WRITTEN BY SUE MOORCROFT
Part 2: The family have persuaded Craig not to leave – but can he and Bella truly connect again?
Superficially, Bella’s family’s Christmas Eve proceeded exactly as usual.
Dad went out early to collect the fresh vegetable order from the grocer in the nearby town saying, “I can’t abide the crush in supermarkets.”
While he was out, Mum rang him on his mobile. “Can you buy more milk, please? I’ve invited the Lister family from across the lane for a cuppa this afternoon. While you’re at it, you’d better buy some self-raising flour and cooking chocolate so I can bake an extra cake after lunch.”
Dad sighed and went to do battle with the crowds at the supermarket after all.
Bella and her brother Patrick made lunch. Craig helped her sister Ellie to clear and wash up afterwards while Mum baked, delicious smells wafting around the kitchen.
Great Auntie Wynne woke from a nap in her armchair by the Christmas tree and called, “As the eldest family member present, may I scrape the mixing bowl?”
“I’m afraid I washed it up ages ago,” Mum called back. “The cake’s made. I can see the Listers crossing the road, so you can have a slice in a minute.” She hurried to the front door with a beaming smile. “Come in! Merry Christmas!”
After exchanging greetings with the Listers, comparative newcomers as they’d lived in Middledip only 15 years, Ellie raised her eyebrows at Bella.
“Patrick and I are going to the Three Fishes. Want to come? It’s a catch-up for those of us who left the village.”
Patrick had moved away seven years ago through his job and Ellie had begun uni a little over a year ago.
Bella wrinkled her nose.
“Thanks, but I won’t. I know everyone loves a catch-up but I’m not in the mood.”
Her news wasn’t good these days, and there were far more important things on her mind than who had a new job/car/baby/house/relationship/pet.
Craig declined also. He seemed reasonably content in a corner of the sitting room being consulted shyly by the eldest of the Lister girls about what tablet she should buy with her Christmas money. Everyone else settled in for a chat, while a big log burned in the grate and reflected in every bauble on the tree.
After a while, there seemed nothing to stop Bella stealing away to her room. She wanted to cudgel her brain for ideas of how she and Craig could find a way through the mess they’d got into. She was pretty sure Craig wouldn’t follow. The only time they occupied the bedroom together was to sleep.
Upstairs, she arranged herself on her single bed, a fresh cup of tea at her elbow, paper and pen in hand. She decided to begin by listing the positives in her and Craig’s situation.
She frowned at the blank page and tapped her teeth with the pen.
Finally she wrote: We haven’t lost the house so it’s still ours to sell. They’d taken advice and knew that if the bank took over the sale, it was doubtful the house would realise its full worth.
We’ve agreed to do something together… even something as temporary as Christmas.
She rolled back onto her pillows.
Lately they’d been talking as if the marriage couldn’t possibly survive Craig being hung out to dry by his erstwhile business partner, Phil. Bella had been so hurt at Craig’s response to the catastrophe it had seemed they couldn’t be together.
However she began to question why they’d been so ready to draw a line under their relationship
Back at home with her parents, though, some of the shock had abated. Now, after putting it to the objectivity test she’d told Craig about – what would the man in the moon think if he came down to earth and looked at the situation? – she began to question why they’d been so ready to draw a line under their relationship. There must be a way out without that!
It took almost an hour of staring at the ceiling, scribbling on the pad and even consulting the Internet from her phone but, finally, she did have an idea. One that might even survive a brush with Craig’s pride and obstinate refusal for his wife to shoulder an unfair share of the financial burden, as he’d always felt his mother had done.
Scrambling from the bed, she slipped downstairs to see if Craig was still in the house. By chance, she caught him just rising from his seat, saying, “Anybody mind if I take myself off for a bracing country walk?”
“Mind if I tag along?” Bella broke in impulsively, ignoring Craig’s brows flying up in surprise. “I think we have about an hour before dusk.”
With so many pairs of eyes on him Craig had little choice but to say, “Of course I don’t mind,” whether or not he meant it.
They wrapped themselves in coats and scarves before calling goodbye and stepping outside into the last of a cold, bright afternoon where the sky was still blue but the sun was already sinking.
At Bella’s suggestion they turned left at the garden gate and set off out of Ladies Lane and up Main Road, a familiar route that took them out of the village before swinging left along a footpath skirting farm fields, ploughed under for winter, and looping back onto Port Road for their return.
When they’d paced along in silence for a while, the sky becoming paler and the sun dipping to gild a faraway hedgerow, Bella curled her fingers inside her gloves into fists, screwing up her courage.
“I thought of something that could help financially until the house is sold. We might need to get the agreement of the bank, though.”
Craig’s breath appeared in clouds in front of his face as he turned to look at her.
“Even something short-term might help. I was thinking during the night that there are still weeks ahead of me of sorting out the mess that was the business before I can start trying to get some kind of job.”
He sounded sombre, but less mulish than he had done of late. Perhaps he’d been running the man-in-the-moon test over things himself.
Bella felt a tiny sparkle of hope
“My idea’s for you to take in a lodger in the spare room. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before, because I remember someone at work doing it under some scheme or other.” She held her breath.
“A lodger?” Craig repeated slowly. He looked away from her, gazing across the winter fields and the top of a car visible above a hedge as it traversed a distant road. “But what about the gaps in the furniture? The stuff I’ve sold?”
Bella sighed as if stumped. Then she brightened, having already come up with a solution to that in her furious ideas storm earlier.
“We could look on those websites like Gumtree where people give stuff away free.” She refused to mourn the suite or anything else they’d picked together. What she was fighting for transcended mere possessions.
Then, though Craig looked more hopeful, she groaned. “But as the house is up for sale you won’t be able to commit to a set length of time to allow a lodger to stay, will you?”
Kicking at a frozen tuft of grass in frustration, Craig swore.
“You’re right. Nothing seems to work out for us any more and I can’t seem to think straight. I just go round in circles.”
They arrived at the point where they took the final turning to head back into Middledip, where a few lights were already shining. Bella paused to lean on a gate and gaze down the lane.
Craig joined her, his cheeks reddened by the crisp air. “I’m sorry to have given you such a rubbish Christmas.”
Experimentally, she took his hand, bolstered when he didn’t shake it off. She kept her voice soft and composed.
“It’s not a rubbish Christmas. How can it be when I’m with all the people I love? And the last couple of weeks apart from you has made me view what happened more clearly, instead of just being all hurt and horrified.” She hesitated. “Have you paid everybody off – everything the business owed?”
Instantly, Craig backed away.
“I thought we’d agreed that this is my department –”
“Oh, Craig!” she protested, her resolution to try and find a new way to connect wavering. “That hasn’t worked out too well, has it? Your determination to go it alone? It’s as if your pride’s more important than anything. Even me.”
His expression of shock made her squeeze his hand, overcome by remorse.
“Sorry! I didn’t mean to say that. It’s the time of year for peace and goodwill and I wanted to try and understand things from your side, not get bitter all over again.”
She sniffed, trying to swallow back the tears
Slowly, Craig moved closer so their arms were touching as well as their linked fingers. Then, his gaze fixed on the ground, he began to speak.
“It wasn’t just a question of pride. When Phil got the business into trouble and then vanished, I felt betrayed.”
She blinked away a tear. Even in profile she could see the bleakness of his expression. He hurried on, as if now he’d finally begun to share what was in his heart he couldn’t stop.
“I felt bitterly disillusioned that someone I’d known for years – trusted – would treat me like that. I didn’t want to make anyone feel the same way. Some of our suppliers were just little companies, like ours. I couldn’t pass my trouble on to them; let them stand the loss in my place. Maybe even take them under with me. As the bank reminded me, when you go into partnership with someone, you become responsible for everything you’ve done together.”
He glanced at her and then away
“I felt compelled to make everything right. And because of the way things had always been between Mum and Dad, her working herself into the ground… If that made me lose sight of you being the most important partner of all, I’m sorry.
“Every time I tried to make things better, I made them worse. If the man in the moon came down to look at my situation he’d tell me I’ve made a colossal mess-up.”
The sun was disappearing behind the hedges now, casting long shadows.
Bella shivered as if the icy air were sadness she was breathing in, making her chest ache.
“You’ve never spelled it out in quite that way before,” she acknowledged. “It makes it a bit easier to understandwhy you were so keen to handle things alone.” Then she gave his hand a last squeeze and pushed away from the gate, feeling that they’d each given the other plenty to think about for one day – and knowing that part two of her plan couldn’t be put into action until tomorrow, in any case.
They walked together down the darkening lane, back into the village, where Christmas lights twinkled from houses and trees.
“Let’s try to enjoy the rest of Christmas Eve for the sake of everyone else in your family, if nothing else,” he suggested as they passed under the arch of red and green lights arranged over The Cross in the middle of the village.
She managed a smile.
“Even though Patrick and Ellie are making their famous bolognese for dinner?” And, for the first time in months, it seemed, they laughed together.
Christmas Day dawned. The exchange of presents took place after breakfast, everyone sitting around in their dressing gowns.
Craig had explained when he accepted the invitation to join the family Christmas that he wasn’t in a position to buy presents – and, therefore, he wasn’t able to accept any either.
Mum gave him an enormous hug.
“Your presence is far more important to us than any presents.”
Patrick bounced a ball of discarded Christmas wrapping off Craig’s chest. “And it’s Christmas Day so that’s when worries all go away. Had you heard? You’re not allowed to think of money.”
Craig grinned, looking more relaxed than he had for months as he joked, “OK. My Christmas present to everyone is to take a day off from being miserable.”
Ellie cheered. Craig actually laughed.
“A day off from worries sounds like a brilliant idea,” Bella agreed. She felt some of the tension she’d lived with for so long slacken sufficiently for her to draw real pleasure from handing out her budget presents. A scarf for Mum, a book for Dad, hair gel for Ellie, three magazines for Great Auntie Wynne and a bottle of wine for Patrick.
They, in turn, had clubbed together to buy her a voucher for her hairdressers – visits there having been curtailed as an unnecessary luxury.
“Wow, thank you,” she gulped.
“Time you got that shaggy mop sorted,” Ellie declared, but with another of those hard hugs so that Bella knew the gift had been chosen with loving care – just enough to be a real treat, but not so much as to embarrass her.
The day continued well, with everybody pitching in. Great Aunt Wynne put herself in charge of doling out the sherry – which, as she was the only one who drank it, soon resulted in her taking a nap before dinner.
Bella felt the most carefree she had since the day when Craig had come home, white-faced, to tell her he’d discovered Phil’s perfidy. Ellie and Patrick cracked jokes and splashed each other as they peeled vegetables, Dad hefted the turkey in and out of the oven to spare Mum the weight, Bella and Craig set the table and made bread sauce and gravy.
Later, feeling lethargic after their huge but jolly meal, they collapsed in the sitting room to watch Christmas shows on TV. Bella realised the time was approaching to confront Craig with the second part of her plan, but everybody seemed so happy and relaxed that she put it off for just a little longer.
It was only when it was dark and the others decided to stroll around the village to admire everybody’s lights and see if carols were being sung at The Cross this year that she gathered her courage and tugged on Craig’s sleeve.
“Can we talk?”
Quirking an eyebrow, he nodded, and they melted away upstairs as the family got ready to brave the winter evening, leaving them behind once again.
She tried to lighten the atmosphere as she closed the bedroom door behind them. “At least we haven’t had to hide behind the Christmas tree this time.”
He smiled, but the wariness was back in his eyes as he waited for her to speak.
She cleared her throat. “I’ve got something for you. It’s not a Christmas present,” she rushed on, as he opened his mouth as if to protest. “At least, not one that cost money.” She opened a drawer and took out a white envelope, For Craig written on the front in her best writing.
His eyes still fixed on her, Craig took the envelope. Slowly, he ripped open the flap and withdrew the sheet of paper inside. Then he dropped his eyes to it to read. And began to frown.
So much hung on Craig’s reaction
Bella’s heart thumped. So much hung on Craig’s reaction. Would he see what she still held in her heart for him? Would he be receptive to a different approach to their painful situation?
Finally, his eyes fixed on her face.
“I don’t understand what this is.”
Her reply came out breathlessly. “It’s my application to be one of your lodgers.”
His jaw dropped and his brow creased.
“I don’t understand that either.”
Her laugh emerged as a nervous giggle.
“If someone’s going to live with you, I think it should be me. Living away from you hasn’t solved a thing and I’d like to try working together instead of pulling ourselves apart. To remember what you said – that we’re the most important partnership in all this.”
Never removing his eyes from hers, he stepped over to the bed and sat down.
“But the situation’s not your fault.”
“And it’s not your fault. I let you take the blame when the blame was Phil’s. I let you push me away and I didn’t try to understand you were scared of emulating your dad’s earning difficulties. I saw only pride when you were suffering pain.”
It seemed to take him a long time to absorb her words. Then, finally, a half-smile touched his lips.
“If you were the lodger… would that be in the spare room?” An expression of intrigue lurked in his dark eyes now.
“Well…” She coloured hotly. “If the man in the moon came down and saw husband and wife living together in their home he would think they were trying again. But if he saw us in different bedrooms he’d go back to thinking we were bonkers.”
Craig drew her gently down beside him
“I don’t think we should upset the man in the moon. I’m beginning to like him a lot.” Giving her plenty of time to make her escape if she wanted to, he pressed a kiss to her lips.
Bella had no intention of escaping. Instead, she kissed him back. Hard.
“And,” she murmured breathlessly when she came up for air, “the advantage of not being in different bedrooms is that it still leaves us a spare room to let out to a lodger and get some money back into the house. We might even scrape by without selling it.”
“Bella.” Craig rolled down onto the bed, taking her with him, “You’re brilliant. I thought this was going to be the worst Christmas ever. Instead, it’s the best!”
She drew back the curtain to show him the night sky.
“If the man in the moon came down to earth now he’d congratulate us on coming to our senses. Look, he’s smiling.”
“Perhaps, like me, he’s over the moon this Christmas.” Gently, Craig drew the curtain closed again. “He shouldn’t go peeping into people’s bedrooms though.”
Sue Moorcroft returns to Middledip this year with her serial, A Real Middledip Christmas in Dec 1 and Dec 8 issues. You can order back copies by calling 0800 318 846.