Writing inspired by the SWC creative writing prompt: Bright Winter Magic On A Cold Dark Night
By Emma Downey
Simon stared into his trolley; he was sure there was something else he was meant to get on this final shopping trip before the holidays began, but he couldn’t for the life of him remember what it was. He had the sprouts, carrots, parsley and the fresh cranberries for his homemade sauce, the breadcrumbs, the sage and the chestnuts. He had the goose fat; he had made sure to get that back in November, just in case. It wouldn’t be Christmas without roast potatoes, made just how his mother used to make them.
Why hadn’t he written a list as he usually did, he asked himself. Could it be lemons, zest for the stuffing and slices for drinks? Or the good Christmas crackers with the gifts you could actually use or the rashers to cover the turkey in? The sherry, vanilla or cinnamon sticks? No, he had those.
Simon did Christmas, as Emily and Ger, his siblings loved to say. This was established the first Christmas after their mother passed away. That year, no one, including their father could to bear to spend the twenty-fifth of December in the family home. Simon was the only one who could cook a roast so, it seemed only natural that the baton would be passed to him.
The nagging feeling persisted: What could he be missing? Did he have enough cream? Yes, he was sure the four large tubs were enough, even taking into account what would be needed for the bread sauce. He was sure that the jug of bread sauce remained on the table, untouched, every year but his father insisted on it because his mother had made it every year. Nutmeg? No, he had it already. Was it the extra butter? No, there were stacks of it in his freezer along with several loaves of bread for turkey sandwiches. Could it be mayonnaise? No, there was a huge jar of the stuff in his fridge.
He would surely remember what was missing before he reached the top of the long queue of packed trolleys. The woman ahead of him was the sort who prepared for Christmas as though it were the onset of a nuclear winter, her trolley was bulging with sliced pans and multipacks of toilet paper. It would be dark by the time he got outside to the carpark at this rate.
Prawns, for prawn cocktail? No, of course not. He only made that for Robin, who insisted that it was part of Christmas lunch. At least their break up earlier that year meant one less thing to prepare, he reminded himself. What would Robin have for Christmas dinner this year, he wondered? Probably something hunted or foraged and then cooked in a fire pit by great outdoors Gary. Not that it mattered, he wasn’t going to think about them.
Simon winced as he heard the crowing intro to his least favourite festive hit, Merry Christmas Everyone by Slade. As if they needed reminding what time of year it was when they were surrounded by pyramids of chocolate Santa Claus’ and cashiers wearing Reindeer antlers? He closed his ears to the piped music and tried to focus on the shopping. Did he have the cloves and the honey? Yes, they were nestled under the bag of carrots. He would hardly forget the cloves for the baked ham. It was Auntie Kate’s favourite. Oh, did he have enough wine? She could really put the booze away, but no Christmas day could be complete without her or the game of charades she insisted they play after dessert. Although, her being there meant that his Christmas lunch was teetotal. She never remembered to book a taxi in advance, and of course, none were available when she tried to phone for one. Then she would refuse ‘to put him to any more trouble’ by staying the night and so he would have to drive her home himself. Simon looked ahead; the queue was in a gridlock due to a dispute over an unscannable good taking place at the cash desk.
“Juust like the ones I used to knoooow.”
Bing Crosby could be heard crooning White Christmas over the supermarket sound system. Simon felt his eyes go watery; he always missed his mother at this time. She had given them wonderful Christmas’s year after year. Although, as a piano teacher and a lover of real music as she often reminded them, she would not have appreciated him getting teary with Bing in her honour. He sniffed and reminded himself that Christmas time can make sentimental fools of us all.
He chose to focus instead on the plant-based dish he would be preparing as his sister, Emily had recently turned vegan. Yes, he had remembered everything he needed for the butternut wellington, the squash itself, flaked almonds, shallots and the porcini mushrooms. He had a bottle of rapeseed oil for the vegan roasties at home. Last year, she had been involved with a French man; and Simon had made Coquilles Saint Jacques just like Laurent’s maman made it. He had gingerly suggested they all go vegan this year to keep it simple, but his father had laughed and Ger, his brother had looked crest fallen. He insisted that it wasn’t Christmas without mum’s stuffing and then reminded him that Dannie and Ollie, Simon’s nephews looked forward to the meal all year. Simon couldn’t refuse those boys anything. They came to his place every year since Ger and Deb split up, and she became interested in Zen Buddhism and adopted her no Yule rule. So, each year Simon got the biggest tree possible and rakes of holly to transform the house into a festive wonderland. One year, he and Ger had made it look like reindeers had trampled the sitting room. They had made sooty hoof prints on the carpet and munched on the carrots left out for them. The following year he had ordered artificial snow to give the boys the white Christmas of their dreams. At least, this year there wouldn’t be so much cleaning up, now that the two boys dreamed only of expensive game consoles.
“Happy Christmas, I wrapped it up and sent it,
With a note saying ‘I love you’, I meant it.”
Simon found himself singing along with Wham!’s Last Christmas, which was jingling out of the speakers. He was swayed his shoulders slightly and involuntarily to the catchy tune.
“Now I know what a fool I’ve been,
But if you kissed me now, I know you’d fool me again.”
No George Michael, Simon swore to himself, you will not make me feel things just because it’s Christmas.
Once again, he forced himself to focus on a mental shopping list. Did he have enough chocolate and bottles of wine for emergency gifts for unexpected guests? Yes, Simon nodded–he was sure he did. What could he be missing? It wasn’t the smoked salmon, for their starter. He had the cheese and biscuits, along with the dates, pears and chutney. He had already bought the mixed nuts in their shells. He had the tasteful napkins, the long red candles for the table and the After Eight chocolates for dad, what on earth was it?
“I forgot the bloody parsnips!“
Simon heard himself say it out loud, and his hands clapped over his mouth. Several fellow shoppers looked around and smiled at him, but he avoided their gaze. He gulped; there was another voice in his head–his mother’s. He remembered himself aged nine or ten standing in the old kitchen. He could smell the roasted meat, the herbs and spices from mulled wine. His mother stood at the counter top, whisking a saucepan of gravy. Pots of vegetables bubbled on the hob, the lids rattled, and the windows were cloudy with steam. The kitchen table strained under the weight of the Christmas food. The monumental turkey in the centre rest under silver foil. It was surrounded by the pudding, the cake iced to look like a snow scene, a pyramid of mince pies and the glass bowl of trifle. In the next ten minutes, his mother would throw off her apron and step into the dining room carrying the perfectly golden bird. Emily, Ger, dad, the Grandparents, as well as various stray relatives and friends waited, chattering in the next room.
‘I forgot the bloody parsnips?’ His mother gasped, throwing the whisk into the sink.
Mother and son seized peelers. If they cut them small enough, the parsnips could be cooked by the time the meal was ready to be served. Little Simon peeled with all his might. This meal was going to be perfect. Just then, the implement broke apart in his hand, and the blade sank into the soft skin at top of his index finger.
“Oooooow!” He cried as the blood oozed out and over the vegetables and his smart new shirt.
“Oh sweetheart!” His mother whirled round and pulled open the drawer where she kept bandages and he was patched up in a matter of seconds. Then, Simon allowed himself to be folded into her arms. He could still feel the soft fabric of her blouse and smell the scent of the herbal shampoo she used.
“I didn’t mean to put you under pressure. It’s silly really, all of this, the hours of peeling, chopping and basting for a meal that won’t last more than an hour.” She ruffled his hair. “I’ll tell you what: Some year, we’ll have Christmas in the Caribbean. Just imagine–white sands, turquoise sea and not a single plate to wash up, just imagine…Blisssss!”
Simon hadn’t remembered that tiny event for a long time, possibly never before that evening. Later on that day, or maybe it was another Christmas, he couldn’t be sure, they had watched It’s a Wonderful Life on television. His mother loved that film but she had fallen asleep on the sofa beside him within the first twenty minutes because she was so worn out from all the cooking and entertaining. She laid on the same feast, the same big family gathering year after year, almost without complaint, and she never got the Caribbean Christmas she wished for. He knew that exhaustion himself now, by the evening of the twenty-fifth he was usually ready to slip into a coma as soon as his backside made contact with an armchair.
Simon asked the shopper behind him to watch his trolley and walked through the frozen food aisles, past the meats and dairy until he reached the fruit and vegetables. There was but one string bag of parsnips left in the plastic tray. They had wizened skin and dried out, spindly tips.
“All I want for Chrissstmass is yoouuuuuu baby!”
Mariah Carey’s syrupy declaration burst out of the sound system, and it made his teeth ache. He was near the automatic doors; they swished open, letting in the lovely crisp air from outside. He thought he could see snowflakes falling down on to the pavement. Could it really be snowing, he wondered?
Simon looked across the supermarket. He could just see his trolley in the queue. There it was, groaning with things to be diced, peeled, sauteed and simmered. It was a cart-load of hard work and towering expectations. He glanced back at the sorry bag of parsnips and decided they were to remain on the plastic tray. Simon turned on his heels and walked straight out through the automatic door.
Standing on the pavement outside, his arms, free of shopping bags felt wonderfully light. Snowflakes landed on his forehead and cheeks like little icy kisses, and fresh snow crunched under his feet. The parked cars around him looked like iced buns with their fresh sprinkling of brilliant white powder. He could hear music; he turned around to see where it was coming from.
“The holly bears a berry…”
A local choir was singing The Holly and the Ivy. They stood, huddled together under the twinkling lights of the supermarket portico, bundled up in their winter coats and scarfs. Each singer’s face was lit by the small LED candle they held in their hands. A tearful smile broke out on Simon’s face, he remembered his mother sat at the piano in the living room playing it. It was her favourite Christmas song.
“Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.”
He stood by the choir and joined in with the song, his breath making clouds in the clean, frosty air. When the song finished, he walked over to drop all of his coins in their collection bucket and listened for the ringing crash each one made as it landed. Then he walked away in the direction of his car. The choir had begun to sing Silent Night. When it was quiet enough, he pulled out his phone. He brought up ‘sibling group chat’ and pressed dial. Both Emily and Ger answered.
“Oooh it’s Santa’s little helper. Hope you’re not wearing yourself out before the big day!’ Emily grinned. Her cheeks were flushed pink. She was holding a glass of mulled wine, and a tinsel boa was slung around her neck. He could hear the music and chatter of her ‘work do’ in the background.
“We’re already dreaming of our turkey sandwiches, Si.” Ger was at his kitchen table helping his sons with their homework.
“Yes, I’m all set for Christmas and I’m looking forward to spending it with you all, as always. Only, this year, the festivities are going to be different.”
“Really, how so?” Ger’s forehead creased.
“Let’s just say this year, I’m having a Caribbean Christmas.” Simon grinned into his phone screen.
“What? Are you going away?” Emily’s voice was shrill.
“Ehh, no, not this year anyway. But I’ve just been thinking about Christmas and about our mother and I made a sort of realisation in the fruit and veg aisle of a supermarket. It’s too hard to explain but I’ll try next time I see you both.” Simon laughed gently. “But first things first.”He continued, taking a deep breath: “You two will have to decide in whose home we are celebrating Christmas this year. And then, someone is going to have go to collect the turkey that I ordered a month ago from the butchers on Christmas Eve. Someone’s going to have to wrestle with the Christmas tree and then find and untangle the fairy lights. Then, on Christmas eve, someone is going to have to make the two trifles, one with jelly for dad and Ger and one without for everyone else and then make the stuffing and stuff the turkey. Then, someone has to get up early on Christmas morning to start cooking lunch and someone is going to have to chauffeur Auntie Kate to and from the festivities because this year, it’s not going to be me.”