They walked in side-by-side, to find Rod writhing on the floor with Bonnie on his chest. Anna, Danny and Paul were leaning against the kitchen table laughing at his discomfiture. He stood up with Bonnie in his arms; she was wriggling and frantically licking his face. He put her down, and rubbed her ears fondly.
“Did you miss your Uncle Rod? You did? Now then Anna Marshall, tell me what you are doing at Sam’s gaffe. As if I didn’t know… Naughty girl!”
She smiled seraphically.
“And aren’t I enjoying myself.”
He threw back his head and roared with laughter, before turning to greet Danny and Paul.
“Long time no see. You both well?”
Danny gripped Rod’s massive hand.
“Good to see you too, you fucking man mountain.”
Jim grinned, before grabbing Anna by her narrow waist and hoisting her high in the air.
“Hello little girl.”
She laughed down at him.
“Hello yourself. You cross with me?”
He put her back on her feet.
“Should I be?”
“I dunno. Have you been getting much shit from Pats?”
“Some. But me and Jamie understand.”
“And the others?”
“Well. Mostly the twins don’t give a shit. However, Patsy, Bill and Charlie have missed you a lot.”
“I’m sorry about the boys. But I had to do this for me.”
“You did. And Jamie made the little men understand that. But Pats wasn’t so easy to mollify.”
“I know that. And I’m sorry for any pain I caused her. Look. Me and Sam are having a party. On the thirtieth of October. To celebrate Sam’s big four zero. You want to bring Pats and the kids along? And your stupid fecking brother.”
“You sure Anna.”
“I am. Apart from anything else, l miss them all.”
“Yeah. They miss you too. Specially Pats. But are you ready?”
“Yes Jim. I am. Will you come?”
“Yeah. We will.”
“Okay. Party starts at half twelve, until whenever. Now who wants what to drink. Sam is world champion cappuccino maker…”
Danny and Paul wanted cappuccino but the Cracksman brothers requested tea. Sam grinned.
“You’ll be wanting that mahogany-coloured stuff…” he said as he got up to do his duties. He brought a tray of mugs to the table, and a tin of Anna’s home-made chocolate chip cookies. When sat back down, Jim gave him a straight look.
“Yeah,” Sam said, “before you ask I wholeheartedly endorse Anna’s invitation. I’d really like to meet Patsy in party mode.” Jim grinned and patted him with one of his huge hands.
“I reckon you’re a decent sort of bloke. So thanks. We’ll see you. Birthday present?”
“Nah. No presents. I’ve got enough stuff in my life.”
Then it got much easier and even became pretty hilarious as Danny and Rod vied for who could tell the rudest stories.
It was one o’clock by the time Anna started to dish up. Sam went to her side.
“Can I help?”
“No. Not unless…”
“Not unless what?”
“Not unless your knife skills extend to carving.”
“As a matter of fact they do. Mum thought it was a man’s job, so Dad learned to do it properly, and then taught me.”
“Well. Could you then. It’s leg of lamb and I always make a complete dog’s breakfast of that.”
Sam got out the carving knife and fork and set to work. Anna could scarcely believe the perfect slices of meat that flew onto the serving platter, but she pulled herself together and dished vegetables and gravy into plain, white bowls and jugs. Then she bullied Paul into helping her lay the table. Very soon everyone was bellied up, helping themselves.
“Nobody,” Paul said in tones of delight, “cooks lamb quite like Anna. Though I have never seen it carved this beautifully before. Props to Sam.”
“But,” Rod interspersed, “ain’t it a bit creepy having your meat carved by a surgeon…”
“What? Like Sweeny Todd?” Anna giggled.
“Very much like,” Sam waved his knife and fork theatrically. “Beware the wrath of the surgeon…”
“Oh yeah,” Anna elbowed him in the ribs. “What wrath would that be? This is a man who thinks honking your horn at a dog in the street equals road rage.”
Jim smiled. “Sounds good to me. I dunno why people have to be getting shitty all the time. Life is too short…”
Rod snorted. “You sure it’s you and me that’s the twins? Sounds more like you and Sam were separated at birth.”
And then the insults really started flying. Even Sam joined in and Anna laughed until she all but cried.
When the plates and serving bowls had been all but licked clean, Sam cleared the table, while Anna retrieved something from the top of the steamer which had been sitting happily atop the Aga.
“Christmas pudding anyone?”
Rod got up from his chair and literally crawled across the kitchen to where he could kiss her feet.
“I really, really love you,” he asserted dramatically. “It isn’t too late to leave the black guy and marry me!”
She poked him with her toe.
“Go and sit down you moron, or you won’t get home-made Christmas pudding with brandy butter and clotted cream.”
He groaned and crawled back to his seat. Paul patted him consolingly.
“Brandy butter and clotted cream. She knows how to turn the screw…”
Sam wiped his eyes and got up to fetch the cream and the brandy butter. In passing, he kissed Anna on the top of her head.
“I’ve been laughing so much I hurt. Can you make them stop?”
“Not without withholding Christmas pudding, and if I do that we may have a riot on our hands.”
“Probably better not then. I’ll just suffer…”
She patted him consolingly before dishing up three large portions of pudding, two smaller ones, and one tiddler.
“Can you guess whose is which?”
Sam pointed to the big three.
“Rod, Jim, Paul?”
“Yes. And these are you and Danny.”
“Good. I’ll just put on the coffee machine and the kettle. Then I’ll come watch the monsters eat.”