The man in the Santa t-shirt grins and raises his palm for a high five, then continues. ‘You must be an artist; it looks as good as any table in a posh restaurant. They won’t say much but they’ll appreciate it, and it’ll make them feel special.’
‘Thanks,’ I mumble, flushing as red as his t-shirt. I don’t remember anyone ever telling me I’d done a great job.
‘Wanna help me peel spuds?’ he asks.
I nod and follow him to the kitchen. He hands me a peeler and we sit on opposite sides of a huge hessian sack of brushed potatoes. ‘Cheaper than washed ones,’ he shrugs apologetically.
‘It’s okay,’ I tell him. ‘The dirt’ll wash off.’
We peel in silence, matching grubby potato for grubby potato in our respective piles on the bench. Finally, the last two and I shave my last strip a millisecond ahead of him.
‘You missed a bit,’ he laughs, pretending to inspect my pile before sweeping them into the sink and turning the tap on.
An older woman with jangling bangles almost up to her elbow arrives and he enfolds her in a hug. ‘This is Rose,’ he says. ‘She makes the best gravy… ever!’
Rose laughs and crushes me in a bear hug. ‘Lovely to meet you, sweetie. It’s so good of you to give up your Christmas to help here.’
I open my mouth to speak but the door opens again and three more arrivals are embraced with gusto.
The kitchen is filled with myriad aromas. Turkey, chicken, lamb and pork. Plum puddings bubble on the stove top. I follow one of the later arrivals into the store room and we bring out stacks of mis-matched dinner plates and bowls.
Rose stirs her famous gravy. Red Santa t-shirt begins carving. One man opens the dining room doors and hesitant faces appear, then smile and make their way to seats at the long tables. I add crisp roast potatoes to plates, the man beside me spoons minted peas and we all take tray loads out to grateful recipients.
Last plate delivered, we prepare thick slices of pudding and top them with custard and cream.
To the accompaniment of clinking spoons, someone croons Silent Night. I see tears trickling down weary cheeks and realise my own are damp.
After the last person leaves, Red Santa t-shirt fills the sink with steaming water and the rest of us pick up tea towels.
Finally, we sit at the end of one of the long tables and feast on leftovers. I’ve never tasted anything so good.
‘I didn’t volunteer,’ I blurt, hanging my head. ‘I got community service.’ The whole saga of my dysfunctional life and family tumbles out.
‘Welcome to the club,’ says Red Santa t-shirt. ‘Got mine twenty years ago. Judge gave me the best gift I ever received.’
Rose pulls one of her shiny bangles from her arm and slips it over my hand.
‘Merry Christmas, love.’