All text and photos © Louise Marley unless otherwise stated Site Design: Seaweed Hut
You Make It Feel Like Christmas
A Holly Jolly Christmas:
Series 1, Episode 1
Presenter: I’m here with Lucinda Holly, who is eight years old, and her little sister Elizabeth, who is five. Today they are going to show me how to create these adorable snowmen ornaments using plaster moulds. The perfect gift for that special someone and simple to make. Now, this little cutie was made by Elizabeth. Can we get a close-up on it, guys? There you go! Isn’t it beautiful? Elizabeth, you are so clever. You’ve even painted his hat, and little scarf, and cute carrot nose. It must have taken you such a long time, sweetheart!
Elizabeth Holly: Lucy made it look like it has a bogey up its nose!
Presenter: And you’ve…er, painted it green. Lovely…
Producer: Keep going!
Presenter: You’ve painted your snowman beautifully, Elizabeth. I bet you want to be an artist when you grow up?
Elizabeth Holly: No, I want to have my own TV show like Mummy.
Presenter: What a super idea! To interview your favourite pop star?
Elizabeth Holly: No, so I get to be the boss of Lucy and I won’t have to make (beep beep) snowmen ever again.
Presenter: Did she just say…?
Twenty Years Later…
(1) Make brother homeless.
It was the task that had been right at the top of Aidan’s list until he’d put it off. Now here they were, four days before Christmas and the worst possible time to break the news.
Nice one, Aidan. Scrooge has nothing on you.
OK, it wasn’t as bad as it sounded.
Now he was lying to himself as well as everyone else? It was Christmas. Of course it was as bad as it sounded! But as he currently owned three houses, several assorted apartments, a portfolio of rental properties and a chain of boutique hotels—oh, and that castle in Ireland he never had the time to visit—no impecunious relative of his was about to be kicked out into the snow.
Nick was only going to be made homeless from this house.
The only house Nick had ever loved.
Aidan had never been able to understand why his younger brother was so attached to their childhood home that he refused to move out, even though the Abbey looked likely to collapse at any moment. It wasn’t as though either of them had happy memories about the place. Well, Nick did, but Aidan often got the impression that Nick had experienced an entirely different childhood to one centred in reality.
If Nick was about to be made homeless it was only right that he heard about it in person, which was why Aidan was driving up Myra’s Peak in a snowstorm, cursing the fact that he hadn’t been born an only child.
Although, to be strictly accurate, right now he appeared to be sliding down it.
He shoved back the glass panel that separated him from his driver. “Is there a problem, Conall?”
“Not at all,” Conall said, at the exact same moment the engine died and the music cut out.
“Far be it for me to be a back-seat driver,” Aidan said, “but it appears we’re going backwards?”
“Just a slight technical—”
The engine revved, the wheels spun, the car suddenly lurched forward—
“—hitch.” said Conall.
Aidan was forced to make an inelegant lunge for his laptop bag as it slid across the length of the back seat. Too late. The catch flipped open and the entire contents of the file on the proposed sale of Myra’s Peak and everything on it (one abbey, one pine forest, one red squirrel colony) spilled out and fluttered gracefully to the floor.
Why hadn’t he numbered the pages?
He supposed he could unbuckle his seatbelt and retrieve them but—
“Fuck!” growled Conall, as the car began sliding again.
Hard little snowflakes dashed against the tinted glass, or was it hail? Ahead, the road continued on its sadistically twisting route between the pines. To the right was a sheer cliff. To the left, an impressive and entirely vertical drop onto rocks a hundred feet below. Or, if one was incredibly fortunate and the tide was in, straight into the icy waters of the English Channel.
Aidan shivered. He could have been in Barbados. He could have been on the beach.
He attempted to summon soothing images of white sand and turquoise sea but all too easily recalled another storm, another car, and felt the chill right through to his bones.
Conall, blithely swinging the car around endless hairpin bends, had been singing along to Jingle Bell Rock in a gravelly bass. A few miles back Aidan had politely suggested that Conall had the musical taste of a ten-year-old girl. Conall, equally politely, had suggested that Aidan might like to walk.
Now, as the weather steadily worsened, no one was suggesting anything.
Not even turning back.
Across the bay, the lights of Port Rell came briefly into view before vanishing like Brigadoon as hail hammered the window and the entire car shook. When the headlights glinted off a shiny new crash barrier, partly hidden by a thick ruff of snow, Aidan realised where they were with horrible clarity. And despite Conall’s cursing, the chirp of Brenda Lee’s Jingle Bell Rock, the slash of the windscreen wipers, and the never-ending beating of rain and hail, Aidan could hear just one thing.
Suddenly he couldn’t breathe.
“Stop the car!” He jabbed at the release button on his seatbelt and then, when nothing happened, he yanked at it. Not that it made a damn bit of difference. “Stop the fucking car!”
It was enough to put the frighteners on Conall, who promptly slammed his foot on the brake. The car went into a skid, smashed sideways into the crash barrier and kept on going. The squeal of metal upon metal was horrendous.
Conall cringed; his massive shoulders hunching up, his hands gripping the steering wheel until the tattooed knuckles turned white and the car finally stopped.
Aidan fought his way out of the seatbelt and banged his fist against the door, hitting the handle almost by accident and then falling straight out onto the road when the door flew open. By the time his expensive but completely inappropriate footwear had got a grip on the icy surface, the door had slammed shut again, almost taking his fingers with it.
Even he could admit this was not one of his better ideas. The hail whirled around him, stinging his face and soaking his suit. The cold snatched away each laboured breath and he had to lean against the car for respite, his hands clenching into fists as he fought for each one.
Another door slammed, followed by the sound of boots crunching over loose scree. Aidan didn’t need to look up to know Conall was only a few feet away, stamping his size 12s on the frozen ground and grumbling loudly about it being “Colder than a witch’s—” before the wind obligingly stole his words away.
Seven years ago. Seven years ago at this exact spot. How could he have forgotten? He should never have come back. He should have put the sale contract in the post. Except Nick would have sent it straight back, even if he bothered to open it. And while Aidan was ticking off the ‘should haves’, he should have sent Conall with it. Conall was big enough to put the wind up anyone.
Speaking of which, it was hard to have a meltdown with an audience.
“Bugger off, Conall.”
“It’s snowing,” Captain Obvious grumbled. “I’m cold.”
Aidan hadn’t noticed the temperature—or rather, the lack of it. Now he couldn’t stop shaking. At least Conall had pulled on a jacket before he’d left the car. All Aidan had was his thin business suit, more appropriate to his Shoreditch office—heated to a tropical degree to make up for a childhood spent shivering in a freezing medieval abbey.
He looked up.
High above them, barely visible between the swaying pine trees, the lights of the Abbey twinkled enticingly. They promised warm beds and hot meals in the same way the Child Catcher, in that film about the flying car, had promised lollipops and cream puffs. The stone gateway, topped by the famously mismatched gargoyles, would be around the next corner. He was almost home.
Even though the Abbey never could be home.
Why had he come back?
Conall, rubbing his hands against his considerable biceps, could contain himself no longer. “Maybe we could admire the view from inside the car?”
“Or maybe I could fire you?” Aidan snapped back. “My life would certainly be quieter.”
“Ha! Good luck with finding some other fool to take your crap.”
As though to reiterate exactly who had the upper hand in their employer/employee relationship, Conall yanked open the passenger door and pointed firmly to the back seat. Aidan dropped into it. It wasn’t worth arguing about. But mostly he was so cold he could no longer think.
An ominous rustling drew his attention to the scuffed-up paperwork on the floor, imprinted with one perfect muddy footprint across—yes, the signatory page.
He couldn’t summon up the energy to care. Neither did he have the time to re-fasten his seatbelt before Conall started up the engine and the radio blasted back into life. More bloody Christmas music. Apparently The Raveonettes didn’t want to go home either, and he couldn’t blame them.
He should tell Conall to turn around but it was already too late. The car had bumped off the grass verge and was on the almost vertical track heading through the pine trees towards the Abbey.
Another storm, another car.
His fingers curled around the seat, his nails digging into the soft leather. Not long now. A few more days and he’d be lying on that beach in Barbados. He closed his eyes. If he tried hard enough, he could almost smell the sea…
He forgot Conall could see everything in that mirror.
“You OK, mate?”
“Take care,” Aidan found himself saying, his voice hoarse. “This road is treacherous in winter.”
Conall’s response was inaudible above The Christmas Song.
But Aidan had the idea it was probably ‘fuck’.
* * *
From his cosy seat beside the fire, Nick Hall watched the medieval chandelier above his head shimmy in time to the Christmas music and wondered if he ought to be worried. Not that he had the energy required to move from this chair and do something about it. Forty-eight hours of deep-cleaning the abbey from cellar to attic, discovering rooms he hadn’t even known existed, had left him more ready to sleep than party.
The chandelier was medieval and had been in the entrance hall for several hundred years. He’d have to be really unlucky if it chose to fall down now, particularly on a roomful of women likely to sue his arse. Lots of beautiful women, like the ones he’d seen his brother with over the years, at charity galas, premières, exotic holidays…
But never home. Aidan never brought anyone home.
But then Aidan never came home either.
A stunning brunette squeezed past his chair, almost falling into his lap and jolting him awake.
He smiled sleepily. She must think he was drunk.
“Hi, Christina.” That was her name, wasn’t it?
She came right to the point. “Where’s Aidan?”
This was a question he’d heard many times over the past few years. Translated, it usually meant, ‘Where’s your cleverer, richer brother?’ And there was always someone who would come right out and say, ‘So you’re Aidan’s brother?’ in evident disbelief.
Nick loved his brother, he really did, but he wished he could be seen as himself, flaws and all, not as a mismatched bookend to Mr Perfect.
“Aidan is on his way,” Nick said, but he could see she didn’t really believe him.
He had met Christina when they’d been hired for the Barbour campaign last spring. He’d appreciated her sense of humour; she’d been impressed that he lived in a ‘castle’. Even more so when she discovered he was related to the Aidan Hall. Christina had been top of his list to invite to Aidan’s party. OK, he could have chosen someone a little less shallow but, judging by the girls Aidan was usually photographed with in those celebrity magazines, depth of character was not a big requirement for his brother.
Nick stifled a yawn. He desperately needed another coffee. He’d been up since 5.00 am clearing the snow from the drive. If Aidan did turn up as promised, Nick would need to have all his wits about him.
Christina, needless to say, took this yawn entirely the wrong way.
“Goodbye, Nick,” she said briskly. “Thanks for everything. Love to your brother. Be sure to give him my number. I have plans for the holidays but plans can always be changed.”
Christina, he remembered, believed in keeping every option open.
“You can’t leave now,” he said. “You’ll miss the fun.”
She snorted. “Fun? Drinking flat champagne with a bunch of women? Where are the men, sweetie? And it’s started to snow!”
“A couple of flakes—” He waved his hand in the direction of the window, at the exact same moment hail blasted the glass like shot.
The look she gave him was, frankly, pitying. “Sorry, Nick. Even for the chance of meeting Aidan, I don’t want to end up stuck here.”
The words ‘worst nightmare’ lingered in the air.
“You’re welcome to stay the night,” he said. Then, when he realised how dodgy that sounded, “We have plenty of rooms. You could take your pick. Wouldn’t you like to spend the night in a genuine medieval abbey? It’s eight hundred years old.”
“I know. I’ve seen the bathroom. When you said you lived in a castle I was expecting a little bit… Well, I was expecting a lot more actually.” She retrieved her coat from where it had been left, casually draped over the arm of a rusting suit of armour. “I appreciate the invite, Nicky-boy,” she patted his unshaven cheek, “but I’m out of here.”
He watched her leave. Christina had been his number one choice. Superficial, yes, but cheerfully honest about it. He would have been happy to have her as a prospective sister-in-law. But he could hardly wrestle her to the floor to stop her leaving.
“You’re losing your touch, ‘Nicky-boy’.”
It took him a moment to spot the teenage girl leaning against the bannister, two steps up from the bottom of the staircase, but he was no longer in the mood for witty banter.
“Go to bed, Clo,” he sighed. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
Her hazel eyes turned as wintery as the landscape outside. “Because I’m staff?”
“Because you’re seventeen years old, this party is for grown-ups, and your mother would likely kill me if she found you here.”
But mostly because her mother would kill him.
Clo swung back and forth on the newel post. The top was carved into the shape of a pineapple. Nick regarded it warily, under no illusion that it’d take the strain. He’d meant to fix it before the party but he’d had a couple of minor things to sort out first. Like the billiard room ceiling collapsing in a snowstorm of Victorian plaster. He was still picking bits out of his hair. The money he’d earned from the Barbour job had gone partway to fixing the roof. Now he literally had nothing left; another reason Aidan needed to fall back in love with their childhood home.
“You do know you’ve wasted your time organising this party?” Clo said.
He forced himself to focus. “Why?”
“Aidan won’t show. He never does. When was the last time he came home for Christmas?”
Seven years ago, but Nick didn’t say it out loud. If he didn’t say it, it wouldn’t make it real.
“Face it,” Clo said, “He doesn’t care about you or this house.”
Nick knew that already, but that didn’t mean it hurt any less.
“Aidan promised he would come home for Christmas,” Nick said. “There was something important he wanted to discuss.”
“Not necessarily—” He caught hold of Clo as she jumped off the bottom step. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“I’ve as much right to be here as you do. This isn’t your house.”
“It’s half my house.”
“You don’t pay my wages, Aidan does. I can do what I like. In some ways you’re as much staff as Mum and me.”
Did she think he didn’t know?
“I’ll tell your mother,” he said. That usually worked.
“You’re more scared of her than I am.”
He winced. Wasn’t that the truth?
There followed a brief, undignified struggle. Clo swung a punch at him. He ducked but it turned out to be a classic distraction move (which he’d made the mistake of teaching her himself last week) and she got in an underhand punch to the gut before he had the chance to tense. Ordinarily he’d have been impressed. But not today. Definitely not today.
He couldn’t even say that until he’d got his breath back.
So he did a distraction move of his own, swinging her up and over his shoulder and carrying her towards the stairs while she beat her fists against his back.
“Let me down, you pig!”
“Language, Chloe,” he said cheerfully, before pausing, one foot on the bottom step. It was a long way up and any moment now her foot was likely to make impact with something important. Dare he risk putting her down? Or would she sprint back to the party?
In the end the decision was taken from him. Someone grabbed his shoulder, spun him around and punched him on the jaw.
As he staggered back, making a grab for the carved pineapple (which promptly broke off in his hand, as he knew it would), he was vaguely aware of Clo attempting to defend him.
And his very last thought, before all thought exploded in a cascading shimmer of gold stars?
Aidan would pick that moment to finally come home.
The only thing preventing Beth’s perfect family Christmas? Her family!
Television presenter Agatha Holly has built her career on telling viewers how to have the perfect Christmas. A Holly Jolly Christmas has been screened every December for twenty years and her entire family are involved, including her daughter Beth—the unwilling star of a thousand memes and gifs. But Beth has finally had enough of public ridicule. All she’s ever wanted is a traditional family Christmas away from the television cameras. If she can’t persuade her family to change, should she consider celebrating Christmas without them?
Publication Date: 22nd September 2020