Here’s part 2. Page down to read part 1 of my Christmas story, or sign up to https://www.facebook.com/groups/737252102990447/ for Christmas with the Crooked Cats, a seasonal fest of stories from my fellow authors at Crooked Cat Publishing. I’ll post the rest of this 5-part story over the course of today. Enjoy.
“And then Lionel says to me, ‘it’s all sorted. You’re to stay with Anne on Christmas Eve, and either I or Liz will have you on Christmas Day, and the other one on Boxing Day. The only thing you have to arrange is your Travelodge on the journey, and tell Anne what time you’ll arrive.’ It’s typical.”
Val has been in full flight for ten minutes, long enough to walk up the lane and cross into the road that runs past the church. Annette’s beside her, listening, with an occasional sympathetic grunt to let Val know she’s still being listened to. Not that Val would notice if she stopped responding.
“I know exactly what the problem is. None of them want me. Christmas is ‘family time’. As if I’m not family. Anne must have got in quick and volunteered to do Christmas Eve, and now Liz and Lionel have to slug it out to see who has to have Mother on Christmas Day. I’ve a good mind to book a package holiday in the sun and tell them I’m not coming. That would serve them right.”
All the time that Val is talking, Karma pulls ahead, at the full stretch of his lead. His eyes bulge as he wheezes, trying to get one more centimetre of stretch out of his collar. Every now and again he makes ugly choking noises and Val releases another inch or two of the extendable lead, but he’s almost at the limit of it now. Saf is trotting beside him. Like a worried mother escorting a fractious toddler, she nudges him occasionally to break his stride. The distraction causes Karma to stop pulling for a moment, and gives him the chance to catch a much needed breath before he starts to choke himself again.
“I thought I might go to New Zealand. It’s supposed to be gorgeous there at this time of year. But you should see the prices they’re charging for air fares. Daylight robbery. I can’t believe they’re allowed to charge that much money for shoving you into a tiny seat, between a screaming kid and a shoebomber. Have you seen how many people they get into one of those 747s? Criminal. Anyway, I can’t afford it. I’ll be lucky if I can afford Portugal, the way things are going, that is if I still have a job in the New Year. Gone are the days when you put up with low Council wages for the job security. Nothing’s secure anymore.”
Behind the two women, Aggie strides up the hill, flanked by twin, white, bullet-shaped figures, each trying to veer in a different direction. They wear full harnesses, so pull as they might there’s no risk of choking. All that happens is that every now and again Max pulls a bit hard and Aggie yanks him back into line, momentarily lifting him off his feet. Each time this happens, Fliss barks at him. This ever-repeating scenario forms a percussive backdrop to the endless drone of Val’s voice. Aggie moves a bit closer and interrupts.
“Didn’t I see Sara Fraser at the bus stop with you again?”
Val takes no notice, but Annette turns her head while continuing to walk.
“Yes. That wee white dog is her Sugar.”
“West Highland Terrier, isn’t it?”
“That’s right. She’s a little darling. Bit jumpy and yappy for me, though. I prefer a big dog.” Annette looks complacently at Saf, who hasn’t needed a lead for years. On rare occasions when one is required (such as when walking at a beach or park adorned with notices specifying that ‘dogs must be on the lead’) she puts the lead on Saf and then gives her the end of it to hold in her mouth. Saf is perfectly happy to lead herself, and if anyone comments (as busybodies sometimes feel they have the right to do) Annette can point out that her dog is clearly on the lead, and the law has been complied with, to the letter.
Val is still talking. “I might just as well stay at home. At least then I wouldn’t need to worry about Karma. He doesn’t travel well, and I’m not sure kennels are the right place for him. They don’t appreciate his needs.” Karma pauses in his relentless struggle with the lead, to sniff an interesting deposit in the road before eating it. Saf sits on her haunches and looks at Annette. Eating another dog’s poo is definitely beyond the pale, as far as she’s concerned. Karma wags his tail and looks pleased with himself. Another successful foraging expedition. His face smiles as he pants, tongue lolling, and waits for them all to catch up.
Sara runs the duster over the glass shelf above the TV. She lifts the ornaments one by one, wipes and replaces them. Wafting the cloth over the bookshelf exhausts her and she sinks onto the sofa and picks up the remote control. Flicking through the channels, she leans back into her seat. Sugar whines hopefully and jumps into her lap.
With the dog draped across her knees, Sara settles down to watch. The other day she saw a pretty sapphire necklace she really wanted. Maybe today there’ll be something else she likes. Maybe today she’ll phone the number on the screen and order one. She knows she won’t, though. What would be the point of buying pretty things to wrap round such an ugly body?
Sara knows she’s ugly because her husband told her so, many times, before he died five years ago, still complaining. Before marriage, it had been her mother who told her what a disappointment she was. Now that her girls have grown up and left home, there doesn’t seem to be any point in trying to stay strong. She’s free to wallow.
On screen now, a massively obese woman is walking across a park accompanied by a fit looking man in shorts and a vest. Whatever he’s saying to the woman is drowned out by the little voice in the back of Sara’s head. “Pull yourself together, girl. How do you expect to find a man looking like that?” I got one, she thinks to herself. I got one all by myself. But she can hear Paul’s voice too, never satisfied, always wanting to improve her. “If you lost thirty pounds you’d be a goddess.”
Instead, she put the weight on, more and more of it, and now it’s a struggle to haul herself out of the chair and get back on her feet again. She does it: the program’s crap, and anyway she needs a cup of tea. On the way to the kitchen she takes one chocolate from the bowl in the corner. It’s only one. That doesn’t count.
While the kettle’s boiling she washes up the dishes from last night’s dinner. This is good. She’s in control of her life. Sugar sits adoringly at her feet, eyes fixed on her face, head moving to follow every movement. Sugar loves her. If it wasn’t for Sugar she thinks she might have just laid down and died when Kelsie left home.
Merys and Kelsie are Sara’s wee girls. Not so wee, these days: Merys is living in Dubai with her business consultant husband, and Kelsie’s at university in Glasgow. Kelsie’s going to spend Christmas with her boyfriend’s family in Aberdeen. They’re getting on with their lives. She’s glad of that: it proves she was a good mother. Neither of them is making the mistakes she did.
It’s lonely, though, now they’re gone. Some days it hardly seems worth getting out of bed, except for Sugar. With a sudden burst of energy, Sara gets the collar and lead and pushes her feet into her boots. It’s not fair on Sugar to keep her shut up at home. She needs a walk. Today Sara’s determined to make it all the way to the bus stop and back. There’s a flip-up seat in the bus shelter, so she can take a rest before heading up the hill to home again. She can do this. She’s doing it for Sugar.