Christmas with billy and.., p.1
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       Christmas with Billy and Me: A Short Story, p.1

           Giovanna Fletcher
 
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Christmas with Billy and Me: A Short Story


  Giovanna Fletcher

  CHRISTMAS WITH BILLY AND ME

  A Short Story

  Contents

  Chapter 1.

  Chapter 2.

  Chapter 3.

  Chapter 4.

  Chapter 5.

  Chapter 6.

  Chapter 7.

  Follow Penguin

  ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  Actress and journalist, Giovanna is married to Tom Fletcher from McBusted. To see what makes Giovanna smile, view her blog at www.giovannasworld.com or follow her on Twitter @MrsGiFletcher

  To Santa, for spreading love and happiness far and wide. It wouldn’t be Christmas without your magical ways. Keep up the good work.

  Oh, and if I could have that kitchen extension I asked for in my letter I’d be super grateful forevermore …;-)

  If not, then an hour to myself in the bath with a glass of wine would suffice. For now. As long as there’s chocolate available too … make them Ferrero Rocher! PLEASE!

  1.

  It won’t surprise anyone to hear that one thing I hate about birthdays is having all the focus on me. I always feel uncomfortable at being soloed out and fussed over – it’s embarrassing having people give me gifts, and I stupidly end up feeling selfish for hogging the limelight. Yes, I know that’s what birthdays are about, and I love spoiling others on their special days, but when it comes to my own turn I tend to spend the entire time with a bright-red face as I cringe my way through it, longing for the day to end so that I can go back into my land of obscurity and blend seamlessly into the background.

  But Christmas? Well, everyone is always in a joyously giving mood at Christmas, ready to sprinkle a little love wherever they can. It’s a time when everyone gets to feel special and the attention is evenly divided as we all do our best to spread the festive cheer as far and wide as possible. We are happy to go out of our way to make anyone’s day a little brighter, ready to give whatever it takes to raise a little smile from strangers and loved ones alike. How lovely!

  Like many people, I’d say Christmas is my favourite time of the year. Plus, nowhere looks better than Rosefont Hill at Christmas. In the evenings the whole High Street of our little village comes alive with festoon lighting hanging between each lamp post and a massive, beautifully decorated Christmas tree stands towards the bottom of the hill, on the green outside the church. The only thing that would make it look even more idyllic would be a white blanket of snow covering the ground. I’ve no doubt the local Women’s Institute sit for hours pondering over how they can bring on the fluffy stuff – I can even imagine them doing some sort of weird snow dance in hope of its arrival, but a white Christmas is as rare as a hot English summer. When it does happen, though (just occasionally) the joy it brings with it is wonderful. Once it’s driven through, of course, it turns into black mush and causes a few grumbles – it’s ugly and icy then – but before that part comes the silence and beauty. It’s breathtaking. Being on a hill means that we’re pretty much brought to a standstill when it snows and I quite enjoy being cut off from the world for a little while as we sit cocooned in our little white, tranquil bubble until it leaves.

  For me, the morning frost goes a long way to giving the illusion of snow, so I’m always thrilled on my early morning winter strolls to work. I love the arrival of a new season – each one bringing with it its own emotion: spring is full of hope; summer is freedom; autumn is a colourful release and winter brings an enchanting peace. It’s hard to pick which one I enjoy the most– each time the new one arrives I remember its beauty and forget the previous one whose qualities have started to dim.

  The first of December is always an important night of the calendar for folks of Rosefont Hill. Over the years a tradition has been created where the community gathers around the newly assembled tree – which would have been decorated to perfection by the aforementioned WI – to sing Christmas carols and ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ as the lights get switched on and we’re all struck by the wonderment a bit of electricity can bring. Sparkling magic! Then, once people start blowing into their hands declaring they are about to lose their fingers to frostbite, they walk up the hill to the teashop, where Molly and I are waiting (having snuck off ten minutes earlier) with warm hot chocolate and yummy mince pies for all to devour merrily.

  This year is the first time I’m taking on that challenge without the magnificent Molly and, to be honest, it’s only the havoc of getting everything ready that’s pulling me through my first Molly-less Christmas – there’s been so much to do. Six months have passed since the horrific day my best friend lost her cancer battle and handed me the reins of her beloved teashop. It hasn’t been an easy task, but somehow I’ve managed to pull it off. So far.

  Molly loved Christmas; she loved any occasion that meant she was surrounded by people she could care for and spoil – having lost her husband Albert long before I started working for her, and her only son having moved to Australia with his family –she relished company and making others smile. She’d do anything to make someone’s day just that little bit brighter. Which is why I want, more than anything, to make the night absolutely perfect so that, if she were looking down on me from her little cloud in heaven, she’d be proud.

  In the lead-up to what will hopefully be a blissful evening ahead (if I manage to keep my anxiety at bay), I’m behind the counter at Molly’s-on-the-Hill, covered in flour, edible glitter and a layer of unattractive sweat as I battle to get organized in time. My skinny black jeans stick to my legs more than usual and I wish I hadn’t worn a long-sleeved top to work that morning – even if it is a festive grey number with a jolly snowman on the front. In fact, I wish I’d opted to be a naked chef for the day and pranced around in just my red polka-dotted apron and matching headscarf – I’d have been far cooler. There’s still time, I jokily think as the thought of Miss Brown’s face if I were to just abandon my clothes that very second causes a smile to creep up and momentarily remove the frown of concentration that’s been plastered on my forehead all morning. Darn me and my prudish ways, I sigh, settling for being a stinking hot mess instead.

  ‘Are you ready for tonight, love?’ Mum asks as she pokes her head round the shop door, gliding her hand over her brown hair to make sure the wind hasn’t caused it to blow out of control. She’s never been one for mess.

  ‘I think so.’ I frown once more, looking around at the mountains of cake, sausage rolls, mini cranberry-and-turkey pizzas and other Christmassy nibbles covering the counter top in front of me, all wrapped in clingfilm or under glass cake domes, waiting to be devoured by our guests later on. I’m particularly proud of my chocolate and hazelnut cannoli, they were a total experiment as I’ve never made anything like them before, but their crunchy shells look tantalizingly delicious.

  We’ve done our best to make all the food look festive, too – either by winding holly and ivy around the serving plates, lightly sprinkling edible glitter over the top or, as I’ve done with the cheese platter, laying the yellow cubes out in the shape of a Christmas tree.

  If the feast isn’t enough to please everyone and get them into the jollifying spirit, then perhaps the beverages will. Gallons of mulled wine are currently being created on the stove by Billy. He’s been an endless help in putting all the food together with me – he may not be the best cook in the world, but what he lacks in skill he makes up for in effort. He’s always been keen to learn, ever since Molly taught him how to make scones for our first date, but tonight he’s insisted on being in charge of the drinks.

  Having dramatically declared he was taking a break from acting a few months before (he hadn’t warned anyone before announcing it on one of the UK’s bigg
est chat shows), he seems to enjoy taking on jobs around the shop whenever I let him. Which, I’ll admit, isn’t too often – after all, taking over Molly’s has made me see that I’m capable of more than I ever realized. I’m not ready to lean on others too much now that I’ve finally found my feet and got into the swing of things. That being said, I’m not daft. I know there’s no way I’d be able to get everything together without help from Billy and my nearest and dearest – thankfully they all offer repeatedly, and they don’t seem to mind being bossed around by me – I might be seen as a timid character by some, but in certain situations I’m anything but a wallflower. I don’t mind giving direction when it comes to the shop and making sure things are meticulously perfect. Although, saying that, everybody’s always such good help that my feisty side stays locked away, but I know it’s there, ready to reveal itself if ever it’s needed – like the time a member of the paparazzi turned up on my doorstep on one of the worst days of my life and goaded me for a reaction. I’m ashamed to admit I ended up sticking my finger up at him. So unladylike, but SO necessary – even if it did mean I gave him what he wanted. It was just one of a handful of times that I’ve felt a fire flicker within me and cause a knee-jerk reaction – another was when I tipped an iced drink over a complete idiot of a guy when I worked in Coffee Matters in London. Needless to say, I’m overjoyed that life back in Rosefont Hill is as it was throughout my early childhood – peaceful and uneventful. Well … for the most part.

  ‘She’s been nibbling on her bottom lip all morning, Jane,’ laughs Billy, chucking cinnamon sticks into his cauldron-like pot as he nudges my bum with his. ‘And that frown of hers …’ he cheekily whistles as his dark brown eyes widen in mock trepidation.

  I roll my eyes in his direction, but can’t help smiling at his gorgeous face as his eyes twinkle in his cheeky manner.

  ‘Can I do anything?’ Mum asks as she makes her way over to the counter and peers over it to see the progress we’ve made.

  ‘To be honest, Mum, I think I’m nearly there.’

  ‘Wonderful. Colin phoned earlier – he’s still up for helping serve later.’

  ‘Fantastic!’

  Colin is a godsend! I wasn’t too sure how I felt when Mum first told me she had a ‘manfriend’, but he’s got such a heart of gold, it’s impossible not to be pleased that Mum’s found someone so kind and loving – a person to take care of her when I’m not around. And let’s not forget how wonderful he’s been to me. Not only did he play a huge part in the reopening of the shop, but he also helped me express my grief over Molly’s death in ways that I’ll never forget or be able to thank him properly for.

  Like most people, Colin comes with his own tales of sorrow. His wife died in her sleep a couple of years before he met my mum, leaving him alone with two children – Aaron, who’s now ten years old and Charlotte, who’s just eight.

  Out of respect for Pauline, and so as not to confuse his young children prematurely, Colin waited several months before introducing them to Mum, and then to me and Billy. Aaron is outgoing and loves sport. He’s always either on his bike or has his skateboard with him, asking Billy to play with him whenever possible. Charlotte is the quieter one of the two and never goes anywhere without her Minnie Mouse cuddly toy – a companion she’s had since birth. I’ve no doubt Minnie was once pristine and full of stuffing, but nowadays she’s a little tattered from where she was clearly bitten and sucked by Charlotte during her teething years, and dragged everywhere since. It reminds me of my own childhood friend Mr Blobby, who I never left the house without.

  I know the sadness that comes with losing a parent – I lost my own dad when I was eleven years old. For that reason alone I can’t help but feel protective over Colin’s young children. I’ve an innate desire to build new happy memories for them both, rather than have them longing sadly for the past and something that can never return or be replaced.

  They’re an adorable addition to our family – it’s certainly a lot busier and warmer than when it was just me and Mum sharing a takeaway on a Friday night. Now it feels like a real family unit, even if it is a slightly mismatched one – but then, aren’t most families like that these days?

  With that in mind, this will be quite a special Christmas. It’s the first one we’ll be spending all together. More than previous years, I feel the darkness that usually surrounds that occasion has lifted. Instead, it’s been replaced by hope. I want it to be as magical as possible.

  ‘Anything you need me to do before I go home and get changed?’ Mum asks.

  ‘I don’t think so …’ I reply with a frown, looking down at our handiwork. ‘Do you think this’ll be enough?’

  ‘Darling,’ Mum replies with a chortle, ‘I think there’ll be enough for everyone to invite their extended families and still be able to take a doggy bag home. You’ll be fine.’

  ‘Are you sure?’ I ask, before remembering that what’s in front of us isn’t even all of the food I’ve whipped together – there are other bits and pieces hidden away in the fridge and freezer, like the individual amaretto cheesecakes, my mozzarella and tomato sticks (decorated like mini snowmen with Christmas hats on) and my cranberry lemonade popsicles – I’m aware it’s the wrong time of year for an icy treat, but I saw the recipe and fell in love with the idea of doing something a little different.

  ‘Yes, there’s mountains of food here – no one will go hungry, that’s for sure. I’d be more worried about what he’s putting into that pot.’ Mum nods in Billy’s direction.

  I turn to see him chopping up some lemongrass, wrapping it into a cloth of spices and dropping it into his red wine.

  ‘What?’ he shrugs in reply to my raised eyebrows. ‘It’s going to be amazing. It’s my own take on something I saw Gordon Ramsay do.’

  ‘Are you experimenting?’ I ask.

  ‘No …’ He sings while avoiding eye contact, focusing instead on picking bits of dried fruit from his festive T-shirt – which is a cartoon of Santa wearing a Christmas hat while holding a large glass of brandy, no doubt celebrating finishing his own seasonal chores. The top would look ridiculous on anyone else, but Billy has the ability to make anything look cool with his stylish quiff and the fact that he still looks every inch the effortless movie star.

  ‘Billy?’ I say, a little sterner.

  ‘Maybe, but it’ll be delicious, I swear.’

  ‘Oh, Billy,’ Mum laughs, covering her face with her hands and dramatically shaking her head. ‘Lord help you if it’s anything less than perfect.’

  Billy looks so nervous that I let out a laugh. ‘I’m sorry to say it, but she’s right – the pressure’s on. Although I’m sure it’ll be lovely,’ I smile, tugging at his arm and reaching up to plant a kiss on his reddening cheek.

  ‘Thanks for the vote of confidence, ladies.’

  ‘It’ll be fine. I’ve never had a bad mulled wine in my life … though there’s still time,’ Mum teases, walking back towards the door. ‘Right, I’m off. Give me a bell if you need anything.’

  ‘Thanks, Mum,’ I call as she waves and closes the door as she leaves.

  ‘It’s going to be great,’ Billy says quietly with a pensive look on his face.

  ‘I know,’ I wink, grabbing his hand and kissing the back of it.

  ‘Not the wine – well, that’ll be great too, obviously,’ he grins, pulling me closer and putting his arm around my waist. ‘But I meant tonight. It’s going to be fantastic.’

  ‘I hope so.’

  ‘Look how much effort you’ve put in! I’ve never seen a Christmas party with such heart poured into it. She’d have loved it, Sophie.’

  ‘Thank you,’ I smile, touched that he understands the importance of the night. It’s not so much about the villagers or getting into the festive spirit, but more about my absent friend Molly and honouring what she loved.

  ‘Although the mulled wine would definitely have been her favourite,’ he winks, placing his hand under my chin to angle it towards him and kissing me on
the mouth before I have a chance to argue.

  2.

  Much to the WI’s disappointment, no snow fell as the community gathered around the village Christmas tree that evening. Instead, the air was crisp and the sky clear, allowing us to see the stars twinkling above as we sang ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, ‘Away in a Manger’ and ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ – to name just a few. Well-known songs that bring with them great joy when they’re celebrated on a yearly basis. It makes my skin tingle to hear the village singing in chorus together – not that we’re all particularly good singers or anything like that (I’m most definitely tone deaf), but because the unity of it is rather special and uplifting.

  True to form, just before the last few songs were sung, Billy and I snuck off and made our way up to the shop to get the hot drinks ready. It was rather magical hearing the carols continuing as we held hands and walked up the empty village High Street. Looking at Billy with a smile and him kissing me in response, it was almost like having our own movie soundtrack guiding us to the festive party ahead.

  Thanks to all our preparation we were standing in the shop window, looking down over the High Street, when the jolly crowd started making their way towards us. Hands were being rubbed together and coats were being wrapped a little tighter around bodies as they exhaled white streams of air into the night sky – everyone in much need of the warm delights awaiting them.

  Hours later, and the shop’s full of people – most of whom are wearing red Santa hats, festive jumpers (four of the men are even in identical red snowmen jumpers!) or bauble earrings, clearly dug out from wherever they’ve been hiding since last Christmas. No doubt they all have that musty smell of dust (mixed in with a slight touch of pine needles still lingering from the previous year’s tree) that every decoration box gathers when it’s not in use.

 
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