonstrative of their thanks. I liked the hugs, but I thought being kissed on the lips by five married women, wives of my fellow Chamber members was embarrassing. It might also cause more difficulty for me at the next Chamber meeting. Anne took me to a chair, sat me down, and sat on my lap with her arms wound around my neck so none of the others could get at me. Anne was protecting me.
After the next Chamber meeting Anne was waiting for me in the bar. We were going on to a restaurant for a celebratory meal. Some of the comments from fellow chamber members were quite barbed. Anne challenged Stuart who was moaning that his wife thought more of me than him.
Anne stood in front of Stuart and held up her left hand.
"Stuart? You are worrying unnecessarily. See this? Derek proposed to me last night so he's not after your wife. Anyway, she and I know that Derek is not a great physical specimen. What she is jealous of is his financial status. He has a larger company than anyone else on the chamber and owes the banks nothing. You'll get there in a couple of years and your wife knows that. She's just comparing things now..."
"How do you know I'll get there, Anne?" Stuart asked.
"I do your books, Stuart. I know. You should tell your wife more. She's worried and has no need to be."
"OK, Anne, I get the message, I'll tell my wife."
Anne raised her voice.
"And that goes for the rest of you who are worried about Derek. You're all better off than your wives know. They have no reason to be jealous except that you haven't been telling them that you have no financial worries."
As we walked to the restaurant I said:
"You told them, Anne. Will they listen?"
"They should. I have been trying to tell the chamber wives that their husbands are better off than their wives know but few believed me. All they hear is complaints about cash flow and bills. But all the people I do the accounts for are in good financial health. Any of them could pay off their bank loans tomorrow with no problem. Maybe none are as well off as you, Derek, but in a few years they could be."
"But some of the wives have been jealous, of me, and now you, Anne."
"And for no reason. Neither of us have attractive bodies. Your attraction for them is financial stability but their own husbands are stable and almost well off."
Again Anne in bed was considerate and loving. I enjoyed being made love to and not pushed beyond my physical abilities. But a gently snoring Anne beside me was comforting.
After the next modelling session on the art group's director took me to see their latest attempt at the Christmas message. They had left it out in their shaded back yard all day. In the darkness it was shining brightly. It would have more sunlight when erected in our town centre but with shorter daylight hours in December it should last as long.
"The first time," The director said, "Our solar panels were too small and we didn't have enough battery power. After dark it was only on for half an hour -- far too short. Now, we think it will shine for three hours. We want longer and we're working on that. But the message? What do you think?"
"I'm impressed. It's clear and unlike the old one, it is double sided."
The 'Merry Christmas' sign was on a banner held up by two golden angels. It was in a transparent rectangular box with solar panels on the top. There was a three inch deep opaque section at the bottom where the batteries were.
"We are going to try large solar panels and about fifty per cent more battery power, If that works, it should on from dusk to midnight."
"That would be great. Thank you."
"We should finish it by the end of September. But those making it have offered to replace your other messages with more solar powered ones for next year for about the same price..."
"One hundred pounds each?"
"More of Derek's modelling, if that's OK with you."
"Oh. I am already getting moans from Chamber members because their wives are seeing more of me..."
"I don't know why," the director said.
"They're jealous. Not of my middle aged body but their wives are contrasting my financial status with that of their husbands."
"Is that likely to stop you modelling?"
"No. I don't think so. Now I am engaged to Anne, I think the moans will gradually fade away. After all, the modelling won't start until the Autumn tem, will it?"
"We have a short summer school starting in two weeks' time, Derek. We would like you for that if possible. It would be for an hour in the mornings, an hour in the afternoons, for five days."
"OK, in principle. I'd have to agree it with Anne but the next Chamber meeting is September. The complaints should have died down by then, I hope."
"OK. Can you let me know by the end of the week, Derek?"
"Better than that. Anne is waiting for me. You can have an answer in ten minutes."
Anne agreed and I told the Director.
Modelling for the summer school wasn't too bad. The numbers were larger and usually younger women. I was still modelling for the Autumn term. Why? Because, unlike previous models, I was doing it for no pay.
Anne's words to the Chamber members seemed to have had an impact. The wives were moaning less and I had less hostility from the husbands. Perhaps marrying Anne in September had made people realise I wasn't looking for anyone else.
The Christmas 'Merry Christmas' light was a success, staying on until midnight or even longer after a bright day. Next year more of our lights would be produced by the artists' group and solar powered. In a few years, all of them might be. That made me popular with the Chamber president.
But what I appreciated far more was my wife Anne in bed with me every night. A light was good. A loving wife was even better.