However many lists you make Christmas Day doesn’t always go according to plan, does it?
Read on …
Jess looked at the notebook page she’d headed ‘Guests’, and counted again to make sure.
Mum, Dad, Michael and his new girlfriend, Samantha (wonder what she’s like? – hopefully an improvement on his previous one), Emily (if Emily’s got back together with Rob she would have said?), Auntie Meg and the three cousins.
It was good that Samantha would be joining them as, counting the five of themselves, that came to fourteen. An unlucky number might spoil the day.
But – fourteen! She’d never cooked for so many people before. In fact, she hardly ever cooked from scratch. What were ready-meals and takeaways for if not to make working mums’ lives easier?
But obviously they weren’t an option on Christmas Day. Certainly not for the family who, every twenty-fifth of December, were cooked for by someone who could give Delia a run for her money.
She always did Christmas lunch and it was always perfect. Everything hot and ready when it should be. The turkey succulent, the roast potatoes crisp. The best gravy in the world and the creamiest bread sauce. Her own mother’s famous stuffing recipe. Parsnips and sprouts even the children would eat.
This Christmas, though, they’d told Mum that, with her dodgy hips, she had to sit down and be waited on for a change. Jess and her siblings, Emily and Michael, talked it over, and Jess said she would host because she was the oldest – and because she lived in a house whereas the other two lived in flats and Mum wouldn’t get up the stairs. She waved away their offers of help. How hard could it be?
Lists were the answer – using them was how she ran other areas of her life. This notebook had a sparkly cover and she’d designed a label saying ‘Christmas lists’ and stuck it on. It seemed an efficient way to start.
So, the guest list was finalised. Tick.
She paused for a moment to think about how she’d do Christmas her way.
At Mum and Dad’s there was only room for six at the dining table. On Christmas Day, a garden table and chairs were taken indoors for the children and one or two adults. Everyone else ate from trays. Not that Mum sat down much – she was always bobbing about making sure everyone had enough and pressing second helpings on them. And there was usually a child who wandered off to play with presents, or wanted to sit on someone’s knee.
It was a squash and a bit of a muddle but everyone was happy and neither Jess nor Michael or Emily thought that Christmases would ever be any different.
But this one would, and Jess had in mind the rooms you saw in glossy magazines. Her dining table sat eight and she planned to borrow one from neighbours who were spending Christmas away. And she would make the house, as she did every year, look beautifully festive.
She turned to the next page in the notebook.
Decorations. As Jess was a department store window dresser this was very much her comfort zone. A dark-green spruce tree with white and silver baubles. Piles of red-ribbon-wrapped parcels underneath. (Present list in a separate notebook all ticked off since the beginning of November.) Real ivy framing the pictures and mirrors. Fairylights everywhere. As good as done. Tick.
It would be nice to be able to show off her decorating flair. As they all went to Mum and Dad’s every Christmas the others never saw how she transformed her home. At the parents’ house it was always the same – the artificial tree they’d had forever, and paper chains everyone was set to make the minute they arrived. A lovely family tradition of course but hardly glamorous.
She hadn’t decided yet on a look for the tables. Cool, sophisticated Scandinavian perhaps? But there had to be food on them too.
She began a new page headed Christmas Lunch. Sub-headings: Starter, Main, Dessert.
This morning she’d bought a Christmas recipe book and the December issue of a supermarket magazine.
If she was very, very organised everything would be fine.
She opened the book and flicked straight past the turkey section. Mum was too hard an act to follow and she wasn’t even going to try.
No one was vegetarian – unless maybe Michael’s Samantha? She must remember to ask. She had a quick look down the recipe index. Chestnuts and cranberries in puff pastry. That sounded gorgeous. She wrote it down, and immediately crossed it out. Dad scoffed at vegetarian cuisine.
Chicken? Too everyday. Beef? Two of the cousins didn’t eat red meat. Just as well. Beef for fourteen would mean taking out a second mortgage. Ham? She wasn’t very keen on it herself. Goose? One serves four? That was no use. The quail recipe looked scrumptious but she didn’t fancy stuffing one of the little birds never mind fourteen. Salmon? The children wouldn’t eat fish.
Thank goodness Mum made Christmas puds when she was still on her feet, and had given them to her last week. Along with a couple of supermarket cheesecakes that she could pretend were homemade that was dessert sorted. Tick.
Oh, Auntie Meg always brought bottles of red and white, and soft drinks for the children and the drivers. Jess wrote Wine etc on the list. Tick.
She put the book aside and flicked through the magazine. For a ‘stress-free’ Christmas starter a chef suggested that you ‘simply griddle forty fresh prawns’. What?! If you had staff, maybe, but in a normal family kitchen? Imagine griddling anything while keeping an eye on the oven and worrying if you’d done enough roasties. And who had room in the fridge for forty fresh prawns at that time of year? Anyway, she didn’t have a griddle.
The chef’s other suggestion was beetroot and goat’s cheese tartlets. Jess grimaced at the thought of the mess on the tablecloth when the children spat them out as undoubtedly they would.
She clapped a hand to her forehead. Brainwave! Everyone loved Mum’s lentil soup. There would be a batch in her freezer that could ‘simply’ be heated up on the day. The magazine went into the bin. Tada!
Starter: lentil soup. Tick.
Back to the main course. Jess opened the recipe book again and cautiously turned to the Traditional Turkey chapter. It began with a frightening countdown to getting everything ready for two o’clock – a timetable beginning at 8 a.m. with every minute accounted for in between.
The pictures of the beautifully set table made her realise with horror that she didn’t have fourteen plates – never mind matching plates – nor enough cutlery. Or chairs.
She gave up. It was time to call in the cavalry.
The house looked as glossy as she had imagined it, and her husband was keeping the children entertained in the front room. Jess waved a piece of paper at Michael and Emily. The turkey and trimmings timetable looked much more manageable now that she’d divided the tasks between the three of them, each person’s highlighted in a different colour.
Along with dishes and a couple of chairs, Emily had brought a homemade trifle – ‘It’s not rocket science, Jess. We can’t have supermarket cheesecakes for Christmas lunch. What were you thinking?’ Emily had been very short-tempered ever since she and Rob broke up, just when she thought he might propose.
Michael’s contribution was two stools, and cutlery he’d bought in a pound shop, which wasn’t exactly what Jess had in mind – but he proved to be a dab hand at peeling vegetables and wrapping bacon around chipolatas. Emily and he had forbidden Jess to ask Mum for lentil soup – Michael said Samantha would bring a starter as her contribution.
Jess dug out hardly used wedding presents. It was rather satisfying whizzing up crumbs in the food processor for the bread sauce and watching them swell up in warm, seasoned milk. She must remember to take out the bay leaf and the cloves. And it was extremely satisfying to tick tasks off that wretched timetable.
At one o’clock came the first ring of the doorbell – the Jingle Bell chimes her husband had insisted on fitting for the children’s amusement. Jess threw off the Santa apron she’d put over her new dress and went to answer it.
Dad, grinning, rang the doorbell again so he could hear the chimes and went back to the car to help Mum out.
As they’d anticipated she wanted to see how they were getting on in the kitchen so Michael stood barring the way. ‘Everything’s under control, Mum! Go and sit down, see the kids.’
Mum laughed and held up a packet. ‘I’ve remembered to bring the strips for the paper chains.’ She hobbled through to the lounge and Jess smiled as she heard the welcome she got from the children.
The doorbell rang again.
A pretty brunette stood there, her arms full of brightly wrapped parcels. ‘Jess? Love the chimes! I’m Samantha. Thank you for asking me.’ She had a lovely friendly smile and Jess took to her immediately.
‘It was such fun choosing presents for the children.’ Samantha thrust the parcels at Jess. ‘I’m longing to meet them. I’ll get the food out of the car.’
This girl was perfect for Michael! He loved playing with his nephews and niece and Jess knew he wanted kids of his own.
She left the front door ajar and took the parcels through with instructions that they weren’t to be opened until their giver was there.
Samantha came back up the path with two trays, each covered with a cloth. ‘Can I give you these? I’ve got something else to bring in.’
Jess carried the trays into the kitchen. One of them had a fresh salty smell – something fishy maybe.
‘Is that Samantha?’ Michael asked.
‘She’ll just be a minute,’ Jess said. The doorbell rang followed by a commotion and a loud bark. ‘What on earth’s that?’
She went into the hall to be confronted by Auntie Meg and her family – and a large dog. One of the cousins held its lead and tried to control it as it leapt up to greet Jess enthusiastically.
‘I’m sorry about Bonzo,’ Auntie Meg apologised. ‘Our next-door-neighbour was taken into hospital last night and asked us to look after him. We didn’t feel we could leave him on his own. He’s very gentle, good with kids. Oh, love your Jingle Bells bell, by the way!’
Jess opened her mouth to reply but Samantha came in and had to be introduced, and then Auntie Meg and the cousins took Bonzo through to the lounge before Jess could suggest he might be put in the utility room. The children’s shouts of glee could be heard at the other end of the street.
In the kitchen Samantha took a griddle pan out of a bag. ‘I didn’t know if you had one,’ she said. ‘I hope you like prawns. I saw a recipe in a magazine – it’s very simple.’
Jess had a sinking feeling she knew what was on the other tray.
Michael was lifting the cloth. ‘I did remember to tell you that Samantha’s vegetarian, didn’t I?’ he said to Jess. ‘Mmm, these look good.’
‘Beetroot and goat’s cheese,’ Samantha said. ‘They just need warmed up a little. Oh – Jess, there was a man at the gate. Sort of lurking. I don’t know if he’s still there.’
‘I’ll go and see,’ Michael said, but Emily had twitched aside the curtain and with a cry she pushed passed her brother and ran out.
Michael took her place by the window. ‘Rob,’ he said. ‘Down on one knee by the looks of it.’ He winked at Samantha. ‘Come and meet Mum and Dad.’
The big table looked more jumble sale than chic Scandinavian – what with the various china patterns, Michael’s bargain cutlery, and an assortment of chairs around it. The smaller table was already in disarray as Samantha’s presents and the paper they’d come in were added to the mix. The youngest child was sitting, not without protest, in the old high chair, her own seat now being required for Rob.
Bonzo’s tail had evidently been wagging against the Christmas tree to the detriment of some of the white and silver baubles. The paper-chain work party had been busy and there were now sticky orange and purple additions to the ivy frames.
Jess swallowed hard. Everyone had commented on the tinny Jingle Bell door chimes but no one had said anything about her decorations. And she’d got a mark on her dress because she’d forgotten to put the Santa apron back on.
She sat down beside Mum, her work in the kitchen done for the moment – Michael and Samantha were in charge of the starters.
‘Lovely to have a real tree,’ Mum said. ‘Hope the needles don’t shed too much.’
On the other side of the table Dad picked up a Scandinavian candleholder. ‘Nice bit of glass, Jess. Get them cheap at work?’
‘Dad! Be careful!’
Too late. The candle toppled out and set fire to Dad’s napkin.
With presence of mind born of years of experience Mum threw her sparkling apple juice over it. ‘There, love. No harm done. Maybe blow the others out to be on the safe side?’
Her beautiful table. It was a wreck and the meal hadn’t even started.
With Michael tooting a fanfare he and Samantha came in carrying four large platters, two for each table.
Samantha sat on Jess’s other side. ‘Michael says you’re a window dresser. That’s why the house looks so stunning,’ she said.
Jess smiled gratefully at her, feeling a little better. Michael better hang on to this girl!
She waited in trepidation for Dad and the children to make tactless comments about the starters. But Dad popped a tartlet in his mouth, nodded and reached for another. Michael showed her middle child how to extract the prawn from the shell – he seemed delighted with the process and, while not eating them himself, insisted on preparing them for others. The eldest one had indeed removed beetroot and goat’s cheese from his mouth to the tablecloth but the littlest was already on her third tartlet. In no time the platters were empty except for prawn shells.
Now it was up to Jess, and Emily, who commandeered Rob to carve the turkey, to serve up the main course. A rummage in the freezer had produced some vegetarian sausages which Jess microwaved for Samantha. Not very Christmassy, but they’d go with the veg and potatoes. That chestnut and cranberry recipe she’d read – hopefully Samantha would be with them next year too and she’d make it for her then.
When she tried the gravy it didn’t taste anything like Mum’s and as she carried the bread sauce through she remembered too late about the bay leaf. And the cloves. The older two children shuddered at the sight of the sprouts. The little one, full of beetroot and goat’s cheese, refused everything, extricated herself from the high chair and went to sit on top of Bonzo.
But all the food was hot and on the table. There was nothing else to do except try to find her appetite.
Mum put her fork down for a moment. ‘It is nice to have all this done for you.’ She raised her voice to be heard above the hubbub. ‘Thank you, my dears.’
Dad stopped eating too. ‘Very tasty. Just as good as your mum’s.’ He held up his ginger beer to make a toast.
Jess raised her glass of wine to him, finally relaxing.
Happy Christmas. Tick
© Kate Blackadder
First published in The People’s Friend
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