Five weeks until Christmas
Lottie tripped over the cat and watched the bag of flour sail through the air. There was a moment’s relief when she could see it was going to land on the kitchen table, but that soon disappeared as the bag exploded, sending a pure white mushroom cloud into the air. The radio merrily belted out ‘Let It Snow’ and as the flour settled, Lottie could see the ghostly figure of Nana Rose – white from top to toe.
There was a small splutter. ‘It’s a good job I’ve stocked up on ingredients,’ said Nana, shaking her head and scattering more flour.
‘I’m so sorry,’ said Lottie, watching the white dust catch in the light from the window. It was quite pretty, really. It looked like it had snowed inside and made Lottie feel instantly Christmassy. ‘I’ll get the dustpan and brush while you have a shower.’
‘No need for that,’ said Nana, dusting herself down. ‘We’ll probably make more mess anyway. We’ll have this cleared up in no time.’ She gave her granddaughter an indulgent smile. ‘Cheer up. It’s not the end of the world.’ Nana Rose was old school and immensely practical, and Lottie loved her dearly. Being back at Henbourne Manor might have felt like a backwards step for Lottie had it not been for the love Nana Rose had wrapped her in the moment she had returned. It had made it feel like a smart decision to live with Nana at twenty-seven, rather than her only option.
But she wasn’t going to think about the mess her life was in. Today was Stir-up Sunday: the day that, traditionally, up and down the country, everyone was busy making their Christmas puddings. Although Lottie was pretty sure Nana Rose was in a minority – these days most people bought theirs from the supermarket; but however much the labels professed to be ‘luxury’ or ‘extra-special’ they were never a patch on Nana Rose’s pudding.
They soon had the kitchen cleaned down, and this time Nana was in charge of the flour. As far back as Lottie could remember, she had made the Christmas pudding with her Nana. As a small child she had been balanced on a chair, and then later she stood on the upturned metal mop bucket until she was big enough to see over the top of the mixing bowl without it. Lottie was aware that after so many years of helping to make the pudding, she should be able to make it herself, but there was one main issue.
‘That should do it,’ said Nana, tipping some flour into the large stoneware mixing bowl.
‘Why don’t you measure anything?’ asked Lottie, passing Nana an assortment of dried fruit.
‘Don’t need to,’ said Nana, a puzzled frown appearing for a moment before her usual smile chased it away. ‘As long as I’ve got my trusty bowl, I’m fine.’ She gave the bowl a reverent pat with her gnarled fingers. Some of her recipes were written down in her frayed cookbook but most of them, including the recipe for the Collins family Christmas pudding, were safely locked in Nana’s memory. Lottie still felt privileged to be involved in making it, as countless relatives and friends had asked for the recipe and Nana would never reveal her secret ingredients.
‘Now, while you grate that carrot, tell me what’s bothering you.’ Nana Rose fixed Lottie with her grey eyes. There was no escape from Nana’s knowing look. Lottie fidgeted distractedly, adjusting her sparkly hair clip. Her hair didn’t need clipping back, she just liked sparkly things. A little sparkle seemed to make even the darkest day better.
‘It’s Mum. She’s driving me potty as usual.’
‘Ah.’ Nana gave an understanding nod. ‘There’s nothing you can tell me about our Angie that will surprise me. Remember I’ve known her a lot longer than you have.’ She winked. ‘What is it this time?’
‘She’s writing her memoirs,’ said Lottie, rolling her eyes so hard she feared she may strain something.
Nana chuckled, not looking up from where she was deftly chopping pecans. ‘Well, if anyone has plenty to write about it’s my daughter.’
How did Nana always seem to see the positive in everything?
‘Yes, but she keeps ringing me up and reading long passages out over the phone. And …’ Lottie paused. ‘It’s terrible, Nana.’
Nana reached out and gripped Lottie’s arm. ‘Is it upsetting, hearing about your mother’s life?’
‘No, it’s not that. It’s the writing – it’s truly dreadful,’ said Lottie with a giggle. A relieved-looking Nana joined in. ‘It’s all lustful looks and heaving bosoms.’
Nana’s eyebrows jumped. ‘You know what I always say?’ Lottie shook her head. Nana had lots of sayings and wise words, so knowing which one she meant would be like trying to pick a book from a whole library. ‘If it’s not harming anyone else, then leave her be.’
‘It’s harming my ears,’ said Lottie with a sigh. The mental images it was conjuring up were the stuff of nightmares. And worst of all, Angie had only got as far as her eighteenth birthday meaning there was a lot more to come. Lottie hung on to the hope that her mother would stay true to form, get bored and move on to something else.
Lottie added her carrot to the mixture. Nana sprinkled in some spices and added fresh breadcrumbs and some suet. Under instruction, Lottie added clementine zest and juice. Nana sloshed in some stout, followed by some brandy. ‘Right, you had best give that a stir and make a wish,’ said Nana, sitting down.
‘You okay?’ asked Lottie.
‘I’m fine. Don’t you worry about me. No use standing up when there’s a good chair going begging.’
Lottie made a wish. It was the same thing she wished for every year – even though she knew it was pointless. She put the bowl on Nana’s lap. ‘You need to make a wish too.’
Nana’s eyes sparkled. ‘I wish for a big family Christmas,’ she said with a chuckle.
‘But we do that every year.’
‘I know. So every year my wish comes true.’ Christmas at Nana’s was sacrosanct – or, more accurately, nobody was brave enough to go against the force that was Nana and disobey her orders to attend. Which meant every year without fail, Angie, her brother Daniel, their partners and offspring would descend on Henbourne Manor for the festive period. It was an annual pilgrimage to Nana’s and Lottie loved it.
Once the mixture was safely decanted into the traditional pudding bowl, Nana showed Lottie how to cover it with parchment and wrap it in kitchen foil, her old fingers working quickly to tie it with string, knotting together a makeshift handle to lift the pudding in and out of the boiling water. When it was safely bubbling away, Lottie began tidying up.
‘I can’t wait for Christmas,’ said Lottie, thinking out loud. Whatever had happened in her life, Christmas was a life raft of happiness she clung to every December.
‘Nor me,’ said Nana, with a yawn.
‘Why don’t you have a lie down, and I’ll finish up here.’
Nana stood up and gave herself a little shake. ‘Actually I’ve got things to do. I need to get my Christmas cards written.’ She took off her flour-smeared apron.
‘That’s a bit early.’
‘No time like the present,’ said Nana. ‘Now, do you think you’ll remember the pudding recipe this time?’
‘I think so,’ said Lottie, although she was hoping Nana wouldn’t test her on it.
‘That’s my girl,’ said Nana, giving her a floury squeeze.