Simon jerked awake, sat up and slammed shut the book he’d been dribbling onto. Four a.m. Still dark outside the glass doors. Three more hours before the day shift started to arrive. He squeezed his eyes shut and open again but still they burned with exhaustion. It was a good gig, this job, in the normal scheme of things – one night-shift a week on the reception desk of a budget hotel, nothing much to do but check in late arrivals and check out early risers. The pay was good and he usually worked a Friday night so he could go straight to bed when he got back to halls to make up for missing a night’s sleep. This was one shift he could have done without though. They’d phoned him up Tuesday morning, someone was sick, could he fill in that night, and he’d automatically said yes, because he wanted to make sure he still had the job when he got back after the Christmas holidays. He’d forgotten that his last exam was the very next day. Still, he’d thought, it’d be OK. He could do a few extra hours revision through the night, quiet doze in the armchair in reception for a couple of hours, shower, breakfast and pack when he got back, get to his nine o’clock exam and then go straight to the station afterwards. What he hadn’t counted on was that the hotel would be full of drunken people who’d decided to stay in town after their office party. Forty of them, Santa hats askew and falling over drunk, losing their room keys, throwing up in the plant pots, locking themselves out of their rooms, disturbing the other guests. It was enough to make you swear off alcohol forever, Simon thought. A steady trickle of revellers into the hotel at the beginning of his shift, followed by their constant need for him through the night had totally put paid to his quiet revision and refreshing nap. Actually it was enough to make you swear off Christmas forever.
“You off then?” Kirsty asked him when he hefted his bag onto his shoulder at the end of the exam. “No time for an end-of-exams drink?”
Kirsty was convinced Simon had a deep dark secret involving some tragic lost love. She’d been trying to wheedle it out of him since Freshers’ Week. And trying to step into the shoes of whoever the lost love was.
“Sorry, train’s in … twenty minutes! Gotta go. Have a great Christmas!” Simon planted a kiss on her cheek and backed away waving. Kirsty was alright. More than alright. There might be something there … only … he wasn’t ready for that, not yet.
“Message me!” she called after him. “Promise!”
“Definitely,” he called back. And he would. That’s me, he thought. Good, old reliable Simon.
Lily couldn’t make up her mind what to pack.
“Ca va être super-bien, ce Noël!” said Carine, swinging on the post on the end of the bed exactly in the middle of the path between the wardrobe and the bed.
Sylvie arrived to rescue Lily. “Go on, away you go, Lily needs to get organised.” She flapped at her daughter with the clothes she was carrying and then placed the pile on the bed next to Lily’s own.
“I’ve sorted out some of my old things for you to ski in.” She looked at Lily and then sat down on the bed next to the pile of clothes. “If you’re not having doubts about coming with us.”
Lily hesitated. She was pretty comfortable by now saying all the useful, everyday things she needed to say in French, but expressing her feelings, especially expressing them in a diplomatic way, was a little different.
“I don’t know,” she said with a shrug. “I’ve never been skiing. And Carine and Nico are so excited that I’m going to be there…”
“But Christmas is an important family time and you have not been away from your family at
Christmas before?” Sylvie suggested.
“And I think there’s a boy…”
Lily felt the colour rising to her cheeks. She shook her head. “No. No one special.”
Sylvie pursed her lips. “Hmm. I think so. But it’s up to you – skiing with us, or home with your family and friends. Don’t worry about the kids. We can have an extra little Christmas when you get back and I promise you, once they’re away, they’ll have a good time even without their lovely Lily.”
Kate had dragged her bag out of the back seat and slammed the door before she realised that Alex hadn’t moved. “Are you not coming in?”
Alex fiddled with the gear stick. “No, honestly, Kate. If I come in, your mother’s going to start trying to feed me or something, and I’ve got to get going if I’m going to get to Edinburgh tonight.”
Kate glanced at her mother’s house, the tasteful wreath on the huge front door, the elegantly decorated tree in the window. She rolled her eyes. “If you don’t come in, she’s going to start demanding to know everything about my entire life the moment I get through the door.”
“So drop your bag in and tell her they’re expecting you at Gingerbread & Cupcake. You can hide there until Amy gets home, can’t you?”
“Now that,” said Kate, leaning back into the car to touch her lips to Alex’s, “is what I call a plan.
What would I do without you?”
Alex sighed as she reversed out of the car. “I don’t know. And I don’t know what I’m going to do without you until New Year.”
“Dream about me?” Kate laughed as she shouldered her bag and set off to brave her mother.
Molly shuffled impatiently from foot to foot as she waited for the lights, one eye on the oncoming traffic in case there was a gap long enough for her to get across. There! Cut through the park, another road, the carpark – she said she’d be there at four, she hated to be late – down the alley and there it was, ahead of her on the narrow street, the gingerbread man sign swinging in front of a steamed-up window festooned with fairy lights. She pushed her way along the crowded pavements and in.
“Moll-ee!” A dark-haired boy threw himself around the counter and lifted her off her feet in a hug.
“When I said greet the customers in a friendly way, I didn’t mean throw yourself at them, Tom!”
Thomas – that’s Tom-ah, the French way, you don’t say the ‘s’ – blushed to the tips of his ears and turned to the older woman behind the counter. “But Caro-leen—”
Caroline grinned at him. “Only teasing, Tom. I know perfectly well who it is.” She winked at Molly.
“Three months and he still doesn’t get my sense of humour.”
Molly squeezed Thomas’s hand and began to take off her coat. “Sorry I’m late,” she said to Caroline.
“There was all this stuff to finish up at work and then I missed the three o’clock train. But it’s late-night shopping tonight, right? I can go out now, can’t I? Where’s the cupcake costume?”
“Don’t worry about it, lovey,” Caroline said. “We’re fine. It’s all sorted at the moment. You can maybe take over when the others come back in. Go on, sit yourself down – you too, Tom – and I’ll bring you something over when I’ve finished with this order.”
Sitting down was easier said than done. Every table was in use: mothers with toddlers, people meeting and exchanging bags full of presents, tired-looking people with bulging shopping bags.
Thomas nodded towards the wing-back armchair beside the sofas. It was just a little too heavy to comfortably pull up to the coffee table so generally it was the last place anyone chose to sit. Molly hesitated in front of the chair until Thomas sat and pulled her onto her lap.
“Ca te fait penser au bal, il y a deux ans?” he whispered in her ear. Did it make her think of the dance two years ago? Molly threaded her fingers through Thomas’s. Of course it did. That was the first time the two of them realised they were interested in each other. And now here they were spending their year off together, partly here in Lawton, partly in Thomas’s hometown on the outskirts of Paris and then, in the summer, back to the campsite in France where they’d met.
The doorbell jangled announcing a young man in a purple fleece with a large ShareFair logo. He hovered behind the customers at the counter, gazing down at his feet as though they were the most interesting thing in the world.
“Kyle!” Molly called. “Over here.”
Kyle glanced up, caught Molly’s eye and then looked away again as he edged around the tables towards here.
“You have no van today?” Thomas said glancing out into the street.
Kyle shook his head. “Not collecting. Just delivering Christmas cards.” He waved an envelope back towards the counter. “And checking what people are expecting to be giving to ShareFair over the holidays.”
“Busy time for you?” Molly ventured. She always found it pretty difficult to get a word out of Maya’s older brother.
“Mmm hmm. Lots of places giving us extra over Christmas. And we’re helping at the homeless shelter Christmas dinner, me and Maya and Alka.”
“What – all day on Christmas?”
Kyle shook his head. “No, just a couple of hours. Then we’re going back to their flat for our dinner.”
He looked from Molly to Thomas as he added, “Alka’s cooking. Maya says her cooking’s totally mad and it could be anything.” He startled as Caroline bellowed, “Kyle! Over here!” from the counter, and scurried towards her without another word.
The door flew open before Kate had even put her key in it and there was her mother, arms outstretched for a hug, looking slightly more dishevelled than usual due to the patches of flour on her discretely Christmassy jumper.
“Here’s Kate,” she called into the living room. She peered past Kate as she hugged her. “Is Alex not coming in?” Kate’s mum adored Alex. “Kate’s seeing such a lovely boy,” she’d tell people when they asked. She would never have said that about Joe when Kate was seeing him.
“Is Amy here yet?” Kate said, dumping her bags at the bottom of the stairs.
Her mum headed for the kitchen. “Amy’s coming when she’s finished work and Gran and Grandpa get here tomorrow. I thought I told you all this?”
Kate glanced into the living room as she passed. There was her stepfather, Tony, in his usual chair, half an eye on some sport or other on TV, half an eye on his iPad. He blew her a kiss and she blew one back. She couldn’t see the tree, but she could smell it, that particular mixture of gingerbread and pine that meant Christmas. All of a sudden, that genuine thrill of the season was on her and she was glad to be right here, in this house, not in her uni hall, not at Dad’s where things hadn’t been quite the same since his girlfriend Rosie had moved in, not even at Alex’s house with Tam and Joe.
“Hey, Mum,” she said and when her mother turned she threw her arms around her.
Her mum squeezed her tight. “What’s that for, funny girl?”
“Nothing. Just Happy Christmas. And I’m glad to be home.”
Simon’s phone beeped. At least, he thought it was his, but there seemed to be phones going off every few seconds on this packed train. It wasn’t in his top pocket. He was pretty sure he hadn’t put it in his jeans pocket. It was tricky to get to his other pockets, with his bag on his lap and the sleeping woman beside him whose head kept falling onto his shoulder. He coughed loudly. The woman’s eyes snapped open and she sat up, adjusting the collar of her coat, not a glance in his direction.
Simon shifted his bag and felt in his jacket pocket for his phone. It was Kate.
– What time are you getting in? –
– 5 something –
– Meet me at G&C? –
– OK –
He sat for a minute with the phone in his hand. He ought to say something else. Time was once Kate and he started texting each other, they kept it up for hours on and off. Seemed like Kate was slipping away from him, like the whole of Lawton was slipping away. He’d only been away at uni a single semester, but he was beginning to feel like Lawton wasn’t his home any more any more than Manchester was. Didn’t help that this French guy, Thomas, had taken over his room, so he’d be sleeping on a mattress on Johnno’s floor. He’d said of course he didn’t mind when Mum had put it to him back in September that there was this person who needed somewhere to stay, boyfriend of Lily’s friend Molly. Now he was roomless for the holidays, he didn’t feel quite so generous as he had when he’d been sitting in his room in halls in Manchester.
The warm air stung his cheeks as he walked into Gingerbread & Cupcake. It was totally packed – there were even a couple of people waiting for a table. Whole different story to this summer when they thought the tearoom might have to close.
There was Molly, sitting in the armchair by the window. The guy perched on one arm with his hand on the back of her neck would be her boyfriend, the French lodger. Lou was on the other arm, eyes on Kate who was talking on her phone with her back to Simon.
“There’ll be about … eight—? She looked at Lou who shrugged and nodded at the same time and then, spotting Simon, pointed so that Kate turned and waved. “No, nine of us… Yeah, to sleep over… But I think everyone’s going to be involved in Rachel’s big Gingerbread & Cupcake thing so we won’t be there before about eight … No, honestly. Just frozen pizza if anything. We’ll probably have been scoffing leftovers while we clear up… Thanks, Mum. You’re a total star.”
She ended the call and did a little celebratory dance with just her shoulders. “She said yes!” She turned to Simon and added, “Which Simon will tell you is totally unlike her. My mother agreeing to some spontaneous gathering that hasn’t been planned at least a month in advance?”
“She must be desperate to keep you at home as much as she can.”
Kate launched herself at him and the two of them hugged the tight, long hug of best friends who haven’t seen each other in too long.
“So,” Kate said, swinging their still joined hands. “Christmas movie night at mine. You are coming, aren’t you?”
“All the cheesiest movies?”
“Definitely. Love Actually and It’s a Wonderful Life top of the list. And some version of A Christmas Carol – maybe Scrooged?”
She jerked her chin towards the others. “Everyone. We’re all helping at your Mum’s do and then going back to mine.”
Simon looked round at the others. “So what’s everyone’s position on The Nightmare Before Christmas?”
“The Nightmare Before Christmas?” Lou repeated.
Kate pinched the back of his hand. “Oh shut up, you. Don’t even suggest it. Nightmare Before Christmas is not a Christmas movie. It’s a Halloween movie.”
Simon didn’t notice the doorbell announcing a new arrival, only the excited voice going, “Simon-Simon-Simon-Simon-Simon!” and there was Alka, dumping the big tray that they used to offer Gingerbread and Cupcake freebies in the town square and bouncing into his arms.
“You’re here! I’m so excited!” she squealed.
Simon raised his eyebrows over her shoulder and the rest of them grinned back.
“This is perfect timing!” Alka said as she released him. “We need another tray of goodies out in the square. You can take it!”
“Really?” he said. “I’ve just walked in. Couldn’t…?” He gestured around at everyone else.
“Uh huh.” Alka shook her head furiously. “It’s got be you.”
“We’ve all done it loads,” Lou said, nodding.
“Molly and me need to go home,” Kate added. “Don’t we, Moll?”
“And I must get back to work,” Thomas added, getting up and adjusting his apron before he wound his way back around the tables, picking up empty plates as he did.
“Simon’s going?” Caroline said with the faintest lift of an eyebrow. “Good idea. Here, give me your bag. Your Mum’ll be here soon anyway. She can run you home when you’re done.” She took his bag and passed him a large tray of gingerbread Santas and chocolate cupcakes with little fondant icing holly leaves. “Alka! Stop jigging about for a moment and give Simon your Santa hat.”
Simon stepped out into the chilly street. He could really have done without this. He’d be willing to bet none of them had been kept up all night by drunken partying office workers or had done an exam today. Still, he was beginning to feel a bit more positive about being home. Christmas movie night at Kate’s with everyone would be fun. And actually so would working together at the big event Gingerbread & Cupcake was catering tomorrow, a fancy tea party someone was throwing for a hundred guests complete with a Santa arriving in a sleigh pulled by actual reindeer (though Simon was intrigued to know how the sleigh was going to move with no snow).
The pavement here was very narrow so Simon stood to one side to let a man and a small girl get past him and his tray. The girl tugged at her father’s hand and pointed a wavering finger at Simon.
“Are you from Gingerbread & Cupcake?” the man asked. “Only the girl in the cupcake costume told us that someone was on the way… She said Annabella could …”
The little girl was bouncing on her toes now, trying to see what Simon was carrying.
“Of course,” he said, squatting down so that the girl could choose something from the tray.
The girl in the cupcake costume? Had anyone mentioned who it was waiting for him in the square in the cupcake costume? It couldn’t be… Could it? It was days since he’d heard from Lily. She was going skiing for Christmas with the French family she was au pairing for. And yet – Simon quickened his pace along the street, stepping into the road to pass people – could this be why they were all so keen that it was him who went out with the tray?
There was a lot of slow-moving traffic on the road he had to cross to get to the square. He weaved between the crawling vehicles, nodding thanks to the drivers. Where was she? The square was busy people browsing little stalls selling fancy Christmas food and gifts. A choir was singing carols by a Christmas tree. But where was the girl in the cupcake costume?
There, by the Christmas tree. A group of little children gathered around, their parents standing back, chatting and smiling. The girl spotted him and stood up, pointing so that the kids turned too. His Cupcake Girl. Lily. In a tinsel-trimmed cupcake outfit with a large holly headband. Smiling at him in a way that said all the things she couldn’t say right now, and him, grinning back at her.
“Here comes Simon,” Lily was saying. “Let’s see what lovely Christmassy treats he has for you.”
He couldn’t touch her, not with both hands holding the tray. He couldn’t kiss her, not with that awkward costume in the way. But as he stooped to show the tray to the children, he felt Lily’s chilly fingers touch his face fleetingly and she whispered, “Hello you,” and when he met her eyes and he knew that – at last – she felt the same way about him that he felt about her.
“Happy Christmas,” he whispered back before the two of them turned their attention to the excited children.
* * * * * * * * * *
Claire Watts writes and edits fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults.
Her latest YA novel is Gingerbread & Cupcake.