Illustrated by Carolyn Gowdy
The early Christmas lunch party had been Bunny Wedgewood’s idea. But Bunny had pulled out the day before, having been sectioned by her daughter and son-in-law. Notification came from Bunny herself, apparently calling from a phone box in the cafeteria of the psychiatric wing of Leicester General Hospital. Bunny claimed to have been admitted ‘just for Christmas and the worst of the winter’ and expected to be home — albeit on tablets — by Shrove Tuesday. Unless it was a joke — one never knew with Bunny. In any case, the lateness of Bunny’s cancellation meant that Emma was stuck with the others — Norah and Harry Hunter and Babs and Frank Miller — with no Bunny as a buffer.
Emma had invited Babs without mentioning Frank. Partly because Frank was odious and partly because catering for anything above five was a squash around the table. But Babs had assumed Frank was included anyway and that was that.
With just over an hour before guests were due to arrive Emma noticed the label on the poly bag of defrosting turkey casserole read ‘blackberry & app’. She went to the deep freeze in the garage, dug out the correct bag, thrust it into a pan of water and put it on a very low heat to defrost while she went to get herself ready. She had a flannel wash, put on a beige light wool dress and a dab of rouge, and was about to walk through a haze of Chanel when she noticed an awful stench, as if a laboratory had caught fire. One had once, a lab, caught fire, in a village nearby and the smell had hung in the air for days and made one feel anxious. Rushing through the hall, Emma knocked over a bowl of Christmas cranberry pot pourri and, arriving at the stove, saw that somehow the casserole pan was on a high heat, the panhandle had melted away and the water had all evaporated leaving the poly bag to burn. She switched the gas off, opened a window and decided to concentrate on the chestnut soup starter.
The soup was thawed nicely in a Tupperware. ‘Carols from Kings’ played on the CD player. Emma transferred the jellified soup into a handsome orange saucepan and put it on a very low heat while she sliced a French stick. Then Penny rang. Emma told Penny about Bunny Wedgewood being sectioned by her son-in-law which was a mistake as Penny seemed terribly upset and wanted to dwell on it.
‘Poor Bunny,’ whined Penny, ‘do you think she’s allowed visitors?’
Frankly, Emma resented Bunny getting all this attention — and skiving out of Christmas — when she was sane as a spaniel. It was she, Emma, who could do with a bit of TLC in a secure place and have a year off. Now Penny was planning to dash off to the General with a magazine and a flask of mulled wine.
As Penny droned about Bunny’s sectioning, Emma dipped her little finger into the orange saucepan and discovered it was coffee flavoured ice cream, not chestnut soup. She hung up on Penny, chucked the pan into the sink, stomped out to the garage and went digging in the deep-freeze again.
She flung things out so that she could rummage properly for the soup. Bags and tubs were strewn around; some landed on the woodpile, some on the roof of the car and others just sat on the concrete floor. There was no soup in the freezer. She surveyed the jettisoned items and there, sitting on top of a can of creosote, was a tub with ‘chest soup’ scrawled across the lid. She kicked the can and the tub toppled off. She kicked the tub; it span and crashed against the car tyre but remained intact. She should have picked it up and taken it inside and started heating it thoroughly — on a low heat. Instead she took the wood-axe, smashed the tub and its frozen contents to bits and came out of the side door rubbing her hands down her dress. Inside, she made up two packets of Batchelor’s chicken & leek soup according to the instructions, with two pints of tap water.
Soon, the soup was boiling and the discs of prematurely sliced bread sat in a basket, and Emma blew the dust off a tinselly centrepiece which Penny had made at a craft class and popped it on the table with a candle stub. The smell of melted polythene and scorched lab rats was beginning to dissipate. The doorbell rang.
Emma did a good job of greeting Norah and Harry — even though they were very rudely 20 minutes early — and gave them G&Ts from the drinks trolley in the sitting room. Norah questioned Emma about the oily handprints on the front of Emma’s dress, as if it was any of her concern.
‘Oh, Emma,’ she said, ‘your lovely Jaeger, how did it happen? Do go and sponge it off before it marks.’
In the bathroom Emma dabbed at the dress with a sea sponge, and the image of Frank in a paper crown from a Christmas cracker popped into her head and made her furious. She considered changing the dress, but the beige was her most flattering and Harry and Norah had seen her in it now. Then she heard Frank’s voice at the bathroom window, as if he was coming round the side of the house. Emma rushed into the sitting room to find him and Babs coming in through the French windows, ‘We rang and rang,’ Frank said, laughing. ‘Babs thought we must’ve come on the wrong day.’
‘I’ve snagged my tights on the blasted lavender,’ wailed Babs.
Emma glanced down at the catastrophic ladders on Babs’s cow-like legs and turned away so as not to have to look. She splashed G&T into glasses for them.
‘Just tonic for Babs, she’s under the doctor’s,’ Frank boomed and guffawed.
Fetching more tonics, Emma glanced at herself in the hall mirror. She was red in the face and dishevelled but looked very slim indeed. Plonking the tonics on the trolley, she told the guests she’d be a minute fixing the meal and crunched through the pot pourri to the kitchen-diner. The chicken and leek soup was raging. She was surprised — somehow it was turned to highest when she thought she’d switched it off. She flung a tea towel over the spoiled casserole.
‘Look,’ she told herself, ‘it’s only the Millers and the Hunters. The Frank thing was yonks ago and the Hunters have got that strange son who lives in a car near the Baptist church.’
She sprinkled some parsley flakes onto the soup and tried to think about the Hunters’ boy again. Hadn’t he changed his name to something odd, Gerontius or Grotius? Cheered by that, she decided she’d get them through to the table, serve the soup, tell them about Bunny being in the nut house and, while they discussed that and glugged wine, she could repair the main course.
‘If you’d like to come through,’ she said, ushering them toward the door, but Harry continued with the end of a story and they all howled laughing at it. It reminded Frank of a story of his own and off he went. Frank’s story, about a nun in the bath, lasted forever and eventually, before he’d got to the punchline, Emma interrupted. ‘Please,’ she said though gritted teeth, ‘would you make your way to the table.’
She followed it with a merry little laugh, but it came out wrong and Babs gave her a thunderous look. Emma went back to the kitchen and slopped the scummy soup into rustic bowl-cum-mugs and set them on the table. They’d come from petrol coupons, but looked retro and fun. The guests trooped in and stood waiting for directions. ‘Sit anywhere,’ said Emma.
‘Shouldn’t we wait for Bunny?’ asked Babs.
Emma ignored her, but Babs persisted. ‘Emma — are we expecting Bunny?’
‘She’s running late,’ said Emma. She couldn’t be bothered to repeat the story Bunny had told her. The son-in-law calling the doctor, the doctor calling a colleague, the shrieking and being held down in the back of the Volvo, etc, etc.
‘Ooh, your lovely chicken soup again — delicious, we had this last time,’ said Norah, curving her spoon into the soup.
Emma snatched it away: ‘I’ll get you something different.’ She seized Harry’s bowl too and slammed them down on the draining board.
‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ said Norah.
Emma rattled about in the fridge for a while and then plonked a tub of cottage cheese and chives down beside the bread-basket. ‘There,’ she said, and turning to Frank barked, ‘Have you had this soup before?’
‘I don’t think so,’ said Frank.
‘You?’ she said, turning to Babs.
‘Yes, it’s Batchelor’s chicken and leek, we have it every Saturday after golf,’ said Babs wearily. ‘Shall we just eat it?’
Emma shrugged and sat down next to Harry. The image of the wood-axe popped into her head.
‘Nip out and get it and tell this rabble to clear out,’ she thought. She looked straight ahead, trance-like.
‘Nip out and get what?’ Harry asked.
‘Are you not eating?’ Norah asked.
‘No,’ Emma replied vacantly, ‘I don’t want to get fat.’
Emma was aware of an awkwardness and took a deep breath. ‘The fat gene runs in the family — Mother was borderline obese,’ she explained, ‘and you’ve seen Penny, she’s barely 30 and already beef to the heel.’
‘I thought your mother suffered with agoraphobia,’ said Babs, with a sniff.
‘Precisely, she couldn’t face anyone in that condition,’ said Emma, puffing out her cheeks to illustrate.
Emma heard various whisperings, and became aware that she was resting her head on the seersucker; she could feel it bumpy on her cheek. She was trying to remember the name of the Hunters’ son. Something peculiar. She may have fallen asleep for a moment or two, and she sat up with a start.
‘Geronimo!’ she said, and shot up to fetch the mince pies, which had hopefully reached room temperature by now. She should have warmed them up, really, but they’d be fine with hot coffee. She arranged them on a flower-shaped plate and took them to the table. All four said how wonderful they looked.
‘Aha! Mince pies, my first of year!’ said Harry.
‘Are they the main course?’ asked Frank, with a wink.
‘Coffee!’ Emma shouted: ‘Who’d like some coffee?’ and swung round to flick the switch on the ready-to-go percolator. She fetched the coffee tray and spent a while looking in the fridge for a jug of cream. She shared the pies among four plates and just as she passed Harry his, the percolator stopped popping. ‘Perfect timing,’ she said and went to look for the cream in the garage.
Emma was still trying to recall the name of the Hunters’ strange son when suddenly the guests were gone. ‘That went well,’ she thought.
She saw that Harry had left his jacket on the back of his chair and 11 of the 12 mince pies remained. Then she remembered Norah being miffed for some reason (had they been wearing the same dress?). And was puzzled to see the wood-axe embedded in the tinselly centrepiece.
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Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina, a diary of north London nannying, was a bestseller last Christmas. This year she published her first novel, Man at the Helm.
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