Authors: Abby Clements
Tags: #General, #Fiction
‘You’re right,’ Rachel said, dismissing her doubts. ‘I’m sure you are.’
‘Milly’s home now. Don’t worry,’ Aiden said, putting his arm around Rachel and kissing her on the cheek. ‘Now let’s go to bed.’
with me,’ Bea said, taking a seat in the kitchen of Hawthorne Cottage the following afternoon. ‘I thought we could give ourselves a reminder before we do the school run.’
Bea’s Countdown to Christmas
for short, was famous in the Murray household. In there, handwritten by Bea, was everything from turkey-cooking timings to Yule-log recipes, mini chocolate wreaths to marzipan holly leaves. It was an essential part of the festive season at the Murray family home.
‘Sure. Is it nearly December already?’ Rachel said, glancing over at the wall calendar to check the date: 22 November. ‘I guess it is. Time to make the whisky cake, at least. Let’s have a look, then.’ Rachel let the washing-up water drain away, dried her wet hands roughly with a teatowel and joined Bea at the table. In a striped navy and cream sweater, her cropped ash-blonde hair neatly blow-dried, Bea looked particularly young today, Rachel thought, as she reached out for the book.
‘Actually I made the whisky cake last night,’ Bea said. ‘I was at a loose end. I’ll just keep feeding it from now. I had a glass or two for myself last night,’ she confessed. ‘Probably shouldn’t do that every time.’
‘Perk of the job, I reckon,’ Rachel said, with a wink.
Rachel tucked her hair behind her ear and leafed through the book, settling on her favourite page: Bea’s gingerbread cottage.
As she looked at the familiar illustration, the smells of Christmas baking came back to her – ginger, cinnamon, cloves – and she recalled the very first time she’d made it. It was the year she and Aiden had moved out of Bromley, where they’d grown up, to make a new start together in the Yorkshire village that was now their home.
‘Are you sure you should be …?’ Aiden had said, as he walked into the cottage kitchen and spotted Rachel surrounded by cooking ingredients, laying out pieces of gingerbread on a baking sheet.
‘… cooking, Aiden?’ Rachel had replied, looking up from the cookbook and turning around to face him. ‘I’m pregnant,’ she smiled, ‘not made of crystal. And anyway, with the due date so close, I want to keep busy.’ He had leaned in to kiss her, Rachel’s large bump keeping them apart.
He rested his hand gently on what was, within a month, to be their first baby. ‘Next Christmas is going to be a bit different, isn’t it?’ he smiled. His hazel eyes danced with a mixture of excitement and nerves, the energy they’d both been running on since they found out she was pregnant.
‘Yes, but starting a family can’t possibly be tougher than moving to Yorkshire, can it?’ she had said, with a gentle laugh.
‘Not really where either of us expected to be at twenty, is it?’ he had replied. His expression turned serious for a moment. ‘Rach, I know it’s not been easy, but thank you. For moving here, for trusting me.’ He smoothed back her hair with his hand. ‘I’ve got a really good feeling about this. From the moment we arrived I knew Skipley was the right place to start up the business, and the response so far has been brilliant. I’m hoping that within a couple of years we’ll have enough money to live comfortably up here, give the baby everything she needs. Everyone says the first year or two is the hardest part. And things for you are better now, aren’t they – now you’ve found the NCT group and everything?’
‘Oh, yeah,’ Rachel had said. ‘I mean, I still miss everyone. Friends, Laurie mainly. But things were changing, anyway. Laurie moving to London, starting fashion college, most of our other friends going to university – I wouldn’t have wanted to be the only one stuck at home. God, can you imagine that? And my family … well, after the way my parents reacted to the pregnancy … it feels better to be starting somewhere new.’
A lump had come to Rachel’s throat when she thought of her mum and dad. Aiden noticed and drew her towards him for a hug.
‘The thing is,’ she said, after a moment, pulling back, ‘even before all this, I had my doubts. You know I never really wanted to go to Bristol. I wasn’t ever that set on going to uni, full stop. I just didn’t want to be a disappointment to my parents. Well, now I am –’ she had said, putting her hands on her bump. A smile had broken out on her face – ‘and I really couldn’t care less. I’m sure they’ll change their minds, but if Mum and Dad decide they don’t want to be part of our baby’s life, then that’s their loss. There’s nowhere I’d rather be than here with you, starting a family together.’
‘Do you want to do the gingerbread house this year?’ Bea asked.
Rachel looked up at her mother-in-law, taking in the cottage kitchen as it was today. Fifteen years, and two children on from those early days, with Aiden’s mum living nearby, Rachel was happier than ever.
‘Zak and Milly love doing that with you,’ Rachel said. ‘You keep that. But give us a bit more to do this year. You know Aiden worries about you doing too much.’
‘OK,’ Bea said reluctantly, peering over at the book. ‘Well, you two can do the cinnamon stars … and the Stollen this year. And the bread sauce and sprouts, never liked them.’
Rachel raised an eyebrow, waiting for more.
‘That’s your lot, Rachel. I’ve always done Christmas round here and I’m not going to put my feet up just because I’m picking up my pension. However much my son might moan about it.’
Rachel looked at the hand-drawn cinnamon stars. Once Aiden’s project was completed, they might even have time to bake them together. Christmas in Hawthorne Cottage would be chaos, it always was – with six-year-old Zak there was never a quiet moment – but with everyone together, and Aiden taking a break from work, it would be their own kind of perfect.
Milly got into the back seat of Bea’s Mini Cooper, next to her younger brother, and strapped her seatbelt on.
‘Are you allowed to wear jewellery at school, Mills?’ Rachel asked suspiciously, looking over her shoulder at her daughter in the back seat. Large, star-shaped silver earrings shone out from under Milly’s dyed-red hair, and it looked like she’d rolled her skirt up at the waist.
‘Yes,’ Milly replied. ‘Well, no one said anything, anyway. It’s way more relaxed than my old school.’
Rachel decided to let it go for the moment. She and Milly had already had one confrontation over breakfast that day, about why she’d got back so late the night before, and she and Aiden had to choose their battles. Once Rachel had wondered if, as a young mum, she and Milly might be like friends during her teenage years – but it seemed that with each passing month, Millie was growing more distant.
‘Hi, Mills,’ Zak said, turning to his big sister, a smile on his lightly freckled face. ‘Tom’s going to EuroDisney for Christmas, you know.’
‘Really?’ Milly replied, flatly.
‘Yes. And Mark’s getting a Wii.’
Bea turned to Rachel from the passenger seat and silently lifted her eyes to heaven, bringing a smile to Rachel’s lips. It wasn’t the first time Zak had brought up the extravagant Christmas presents his classmates were going to be getting. Rachel glanced back at her two children in the rear-view mirror as she pulled out of the car park.
‘Well, good for them,’ Milly said. Rachel caught a glimpse of her in the mirror, brushing her dark-red sweeping fringe out of her eyes. ‘Their parents must be really rich.’
Rachel thought briefly of the Christmas they’d had last year, when Aiden’s business had been weathering the storm and they had bought Milly and Zak everything on their Christmas lists. Before they’d had to move Milly from her private school to the local comprehensive, and stop her riding lessons. Rachel turned left on to the high street and joined a queue of traffic at the lights. ‘You know that things are a little bit different for us this year, right?’ she ventured.
‘I knowwww,’ Zak said, ‘It’s the astronomic downturn.’
‘Economic, dumbo,’ Milly said, giving him a playful jab in the ribs. ‘Santa’s petrol prices have gone up. No cash for carrots for Rudolph. It’s OK, Mum. We get it, don’t we, Zak? About Dad’s business and the mortgage and stuff
‘Ok, good.’ Rachel said, thinking anxiously of the latest stack of bills. The lights turned green and she drove on.
Milly and Zak were downstairs playing Monopoly with Bea, their contented shrieks and giggles rising up the stairwell, and Rachel took the opportunity to get the Christmas-decoration boxes down from the cupboard by her bedroom. The first one was full of the red and green baubles and white lights they used each year.
As she opened the flaps on the next box, she realised right away that it hadn’t been opened for ages. The first thing she pulled out was a small tinsel Christmas tree. She smiled – she and Aiden had bought it when Zak was a newborn and they’d been too caught up in midnight feeds to organise getting a real one. She looked at the frayed and balding branches. It was time for that one to go, she decided, putting it fondly to one side. Underneath it was a tangle of fairy lights, Christmas candles and other decorations. As she took out the lights to untangle them, she saw a sleeve with some loose photos in it, out of place among the other things. Rachel flicked through the pictures – the kids as babies, Aiden standing proudly in front of one of his first completed barns. And one of Rachel as a teenager, with her best friend, Laurie. Standing outside the school gates on the last day of Sixth Form. They’d taken the photo themselves, so it was blurry and too close up. Nineteen ninety-five, it must have been, the day they finished their A-Level exams. Rachel lit up at the memory. Her unruly, dark-blonde hair was loose and she had bright red lipstick on, while Laurie’s hair was dyed pale pink, chunks of dark showing through at the roots. They were hugging, faces pressed together, big smiles on their faces. The feeling of elation – Rachel could still recall it. To celebrate their first day of freedom, she and Laurie had driven to the coast in Rachel’s car, blasting Pearl Jam and Alanis Morrisette out of the stereo and singing their hearts out.
Rachel glanced back at the photo. She and Laurie had been inseparable in those days. But things had changed, for both of them. She propped the photo up on the dresser, tidied the boxes away, putting the best decorations to one side, and went back downstairs.
Zak and Milly were watching TV, and relative calm had returned to the ground floor of the cottage. Rachel quietly beckoned Bea over to join her in the kitchen.
‘Got time for some tea and a gossip?’ Rachel asked.
‘Sorry, I kind of left you to it,’ Rachel said as she flicked the kettle on. ‘Hope that’s OK. You’re so good at board games, and you know I’m rubbish at Monopoly.’
‘I enjoyed it. I don’t think I’m even letting Zak win any more. Since he turned six he’s just better than his grandma, plain and simple.’
Rachel laughed, getting the milk out of the fridge. Bea moved to get some cups.
‘You sit down,’ Rachel insisted, ‘you’ve done more than enough today.’
Bea went over to the kitchen table and pulled out a chair. As she went to sit down, she lost her balance, and in a split-second, as if in slow motion, fell to the floor. Rachel dashed over to help her mother-in-law, and saw a flicker of confusion and distress pass across her face.
‘Are you OK?’ Rachel asked gently. Bea had gone pale.
‘Fine, thanks,’ Bea said. ‘Glad the kids didn’t see that. Felt a bit dizzy. Don’t you worry,’ she said. Rachel noticed her hands were shaking slightly as she helped her to her feet again. Steadying herself against the table, Bea took her seat.
‘Are you sure you’re all right?’ Rachel said.
‘Absolutely. Now, I thought we were going to have a nice gossip? Let’s not spoil it, Rachel.’
Wednesday 22nd November
As Laurie walked towards the Victorian mansion block where she lived, the winter sun setting hazily over Brixton, she saw that the girl was there again. Pressing the buzzer and leaning in towards the intercom, her pale-blonde-streaked hair partially covering her face, kohl-dark eyes just visible through it.
‘Jay, it’s me,’ the girl said huskily. Laurie felt a tug at her heart as she heard his name. The blonde must be in her twenties, Laurie guessed, not older than twenty-five. It was close to freezing out that night and she was dressed in a mini-skirt, black tights and brown-leather biker boots and a denim jacket. Barely clothed, really.
That tone, Laurie thought, taking her keys out of her bag, her Tiffany keyring jangling. What was that? Intimacy?
Laurie held her key fob up to open the front door. She and Jay were over. It was none of her business who came to the flats – and as of Monday she had much bigger stuff to think about. She held the front door open for the girl to walk through. Laurie walked across the chessboard tiles and up the winding staircase, her hand gliding over the timber rail of the wrought-iron balustrade, leaving the girl behind her in the hallway reapplying lip gloss in the mirror.
Laurie continued up the stairs, passing Jay’s doorway with a quick glance. That could have been me, she thought, as she imagined Jay drawing the girl into his arms, kissing her. But she’d messed that up. Just like she seemed to be messing everything up.
She continued up to the third floor, her floor. The penthouse flat, she joked to friends – it wasn’t as glamorous as all that, this was Brixton after all, but it was true that her place had the best view – on a clear day sunshine would spill in through the bay window in the living room, and she could see over the other buildings towards the city, the skyline taking in the Gherkin, St Paul’s, the Shard. She also had a roof terrace that made her the envy of the block during the summer months. Initially she’d seen the flat as a first step on the property ladder, on her way to a more desirable postcode – in Primrose Hill or Maida Vale maybe, when her career really took flight – but after only a couple of months in Brixton, after meeting her neighbours, she was sold. The area, and the block itself, had worked its charm on her and now it was home – colourful, chaotic and vibrant. She never wanted to live anywhere else.