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The Magic of Christmas Tree Farm by Erin Green (1)

Nina

Saturday, 8 December

The Christmas trees loom overhead dominating the morning’s inky skyline, as I trudge along the farm’s muddy driveway towards a busy eleven-hour shift.

The dawn chorus hasn’t started yet; there’s nothing around at this hour, apart from a stray fox on his morning prowl, as the birds prepare their opening notes. Despite the serenity, my heart feels like a lump of coal wedged behind my ribs.

My torch bumps against my leg as I walk the lonely track even though I don’t use it. It’s purely for emergencies, as I know the route like the back of my hand. The farm dominates the local area providing a green and pleasant boundary to our tiny village of Baxterley.

The air is thick with the fragrant smell of the Norway spruce planted each side of the dirt track. Mature trees planted decades ago resemble giants; their outstretched branches hang low as if greeting my early arrival to work.

A flash of red catches my eye: there he is, my fat robin bouncing on a spruce bough, his head twitching and his beady eye watching me, before taking flight. I say ‘my’ – he’s one of many living amongst the Christmas trees, but I pretend there’s only one, mine.

‘Welcome to the Christmas Tree Farm,’ I whisper to him as he perches on the farm gate. The farm’s wooden five-barred gate bears a decorative sign overhead proudly declaring ‘Grower of the Year – Champion Tree’, which we won at the British Christmas Tree Growers’ Association’s annual competition – the equivalent of a five-star accolade for any restaurant or hotel, an award my boss is eager to promote to the public.

‘Our Christmas trees are categorised by species and cut to size. Please ask if you can’t find the spruce you require.’ After nine years, I don’t need to practise my selling spiel but do purely through habit.

I release the metal latch and tether the gate open, and enter in preparation for a busy day. It’ll save someone having to run down later to unlatch it.

I’m permanent all year round. There are not many of us – Boss Fielding hires and lays off a crowd of casual workers each year. Thankfully, I proved myself to be a hard worker long ago, so get to enjoy the beauty of this farm all year round.

I sat my exams in June 2009, left school and a week later started work here – who’d have thought Christmas trees needed nurturing in July? That was nine years ago; couldn’t say how many trees I’ve sold in that time.

An icy wind blows. The forecasters have been threatening snowfall across Warwickshire – such a prediction is guaranteed to make my boss happy. Snowfall increases Christmas tree sales as a sunny day increases ice-cream sales. Though, for us farm workers it means working in snow drifts and blizzards. It’s one thing breaking your back to sell spruces to the general public, but another game clearing tonnes of snow prior to a shift to make the farm safe for public access.

I continue along the rutted but lengthy track, wide enough for tractors, which can be dark and gloomy at this time of year, yet I’m never lonely here. How can anyone ever be lonely whilst surrounded by nature, and her ever-changing beauty? Each season delivers its own delights – winter is simply the pinnacle of our year.

I’ve learnt that if my hands are busy, my mind is occupied too. That’s the magic of Christmas Tree Farm – there’s always a warmth and excitement which helps me to forget… A lengthy shift filled with chaotic families browsing, selecting and, sadly for some, arguing over their choice of Christmas tree is what I need. You wouldn’t believe the time taken by some families to choose their tree and we only sell four species: Blue spruce, Nordman fir, Norway spruce or a Fraser fir.

Even when the type of tree is selected, some argue about the height: a teeny weeny, a standard or the ultimate jolly green giant. Most families buy just one so I understand their desire for perfection. Their perfect spruce can equal their perfect Christmas. Occasionally, some families purchase multiple trees: one for the lounge, another for their hallway and a tree with roots that can be planted in the front garden. We charge by the foot, so it can be an expensive purchase and cost can be the deciding factor. At some point today, I’m bound to hear the age-old remark, ‘Or should we leave it and dust off the old plastic one from the loft?’ I’ll smile, pretend I didn’t hear and hope they don’t ignore our range of beautiful spruces. In my opinion, you can’t beat a real Christmas tree – guaranteeing seasonal cheer and a gorgeous fragrance. If push comes to shove and they are still contemplating the dusty artificial one in preference to our beauties, I’ll swiftly move the family towards a Norway spruce and accidentally charge the wrong price. Call it what you will, Christmas spirit or seasonal kindness, the boss will never know. Let’s face it; life’s too short to worry about money. Our spruces will be bare, brown and beside the dustbin come 6 January, so you need to enjoy them while you can.

Today is the opening day of the season, 8 December. If it’s anything like the last nine Christmas seasons, I’ll dash between families, trying my very best to fetch, carry and answer every plausible question thanks to my extensive knowledge of each species. I’ll smile sweetly, serve mulled wine and warmed mince pies and greet everyone as they arrive at the farm.

*

The farm’s yard spreads before me. Lit by overhead floodlights, it’s a vast open space dedicated to spruce sales. Already ‘Little Drummer Boy’ is festively par-rum-pum-pum-pumming through the tinny speakers conveniently positioned out of reach of disgruntled staff. I haven’t heard the tracks for an entire year, but I can recall the sequence of twenty songs from previous years.

‘Nina!’ cries Bram, dressed in his thermal coat and steel-toe-capped boots, as I turn the corner of the first log cabin, affectionately known as the cashier’s cabin. ‘Have I got a treat for you!’

I smile as his deep voice greets me. Bram, the eldest of the boss’s identical twins, thinks that every time he asks me out on a date it will be the time I accept. What he fails to remember is that we are close friends. We’ve been best friends for life since our year seven maths class. A tight friendship, which includes his younger twin Zach. Their characters are like chalk and cheese, or rather a Blue spruce compared to a Norway spruce. Both are strong, sturdy specimens, well nurtured and in their prime.

The transition towards dating either of them feels a bit icky; the anomaly of mixing business with pleasure doesn’t feel right. The twins have grown up on the farm, amongst the vast fields located on the north, south and east side of their sturdy farmhouse.

‘Morning, Bram, let’s hear it!’ I drag my beanie off my head, ruffle my mousy-brown locks and watch as his animated features deliver yet another exaggerated plan, probably concocted last night after four pints of Stella in The Rose, the village’s only pub.

‘Nina… don’t give me that look… I was thinking we could…’

I don’t hear his suggestion. His grey eyes dance with excitement, long blond lashes flutter like butterfly wings and his mouth, well, it doesn’t stop moving. His dad, Boss Fielding, calls him Motor-mouth behind his back and the work force laugh at the age-old joke. Abraham loves being the noisy, over-the-top, competitive twin. ‘It’s better than being Zach!’ is his usual comeback.

‘So, what do you think?’ He falls silent and waits, pushing his blond fringe back and into shape. My answer will be the same as it always is.

‘Oh, Bram… what can I say?’ I whisper, flattered that he still finds the energy to chase me after so many rejections. He’s offered me numerous dates: candlelit dinners, hikes up Snowdon, a weekend at V Festival, breaks in Barcelona and even skiing in Austria. Funnily enough the weekend spent fly fishing was an easy ‘no’.

I head towards the snug, our designated staffroom, another log cabin positioned alongside the cashier’s cabin.

‘Come on, Nina.’ He strides after me; he knows my routine. ‘I promise, I’ll be a true gent… treat you like a lady.’

I dash up the wooden steps, push open the heavy door and am greeted by the warmth of the snug’s wood-burning stove. An eclectic mix of donated sofas, armchairs and coffee tables make for a cosy room.

‘You’ll wine and dine me, you say?’ I ask, unzipping my jacket.

‘I swear, I’ll treat you like a lady!’

‘Abraham! You amaze me…’ I say, a coy smile escaping my pretence. I can’t pretend I’m not flattered and I admire his determination.

‘So, what’s it to be, Nina?’ he asks, giving a cheeky wink.

‘Bram… we’d ruin what we have.’ I cross to the coat racks and remove my jacket. Bram follows me.

‘We won’t. What do you say?’

I hang my jacket on my named peg, decorated with a carved plaque; an honour only bestowed upon permanent staff members. Some staff have already arrived and changed into their work scruffs but Shazza’s peg is empty – she’ll arrive with seconds to spare. Kitty’s quilted mac is already hung up. Beneath each peg sits the owner’s plastic box of clothing, personal items brought from home in which to dress and build layers against the cold.

‘I say, we’ve been mates for thirteen years and I value our friendship!’

‘I don’t. You’re the crappiest friend a guy could have… you don’t do drinking games, you hate football and you never agree to my plans.’

‘Just think what a nightmare I’d be as a girlfriend, then. I’d be complaining all the time, texting around the clock and demanding to know your whereabouts on the hour every hour. There, does that feel better?’

‘No! It feels like a sodding rejection again…’

Bram shakes his head, leans against the old battered couch, as I grab my designated storage box to dress in my additional layers.

We’ve been through this same routine a million times since day one. He’s not leching – that’s not his style. We never feel uncomfortable around each other. Bram and Zach are my best friends, and that’s how it’s going to stay.

I snap closed the press studs on my red tabard, rummage in the large front pocket to ensure no one has nicked my marker pen, notepad or woollen gloves. Today, I’m in luck.

‘Nina Salloway… you’ll be the death of me.’

‘Let’s hope so,’ I jibe, grabbing my thermal coat complete with the company logo and my Christian name embroidered across the back, and pull it on. ‘Come on, race you to clock on.’

‘Nina!’

‘Stop it, Bram. The conversation is over.’ I head towards the door as Shazza hastily enters like a blonde whirlwind, muttering a greeting plus a brief excuse about younger siblings hogging the bathroom. ‘Morning, Shaz. Anyway, Bram, I bet you “White Christmas” starts playing after this track.’

Bram shakes his head, purses his lips and follows me from the snug. ‘You love me really.’

‘With all my heart.’

*

Angie

‘Can we talk?’ I ask into my mobile phone. Nick’s silence lengthens. This doesn’t feel promising. Having spent a ten-minute drive thinking, practising and repeating a lengthy speech to forget it all the minute I park at Christmas Tree Farm, I have just one task for this morning: to choose my tree. So why am I calling him? ‘Nick?’

‘What?’

‘Did you hear me?’

‘Angie, I heard you but… I really don’t know what to say.’ His voice is monotone, untrusting and sadly, lacking in eagerness to please me. ‘What is it you want to discuss?’

‘Us.’ Christ, could the man make it any more difficult? Throw me a line here, please.

I can hear his breathing, a series of sporadic sighs laden with uncertainty.

During my solo practice run-through, he jumped at the chance of my suggestion, ended the phone call and was mid-journey heading my way.

This isn’t supposed to happen. Aren’t I granting him what he’s repeatedly asked for throughout the last eleven months? And yet, he’s now stalling. I obviously don’t know the man as well as I thought I did. Pity.

‘Look, Angie, what more is there for us to discuss?’

‘Nick…’ My words run dry. My prepared speech has fallen flat and now my own cogs are failing to connect and produce a viable explanation. ‘Can we go for a drink? Tonight?’ I hastily add, not wanting him to choose something midweek, forcing me to relive this episode morning, noon and night whilst waiting for our prearranged meeting. ‘Please?’

He is thinking, still.

What is there to consider? Surely, you jump in with a ‘Yes, I’d love to’ or an ‘Of course, name the place and I’ll be there.’ Even an unexpected, ‘Your place or mine?’ would be better than this.

But no, total silence.

‘Shall we say eight o’clock outside The Rose at Baxterley?’ I say, battling the fear of rejection. Surely neutral territory away from our home town of Atherstone is a reasonable suggestion? I preferred the good old days when mobile lines crackled and broke up – it was better than this humiliation.

‘OK. Eight.’ The line goes dead from his end.

I look at my screen to confirm: he’s gone.

‘Bloody hell, Nick. Thanks for nothing,’ I screech. I have a good mind to call him straight back and cancel, but fight the urge, knowing I’d be causing hurt to only one person. I fling my mobile into my handbag before I can speed dial.

I undo my seat belt and then sit back. A brief glance in my mirror confirms that my roots need touching up, though my messy bun is forgiving for my age.

Crowds of excited customers bustle past my car bonnet: old, young, couples, families, children holding hands, skipping – all festive and cheery on a Saturday mid-morning. Here I sit alone chastising myself and nursing a bruised ego; only yesterday I vowed to remain single.

Could this be any more depressing.

I sit watching the happy families through a misty windscreen, which is rapidly diminishing my view, waiting for my annoyance to subside. But it’s impossible to escape the replay in my head when I asked… or perhaps I begged for a date at The Rose.

How has this happened? Surely, I should be like the passing parade of happy, smiling people, focusing on creating the perfect Christmas. It should be me sauntering along the rows of pre-cut, netted trees, with a beaker of mulled wine in hand, nibbling on a warmed mince pie. In previous years, I have spent more time at this farm than I care to remember – seeking out the perfect spruce. Each year I have wrestled a tree home, decorated and watered it. My tradition repeated on the first day of sales every year since I’ve owned a house… so, seventeen, no eighteen years! Bloody hell, where has the time gone?

I want to return home. Do I truly deserve to be denied the annual traditions just because this year, my all-important ‘fabulous at forty’ has been the crappiest year of my life? And now, Nick. Does he have misgivings too?

I wish I hadn’t called.

And now, I wish I hadn’t driven to Christmas Tree Farm either. As I observe the irritating festive spirit surrounding me, I sink deeper into my car seat.

*

Nina

‘Nina!’ calls Zach, handing out the hot drinks during our tea break. ‘Do you fancy sprinkles or marshmallows on your hot chocolate?’

‘Neither,’ I reply, knowing my answer will spark a reaction from the other ladies.

‘Are you serious?’ asks Kitty, her delicate features shooting up to view me. ‘Are you feeling OK?’

‘I need to start cutting down on sugar.’

‘Seriously, there’s nothing of you…’ Kitty gives me a head tilt and a tender look. Her gentle blue eyes are seriously telling me off.

Kitty Pardoe is slightly older and much wiser than us younger folk but she remembers what it’s like to be twenty-five. I’ve known her since my first day when she took me under her wing. Since then, she’s been promoted to chief cashier, but today Kitty’s been relegated to sales as Jackie, the boss’s wife, is holed up in cashier’s cabin given that it’s the first day of the season. All morning, like me, Kitty has dragged cut spruce around the sales yard.

We’ve already had three weeks of wholesale deliveries, before the season started in earnest, and if that isn’t enough to kill you before starting the commercial sales I don’t know what is. Why any family would show up just after eight o’clock to purchase the first commercial tree of the year is beyond me, but, hey, that’s the kind of madness that happens around here come Christmas time. If the opening day is like this, I’d hate to predict what the final Saturday before Christmas will be like.

‘If Nina’s refusing her marshmallows, I’ll have her share,’ shouts Shazza, sitting at the far end of the snug, her socked feet planted upon the side of the wood burner.

Zach drops the additional marshmallows onto Shazza’s drink before delivering mugs into our eager hands.

‘Thank you,’ I say.

‘My pleasure.’

Kitty looks away but keeps a quizzical eye on Zach as he returns to the kitchen counter to collect his drink and swiftly leaves the snug.

‘What?’ I ask, as she turns to me and sighs.

‘He really likes you…’ says Kitty, sipping her drink.

‘We’re just friends, that’s all.’

‘Seriously, Nina, the bloke’s got it bad,’ calls Shazza across the room, slurping her oversized drink.

‘You’ve both got the wrong end of the stick again.’ This is all I ever get nowadays. If it’s not Bram chasing for a date, it’s others suggesting I date Zach.

‘A Christmas romance would be so sweet,’ adds Shazza, repositioning her feet on the wood burner. ‘It’s the perfect season to be loved up and snuggled close.’

‘Such a pity that Christmas is cancelled, where I’m concerned. So, fill your boots, Shazza… choose a bloke and enjoy the season!’

I put my drink down and stand. Can’t I enjoy a hot drink in peace? It’s not as if I don’t deserve a break after hours of hard work in the cold.

‘I would if I could,’ says Shazza, as Kitty flaps her hands in vain to silence her. ‘No, Kitty, I won’t hush. Christmas is coming whether she likes it or not!’

I hastily leave the snug, traipsing down the steps and across the yard to get away from them, shutting out the blare of ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ and dodging the families as I head for the large equipment barn. The mouth to this barn stands wide open, as always. Inside the farming equipment and tractor are neatly parked in rows, bales of stacked hay fill one corner and along the far end is the makeshift winter pen in which Gertrude, the farm’s cranky donkey, and her companion Arthur, the billy goat, reside during the winter. Leaning over the tubular fencing, feeding them carrots is Zach.

‘Hey, Zach, how’s things?’ I say nonchalantly, sussing out his mood. He doesn’t look up but continues to stroke Gertrude’s muzzle. The donkey is appreciative and nudges his hand, demanding another carrot.

‘Fine, thanks, and you?’

I join him leaning against the pen.

The inside of the barn smells warm and safe, away from the car engines and chatter from outside. ‘You enjoying that, Gertrude?’

‘She loves a good fuss,’ he says, his eyes fixed upon the animal. Arthur, the billy goat, gives a sweeping glance at the carrot and returns to eating his hay bale. ‘Have you spoken to Bram today?’

‘Yes, he’s got another brainwave about me and him sharing more adventurous times together… Lord knows where he gets his ideas but…’

Zach turns to stare at me, his large grey eyes dilated and wide. The same flutter of long blond eyelashes frame his gaze, beneath an identical blond fringe.

It’s so unfair that males have such long eyelashes – do us girls ruin ours with caked mascara?

‘Are you all right?’

‘He wants to be more than just friends, Nina. That’s what he’s getting at.’ His words are softly spoken; he scrutinises my features. I look away towards Arthur, with his giant curling horns, as if he were the interesting one.

‘I know, but we’ve been here before. I don’t think that we should…’

‘So, tell him, then.’

‘Zach.’

‘Seriously, he honestly believes that one day you and him will be an item – he’s thought it for years and yet you never correct him. You never put him straight. It’s as if…’

‘Hey, don’t judge me.’

‘All I get twenty-four hours a day is him chatting bubbles about you. You know the score, he’s trying his best to impress, and yet you’re not going to be honest with him, are you?’

Honest? Look who’s talking!’ I knew my words would hit home, but, given his hurt expression, he hadn’t expected a verbal punch.

Zach bites his lip and turns away.

My voice softens.

‘What about you being honest for once, Zach? Oh, no, I forgot – you can’t be.’

‘I choose not to hurt him. There’s a difference.’

‘And I choose to ignore him.’

Zach’s grey eyes flash a warning look.

‘Are you pair trying to skive or can anyone join in?’ calls Bram, striding into the barn to view the pair of us suspended in silence.

‘We’re on our break, so don’t come the crap!’ calls Zach, his persona instantly changing.

I stare from one to the other, officially their piggy in the middle.

‘Skiving more like… anyway, Dad said he needs all hands on deck as a crowd has suddenly descended, so your break needs to be cut short.’

‘Bloody great!’ mutters Zach.

‘Don’t shoot the messenger – Dad’s decision, not mine. Nina, can you rally the troops from the snug? They won’t be happy but…’

I nod, instantly leaving the barn.

*

Holly

I wait at the end of the Costa counter, clutching a spoon in my hand, watching the barista put together my hazelnut latte. All morning I’ve been dreaming of this latte. It’s my treat for working part-time in the chemist, and wearing this awful nylon uniform, which clings to my woollen tights.

‘Hazelnut latte!’ The barista shouts past me, as if he can’t see me waiting by the counter top. I step forward and receive the warm offering, eager to scoop the cream from the top as I walk home.

‘Holly!’ screams a group of teenage girls from the seated area. I turn around, and instantly regret reacting to their outburst. Six smirking faces, with smudged eye-liner and overpainted mouths, creepily smirk back. ‘Come and join us!’ hollers Paris, one of the mean girls from school. A cackle of laughter bursts from the other five as they try to hide behind each other.

Head down, I dash towards the exit, my blonde ponytail swinging with each step.

They’re about as funny as chlamydia, as my best friend, Demi, would say.

Once I make it to Long Street, I stare fixedly ahead and walk past the remainder of the coffee shop’s large window where I can undo the lid on my latte to scoop and walk. Scoop and enjoy. Scoop and relax. Scoop and forget.

‘Holly!’ a male voice calls from behind me. ‘Wait!’

I continue to stride along Atherstone’s busy street. No one in this world can make me stop and stand, giving those six bitches something to watch or even record on their phones to post on social media. As soon as I reach the safe frontage of the chip shop next door, I stop and turn.

It’s Alfie Woodward. My stomach flips and I nearly drop my latte. I quickly plunge my spoon into my coat pocket; it feels babyish to be scooping cream when it’s Alfie. Every girl in year eleven, no, scrap that, every girl in our school wants to be friends with Alfie Woodward. He’s the ‘darling of the ladies’, as my mum would put it. And, get me, Alfie Woodward, from the back row in chemistry class, actually knows my name. Not a reaction that the mean girls would have intended for me.

‘Hi. I didn’t think you’d heard me,’ he says, zipping up his jacket as he nears. His dark hair is shorter than in yesterday’s chemistry class – obviously, that has been his Saturday morning task.

‘Sorry… I… well.’ I shrug, looking up into his smiling face. What am I supposed to call the name-hollering in Costa?

‘I was inside with Jordan and Tom. I heard them catcalling you. Anyway, ignore them… I was wondering if you were going to youth club on Tuesday night? I go most weeks. Your mate Demi goes sometimes but you’re never there!’

I shrug. What can I say? Err nope, because the mean girls go every week? Or how about, yeah, sure, I’ll turn up, get verbally abused for two hours and return home to cry… sure, save me a seat and I’ll see you at seven on Tuesday?

‘There are others that attend, not just those witches,’ he adds, as if he can read my thoughts. ‘I could call round for you, if you want?’

Alfie Woodward calling for me!

I blush. I see his blue eyes swirl and scan my features, taking in the subtle change in my pale complexion. Holly Turner, for once in your goddamned life play it cool.

‘Well?’ A tiny smile frames his top row of perfect teeth.

I purse my lips together to hide the metal train tracks that I begged my parents for, but now wish I’d never had. Right now, I’d much prefer my unsightly teeth buckle.

I give the smallest nod, having lost the ability to communicate in English. In fact, if Alfie stands before me for very much longer, with his new haircut, smart zipped jacket and white trainers there is a chance I may abandon control of my grip and lose this latte to the pavement.

‘OK. I’ll drop round just before seven on Tuesday.’

Brain, now is the time to function, be it a simple OK. Please don’t let me down, not right now.

‘Thanks, Alfie, that’d be nice of you. See you.’ I turn about quickly. It seems rude, but I can’t face him any longer. My smile is going to burst forth and I’m about to do the geekiest grin ever witnessed on Atherstone’s Long Street.

‘OK, see you in school,’ he calls, as I head towards home.

‘Yeah, first thing in chemistry.’

‘No, you’ve got history first, then geography…’

I attempt a nonchalant wave. Demi is not going to believe this.

*

Nina

In a matter of hours, several hundred Christmas trees are sold and taken home by happy families. The boss instructs a second wave of spruce cutting, which means the yard staff will be run ragged with netting and pricing labels. This is the busyness I crave. Busy hands, busy mind.

‘The farm couldn’t have been any busier without snowfall,’ boasts the boss as he deploys his instructions.

‘Are you all right?’ asks Kitty as I peel off my layers of work clothes in the snug when the end of the day finally arrives.

‘Nah!’ I can’t muster a smile, which I know Kitty deserves.

‘Want to talk about it? I’m good for a chat. Connor will happily wait in the car for me.’

I shake my head. Connor arrives each night to collect his beloved Kitty; he never complains if it is raining and Kitty asks him to taxi us home to save me from getting soaked. Theirs is a true love match, of mutual respect and commitment – the stuff of fairy tales.

The last thing I need is to start talking. It isn’t just the twins; if I start to talk my feelings will overflow. And, after an eleven-hour shift, who wants to get the emotional mop bucket out to clean that messy puddle?

‘Thanks, but another night,’ I whisper, my eyes beginning to glisten. ‘I need to go straight home, have a hot bath, curl up on the sofa in my pjs and watch Saturday night TV.’

‘And then return tomorrow for another long shift.’ Kitty giggles, trying to lift my spirit.

‘Yep, but I’ll have rested and I’ll be fine.’

I collect my winter jacket, button the front and pull my beanie over my mousy-brown locks.

‘Bye.’

‘See you tomorrow, Kitty,’ I say, heading for the door.

‘Nina!’

‘Yeah.’ I turn, my hand on the door latch.

‘I haven’t forgotten. I know it’s been a year since… the hospital… I just wanted you to know, I have remembered.’

I’d nearly made it to freedom without anyone saying a word.

‘Thank you,’ I whisper as my eyes prickle with tears. I need to leave. I want to be alone.

The door closes behind me, my heavy boots thud down the steps, and I quickly march towards the farm track and along the lonely lane beyond towards my cottage. Finally, I can release the knot of emotion that I have swallowed every hour since waking and let the tears flow. It feels good to have made it to half six without my barriers coming down. The release comes easy, and swiftly. I don’t wipe the tears that hang from my chin; I let them fall. Just as I have every day for the last year. One year ago today, my dad was taken into a hospice, not quite the hospital that Kitty remembered. One year ago today, he left our cottage for the final time.

*

Angie

‘Hi.’ Same old Nick, man of few words and predictably late.

‘Hi,’ I reply, reaching up to greet him with a peck on the cheek. Something I haven’t done in months. I’m fighting the urge to ask where he has been given that it is ten past and we agreed eight o’clock. At this time of year, the pub’s picturesque duck pond is silent and dark, providing little amusement. So I have stared at my phone screen in the entrance doorway, as loved-up couples holding hands navigate around me to enter the bustling pub. Each woman has given me the pity look for being stood up, while the guys have given me the once-over. And now Nick’s arrived, my stomach is flipping and I’m not sure if I should nip to the ladies or not. Or will my innards settle once we order our drinks? Food maybe? I remember how nervous I was on our first date. My hands didn’t stop shaking for the entire time, which was ridiculous given that we were seated in the student union bar sharing Hooch and a plate of cheesy chips.

‘Shall we?’ asks Nick, taking the lead and holding the door wide. I smile. No explanation for poor timekeeping but, yeah, manners. Nick has always had good manners; they cost nothing but are worth a fortune.

His greying hair is neatly clipped at the neck. He’s made an effort. I’ve never seen those shoes before so they must be new. I note that he’s spending money on himself – that’s nice to see. But maybe he’s spending money elsewhere too?

‘Thank you,’ I say, stepping into The Rose, hoping that everyone notices that I am now only preoccupied with my date for the night and my phone is tucked safely away. The pub is decorated in swathes of red and gold, sumptuous garlands and glittering baubles pinned to every aged beam. I exchange a brief smile with a younger woman, a mute yet grateful appreciation of relief: my date has shown up, eventually. Small festive get-togethers fill each inglenook and alcove as the bustle of the bar envelops us, as clinking glasses, quick-stepping waitresses and the constant drone of chatter fill the air, drowning out the festive music.

‘Angie?’ Nick indicates towards a solitary corner table. I nod in agreement – the quieter the better for this conversation. I know what I wish to say, but given recent events my delivery may fall flat. I watch as he nears the table, flicks a crumb from the surface and pulls out a chair. His hands linger on the back rest as he waits for me to take his offering.

He gently pushes my seat under as I settle. ‘Thank you…’

He doesn’t cross to the other chair, but sidesteps towards the bar.

‘Nick?’ I call.

He turns; his brow furrows on hearing my voice. I nod towards the other chair. I just want him to be seated, for a moment at least, to allow me the time to speak. If I can get the words out, as they are formed in my head, then we can start our night on the right footing.

‘Drink?’ His thumb indicates the bar. I shake my head. He looks confused and returns to our table.

He settles opposite me. I can see his hackles are up.

This is it. I instantly need to say what I wanted to say this morning, but he’d stalled me, otherwise tonight will start on the wrong foot, if it hasn’t already. I take a deep breath. I now hope no one in the bar is watching the woman who was stood up earlier. Because the moment this is out, I can’t take it back. Ever.

His clear blue eyes search my face. He’s waiting and I’m struggling to find the words that I practised in the bathroom mirror. The same ones I practised in the car and again while staring at my mobile screen not five minutes ago in the doorway.

‘Nick, I’ve thought about what you said the other month. I would like us to try again.’ I continue, avoiding an interruption. ‘It’ll be difficult. I know that a lot of things have happened since January… but I want us to make our way back to what we once had.’ I pause.

There, I’ve said it.

He’s waited months to hear me agree to his original suggestion.

‘My biggest fear is that we slide back into what we had… that isn’t what I want. So… I would like us to pretend that we are starting afresh as if this is our first date, that we recently met off some website thingy-bob, which people do all the time nowadays. I want us to reconnect and chat as if we are meeting for the very first time… Nick, are you listening?’

He’s staring. I can’t read if it’s a good stare or a bad stare. Can a stare ever be good? Is that a nod of the head, or a nervous twitch?

Nick stands, pushes his chair under and heads to the bar. OK. No reaction. OK.

‘Nick?’

He turns; his brow furrows on hearing my voice – it’s like Groundhog Day, as he’s just re-enacted what he did minutes before.

‘Drink?’

‘Yeah, but you didn’t ask what I wanted…’ My voice fades. I had to say it; I had to make a stand so he knows I mean it.

‘But, Angie, you always have a large rosé.’

‘You don’t know what your date wants unless you ask her, Nick.’ Am I being pedantic?

His eyebrows shoot into his greying fringe. His shoulders drop and he slowly returns to our table.

‘Angie, what can I get you to drink?’ he asks, politely.

‘A vodka and cranberry, please.’

‘But you hate…’

It’s my turn to frown. This isn’t going to work. He’s not even trying and we haven’t completed a minute on our first date. If we can’t get past the drinks conversation there isn’t a hope in hell, after what were our eighteen years of marriage and one hasty divorce.

With a terse OK, he heads back to the bar. He heard my proposal and now I’ll have to wait to see what happens when he returns with our drinks.

*

‘Do you come here often?’

‘Are you seriously going to use that line?’ I snort, dabbing spluttered vodka from the table top.

Nick shrugs.

‘What? I’m trying, like you asked.’

‘OK, maybe I should go first… So, Nick, tell me something about yourself.’

He takes a sip of his Guinness, returns the pint glass to the table and repositions himself in the hardback chair.

‘I’m Nick, I’m forty–three years of age… recently divorced. I’m a design engineer by trade – mainly commercial, but I do some freelance work when asked. I work in the city, so most days I commute into Birmingham but some days I work from home.’

I smile. Well done. Now, my turn. Ask me?

The silence lingers. I continue to smile. He’ll automatically ask about me, because that’s polite conversation and Nick has manners. My smile fades. He continues to smile, his eyes sparkling and alive. He’s waited so long to hear me say I’ll try again.

Silence. I’m not going to prompt him. He needs to ask now. Now. Now, will do. Shit, pure silence, simply starring at each other… so I’ll ask some more and take an interest in his career.

‘Have you been a design engineer for long?’

‘Nearly twenty years. I left school, went to uni—’

‘Which one?’

‘Angie… you know which one – the bloody same as you!’

‘You don’t know that. You haven’t asked me anything about me.’

‘Christ, Angie!’

I compose myself.

‘So, tell me… which university, Nick?’

He sips his Guinness, and eyeballs me above the rim of his glass. Will he play ball or is that it, game over?

‘Aston in Birmingham. I lived near campus for three years, shagged around as much as I could and then—’

‘Nick!’ I grumble.

‘What?’

‘Why say that? You know I hate it when you talk like that.’

‘Because this is bloody ridiculous. Do you seriously want to listen to me drone on about how I met you, my wife… or rather ex-wife… all those years ago?’

‘No, but… oh, never mind.’

‘What? Am I to carry on or are we ceasing this act?’ he asks.

‘Carry on.’ I swig my drink, wishing I’d asked for a double.

‘So, anyway, I met my wife, we married and then this year, after eighteen years of marriage… she walked out on me…’

I wait for him to add anything but he doesn’t. I could bite back, but I don’t. I leave it. I wouldn’t bite back on a first date, would I? And this is my very first date with Nick Woodward, a date that I’ve been waiting for all day. A date that I curled my hair for and dressed for, arriving just shy of eight o’clock to be left waiting in the doorway for ten minutes. If this is our first date, which I am hoping it is, he’s lost brownie points for such rudeness.

Continue.

‘Have you any children, Nick?’

‘One son, he’s just turned sixteen… it’s been painful to watch him struggle with the divorce…’

‘You bastard! That was a cheap shot!’

‘What was?’

‘That! He hasn’t struggled.’

‘Yes, he bloody well has… anyway, what would you know? We haven’t met before, have we?’

‘Funny,’ I snap as I try to regain my composure, having had my child brought into my first-date conversation.

‘Anyway, as I was saying… he’s had it rough. There’s been days when he wouldn’t open up to me… or his mother. In fact, he’s still not speaking to her properly… Which I find quite upsetting as they were so very close before she took off from the marital home.’

I sit back and wait. Under the table, I curl my nails into my palm and squeeze tight. I want to scream. I want to cry. I want Nick to stop, but he’s now on a roll and he’s playing the game as I asked and I really can’t pull the rug from under his feet because I asked for this. This pain. This hurt. This gut-wrenching detail about my own flesh and blood. I asked Nick to pretend and he’s in full flow. I didn’t think it would be this painful hearing about my child’s reaction to my decision, but it is. But I can take it. I can. And I will. I. Can. Take. It.

So, go on, Nick. Tell your story because in about five minutes, if you use your beautiful manners, you’ll be asking me to do the same. And I’ve been practising. I’ve been waiting for this moment all day, since I shot from the farm this morning because I couldn’t face buying a Christmas tree for my two-bedroomed rental apartment. As it happens, I couldn’t imagine a tree anywhere other than in the three-bedroomed home I spent eighteen years of married life living in.

*

Holly

Have you seen FB?

D x

I don’t reply to Demi but log in to Facebook in the darkness of my bedroom. I haven’t seen FB nor any other social media all day; sometimes ignorance is bliss. I glance towards my sleeping sister, Hannah. I can’t risk disturbing her much-needed beauty sleep. She’d definitely grass on me in pure spite, but that’s fourteen years old for you.

The screen reveals all in a split second, a mile-long thread consisting of comments and colourful emojis. Paris’s posting reads:

Mirror, mirror on the wall, from Costa’s doorstep who did Alfie Woodward call?

The message was written five hours ago.

Great, the world and his wife will have read and responded by now.

I slide the screen and virtually every mean girl that attends our school, regardless of year group, makes a stream of suggestions. Alfie, the top dog in year eleven… Shock horror – who did he chase after in Costa?

I smile. A whole host of names has been suggested and slyly, towards the end, the bitches couldn’t hold out any longer for a correct suggestion so relieved everyone’s misery by naming me.

Holly Turner… and she was sucking on a spoon when he shouted her.

Paris had written:

I love her tacky uniform, wish I had one.

I kill the screen and lie back, pulling the duvet to my chin.

I should be upset, but I’m not. I’ve received worse treatment from those girls, having known them since primary school. Alfie chased and called me – they’d happily switch places in a heartbeat. History class may prove interesting come Monday, but, first, I have Sunday to survive.

I quickly text Demi.

Thanks for the heads up. Yep, it’s true. Alfie spoke to me on leaving Costa. All good. But hey, mean girls copped a good view H x

I turn off my mobile. The last thing I need is a middle-of-the-night interrogation from Demi about what was said. I need sleep.

I plump my pillow and close my eyes. All I can see is Alfie Woodward, his new hairstyle, his big blue eyes and a pleasing smile. My stomach flips. Falling asleep isn’t going to be easy, but I wouldn’t change this for the world.