THE PERFECT GIFT by Helen Shay

Martin made it clear that perfection was expected.
'The first time we've had Mum and Dad coming for Christmas!' he declared. 'Let's make it really special.' That roughly translated as 'over to you, darling.' With Martin working long hours, Sally knew only too well that the burden would rest with her. If only Martin hadn't given her so much to live up to. All he seemed to talk about, during the runup to Christmas, were the wonderful memories he had of it as a boy. And every sentence began with 'Mum would always....' Basically, it seemed that his mother had done everything, short of donning a red suit and riding a reindeer.
Worst still, Sally felt that her prim and proper mother-in-law disapproved of her own scattiness - not to mention Tigger, the stray kitten Sally had adopted. Between them, Sally and Tigger seemed to ensure that the house was in a perpetual state of happy chaos. Yet, Sally knew this could not go down well with that paragon of a mother whom Martin idolised. But, for his sake, Sally would make the effort to get everything right for the big day As the remaining shopping days dwindled, Sally's list of things to do seemed to grow longer and longer. She must roast chestnuts because Martin's Mum always did. There must be holly in every corner, mistletoe over the threshold, and a Christmas wreath upon the front door. The table must be adorned with a hand-embroidered cloth and a home-made table decoration - all like Martin's Mum used to do it.
During the two years she'd been married, Sally had never felt close to her mother-in-law. Now she was beginning to hate this 'wonderwoman' and the standards she'd set. When it came to the food they needed, one supermarket trolley was never enough - no matter how many shopping trips Sally made. Martin kept recalling yet another of 'Mum's little Christmas treats' which Sally must be sure to put on the menu.
'At this rate they'll be rolling - not driving - home,' Sally protested,
But Martin wanted everything as it had been when he was a boy - perfect, of course.
By Christmas Eve, Sally had a 'countdown-action-plan' which looked like 'Mission Impossible'. She was so nervous she could hardly sleep.
'It will be fine,' soothed Martin. 'Just like Mum used to...' Sally threw a pillow at him before he could finish.
'Just let's get some rest, Martin!'
But in the morning, they over-slept.
'Oh, no!' shrieked Sally, leaping downstairs and grabbing the turkey foil.
She set about the preparations, doing six jobs at once. The morning was disappearing fast, when Sally realised she'd forgotten to heat the oven.
'Drat!' she cursed. 'Now everything will be behind schedule.' Martin was busy laying the table in the dining-room. Sally sneaked a sip of the brandy she'd bought for the sauce, and tried to calm herself. So many things were crying out to be done.
'Little sausages with bacon wrapped round!' she declared, and set to work on this 'must' of Martin's Mum.
It was then that Tigger began licking her lips, unnoticed beneath the kitchen table. The doorbell rang.
'They can't be here already,' Sally moaned, tearing-off her apron.
When she reached the hall, Martin had already shown his parents, Moira and John, into the sitting-room. But as the four of them sat drinking sherry and exchanging presents, Sally was struck by a horrific thought.
'Brussels sprouts!'
Her in-laws gazed up, open-mouthed at her shriek.
'I forgot to get any,' Sally lamented. 'And come to think of it, I haven't done the stuffing balls yet either!'
Sally rushed to the kitchen, about to roll her sleeves up once more, when a nightmare sight halted her in her tracks. Tigger was upon the work-top, looking every inch the cat who had eaten the cream - not to mention the brandy butter, the white sauce and the smoked salmon starters. Sally bent over the kitchen sink and wept.
'Would you be very offended if I lent a hand?' said a kindly voice behind her.
Sally turned round. Moira stood looking at her with sympathetic brown eyes. Could this really be Martin's Mum before her, or had some fairy godmother floated down from the Christmas tree? Sally sank into the older woman's arms.
'It's all gone wrong,' she moaned. 'You did it all so perfectly. I should have known I'd never be able to live up to you. And now I've even got mascara on your dress.'
Moira held her close, untroubled by the black smudges now blotted upon her white collar.
'Christmas isn't about perfect cooking or perfect anything, Sally, ' she said. 'It's just about being together. And as for me doing everything so 'perfectly' - well, I don't know what Martin's been telling you. He only remembers the later times. I suppose I had got Christmas down to a fine art by then - but you should have seen me when I was first married!'
Sally blew her nose on her hankie.
'Bet you never forgot the Brussels sprouts,' she sobbed.
'No,' answered Moira. 'But I'm glad you have. I hate the things. A Christmas without brussels sprouts is the best present you could have given me!'
Sally looked at her. Suddenly, she realised that she too had received a very unexpected present - a friend. The 'enemy' she'd always suspected had magically, it seemed, been transformed - or rather she was seeing the true person for the first time.
The two women smiled at each other, then set to work together to salvage the food which had escaped the cat. Eventually they produced a belated, yet delicious, Christmas dinner. As the four of them sat down to eat, Martin began to apologise that 'it wasn't quite as Mum used to -', but Moira silenced him with a kick under the table. Then she winked across at Sally and declared it to be 'perfection'.

ENDS © Helen Shay

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