A giftfic for the lovely slenderpanda597. I was hoping to get this up before I went away, but didn't finish in time, but oh well, this gave me more time to get it done. A bit of Caroline/Susie as Sev has been craving it (or rather it's more strictly Susie/Caroline. I have a bit of a headcanon that Susie does everything Caroline asks because of her FEELINGS ;) ) and I'm not sure how it turned out but I hope it suffices :D Merry Christmas!
It's a tradition for her. As much as being Prince Charming in the village panto, or eating roast turkey with her family has become a significant part of her Christmas ritual, so has Susie's Christmas Eve glass of port with Caroline.
Every December the twenty-fourth, come rain or shine, Caroline sends her children off to fetch her Christmas goose, Susie's children go off with Charles to the city to do their last minute shopping, and then she is around Caroline's door in a flash, a bottle of port in one hand and a smile on her face.
There is the usual awkward greeting—Caroline is too proper to show any affection where others might see—Susie steps in after wiping her feet sufficiently to not make marks on the newly clean floor, and then…
'Oh, thank goodness you're here. Crisis! John has had a last-minute meeting and left me to tackle all these decorations on my own, and of course, Freya and Beattie would rather die than be seen putting sad decorations up with their mother. You wouldn't mind giving me a hand, would you?'
Caroline's request has become as much of a tradition as the social side of the visit, and so every year, without fail, Susie finds herself unpacking baubles from their boxes and hanging them on the branches of Caroline's tree.
Which is where she finds herself now, the bottle of port standing on the bookcase a promise of the reward to come for all her hard work. She bobs her head to non-existent Christmas music as she unravels a string of tinsel, anticipating the way, when the tree is finally sorted, they will collapse onto the sofa, and Caroline will recount another tale of how she and John did something perfectly innocent, which she somehow mistakenly makes sound perfectly inappropriate, they'll down the port and indulge in a chat and a laugh without the hushed tones required during a Guild meeting or the time constraints that normally cut short their conversations.
'Oh, good Lord! They won't listen, will they?'
Susie glances up from her work to find Caroline glaring, a tangled clump of Christmas lights in her hands.
'I told the children—I tell them every year—you must…'
'Wrap the lights around a piece of cardboard,' Susie finishes with her.
'I mean, they've got no consideration. No thought for the future—you know my son Mikey?'
Susie nods. 'The one that's in the pop band…'
'Rock band,' Caroline corrects sniffily.
'He thought it might be a…laugh,' the disdain in Caroline's voice at this expression is so evident, Susie thinks, that even Kate Bales could have picked up on it, 'to decorate his electric guitar with my best outdoor Christmas lights last year. Completely ruined my outdoor decorations. The tangles in those lights never did come undone.'
Caroline has been ferociously unwinding lights as she speaks, and she now hands one end to Susie.
'These can go on the tree.'
They take one end each, getting to work stringing them across the branches in precisely the way Caroline likes, one branch over, one branch under, Susie counting under her breath to ensure no mistakes or branches out of alignment to be seen. Caroline likes everything to be just so, something Susie had found irritating for the first few months of knowing her but now finds rather endearing, one of those obnoxious traits one grows to accept and even anticipate as the acquaintance deepens.
'So then,' Caroline continues, stopping to undo another knot, 'Freya—who's become so environmental since she started university—you know I suggested she take a gap year to sort out her horses, but they won't be told, will they?'
'No,' Susie hums.
'Well, she's got in with that eco-something sort—she suggested this year we get a plastic tree—now, can you imagine? I mean, she has no idea. We've got all John's colleagues coming on Christmas Day for perhaps the most important dinner party of the year—we just want the house to look nice, you know. We can't have second-rate decorations at a first-rate event.'
'Of course not.' Susie has always been a little less…stringent about propriety and formality than Caroline, but she isn't going to say that.
'Which reminds me…I was going to ask you.' Caroline squares her shoulders and Susie instantly realises a favour is in the offing. She thinks back—she'd fed the dogs while Caroline had taken her children to the Gymkhana in Hole last week, she's already agreed to help decorate, she's sure she didn't have any other Caroline-favours coming up…
'Now. Rosie is coming round later, and you know how she gets with the…'
'—clingfilm,' Susie finishes, suspecting where this is going.
'I've got nowhere trying to tell her kindly that I can't afford to give her any more hours of work—and I don't want to be entertaining John's important guests from London with wreaths made of cheese hanging from my doorframes and tinfoil decorations all over my tree—but the thing is, I'm not having any luck, and I thought perhaps you…'
She should have seen that one coming.
'That perhaps I could break the news to her?' Susie asks flatly.
'Well, you know how it is. She might take it better from you. I try to tell her I simply don't have the work on and the next thing you know, she's taken my best pair of shoes and invited herself round to dinner. I just want someone to break it to her gently—well, you know.'
'Oh, I know,' Susie says, laying a finger aside of her nose, even though she's not relishing the task. She likes Rosie—Heaven knows there's not a Guild member who doesn't like Rosie—and yet she can be impossible sometimes, and if Caroline, who can be unbelievably short with her children at times, can't convince Rosie not to hang cheese from every doorway, Susie's sure she won't be able to manage.
'Right! No need to panic, she's here!' booms a cheerful voice from the passage. The front door slams shut. Caroline eyes Susie meaningfully.
'Your highness! I do apologise for my being late, only I was delayed, you see, by Margaret. And what hasn't happened is, I haven't lost the clean dryin' I was meant to bring back…' Rosie stops a few inches from Caroline's face, biting her lip as she awaits the woman's response.
'The dry cleaning,' says Caroline tartly. 'You've lost my dry cleaning?'
Rosie's head declines in the direction of the floor. 'Yeah, yeah, I have, yeah, yeah.'
She manages to appear fairly amiable when Rosie looks up again, but Susie catches Caroline almost imperceptibly roll her eyes.
'Oh, well, never mind. I never much liked that evening gown. I can wear a different one to John's dinner party tomorrow. It doesn't matter.'
'I am dreadfully sorry, your majesty,' Rosie drops into a curtsey. 'I vows that I will not be late again, and I will not lose your things again, and I will perform all my royal duties perfect-elect-ly. And I shall fold your clingfilm into the neatest squares you ever did see, and your Christmas cheese ornaments will be the finest ever!'
Caroline's eyes narrow. 'Yes. Just on that subject, er…Susie, didn't you have something to say to Rosie?'
Susie swallows, not relishing the task ahead. Rosie is looking particularly vulnerable, has done herself up with fairy wings and a tinsel necklace, is holding a block of cheese in each hand, seems altogether too excited about the festive season ahead to be let down. But Caroline is giving her a look, tilting her head a little to the side in a warning way, and Susie feels obliged to nod.
'Yes, come on, Rosie. We'll have a little chat in the kitchen.'
'Oh yes please!' Rosie claps her hands together. 'I likes your kitchen, I does. There's a bit of smoked salmon in the fridge I had my eyes on.'
Caroline's head, which had followed the rest of her body into the parlour, now pops back round the door.
'Would you mind not? Only that's for our dinner party.'
'Oh, yes, of course, of course,' Rosie shuffles her feet nervously, 'you keep that for your royal engagement.'
The satisfied Caroline disappears back into the other room and Susie sighs at the thought of the grim task ahead and leads Rosie into Caroline's luxurious kitchen.
The appliances and surfaces are glinting and gleaming, the result of a coat of polish that Rosie will soon wipe off as part of her "cleaning duties," and the floor is immaculate apart from the mud their fellow Guild member has just tracked in.
'Now, Rosie,' Susie says reluctantly, pulling out a chair and sit down, 'we do need to discuss…'
She trails off. Rosie has opened the fridge and has a piece of smoked salmon en route to her mouth.
'What? She's got dozens o' fishes in there! She won't mind if I have one piece!'
'Well, all right,' Susie says, because she really wants to get on with this, because it's something she wants over and done with, because in the other room Caroline is waiting with a bottle of port, but as she speaks, Rosie is pulling another slab of salmon out of the packaging. Susie frowns.
'Well, just one for the road! You don't have to be the fish police, you know!' Stuffing the second slice into her mouth, Rosie finally—mercifully—returns the rest of the salmon to the fridge and clomps over.
'Now, Rosie,' Susie begins again.
'My fingers smells all fishy now,' Rosie interrupts, waving her hand in Susie's face.
'Yes, all right…'
'Shall I just go and wash my hands? Yeah? Yeah.' And she's off to no doubt make a mess of Caroline's neat towel arrangement. Susie sighs. This isn't going according to plan. She's beginning to see why Caroline fobbed the task off on her.
Rosie returns after twenty minutes, during which Susie has sat, wondered what she's been doing, worried what she's been doing, written a draft of what to say to her on one of Caroline's serviettes and then thrown it out after her pen went through it and nearly made a mark on the kitchen table.
'I won't be havin' that salmon again! The time it took to wash the smell off my fingers!'
'Yes, all right, now, Rosie…'
'Do you think her majesty will mind if I have some more salmon?' Rosie's eyes dart towards the fridge.
Susie's patience, which has been wearing thin, now frays and snaps.
'Yes! Yes, she would mind! So just sit there, will you, and listen to what I'm trying to say to you!'
'YES, SIT DOWN, YOU TRUMPED UP LITTLE PATHETIC SNIVELLING—'
Oh, that's all they need, having a visit from Margaret. Susie bites her lip, wishing fervently that Sal would miraculously appear, or that somehow time could rewind and she wouldn't have to be in this situation in the first place, that Rosie would magically have not come round at all.
'No, Rosie—Rosie!' she calls frantically, wondering just how she can rectify her mistake, wondering just how she might rescue Rosie from Margaret's nasty clutches. 'There's more smoked salmon in the fridge!'
Caroline will kill her. But at least, when Margaret begins to sneer about this, the lure of the salmon has Rosie telling her to shut up and excitedly bringing the packet out. A fluke save, she knows, and she only got away with it because Margaret had barely been out two seconds, but the situation is saved nonetheless. Now for the tricky business.
'Now, Rosie, Caroline wants to discuss your hours over Christmas…' Susie swallows, taking advantage of the moment when Rosie has the fish in her mouth to just come out with it. 'She can't afford it this year.'
It's not quite the truth, but it will sit better with Rosie, Susie reasons, than telling her the real reason behind it—that Caroline dislikes her decorations and finds them unsuitable for her formal dining setting. Rosie can feel sympathy for her and leave with a full heart and not the slightest bit of offence.
'Oh, no!' Rosie exclaims, a little too loudly. 'I didn't know there was a financial crisis!'
Susie makes a face, but keeps her tone patient. 'Yeees, well, it's something she'd like to keep quiet.'
'Should I tell the Guild? Should we 'ave a whip-round?'
'No, no, no, no, Rosie!' Susie grabs her just as she's about to charge off. 'Don't tell the Guild, just…you just go, and I'll sort out things here.'
'Oh, shame! If only there was somethin' I could to to help!'
'Fear not! Fear not! Say no more! I shall perform my service free of charge! That is what the spirit of Christmas is all about, innit?'
But before she can utter another word, Rosie has dashed off down the hall.
Two minutes later, Caroline emerges from her parlour, a grim expression on her face and a wreath made of blocks of cheese dangling from her hand.
The port and the quiet evening together have to wait. After Rosie has gone round the house, spreading her unique brand of Christmas cheer, Caroline and Susie go back round it again, de-Rosie-fying everything, lunging for strings of clingfilm like insane predators, and then, because Caroline is furious at the wastage, smoothing it out and putting it back on the roll.
It takes half an hour to return Caroline's house to its former state, every moment of it punctuated by Caroline's muttering and Susie's internal grumbling, but soon, at last, it's done, and Susie is more than ready to flop backwards onto the sofa, get stuck into that drink and hear the about the latest outrageous activity Caroline has supposedly undertaken.
'And about time, too,' says Caroline, 'you know, I thought I was never going to get those pieces of tin foil down from the rafters. She would manage to put them out of reach and just overhead…though just how she reached I may never know. I'll tell you something, if I find footprints on the seats of any of my chairs, I don't know what I'll do.'
Susie simply nods and reaches out to pour them both a glass of port.
'You know, the funny thing—'
But Susie doesn't find out what the 'funny thing' is, or was, because at that moment the peace is disrupted by yet another shrill voice.
She glances up, her worst suspicions confirmed as she beholds Eileen standing before the pair, her hair wild from presumably running all the way here. The frantic look in her eyes means one of two things—either Rosie has spilled the beans about Caroline's 'financial crisis' or some sort of annoyingly urgent Guild business has come up. Susie kisses her quiet evening goodbye.
'Oh, my good godfathers! We've been searching high and low—Katie's had her search and rescue team—well, just her in that silly hat—out lookin' for you! And now I find you sitting around at home like tomorrow will do! The ignominy of it!'
'Is there something we're supposed to have forgotten, Eileen?' Caroline asks testily.
'Oh, Car-o-liiiine! Susieeee! But the Guild Christmas party! I'm surprised at you, lettin' the Guild down in its moment of need! Please tell me you haven't forgotten the most important day in the Guild calendar?'
Eileen looks on the verge of either hyperventilating herself into a stupor or collapsing, the inordinate number of little medals (so few of them actually to do with the Guild) tinkling as her chest heaves.
'You know, I rather thought the jumble sale and charity drives were considered the most important events,' Caroline murmurs to Susie.
'I thought our annual outing was supposed to be the most important,' Susie murmurs back.
'Strange, don't you think, how every event is the most important? Anyone would think we're just being manipulated into taking part in any old thing which arises outside normal meeting times.'
'Ladies, please!' Eileen seems about ready to burst. 'We can't sit around here all day! The most vital festive event of the Guild is taking place at this very moment!'
'Oh,' Caroline groans, 'well, you see, I rather thought we'd give this year a miss, what with all the Christmas preparations we need to finish for our own celebrations.'
Coming from Caroline, this sounds genuine; nobody would ever question her need to have everything perfect for her and John's frequent social gatherings, but Susie knows for a fact, having been here all day, that there is nothing more to be done. They've already finished it all. Caroline simply doesn't want to go, and Susie can't help indulging in a private smirk at the thought that Caroline would clearly rather spend Christmas Eve alone with her than at a party, that she would say anything to make their traditional Christmas drink happen.
'I can't believe what I'm hearing!' Eileen shrieks, her hand flying to her heart. 'An act of mutiny, that's what this is, Caroline! We have been working on this event for nigh on three weeks now! Nibbles have been bought! Nibbles! Decorations have been hung, Susie! I trust I don't need to impress upon you the dire situation of our dwindling membership! Now Pauline's gone to live with her son in Hole, and Queenie's spending Christmas with her daughter at that nudist camp—'
'Now there's a thought I don't care to have in my head,' Caroline mutters.
'—if you two don't turn up, our ranks are going to look very sparse indeed! And Sal's threatening to leave early to spend time with Jock and that family of hers—if you two don't come, we might as well do away with the Guild altogether and just call it the Not-Bothered Christmas Party!'
She has her hands on her hips, tears in her eyes, and Susie seems to realise at the same moment Caroline does that they are not going to be allowed to get out of this. They look at each other.
'Well, I suppose…' Caroline says, sighing.
'We could go for half an hour,' Susie concedes reluctantly.
Eileen is triumphant. 'Well, come along, then!' she says, slapping her side. 'The Guild party awaits!'
Their submission has instantly cheered her up. She bounds out the front door with a spring in her step, overjoyed to have guilted them into coming with her. Exchanging a few eye rolls and mutters of annoyance, Susie and Caroline stand and amble out after her.
The Guild's so-called Christmas Party is just what Susie had expected. The hall has been adorned with a few limp strands of tinsel, the food reflects everyone's half-hearted efforts to bring something on Eileen's orders: mainly various family-sized packets of crisps, with a tray of likely inedible caramel slice and a cheese platter recognisable as Kate and Rosie's contributions respectively. Although an old tape of carols is playing, no-one seems to be getting into the spirit. In one corner, Sal and Tip are gossiping away, in another, Caroline and Susie have sought refuge, watching dejectedly as Kate goes around to each member in turn, aww-ing at whatever they say their Christmas plans are and attempting unsuccessfully to invite herself along.
'What a party this is turning out to be,' Eileen says gleefully for the umpteenth time, clapping her hands together. 'Christmas punch, anyone?'
An assortment of grumbles and reluctant mutterings follows.
'Oh, come on, ladies! Christmas punch! Sal?'
'You know…' Sal begins, and Susie's heart flutters. That tone of voice means only one thing. Sal and Tip are plotting a mass exeunt. At last. They've only been here ten minutes, but it still feels like ten minutes too many, and Susie is so desperately aching for that glass of port with Caroline that she fancies she can already taste the fortified wine on her tongue.
'I think,' Sal continues, 'in honour of Christmas, it might do us good to have something a bit stronger.'
'In the pub!' Tip adds.
'Oh, now, come on, ladies,' Eileen insists, but the rest of her words are lost in the group's instantaneous shuffle for the door.
Caroline and Susie don't bother with the pub. They've been decorating all day, Caroline has a full day of socialising tomorrow—neither of them can be doing with any more social interaction tonight. Instead, they make a beeline for Caroline's house fling open the door with a ferocity quite contrary to their normal selves, and breathe loud sighs of relief.
'You know, after a hectic evening, one sometimes just…'
The doorbell rings. Susie feels like throwing a cushion and knocking the tree down in frustration. She maintains her decorum, however, aware that that would not do anyone any favours.
'Get that, would you, Susie?' Caroline says lazily. She's got the bottle of port in hand, and while Susie finds it mildly annoying that Caroline gets to pour the drinks while she has to shoo the unwelcome visitor away, she gets up immediately and marches towards the door. She's had more than enough of people dragging her here and there—it's Christmas Eve, she's tired, she just wants to sit for a few minutes and have a drink with Caroline, and woe betide whoever has chosen to interrupt her now. She's had cheeses to remove and boring Christmas parties to endure, and she's not putting up with any more.
Taking a deep breath, she puffs out her chest, assumes a stern face and pulls open the door.
'Hiiiii,' with a swish of colourful skirts and dreadlocks, Tash has flounced into the house, Spike loping along after her. Susie's lips purse together.
'Cool house,' Spike says, picking up a Wedgwood vase and inspecting it. '1964. Nice.'
'Can you put it down now?!' Susie snaps. 'What are you doing here? Haven't you got a bath to not take somewhere?'
'We are, like, collecting,' Tash says, waving a moth-eaten old hat in her face, 'for the Save the Turkeys, like, foundation-y thing. 'Cause like, all the evil murderous butcher-people are, like, mistreating the turkeys? And we, like, want them to be eaten more, erm, like…kindly? So they don't, um…suffer?' She raises her eyebrows and waggles the hat.
Susie is fuming. 'Out.'
'But no, 'cause, like, you can't just not put anythin' in…'
'OUT! GO!' Susie points to the door. 'I CANNOT TAKE ANY MORE INTERRUPTIONS! GO!'
Tash makes a face. 'Just chill, yeah?' She shakes her head, strutting to the door. 'What's wrong in old weird snobby Guild land, then?'
'Not enough booze,' Spike says to her as they leave, and Susie doesn't know why he would have come to that conclusion, but it has a ring of truth to it. She's dying for a drink, especially after the Christmas Eve she's had. Slamming the door behind them, then bolting it and turning the vestibule light off to make sure no-one else thinks they're in, she returns to the living room and flings herself down beside Caroline.
Caroline places a full glass in her hand, and Susie's mood lifts instantly. It's finally Christmas Eve. She can finally relax. They've made it, and she's finally getting to indulge in their little annual tradition.
'Did I hear you shouting? Who was at the door?'
'Oh, never mind about that,' Susie says, taking an appreciative sip. 'All sorted out now.'
'You know,' Caroline says, sipping at her own glass, 'John and I were thinking of streaking down the halls in the New Year.'
Susie nearly swallows her port down the wrong way. She knew an accidental innuendo was coming, but they never fail to shock her.
'Streaking? Really? Are you sure you mean streaking?'
'You know. When you're painting and you use a brush and make cross-hatched strokes to make a textured feature wall. They're all the rage now, you know.'
Susie shakes her head. 'That's not streaking.'
'No,' Susie leans in, delighting in the moment when she can correct her, when she can deliver a graphic description of the true meaning of Caroline's misused phrases and watch her blush red, 'it's running through a public place in the nude.'
Caroline raises an eyebrow.
'Where people can see?'
'Yeees. That's the whole point.'
'Oh.' Caroline sits back in her chair, astounded. 'You learn something new every day, don't you?'
Susie smirks to herself as she goes back to her drink. Caroline is blushing as bright red as a bauble, they're alone after a harrowing day of interruptions by Guild Members, they've got their evening drink together at last, and finally it truly feels like Christmas.
I think the ending was a bit fail but I hope it worked okay. Merry Christmas Sev!