Jess hadn’t expected snow. Wasn’t that the point of the south-west? Wet, yes, but no snow, not like the Highlands or the Alps or somewhere. When they’d bought their idyll, their adorable little cottage with its roses round the door and windows peeping out beneath thatched eaves, when they’d bought it they’d only thought about the wild expansive views across the moors, not what it would be like in the depths of winter. And now here she was, the car head first in a ditch, at the wrong end of the very long track which was under a foot of snow. And it was Christmas Eve.
The accident had not been serious, a gentle, almost balletic glide off a patch of ice into the ditch and, despite energetic revving and pressing of pedals, a refusal to reverse out of it. Jess had managed to clamber through the driver’s window, and now stood, hands on hips, looking at the car.
She needed the AA. She got out her mobile. No signal. She held the mobile high up in the air, waved it around like she was at a football match and her team had just scored, but it was hopeless. A dip in the signal, they’d said, there’s not great coverage in the country. So. No AA. Shame she’d fallen out with the next-door farmer, owner of a smashing new tractor. Perhaps not the best idea, in retrospect.
Jess wrestled open the boot and looked inside. Four large bags-for-life stuffed full of last-minute Christmas goodies. At least the turkey and the sack of potatoes were safely stashed in the cottage kitchen. But she still had quite enough to carry. Pastry and a jar of mincemeat for homemade mince pies, cranberries for cranberry sauce, plenty of milk, bacon of course – Jake loved his bacon – chipolatas; she’d even splashed out on some smoked salmon, Lulu’s favourite, so that they could have blinis like they used to, in the old days, before everything went wrong.
She hefted the bags out of the boot, locked the car, gave it a bit of a kick – useless slippery dancing car – and set off for the cottage. ‘It’ll be great for the kids to have so much freedom,’ Simon had said when they bought it. ‘They’ll really get in touch with nature.’ That hadn’t happened. Jake spent all his time playing video games and Lulu was obsessed with YouTube. Only Grace seemed to pay any attention to her surroundings and, rather contrarily, Jess found Grace’s long wanderings in the woods a bit weird. What was she doing out there? Was Grace charmingly fey or actually rather peculiar? Should she be concerned, Jess thought as she slid into yet another drift, or was Jake’s nocturnal obsession with Fortnite more of a worry? She put the bags down so she could swap hands. She didn’t seem to be getting any closer to home. She looked at the heavy clouds lowering over the moors. Like a black horse pulling in the night, she thought.
When Jess eventually got to the back door of the cottage it was pitch dark, and she was exhausted. Her shoulders and neck ached from carrying the bags. She cursed the shopping, in particular the mincemeat jar which weighed much the same as a cannonball. But she was relieved to be home. She could see the Christmas tree twinkling in the sitting room. She thought she could smell baking. She’d left Jake in charge of the girls – he was plenty old enough – and she’d left out all the ingredients for them to make the Christmas cake. It would be pleasingly responsible for them, she’d thought.
She pushed open the door.
The cottage was freezing. The boiler must have failed. There was no smell of baking. There was a smell, but it was of burnt toast.
‘Jake?’ she called.
‘Mmmmnnnnmmmmnn,’ she heard. Not dead, then.
‘Hey!’ ‘Hi Mum!’ She heard their voices upstairs.
She took off her coat, shivered and put it back on. First things first. She went into the boiler room. Yup, the pilot light had gone out again. She just had to press the reset button and it would fire up. The cottage would be warm in no time.
Jess pressed the button. She could hear it clicking. There was no reassuring whooosh as the boiler leapt to life. Nothing happened at all. Jess opened the front panel of the boiler and peered in. She had no idea what she was looking for. She glanced at her watch. It was six o’clock. If there was a boiler mechanic working on Christmas Eve and if he did agree to drive out through the snow and come down a long treacherous rural track to get to them, he would probably charge half a month’s salary to mend the boiler. She simply couldn’t afford it. They’d have to put on thick jumpers and wrap themselves in blankets. The kids wouldn’t mind not washing. It wouldn’t be that bad. But she had to swallow hard and blink a few times before she pulled herself together.
A cup of tea, thought Jess. With a lump of sugar and a bit of a sit down. Just so I can gather my energy. I’ll just bring the food in. She’d left the bags outside. She opened the door. And there was Gloria, their lovely shaggy mongrel, who was the worst thief known to man, her head deep in one of the bags.
‘Gloria!’ shouted Jess, and Gloria lifted her head with a ‘What, me?’ expression on her face and a string of chipolatas in her mouth.
‘Bad dog!’ shouted Jess. Gloria looked thoroughly ashamed of herself as she scampered away into the garden, dragging the sausages behind her.
Jess gathered the bags and trudged into the kitchen. No pigs in blankets tomorrow, then. Just the blankets. Blankets all round in fact. Perhaps she could make bacon rolls. She pushed open the kitchen door.
The kids had obviously started to make the cake. And then they’d stopped. Whether it was before or after they’d thrown flour at each other, or before or after they’d dropped all the eggs on the floor, was hard to tell, but the kitchen looked like someone had detonated a small incendiary device on the set of Bake Off.
‘I’m not cut out for this,’ thought Jess, ‘I can’t do it all on my own,’ and her eyes must have misted over because as she stepped into the room she slipped on one of those eggs and, ooooof, landed flat on her back and the world went black.
Jess opened her eyes and three faces came swimmingly into focus.
‘Told you we should have cleared up,’ Lulu was saying.
‘Goody goody,’ said Jake.
‘You’re the one that threw the eggs!’ said Grace.
‘Cos you’re an idiot!’ said Jake.
‘Ssshhhhh,’ said Jess, ‘Ssshhhhh…’
What she wanted to do was to close her eyes again. To sink back into that lovely blackness. Instead, she struggled to her knees, head swimming, then to her feet. There. Upright.
She smiled brightly.
Her three teenagers stood in front of her, in varying stages from sulky (Jake) to concerned (Lulu) via – well, who knew what Grace was thinking.
‘Right. So, I’m assuming that there’s no Christmas cake baking in the oven and that you’ve used up all the eggs?’
There were grunts.
‘We did try,’ said Lulu.
‘I know, sweetie, never mind,’ said Jess, thinking that she should get in touch with the Pope and nominate herself for a sainthood. ‘Right, let’s get this lot cleared up and then I’ll get the supper on, shall I?’ She stepped towards the sink to get a cloth and as she put her foot down a stabbing pain shot up her leg and she found herself down on the floor again with another ‘Oooooffff’.
This time it was Jake who leant over her. His face was a duplicate of his father’s – those long dark eyebrows and wide-apart eyes, the thick hair that waved in the same way as Simon’s. How come hair waves were hereditary?
‘Mum, are you OK? Should we ring an ambulance?’ Jake paused. ‘Should we ring Dad?’
‘No!’ Too vehement, too ferocious. ‘I’ll manage.’
Ring Dad! Ring Simon. Simon, who had persuaded her in the first place that she should leave the cosy certainty of her urban world with its cafés and multi-ethnic food shops, with the bustle and haste of modern life, with her friends. Simon, who had said how wild and bleak and thrilling the moors were and how they were getting back to their roots, and she had agreed and hadn’t said that she didn’t know how to mend a boiler and her car maintenance skills were a little rusty. Simon, who had found rural life a little bit overexciting when he’d run into one of the local lady gardeners and spent so much time investigating her rose bushes that Jess threw him out, leaving the cottage hollow and echoing and lesser without him. Jess had planned for this Christmas to be the time when she’d show everyone how well she was doing on her own. Show the children what a fabulous time they could have together. That’s why she’d bought the mince pie mix and the smoked salmon, why she’d sat up late into the night to crochet Grace some mittens and Lulu some cheery bunting and why she’d driven into Bristol to get Jake the designer trainers he’d been mooning over. And now she was sitting in a puddle of broken egg with what felt like a broken ankle and no mince pies and no pigs in blankets and if the children remembered this Christmas at all it would be with a shudder of horror. It was too much. Tears started to flow down her cheeks.
A small hand slid into hers.
‘Don’t cry, Mum.’ It was Lulu, lovely little Lulu.
‘I’ll make you some tea.’ Her Jake, her boy.
‘Let’s get you next door.’ And Grace. Oh, her beautiful children.
Grace and Lulu supported Jess as she hobbled into the sitting room and sat down on the sofa. Jake followed with a cup of tea so delicious, so fragrant that it was like nectar. That’s what she needed. She was tired from the walk with the bags. The Christmas tree was ever so pretty. All those lights were very twinkly. They seemed to be merging into each other, into one great big swirly light… Jess rested her head on the cushion and sank into a deep sleep.
When she woke sunlight was pouring in through the cottage window. She was still lying on the sitting room sofa, and it was morning! Jess sat up, pushing off the blankets the children must have put over her. It was warm. A fire was crackling in the hearth. A large picnic rug was spread out on the floor, with piles of cushions heaped at the edges. A stack of wrapped presents sat under the Christmas tree. Candles were burning on the mantelpiece and side tables. There was a smell of pine cones, bacon and coffee.
‘Happy Christmas, Mum.’ Jake came in, wearing a fetching red polka-dot apron. He was followed by Lulu, with Gloria bringing up the rear. Jake was carrying a big plate of toast and bacon. Lulu was carrying a coffee pot and mugs.
‘I must get up!’ said Jess. ‘I need to put the turkey on!’
‘It’s in the oven,’ said Jake. ‘We’ve peeled the potatoes too. I’ve made a schedule. I stuck it on the fridge.’
Jess stared at him. What spirit had taken over her children? ‘How…’
‘That’s what YouTube’s for,’ said Lulu. ‘We just followed the instructions.’
‘We decided Jamie Oliver’s recipe was the best,’ said Jake. ‘We liked his cranberry butter. Much better than Gordon Ramsay.’
‘Much better,’ agreed Lulu. ‘We thought you’d like breakfast before the presents. I made the coffee.’ She smiled proudly.
‘Did you, darling? How clever you are,’ said Jess, and she really meant it. Then, with a stab of anxiety:
‘She’s outside,’ said Jake. ‘Come and look.’
Jess stood up. Her ankle didn’t feel as bad this morning. She limped to the window.
Outside, snow enveloped the garden, covering bushes and shrubs with soft meringue mounds, glittering in the sunshine. The lawn was a smooth sheet of white. Standing in the middle was Grace, in her wellies and woolly hat. She was holding her hand out flat. Eating from it was a stag, his antlers bowed, his lips delicately taking acorns from her daughter’s palm. Jess gasped. The stag looked up and stared straight at her, his long-lashed eyes a deep brown. Grace looked over and smiled. A lump came to Jess’s throat.
This was a picture of Christmas she had not expected.
Behind her, Jess heard chomping. She turned round. Gloria had toppled the plate of bacon onto the floor and was gobbling it up. She rolled her eyes at Jess. Jess laughed.
She and the children? They were going to be absolutely fine.
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