I could tell mum was trying not to cry again, even with the mask over her mouth and nose. Her eyes were wet, and she was blinking hard. She did that a lot this Christmas. For a second she stared at the oversized fake pine tree in the shopping centre, surrounded by equally fake presents, watching the man dressed as Santa listen to children shout from 6 feet away. Santa was wearing a mask too. I knew what mum was thinking about. She was thinking about how grandma always loved taking me to see Santa, even though he wasn’t real either.
Mum worked at the hospital as a nurse, and the last couple of months she had been working a lot. Too much. There was a sickness was going around and there weren’t enough nurses. It was the same sickness that Grandma died from, back in September. A lot of people were dying from it.
I kept silent as she led me towards the toy shop, stopping just outside. She looked in the window. It was mostly empty, and she knelt down and looked at me, still blinking back tears.
“Mummy needs to go to the toilet ok? You go inside and see what presents you want this year, and I’ll be right back.”
I nodded and smiled at her, though I didn’t think she would see it through my mask. I wandered around the toy shop, looking at mechanical toys you had to put together and program yourself. It said ages 13 and over, but I was smart, I could do it early. Grandma always said I was ahead of my age.
Mum finally returned, and when she got close I could see her eyes were dry now. Dry, but very red.
“I like this!” I said, showing her the box.
She raised her eyes and then looked at me, smiling – I knew she was smiling because her mask moved up and her eyes narrowed slightly. “Wow that looks fun! Maybe it will be one of your presents.”
We swung by the supermarket to grab some shopping before heading home. We normally ordered for delivery, but there were always good deals at the store itself.
“Oooh, mince pies!” I said, noting the 75% discount. Mum must have spent a good few minutes staring at the boxes. She was breathing hard and blinking again. Eventually she nodded and grabbed a couple of boxes.
“We can’t go without mince pies, can we? How many do you think we should get?”
I grinned behind my mask. “We need at least 30 pies! One each until Christmas day...and then a whole box to eat on Christmas day!”
Mum took several boxes, sighing. “They won’t be as good as grandma used to make...Grandma always made the best mince pies...”
I could see the tears forming again, the ones she was trying to hold back. You weren’t supposed to do that. You needed to cry when you were sad, to let it out, hug, and to say what was making you sad. I didn’t know what to say. I missed grandma too.
At home Mum turned the television on to the news while we put the shopping away.
“New measures announced today will see a full scale lockdown across the country, starting from tomorrow evening, lasting over Christmas in an effort to stem the rising number of cases and deaths caused by the global pandemic. Schools will be online-only for all pupils and all non-essential travel will be banned,” The newsman said, with almost no emotion.
Mum was mumbling and shaking her head. “No, no...Amelia, can you keep putting this away please?” She grabbed her phone and walked off.
I did as she asked. I already knew what would happen – Mum would have to keep working and I would be at home alone. She paced as she talked on the phone, first to the hospital, then to my school, then back to the hospital, begging for time off. I smiled at her, trying to show her I understood, but her eyes were shining already. She couldn’t hold it back forever. When the call finished she turned to me slowly.
“Mummy’s going to be very busy for a couple of weeks...I’m so, so sorry. I’m going to try and get someone to come and help but...” She couldn’t finish.
I pulled a mince pie out of the box and handed it to her, telling her I would be ok, that I could manage at school. She turned it down - she must have been really upset. I frowned, Mum never had a problem crying when grandma was here. I ate the mince pie instead. It tasted fine to me but maybe the mince pies weren’t very good...or maybe she needed grandma’s mince pies. Maybe if grandma could help mum feel okay to cry then her mince pies could too?
She wouldn’t have time to bake anytime soon, but I would. Without the distraction of the other children in class I could finish the lessons early and use the day to bake mince pies from Grandma’s recipe. Yes, I could surprise her with grandma’s mince pies. It would be like grandma was with us, and mum could cry, let it out, and be happy again.
So the next day Mum went to work, and I set up her laptop in the kitchen. I told my teacher that the webcam was broken so I could move about, and started to set up the kitchen. We needed scales and measuring cups, that was obvious enough, and any ingredients we didn’t have could be ordered for online delivery with mum’s card. I just needed the recipe.
I opened up the cupboards, looking through the cookbooks that were piled messily in a corner. I frowned. Grandma’s books were dusty and faded but these were all new and brightly coloured. I tried the mantelpiece, the bookshelves, the office, and even in the guest room where grandma had lived with us, back when all this had started.
I couldn’t find a recipe book from Grandma anywhere.
I thought about where it might be during English class. I knew she had one, I remembered it from last Christmas when I helped grandma cook. We had stayed at her house and she had used it every day. Not just for mince pies but also for fruit cakes, marzipan and something called stollen that grandma always pronounced funny.
I drummed my fingers on the counter while the teacher talked about colons. Grandma’s house had been packed up already, so if the book wasn’t here it was in storage, and there was no way I could get Mum to take me to find it. It wouldn’t be allowed anyway.
With the webcam switched off no one could see me rolling my eyes as the teacher talked. What was the point of this? How would colons help stop people getting sick? How would it help Mum to get any time off work? I scoffed out loud, and said a bad word in my head when I realised the class had heard me scoff. I had forgotten the stupid mute button.
The teacher wasn’t happy. “And what would you use a colon for Amelia?”
I tried not to sound as annoyed as I felt. I should be looking for the recipe book, not in class. “A list, explanation, or quote. Like a set of ingredients. You use it in a sentence.”
“Right! But not just a sentence, you could also use a colon to start off a list of bullet points. Look up some recipes online and you’ll see how.”
With a mumble of understanding I put the mute button on before I accidentally told the teacher that all the sick people in the hospital would be just fascinated to know that information about online recipes.
I tabbed over to the internet and searched for mince pie recipes, opening up the first five pages that I found and looking over the ingredients. Pecans? No, grandma didn’t use pecans. Cranberries? Yes, she loved those, and almonds, and pears, yes! She had always chopped up pears when she was making the mince pies! I examined the recipes side-by-side. Cinnamon, sugar...lots of sugar, those ingredients were all roughly the same.
That could work. I could at least get close.
I left the mute button on during biology. I figured I was looking at fruits anyway, and fruits were part of biology. I barely listened, instead I sat down with a notepad and cross-checked the recipes. It took a long time to think about each and every ingredient, remembering the taste of grandma’s mince pies and deciding whether something should be included or not. Some things were easier than others. What was beef suet anyway? Why would you put meat in a fruit pie? I skipped the rest of that recipe.
I missed computer science completely. Oh well, I was ahead of the class, and more importantly, I had what I was pretty sure was grandma’s recipe written down. It didn’t take long for the ingredients to arrive and I sprayed the packets with alcohol like mum had taught me, and then set to work.
Apple and pear pulp simmered away with the butter and sugar as the smell of cinnamon floated through the house. I left it on the hob and rolled pastry, lined the muffin tins and put the first batch in the oven when Mum called to say she was going to be late. It wasn’t a surprise: too many people in the hospital, and not enough nurses. I didn’t mind, it meant I could have more mince pies ready for when Mum got back. I smiled at the thought.
The oven rang out for the first batch, and I nearly burnt myself in the excitement. I basically sat and watched as they cooled down. I even put the fan on them to make it quicker. Eventually, after what felt like forever, I bit into one.
They were good, definitely better than the store-bought mince pies but not quite the same as grandma’s pies. I slumped forward on the table, and looked back over the recipe I made, scratching my head. All the recipes had the same amount of sugar, so it wasn’t that. I used salted butter, as they all said. It definitely wasn’t because I skipped the beef. But what was it? What made Christmas day mince pies at Grandma’s taste so good? I had to get it just right. For Mum. They needed to make mum feel like grandma was really there with us.
We would eat the mince pies, drinking hot chocolate, playing Christmas songs as the three of us sat in front of a wood fire. Could those things make mince pies taste better? I looked at the pie I was munching on and sighed. I didn’t have any other ideas, and we had a wood fire, so it was worth a try.
I loaded up a Christmas playlist and was about to play it while eating a pie when I noticed the time. Mum would be home soon. I hid the mince pies and cleaned the kitchen. It wouldn’t be much of a Christmas surprise if she found it out now.
I finished just as mum opened the door. You could still see the imprints in her skin from the mask across her nose and the face shield across her forehead. She looked exhausted. I put the kettle on for her as she came over and kissed me.
“Sorry mummy’s so late.” She said, the kettle starting to growl as she hugged me.
“It’s ok mummy.” I replied, trying to sound upbeat. “You’re stopping people from going the way grandma did.” Her eyes were shiny the second I said it.
“I know, but I want to be here with you.” She hugged me tight, and it was a struggle to breathe. “Listen, things are really bad at the hospital. I’m doing my best, but people are saying that unless this lockdown brings case numbers down...” she fumbled, rearranging the words, making them simpler. “If people don’t stop getting sick, I might be on call on Christmas day...” she didn’t finish the sentence.
I didn’t know what to do. She looked so tired, and so sad. I knew that if you were always tired you were more likely to get sick, and I didn’t need mum getting sick too. Things had been hard before, but since Grandma died and everyone else started getting sick she had smiled less and less.
“Go have a shower Mum.” I said in my best bossy voice. The voice I used to get rid of the annoying boys back when we went to school. “I’ll make you a hot chocolate.”
She nodded and walked upstairs and I jumped into action. I pulled the mince pies out of their hiding place and put six on a plate in the living room, right in front of the fire. Then I shoved as much wood and paper into the fireplace as I could. I really should have cleaned it first, but there was no time. My hands were filthy, and I left sooty handprints on the mug as I stirred up a hot chocolate. I knew mum wouldn’t make it to Christmas like this. So Christmas would be tonight, just for her. I just had to hope the recipe was close enough. For mum.
Frantically, I blew on the fire, willing it to light quickly and warm the room. I could hear Mum upstairs. She was out of the shower, walking across to her room to get changed. I blew harder, and the wood started to crackle a little, finally giving out some heat. Mum started to walk down the stairs and I looked around for the radio. Where was it? It used to sit above the microwave. Did we move it? When was the last time we’d used it anyway? The laptop was still on, that would have to do. The Christmas playlist was already open, so I started it just as mum came back into the kitchen.
“What are you doing sweetie?” she asked, looking around the room, her eyes noticing the fire crackling away before lingering on my soot-stained hands. I grabbed her by the hand and led her to the couch, sitting her down in front of the mince pies and hot chocolate. She raised her eyebrows.
“These aren’t the ones we bought from the store...”
I sat down on the couch next to her and passed her the hot chocolate. “I know you’ve been working a lot. And I know it will be strange this Christmas without grandma, so...” I took a deep breath, hoping it was enough. “I tried to make it feel like grandma is here. I made the mince pies to grandma’s recipe. Or, I think I did.”
She bit her lip. “Oh sweetie...”
“And in case you have to work on Christmas day I thought we should have Christmas early. Tonight.”
She pulled me close and ate the mince pie in three quick bites, probably starving from work, then nodded and smiled at me. “These are really good. How did you make them?”
I tapped my nose. “Secret.”
I cuddled up to her, and she sat back on the couch with her arm around me. It felt nice, it had been too long. I looked up at her. Her eyes were glistening in the firelight, salty tears forming in the corners and reflecting the orange licks of flame. Her eyelids flickered, as if fighting to stay open. She was still holding back. I swallowed, knowing what I needed to say.
“I miss grandma.” I said, burying my head in her chest.
She started crying, muffled at first, then louder and less constrained. Large tears streaked down her face as she finally let it out. Her breath caught in her throat, and she sobbed loudly. There was no holding back anymore. “I miss grandma too.”
I reached up and stroked her hair. She would feel better after crying, after the pain had passed. It needed to happen sooner or later.
“I wish she was still here.” She sobbed. “I wish she could have been here this Christmas with us, for you, for everyone.”
“She’s still with us.” I said, picking up another mince pie, and guiding it towards her mouth. She ate it slowly this time, and I grabbed one for myself. Mum looked around the room. God bless ye merry gentleman was playing, the fire glowing opposite us, and she smiled through the tears.
“Yes she is.” She sobbed.