It’s a Wonderful Life: The Christmas bestseller is back with an unforgettable holiday romance Julia Williams A cosy Christmas tale perfect for the festive season…Christmas with the family. Cosy, relaxing…and a total nightmare?Driving home for Christmas, Beth has everything she wants. The kids and the house, the career and the husband. So why is it that when the New Year comes, she can’t stop thinking about her old college boyfriend?Her husband Daniel is tasked with bringing a struggling school up to scratch, but when family life catches up to him, can he be a good father and a good teacher at the same time?Beth’s sister Lou has just been dumped…again. Single and childless, she can’t help but be jealous of her sibling’s success. But is the grass really always greener?It’s a Wonderful Life is a heart-warming novel about the lives that could have been, and what happens when you start to question the choices you made… It’s a Wonderful Life JULIA WILLIAMS Copyright (#ua0f60fb7-6a86-5bf5-8b3c-cff3eac0c431) AVON A division of HarperCollinsPublishers 1 London Bridge Street, London SE1 9GF www.harpercollins.co.uk (http://www.harpercollins.co.uk) First published in Great Britain by HarperCollinsPublishers 2016 Copyright © Julia Williams 2016 Julia Williams asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work. A catalogue record of this book is available from the British Library. This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. 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Source ISBN: 9781847563606 Ebook Edition © November 2016 ISBN: 9780007464517 Version: 2016-09-20 Praise for Julia Williams: (#ua0f60fb7-6a86-5bf5-8b3c-cff3eac0c431) ‘Heartwarming, witty and magical … I shed a few tears!’ SUN ‘As essential as tinsel and turkey if you want to get into that warm, fuzzy mood for Christmas’ Closer ‘Terrifically warm, with lovely, lively characters’ Fiona Walker ‘Warm and completely irresistible!’ Chick Lit Central ‘A brilliant read … absolutely wonderful’ Cosmochicklitan ‘Heartwarming and engaging … poignant’ OneMorePage ‘This story warms you like a cosy cup of cocoa’ Closer Dedication (#ua0f60fb7-6a86-5bf5-8b3c-cff3eac0c431) To my family, who light up my life Table of Contents Cover (#u2b27b783-ae00-5436-b776-4cd75211978f) Title Page (#ud30825ec-a40f-56a8-ad64-755bbd36ca63) Copyright (#u4dfa467d-d8e8-56f4-9d2b-49e24b4a6557) Praise for Julia Williams (#u3f6c408c-1aa8-505a-b0e2-962b11b16235) Dedication (#u2eb66cbb-6220-501b-90ed-9ae1c38d03fb) Prologue (#u24c8a473-3144-51f5-b85b-2bfb6024db4d) Part One: The Journey Begins … (#ud37914a5-bb26-5d9f-9cbb-44a668cf8ea6) Chapter One (#ubb23c12a-f596-56fb-9125-9c2d83600b0f) Chapter Two (#u374e05c1-ea65-543e-ae38-4ce7a1c3385f) Chapter Three (#u90323601-44aa-5a48-a4cd-ab6bb4ef82ff) Chapter Four (#ueaabc5a2-7a7c-5ed6-9211-77f56065e458) Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Part Two: A Long Way Home (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Sixteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seventeen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eighteen (#litres_trial_promo) Part Three: A Long Way From Home (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nineteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-One (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Two (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Three (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Four (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Part Four: The Way Home (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-One (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Two (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Three (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Four (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Six (#litres_trial_promo) Epilogue (#litres_trial_promo) Acknowledgements (#litres_trial_promo) The Littlest Angel (#litres_trial_promo) Keep Reading … (#litres_trial_promo) About the Author (#litres_trial_promo) By the Same Author (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) Beth I don’t know what’s wrong with me lately. I have a wonderful life. No, really I do. I’m very lucky. I am pretty healthy, I have a lovely husband and two kids who, if no longer at the adorable stage, still make me laugh on a regular basis, as well as giving me the usual frustrations teenagers do. I have a good career as a picture-book artist, and a family that loves me. Why can’t I be satisfied with my lot? I know my sister, Lou, would never understand, but sometimes I feel as if life is passing me by. Is this all there is? It feels so ungrateful, and yet I can’t stop myself from feeling like this. If my life is so damned brilliant, why do I feel there’s something missing? Prologue (#ua0f60fb7-6a86-5bf5-8b3c-cff3eac0c431) August Beth It’s a gorgeously hot afternoon in August. I am sitting in my kitchen with the patio doors wide open, to let the little breeze there is in, staring at an email I’ve received this morning from my editor, Karen. I’ve been looking at it for several hours, in between trying to get a sketch right for my new picture book. Inspiration isn’t flowing, and several pieces of paper are scattered on the floor. The Littlest Angel synopsis By Beth King This is the story of a little angel, whose job it is to find the baby Jesus. She sets out with a band of angels and gets lost. All she knows is a special baby is being born in Bethlehem, and she has to follow a magic star which has risen in the East in order to get to him. On her journey she meets a young shepherd boy, a page, a camel, a donkey and finally some sheep, who lead her to where the baby Jesus is. She is the first angel there and sings him the first ever carol. Beth, I just love this story. And the spreads you’ve worked up are really wonderful. I know we’ll get a lot of interest in this one, I’m only sorry that I won’t be able to take you all the way through, but as you know, my own little arrival is about to put in an entrance. It’s been great working with you, and I’m sure you’ll be in good hands with Vanessa. I’m wishing you great success for your little angel. You deserve it so much. Much love Karen x It’s great that Karen likes my new idea, not so great that she’s gone on maternity leave during the biggest crisis of my career. Just as I pick up another version of the spread, and decide it’s as rubbish as the rest, I’m sidelined by my mother ringing. ‘So, what are your plans for Christmas?’ Typical Mum, straight to the point as usual. I swear she asks this question earlier and earlier every year. Just in case Daniel and I have made devious plans to escape the Holroyd Family Christmas and booked a week away somewhere. As if we would. As if we could. ‘Mum, it’s August!’ I protest. I scrumple up the sketch and throw it on the floor, where it joins all the other discarded pieces of paper. I honestly don’t know what’s wrong with me, I don’t normally find it this hard to get my ideas down. ‘And soon it will be September and you’ll be too busy to talk to me.’ My mum does such a good line in passive aggression. I not only speak to her every other day, I’m usually round her house once a week. I am after all the dutiful one of the family. This is my job, while my erstwhile brother, Ged, takes gap years aged thirty-six and at thirty-eight my sister Lou lurches from one disastrous love affair to another. I’m the one who did things right: had a family, moved close to Mum and Dad. They still live in the cosy cottage where I grew up in the small Surrey town of Abinger Lea. Our house is about a mile away from them. Initially we stayed nearer to London, in the house Daniel’s mum left him, but then when the children came along I needed some help and it seemed like a no-brainer to come here. We like being close to the countryside while having good train links with London, which has been useful for my work. Daniel used to work in an inner-London comprehensive, but he’s just about to start a job in the slightly larger town of Wottonleigh, which is only three miles away. That’s going to make life a lot easier. It’s not as though I don’t like being near my parents, it’s just that sometimes I wish I wasn’t the ‘good’ sibling. It’s a feeling I’ve had more often than not lately. Mum and Dad are perfectly capable, but I seem to always be doing them little favours, like dropping Mum off into Wottonleigh when Dad’s busy playing golf, or going to the art classes I finally persuaded him to take (he’s always had a creative side, but he keeps it under wraps). And I seem to be on constant call to help them sort out their computer problems. I feel rubbish for being so resentful, particularly as they were always so great about babysitting when the kids were small, but sometimes I feel stifled by the fact that I’ve never quite managed to move away from my family. Belatedly I realise Mum is still in full flow. ‘Anyway, as I always like to say, fail to prepare—’ ‘Prepare to fail. I know, Mum,’ I say. ‘Anyway, we’ll do exactly what we do every year and come to you. I don’t know why you feel you have to ask.’ I’ve occasionally tried to change the ‘Christmas Plan’ by suggesting that I take the slack for Mum and have them all over here, as it’s not as though we don’t have the room. But she always knocks me back, and I’ve given up trying, even though the kids get more and more stroppy about it each year. Sam is going to be eighteen next year and Megan’s fifteen. They’re not little kids any more, and I think Mum forgets that sometimes, and doesn’t quite get that they have other things going on in their lives, particularly around Christmas time. The trouble is, Mum loves doing Christmas, so even though I have a family of my own, I don’t get a look in. The only time I was allowed remotely near the turkey was the year Mum had had a hysterectomy, and even then she sat directing operations from the lounge. Nightmare. ‘I just wanted to check, dear,’ Mum says, ‘in case you might have had other plans.’ I refrain from snorting. I know far, far better than to make other plans. ‘You’ve no need to worry, Mum, we’ll be there,’ I say, and put the phone down. ‘Who was that?’ Daniel wanders in from the garden, where he’s been working hard cutting the grass. Sweat is pouring off his brow, and he’s taken his T-shirt off. I take a minute to enjoy the view. At forty-two my husband bears a distinct resemblance to Adrian Lester, and is still pretty trim and sexy for his age. Sure we argue like all couples do, and in term time when he’s busy I sometimes wish we saw more of him. The great thing though is that despite the ups and downs of married life, I still fancy the pants off him, and that’s dead lucky at my age. I know so many women who moan constantly about their husbands. While we have our disagreements, Daniel and I still get on pretty well, and at this particular moment I am rather wishing we were alone in the house. Shame the kids are upstairs. ‘Mum,’ I say, in answer to his question. ‘I’d put your shirt back on before the kids see you, they’ll be horrified.’ Daniel looks upwards to their bedrooms. ‘I doubt they’re going to be downstairs in a hurry,’ is his wry response, and I laugh. It’s the summer holidays. They’re teenagers, it would probably take a bomb to get them up before lunchtime. He comes and gives me a kiss. I feel a little lurch of desire, and regret even more that the kids haven’t gone out for the day. ‘Ugh, you’re all sweaty,’ I say jokingly, pushing him away. ‘Just the way you like me,’ he teases. ‘What did your mum want?’ I roll my eyes. ‘To ask about Christmas. Honestly, it’s only August.’ ‘Oh, come on, you love it,’ says Daniel, ‘the Holroyd Family Christmas is legendary. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas if we didn’t go to your mum and dad’s.’ This is true. There was the year Dad accidentally set fire to his beard when he dressed up as Santa, and the year that Mum cooked the turkey with the giblets in by mistake, not to mention the year when Lou and Ged had a massive row and Lou ended up in floods of tears in the kitchen with me and Mum comforting her. Oh wait. That happens nearly every year. Perhaps Daniel is right. I suppose it wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t go. The Christmas Day routine in our family never varies. Mum and Dad come back from church at 10.30 – some years if I’ve been nagged enough I join them – and we go round for drinks at eleven – Dad always believes in opening the bubbly early. Mum has usually been up since 6 a.m. slaving over the turkey so we can eat promptly at 1 p.m., making sure we have plenty of time for lunch before the Queen’s Speech, after which Dad makes us all sing the National Anthem. Depending on the levels of drunkenness (in which Mum disapprovingly doesn’t take part) this is either hilarious or excruciating. After that it’s a free-for-all with presents, and we collapse in front of the TV till Mum starts producing turkey sandwiches and Christmas cake. By this time Dad, Daniel and my brother Ged will have usually managed to demolish a bottle of port between them before Dad insists it’s time for Christmas charades, the bit of Christmas Day which I absolutely loathe. Everyone else always gets into the swing of it, but I’ve always hated it, ever since I was little. Dad gets really involved: I blame the fact that his job in insurance always suppressed his creativity, so he insists on letting rip at home. I hate standing up in front of other people and performing; I always find charades a massive trial. Maybe that’s why I’m an artist. I prefer to channel my creativity from behind an easel. Growing up hasn’t made it any more fun. I long for a charades-free Christmas, but I won’t be getting it any time soon. ‘It would just be nice to be at home one year, don’t you think?’ I say half-heartedly, but I know Daniel doesn’t really get it. His family are so different from mine. He was very close to his mum, who died shortly after we met, but he doesn’t get on well with his dad. They’re barely in touch. He very rarely talks about it, though I do know his dad was pretty useless when he was little. It makes me sad, because Daniel has so much love to give, and as an only child he has no family of his own since he lost his mum. From what he’s told me he had very quiet Christmases growing up, so he’s always loved being part of our family celebrations. ‘Nah, that means we’d have to do all the hard work. Come on, Beth, it will be fine.’ He comes over and gives me a big hug. ‘You’ll enjoy it – promise.’ Lou I’m lying in bed with Jo one Saturday morning in August when Mum rings up. ‘Hi,’ I say, suddenly feeling immensely guilty. She doesn’t know about me, or about Jo. As ever, when I speak to her on the phone if Jo’s about I feel like there’s a big red sign on my head saying ‘Your daughter’s a lesbian!’ which she can somehow see. Which is ridiculous. One day I’ll tell her. One day. When I’m sure she won’t flip out and I won’t be cast from the family home. She and Dad are so old-fashioned I have no idea how they would take it. So I’m not going to be telling them any time soon. ‘Who’s that?’ says Jo, tickling my feet. ‘Mum,’ I mouth, trying not to giggle. I get up out of bed, not wanting to be distracted, not wanting to feel that I have to behave myself. Oh God, I wish it wasn’t like this. I wish I could tell my parents and my family who I really am. I haven’t even told my sister Beth. I want to, and she keeps hinting that Jo and I should come round, but I’ve let her think ‘Joe’ is a boy, and now I don’t know how to get out of it. Jo of course doesn’t understand this. Her parents are perfectly relaxed with her being gay, in a way I can’t imagine mine ever being. So much so that it took me till my late twenties to really admit to myself that I was into women not men. At school being a lesbian was pretty much a dirty word, and I thought I was odd for being attracted to girls. So I continued to have awkward sex and fumbled encounters with men I didn’t fancy, until one day I realised I couldn’t go on with it. But I still haven’t told my family, and now I don’t know how to. It’s pathetic to have got to thirty-eight and not come out to my parents, and I know Jo doesn’t understand it, but I can’t see a way to get around it. I tune into what Mum is saying. Oh. Christmas. Of course. We have to have the Christmas conversation in August in my family. It’s bloody nuts. ‘Yes of course I’m coming for Christmas, Mum. Where else would I go?’ ‘And you haven’t got anyone you want to bring?’ She dangles the question. Christ – does she know? Has she guessed by some kind of telepathic Mum power? ‘No, no one,’ I say. ‘But don’t worry – I’ll be there.’ ‘Jolly good,’ she says. ‘And how are things at work now? Any better?’ I sigh. ‘Not really. We’re all still in limbo, just waiting to hear.’ I work in credit control and the company I’ve just joined is in trouble. They’ve told us there might be redundancies but, surprise surprise, no decisions have been made yet. The waiting isn’t fun at all. ‘Well, you keep me posted,’ Mum says, and I promise I will. I get off the phone and get back into bed with Jo, lovely Jo, with whom I’ve spent a blissful spring and summer. I put my arms around her, trying not to think about work. I’ll cross that bridge if I come to it. For now, Jo is all that matters. We’ve had such a good summer; we’ve even spent a fabulous week in Greece together. I still can’t believe someone like her would be interested in me, and have to keep pinching myself because I feel so lucky. ‘What did your mum want?’ she asks. ‘She just wanted to know about my Christmas plans,’ I say. ‘Christmas? Now?’ ‘I know,’ I say. ‘Mad innit?’ ‘So what are your Christmas plans?’ she asks. ‘We could do something together if you want.’ Woah. I wasn’t expecting that. I’m completely nuts about Jo, but I can’t seem to shake the feeling that she’s too good for me. Maybe it’s just because I’ve had so many disappointments in the past. I don’t want to jump in head first when it could still all go down the pan. ‘Maybe,’ I say. ‘I have great difficulties getting out of my family Christmas.’ ‘Oh, go on Lou Lou, it will be fun.’ She seems a bit disappointed, which gives me a secret thrill. Much as I want to commit to it, I am too afraid to jinx what so far has been my most successful relationship yet. I prevaricate instead. ‘Christmas is ages away. Let’s not think about it now.’ So we don’t, and I put it to the back of my mind. If by any chance I’m lucky enough to still be with Jo at Christmas, I’ll worry about it then. Daniel ‘Good luck.’ Beth kissed Daniel as he left the house at 8 a.m. for the first day at his new school. There was a lot riding on this new job for him. ‘I think I’m going to need it,’ he grimaced. ‘Oh ye of little faith,’ said Beth, ‘you’ll have them eating out of the palm of your hand by the end of the day.’ Touched as he was by her belief in him, Daniel wasn’t entirely sure whether that were true. Moving from the big inner-city comprehensive which he’d run for the last five years to a much smaller Academy in leafy Wottonleigh was a big leap. In many ways, it should be easier: the results were better, the majority of students spoke English as a first language, and the parents, by all accounts, were committed to both the school and their children’s education, which had been far from the case for so many of his former pupils. Daniel had loved working in London, but the stress of commuting and the strain of the job was becoming untenable. He and Beth hadn’t seen nearly enough of each other in the last few years, and he was uneasily conscious that he sometimes spent more time thinking about other people’s children than he did about his own. So the chance to work locally seemed too good to be true. But … it was one thing being that rare beast – a black Head Teacher – in the inner city; it was quite another out in the sticks. Daniel was used to being one of the few black faces he saw every day in Abinger Lea, but would the parents at his new school accept him? And would the staff? The governors had given him the heads-up that his deputy, Jim Ferguson, had been certain Daniel’s job would be his. There was bound to be resentment, particularly if they disagreed on the running of the school, which after a couple of short meetings with his staff team, Daniel felt sure was likely. From what little he’d seen, Jim Ferguson was a yes-man, who liked to keep wheels well oiled. He was a capable administrator, but an uncharismatic teacher. People respected him, but they didn’t like him. It was why he hadn’t got the job. ‘This school needs new blood,’ Sarah Bellows, the Chair of Governors, had told him. ‘It’s doing well, but it could do better. It needs strong leadership and an inspiring educator in charge. We believe that’s what you can offer us.’ That, and the chance to bring the school up from Good to Outstanding in their next Ofsted report, which was due to happen some time in the spring term. Daniel was under no illusions that inspiring educator or not, the bottom line was they wanted better results. If he failed to deliver, they’d probably revert to Plan B and Jim Ferguson would get the job he craved. In the meantime, Daniel had to find a way of trying to bring him onside. He had a feeling it wasn’t going to be easy, a feeling that was confirmed when Jim arrived late at the staff meeting. It was a getting-to-know-you session, which Jim was supposed to be chairing. The fact that he couldn’t be bothered to turn up on time didn’t bode well. He didn’t seem impressed when Daniel outlined a few of his ideas about how to improve staff morale by using their freedom as an Academy to invest in proper pay structures, and allow younger teachers to see that there’d be opportunities for advancement if they worked hard. He also rolled his eyes when Daniel began to talk about setting higher standards of uniform conformity. He’d been horrified on a visit in the summer to see how lax the staff had been in implementing many of the school rules. He wanted to use his new role to ensure the students took the greatest pride in themselves and their school by giving them more responsibility for helping keep it tidy. ‘With all due respect, Head Teacher,’ said Jim, managing to make his title sound like an insult while smiling at him, ‘I think you’ll find morale at this school is very high, and that the students already take pride in their environment. I’m afraid you’ll find there’s very little to improve in that regard.’ ‘It can’t hurt to take a look at it though, can it, Jim?’ Daniel said. ‘And please, no formalities, do call me Daniel.’ If there was one thing Daniel hated it was unnecessary bowing down to hierarchies. He had a feeling that Jim would see it differently. ‘Of course, Daniel,’ said Jim, with a smirk, managing again to make it sound sarcastic. Unwilling to get into an awkward discussion on his first day, Daniel moved on, and by the end of the meeting felt he hadn’t acquitted himself too badly. It was clear that one or two members of staff were definitely Team Ferguson, but Carrie Woodall, Head of Maths, sidled up to him after the meeting and muttered, ‘Welcome on board, and don’t take any notice of Jim – he always likes to throw his weight around.’ Daniel smiled politely, but didn’t comment. It was good to know he had supporters though. Determined not to let Jim’s negative attitude ruin his day, he spent the rest of it trying to get a handle on what the job entailed. It was busy and exhausting, but by the end of it he felt exhilarated. The kids were nice and polite, the teachers, in the main, friendly, and even if he worked late, he lived a mere twenty minutes from home. More time with Beth. More time with the kids. Despite any difficulties that might lie ahead, this had been a good move. * Christmas Day Beth ‘Merry Christmas.’ ‘Bleugh.’ I awake gingerly, my head hammering from a combination of too much wine and not enough sleep, to see Daniel enter our bedroom bearing a tray with two glasses of fizz, and scrambled egg and salmon for breakfast. ‘Is it time to get up already?’ ‘Afraid so, but I thought after the night you’ve had you deserved breakfast in bed.’ Although I could really do with staying in bed several hours longer, I’m touched by his thoughtfulness. I had hoped to be up and about early on Christmas morning, but thanks to Sam choosing last night to get spectacularly drunk I’ve barely slept. He’s started going out a lot more recently, and I’m struggling to get used to the nights of sitting up worrying where he is. Daniel tells me not to fret so much and tells me he’s just being a teenager, but it’s not easy. And last night, despite promising to be in by midnight, Sam finally staggered home at 3 a.m., having lost his iPhone in a nightclub, and promptly threw up everywhere. I hadn’t been able to sleep for worrying, and I came downstairs to find him lying with his arms wrapped round the base of the toilet bowl. I couldn’t get him upstairs so I ended up sitting up for the rest of the night, checking on him intermittently. I’ve only been back in bed for a couple of hours. ‘And this is for you,’ Daniel says with a flourish, handing me a present. ‘This doesn’t look much like a puppy,’ I say in mock disappointment. I’ve always wanted a dog, thinking it would be romantic to go for long walks together in the country, but Daniel can’t stand the idea. It’s been a standing joke with us for years that he’s going to buy me a puppy for Christmas. I know he never will. ‘Next year,’ he grins, giving me a kiss. ‘Anyway, I think you’ll like this more.’ I do like it. Daniel has thoughtfully bought me a set of paints and paper, and some lovely new pencils. He knows I’m still struggling with the book I’ve been working on all year. ‘Thought they might help boost the creativity,’ he says, as I lean over to kiss him. ‘Thank you, they’re perfect,’ I say. ‘And so are you.’ We stay together for several minutes in a cosy embrace, before Daniel says, ‘Breakfast?’ and I tuck into the scrambled eggs. The bed is so warm and comfy. I sigh, wishing once again we could stay at home this year. But no chance of that of course, so after breakfast, I go to call Megan and Sam, neither of whom want to move. They’re still not out of bed by the time Daniel and I have showered and dressed. We look at each other wryly. Time was when they’d have been up for hours by now, and we would be at the end of our tether. How life has changed. Eventually we manage to bully them to get up, and we have just enough time to open a few presents, before chivvying them off to get ready to go to my parents’. Relaxing it’s not. One day I’ll manage to get the Christmas I want. One day … Finally we load ourselves and several bags of presents into the car, with Megan whinging about wanting a lie-in, and Sam sitting in moody silence. His eyes are red and bloodshot from whatever poisons he thrust down his throat last night. I’m beyond cross with him, but it’s Christmas, so I’m determined to be cheerful. I put some Christmassy tunes on, but Sam moans that they’re making his head hurt. I heroically manage to restrain myself from snapping whose fault is that then? I feel that would be distinctly lacking in Christmas cheer. Fortunately the drive is a short one, and while Daniel parks the car, the rest of us stagger into the house with the presents. ‘We’re here!’ I shout, pushing open the front door. ‘Merry Christmas!’ ‘Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas!’ Dad comes bounding into the hall, which as usual is strung with horrible paper decorations we probably made in infant school. He’s dressed in his usual Santa Claus outfit; he insists on wearing it every year, even though it gets more and more threadbare. I can hear Christmas carols playing in the background, and begin to relax a bit. As usual, Mum will be chopping vegetables in the kitchen, warbling away to them. I take a deep breath. It is Christmas after all; I need to let go of my lack of sleep induced grumpiness. Dad is waving a bottle of Prosecco around and looks rather red in the face. It’s unlike him to start drinking before we arrive, but never mind. ‘Still not got rid of that ghastly costume, Dad?’ I laugh. It’s a running joke every year. ‘Never!’ he says. ‘Bubbly anyone?’ I accept a glass, but Daniel says no as he’s being generous and driving this year. Sam looks like he might throw up at the thought, but I let Megan have a small one. ‘Where’s Mum?’ Is it my imagination, or does Dad suddenly look shifty? ‘Kitchen,’ he says. Dad is in full mein host mode and ushers Daniel and the kids through to the lounge. Honestly, it makes me laugh how well he and Daniel get along now. To think of the grief I got when I first brought him home to meet them. It’s not that my parents are racist exactly, but I guess when imagining a much longed-for son-in-law, a black one hadn’t really featured, and Dad was quite sniffy at first. I can remember an excruciating occasion when he’d quizzed Daniel endlessly about his prospects. I wouldn’t have blamed Daniel for not giving my parents a second chance, especially as his own mum, in the short time I knew her, proved to be much less intolerant. But after she died, Mum forgot all about any prejudices she had and said, ‘That poor boy needs a mother.’ After that she really took him under her wing, and Dad quickly followed suit. Now they’re the best of friends, and you’d never know there had been a problem. Daniel is a forgiving sort, so he saw the best in them, and I have always loved him for it. I wander into the kitchen to see if Mum needs any help. I always offer, even though I know her response will be to shoo me away, but to my surprise she’s barely made a start on the vegetables. She looks a bit pale and wan, and I feel guilty. I’ve barely seen her in the last month as I’ve been so wrapped up in my book. I have a sudden stab of worry that she might be ill. ‘Is everything OK, Mum?’ I ask. ‘Of course it is, why shouldn’t it be?’ she says, picking up a carrot ready to chop. ‘If you’re going to stand around in here, you may as well be useful.’ She hands me a knife. Something’s a bit off here, but I can’t quite work out what, and there’s no point asking again. It’s not that I don’t get on with my mum. I do, and I love her very much, but we don’t have that cosy mother–daughter relationship that so many of my girlfriends enjoy. My mum doesn’t do cosy, and wouldn’t understand at all if I suddenly launched into a litany of my woes. She’s very good at practical advice, but go to her for help in emotional matters and you may as well howl at the moon. We chop vegetables companionably, with carols playing in the background while Mum starts her annual moan about why Ged and Lou can’t ever get here on time, which is the main reason Daniel and I always come early, just to keep her from feeling totally unloved. Although it pisses me off too. Why is it always up to me to be the sensible one? ‘You know they have further to come,’ I say, trying to be diplomatic. ‘And Ged only just flew in from Oz yesterday, so he’s probably really jet-lagged.’ Ged has been taking a year off to ‘discover himself’. If I were to do such a thing, Mum and Dad would both think it’s ridiculous, but Golden Boy Ged, as the baby of the family, always does what he wants and gets away with it too. I love my younger brother dearly, but it’s sometimes very hard not to get fed up with the way he gets treated so differently just because he’s a boy. ‘He’s bringing Rachel,’ says Mum. ‘Did I say?’ ‘Only about a hundred times,’ I laugh. Rachel is Ged’s new girlfriend. It will be interesting to see if she lasts longer that the rest. ‘Do stop trying to marry them off. Ged will run a mile if he thinks you’ve already bought your hat. You’ve already been on enough at Lou about Joe. You need to give them both some space.’ The doorbell rings. ‘That’ll be them now,’ says Mum, her face brightening. Dad has got to the door first and we all troop out to say hello. It’s Ged, with a very beautiful blonde girl in tow. ‘Oh,’ says Mum, her jaw dropping. Oh indeed. Ged’s beautiful blonde appears to be pregnant. Lou I’m running late. As usual. Christmas has started with a very unpleasant bang. I had been so looking forward to it: my first Christmas as part of a proper couple. Jo and I had agreed to spend the day apart with our families, as I still hadn’t got round to breaking the news about our relationship to mine, but we’d planned to have breakfast together at the flat I share in Kentish Town, and make Boxing Day our Christmas. I had prepared stockings for her, and gone to town on the decorations. My Christmas tree was as sparkly as I could make it, much to the amusement of my flatmate, Kate, who had left three days earlier to spend the festive season with her family. I had spent hours making mince pies, mulled wine and eggnog. I’d even hung mistletoe over the door. I had everything planned down to a T. I so wanted it all to be perfect. I might have known it wouldn’t work out like that: Lou Holroyd and her spectacularly pathetic love life triumphs once again. Instead of a lovely evening in with a bottle of bubbly cuddled up on the sofa, Jo has dropped a bombshell, standing in the doorway of the lounge, underneath the sodding mistletoe, barely noticing the efforts I’d gone to. ‘It’s not you, it’s me, babe.’ She actually said that, and I know it’s not true, because her initial, ‘I’m a free spirit and I can’t give you what you want,’ quickly descended into, ‘You’re so clingy and need to sort your shit out.’ Which, given that I was wailing pathetically in a corner, probably wasn’t too far off the mark. I suppose I should have seen it coming. We’d both been so busy in the run-up to Christmas, and I’d had to blow her out a couple of times because I was working late – is it my fault that after a while where I looked safe jobwise, things are looking decidedly dodgy again? – and I suppose she’d been more distant recently, but I’d just put that down to the hectic nature of both our lives. She’s a nurse in a busy medical practice, and I’m obviously working hard to try and reduce my chances of being made redundant. We both take our work seriously; it was one of the things that attracted me to her. That and the fact that she’s bloody gorgeous and I feel so lucky that someone as fabulous as Jo could have chosen me. But now … ‘It’s definitely over,’ was her parting shot to my pathetic plea for us to take a break and have a rethink in the New Year. And with that she was off, swanning out to join her friends, her other life, the one she barely let me get involved in, leaving me cold and lonely by the Christmas tree, which now looked gaudy and overdone in her absence. I guess now I look at it in the cold light of day, she was always a little bit ashamed of me. There were the times when she pulled away from me if I was being too affectionate in public, and the times she would put me down in front of our friends if she thought I was too loud. She’d stopped mentioning Christmas, which should have been a clue. I should have seen this coming. But then, I never bloody do. So I spent last night in a drunken sobbing haze, barely slept at all and then missed my alarm. Now I’m driving like a maniac, feeling heartsick and hungover, to get over to Mum and Dad’s before 1 p.m. so I can prove to them that I’m not their most useless child. Poor old childless single Lou, turning up at Christmas on her own – again. The drive from London down to Surrey is depressing beyond belief. The roads are mainly empty – everyone is clearly already with their families – and the sight of everyone’s Christmas trees and garden lights makes me feel miserable. It feels like everybody else is celebrating and having a good time, whereas my world has just collapsed. My phone has been buzzing furiously the whole time I’ve been driving across London – so when I pull in at a traffic light, I stop to look at it. Three messages from Beth. OMG!!! Ged’s girlfriend is pregnant, says the first. Followed by, Mum’s crying in the kitchen and Dad’s ignoring it all. The last one says GET YOUR BUTT HERE NOW. I CAN’T COPE. Great. All I bloody need. A new baby in the family, and not one provided by me. I know by the time I get there, Mum will have come round to the good news and turned it into a positive. Ged can do no wrong in her eyes; Mum doesn’t half cut him some slack. And while she won’t be ecstatic about having a grandchild out of wedlock, I don’t doubt that within seconds she’ll be talking about knitting cardigans. After the grief I’ve heard over the years about her only having two grandchildren, I can’t see her being put out for long. Great. She’s given that one up of late; this will give her another excuse to pressurise me about babies. The lights go green but my foot on the accelerator doesn’t move; I’m lost in a world of my own. I didn’t want to go today anyway. I’d much rather be curled up under the duvet in a miserable state, but if I missed Christmas I’d never have heard the end of it. But now? I’ve always wanted children. Ged never has, and Beth always says that domesticity and family life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – which seems damned ungrateful to me. She’s so lucky to have her kids. It’s not bloody fair. Why do I have to be the one on my own? I might never get to have babies. Tears start spilling down my cheeks, and suddenly I’m sobbing on the wheel, my car engine off. This is terrible. I can’t turn up like this. There’s a knock on my car window, and I look up to see a policeman. ‘Are you all right, madam?’ he asks as I roll my window down. ‘Only you seem to be causing a bit of an obstruction.’ I look behind me. Oh shit, somehow I’ve caused a mini traffic jam out of the only ten cars driving in London today, and got the attention of the one policeman who seems to be at work. ‘Sorry, officer,’ I say through my sniffles, and turn the engine back on. ‘Cheer up,’ he says, ‘it’s Christmas.’ I wipe the tears from my cheeks. ‘Yeah, that’s the problem,’ I say as I drive away. Christmas. The time to be happy and jolly. The time to be with your friends and family. The time to have that special someone in your life and hold them close. I’ve never felt less like celebrating in my life. Daniel Daniel was sitting on the sofa, making polite conversation with Ged’s new girlfriend, Rachel. She’d been introduced to the family and ushered into the lounge, while his mother-in-law, Mary, had called Ged into the kitchen for a not very subtle conflab. Beth had been dragged in too, but her dad, Fred, seemed determined to rise above the drama. He was sitting next to the Christmas tree, knocking back the Prosecco like it was going out of fashion. He seemed in a very strange mood. Daniel might have expected some reaction to the news of an impending grandchild, but he seemed to be totally oblivious to it. The kids, meanwhile, found it hilarious. They were keeping a lid on it, but he could tell they were Snapchatting the odd comment to each other by the way that every so often they’d both burst into fits of giggles for no apparent reason. He shot them a warning look, but luckily, Rachel didn’t seem to notice. She was very beautiful and at least ten years younger than Ged. Daniel hoped she knew what she was getting into. Ged didn’t exactly have a good track record with women. He had left a string of broken hearts behind him, and Daniel had lost count of the hours Beth had spent counselling Ged’s ex-girlfriends over the years. ‘So where did you two meet?’ he asked politely, trying to put Rachel at ease. The poor girl understandably looked a bit shell-shocked. Ged presumably hadn’t warned her that his parents might not be too thrilled to discover they were going to be grandparents straight away. ‘Oh.’ Her face lit up. ‘It was at the Full Moon party in Thailand. It was full of utter losers, and then there was Ged being the perfect gentleman.’ I bet he was, thought Daniel, but smiled and said, ‘That sounds great.’ Rachel carried on about what a wonderful time they’d had together, first in Thailand, then going on to Singapore and Bali before visiting her parents in Australia. ‘I fell pregnant in Bali,’ she confided. ‘So romantic.’ ‘Well, congratulations,’ said Daniel. ‘I bet your parents are pleased?’ ‘Oh, they’re thrilled,’ said Rachel. ‘Mum’s a bit annoyed with me for coming over here to have the baby, but I just want to be wherever Ged is, and he wanted to come home. He was so excited about the baby, he wanted to tell everyone.’ Really? Daniel wondered if Ged had changed his mind on that one. But knowing Ged, he wouldn’t have thought any of this through. It was getting on for 1 p.m. and for once it didn’t look like the turkey would be ready in time. Daniel could hear slightly raised voices in the kitchen, and wondered whether he should go and smooth over troubled waters. He was about to get up when the doorbell rang and in rushed Lou: breathless, late, and looking suspiciously like she’d been crying. Oh no, poor Lou, what had happened now? Daniel was fond of his sister-in-law, but she always seemed to pick the wrong men when it came to her love life. This time he’d thought she and Joe, the mysterious new partner she’d met in the spring, were really going places. She’d been so happy last time she’d been over to see Beth and Daniel, and they’d both hoped it would work out for her. They’d asked to meet Joe several times, but Lou had always put them off. Now it looked like another one had bitten the dust, and they’d never get that chance. ‘Sorry I’m late,’ she burst out, ‘traffic was mayhem.’ ‘Are you late?’ Fred looked up, seemingly a bit befuddled. He stood up to greet his daughter, and staggered a bit, nearly falling back into his seat. Daniel frowned. Fred normally liked a drink on Christmas Day, but Daniel had never known him to be pissed before. There was a shriek from the kitchen, followed by a massive crash. Daniel and Lou immediately leapt up and ran into the kitchen to see what was going on, the kids following on close behind, only to find Mary in hysterics with the turkey lying on the floor. Ged and Beth were looking a little dumbfounded. ‘It’s not a problem, Mary,’ said Daniel, stepping forward to put a hand on her shoulder. ‘Come on, we can pick it up, a little bit of dirt won’t kill us.’ ‘I don’t care about the bloody turkey,’ shouted Mary, her crying stopping as abruptly as it started. Daniel was shocked. He couldn’t recall ever hearing his mother-in-law shout. She turned round to face them just as Fred wandered in, looking confused. ‘Is everything all right in here?’ ‘What do you care?’ said Mary with a surprising bitterness. ‘Mary, not today,’ warned Fred. ‘Why the bloody hell not?’ she said. ‘Just because it’s Christmas?’ ‘Yes, because it’s Christmas,’ said Fred. His voice was rising too, and he was looking decidedly red around the gills. ‘You know, family time and all that.’ ‘Could someone kindly tell me what’s going on?’ said Lou. ‘I’ll tell you what’s going on,’ said Mary. There was a brief pause, and Daniel found himself holding his breath; he had never seen his mother-in-law behave this way. What on earth was the matter? Mary looked around the room, her hands on her hips. ‘Your dad is a cheat and a liar and is having an affair with Lilian Mountjoy. And I’ve had just about enough.’ You could have heard a pin drop. The entire Holroyd family stood in total shock. At which point, Rachel wandered in and said innocently, ‘Can I do anything to help?’ Part One (#ua0f60fb7-6a86-5bf5-8b3c-cff3eac0c431) The Littlest Angel The Littlest Angel was very excited. The whole Heavenly Host were preparing for a Big Event. ‘The Big Event,’ Gabriel said. There had already been a buzz around a baby who had been born a few months earlier, but Gabriel said this baby was going to be even more important. This baby was going to save the world. The Heavenly Host was going to go and tell people, and for the first time the Littlest Angel was going to be allowed to come too. ‘Is it today?’ the Littlest Angel asked her mother. ‘Not today,’ said her mother. ‘Is it today?’ asked the Littlest Angel the next day. ‘Not today,’ said her mother. ‘But soon.’ The days went by and still it wasn’t the right day, until finally the Littlest Angel asked, ‘Is it today?’ And her mother said, ‘Yes, it’s today.’ ‘Yippee!’ cried the Littlest Angel. And she got ready to go. Vanessa Marlow: What baby? Beth King: Um, John the Baptist. Vanessa Marlow: What’s the Heavenly Host? Beth King: The angels. Vanessa Marlow: What stops her from going? How does she get lost? Who does she visit on the way? Beth King: Vanessa, I’m trying to work this out. Vanessa Marlow: Can’t she go round the world visiting different people? Beth King: Why would she do that? Chapter One (#ulink_1beb2a92-71bc-5591-b1c5-c52047910a15) Beth The Littlest Angel set out on her journey, and soon she was very lost … I am sitting staring into space. I’ve been working on these same two double-page spreads for months. I’ve promised my publishers something new for the Bologna Book Fair in April, where they’d be keen to show it to foreign agents, but it’s rapidly approaching and nothing is forthcoming. I’ve never hit a wall like this before. Light-years ago when my original editor, Karen, had suggested this idea, we’d both been dead excited. We had a wonderful brainstorming meeting with the art department followed by a boozy lunch, and I came home completely fired up. This was going to be my biggest book yet – I just knew it. At first it went great guns. I developed a rough draft which Karen loved, and the first couple of spreads which I did for Bologna last year just drew themselves. The next lot were a bit trickier, but then I hit a stone wall, and I had nothing new for the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. By then Karen was on maternity leave, and her replacement, Vanessa, had been inundated with work. I didn’t want to overwhelm her with my problems, and I thought my lack of enthusiasm was just a blip. But as the weeks disappeared, and my self-imposed deadlines kept slipping away, I knew I had to do something. So I bit the bullet in late November and rang her up. Whereas Karen would have laughed and teased and said something comforting, Vanessa just sat on the other end of the phone in silence. ‘So how much have you done?’ she said eventually. She can only be in her mid-twenties, but her tone was so severe, I felt like I was up before the Head for not having done my homework. ‘I’ve got some roughs,’ I said, knowing it sounded lame. ‘Roughs?’ she said, so disapprovingly that my heart sank. ‘I was expecting some finished spreads by now. We do want The Littlest Angel out for next Christmas.’ Me too, I thought, me too. This was not going well at all. I could really have done with some reassurance. Karen would have known exactly what to say, but all Vanessa came up with was, ‘Do you think you can get them worked up by the other side of the New Year?’ She sounded tetchy and cross, which made me feel worse. I felt bad enough about being late as it was, I didn’t need lecturing. ‘I honestly don’t know,’ I said. ‘I’ll do my best.’ With Karen I would have told her the truth, said nothing was working, and that my work was in the doldrums in a way I hadn’t encountered before. But Vanessa was still an unknown quantity. I wasn’t sure how she’d react, so I couldn’t face telling her the truth. Particularly if it meant a telling-off. There was another pause on the other end of the line, followed by an exasperated sigh. ‘Well, I suppose we’ll have to hope your best is good enough.’ ‘I suppose we will,’ I said. Vanessa was making me feel completely dispirited, and it wasn’t helping at all. ‘It’s all I can do.’ ‘Good,’ she said briskly. ‘I look forward to seeing what you’ve done in January. I hope by then you’ll have something to show me.’ ‘Right,’ I said, putting the phone down. I felt like banging my head against the wall. Since that call I’ve tried really hard, but something is missing. The special spark of whatever it is that marks out a Beth King picture book (Sunday Times bestseller, don’t you know?) just isn’t there. And I don’t know what to do. I’d deliberately not worked over the Christmas period, thinking the break would do me good. And then all the stuff with Mum and Dad happened. I’m still reeling from their news. I know my parents have never been particularly lovey-dovey, but they’ve always seemed to get along, and I assumed they always would. This has come like a bolt from the blue. As families go, despite our differences we are as happy as the next one. Or I’ve always thought so anyway. When I was in my teens I used to worry Mum and Dad might split up – I seem to remember a lot of arguments back then. But now? I’m about to hit forty, my mum is about to hit seventy. This should have been a year of happy family celebrations, particularly with Sam turning eighteen and a new baby being thrown into the mix. Instead Mum and Dad are barely speaking. Mum is spending all her time indoors, and won’t be coaxed out, while Dad is being silently sullen about the whole thing. That’s the thing that kills me. I’ve always worshipped my dad – to be honest I get on better with him than with Mum. When I was little he was always the cuddly one, the one I went to when I was feeling low. Mum’s always been a more of a pull-yourself-together kind of parent. Dad always propped me up at those times when I felt I couldn’t cope. The thought of him having had an affair makes me feel sick. And I feel partly to blame too. If only I hadn’t encouraged him to go to art classes, he’d never have met this damned Lilian woman. But then, how could I have foreseen what would happen? I find it so hard to believe that my lovely, funny, kind dad could have behaved so badly. I’m furious with him, and I hate feeling like that, but he’s made me angrier than I’ve ever been in my life. I don’t know where it’s all going to end, but I expect I’ll have to pick up the pieces. I usually do in this family. On top of this, I feel so pressurised by the book. The deadline is looming over my head, and I’ve been so distracted that the creativity I so desperately need just isn’t happening. Normally, I’d try and thrash this out with Daniel. Although he never tends to be very critical, it’s always lovely to hear his supportive comments. But at the moment he’s really preoccupied with work stuff. He’s still finding his feet at his new school, and some days I know it’s a struggle for him. They’re expecting an Ofsted inspection this term, and he’s already fretting about it. As the first black Head Teacher in a white, middle-class school, there’s an awful lot riding on it. Even though said school was woefully mismanaged before he turned up. I know he’s feeling the pressure, and I don’t want to burden him with my worries. Besides, I think he’s taken the Mum and Dad thing pretty hard too – he’s always loved my parents, especially because of his own situation, and now they’ve thrown us all a huge curveball. This is not good. I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to focus on the work in front of me. So – the Littlest Angel – where is she and where is she going next? I get up to make coffee. I just can’t concentrate. My little angel is very lost. And so, I fear, am I … Daniel ‘Don’t run in the corridors!’ Daniel admonished two Year Seven boys who were doing skids down the corridor, blissfully unaware of his presence. They stood up, startled, automatically tucking their shirts into their trousers and adjusting their ties with a ‘Yes, sir, sorry, sir,’ before scooting away. Daniel grinned to himself, remembering Sam at that age. He’d been so easy to deal with back then. But now? Now he was a closed book. He didn’t appear to be doing any work for his A Levels at all, and any attempts to talk about his future were met with hostility. Years of experience dealing with teenagers had given Daniel the knowledge that a hands-off approach was probably the best; he’d come round in his own good time. But it was much harder doing it yourself than advising other parents. Beth fretted so much. She always wanted to know what Sam was up to, when to Daniel it was clear he didn’t always want to say. It was the source of most of their arguments. Beth was a great mum, but sometimes Daniel felt she wanted to interfere too much with the children, and she’d be better off just letting them be. On the other hand, Beth thought Daniel was too laid-back and should be more assertive with them. It was a conundrum they didn’t look likely to solve any time soon. Having dispatched the boys down the corridor, Daniel headed for his office to catch up on some paperwork. He loved his job, enjoyed the cut and thrust of running a school, and the interactions with the kids. He’d gone into education to make a difference, just as long ago a couple of teachers had made a difference for him. After his dad had left home when Daniel was ten, there’d been a time when he had been so angry and bitter, he had become quite self-destructive. Without the support of an English teacher when he was in Year Seven and a maths teacher in Year Nine, Daniel might never have found his calling. He could so easily have gone off the rails. As it was, those two teachers had changed his life, and it had fired him up to do the same for others. He had never regretted his decision to be a teacher, and he was really enjoying working in the new school, where there was a good ethos and the kids, in the main, wanted to study. But it wasn’t the world he’d entered all those years ago, and the pressure to succeed was immense. The thought of the Ofsted inspection was giving him sleepless nights. He knew he had a good management team in place, though he could have done with a couple more senior figures on it; the governors kept going for money over experience. It was cheaper to pay a twenty-eight-year-old to be head of department than a forty-five-year-old. And with the way the budget was looking – a big headache to address this term – saving money was paramount. He was grateful for the enthusiasm and energy his new staff members brought to the school, but he did worry that there was a lack of experience too. Something else he needed to sort out. Daniel’s phone buzzed. A message from Beth. He loved the way she still texted him in the day. Though they had married young – too young some of their friends had thought, especially with a baby on the way – theirs was a good marriage, and he was more contented than most people he knew in his position. Having a slow day. Any chance of lunch? He smiled. Eighteen years married and he still was just as much in love with Beth as when they’d first met. He really wished he did have time for lunch. Sorry, no can do. Meeting. But let’s do dinner tonight. And with the thought of that playing happily on his mind, he strode down the corridor with renewed purpose. As long as Beth was beside him, he could cope with anything. Lou ‘Can I get you anything, Mum?’ I’ve come into the kitchen to find Mum staring into the garden. She’s still wearing her dressing gown and looks like she hasn’t slept. ‘A different life?’ asks Mum bitterly. Oh God. Here we go. Every day since I’ve moved back in she’s been like this. Never mind that my own life has spectacularly imploded since Jo left. To top it off, I finally got made redundant just after Christmas. My manager blamed cutbacks, told me it was nothing personal, but it was the last thing I needed after the blow of Jo leaving. I can’t afford the rent on my flat without a job. If I’d still been with Jo, I could have gone to stay with her. But I had nowhere else to go, hence why I’ve ended up back home. I may as well be miserable with Mum and Dad rather than be on my own. I’d thought maybe there might be a silver lining to moving back home, that my being here might help Mum, and help me too in a funny way. I thought it might take my mind off my own misery. But she barely acknowledges me, and I’m not sure if I’m making any difference. I mean, I get how she feels. I’ve had my fair share of heartache and I’m no stranger to being dumped and cheated on (Jo said there’s no one else, but I’m not sure I believe her. But that might be my insecurity talking). Finding out your husband of over forty years has been cheating must be horrendous. But I hadn’t expected this. This shadow of a person, not moving, inert, just accepting her fate. The Mum I know would never give up like this. Why can’t she be angry any more, the way Beth and I are? It’s like all the fight’s gone out of her. I want to shake her and say, Do something. Fight for him. But she doesn’t. Beth thinks she needs time, but I’m not sure my sister realises how bad the situation is. Sam and Megan, of course, think it’s hilarious that Grandpa could even be having an affair. The idea of seventy-somethings having a sex life is completely incomprehensible to them. But this is serious. Mum and Dad have had their ups and downs, but they’ve always been together. And the situation is further complicated by the fact that Dad seems to be spending a lot of time with this Lilian woman, but he still hasn’t officially left Mum’s house. He’s sleeping in the spare room and sneaking out to see her every day. He never says where he’s going, or what his plans are. Presumably because the first time I asked him about it we had a stand-up row; it was horrible. Dad isn’t the rowing sort, and since then he’s refused to discuss the situation with me. I don’t know what to do. I’ve spent my whole life being regarded as the pathetic one in the family: poor Lou stuffed up her A Levels, poor Lou can’t get a decent job, poor Lou hasn’t got a man – and now here I am having to act like the responsible one. I really haven’t the faintest idea how to do it. ‘I was thinking more on the lines of a cup of tea?’ I say as cheerfully as I can, but Mum looks at me blankly. ‘I suppose,’ she says. Her eyes look dull and lifeless. It’s a bit scary how quickly my energetic mum has morphed into a zombie. She’s barely been out of the house since Christmas, and I keep being bombarded with messages from her friends, checking up on her because she refuses to speak to them. ‘How about we go out for a coffee at the garden centre?’ I say. I’d like to suggest going shopping, but I know I’ll get nowhere with that. I’ve been doing the shopping for the last two weeks, Dad being incapable of doing any domestic tasks. Lucky Lilian. ‘What’s the point?’ says Mum. ‘The point,’ I say firmly, ‘is you need to get out of the house. Trust me, I know.’ I think of all the times people have done this for me, stopped me drowning in self-pity when all I wanted to do was sit in my PJs eating chocolate and drinking too much wine. I’ve only coped this time because Mum needs me so much I haven’t had time to wallow in it. But when I’ve been heartbroken in the past, I’ve always been lucky enough to have someone there to kick me into shape and get me out of my despondency. I know it works. ‘So come on,’ I say. ‘Time to have a bath and pull yourself together. Dad’s never going to take you back if you wander round looking like a wet weekend in November.’ ‘Don’t be rude,’ says Mum, with a flash of her old self, which gives me some hope. Slowly but surely, she does start to get ready. First steps, but maybe I’m getting there … Chapter Two (#ulink_7f279dd8-6097-518a-b9fd-bf2f1bc5ff0a) Beth I’m on a train to London to meet my new editor, Vanessa, in person for the first time. Normally I enjoy my trips to see my publishers. It’s always been a chance to catch up with Karen, talk shop and thrash out new ideas – it’s creative, energising and fun. Plus it gets me out of the house. But today is different. If Karen were still around, I’d at least be able to discuss things, but I barely know Vanessa. I’ve been trying to give her the benefit of the doubt, but so far have found her to be annoyingly patronising, and often quite rude. I know I should be open-minded but I’m finding it increasingly difficult to take suggestions from a woman young enough to be my daughter, who always approaches every conversation as if I’m a problem that needs solving and keeps saying things like, ‘Well, it’s not that I don’t like it, exactly, it’s just there’s a spark missing.’ I know there’s a spark missing. She’s the editor, I was rather hoping she’d help me find it, but her latest solution to send my little angel on a journey round the whole world feels overcomplicated to me. ‘It’ll help give it that international feel that’s so vital to the picture-book market,’ she gushed down the phone last week. ‘Yeah, I know how it works,’ I said, biting my lip. I’ve been doing this for twenty years, and I understand the importance of foreign editions; they help increase the print run and bring down the production costs. Without them, it’s much harder to get a book off the ground. One or two of my early projects foundered as a result of too few foreign publishers coming on board. I don’t need Vanessa to lecture me on how important it is. I feel she’s treating me like an idiot, and it’s making me resent her even more. Anyway, whatever I’m doing isn’t working, so I found myself agreeing to take my angel on a journey that involves London, Paris, New York, Berlin and Rome, even though apart from Rome none of these places even existed in Jesus’ time. When I pointed this out, I was given an airy, ‘Oh, that doesn’t matter, it’s symbolic.’ Though of what, I’m not quite sure. So I’ve done as she’s asked and drawn up some spreads of the Littlest Angel making friends with a pigeon on top of Nelson’s Column and asking the Mona Lisa for directions. In Berlin she’s getting a view of the city from the Reichstag, and in Rome she’s at the Vatican. It doesn’t make any sense to me at all. Every time I draw the angel, I can’t seem to help myself giving her a puzzled and despairing look. It’s just how I feel. Though I know the book wasn’t working, I don’t think Vanessa’s solution is any better. I get to the office in plenty of time for our meeting, feeling sick to the pit of my stomach. What am I doing? Why am I allowing my gut instincts to be overridden by someone like Vanessa? If only I had a clear view of my story I’d be able to fight back, but the trouble is, I don’t, and I know this book is going to end up being a disaster. Vanessa doesn’t keep me waiting long. As I anticipated, she’s a pretty, bright young thing, all gushing enthusiasm. Suddenly it occurs to me that she might be as nervous as I am. ‘I just can’t believe I’m working with you, Beth,’ she says. ‘I loved your books when I was little.’ Great, now I feel really old, but then, my first picture book did come out seventeen years ago. ‘Thanks,’ I say, attempting a smile. It’s the first vaguely positive thing she’s said to me. ‘Come on in.’ She ushers me into a bright, airy room. ‘I’ve asked our new art director to join us, I hope that’s all right.’ ‘I didn’t know you had a new art director,’ I say. ‘Oh yes, Andrea left just after Christmas, didn’t anyone tell you?’ ‘No,’ I say, my heart sinking. Damn. The previous incumbent, Andrea, was with the company for five years. She, Karen and I had made such a good team. Now I’ll have another new face to contend with and win over. I’m not sure I’m really up to the challenge at the moment; I’m beginning to feel hemmed in and slightly panicky. The door flings open and a good-looking man in his late thirties strides through it. I look into his eyes and I’m stunned – it can’t be. My legs nearly buckle from the shock. ‘Beth, can I introduce you to Jack—’ ‘Stevens,’ I stammer in confusion, and my face flares red. ‘Yes, we – know – knew each other …’ My voice stutters and drops away. The years melt away and I am eighteen again, standing in the college bar, seeing Jack Stevens for the very first time. He is beautiful. Every head in the room turns as he walks through the door. I long for him to look at me, but of course he doesn’t. Not that first time anyway … How can Jack Stevens be here? I haven’t seen him in over twenty years. And now he’s standing right in front of me, every bit as gorgeous as the last time I saw him. Oh, God. ‘Lizzie Holroyd!’ Jack throws his arms around me with delight. ‘I’m such an idiot, I didn’t make the connection when I saw your name.’ I return his embrace in stunned silence. Jack Stevens is the new art director? Jack Stevens who I loved so unrewardingly through art school, Jack Stevens who I haven’t seen for years, Jack Stevens who is standing here in front of me with his still mesmerising blue eyes, which annoyingly are still working their old magic. I feel faint and dizzy, as if I’ve just walked out of the dark into the sunlight. Jack Stevens, a blast from my past. The one who got away. And he’s working on my new book. Lou ‘Mum, when are you going to tell Dad to leave?’ I say as we mooch our way round Sainsbury’s on a grey wintry day. We’ve managed a step forward this week, I’ve actually got her out of the house a few times, but it’s a huge effort. She always has an excuse not to go – mainly blaming the weather. But today the sun shone for about five minutes, which was enough of a reason for me to drag her out. It’s gone back behind the clouds now, of course. ‘But where will he go?’ she says. ‘Mum,’ I say as gently as I can, ‘he can go to Lilian’s or one of his mates, or even a hotel for all I care. It doesn’t matter. But he has to go. You can’t carry on like this.’ And to be honest, neither can I. Living with the two of them is horrendous. The atmosphere in the house is either glacial, with the pair of them passing icy requests to the other through me, or explosive when they have a massive row. Or to be more accurate, Mum occasionally remembers she’s angry with Dad and stirs herself to shout at him, and he looks crestfallen and says nothing. It drives me mad that he won’t even try to justify his behaviour. He just looks mournful and says things like, ‘I never meant for this to happen.’ ‘You just fell into Lilian’s arms by magic?’ I snarled at him last time he said it, and he looked even more sorry for himself, and said, ‘I don’t expect you to understand.’ Which is true, I don’t. I cannot comprehend what he is playing at, especially at his age. ‘How will he manage?’ Mum says now. ‘You know what he’s like, he can’t even boil an egg.’ And whose fault is that? I think. Mum has never ever let Dad do anything in the domestic sphere. It’s her fault as much as his that he’s so incapable. ‘I know, he’s utterly hopeless,’ I say, ‘but Mum, you can’t worry about that. For your sanity you have to let him go. He cheated on you. He’s betrayed all of us.’ As I say this, I realise just how angry I am with Dad for what he’s done. It’s like he’s blown apart my whole world view; I have always clung on to the certainty of their relationship amidst the multiple wreckages of my own. How can I survive if theirs has been a lie this whole time? I know their marriage wasn’t perfect, but whose is? Mum and Dad had always lived separate but parallel lives, but they’d always seemed happy enough, even though Mum drove Beth and I mad with the way she’d always run round after Dad. She might be a child of the sixties, but feminism completely passed her by. Which also explains her appalling favouritism of Ged, who can do no wrong in her eyes. Typically, we have barely heard hide nor hair from Golden Boy since Christmas, even though he and Rachel have moved into a flat in south London, which isn’t a million miles away. Mum lets him off, because, ‘He must be so busy, what with the baby coming and everything,’ but it drives me up the wall. It wouldn’t hurt him to ring Mum up occasionally, just to find out how she is. ‘You don’t understand,’ says Mum. ‘You can’t just throw forty-two years of marriage away like that. If you’d managed to keep a relationship together for longer than a year, you’d know that.’ Dammit. She can be cruel sometimes. ‘Thanks for reminding me of my failings in that department,’ I say. ‘Oh, I didn’t mean it like that,’ says Mum, looking a little shamefaced. ‘Sorry, love, I’m a bit tetchy these days.’ ‘I didn’t think you did,’ I say, sighing. ‘But still, you and Dad: it’s not working, is it?’ The tension between them at the moment is unbearable. They either don’t speak or are at each other’s throats. I sit for long evenings with them both in silence, or I have to make excuses to leave the house when they start bitching at each other about who hasn’t put the bins out. Honestly, I’ve never taken so many long walks in my life. I really, really wish I didn’t have to be stuck in the middle of it all, particularly as I’m struggling to get over Jo. Every day I resist the urge to ring her or text her, and every day my own misery about being out of work is compounded by the terrible atmosphere at home. I’d rather be anywhere but here. But at the moment I have no choice. I’m thirty-eight, single, broke and living with my mum and dad. It doesn’t get more pathetic than that. ‘Maybe you’re right,’ Mum says, pausing to stare at the vegetable aisle as if the carrots will give her the answer she’s looking for. ‘I’m just frightened that if he goes, he’ll never come back, and then what would I do?’ She looks so worried and vulnerable when she says this that I forget my earlier irritation. She’s so capable and organised most of the time, it’s hard to remember that she’s sixty-nine. I’m finding it tough enough picking myself up after Jo. How difficult must it be for her to start again after all this time? She’s been married for more of her life than she hasn’t. ‘Then you pull yourself together and make a life without him,’ I say. ‘Believe me, it’s the only thing you can do.’ Good advice, Lou, I think as we make our way to the checkout. Shame that right now you’re not managing to do the same. Daniel ‘Sit up straight for Mr King.’ Daniel sighed as he regarded the student before him. Jason Leigh was one of his brightest pupils, who had done spectacularly well at GSCE, but was failing badly at A Level, so his mum had demanded an interview with the Head to see what could be done about it. Not a lot without Jason deciding it was time to pull his finger out, was Daniel’s honest response, but he suspected that was not what Mrs Leigh wanted to hear. As far as he could see, she was part of the problem – the worst kind of helicopter parent, constantly on Jason’s case. Daniel felt some sneaking kind of sympathy for Jason, who clearly had had enough of the education system and had done appallingly in his mocks. Miraculously, despite having taken very little interest in the application process, he actually had two offers from universities. Daniel suspected that although Jason was more than capable of getting the required grades, he wouldn’t actually bother to try. ‘So how did you feel the mocks went, Jason?’ he asked, trying to ignore Mrs Leigh, who clearly had the bit between her teeth. There was a mumbled ‘Dunno,’ and Jason slumped into his chair even more, followed by a ‘Jason, don’t be rude!’ from his mother. Daniel waved her concerns away. He didn’t think Jason was intending to be rude, he was just a seventeen-year-old who couldn’t see the point in any of this. ‘Come on, Jason,’ said Daniel, ‘this isn’t about me or your mum. This is your future we’re talking about. None of us can do your exams for you.’ Jason shrugged again. ‘I just don’t see the problem. It’s not as if speaking French and Spanish is going to get me a decent job.’ ‘But Jason,’ said his mother, ‘you love Spanish and French.’ ‘No, Mum,’ Jason said, looking tired, ‘you love that I’m good at Spanish and French.’ He slumped some more, so Daniel tried another tactic. ‘OK, Jason, so what would you rather be doing? You can always go back and take different subjects next year if you like.’ A shrug. And nothing. ‘Come on, Jason, there must be something you’re interested in.’ ‘Gaming,’ said Jason. ‘I’d like to work on computer games.’ ‘That’s not a career,’ said Mrs Leigh in frustration. ‘I don’t think you’ll get a degree in computer games.’ ‘You’d be surprised,’ said Daniel. He leaned forward, turned back to Jason. ‘So why didn’t you take computer sciences instead?’ ‘Mum said I should do languages.’ Jason sneaked a stroppy look at his mum. ‘Those bloody computer games!’ said Mrs Leigh. ‘You spend far too much time on them.’ ‘But I like them,’ said Jason, ‘and I’m good at them. I don’t need to go to uni to get a job in the gaming industry.’ ‘But you could be the first person in the family to go to university!’ wailed his mum. ‘Honestly, Mr King, I’m sure your children don’t behave like this.’ ‘I think all children behave like this, sometimes,’ said Daniel, thinking of Sam locking himself in the garage to play his drums for hours, spending as little time on his studies as Jason appeared to on his. Sam’s mocks hadn’t gone too well either. And Beth’s fury about it had evoked a shrug and a, ‘They’re only mocks,’ response. To Daniel’s dismay it had led to a massive row, and Beth and Sam hadn’t talked for a couple of days. Daniel was worried about Sam’s future too, but sometimes he thought Beth came down too hard on him and made it worse. ‘So that’s where you see your career, Jason?’ said Daniel. ‘Definitely,’ said Jason, brightening up. He began to talk knowledgeably and at length about the games that interested him and the world of computers till Daniel’s head was dizzy. ‘I could earn shedloads of money and not end up in debt,’ he finished. ‘Why should I even bother with uni?’ ‘Jason!’ His mother was apoplectic, Daniel could see a vein bulging on her forehead. ‘But what security will you have? You have to go to uni, you have to.’ Daniel began to feel a little sorry for her, he knew just how hard it was being a parent at times. Particularly of a recalcitrant teen. He could imagine him and Beth having a similar conversation with Sam’s head teacher. ‘You might not need a degree to work in the gaming industry, Jason,’ he said, ‘but you’re a clever lad, and having qualifications never hurt anyone. You’ve only got a few months left with us, why not at least try to achieve what you’re capable of? There are kids in this school who would kill to have your opportunities. You shouldn’t waste them.’ ‘I suppose.’ ‘Mr King’s right, Jason,’ said his mother more gently. ‘It’s worth a try, isn’t it?’ Jason nodded imperceptibly, staring down at the table. ‘So what do you think?’ said Daniel. ‘Is it worth pushing yourself the extra mile for the next few months? It can’t hurt, can it?’ ‘I guess not,’ said Jason. ‘So you’ll give it a go?’ Daniel said encouragingly. Jason shrugged. ‘It’s up to you,’ said Daniel, ‘but, if you are going to take this seriously, you will need to attend the catch-up sessions your teachers are running. They give up their valuable time to help, Jason. I have to say, I think the least you could do is give it a try.’ Jason had the grace to look a little shamefaced at this. ‘Listen to Mr King,’ said Mrs Leigh, softening her tone a little. ‘I never had the chances you did. Don’t throw them away.’ ‘And it’s not obligatory to go to uni this year,’ said Daniel. ‘You could take a year out, re-evaluate what you want to do. Why not go and see Mr Price in careers? He might have some suggestions for you.’ To his relief, this seemed to go down well, so by the time their conversation had drawn to a close, both Jason and his mum were smiling. Who knew, Jason might even surprise them all. Daniel ushered them out and sat back down at his desk with a sigh. Jason Leigh was so very like Sam, who also thought school was pointless and was currently displaying no ambition whatsoever. Daniel hadn’t a clue how to get through to him. Whatever he said fell on deaf ears. Daniel was reluctant to be as overbearing as his own father had been, and had seen so many pushy parents over the years that he’d always taken a rather hands-off approach with his own children. Maybe, as Beth kept telling him, that had been a mistake. ‘Physician, heal thyself,’ he said, and got back to work, wondering how he was ever going to cross the chasm that existed between him and his son. Chapter Three (#ulink_2276c8e4-e87d-52a8-8a20-ecbb69a11805) Lou It occurs to me as I get home with Mum and start unpacking the shopping that I should take my own advice. In the month since Jo ditched me and I got made redundant, I have been utterly miserable. I’m missing Jo badly, and resisting the urge to call her as I know that it won’t do any good. I have no money, and have been feeling so emotionally battered I can’t even think about work. I can’t do anything about my relationship status, but getting a new job would go some way to restoring my low self-esteem. I’ve been feeling so unhappy, I haven’t bothered up till now. So when we get in, the first thing I do is sign up for some job agencies, and start looking for credit control opportunities. I wasn’t too long in my last job so my CV is up to date, and I know they’ll give me a good reference. It wasn’t as though they were unhappy with my work. It was just bad timing that I came into the company when things were starting to go badly. An unfortunate example of last in, first out. I stare out of the window at the grey January day. It’s such a bleak month, especially when you’re unhappy. All that hope and expectation of Christmas gone, and nothing to look forward to. Maybe I should go away somewhere, get some winter sun, just to cheer myself up. In fact, maybe I should make Mum go with me. I can’t remember the last time she and Dad went away properly. It would give us both a chance to clear our heads. I have a little money saved up, and besides, what else are credit cards for? I’ve just clicked on a website offering winter breaks when my phone buzzes. Jo. Oh fuck, I’m not ready for this. She’s sent me a couple of texts since the New Year, but I’ve ignored them. I’m not strong enough to cope with her yet. How are you doing? Worried about you xxx Really? Really? Why would she even care? She was the one who broke my heart. I’m so angry with her for saying this that I break my no contact rule and before I can stop myself I’m furiously typing out a reply. You could have fooled me, I text back. Don’t be like that, Lou Lou, is the response. Can’t we be friends? Of course we can’t. I’m far too raw. What is she thinking? I want to text something angry back, but I know from bitter experience (oh, I have so much bitter experience!) that it won’t help, so I content myself with: Sorry, not ready for that yet. Maybe one day. The phone beeps again. It seems such a shame. Didn’t we have some good times? Yes, we did, I think, and then some not so good times. I had hoped that she was the real deal, that finally I’d found someone to share my life with, but for her I was clearly a little interlude. I can’t say any of that though, without sounding appallingly needy, and I won’t give her the satisfaction. Sorry, Jo, that’s the way it is. Please don’t text me. Not unless you want me back, I’d like to add, but I know that’s not going to happen. I switch my phone off, and return to the website. A week in Tenerife looks like the best thing ever. Life’s too short to be miserable. I click on the link before I can change my mind, and quickly book our flights. Mum will probably think I’m interfering, but I reckon we both deserve the break. Beth The meeting is excruciating. It’s so weird having Jack sitting here, and for some reason I’m finding it hard to look him in the eye. From the outset it’s clear that Vanessa hates my drawings, and she makes her feelings very plain. There is no attempt at finesse, or trying to soften the blow. My initial warmth turns to hostility and by the time the meeting is halfway through, I am boiling with rage. ‘I just didn’t picture the Littlest Angel like this,’ she says. ‘I think she needs to be cuter.’ She does have a point. My angel looks sharper than I intended, and slightly demented. Cute she definitely is not. ‘I admit she’s not quite right yet,’ I say, ‘but I don’t want to draw Disney angels, I’m afraid.’ ‘I think that’s exactly what you should be going for,’ says Vanessa. ‘Cute and sweet is what sells at Christmas, particularly in the US.’ She also hates the spread which has the angel talking to one of the statues on top of St Peter’s. ‘Hmm, I don’t quite see why she would be going to Rome?’ she says. ‘It just doesn’t work for me.’ ‘It just doesn’t work for me,’ is one of a number of Vanessa’s pet sayings that I am beginning to hate. ‘But why would she be going to Paris or London?’ I say. ‘They sell better to Americans,’ was the swift response. So that’s all right then. Jack has been quiet up to this point, but he intervenes now. ‘Maybe the story isn’t quite right yet,’ he says. ‘Perhaps that’s where Beth is having the problem. I know I’ve just come into this, but I am struggling with the concept a bit. Beth, is there a reason why the angel is going round the cities of the world? I may be missing something, but it doesn’t make much sense to me. Sorry, I hope you don’t think I’m being too critical.’ He smiles over at me with the crooked grin I remember so well, and my heart lurches a little, and I’m back in time again, back to the first night he grinned at me like that. I pull myself together and shoot him a grateful look. ‘That’s not how it was planned originally,’ I explain. ‘My story was actually simpler than that, but I couldn’t seem to get it out right, so Vanessa suggested this direction.’ I don’t say what’s really in my head, namely that Vanessa’s idea has made things worse, but I’m pleased when Jack says, ‘Is it worth looking at it again?’ Vanessa looks deeply irritated. ‘We’re under a lot of time pressure here, Jack, I think we should work this current idea up till it’s right.’ ‘Fair enough,’ says Jack, and winks at me in a conspiratorial fashion. I feel slightly light-headed. I blush and look away, grateful for his intervention, but unable to process the confusion I’m feeling. I’m still reeling from the shock of seeing him again. During our three years at art school we were very close – except he never quite reciprocated my feelings in the way I wanted him to. For Jack, I was only ever his occasional hook-up, but I was blindly in love, and like a fool I always thought it would lead to more. In his own way, he was quite honest about it. He used to tell me he was a free spirit who didn’t want to be tied down. I was so infatuated that I bought into it for far too long – until the day I caught him sleeping with my then best friend, Kerry. Then it was as if the scales had fallen from my eyes, and despite Jack’s protestations that I was always going to be the one he came back to I finally came to my senses. After that, we drifted apart, and I met Daniel the following year at teaching college. He was so different from Jack; kind, caring, funny; it was so easy to fall in love with him. I was head over heels before I knew it, and pregnant quicker than expected. All of a sudden I was a mum at home looking after two small children, all thoughts of Jack Stevens forgotten. Well, mostly forgotten. I have had the odd wayward daydream about what would happen if I ever saw Jack again. But I never seriously expected it to happen. I’ve never even told Daniel much about him. I felt like such a fool for falling for Jack’s lines, and in the early days of our relationship, I didn’t want Daniel to know about my stupidity. As time went on, it became irrelevant. Jack Stevens had disappeared from my life, and I hadn’t properly thought about him in years. Seeing him in the flesh again is such a shock. I’d forgotten about those brilliant blue eyes … The meeting ends inconclusively, with me promising to go away and rework both the text and drawings. As we pack up our things, Jack suggests coffee, and before I can think too much I say yes. I’m curious to know what he’s been up to, and he reminds me of a part of my life that I’d almost forgotten about, when I was young and free and wanted to change the world with my art. ‘Well, well, Lizzie Holroyd,’ he says as we squeeze into a busy Caffè Nero near the office. ‘I can’t tell you how great it is to see you again.’ He flashes that gorgeous smile at me and I feel a bit dizzy. This is insane. What is going on in my head? ‘It’s good to see you too,’ I say, because aside from the dizziness, it is. ‘It’s Beth now, by the way.’ I put Lizzie behind me with Jack, and Daniel has only ever known me as Beth. Jack raises his eyebrows. ‘So, Beth, how’s life as a successful picture-book artist?’ he says. ‘I always knew you’d do well.’ ‘Flatterer,’ I say, but secretly I’m pleased. Emotions aside, Jack was one of the most talented people in our year. His good opinion always mattered to me back then, and I’m surprised at how much it matters to me now. ‘To be honest I’m not really enjoying it much at the moment. This damned book is killing me,’ I say. ‘I’ve never had such difficulty working a story out.’ ‘You’ll get there,’ he says. ‘You’re disgustingly talented, you know. You always were.’ ‘Really?’ I can feel myself blushing. ‘Oh God, yeah,’ says Jack. ‘You had One Most Likely to Make It written all over you. I can’t tell you how great it is to meet you again, and see how well you’ve done.’ He seems so genuine and warm, it’s hard to remember the Jack who broke my heart, and all I can think of is the Jack who I fell in love with way back then. I feel as though I’ve entered another life, and for a minute it’s as if the intervening years have slipped away. I didn’t used to have responsibilities – instead I had ambitions, ideas and fun. Who was that girl I used to be? So full of life and love and hope? Where has she gone? I miss her. ‘Thanks,’ I say. My heart is doing a silly fluttering thing. Which is ridiculous. Jack’s worn well. He looks fit and healthy, and at nearly forty is still devastatingly handsome. ‘So how’s life with you?’ I say. ‘Any kids?’ ‘One,’ he says, ‘a daughter, aged five.’ He shows me pictures. She’s cute as a button. ‘I’m not with her mum though. My fault.’ He looks rueful. ‘Ah, right,’ I say. The leopard clearly hasn’t changed his spots. ‘Sorry to hear that.’ ‘I don’t have a great track record with women,’ he says. ‘Mainly because I have a bad habit of letting the good ones slip through my fingers …’ He pauses and looks at me, in a way that feels significant. Shit, he can’t mean …? My heart is racing at the thought. ‘… So I’m not great with commitment.’ He doesn’t mean me, I admonish myself. He’s just being nice. ‘Unlike you, I see,’ he says, clocking my rings. ‘Yes, happily married to Daniel for eighteen years,’ I say, looking down at my ring finger with a flash of guilt. ‘Two kids, a boy and a girl.’ I find myself telling him about them enthusiastically, as if by doing so I can put a barrier between me and my fluttering heart. Because sitting here with Jack is nice – too nice. It feels dangerous. I should go. ‘I’m really glad you’re happy,’ says Jack, and his pleasure seems genuine. ‘Thanks,’ I say. ‘I am.’ Which I am really, I know I am, but there’s a part of me now, here with Jack, that’s wondering how life could have been. Whether that girl I was wouldn’t have got lost under a welter of responsibilities if Jack had stayed in my life. I think of us sitting together in the college bar, talking about life over beer and packets of crisps. ‘I was an idiot back then,’ he says, and I realise he’s trying to apologise. ‘It’s a long time ago,’ I say, ‘all forgotten.’ ‘There’s no fool like a young fool,’ he says, and smiles at me. ‘Your Daniel is a lucky man.’ He shoots me a look. It’s regret, I think, mixed with something else. Desire? I am temporarily poleaxed. I have to get a grip. ‘I’m the lucky one,’ I say firmly. ‘I have a great life, wonderful children, and a gorgeous husband. I couldn’t want for anything more.’ I am deliberately hiding behind the wall of my perfect domesticity, and trying to turn away from the dangerous feelings Jack is evoking. I think he senses it, because he comes over all business-like and says, ‘If you need to chat over the storyline and pictures some more, please do get in touch.’ ‘That would be lovely,’ I say and give him a hug. The hug I receive in return is warm and heartfelt. It is with some regret that I pull myself away. ‘It’s been great to see you again.’ ‘And you,’ he says. I watch him head back to the office, turning the card he’s given me over and over. I won’t take him up on his offer, I decide. It was lovely to catch up. But despite Jack Stevens’ devastating blue eyes and charming manner, the past should stay where it belongs. In the past. Daniel Daniel got in late from work to find Beth cooking and the kids, as usual, in their rooms. Sometimes it felt as if they’d already left home and it was just him and Beth in the house. For all the notice the kids took of them, they might as well be invisible. Still, it was always good to come home, to Beth, to their shared life. He was lucky to have such a family, lucky to have a four-bedroomed detached house, lucky to have a garden. He could never have imagined this happening to him when he was growing up, in the small flat he and his mum had shared in south London. ‘Good day?’ Beth asked, giving him a welcoming hug. He pulled her to him, breathed her in. She was every bit as gorgeous to him now as she had been that first day he’d met her at teacher training, when she’d walked into the lecture hall and smiled at him. He’d taken one look at the pretty arty girl with the long curling hair, and known that he was smitten. All these years later and he still was. ‘Busy,’ said Daniel. ‘How did the meeting go?’ ‘It was dire,’ said Beth. ‘That girl. Ugh. I’m more confused than ever. I feel this bloody book is going to be the death of me.’ ‘I’m sure it’s not as bad as all that,’ said Daniel. Beth always fretted when she was in the middle of a book, but she pulled it off every time. It was a constant source of astonishment to him as to how she did it. He was so proud of her. ‘It really is,’ said Beth. ‘Oh, and you’ll never guess who the new art director is.’ ‘Who?’ ‘Do you remember me telling you about a guy called Jack Stevens?’ ‘The guy from college?’ Daniel had faint memories of Beth mentioning a friend from art school called Jack years ago. Apparently he had always encouraged her when they were students, which had given her the confidence to do what she was doing now. For some reason they’d drifted apart after college; she was always a bit vague as to why. ‘The very same,’ said Beth. ‘Small world, huh?’ ‘Isn’t it?’ Daniel said. ‘How was he?’ ‘Just the same,’ said Beth. She seemed a bit preoccupied. ‘At least I know he’s on my side.’ ‘Well that’s something,’ said Daniel. He sighed. ‘I’d love to stay and chat, but I’ve got paperwork to catch up on. How long till supper?’ ‘You have half an hour,’ said Beth. Daniel went upstairs and poked his head round Megan’s door. She was sitting in her bed, wrapped up in a blanket, transfixed to a screen. ‘Good day?’ he asked. ‘It was OK,’ said Megan, barely looking up. ‘I hope that’s homework you’re doing,’ said Daniel. Megan blushed. ‘Not exactly. I’m just watching something on YouTube.’ ‘Well, look at that after you’ve done your homework,’ said Daniel. ‘You know, you’ve got—’ ‘I’ve got GSCEs next year and need to knuckle down,’ said Megan rolling her eyes. ‘I know, Dad, and I am working.’ ‘Good,’ said Daniel, smiling. Megan always had an answer for everything, but at least she still talked to him. He paused outside Sam’s room, thinking about Jason Leigh. Maybe Sam needed a similar kick up the arse. Sam was also hunched over a computer, sitting at his desk with his back to Daniel. ‘How’s it going?’ said Daniel, trying to effect casual. He never quite knew what kind of response he would get from his son. ‘OK,’ said Sam. ‘What about your extra lessons? How were they today?’ Sam had done spectacularly badly in his mocks and been pulled in for extra help in economics and physics. ‘Didn’t go,’ said Sam. ‘Sam!’ Daniel was exasperated. ‘We’ve talked about this. If you don’t start working soon, it will be too late.’ Sam shrugged. ‘It’s my life, Dad. And I’m nearly eighteen, so just butt out.’ Daniel could feel a knot of tension building inside of him. Sam was frequently disrespectful, but Daniel didn’t like to come down too hard for fear of sounding like his own dad, Reggie. Daniel had spent a lot of his early childhood being subjected to vicious tongue-lashings when his dad had come home drunk, and had always sworn he would be a different kind of father. He could still remember the occasion when he’d failed badly in a spelling text and Reggie had shouted at him for being stupid. Daniel had tried so hard not to be negative to his own children, and it was incredibly frustrating to feel it all being kicked back in his face. ‘You might be nearly eighteen, but you’re still living under my roof,’ he said, trying to control his voice. ‘And?’ Sam swivelled around so that he was facing Daniel. ‘You could at least respect me and your mum,’ said Daniel, feeling his frustration brimming over into anger at his son’s disinterested expression. Sam said nothing and turned back to his screen. Daniel took a deep breath. He had a sudden image of being six years old and hiding under his bed because Reggie had erupted when Daniel had broken a cup. However angry Daniel was with Sam, he wouldn’t let it control him. He refused to. So instead, he went into his study to fire up his computer, silently fuming. What had gone wrong with his relationship with Sam? He’d always tried to be open and honest with both his children, but over the last year Sam had closed down on him. He opened his emails with a sigh, and then saw a name in his inbox that made him freeze. Reggie King. Dad? It had been a couple of years since Reggie had last been in contact, which suited Daniel just fine. His stomach turned in knots. Life was always much easier if he didn’t think about Reggie. He read the email with a growing sense of dread. Hi son, Long time no see, read the email. I’m going to be back in the UK in February. Maybe we could hook up for a drink? Reggie Daniel stared at the message, his thoughts racing. Maybe we could hook up after five years of very sporadic communication? Just like that? What the hell did he want? Chapter Four (#ulink_445ed07d-6b61-56dc-9015-bef5d5638928) Lou I drive up to Beth’s house, feeling the smidgeon of envy I can never quite repress when I turn into the drive of her four-bedroomed mock-Georgian home. Beth has a lovely house, a caring husband, gorgeous children. I know she’s worked hard for them, and deserves all those things, but sometimes it’s hard to get away from the fact that she has everything I ever wanted. Barring perhaps the husband. A wife on the other hand … It feels as though life has always come easily to Beth and never to me. I flunked out at school, didn’t make it to uni. When we were kids she was always the A-grade student, the pretty one, the one with the boyfriends. I was left in her shadow. She never flaunts it in my face, but being next to my high-achieving big sister always makes me feel a failure; I hate it. And I hate myself for letting it get to me. ‘Lou, come in.’ Beth gives me a hug, and instantly I feel like a bitch. She is always unfailingly kind; it’s not her fault my life is such a disaster zone. She’s still in her dressing gown and PJs, her hair done in a messy bun, with curls straggling down her shoulders. She manages to look fabulous though. Beth is one of those annoying people who could look good wearing a paper bag. She seems a bit distracted and has smudges of paint on her hands. My heart sinks. If Beth’s in full creative mode, bang goes my chance of having a sensible chat. ‘Sorry, am I disturbing you?’ I say. ‘Maybe I should call back another time.’ ‘No, no, it’s great to see you,’ says Beth. ‘It’s not going well, to be honest. I could do with a break.’ She absentmindedly rubs paint in her face and sighs. ‘What’s the problem?’ I say, following her into the kitchen. I can see the conservatory which leads off from the kitchen is littered with bits of paper, paint and discarded drawings. ‘Aren’t you using your studio?’ Daniel built her a studio in the garden for her work. Of course he did. ‘The cold,’ says Beth. ‘My fingers are going numb in there. Sometimes a change of scenery helps.’ ‘But not at the moment?’ ‘Nothing helps at the moment.’ Beth looks rueful. ‘To what do I owe the pleasure? Mum and Dad, I assume? Sorry, I should have come before.’ I’ve actually been surprised that Beth hasn’t been over more. She’s often complained to me that Mum expects her to be at her beck and call. Now that there’s a real crisis, and I happen to be around, she seems to have left everything to me. Beth and I have had endless conversations about the parental situation since Christmas. Daniel’s even taken Dad out for a drink – to no avail. Dad wouldn’t say anything other than that he’s in love. Like some heartsick teenager. I’ve tried to understand Dad’s point of view, even though I’m still angry, but I just don’t get it. I asked him what’s so great about Lilian. He says he met her at the art classes Beth encouraged him to take – I think she might feel a bit guilty about that – and they struck up a friendship. ‘Lilian’s so different from your mum,’ he said, ‘kind of arty, and a free spirit. I didn’t realise how stultified I was till she blew into my life like a breath of fresh air. I know it’s hard for you to accept.’ And I don’t accept it. I won’t accept it. The whole notion of my dad having an affair is preposterous. Honestly, men can be pathetic at times. Which is part of the reason why I prefer women. Although … I haven’t exactly had a great track record there, either. ‘What’s the latest, then?’ asks Beth as we settle down with coffee. ‘Mum’s finally asked Dad to move out,’ I tell her. ‘You’re kidding me?’ says Beth, looking genuinely shocked. ‘I keep thinking they’ll sort it out somehow. They can’t be splitting up at their age. It’s absurd.’ ‘I know. But they can’t go on as they are. You’ve seen how vile they can be to one another. It’s horrible living with it.’ ‘Is there any way to persuade Dad to change his mind?’ Beth is clutching at straws. I totally understand why, although if she’d been living there these past weeks she would see that Dad needs to move out. It’s not fair on Mum. ‘I honestly don’t think so,’ I say. ‘I think even Ged’s tried.’ Ged has been conspicuous by his absence since all this kicked off. I put the fact that he has actually rung Dad down to a kick in the butt from Rachel. God knows what sort of family she thinks she’s landed up in. ‘How’s Mum?’ Beth looks guilty. ‘I keep meaning to come over and see how she is, but it’s been busy, and you know how it is …’ I do know. I am annoyed with Beth for not seeing more of Mum, but in a way I can’t blame her. I’m stuck with Mum and Dad. If I had the chance I’d probably do what Ged’s done and run a mile. Maybe it’s time I did step up to the plate So I content myself with, ‘I’m sure Mum would love to see you,’ and tell her that I’ve decided to take Mum away. ‘It will do us both good.’ ‘That’s a brilliant idea,’ says Beth, ‘but can you afford it? We can chip in if necessary.’ ‘I was going to pay for it, but when I saw the prices I changed my mind and told Dad he has to at least pay Mum’s share. I figure he owes her.’ ‘He certainly does,’ says Beth. ‘I’m still in denial about all of this. I can’t believe none of us saw the signs.’ ‘Me neither.’ ‘I guess you never know what’s happening in other people’s marriages,’ says Beth. ‘I guess not.’ ‘Dad and this Lilian woman …’ There’s silence for a minute, and then Beth makes a funny noise. I look at her. She’s starting to laugh, putting a hand to her mouth. ‘I know it’s wrong of me, but really, at his age, what can he be thinking?’ ‘I don’t think thought has much to do with it,’ I say, and Beth shrieks with disgust. ‘I don’t even want to go there,’ she says, giggling helplessly now. ‘We shouldn’t laugh, but really, the thought of him and someone who isn’t Mum, it’s crazy.’ It’s enough to tip me over the edge. We both end up laughing till the tears are running down our faces. After all the anger, it feels like a nice kind of release. ‘I genuinely thought this would all blow over,’ says Beth when she’s recovered. ‘I guess I was wrong. Sorry, I’ve been so stressed out over this book, I haven’t given them the time I should.’ ‘No worries,’ I say. ‘You’ve got a lot on your plate, and at least I’m not working at the moment.’ ‘Thanks, Lou,’ says Beth, ‘I am grateful.’ ‘It’s fine,’ I say, plastering a smile on my face. I can feel myself sobering up. Good old Lou, the spinster daughter, with so little in her life she can carry the can. ‘Glad to help.’ Daniel Daniel emerged from a stressful meeting of the Senior Management team with a horrible headache. They’d been discussing the shortfall in this year’s budget, and there had been several dissenting voices around the table when Daniel and the bursar had spoken about tightening their belts. Jim Ferguson had been particularly vociferous about Daniel’s suggestion to scale back on the introduction of a new computer system, which had been his particular baby. The trouble was there was a lot of wastage, but the bottom line was the school didn’t have enough money to implement some of the programmes Daniel had wanted to put in place to improve things. He was going to have to wait another year. He somehow didn’t think the Ofsted inspectors were going to be impressed by that, whenever they showed up. He hoped he wasn’t heading for trouble. Daniel headed for his office, made a coffee, and started going over yet more paperwork. There was always so much to do. He rarely left school before six thirty, and was only grateful he had a short journey home now. It was so much easier than when he’d been working in London, when he was rarely home before 8 p.m. At least he got to see his family for some of the evening, though invariably he found himself locked away in his study for a couple of hours each night. Not that Beth seemed to notice at the moment. She was so caught up with the combination of her new book and worries about her parents, sometimes she barely acknowledged him when he came in. He was used to her vagueness when the muse was upon her, but this was a whole new level. Most days he would find her in her shed staring grumpily at bits of paper, having completely forgotten about cooking tea. She seemed to be fed up with everything she’d produced so far, which was making her snappy. Daniel felt like he was walking on eggshells, and last night they’d had a row and both gone grumpily to bed. It was exhausting. Daniel still hadn’t got round to mentioning the fact that Reggie had been in touch. Partly because he was tempted to ignore it, and partly because he knew Beth would think Daniel should meet him. It had been the aim of her married life to effect a reunion between her husband and father-in-law, whom she’d only met once, a very long time ago. On that occasion, Reggie had been charm itself, and Beth had been surprised by Daniel’s uncharacteristic rudeness to him. They had rowed about it at the time, because Beth couldn’t understand why Daniel could never allow his dad back into his life. Perhaps he should have told Beth more about his childhood, but it was all too grim. Over the years Beth had tried to get him to talk about it several times, but Daniel preferred to shut out his past. He had felt so damaged by what had happened to him growing up; it made him feel somehow ashamed. And he hated the bitterness and anger he still felt towards Reggie. Daniel had always been afraid that anger would poison the life he had built for himself, so he had decided early on that he would put those feelings away and never think about it. Most of the time that strategy worked. Beth was so close to her own family, he couldn’t explain to her what a rotten dad Reggie had been. Although Daniel had a few vague early memories of happy family days out, most of his memories of Reggie were of him being drunk and aggressive. Aged eight, Daniel regularly used to go to bed with a book and stuff a pillow over his ears to drown out the sound of his dad shouting. He had watched his mum being worn down by it, until in the end, she finally threw Reggie out in an argument that Daniel could still remember to this day. After that, although Reggie still saw him occasionally, Daniel had felt his mum was his family. Both his parents were from Jamaica, but neither had stayed in touch with their own families, who hadn’t approved of the match. ‘How right they were,’ Mum had said once, sighing. ‘But at least I have you.’ Daniel adored his mum, but he’d always missed having a wider family. It was one of the reasons he’d thrown himself so whole-heartedly into Beth’s family; they represented everything he didn’t have. Being with Beth had given him a joy that he hadn’t known life could offer. They’d met at teacher training college. After a stint in the city, which he’d hated, Daniel had decided, with his mother’s blessing, to become a teacher. He’d met Beth and fallen head over heels in love. It was a time in his life when everything should have been going right for him. Then out of the blue, his mum had developed an aggressive cancer and died just before their wedding day. To stave off his grief, Daniel had made it a point to keep looking forward, never back. Reggie brought him back to a dark place he never wanted to return to. It was as simple as that. Even if Beth wouldn’t see it like that. Her experience of family was so different from his own, he sometimes felt she couldn’t understand the deep vein of toxicity which had run through his childhood. It was easier to shut the past down, look forward, and make her family his own instead. And now her parents were splitting up, and it made him feel totally disorientated. No wonder Beth was so miserable. He must try to make it up to her somehow. He opened the email from Reggie once more, stared at it for a few seconds and then decided to get this over and done with. He’d tell Beth about it later, when Reggie was safely back in the States. Hi Reggie, Good to hear from you. Up to my eyes in Ofsteds and general stress. Maybe next time you’re over? Daniel. His hands hovered over the keyboard for a second before pressing send. He had too much on his plate at the moment, without having to deal with his father. Life was stressful enough already. Daniel hit the button. Beth The email arrived this morning, and I must have read and reread it a dozen times already, trying to see if there was a hidden agenda. Jack Stevens was always a bit slippery. Gorgeous, charismatic, but very, very slippery, as I found out to my cost. But seeing him again has reminded me of the person I used to be around him: someone with possibilities. The years of parenting and being a wife have taken some of that away from me. Thanks to getting pregnant with Sam, my career ended up on hold, and I slipped into the world of picture books by accident. Daniel had known someone from college who worked in publishing and got me my first gig. He’d always been hugely supportive of my efforts, while not having a clue about the creative process involved. It had suited me to create stories for children when mine were small, and the work fitted in with being a mum. But when I was at college I’d had other ideas. I was going to be an avant garde artist and win the Turner prize. Or develop my sculpture work, which I’d loved. Or be an inspiring teacher for a new generation of artists. Daniel never understood that side of me, so I never discussed it with him. Whereas Jack … Jack had always instinctively got where I was coming from when I spoke about my art. He had great ideas for how to get the best out of my work. We used to sit up till the early hours discussing our plans for the future. At the time I’d fantasised about us getting together properly, having a proper relationship, not the half-hearted moments which seemed to promise so much but ended up going nowhere. Jack Stevens. I can remember him in my first year at art school. He was a self-confident strutting peacock, one among many, but there was something about him that made him stand out from the rest. Jack was going through a massive Bowie phase at the time, and oh, he was beautiful. He had a thin, angular face, with the most amazing cheekbones and blue eyes which sucked you in, making you believe he could see into your soul. He knew it of course, and was quickly surrounded by a coterie of fans, both male and female. He was always ambiguous about his preferences, playing with gender before it was even a thing, but for some reason he admitted to me when we still barely knew each other and he was very very drunk that he was a through and through hetero. I tried to ignore him at first, thinking someone as dazzling as Jack wouldn’t be interested in me, but to my surprise he kept seeking me out. Then, one night in a club, we got chatting and we both felt an instant connection. I knew I hadn’t imagined it, and the day after that Jack asked me for coffee. I had a feeling I was heading for trouble, but he made me feel special. ‘The others are nothing,’ he’d say, ‘you’re my muse.’ It was immensely flattering, and being young and naive I believed him. I was intoxicated by the idea of being Jack’s inspiration. His room was full of sketches of me – and he even persuaded me to model for him. Even though there was evidence of other women, I chose to ignore it, because he always said that I was the only person who meant something to him, and I suppose I really wanted to believe it. Till the moment I finally realised he was bullshitting me all along … I look around my lovely bright kitchen, where yet again I’ve caused chaos with work (memo to self, really must tidy up before Daniel gets in tonight; it’s driving him mad), and know Jack would never have given me a home like the one I have. My life with Daniel is ordered, calm, stable, secure. All the things Jack is not. We’d have probably ended up living on a houseboat somewhere. Or in a squat. And I can’t ever imagine having had children with him. I suspect if I had, I’d have done all the work. Unlike Daniel, Jack is not great father material. At least he wasn’t back then. Maybe he is now, although somehow I doubt it. But it had been so easy to fall for Daniel after Jack; good, solid, reliable, gorgeous Daniel. I know he’ll never let me down. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/julia-williams/it-s-a-wonderful-life-the-christmas-bestseller-is-back-with/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.КУПИТЬ И СКАЧАТЬ ЗА: 224.46 руб.