I wanted to give you my annual short Christmas story before the 25th, but I’m afraid I ran out of time, so please accept my apologies. As ever, this one is in TWO PARTS, the second part will be out on Sunday! And for those who have read the others, you might be happy to know we go back to Sophie Cole and her family, and the adventures they have a little further inland than where we are now. The last story we had with them was set in 2006, so be aware everyone has grown!
I hope that those of you who celebrate the holiday had a wonderful Christmas Day, and spent much of it surrounded by loved ones and lovely things.
CHRISTMAS EVE, 2015
I looked at the Christmas tree and wondered who all the presents were for. There seemed to be so many – were there really that many of us? And then I remembered that Simon’s present was still not amongst the pile; it was still undelivered, even though the website had shown it had been out for delivery now for four days. It was most bizarre. I knew I hadn’t missed a man in a van, and yet we still waited for the box to come. I made a note to see what company was bringing it to the door, and turned away from the glittering tree and headed back to the kitchen where Sylvie was shaking icing sugar onto the last batch of mince pies, a delicacy only feasible since her arrival from the UK with a large suitcase containing a few jars of M&S’s finest mincemeat. I knew we’d need all of the pies, for apart from the five of us and Sylvie, we also had her nephew Paul and his wife Lisa in the house for Christmas, plus their five year-old twins, Tim and Tom. To differentiate their Tim from our Tim, now 22 and home from university for two weeks, we had already nicknamed the smaller 5 year-old version, ‘Tiny Tim’ – it made so much sense.
Just as I reached the kitchen, the back door blew open with a bang and Emma stepped in, scattering raindrops from her coat as she swept back her hood and beamed at us all.
“I’m home!” she theatrically shrieked and grinned at us like a maniac. I turned and looked at the clock, it was already 1.10pm. Emma’s holiday morning job at the bakery had ended bang on time, and as if to prove the point, I saw she had four baguettes under one arm. It reminded me.
“Are Nadia and Robert still coming for lunch tomorrow?” I asked uncertainly and reached to relieve her of the bread.
Emma nodded vehemently, “Yes, they’ll be here about 1.30 or so,” and her long 17 year-old auburn hair shook in emphasis. “Perhaps 2.00 o’clock,” she continued, brushing flour off her sleeve with one hand. “It’ll depend on how long it takes to clean up the bakery. I might stay and help, Mum, if that’s okay? They’re not open on Boxing day so there’s nothing else to do,” and as she looked are me in query, I inwardly blessed her for the kindness in her soul.
“Of course it is, sweetheart,” and leaning forward I hugged her closely, aware that Sylvie had stopped snowing icing-sugar onto the mince pies to watch us with a smile on her face. Now almost 74, my only aunt was a regular visitor to France for Christmas – it had become quite a tradition.
Emma broke free of my embrace with sudden excitement, and asked,”Where are the twins, Aunt Sylvie? I’ve got some treats for them,” and she brought out a paper bag from her pocket.
There was a commotion by the door and Tiny Tim and Tom appeared from the hallway with a bustle of excitement, unerringly heading straight for Emma, heads abuzz with the sound of their names and the promise of a treat. It had taken them just two days to get a grasp of the fact that when Emma came home there would be a bang of the back door and a possibility of something to snack on. They were slight children, but full of energy and questions, and behind them loomed the familiar figure of Paul, stick-thin as always, but no longer the unsure teenager he had once been. He rolled his eyes at me with the look of a well-worn father, and tried in vain to stop the onslaught of his children upon the frail paper bag which finally was shredded enough to reveal a pair of macaroons, one chocolate and one a lurid green pistachio. Nadia was a darling, I decided. Each of the goodies would be just enough to keep the twins satisfied for another 30 minutes until lunch was ready – and besides, it was Christmas.
Two minutes later and I had Paul to myself for two seconds and posed a question to him by the fridge. “Are you ready for tonight?” I asked in a whisper. I’d seen the bed upstairs awash with small presents and two huge stockings.
“Yes, Aunt Sophie,” he grinned at me conspiratorially. “We’re good to go, though Tim is adamant that Santa does not exist, and Tom is having none of it. Tim came home from school saying someone had told him it was all a story, and poor Tom, he’s adamant that Santa’s real. It might be a long night,” and he looked up to watch the last of the macaroons disappear down two small throats. “Lisa is still upstairs. I’ve got to take the twins for a quick walk while she wraps the last few.”
“Everything will be fine, Paul,” I murmured back. “Simon has his old Santa outfit all ready, even if I did have to sew a button on in different places here and there! He’s looking forward to his midnight jaunt, he hasn’t done it for a few years.” I knew it was going to be a long night too, and an early morning for some of us…..
It was half past eight when we finally managed to persuade the twins to go to bed, each of them wide-eyed at the promise of Santa visiting, bursting with excitement, and proud as punch at the mince pie and glass of cognac on a plate they had left by the fireplace for Santa himself. Tiny Tim had been protesting a little too loudly about the Santa story right up till then, but the mince pie and the cognac had dampened his argument a little. It made no sense for grown-ups to do things like that, he’d decided. Perhaps it was true after all. I’d watched the thought processes unravel from across the room, for I’d been through it all before. I had no idea what would happen if Tim persuaded Tom that it was all a huge worldwide hoax. I suspected there might be tears.
Lisa took the twins upstairs to their inflatable bed in the guest room eventually, with Emma and Katie in ‘bedtime-reading’ mode bringing up the rear, and as Simon poured himself and Sylvie a scotch I sat down by the fire with a glass of wine and looked at Paul and our Tim, engrossed in a game of chess on a table by the window. Our family Christmas was about to be complete, we just needed the reindeer to be on time. I sighed and slipped my shoes off for a second so my toes could get warm.
It was 1.34am when I felt Simon slip into bed beside me, and I turned to face him as he pulled the duvet up to his chin.
“Well, Mr Santa,” I muttered drowsily, “mission accomplished?”
I felt his eyes reaching out to me in the half darkness, and sensed a grin. “I think so,” he replied slowly, “but I’m bloody sure Tiny Tim was awake. However,” and he reached out to put an arm around me, “it matters not, for the deed is done, and it’s a Happy Christmas from me to you,” and he kissed me on my forehead as I shut my eyes and slowly slid back into sleepy-land.
There was noise afoot in the house early, both from the guest room where I knew the twins were ripping through wrapping paper, and from Katie’s room at 7.30am or so when Emma got up to go to work at the bakery. Katie and Emma were sharing the bed so Sylvie had somewhere to sleep, but I knew it would be some time before either Katie or Tim awoke. I couldn’t get back to sleep, each shriek from the twins driving another nail of consciousness into my brain, so at 7.45 or so I got up quietly and padded downstairs, taking orders for two cups of tea from Paul and Lisa as I passed the guest room. It was a scene of bedlam inside, and as I ducked out I knew so well the shellshocked look on their tired faces….
The two small turkeys went in the oven at 11.00, and I crossed them off the list on the fridge. Next up were three kilos of potatoes to peel and a kilo of carrots. Sylvie and I worked in companionable silence, the internet radio on the fridge tuned to the UK and blaring out a succession of past Christmas hits. Simon was next door clearing the fire out, and Paul and Lisa had taken the twins down to the river for a walk. It was a beautiful day. Not a breath of wind stirred the surface of the water and through the half-ajar window I could hear birds singing along the river and down the valley. Christmas was a calm place to be this year, I decided, and turning to Sylvie, I said, “We’ll finish these, then open a bottle of champagne; what do you think?” and she agreed wholeheartedly with a beam. I’d even have time for a shower, I thought. How wonderful would that be?
By 12.30pm the house was abuzz with noise and smells. Sylvie, Lisa and myself were bedecked and be-jewelled with Christmas jewellery, the two ovens were starting to heave with too many dishes, and Simon’s party-chef hat was cocked askew as he muddled with a large saucepan of gravy on the back stove. Katie, Tim and Paul were laying the table, and the two twins were running amok from room to room, high on excitement and argument. I happened to be passing the door to the sitting room when their shrill cries quieted, and looking through, I saw them crowding about the plate on the fireplace. There was a pointed finger, and then a gabble of an exchange of words, and I felt Simon behind me, his arm around my waist.
“I left the plate,” he said quietly, “I thought it might ease the way for next year,” and even as I looked I saw Tom look up and see us.
“Santa ate the mince pie!” he cried, pointing at the plate, and I saw Tiny Tim behind him with a scowl on his face. Tim walked across to us pugnaciously, stopping in front of Simon with a bump. He looked up at him, and I felt my husband kneel slowly so he was at the same height as the twin.
“Um,” said Tiny Tim, and I could see the thought processes working in the little head. “What time did you go to bed, Uncle Simon?” and there was a tightening of the scowl.
As I wondered at the clever questioning brain in that little head, I remembered Simon’s words from middle of the night, and butted in, quickly.
“Simon and I went to bed at the same time, Tim.” I was forestalling the questioning, I hoped. “We went to bed together about 11.00 or so, I think, and we both fell asleep straightaway. Didn’t you do the same?”
Tiny Tim looked at me, unhappy with the reply, and his eyes swam wonderingly between Simon’s face and the plate by the fire. “Are you sure?” he asked, a little uncertainly.
“Of course we are, Tim,” I replied, and Simon nodded in agreement alongside me.
There was a “humph” of uncertainty from Tiny Tim, and he looked at Simon longingly. As we watched, he stretched out his hand slowly, and stroked Simon’s chin.
“Did you ever grow a beard, Uncle Simon?” he asked, and I strained not to smile.
PART II will follow on Sunday. I hope you enjoyed it so far! Have a wonderful time until then XXX Susan