Especially for fans of Sue Moorcroft’s Middledip stories we bring you her seasonal long read from our archives
Nadia sprang from her feet to her hands then back to her feet, over and over, flip, flip, flip along the grass verge, then rounded out the series of handsprings with a flourish and a smile.
“Bravo!” cheered Josh.
“Coolio!” yelled Ollie, one of Josh’s twin nephews.
“Yay! Wicked!” shouted Elliot, the other, leaping into the air as if hoping to miraculously develop acrobatic skills too.
Josh’s mother, Caro, glanced up and down the street as if checking for spectators. “What are you doing?”
Feeling suddenly foolish, Nadia let her outspread arms drop. “Hand springs. The boys asked –”
Though she smiled, Caro linked arms with Nadia as if to keep her anchored right side up as they strolled through the village, every house twinkling with Christmas lights.
“It’s natural they get over-excited at having an acrobat among us, but we don’t want Ollie and Elliot copying you and ending up in hospital for Christmas, do we? Do we, Victoria?” she called back to her daughter.
“Definitely not!” Victoria laughed, swinging hands with husband William and dutifully reinforcing her mother. “Don’t try and copy Nadia, boys.”
Uncle Bob totally failed to follow Caro’s lead in suppressing Nadia’s urge to perform. “Can you do handstands?” he demanded, tapping along with his stick and carrying his arm at an awkward angle. Uncle Bob made Nadia want to giggle with his habit of saying exactly what he thought, being frank that “a few filters went missing” after his last stroke.
Josh broke in, unhooking Nadia from his mum’s arm and taking her hand for himself. “She can do a handstand with the soles of her feet on her head. She’s the star of the cabaret on board ship.”
Nadia, taking a sidelong glance at Caro’s polite expression, decided on a change of subject. “Who’s next for Christmas gift giving?”
Caro’s ready smile sparked back into being as she checked on the contents of the gaily-decorated cart pulled by Ollie and Elliot. “Auntie Madge. We always visit her after Mrs Delaney.”
She could put up with anything for Josh
Nadia couldn’t count how many times she’d heard the phrase “we always” on Caro’s lips since she and Josh had arrived in his family home.
The Christmas tree was always in that corner; the family always attended the village carols, the village play and the village dance; everyone always stayed at Caro’s house for Christmas (except for Roland, of course, Caro and Roland long ago having parted ways); Josh and his siblings always celebrated with their father the day after Boxing Day.
Josh squeezed her hand. “What would you be doing if you were on the cruise ship?” There was apprehension as well as love in his eyes. Nadia and Josh were both entertainers on board ship, Nadia twirling and whirling above the stage, Josh’s fingers flying over his guitar strings as he sang.
“Heading up the seasonal cabaret or unwinding at a crew party. But it’s nice to be here, too,” she added, not wanting to make it obvious how much she’d rather have been on board.
She’d hidden her dismay when Josh had casually mentioned, “Mum’s inviting you to spend Christmas with us.” Evidently, it hadn’t occurred to Nadia that Josh would take vacation time instead of the Christmas cruise. It hadn’t occurred to Josh that Nadia wouldn’t! But Caro’s invitation had come so early there had been time for Nadia to request time off, so here she was.
Now, as Caro dropped back to check that Uncle Bob wasn’t too tired by the walk, Josh pulled Nadia in close for a kiss. Nadia thrust her own feelings aside as she let her lips soften on Josh’s. Family meant a lot to this hot musician she’d fallen in love with and their leave period was only three weeks. She could put up with anything for that long, couldn’t she? Even if she and Caro found each other a bit… exasperating.
They turned up the path to a neat semi, pausing for Ollie and Elliot to bang on a green door hung with a sparkly Christmas wreath. “Great-Auntie Madge! We’ve got you a present!”
The door swung open to reveal a grey-haired lady with a sparkly jumper and a joyful smile. “Then come right in!”
While Ollie and Elliot led the charge out of the cold and into the warmth and light of Auntie Madge’s house, Josh halted Nadia and pulled her closer, his voice dropping to a whisper. “I’m sorry you’re missing the Christmas cruise but I love you spending Christmas with us.”
Heart melting, Nadia savoured the precious moment, winding her arms around his neck as their kiss deepened.
Elliot sprang back into the doorway yelling, “Bleurgh, Uncle Josh! Granny says come in because you’re letting all Great-Auntie Madge’s heat out.”
Josh burst out laughing and tugged Nadia into the house to untangle her from her scarf and take her coat, raising his voice over three conversations taking place simultaneously. “This is my girlfriend Nadia, Auntie Madge.”
Auntie Madge beamed. “I’m pleased to meet you, dear. How are you enjoying Christmas in the village? Your own family’s not missing you, I hope?”
“I’m happier here than sharing my brother Peter’s staid Christmas, all operas and soirées,” Nadia answered diplomatically. “We love each other, but not the same things.” Nadia wasn’t ungracious enough to mention that she preferred Christmas at sea. Josh’s family seemed to be finding her free-spiritedness odd.
Do you really swing from a trapeze?
Provided with a steaming mug of coffee and seeing Josh already engrossed in conversation with his mum and aunt, Nadia chose a seat in the corner next to Uncle Bob.
“You’re pretty,” Uncle Bob observed, hooking his stick over the chair arm. His blue eyes were as guileless as a child’s. “And you really swing from a trapeze and so on, do you?”
Nadia smiled. “I’m not a trapeze artist but, yes, I do aerial work, especially when we perform late night arty shows.”
“Like Cirque du Soleil? Saw that in Las Vegas when I was on R&R from Peru. Girls in glittery body stockings that didn’t cover much. Very nice!”
Catching Caro’s look of mixed amusement and apprehension, Nadia deflected his attention from body stockings. “What were you on rest and recuperation from? Josh told me that you’ve travelled a lot.”
His smile became wistful. “I was in international aid. Worked with charities, medical missions, that kind of thing. When I retired, I carried on as a volunteer. Till this damned thing happened.” He jerked the left arm that folded against his side like a broken wing. “Then Caro said I could live in the cubicle at the back of her house.”
“It’s an annexe, not a cubicle!” Caro protested, laughing, as she supervised Ollie and Elliot shoving Auntie Madge’s present beneath her tree and noisily discovering those with their own names on to take home in exchange.
Caro’s a bit of a bossy knickers
Unfazed, Uncle Bob continued in the same booming voice. “Caro’s a good
girl you know. My sister Linda’s child. I don’t have kids of my own – never married. No life for a wife, me running round clearing up after earthquakes. She’s a generous girl, too. Been organising Christmas for weeks for us, baking cakes and wrapping presents. Bit of a bossy knickers, though.”
Ollie and Elliot roared with laughter. “Grandma’s a bossy knickers!”
Victoria, with dancing eyes at Caro’s heightened colour, put on a stern face. “That’s enough, thank you! Come to the table and play rummy with Uncle Josh.”
Nadia tried to shift Uncle Bob to safer territory. “Tell me about some of the places you’ve visited.”
Uncle Bob puffed out his cheeks, eyes eager. “I’ve forgotten more than I can remember. Lots of places in Africa, South America, Asia. Earthquakes, floods, famine, war. Driving trucks, digging drains, eating things we didn’t recognise. Hiding, sometimes, when we thought we’d overstepped the mark with the local authorities. Trying to help people without taking over, or disturbing their culture and traditions. Living in tents…” He quieted for several moments, gazing across the room as if he were seeing sights other than a cosy Christmas Eve in a little village home.
“It sounds a very different travel-related job to mine and Josh’s. Our ship’s jam-packed with people having a great time as we cruise the Caribbean.”
Uncle Bob focused on her again. “I’ve been to the Caribbean, too. Loved it. Such friendly people. Spent Christmas in Haïti about twelve years ago. Christopher Columbus’s ship ran aground there on Christmas Day 1492. Did you know that?” He barked a laugh.
Nadia propped her chin on her fist. “I had no idea about Columbus. Tell me more about what you were doing.”
‘Nwel’ isn’t about money
The dealing of cards paused. Even the boys listened to Uncle Bob’s story.
“We were rebuilding after a hurricane. I was running a truck back and forth to Port au Prince, taking materials up to communities where roofs had blown off and walls had fallen. Christmas wasn’t like it is here – or on your luxury ship, I expect – with expensive presents and too much to eat. “Nwel” isn’t about money, even in better times. It’s about people. They went to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve then home to a big meal they call reveillon.”
“Even the children?”
He laughed. “They did! Stayed up all night, most of them, going out to play while the adults relaxed. Papa Nwel brought the kiddies small gifts like pencils for school and left them in their shoes! Odd, eh? We were invited to reveillon. Delicious food like rice with spice and sultanas in it and red snapper fish. We drank kremas made out of coconut milk and rum. All that’s behind me now, of course.” Uncle Bob stretched out his bad leg and rubbed it, as if remembering what was keeping him away from more adventures.
Let’s add a touch of Haiti to Christmas!
Nadia took out her phone, an idea forming of how she might do something for this likeable man that might be more exciting than traipsing around a chilly English village on Christmas Eve.
“Let’s see if we can get on the Internet and find some reveillon recipes. There’s bound to be Midnight Mass at the church. We could add a touch of Haïti to our Christmas. Then I’ll cook –”
“Sounds grand!” Uncle Bob took up his stick as if he preparing to set off for midnight mass right away, though it was only seven in the evening.
Ollie bounced to his feet too, spilling his hand of cards. “Can I snap a fish? Can I stay up all night? Can Elliot stay up all night, too? Will Santa still come? Can I go out and play while the grown ups stay inside?” He and Elliot began to caper around the sitting room.
Victoria smiled. “Calm down, boys. I doubt any of this is in Grandma’s plans.”
“Certainly not!” Caro sounded a lot less relaxed about the situation than her daughter. “In a few minutes we’re going to drop off the last couple of presents and go home to eat the cottage pie that’s cooking in the oven, then play a few games before bed. If you’re not asleep by ten Santa might not come. I’ve never heard such nonsense as children staying up all night! Why, you’d be miserable and exhausted all Christmas Day instead of excitedly playing with your new toys.”
Irritation swelled inside Nadia at Caro’s dismissive tone but she swallowed it down. Then she felt her cheeks burn in embarrassment as she realised she was being viewed as a bad guest, marching in and trying to hijack the family Christmas. A feeling of prickliness towards Caro prompted her to address her apology to Victoria.
“Sorry if I got your children excited about something that doesn’t fit in with your plans. I spoke without thinking.” Then to Ollie and Elliot. “It sounds as if your mum has a fantastic British Christmas planned and you’ll get lots more presents from Santa than you would from Papa Nwel.”
Her assumption that young children would respond to logic was over-optimistic. Elliot folded his arms and stuck out his lip. “But I want a High Eaten Christmas! I want to snap a fish.”
“I want a Haïtian one, too.” Uncle Bob tugged at Nadia’s arm. “We don’t have to take any notice of Caro.”
“Uncle Bob!” Colour in Caro’s cheeks suggested she was beginning to be upset. “You said yourself I’ve put weeks of planning into our Christmas!”
She’d given up a lot to be with Josh
Feeling ever more discomfited that her momentary wish to liberate herself from her host’s over-planned festivities seemed to have begun a mutiny, Nadia apologised again as the boys began crying and Victoria and Caro jollied them into their coats amid apologies to Aunt Madge for leaving early.
“I’m sorry about airing my idea,” she whispered to Josh, as they trailed back through the village to Caro’s house, Caro holding the still-sniffing boys’ hands while Victoria towed their cart, despatching the last gifts to friends.
“Not to worry. I think Mum was so excited at me – us – being here that she threw her heart and soul into her plans. When she and Dad split up she got used to doing everything for me and Vic.”
“Of course.” Nadia slowed so Uncle Bob could keep up. “I’m looking forward to meeting your dad after Christmas.”
Josh frowned. “We always see him after Boxing Day since he remarried and Mum never did. If Vic and I didn’t spend Christmas with Mum she’d be alone.”
Feeling a jolt of alarm that Josh sounded so defensive when she hadn’t thought she’d questioned his Christmas policy, Nadia lapsed into silence, not wanting their different expectations of the festive season to come between them. She’d given up a lot to be with him so she may as well make the best of it.
We’re going to Midnight Mass
When they reached the house they found Victoria already ushering the boys upstairs and into their pyjamas before supper. Caro waited in the hall, smile restored. Uncle Bob soon changed that.
“What time’s supper? We don’t want to miss Midnight Mass.”
“Midnight mass isn’t really going to fit in,” Caro began, dismayed all over again.
Uncle Bob hung up his stick and fumbled with his coat, a pugnacious lift to his chin. “Caroline, being the host doesn’t involve ordering your guests about. Nadia and I want to go to Midnight Mass.”
Caro turned her gaze to Nadia as if in appeal but Nadia had no idea what to say. She hadn’t meant to put Caro’s back up by refusing to conform to her regimen. On the other hand, what harm was there in she and Uncle Bob having a plan of their own?
Josh stepped in to fill the silence. “I’ll drive Uncle Bob and Nadia to Midnight Mass. I haven’t been for years and the church looks lovely at Christmas.”
Caro gave in gracefully. “Thank you.”
Supper passed off happily. The boys forgot all about Haïtian Christmasses and got wildly excited about their British one. After they were finally asleep in bed, Josh drove Nadia and Uncle Bob down to the little church on the green where they watched the choir form a candlelight procession and joined in with the carols, Uncle Bob’s voice booming out above everybody else’s.
See you in the morning. Merry Christmas
After the service, Josh lingered to chat to what seemed like dozens of people, his arm around Nadia’s shoulders. It was nearly one by the time they pulled up in the drive of his childhood home.
“Mum’s left the kitchen light on.”
“Perhaps she’s serving reveillon,” Uncle Bob joked.
“I can’t imagine that,” Nadia said.
Once in the kitchen, she discovered Uncle Bob hadn’t been far from the truth. On the table were foil-covered bowls and glasses of pale liquid.
Caro rose wearily from a seat in the corner. “I’m afraid I was completely out of red snapper but I’ve done what I can with rice, spice and sultanas. And you’ll have to make do with eggnog instead of coconut milk. You’re later than I thought but microwave the rice if it’s cold.”
Uncle Bob sat himself down and picked up his fork. “Excellent!”
Josh surveyed the table in silence.
Nadia gazed at the food miserably. “Caro, we didn’t mean you to go to all this trouble! I feel terrible. You’re tired from looking after people all day.”
Caro gestured to a chair. “You’re a guest, Nadia. Just sit down and enjoy.”
“It’s not bad,” Uncle Bob observed between mouthfuls. “Thanks, Caro.”
“You’ll excuse me, though, won’t you?” Caro shrugged into her cardigan and headed for the stairs. “See you in the morning. Merry Christmas.”
Nadia wished she hadn’t come
Nadia had never felt less hungry in her life but she felt she could do little but sink into a seat before one of the bowls. In her heart she knew Caro had gone to all this trouble out of an urge to cater to guests but instead of feeling touched, Nadia felt both resentful and resented.
Awkwardness radiating from him, Josh sat beside her and picked at the food. Nadia felt like the worst guest in the world.
If only all she’d had to do this evening was wriggle into a shining costume and make passengers gasp as she swung from a bar high above the stage. She regretted ever saying anything about Haïtian Christmas, regretted not heading Uncle Bob off when he pressed the point about Midnight Mass.
Most of all she regretted accepting Caro’s invitation to a homely family Christmas…
Can Nadia overcome Caro’s reservations about her relationship with Josh? Click here for part 2 of A Family Christmas