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  • Pamela Belle

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Saskia and her daughter arrived on Christmas Eve, a much more pleasant day than the one which had preceded it. An early frost had melted under blue skies and a valiant sun, and Jenna and Rosie had spent the morning getting the cottage ready to receive their first visitors. By lunchtime, everything was vacuumed and dusted, and there was fresh linen on the spare bed and on the blow-up mattress squeezed into Rosie’s room, on which India would sleep. Jenna had made a last-minute, slightly panicked foray to the Co-op in Woodbridge, and had come back with flowers, more fresh vegetables, and an array of delicious looking pastries and breads, well worth the ten-minute queue at the checkout behind all the other slightly panicked last-minute shoppers. In the meantime, Rosie had washed up, made a pot of soup, tidied the living room and lit the wood-burner, something she hadn’t attempted before. So when Jenna returned, the house was glowing with warmth and welcome, and once the shopping had been put away, and a vase of daffodil buds placed on the dining table, she was able to look around at her new domain with a sense of real satisfaction.

“I had a text from India,” Rosie said, slicing bread for their lunchtime soup. “They’ve just set out, she thinks they’ll be here around four. If they can remember how to get here, Saskia’s sat-nav has packed up.”

Jenna grinned. “Then she’ll just have to rely on a good old-fashioned map book. Thanks for lighting the fire, I wasn’t looking forward to that. Is the soup ready? It smells great.”

“It’s easier than I thought it would be,” Rosie said. “Lots of scrunched up newspaper and kindling helps. Hope the soup’s OK, I just sort of chucked everything in.”

It was a hearty broth, perfect for cold winter days, made with a ham bone Jenna had bought at the village butcher, some of the herbs that winter had left in the garden, and a selection of diced vegetables: carrots, potatoes, cabbage, tomatoes. On the time-honoured principle of ‘hurl it and stir it’, Rosie had also added the contents of a tin of baked beans, and a generous squirt of tomato ketchup. It was unorthodox, but delicious, and there was plenty left for another day.

“I saw Ruth Marsden in Woodbridge,” Jenna said, as they ate. “I was going to go round later and take her some wine and chocs as a thank you – she’s been wonderful.”

“Did you invite her to the New Year party?” Rosie asked, dipping her buttered bread into her soup, a habit which would certainly have annoyed her grandmother, and probably her father as well. With just the two of them, however, Jenna was not going to worry about table manners. She thought, guiltily, how pleasant it was here, without Rick constantly finding fault, and the need to smooth ruffled feathers or try to live up to his exacting standards. He’d always been much more uptight and, yes, old-fashioned than she was. No wonder her mother had liked him so much.

A sudden and very unwelcome thought came into Jenna’s mind. Had she originally been attracted to Rick because he was older, and in some ways subconsciously reminded her of Patricia? Had she weirdly been looking for some parent figure in her life?

Then she remembered Rick as he had been when they first met, a lithe dark-haired young man with boundless zest and energy, and how he’d seemed refreshingly straightforward, such fun, so entertaining, after the quiet, devious Jon. Rick, she had thought, would never let her down. How wrong she had been. But then the present Rick, his energy channelled into selfishness and his open nature corrupted by greed, was a very different person from the man she’d loved and married.

“Mum?”

With an effort, Jenna recalled herself to the present. Rick was gone, irrevocably, and there was, as Nanna May would have said, absolutely no point in wailing over spilt milk. Clear it up, sort it out and get on with your life. “Sorry, sweetheart, I was miles away.”

“I was asking if you’d invited Ruth to the party. You know, our New Year stroke housewarming party? The one we were going to have on, oh, I don’t know, some random date like the thirty first of December?”

“I did, and she was delighted. And she said she’d invite a few more people. A sort of introduction to the village, a signal that I’m going to be part of the community from now on.” She grinned. “Though she did promise not to invite the vicar.”

“Good. That’d really cramp our style.”

“We’re having a quiet New Year party with a few drinks and guaranteed total absence of Jools Holland, not a full-on orgy.”

“Shame,” Rosie said. “From what I’ve seen of Orford, a Shades of Grey session might shake it up a bit. I mean, I really like Ruth and Gary, but they’re not exactly buzzing, are they?”

“I don’t think we need an orgy to get Orford talking. If I know her, Saskia will do it all by herself.”

“And you said you were going to invite the poetry guy. Fran Somebody?”

“McNeil. I did, I sent him an email last night, but he hasn’t got back to me.” Jenna couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed, though she suspected that, after an interval of twenty-five years and a career that doubtless involved attending parties far more glamorous and star-filled than anything she could throw, a New Year bash in a Suffolk backwater wouldn’t be his thing at all. She added, for Rosie’s benefit, “Anyway, he’s got his daughter staying with him, so I expect they’ve got family commitments.”

“His daughter?” Rosie, a friendly soul, looked hopeful.

“Flora. She’s ten, and very, very American.”

“Oh.” Rosie finished her soup and wiped the last of the bread round the bowl. “That was delish. I might do that again when I get back to uni, if I can remember the recipe.”

“You mean there was a recipe?”

Rosie grinned. “The usual - empty the fridge, hurl it in, and stir it. Shall I put some coffee on?” Most of Jenna’s expensive gadgets had been sold via Ebay, but her beloved coffee machine had been one of the few survivors. Her daughter got up and collected bowls and plates. “What are we having for supper?”

“Nothing very elaborate – I thought I’d do that spaghetti with aubergine and prawns and chilli. It doesn’t take very long, so lots of time this evening for a chat. Or to go out to the pub, though it’ll probably be packed to the rafters.”

“Oh, I think I’d rather stay in.” Rosie was smiling to herself as she went into the kitchen, and Jenna, who knew the signs, wondered what she was up to. Plotting some prank with India, perhaps, for the ‘Happy Christmas’ Skype conversation they’d arranged tomorrow evening with Tom and Joe in Australia. She leaned back in her chair and sighed. This time last year, she’d been waiting at Heathrow for Rick to fly in from New York. Had he already been seeing Madison? If the baby was due in March, it seemed likely. He’d been too jet-lagged to do much over Christmas, and she remembered Joe saying, not entirely in jest, that he wasn’t much fun any more. She’d defended Rick, of course: she’d always defended him, until his behaviour finally made it impossible, until the fractures in their marriage grew too deep and wide to ignore.

She looked round at the room, thinking that she had done her best to make it home, and hoping that she had succeeded. Like the rest of the cottage, it needed redecoration, but with her books and pictures and photographs and other precious items from St. Albans, it was hers now. The stove burned cheerfully and she had found a space for a small artificial Christmas tree on the windowsill, where its tiny sparkling LED lights would present a cheerful sight to anyone walking along Quay Street. The room wasn’t large enough, and the ceiling too low, for the huge glittery tinsel chains they’d hung every year in the long living room at the St. Albans house, in a spirit of festive irony, so apart from the tree she’d limited the decorations to the cards, which she’d blu-tacked to the bookshelves, and to the sprigs of holly, cut from the tree in the garden, wreathed along the thick oak beam above the fireplace, and stuck around the pictures.

It was heartening how many cards had arrived, not only for Christmas but celebrating her ‘new home’ as well. She’d heard that in certain circles being divorced could make you a social pariah, but happily this didn’t seem to apply to her friends. There’d also been cards from David and Mike, Rick’s two brothers, expressing their sympathy and support, and from Jules in France. Had a word or two with my love-rat brother last week, his sister had written. He knows what I think and he doesn’t like it, but tough, he shouldn’t have done it. Hope you and the kids are doing OK. Meant what I said about coming to stay. How about Easter? Then you can bring Rosie, wd love to see her. Joyeux Noel, lots of love, Jules et Jean-Pierre, Georges, Sophie, Celeste, Paul et Madeleine. That had heartened Jenna, knowing that at least someone had administered to Rick the bollocking he deserved. He had often referred to his sister as ‘the dragon lady’, so she knew he stood in some awe of her, despite the fact that she was seven years younger.

She sat down on the big squashy sofa and checked her phone. No messages, but a slew of ‘Happy Christmas’ posts on her Facebook page. Rosie came in with two mugs of coffee, and two slices of the chocolate Yule Log she’d bought a couple of days ago. “I thought you’d like some of this,” she explained, “it’s Christmas Eve after all.”

They drank their coffee, ate the richly decadent chocolate cake, and watched a Wallace and Gromit film on TV. Jenna was looking forward to Saskia’s arrival, and her reaction to the partial transformation of the former holiday cottage into a real home. She’d burned her bridges with a vengeance, and there would be no return. But the next couple of weeks would disguise the finality of her decision. Crunch time would come when Saskia and Indy had returned to St. Albans, and when Rosie went back to university, leaving her here on her own. Would she be able to manage the drastic change in her circumstances? Rick had obviously thought she wouldn’t: so had her mother (Patricia’s parting words to her before her final move had been the encouraging, ‘Well, don’t blame me when you realise what a big mistake you’ve made.’). Jenna knew that this was in part due to her resentment not only at the move, but at the lack of any Christmas invitation, and the fact that Saskia and Indy had been the preferred guests, though she had been invited to a friend’s for dinner, and Jenna had asked her to stay in January. But it still hurt, acutely, to know how little faith those who’d been closest to her in her life had in her ability to cope without having a man to protect her.

The thought of it made Jenna seethe. She would show her mother that life on her own didn’t have to mean loneliness or desperation. There were lots of things she could do, but everything depended on her urgent need to find a job. And she still had no idea whether that would be possible.

Dusk was falling when a car drew up outside, and they heard footsteps coming up the path. “They’re here!” Rosie cried, leaping up and running to the hall door. “They made it!”

The doorbell went, and Jenna went into the kitchen to put the kettle on. She came back into the living room in time to see Saskia, impressive in a flowing wrap dress with boots and thick black tights, putting a very large gift-wrapped box carefully on the sofa.

“I don’t think that’ll fit under the tree,” Jenna said, laughing. She went forward to embrace her friend, who then held her at arm’s length and studied her thoughtfully. “You’re looking surprisingly well. I knew you’d be better off on your own.”

Jenna signalled with a nod of her head to where Rosie and Indy were hugging, jumping up and down and squeaking with adolescent delight. “Pas devant les enfants.”

“Sorry, darling,” said Saskia, immediately contrite. “Now, I know you’ve put the kettle on, and it suits you, but it’s Christmas Eve after all, and I’ve got something a little more festive here.” She pulled a bottle of wine from her huge floral handbag, and thrust it at Jenna. “I’ll have a glass now. That journey was an absolute nightmare. The entire population of East Anglia must have been driving along the A12. Then we got lost in a forest, like something out of Grimm.” She gave a theatrical shudder. “Are there still wolves here?”

“Not as far as I know.” Jenna grinned, and indicated the box on the sofa. “Shall I put that out in the shed until tomorrow?”

“Oh, no, you don’t, darling, it’s got to be opened now, or it’ll spoil.”

India and Rosie, having finished their greeting, came forward with expressions of barely concealed glee on their faces. “Yes, Mum,” Rosie said. “You have to open it now.”

Jenna looked at them. “Why? Do you know what it is?”

“We all clubbed together,” said Indy. She was a tall, plump girl with her mother’s wild hair, though in its presumably original shade of light brown. “Me and Mum and Rosie and Joe and Tom. And you have to open it now.”

Bewildered but willing, Jenna turned to the box. As she bent towards it, an unmistakeable noise came from within, demanding to be let out. She turned round and stared at Saskia and the girls with a mixture of astonishment and delight. “It’s a cat?”

“Open it and see!” Rosie cried, hopping from one foot to the other like an eight-year-old in her excitement. Jenna obediently took hold of the wrapping paper, bright red with a design of marching Christmas puddings across it, and gently pulled the edges apart. Inside was a blue cat basket, and two small faces staring imperiously up at her through the bars at the front. The mouth of one of them opened, revealing tiny needle teeth and a very pink tongue, and repeated its request, with significantly increased volume.

“Two of them! Two kittens!” Jenna felt tears suddenly pricking her eyes. “You’ve no idea how much I’ve wanted to get a cat – and now I’ve got two!” Ignoring the miaowing, she turned to the other three. “How did you know?”

“It was Rosie’s idea,” Saskia said. “You’d said you wanted a cat once you were here, to me as well as Rosie. So we all joined forces and did some research, and hey presto – meet Apollo and Artemis!”

Jenna began to laugh. “Are those really their names?”

“They’re the names on their pedigrees,” said India. “They’re brother and sister, they’re thirteen weeks old, and they’re Burmese. Mum knows someone who breeds them.”

“I had to lean on her really hard to let me have them before Christmas,” Saskia said. “Normally she wouldn’t dream of it, even though they’re old enough to leave their mum. But I threatened to tell her husband about her secret toy boy, and she caved in.”

“You didn’t!”

“No, darling, I didn’t, but believe me, where she’s concerned, I know where the bodies are buried.” Saskia gave her a smug smile. “Aren’t you going to let the poor things out? We picked them up at lunchtime, so they’ve been cooped up in there for nearly three hours, they must be bursting.”

“I’ll sort the litter tray,” said India, and went to open the other box.

“Don’t worry,” Saskia added, “they didn’t spend three hours wrapped up in Christmas paper. We stopped up the road and Indy did a last-minute job. Now come on, darling, let them out so you and Rosie can have a proper look at them.”

“Indy sent me pictures to my phone,” said Rosie, “but I can’t wait to see them for real!”

Jenna carefully opened the door of the basket. Instantly, a small dark brown kitten stepped out onto the sofa. It looked around with superb sang-froid, and then sat down and began to wash itself.

“That’s Artemis,” said Indy. “That’s the girl.”

Rather more cautiously, the other kitten emerged. It was bigger, and a completely different colour, a beautiful silvery blue-grey.

“Apollo. The boy.”

“And between you and me and the gatepost, darling,” Saskia said, “he’s a bit of a wuss. That’s what Karen said, anyway, and she should know, being the breeder.” She gave an evil cackle. “Par for the course apparently. Burmese girls rule with a vengeance.”

As if to prove the truth of her words, Apollo approached his sister and gave her nearest ear a lick. In response, she hissed and swatted him round the face with one dainty paw. Looking hurt, he retreated to the other end of the sofa and proceeded to wash as if nothing had happened.

“What a bully!” Rosie said. She sat down beside the blue kitten and scooped him up. At once he gave her hand a quick rasp with his tongue, before climbing up to her shoulder and curling up just beside her ear. His happy purr could be heard across the room.

“Well, he’s made himself at home,” Jenna said, ridiculously pleased at the soppy expression on her daughter’s face. “They don’t seem fazed at all, do they? Like they go to a new home every day of the week.”

The brown kitten finished washing, and walked to the edge of the sofa. Before Rosie could put out a hand to stop her, she readied herself and jumped down to the floor. As the humans watched, she began a thorough exploration of the room’s facilities.

“They were reared in Karen’s house,” Indy explained. “So they’re used to people and washing machines and hoovers and things like that.”

“Try this, darling,” Saskia advised, taking something that at first sight looked like a toy fishing rod out of the box of accessories and handing it to Jenna. “It’s their favourite, according to Karen.”

‘It’ proved to be a long piece of thin black elastic, fastened to a plastic rod at one end and with a brightly coloured bunch of feathers at the other. Dangling it in front of Artemis prompted five minutes concentrated leaping, twisting, pawing and pouncing, at the end of which the kitten sat down on the rag rug in front of the stove, evidently luxuriating in the warmth, and surveyed her new surroundings with the smug eye of ownership.

“Excellent,” Saskia said. “Karen said Burmese were bomb-proof. Be prepared to have your roost ruled, darling. Now, how about that wine? I’m parched.”

Rosie didn’t want to move the kitten on her shoulder, so Jenna found glasses and distributed the contents of the bottle Saskia had brought, which proved to be a rather nice Burgundian Pinot Noir. They toasted the cottage, and Jenna told them about the projected New Year party. Saskia, who’d planned to return to St. Albans the day after (she had left the capable Shelley in charge of the shop over the holiday period), was loudly in favour. “And make sure you invite lots of hot men.”

Aware that Indy was obviously cringing with embarrassment, Jenna said, “What about Craig?”

“Craig? Oh, he’s history, darling. He made the biggest mistake of all.”

“Let me guess – he wanted to move in?”

“Spot on. I don’t know what possessed the poor lamb. I said no, of course. I swore years ago I’d never share my house with a male, ever again – Jamie excepted, of course, if he needed it - and though I might consider going back on my word if the bloke was worth it – “

“And poor Craig isn’t?”

“Oh, he is quite sweet, Mum,” said Indy. “Like a big puppy.”

“Surprising though it may seem, India Jane my treasure, I’m not after a puppy, I’m after a man. Anyway, puppies can’t put shelves up.”

“You keep going on about those shelves,” said Indy. “Men are useful for other things too.”

Name one,” said Saskia, a glint in her eye.

“They’re handy for unscrewing jam jar lids,” said Rosie, who was tickling Apollo under the chin. “I get Jack to do that at uni.”

“Doesn’t count, Rosie darling, you can buy a useful little gadget that does the trick. In fact,” she added, with a wink at Jenna, “you might find one under the Christmas tree, you never know.”

“It’s all right, Mum,” Rosie said, having intercepted and correctly interpreted a meaningful look that Jenna had sent to Saskia. “You don’t have to pussyfoot around me, I’m not going to burst into tears every time someone makes a sideways reference to Dad.”

“Just as well, he’s not worth it. Your mum won’t say it, but you know me, always call a spade a sodding great shovel.” Saskia set her wine glass, now empty, down on the dining room table and looked around. “Right, let’s get those kittens sorted out. There’s a climbing tree, so hopefully they won’t be tempted to shin up your new curtains, a cosy igloo bed, litter tray and litter, food, bowls, and I found the cutest little collars for them.”

The cutest little collars, one blue and one red, with diamante decoration, provided considerable amusement, as every time they were fitted, a few seconds swift paw work removed the offending items and left them lying forlornly on the floor, though Apollo soon decided that it was fun to bat at them. The kittens were successfully introduced to their new litter tray and a bowl of cat food, and then Rosie showed them the igloo bed which she had put next to the radiator under the front window. Artemis sniffed at it disdainfully, and then walked over to the hearthrug and curled up on it. Apollo, after a wary glance at her, snuggled up beside her, and they were soon fast asleep.

“Thank you all so much,” Jenna said. “What a lovely, thoughtful, adorable present – they’re wonderful.”

“You won’t be saying that when they’ve crapped behind the sofa, shredded the curtains and started bringing mice in,” Saskia pointed out.

“They wouldn’t do that,” Indy protested. “Karen said they were good little kittens!”

“Ain’t no such thing. I remember her telling me once that Burmese kittens are about ten times as mischievous as ordinary ones. I think you’re going to have your hands full with those two, darling. Is that your phone?”

It was cuckooing determinedly on the kitchen worktop when Jenna located it. With surprise and pleasure, she saw that it was Fran. “Hallo! How are you?”

“Great, thanks. Look, I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch before, but things have been a wee bit hectic here. Anyway, I was phoning to say happy Christmas, and to say I’d love to come to your New Year party. Do you want me to First Foot?”

“Eh?” A glass and a half of Pinot Noir, combined with the warmth, had slowed Jenna’s wits considerably.

“Old Scottish New Year custom. The first person across the threshold after the chimes of midnight should be a tall dark man bearing gifts. I’ll arrive earlier, of course, then sneak out at five to twelve.”

“Sounds good to me. Oh, and the invite extends to Flora as well. I don’t know if there’ll be any other children, but I can get in some DVDs if she’d like to watch something while we all do boring grown-up things.”

“That’s very kind of you, I’m sure she’ll love that. Is it OK if I bring anyone else? I might have some friends staying.”

“Please feel free, the more the merrier.”

“Great, I might just do that.”

“Have you moved into your new house yet?” Jenna was acutely aware of Saskia, brazenly listening in.

“Aye, a couple of weeks ago. I’m thinking of having a wee housewarming party myself, once we’re settled in. At the moment there are boxes everywhere, and the plumbing’s sprung a leak, so it’s not exactly guest-friendly. Anyway, got to go, I’m at my sister’s and we’re going out. Thanks for the invite, have a great Christmas, and we’ll see you in a week’s time. Take care, and bye just now!”

“Bye,” Jenna said, smiling. She put the phone down, and saw Saskia looking at her with avid curiosity. “So who was that, darling?”

“Fran. The Scottish guy I was at uni with. The one with the very American daughter.”

“Sounds intriguing. Tell me more.”

She knew what would happen if she divulged too much information about Fran. Saskia would immediately decide that she ought to push the two of them together, as if, having been betrayed and dumped in the most humiliating fashion by one man, Jenna would nevertheless be eager to hitch herself to another. “Oh, he was always a bit of a geek,” she said, guiltily aware that she was doing Fran a serious disfavour. “Spent most of the time in his room with a guitar. Anyway,” she added, hoping to distract Saskia’s attention, “he’s coming to the party, with the daughter and maybe some other friends.”

“So how many are coming, do you know?” Saskia bent down and peered into the fridge. “Looks as though you’ve got an army to feed.”

“No, just the four of us, but that lot’s just for Christmas. As far as New Year goes, I’m not sure. Us, Ruth and Gary – the neighbours – Fran and Flora and at least a couple of extras. And Ruth said she’d ask some friends of theirs, I think she wants to introduce me to the residents.”

“You mean, ‘Hi, this is Jenna, she used to be one of those evil destructive second home owners but now she’s decided to live here full time’?”

Jenna grinned. “Something like that, I suspect. Actually, I think it’s a great idea. Apart from anything else, I’m going to need a job, so the more people I know in Orford who might be able to help me find one, the better.”

Saskia gave her a shrewd glance. “So how are the finances looking, darling?”

“OK. I think. If I get a job, even if it’s not very well paid, I should be all right. It’s not as if I have a serious shoe habit – unlike some people,” she added pointedly, for Saskia had a considerable collection including several pairs of Jimmy Choos, and wonderful Italian stilettos that were almost impossible to walk in. “I don’t eat much, my car’s cheap to run, there’s no mortgage on this place, and Rick has said he’ll carry on paying Rosie’s student fees and maintenance, but I haven’t got a lot of spare to play with. Unless I sell the casket, of course.”

“Which you’re not going to do.”

“No. I promised Nanna May, and I intend to keep that promise.” Jenna took an aubergine from the fridge and began to cut it into cubes. “Sass, can you put some oil in that big frying pan and set it going? I’m going to start the supper.”

The rest of the evening passed in a blur of food, wine and cheerful talk. After the meal, Rosie took India up to her bedroom, from which occasional bursts of giggles or shrieks of horror could be heard, as they swapped stories of their first term at university. Saskia helped Jenna arrange presents on the windowsill around the tree, and they had a happy time playing with the kittens, who seemed to have unlimited reserves of energy and after half an hour’s snooze in front of the hearth, were once more ready for action. Already their personalities were sharply defined: Apollo was more cautious but also more openly affectionate and friendly, content to be stroked and petted, while his sister Artemis was bolder, eagerly exploring her new home and even attempting to climb up the log stack in the niche beside the stove, before returning to Jenna’s lap and giving her brother a bat on the head to show him who was boss.

“No prizes for guessing who’s the dominant one in that relationship, darling,” Saskia said, with a wicked grin. “A girl after my own heart.”

They stayed up until after midnight, talking, laughing and reminiscing, and when Jenna went to bed, she heard the church bells, only a hundred yards up the road, ringing in Christmas Day. A rather less traditional reminder arrived on her mobile phone, just before she turned the light out: a message from the twins, accompanied by a bright photo of them, in swim shorts and sun hats, on a beach of dazzling sand, with a vivid azure sea behind them. “Happy Christmas Mum! Skype you later!”

She texted a reply, wishing them the same. As she drifted off, something light and tickly jumped onto the bed, delicately explored her face, and then settled down in the curve between her head and her shoulder. A faint, breathy purr was the last thing she heard before sleep claimed her.

In the morning, waking rather sooner than she’d have liked, she found both kittens on the bed. Hoping that they hadn’t left any unpleasant reminder of their first night, she got up and padded down to the kitchen to put the kettle on, and found Rosie there, setting out mugs and looking at her mobile phone with an odd expression. Without a word, she held it out to her mother. Jenna took it, and saw that there was a message from Rick on the screen. ‘Happy Christmas to my special girl. All my love, Dad.’

“Look at the photo,” said Rosie, in a choked voice. Jenna squinted at the screen, and saw a small picture at the bottom of the text. Her former husband’s familiar face grinned back at her, and next to him was a young woman with glossy dark hair, immaculate make-up and gleaming pearly teeth. She had never seen a photo of Madison, but she had no doubt whatsoever that this was her.

“She’s like a film star,” Rosie said. “God, men are so shallow!”

“Perhaps she’s got hidden qualities,” Jenna pointed out. “And it must take a hell of a lot of time and effort to keep looking like that. Not to mention the huge expense.”

“She probably won’t have a hair out of place even when she’s giving birth.” With a jab of her finger, Rosie pressed ‘delete’ and the offending image vanished. “I’m not going to reply. I hope you have a really miserable Christmas, Dad.”

This was a wish that, in the circumstances, was unlikely to be fulfilled, but Jenna couldn’t help sympathising. As she commented later to Saskia, how bloody tactless could you be?

“Oh, I could give him lessons in tactlessness, darling,” said her friend, who was preparing broccoli, the traditional Brussels sprouts having been abandoned by mutual consent, since it had only ever been Rick who liked them. “I’ve written the book on tactlessness. You needn’t nod so enthusiastically, Jen, I get it. Anyway, compared to me, the man’s an amateur. Has he sent you a text too?”

Jenna had already checked her phone. “No such luck. I don’t think even he would be that crass. I wonder if he sent one to the boys?”

“Well, we’ll soon find out,” Saskia commented, putting the last floret into the saucepan. “Five minutes to Skype time, by my watch.”

“If he has, we’ll hear all about it from Joe,” said Jenna.

As was now traditional in their Skype conversations, she and Rosie settled themselves on the sofa, with the laptop on the coffee table in front of them, the screen angled so the integral camera captured their faces. Tom and Joe, when they appeared, looked bronzed and fit, their hair bleached by sun and sea, and new muscle swelling their arms. My lovely boys are boys no longer, Jenna thought, looking at them with a mixture of pride and sadness. They’ve grown up – they’re men.

“G’day!” Tom said, in a not-quite-perfect Australian accent. “Throw another prawn on the barbie, Joe!”

“You mean this prawn, Tom?” He whipped an enormous crustacean out from behind his back and waggled its claws at the camera. “Last time I threw one that big on the barbie, it exploded!”

Rosie giggled. “Is that a lobster? It’s not still alive, is it?”

“No, sis, it’s cooked! And Miranda’s making the sauce to go with it.” Tom leaned forward and moved the screen on his laptop to give a sweeping panorama of their aunt and uncle’s gleaming, open plan kitchen, revealing Miranda, a tall slim woman with bleached hair caught up in a scrunchie, stirring a saucepan, while her husband, Rick’s younger brother Dave, raised a can of Foster’s in salute. “Happy Christmas, possums!”

“Happy Christmas!” Jenna and Rosie chorused, joined by Indy and Saskia, who had already sampled the wine.

“Hey,” said Tom, “who else is there?”

Jenna turned her own laptop. “Ah,” said her son, “the usual suspects. Hi, Saskia, hi, Indy, happy Christmas!”

“Happy Christmas!” they said again. Indy blushed, and Jenna remembered that she’d had a crush on Joe for a while.

“Look, here's Mum's present,” Rosie said, and scooped up the kittens, who’d been playing with the laces on her trainers. “Meet Apollo and Artemis!”

“Thank you all so much,” Jenna said, laughing as Artemis, wriggling furiously, extracted herself from Rosie’s grip and jumped to the floor. “They’re absolutely wonderful, I love them to bits.”

“And thanks for the cash, Ma,” said Joe: she had injected a hundred pounds each into their banks accounts. “Guess what, we’re off up the coast to Queensland next week!”

“What I gave you won’t get you very far,” Jenna said.

“Oh, no worries,” Tom told her, “we’ve been working in that bar, remember? And they tip really generously. We’re going to be gone a couple of months, maybe, until the money runs out, or we can try and get bar work up there. Don’t worry, we’ll keep in touch by phone and text – we’re taking the bare minimum, so no laptops.”

Jenna had always known that something like this was on the cards, but even so she couldn’t help feeling a pang of maternal anxiety. “Take care,” she said before she could stop herself. “Are you hitching?”

“No way, there’s a bus,” said Joe. “Plenty of good backpacker hostels, it’s a great way to see the country and the wildlife. We’re going to snorkel on the Reef, and stay in a rainforest lodge. Tom’s started a blog, do you want the web address? We’ll upload the photographs onto that, so you can track us.”

For a while, the twins talked enthusiastically about their plans, and Jenna listened with more than a touch of envy. She hadn’t had the opportunity, or even the confidence, to travel once she’d left university: her time had been taken up with teacher training and with her new relationship with Rick, not necessarily in that order. Still, it would be lovely to share in all their experiences, even at second hand.

In a brief pause, when even Joe’s verbosity seemed to have temporarily run dry, she saw Rosie take a deep breath. “Have you had a message from Dad?” she demanded curtly.

The twins exchanged significant glances. “We weren’t going to mention it,” said Tom, after a pause, “but, yeah, we have. Have you?”

Rosie nodded. “I deleted it.”

“I deleted mine, but Joe answered his,” Tom said.

“What did you say?” Rosie sounded shocked.

“I said he was a selfish twat and not to bother us again till he’d come to his senses,” said Joe briskly. “Hopefully that’ll shut him up for a bit. Hey, come on, petal, don’t let the bastard spoil your Christmas. How’s uni going?”

Rosie’s lip wobbled for a moment, then her mouth firmed up and she sat straighter on the sofa, Apollo in his favourite position on her shoulder. “Great,” she said, with determined cheerfulness. “Awesome. Couldn’t be better.”

It had been a good Christmas, Jenna thought much later as, exhausted and full of turkey, pudding and wine, she got ready for bed. India and Rosie, sustained by youthful stamina, were still downstairs, playing with the kittens and watching some ancient film, but she and Saskia had called it a day at eleven. Tomorrow they were all setting off early for Ipswich to hit the sales, and they needed their beauty sleep or, as her friend had pointed out, they were going to get a nasty shock in the changing room mirrors. She put on her fleecy pink pyjamas – real passion killers, but a practical Christmas present from Cathy, who had the idea that the East coast was only marginally warmer than Siberia – and climbed into bed. The sheets were cold, but a strategically directed hair dryer soon sorted that, and she snuggled down, feeling happier and more optimistic than she had for months. The children seemed to be coping with their parents’ split, and although she felt uneasy at their obvious loathing and contempt for their father and what he’d done, she couldn’t take issue with them, because she knew that they felt, and with justification, that she herself had been deeply wronged. She could only hope that one day they’d see things in shades other than purest white and deepest black, and come to some sort of reconciliation with him. For herself, it would take a long time to forgive, but today had reminded her that she still had the love and support of her family and her friends, and a future that was beginning to look brighter.

And of course, there was the New Year party to look forward to as well.

She turned out the light, and was asleep in an instant.

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