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Authors: Abby Clements

Tags: #General, #Fiction

Meet Me Under the Mistletoe (6 page)

BOOK: Meet Me Under the Mistletoe
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It was 4 p.m. on Friday, five long days since the disaster at Seamless. Laurie had persuaded Siobhan to come for coffee at Lacey’s. It was their favourite café, up a short flight of steps, hidden away in the converted arcade of boutiques and restaurants known as Brixton village market. Chunks of handmade bread overflowed from baskets on the counter, and muffins, scones and cakes filled a heavy wooden table to the side. A white pug in a knitted jumper was snuffling around Laurie’s feet for crumbs, soon joined by its black companion, with complementary knitwear. The two dogs squabbled over a bit of organic cornmeal.

Laurie had spent the last couple of days at the gym trying to channel her nervous energy, filling the empty hours with spin classes, aerobics and Zumba. But the conversation with Danny, the image of the ruined Navajo handbags, were still running through her mind on loop.

The waiter brought their muffins over to them, on pretty flowered plates, and Siobhan dived on hers enthusiastically. Laurie had completely lost her appetite.

Lacey’s was special, not for what it did have, but for what it didn’t – babies. Somehow, perhaps because of the flight of steps leading up to it, it had dodged the buggy track. There was nothing wrong with babies, or new mums, of course – just as long as they didn’t endlessly analyse their baby’s sleep patterns, or give you – you know – that pitying look. But so often they did.

Siobhan seemed to be focused on removing the paper case from her muffin. So Laurie raised her voice a bit. ‘I’m doing a house swap.’

‘What?’ Siobhan said, her eyes darting up to give Laurie her full attention now. ‘Like on TV?’

‘A bit,’ Laurie said. ‘It’s sort of turned out that way. No cameras, though. Helping an old friend out,’ Laurie said, raising her cup to her lips.

‘Really?’ Siobhan said. ‘Who?’

‘Rachel. I must have told you about her. From school – we used to be really close. But then she went all … I don’t know. Mum-ish. Moved to a little village in Yorkshire. Off-radar. You know how it is.’

‘Oh yeah,’ Siobhan said. ‘The girl you went to Greece with, when you were teenagers?’

Laurie nodded. ‘Yep,’ she said. ‘We went just before she got pregnant, at nineteen.’ Laurie paused, then shook her head, remembering the moment they’d stood in her bathroom staring at Rachel’s pregnancy test together, in disbelief. Neither of them had said a word for five minutes. Rachel was the smart one, she had a place at university – it should have been Laurie who’d messed up. That would have made sense.

‘Are she and the dad still together?’ Siobhan asked.

‘Oh yes, two beautiful kids now, Milly and Zak. Aiden Murray, he was in our form group at school.’

‘Wow,’ Siobhan said, green eyes wide. ‘That’s pretty romantic, isn’t it?’ she said, her gaze drifting over to a smiling couple at the table by the door, taking off their hats and scarves and sitting down.

‘Romantic? Do you really think so?’ Laurie laughed wryly, shaking her head. ‘I don’t.’ Laurie sipped her mocha and a picture of Aiden came back to her from their school days – tall and good-looking. Kind to her, even when his friends bullied her. She pushed it from her mind. ‘Pregnant before she was twenty? Sentenced to a lifetime’s worth of catalogue clothes, snotty tissues and worry? If that’s romance, you can keep it.’

Siobhan narrowed her eyes, giving her that ‘Now, come on, you’re being a bit mean’ look.

‘Rachel says she’s happy. But really, who wants that? I would never swap my life with hers – not for a second.’

Back when they’d met – at twelve years old – well, maybe. In fact then she would have done anything to trade lives. Rachel, with her nice clothes, big house and expensive holidays, had made friends and got A grades with equal ease. In contrast, Laurie, with her skinny frame and dayglo shellsuits, one of the few kids at their school from an estate, had been an easy target for the bullies. Laurie hadn’t been anybody, really, until she was Rachel’s friend.

‘Well, that’s lucky,’ Siobhan said. ‘Because I hate to break it to you, but
Freaky Friday
wasn’t a documentary, Laurie. It’s pretty tough to arrange that stuff in real life.’

Laurie rolled her eyes. ‘Look, I’m telling you because you’re going to have new neighbours for a couple of weeks, including my goddaughter, Milly.’

‘You’ve got a goddaughter?’ Siobhan raised an eyebrow. ‘Someone put you in charge of the—’

‘Yes I do, OK? Rachel’s daughter,’ Laurie said, shorttemperedly. ‘She’s a lovely girl. I don’t see much of her – actually I’ve never even been up to visit, which is pretty bad really, I suppose. But I have caught up with them halfway, in Oxford, and I send her postcards from time to time – from fashion weeks, trips abroad. She’s really into fashion. Anyway, what I’m saying is that I’m off. Going to Rachel’s little village – Skipley, it’s called – in Yorkshire, for a bit of R&R.’

Siobhan almost spat out her mouthful of drink. ‘A village in Yorkshire? I mean, the Dales are beautiful, but can I refer you to our earlier conversation about how stir crazy you got at that spa? What are you going to do up there?’

Laurie hadn’t really thought that part through. ‘Well, the cottage looks lovely. You know, roses around the door, the works.’

‘There won’t be any roses, Laurie, it’s nearly December. And good luck finding sushi up there.’

Laurie realised that even sushi – one of her favourite foods – wouldn’t tempt her right now. She’d hardly eaten a thing since Monday.

‘On the plus side, a few Yorkshire puddings should fill you out a bit,’ Siobhan said. ‘But seriously, Laurie, on your own in the Dales? Are you sure you know what you’re letting yourself in for?’

‘I’ll be absolutely fine,’ Laurie insisted, with a wave of her hand. ‘You know what, you and Danny are right. I do need to clear my head a bit.’

On Sunday morning, three days before she was due to leave, Laurie knocked at the blue door on the ground floor of her building. After a moment, her knock was answered by a curvy woman in her seventies with neat afro hair, her yellow and red patterned dress set off by simple gold hoop earrings and a red necklace.

‘Hi, Lily,’ Laurie said.

‘Well, if it isn’t my favourite neighbour,’ Lily replied, a smile spreading across her face. ‘Come in, dear. I’ve just put the kettle on.’

‘So how’ve you been?’ Laurie asked, walking through into the kitchen and pulling out a wooden chair at the kitchen table.

‘Not too bad, thanks, sweetheart,’ Lily said, getting a tray and some cups out of the cupboard. ‘Fairly quiet, apart from the choir. November’s never too busy. It’s at Christmas that the fun really gets started.’

Ska music played out quietly from the radio, and Laurie noticed a pot bubbling away on the stove. As she glanced around the kitchen she saw that a lot of the sunflower-print wallpaper on the wall nearest the door was peeling away, and that a set of wooden shelves and quite a few of the lino tiles were badly damaged. ‘Is all this from the electrics work?’ she said, pointing to the wall and furniture.

‘Yes,’ Lily replied, bringing over the tea tray and placing it on the table between them. ‘I’m grateful, of course, that they fixed things, but those men from the council certainly left an awful mess.’

Laurie ran a hand over the ripped wallpaper. ‘Shame,’ she said. ‘You always keep it so nice in here.’

‘Oh this is nothing.’ Lily laughed warmly. ‘You should see the living room, hardly any paper left there. They said they’d be back to decorate, but that was weeks ago.’

‘But your electricity’s OK now?’

‘Oh, yes, the lights and plugs are all working, so that’s the main thing. Can’t have a party in the dark, can you?’

Laurie smiled. Each year Lily hosted her Caribbean Christmas dinner for all the residents in the block. She never turned anyone away, and her flat was always overflowing with friends and neighbours, the air heavy with the tempting aromas of jerk chicken and plantain, rum cocktails fuelling the dancing, and the rooms transformed with red and gold Christmas decorations. Siobhan and Laurie were regulars there, as were: Sean, the single dad in the basement flat, Nikki, the teenage daughter who was giving him grey hairs, and – of course – Jay.

Friends from Lily’s gospel choir usually joined them, dropping in between midday and midnight, and kids from the neighbouring blocks. Last year Siobhan had brought a reindeer-shaped piñata that had been a huge hit – the kids thwacked it with sticks until sweets and chocolates spilled out all over the floor.

Christmas dinner at Lily’s was one of the highlights of Laurie’s year, but this time felt different. Would Jay’s girlfriend be there? Did she really want to spend Christmas looking across the fruit cake at the two of them whispering sweet nothings? It hurt even to think about it.

‘Your party will be great,’ Laurie said. ‘It always is.’

Lily poured tea out for the two of them. ‘Oh, I know. It’s the people that matter. But you know how I like things to look pretty.’

Laurie nodded sympathetically, then thought back to the reason she’d come. ‘Anyway, I dropped by because I wanted to let you know that I’m going away for a little while, to stay at a friend’s house. She’s coming here at the same time. Her name’s Rachel, and she’s going to be staying here with her family – two kids, a little boy and a teenage girl. So if you see some strangers in the block that’s who they’ll be.’

‘Sure,’ Lily said, taking a sip of her tea. ‘Any friends of yours are friends of mine, sweetheart. Tell them if they need anything, Lily’s here. You know how I like a bit of young company.’

Laurie took her tea and warmed her hands with it. Lily’s flat wasn’t as well heated as her own, and with the temperature outside near zero, the kitchen was cold.

‘And you?’ Lily said, slowly, her eyes drifting over Laurie’s face and body. ‘Are you OK? I mean, you know I’m not one for meddling, but you look a little skinny. And tired.’

‘I haven’t been sleeping that well,’ Laurie said distantly.

‘Is it our friend upstairs?’

‘That’s part of it,’ she said.

‘Jay’s not gone and broken your heart?’

‘It’s not like that, Lily,’ Laurie sighed.

‘So you’ve broken his?’

‘Jay and I just didn’t work out, that’s all.’

She’d rerun that evening a hundred times in her mind since it happened, trying to make sense of it. After the night on her roof terrace she and Jay had gone on a few dates as summer turned to autumn, and there had been more kisses, just as addictive as the ones on that first night. On their third date, they’d gone to Capelli’s, their neighbourhood pizzeria – they’d been there plenty of times before with friends, but this time, just the two of them, had been different. It had felt intimate and romantic.

‘Come to mine on Friday,’ Jay said, as they walked home. Laurie was playfully kicking up leaves, her hand in his. ‘Let me cook for you.’

Laurie only hesitated for a second. ‘Yes, sure,’ she said, sounding her usual confident self. But inside she was less sure, and as they walked back to the flat she fell silent. Just a couple of weeks ago she and Jay had been friends, and now, where were they heading? Why was it all getting so serious? She knew what a cosy night in at Jay’s would mean, and a voice in her head nagged at her. Things were changing too quickly. She wasn’t ready yet.

Jay kissed her goodbye outside his front door. ‘See you this Friday, then,’ he said, smiling, and letting go of her hands reluctantly. ‘Seven p.m. OK?’

‘Great,’ Laurie nodded, pushing her doubts aside. ‘See you then.’

At 6.30 p.m. that Friday Laurie had put down the phone on her final call of the day. Sales for the Sinaloa boots were pleasingly high. It had been a good day all round, she had finished and sent some proposals for expanding the new Navajo range to the New York office and received instant approval. She glanced at the clock as she got up to leave – she would be a little late for dinner at Jay’s, but she’d pick up some nice wine to make up for it.

Danny cornered her at the door, a flustered expression on his face. ‘Laurie, sorry about this, but it’s an emergency. The presentation for our shareholders’ meeting is in terrible shape. You couldn’t help us knock it together, could you?’

An hour and a half later, Laurie’s eyes were sore. She had put together the presentation easily, but time had flown – when she saved the polished presentation on to the computer she saw it was 8 p.m., and she still had a long tube ride ahead of her.

‘Nightmare at work,’ she said, as Jay opened the door to her just before nine. She paused for no more than a second to take in his appearance – indigo jeans and a red and black checked shirt – nice. ‘I’d just finished this phone call and …’

She stopped talking as she picked up on the delicate smells of herbs and spices and … burned food.

‘Ah, I’m too late for dinner, aren’t I?’ she said, biting her lip.

‘Kind of,’ Jay said, stepping back and motioning for her to step into the hall. ‘But come in.’

‘We can still order take-away, right?’

‘We could,’ he said. Laurie detected a note of reluctance in his voice, but chose to ignore it.

‘Good. I’m in the mood to celebrate,’ she babbled. ‘My Sinaloa boots have been selling really well and—’

‘Laurie,’ Jay said, putting a hand to his head, a confused expression on his face. ‘Did I get the time wrong? I thought we said seven o’clock?’

‘We did,’ Laurie said, making light of it. ‘But there was an emergency – a presentation that needed doing, Danny needed me to stay. I should have called, right? But I thought if I just got on the tube right away, I’d only be—’

BOOK: Meet Me Under the Mistletoe
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