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Author: Michelle Frances


Christmas Eve 2017

As Ellie got off the train at Redhill station, laden down with her overnight case and a bag full of gifts, she was immediately caught in a gust of freezing wind, laced with sleet. She grimaced and pulled her cashmere scarf closer to her neck, not just to keep herself warm, but also to stop the scarf from getting ruined by the atrocious weather. Thank God she’d treated herself and bought it. It had cost a small fortune but on days like today it was well worth the investment. If she’d gone away for Christmas, like she had in the summer on a birthday treat to herself in the form of a two-week holiday to the Maldives, she wouldn’t have needed a cashmere scarf. But the credit card balance was looking a little high, to the point of starting to give her sleepless nights. Her plan had been to pay it off with the pay rise once she’d been offered the trainee teacher job at the school where she worked. Instead, Ellie was still smarting from the rejection she’d received only the previous week.

Ellie sighed as she put her ticket through the barrier machine. Leaving the station, she looked up at the busy road and contemplated the twenty-minute walk to her childhood home. The sleet was getting heavier, large droplets of frozen water attacking her. She walked over to the taxi rank and got into the first one. Sod the expense, this was an emergency.

Abby glanced at her watch – she was late. She’d sent a guilty text to her mother, Susanna, to apologize: she’d had to stay on at the office and finish off some reports. She hadn’t really needed to, but she was so used to working all hours that she felt anxious when she wasn’t, a feeling exacerbated by the knowledge that she was going to her mother’s house for Christmas Day. Abby saw it as a feat of endurance.

She’d managed to duck out of it for the last few years, citing either a work trip or, once, so as not to hurt her mother’s feelings, she’d pretended that friends had invited her over, when in actual fact she’d spent the day alone in her flat. They’d sent texts wishing each other a happy Christmas. Her sister Ellie had taken a selfie of herself and Susanna with paper hats on, arms around each other, saying they missed her. Abby thought it unlikely.

As she walked up the road to her mother’s house she saw the familiar black gate, the lights on in the windows. She knew Ellie would already be there, her sister and mother gossiping over glasses of wine, heads bent conspiratorially. Whenever Abby came into the room, she always felt as if she was ruining their moment, as if she was guiltily tolerated. It was only thirty-six hours, Abby reminded herself as she fixed on a bright smile. She rang the bell, resolving to make an effort.

The door opened but instead of her mother, it was Ellie standing there. It was ridiculous but Abby immediately felt slighted, as if her mother couldn’t be bothered to welcome her.

‘You look wet,’ said Ellie.

The sleet was still pelting Abby but Ellie made no move to shift aside.

‘Well, let me in then,’ said Abby, as she stepped into the house and shook off her coat.

‘You should ask Mum for a key,’ said Ellie.

Abby didn’t feel as if she should have to. Ellie seemed to have had hers for years without ever having had to ask.

Her sister was glowing, as usual. Ellie leaned over to kiss her on the cheek.

‘Nice to see you,’ she said, and Abby felt the soft warmth of Ellie’s skin, smelled the high-quality shampoo in her lustrous blonde waves, just as she caught sight of her own reflection in the hall mirror: red nose and sleet-flattened hair.

Ellie had always been the one to draw the looks. On the rare occasions the two of them went out together, Abby felt very much in Ellie’s shadow, the invisible girl, while men fluttered around her sister like hummingbirds around nectar. She told herself it didn’t matter, that the men wouldn’t be the type she’d go for anyway, but when it happened every single time, it couldn’t help but bug her. And then there was that time Ellie had stepped well over the line, just after that boat trip they’d been on. Abby felt herself start to simmer and quickly put the resentment to the back of her mind. Now was not the moment to rake up old animosity.

‘It’s been a while,’ said Ellie dryly, and Abby was immediately reminded of how her sister had emailed some time ago suggesting they meet for dinner one night. Abby tried to remember all the conferences and board meetings that had taken place since then and thought it might have been back in the autumn. That was months ago, she realized and felt a pang of guilt.

‘Ah, Abby, it’s you,’ said Susanna, appearing from the kitchen with a glass of wine in her hand.

Who else would it be? thought Abby.

‘Hi, Mum. Thanks for having us.’

Susanna waved a hand in a gesture of generosity. ‘Oh, it’s a pleasure. You know I like to spend Christmas with my daughters.’ She beamed, but her eye contact was with Ellie, Abby noticed.

More wine was poured and a shop-prepared shepherd’s pie pulled out of the oven. They ate, catching up on news. Ellie had a colleague whom she didn’t much like, a woman called Zoe, who’d recently been promoted to trainee teacher.

‘What’s wrong with her?’ asked Abby.

‘She’s all targets and plans,’ said Ellie. ‘Teaching doesn’t come parcelled up like that.’

Abby secretly thought targets sounded like a good thing, but recognized she knew very little about teaching.

‘And she’s hardly been at the school – only a year. She doesn’t understand the kids yet, not properly.’

Her sister was clearly disgruntled. Abby decided to rally. ‘You should have gone for it yourself. You’ve worked as a teaching assistant there for years, haven’t you? And aren’t you covering loads of lessons single-handedly? Must have masses of experience over this new girl. I bet if you’d applied for the job you would have wiped the floor with her.’

Silence descended. Abby looked up from her dinner, saw her mother and sister watching her. Suddenly it dawned.

‘Oh. Sorry, I didn’t know.’

‘I didn’t want to just put it in an email,’ said Ellie pointedly. ‘I never know if you read them.’

Abby felt a wash of shame. She knew Ellie was talking about the fact they were meant to have met up. Abby had never replied.

‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘Work . . . there’s been a few changes,’ she stumbled, evasively. ‘It’s kept me more occupied than usual.’

‘What changes?’ asked Susanna.


‘You said there were changes?’

She had, damn it. Why hadn’t she thought before opening her big mouth? And now they were both looking at her again.

‘I, er . . . I had a promotion.’

‘Oh right,’ said Ellie. ‘What kind of promotion?’

‘I’ve, er . . . I’ve been made a director.’ Abby knew she sounded apologetic, and it rankled. She was over the moon about her new role, had worked so hard for it.

‘Congratulations,’ said Ellie eventually.

‘Thank you.’

‘Yes, congratulations, Abby. That’s great,’ said her mother breezily. ‘Now, who’s for dessert?’

Abby knew she wasn’t a child anymore and didn’t need her mother’s approval, but it still stung.

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