The Late, Late Christmas Club by Helen Walters
People in the cul-de-sac kept themselves to themselves. And considering how closely their houses were huddled together, they knew remarkably little about each other’s lives.
Hannah pottered around her house. Slowly. Since she’d been on crutches everything took about four times as long. That’s why she hadn’t bothered putting any Christmas decorations up this year. In fact, she wasn’t intending to do anything for Christmas at all.
Usually, this time of year was a whirl of social activities. Parties, dinners in nice restaurants, and visits to friends over the Christmas period, followed by a skiing trip at New Year. And although various friends had said she was still very welcome to join them for their celebrations, she hadn’t wanted to be a burden on anyone. And what was the point of a skiing trip if you couldn’t ski?
No. This Christmas was just going to be ready meals from the freezer and endless telly. It wouldn’t be very exciting, but she had been told to rest by the doctor after all. Apparently, her leg would heal better if she rested it and didn’t try to do too much.
As she pottered, she heard the doorbell ring.
‘You couldn’t take this in for Number 14, could you?’ said a cheery looking delivery guy with a Santa hat on.
‘Yes, of course,’ said Hannah. ‘But you’ll have to bring it in.’ She indicated her crutches.
‘Sure thing,’ he said and brought in a very large box which he deposited in Hannah’s hallway.
Hannah had never been asked to take anything in for 14 before. In fact, she didn’t even know who lived there. She spent so much time out and about that she’d never had a chance to get to know the neighbours. She often took things in for Number 11, because the woman who lived there was a nurse and often out working long shifts. Hannah had never actually met her either, but she knew she was a nurse because she’d seen her in uniform. But Number 14 was a totally unknown quantity.
‘I’ll just put a card through Mrs Fletcher’s door,’ said cheery delivery guy. And, with a wave, he was gone.
Alice Fletcher was a woman on a mission. She had a shopping list as long as her arm of everything she could possibly want for the perfect Christmas, apart from the stuff she’d ordered from the online delicatessen. She checked her watch as her groceries went through the checkout in the supermarket. As long as the courier didn’t come early, she’d be in plenty of time to get home and accept the delivery.
Then she really would have everything she needed for an amazing Christmas with her son, daughter-in-law and young granddaughter. She smiled a smile of deep satisfaction as she paid for her goods.
It was as she was sitting in her car preparing to head home that her phone rang.
‘Hi Sean,’ she said. ‘I’ve just done the last of the shopping and I’m heading home. I can’t wait to see you all.’
‘Oh, mum,’ he said. ‘I’m so sorry. But we’re not going to be able to come.’
Alice felt a cold feeling in her stomach.
‘It’s Ruby. She’s got chicken pox, I’m afraid. We think she caught it from one of the children next door. I’m so sorry, but we really can’t risk it. We’ll come to see you as soon as she’s better, I promise.’
Alice struggled to put on a brave voice. ‘Yes, of course. Please give her a hug from me and tell her I hope she feels better really soon. And we’ll all have a late Christmas as soon as she’s well enough.’
It was a while before her tears cleared enough for her to drive home, and as she came in through her front door, she didn’t even notice the card on her doormat.
It had been a tough day on the wards and Paula was exhausted. Christmas was always a difficult time, because as well as all the usual medical tasks, staff tried their hardest to make sure there was at least some sort of Christmassy feel to proceedings. As many patients as possible would be sent home for Christmas day, but those that remained would feel the emotional impact of missing out on time spent with their families as well as being ill.
Paula had agreed to work over Christmas because, unlike a lot of her colleagues, she didn’t have a young family at home. In fact, she didn’t have anyone at home.
She had thought about getting some slightly nicer than usual food in as a bit of a treat over the festive period, but so far she’d been so run ragged at work, and so tired in the evenings, that she hadn’t managed to do any such thing. She was just going to have to rely on whatever she could dig out of the fridge or the freezer.
Pulling into the cul-de-sac, Paula wondered whether she was the only one who would be going out to work tomorrow while everyone else enjoyed the day with their families. She didn’t really know any of her neighbours that well, but she guessed they would all likely be having a much merrier Christmas than she would be.
Hannah woke up on Christmas morning feeling a bit deflated. For all her bravery in deciding to spend Christmas alone so that she wouldn’t be a burden on other people, she now felt a bit daunted with the day looming ahead like a mountain to be climbed.
Breakfast of cereal and orange juice consumed, she headed to the living room to see what the television might have on offer. And that was when she saw the parcel from the day before and remembered that no one had come to pick it up. The delivery guy had definitely said he’d put a card through the door and there was a car on the drive now, so someone was obviously in.
Hannah hesitated. She wasn’t sure what to do. In normal circumstances, she would have just taken the parcel next door. But she didn’t fancy trying to juggle crutches and the parcel, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to risk the ground outside which was looking rather icy.
Surely if next door needed the parcel, they’d come and get it?
Alice wasn’t even sure if she could be bothered to get up at all. If the family had been here, she’d have been up at the crack of dawn getting the turkey ready for the oven, peeling potatoes, chopping carrots and making the batter for the Yorkshire puddings that Ruby loved so much.
But there was no point doing that now. She’d have to find room in the chest freezer for the turkey, she decided. Then it would be there waiting when Sean and his wife and daughter were able to make their belated visit.
There was no rush though, so she stayed in bed reading a book for a while and then finally got up and dressed before heading downstairs for a decidedly non-festive late breakfast.
It was after she’d cleared the breakfast things that she finally noticed the note from the delivery driver just inside the door. She picked it up and read the message. Ah, yes. The delicatessen order. She’d totally forgotten about it in the upset of the previous day.
Would it be all right to go and get the parcel now, she wondered. She didn’t like to disturb the neighbours on Christmas day. But on the other hand, she needed to unpack the parcel and see what she could use now and what might need to go in the freezer with the turkey. Yes, she’d better go round.
‘Hi, I’m Alice from next door,’ she said as a young woman opened the door, balancing on crutches.
‘Ah, yes. I’m Hannah and you must be Mrs Fletcher from Number 14.’
‘That’s right, but please call me Alice. I think you have my parcel? I’m so sorry I didn’t come round to get it yesterday. I didn’t see the card.’
‘That’s okay,’ said Hannah. ‘I’d have brought it round, only I’m a bit incapacitated at the moment as you can see.’
‘Yes, of course. And I’m so sorry to disturb you on Christmas day. You must have loads to be getting on with.’
‘I haven’t actually,’ said Hannah. ‘Christmas is sort of cancelled this year because of the whole crutches thing. I usually spend it with a bunch of friends but I couldn’t bear the thought of spoiling their fun, so I decided to stay here on my own.’
And that was when Alice had an idea. ‘I don’t suppose you’d like to come round to mine, would you? The thing is, my son and his family were supposed to be coming but my granddaughter is ill. I’ve got all this food,’ she indicated the deli box, ‘plus a huge turkey and all sorts of other stuff in the fridge. I wasn’t going to bother just for me, but if you’re on your own as well?’
So that was how Hannah and Alice found themselves sitting in Alice’s living room watching television and chatting while the turkey belatedly cooked in the oven.
‘You know,’ said Alice. ‘That turkey’s going to take hours to cook. I hope you don’t mind eating quite late.’
‘Of course not,’ said Hannah. ‘It’ll be a lot nicer than whatever I could have sorted out for myself.’
‘There’s still going to be way too much food even for two of us,’ Alice said thoughtfully. ‘I wonder if there is anyone else on the cul-de-sac who might want to join us. I know Number 13 always go away to stay away with family at this time of year, but I don’t really know anything about Number 11, do you?’
‘I think she’s a nurse,’ Hannah said. ‘Her car isn’t on the drive, so maybe she’s gone somewhere for the day. But I suppose it’s equally likely she’s working.’
‘Right then,’ said Alice, standing up to go and find pen and paper. ‘I’ve got an idea.’
As Paula drove home after another difficult day of hard work and even harder attempts to keep people’s spirits up, she suddenly realised she was hungry. They’d been serving Christmas meals all day in the hospital canteen, but she just hadn’t found the time to get down there. She tried to remember what she’d noticed in her fridge the previous evening. Was there anything that would make a decent meal? If her memory served correctly, there was some yoghurt, a couple of eggs, some wilted celery and a lump of rather suspect cheese.
She vaguely thought about trying to do some shopping, but she suspected that not much beyond the odd garage shop would be open. And she was too exhausted anyway. No, she was going to have to rely on whatever she could dig out of her freezer.
As she entered the hallway of her house, she flung her jacket over the newel post and braced herself to forage for food.
Then she looked down, and there it was. A neatly folded square of paper.
Hello. I’m Alice from Number 14 and I’m having a belated Christmas dinner with Hannah (No 12). If you haven’t got anything planned, please feel free to come and join us.
Paula smiled to herself. Then she put her jacket back on and headed for Number 14.
And so, Christmas on the cul-de-sac was saved, albeit a bit late in the day. But more than that, the cul-de-sac stopped being the sort of place where people had no idea about anyone else, and became the sort of place where people started to look out for each other. And you can’t get a better Christmas gift than that.