“The trouble with you is, you can’t say no to no-one!” Ethel said scornfully to Beryl.
“I know,” Beryl said sadly. “But sometimes it seems so .. Impolite…. To say no..”
“”Look,” Ethel said, “ If you don’t want to spend Christmas with your niece, then just flipping say so! If you ask me, it’s bleeding IMPOLITE to pretend you want to go.”
Beryl knew her friend was right. So many times she had ended up doing things she didn’t want to, simply because she was too timid to say no.
Christmas was easily the best example. Since her husband died, Beryl had been invited every year to spend Christmas with her niece Sylvia and her family. They were so kind, and even invited Willie her little dog, but it simply wasn’t what she wanted. All she required was a quiet day on her own, but for the past five years she had found herself travelling by bus and train to get to Sylvia and Tom in Norfolk, then, absolutely exhausted by the journey to be confronted by Sylvia who only ever drank wine on Christmas day and was usually pie-eyed by half past ten, her husband Tom who never spoke, only shouted, and of course, the twins, who had been monsters at 2 and were now worse at 6, and their elder siblings who screamed and fought all the time. Poor Willie was so frightened he spent the entire time hiding under the sideboard.
Worse, the food was execrable. Overcooked sprouts. Burnt turkey. Stuffing balls that would kill a pig at 50 paces, and that was before you got to the soggy Christmas pudding and lumpy custard. It generally took 3 weeks for Beryl’s ears, nerves and digestive system to recover.
“But what can I say?” she appealed to Ethel. “I can’t just say, I don’t want to come.”
“Improvise, “ Ethel said promptly. “Say you can’t face the journey. After all you’re no spring chicken. “
“ I could say the travelling is too much for me. “ Beryl admitted hopefully. “But what if they say they’ll come and collect me?”
“then you have to invent a cold or something,” Ethel said brusquely. It was easy for Ethel, she had no trouble improvising, in fact so much so it was difficult to tell whether she ever actually told the truth. “But, if you can’t say it to their face, write a letter and stick it in their Christmas card. “
In the end, that was what Beryl did after a great deal of heart searching. Sylvia rang immediately and said she could understand about the travelling, and how sorry they were she couldn’t come and Tom shouted from beside her how much they would miss her. They hadn’t seemed to take it badly at all, so Beryl’s nervousness and guilt gradually faded.
Beryl soon had her Christmas day planned; first a morning walk with Willie, then a mince pie and cream for elevenses, before she cooked a duck leg (couldn’t face turkey and definitely no sprouts) and some nice frozen veg with a Tesco‘s trifle; then an afternoon with the telly, until she had her Christmas cake with a nice pot of tea at 5. Five o clock was always the time that Sylvia put her Christmas dinner on the table and it was always too late and too much for Beryl who liked to eat early. Not any more, she told herself happily.
So Christmas Day dawned, and Ethel happily put Willie’s little tartan coat on him, his Christmas present, and set off along the road to the park. It had been raining , and they had to avoid the puddles as Willie was a Yorkie and only had short legs. They were just coming out of the park, when a terrible thing happened. A car swished by, straight through a puddle, and washed over poor Willie knocking him flat on his back in 3 inches of water. He almost had to swim out.
Beryl was devastated; the poor little thing was soaked, and shivering.
“Oh my god,” said a woman’s voice, as the driver got out of the car. “I’m so sorry .. It’s Beryl, isn’t it, and poor little Willie.”
Beryl really wanted to shout at her and tell her what an idiot she was, but instead it came out politely as: “Its all right, don’t worry.” .She recognised Mrs Daley from the village.
“Oh – its all my fault. Come one, let me put it right.” Mrs. Daley got a blanket from the car and wrapped Willie in it, and insisted Beryl got in the car.
“I can manage, really” Beryl said weakly. “we aren’t far from home .. And he’ll soon dry out …”
But Mrs. Daley didn’t listen, and Beryl wasn’t assertive enough, as usual, she thought to herself sadly. So it was that a few minutes later she was ushered into Mrs. Daley’s sat by the fire with a glass of sherry and a mince pie, while Mrs. Daley and her husband took Willie upstairs, washed him dried him, and put his tartan coat on the radiator t dry.
“Now, You just stay here and have fun, we’ve got all the neighbours coming in for drinks.” Mrs. Daley beamed at her.
All Beryl wanted to say was that it wasn’t her idea of fun; but she heard herself weakly thanking Mrs. Daley and accepting another glass of sherry. Then the door opened and all the neighbours trooped in noisily, so she was stuck there.
Her chance of escape came when they all left at lunchtime to go home to their own Christmas dinners. Beryl was terrified Mrs. Daley would ask her to stay, but she was going to her Mother’s. However, Charlie Cotton and his brother Sid, both with knowing twinkles in their eyes, offered to escort Beryl home.
“I can manage on my own thank you” was what she wanted to say, but it came out as “Thank you very much I am very grateful.”
Except that they didn’t take her home. To her surprise they took an arm each and ushered her and Willie along the main road to the village hall despite her protests that it was the wrong way..
“You’re not sitting at home on your own on Christmas day,” Sid told her with a great laugh. “ Age concern are doing a Christmas lunch for all us wrinklies – you can join us.”
“No – I want to go home, thank you.” was what she wanted to say. But instead it came out as, “Oh how wonderful, how kind.” and they disappeared into the village hall.
When she came out, 3 hours later, she was rather dazed after 3 more sherries and 2 glasses of wine and both she and Willie were stuffed with sausages and bits of turkey. All well cooked, but she would have preferred her duck leg and a bit of solitude rather than the company of 20 other old people, most of them shouting as they were deaf. She tried to be one of the first out, wanting only to hurry home. Instead she was followed by Joyce Kinsley and Mary Brown, who wanted to walk home with her. At least she would be soon shot of them, Beryl thought as they lived in the same street.
“You’ve got to come in and see the Queen,” Mary said, as they got to her house. “It’s nearly 3 o ‘clock. Come on or you‘ll miss it. ”
Beryl really wanted to say, bugger the Queen, she was desperate to get home for a rest, but it wasn’t the queen‘s fault her day had been ruined.. So she went in, and had another glass of sherry though she nearly fell asleep over the broadcast. She wouldn’t be able to eat anything more – all she could hope for now was a quiet evening with Downton Abbey.
But on the way home Joyce whisked her into her house for cheese straws and a cup of coffee; then HER neighbours invited them both round for Christmas cake and a cup of tea and they went over the road for another snack and a drink. And it seemed ages before Beryl was at last, as darkness began to fall, at her own front gate, finally on her own.
“Oh willie,” she said in relief. “This hasn’t been the day I planned at all.”
But as she got to the front door, she could swear she could smell the horrible smell of overcooked Brussels.
To her shock – the door opened before she could put the key in. At the same moment all the lights in the house came on, and there was a terrible, raucous shouting and laughing, as she recognised Tom and Sylvia and the twins and the two older children leaping about inside. Willie shot indoors and hid under the sideboard.
“Happy Christmas! Sylvia yelled with glazed eyes, a bottle in one hand and a glass in the other, both empty.
“You didn’t think we were going to leave you to spend Christmas all your own,” Tom shouted, even louder than usual. “ Come in, dinner’s just about ready.”
Beryl stood stunned, wreathed in the smell of boiled sprouts and burnt turkey. The twins were lying on their stomachs trying to get Willie out from under the sideboard with a poker and their siblings were fighting with Beryl’s best cushions, the stuffing flying everywhere. The mince pie she had left out ready for her elevenses was crushed underfoot. Her nice tidy house was like a disaster zone.
Go away, she wanted to scream. I’ve had enough of the bleedin’ soggy sprouts and the burnt turkey and the sodding stuffing bombs and the screaming kids and the f…ing lumpy custard and I just want to be left alone.
Instead, she heard her small voice say gratefully: “How kind you are, how wonderful this is. Happy Christmas everyone.”
THIS STORY IS PROTECTED BY COPYRIGHT Denise Leppard