The turkey was in the oven, the potatoes too, most of the veg had been prepared, and Natalie was whistling while she worked.
Then Michael came into the kitchen.
“Anything I can do?” he asked, his question merely a preliminary.
Natalie gave him a look that reiterated an incontrovertible fact: this was her exclusive domain — always had been, always would be.
Michael loitered, inspecting a knob on one of the drawers while he prepared for the battle to come.
“So?” he ventured.
The one word hit Natalie’s mood like a torpedo; she knew what he meant.
“I’m not going to call them,” she hissed through her teeth.
“No, you look!” Natalie pointed the kitchen knife she was using at her husband, and not in a vague way. “They’re my family and they’re coming. You had yours here last year. This year it’s my turn. They’re coming.”
“But your mother …” Michael left the thought hanging, knowing that Natalie would get his drift.
“She’s better. It’s been three months now, according to Ben. Not a drop.”
“I’m surprised your brother’s been sober enough himself to notice,” Michael scoffed. “Speaking of which…”
He opened the fridge and took out a beer, pulled the ring, lifted the can to his lips and gulped long and hard.
Natalie attacked a carrot with the knife.
“Brilliant, Michael! Get drunk. That’s going to help.”
“It’s going to help me.”
Natalie stopped cutting and softened her tone.
“Listen, love. Let’s just get through this without all the bitterness and arguments. Can we do that?”
“Me, I’m good. It’s your mother. And your bloody brother and that wife of his.”
“Whatever. They just get my back up, every time. And you know what? I think they do it on purpose.”
“They’re only joking.”
“What?! You’re joking! All those snide remarks about lawyers? It’s as if I wasn’t in the room.”
“Well, last time we were at theirs, you had some choice words to say about accountants, didn’t you?”
“That was revenge!”
“You see?! You can’t let a sleeping dog lie.”
“I’m just saying it wasn’t me who started it.”
“For the love of … How old are you?! Seven?”
Michael glared at his wife, then turned his back on her.
“I wish,” he said under his breath, “that you were more bloody reasonable.”
“What was that?” Natalie’s eyes flashed.
But Natalie had heard him.
“I wish that you were more bloody considerate,” she muttered.
Michael whirled round.
“What did you say?”
“Nothing,” Natalie sniffed.
They were interrupted by a heavy knock on the front door. Natalie’s family weren’t due for a couple of hours. She rolled her eyes.
“That’s all we need.”
She dropped the knife on the cutting board with a clatter, wiping her hands on her apron as she made for the hall.
Michael shook his head in mild exasperation. He finished the beer and took another one out of the fridge. He could make out voices in the hall — his wife’s and a man’s. Then he heard the front door close.
Natalie came back into the kitchen. Michael swallowed a mouthful of beer.
“So who was that, then?” he asked.
Natalie stepped to one side and held out her arm, introducing the man who entered the kitchen after her.
He was large, in all dimensions, and looked to be perhaps in his sixties, although he could have been fifty or eighty; indeed, neither Natalie nor Michael would be able later to specify his age. He was wearing a reddish overcoat and a trilby hat, both mottled with melting snowflakes. He took off his hat to reveal a full head of silvery-white hair.
“Good evening,” he said in a voice that was resonant and warm.
His eyes on Natalie, Michael waited for an explanation.
“Christopher here wants…” Natalie turned to the stranger. “Sorry, Christopher, this is my husband.”
The man came across the room surprisingly quickly, and before Michael knew it he had a meaty hand in his.
“How do you do, how do you do, how do you do?!”
The man beamed and pumped Michael’s hand vigorously, in time with the “dos” of his greeting.
“Er … how do you do?”
Michael kept his eyes on his wife.
“Christopher’s broken down and he needs to use our phone.”
Michael shifted his gaze from Natalie to the man and back to Natalie, ocular daggers drawn. Inviting a stranger in, on this day of all days. What if he couldn’t get through to the breakdown service? Or they were too busy? They couldn’t put him out in the snow. He’d have to stay there. In the house. With Natalie’s family from hell coming. Michael’s train of worst-case-scenario thought had left the station and was well and truly rolling.
Natalie de-fused the almost tangible tension.
“The phone’s through here … Christopher.”
She led the man out through a different door and returned almost immediately.
“What the hell, Nat?!”
“What did you want me to do? Slam the door in his face?”
“It would have been an option.”
Natalie went back to taking it out on the carrots.
“Of course, that’s what you would have done.”
“Okay, maybe not. But what are we going to do with him until the breakdown truck arrives?”
Christopher re-appeared in the doorway, behind Michael’s back.
“He’s going to get on like a house on fire with your mother, that’s for sure,” Michael continued sarcastically. “But what if the bloke’s a bloody psychopath?! I can see the headline now: ‘Family butchered over the turkey and sprouts!’”
He finally registered Natalie’s disguised, frantic gestures towards the door. He had to think on his feet.
“Nope, you can’t invite the neighbour round. No way. It just won’t do.”
He turned and acted surprised to see their visitor.
“Ah, Christopher. Now, can I get you a drink?”
The man was still beaming; it appeared to be the default setting for his face.
“That would be very nice. Thank you.”
“What would you like? Beer? Wine? A little whisky?”
“Do you have any sherry?”
The request took Michael aback a little; they hadn’t had sherry in the house since his mother had been alive.
“I’m afraid not, no. Perhaps a small port?”
“Lovely, thank you.”
Natalie had been itching to intervene.
“What did they say, Christopher?”
The visitor took a glass of deep-red port from Michael and had an appreciative sip before answering.
“Oh, it won’t be long. I’ll go and meet them presently.”
Michael was still feeling a little embarrassed at having displayed his suspicions so openly.
“You can stay here as long as you like, Christopher. We’ll be eating in a couple of hours, if you’d like to join us.”
Natalie gaped at this turnaround in her husband’s demeanour.
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t dream of it,” said Christopher, having another sip of port and putting the glass down on the counter. “In fact, I think I’d better be off.”
“Oh, must you?” Natalie joined in with Michael’s sudden congeniality.
“Yes, yes, yes, I must. But thank you so much for your kindness, Natalie,” and he put a hand on her shoulder.
Later, Natalie would describe the moment as feeling a warmth surge through her body and gather round her heart. Michael would agree because Christopher touched him on his shoulder next.
“And thank you, Michael. I’m sorry for any inconvenience caused.”
“No … no inconvenience at all,” Michael spluttered.
Christopher’s constant smile broadened further still. He nodded, donned his hat, turned and stepped into the hall, the couple following close behind.
Near the front door, Christopher stopped dead; Michael and Natalie almost bumped into him.
“That was lovely port, you know,” the big man chuckled. “I think … I think I’ll just finish it off. May I?”
He didn’t wait for permission but hurried back to the kitchen, leaving his hosts standing and staring at each other until he appeared again moments later.
The couple shook the hand the man offered and mumbled a goodbye
“Farewell, Natalie! Farewell, Michael!” Christopher called back as he strode away down the garden path, his feet crunching into the crisp snow that was still falling.
“What a lovely man,” said Natalie, closing the door.
“Yes, he was. But …” Michael scratched his head. “Hang on a mo’. Did you tell him our names? You know, when you let him in.”
Natalie frowned, thinking. “Hmm … no, I don’t think I did.”
“Then how did he know them?”
“Well, we must have used them when we were talking.”
“You know, I don’t think so.”
“No? Anyway. No matter. I have to get on with the dinner.”
Natalie made to return to the kitchen but Michael blocked her way. She raised her eyebrows, then let out a tiny squeal as he enveloped her in a tight, sustained hug, whispering in her ear.
“Yes. After all, your family will be here soon.”
Natalie broke away and stared into Michael’s eyes, kinder now. She smiled and kissed him.
“Thank you, darling.”
They walked down the hall hand-in-hand, like young lovers. Back in the kitchen, Natalie opened the oven to check on the turkey and spoke over her shoulder.
“You can make yourself useful and finish cutting the carrots, if you like.”
“Will do,” Michael said, eager to take advantage of this rare opportunity to help.
He picked up the kitchen knife and … held it poised in mid-air, looking around him at the counter and table, searching.
“Er, carrots, love?” he said, a note of bemusement in his voice. “What carrots?”