Read Meet Me Under the Mistletoe Online
Authors: Abby Clements
Tags: #General, #Fiction
Laurie returned to the front door. ‘Sorry about that,’ she said. ‘I thought I heard the phone, but I must have imagined it.’ She stood blocking the doorway so that Aiden couldn’t see past her.
‘So I spoke to Rachel this morning,’ Laurie said, trying to divert attention. ‘Sounds like they are settling in well.’
‘Yes, she’s finding her feet, I think.’ Aiden was peeking behind her, presumably looking for an invite in and away from the freezing temperature outside.
‘Can I …?’ Aiden said. Laurie’s mind raced.
‘Give me a tour of the neighbourhood, and show me Bea’s cottage? I’d love that!’ Laurie said, grabbing her coat. ‘No time like the present, eh?’
Thursday 30th November
‘Slow down, Zak,’ Rachel called out, as her son hurtled through Green Park on his bike, towards a group of elderly Japanese tourists. A delicate-looking lady with a white parasol clung on to her husband in fear as Zak whizzed past. ‘So sorry,’ Rachel called out. They smiled politely, but looked a little traumatised.
‘Zak!’ Milly called out, picking up pace on her own bike and catching up with him, holding the back of his bike to slow him down.
Rachel had had the idea for their outing on her way home from an early visit to Bea at the hospital. It had been a difficult morning – Bea looked tired and drawn, and the white, sterile ward was quieter than usual. The first batch of tests had proved inconclusive, so the doctors had booked Bea in for an MRI scan later that morning. As she approached the block Rachel thought of Zak and Milly cooped up in the flat. They’d perked up when she’d given them their Advent calendars to open the following day – but they were due an outing, they’d hardly seen London beyond the hospital and flat yet.
‘Morning,’ Bill called out as she passed. He was in his front yard, putting a bike chain back on.
‘Morning,’ she’d replied.
‘Are you staying next door?’ he asked, readjusting the striped woolly hat on his head slightly. ‘In Lily’s block?’
‘This one here,’ she pointed at it. ‘Yes. Yes we are.’
‘Tell her Bill says hello,’ he smiled. ‘It’s been a while.’
‘Sure – when I meet her,’ Rachel said. Laurie had mentioned a Lily, hadn’t she? ‘Actually, Bill, could I ask you a question?’
‘Of course you can,’ he said, getting to his feet slowly. ‘What can I help with?’
‘You look like the local expert. Is there anywhere I could rent bikes around here, so the kids can see a bit of the city?’
‘You can borrow those blue ones in town, pretty handy. But they’re just for grown-ups. You’ve got a little one, haven’t you?’
‘Yes, Zak. He’s six.’
‘Borrow this one for him.’ Bill hauled over a small BMX from a stack of bikes behind him. ‘It’s my grandson’s, but he’s at school today, won’t be needing it.’
‘That’s really kind,’ Rachel said, imagining how Zak’s face would light up on seeing it.
As Zak bombed down in the direction of Buckingham Palace, out of his sister’s reach, Rachel hoped she’d be delivering the BMX back to Bill in one piece. An Airedale terrier leapt towards his wheels and Zak just managed to swerve to avoid it.
‘How about some hot chocolate?’ Rachel called out with what little breath she had left, pedalling hard to keep up. She pointed to a small café in the middle of the park – sitting down for a while would at least keep Zak out of the way of tourists.
‘OK,’ Zak said, screeching to a halt.
Milly and Zak rested their bikes up against the wall and Rachel bought hot chocolates for all three of them. They sat down at a small metal table, bringing their cups towards them for warmth; their breath was visible in the cold air that morning.
‘Buckingham Palace is huge, isn’t it?’ Zak said, looking over. ‘Do you think we’ll see the Queen?’
‘I’m not sure about that,’ Rachel said, ‘she probably heard you coming. What do you think, Mills? Would—’
Rachel looked over to Milly, but her head was bent over her phone, texting, oblivious.
‘Millllly,’ Zak said, jabbing his sister in the side.
‘What?’ she said.
‘Nothing important,’ Rachel said. There was a distance in Milly’s expression, as if she were partly somewhere else. ‘Are you OK, Millypede?’
‘I’m fine, Mum,’ Milly snapped.
Rachel flinched, then tried to get things back to normal.
‘OK, well, while we have your attention, where do you fancy cycling to next?’ Rachel asked. ‘Shall we go down to the river? We’ve still got a bit of time before your dad’s train gets in.’
‘Yes, the river! Let’s go and see the boats!’ Zak gulped down his hot chocolate and bounced to his feet.
It’s good to hear from you. And damn, you are even cooler than I thought … I’ve always wanted to see Paris too. When did you say you were coming home again?
You mentioned Kate, actually I bumped into her on the high street yesterday. We chatted for a while, mainly about you. She told me you want to be a fashion designer, is that right? She also said she’s having a house party this weekend as her parents are going away, and she wishes you could be there.
P.S. You asked about my name. Carter’s my surname, but it’s what most of my friends call me. And talking of nicknames, where’s yours from? It’s cute.
If your friends call you Carter, then Carter it is. You asked about my nickname, well my dad started calling me Millypede first, and it stuck. It’s silly, but I kind of like it.
What Kate said is right, I’ve always liked designing clothes, so my dream is to do it for a living. I WISH I could go to her party this weekend. But my grandma’s still not well and we’re going to be in London for a while.
London is fine, my Dad’s getting down today so hopefully that’ll chill Mum out a bit. I brought a copy of
The Hunger Games
down with me so I’m reading that at the moment. It’s amazing – I really want to see the film.
What are you up to this weekend?
This weekend is all about chilling out for me. Seeing friends on Friday. Lying in. Playing some Playstation probably.
Enjoy your book. I’ve not read that, but I’ve heard it’s good – I prefer films generally (hope that doesn’t make me sound dumb?!). Anyway, we can watch it together when you’re back? I wish you were here now. I can picture you now – cool red hair, awesome clothes, great smile. So that I can remember, can you send me some pictures of you?
‘I missed you, Rach,’ Aiden said, hugging her as they stood in the hallway. ‘I know it’s only been a couple of days, but still.’ Rachel pulled back to look at him: his skin was chapped from the cold December wind, and the lines around his eyes looked deeper than usual.
‘Well, I’m glad to hear it,’ Rachel said, smiling, ‘because this isn’t going to be a regular thing.’ It felt right to be back in his arms again.
‘The kids are upstairs,’ Rachel said, ‘they can’t wait to see you either.’
‘Great,’ he said. ‘Could you give me a hand with the bags?’ Aiden asked. ‘Milly’s weighs a ton.’ Rachel picked up a suitcase and shoulder bag and made her way to the stairs.
‘So how’s Mum?’ Aiden asked. ‘Any more news? I mean, I’ve talked to her on the phone, but she didn’t give much away. You know what Mum’s like.’ Rachel gave him what she hoped was a reassuring smile and touched his arm.
‘I saw her this morning,’ Rachel said. ‘They’re still doing tests, and a …’ She’d tell him about the MRI scan later. ‘Come upstairs and we’ll get you warmed up. Milly made a cake last night. Lemon drizzle.’
A glow started to return to Aiden’s cheeks. ‘Now you’re talking,’ he said, looking almost carefree for a moment.
‘How’s work been?’ Rachel asked, as they neared the front door. The lightness disappeared from his face.
‘Not great,’ he said. ‘All the structural stuff is done, but the interiors are a nightmare. Some of the builtin cabinets and shelves finally arrived from Italy, but a lot of the pieces were water-damaged in transit.’ He shook his head, an anxious expression on his face. ‘They’ve offered us a refund, but we’re running so close to the deadline on this. I haven’t let the client know yet. I’m just hoping we can sort out a replacement.’
Rachel stopped on the landing and put her hand on Aiden’s arm, giving him a gentle squeeze. ‘You’ll do it,’ she said. ‘You always find a way.’
‘I hope so,’ he said. ‘Anyway, what’s the place like?’ he asked. ‘Laurie never really struck me as the domestic type.’
‘It’s nice,’ Rachel replied. It was nice – just not really how she would have decorated. With the white walls and monochrome furniture, lack of cushions and curtains and no photos of friends and family up on the walls, the flat was a little bare. Aiden caught the hesitation in her voice. ‘It’s very stylish but not much like the cottage,’ Rachel said, tucking back a stray strand of her hair.
‘You’ve always been so different,’ Aiden said, with a gentle laugh. ‘Funny how you ended up being friends. Mind you, she’s changed a bit, hasn’t she? I stopped by at the cottage and we went back to Mum’s house and had a glass of wine there, had a chat, talked about old times and all that.’ A faint smile came back to Aiden’s face. ‘She’s really glamorous now, isn’t she? She looked like she was going to a club, walking along in her high heels … If those blokes who picked on her at school could see her now, they’d be sorry, wouldn’t they?’
Rachel suppressed a pang of jealousy. It was true – Laurie was the archetypal swan. Back at Hawley Comprehensive, she was the half-Spanish girl who’d turned up in a baggy pink tracksuit with a gold scrunchie holding her hair back. Nowadays, poised and elegant, it was as if she were cut from a different cloth. Rachel concentrated now on turning the key in the lock.
‘Skipley won’t know what’s hit it,’ Aiden added.
Rachel pushed open the door and could already hear Zak dashing over. ‘Dad!’ Zak called out, rushing into the hallway, his hands and apron colourful with paint. Milly followed, stepping into her father’s welcoming arms and hugging him. Zak joined in the hug, grabbing hold of his dad and leaving colourful handprints all over his white shirt.
As they got ready to go to the hospital, Rachel grabbed some bananas from the fruit bowl for them to eat on the way.
‘We’ll have a proper family dinner when we get back,’ she said to Aiden. ‘I made some shepherd’s pie.’
‘Great,’ Aiden said, zipping up Zak’s anorak.
As she glanced back at the fruit bowl, Rachel spotted a beige fruit with an uneven surface.
‘What’s this?’ she asked, picking it up and running a finger over the dimpled skin. It wasn’t one she’d picked up from the market. She’d never seen one like it before.
Aiden peered at it over her shoulder, and Zak slipped away into the hallway. ‘A breadfruit, I think.’
‘Oh,’ Rachel put it back down, ‘did you bring it from home?’
‘No,’ Aiden said, with a shrug. ‘It’s pretty exotic. You don’t get many of those in Skipley.’
Zak’s shouts echoed off the walls as they walked down the bare white hospital corridors. It was 5 p.m., and Rachel was at the hospital for the second time that day. Milly caught up with her brother, her bronze ballerina pumps skidding a little on the white lino, and whispered to him to be quieter. To Zak, visiting Bea was all just a game, but Rachel could sense Aiden’s anxiety building. As they neared Bea’s ward Rachel took Aiden’s hand and held it in hers. He accepted her touch gratefully.
As they pulled back the green curtain around Bea’s bed, for a moment no one, not even Zak, made a sound.
‘Well, hello,’ Bea said, breaking the silence, sitting up with a bright, cheery smile on her face. She registered Aiden’s reaction. ‘What were you expecting, me to be half-dead over here?’ She laughed, and put her Sudoku down on the side table. ‘Take more than a bit of wobbliness to beat me, you know.’ Rachel was relieved to see that Bea looked better than she had that morning.
Aiden’s face relaxed. He leaned in towards his mother and landed a gentle kiss on her cheek. ‘Good to see you.’
‘And about time too,’ she teased, accepting with a smile the bright yellow roses he’d brought for her.
Milly and Zak kissed their grandma hello and Aiden took a seat by the side of the bed. ‘So what’s the gossip, Mum?’
Bea smiled. ‘Wish I had more to entertain you with,’ she said, with a shrug. ‘Only so much fun you can get up to in this place,’ she said, leaning forward. ‘Although there was a nice young girl who arrived yesterday. Chatty thing.’
‘And how are you feeling?’ Aiden asked.
‘Oh, still dreadful,’ Bea said, toying with her necklace. ‘I mean some days are better than others, but this morning I stood up and it was as if the floor came to meet me. Vertigo.’
‘Does Dr Patel know?’
‘Oh yes, I’ve told her. They’re all doing their best. They’ve done all sorts of tests on me, but no answers yet.’