The Best Laid Plans – A short story for Waitrose by Prue Leith
“It will be fine darling, stop stressing.”
Helen knew she was driving Jake mad with her worries about Christmas. She must try not to fuss. “I’m not stressing. Honestly. It’s just that with your whole family coming… And there’s so much to do. And your mother is so good at entertaining, and cooking…” She trailed off, thinking but not adding, and so good at criticising, and knowing better, and pulling rank and making me feel small.
“Yes,” said Jake, “but she has nothing to do but worry about matching napkins and the latest fashion in hors d’oeuvres. You have a full-on job and patients to worry about.”
It was the first time she and Jake had hosted Christmas. Usually they went to New York and had a picture-perfect Christmas with absolutely everything working like clockwork. The decorations were always colour-themed. So far they’d had a silver and blue Christmas; a black and red one and last year candles, crackers, table decorations and napkins were all green and gold, the wine glasses rimmed with a green ivy motif under a heavy gold band and the champagne had flecks of gold leaf floating in it. Even the soap in the loo was green and shaped like a Christmas tree. It sat in a gold dish.
So she had to get this Christmas right. She wouldn’t compete on the décor front but she did want the house to be spotless and decorated prettily, the food to be delicious and there to be nothing the senior Mrs Lovell could complain about. She wanted Jake to be proud of her. They’d been married four years and they’d hardly ever cooked from scratch. He or she would gallop down the supermarket shelves and pick up ready-meals or ready-to-cook dishes and some ready washed salad. They both had good jobs, he writing computer programmes, she as a physio. They were always short of time. But they at least they could afford to eat well and healthily.
She wanted to show Joan and Marc Lovell and their other son’s family a proper English Christmas so she bought a book on Christmas entertaining. It contained a “Countdown to Christmas” chart, which she stuck on the fridge and followed to the letter: She baked and decorated the Christmas cake months in advance. A week before Christmas she made the mince-pies and the pudding. She went to the market and bought armloads of holly and ivy and put them in buckets of water. She bought a Christmas tree, gold and red baubles, several strings of fairy lights, and small fake apples. In the evenings she and Jake sat in front of the television while she made carnations out of red crepe paper and wire, strung Quality street toffees on loops of cotton for home-made tree ornaments and wrapped presents for all eight Lovells: four adults and four children.
She went to the toyshop and was advised what to buy her nephews, (nine, seven and five years old) and her niece of three. Jake bought Aquascutum macs for both his parents. Very expensive but rather boring, Helen thought, and bought a Burberry scarf for Jake’s brother Tom and a Diane von Furstenberg one (deep pink, chic, and pretty) for his wife. They cost a lot more than she was spending on her husband, but then darling Jake could not care a hoot where his clothes came from.
Two days before Christmas everything was ready and she was proud of herself. The house looked charming. Everything was cleaned and shining, no mess anywhere. There were candles in the windows, a wreath on the door, swags of holly and ivy along the mantelpiece and over the pictures. From under the garlands hung the children’s bulging stockings with their names (Ben, Danny, Michael and Polly) embroidered on the giant stockings. The drinks cupboard was full, wine and port lying on their sides as instructed by the book. As Christmas cards arrived Helen stapled them to the long red ribbons hanging from the Victorian picture rail.
They were to have roast pork with all the trimmings. Jake’s family would have eaten turkey together at Thanksgiving and her mother-in-law prided herself on her turkey dinners cooked by a fancy chef. Helen didn’t want any comparisons. She also wanted to cook everything herself: she knew her mother-in-law had everything catered or had meals delivered by the deli.
On the butcher’s advice she ordered an enormous joint of pork. It was, she said, from a Gloucestershire Old Spot, a rare breed with maximum flavour. It cost an arm and a leg, but it was Christmas after all.
The New Yorkers were due to arrive on Christmas morning which wasn’t ideal, but when Helen had protested that they’d be exhausted after a long night flight, her mother-in-law had said,
“Nonsense darling. We are so used to hopping about the world; we never get jet-lag. But please have the Christmas dinner at lunch-time so that we can have a snooze after lunch.”
Helen had complied, but felt, as always, bossed about in her own house. Why couldn’t they come a day early so they could sleep all day, and Christmas day could be as she’d planned, with an elegant dinner in the evening?
But as she put the twelve-pound joint of pork into a blazing oven at 8 am, she thought, well at least I won’t have to make breakfast for them all while the children pull their Christmas stockings apart. Or make polite conversation when I want to get on with the lunch. She gave the pork half an hour, enough to see the crackling (finely scored, oiled and salted as per Jamie Oliver) beginning to bubble and pop, then she turned the oven right down to start the five-hour slow-cook.
Jake had left to fetch his family from Heathrow and they’d be here by eleven, by which time she’d have the table laid, the pork and potatoes in the oven, the veg blanched and ready for a last minute blast in the microwave. The Nespresso would be set in motion before she opened the door and the mince pies would be warming in the oven. She even had a pair of scissors under the Christmas tree to help with present-opening or to snip off a hanging Quality Street toffee. And she’d secreted a plastic bin liner behind the tree for unobtrusively clearing away the wrapping papers. She hoped Joan wouldn’t notice – at home she insisted Mark flatten out and fold all the wrapping papers to give to the local nursery school. “It would be shabby to re-use the paper for presents, of course” she’d said, “but we New Yorkers are very conscious of the environment – we recycle everything – and the schools are very grateful for the paper.”
By 9.45 Helen was so organized she had nothing to do. She took off her apron and gave herself a once-over in the hall mirror. She didn’t look like herself at all. Her dress was classic and elegant, a shirt-waister in blue silk, her hair had been done yesterday and she was wearing her mother-in-law’s wedding present to her – a string of pearls. I look like a headmistress on speech day, she thought.
Her phone rang. O hell, she thought, the plane must be delayed. Why didn’t we check before poor Jake left? And how long could you keep slow-cooked pork warm for?
It wasn’t Jake. It was Marc, her father-in-law. “Hi, Helen,” he said, “Are you up? What time is it?”
“Marc. Hullo. Are you at the airport?”
“Yes, we’re stuck here. The roads are closed. Too much snow.”
What was he talking about? It wasn’t snowing. “I don’t understand,” she said, “Where are you?”
“At Kennedy. Stuck, unable to fly to England and unable to go home to our flat,”
“Oh, God. I thought you meant Heathrow. Jake has gone to collect you.”
“Didn’t you check the internet? Last night…The storm is all over the news.”
“No, we didn’t. Why didn’t you ring us?”
“We didn’t want to wake you. It was the middle of the night, your time. I waited ‘til now.”
Poor Lovells. And with four children. What a way to spend Christmas Eve. And maybe Christmas Day.
She rang Jake’s mobile and explained. She didn’t care for her parents-in-law yet her principal emotion was deep disappointment. She was near to tears. “I can’t bear it, darling, I’ve worked so hard, and now…”
“Tell you what, sweetheart. There’s a bright side. We can catch the morning service at St Stephens and come home and eat and drink like lords. Just the two of us. And tomorrow we’ll round up some friends to eat cold pork. It will be lovely.”
His words cheered her and she found herself smiling. When Joan had insisted on a late arrival and a lunch-time Christmas dinner Helen had been miffed that her plan to take everyone to an ancient English parish church for the late morning service had been scuppered. Now she began to feel carefree, even happy.
After the service, which had been rather jolly, they talked to Andrew, the vicar, and his wife Jean. Jake recounted their mornings’ adventures, and Helen joked: “You can’t come and have lunch with us, and rustle up a dozen parishioners, can you? I’ve half a pig slow-roasting in the oven.”
“As it happens, I have. If you’re serious.”
Was he serious? O Lord, thought Helen. He is.
Jake put his arm round Helen’s shoulders. “Sure. We’re serious if you are, Vicar. Aren’t we darling? It will be lovely.” He turned back to Andrew. “Have you anyone in mind?”
“Yes, A young couple with an old mother and four young children. They’re the only Egyptians who come to the centre, and they don’t seem to have any friends or relatives. And they have no money.
Jake suddenly said, “O Andrew. But we are eating pork. They’ll be Muslims.”
“No, no. The Besharas are Christian Copts. You might have seen them just now. They were standing at the back of the church.”
As soon as they got home, Jake went upstairs to find four rugby socks and filled them with the contents of the Christmas stockings designed for his nephews and nieces.
Helen hurried to check on her pork. As she opened the oven her stomach clenched in panic. There was no rush of hot air: the oven was stone cold. The loin of pork was tepid to the touch.
Jake came into the kitchen, saw her face and hurried to her. “It must have fused,” she said. Jake checked. Sure enough the switch had tripped.
Helen had her head in her hands. “It must have fused when I had the oven up to maximum to do the crackling. Oh darling, what can we do? Can we cancel them?”
They couldn’t. There was no answer from the vicarage and they did not have Andrew’s mobile number.
Helen put the pork back in the now-working oven. She had some idea that getting meat half-cooked and then freezing it was not a good idea. It would now be cooked in time for supper with no one to eat it. “But what can we give seven of them, nine with us, to eat?” she wailed.
Jake suddenly laughed. “C’mon darling. It’s not the end of the world. We’ll have to just rustle up something. Eggs? Rice? What have we got?”
At that moment the doorbell rang and Jake kissed her quickly and said, “It will be fine. We’ll just tell the truth.”
The family were delightful from the start. Ashraf, the father, spoke fair English, as did his elder children, Mikael and Lot. Kasrin, the wife, was shy and pretty and spoke only when addressed directly. The two little girls spoke only Egyptian and old Mrs Beshara barely spoke at all, in any language. She sat very still, looking at her grandchildren opening their stockings, smiling.
Jake opened a bottle of champagne and offered a glass to the women. Both shook their heads, smiling. But Ashraf took a glass.
Ashsraf said, “We don’t usually drink alcohol, but this is such a happy moment, the first time in England to be in a private house. We are saying thank you. So I will accept.” He gave a little formal bow and smiled, his handsome face a picture of pleasure.
When they were all sitting down, Helen said, “I wish we had Christmas presents for you all, but we do have one for the whole family.” She went to the biggest package under the tree, a Bagatelle board she’d bought for her nephews and niece. She quickly pulled the tag off it, and gave it to the children to open. Within minutes they were happily shooting the balls through the avenues of pins and cheering and laughing. Ashraf moved them out onto the hall carpet so the grownups could hear each other speak.
Jake told them about the fused oven. “I think we may be getting nothing but boiled eggs and a lot of vegetables for Christmas dinner. But there is a huge pudding and lots of ice cream, so we won’t starve.”
Helen asked the two Mrs Besharas to come and help her decide how to make something out of the mountain of veg and a dozen eggs she had. Both women immediately relaxed in the informality of the kitchen. They made a tour of Helen’s store-cupboard, exclaiming over everything and pouncing on ingredients they were familiar with.
Helen looked at the assemblage with dismay. What on earth could they do with this? But in half an hour they had the platter (a huge one bought specially for the pork) layered with the most beautiful vegetarian dish: fried onions and potato cubes on the bottom seasoned with lemon and garlic, then rice, lentils (from a tin) and chopped vegetables turned in olive oil with cumin and allspsice. The top was decorated with chopped boiled eggs, raw tomatoes, spring onions and parsley. And on the side a sauce of plain yogurt and diced cucumber and mint.
Jake cleared away one of the places at the table and the elder children lit all the candles. It looked lovely.
The Copts tried to teach the English how to eat elegantly with their fingers, gathering the food in a ball, pressing it together, maybe dipping it into the sauce, and popping it into their mouths. Only the tips of the fingers of one hand were involved while their hosts had both hands messy. The food was delicious, and everyone was laughing.
Mrs Beshara senior suddenly leant over to her son, earnestly saying something as he nodded in agreement. “My mother she say she is very happy, and if all the English people are kind like you she is happy to come to this country. Your house it reminds her of the old days when I was growing up and there were always many friends, the women in the kitchen, making food and laughing. She say this dish make her want to cry. It tastes like home in el-Arish, where we come from, before Isis burn our house and we have to run away.”
Helen looked across at Jake, smiling. She could not remember a happier Christmas lunch, ever.