A story for Christmas Eve …

A Very Sherry Christmas by Helen M Walters

‘I did tell you I’m vegetarian now, didn’t I Mum?’ Joe said.
Marion nearly dropped the phone at that point. ‘No, Joe, you did not. I’ve got a huge turkey for tomorrow and beef for Boxing Day. I don’t know what you’re going to eat.’
She sighed as she ended the call. It wasn’t exactly the first time Joe had thrown a spanner in the works when it came to food. There was the time when he was six and, for over a month, he’d refused to eat anything other than baked beans on toast.
Andy had told her not to worry then. ‘After all,’ he’d said. ‘They do say beans on toast is a perfect balanced meal.’
Marion had complained that wasn’t the point, but Andy as usual had been right. Eventually the phase had passed and Joe had gone from being a picky eater to a child who’d hoover up anything in sight. Until now.
Marion turned to her husband. ‘Did Joe tell you he was turning veggie?’
‘Nope. It’ll be something he’s picked up from those students he lives with. Like real ale and all those grungy clothes he wears these days. It’ll only be a phase.’
That was all very well, but Marion hadn’t planned for this at all. The thought of all the gorgeous, but very non-vegetarian food she’d stocked up on for Christmas made her want to cry. She and Andy, and Isobel who was only four, would never eat all that food. And what on earth was Joe going to eat. Brussels sprouts and cranberry sauce?
‘That boy can be very thoughtless sometimes,’ she said. ‘What am I going to give him to eat?’
‘He’ll just have to eat vegetables if he likes them so much,’ Andy said mildly.
He was right of course, yet again, but sometimes Marion wished her husband wasn’t so very laid back about everything. She’d spent weeks now planning the perfect Christmas. She’d made lists, selected recipes, and read articles about how to have the best Christmas ever. She’d slaved over Christmas puddings, Christmas cakes and mince pies. She’d decorated the house from top to bottom including dressing a tree taller than herself with tinsel and baubles.
And, most frustratingly of all, she’d cleared freezer space for the gigantic turkey she’d been assured she’d need if she wanted to make turkey risotto, turkey curry and turkey soup from the leftovers. She’d done so much, and frankly she was exhausted.
Now that Joe was eighteen, he was too old to be entranced by a lot of the Christmas stuff. But Isobel was only four and she still believed in Santa and the whole caboodle. Marion wondered for the umpteenth time how wise it had been to have two children so far apart. It was so difficult to get things right for both of them.
She was delighted to have Isobel of course. She’d always wanted a daughter. And after a difficult birth with Joe, she’d thought she might not have any more children. Years of waiting and hoping and false alarms had led to disappointment after disappointment. Until, when she’d thought it was too late and her chances of a sibling for Joe were over, she’d found herself pregnant with Isobel. At first, she’d though it was the start of menopause, but eventually she’d realised it was the start of a miracle.
There was no way she was ever going to forget that. But being a mum for the second time around later in life had been tiring, she couldn’t deny it. It felt like she’d been mum above everything else for a very long time now and the end wasn’t even in sight. Trying to please too many people, too much of the time, for too long had taken its toll.
To be fair, Joe was mostly great with Isobel, indulging her in whatever she wanted to do and going along with the fun of leaving a mince pie and a glass of sherry out for Santa. But how was it going to be this year if he didn’t even want to eat the same dinner as the rest of them?
‘I’d better get Isobel to bed,’ Marion said checking her watch.
That was another problem. She had hoped Joe would be back in time to see his little sister at least briefly before she went to bed. Now she was going to have battle the excitement of Joe’s arrival as well as Santa’s much anticipated visit if she was going to have any chance of getting her daughter to go to sleep at a reasonable time.
‘Isobel,’ she said. ‘Do you want to help me get Santa’s sherry and mince pie ready before you go to bed?’
‘What about Joe?’ Isobel asked.
Marion stifled another sigh. ‘Joe won’t be here until later,’ she said. ‘But don’t worry, when you wake up in the morning Santa will have been with your presents and Joe will be here.’
‘I want Joe now,’ Isobel said, her lower lip starting to wobble.
‘I know,’ said Andy, stepping in. ‘Why don’t we leave a mince pie and a glass of sherry for Joe as well? Then he’ll know you were thinking of him just before you went to bed.’
Isobel smiled and nodded.
‘Come on then.’ Andy led the way into the kitchen.
Marion sighed again, this time with relief. Tears before bedtime was the last thing they needed.
Andy set Isobel the task of putting two mince pies on a plate with a doily and selecting a carrot for Rudolph, while Marion went to the pantry for the bottle of sherry.
‘Oh, no,’ she whispered as she surveyed the shelf where she’d stored the Christmas booze stash. There was the nice wine she’d bought to go with the Christmas meal, the Prosecco, the gin and the vodka for cocktails. But no sherry.
‘What’s the matter?’ Andy appeared at her shoulder.
‘I can’t believe it. There’s no sherry. All that planning and all those shopping lists, and I forgot the sherry for Santa. Isobel will be so disappointed.’
Andy looked over his shoulder to check Isobel was still absorbed in her task, then put a finger to his lips. Quickly he crossed to the fridge, took out a litre of apple juice and poured a tot into two sherry glasses. He had the bottle back in the fridge before Isobel had even looked up.
Between them they finally managed to get Isobel into bed and settled down.
‘Go to sleep now or Santa won’t come,’ they whispered as they left the room.
Back downstairs, Marion collapsed on the sofa.
‘I can’t help thinking Christmas is going to be a bit of a disaster this year. What with no sherry, and Christmas dinner ruined because I didn’t know Joe didn’t want to eat meat. And the worst thing is it’s all my fault.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Andy said as he sat down beside her and held her hand. ‘Nothing’s ruined. Isobel had no idea the sherry wasn’t real. And why would she care? She’s four. And it’s not like Santa’s going to complain is it?’
Marion managed a wry smile at that. ‘It’s just that I feel like however hard I try nothing ever goes the way it should. I shouldn’t have got cross with Joe on the phone earlier either. I just wanted everything to be perfect, that’s all.’
‘And it will be. It’ll be fine.’
‘I didn’t want it to be fine. I wanted it to be perfect. And I wanted them both to enjoy it even though they are so far apart in age. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.’ Marion still felt like tears weren’t that far away.
Andy stroked her hand. ‘Do you remember when Joe was little? He really threw himself into Christmas. He wrote his letter to Santa in September. He wanted a stocking hanging in his bedroom, as well as a big sack of presents under the tree and he loved going to the pantomime. Then he got older and he didn’t really want all those things any more. He stopped believing in Santa and was more excited when people gave him money than presents. Then Isobel came along.’
‘Yes,’ said Marion. ‘And we did it all over again.’
‘Except, we didn’t. Not quite. We did things differently. Isobel has her sack of presents in the bedroom, because she likes to wake up and see them first thing, and she wants her stocking to be under the tree. She has yet to write a letter to Santa, and when we took her to the pantomime last year, she cried because she was scared of the ugly sisters. Kids are not the same. Things change. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different.’
‘I suppose so,’ Marion said, managing a smile.
‘And they’ll continue to change. Isobel will grow up and become interested in different things as she gets older. Joe might be bringing a partner and children of his own home for Christmas before we know it. We’ll have to find new ways of doing things again then. And that’s fine.’
‘I know you’re right. I’m just exhausted, that’s all. And still a bit cross with myself for forgetting the sherry,’ Marion said.
‘Actually, I’ve just remembered something.’ With that Andy went and started to rummage around among the presents under the tree.
‘Here you are,’ he said holding out a present with wrapping but no label. ‘The neighbours dropped it round earlier. Open it.’
Marion started to peel the paper away and as she did, she couldn’t help giggling. It was a bottle of dry sherry.
‘How did you know?’
Andy shrugged. ‘Just something about the shape of the bottle. Lucky guess. Let’s not waste it on Santa though.’
Marion went into the kitchen for fresh glasses and poured them both a measure. It was as they were taking their first sips that the front door opened and Joe came in.
‘Hey, Mum. Got room in the fridge for this?’ he said, handing her a supermarket bag. Inside was a box marked ‘Festive Nut Roast’.
‘Oh, you brought your own lunch,’ she gasped. ‘I was so worried about what we were going to give you to eat.’
‘Sorry Mum,’ he said, enveloping her in a huge hug. ‘I should have told you about the vegetarian thing. My bad.’
Tears prickled behind her eyes. Her son wasn’t as thoughtless as she’d feared. ‘I just want us all to have a lovely Christmas meal together,’ she sniffed.
‘We will, Mum. I can still eat your famous roasties can’t I? And the sprouts and parsnips. Can’t wait.’
Marion felt some of her stress slipping away.
‘And, this was on special offer,’ he said reaching down into the huge bag at his feet.
Marion and Andy both laughed when they saw what it was. A bottle of sherry.
‘What’s funny?’ Joe asked.
‘Snap!’ said Andy, holding up the bottle they had already opened.
‘We’re definitely not going to go short of sherry this year,’ Marion said as she went into the kitchen for an extra glass.
As she came back into the living room to the sight of Andy relaxing on the sofa and Joe unpacking a huge pile of presents, which judging by the wrapping were mostly intended to go upstairs for his sister, Marion finally relaxed properly.
Christmas wasn’t ruined at all. In fact, it might be the best one ever. And as long as they were all together she was sure they’d manage a very merry time indeed.
‘Sherry Christmas,’ Andy said with a wink and a grin as he raised his glass to her.

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