Gillian arrived on Cal's doorstep and had raised her hand to knock, just as the front door opened. She found Emily standing dressed in her red beret and winter jacket.
"Hey!" Emily said, pleased. She twisted away and yelled, "Gillian's here!"
"In a minute," Cal replied from the kitchen.
Gillian shrugged out of her coat and scarf, and hung them up. "It's cold outside, make sure you have warm gloves with you," she said. "Where are you going?"
"Christmas shopping with my friend Sarah. I'm picking up Dad's Christmas present," she added sotto voce, just as Cal rounded the corner to meet them.
Cal was wearing his 'becoming' floral apron over jeans and a black pullover, his sleeves pushed up to the elbow. Yet despite the apron his clothes were dusted with fine white powder. Gillian stifled a giggle behind her hand.
"Not one bloody word," he warned.
"Flour exploded when he tried to open the bag," Emily whispered in her ear.
"Looks like the flour put up a pretty good fight," Gillian said, eying him up and down with amusement.
Cal raised a finger and opened his mouth to speak, only to be interrupted by the blare of a car horn.
"That's Sarah! Gotta run." Emily glanced between the two of them. "Please don't kill each other."
"Wouldn't dream of it," Gillian said as Cal put an arm around her.
"You are buying my present today, aren't you, Em?"
Emily scowled good-naturedly. "You're not supposed to know that."
"Yeah, well, make sure it's something that won't put me in the poorhouse, all right?" Cal chucked Emily gently under the chin.
"Something cheap and cheesy, got it." Emily flashed a wicked grin. "Bye, Dad!" She rushed out the door and bounded off the steps towards the car waiting at the curb.
Cal closed the door behind her and turned to Gillian. "Oy, can you believe the cheek on that girl?"
"She is her father's daughter."
"Oh, now don't you start. I swear you two will be the death of me." He let her go and gestured in the direction of the kitchen. "Come on then."
She kicked off her shoes and followed him, padding on stockinged feet, to the kitchen, where the early December sun shone through the window; its light fell on the table in the middle. Cal rounded it to reach the cupboard over the stove; he rummaged through it, pulled out a shaker of salt, set it on the table.
Cal had obviously decided to undertake a massive baking project; Gillian couldn't remember when the table had been so full. She surveyed the jumble of ingredients sitting on the table between them: bags of bread crumbs, currants, candied peel, raisins, almonds. The fragrance of fresh-ground cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves hung heavy in the air. Open canisters of flour and dark brown sugar sat on the counter, beside a loosely-capped bottle of dark rum and a tumbler containing two fingerfuls of same. A light layer of flour dust coated the countertop around the flour bin.
"Now you're here, may as well do something useful to help." He picked up and held out a knife and a rasp towards her. "Chop or zest?"
She raised her eyebrows, curious. "I'll zest."
He set the rasp in front of her. "Lemon's in the fridge, bowl's in the cupboard."
Gillian fetched the bowl and the lemon, washed it in the sink and then sat down at the table to scrape the peel. Cal stood opposite to her, in front of a wooden cutting board, an open bag of dates at hand. He plucked a handful and spread them on the board.
She rubbed the lemon against the rasp, watched the tiny curlicues of peel drop into the bowl. "So what are we making?"
"Care to guess?"
"It looks like fruitcake."
"Nope. We are making a traditional Christmas pudding," he replied over the thud-thud-thud of metal on wood.
Gillian looked up; Cal's words were casual enough, but she heard a subtle tension concealed beneath that set off a warning bell. "Really?" she said, just as lightly.
"My Gran's recipe. She swore by it. Course, to be proper we should've started it last week, the Sunday before Advent. They call it 'Stir-Up Sunday.' But, better late than never, I suppose."
She finished zesting the peel and lay the rasp down. She wouldn't push it, not just yet. "Anything else I can do?"
"Juice the lemon and chop up an apple, will you?" He dumped the dates into a large bowl, followed by raisins, currants and candied peel. "Pour 'em into this bowl when you're done."
She did so; he splashed a quarter-cup of rum over the contents, mixed and set it aside, covered with a cloth. "Supposed to marinate it overnight but a couple hours'll do. Go read one of your romance novels in the meantime, or what have you."
Gillian frowned at Cal's dismissive tone. "I will go read over the departmental budget reports," she replied with a tinge of reproach. Contrition flashed over his features before he turned away and downed the rum in his glass in one gulp. She rose and headed to the living room with her bag, leaving him alone in the kitchen as he poured another two fingerfuls of alcohol.
Gillian curled up on one end of the couch, her papers in her lap, and ran some quick mental calculations. It has been that long, she thought with a soft exhale. It didn't come up often anymore, for which she was glad, for Cal's sake, but still--she knew how hard it could be sometimes, no matter how much time had passed. Especially during the holidays.
A few minutes later, Cal set a glass of wine beside her on the end table. She didn't look up, though she smiled at the peace offering, and at the brush of his hand over hers before he sat at the dining table with his laptop. Relative silence ensued, punctuated by the whish of paper turning, keyboard tapping and mouse clicking.
The beep-beep-beep of the stove timer startled Gillian out of her concentration. She set the papers aside and went to the kitchen, where Cal was already back at the table and folding the suet, lemon peel, breadcrumbs and almonds into a flour-sugar-spice mix. Witnessing this domestic side of Cal in action, she felt a surge of fierce tenderness. It had been close more than a few times, but despite everything he had let neither cynicism nor despair take over and win.
"Grab the fruit and tip it in, would you, love?"
"Sure." She hefted the bowl of marinated fruit and shook it in while Cal stirred. The heavy sweetness of alcohol and fruit infused the air, making Gillian feel lightheaded a moment.
"You all right?"
She set the empty bowl down. "I'm fine. It's just the fumes of the distillery you've poured in there."
"Oy, only half a distillery." He passed the stirring spoon over to her and motioned her to continue. With one hand he cracked two eggs into yet another small dish, and grabbed a whisk.
"I thought you said once you hated Christmas pudding, Cal."
He looked up at her. "Yeah, I do. Always have." He flashed a quick grin that didn't touch his eyes, before turning back to the eggs. He addressed the bowl, so softly that Gillian could just barely hear the words above the whisking. "Just had a craving to make pudding today."
Cal's face was impassive but Gillian saw the tightness in his rounded shoulders, and the barely-there falter of the whisk before he recovered. "How long has it been?" she asked gently, though she already knew the answer.
"Thirty years now," Cal replied, not missing a beat in his rhythm. "Time flies, dunnit?"
"It's normal and healthy to want to acknowledge special anniversaries," Gillian said, "even the difficult ones."
"Yeah, well, if twenty-five years is silver, what's the thirtieth?"
"You know what I mean."
He grabbed the bottle of rum from the counter and splashed some into a measuring cup. "Course I do." He poured the rum into the eggs. "Sorry, love."
"These traditions hold significance. They connect generations of a family, give personal meaning to holidays and other occasions. Stories, recipes handed down--" She stopped and blinked, processing his earlier comment. "You said you didn't crave pudding, you craved making it."
"What, did you think we were making it to eat? Hate the stuff." He poured the eggs on top of the mix and began to stir it with a wooden spoon.
"Oh? Then you're giving it away as a gift to someone."
"Nope." He looked at her, a gleeful grin on his face. "We're gonna torch it."
Gillian felt her mouth drop in surprise. "Pardon me? Did you just say 'torch it'?"
"Yep. Set it on fire. Christmas night, we'll light and burn it to a crisp. Nothing but ashes."
"So everything goes better with a flamethrower?"
"Christmas pudding does, yeah."
"Is appeasing your inner firebug something we need to discuss?"
She shook her head, bemused. "So what does this have to do with your pudding? Why go to all the time and expense to make it, if you're only going to burn it in the end?"
He pinned her with his gaze. "Did I ever tell you about my Mum's last Christmas?"
Understanding dawned. "No, I don't think you have."
"Good! I'll tell you now, then." He stopped, leaving the spoon stuck in the middle of the pudding, and wiped his hands on the apron. He then reached over, grabbed the tumbler and tossed its contents back.
Gillian leaned forward on the table, her hands folded under her chin, waiting. Cal backed up to the sink and stood, loose and relaxed; the lines around his eyes and mouth softened, and in that moment he looked almost as young as Emily.
"So, we're all at home, whole family, Christmas Day, around the table. Mum and Gran went all out, we had a huge dinner, turkey, stuffing, all the trimmings. All of us are stuffed just about to bursting, my Dad's snoring in his chair, don't remember where Gran was, good thing, really, in hindsight. Mum brings out the pudding, sets it down, splashes a couple ounces of rum on it even though it's already oozing, and she goes back to the kitchen to fetch the dessert bowls."
He mimicked pouring the rum and setting the dish down. His accent thickened as he recounted the memory, and Gillian watched, utterly enthralled, as he grew even more animated with his illustrations.
"While Mum's rattling round the cupboards, my brother and I have a candle blowing match across the table, trying to see who could blow out the candles first, and I won. Except the candles were supposed to stay lit. I pull out my matchbook--"
Gillian raised a disapproving eyebrow. "And just what were you doing with matches?"
Cal grinned and ignored the question. "--light the one taper, go to light the other. Except, the match is already burning my fingers. I drop it--"
Gillian's hand flew to her mouth. "Oh, no."
Cal nodded, his hands emphasizing. "Yep. Landed right on top of the pudding. All the rum and suet, it lit up like a bleeding fireball. Blue flames shooting six feet high, and I mean blue. It was fucking fantastic."
Gillian shook her head in disbelief, laughing outright.
"Right then, Mum comes into the dining room. She drops the dessert tray she's carrying, grabs an empty pitcher from the sideboard, rushes to the table and tips it upside down on top of the pud," he said, mimicking the actions. "Snuffs the fire out and smacks my Dad awake because he slept right through the whole mess.
"So the pudding's burnt near to charcoal and there's a scorch mark on the ceiling. Mum looks at Russ, she glares at me, we're both convinced Mum's going to throttle us, and then she just starts laughing. Doesn't stop, just keeps on 'til tears run down her face. Russ and I, we're staring at each other, thinking she's gone right round the twist. Finally she stops, and says she wished she'd thought of that first because she hated--just hated--Christmas pudding, always had. She said it was so brilliant she was going to 'make and torch a pudding every year just for shits 'n' giggles'--her words there--and serve a Yule log instead."
The easy grin fell from his face; he leaned back against the sink edge, arms folded, and stared at the floor for a moment. When Cal looked up again, wistful lines had recast his features and he now appeared every inch his age. "You know, I'd actually forgotten all about that 'til a few days ago. Funny, the things you remember this time of year."
The half-smile on his face was heartbreaking. Gillian rose, rounded the table, crossed the three steps to the sink, and laid her hand over the exposed tattoos on his forearm. "It's a good memory, Cal. It's one you want to treasure and pass on. You should tell Emily."
"Yeah, I will. Christmas night when she lights the damn thing."
Gillian suppressed a giggle. "Appeasing her inner firebug?"
Cal half-shrugged. "Something like that."
His wry grin faltered then; in the space of just a few blinks his eyes grew bright and his expression brittle. He moved to turn away, but before he could, Gillian wordlessly drew him into a hug. Cal tensed for a moment at the contact, but then his arms came up to encircle her too, returning her embrace. She felt, rather than heard him sigh heavily against her shoulder.
Gillian smelled cinnamon and nutmeg dust on his clothes, rum on his breath, the earthier, saltier tang of his skin. Scents that she had always instinctively, unconsciously, associated with him; scents of a home once forgotten and now restored, she thought. She heard a distinct sniff, and she tightened her hold on him, swaying a bit. Cal had dedicated his whole life to making amends for something that had never been his fault. She felt a keen pang of loss on his behalf.
When Cal drew back a couple minutes later, his eyes were still brighter than normal but the brittleness had abated. He tucked a stray fall of hair, that he'd dislodged, behind her ear.
"Cheers, love," Cal murmured, his voice rough, his palm warm and broad against her cheek.
"Any time," she said just as softly.
"Hey, I'm back!"
Startled out of the moment, Cal and Gillian broke apart, and turned at the same time to find Emily leaning in the kitchen doorway, still wearing her beret and coat, and carrying a paper gift bag. Out of the corner of her eye, Gillian watched Cal's initial annoyance slide effortlessly into fatherly amusement.
"That was quick," Cal remarked.
"I've been gone almost three hours, Dad, don't you look out the windows occasionally?" Gillian glanced outside and saw the long shadows of sunset approaching.
"Did you find what you were looking for?" Gillian asked.
"Yes, I did." Emily dangled the bag between her fingers.
"So what did you get me?" Cal asked, rubbing his hands.
Emily rolled her eyes. "Nice try. You'll have to wait 'til Christmas like the rest of us." He raised his eyebrows, and she added, "Don't worry, cheap and cheesy, just what you wanted." She turned to leave.
"Oy, now where are you going?"
"To my room. You know, to hide your loot?"
"Hold off a minute, would you, Em? Need you to do something." Cal gestured Emily to come over to the bowl on the table. She did so, dropping the bag at the threshold.
"What is it?"
He handed her the wooden stirring spoon. "Stir this once clockwise and make a wish."
Her eyes widened to saucers. "Why?"
"A tradition to bring good luck, love."
"You don't believe in luck, Dad," she said doubtfully, but she dutifully stuck the spoon in the batter and stirred it once, a thoughtful look on her face. Gillian studied Cal's face, his amusement tempered by the subtle downturn of his eyes.
"Okay, pudding stirred, wish made. Can I go now?"
Cal nodded, and Emily bounded out of the room with her bag, leaving the spoon stuck in the bowl. He then turned to Gillian. "You too, darling. Stir and make a wish."
She cocked her head at him. "Isn't this a family tradition?"
He met her gaze evenly. "Yeah, it is."
Gillian swallowed past the welling lump in her throat and plucked the spoon from the bowl; a few sticky dates clung to the wood. She spent a minute worrying her lower lip while she pondered what to wish for. She stole a sideways glance at Cal; the brooding was back. She nodded to herself, dragged the spoon around the bowl, and wished he might find closure, if not exactly peace.
Her hand brushed his when she let go. Cal picked the bowl up, finished stirring and scraped the bowl into the greased pan with three deft strokes. He pressed the pudding down, set the pan in the double boiler on the stove, and wiped his hands on the apron.
"We're done here now," he said, untying the string behind him, "except the washing up. And that is Em's contribution."
Gillian eyed the stacks of bowls and utensils scattered over the table and counters. "You used almost every dish in the house. Are you sure that's fair to her?"
"Absolutely." He strode past, scooping his reading glasses up off the dining room table along the way, and went to sit on the couch. Gillian followed; she cleared her papers onto the floor to sit beside him, one leg tucked beneath her. She leaned by her elbow on the back of the couch while he slouched back against the cushions.
"So what did you wish for?"
He craned his neck to look at her. "Oy, we're not supposed to tell, it'll break the charm." He slipped his hand into hers and squeezed. "You?"
"If you won't say, I can't either." She squeezed back.
"Fair enough. But you will come over though, Christmas night? Watch the pud go up in a blaze of glory?"
"Wouldn't miss it." Gillian then pinned him with her gaze. "Are you okay, Cal?"
He gazed right back, unflinching. "No I'm not, love," he replied softly. He patted her hand again. "But I will be."
He bent down to retrieve the papers by Gillian's foot, and as he did, she hoped that after all this time, that would come true too.