Three Christmases. Two broken hearts. One hell of a journey.
This hilarious and heartfelt seasonal romance comes from the author of All I Want for Christmas.
Driving home marks the start of the holidays for Kate and Ed, who have made this journey every Christmas of their ten-year-long relationship. Normally the seasonal hits blare from the car stereo, and they are guaranteed to be wearing ridiculous jumpers in anticipation, but this year a frosty silence fills the car…
A massive argument leads to the immediate collapse of their relationship. But the show must go on, so they decide to brave their families together one last time.
Joanna Bolouri worked in sales before she began writing professionally at the age of thirty. Winning a BBC comedy script competition allowed her to work and write with stand-up comedians, comedy script writers and actors from across the UK. She lives in Glasgow with her daughter.
Now enjoy an extract of Driving Home For Christmas...
When we pull up at Welcome Break motorway services, Ed and I haven’t spoken for forty minutes. He breaks this silence momentarily to ask if I want anything to eat but I shake my head, the lump in my throat preventing me from saying anything at all.
‘See you back here, then,’ he mumbles, taking the keys out of the ignition.
I grab my bag and make my way to the bathrooms, desperately trying to get into a cubicle before I begin to cry.
I use the toilet, wash my hands, then take a moment to compose myself, hoping my face isn’t actually as red as the fluorescent lighting in here suggests.
I look a mess. Nothing like a mirror in a public bathroom to make you feel worse about yourself, I think, trying to flatten the crown of flyaway hairs which has formed on top of my head. Jesus, it looks like someone’s rubbed my head with a balloon.
Normally, this would be the time when I meet up with Ed at the food court and we compete to find the worst sandwich possible, which, given the choice, is actually more difficult than it sounds. Ed won in October with an egg and cheese monstrosity which got hurled out of the car window at 70mph, while I won in June with a prawn baguette which smelled like it was made in 1955.
These road trips used to be like a little adventure, a chance to get away from everything and just relax. Be silly. Just be Ed and Kate – the two idiots who met at fourteen and have made each other laugh every day since.
I take a breath and wipe the mascara from under my eyes before making my way into the food court. I feel too upset to eat but I’ll grab some water for the car. I could murder a cigarette, but he’d only spend the rest of the journey moaning about the smell.
I return to the car where Ed is already back in the driver’s seat. I usually drive the second half of the journey, but I don’t mention it. He still looks angry and at this point, it really doesn’t matter. I slip into the passenger seat and close the door.
‘Shall we just head home, then?’ he snarls. ‘Cos there’s no way I’m breaking this news to my parents at Christmas. I’d rather say we broke down or died or something.’
My family. They are not going to take this well either. They all love Ed. Probably more than I do, especially my little brother, Tom. He adores him.
‘Well, we can’t not go,’ I reply. ‘They’re expecting us. My mum has made you that avocado vegetarian crap you like.’
‘So now being vegetarian is a problem?’ he responds. ‘At least I care about my diet. I’m not the one who couldn’t button their jeans at the weekend.’
I gasp. ‘Are you calling me fat?’
He shrugs. ‘Just stating a fact. My waist is the same size it’s been since I was fifteen.’
‘Not the only part of you that didn’t grow, then…’
‘Mature, Kate,’ he responds. ‘Very mature.’
‘Well don’t call me fat, avocado boy.’
We sit again in silence, staring out of opposite windows.
‘Look, we’re halfway there,’ I finally say, realising that we can’t just sit forever in a service station. ‘They’re expecting us. Let’s just go, smile and deal with this mess when we get home.’
He frowns. ‘Are you serious? You expect me to act like none of this just happened? You’re unreal.’
‘What’s the alternative? Just not show up and ruin everyone’s fun?’
‘Wouldn’t be the first time…’
I give a frustrated shriek, which makes him jump.
‘Really? You’re bringing that up. I was in court, Ed! We got held up. They don’t tend to let you postpone because you have dinner plans.’
‘It was my birthday!’
‘Oh, grow up.’
He folds his arms and continues to look out of the window while I consider hitching a ride on the HGV that’s just pulled in.
‘Look, your parents are expecting us,’ I say again, firmly. ‘I’m pretty sure we can be adult enough to get through this. OK?’
‘Fine.’ He sits sulking for a few more seconds before starting the car.
Three rather stressful hours later, we approach a familiar sign on the road ahead. Welcome to Castleton. It doesn’t matter how often I make this journey, I still feel a sense of calm the moment we enter the village – like stepping into the wardrobe and finding that behind it exists a land without Pret à Manger and pollution.
The old, pale-bricked houses with their little stone-walled gardens look as charming at night as they do during the day but especially so at Christmas. Fairy lights dressing bare trees line the road and the B&Bs with ‘No Vacancy’ signs let me know that the pubs will be busy with hikers and backpackers, but this is nothing new. People flock here all year round and I especially like it when they bring their dogs.
I always wanted a dog but my mum said she had enough on her plate without vet bills and chewed furniture, so she got me a goldfish instead.
Castleton is the place where I grew up and Ed moved to when he was fourteen, and while it’s hardly the most exciting village in the world, we made the most of it. With a population of only 600, we were forced to make our own fun, often meeting up with classmates from neighbouring villages who were just as desperate to leave as we were.
I often wonder if Ed and I would have been so close if we’d grown up in a city or attended a high school with more than three hundred pupils.
My mum and I moved to Hope twelve years ago when she married my stepdad, Gary, a gentle man with a penchant for soda bread and bird watching – a far cry from my biological dad, Brian, whose proclivities were limited to heavy drinking, a**e scratching and attempted life ruining.
Thankfully, Hope is only a mile and a half down the road from Castleton, so Ed and I were unaffected, but I was always sad to leave my first home. While it might not have held great memories for Mum, it did for me.
Even at one-thirty in the morning, we see hikers making their way into the village, night-walk headlamps still attached to their woolly hats.
However, as we drive further into the village, my stomach knots as we pass the Blue John Craft Shop, which has been here longer than I have. It’s the only place in the world where you can mine Blue John stone and Ed bought me a necklace from there for my eighteenth birthday, just before we left Castleton separately for uni. A small love heart with a purple blue stone on a silver chain. I still think it’s the most beautiful gift I’ve ever received.
A couple of minutes later we pull up outside Ed’s parents’ home – a detached Victorian house which they’ve spent the past decade renovating. As usual, it looks like they’ve gone all out for Christmas; flashing fairy lights on the front hedges, spray snow on the windows and a beautiful wreath on the door, which I know will smell of cinnamon and spiced orange room spray. It always does.
Ed turns off the engine, and we sit for a moment, neither of us ready to face the next few days. Before long, the curtains twitch and I see Yvonne, Ed’s mum, waving frantically.
‘Let’s get this over with,’ he mutters, waving back. ‘I thought they’d already be in bed.’
I wave too, watching Chris, Ed’s dad, bound down the path. For a seventy-year-old, he’s certainly sprightly. He’s wearing the same jumper as Yvonne, only the elf’s face is tightly stretched over his stomach, dragging it out of shape. As much as I want to laugh, I’m too drained.
‘You’re here!’ Chris announces, gleefully, as we exit the car. ‘Here, give me those bags, and let’s get you in. Your mother’s been worried.’
‘Didn’t you get Kate’s text?’ Ed asks, handing the first bag to his dad.
Chris shakes his head. ‘Your mother got a new phone. I’m not even sure she knows how to turn it on. You know what us oldies are like.’
Ed was a ‘late’ baby, or as Yvonne likes to say her little miracle, as she fell pregnant in her forties, which always seemed so old to me growing up; my mum and dad had me when they were sixteen.
Understandably, they absolutely dote on Ed but constantly mention that they wish they’d had a bigger family. Given their age, I understand why Ed wants to give them a grandchild but I’m just not ready. I’m not sure I’ll ever be.
‘She was running late as usual and we hit traffic,’ I hear Ed remark as I walk around to the boot and take out a bag of presents.
‘Well, he didn’t use GPS,’ I say, in a passive-aggressive, sing-song tone, intentionally standing on his toe as I lean in to hug Chris. ‘You know what he’s like. Merry Christmas, Chris.’
‘Come on you lot, you’ll freeze to death out there,’ Yvonne yells from the front door, not caring that it’s almost 2am and her neighbours are asleep.
I see Ed plaster a smile on his face as he walks up the path to greet his mum, who hugs him like she didn’t just see him in October. I walk behind, trying not to skid on the path which has begun to freeze over.
‘Bitter out, isn’t it, my love?’ Yvonne says in a soft east London accent. ‘You look gorgeous as usual, doesn’t she, Chris?’
‘She does,’ he confirms, as Yvonne squeezes the life out of me. Even though Chris is also from east London, he went to boarding school where, apparently, they knocked the cockney out of him, so his accent is far more generic. Ed’s accent is soft like his mum’s and far nicer than my Derbyshire drawl, though he’d disagree.
We shuffle through the entrance hall and place the bags at the top of the basement stairs, which lead to Ed’s old room, though they’ve taken down all of his Oasis posters, added a small en-suite and undoubtedly fumigated it to remove the odour of teenage boy.
‘Now, you’ll have a glass of something, won’t you?’ Yvonne asks, pulling me into the living room. ‘I’ve got some of that Christmas flavoured Baileys in and mince pies from Sal at the market. You remember Sal, yeah?’
‘Sal, of course,’ I reply, having no clue who she’s talking about. ‘But I’m exhausted, Yvonne. I might just head to bed and then we can do this properly tomorrow?’
Ed appears behind me and flops down on to the couch.
‘I’ll have one with you, Mum,’ he says, kicking off his shoes. ‘Kate’s had a long day.’
‘You sure, love?’ she asks.
I nod. ‘Sorry – I wouldn’t be much company. But I’ll see you all in the morn… well, a few hours!’
This is the point where Ed would normally tell me he’ll be down soon, but he doesn’t say a word. I give Yvonne a kiss on the cheek and trudge down to the basement.
‘Wow, you’ve really spruced this room up!’ I say, admiring the new décor. ‘Ed never said.’
This doesn’t surprise me, though. I once painted our white kitchen lemon while he was away chaperoning a school trip for three days and it took him a week to notice.
‘Yeah,’ Chris replies. ‘We got Phil Horne in to do it. Yvonne was fed up with the green.’
It’s beautiful. The dark green walls are gone, replaced with a champagne-coloured wallpaper and new floor. It looks like a hotel suite. They’ve even placed a little gold Christmas tree in the corner of the room.
Chris pushes my case against the wall before straightening up with a groan.
‘Oh, I could have done that,’ I tell him. ‘Don’t do yourself a mischief running about after us.’
‘Nonsense,’ he replies. ‘It’s no bother. You not having a nightcap? Your mum’s been going on about that Baileys all week.’
Your mum. He’s been doing this for a couple of years now and I never correct him. Neither does Ed. We figured it’s either his age or he simply sees me as his daughter-in-law, given that I’ve been dating Ed for so long. I know Ed secretly likes it; to him, it’s one step further in his quest to wife me.
I smile and tell him I’ll try the Baileys tomorrow, but I’m just absolutely beat.
‘OK, love, sleep well,’ he replies, turning on the bedside lamp. ‘I’ll send the boy down soon, though you’ll probably be glad of five minutes to yourself.’
His eyes sparkle, the way Ed’s do. I mean, Ed’s always been like his dad, but I see it more than ever tonight. The same wide brown eyes, the way they both stand with their hands in their pockets when they feel a tad awkward, but most of all, the way I feel completely at home whenever I’m around them, regardless of where we are, though I’ve lost that with Ed recently.
These days we just seem to pass like ships in the night… actually, more like stray cats in the night, occasionally mating and hissing at each other as we go.
Chris closes the door behind him as I kick off my shoes, unreasonably miffed that they’ve replaced the carpet in here with wooden flooring, but I’m grateful to have a minute alone. I half-heartedly wash my face and brush my teeth before climbing into bed.
New mattress. New pillows which appear to be filled with some kind of memory-foam cement. I punch them into submission and lie back, closing my eyes and hoping that I’m asleep before Ed comes in.
But as tired as I am, I couldn’t be less relaxed if I tried. Being here normally fills me with a sense of calm but this time it’s different, and it’s not the room or the new mattress or the stupidly firm pillows. It’s me. It’s us. We’re different.
Today just seems so surreal, but not entirely unsurprising. One of us needed to say something, to finally admit that we weren’t happy.
But what happens now? I’ve never broken up with anyone before. Ed’s been my only boyfriend for the past fourteen years. He’s all I’ve ever known.