T’was the night before Christmas and after a long shift at the lab, Isabel stalked the supermarket shelves. She looked down at the few remaining loose Brussel sprouts. Scrawny little rejects. She didn’t even really like sprouts, but you couldn’t have a Christmas dinner without them, could you? The tatty sprouts’ plump friends mocked them from inside pre-packed bags. Isabel pulled a bag from the dispenser, she only needed three or four, no point in buying a bagful, so the rejects it was.
She reached down to select the least miserable looking vegetable and her hand collided with someone else’s, a sharp smack of knuckles. She drew her hand in. “Sorry,” she muttered, absently rubbing her bruised fingers.
The would-be sprout-snatcher took a half step back. “Sorry. You were here first, go on.” He gestured to the veg with an apologetic smile which Isabel returned.
She picked out four sprouts while he waited beside her; two of the better looking ones and two real sad cases as she didn’t want to leave him all the worst ones. While she shouldn’t really care whether the man could get decent sprouts at 9:00pm on Christmas Eve, he had a nice smile and she liked the soft, woody scent of his deodorant, or whatever it was. It had been a while since she’d been near anyone who didn’t smell of antiseptic, or worse.
She tied up her bag and dropped it into the basket at her elbow. “Thanks.”
Sprout guy smiled again. He had warm eyes behind his wire rim glasses. He turned back to the sprouts and, with a flutter of embarrassment, Isabel realised she was still stood there. She tucked her hair back behind her ear and quickly walked off towards parsnips.
Choices for turkey were limited. Even the smallest whole bird would be too much, and all they had left were the massive ones for 10-12 people. Was it too much to hope they’d still have a thigh or leg joint? Of course. A few small turkey crowns remained which was a small miracle. Isabel picked one up and paused. Well, it was turkey, but crowns went so dry. Or at least the one she’d cooked last year had.
Was turkey really essential? Maybe she could use a chicken and pretend it was a really little turkey. She took a step back from the chiller, crown still held in one hand, and trod on a foot.
“Oh,” she lost her balance and stumbled sideways. Arms caught and steadied her. Isabel’s cheeks and stomach burned; how embarrassing! She turned round, “I am so sorry, I didn’t see‒”
Sprout guy shrugged. “My fault, I should stop sneaking up on you.” His gaze swept the shelves and he frowned. “Is this all that’s left?”
“Er, yeah, looks like it. Not really surprising though.”
“I suppose not.”
She watched him crouch to examine the turkey crowns, clearly as indecisive as her. “I, umm, I was thinking of going with chicken, I mean it’s kind of the same thing.”
He looked over his shoulder at her with a grimace. “Is it though?”
“No, I guess not.”
He stood back up with a crown in hand. “They had a few small frozen ones left. You’d probably have enough time to defrost one overnight.”
“Thanks, but a whole one’s too much. Even this’ll last me a few days.” She waved the cold raw turkey crown at him and then realised what she was doing and put it in her basket.
His eyes followed her hands briefly and then snapped back up to her face. “I hear if you cover it with bacon it keeps the juices in,” he said, holding his turkey crown up in evidence. “But then I suppose most things taste better if you cover them in bacon.”
Isabel giggled and sprout guy ‒or should it be bacon guy‒ grinned at her.
“I should, er…” He jabbed a thumb over his shoulder.
“Yeah, me too. Thanks for the tip.”
She gave him one last fleeting smile and walked quickly to the end of the aisle. She turned, walked a few rows down and ducked into the world food aisle. How did he make her feel so clumsy and uncoordinated? That scruffy hair style and the rumpled white shirt under his coat gave her the impression he’d just done something naughty at the office party. She closed her eyes and shook her head. Now was not the time to be day dreaming about some random guy at the supermarket. She pulled her list from her pocket to ground herself.
Well she might as well go and get bacon next, before she forgot about it. As she passed the end of the wine aisle, she spotted bacon-sprout guy comparing a couple of bottles. Both whites. That was one thing he could pick up without risk of crashing into her; since she’d be on call tomorrow, wine was off the menu.
After a thorough hunt she eventually found the instant custard she was looking for, and then made her way to the section with Christmas pudding. She stopped short. Bacon-sprout guy stood by the shelf, considering his options. The flutter in her stomach returned. At least this time she’d get to surprise him.
She walked quietly up behind him. He held a little individual pudding in one hand. Just the one.
“You going to eat all of that by yourself?” Isabel asked.
He jumped and turned, catching her in the chest with his elbow as he spun round.
Isabel gasped and clutched at the bruise. “Ahh.”
“Oh God, I’m sorry. Are you okay?”
“I’ll be fine,” she said, rubbing the sore spot. “Serves me right for sneaking up on you.”
“Well it was some pretty good sneaking.”
She set her basket down. “So, er, is that all for you?” she asked again with a nod towards the tiny pudding.
He looked at the package in his hand and chuckled. “Oh, er, yeah. Big on the gluttony, me.”
She took one of the individual puddings for herself. For once an easy choice. “Do you think they make these just for people who don’t have anyone to spend Christmas with? Or are they for people who want to look posh?”
He watched her for a moment and the back of her neck tingled. “The first one, I think,” he said. “That’s why there’s always so many left over.”
“Because only sad people spend Christmas alone?”
“Sad people like us.”
“Yeah, exactly.” She popped the pudding in her basket and sighed.
“Er, well, I’m all done. What about you?”
She looked into her basket. “I think so, let me check.” She pulled out her list and mentally checked off everything she had. “Oh, one more thing.” She looked up and spotted the seasonal aisle just across from where they stood. Bacon-sprout guy followed her to a spot next to Christmas crackers. There were boxes of six, eight or even twelve.
Warm memories of family Christmases, laughter around the table, brought a prickle of tears to her eyes. “Guess they don’t sell these in ones,” she said.
“And don’t you kind of need someone to pull the other end anyway?”
She took a deep breath and blinked back the tears. She’d see her family in the new year, but it just wasn’t the same.
“Can I make a really stupid suggestion?” Bacon-sprout guy asked. She turned to face him as he rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand.
“Well, you’re on your own tomorrow, and so am I… maybe we could… ah, forget it, I’m sorry, stupid idea.”
The constant flutter in her stomach sent a ripple out through her whole body. “Why is it stupid?” she asked, before she could think better of it. She didn’t even know his name and so far he was responsible for at least two bruises.
“Well, because…” ‘He shrugged.
“So, are you offering to pull my cracker with me tomorrow, Jack?”
He chuckled. “Now there’s an invitation. And, yes. If you like.”
She turned back to the crackers, considering, and spotted a box containing just two. “Ah, look. Perfect.”
Jack frowned at his basket. “Maybe we need to re-think this now. Pool our resources?”
Isabel grinned. “Do you want to go see if any of those frozen turkeys are still there?”
He stepped aside with a sweep of his arm. “Lead the way.”
Sprout photograph by Chrissey Harrison, may be licenced under a creative commons attribution licence. Click image for full details.