Authors: Michele Gorman
Tags: #novella, #Sophie Kinsella, #wedding, #single in the city, #Jenny Colgan, #Christmas, #bestselling, #nick spalding, #top 100, #love, #London, #best-seller, #women's fiction, #humour, #Chrissie Manby, #chick lit, #relationships, #romance, #talli roland, #ruth saberton, #humor, #bestseller, #Scarlett Bailey, #romantic comedy, #holiday, #romantic
The Reluctant Elf
Copyright © 2014 Michele Gorman
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission of the publisher.
Also by Michele Gorman
The Curvy Girls Club
The Expat Diaries: Single in the City
The Expat Diaries: Misfortune Cookie
The Expat Diaries: Twelve Days to Christmas
Bella Summer Takes a Chance
Weightless (a Romantic Comedy Short Story)
I know I’m dreaming by the way the gorgeous young man holds my hand and gazes into my eyes. A real man hasn’t looked at me with such devotion since the time I reprogrammed my friend’s husband’s PlayStation.
Just as the dream man leads me from the pub table into his bedroom next door – what the hell, it’s my dream, right? – and I start wondering if I’ve dream-shaved my legs, his mobile begins to ring.
‘Are you going to get that?’
‘Get what?’ he murmurs into my hair. ‘I don’t hear anything.’
‘Your phone is ringing.’
Aggravation starts nibbling at my ardour as the ringing grows louder.
‘I don’t hear it.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake.’ I can’t even get any peace and quiet in my own imagination.
But there is no dream man and his phone isn’t ringing.
My landline is.
I glance at the bedside alarm clock. 1.36am. The hour of emergencies and booty calls. My booty hadn’t been called since Tony Blair was Prime Minister, so my quickening pulse is panic, not passion.
‘Hello?’ My voice comes out oatmeal-thick.
‘Is this Lottie Crisp?’
‘Yes.’ The panic intensifies. Mabel. Is it Mabel? No. She’s sound asleep in the other room. At least I think she is.
‘This is Doctor Lonergan at Glan Clwyd hospital in Bodelwyddan.’
As the woman continues talking I run with the phone to my daughter’s door and push it open. Her little body hardly makes a bump under her Spiderman duvet. One socked foot sticks out over the edge. Unlike me, Mabel has no fear of monsters under the bed or anywhere else. I could learn a thing or two from my seven-year-old.
Of course I want to pounce on her, but sleeping dogs and children are best left undisturbed.
‘I’m afraid there’s been an accident involving your Aunt Kate,’ Dr Lonergan says. ‘Her car went off the road the day before yesterday. We’ve been trying to reach her family and just now got your details.’
‘I’m her only family.’ The rushing in my ears threatens to drown out her voice. ‘Is she dead?’
‘No, she’s alive, in Intensive Care. Can you come?’
‘Not until morning. The next train to Wales won’t be until morning.’
‘Come as soon as you can,’ she says. ‘We’ve induced a coma to help her body recover.’
This can’t be happening again.
Aunt Kate is the liveliest person I’ve ever known. Though I’d have said that about my parents too and look how they ended up.
It’s still dark when I creep into Mabel’s room early the next morning.
‘Sugarpea?’ I rub her duvet-warm back and listen for her breathing to change. ‘Mabel? Wake up.’
She inhales one long breath and exhales her objection. ‘Not yet, Mummy.’
‘I’m sorry, we have to get up extra-early this morning. We get to go to Wales today.’ I shudder to think about everything that won’t get done now before we leave.
At least Celine packed Mabel’s bag before she flew to the Philippines for her own Christmas holiday. She knew I’d most likely bring Mabel to Wales with fifteen jumpers, her favourite blue tutu and no socks. Without Celine watching over us, we’d be on first name terms with social services by now.
‘But we don’t leave for two days,’ says Mabel, rubbing her eyes with the back of her hand.
‘We have to go early.’
She sits up. ‘I can’t, Mummy. I have other plans.’
‘I know Theresa’s birthday is tomorrow but this is important.’ She’s been looking forward to her best friend’s party for nearly a month. ‘You can still ring her to wish her happy birthday.’
My daughter’s jaw sets. Whenever she does that I see her father.
It’s the only time I ever see him.
‘Please, Mabel, don’t make this difficult. Now get up and brush your teeth. We have to leave in twenty minutes to make our train.’
‘I’m not going!’ She throws the duvet over her head. ‘I told you I have other plans.’
‘You are going, young lady, so get up and brush your teeth. I’ll pack us some breakfast for the train. Come on. Now!’
‘You’re a terrible Mummy!’ she cries. ‘And I hope that one day a big hairy monster comes and flushes you down the loo.’
I can’t smile. I’ll lose this battle if I do. That’s lesson number one in controlling a child. I just wish I knew what lesson number two through infinity are.
‘Well, until I’m flushed away you’re stuck with me.’ I yank the duvet down and kiss her soft blonde hair. ‘Teeth brushed please, and I’ll explain everything when we’re on the train.
I need some time to find a way to explain that what I told her three years ago might be a lie.
We board the 7.15 to Rhyl at Euston Station with just a few other passengers. It’s still four days before Christmas and most people will have to work tomorrow to wrap up before they go off for the holidays.
I’ve emailed my boss to tell him I’m leaving early. As a software developer he’s best communicated with in binary code but I didn’t have time to write a programme that said Sorry-I’m-leaving-my-project-unfinished-but-my-family-is-more-important-than-the-latest-war-game-for-children. Maybe animated with a dancing paperclip. It won’t be the first time we’ve missed a deadline, or the first time I’ve disappointed him. Luckily he’s a patient man.
Mabel is in a slightly better mood by the time we find our seats. ‘I can’t wait to see Aunt Kate!’ she says. ‘Do you think she’ll have Welsh cakes for us when we arrive? I could just
a Welsh cake.’
That child sponges up everything I say. Mimicry is supposed to be the sincerest form of flattery but it’s not. It’s the surest form of reproach when it makes your seven-year-old sound like she’s twenty-seven.
I remind myself, again, to watch what I say in front of her.
‘We’re going early because we need to see Aunt Kate in the hospital.’
‘Is she there getting her nose refreshed?’
When I went with my friend for moral support to her nose job surgery last year, I told Mabel she was going in to freshen up her nose.
‘No, Aunt Kate’s nose is just fine the way it is.’ I hope that’s still true. ‘She’s in the hospital because she’s had an accident.’
‘Not in that house I hope? It’s a death trap.’
I cringe at my words parroted back at me. ‘No, in a car.’
Her eyes widen. ‘Like Granny and Grandad?’ she whispers. ‘You said it wouldn’t happen again.’
‘No, no! Not like them. The doctor said that Aunt Kate is still—’ Alive, I almost say. ‘She’s in the hospital and the doctors are doing everything they can to make her better so she can spend Christmas with us.’
Mabel slumps against me. ‘I was scared. I’m glad she’s all right.’
Then she straightens up. ‘Can I give her my Christmas present early? That might cheer her up.’
Finally, the tears come and I look out the window so Mabel won’t see them. I’m not sure I can go through this again.
It had been early morning when the doctor called from the A&E in Australia. That made it late evening there, but the doctor hadn’t had to search for my contact details that time. Mum and Dad had everything neatly written in a small notebook in Mum’s handbag. They were careful people like that.
‘Is this Lottie Crisp?’
As soon as I heard the man’s bouncy accent I knew something was wrong.
It was my parents’ dream holiday to spend a month touring around Australia. I knew their itinerary off by heart. A week in Sydney, then a flight to Melbourne where they’d visit some friends, then a two-week drive through the outback.
‘Miss Crisp,’ said the man as I braced myself. His laid back accent didn’t fool me. ‘There’s been an accident involving your parents. I’m terribly sorry.’
I only half-heard the rest of what he said. The outback, drunk driver, Mum killed instantly and Dad dead on arrival at the hospital. Could I come?
I had to bring their bodies back to England. That was the worst part of the first few days, travelling on that plane knowing my parents were lying in the hold with all the holidaymakers’ luggage.
Aunt Kate came to stay with Mabel so that I could go. We’d had just a few hours together before I had to leave for Heathrow. Despite the fact that it was her only brother who’d died, and her beloved sister-in-law, she was as rock-solid as the Welsh cakes she made for Mabel’s tea.
‘I would do anything to take this pain away, my sweet Lottie, anything,’ she said as she pulled me to her ample bosom with the grip of a Sumo wrestler. ‘I’m here for you, do you understand? Whatever you need, I’m here for you, my darling girl. We’ll get through this together, you, me and Mabel.’
We did get through it, together, though I’ve had more than a few harsh words since then for whoever decides our fates.
If they now think they’re going to take my Aunt Kate too, they’ve got another thing coming. We Crisps are tough as old boots.
Our journey to Rhyl is smooth but my mind skitters from one horrific scenario to another. What will I find when we get to the hospital? If only I could rewind the past seventy-two hours and keep Aunt Kate safely off the road. She’s got the eyesight of a disorientated mole and should never have been driving anyway. Had everything gone to plan, Mabel and I would be arriving in two days’ time, ready to enjoy our first Welsh countryside Christmas with Aunt Kate at her B&B.
She’s run the business since before Mabel was born but always shuts up between Christmas and New Year’s so she can travel to London to stay with us.
This year though, Aunt Kate has to take in paying guests for the holidays. It’s the last thing she wants to do but there’s the small matter of her bank manager to consider. It’s always hard to pin Aunt Kate down on details but something about her loan being dependent on the B&B getting a certain rating by the end of the year means that she has to host the reviewer over Christmas. So Mabel and I said we’d bring the Crisp family Christmas to her instead.
That was the idea anyway.
My mood matches the weather by the time the train pulls into Rhyl station. We’re the only passengers to exit the two-carriage train and through the slanting rain I can see that it’s a typical out-of-season Victorian resort town. Ornate ironwork, with its paintwork tattooed with rust from the sea air, supports a glass roof. Come summer the beachfront probably bustles with swim-suited families, burnt to a crisp and ready to eat their own weight in Welsh rock and candyfloss.
I tuck Mabel’s scarf into her collar and pull my coat more tightly around me.
‘This is where Aunt Kate lives?’ she asks.
‘No, I think she’s about fifteen miles from here in an area called Snowdonia.’
‘Will there be snow there?’
‘It feels cold enough but I don’t think so, not where the B&B is anyway. Maybe up in the mountains.’
‘Are we going there now?’
‘Not yet. We need to go see her at the hospital first, remember?’
A lone car sits with its taxi light on at the front of the station.
The driver gets out to load our bags in the boot, hugging his huge sheepskin coat more tightly around his tall frame. He’s dishevelled in a way that would shout “hipster” in London, but something about his stained jeans and ancient boots tells me that his stubble and too-long dark hair aren’t meant to be fashion statements.