Authors: Tilly Tennant
Once Upon a Winter –
The Accidental Guest © Tilly Tennant 2015
All rights reserved in all media. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic or mechanical (including but not limited to: the internet, photocopying, recoding or by any information storage and retrieval system), without prior permission in writing from the author and/or publisher.
The moral right of Tilly Tennant as the author of the work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988.
Table of Contents
Part One: The Accidental Guest
The milkmaid had a bucket missing from her yoke, part of her little nose chipped off and dirt ground into a dress that could have once been blue but was now so filthy it was anyone’s guess. It made a pretty dismal sight. Hannah put it on the coffee table and stared at it.
‘Well,’ Gina said, ‘she’s given us some corkers over the years but this one really takes the biscuit.’
‘This one takes the whole tin,’ Hannah said.
‘It takes the McVities factory,’ Jess put in. She started to giggle, and seconds later, all three were in fits of laughter.
‘Good old Aunt Dot,’ Hannah said, wiping tears away. ‘It’s good to know she’s still as nutty as ever.’
‘Tight as a fish’s arse. I think she only pretends to be nutty so she can get away with giving everyone shit.’ Jess rattled the box containing her own gift from the great-aunt in question doubtfully. ‘It’d be better if she just came clean and stopped giving us stuff. We’ll only have to dispose of this crap on Boxing Day.’
‘Awww, where’s your Christmas spirit, niece of mine?’ Hannah picked up the little ornament and grinned at it. There was a faint ping from the kitchen. ‘Well, the unpredictable thrill of opening Aunt Dot’s presents will have to wait for the time being while I go and pull the turkey out of the oven.’ She got up from her knees and brushed her trousers down. ‘Bloody pine needles. They get everywhere.’
‘I told you to get a Scot’s pine, they’re far better,’ Gina said.
‘I told you to get a Scot’s pine,’ Hannah mouthed, pulling her face into a parody of her sister’s.
‘Cheeky cow,’ Gina laughed. ‘Just remember who’s peeling your sprouts for you.’
‘Won’t you be eating the sprouts?’
‘Yeah. But that’s not the point. Besides, I’m only eating them because you said I had to.’
‘Maybe I like pine needles all over my floor,’ Hannah said.
‘I don’t,’ Jess said as she pulled one from the sole of her woolly sock.
‘Come on…’ Hannah said, ‘off your bums, you two. I’m not slaving in that kitchen on my own.’
‘When you invited us to dinner, I didn’t expect to have to cook it as well as eat it.’ Gina gave an exaggerated pout.
‘Are you saying that eating my Christmas dinner will be a chore?’
‘Depends what you do with it. I still have flashbacks from Christmas 2010.’
‘Watch it,’ Hannah laughed. ‘You’ll be down the Spar getting yourself a frozen dinner for one if you don’t stop with the insults.’
Gina threw her daughter a huge grin as they followed Hannah into the kitchen. Like the rest of the house, it had been given an extreme Christmas makeover so that red candles, wax fruit, tinsel and fairy lights adorned every surface not already occupied by food.
‘You haven’t eaten the Christmas Day chocolate,’ Jess said, opening the last door of the advent calendar and popping the contents into her mouth with a smirk.
Hannah plopped her hands on her hips. ‘How lucky I have my niece to help me out, eh? Whatever would I do without you?’
‘I seem to recall that’s a trick you would have played when we were kids.’ Gina gave Hannah a pointed look.
‘Mum would never buy us advent calendars when we were kids,’ Hannah fired back, ‘because of the year you opened all the windows on the first of December and ate the lot.’
‘That was you!’ Gina squeaked.
‘I think you’ll find it was you,’ Hannah replied, folding her arms with a defiant look.
Jess giggled. ‘Now I know where I get the chocoholic gene from. It’s totally your fault and when I get an arse the size of Greater Manchester I’ll know where to point the finger of blame.’
‘That day’s a long way off,’ Hannah said, smiling at Jess. ‘God, what I wouldn’t give to be seventeen again with your figure.’
‘I don’t think you look so bad,’ Jess said. ‘In fact, all my mates say you’re dead pretty.’
‘Thanks,’ Hannah beamed, smoothing an unconscious hand over her chestnut hair. ‘That’s so lovely.’
‘For an old lady,’ Jess added with a cheeky grin.
‘Oi!’ Gina cut in. ‘If she’s old what does that make me?’
‘I don’t know but there’s some archaeologist applying for funding right now to excavate the wrinkles around your eyes.’
‘Cheek!’ Gina grabbed the nearest tea towel and hurled it at Jess, who was now laughing raucously. ‘You’re not too old for a smacked bottom!’
Jess pulled the tea towel from her face. ‘I’m not too old to call Child Line either.’
Hannah took the towel from Jess and put it to one side. ‘Come on, we’ll never get any dinner at this rate.’
‘You’re not seriously putting us to work now?’ Gina asked.
‘Of course. You want to eat, don’t you?’
‘What about my snowball? You can’t cook Christmas dinner without a snowball on the go.’
‘Ugh!’ Jess grimaced. ‘You two are the only people in the world who still drink those. The first time I mentioned that drink to my mates they thought I was mental; they’d never heard of a snowball, only the ones you chuck at each other; they had to google it! In fact, people should chuck these rather than drink them… the bin is the best place. I’m pretty sure they were banned under the Geneva Convention in 1979 or something.’
‘Yes, but it’s tradition,’ Gina replied in a slightly offended tone. ‘We always cook Christmas dinner with a snowball… at least we used to before your dad.’
‘I’d forgotten about that,’ Hannah smiled. ‘It’s actually been years since we did dinner together like this. It’s nice, isn’t it, to get a chance to do it again.’
‘Yeah…’ Jess sneered. ‘It’s just a shame we had to find out my dad was a wanker before we got the excuse to relive it.’
Gina pulled her daughter into a brief hug and kissed her forehead. ‘I don’t want to dwell on bad stuff like that today. I want us to have fun and forget all the awful things that have happened this year, just for one day. So let’s talk about something else, eh?’
‘Or how about we don’t talk at all?’ Hannah skipped over to a CD player perched on a shelf and pressed play. The kitchen was suddenly filled with Abba’s
Does Your Mother Know?
Hannah whacked up the volume and began to sing along at the top of her voice. Dancing her way to the fridge, she pulled out a net full of sprouts and tossed them to Gina, who caught them neatly as she joined in the song. Hannah found some carrots next, and threw the bag to Jess, who simply rolled her eyes and pulled a peeler from the drawer. Then Hannah sashayed to the oven. As she opened the door, the glorious aroma of cooked turkey rose into the air. She smiled to herself as she gave it one last baste and put it back in. Who needs men, she thought as she looked around at the two best companions she could wish for on Christmas Day.
‘You surely don’t want me to peel all these sprouts?’ Gina asked, frowning at the net. ‘I’ll be here until New Year.’
‘Not to mention the pong in here if we eat them all,’ Jess said. ‘Mum farts for England when she eats green stuff. There’ll be enough gas to power Millrise for a decade.’
‘Oi!’ Gina squeaked.
Hannah laughed. ‘I’d better keep some back then.’
‘Let’s not bother at all,’ Jess suggested.
‘No,’ Hannah insisted. ‘It’s Christmas and we have to have sprouts.’
Gina shook her head wryly as she tipped the net and emptied it onto the worktop.
‘Looks like the snow has started again,’ Hannah added as her gaze was drawn to the window, where flakes floated like goose down from a white sky, collecting in the cracks and crevices of the frame. ‘It’s nice to have a bit, but if this carries on we’ll be snowed in.’
‘Fine by me,’ Gina said. ‘I can’t think of a better place to be stuck.’
‘It’s a good thing you decided to stay,’ Hannah said with a knowing smile. ‘Though I’d have made up the spare room even if you said you weren’t.’
‘You know me so well.’
‘I know what you’ll be like when we open the Christmas champagne. Lightweight.’
‘I am not! It’s all those bubbles. Everyone knows bubbly booze makes you drunk quicker.’
‘I’d better make your snowball non-alcoholic then, or we’ll never get any dinner cooked.’
‘I think you’ll find the stuff that makes it a snowball is alcoholic, and if you leave that out I’m just drinking pop.’
Hannah reached into a cupboard. Producing a bottle of radioactive looking yellow liquid, she blew the dust from the lid and opened it, sniffing at the contents. ‘How many years can you keep advocaat before it goes off?’
‘I don’t know,’ Gina said, eyeing the bottle doubtfully. ‘Are you actually going to drink that?’
‘It’ll be fine…’ Hannah held up two fingers and crossed them with a grin. ‘I think A&E is keeping usual hours today, and I’ll keep my phone close as we drink it.’
‘Ugh!’ Jess screwed up her nose. ‘Don’t think for a minute that I’m having one.’
‘Don’t be such a girl,’ Hannah said.
‘It might have escaped your notice but I
a girl.’ Jess said.
Hannah got three tall glasses out of the cupboard and poured a measure of advocaat into each one. Jess leaned against the kitchen counter mock-pouting at them, but then suddenly stood tall, her face serious.
‘What was that?’
Hannah licked a stray drop of advocaat from her finger. ‘What?
‘Turn the music down a sec,’ Jess said.
Hannah went over to the CD player and did as Jess asked, shooting a wry smile at Gina as she did so. They paused for a moment. ‘There… nothing. Happy now?’
‘I heard a knock, I’m sure I did.’
‘I didn’t hear anything.’ Hannah looked at Gina.
‘Me neither,’ Gina said.
‘There it is again!’ Jess said. There was no mistaking it this time, though it was less of a knock this time and more of a dull thud that echoed through the house. All three stood in silence.
‘You’re not expecting anyone, are you, Han?’ Gina asked after a moment.
Hannah shook her head. ‘Brian and Cynthia from the next house are away in Greece for Christmas, so it can’t be them.’
‘Brian and Cynthia… aren’t they the old duffers who are always coming to check on you because they think you’re a brothel madam?’ Jess asked, grinning at Hannah.
Hannah’s mouth fell open. ‘I’ve never said that!’
‘You’d be surprised what I hear you tell my mum when you think I’m not listening.’
‘Well, I’m sure they’re actually just concerned about a woman living alone, which is quite sweet really. I suppose we are quite cut off from town here.’
‘I know, I don’t know how you live here; it’s creepy,’ Jess said.
‘Never mind that,’ Gina cut in, ‘I think we might have forgotten that there seems to be someone at the door.’
‘It was probably a pigeon on the roof or something,’ Hannah said, though she didn’t look very convinced. Even as she spoke, another knock sounded through the house.
was the front door,’ Jess said.
‘Who on earth would turn up unannounced on Christmas Day?’ Gina frowned.
‘Carol singers?’ suggested Jess helpfully.
‘They wouldn’t make much money out here,’ Hannah replied, ‘there’s only a handful of houses along this stretch and then nothing for miles.’
‘Better hope it’s not an axe-wielding maniac then,’ Jess said. ‘Bags I don’t open the front door.’
‘Bags none of us open the door,’ Gina said, who, despite being much older, often slipped easily into her daughter’s mode of speech, much to Jess’s chagrin.
Hannah looked towards the window. ‘We can’t leave them out there in the snow.’
‘Why not? They’re either scrounging or up to no good. Either way they can try their luck with some other mug.’
the snow?’ Hannah gestured to the window.
‘All the more reason not to answer the door. Nobody with good intent would be out there. Let’s stay quiet in here and they’ll bugger off in a minute.’
Hannah rolled her eyes. ‘You’re all heart, you.’
‘I’m sensible. One of us has to be.’
‘I’m not the one who married a complete dick.’
‘Ouch! Below the belt, Han.’
’You’re right, sorry. Look, I’m going to see who it is. They might need some help.’
‘Hannah, no…’ Gina put a hand on her arm. ‘Please…’
Hannah paused. And then she let out a sigh of defeat. ‘Ok. But I’m not happy about it.’
‘Seriously, you can’t be too careful.’
They waited. A few moments passed and all was quiet.
‘Do you think they’ve gone?’ Gina whispered.