Read on for an exclusive extract of Let It Snow by Beth Moran
‘To summarise, Poppy Walton, you can tell Mum that a new sledge will definitely come in handy tomorrow afternoon. Maura Kelly, I’d hold off on booking those ferry tickets home, you’ll be struggling to reach Holyhead by Christmas Eve. And for everyone who’s asked, I’m not a betting woman, but even I’d be tempted to stake my stocking on the snow lasting until Christmas. So, get your shovels ready, allow extra time on the roads and keep an eye out for each other. I’m heading home for the holidays until the twenty-ninth, but you’ll be in Summer Collins’ capable hands until then. This is Bea Armstrong wishing you all a magical, merry Christmas.’
I kept my smile in place for those awkward few seconds until the camera cut, at which point my forehead immediately furrowed at the reminder that I’d be spending Christmas with my family. Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas. I love my family more than life itself. But combine the two together and, well, let’s just say that I’d be packing my migraine medication.
As I approached my desk a few minutes later, the phone began ringing right on cue.
‘Mrs Lewinski,’ Sondra, the receptionist, said in the exact same drone she used every day at six forty-five.
‘Mrs L,’ I chirruped. ‘What can I do for you?’
‘Good evening, Bea,’ the reedy voice rasped. ‘A lovely broadcast as always. However, I’m a little concerned about my parsnips…’
Today it was her vegetables, yesterday it was whether she needed to ask the ‘nice young man’ next door to de-ice the garden path. Mrs Lewinski phoned the television studio most days at six forty-five on the dot and asked for her own personal weather report. I was happy to give it to her. Not just because part of my presenting style included answering individual questions from the viewers at the end of each broadcast, or because I knew I might well have been the only person she’d spoken to all day. But also because the weather was quite simply my obsession, and I would willingly talk about it in great detail to anyone who’d listen.
As soon as I’d ended the call, another one came through. Walter Pirbright.
‘You got it wrong again.’
I paused, the phone tucked under my chin so I could pack up my things at the same time. ‘Oh?’ Walter was a local farmer. He contacted me no more than once a month, every time to correct what he considered to be an inaccurate forecast.
‘The snow’ll be here tonight. A couple of hours, I’d say.’
Various arguments popped into my head about why he was wrong, and the data clearly showed that the snow wouldn’t reach Nottinghamshire until the early hours of the morning. I bit my tongue. In two years, Walter had been wrong once.
‘If you’re planning on getting home tonight, I’d not hang about, and if you’ve plans for tomorrow, cancel ’em.’
The phone rang off before I had a chance to reply. I was mulling this new information over while checking my desk for anything I might have forgotten when Jamal sauntered over. Jamal was a broadcasting engineer and my closest friend at work. ‘Great forecast. Letting all your obsessed fans know where you’ll be for the next week.’ He assumed his usual position, compact frame perching on the corner of my desk, hands pushed into the pockets of his skinny chinos.
I rolled my eyes, pulling a turquoise duffel coat over the Fair Isle knitted jumper dress I’d worn to embrace the festive season. ‘Telling viewers that I’m going home is not quite handing out my address.’
‘It’s not hard to find out where your parents live.’
‘Maybe by “home” I meant my own home, where a gorgeous partner, adorable twins, and stinky dog will ensure a perfect Christmas.’ I leant past him to pick up my travel mug.
Jamal smiled. He was the one with a stunningly beautiful wife, four-year-old girls, and a perfectly groomed Pomeranian called Stinker. ‘I think it’s pretty obvious you live alone.’
‘What?’ I paused to look at him. While I was proud of how much I enjoyed living alone, I wasn’t sure Jamal was paying me a compliment. ‘How is it obvious?’
He shrugged. ‘If you shared with someone they’d never let you leave the house wearing those tights.’
‘Oh, shut up!’ My tights were covered in glittery snowflakes and I loved them even more than the matching earrings now tangled up in the dark bob brushing my shoulders.
We were both still laughing when the air turned frigid, which usually signalled – somewhat ironically – that Summer had arrived in the vicinity.
‘Ooh, care to share the joke?’ she trilled, popping out from behind Jamal with a flick of her blonde extensions.
‘Just general merriment at the knowledge that I won’t be spending Christmas here for once.’ I grinned back.
‘Gosh, Bea. I really admire how you manage to feel so secure in your career! If it was me, after so many performance hiccups I’d be terrified that abandoning my fans on such a crucial weather week would risk having no job to come back to in the new year. Your confidence is amazing!’
‘With popularity ratings like Bea’s, I don’t think she has anything to worry about,’ Jamal said, assuming a blandly pleasant expression as he pushed off from the desk and walked away.
As the main weather presenter for our local, East Midlands news, I covered most of the lunchtime and early evening news programmes as well as updating the website and apps and writing any additional weather-related stories. When a few months ago Summer had joined the team straight out of drama school, I’d imagined we’d develop some sort of mentor-mentee relationship where I passed on my meteorological expertise, gained from an environmental studies degree, a year training at the Met Office, and a lifelong passion.
She’d be grateful for the time and investment I was willing to offer, and we’d swiftly become friends. Fellow women cheering each other on in the cut-throat world of broadcasting.
That wasn’t quite how things had turned out.
While I wanted to blame Summer’s passive-aggressive snarkiness on her five a.m. starts, I suspected it was more of a basic personality trait than unsociable work hours.
And as for the recent performance ‘hiccups’? They were nothing to do with my ability to provide weather reports. My aim was to make people feel as though I were a friend who’d popped round to tell them exactly what they needed to know about the forecast, and my popularity ratings showed how much viewers appreciated my answering their queries live on air. But after I’d broken up with my boyfriend Adam in June, my organisational skills had taken a hit. I’d missed a couple of important meetings and got the wrong deadline for a feature on local flooding. While my producer had initially been understanding about my eleven-year relationship coming to an abrupt end, I had been firmly informed last month that I had Christmas week off to rest with the proviso that I’d be returning back to my ‘old self’.
While no one who’d met my family would consider a week at Charis House anything close to restful, someone did once say that a change was as good as a rest, and it was certainly nothing like my usual life.
‘I guess you’d better be off, then,’ Summer said. ‘Wouldn’t want you to get caught in the snowstorm.’
‘The snow won’t hit us for at least a couple of hours,’ I said, deferring to Walter’s prediction. ‘Why are you here, anyway? Didn’t you leave straight after lunch?’
It was then that I noticed her outfit. While I tended to push the boundaries of the dress code with fun, personal touches like flowery headscarves or, as in today’s case, the snowflake tights, Summer stuck to shift dresses and suits. This evening she was in a silver sheath dress with a neckline that dipped below her ribcage in a sharp V and a hemline revealing several inches of toned thigh. Because I tried to avoid looking her in the face, I’d also not spotted the sweep of dark eyeliner and fake lashes, or the scarlet pout.
Before she could answer, there was a general straightening of postures and quietening down of conversations as Mike Long, the studio head, strode through the newsroom doors. Summer immediately glided over to him. For a stunned second I thought they must have a date. I would have considered that none of my business except that our main newsreader worked on Reception until Mike took a fancy to her, and Summer’s comment about my job security came back to slap me in the face.
‘Right, I’ve not got long but this one has persuaded me to buy the first round,’ he boomed across the room before throwing a wink at Summer. ‘So are we ready to hit the town and party like it’s almost Christmas?’
There was a flurry of laptops being signed off and coats and bags grabbed as my colleagues, who all seemed to know what was happening, hurried to join Mike and Summer by the entrance. Jamal wandered back over to my desk. At some point in the past few minutes he’d slipped into a smart jacket and added a reindeer tie.
‘Ready for what?’ I asked, a snowball of dread gaining momentum as it rolled through my intestines.
‘Christmas drinks.’ Jamal frowned. ‘With the boss.’
‘I… I wasn’t invited.’
‘Bea, everyone was invited. Part of the whole new team-building strategy. We had a reminder email this morning. “Do not forget. We expect to see all of you there. No excuses.”’
As unrealistic as it was to assume that the entire newsroom was invited apart from me, the main weather broadcaster, who people seemed to mostly get along with, old habits die hard. The sight of everyone gathering without me sent a hundred horrible memories stampeding through my brain, crushing my self-esteem underfoot as they went.
‘Don’t tell me – another missing email?’ Jamal flashed a look at Summer, currently linking arms with Mike as she threw back her head and laughed in full flirt mode. Jamal had a theory that Summer was sabotaging my calendar, intercepting my emails in an attempt to get me fired so she could slither into the top job. I preferred to believe that my head was still recovering from the roller coaster that was my love-life, rather than anyone I worked with being capable of something so malicious. My upbringing at Charis House had instilled in me the need to see the best in everyone, even when they failed to see much at all in me. Besides, I was pretty sure Summer barely knew how to send an email, let alone hack into one.
‘Well, you can still come along, no harm done.’
‘Except I can’t. My train leaves in an hour.’
‘So catch the next one.’
‘The next one is at ten. If I wait for that I’ll miss the last bus to Hatherstone.’
While in some ways I agreed with my parents that Charis House had the perfect location, our family base being in the heart of Sherwood Forest had its drawbacks, especially when I didn’t have a car. It was yet another reason to put off my visits home.
‘Couldn’t you get a taxi?’
‘I’m not sure it’s worth it.’
‘It can’t be that much?’
‘I don’t mean the cost. Although finding someone to drive me out there would make a serious dent in my budget.’ I grimaced. ‘Mum’s organised a big family meal for this evening. She’s checked a dozen times that I’m not going to cancel. If I miss it she’ll be furious, Dad will start crying, and my brother won’t let me hear the end of it. I can’t do that to them.’
Mike Long waved at us impatiently. ‘Jamal, Bree? Come on, the complimentary canapés are waiting.’
‘Yes, do stop standing around making everyone wait for you, Bree,’ Summer added, gleefully reminding us all that after four years my boss still couldn’t remember my name.
‘Just come for one drink,’ Jamal said quietly. ‘Disappointing your mum has to be better than snubbing the boss.’
‘Easy for you to say,’ I mumbled, looping my scarf around my neck as I started walking to join the rest of the team. ‘You’ve never met my mum.’
* * *
I was forty-five minutes late by the time the taxi finally pulled away from my garden flat in West Bridgford, a popular suburb in south Nottingham, and therefore the opposite side to where I needed to be. I’d followed Jamal’s advice, staying at the bar long enough to ensure that Mike registered my presence before slipping out through the increasingly raucous crowd. Having jumped on the next bus home, I’d stuffed a suitcase full of the nearest clothes and other essentials to hand and grabbed the bulging bag of presents waiting by the door on my way out.
We were still sitting in the clog of city-centre traffic when my phone rang.
‘Beatrice, where are you?’
‘I’m sorry, we had a thing at work that I needed to stay for, so I missed the train.’
A sharp intake of breath.
‘Don’t worry! I’m in a taxi, on my way. I’ll be there in about…’ I did some mental calculations, winced internally and adjusted them to prevent a Mum-meltdown ‘…half an hour.’
‘Well, I hope you’ve had time to get changed! You know this is a special evening. I did request that you look nice.’
‘Don’t I always look nice?’ I asked, tugging on my woolly dress.
‘Well, yes, but we are entertaining guests, so I want everyone to look their best.’
‘I’d hardly call Jed, Mia, and the kids guests.’
‘It’s your first Christmas at home in years.’
‘Mum, my home is in Nottingham. And there hasn’t been a single Christmas I didn’t see you.’
‘Dropping in for an hour on Boxing Day hardly counts.’ She paused, no doubt to crank up the guilt-o-meter. ‘I just don’t want you to feel out of place or underdressed.’
‘If only you’d decided that twenty years ago.’ My childhood wardrobe had been somewhat unusual to say the least. I would describe it as home-made, but it was worse than that. Charis House was an alternative provision school. It specialised in teenagers with behavioural issues and a whole host of challenges that meant they needed more time, flexibility, and expertise than mainstream schools could provide. That was all well and good and amazingly noble, but one of the subjects was fashion design and textiles, and to provide extra encouragement to the students, whilst teaching the wider lesson of ‘waste not want not’, our family ended up wearing their projects.
Mum ignored me. ‘Did you get the itinerary? I emailed and shared on the Armstrong WhatsApp.’
Unfortunately that hadn’t been one of the emails that mysteriously failed to appear in my inbox.
‘I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.’ If ‘had a chance’ meant ‘summoned the mental strength’.
‘I don’t want any grumbles that you weren’t aware of the schedule.’
‘It’s my first Christmas off in four years. Maybe I’d rather not have to follow a schedule.’
‘Then how will you know what’s happening? If this is a twice-a-decade event, we need to ensure you don’t miss out on anything.’
That really wouldn’t be too much of a problem…
‘Hang on, wait. Your dad wants a word.’
Taking a fortifying breath, I steeled myself for parent number two.
‘You are going to join in with everything, Sweet-Bea? There are lots of people looking forward to seeing you.’ Dad already sounded distraught at the very thought. ‘We’ve missed you being a part of Christmas so much. Your mother has worked very hard planning it all so we can make the most of this one.’
‘I get that, Dad, but please bear in mind that this is my holiday. I’m actually pretty knackered. Unless the itinerary includes reading, snoozing, and lazing-about time, I might have to duck out once or twice.’
‘Of course it does! Your mother needs a rest, too. She’s not a robot.’
‘Are you sure about that?’
We finished the call and, with my stomach sinking into my furry boots, I looked back through the messages to where I’d previously scrolled past Mum’s ‘Armstrong Family Christmas Itinerary’, this time opening the spreadsheet.
It took a few seconds, but I found it eventually. In between eating, rehearsals, seeing wider family, and other activities spanning this evening, the twenty-first, right through until New Year. A luxurious two-hour slot on the twenty-seventh: Free time.
It was going to be a long week.