Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘Christmas Every Day’ by Beth Moran.
Christmas Every Day
When the house had been described as like something out of a fairy tale, I’d been picturing Snow White’s cottage, or a quaint gingerbread house (minus the evil witch, whom I’d left behind in Edinburgh), not a shrunken, grottier version of Sleeping Beauty’s derelict outhouse. And, in my storybook, there hadn’t been an old pram, two sagging armchairs and a turquoise toilet blocking the driveway.
I peered through the taxi window, trying to kid myself it would look better once I was out of the car. Or it had stopped raining. Or if I took my glasses off. The driver pulled up in front of a rusted mangle.
‘Could you get any closer to the door?’ I asked, tugging the zip a bit higher on my jacket.
He swivelled his head to look at me, one eyebrow raised.
‘What about parking on the lawn?’
‘That ain’t a lawn. It’s a jungle. I ain’t risking my tyres on that.’
I blew out a sigh, and unbuckled the seat belt.
What?’ My hand froze halfway to my purse. ‘We agreed thirty.’
‘That was before the ford, the mud pit and the overgrown branches scratching my paintwork. The car needs a full-on valet and the extra won’t even cover it. I’ve got standards to uphold.’
I cast my eyes around the faded upholstery, scuffed trimmings and air freshener designed as a topless woman.
‘You knew the address was on an unnamed road in the middle of a forest and you still said thirty.’ I tried to keep the tremble out of my voice. The extra twenty pounds might not pay for a car valet but it would help me not starve for the next couple of weeks.
‘I’m the only taxi-driver round ‘ere who’ll come out this far.’ He grinned. The big bad wolf. ‘I’m the only taxi full stop. If you want out of ‘ere any time soon, best stay in my good books.’ He tipped his head towards the house. ‘And, trust me, you won’t be wanting to ‘ang around.
‘Are you threatening me?’ I did my best to channel some of the experience I’d gained working for sharks who’d sell your own baby back to you, and straightened my shoulders. After enduring a lifetime of being treated like a worthless wimp, this was supposed to be a fresh start. The new, improved, over-it, Jenny.
I opened my purse, and deliberately placed three notes on the plastic ledge between the front and back seats. ‘I’m giving you the thirty pounds you asked for, and not a penny more.’
He curled up one side of his lip, leant towards me and growled. ‘Are you sure about that?’
Letting out a squeak, I unclasped my purse again. ‘And a tip! Of course. Here. I’ll make it twenty.’ Yanking open the door, I tumbled out into the freezing January rain, slipping and sliding round to the car boot. Hauling out my suitcase, followed by a rucksack, I stumbled out of the way just in time to avoid injury, but not a generous splattering of filthy spray from the revving wheels.
Wiping a smear of mud off my glasses with a sodden sleeve, I stared at my new home.
A semi-detached old woodsman’s cottage; the grey plaster frontage streaked with grime, slumped chimney and patchy roof confirmed it hadn’t worn the years well.
I squelched through the puddles, rucksack on my back, hand-me-down Mulberry suitcase dragging behind, and peered in through the ivy-smothered front window. Rummaging in my jacket pocket for the key, I gave up attempting to make out shapes in the gloom beyond.
‘Right. Might as well get it over with. Get out of this rain and put the kettle on.’ I wiped the worst of the dirt from the keyhole, congratulating myself for having had the foresight to have the utilities reconnected before I arrived, and forced the key in, slowly wiggling it until it unlocked.
I pushed against the door. Nothing. Not even a rattle.
Turning the key back to the original position, I tried again. As water ran in icy rivulets down my face and up my sleeves, I did everything I could to make the door budge. Pounding, shoulder-barging, kicking, taking a slippery running charge like the cops in films.
After a while, determined not to start crying, I dumped my luggage and precariously stepped along the front of the house to see if I could get around the back. No good. More bushes, the rain dripping off two-inch thorns. I glanced over at the adjoining cottage. There none of the windows were cracked and the garden didn’t look as though it had been abandoned by a rag-and-bone man. Hmm. Maybe I could sleep in there instead. Just for tonight. According to my mother, the whole building had lain empty for years. There wasn’t much demand for cottages in the middle of nowhere, unless done up as holiday lets, and no one wanted to holiday next door to a scrapheap.
I cautiously moved closer, trying to peek beyond the closed blinds, before looking through the letterbox, but the approaching dusk made it too dark to see. I tramped along a brick path around to the back; here things appeared much the same. A wooden picnic bench sat forlornly on a patch of weed-riddled gravel about six feet square. Beyond that, my half of the building was nearly hidden where the forest had encroached right up to the house in a twist of branches and brambles. I might be able to squeeze through to the back door. I should at least attempt to squeeze through to the back door.
But then again, it would probably rip my jeans, and this was the only pair that fitted. And if I scratched my face, it would be harder to find a job, and then how could I survive here? I probably didn’t even have any phone reception, so I couldn’t call anyone if I tripped on a stray root and impaled myself on the thorns. I quickly checked my phone (not wondering even for a second whether Richard had been trying to send me any grovelling messages admitting it was all a terrible mistake). See! No signal. It would be reckless and foolish to force my way into that tangle of spikes.
I shuddered. Glancing at the shadows looming around me, I imagined the kinds of animals that prowled Sherwood Forest once darkness fell. They’d find my broken body, drawn to fresh meat by the scent of blood leaking from a thousand puncture wounds. I wouldn’t stand a chance.
And even if I could call that taxi bloke for help, he probably wouldn’t come.
If only there were a dry, empty, nearby dwelling-place for me to take refuge in! Just to get me through the night, until the rain stopped. I stood, hesitant, and pondered whether I had the guts to go for it.
I didn’t ponder for long. I was too cold, wet, muddy, hungry and bone-shatteringly tired to care about the law. If I got arrested at least I’d have a dry place to sleep and, hopefully, some breakfast.
I hurried over to the cottage, said a quick prayer and tried the door. Locked. Taking a deep breath, I grabbed a stone and bashed it through the door’s frosted window.
Preparing to carefully poke my hand through the hole, I nearly severed my wrist when a pair of arms grabbed me from behind. Pulling me away from the door, the arms wrestled me over to the picnic table and pushed me down face first until my top half lay in the pool of water collecting on the surface.
‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ The man held me down with a hand on each shoulder, preventing me from seeing him. Okay, so with my eyes closed and glasses fallen off I wouldn’t have been able to anyway, but still. His voice sounded rough, and strong, and mad as hell.
I gasped, sucking in half a mouthful of rainwater from the tabletop, which I proceeded to choke on. As a frankly hideous retching sound emerged from my throat, the man quickly let go. ‘Woah. If you’re going to throw up, at least do it in the bushes, not on my bench.’
I heaved myself upright, and twisted around, one hand gripping the table, trying to stop my brain racing long enough to catch hold of a useful thought.
‘Yes. My bench. My broken pane of glass. My house. So, to repeat, what are you doing here?’
‘But nobody lives here,’ I managed to rasp. ‘The house is abandoned.’
‘Does it look abandoned?’ he asked, his voice getting louder.
‘Can’t see. Glasses.’ I felt around on the table in vain until he grunted in exasperation and bent down, before thrusting the rain-smeared glasses into my hand. I clutched them for a few raggedy breaths, a little scared to put them on and see the face matching that furious voice. It looked as bad as I had feared. Thick, dark eyebrows over eyes black with anger. And behind a bristling beard, a mouth twisted in disgust.
I glanced at the house, fear shoved aside as temper sparked, my constant bodyguard these days. ‘Yes. It does. No lights on. All overgrown. No car outside. And I was told nobody lived here.’
‘And who told you that?’ He folded his arms.
‘My mother. The previous owner of the other house.’
‘The owner died six years ago.’
‘Yes. So the house went to her daughter. My mother. And, as of last week, it belongs to me. Hence I have a key.’ I pulled the key out of my pocket and waved it at him.
‘If you have a key, what are you doing smashing my window?’
‘I couldn’t get the door open.’
He raised his eyebrows, waiting for more.
‘So, I came around the back. But I couldn’t get to the door. And it’s nearly dark, everything I’m wearing is sopping wet. And the taxi driver stole my money…’ I took a long, deep breath. I would not cry in front of this man. I had vowed never to let a man think I was a pushover again. Come on, Jenny, buck up.
I nodded, wiping a raindrop off my nose.
He sighed. ‘The front door won’t open from the outside. I’ll hack a path to the back and you can at least get out of the rain. Call round in the morning and I’ll give you the name of a decent taxi firm before you go.’
‘Back to wherever you came from.’
I gaped at him for a moment, vaguely registering that the rain had begun to ease, the background percussion replaced with the slow plop of water dripping off leaves, and the hiss of steam escaping both my ears.
‘I’m not going anywhere. I live here now.’
He looked me up and down. ‘Trust me. You’ll be leaving in the morning. If you last that long.’ He nodded towards a brick outbuilding tucked under an oak tree. ‘I’ll get hacking. But if the rain starts again I’m stopping to board up my window.’
‘Actually, it’s fine. Thank you. I can do my own hacking. I apologise about your window. Do send me the bill. Good day.’
I marched as best I could back around the house, only losing my shoe once in the mud.
‘Okay, Fairy Godmother. I reckon right about now would be a perfect time for you to show up.’ I scanned the woods, struggling to make out anything in the deepening gloom. After a good ten minutes pulling branches aside, stamping them out of the way and ripping my hands to shreds in the process, I found a shed.
It took only a few tries to smash the wood, encircling the lock, to bits using a thick branch and the force of my anger. Nicely warmed up, somewhat exhilarated by my discovery, I stepped inside. Maybe a teensy bit unnerved by my neighbour’s comments about only lasting a night, I decided to put off investigating the house until morning. In front of me appeared to be an excellent place to unroll my sleeping bag and seek a very welcome oblivion.
I awoke to the sound of scuffling. Something brushed against my cheek. Even with my eyes closed, I could sense the presence of something other. Fumbling for my glasses, I heard another scratching, skittering noise. Blood pounding in my skull, I carefully put my glasses on, and snapped my eyes open.
It was not easy to scramble away from a swarm of giant, rabid, red-eyed rats while locked inside a Mini Cooper. Some flailing, screeching, howling and a lot of garbled gibberish accompanied my desperate attempt to find the unlock button, push past the rat on the seat next to me, fall out onto the concrete shed floor, entangle myself in a sea of cobwebs, trip over my suitcase, fling open the shed door, fight my way through the bushes that had magically sprung back during the night, rip out a sizeable chunk of hair on a branch, and collapse on the frozen earth.
Three seconds later a rat sprinted four inches past my face and disappeared into the shadows.
Thirty seconds later, I was still wheezing like broken bagpipes when my world turned dark as something loomed in front of me, blocking out the early morning sun.
And no prizes for guessing what – or who – that was, considering there were only two human beings to be found for several square miles.
I couldn’t see his face, having lost my glasses once more, but could hear his irritation. ‘Do you need help?’
I pulled myself upright, tugging down the three jumpers I’d worn to avoid freezing to death while sleeping in a car. Smoothing my hair off my face, I dislodged a twig, a couple of oak leaves and a massive beetle. Summoning up my last reserves of strength, I managed not to squeal again, merely gasping like a fish a few times while shaking my head to check nothing else lurked up there.
‘I’m fine, thank you. I… slipped in a puddle. I couldn’t see it, because I’d lost my glasses.’
As I finished speaking, he handed them to me for the second time.
Placing them firmly on my nose, I straightened my spine, daring him to disbelieve me.
‘You lost your glasses walking out of a shed?’
I stared right into his eyes, which looked chocolate brown in the wintry sunlight. ‘Yes.’
‘You slept in there?’
‘That’s my business.’
Shaking his head slightly, he began to walk away. ‘That’s great. I don’t want to know your business. I’ve got better things to do than come to your rescue every five minutes. How about next time you fall over, you do it a bit more quietly?’
‘Next time, how about ignoring me? I didn’t ask you to come to my rescue.’
‘Fine. That’s a deal. You’re obviously perfectly capable of taking care of yourself.’
‘Yes. I am. What made you think I wasn’t? The fact I have breasts and long hair means I need taking care of?’ I shouted after him.
He turned, frowning. ‘I can’t say I’d noticed. But you’re right. People lose their glasses and slip in dry puddles while walking out of sheds all the time. Good day.’
I watched him stride away, non-existent retorts dissolving in my throat. Turning around to confirm that, yep, all trace of last night’s puddles had dried up in the sunshine, I brushed a straggle of cobweb off my jeans and prepared to re-enter the shed to get my bags.
It was only later that I registered that the man had worn no shoes and carried a cricket bat. He really had been coming to save me. No, thanks. The whole reason I was here was to prove to my family, my ex-work colleagues, the slime-ball Richard, and mostly myself that I could take care of myself. Which I would start doing that very day. Once I’d found somewhere to empty my bladder and get a decent cup of coffee.
* * *
The car didn’t leave much room in the shed for anything else but hung up around the walls were some gardening tools, various other pieces of worn-out clutter and an ancient-looking black bike. As I had no key for the car (thankfully I had found it unlocked, avoiding the need to break another window) I decided the bike would be the best way to reach civilisation before I died from caffeine withdrawal.
To my great relief, despite the oil, rust and flabby tyres, the bike was still rideable. I creaked along, feeling like a community nurse from the nineteen fifties, following the frosty track back towards the lane and eventually the village beyond. After a few minutes, I spied a footpath leading off the track and into the forest, with a signpost pointing to Middlebeck, two miles away.
Heaving the handlebars around, I followed the dirt path. Initially, it felt quite pleasant lumbering along between the trees. The only sounds were the cheeping of birds, or the whistle of the wind in the evergreens. The forest floor was still thick with autumn leaves – every colour from pale yellow through coppers and purples to rich mahogany. There were holly bushes laden with berries, fat and glistening in the pale sunlight. A robin hopped along the bushes beside me for a while.
I tossed my hair in defiance at my new neighbour’s prediction that I’d be leaving so soon. This was great. I’d grab a coffee, wander around the village, ask in a few shops about any work… Maybe a coffee shop – or, no, a tea room – would need a waitress. I could sort the cottage out in my spare time, get to know some of the locals, find the key to the Mini. Everything was going to turn out splendidly.
If I could only reach Middlebeck, which was seeming more and more unlikely as the last remains of air squished out of my back tyre, and I was now bumping and wobbling along on the rims of the wheels, probably soon to be overtaken by the snail I’d passed earlier. Clambering off, I propped the bike against a large oak tree and continued on foot, sure I must have covered two miles, and the village would appear just around the next corner.
Three corners later, I saw a gate up ahead. And – was it a mirage caused by fifteen hours without caffeine, or could I smell freshly ground coffee?
Hurrying through the gate, I emerged into a large clearing. It offered space to park twenty cars or so, several picnic tables, a large noticeboard displaying a map and, to my joy and relief, a brick building with a sign that read ‘The Common Café’ and a loo.
I took a few minutes to wash my face and dab at the worst of the grot on my clothes with a paper towel. Hot water – bliss! I then scanned the chalk-board menu displayed beside a hatch designed to serve customers eating outside.
‘What can I get you?’ the young woman on the other side of the hatch asked.
I ordered a large Americano and a mega-breakfast cob. I wasn’t sure what a cob was, but I needed the mega.
‘Were you here for New Year?’ The woman stepped back to throw a sausage onto a griddle.
‘No. I’ve just moved here.’
She twisted back around to look at me, a streaky slice of bacon dangling from her fingers. ‘Middlebeck? I didn’t hear anyone new’d moved in.’
Wow. Mum had warned me it was a place where everybody knew everything about everybody else. How small was the village? Was this clearing Middlebeck?
‘No. A cottage in the forest.’
She glanced over my shoulder at the footpath I’d approached from, cracking two eggs onto the griddle one-handed. ‘Charlotte Meadows’ place? Mack never said. But then, he wouldn’t.’
I nodded vaguely, pretending to be engrossed in taking the lid off my coffee-cup and clicking it on again. Not sure whether to feel pleased, upset or embarrassed that a stranger in a café window had just told me my grandmother’s name.
‘You must like a challenge, taking that on.’ She grabbed the biggest bread roll I’d ever seen and deftly placed the bacon, sausage and eggs inside, adding a slice of beef tomato and another of cheese, followed by a squirt of ketchup.
‘Thanks.’ I swapped the mega-breakfast cob for a handful of coins, and took a moment to figure out how to eat it.
‘You met Mack?’
‘Mmm?’ I said, around a mouthful of salty bacon and a burst of sweet tomato. With a loud gurgle, my shrivelled stomach declared this a meal better than any I’d tasted in Edinburgh’s fanciest restaurants.
‘Bit of a mystery man, isn’t he? But, hey, living so close, maybe you’ll crack that rough exterior. Succeed where every single woman round here failed.’ She leant on the counter, gazing off into the distance. ‘You could start by borrowing his tools, asking him to steady the ladder while you paint the ceiling, or help carry out the old oven. Get to know each other a bit better, if you know what I mean.’
‘Urr… I’m not looking to know anyone a bit better.’
‘Oh.’ She stood up again, and briskly began flicking crumbs off the counter with her cloth. ‘I’ll leave you to your breakfast, then.’
‘No. I didn’t mean you. I meant, not any men. Not like that.’ She pursed her lips, still flicking. I panicked, having seemingly offended the first person I’d met beside the neighbour – Mack – with whom I wasn’t exactly off to a good start. ‘I’d like to get to know you better.’
She raised one eyebrow. ‘Oh? Is that what you tell all the girls?’
‘Yes. No! I mean, I don’t know anyone here yet. It’d be nice to make some friends.’
‘Really?’ She stared over my shoulder, wisely dismissing me as the social freak I had revealed myself to be. Help, Jenny! This woman seems to know everyone. Pull it back, or the whole village’ll hear you’re bonkers and no one will give you a job. She wants to talk about men. Give her something! Think of some girls’ talk.
‘I’ve just come out of a bad break-up.’ I spoke louder than necessary, trying to regain her attention. ‘It was pretty hideous. Broken heart, betrayed by a close relative, publicly humiliated, blah blah blah. So, I’m off men for at least a decade. Including my neighbour. Mack, you said? Is that an actual name?’
She looked back at me, widening her eyes to near circles. Was it working? I was far from fluent in Girl. Keep going, Jenny!
‘I know! I suppose he’s not bad-looking, underneath the scowling, and the chauvinistic, wild-man-of-the-woods vibe. But I’m not interested in getting to know any men. Even if they do have eyes like a steamy mug of hot chocolate. So, if Mack likes to keep himself to himself, we’ll be perfect neighbours.’
‘Good to know.’ An unmistakeable growl came from behind me.
I froze, holding up the mega-cob I’d been using to emphasise the point, like a ventriloquist’s puppet. Okay, so the round eyes and strange look were Girl for ‘Shut up! The man you are simultaneously complimenting and insulting, but in both cases discussing like a hunk of meat, is right behind you!’
‘All right, Mack?’ the woman said, cheeks flaming.
I inched around, trying to cover my face with my purchases. Keeping my eyes firmly on the ground so all I saw was a pair of tatty running shoes, I scuttled off. How much did he hear? At the edge of the trees, I glanced back to see Mack, dressed in running gear, being asked if he wanted his usual order.
‘No, thanks, Sarah. I suddenly feel in the mood for hot chocolate.’
Breakfast eaten, perched on a tree stump, my humiliation dissolving in the glow of sunshine, I wheeled the bike back to the cottage with renewed vigour, itching to get inside and away from Mack as soon as possible. A search of my shed revealed a small hacksaw, about ten inches long and not even that rusty, so I got straight to work.
Two hours later, after I’d hacked, chopped, grappled with and stomped on a few of the thinner branches, the blade snapped. I hunted through the shed again, but the only other thing I could find that would be of the slightest use was a spade. Maybe I could dig a path to the door? It was only a few metres. And that would save time in the long run, as this way the bushes wouldn’t grow back. Excellent plan, Jenny! Everything is turning out awesomely.
Two hours after that, as I wrestled a small bush out of the ground, having dug a hole big enough to bury myself in, a prospect more appealing with every aching movement, Mack’s back door opened. I quickly picked up the spade again, putting all my fake attention on digging.
‘Tunnelling your way in?’ He stood there, in a grey hoodie and faded jeans, the trainers swapped for thick socks. I ignored how the muscles in his forearms flexed as he leant on the doorframe and crossed his arms. Not interested.
‘Surprised to see me still here?’ I said, trying not to grunt while attacking another root.
His beard twitched. I think that might have been a smile. ‘You haven’t been inside yet.’
Something burned hot in my stomach. ‘I’m not a quitter.’ Not any more.
‘Would you like a hand?’
‘Why, because the quicker I’m in, the quicker I’ll be gone? No, thanks. I can manage.’
Really, Jenny, are you sure about that? Do you want all the blisters on your hand to merge together into one giant, festering sore?
‘How about borrowing my saw?’
‘If I dig the plants out, it’ll save me having to do it later.’
Accept the saw, you stupid, stubborn goat!
‘Maybe. But at this rate you’ll be sleeping in the shed again.’ His eyes glittered with humour.
I said nothing, an internal battle raging between my current loathing of all men and my need to get to the blasted back door before dark.
‘I’m fine.’ Och, Jenny. This man is not Richard. Stop acting like a cow. ‘Thank you.’
‘Your choice.’ He nodded, once, and went back inside. It was only then I wondered if he was trying to laugh with, not at, me.
I thought about the rats’ eyes, gleaming in the shadows, and promised myself I’d not stop digging until I was in the darn cottage. An hour later, I broke my promise. Exhausted, hungry, fingers numb with cold, feeling slightly deranged at the stress of my predicament, I walked the forty-five minutes through the woods back to the café, just in time to find Sarah closing up. She topped up my bottle of water and, after I drained it in one, refilled it. I also bought a banana and a slab of chocolate, eating them both on the way back.
I returned to find a huge, shiny saw propped up against one of the bushes, which looked decidedly less bushy than when I’d left. Glancing up at the ominous clouds now rolling in across the late afternoon sky, I swallowed the last piece of chocolate, along with my pride, and picked up the saw.
The blade snapped off on the second to last branch. But, as the first drops of sleet began to fall, I had no energy left to worry about that just then. Squeezing my way through the remaining spikes, I finally entered my new home.
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