Family Christmas

Lily felt exhausted but relieved. She had managed to get everything done. She was glad she had spent the extra money on the tree and decorations. The room looked warm, elegant and dignified. The presents had been lovingly wrapped in expensive but tasteful paper, tied with satin ribbons and placed under the tree. Seven hand-knitted stockings graced the mantelpiece. Her grandchildren would have stockings at their own homes in the morning, but she liked to indulge them. She hoped her stockings would give the children a quality experience:  handcrafted knickknacks, St Nicholas figures of superior chocolate and homemade confectionaries.
She now felt able to cope with tomorrow’s meal. Everything that could be prepared beforehand had been completed, and the menu would hopefully meet expectations. Traditional fare, but she strove for the highest quality.
The drinks cupboard was full, with prestigious labels that she knew her family would appreciate. And she had treated herself to a red cashmere dress. Having the family all together was an occasion to celebrate.

Joe was exhausted too. He’d been at Lily’s beck and call all day, as she fussed and fretted. It seemed she had been preparing for Christmas for months, especially if you counted all the knitting and sewing. And the money that she’d spent! She always shopped in the poshest shops. What was wrong with Woolworths? He’d been totting up the bills and it had appalled him. It got more every year. Not that any of those kids would appreciate it. They didn’t know the value of anything. They were spoilt brats, in his opinion. Not that anyone ever asked him his opinion.

Roz was the first to arrive at her parents’ house on Christmas morning. She looked forward to the family get-together. Newly single again, she was keen to reconnect with the brothers and sisters she had hardly known since they were all teenagers. She greeted her parents warmly then put her presents under the tree. Carefully chosen books for the children had been hastily wrapped in paper salvaged from last Christmas. They looked shabby beside Lily’s works of art, but that wasn’t the point. Next to them she placed envelopes addressed to each adult. They contained Oxfam Unwrapped cards announcing that a goat, mosquito-net or water-collector had been bought on their behalf for people who needed them.
Roz went into the dining-room. It was an impressive sight. Twelve chairs had been squeezed round a table covered in white linen. The centerpiece was beautiful: a wreath of conifers, holly, berries, mandarins, and candles encircled a cascade of grapes over crystal.  Twelve places sparkled and glowed with crystal glasses, the best silver and china, crackers and artistically-folded linen napkins. Twelve: that was Lily and Joe, herself, Amanda, Gary and their two boys, and Roland, Vera and their four children. Fred and Sue and baby Sally were spending the day at Sue’s parents’ and would not be there until evening.
Roz joined Lily in the kitchen. ‘Beautiful table, Mum!’
‘I’ve been up since dawn. There’s so much to do!’
‘Don’t worry, Mum.’ Roz picked up a bag of potatoes and a peeler and went into the living-room where her father was dosing in front of the Queen’s speech.
‘You’ll help, won’t you, Dad?’
‘I suppose I’ll have to,’ sighed Joe.

When the doorbell rang at noon, the meal was ready. Roland, Vera, Wexford, Weasley, Chelsea and Britney had arrived. Exchanges of ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Was Santa Claus good to you?’ ensued, then Lily rushed upstairs to change out of her apron and old clothes.

As soon as the children saw the presents they darted towards them.
‘Wait!’ called out Roz. ‘We should wait until everyone’s here.’
‘You won’t be able to stop kids from opening their presents,’ said Joe.
He was right. They were already tearing into the parcels. The books from Roz were tossed aside, as were the hand-knitted pullovers. They, like their predecessors, would never be worn because they were itchy. The big presents which they had requested were better received. At least, Chelsea’s Barbie Beauty Studio and Weasley’s Roadster 4×4 were. But Wexford already had that particular Starwars Transformer set and there were no batteries for Britney’s three-foot-tall singing doll.
‘What a stroke of luck!’ Roz whispered to their parents, but they didn’t see the joke.

Upstairs, Lily was having second thoughts about the red dress. It was too risqué, she decided, and hurriedly put her old clothes and apron back on and went downstairs.
But she had missed the presents-opening. The tasteful wrappings now lay in tatters and the children were guzzling their chocolate St Nicholas figures. She hoped they appreciated the superior chocolate, but their expressions gave no clues.

Amanda tried not to feel miserable as she sat at home with her coat on, waiting for Gary to come back from his ‘quick one’. He and the boys had spent the morning trying to get their new games software to work, finally losing their tempers. Amanda had bought the wrong version. Damien and Darren were now sulking in their rooms and Gary had gone to the pub. That had been two hours ago.
She hoped it would not be difficult to get a taxi to her parents’. The family car was out of action, having been in an accident on its way back from the pub one evening. Gary still had his Alfa Romeo but the two-seater was no good for the four of them.

Vera frowned at the Oxfam card announcing she had been given a goat. ‘Thanks,’ she said, and put it under her chair.
‘How about some drinks?’ said Lily.
‘Cup of tea, please,’ said Vera.
‘Wouldn’t you like a sherry, or a G&T? How about a whisky, Roland?’
‘No, a cup of tea would be nice, love,’ said Vera.
‘Look,’ said Roz, ‘we’re going to eat very soon. I think Mum means an aperitif.’
‘Just put a teabag in a cup. That’s fine,’ replied Vera.
‘All right,’ said Lily. ‘Does anyone else want tea?’
‘Yeah, me,’ said Joe.
Roland scratched his head and said nothing.
‘I’ll make a pot, then.’
When Lily returned with a tea tray, Roz refused a cup. ‘I’ll have a sherry,’ she said, and poured herself a large one.

At four o’clock Amanda, Gary and the boys had still not come. Everything had been turned off in the kitchen to prevent it drying up. Roz kept stirring the cranberry sauce. She had made an effort to source fair-trade, organic cranberries and Lily’s recipe had been quite tricky. It would be a shame to ruin it.
‘It’s a good job we had that cup of tea, after all, then,’ said Vera, ‘having to wait so long.’
Finally, the doorbell rang.
‘Where have you been?’
‘We couldn’t get a taxi.’
‘You should’ve  rung. I would’ve picked you up.’
‘No credit on our mobiles,’ Amanda sniffed. She looked close to tears.

‘Let’s have some light on the subject,’ said Joe, letting an overhead 100W lightbulb flood Lily’s romantic candlelight.
‘Just start,’ he said, when everyone had sat down and been served, except for those doing the serving.
‘Let’s wait for Mum and Amanda,’ said Roz, sitting down. The others ignored her and were almost finished their main course when Lily came through with her own plate.
‘Sit down, Mum,’ said Roz. ‘Won’t anyone try the cranberry sauce?’
‘No thanks. Looks like jam.’
‘Mum, I want ketchup,’ said Weasley to Vera.
‘Just eat it!’ replied Vera.
‘Of course you do,’ said Lily, and went to fetch ketchup.
‘Lily, bring the sugar,’ said Joe, sipping the 1996 Chablis. ‘This wine’s too sour for me. Sugar, anybody?’
‘Certainly not!’ said Roz, sipping hers. ‘Well chosen, Mum. Why don’t you sit down?’ Then she noticed. ‘Mum, there’s no place for you!’
‘She’s superstitious. She didn’t want thirteen at the table,’ said Joe.
‘I’m alright standing.’
‘There’s fourteen of us,’ Damien pointed out. Britney’s singing doll was on her lap.
‘Here, you can have my seat,’ said Gary. ‘I’m going out for a smoke.’
‘Aren’t you staying for the pudding?’
Amanda looked dismayed. Gary would go to the pub.
‘Nah, hate Christmas pudding.’
‘Let’s get on with the pudding, Lily, or we’ll miss the start of the James Bond,’ said Joe.
‘How about Coronation Street?’ asked Vera.
No-one answered her.

Roz’s irritation mounted as she scraped the children’s Christmas dinner into the bin.
‘Have you noticed,’ she said, ‘That all the men are watching TV while all the women are doing the clearing up?’
‘You go and watch TV, too, dear. We’ll manage,’ said Lily as she poured beer for the boys.
‘No. I hate James Bond!’
‘Then there’s no problem, then, is there?’ said Amanda.
‘But it’s the principle. I mean, why should we play servant to those slobs?’
‘It’s Christmas, Roz. Don’t make a fuss. This is not the time…’
‘No, it’s never the right time to make a fuss, is it?’ Roz’s voice was getting louder.
‘I never let Roland into the kitchen,’ said Vera. ‘That’s the woman’s place, isn’t it, Lily?’
Roz stormed into the living room. ‘Washing-up is not a gender-specific task, you know. It’s supposed to be a holiday for women, too. You men have equal responsibility!’
Lily gave Roz an imploring look as she turned back into the kitchen, slamming the door behind her.
Then it opened again and Gary emerged.
‘Ooh, I’ve spent a whole five minutes slaving over a hot dishwasher and I never get any thanks…’
Roz allowed herself to laugh. Despite his mocking tone, he was at least coming in to help.
But she was wrong. Gary had merely picked up a beer and gone back into the living room.
‘Bastard!’ She slammed the door after him, letting a crystal glass slip from her tea-towel. It smashed on the floor.
‘Oh! I’m sorry, Mum, I didn’t mean it.’
‘Not to worry, these things happen,’ grimaced Lily. ‘Just go and sit down.’
‘Allow me.’ Her big brother was right behind her with brush and dustpan. Roland! So solid and dependable!

When James Bond was finished Roz said, ‘Let’s play charades.’
‘Count me out,’ said Joe. ‘I’m watching Bruce Forsythe.’
‘OK, I’m a book,’ said Roz. She stood up and starting miming.
‘Mum, what’s she doing?’ asked Weasley.
‘I never read books,’ said Vera.
‘Er, I can’t think of any books,’ said Amanda, turning towards the television.
Roz sat down. She closed her eyes, listened for a minute to the cacophony of bleeping, whirring, tinny robot voices, quarrelling children and Bruce Forsythe, then went to wash the beer glasses.

The cacophony built itself up to a crescendo as the children became increasingly whingier, until batteries ran out and Roland and Vera packed their four off home.

It became almost peaceful as the family fell asleep in front of the television.
Then the doorbell rang. It was Fred, Sue and baby Sally.
‘Oh, is it that time already? Come in! Merry Christmas! Was Santa good to you? Is she not tired? What did you say? Switch the TV off, Joe.’
‘She’s had a sleep. Oh, look! Granny has a present for you!’
Sue sat Sally down on the floor and put Granny’s beautifully-wrapped present in front of her. Sally fingered it delicately. She gave the satin ribbon a little tug. With much encouragement, the baby slowy tore the wrappings until something furry revealed itself. Sally’s eyes sparkled as she gently pulled out a teddy bear.
All eyes were focused on this delighted and delightful child. It was a moment to remember. Wasn’t this what Christmas was all about?

About julie_t

short story writer
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