Being woken up early by strange sounds from the kitchen was not my idea of a good start to Christmas Day. I had expected to sleep late and have a leisurely Christmas breakfast with my younger sister, Hannah, and her boyfriend, who were staying with me, but instead got my older sister banging away in my kitchen when she had a perfectly good kitchen at home—where her husband and children were as well.
“What are you doing here?” I stared bleary-eyed at Laura, who had succeeded in covering every surface of my kitchen counter with stuff.
“Good morning, Rebecca. I thought I’d get a head start on lunch.” Laura washed a large turkey under the tap. “Hand me the chopping board, will you?”
I did as she asked and sat down at the table. Laura placed the turkey on the board.
“But why so early?” I yawned and gazed at the clock. “It’s barely past seven. Lunch isn’t till two. Surely you could get here a bit later?”
Laura rubbed salt and spices on it and pushed a strand of hair out of the way with her wrist. “Just let me do my thing.”
“I could help.” I already knew what the answer would be. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been so careless with my offer. Laura hated for anyone to interfere with her precious preparations.
Instead of replying, she lifted the dead bird off the chopping board and back into the roasting pan.
I averted my eyes. “Seriously though, why are you here so early? And why are you preparing the turkey here? You usually do that at home. Shouldn’t you be there with Robert and the kids?”
“Don’t tell me where I should be. Why don’t you go back to bed?”
“With all the racket you’re making? You woke me up. It’s too late now. I can’t go back to sleep.” Since I was up, might as well make coffee. I filled the kettle and took out the cafetiere, then scooped in a generous amount of coffee and inhaled the scent. It was cold in the house, as the heat hadn’t even kicked in. Seven o’clock was even too early for the house.
Luckily, Laura hadn’t gone into the living room. Dino, my trusty macaw who acted as my guard parrot, would have woken the whole house. And Hannah and Michael wouldn’t appreciate that any more than I did. Laura had insisted they stay at her place, but my house was bigger and more comfortable, so it only made sense they stayed here. I liked having extra people in the house over Christmas, and besides, Laura had her husband and kids to keep her company.
I poured the boiling water onto the coffee grounds and gave it a good stir.
Laura perked up at the scent of coffee too, so once it had brewed for long enough, I poured both of us a cup. She was now doing something with chestnut paste, but I wasn’t interested in learning her ways. I might be asked to prepare it next time. While I had nothing against cooking, preparing a turkey was another story. That big, lifeless bird, so cold and dead in my hands.
I shuddered. It reminded me too much of Richard, lying lifeless on the kitchen floor, the bloody knife at my feet. Three years had passed, but it seemed like his death would never stop haunting me. The cold hand of fear gripped me, twisting my stomach in knots whenever something reminded me of him.
I shook my head in an attempt to dispel my negative thoughts. It was Christmas and I was determined to make it a happy one.
“Okay, that’s finished.” Laura pulled out a chair and sat across from me at the table. “If you can put it in around nine, that should give it plenty of time before lunch. We’ll come by after church to finish the rest.”
“I can do the rest.” I was lazy, but not that lazy. “You guys don’t have to do everything.” Especially since Robert would offer to prepare most of the other food since Laura was only capable of cooking a turkey.
“That’s all right. We don’t mind.” She took a big gulp of coffee and sighed. “You’re already hosting the lunch.”
“That usually means preparing the food as well,” I pointed out. “Plus Hannah will want to help so we can do it all together.”
We sat for a while, drinking our coffee amicably.
“Are you coming to church this morning?” Laura avoided eye contact, which annoyed me.
I wasn’t going to bite her head off. Well, maybe not literally. At the same time, I didn’t like her asking. I had gone to midnight Mass the night before. How much time did one need to spend in church at Christmas? “I don’t think so.” I was in no mood for an argument and hoped this would placate her a little.
“Everyone is going, Rebecca. It won’t kill you to come.”
“I need to look after the turkey. The house could go up in flames if we leave the oven unattended.”
Laura scoffed. “That’s the best excuse you can come up with? You leave the oven on all the time when you go out. And Rose Cottage still stands whole.”
“I’ve been to midnight Mass. I’ve done my duty.”
“It’s not about duty.” Laura leaned over the table and took my hand. “You know it’s not. I hate seeing how far you’ve drifted from God. You need Him in your life. As it is, you have so little.”
I snatched my hand away. “I’m perfectly happy with my life the way it is. You don’t get to tell me what I need.”
“You aren’t happy.” She tried to grab my hand again, but I folded both of them in my lap. “I can see you’re not. Why don’t you allow some happiness in your life? It’s high time you start having fun again. Go out, be among people again. Life is for the living.”
I picked up our coffee mugs, took them to the sink, and rinsed them. “I have a life. I have my business, I have my parrot, and I enjoy my house. That’s more than most people have.”
Laura joined me at the sink. “You rarely go out, you refuse to go to church, and you don’t seem to interact with any other people besides us. And we’re your family.”
“What’s it to you?” I grabbed the hand towel and dried the coffee mugs perhaps a bit more aggressively than necessary, then clanked them into the cupboard.
“I only want what’s best for you. I want you to be happy.”
“I am happy,” I insisted. “And now I know why you came round here so early. So you could pester me. Well, it won’t work. Go home and be with your family. Your children are going to wake up and want to wish you a merry Christmas and you’re here at my house, lecturing me about my life. Go home.” I started clearing the countertop, putting the pots in the sink and loading the rest of the dishes in the dishwasher.
“You can’t keep moping around,” Laura said. “You need to let go of what happened and start living life again. You can’t bury yourself here forever.”
Let go of what happened? That was rich! After all that had happened, Laura still preferred to act as if it had been merely an inconvenience.
“You’ve no idea what you’re talking about. Just leave and spend Christmas morning with your own family.” I turned to look at her. “It’s my life and I can live it however I want.”
“Of course, but I’m worried about you. You turn your back on everything that’s good for you. Are we next? Will you turn your back on your family too?”
I pushed past her and hung up the towel. “I would never turn my back on my family.”
Laura opened her mouth but closed it again. With a shrug, she grabbed her purse from the table. “I tried. But I’m not giving up on you.” On her way to the back door, she stopped to kiss me on the cheek. “Merry Christmas, Rebecca.”
I didn’t return the kiss. “I’ll see you later.”
Laura let herself out, and I took down one of the recently cleaned coffee mugs and poured myself another cup. Then I sat back down at the table. Why did Laura always have to ruin a good moment? Why did she keep meddling in my life? I wasn’t a child anymore and didn’t need her advice. Why did she always have to be so bossy? I was an adult and she wasn’t my mother.
Which made it all the more galling that she was right.
The house was eerily quiet once everyone left for church. After Laura left, Hannah and Michael had gotten up and come downstairs. I made us a light breakfast—we needed to leave some room for the large Christmas lunch—and Hannah and Michael opened a few presents. We’d do the rest of the presents together after church when Laura and Robert were over with the kids.
With everyone gone, I busied myself in the kitchen, washing the pots and pans Laura had used. Why couldn’t she ever leave the kitchen the way she found it? She barged in, messed up all my stuff, and left me with a prepared turkey. Hannah had asked me to join them while they were opening the presents, but I knew they wanted to have some alone time. And after Laura’s visit, I needed some quiet myself. The day was going to be busy enough.
I wandered around the house aimlessly for a while, then let Dino out of his cage. He gratefully hopped onto my shoulder and nibbled my ear. He didn’t like visitors, as he wasn’t usually allowed out of his cage. No matter how many times I warned them, my family couldn’t resist poking the large parrot, and Dino could easily take a piece off their finger. It was in everyone’s best interest that he stayed locked up. Dino obviously didn’t agree, but he didn’t know what trouble he would be in if he hurt one of my family members.
My sisters didn’t really like Dino. They couldn’t understand why I didn’t get a cat or a dog. But I loved him. He was smart, easy to take care of, and a great companion. I didn’t want a cat for fear of falling into the stereotype of cat lady, and a dog was simply too much work. Also, the poor thing wouldn’t be walked all day since I worked full-time. No, a parrot was the best choice. And they lived a long time, so I didn’t have to worry about him dying on me. I’d had enough of death, thank you very much.
The weather was gloomy. I had nurtured a totally irrational hope that we might have a white Christmas, but that didn’t happen. Honestly though, who had ever seen a white Christmas in the south of England? That sort of thing might have happened thirty years ago, but with global warming, that dream went out the window. We’d be lucky if it didn’t rain. Not that it was particularly warm. It was a damp, cold day which made me all the more grateful that I didn’t have to sit in a damp, cold church.
I turned on the Christmas tree lights and tried to decide whether I should light the fire. I always loved a fire on Christmas, and it would be cosy. Of course, Rose Cottage was equipped with the regular conveniences and had central heating, but nothing trumped the cosiness of a warm, crackling fire. I had bought enough wood to last me a week, and the kids would love it. Emily and Martin, Laura’s kids, were teenagers, but they still loved burning pieces of paper and twigs.
I had just managed to light the fire when the door opened and voices carried through the hall. The first visitors were back from church. Laura always came in without knocking, even when she knew I was home. Maybe I needed to think about getting back the key I’d given her.
Emily rushed into the room, threw her arms around my neck, and kissed me. “Merry Christmas.”
I hugged her back. “Merry Christmas to you too.” Holding her at arm’s length, I inspected her clothes. Either Laura had been forceful or Emily wasn’t as far gone into teenagerland as I’d feared. She wore a tasteful dark-red velvet dress with black tights. Her shoes she’d left in the hall, but they were probably just as tasteful. “You look great.”
Emily rubbed her hands together and moved closer to the fire. “Ugh, Mum made me wear this. I feel like an old lady. And Mum still thought this one was too short.” She made a face. “I can’t wait to make my own wardrobe choices.”
“You will soon,” I said. The dress fell just above the knee, so how could Laura have thought it was too short? “I’m sure you’re the best-dressed person here.” I definitely wouldn’t win that prize. My pair of black trousers and red silk blouse had seen better days.
Laura, Robert, and Martin strode into the room, and each kissed me and wished me a merry Christmas. Martin tried to act cool but couldn’t help peeking at the presents under the tree. Christmas still had magic for him, and I was happy he hadn’t outgrown it yet.
“Did Hannah and Michael come with you?” I asked Laura.
“They’ll follow shortly. They wanted to go for a walk.”
I frowned. “Rather them than me. It’s so cold out.”
She laughed, which sounded more like a scoff. “How would you know? You’ve been in here all morning.”
Resisting the urge to snap at her, I smiled pleasantly. “Tea, anyone?”
My offer was accepted by all, so I went to the kitchen to see to the preparations.
Emily followed me in. “Don’t worry about Mum. She’s just mad because you didn’t go to church.”
“I know. She’ll thaw out soon enough.” I filled the teapot with water and tea bags and plopped the tea cosy on. Emily helped me get enough cups and saucers together—never mugs on Christmas—and then I carried the tray to the living room.
Laura poured the tea, and we settled into our respective seats to enjoy our tea. As soon as I sat down, Hannah and Michael came in the front door. I dispensed some more tea.
Laura eyed them. “You had a nice morning exchanging presents?”
Hannah smiled sheepishly. “We just wanted to do a few gifts this morning.”
“It’s fine. Did you like your gifts?”
“Yes. I got this bracelet and absolutely love it.” She showed off the newly acquired bracelet on her wrist, and we all made the appropriate admiring noises. It was a lovely bracelet: rose gold with rubies. For a moment I wondered what that might have cost, but then again, Michael wasn’t short of money.
“Wish our children had been as appreciative,” Robert said. “All we heard was moans from them.”
Laura got up. “No need to get into that. I think it’s time to start cooking now anyhow.”
Robert hoisted himself out of his chair as well.
Hannah and I sprang to our feet. “We’ll help.”
“No. Why don’t you all sit down and I’ll whip everything up in a jiffy,” Laura said.
In a jiffy? When did Laura start talking like a preppy housewife?
“Let’s skip this argument,” Hannah said. “We do this every holiday and you always give in.” She left unspoken the accusation that Laura would ruin the food.
Robert winked at us and settled himself back into his chair.
Laura gave in with a sigh. “Emily, why don’t you clear the teacups?” She followed us into the kitchen.
I had put the potatoes on the stove to boil while everyone was at church. Now I poured the duck fat into a roasting tin and put it in the oven to heat up. Hannah washed and peeled the Brussels sprouts, while Laura ladled gravy over the turkey and prepared the pigs-in-blanket. Once they were in the oven, she started on the stuffing.
I kept an eye on everything since Laura knew how to cook well only in her own mind. She was fine with turkey but needed supervision with the rest of the food. Not that any of us ever pointed that out to her. We discreetly ensured the food didn’t burn.
I roughed up the potatoes and tipped them into the duck fat. After they were in the oven too, I sat down at the kitchen table and started grating cheese for the Brussels sprouts. Emily joined me at the kitchen table. “How was your Christmas morning?” I asked. “Get everything you wanted?”
“Not entirely,” Emily confessed.
“Ah, so your dad was talking about you earlier.”
“No. Martin threw a temper tantrum because he didn’t get an electric guitar.”
A guitar? I raised my eyebrows.
She laughed. “Exactly. He doesn’t even play the guitar.”
“What was it that you wanted but didn’t get?”
Emily shrugged as if it wasn’t a big deal. “I wanted to go away for a weekend with Mum. I really wanted to go to Paris.”
“Oh, that’s lovely. Such a great idea.” Then I realized she had said this was the gift she hadn’t received, so I tempered my enthusiasm. “You wouldn’t want to go in the winter anyhow. Maybe it’s better to ask that for your birthday.”
Emily frowned. “But my birthday isn’t until October. That’s not exactly the right time to go either.”
I could see her point. I didn’t want to criticize my sister in front of her daughter, but Laura had dropped the ball on this one. Emily was a teenager, in the age group where hanging out with your parents wasn’t cool anymore, and yet she wanted to spend time with her mum so badly that she even asked for it for Christmas when she could have asked for material things. How could Laura not see how special that was? She and Robert didn’t want to spoil their children and I could understand them not giving Emily a weekend away with her friends, but a mother-daughter weekend? Most mums would kill for that.
“I’m sorry.” I reached out and touched her hand. “That was a great idea for a gift. I don’t know why your parents didn’t give it to you. Maybe next time.”
Emily sighed. “Yeah, maybe.”
I squeezed her hand reassuringly and she gave me a watery smile.
I moved over to the counter where Hannah was working her magic with the Brussels sprouts and handed her the cheese. I didn’t particularly like them, but the way Hannah prepared them was at least palatable.
“Let me find a space in the oven for that.” Laura opened the oven and rearranged a few things.
Not someone who enjoyed cleaning up, Hannah left the kitchen. I shooed Laura and Emily out too and enjoyed the relative calm while I washed the dishes. As much as they sometimes drove me crazy, I loved my family. My life would be even emptier without them.