The Adventure of the Christmas Bubble
25 December 2020
Anita looked up from her novel. ‘You know, everyone predicted that during the pandemic we’d get lockdown romcoms, but what about lockdown crime fiction? One household stuck together, unable to leave without a lawful excuse – it’s the perfect setting!’
Jay rolled her eyes. ‘The lockdown romcoms haven’t really happened, and most lockdown violence is anything but mysterious. It’s all deeply depressing, not to say disturbing. Anyway, we want escapism, not more death.’
‘Detective fiction is escapism, though – and not every detective story’s a murder mystery. Some of the classics are about blackmail, forgery, jewel thefts – in fact, some of the best Christmas stories are about jewels. ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’, ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’…’
‘Well, there’s not much chance of an adventure while we’re stuck in this flat and your mum is eating Christmas dinner in another country, without us. Speaking of, we really ought to call her now and thank her for the presents.’
‘If you can keep a straight face while thanking her for The Bumper Book of Sourdough Recipes, I’ll give you my share of the Christmas pudding! She knows you can burn water.’
‘It’s a lockdown classic, apparently. Much like your Beginner’s Guide to Knitting and Crochet, perfect for the woman with no coordination.’
‘Or yarn. Or hooks or needles. Or interest in knitting.’
Happily for the couple, Mrs Evans was too distracted to worry about presents. After Anita and Jay had offered the usual reminder to unmute herself and a reassurance that her video was fine, she exchanged the briefest wishes of ‘Nadolig Llawen’ before launching into an account of the morning’s excitement.
‘So here I am in my bubble with the Bensons – very kind of them to invite me now I’m on my own, and for the whole day which was nice, except it’s all a bit awkward here now. We had a lovely glass of mulled wine before our dinner, and white wine with, but the shock just sobered me right back up!’
‘Shock, mam? What’s happened?’
‘Well, we sat down to Christmas lunch – lovely, it was, she gets Ocado – did you know they do M&S food now? – although the ready-made veg are not the same as home-made. But it’s a treat not cooking for myself, she wouldn’t let me lift a finger, and I was having a great time. At least until –‘ Mrs Evans looked in the direction of the door; apparently satisfied that she was not overheard, she turned back to the camera. ‘Laura Benson found her engagement ring in her slice of Christmas pudding – with the diamond missing.’
‘Laura?’ Jay asked. She had never taken much interest in the Bensons, and Anita didn’t blame her – after all, she was a little hazy on the details herself.
‘Yes, she’s married to their eldest, Greg. Greg and Laura are living back with his parents because they didn’t want to be locked down in London with no garden and two dogs, and the Bensons have five bedrooms so it’s no problem. And of course, the middle girl Kerry and her daughter have been living there ever since she and her partner split up. Rhiannon is a nice girl but a typical teenager.’
Anita snorted. ‘Isn’t she about 19 now?’
‘Probably. Time flies. Anyway, the Llewellyns are also here because they’ve formed a Christmas bubble with the Bensons –‘
Anita rubbed her head, which was starting to ache a little. How were so many people in one bubble? She mentally reviewed the Welsh rules: one household plus one single person in a bubble – that was the many Bensons and Mrs Evans. Add another household for a Christmas day-only bubble: enter the Llewellyns. It sounded dreadful, and she looked gratefully at her quiet flat and her mildly exasperated wife.
‘- Meic Llewellyn you’ll have seen, he drives the bus, and Mary serves at the café in town. I wouldn’t have thought they were the Bensons’ type, but then who knows what the Bensons did before they sold up their little house in London and bought a mansion here on the proceeds?’
‘Yeah, who knows? So at this dinner of a thousand people, who put the choking hazard in the M&S pudding?’
‘No need to be sarcastic, Anita. The nine of us were just passing round the brandy butter and custard, when Laura’s spoon hit the ring and as I looked over, she scooped it out of her pudding. A big, white gold setting – but no diamond in the middle any more. And it was some flashy solitaire that cost thousands!’
‘Not a trace of it. We all looked around, but really it was a waste of time because the ring couldn’t have got where it did by accident. And now it’s all very uncomfortable and I’d really rather go home, but no one dares to leave before tea because hurrying off would look suspicious.’
The door now creaked gently, and a voice called, ‘Mulled wine for you, Mrs E?’ She hastily signed off, leaving Anita and Jay to collapse back on the sofa.
‘There’s your Adventure of the Christmas Pudding!’
‘Spoiler alert: Agatha Christie’s Christmas puddings were not delivered by Ocado.’
‘True. But this is the classic mystery you just said you wanted. A closed circle of suspects, a mysterious jewel, no messy real-life politics. So let’s solve it!’
‘Yes, without access to the suspects, the scene of the crime, or exhibit A – the diamond-less ring. Great plan.’
‘Offer your services as a socially distanced detective! You’re a court usher and a law student, that’s practically the same thing.’
‘It’s not remotely.’
‘Well, they’ll think it is. Save your mum from the house party from hell and live out your Miss Marple fantasies.’
‘That’s not actually the worst idea. I mean, it’s not the best idea either, but it is better than having the police involved. Let me just message mam.’
The video showed the same room, but this time it was Laura Benson looking out from the screen. She was a little tearful, and the hand she raised to straighten her spectacles was lightly trembling. ‘Thank you for trying to help. I don’t understand it at all. Why would my ring be in the Christmas pudding? And who would do that? Greg is upset – he spent his bonus on that diamond, it cost a fortune. To be honest, I would have been happy with something smaller, but he wanted me to have the best. He’s so generous.’
Anita kept her face neutral, but she was not impressed by Greg’s generosity. Getting what he wanted instead of what Laura wanted sounded more like showing off. ‘Where did you think the ring was before you found it in the pudding?’
‘In the kitchen, I suppose. I took it off to make pastry for the mince pies, left it on the windowsill above the sink, and must have forgotten to put it back on. Greg’s pretty cross about that, too, and I can’t blame him.’
‘You were in your own house! You wouldn’t expect it to go missing.’
‘I know. I never imagined… I still can’t believe…’ Her lip trembled and her eyes filled with tears, so Anita ended the interview quickly.
It had been years since Anita last saw Greg Benson, and she was shocked by the change – not in his appearance, which was pretty much the adult version of young Greg, but in his voice. He now spoke with a public-school drawl: it bore little resemblance to the slight London accent he used to have in common with his parents.
‘Jolly good of you to do this. Poor Laura is devastated, she loves that diamond. Girl’s best friend, after all – and it cost me a good few thou. Thank god for insurance, but they may not want to pay up in the circumstances. Any light you can shed would be most welcome.’
‘Have you any ideas?’
‘None at all. Careless of her to leave it around the place, but it’s hardly as if the parents were going to take it. And I’m sure the Llewellyns are good people – they are struggling with the mortgage, by all accounts, but the parents presumably wouldn’t have invited them if they were likely to steal the family silver, so to speak.’
‘I’m sure. Did you notice anything unusual?’
‘Not a thing. Well, unless you count Laura pouring her custard with a heavy hand, but that girl does have a sweet tooth. Lucky her online exercise classes keep her in shape despite all the pud.’ Perhaps noticing the tightness in Anita’s expression, he forced a laugh. ‘Just joking, I don’t begrudge her a helping or three of custard!’
‘Who was sat near her at the table?’
‘Mary Llewellyn to her right, me to her left. Your mother was opposite. She may have seen something, but I certainly didn’t. I was passing the custard – what was left of it – to my father when the alarm was raised.’
‘Yes, she held up her spoon with the ring in it – dripping with custard, but it was still obvious that the diamond was missing. Poor girl burst into tears, while everyone just sat there. Well, when we realised what had happened, we searched around the place but it was no good. Laura washed off the ring in the kitchen sink, but there were no clues as to how the diamond had been taken out. No chisel marks or what-have-you, just some loose claws and a gaping space.’
He had nothing else useful to say, so Anita was happy to let him go and send in his father. However, Mr Benson senior had even less to add. His wife had invited the Llewellyns, apparently out of pity as they were struggling financially. He didn’t know them well – ‘I never take the bus’ – but the wives were in the same choir. While lunch was being cooked, he had been serving mulled wine to Anita’s mother, Greg, and Meic Llewellyn in the living room. Then his attention was given to the food and wine: at the crucial moment, he had been looking at the custard jug rather than his daughter-in-law. After he insisted for the third time that his wife would know much more, Anita released him and spoke to the apparently omniscient Mrs Benson.
Unfortunately, Mr Benson’s faith in his wife proved misplaced. She had been so busy cooking and serving the dinner that she saw nothing of what happened to the ring in the kitchen or at the dining table. ‘I didn’t notice Laura had taken it off, although I did see her making the pastry, of course. To be honest, I didn’t really have the oven space and I’d got some perfectly nice shop-bought mince pies, but Laura does take pride in her baking. We’re going to have the pies for tea if anyone still has an appetite after all this unpleasantness.’
She had little to add about the Llewellyns, either. ‘Mary is in the choir, so I see her every week – we still all meet online, though it’s more of a chat to be honest. She did let slip that they’re a bit hard up with the café closing for lockdown – or is it open again but takeaway? I lose track. Either way, they were having to economise over Christmas and she seemed quite low about it, so I thought it would be nice to invite them for a proper meal with all the trimmings. She jumped at the invitation.’
‘Are you good friends?’
‘No, we exchange a few words at choir practice but we don’t have much in common, to be honest. But we were stuck in the same supermarket queue last week, and it was the longest conversation we’d had – I think she just needed to share her worries. She sounded so fed up at not being able to do a proper Christmas dinner, and my trolley was overloaded with a huge turkey and probably too much of everything else, so I felt I had to offer. And she did help with the washing up and tidying the kitchen while I cooked, bless her.’
‘And she sat next to Laura at dinner?’
‘Yes, with me on her other side. I put Mary and Meic next to me because they don’t really know anyone else - except your mum, so I sat her next to Meic. To be honest, I’m a bit surprised the Llewellyns wanted to come when they didn’t really know most of us, but I suppose the alternative was worse?’ Mrs Benson frowned, apparently only now realising that Mary Llewellyn might have angled for the invitation. She shifted on her seat, and excused herself to start preparing tea, still frowning.
A brief conversation with Kerry established that she had seen nothing of interest, had been on the phone to her ex while dinner was being prepared, and was not willing to comment on her sister or brother-in-law. She did, though, agree to ask Rhiannon to speak to them.
Rhiannon marched in looking every inch the sullen teenager, although Anita had now calculated that she was twenty and in her second year at university. However, since she had spent much of the previous term confined to her hall of residence, and was now confined at home with her older relatives, perhaps she had a good excuse for being miserable.
‘I didn’t see, don’t know, and don’t care. Can I go now? I’ve got online drinks in half an hour and I haven’t done my makeup.’
‘Well, I can’t force you to stay but I can offer you five minutes’ break from the family.’
Rhiannon rolled her eyes dramatically, and Anita wondered whether she was deliberately playing the role of stroppy teenager for her own amusement. Perhaps it was just the effect of being among relatives who still treated her as if she was thirteen. Anita bit her tongue and watched Rhiannon drop into the chair facing the webcam.
‘Ask your questions. Get it over with.’
‘Did you see Laura’s ring in the kitchen?’
‘God, no. I keep out of there. I’m not going to wash sprouts or peel dishes or whatever. I went in once or twice for a drink, and got out fast.’
‘What about at dinner? Did you speak to Laura or see anything?’
‘Hardly. I was at the other end of the table, crammed in between Grandad and Mum like an afterthought. Because that’s just so much fun. I mean, I love my family, but in small doses, yeah?’
‘I get that. But you heard the fuss?’
‘Oh, yeah. Much drama, lots of fussing and panicking, tears and shouting.’
‘Well, cross remarks, anyway. Uncle Greg was not impressed that his bonus had dissolved into the custard. I mean, she is a bit of a drip but having a go at her only makes her worse. God, I’d rather be single forever than stuck with someone like him.’
That was apparently Rhiannon’s exit line, because she stood abruptly and swept out of the room.
Jay passed Anita a cup of coffee. ‘So, Madame Poirot, have you solved the mystery? Engaged the little grey cells?’
‘Nope, no idea what happened. I’ve still got the mysterious Llewellyns to speak to, though.’
‘They don’t sound very mysterious. In fact, they sound a lot more normal than the awful Bensons.’
‘Oh, awful’s a bit harsh. But yeah. Anyway, Mr Llewellyn is apparently on his way, so I’ve just got time for a mince pie before he arrives.’ Anita batted her eyelashes at Jay, who laughed but went to get the pies anyway. Luckily, Laura wasn’t there to see that they came in a supermarket box.
As Anita was eating her second pie, Meic Llewellyn came into view on the screen. She abandoned the mince pie and brushed a few crumbs from her lip as she turned to face him. ‘Good afternoon, thanks for speaking to me.’
‘I don’t think I have much choice unless I want to be suspect number one. If I’m not already.’
‘Mrs Benson keeps giving me looks. I’d rather have spent the day at home in comfort anyway, than having to be on best behaviour here. Then for this to happen…’
‘You were sat opposite Laura at dinner?’
‘Not directly. Your mam was across from her, but they didn’t really speak. Laura mostly talked to Greg, and to my wife. I talked to your mam, and Mrs Benson tried a bit of small talk about driving buses. A bit like the Queen asking “have you come far?”’ He smiled but didn’t seem happy. Anita was sure that it had been an awkward conversation, and wondered again why the Llewellyns had agreed to spend their Christmas day being patronised by near-strangers. She shifted her questioning to the moment of discovery.
‘I didn’t notice anything until she started fussing and crying, and then I couldn’t miss it. You’d have thought the world was ending. Mind you, the ring did look awful with that empty hole in the middle and the custard dripping down, and Greg was not a happy man either. All the fault of the custard, apparently.’ He shrugged. ‘We all searched but there was no sign. I think Mrs Benson would have liked to insist on strip-searching Mary and me, but she didn’t come out and say so.’
‘Any idea what did happen to the diamond?’
‘None at all. I wish I did, because she keeps looking daggers at me and the sideways looks from the others are no fun, either. I wish we’d never come.’
Anita sighed. ‘Only Mary Llewellyn left, and I’ve still no idea. Can diamonds dissolve in custard? Can rings jump into puddings? I mean, I don’t understand why someone wouldn’t just take the whole ring, it’s pretty small. Or if they did take the stone out of the mount, why put what was left in a Christmas pudding?’
‘No idea. Forgot the why for a minute, who do you think did it?’
‘Well, if this really was a classic detective story then it would be the least likely person. Probably Greg: unable to admit that he had lost all his money in a stock market crash, he sold the real diamond and replaced it with paste. Knowing it wouldn’t fool the expert eye of, er, Mary Llewellyn, he faked a theft to get rid of the fake diamond before it was discovered and he was shamed.’
‘Well, I didn’t like him, so I’d go with that.’
‘I’m not sure Mary knows anything about precious stones, though.’
‘Damn those minor details!’
‘Well, she should be here any minute, so we can double-check…’
Mary Llewellyn looked thoroughly grumpy. ‘I hope you can sort this out, Ms Evans, because I have had enough. I just want to go home.’
‘Call me Anita, and I’ll do my best. If you don’t mind me asking, why did you come? I don’t think you know the Bensons that well?’
‘Hardly at all. To be honest, I avoid her at choir because she looks down her nose at me – and at most of the others. Lovely soprano, though. But I was in the supermarket queue next to Dilys, telling her how fed up I was of lockdown and all the rest of it, and I didn’t notice Mrs Benson stood the compulsory two metres behind her. Next thing, she says ‘you must come to Christmas dinner with us,’ and didn’t really give me chance to refuse. I tried to say it was against the rules but she’d memorised them all and said it was fine, and she couldn’t bear to think of us not having Christmas pudding and whatnot. I couldn’t think of a polite way to say I’d rather stay home with a bit of chicken and some Welsh cakes. So here we are, and what a disaster it’s been. Worst Christmas ever, and at this rate it’ll end with me being arrested for stealing that ring.’
‘Not if I can work out what really happened. Did you see the ring in the kitchen?’
‘I did, next to the sink. When she put her pies in the oven, she washed her hands at the sink and I thought she put the ring back on. But I can’t really remember – I wasn’t paying much attention – and I must be wrong.’
‘Hmm. And then you all had dinner, and when the pudding was served –‘
‘All hell broke loose! There was custard and brandy butter being passed down each side of the table, and I was that worried I’d drip custard on the tablecloth that I wasn’t watching anyone else. Then I nearly dropped the whole jug, never mind a few drips, when she let out a squeal and burst into tears. It was chaos after that, and when it all calmed down again the atmosphere got very uncomfortable indeed. We may not be able to afford diamonds right now, but we certainly wouldn’t steal them.’
‘So,’ said Jay, ‘you’ve solved the mystery of the Llewellyns but it hasn’t really helped with the bigger problem.’
‘I’m not so sure. Something Mary said has given me an idea. Pass me the last mince pie while I think about it.’
‘I’ll even bring you a glass of wine to go with it!’
Everyone in the Bensons’ nine-person bubble sat facing the webcam, Mrs Benson’s tastefully colour-coordinated Christmas tree behind them. Anita’s background was a photo of a country house study – a step too far, she thought, but Jay had been rather proud of the idea and she didn’t have the heart to change it. Well, if she was going to gather the suspects and expound on her solution, she might as well have the proper backdrop.
‘The mystery of the missing diamond is really a set of mysteries: where did the diamond go? Why was it separated from the ring? And why did the ring end up in the Christmas pudding? It makes no sense for a thief to take the diamond out of the setting at the scene of the crime, or to dispose of the ring in the dinner.’ Anita was pleased to see a few nods of agreement.
‘And who could have stolen the ring? It was last seen in the kitchen, and reappeared in a pudding: that points to Mrs Benson, Mrs Llewellyn, Rhiannon while she was fetching a drink, or Laura herself.’ All three older women looked mildly horrified, while Rhiannon was clearly amused.
‘As an aside, perhaps one or two of the men could help in the kitchen next year? Just as a Christmas treat for your wives?’ Mr Benson looked bemused at the sarcastic remark, Greg rolled his eyes, and Meic nodded, abashed.
‘The men seem to have had less opportunity, but is that the case? If one of them had slipped in with an excuse, no one would have taken much notice among all the work going on. So the field isn’t really narrowed.
‘Let’s go back to the second question: why the diamond was separated from the ring. We’ve assumed that it happened after the ring disappeared, but what if it actually happened first? And there we come to our first clue: the absence of marks on the ring. The diamond seems to have been eased out rather than wrenched out, leaving no trace of the method.
‘The next clue is the custard. Everyone talked about custard dripping from the ring, but nobody mentioned pudding. That gap, with the claws around it, and not a single crumb or sultana stuck to it? Something was odd there – and that gave me an inkling of what had happened.
‘Then we return to our first question, where did the diamond go? If someone had simply pocketed it, they would have had no reason to separate it from the ring. So why did the ring have to be concealed away from the diamond?
‘Put all those questions together, and I realised what the solution must be. There was no theft at all.’
Anita’s audience looked suitably surprised by this announcement. Even Jay gave a little gasp.
‘The diamond wasn’t forced out of the ring because it fell out as Laura put it back on in the kitchen. The claws were loosened by wear, not by dishonest hands. We haven’t found it because it’s not in the dining room – it most likely fell down the plughole and with any luck, it’s still in the sink trap now.’
Greg started to get up, presumably headed for the kitchen sink, but stopped and sank back down into his seat. ‘If that’s the case, how did the ring end up in the Christmas pudding?’
‘It didn’t.’ Once again, the audience reacted as she’d hoped: with puzzlement. She really did feel like a golden-age detective.
‘The reason people only saw custard on it was because it was never in the pudding at all. It was dropped into the custard during the meal.’
‘But that means –‘
‘Yes, Greg. The person who put the ring in the custard was Laura herself. She didn’t notice right away that the diamond had fallen out, because she was too busy baking the mince pies and carrying dishes to the dining table. But at some point during dinner, she did realise and took the ring off.’
‘Almost as soon as I sat down, when I went to pick up my Christmas cracker,’ said Laura in a small voice.
‘And you just hid it somewhere quickly – under a napkin?’
‘Yes, how did you guess? Just so nobody noticed until I had chance to search for the stone. But then we were starting to eat the pudding and I realised that the meal would end soon and the table would be cleared, and I panicked, so I picked it up again but I didn’t know what to do with it and my hands were already so unsteady that I’d poured too much custard over my pudding, and I panicked even more and then I thought that was the answer – the custard. So I dropped the ring into my dish, but it fell too hard and made a noise. And then I thought everyone must have heard it, so I did the only thing I could think of – I pretended I’d just found something in my pudding and I lifted it out on my spoon, and it was all too much and I burst into tears and I never meant anyone to get suspected of stealing it but I was too embarrassed to own up.’ Laura gulped, and burst into tears again.
‘But why?’ her husband asked, leaning towards her.
‘Because you were so proud of giving me that diamond, and I dreaded telling you I’d lost it. I know I irritate you as it is –‘
To the astonishment of everyone else, Greg’s face softened. He pulled Laura into a hug and spoke softly to her. ‘I’m sorry, sweetheart. I was proud of giving it to you because I wanted to show you I care. I do get irritated with you, because I get irritated with everyone – bad habit, too much stress at work. Damn the diamond. It’s you that matters.’ He kissed her on the cheek, handed her his handkerchief and then – because Christmas miracles rarely happen in real life – stood up, saying, ‘I will check the sink trap, though’ and strode out.
The atmosphere in the room relaxed, as suspicion turned to sympathy. Anita’s mother, always practical, turned towards the camera and whispered conspiratorially, ‘so much silliness.’ At normal volume, she thanked her daughter and ended the call. As the connection closed, the sound of Greg shouting ‘I’ve found it!’ was heard in the background.
‘Well, that was quite the detective work, Sherlock Evans!’
‘Why, thank you, Dr Watson. This has been a more exciting Christmas than I expected in lockdown! How about a bit of Christmas cake and an early night?’