Three weeks before Christmas
“But Christmas won’t be the same without you, Mum!” Max sounded anxious and shocked over Janice’s phone.
Handset clamped to her ear, Janice pasted on a smile as she hurried through the frosty village because she’d read that smiling made your voice sound relaxed.
“Darling, I can’t pop over for Christmas Day as I used to when you lived in Bettsbrough. You’re in Switzerland! I completely understand why you had to grab your fab new job when it was offered and that your new company wants you there for their corporate shindigs.
“But I don’t have enough annual leave to join you, even if I could get Tubb to let me have Christmas off at short notice. You know how busy a pub gets.”
Almost slipping in her winter boots, she got her first sight of The Three Fishes, picking out the strings of lights ready to illuminate at opening time.
Max sighed down the phone. “Then we’ll come home –”
“I won’t hear of it,” Janice interrupted, still fake-smiling valiantly. “It will be lovely for you all to experience a proper white Christmas in Switzerland! I can almost see the Christmas markets and pretty horse-drawn carriages.
“I’ll send Dugal and Keir the Christmas jumpers I’ve knitted and I’ll have a lovely village Christmas here in Middledip. Then I can organise myself to join you next year.
“I’m here at the pub now, darling, so give my love to Ona and the kids and we’ll speak in a few days.”
The smile dropped from Janice’s face as she ended the call, nowhere near as composed about not seeing Max and
his lovely family at Christmas as she’d made herself sound.
They’d lived in the village and she’d been a hands-on gran, taking the kiddies to the play park or babysitting them while Max and Ona went out.
She paused outside the pub to gather herself for a minute.
She’d lost her husband, Peter, to illness when Max had been a toddler. Though she’d later had a couple of other relationships, she hadn’t chosen to make them permanent.
Maybe that was part of why she enjoyed working at The Three Fishes, the social hub of the village.
Then she let herself in through the staff door. From the clanging of pans and raised voices she could hear emanating from the kitchen, Chef and his staff were already busy.
It was just the landlord in what was known as “the back” – the area on the ground floor that wasn’t the bar or the kitchen.
Called “Tubb from the pub” by the villagers, he glanced up as she hung up her coat and changed out of her boots.
“Good morning,” he greeted her.
“Is it?” Then, embarrassed that her eyes had burned suddenly, she managed a shaky half-laugh as if her response had been a joke, and swooped up a crate of ginger ale to cart through to the bar to replenish the fridges.
With swift, practised movements she began pulling out bottles to line up in neat rows like toy soldiers.
She was surprised by a clatter as someone deposited the next crate – tonic – on the floor beside her.
“All OK there?” asked Tubb in his quietly direct way.
Concentrating on getting the rows perfect, she shrugged. Then she sighed. Why should she pretend?
“I’ve just been talking to Max. It’s been made enticing for him to stay in Switzerland for Christmas. He seems surprised that I can’t join them there – but I just can’t.”
“Oh.” Tubb passed a few bottles from the crate. “It’s quite short notice.”
She laughed grimly, lining up the tonic bottles beside the ginger ale.
“Also, I don’t have enough annual leave, even if I’ve been nice enough to my boss to take time off at our busiest time.”
He smiled at her feeble joke. He wasn’t the most smiley of men, though Janice found him a fair employer who always made sure she got two days off at Christmas to be with her family – one of which was always Christmas Day. Not all bosses in the hospitality industry were as helpful. He was a few years older than her and his brown hair, though thinning, curled at the front.
“Also,” she went on honestly, “I didn’t want to say this to him, but I haven’t budgeted for Christmas air fares.
“Then I’d need snowboots and everything, because you can’t go to Switzerland dressed for a UK winter.
“This Christmas is important for Max as he settles into the company and his new, prestigious job and the family should enjoy a Swiss Christmas anyway! How exciting will that be?” She swallowed down her disappointment that she wouldn’t be sharing it.
“Next year, though, do you think I could have a week or so off at Christmas? Then I’ll have time to save up and get an early-bird fare –”
He interrupted her. “I can manage somehow if you go this year. You can have an advance on salary and holiday entitlement.”
Then he rubbed his nose self-consciously. She swung around to gaze at him in astonishment.
“I know it took you by surprise when Max moved his family to Switzerland.”
Janice’s eyes burned again, but this time at his generosity. People sometimes smirked at Tubb being careful with money but the offer was a handsome one.
“That’s so nice of you,” she croaked. “But I’d hate to begin the year in debt, especially such a significant one.
“It’s OK. I’ll have a real Christmas next year.”
Tubb took away the empty crates and came back with one of bitter lemon.
“How about Christmas lunch here? A few villagers come, as you know.”
“Um …” Janice concentrated on lining up bottles again. She might not be looking forward to Christmas Day but that didn’t mean she wanted to work.
“Thanks, but I’ll just hole up with the TV, chocolates and my knitting.” She straightened. “Don’t you ever want Christmas Day off?” she asked impulsively. “I know you’re a workaholic, but why not close for that one day and forget the lost revenue?”
Shock flickered in his eyes.
“Actually, I run the Christmas Day lunch so that nobody has to be alone on Christmas Day.”
Like her … he didn’t add.
Then he nodded as a full stop to the conversation and stalked off towards the cellar while Janice fetched the fruit juices, feeling uncomfortable.
Had she hurt her boss’s feelings? Perhaps her response had been a little ungracious.
She’d known Tubb since she’d first come to the village as a young newly-wed. He was a solitary man known universally by his surname, spending his life behind the bar, serving his customers. It was said he kept a hawk-like eye on how many came through the door, but didn’t he also always make time to chat? Enquire after people when they had trouble of whatever kind in their lives?
All through the lunchtime session, the bar a-twinkle with lights and silver stars swinging prettily from the old beams, Tubb was polite and pleasant.
He didn’t mention Christmas again, and though Janice read the colourful poster about Christmas lunch, neither did she.
In the evening, when Janice returned to The Three Fishes from her afternoon break, she found Lily Cortez, one of the other bar staff, already working.
New to the village, in her thirties and with an unhappy marriage behind her, Lily was dark and pretty, quick on her feet and easy to get along with.
“Just beginning to get busy!” Lily greeted her.
“Yes – it will be all through December.”
Janice grinned back, then turned to serve a ladylike glass of white wine to Carola from the Angel Community Café.
Her usual Janice-behind-the-bar persona slipped into place and she chatted to customers as she served.
The Christmas lunch poster catching her eye again, she took advantage of a lull to pull out the sign-up sheet from the cubby hole beneath the till, running her eye down the list of attendees.
Carola, Gabe, Jodie with her mum and toddler daughter, Don and wife Bette, Fern, a couple of other names she didn’t instantly recognise … and Lily.
Putting a food order through the till, Lily glanced at what Janice was holding.
“You’re not coming to The Single Person’s Christmas Club, are you?” She used the village’s jokey name for the lunch. Although being single wasn’t a requirement, it was often booked by single people.
Janice shook her head, restoring the clipboard to its place and explaining about Max’s Swiss family Christmas.
“Tubb asked me if I’d work Christmas Day to help with the lunch – though I don’t know why, when you’ll be there.”
Lily halted, her eyebrows shooting up.
“If Tubb invited you then it wouldn’t be to work,” she said. “You know he puts on the lunch by himself, other than the kitchen staff doing some prep the day before.
“I’m a guest. Last year at this time, I was brand-new to the village. I got to know people and had a fab time.”
“Yes, I suppose I did know that.” Janice shifted along the bar to re-read the poster. “There’s no price given so it must be expensive.”
Lily took an order, grabbing a couple of clean glasses en route to the beer pumps. “Nope,” she answered cheerfully, watching the froth rise in the first glass. “Twenty-six pounds.”
Janice returned to serving, smiling mechanically.
“That can’t be right. It says three courses and fizz!”
Lily slid the first two glasses onto the bar in front of her customer.
“It is,” she confirmed. “People can even spread the price over the year. He must do it at cost.”
Tubb appeared from the back with a passing, “All OK?” to Janice and Lily.
“Fine,” they answered.
Thoughtfully, Janice watched him taking food orders in the dining area. Having worked at The Three Fishes for nearly nine years she knew a little more about costs than Lily.
If Tubb was producing Christmas lunch for twenty-six pounds, then he wasn’t providing lunch at cost. He was subsidising it.
Her mind churned guiltily. If he had been inviting her to Christmas lunch as a guest, then her reply must have seemed perilously close to rude.
And why would a man who was known for not wasting money subsidise an event on Christmas Day, the one day when –?
Her thoughts juddered to a halt. When what? Who did Tubb spend his scant Christmas free time with?
She had no idea. She’d worked for him for years but suddenly felt as if she hardly knew him at all.
As Lily had come in early, Janice was the one to close up with Tubb. Seeing the customers safely off the premises and locking the doors, she turned off the Christmas lights and began collecting glasses for the dishwasher. The kitchen staff called goodbye and faded into the night. Tubb cashed up the till.
Janice was spraying table tops and giving them an energetic wipe when he moved on to cleaning the pumps. She cleared her throat.
“Do you mind me asking something?”
He glanced up. “Not at all.”
She moved closer.
“Why doesn’t anyone call you Harry? It’s your first name, isn’t it?”
His eyes returned to his task as he took the drip tray apart, but his colour heightened.
“Because it rhymes, I suppose – “Tubb from the pub”. My name’s Harrison, really. My parents wanted something unusual but when I was a teenager Harrison wasn’t as popular as it is now and I thought Harry was an old man’s name.
“My mates were called Dave or John so I was glad when they began calling me Tubb. A lot of lads were known by their surnames. Because I’ve continued to live in the village, Tubb kind of stuck.”
He slipped the drip tray back together with the ease of familiarity. “Also, my brother’s called Garrick and shortened it to Garry. ‘Harry and Garry’ sounded daft.”
Her hands had continued to move automatically as she listened, picturing this stoical, undemonstrative man as a child or a teenager, someone with a brother – who she’d heard him mention – and parents. But fancy nobody ever using your actual name!
“May I call you Harrison?” she asked. “I think it’s nice.”
His surprised glance flicked her way. “Do you? Then yes.” He turned and vanished into the back.
Janice moved on to clean the bar counter, not sure if she’d trespassed too far on what had only ever been a working relationship.
Or had it? Tubb – or Harrison – always shown an interest in her. Just look how nice he’d been when she’d turned up for the lunchtime session feeling down about Christmas.
Had she been guilty in the past of taking his slightly aloof manner as a signal that he wouldn’t welcome friendly interest in return? He kept himself to himself… and she let him.
Janice went to throw bar towels into the laundry bin and found Tubb on the computer.
“Cuppa?” she offered.
Again, his eyes held surprise, probably because Janice usually took herself off home as soon as her duties were done.
He nodded. “Great, thanks.”
He returned to his screen until Janice brought over the steaming mug.
She knew he liked tea without sugar, but coffee with; that you couldn’t leave him near anything chocolate without it disappearing; even that he wore a lot of navy and white. But she hadn’t known his full name…
She sat down on a chair and wiggled her feet, glad to be off them after a long night. She drew in a breath.
“Is the invitation to Christmas lunch still open? Sorry if I was offhand earlier but I was feeling sorry for myself. Lily said the lunch was great last year.”
He stopped typing and propped his chin on his hand to regard her.
“Of course. Add yourself to the list.”
She felt compelled to be honest, though it made her cheeks heat up.
“Actually, when you first mentioned it I thought I was being asked to work. Lily said I’d be a guest, though…?”
“Yes, of course a guest. There’s no charge to you or Lily. Call it a thank you for all your work throughout the year.”
He picked up his tea and sat back.
She thanked him with real gratitude.
“It’s incredibly kind of you. Don’t you –” She hesitated, not wanting to say have anywhere to go? then finished, “ – ever want Christmas Day off?’
“Not necessarily.” He shrugged.
She became bolder.
“But, at the price you’re charging, you’re not making money out of the lunch. Why put it on at all?”
He was silent so long that Janice wondered whether she ought to go home and leave him alone with his computer.
Finally, he sighed pensively.
“You probably remember I was married to Elaine for a while, though it was before you worked here.”
“Yes, I remember her vaguely.”
“Well, even before that, once I had to spend a Christmas alone, without much money.
“The woman I thought I was in love with explained she didn’t share my feelings and the company I was working for went bust, which meant no salary, no holiday pay and no Christmas bonus.
“Garrick was working in Germany. Mum and Dad had already gone to spend Christmas with him.
“They wanted me to join them but there were only two days to Christmas and, as you know all too well, Christmas flights are expensive and hard to come by if you don’t book well in advance.
“My parents wanted me to try to get flights at their expense, but they weren’t rich people and I couldn’t have that.”
“How old were you?” Janice asked, her heart brimming with fellow feeling for the lonely long-ago Harrison Tubb.
He rubbed his chin as he thought.
“About twenty-seven. When, years later, I was back on my feet and landlord of this place, I decided to make it possible for others to have somewhere to go and people to be with.” One of his rare smiles flashed. “And I enjoy it.
“Friends from the village will be there. This year it’ll be Carola because it’s her ex-husband’s turn to have their daughters; Gabe because he would have gone to his nephew Ben’s house, but Ben’s wife Alexia has been ordered to rest for the last month of her pregnancy.
“Fern because she’s single, Don and his wife because they enjoy it, Jodie, her mum and little Scarlett because the adults have been poorly.”
He stopped, as if realising he’d let his walls down for once and revealed himself as deeply kind.
Janice looked at him with new respect.
“I’d love to join you all for lunch,” she said huskily. “But only on the condition you let me help. I can come in on Christmas morning and make a fun dessert – maybe chocolate mousse and gingerbread men.”
Tubb gave her the wry look that seemed to take the place of a smile.
“And gingerbread women,” he said. “We’re very equal opportunities here at The Three Fishes.”
She laughed, then drained her cup of tea and got wearily to her feet. “That’s a bargain. I’ll be here.”
Apart from anything else, making gingerbread men and women in the pub kitchen on Christmas morning would encourage her not to focus on her not getting a real Christmas this year – a family Christmas.
“It will be different for me to have company in the kitchen on Christmas morning,” he observed, turning back to the computer. “Good night, Janice.”
She gathered up the mugs to add to the dishwasher. “It will be fun for me too,” she said lightly. “Night, Harrison.”
As she left the room she glanced back and caught him smiling.
Look out for Part 2 of Sue’s heartwarming serial next Thursday. And pick up My Weekly issue dated November 30 (on sale November 26) to read the first part of her new serial, Under The Middledip Mistletoe!
With its sparkling cover and romantic story, Let It Snow by Sue Moorcroft (Avon PB, £7.99) is the perfect festive read! Like a chance to win one of 10 copies? Pick up My Weekly issue dated December 3 to find out how…