"I think it's a stupid idea". With those words, Bob knew he had lost the argument.
"Don’t be such a bore, darling. Pass me that sack of potatoes, please".
Tilly watched him open the cupboard door, pretending not to notice when it toppled and a dozen tubers rolled out. "You didn't tell me it was open".
She ignored him. At her feet were four cardboard boxes, each filling rapidly as the various components of her family's Christmas dinners became ready.
"Are you cooking them?"
"Heavens no, where would the fun be in that? It's do it yourself. You always enjoyed building gingerbread houses with the children. Do you remember that year…"
"Oh, but it was so funny. Rachel thought you'd tried to poison us".
"It was your son".
She paused what she was doing to stem a wave of laughter rising through her body. "He said the icing didn’t work, so, so he…"
"Got the glue from one of his aeroplane kits, yes".
"He swore you told him to".
"I knew nothing about it".
"You said you were supervising him. It didn’t work, anyway. It's a good job Rachel noticed. She thought it was slugs. How many potatoes do you think Mum and Dad will manage?" After a tiny pause, allowing him time to fail to respond, she picked out seven medium-sized ones and put them in their box. "That’ll do, I expect".
"Why do they need potatoes? They’ve got tons already at the allotment".
"That's where these are from. Don’t distract me. I need the biggest and smallest turkeys out of the freezer. And that nut thing for Rachel. She won’t want many. Connie can have most of them, you know how the boys can eat".
While her husband went to collect the festive poultry and the vegetarian option for their awkward daughter, she peered into the boxes again, delighted as her fantastic idea rolled towards fruition. She imagined their expressions of surprise upon receipt of her mystery parcels, and the collective delight accompanying the realisation that she, Tilly Barnard, had just saved their lockdown Christmas dinner.
Bubbly for Peter and Connie, Baileys for Rachel, Lambrusco for the parents. They wouldn’t drink it, so she put a bottle of Shloer in to keep it company. They could give the wine back for her birthday, it would save them a trip to the shops. Onions, carrots, sprouts, parsnips, so many vegetables. Frozen peas. Christmas pudding, double cream, a tub of brandy butter. Cranberry sauce, a quarter-size bottle of middle-grade scotch. Matches. Oh, and a packet of stuffing mix. She ignored Bob’s suggestion of delivering them in gift-wrapped kitchen sinks, yet glowed in the certainty that she had thought of absolutely everything.
"Yo ho ho!" Bob was on his last stop, yelling through the letterbox of a semi-detached house on the average side of town. They all lived nearby and he could have visited them in any order, but he saved their son and his family’s food parcel until last. Connie was invariably cheerful, and it was infectious. She and Tilly were close from the first time their son introduced her to them as a timid teenager, her winning smile shining through a heavier application of make-up than they were used to. She was, as far as he knew, the only invited participant in on the plan.
Bob heard the keys rattling on the other side of the door and stepped back several metres, in accordance with his understanding of current guidelines.
"Isn't it exciting!"
In all the years they’d known one another, he remembered only a couple of occasions when "excited" might have been an inappropriate descriptor for his daughter-in-law.
"I’ve never cooked Christmas dinner before. I hope I don’t muck it up. Won’t it be funny having the meal over video?"
"What on earth?"
Rachel, the eldest of the two individuals they would always refer to as children despite their considering themselves adults for the last quarter-century, bent down to move the box, surprised by the heft required to move it. She looked at him accusingly.
"You'd better ask Mum, nothing to do with me, love. I think some of it needs putting in the fridge".
She opened it suspiciously, rummaged inside and pulled out a large sheaf of papers, stapled neatly at the top-left corner. "There's about a year’s worth of food here, and pages of instructions. Are you in on this?"
"I'm just the delivery man".
"Does she really think I don’t know how to cook a potato? Oh my goodness, there are two printed sheets just of timings".
At half-past twelve boil two pints of water for the carrots, this takes two minutes, the carrots will cook for twelve.
"I knew when she booked the Zoom call something fishy was going on. I already bought my dinner. What am I supposed to do with all this?" She paused and breathed deeply.
"Oh Dad, please just go. Tell Mum thank you. I’ll see you tomorrow".
Granny B started worrying in September about the prospect of missing her chicks on the biggest day of the year. Visitors had been thin on the ground since March. Peter’s boys came when the Government eased the rules in the summer and switched on the device their grandson bought them a month earlier. Neither got it working during lockdown one, mainly because it remained unopened in its box. The boys set it up in less time than it took their great-grandparents to make a cup of tea and fetch chocolate biscuits. Minutes later, they found themselves able to communicate with the outside world, using technology considered far-fetched when originally presented on Star Trek, and soon grasped the concept of switching it off and on again when things stopped working.
How long was it, Grandad B wondered, since they last cooked a turkey? Tilly’s insistence that they shouldn't get food delivered was puzzling. He knew she was up to something. She always got so cross when he read her mind while she was growing up. No matter how hard she worked on her sphinx-like air of mystery, he spoiled it every time by knowing intuitively what she was up to.
Granny B immersed herself in the manual while he put the contents of the box away. Even if some of these vegetables weren’t old friends, they looked familiar. The year hadn't been good for anything else, but was just right for growing things.
"She says to start at half-past ten. Will that be long enough? Surely we used to cook turkeys for longer than that?"
"They were a lot bigger than this one", he replied, his voice muffled from speaking into the open fridge. "We had ten or twelve here usually, remember? It'll be strange with just us and that tablet thing".
"don't forget to plug it in so it doesn’t run out halfway through".
"I shan't. Did something ping?"
"It's a message from Matilda. She says to click this link and watch".
"Hello, my lovely family. As you know, we're not allowed to all get together this Christmas, so I’ve prepared a surprise for you". She looked to her left, apparently expecting something to happen, and jumped as the theme to Mission Impossible played at harmful volume just inches from her ear. She swung her head again, overtaken with a look everyone watching knew very well, and, before she caught its eye, the invisible presence turned it right down. She collected herself and returned to her notes. "Your mission, Mum, Dad, Rachel, Peter and Connie, should you choose to accept it, is to make Christmas dinner from the box you have before you. There's everything I’d have cooked if you could have been here tomorrow. As always, should you do it wrong or burn any of the ingredients, I will disavow any knowledge of your actions. The puddings will either self-destruct or burn a bit in five seconds after you’ve put the whisky on and set fire to them, so don't drink it all before then. Good luck, all of you".
Peter returned while Connie was hiding the ambient components behind an armchair in the dining room. She hoped to keep the surprise from him for as long as possible, preferably until just moments before serving the meal.
"Why have we got two turkeys in here?"
"Sorry, can't hear you!" she called back. He never looked in the fridge. What was he doing in there now? She fixed her smile, returned to the kitchen and attempted to distract him with a kiss. "Hello darling, happy Christmas Eve!"
"The turkey I got out of the freezer this morning, it seems to have replicated itself and produced another several times the size".
"I know how fond you are of it".
"And I know how long it takes to get through one like we bought afterwards. About a week, usually. Its friend is half the size of an elephant. Where did it come from?"
Coming almost clean felt like the safest option. "It was a present from your Mum, she thought we might go without. I told her we had one. Dad delivered it earlier".
"If he'd come last night, we could have kept the other in the freezer". He gave each a poke with his finger. "I suppose it would be dangerous to put one back?"
"don't be grumpy, now. You know how much the boys can put away".
"It's suspiciously quiet. Where are they?"
"They went to the shop. I imagine present options are thinner now than last week, but you know how they are. What you’d like is a nice bottle of beer, I expect".
"I was looking for one, but couldn't see them for poultry".
"I had to take them out to get the second one in. I’ll get it for you". Phew, she thought, just about got away with that one.
Next morning, Connie rose just before nine to cook Tilly’s turkey and bounced downstairs trilling Walking in a Winter Wonderland to herself. The bird was considerably heavier than the other. Upon reflection, she understood her husband’s trepidation at the prospect of eating nothing else for possibly the next month.
Did they even own something large enough to cook it in?
Eventually, she found a suitable tray, by which time the oven was up to temperature. Tilly’s instructions were reassuringly thorough. It took longer to prepare the bird than she expected, but a glance at the clock convinced her it should be ready in time. Might as well get on with the spuds. Good heavens, the bag was almost full. Still, whoever heard of a roast potato going to waste?
After an hour, she was still going. How on earth did Tilly manage catering for nine or more every year? Perhaps, if this worked, she might invite everybody over to theirs next time and give her a break. That, she thought, would be lovely. She'd feel like a proper grown-up.
Yesterday evening, she set a succession of reminders to keep her apprised of the order to cook everything in, and named each alarm after its attendant foodstuff. Vegetables ready, she wondered if Peter was awake. Or the boys. She missed their waking at five or six and dashing down to check on Santa more than she imagined she would in years gone by. While falling asleep last night, she remembered she'd forgotten to put out the glass of sherry, mince pie and carrot. Somewhat reluctantly, she arose to remedy the situation, as if skipping the talismanic ritual might threaten the existence of Christmas itself.
"got turkey in, peeled potatoes xx", she typed and hit send. "ps merry christmas see you later". Off it went. Forgot the kisses. Two kisses, send. About an hour and a half until potatoes o’clock. This was so much fun! Better check on those idle menfolk.
Granny and Grandad B arose a while later. For nine months, their days were mostly the same. At least they had the garden, the allotment and each other. Their lives hadn't always been easy, but they kept themselves active and everyone who knew them marvelled at how fond they were of one another, even after all this time.
"It's just like it used to be", he said as they settled down at the table together to work on the meal. "Do you remember the year when you were expecting?"
"When we got snowed in and couldn't get to your parents’ house?"
"And almost no food in".
"Luncheon meat, potatoes and a tin of processed peas. You made gravy. I don't know what you found to put in it".
"Bread flour and Marmite, I think", he said. "Maybe an onion".
"It was the finest gravy ever. It'll be something like that today, won't it?"
"I suppose so. We’ll be back to normal again soon, once the vaccine gets sorted out. Our second Christmas on our own in, how many years?"
"Fifty-three next June".
Despite his best endeavours, Bob failed to stop Tilly getting the table ready the night before. Of all the participants, she was by far the most stressed and also the closest to not being ready on time. He considered suggesting she shouldn't worry if it was late. It's Christmas, after all. He held his tongue and resolved to hide until summoned. Then the unmistakable sound of crockery smashing on the lino of the kitchen floor.
Resist the urge to interfere, Bob, just stay out of it. Looking through the living room window, he reflected on the year almost gone. Despite his devout atheism, he quietly gave thanks for the love and continuing health of his family, reflecting, not for the first time, that they had all experienced an easier lockdown than many, including several they knew well. Left to himself, he wouldn’t have inflicted the Great Christmas Roast-Off on his family, but what business had he to interfere with her efforts to bring joy in her own way?
At twenty-to-one, Tilly stood her iPad in the toast-rack they received as a wedding present and opened the meeting while Bob carried the last of the dishes to the table. The meal looked so small compared to every other year since they took receipt of the festive Olympic torch the year Grandad B had his operation.
Granny B’s face appeared on-screen and Tilly let her in. "Merry Christmas, Mum!"
Grandad appeared, she watched them fiddling until they found the volume control and the mute button. Both waved. Already, against her specific instructions, they wore the party hats from their crackers, but she didn’t mind. She missed them terribly since they went into their second period of shielding, saying they knew what was good for them, regardless of what Boris said. She repeated her greeting. Everything was working as it should, and all were delighted.
Peter sat at the head of their table, flanked by the boys. Connie called one of them to the kitchen. She handed the unquestioning youth the lazy Susan none of them ever knew what to do with, calling him back so she could drape their best tea-towel across it to disguise the spartan functionality of its appearance.
"Pop that in the middle of the table, would you please? There's a love".
Seeing possibly his least favourite item of kitchen apparatus in front of him, apparently dressed as a ghost, Peter thought it best not to ask. Something was going on, he could tell.
With gravy-boat in one hand and laptop in the other, Connie marched in and placed the first beside the peas, then settled the latter on her makeshift stand. It looked like a birthday cake for a robot. She had already switched it on and established contact with Tilly Central. Rotating the device towards her husband, he saw the rest of the family in their little boxes all over the screen. Unsure of how to respond, he grinned and raised his glass to wish everyone the compliments of the season. Connie sighed with relief.
Everyone spoke with their mouths full and laughed until they gasped for breath. It would have been a dull meeting if they hadn't. Tilly thought it such a shame her daughter’s video link let her down, but at least they could hear her. When Rachel assured them the table was fairly heaving under the weight of festive fayre, Grandad B had his doubts but kept them to himself. She was so like his daughter.
At twenty-past, the meeting ran out and Tilly quickly convened another, whereupon Rachel’s video magically fixed itself. How quickly she cleared the table, her dad remarked. The Grandparents B needed to pop out for a moment.
Once everyone was back, those who hadn’t already done so pulled their crackers, poured whisky over and set fire to their Christmas puddings. Rachel, who had never willingly eaten a mouthful of the stuff, pushed hers behind the phone, alongside the remains of her festive beans on toast, a favourite meal since childhood. The homeless at the shelter would get more pleasure from the box she delivered earlier than she would, and nobody but Grandad B with his psychic powers would ever guess.
With just five minutes left, Tilly told them all how lovely it was to have them at her table. They all thanked her, with more sincerity than Bob expected several of them to muster, for organising it.
"I’ll get the virtual coats then, shall I?" asked Bob. Everyone said goodbye and Tilly logged off. As she rose to clear the table, he stood and gave her an enormous hug. "Thank you, love", he said. "You are magnificent. Merry Christmas".
"And merry Christmas to you," she replied. "Let's hope we're all back to normal next year. Is it time to fall asleep in front of the telly yet? I think we’ve earned it, don't you?"