Warm steam enveloped Shaun's vision, the scent of crispy roast turkey flooding the small kitchen as he removed the delicious bird from the oven. He set it down, careful as ever, before removing the roast potatoes too. The spread looked splendid, and it looked even better once everything was displayed on the narrow dining table.
Perfectly roasted turkey filled with a delicious sausage and onion stuffing, garlic roast potatoes, a herby bake using his home grown vegetables, hot gravy - and two bowls of steaming sweet potato soup.
"This looks wonderful!" Cynthia gushed. She took no time in sitting herself down, reaching for the wine she had poured them.
Shaun wasn't much of a drinker, but as he took a sip of the sweet white wine he had to admit Cynthia had chosen well. He almost felt guilty for trying to chase her out of the door earlier, but it was clear from the smile on her face there were no hard feelings. It was difficult to feel angry or disappointed with such a spread in front of them. He grinned at Cynthia, and she smiled back.
Cynthia sliced the turkey - and the crackle of the crispy, roasted skin made his mouth water. Then came the vegetables, baked perfectly in a rich tomato sauce. Cynthia's eyes widened in delight as she took a bite - and yes, Shaun felt just a little proud. "This is delicious," she exclaimed with a laugh, "I've never tasted anything this good."
"You helped," Shaun replied, taking a bite of the turkey. It had been slow roasted with plenty of garlic and herbs, and he doubted there was anything better. "You should take half the credit," he continued with a grin.
"Not half. After all, you grew the vegetables. I'll take maybe... twenty-five per cent credit?"
Shaun simply rolled his eyes. They continued to chat as they ate - and the more they talked the more Shaun found himself enjoying her company. He wasn't unsociable, not by any means - he travelled as often as he could, met new people from all over, and spent the majority of his free time with friends. His life was busy, exceedingly so, and sometimes he just liked to spend time alone. Yet, even with Cynthia's obnoxious laugh and constant chatter, Shaun didn't miss his usual quiet Christmas.
Soon their plates were cleared, the wine finished, and the two sat back with satisfied smiles. "I don't think I've ever eaten that much in one go," Cynthia said with a laugh, "but it was fantastic."
"I could eat more," Shaun admitted, "but we still have the dessert you brought over."
Her eyes lit up, and she straightened in her chair. "It's a ginger cheesecake. Not traditional I suppose, but I promise you, it's great."
Shaun couldn't argue with that, so he stood to fetch it from the fridge. Sure enough, it looked appetising - a thick chocolate base, creamy cheesecake on top and decorated with white chocolate and crystallised ginger. He sliced into it with ease, and quickly took the two plates back to the table.
"You know," Cynthia mused as she lifted a fork, "I wasn't sure if I should have come over today. I do know you like Christmas on your own, and I don't doubt you enjoy yourself." She twirled her fork, sinking it into the fluffy cheesecake, "but honestly, since my daughter moved to England I don't see her as much, and I miss having a full house."
Shaun gave her his best reassuring smile. "I was surprised to see you, that's for sure," he replied, "but I'm glad you're here. Today has been great."
"Hasn't it?" Cynthia replied with a deep laugh, "I've enjoyed myself too. So thank you - and uh, sorry for storming in unannounced."
Shaun shrugged, a smile curling at his lips. Sure, he had been disappointed at first, but he couldn't deny that he had enjoyed the company. That wasn't to say he wanted to make it a regular occurrence - he still enjoyed his quiet Christmasses - but, well, Cynthia's presence had been lovely.
They ate in comfortable silence for a moment, something rare around Cynthia. The cheesecake was delightful - sweet but sharp, refreshing after such a heavy meal. His slice was finished in no time, and before long they had finished a second slice too.
There was still a mountain of leftovers, and Cynthia was happy to help him box it all up for the fridge. They worked efficiently, as if they had been doing it together for years - and once again Shaun was struck by how comfortable it all was.
"Thanks for the amazing dinner," Cynthia said as she put the last of the potatoes away, "it's been great. I should probably head home now."
Shaun surprised himself with a laugh, one that burst from his lips without permission. "It's still early," he offered, "stay for a hot drink, at least."
Cynthia glanced outside and Shaun's gaze followed. It wasn't quite dark, but the street was washed in the soft glow of the streetlights. They illuminated the pristine white snow, the glittering of the neighbour's Christmas decorations - and, most of all, the light patter of snow falling fresh against the ground.
"I suppose I could stay a bit longer," Cynthia admonished with a beaming smile, "do you have any chamomile tea?"
So on they continued, chatting over mugs of steaming tea by a crackling fire in Shaun's cosy little living room. The clock slowly ticked away, later and later, but neither noticed.
Shaun thought of his parents enjoying their time abroad, most likely lounging on the beach of all things. And he thought of the plan he had for Christmas, one that Cynthia had thoroughly ruined. Honestly, Shaun was perfectly content. He didn't want to be anywhere else.