The habitual dapperness of my old friend, Hercule Poirot, was ill-suited to the rigors of the Christmas tree stand in front of the Gothic excess of St. John's Church, Notting Hill. Before we had seen more than half the selection of spruces and firs, Poirot's waxed mustaches were wilting, the scarf he wore against the foggy damp had come askew, and he walked as if his polished patent-leather shoes pinched.
"Perhaps, mon vieux Hastings, we might leave the trees in the forest and visit them if we feel a need for their company." Poirot pulled a starched handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose in a manner that almost qualified as reproachful.
"A proper English Christmas needs a tree," I explained again. "You really can't mean to go another Christmas in that flat without warming it up with a tree."
"Should I need warmth, there exists an excellent central heating system. It is fueled, I believe, by coal, rather than wood, so a tree is of no use."
"It's the spirit of the thing. Wassail! Good fellowship—"
"It is a thing that is distressingly asymmetrical."
The stall-keeper, a rosy-cheeked girl of perhaps twenty-three, assumed a face of thunder at Poirot's remark. I waved her off with the sort of smiling shrug that asks What can I do?
"It's a tree, Poirot. The branches grow where they grow."
"The branches grow untidily. It would distress me to bring such a thing into my home."
There was no budging Poirot from this view. By the time we had inspected and found wanting each of the remaining trees—this one had gaps from top to bottom, this one was more oval than round, this one had needles that bunched in an unpleasing fashion—the stall-keeper was glaring at us, and my own wingtips were starting to hurt.
"Now," he said, "we repair ourselves with good strong English tea and little square cakes, and then we shall go into Portobello Road and seek out a bagatelle for the good Mrs. Ariadne Oliver."
No sooner had we passed along the white-fronted terraces of Kensington Park Gardens than Poirot's step and his mustache regained their jauntiness. He adjusted his scarf. He straightened his overcoat. His eyes picked up a familiar sparkle. If I thought it possible, I would have believed his earlier distress was due not to the weather, which was not unusually dank for a London December, nor to the distance walked, which was negligible, but to the proximity of untamed nature in the form of cut trees.
How he stood the fascinating disorder of Portobello Road, I cannot fathom. It was a place where no two shops were the same color and where stalls spilled over the sidewalks for the throngs of Saturday morning shoppers. Every vista was a pleasant distraction. Every movement was an invitation to jostling elbows.
Indeed, I lost Poirot for ten delightful minutes when my attention was caught by a stall of paintings that purported to depict the pampas of Argentina. The canvases were crudely painted, but there was a vigor to the brushwork and a cleanness to the colors that held my attention. I wouldn't have minded shaking the artist's hand over a pint of beer on those sweeping plains.
When I found my friend again, he was staring motionless into the window of an antique shop. "What is it?" I asked.
Then I saw it.
It was a tree, of sorts. It was a modest six feet tall, and not so broad around as the spruces we'd just rejected. Its artificial limbs were set closely together, and no doubt they were as symmetrical as Poirot could wish. What made it dubious as a tree was that each limb caught the light in flashes of silver foil. The entire tree was made of tinsel.
"If I must have a tree, that is the tree I must have," Poirot said.
"Symmetrical. It is entirely symmetrical. It is without gaps. It will not drop needles on the floor to distress Georges. It is my tree, Hastings. I shall have that tree."
This is how I ended up shouldering a large cardboard box, hastily tied with twine, into the boot of a taxi before having even a drop of restorative tea. I believe he also bought a shrunken head or some such for Mrs. Oliver, muttering "she'll write a book around it, no doubt."
Up in Poirot's modern Bayswater flat, first Georges must assemble the tree—no, first Georges must serve tea and one of Poirot's foully sweet cordials and some restorative biscuits. To my eternal gratitude, Georges poured a tot of whiskey into my tea and found a package of Pim's digestive biscuits, which, while not perfectly round, possess the ineffable charm of the chocolate-covered.
Then Georges must assemble the tree. Then Georges must make all possible haste to Marks and Spencer for absolutely plain gold balls to hang on the tree. Georges, always a man of parts, brought back smoked salmon and more of the Pim's digestive biscuits.
"Now see, Hastings," Poirot said, when the last gold ball had been hung at a precise distance from every other gold ball, "have I not embraced the spirit of the English Christmas?"
The tree glittered proudly in its corner, refracting the lamps' glow in shards of silver and gold. Its symmetry was perfect: the branches distributed like spokes on a wheel, each branch lifting to the identical degree. It was a miracle of manufacturing, precisely engineered to repudiate every quirk that gives a real tree its warmth and charm.
Standing back a little, Poirot beamed at his acquisition. He rubbed his hands together and stood taller, and if I hadn't known it to be impossible, I'd have said his mustaches took on a tighter curl. His expression toward that tree was positively paternal.
"You have indeed," I said, raising my cup of whiskey-spiked tea. "Wassail."