“What do you mean? You’re not coming for Christmas.” Jess knew she was shrill. She knew it wasn’t cool to let her brother hear the need, but she was unable to stop herself. “I’ve ordered fillet steaks.”
“Look, Jess, I can’t…”
“Don’t you enjoy having Christmas with me? We hardly see each other for the rest of the year, but we always make Christmas.” She choked back a sob and heard Simon’s long intake of breath. It was just as well because it stopped her saying how they’d promised Mum they’d always look out for each other.
“We have done, but this year, I want to do something different. I’ve volunteered with a youth charity. I’m going to be in a yurt in Speyside,” Simon said in the matter of fact way he had when he’d rehearsed all the arguments and reached his decision. Jess remembered the tone well. He’d used it the night they put their dad out of the family home and advised him not to return.
“Really?” she asked. Where had this come from, she wondered. “You’re a corporate lawyer not a social worker.”
“Very funny, not. I was hoping to let you know with a bit more time for you to do something different for yourself, but the firm sent me off to Delhi and with all the admin involved in that, I’m afraid I let it slip. My bad, Jess. Sorry.”
“Sorry,” she parroted, “Sorry. It’s Sunday night and my office is closed for two weeks, but you’re sorry. Well, that’s all right then. Conscience clear.”
“Don’t do this. I am sorry, but I’ve made the arrangements and there are people relying on me,” he said.
“I was relying on you and I thought you were relying on me, too.” Jess knew it was a mistake, but she couldn’t stem the flow.
“Enough, Jess. You’re an adult with a good job, a roof over your head and the gumption to get organised. I don’t need this emotional blackmail every year. Enjoy your break. I’ll be in touch in the New Year.”
Jess looked at the phone in her hand in bewilderment. Her brother had hung up. She tossed it onto the settee and sank to her knees in the rug. There was no point in phoning back. In this mood he’d block her calls until the New Year, and she really couldn’t cope with the reality of that.
When the central heating clicked on, Jess stared around her living room. Nothing had changed of course, but she hoped its familiarity might provide some comfort. Her legs ached and her back felt it might seize if she didn’t get up. Just as she reached her full height, the doorbell chimed.
Simon, she thought, he’s changed his mind and come over to tell me himself. She went into the hall and across to the intercom where the light was flashing. With shaky fingers, she threw the switch.
“Hullo, Jess, it’s Will here. Can I come up, please?”
“Will”, she said and Will, she thought. Will, who had a thing for her and was undeterred by her refusal of coffees, walks on Sundays, films and requests to sit in when his bridge group was short of a fourth. Will was here, today. “Why are you dressed like that?”
She watched Will on the tiny screen and saw his bewildered glance as it looked down over the chef’s tunic and stripey trousers he was wearing. Another corporate lawyer who’d taken up a secret life?
“Oh this.” She saw the hand wave around in the air as it so often did when she fixed her gaze on him. “Look, can I come up. I need to ask you something, please.”
Jess buzzed him in. Whatever it was, she’d get rid of him as soon as and return to whatever she was doing when he arrived. She caught sight of her tear-stained appearance and grabbed her bag to drag a comb hastily through her hair. The blotchy eyes would have to be unexplained. What she was doing when he arrived wasn’t clear in her mind. Simon wasn’t coming for Christmas.
“Thanks, Jess. Thank you so much,” Will blurted as he half-fell, half-loped into her hallway. “Look, it’s urgent. I volunteer at Crisis sometimes because getting back to Orkney has its probs, you know, weather…”
“Fog, you said last year,” Jess said and flushed a bright red to add to her blotches. Simon had suggested they could have asked Will to join them when he couldn’t get home to the islands, but she’d been horrified and refused.
“Yes, fog last year. This year my mum and my aunt are with me, but although Crisis starts tomorrow, the kitchen is offering a meal today, so I’m still able to offer them a shift.” He took a deep breath. “Sorry, I’ve been running and I’m not fit. Look, the team is three folk short because a car coming in from West Lothian has broken down. They will get into Edinburgh on a bus, but eventually. We need people to serve the food now. Could you possibly? It’s just round the corner.”
Jess stared at him in confusion. Could she go and serve food to a hall full of people she’d never met before. Moreover, the sort of people who needed charity at Christmas.
“Yes,” she heard herself say. “I could do that. Simon phoned. He’s delayed.”
Will looked as if he was about to say something else, but he changed his mind and smiled.
“Is this okay?” She waved a hand over her sweater and jeans. “Should I change?”
“Really, there’s no time. You look fine,” Will said and she heard the relief in his voice.
Jess sank into bed eight hours later and stared at the ceiling where lights from the street swirled around and made patterns in the dark. A bit like my head, she thought, as she tried to bring some order to the myriad impressions her afternoon had brought.
Bert, whose wife put him out three years ago because of his gambling. Davey whose stepdad put him out two weeks ago because he couldn’t cope with another male in the house. Tracey whose family moved away without telling her where.
Was her own father spending Christmas in a Crisis shelter somewhere, she wondered. Putting him out had seemed like the only solution when they did it. Now, she pondered. Just as sleep claimed her, she knew she’d need to try to find him. Mum was gone and he couldn’t hurt her any more.
Christmas Day broke slowly, and Arthur’s Seat was all but hidden in the fog until lunchtime. Jess went to the morning service in the local church where she was invited to stay on for coffee and mincemeat tarts. Will and two elderly ladies bore down on her as she sipped the hot liquid.
“Jess, my mum, Christina, and my aunty Meg. Happy Christmas,” Will said and kissed her lightly on the cheek.
“Happy Christmas,” she replied shyly.
“I was telling Mum and Aunty Meg how you stepped in yesterday. It was so good of you, Jess,” Will said, and Jess smiled again.
“Do you know, I think it’s made this year the best Christmas I’ve ever had,” she said.
“Really? Well, that’s quite a claim,” Will said.
“Simon phoned earlier. He’s helping a youth group in Speyside, he says.” She laughed. “I think there might be a lady, though.”
Will blushed and Jess realised he’d known. They weren’t in the same legal firm, but it was a comparatively small world.
“Now, Jess,” Mrs Stout was saying, “I do hope we can persuade you to have your denner with us.”
“Aye, indeed, lass,” Aunty Meg added. “There’s too much of this individualism stuff around in my opinion.”
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly,” Jess spluttered. “When there’s only three of you, there won’t be spare to accommodate an extra.”
“Don’t believe it,” Will said. “I laid in everything they have in Orkney and they brought down everything they would have had in Orkney.”
“Can’t be too careful,” Mrs Stout said. “We know where the animals have been.”
“Aye, indeed,” said Aunty Meg. “Grass-fed beef, cream and butter…”
“It’s not a farming commercial we need, Aunty Meg.” Will turned to Jess as his aunt choked a little on her coffee. “Please, Jess. After all your hard work yesterday, it would be my pleasure.”
She nodded. Just at that moment, words failed.
copyright Something Different Anne Stenhouse
Courting the Countess
I hope you enjoyed my little story and it may have whetted your appetite for some more quality fiction. Other Robins writing for you this year:
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Victoria Chatham http://www.victoriachatham.com
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1Ng
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobincourtright.com