Better than a Blanket – A Secret Santa Story
Winter break is finally here, and Lilly has decided to invite her family - Hanako and Hisao - to stay over a few days in their small summerhouse in Hokkaido. Unbeknownst to the pair, Lilly has set up a surprise Christmas party with the help of Akira for them to celebrate.
Exhausted I slump down on the sofa.
From the start nothing has gone according to plan today: First our connecting flight from Haneda to Sapporo was more than an hour late due to heavy snow, then something was wrong with the rental car reservation, and then the drive out here took us four whole hours - again because of the snow.
At least I got to sleep a bit in the car, since – again – I wasn’t able to on the plane. It’s an ability I really envy Akira for.
We bought the groceries for tonight in the next town and then came here. Akira had arranged for someone to come over and clean the house sometime last week, so at least we didn’t have to worry about cleaning out four and a half years of dust – not that Akira would have been thrilled to do something like that even if we had all the time in the world.
Now, finally, I’m done preparing tonight’s food and have time for a little break while Akira is out fetching “something important” as she put it. It should still be about an hour until Hisao and Hanako...
A knock on the door startles me from my musings. I check my watch – yes there should still be some time... I cautiously make my way to the door to avoid tripping on something Akira might have left lying around... No that’s unfair. I know Akira wouldn’t do that. The truth is that I’m simply not all that familiar with the layout of this room anymore – having spent most of the afternoon in the kitchen.
As I approach the door I can hear hushed talking outside. I can’t make out any words, but I still recognize the voices.
As soon as I open the door I hear a high squeal, and am almost tackled to the ground by the person bear-hugging me.
“Lilly! So good to see you again!”
And from slightly behind her, “Hi Lilly, hope you had a good flight.” I can hear the smile on Hisao’s face as he is taking in the scene.
I choose to ignore the question and invite the both of them in. Hisao makes a quick trip back to the car and retrieves two small travelling bags which I instruct him to bring to the bedroom.
Shortly we are sitting in the common room sipping a cup of tea each. Hanako is positively giddy, asking me all kinds of questions about Scotland, my family and my college.
“Yes, Scotland does get quite cold in the winter as well - it IS a bit farther north than Hokkaido – but Inverness is located right at the sea, so it doesn’t get too bad. It is not far to the mountains, however, and my mother does like to go skiing on the weekends. A few times she’s taken me along.”
I can practically feel the unspoken question hanging in the air.
“...not to go skiing myself of course, but they have some wonderful hiking trails, and it is a nice change of pace from college. When I am among almost 9.000 students the whole week I miss the peaceful atmosphere at Yamaku...”
“Yes, I know what you mean.” Hanako shifts on the couch uncomfortably for a moment. “It’s been hard for me as well for the first months, but it helps that most of the anglistics students at my university share my love for reading and literature...”
At this point Hisao interrupts his girlfriend. “By the way, did she tell you that Suzu is going to the same university?”
I struggle to remember the name. “Suzuki? Wasn’t she in your class? I’m sorry, I never talked to her much, so I hardly remember her.”
“Yes, I didn’t talk to her much either when I was at Yamaku, so I didn’t even know where she was going. I ran into her by accident when the first semester was already almost over. A university is really a big place. It is so easy for two people to completely miss each other.”
“Especially when one of them avoids crowds and the other spends most of the time sleeping.”
Hisao pays for that jibe by being playfully punched in the side by Hanako, and all three of us start to giggle. I am very relieved to see that Hanako has gotten better to the point where Hisao can make a joke like that without worrying about offending her. During our phone calls I was always worried that she was just keeping quiet about her problems, but those concerns seem to have been mostly unnecessary.
When we have all calmed down a bit Hanako speaks up again. “Say, Lilly, do you think there are any blankets around the house? It’s a bit chilly in here.”
I start. She’s right. I didn’t notice it that much since I was so busy preparing dinner all afternoon, but by now it has gotten dark outside, and just sitting here, you can feel the cold seeping in from outside. “I think there should be some in the bottom of the wardrobe in the bedroom.”
Hisao rises from the couch. “I’ll go get some, so...”
A series of loud knocks comes from the front door. That’s probably Akira. I hope they like the surprise. “Ah, Hanako, can you please get the door?”
I hear footsteps, then the door being cautiously opened, then...
“Akira! I thought you had to work!”
“It’s Christmas you know. Over there that’s a holiday. Several in fact. So when Lilly said she’d fly over to visit you I thought I’d tag along. Hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course we don’t mind, Akira, you know that!”
“Well, then I hope you don’t mind lending me your boyfriend for a moment... Hey, Hisao, grab your jacket and give me a hand.” She hesitates a moment. “You’ll be okay carrying something from the car inside?”
I hear Hisao putting on his jacket. “As long as you haven’t parked half a kilometre away, I should be fine.”
The two disappear out the door, and Hanako walks up to me. “Why didn’t you tell us?”
“Is that not obvious? It was supposed to be a surprise.”
“But now we don’t have a Christmas present for her!”
I shrug, grinning. “I don’t think she’ll mind.”
Huffing and scraping from the front door catches our attention, and Hanako moves towards the noise to help. “Hey, that’s really heavy. What is that?”
“Just a little something I thought we’d need for today. Just put it down right here.”
I hear the sound of packaging being removed, then a gasp from Hanako. “A kotatsu.”
“Yeah well, when Lilly told me she wanted to do her Christmas party up here I remembered once coming here with our parents in the winter. That was before Lilly was born, but... Let’s say since then we’ve only used this place as a summer
house for a reason... I wanted to have it delivered, but that didn’t work out, so I had to pick it up.”
She’s right, of course. Living in Europe for so long I’d forgotten that this place didn’t have any central heating.
Hisao laughs. “Good thinking, Akira. You know if the thermometer had been just a few centimetres longer we’d have frozen to death by now.”
That gets a laugh out of Akira as well. “Okay, but you know I’m getting a bit peckish. Why don’t you and Hanako, go get dinner ready, while Hisao and I set this big boy up?"
An hour later we are all sitting around the kotatsu, enjoying the meal. The table is smaller than I would have liked for our dinner – it is impossible to fit all the dishes on top together with our plates, so someone has to go to the kitchen now and again – but at least it is cosily warm.
I tried to make a dinner entirely of Scottish Christmas dishes, but some of them were a lot harder to do than others – not just the cooking but also the ingredients.
The entree Cock-a-Leekie soup was one of the easier parts, requiring only chicken, leeks and barley broth, the salmon and scrambled eggs were also easy to get... but getting a turkey required a bit of planning including pre-ordering it from back home and picking it up here in town.
Some of the vegetables for the stuffing I bought canned in Inverness, because they are not commonly used here, and I didn’t want to risk them not being available in the supermarket.
Akira also suggested adding Haggis to the menu, but I put my foot down at that. It’s not something I wanted to inflict on my best friends.
Presently, Akira is bringing in the Christmas pudding desert. This is also something that I bought premade, since it would have taken too long to prepare here... That and my experiments making it last year have been less than satisfactory.
Neither Hisao nor Hanako seem to be very enthused about it – either the cinnamon and nutmeg flavour is just too alien for a Japnese palate or they are simply stuffed from the previous dishes. For me it is one of my favourites, which may be partly because of the rum sauce that comes with it.
After the meal we collectively decide to leave the dishes for the next morning; Hanako just puts the leftovers into the refrigerator.
Hisao addresses Akira. “So are you coming down to our place along with Lilly tomorrow? We could make room for both of you, you know.”
We already talked about this, so I already know Akira’s answer. “Thanks for the offer, Hisao, but no. I’ll be in Japan for a few more days, but I plan to catch up with a few other friends I left behind when I moved to Scotland – mostly old colleagues – and I also plan to visit Daichi’s parents. He wanted to come along, too, but the poor sod is down with the flu. I told him to get a shot, but no, he was like ‘I’ve never had a flu in my life, so why should I get a shot?’”
She ponders for a few seconds.
“Maybe I’ll be able to drop by at your place before I fly back, but no promises. You just take care of Lilly, right. Kid had to practice the language before coming back here because she’s forgotten all about it.”
I feel my face flush at brazen lie. “That is NOT true!”
Akira’s laughter tells me that I’ve fallen for her trap again, and I pout. “My Japanese is still better than yours ever was.”
“Well, that’s not a high bar to pass, “ Hanako pipes up. Maybe she did have more of that rum sauce than I noticed...
After joking back and forth for some more time I feel it becomes increasingly harder to keep my eyes open, and that doesn’t escape the others.
“Seems the jetlag is finally catching up to you, sis.”
Hanako yawns. “It’s not just her. I think we’ve all been on our feet a long time today. We left home very early to account for all the snow on the roads... Even though someone, “she pauses, presumably to shoot her boyfriend a knowing look, “was a bit too pessimistic about that.”
“Come on, it would have been worse if we’d been stuck somewhere on the road and arrived late, wouldn’t it? But yeah, I’m pretty tired as well.”
“Then why don’t you two retire to the bedroom? I’ll put the kotatsu to the side, and well put out our futons here.”
“Aww, why can’t you just leave it here? It’s much better than a blanket.”
Akira sits up straight and speaks in the strictest voice she is capable of. “Lilian, didn’t I teach you not to sleep under a Kotatsu, or you will get burned when you move in your sleep?”
...which is not very strict, admittedly. Still it gets a final laugh out of everyone for the evening, and then Hanako and Hisao leave for the bedroom.
Soon we have set up the futons and are ready for bed. As I drift off to sleep I think about the day, and the coming two weeks that I am going to spend with Hanako and Hisao - my Japanese family - before returning to Inverness.
Despite all her joking a lot of what has made this day special would not have been possible if she had not planned ahead and thought of all the tiny details.
“Thank you for being my sister.”
When I thought about the prompt I noticed the incongruity between “summer house” and “Christmas party” and from that the rest of the story more or less wrote itself.
Lilly was the first one mentioned in the prompt, so I chose to make her the narrator, which caused the difficulty level to go up a bit, but I hope it also makes for a more interesting story.
No, I didn't forget the exchanging of the presents. They are going to do that in the morning.
Proper attribution for the thermometer joke goes to Mark Twain.