“This is going to be a nightmare!”
Ellie touched the accelerator, and pulled the car forward another few inches. Then she braked and waited, staring through the windscreen at the threatening sky. How many days since she last saw the sun? Curse the English weather! Those pretty Christmas cards with cheerful robins on white frosted branches were false advertising. All she had seen was rain, sleet and more rain.
She glanced at her watch. Not yet ten o’clock. The supermarket wasn’t even open and the car park queue already stretched back into the street. She had thought coming early was a good idea.
“There’s nothing good about shopping on Christmas Eve,” she muttered under her breath. “Oh, look out. Idiot!” The louder comment was directed at a man trying to squeeze his Volvo into the queue ahead of her. Determined not to make the morning worse by getting into a fight, Ellie made way for him, then followed him into the almost full car park.
“As for those who can’t manage to park inside the white lines…” Ellie steered carefully around cars and people until she found a space, about as far from the supermarket doors as it was possible to get. She turned the engine off, and took a deep breath. She wasn’t even inside the store, and already she could feel her stress levels rising.
“Bah, humbug!” She whispered, hunching her shoulders against the chill as she locked the car door. She didn’t hate Christmas. She simply hated THIS Christmas.
As she dashed across the car park, she slipped on a patch of ice, smashing her knee against the side of a car. Rubbing the bruise, Ellie staggered into the shelter of the supermarket entrance, accepting yet another blow in a Christmas that was totally horrid. She wanted none of it – no cards, no carols, no turkey and certainly no bread sauce!
Ellie pulled a trolley from the rack, expecting at least one broken wheel. As if frightened of her mood, the trolley obediently moved in the right direction. The automatic doors slip open to reveal…
The supermarket was heaving with people. A few feet in front of her, the fruit and veg department was a traffic jam of trolleys and prams. The faces of the other shoppers told Ellie everything she didn’t want to know – and her shopping list was very very long. There was nothing else for it, she stepped through the doorway and into the melee.
Potatoes, sprouts, parsnips and carrots.
Would that be enough? Maybe she should get broccoli too. What about Peter? Her youngest brother-in-law was difficult about food. What vegetables did he eat? She had been told, but of course she hadn’t written it down. And now she had forgotten. Too bad. He could eat whatever she served, or else go hungry!.
Cooking Christmas dinner for her new family wasn’t a bad idea, as such. There were just so many of them. She knew when she married David that he came from a large family, and she liked them. Really she did. But Christmas dinner for eleven!
Just how big should the turkey be to feed eleven people? Well, nine adults and two kids, the offspring of David’s oldest brother Jason. Did that mean really it was only 10 people?
Ellie stood gazing at the mountain of birds in front of her. Frozen or unfrozen? There wouldn’t be time to defrost a big turkey overnight. Would there? She had no idea. She’d never cooked a turkey before. She wasn’t even certain exactly what she was supposed to do with the bacon.
This was all David’s fault!
When she agreed, somewhat cautiously, to host the family Christmas dinner, David had promised her all the help in the world. “Don’t worry about the dinner,” he said. “I’ll help.” And where was he? Off on some urgent, last minute business trip and not due home until this afternoon. What sort of new husband went on a business trip this close to Christmas?
Ellie sighed, and tentatively prodded a turkey.
“Having trouble, dear?”
The woman at her side was old enough to be Ellie’s mother. She had grey hair and a kindly face. Her smile was so friendly that Ellie bit back the sharp retort that had sprung automatically to her lips. It wasn’t this woman’s fault.
“I’m not sure how big the turkey needs to be.”
“Oh, that’s easy. How many are you feeding?”
“Eleven.” The word was a cry of pain.
“Oh, what fun! It’s so nice to have the family around at Christmas. How many are children?”
“Just two – five and seven, I think. “At this point, Ellie would have been hard pressed to remember her own age.
“This one should do fine.” The woman dropped a big bird into Ellie’s trolley. “Don’t forget the stuffing and the bread sauce. And mind you use the bones to make soup afterwards. Turkey soup tastes great on a chilly Boxing Day.”
“About the bread sauce…” before Ellie could finish, her rescuer was gone, pushed aside by an angry looking woman, dragging a small boy behind her.
“… you don’t start behaving yourself, there’ll be no Christmas, you hear. Santa will pass our house and …” A turkey held firmly in one hand and her son in the other, the woman vanished back into the crowd.
The dairy-food aisle was effectively blocked. A young man had parked a pallet of boxes in the middle of the aisle, and was unloading the contents into the refrigerators. As fast as he stacked the cream, shoppers claimed the cartons and moved on. Ellie would never get her trolley down there. She abandoned it, and slipped through a narrow gap.
Milk and cream. Double cream or that clotted stuff? Brandy butter too, whatever that was.
The food was all so different here. Back home in Australia, she’d be serving fresh king prawns and cold ham with salad. They’d be eating mango and pineapple under a blazing summer sky. She wouldn’t have to cope with the concept of a hot meal.
Ellie found the bright boxes in the next aisle. They’d know it wasn’t home made, of course. Especially her mother-in-law, Ruth. She’d sniff out the bought cake as well. Ruth had always made her own. She’d offered Ellie the recipe, but Ellie knew such culinary feats were beyond her limited prowess. A bought cake and pudding would have to do.
Ellie felt a twinge of guilt. She was doing David’s mother an injustice. Ruth was the best mother-in-law a girl could have. Kind and helpful, without intruding. She would never say a word about a purchased pudding. Wouldn’t even think it.
Drinks. Fruit juice.
As Ellie loaded herself with soft beverages, she glanced over at the wines and spirits section. There was barely breathing space for the harassed looking men and women, who were trying to load up with bottles and cans. At least she was spared that. David and his father Allan raced out last week to stock up on port, wine and other Christmas tipples.
That was the day David found out about his trip. It wasn’t his fault. Some financial crisis that only he could solve. He couldn’t say no and it might mean a promotion. But why did it have to happen just as they were planning their first Christmas together as man and wife? And couldn’t it have come a few days earlier, before David had talked her into playing hostess for the famous Henderson family gathering?
Mince pies, chocolates and other sweets.
David’s parents topped the guest list. The invitation to his eldest brother Jason naturally included his wife and two children. Youngest brother Peter would come alone, but not sister Clare. She had to bring her boyfriend Joe. When Ellie had tentatively suggested Joe might not be necessary, she learned that Clare was really serious about this latest in a long list of boyfriends. In fact, a Christmas announcement wasn’t out of the question!
And that made eleven.
Breakfast cereal. Bread.
As Ellie reached for a loaf, she thought again about the bread sauce. What on earth was bread sauce? In all the Christmases she had enjoyed back home in Australia, nothing called bread sauce had ever crossed her plate. It was, according to David, an English Christmas tradition, and his mother would happily provide the recipe.
No. She wasn’t even going to think about bread sauce. Whatever it was, they’d be doing without it this year!
Stuffing, though, was an entirely different matter. Ellie cross-checked her list. She was something of an expert on stuffing. She’d be doing two different types, one with rice and fruit, the other with bread and herbs. She had learned both in her mother’s kitchen, many years and so many miles away.
That was the trouble of course. She was depressed because this was her first Christmas away from her family.
Ellie slipped gently into line at the checkout, ignoring the screaming child held over the shoulder of the woman in front of her. As she composed herself for a long wait, her mind wandered to Christmases past. The joy and laughter. The little traditions that made the day special. She would miss all that this year.
Not that she had any regrets. Given a second chance, she would do the same thing – marry the man she loved and follow him to the other side of the world. It was just such a long way from home. They would probably spend next Christmas back in Australia – alternating every year. But knowing that didn’t make this first Christmas without her family any easier.
“How are you today?” The check-out woman’s question was mechanical. She no more expected an answer than Ellie wanted to give her one. They exchanged nods that spoke louder than words. Neither of them wanted to be in this place on this day. The register began its methodical beeping as one by one Ellie’s purchases were passed across the reader and packed into white plastic bags.
Ellie was still digesting the staggering cost of her load as she pushed the overflowing trolley towards the doors. It was too late, but with her whole being she desperately wanted to call off Christmas dinner, go back to bed and pull the covers over her head. She would stay there until the sun shone again, probably in May.
With an asthmatic wheeze the doors slid open, and Ellie walked out into a wonderland.
Soft white flakes wafted gently from the sky. The snow had already covered the dull grey surface of the car park with a pristine beauty. The bright paint of the cars provided a tantalising counterpoint, which was quickly vanishing under coats of white. Children were laughing, their faces upturned, tongues out to catch the falling flakes.
A few flakes drifted under the awning, dropping onto Ellie’s grocery bags. Spellbound, she stretched out a finger to catch a flake, which instantly vanished. It was wet! Ellie had never seen snow before. In the land of her birth, snow was restricted to a few mid-winter weeks in the mountains of the far south.
“Now it really does feel like Christmas.” It was Ellie’s friend from the turkey shelf.
“The snowflakes are so big. I always thought they’d be tiny.” Ellie spread her arms wide. “It’s simply amazing! Do you think it will last until tomorrow?”
“I do hope so, dear. The children will be so excited. If it keeps up like this, there’ll be enough for snowmen and snowball fights. Perfect after that big family dinner of yours.”
“Oh, but my family…” Ellie stopped.
She had been about to say that her family was on the other side of the world, spending Christmas Day under summer skies. But she was wrong. Only one part of her family was back in Australia. She had a second family now – David’s family was hers too. A new family and new traditions. What a way to start – a white Christmas.
She looked up the gentle white flakes drifting from the cloudy sky. Somewhere above those clouds, David was sitting on a plane, on his way home to her. She glanced at her watch, and then back into the crowded supermarket she had just escaped. Yes, she had time. A genuine smile lit her face as she turned back to the woman at her side.
“It’s going to be terrific. But I need your help one more time. Please, can you tell me… just what is bread sauce? And how do I make it?”
Published by The People’s Friend – December 2003
Artwork by John Hancock courtesy of The People’s Friend
Although Australia and England have close ties – it amazed me when I first arrived here how different to two cultures are. I am sure the weather has a lot to do with it. It took me a few years to get used to the idea of a hot meal for lunch at Christmas. We always had prawns and mangos. I still have no idea how to make bread sauce.
© Janet Gover 2003