Michael Caine had muttered his last “Bah, humbug!” and turned into a happy old man, singing along with the brightly coloured anthropomorphic animals and monsters. The children loved it, and the adults were content enough with the sense of another Christmas carried off – the presents as hoped for, the meal timed perfectly and now being digested – to indulge the silliness.
“Can we have cake now?” asked Emma.
“Wouldn’t you rather go for a nice long walk?” her father countered, and laughed at his children’s exaggerated groans.
“You can have cake, but you’ve got to have at least one sandwich first,” said their mother.
Emma was already moving towards the fruitcake on the sideboard, but swerved towards the kitchen to get a slice of bread. Oliver, two years younger than his sister, was still too excited by the film to think about food. He danced clumsily in the middle of the sitting room to the music of the credits sequence.
“Did you like that, Gran?”
Spending Christmas at their grandmother’s was a tradition, as was the running order for the day – stockings, breakfast, presents, Christmas dinner, film, tea, bed – and the children were still young enough to believe traditions immutable. Lydia was also of a generation that saw cooking large meals for her family as a grandmother’s duty, which suited her daughter and son-in-law down to the ground.
“Yes, I did. It reminded me of last Christmas.”
Oliver stopped dancing, and looked puzzled.
“But we didn’t watch it last Christmas!”
“What did we watch last year?” Although her mother was perfectly healthy, Claire always kept an eye out for the inevitable signs of senility: confusion, little lapses of memory like this. Come to think of it, though, she couldn’t remember what last year’s film had been either. Tradition blurred different occasions into one.
Graham, her husband, had followed their daughter to the dining room table, and was flicking roast potatoes onto his plate.
“Wasn’t it Finding Nemo?”
“Yeah, Finding Nemo,” mumbled Emma, already halfway through a turkey sandwich.
“Yes, the one with fishes,” said Lydia, “I remember. But I was thinking of the turkey.”
“We always have turkey,” said Claire.
“I know. I meant the one in the film. The turkey Scrooge gives the Cratchits.”
Claire was still confused. She was sitting on the sofa with her feet curled up, looking over at her mother, trying to work out whether she was making sense or starting to go dotty.
“So the turkey in the film reminded you of the one we ate last year?”
“That’s right,” said Lydia. She was glad to be understood. “I was just thinking that we sort of had our own Christmas Carol last year, when we got the turkey.”
Graham and Emma had brought their plates back, and Oliver had gone to get some leftovers for himself.
“Did someone give you the turkey?”
“Yes, in a way.”
“That was very generous,” said Graham.
“Who was that, then?” said Claire.
“Do you remember Ian, who lived next door? I think you met him once or twice.”
“I think so,” said Claire. She remembered the old man whose shopping she had helped bring in once when she was round to see her mum. He was a widower, and had never learnt to look after himself: she remembered dusty rooms with full ashtrays, a heap of dirty plates in the sink. “Didn’t he pass away last year?”
“That’s right, poor man, he was all at sea without Helen. Do you remember I told you it was Hazel, on the other side of Ian, who found him? It must have been September, because her kids had gone back to school. She’d noticed that his lights were on all night, so in the morning she went round to check on him. She rang the bell and tried phoning him, but there was no answer. She knew I kept his spare key, so she came round here and we let ourselves in.”
“Mum, I’m not sure this story is really suitable,” said Claire, pointedly swivelling her eyes towards the children.
“So he had given you the turkey, anyway,” said Graham, trying to draw it to a neat conclusion.
“Well, not exactly. That’s why I was telling you about when he passed away. When Hazel and I found out what had happened we had to sort things out. We called his GP like you’re supposed to, and they said they would come round as soon as they could. Hazel had work to do—she runs her own business from home, you know—so I said I would stay and wait for the doctor. She went away, and I decided I’d make myself a cup of tea.”
“In his kitchen?” said Claire.
“Yes in his kitchen, I’d had plenty of cups of tea in there before! I was waiting for the kettle to boil, and thinking about all the other things that would need doing. His kids would have to clear the house, get the electricity turned off. I thought about going round and turning off the plugs, but then I remembered that the stuff in the fridge would go off, and the freezer would defrost. And that’s when I thought I’d take a look to see what he had in there.”
“Well, it was no use to him anymore, was it! So I had a look, and there was this frozen turkey.”
Claire was staring at her. Graham had stopped eating. The children hadn’t been following the conversation, but they could tell their parents were on edge.
“I could see from the label that it had cost £25. The date was from the year before – Helen must have bought it and never brought it out – but things like that keep for ages. So I popped round here with it and made a space for it in my freezer, and I was back before the doctor arrived. That bird did very nicely for the five of us!”
“Mum, that’s awful!” Claire cried.
“There was nothing wrong with it—it was only out of the freezer for five minutes, it didn’t have a chance to defrost. He wasn’t going to eat it, and that saved me money to spend on that nice bottle of brandy we had, remember?”
Graham and Claire looked at each other. What was it that made them feel as if a ghost had brushed them? It was not the miserliness of the theft; it was the thought of Lydia hauling the dead weight of that frozen turkey while her neighbour lay cold and stiff in another room – the thought of goose bumps on pale skin – that soured their memory of the previous dinner, and the taste of the present one.
They would have to think about how to spend Christmases in future.