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The Last Mince Pie (revised) by Dr Guess Who

© Dr Guess Who

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THE LAST MINCE PIE
A Christmas Horror Story

Robert eased his vast bulk into the cramped and windowless pantry, leant back against the door and with a soft click it shut behind him. In the darkness, he held his breath and listened. Nothing, not a sound, just the leaden cold. He sniffed, tentatively, and his nostrils quivered with excitement. It was still there, the last mince pie! She hadn’t eaten it yet and he could smell it, right in front of him. All he needed to do was reach out and... But no, he wouldn’t.

He had eaten all the others, even before Thomas and Lucy and the children had arrived, but this one he would not touch. In a fit of indignation, Frida had told him it was hers, that he was-not-even-to-touch-it!

It seemed unfair. She could cook some more, couldn’t she? He had said as much to Frida.

“You have always loved making mince pies, darling,” he had said and smiled at her.

That hadn’t gone down so well so he had promised her that, no, he really would not even-touch-it. It would be difficult but it would be a labour of love. Giving the plum pudding one final stir, she snorted. Her words still stung:

“I’m done with your promises.”

“But darling, I am a gentleman. Even portly old gentlemen must keep their promises.”

“You’re not portly, you’re obese.”

Shivering in the dark pantry, it struck him that Frida was going through a cruel phase. Over the years there had been a few of those, but their marriage had survived them all. He was a bit overweight, he conceded to himself, but it was only because his body was a temple to her cooking. The problem was that a perfect storm was brewing. Very soon Frida would be going through an angry phase too. A very angry phase to be precise.

Which was why he was hiding in the pantry. He stood quite still and listened. Nothing. Just his laboured panting, the hum of the fridge, the weather vane squeaking in the winter wind. The sounds of the old house were, to him, the very sounds of silence.

Peace, it couldn’t last. At any moment, the back door would slam and Frida’s return from the cold would be announced in an imperious voice that would echo down the passage:

“Robert!” she would yell. Oh dear, oh dear. His tummy rumbled and he inhaled deeply. It smelt so, so delicious. In for a penny, he thought, in for a pound. Why not? He reached out.

No! No, he told himself, he would-not-touch-it. He would not! He had promised. Although... On reflection, it occurred to him that just looking at the last mince pie was not quite the same as touching it, was it? Of course not!

He found the light switch and turned it on. The bare bulb illuminated the shelves in front of him. There it was, on the top shelf, right in front of his eyes, a thing of beauty, made to be desired.

He listened, the look on his face half way from fear to a sneaky slyness. Still no sound from the back door, but it couldn’t last, could it? Not on Christmas Day. The rest of the family had gone for a walk along the beach whilst he and Frida cooked Christmas dinner. Before they left, Frida had ceremoniously put the turkey in the oven, and now, two hours later, it was still stone cold.

“What do you mean stone cold?” he had asked Frida when she had started shouting at him.

“As in the Aga has gone out you useless... you...!” and she stormed out of the house to check the oil tank. He had watched her stomping through the crunchy snow from the kitchen window. He already knew what she would find. The kitchen was still warm, but soon it would be very cold.

She had asked him in November to order more oil. Sue, the Estate secretary was on maternity leave, so for once he would have to do it himself. Only he hadn’t, had he?

“We don’t want to run out of oil over Christmas, just when all the family is here, do we?” Frida’s words, his damnation.

All the family? That wasn’t true, poor Ben, their second son, was spending Christmas with his in-laws, in Birmingham of all places. A fate worse than death, according to Frida. But not quite as bad as the Aga going out on Christmas Day.

The day before yesterday Frida had asked him if he had ordered the oil. He nearly choked on a forkful of roast pheasant, laden with bread sauce and with a glorious roast potato skewered on the end for good measure. He had shot the bird over a month ago, as a guest of Lord Rampton, on his estate at Ravensdale. When plucked, the bird’s skin had displayed a delicate hue of green, it’s stringy flesh tenderised by decay. Frida was eating a salad, watching him with distate.

“Of course I have ordered the oil,” he had lied after much coughing and spluttering.

Oh, dear, he really must pull his socks up. Frida ran all their affairs now, including the day to day operations of the Estate and the more she did the harder he found it to do anything himself. Even order more oil? Yes, even that. It really wasn’t on, he must... well, do something about it.

Oh, he still got up at six forty five like he had done ever since his father died and he had moved into the Hall with Frida and the boys. His father had been dead for six months but his mother had not wanted to leave Middle Marston Hall as was expected of the dowager. Why didn’t he go on working in London in his boring job in insurance, she had asked him. Why indeed? He hadn’t really known what to say to that so although he opened his mouth, he uttered no reply.

Frida was not amused. It was her who had wanted to move, for the children she said. Frida was always right, or so she said at least, when it came to the children, so he had discussed the matter with his mother again and she had, after many long silences and heaving breaths, reluctantly agreed to move from the main part of the house into the forbidding and Spartan North Wing. Frida was horrified.

“She what? If she stays in the Hall that is it, I will not stand for it! When will you grow up? You are a married man, a father of two boys. The boys should grow up here, in the Hall, so that they know who they are, where they stand in society.”

“Yes, but Mummy...”

“Mummy, Mummy, Mummy!” she mimicked him viciously, pulling a face. “It should be Frida, Frida, Frida! I am your wife, unless you haven’t noticed. I am the one who is important now! And what about your boys, Robert?”

“But...”

“No, I won’t have it! We live in England, we are not Italians, all on top of each other. And I am sick of competing with ‘Mummy’!”

So Frida had dealt with Mummy, and Mummy went to live in the dowager cottage, which is what she was supposed to do. Two months after being evicted from the Hall, nature, grief and dislocation had done their thing and his mother had died. All manner of associations and nexus occurred to him, but he steadfastly refused to blame Frida. She was, after all, right: such was the way things had always been at Middle Marston: the dowager went to live in the dowager cottage and that was that. And so, for the next thirty years he had got up at six forty five, just like his father before him. He had dressed up in tweeds and a tie, just like his father before him. He stopped reading the Daily Telegraph and read the Times instead. What had been good enough for the father was good enough for the son. It had ever been thus, all the way back to the Doomsday Book, and in a hundred years time, he didn’t doubt that his great, great grandson would also get up at six forty five and dress up in tweeds and a tie or a suitable equivalent. Life was limited to simple, binary choices, like the one between ordering more oil for the Aga or hiding in the pantry.

It really wasn’t on, was it? So a few days ago, he had announced to Frida that he would promise to turn a new leaf in the New Year. He always kept his promises, he had said, so this time, once he had made his promise, he really would become “the new me”.

“Hmmm...” had said Frida, and then, without taking her eyes off The Times Super-Fiendish Sudoku, “When?”

“When what?”

“When will you promise to turn this new leaf of yours?”

“Well, New Year’s eve is time enough.”

“Yes...,” Frida had raised her eyes to the exquisite mouldings around the Breakfast Room ceiling as if lost in complex mental machinations, “time enough for you to forget to make your promise. Then, if you forget, you won’t have to keep it, will you? Aha!” she exclaimed and her right hand pouncing on the Sudoku. She filled in a square, and then another. “Clever girl.”

Her quip still hurt. It was most unkind of her, very cruel, he had his faults, but he also had his virtues, if you thought about it. Forty years ago to the day, he had phoned Frida and promised her that he would love her until the day he died. He had kept that promise and she could be as mean as she wanted; he would still love her regardless.

Yes, he had truly loved Frida all these years. They had raised two children together, Thomas, their wonderful eldest son, good looking and slim like Frida, followed by poor Ben, as Frida called him. Poor Ben didn’t look a bit like Frida. Quite the contrary, he looked just like his father, a bit too large and a bit too slow. Quite how poor Ben would get through life he didn’t know. It was easy enough if you inherited the Middle Marston Estate and married someone like Frida, but poor Ben had married Samantha and wouldn’t inherit a bean. The Estate was all going to Thomas, who unlike poor Ben, held a very well paid job working for as a stockbroker in Johannesburg, largely because the awful Lucy was South African. It all seemed a bit unfair really, but that was how things were, primogeniture and all that. Anyway, he had given poor Ben a good education, hadn’t he? The best that money and status could buy. Eton. There were some rumours about a spot of buggery, but one got over that, didn’t one?

Oh well, nothing he could do about it. Still, he would miss poor Ben over Christmas, and without thinking his hand reached out for the last mince pie. His jaw slackened and his mouth flooded with saliva. Holding the mince pie between his thumb and his forefinger, he delicately introduced it into his mouth. His eyes closed in anticipation. Frida’s mince pies really were exquisite and the last one was always, invariably, the best...

He stopped. What was he doing? He had promised not to! The last mince pie was inside his mouth but, with his jaws ajar, he was not, yet, actually touching it. He gulped down his saliva. He had been so close, so, so close! If he hadn’t come to his senses and... and...

An icy draught leaked under the door and swirled, briefly, around his ankles. The back door slammed shut. He froze.

“Robert!”

She was back, in from the cold. He knew that Frida knew that he knew that she knew exactly where to find him. And he knew that Frida knew exactly what he was doing there.

He wasn’t hiding, was he? No. He had sneaked into the pantry to eat the last mince pie, hadn’t he?

“Robert!” shouted Frida again, and this time he could hear her footsteps as she approached the pantry door. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, especially one scorned by her Aga on Christmas Day; most especially if her husband is to blame.

His mouth shut and his lower jaw rolled in a languid grinding motion. The pie collapsed, crushed between his molars. Mincemeat oozed onto his tongue, unleashing a heavenly host of aromas and flavours on his senses. There really was nothing quite like the last mince pie, it was, quite simply, to die for.

Tears came to his eyes. Oh Frida, how he loved her!

He remembered the day he had told his parents that he was going to marry Frida. Or rather, Sinead, her real name. But he called her Frida, after Anni-Frid Lyngstad, the redhead in ABBA. He had resolved to tell his parents over the Christmas holidays, and had finally plucked up the courage that Christmas Eve, after dinner, when his parents repaired to the library. It was when they were most relaxed and anyway, the fire was roaring, he had long hair, he was young and in love and his existence seemed, at long last, to have some sort of meaning. For the first time in his life, he was not afraid of his mother.

The butler brought in coffee and left. And then Robert told them.

“But she is a redhead,” his mother had said in horror.

From behind The Sunday Times, his father had chortled. Or maybe he had snorted, it was hard to tell with his father.

“By the way, Frida is a Catholic.”

Coffee was spilt all over the settee. You could still see the stain.

To every man his Waterloo, he had put his wellies on when it really mattered. He had ignored his parents, they could think what they wanted. He had been so proud of himself, and still was in fact. He had won Frida’s heart, wresting it from the seductive charms of a suave French millionaire and she in turn had steered his life from a dark and tragic loneliness to the light and comedy of love. When the boys were born, he started calling her Mummy. At first, it had been an embarrassing slip of the tongue, but afterwards, as the boys got older, it had seemed perfectly natural. He was, as he said, one of her boys.

“Don’t you EVER call me ‘Mummy’ again!” Frida would snarl at him, but he still did. He couldn’t stop himself, there was an emotional truth to it that he could not deny. Mummy and Frida were the only two women he had ever loved, apart from Nanny of course, so why call them by different names? No, he didn’t want to stop calling her Mummy, but Frida made it quite clear to him that she hated it. When he asked her why, Frida had a straight answer, as usual:

“Your mother hated me, why should I want to be reminded of her?”

“That is... cruel of you.”

“Cruel? Of me? She never forgave me for marrying you, what was it you told me she called me? Oh, yes. ‘That CTP’ is what she called me, as in Carrot Top Papist. Now THAT is cruel, and quite nasty too.”

Maybe Frida was right, or rather, he couldn’t think clearly, what with the explosion of flavours in his mouth. Some people think that love resides in the heart, but he wasn’t so sure: he loved with his stomach, not his heart. When it came to love, he had guts, lots of them, and the only other person who had ever made a mince pie as good as this one was his mother.

“Robert!”

Frida’s fist banged on the door behind him.

“Robert, I know you’re in there, come out this very moment!”

As a child, when he hid from his mother in the pantry, the cook and the maids had pretended not to know where he was. His mother had made no such pretences and neither, almost sixty years later, did Frida.

“Robert!”

He didn’t answer.

“Robert!” shouted Frida in a fury and she pummelled the door. “Answer me!”

And then, just like that, the last mince pie took the wrong turning and lodged deep in his windpipe. His body heaved, he stuck his fat fingers into his mouth and groped at the back of his throat, all to no avail.

Frida roared in anger outside the door.

“The heating has gone off, Robert, the Aga! It is CHRISTMAS, Robert! The children are here! Tristan is FOUR YEARS OLD! All you had to do was order more oil!”

He was frothing now. In the confined space of the pantry, his arms flailed, his bulk crashed into the shelving, his hands swept pots and pans and jars off the shelves. All of Frida’s chutneys and jams, jellies and marmalades, all her potions and enchantments, they all went crashing to the floor and shattered as one.

“Robert? What ARE you doing?”

He felt his knees buckle. Tears were flowing down his cheeks. His huge mouth was agape, saliva and froth mixed with a mush of mince pie that drooled down his chin.

He managed to turn around, open the door and squeeze past it. He reached out to Frida, who was staring at him, but she stepped backwards and he pitch-poled onto his knees with a loud double crack on the dank, cold, flagstones.

He writhed on the floor, looking up at Frida, mouthing at her, gesturing at his throat.

Then... something gave inside him. He was going to die, he realized, he had just seconds to live and he wanted to see her clearly, one last time. Frida, the woman he had promised to love until the day he died. He may not have kept many promises, but he had kept the one that had made him who he was.

He wanted her to kneel down beside him, he wanted to feel her tears fall on his cheeks and to feel them mingle with his own as he died. He wanted her to help him die without that desolate sense of loneliness that was all he remembered of his childhood.

But then he saw her eyes. They were cold and indifferent, quite unmoved by his plight. He felt the world inside him buckle and change, a final, tectonic shift from Comedy back to Tragedy that extinguished every belief, every certainty, every sense of himself.

The two women in his heart, or rather, his stomach, became suddenly and unequivocally different.

Carbon dioxide mounted in his blood. He had loved Frida till the day he died, but now he hated her. He hated her and all the love and happiness of bygone years was worth nothing now. The only reality was the here and now and in that reality he was the most hate filled man who had ever lived.

Then even the hatred faded. He tried to say something.

“Robert?” Frida leaned forwards, but his eyes looked straight past her, focused on infinity. His lips moved, but no sound came out.

“Mummy, Mummy, Mummy...”

He said the name over and over again, the name of the woman he had loved the most, but not a sound left his lips. Then, the agony passed and a new clarity dawned. As Robert floated out of his body and up towards the strange comfort of a glowing vortex of light, he saw his wife’s newly hated face looking down at his vacant body. It was frozen with horror: Frida must have read his lips, he thought, she must have seen that his last words were for his mother, her long dead but ever hated rival.

And on that note, he died, and as his being dissolved into light, it struck him that he had kept his promise. He had been true to himself, a gentleman to the very end.

*

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