Determined to keep cheerful although there’s been no word from Janice. My oldest friend Laura has arrived for Christmas.
“You’ve got her mobile number – ring the woman,” she says -
but I won’t.
Laura and I trudged up the hill towards the twinkling lights of Simone and Nic’s festive front garden – we were singing, ‘Last Christmas you gave me your heart’, at the top of our voices as Laura said she couldn’t stand the peace and tranquillity that descended on the earth at this time of year.
“Actually last Christmas you gave me your hat,” Laura said cheerfully.
It was a misty Christmas morning, about eleven. We’d been asked over to Nic and Simon’s for mince pies and rum punch before dinner. Laura and I had agreed that as we’d been eating mince pies since they’d appeared in the shops in September we’d make straight for the punch.
“But Margaret, we mustn’t overdo it,” Laura said.
“You mustn’t over do it.” I said, “Moderation in all things, that’s my motto.”
“It would be,” Laura said.
Looking up we could see that several women were already packed into Nic and Simone’s loggia. Nic calls it her ‘ship’s prow’ after several whiskies when she imagines herself to have been a naval captain in a previous life.
The front door flew open and my neighbour Deirdre rushed out, “Where have you been? As the only straight woman at this gathering I’m feeling very isolated. You didn’t walk did you?”
“Yes, it’s a lovely morning”, I said marching briskly between two inflated reindeers tethered to the gate posts.
“Is it?” Deirdre wrinkled her nose, “I’d have driven you – you should have rung.”
“Or left a message on the answer phone.”
“C’est la vie,” Deirdre shrugged her diamante shoulders, “My Martin bought me this jumper – he has immaculate taste.”
“It’s very you," I said diplomatically.
“Happy Christmas. Merry Xmas. Yuletide smackers.” Simone shouted edging Deirdre aside. She grabbed my shoulders and kissed me loudly on both cheeks, “Like my earrings?” She swung a large plastic Christmas tree earring into my face.
“They’re very you,” I said diplomatically.
“They’re vile,” Laura shouted, “They look like they came out of a cracker.”
“They did. Come here you little devil,” and Laura’s head disappeared between Simone’s big and bouncy breasts.
We trooped indoors, cramping ourselves into the loggia. Everyone was shouting now, five women making a huge, boisterous, happy noise. A sixth woman, Janice, stood silent and awkward, pressed between the window and an art nouveau jardinière.
“Happy Christmas, Margaret,” she said and started coughing.
“Happy Christmas Janice.”
And then she smiled and I smiled. I pushed my way through to her. “Why are you here? I didn’t know you’d be here,” I burbled.
“Deirdre organized it. I asked her to. As a surprise and then I thought, oh bloody hell, suppose she doesn’t want to see me after three weeks.”
“Of course I want to see you.”
Nic appeared in the doorway. She wore a plastic apron and carried a gravy boat in one hand - a whisky glass in the other.
“Mince pies and rum punch being served, now, in the dining room. Any spills on my new maple effect laminate must be reported immediately to the chef, i.e. me!” she shouted.
We all explode out into the hall. I want to talk to Janice but feel inexplicably shy. Laura is ahead of me chatting to Nic, “I thought this Janice woman would be more of a live wire,” she says.
“Bronchitis,” Nic explains, “ Every time she talks, she coughs.”
“Shouldn’t she be in bed?”
“She wanted to see Margaret.”
“Margaret! Our Margaret,” Laura exclaims, “She hasn’t wanted to see Margaret for at least three weeks, why would she want to see her now, when she’s got bronchitis.”
“Who’s got bronchitis?” Deirdre asks.
“I have,” Janice said and started to cough again.
We assemble in the dining room. Deirdre starts telling Simone about her new approach to life for the coming year, “Chicken salad or chicken shit – we all have a choice,” she said.
“What about vegetarians?” Laura asked.
“Well it’s fruit salad or fruit…”
“Mince Pie?” Simone swallowed a whole mince pie and then wiped her hands fondly on Laura’s head, “Deirdre, where did you leave your Martin?”
“He’s watching television at home. He said women en masse get up his nose.”
“That’s not very Christmas spirited of him,” Laura said dipping a stray cup into the rum punch, then to me, “This is lovely stuff Margaret, you should have a slurp.”
“I’ll get you a glass,” Janice said quietly stifling a cough.
Deirdre who doesn’t drink but does eat tucks into the mince pies, tossing her blond hair she says, “My Martin believes Christmas is a Capitalist plot to keep the proletariat content while they’re being crushed under the government’s boot heel. Martin’s very clever. Almost a genius. When he was in his teens he won Mensa.”
“Blimey,” I said.
Laura said, “Deirdre are you sure he didn’t say, “When I was in my teens I wore Menswear?”
Deirdre looked bewildered. Crumbs drop amongst her diamante. I hug her, “Take no notice. Laura’s teasing you. Your Martin is a smashing chap.”
“He is,” Deirdre said in half a mind to start crying, “Not necessarily sociable but very generous. Take this jumper…”
Laura, “No you take it. Diamante is bad for my sinuses …”
Janice said, “That’s enough now, Laura.”
Simone rapped on the table with a spoon, “Can we have a toast?”
“Toast,” Laura shouts, “Not after six mince pies and a bucket of grog…”
Quite amiably yet firmly Janice put her hand over Laura’s mouth. Laura subsides. We all shut up. Nic fills our glasses. Deirdre murmurs that an orange and passion fruit drink might be nice but is satisfied with a Diet Coke as she’s driving. Finally Nic stands at the head of the table and raises her glass, “A toast to Christmas and all our friends, present and …Simone, what’s the opposite of present?”
“Departed? Dead? Not present?” Simone offers.
“Whatever,” says Nic, “Merry Christmas to everyone.”
“Merry Christmas,” we shout back, and swig our drinks.
Janice takes me by the elbow and leads me out to the loggia. Suddenly with only the two of us, it does feel a bit like standing on the prow of a ship. We face each other and Janice says, “Phew.”
I say, “Phew indeed,” and for once don’t feel like a prim and proper school mistress.
“I bought you this,” she says.
From her rucksack behind the jardinière she produces a heart shaped, red velvet box. Inside is a tiny silver broach in the shape of a teddy bear. I am speechless. Near to tears. Janice is smiling. Then she starts coughing.
Everyone is trooping back up the hall towards the loggia. I hear Deirdre telling someone, “What that woman needs is a tincture of hypericum mixed with Echinacea.”
“Merry Christmas Janice,” I lean across and kiss her.
“Hold it right there,” Laura shouts from the doorway, “That woman’s infectious.”
We all start laughing.
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