WRITTEN BY SUE MOORCROFT
Read our two-part serial now! Part 1 : It’s been a grim few months for Bella and Craig – will a cosy village Christmas make them feel better, or worse?
Bella only realised there was a man hiding behind the Christmas tree when she tried to hide behind it herself. But she didn’t let his frown deter her from sidling behind the tinsel-decked branches and crouching by the wall.
She knew who the man was, obviously. It was Craig. She didn’t question why they’d both chosen to hide at the last minute instead of saying, “I don’t fancy the traditional Saturday-before-Christmas Festive Blast down in the village, this year, thank you.” She and Craig had simply reached the limits of their ability to cope, even with quite ordinary things.
Christmas this year was beyond weird and she was tired of having to explain to others what seemed, even to her, inexplicable. She shrugged in answer to his frown, unhooking a jolly snowman ornament that had caught in her long chestnut hair and returning it to the tree. Then she settled down to wait for the rest of her family to vacate the house.
Usually, meeting up with everyone she knew in Middledip, the little village where she’d grown up, was a pleasure. But she’d been more-or-less hiding out at her parents’ house for over a fortnight, ever since she and Craig had reached the ends of their respective tethers and – once he’d said it first – she’d agreed they couldn’t live together right now. He’d had to be persuaded to join her family for Christmas rather than spend it alone.
A few moments ago she’d panicked, anticipating a volley of questions from the villagers about how, between summer and Christmas, she’d gone from deliriously happy to near divorce.
“Accidentally” getting left behind felt safe as Mum propped the guard before the cheery fire and Dad, brother Patrick, sister Ellie and Great Auntie Wynne chattered and laughed their way into their coats and Santa hats.
From the corner of her eye she saw Craig turn his head carefully, not wanting to make the shining baubles jingle on their branches, even as the chatter of the others moved slowly into the hall.
“You go,” he mouthed silently, making a tiny shooing motion with his hand. His dark hair had grown down to his collar and into wings either side of his forehead. His jaw was coated in stubble, but probably more because he couldn’t be bothered to shave than because beards were in fashion.
Bella shook her head and mouthed back, “You go.”
More mouthing. “I don’t want to!”
Then Bella stiffened to hear Great Auntie Wynne call, “Where’s our Bella gone?” She watched through the gaps in the green, spiny branches, willing Great Auntie Wynne to leave with the others.
Mum’s voice came from the hall.
“I’m sure she’s around somewhere. Shall we walk down to the community café together, Auntie?”
“And where’s Craig?” Great Auntie Wynne persisted. “It’s like a murder mystery party, everyone vanishing.”
Bella pointed at her hiding companion and made shooing motions of her own. He widened his eyes and pursed his lips hard. He looked ridiculous, like some kind of man-bug.
Bella was suddenly overtaken with the desire to giggle at the idea of two grown people hiding behind a Christmas tree, making faces at each other.
“Come on, Auntie Wynne. Maybe Bella and Craig are talking. I’m sure they can’t be anywhere in a room this size, unless they’re well hidden.”
Bella clamped her hand over her mouth to keep the stupid giggles in.
Finally, the voices of Mum and Great Auntie Wynne moved away. The front door opened, then shut.
Craig hissed, “Why didn’t you go?”
Laughter deserting her, Bella glared at him. “Why didn’t you?” Her legs were beginning to hurt, cramped beneath her.
“Because I thought you should get out and enjoy yourself, and you’d do that better without me,” he replied shortly.
“I don’t feel like enjoying myself and you should stop trying to make my decisions for me.”
“I’m not –”
“You are. Like the one about us splitting up because things have gone wrong for you.” Bella felt the familiar lurch of misery in the pit of her stomach.
His face was lined with despair
“We’ve been over this a hundred times. If you can’t see why I wanted to pay everyone back, then it’s the only solution. I’m just dragging you down with me.”
“So, I end up living with my parents while you try and sell our home.”
“We can’t be together without arguing.” He rubbed a tired hand across his face.
“We can’t even hide behind a Christmas tree without arguing. The man in the moon would think we’re bonkers.”
Craig’s eyebrows flipped up.”
“The man in the moon?
As all the blood in Bella’s body seemed to have pooled around her knees and was now trying to throb its way out of her skin, she slid her body cautiously up the wall.
“You know how you can see a sort of face in the shapes and shadows of the full moon? That’s the man in the moon. Using him as a symbol of objectivity came up on a training day at work. The test is ‘what would the man in the moon think, if he came down to earth?’”
“In our case, he wouldn’t know about bad breaks or crazy solutions so would only see two married people who can’t meet without quarrelling.”
She succeeded in uncoiling her legs but gasped as they repaid her with a storm of pins and needles.
Judging from Craig’s wince, he was enduring similar discomfort. Flattening himself against the wall, he neatly avoided the glittery Christmas tree branches and stepped out into the room.
“You endow the man in the moon with powers of reason and contextual judgment to make sense of something?”
Bella heard her voice rising.
“Some men do apply reason or judgment to a situation.” The pins and needles caused her to stagger as she came out from behind the tree.
Although Craig stepped forward with a hand outstretched, instinctively Bella thrust out both of hers to ward him off.
Expression darkening, he flung himself into a nearby armchair.
“You wouldn’t catch anything if you accepted a helping hand, you know!”
“You’ve been pushing me away for months. And you were the one who wouldn’t accept help when things went wrong –”
She dropped into the chair opposite
Choking up, she dropped into the chair opposite his, fatigued by Christmas, by the crackle of anger between her and Craig where once there had been…
She had to swallow hard as her eyes swam with hot tears, making the decorations a blurred kaleidoscope of colour.
After a few moments he spoke gruffly.
“Don’t get upset. I’m sorry if I was sarcastic. This Christmas is going to be hard for both of us.”
“It’s been a bad year.” She reached for the remains of a glass of wine she hoped was hers and took a couple of gulps. “You being left with all the debts when Phil jumped ship on your joint business. All the arguments as the money ran out. My parents not able to help since Dad got that zero-hours contract, and with Ellie at uni. You refusing help from your parents –”
His voice softened.
“Mum and Dad couldn’t really afford it. They’d have had to cancel their Christmas holiday in Canada. Mum had saved hard for it. You know what Dad’s like with his health, only able to make a minimal contribution. Anyway, accepting their money would only have put off the inevitable for a few months.”
Bella let her head roll against the back of the sofa. She hadn’t wanted to see her parents-in-law lose their holiday, but it had seemed at the time that a few months would have given them breathing space.
“I know you feel your mum always had to earn enough for both of them, but what happened to us isn’t history repeating itself – just because I worked all the overtime I could.”
“But it knocked chunks out of my pride seeing you trying to keep our chins above water while I ran around trying to clear up the mess Phil left me in!”
“Could we afford pride?”
Wearily, she sat up. Craig set a lot of store by pride. He’d been truly proud of the computer repair business he’d set up with his so-called friend. Then computers had become cheaper, more disposable. People stopped paying for repairs and bought new machines instead.
Poor Craig had discovered a nightmare of unpaid bills
When the bottom had finally fallen out of the business, Phil, who’d been responsible for most of the financial stuff, moved abruptly out of the area without leaving a forwarding address. Poor Craig had discovered a nightmare of unpaid bills. Pride had refused to let him do anything other than settle the debts in any way he could.
Bella decided to have one last try at making Craig see things her way.
“Our marriage could still survive if you weren’t prepared to sacrifice our home to pay the debts –”
“They’re my debts. That’s how liability works in a partnership.”
“But the man at the debt counselling service explained about the scheme to write off a proportion –”
“Which means letting others suffer!”
Silence. A lot of their arguments ended in silence. As usual, Bella broke it.
“Right. Well. Everyone will be wondering where we are. Mum probably knew, and hustled Great Auntie Wynne out to leave us alone, hoping we’d thrash things out. I’m going to the party so she doesn’t get her hopes up that we’re in the midst of a rapturous reconciliation.”
Even facing the curiosity of the village seemed easier than staying here alone with Craig.
His jaw clenched. “We’re still married.”
“On paper. But apart from this week, when you came here so as not to disappoint Mum, we’re living separately. Your idea, if I recall.” Draining the glass of wine, she climbed to her feet.
He sat wordlessly watching her comb her long brown hair and locate her handbag, which someone had tucked beside the sofa. The Christmas tree lights twinkled incongruously.
It would be a chilly walk to the community café. Bella went into the hall to grab her outdoor things before popping her head back into the sitting room.
“You’re welcome to come along.”
Despite the chasm between them, she didn’t want to make Craig’s Christmas worse than it had to be. She pulled on the felt cloche hat she’d made on a recent hen-party weekend organised by one of her more arty friends. The last few years had seemed a whirlwind of hen parties, weddings, even christenings as their friends settled down. Imagining those friends enjoying jolly Christmases while she and Craig waded through this awkward, unhappy one brought into sharp focus the fact that they were probably going to claim the dubious honour of being the first to split up.
Craig turned his head slightly.
“Do you need me there?”
Bella wanted him to want to be with her. She forced herself to speak lightly.
“I’m learning not to need you at all. See you later!”
She was ashamed that she’d met his thoughtful offer with a mean remark
Hurrying out of the door, she saw again the hurt on his face and was ashamed that she’d met his thoughtful offer with a mean remark.
But… somehow she couldn’t make herself re-enter the house and apologise. Again. They cycled through that behaviour a lot these days – hurt each other; say sorry. Repeat.
She gazed up at the luminous moon hanging above the village’s frosty rooftops, seeking out the arrangement of craters and shadows that made the “face”.
“If you came down, man in the moon, you’d think we’d made a complete botch of things, shake your head and go home,” she murmured. “But I can’t make him see that marriage is a partnership too. He seems to see losing ours as a casualty of his business problems.”
As if in sympathy, the moon sent down its light to make it easier for her to pick her way along the glittering pavements, past the playing field and down Port Road, along to the community café, the light from its windows beckoning her into the warmth.
As she reached the door she became aware of footsteps behind her and turned, a polite smile ready in case it was anybody she knew.
Huddled into the big coat they’d chosen together in the January sales last year, he pulled the door open for her.
“Let’s put on a show of civility. No point spoiling everybody’s Christmas. Your family’s always been great to me and I don’t want sour my la–”
He stopped suddenly.
His last Christmas with them, he’d been going to say. With her. Numbly, Bella stepped inside, unzipping her coat, taking a deep breath before she could reply. “OK. Let’s dredge up enough Christmas spirit to think of others.”
For the rest of the evening they drank mulled wine and ate mince pies, chatting, dancing in the space cleared by pushing the tables to the edges of the room, laughing and talking.
Her parents had looked keenly at them when they’d first arrived but then melted discreetly back into the throng. Her mother, Bella thought, must have briefed every single partygoer not to ask awkward questions because not one did.
Patrick, her brother, pulled Bella into a few silly dances. Ellie brought her a large glass of wine.
“Sometimes a small glass just won’t do,” she whispered as she hugged her. It brought a lump to Bella’s throat that her family were offering warmth and love to her and Craig through this horrible time.
Whenever Bella glanced about casually for Craig, he seemed to have his back to her, talking to someone else, but at least he stayed. And when the festivities were rounded out at midnight with gusty renditions of Hark the Herald Angels Sing and Silent Night, ending on a rousing chorus of We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Bella saw the happy faces of her family and was glad she’d made the effort to join in.
They headed home chattering about tomorrow, Christmas Eve.
Calling goodnight as soon as she politely could after they reached the warmth of the house, Bella climbed the stairs to her childhood bedroom into which Mum and Dad had squeezed another bed for visits from her and Craig. Before, they’d been pushed together – now they stood resolutely apart. Bella had been occupying the room alone but now Craig’s bag was slung in one corner.
He hadn’t come up yet, though. Maybe he’d gone off on one of his long, brooding walks, she thought dispiritedly, as she removed her make-up.
Hearing Ellie and Patrick arguing over who was next in the bathroom after Great Auntie Wynne, Bella wandered back downstairs, thinking she might share a few moments with her parents.
Following the murmur of voices, she headed towards the kitchen. Then she realised Craig was speaking.
“I think I’m spoiling Christmas for Bella, so thank you for inviting me, but I hope you won’t be offended if I go home.”
Bella clapped her hand to her mouth
Mum’s voice. Was it shaking?
“We hate to think of you alone, Craig. Didn’t you say most of the furniture’s been sold already? Being alone in a bare house is no Christmas!”
Bella’s stomach lurched. Craig had sold furniture? And he hadn’t told her – but had told her parents?
His sigh seemed to curl through the gap around the door to pluck fiercely at her heartstrings.
“I had to meet another mortgage payment somehow. If I can keep it going until the house sells, it’ll be better financially. Bella’s coming out of this badly enough already, and she wasn’t the one who had the wool pulled over her eyes.” Craig’s voice lightened, as if he was trying to sound reassuring. “I haven’t sold the beds or the kitchen table and that’s all I need.”
Bella closed her eyes in sudden pain, her heart pumping her blood through her veins so hard she felt hot and sick. Impulsively she pushed her way in.
“Please stay, Craig.” He’d hate realising what she’d overheard, so she made a feeble attempt to divert his attention. “If the man in the moon came down and saw you on your own at Christmas when there’s a perfectly good family here wanting your company, he’d think we’re bonkers again!”
Craig stared. Finally, the ghost of a smile crossed his face.
“If the man in the moon would think I ought to stay, then, thank you. I will.” Something in his eyes told her that he knew it was Bella who wanted him to stay, and he was pleased.
Bella felt a rush of relief. She’d made Craig change his mind without offending his prickly pride, and there hadn’t even been a row. She squirrelled the realisation away to think about later.
Mum and Dad both beamed, and Mum gave Bella the kind of hard hug that her family had taken to giving her, a we-love-you-no-matter-what hug.
“No idea what the moon has to do with it, but I’m glad we’re all agreed.”
She hugged Mum back as Craig watched. Was that envy in his eyes?
Releasing her mother, Bella hesitated. Then she opened her arms to her difficult, nearly-estranged husband.
“Peace at Christmas, Craig.”
Slowly, cautiously, Craig hugged her back. It felt familiar and safe to be in his arms again, even for five seconds.
Part 2: Christmas promises to be a frosty affair unless Bella finds a way to persuade Craig to put aside his pride.
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.