by Virginia Macgregor
The burnt smell creeps into Milo’s dreams and then wakes him.
He swings his legs out of bed and runs downstairs. Mum’s forbidden Gran to use the kitchen on her own.
There’s so much smoke, it takes a while for Milo’s eyes to focus.
Through the pinhole, he sees Gran standing by the oven in her tartan pinny, her hands and hair covered in flour. She’s holding a tray of burnt biscuits. And that’s when he remembers: it’s Christmas Eve – and the eve of his birthday too. And every Christmas Eve Gran makes her special Inveraray shortbread. Except usually, it’s not cut into funny shapes and it’s not burnt.
Milo grabs a tea towel and takes the tray out of Gran’s hands. He squints to make sure he’s seen properly: pigs.
He looks around for a pig cutter but there isn’t one. And then he notices one of Mum’s sharp knives in the middle of a mess of flour and sugar and butter. Gran must have cut all of the pigs out by hand. Pigs are Milo’s favourite animals of all time: his dream is to have a micropig like the ones in the posters in the RSPCA shop on Slipton High Street.
Milo picks up one of the pigs and holds it up to his eyes. ‘Why have they got funny things on their back?’
Gran smiles, takes her pad and her pencil out of her pinny and scribbles: Flying pigs. For the tree.
Milo looks through the kitchen door into the lounge: the tree is bare and droopy and the carpet underneath is covered in brown pine needles.
Mum cancelled Christmas after Milo found Dad with The Tart at the Christmas Party. Dad’s living with The Tart in the Slipton Holiday Inn.
Gran takes the tray of biscuits out of Milo’s hands and walks towards the bin.
‘No, Gran – don’t. They’re fine. We’ll just cover them with icing.’
Gran turns round and raises her eyebrows as if to say: really?
‘No one will notice, Gran.’
And even though it’s the middle of the night and even though Mum will blow a fuse if she finds Milo and Gran up this late and even though no icing in the world will cover up the fact that the biscuits are burnt to a crisp, Milo goes over to the kitchen cupboard, gets up onto his tiptoes and pulls out the bag of icing sugar and Mum’s pot of pink food colouring.
‘We’ll ice the pigs now,’ he says. ‘And I’ll wake up early and hang them on the tree. It’ll be a surprise for when Mum wakes up.’
The next morning, Milo bangs on the bathroom door. He needs to pee and Mum’s been in there for ages and Dad’s coming to pick them up any moment. The four of them – Mum, Dad, Milo and Gran – are going to The Slipton Arms for Christmas Lunch. Mum doesn’t want to cook this year; she said she’d make Milo’s birthday cake, but that was all. Mum used to love Christmas. She’d go to this massive Christmas fair in London in early November and spend too much money on Dad’s bank card and he’d tell her off, but not seriously, because he knew how happy Christmas made her.
Mum comes out. Her eyes are smudged from crying. They’re smudged from crying most days but today they’re even worse because she put loads of make-up on to go out for Christmas lunch.
‘You look nice,’ Milo says. Though he has to cross his fingers behind his back when he says it because he doesn’t really like the Mum’s dress: it’s too short. Milo knows she picked it to make Dad look at her more but Dad won’t notice because he’s in love with The Tart. At least she won’t be there today.
Milo hears Dad’s car on the drive. The rash on Mum’s throat flares red.
‘It’ll be okay, Mum,’ Milo says, his fingers still crossed behind his back.
On their way to the front door, Milo points to the Christmas tree in the lounge: ‘It looks nice, doesn’t it?’
Mum says ‘hmmm,’ but she doesn’t even look. Milo’s sure she hasn’t noticed Gran’s flying pigs or their pink icing or the fact that he spent ages this morning hanging them all up. He used brown elastic bands from the box in the kitchen because he couldn’t find ribbons but it turned out fine because the elastic bands make the pigs bounce, which is a bit like flying.
When they get to the car, Milo’s heart stops. It’s her. She’s sitting in the passenger seat, her hair all smooth and soft and curly down her shoulders. She gets out of the car in her navy heels and her navy suit and her silk scarf wound round her neck and then she smiles with her big red lips and when she blinks Milo notices how long her eyelashes look and that they look like proper eyelashes growing out of her eyelids rather than the plastic ones Mum puts on.
Mum stumbles backwards on her glittery heels from the Tesco bargain bin.
And Dad stares at the house so that he doesn’t have to look at Mum or Gran or Milo.
‘Hope you don’t mind me tagging along,’ says The Tart.
No one says anything.
Milo clenches his fists. It was meant to be just the four of them. Family. Proper family, not turned-up-yesterday-pretending-to-be family.
‘I think Gran should sit in the front,’ Milo says at last.
‘Oh . . . okay,’ says The Tart. ‘Of course.’ And then she smiles a fake smile, faker than Mum’s fake eyelashes.
Gran gets in the front and Mum, Milo and The Tart sit in the back. Milo sits between them.
When they get to The Slipton Arms Milo picks up a leaflet on the Table. The Tart sees it too. ‘How exciting, a quiz!’ she squeals.
Ever since he saw The Tart, Milo’s heart’s been sitting at the bottom of his stomach. Now it plummets down to his feet.
The Tart’s got a university degree. Dad said she’s really clever. Mum left school at sixteen to get married to Dad and to run her beauty parlour in the shed. The quiz will give The Tart another reason to show Mum up, like she does with her expensive clothes and her expensive shoes and her real eyelashes.
Milo feels sick.
Mum bites the skin on the side of her thumbnail.
‘Why don’t we order,’ says Dad, which is a stupid thing to say because when it’s Christmas Lunch everyone has the same thing: turkey and roast potatoes and stuffing and Brussels sprouts and bread sauce and cranberry sauce and small sausages wrapped in bacon and carrots cut on a slant.
They pull their crackers and they put on paper crowns and everyone eats their main course really fast, except Gran who’s a slow eater and doesn’t seem as bothered about how horrible everything is with the slot machines blinking in the corner and an EastEnders Christmas Special blaring out on the TV behind the bar and lots of really drunk people speaking so loud they’re giving Milo a headache. Plus, the roast potatoes are greasy like they’ve been deep-fried and the sprouts are frozen in the middle and the turkey’s dry and stringy like it’s been zapped in the microwave.
‘Ten minutes ’til the Christmas Quiz,’ Big Mike says through the microphone at the bar.
Big Mike lives in the pink house on the corner of the High Street and he’s always asked to do things like the Bingo and the Christmas Quiz because he’s got a deep booming voice. Milo knows Big Mike because he comes to Mum’s beauty shed to have his chest waxed. Milo’s always suspected that Big Mike fancies Mum.
‘Let’s see who the clever clogs are out there!’ adds Big Mike.
Milo pulls at the collar of his shirt. He’s got to do something or Mum will feel even worse about The Tart.
As Milo watches Big Mike slip out through the back door, he has an idea.
‘I’m going to the loo,’ he says to everyone at the table.
Outside, Milo finds Big Mike having a fag.
‘Big Mike?’ Milo says.
Big Mike stubs out his cigarette. ‘Yes, buddy?’
‘It’s kind of a long story, but I need to ask you a favour.’
Big Mike goes through so many rounds of questions that Milo worries he’s forgotten about their chat outside. The Tart’s in charge of the piece of paper for the answers and every time Big Mike asks a question she chews on the end of the pencil and smiles at Dad and scribbles something down and, even before the quiz is taken in for marking, she punches the air because she’s sure she’s got it right.
In the meantime, Mum sinks further and further into her chair. She’s got a gravy stain on her top and her throat’s all red from where she’s been scratching it. Milo wishes that they’d stayed at home and pretended Christmas and his birthday hadn’t happened this year.
Big Mike clears his throat and leans into the microphone.
‘Now for a special round – double points.’
Milo sits up.
The Tart claps her hands in excitement.
Mum chews so hard on her thumbnail skin that it starts to bleed.
Gran frowns. Her hands are shaking. Milo puts his hand over hers. ‘Don’t worry, Gran, I’ve got it sorted,’ he whispers.
‘The Local Knowledge round,’ Big Mike booms into the microphone.
The Tart’s smile drops.
Mum looks up.
‘Let’s see how well you folks know Slipton.’
Now Milo wants to punch the air with his fist but he sits on his hand instead: he mustn’t give himself away.
Mum knows everything about Slipton. She’s lived here her whole life and so did her parents and so did their parents. Plus, she reads The Slipton Times from cover to cover every week. And the clients who come to her beauty shed tell her all the town gossip.
For the next five minutes, Christmas goes from being the worst day ever to feeling like it might just be okay. Mum knows the answer to so many questions that The Tart has to give her the pad and the pencil. Even Dad looks kind of relieved and Gran smiles and eats all the mints on the saucer. And then Big Mike takes in the papers and winks at Milo on the way round and while they’re being marked Dad orders more drinks for everyone and Milo’s allowed a sip of Dad’s beer – which makes him feel warm inside but he knows it’s not just the beer, it’s also the fact that Mum got to answer so many of the questions and because they were bonus questions she’s the one who’ll have won them the quiz, not The Tart.
Mum’s sitting up straight again and her skin’s glowing, like it does when she uses her special bronzing cream and her eyes are sparkly too.
Big Mike climbs onto the stage.
Milo grabs Gran’s hand and holds it really tight.
‘Ladies and gentlemen . . . ’ Big Mike begins.
Milo wants to jump out of his chair he’s so excited.
And then Big Mike frowns. ‘I’m afraid there’s a tie.’
Milo looks round the room. Everyone else in the pub was too drunk to take the quiz seriously. Then he spots Stan Dyer in the corner. Stan’s family is nearly as old as Mum’s family. Through the pinhole Milo sees Stan whispering something to his dad. Milo can read Stan’s lips – it’s a phrase Stan uses in class all the time: It’s in the bag.
‘So here’s one last question for Team Moon and Team Dyer. Another local question.’
Stan’s dad knows as much about Slipton as Mum.
‘Which year did Mr Gupta’s post office catch fire?’
Damn, thinks Milo. Dates mean numbers: Mum doesn’t do numbers.
‘Over to you, Sandy.’ The Tart takes a sip of her bubbly white wine.
Milo wants to thump her.
The sparkle goes out of Mum’s eyes.
‘Sandy?’ The Tart says again.
Milo looks at Gran. Her brow’s all knotted up: she knows that this is worse than if Mum hadn’t got any of the questions right in the last round because now everyone’s going to blame her for losing the quiz. Worse: she’s going to lose the quiz to the Dyers.
And then Milo hears a scratching sound. He shifts his head and spots Dad scribbling something on a napkin under the table. He focuses his eyes and sees that it’s a date: 2007. And then he sees Dad slipping the napkin into Mum’s lap. The Tart’s too busy filling up her wineglass to notice.
Mum glances at Dad and Dad smiles at her and, for a second, Milo remembers how it used to be between them before The Christmas Party and What Happened in The Shed.
The Dyers are still conferring. It looks like they’re not good at numbers either. Mum shoots up her arm like Nadja who sits on the front row at school.
‘Yes, Sandy,’ says Big Mike.
Milo can tell that Big Mike’s pleased Mum’s the one who’s going to answer.
‘2007,’ Mum blurts out.
Stan’s face drops and so does his dad’s.
Big Mike puts on his glasses and looks at the piece of paper he’s holding and for a second he’s frowning and Milo panics that Dad got the date wrong. And then Big Mike’s smile takes over his chubby face. ‘It looks like we have a winning team,’ he says.
Although it’s awkward again on the way back with Milo sitting between Mum and The Tart and although Gran looks a bit tired after lunch and the quiz, and although The Tart says she’s not feeling well and asks Dad to take her back to the Holiday Inn, so they don’t come in for birthday cake (and, as it turns out, Mum forgot to make the birthday cake) – none of that matters. Because as the three of them – Gran, Mum and Milo – sit on the living room carpet among the brown pine needles, eating Gran’s burnt flying pigs biscuits, Milo knows that it’s going to be okay. Big Mike was right: they’re the winning team and nothing’s ever going to change that.
Gran’s Recipe for Flying Pigs Dangling on The Christmas Tree Shortbread
Makes 11 Flying Pigs
Gran’s Incredible Ingredients
100g icing sugar
200g plain flour
200g very soft butter mixed with one teaspoon of Great-Gramps’ special whisky
Seeds from 1 vanilla pod
A pinch of cinnamon
A sharp knife for cutting out the pig shapes (or a flying pig cutter if you can find one).
Icing sugar and Mum’s pink food dye
Elastic bands for hanging off the tree (or ribbons, if you’ve got them)
(Fluff to sandwich between flying pigs – if you like Fluff, like Milo)
Gran’s Magic Method
Switch the oven on for ages in advance – especially if it’s old like ours. Gas mark 3 (or if you have an electric oven: 160°C).
Sieve the icing sugar, plain flour, cinnamon and cornflour into a big bowl. Do it carefully because icing sugar goes everywhere.
Scrape the vanilla seeds out of the vanilla pod and add to the bowl. When Mum’s not looking, take a sharp knife and cut the pod in half across and then split each short half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. (Gran says not to throw the vanilla pod bark away but to put it in the sugar jar so that the sugar smells vanillary).
With a spoon, beat the butter with the whisky until it’s really, really soft and then add to the bowl as well.
If you’ve got a fancy mixer you can mix it all the ingredients together electrically but Gran never had a mixer in Inveraray so you can also beat it with a wooden spoon – it just takes a while and makes your hand ache, though when I share the job with Gran, it’s okay.
Once all the ingredients are mushed and blended together evenly, make a ball with the dough. The dough feels really cool.
Dust the counter with flour and tip the ball onto the kitchen counter (trying not to get bits on the floor).
Use a rolling pin to roll out an even layer – not too thin (or you’ll end up with crispy pigs) and not too fat (or you’ll end up with doughy, uncooked pigs).
With the same sharp knife that Mum didn’t see you using for the vanilla pod (or, if you’re not very good at art, with a flying pigs cutter), cut out flying pig shapes.
Put the shapes onto a greased and lined baking tray (not too close together or the dough will turn into one massive flying pig that won’t look like a flying pig at all). You should get about 11 pigs. Then get a straw and make a hole in each pig for hanging on the tree later.
Use the end of a fork to make little holes in the pigs so they don’t puff up and explode in the oven.
Bake for a bout 15-20 minutes – the pigs should still be pale but not doughy. Be really careful not to burn, like Gran did on Christmas morning.
Remove the tin from the oven and let cool for 10 minutes before removing the flying pigs with a palette knife and your fingers to a rack.
Let cool completely and, in the meantime, mix the icing sugar with a bit of water and a bit of pink food dye.
Cover pigs with pink icing. Let the icing dry and then put an elastic band (or ribbon) through each hole and tie to the tree.
Take off the tree, eat them as they are or, for an extra yummy treat, sandwich the flying pigs with Fluff.