First Christmas (a short story by Kell Smurthwaite)

September 9, 2007 at 9:37 am (Short Stories) (, )

First Christmas

First Christmas

 

There was no escaping it – Christmas was a catastrophe beyond saving. All that careful preparation gone to waste.

Cassidy’s shoulders slumped as she waved a wisp of steam-dampened hair from her forehead. What on earth was she supposed to do? Everyone would be arriving soon – her brother, Mike, his wife, Anne with their twin daughters, Ruby and Emerald in tow; Great Aunt Mabel who never left home without her vile toy poodle, Max; Uncle Joe and his partner, Jim, who were as camp as a row of pink tents; and worst of all “The In-Laws”.

In her head, Cassidy capitalised the phrase. This would be her first Christmas as hostess and she had been out to impress everyone with her kitchen prowess, not least Dan’s parents, Kenneth and Mildred. Mildred – the very name inspired dread and caused Cassidy’s heart to sink into her stomach as she contemplated the arrival of Dan’s beloved mother, who was always perfectly turned out and had a reputation as one of the most gracious and capable hostesses in the town – her supper parties were legendary and Cassidy knew that there was no way she could compete.

Not now.

Not with the turkey dry as a bone, the mashed potatoes like wallpaper paste, roasters like rocks, and various vegetables that had melted into mush. The gelatinous gravy glooped at her from its jug and the cranberry sauce looked neon-bright, wobbling under the garish strip-light of the kitchen.

Ding-dong!

“Time’s up!” thought Cassidy, as Dan peeked through the window and joyfully announced “They’re here!” leaping up like a lad of six or seven to answer the door in a rush of excitement. Cassidy felt the sharp pricking at the back of her nose and behind her eyes and knew she’d have to fight the tears as her throat clenched with the effort to keep from screaming.

It was all ruined. She couldn’t possibly serve this dinner to her guests. Humiliated, Cassidy wiped her hands on her apron before untying it and pulled it over her head, stalling a few moments before facing everyone to announce that Christmas was cancelled.

“Cassidy? Cassidy, darling, where on earth are you?” Mildred’s crisp, clear voice rang through the hallway as she approached the kitchen and Cassidy braced herself against this invasion of her own personal space. Stealing herself, she drew herself up to her full height; standing tall, ready to face the music. If her Mother-in-law was going to witness her failure, then Cassidy would be defiant to the last – she would not fall to the enemy!

“Oh, Cassidy, what happened here?” Mildred’s eagle eyes took in the scene of devastation – pans piled higgledy-piggledy on the stove, bowls and utensils flung down in desperation, cream curdling and butter melting unattended on the counters, and then fell on the face of the cook herself.

Cassidy couldn’t hold it any longer and she dissolved into a puddle of tears, sobs shaking her body as she clutched at the sink to hold herself upright.

“Sweetheart, you have got yourself into a state, haven’t you?” Gently, Mildred reached out to Cassidy and laid a friendly hand on her shoulder. “Come here, dear, not to worry, things are never as bad as they seem.”

“But everything was supposed to be perfect!” Cassidy wailed. “Everything was arranged, I thought I had it all sorted and it was going to be the perfect Christmas. Now it’s ruined – we have nothing to eat and everyone is here…” She couldn’t continue. Instead, she just collapsed into Mildred’s arms.

“You know, I remember my first Christmas with Kenneth,” whispered Mildred. “His mother was such a wonderful cook that he went on and on about how spectacular her Christmas dinners were, and I was determined to impress her, but I forgot to light the stove and there was nothing cooked when the guests arrived. I was devastated at the time, but I can laugh about it now and you will too. Now, dry your eyes and let’s see what can be done…”

She tugged a monogrammed lace handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed at Cassidy’s eyes. “There, now, that’s better. Come on, chin up – let’s get to work!”

Together, they cleared away the pots and pans, dumped the vegetables and poured the gravy down the plughole. “You know, this gravy’s nowhere near as bad as mine was my second Christmas…”

Half an hour later, fresh vegetables had been chopped; onions, mushrooms, courgettes and chickpeas; yoghurt and spices had been added to the salvaged bird that now simmered in a pot; rice and saffron in another. The scent was heavenly.

Taking her daughter-in-law’s hand in hers, Mildred spoke again. “That first Christmas, I thought I’d die of embarrassment, but Ken’s Mum turned out to be a darling. She told me something I’m going to share with you now. It doesn’t matter if the dinner is burned or the cake sinks in the middle; it doesn’t matter whether you serve turkey with all the trimmings or turn it into a giant curry; it doesn’t matter if the sky is falling, just so long as you’re with people you love. That’s what Christmas is all about in the end.”

Smiling at each other, Mildred and Cassidy carried the huge bowls of rice and curry into the dining room and set it before the family before tucking in.

Crackers were pulled, hats were worn, jokes were told, glasses were clinked and wine was drunk. Ruby and Emerald divided up the cracker prizes between them and fussed over Max, Great Aunt Mabel drank too much sherry and asked Uncle Joe and Jim when they were going to make it official and get married, Mike and Anne complimented Cassidy on the delicious meal and declared that next year it was their turn to play host, and Kenneth and Mildred danced to Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra in the living room. The house was filled with warmth and laughter.

And afterwards, everyone agreed, it had been a proper Christmas.

Kell Smurthwaite, 2006 ©

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