Especially for fans of Sue Moorcroft’s Middledip stories we bring you part 2 of her seasonal long read from our archives. Read part one here
Nadia had resolved to be the model guest for the rest of her stay with Josh’s family.
She hurried downstairs at the first excited cry of, “But when can we open our presents?” already dressed to celebrate the day in a pretty red outfit. Everyone else was still in their night things but after a restless night she’d had plenty of time to spend on clothes, hair and make-up, even after performing her daily practice routine to keep her both sharp and supple.
“Merry Christmas! Don’t you look lovely?” cried Caro, resplendent in a pink fleece dressing gown. “Grab yourself a cuppa and we’ll start on the presents before I make bacon sandwiches. Ollie and Elliot, run upstairs and wake your Uncle Joshua. Tell him that we’re ready for prezzies!”
Wishing Caro, Victoria and William a Merry Christmas, and reassured by Caro’s smiles, Nadia slipped into the kitchen. Not a crumb remained to remind her of Caro’s version of réveillon. She and Josh had made sure of that. She made a fresh pot of tea just as Uncle Bob shuffled in in his slippers and gave her a big Christmas hug.
“Can’t stand tea. Coffee, please.”
Josh gave her a single gift, wrapped in gold foil
By the time Nadia went back into the sitting room the family was assembled, the boys ripping into their first presents.
“Oh, wow, cool! Lego!”
“Wicked! Star Wars!”
Having more gifts than everyone else put together, the boys frisked from parcel to parcel like puppies.
“Josh!” groaned William in rumpled tartan pyjamas. “Did you have to buy them sound effect machines?”
“Pardon?” Josh slapped his hands to his ears, pretending not to be able to hear as Elliot and Ollie joyfully pressed every button on their new machines, one playing the sound of a slamming door as the other competed with the wailing of a banshee.
Nadia hadn’t been forgotten, of course. Victoria and William gave her perfume, Caro a pretty evening bag and Uncle Bob chocolate moulded into the shape of a pair of extravagant shoes.
All too aware of their audience, Nadia watched Josh open her gifts to him – a handheld device for making his own guitar plectrums, a book about Eric Clapton, his guitar hero, and a shirt and pair of designer jeans she knew he’d been coveting in a shop on board but couldn’t afford, even with staff discount.
In return, Josh gave her a single gift, wrapped in gold foil and tied with red ribbon. Inside she found a beautiful jewellery box made of mirrors. When she lifted the lid it played Lovin’ You and in one red plush compartment nestled a gold charm bracelet with the first charm hung: a heart.
Nadia’s own heart almost burst with joy as she threw her arms around him. “It’s beautiful! You shouldn’t have spent so much! Now I know why you couldn’t afford the jeans.”
Josh held her tightly. “You’re worth every penny.”
“There’s something inscribed on the lid of the box, isn’t there?” Victoria screwed her head around to try and read upside down.
Nadia reached out of her place in Josh’s arms to check. “I hadn’t noticed. Oh!” She glanced up at Josh, feeling a tug in her chest at his expression.
“Come on, don’t keep it to yourself,” Victoria clamoured. “What’s my little brother got to say for himself?”
Nadia had to clear happy tears from her throat. “It says, To Nadia, love you forever. Josh.”
Ollie looked up from the box of Lego he was trying to get into. “Bleurgh.”
Victoria made a soppy face. “Awwwww…”
Uncle Bob beamed. “Don’t blame him. Very pretty girl.”
Eyebrows raised, Caro said, “That’s quite a declaration, Joshua. Goodness me. I hadn’t realised…”
Josh, not remotely abashed at the reaction to his gift, tightened his arms around Nadia. “She already knew how I feel, Mum.”
Perhaps she and Caro could chat
As the morning progressed, lighter of heart than she’d been since arriving in Caro’s home, Nadia made herself useful helping with what the boys termed “Bacon butty breakfast” then packing the wrapping paper debris into the recycling bin while the others took turns in the bathroom, and Ollie and Elliot tried to play with all their toys at once. They broke off only to demand that Nadia perform more handsprings.
She laughed. “Not a good idea indoors.” And not very dignified in a dress, but she good-naturedly showed them how she could do the splits.
“Very good,” boomed Uncle Bob. As the boys tried to copy her, involving a great deal of squealing and laughter, he shuffled off into the kitchen to his favourite chair in the corner to close his eyes and listen to carols on the radio.
People began to come back downstairs. Josh flung himself on the floor to start a Lego construction with his nephews while Victoria and William embarked on the challenge of cramming enough chairs around Caro’s table and sorting through the sideboard for the correct table cloth and cutlery.
Nadia followed Caro into the kitchen. Perhaps relations between she and Josh’s mother would benefit from a little one-on-one time.
“What can I do to help?”
Caro hefted a big bag of potatoes. “How are you with a spud peeler?”
“Slow but adequate.”
She wouldn’t feel apologetic
Nadia pulled on an apron from behind the kitchen door and took up station at the sink. Nearby, Uncle Bob dozed, his peace apparently undisturbed by Caro clattering the delicious smelling turkey in and out of the oven for basting or Nadia scraping pans down off the shelf to receive the peeled potatoes.
Her new charm bracelet winking in the kitchen lights, she tried to find unexceptional subjects to chat about.
“I’ve had a Christmas chat with my brother Peter, this morning. He and his crowd are my only family since my parents died. He’s older than I am and was very good about giving me a home in the holidays until I’d finished circus school but we’re very different.”
“Circus school? I’d no idea there was such a thing.” Caro’s eyebrows disappeared into her hair as she looked up from the Yorkshire pudding batter.
Nadia dropped a potato into the pan of water. “I was mad on gymnastics so when I left school I did two years at circus school and then my BA year at the National Centre for Circus Arts.”
“You did a degree in being an acrobat?” Caro sounded quite faint.
Catching the dismay on Caro’s face, Nadia realised it would have been safer to go on to the subject of her niece and nephew and let Caro happily contribute family stories of her own. But she didn’t feel apologetic about what she was.
“I did,” she said, lifting her chin. “And I got a first. I interviewed for three cruise lines and was offered jobs on all of them. I’m proficient in floor and air performance, juggling and tightrope.”
The potatoes peeled, she began on the carrots. From the sitting room she could hear Elliot protesting about something and Josh getting him over the tearful moment with a joke.
It was some minutes before Caro spoke again. The batter having been beaten into submission she was setting about onions with machine-gun precision, ch-ch-ch-ch-chop. “You’re a little older than Joshua, aren’t you?”
“I’m twenty-nine, four years older.”
“Did you realise…” Caro hesitated. “Well, Josh only joined the cruise line for a short time. A gap year, really.”
A chilly feeling slithered into her stomach and Nadia dropped a carrot as she turned. It rolled across the floor.
Caro looked flustered. “Oh dear. I didn’t think he’d told you. He obviously has strong feelings for you but I hope he’s not getting carried away. His long-term plans are for a serious career. He could be playing in the Albert Hall, you know, or at least playing in the top venues in any of the big cities he could commute to from here. He’s wasted playing pop songs to tourists.”
Nadia didn’t even bother to explain that “playing pop songs to tourists” actually meant the guitarist having perfect mastery of a repertoire of over a hundred songs. She felt too hollow.
“No. He hadn’t told me that.”
Caro’s eyes were soft with sympathy
They’d lived in the here and now, something shipboard life was well suited for. The weeks were divided up into rehearsals and shows by a duty roster; they woke up in so many different countries that they sometimes didn’t even bother going ashore, preferring to laze away any off time on the crew deck, caught up in each other and the wonderful person each had discovered.
Yet she was all too well aware that there was a breed of entertainer who only ever planned to spend a few years on a cruise ship, devoting the time to filling a bank account, living costs on board being so low. Then, made more employable by the experience gained, they’d return to the stability of a home that stayed in one place.
Caro’s eyes were soft with sympathy. “I hope you don’t mind me speaking up. My marriage ended because we went into it with our eyes closed. I assumed we’d live in the village because we’d both been brought up here but it turned out Roland hankered after city life. I wanted to be a stay-at-home mum but he wanted me to work so we could afford exotic holidays.
“We never discussed wanting different things until it was too late and I don’t want the same to happen to Josh. I’m not trying to spoil Christmas, but have you asked Josh about his plans?”
Nadia resisted the impulse to give a sarcastic reply about not enjoying this Christmas anyway and simply shook her head, conscious of the sinking realisation that she and Josh should have had this discussion by now.
Christmas plans had been the only thing to highlight any difference in their life expectations but this uncomfortable conversation suggested there might be more to come. Josh’s heart was deeply connected to his family and the village where he grew up and things were expected of him. Nadia loved to travel the world unfettered by ties and didn’t encourage anyone to have expectations of her. Perhaps each had been guilty of making assumptions about the other.
She fretted as she relapsed into silence and scraped the carrots. Josh’s family, his career… her freedom to follow her own star. Was there a compromise? She couldn’t see it, not if she wanted to work on cruise ships and Josh wanted to come home. Giving up life on board made her feel miserable, but the prospect of losing Josh…
When Victoria arrived to help in the kitchen Nadia made an excuse and fetched her laptop. As Josh was absorbed in uproarious games of Pictionary with Ollie, Elliot and William, she settled in a corner of the dining room and stared at her computer.
Christmas dinner was about as traditional as it was possible to be. Turkey, roast potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, crackers to pull and flimsy paper hats to wear.
Everyone took turns reading the corny jokes that came out of their crackers. Uncle Bob told a rude joke that came out of his head and Josh nearly choked laughing at the anguished expression on his mother’s face as she groaned, “Uncle Bob! It’s a good job the boys didn’t understand that!”
Nadia did try and join in. She read out her joke, she wore her hat and beamed as she thanked Caro for the meal.
It didn’t prevent Josh from turning his gaze on her.
“You’re quiet. What’s up?”
“Nothing.” She smiled again.
“You’re hardly eating.” He slid an arm around her shoulders. “I’ve been leaving you to your own devices too much. Sorry. It’s just that I haven’t seen my family for a few months.” He kissed her temple.
“Bleurgh,” said Elliot.
Caro dropped her fork, blushing hotly
Then Uncle Bob butted in. “You’ll see plenty of us when you leave the ship, eh Joshua? Pass the sprouts, someone.”
Josh turned to look at his uncle. “When I do what?”
“Leave the ship.” Uncle Bob smiled sweetly. “Your mother was telling Nadia in the kitchen this morning about you wanting to come back. Yorkshire pudding’s good, Caro.”
It was Caro’s turn to be subjected to Josh’s gaze. “You said what, Mum?”
Nadia lay down her fork. She’d disregarded Uncle Bob’s dozing presence in the kitchen and Caro must have done the same. Nadia knew Uncle Bob was quite incapable of playing family politics and there was no malice in his revelation but she had never intended to have this conversation with Josh in public.
Caro looked taken aback. “I was just explaining to Nadia that you were only on the cruise ship for a gap year and that you could have a glittering career as a serious guitarist.”
“Mum, that wasn’t your conversation to have and I really don’t appreciate it.”
It was Caro’s turn to drop her fork, blushing hotly. “But darling, I just didn’t want you and Nadia to fall into the same trap that Dad and I did.”
As Josh opened his mouth as if to snap back a reply, Nadia laid her hand on his arm. “I’ve been looking online. There are jobs in circuses and shows. I don’t have to work on a cruise ship.”
Caro looked pleased and relieved. “You see, Josh? Nadia’s being very sensible. She’s seen that a compromise might be necessary.”
I meant those words on your jewellery box
Josh turned to Nadia. “And when do I get a say in our future? I did say I might only work on the ships for a short period, and I said I might pursue theatre orchestra instead, but ‘might’ was the operative word. It implies that I also might not.”
Nadia was transfixed by his stormy gaze. This was a side to Josh she had seen nothing of before. She was used to him acting decisively when taking the leading role in band rehearsal but he was always affable and smiling. She’d never seen him silence an entire table of people with the steel in his voice.
He took a deep breath. “Don’t you think that this is a decision we should discuss together? I did mean those words on your jewellery box. Love implies some element of sharing of lives and for you to leap to the conclusion that you’ll be the one to compromise if it does turn out we want different things makes me look selfish.”
He glanced at his mother. “And just for the record, I’m nowhere near ready to leave the cruise circuit. Not only have I fallen in love with a woman who’s opened my eyes to the joys of travel but I have no intention of depriving her of the life she loves.”
Feeling tears pricking at the backs of her eyes, Nadia swallowed and said, “But I don’t want to deprive you of the life you want, either.”
“You won’t.” He reached up and stroked her hair, then turned back to Caro, his voice softening. “I love you, too, Mum, but I’m a big boy, now. I’m part of a couple and you’re right that there might be compromises to make. We’ll work them out.” He placed a slight but unmistakeable emphasis on “we”.
“For example, as this year Nadia’s joined me for Christmas here, so it’ll be only fair if next year I try Christmas on board ship.”
Does the cruise put in at Haiti?
It ought to have been Nadia’s moment of triumph. Josh had publicly taken her side and linked their futures.
If only Caro didn’t look so forlorn beneath her red paper hat, her beautiful meal only half eaten, the Christmas she’d put so much effort into in danger of being marred by the unexpected venting of emotion.
Nadia spoke the words before she realised she’d even thought them.
“Why don’t you come on the Christmas cruise, Caro? Let others look after you for a change? We get discount for family if we book early.” She took Josh’s hand. “It would be different but I’m sure it would be lovely.”
“It certainly sounds lovely,” put in Victoria, enthusiastically. “What kind of discount do you get? It would be great if we could afford it, too.”
With everybody’s eyes on her, Caro summoned up a watery smile.
“Does the Christmas cruise put in at Haïti? If it does we’d better bring Uncle Bob.”
“Well you’re certainly not leaving me behind!” Uncle Bob declared. “Say yes, Caro, before they change their mind.”
Caro sighed. Then laughed. “Will everybody eat up if I do? Then yes!” She even sent Nadia an apologetic smile.
Nadia picked up her glass, relief flooding through her at the brightness of the future with Josh.
“Then here’s to Christmas – homely, in Haïti, or even afloat!”