Short story written for the Monthly Calendar Contest - 1754 words
Christmas In July
It felt like I had been driving for ever when I pulled into my mother’s gravel driveway. As I climbed out of the car, humidity smothered me. Salty sea air settled on my lips and instantly my brain adjusted to being home.
I grabbed my case from the boot and was horrified to see I’d forgotten my laptop. I sighed and cursed under my breath. I knew this week was going to be a mistake. I jumped when my mother tapped my shoulder. “Sharon, it’s so good to see you,” Mum said, beaming.
“Mum, hi,” I said and gave her a quick squeeze. “It hasn’t been that long. I saw you at Christmas. Come on, let’s go inside.”
Stepping into my childhood home was like entering a time capsule. The decor was all browns, oranges and reds. Straight from the 1970’s. There was that old familiar scent of lavender and rose water. My stomach knotted as I passed through to the hall.
The walls were littered with photographs. I swallowed hard as I glanced at Dad’s smiling face, from a time long ago. In another captured moment, Jimmy’s confident eyes twinkled straight down the lens at me. A different life, one of innocence and laughter, hovered around the outskirts of my memory. Why did coming home aways affect me this way?
“I’ve made up your old bed, Sharon,” said Mum. As I began to climb the stairs, she grabbed my hand and said, “Thank you, Sweetheart. This means the world to me, you know.”
“I know, Mum. Me too.”
Predictably, my mother had baked fresh bread, a couple of quiches, angel cakes and my favourite chicken casserole. At least, it was my favourite when I was ten. But the thought was there. It struck me how little my mother knew me. In her eyes, I was still the scrappy tomboy who thought women who wore make up and smelt pretty were loathsome. Deep down, maybe I was. But conformity was an unfortunate by-product of adulthood.
After unpacking my clothes, I joined Mum in the living room. She had a pot of tea and angel cakes waiting. She poured the stewed liquid and sat back in her chair. “So, how’s work, sweetheart? Still busy?”
“Yes, Mum. Lots to do. In fact, I’m a bit worried. I forgot my laptop, no-one will be able to contact me if there are any problems.”
Mum considered this statement, then said, “You have a telephone, don’t you? I assume your staff knows how to use one of those.”
My foot tapped frantically. I knew I had to change the subject, or hurt my mother’s feelings. “So what does this ‘Christmas In July’ campaign involve? What do I have to do?” I caught the edge in my voice, heat was building in my chest. Why couldn’t I just be civil to her? It wasn’t her fault she survived. She wasn’t the one driving.
“Well, tomorrow you’re down for collecting in the mall. Just standing around, talking to people about the message of the campaign. Remember? People are having difficulties all year round, especially in today’s climate. We must donate to help people now, not just at Christmas. We must be generous right now.”
“Okay, Mum. I think I can manage that. But do you really think it will make much money?” I failed to see how I could make an impact by harassing shoppers in this stifling heat. But I had promised. The Salvation Army helped my mother and me piece our lives back together after Dad and Jimmy died. I owed them a few days’ campaigning, at least. “Sweetheart, you forget how generous people are in this little town. It’s all about the sea air. We’re not like Londoners here, you know.”
No, I thought, that we agree upon. I nibbled at the wings of an angel cake. Already, I was trying to think of an excuse for returning to London early. As though she was reading my mind, Mum said, “There is a fundraising fete on Sunday. You’re the guest of honour, don’t forget!”
I had forgotten. I tried to recall packing the prize for first place in the raffle. I failed to see why anyone in this town would be remotely interested in my photography album. It’s far too sophisticated for the people of St. Annes.
“Monday is free,” Mum continued, “so I thought we could go to the churchyard together, then take a picnic to the beach. The weather forecast is good for Monday. It will be lovely to spend some time with you, Sharon. What do you say?”
Why was my mother always trying to create some big reconciliation? I couldn’t force feelings that weren’t there. Too much had happened. Why didn’t she just accept it? “I’ll think about it, Mum,” I conceded.
I went to bed early that night. I was surprised the next morning when I found myself in a good mood. I must have fallen asleep quickly and slept straight through. I tried to remember the last time that had happened, but came up blank.
Before I entered the kitchen, my nose picked up the aroma of Mum’s French toast; the best in the west! My stomach rumbled in response and I felt like a teenager again, only slightly less grumpy.
Mum was wearing an apron and humming to herself when I pushed open the door. “Sharon! How did you sleep, sweetheart?” Her genuine warmth—her happiness to see me—knocked me sideways. It was years since I had woken up to someone who was grateful for my presence.
“Good, actually. I’d forgotten how comfy my bed is.” I pulled out a chair and within a nanosecond Mum had poured me coffee and thrust French toast in front of me. “Thanks, Mum,” I said as I tucked in.
I was surprised how busy the mall was. The last time I visited, there was a John Lewis, Debenhams, New Look and McDonalds. They must have expanded by paving over the old football ground. I vaguely remembered Mum mentioning it.
There must have been thirty or more shops contained inside the new mall. I had to admit, I was impressed. It wasn’t Oxford Street, but it held its own charm.
I found the Salvation Army Stand and was drawn into an all consuming bear hug from a lady who clearly knew me. “Sharon. Look at you!” she said, holding me at arm’s length, then pulling me close again. “You’ve grown so tall. When did I last see you? Was it at Millie’s eighteenth?”
Millie Butler’s mother. Of course. Wow, wrinkles had taken over her face and her eyes had sunk right back into their sockets. I thought about my own mother. Had she aged that much, too? Was she really that old?
Mrs. Butler handed me my bucket, reminded me of our Christmas in July message and sent me off to stand outside John Lewis. What really surprised me was how generous people were. More people stopped and gave donations than didn’t. It wasn’t just small change either; people were slipping in notes. I found myself feeling excited to discover the final total.
It touched me that busy shoppers took the time to chat to me about my collection. I almost disclosed my own history to some of them, even though I made it a policy to never speak about the accident.
It was mid afternoon and my feet were starting to hurt. I spent too long sitting at my desk, I concluded. I needed to exercise more. I smiled as I realised how unlike me I was feeling. “Sharon Neal. I don’t believe it. You look like you’re enjoying yourself.”
My heart quickened before I looked up and met his eyes. That deep, Cornish twang made my senses jangle. Without meaning to, my eyes flicked to check his ring finger. It was bare. Result. “Jamie Potter,” I said, “I can’t believe it. I haven’t seen you since … ”
“The night before you deserted your friends in St. Annes,” Jamie said, reminding me of my sin.
“I didn’t desert you, Jamie. I went to art school. You know I had to get away.”
“I know, Sharon. I’m just teasing you. So, are you due a break any time soon?”
I jumped at the chance to spend time with Jamie. We had dated for a few months before I went to London. I’d forgotten how good looking he was. Even more so now that he had turned into a man and had actual stubble gracing his jawline.
Every time Jamie spoke, a warmth rushed my body, turning it to liquid. His blue eyes seemed to look straight into my thoughts.
I had been with Jamie when my dad and brother died. I was supposed to be in the car, but I pretended to be ill so I could spend time with my boyfriend. There were days afterwards when I thought the guilt would kill me. I should have been with them. Maybe I could have changed history.
As I sat next to Jamie, I was reminded of the darkest period of my life. I’d spent the last ten years trying to forget, afraid to think about it and be numbed by the pain. It was okay, though. I was thinking about my mother’s broken face and it wasn’t killing me. Jamie always made me feel like things would be okay.
My thoughts all jumbled and age-old behaviours started to make sense, I was glad to get home to Mum. Standing in the kitchen, she turned to face me. I flung myself into her embrace, tears falling down my cheeks, and sobbed. “I’m sorry, Mum. I love you, I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.”
Taking my hand and guiding me to the chair, Mum cradled my head, kissing my hair and cooed platitudes. There was nothing to forgive me for, she said. I felt loved, safe; ten years old. I’m not sure how long I sat like that.
When I was able to speak again, I said, “I’m sorry, Mum. I don’t know what’s been going on in my head. I think I was scared of losing you, too. So I pretended I didn’t care. But I do, Mum. I love you so much.”
Mum smiled and said, “So the Salvation Army has saved us once again. I told you the Christmas in July campaign was magical.”
I smiled a genuine, happy smile that reached all the way to my eyes and said, “So, Mum, what shall we take on our picnic?”