Friday, 15 February 2008

The Christmas Competition

Elizabeth Pozzie (2nd) Janet Cameron (3rd) Jean Morris (1st) Patricia Pound (HC)
Photo: Ann Hamilton

Frog Heaven, (Clemence Dane, First Prize) has been added to the 'Writing Tips for a Princess' post.

Mother’s Little Helper
by Janet Cameron

My mother’s planning an American Lunch. How sad is that?

'It’s a way of integrating into the community’ says Mum. ‘Getting to know the neighbours. As it’s school holidays, you can be a real help to me.’

I know what that means; yours truly in the kitchen clearing up while a lotta weirdos out-natter each other in their plummy, Little Ripple voices. We moved here to Little Ripple by the Sea six months ago. It’s called Little Ripple by the Sea because of a stream running through the marshes. I hate it. Nothing happens here – nothing. Most places have an Ann Summers shop in their High Street but here we have - wait for it - Langton’s Underwear. You never saw such gigantic knickers in your life.

'Let me explain,’ says Mum. ‘You see, Kellie, a few people get together, plan a lunch and one does the starter, another the main meal, another dessert. Then there’s the cheese plate. I’m organising a meeting on Monday to plan it.’

‘Just supposing ten or more turn up! No one can scoff ten courses! That’s gross.’ I imagine an eating marathon, everyone being polite, gobbling their ninth or tenth dish to avoid offending the cook. Panic burns inside me as I imagine all that clearing-up.

‘Then we’ll have people sharing courses,’ says Mum. ‘One can do the meat dish, others veggies.’ Her voice wavers. ‘What if only one or two people turn up?’

‘You’ll never live it down. You’ll be a social pariah,’ I assure her. That doesn’t faze her because she starts composing little notes on lilac paper with purple flowery borders. Then she makes me go out and put them through doors.

Both Mum and I are on tenterhooks that weekend. Dad has to paint the walls in the lounge a nice pale lemon so it’s ‘fresh and welcoming.’ Filter coffee is bought from Tesco’s although we only ever have instant, and special shortcake biscuits and a farmhouse cake are baked.

‘I’ll die of shame if no one comes,’ she groans.

‘Don’t be defeatist. It’s so not like you!’ says Dad giving Mum a saucy slap on the bum. It’s so embarrassing, at their age. Mum drops the cake tin into some dirty washing up water, saying, ‘See to that, love, will you? Dad’s just running me to Tesco’s.’

‘You’ve already been!’

'I forgot the blue and lemon napkins.’

Then they’re gone. I stare into the brown, mucky water. Mum tends to be thrifty about using washing up water, till it seems the dishes would be cleaner unwashed. She prefers to focus on the doorknocker and net curtains which show. Great globules of grease float about from the cooking and the smell makes me feel sick. I consider tipping it and starting again, then hit on a better idea. A glance in the cupboard confirms there’s a stack of cake tins so I slide on a Marigold, tip out the water and grip the side of the tin between thumb and forefinger. It’s easy, straight in the bin with the tin. She’ll never miss it. We’ve plenty of cups and cutlery, so I bin those too, emptying the tea-bag caddy on top for camouflage. Problem solved.

Monday morning, Dad leaves for work. ‘Don’t worry,’ he tells Mum. ‘You’re being pro-active and that’s important. (Dad started talking funny like that when his firm got into male-bonding courses.)

‘Out of that bed, Kellie,’ yells Mum.

I hoover and dust and pick summer daisies from the garden. Everything’s ready by one-thirty and we have to wait for three o’clock. I’m bored out of my head, while Mum paces, biting her nails. It wouldn’t be so bad except she’s spent twenty-five quid having them manicured at Nails-R-Us, and what’s more, she’s had nasty little transfers on the cuticles. ‘You’re wearing out the carpet,’ I say.

‘No one’s coming,’ she groans.

Five past three, no arrivals, so I pour Mum some wine to relax her. Seven minutes past and she’s dusting. ‘I already did that,’ I complain. Ten past - ring on the doorbell. Mum draws an agonised breath and I follow her to the door.

She’s been practising her greeting inside her head, so she flings the door wide open, grinning like an insecure comedian. ‘I’m Harriet,’ she blurts. ‘Do come in. Thanks so much for coming!’

It’s the window cleaner collecting his money.

‘Three pounds fifty, love,’ he says. As she’s rummaging in her purse, he directs an insinuating wink at me. As he’s tasty, I run my tongue over my upper lip behind Mum’s back and I’m rewarded with a thumbs-up. Little Ripple has possibilities after all.

‘What a nice young man,’ says Mum, leaning out, peering up and down the road, hopefully. A face appears from next door, then two more opposite. ‘Are you ready?’ someone calls. ‘Hang on, just a mo,’ comes the reply and Mum looks as though her heart’s thumping like the washing machine when it goes wrong. I shoot inside, leaving Mum with her welcome routine. The loud, excited babble tells me I’m done for.

‘Hello, I’m Harriet. Come in. This is Kellie, my daughter. She’s fifteen. Kellie, make tea and put these flowers in water.’ I choke because the flowers are lilies and I’m allergic, not that Mum cares, that’s for sure. Shall I make tea first, or put the flowers in water? Somehow I manage both without spilling either, while Mum cavorts like a demented rabbit and cackles like an egg-bound hen. Sorry to mix metaphors, but honestly!

‘This is Jennie, this is Susan and Monica. Say hello, Kellie.’

‘Hello, Kellie,’ I say, wanting to be awkward. I’m so busy stretching my lips over my teeth, pouring tea, cutting cake, offering biscuits. Answering dumb questions. ‘Do you like school, dear?’ ‘What’s your favourite book, dear?’

‘Kellie, we’re running out of cups. Can you wash up?’ hisses Mum.

I collect the cups, tip them into the inevitable waiting brown suds and stare at them. I want to run down to the Ripple and drown myself. Then I peek in the cupboard where we keep the picnic things and find some styrofoam mugs. Brilliant! McDonald’s do very well with synthetic mugs and you get plenty of tea in them.

Somehow, in spite of all the cheerful chatter, they plan the menu, writing chosen dishes onto pieces of paper which are screwed up and tossed in Dad’s gardening hat. Each woman draws for a dish. The woman called Liz gets the steak and ale pie. That was going to be a foul tin to wash up! Glad Mum didn’t get it.

‘You should taste Liz’s pastry. Out of this world,’ comments a lady in a purple mini-dress, making a circle of her thumb and forefinger and kissing it.

Mum gets dessert. That pleases her as she has lots of dessert recipes that always turn out mushy and make mountains of washing-up. Actually, I think I have a genuine allergy to washing up. I mean, it makes me ill, but Mum’s not the progressive, new-age type. Then something terrible happens.

‘Usually,’ Mum tells her new friends, ‘with an American Lunch you go from house to house for each separate course. But as there are so many of us, perhaps you should bring your dishes to eat here, in my home.’

‘That’s good of you, Harriet,’ they chime.

Oh my God! I’ll be expected to wash up dishes for the entire meal! Perhaps I can fake a total collapse and spend the American Lunch day safe in bed instead of clearing up after this lot. If this is what it’s like planning an American Lunch it’ll be twenty times worse on the day.

As they leave, the ladies pat my arm, say I’m a hoot and they think the styrofoam mugs are cute, while Mum sends me daggers of such sheer evil I start to worry for her. I agree not to be a stranger and some old bird promises me a pot of home-made jam. I’m so not impressed. Then we’re alone. 'I’m not speaking to you, Kellie,’ says Mum. ‘And don’t bother with the washing-up, I’ll do it myself.’ I make myself scarce like I always do when Mum’s in martyr-mode.

Next day, I have a brilliant idea. (Sometimes my own genius amazes me.) I start with the purple mini-dress, who lives next door.

‘I’ve come for the ten pounds.’ She raises her arched brows, looking even more surprised than before.

‘What ten pounds?’

‘Overheads. As we’re doing the entire hostess thing, there are overheads. You see, my Mum’s not that well-off and it’s only fair. There’s napkins, hot water, kitchen roll, sundries, er... washing up liquid.’

She’s sceptical but coughs up when I tell her everyone else has. It’s easy. It takes an hour and I have one hundred and ten pounds. Ten minutes researching the Internet and one quick phone call. Sorted. Cash on delivery.

The dishwasher will arrive on Saturday in good time for the American Lunch.


Anonymous said...
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Mary Witzl said...

Hello, Janet. I come to you by way of Paul, who wrote about your quest for writers who have funded their writing by doing unusual jobs.

In order to fund my writing, I have made up beds and cleaned rooms, worked as a legal secretary, translated a dissertation from Japanese to English (hellish job -- catch me doing that again), and waited on tables. I know: none of that is really eccentric or unusual, but for what it's worth, there it is.

And I am intrigued: what in the world is an American lunch? I promise you that I have never heard of this, and I am American! Maybe it's something that was started after I left the States. I've been an expatriate for years now, and I'm obviously out of it. I can definitely picture my teenaged daughters throwing out dirty dishes, by the way. I wouldn't be surprised if they haven't already done this.

Janet Cameron said...

Thanks for that, Mary. Also for the email mentioning that what we call an 'American Lunch' is actually described in the States as the 'Potluck Lunch'. Either way, it's a good idea to get everyone communicating. Janet