I woke up to hear screaming, the kind of screaming you put down to a couple of cats fighting directly outside your window not your sister. It was five in the morning. Five. It was a time I was proud to say I’d never been awake for until now.
“Amelia, I swear in the name of all things holy I will come down there and rip your vocal cords out if you don’t shut the hell up!” I screeched at her.
Merry freaking Christmas from the Porter family, dear neighbours.
The screaming stopped but it was followed by angry footsteps that sounded like a parade of elephants. It stopped outside of my door.
“Eleanor, you were supposed to wake up at half past four. The turkey needed to be in the oven! I’m behind schedule!”
“And you, Amelia, promised to come home for my eighteenth birthday but I guess we’re even now.”
She huffed loudly then told me I had better get downstairs in record time. I did as I was told since it was her “perfect” Christmas and I would get her back in the future at some point. Mum had warned me about being “difficult”. She said my stubbornness and “unique sense of sarcasm” were my biggest downfalls. I thought they perked up the situations I was often landed in.
I thought we’d open our presents in front of the Christmas tree like we did every year. Ollie, as the youngest by three minutes, usually opened a gift then Iris, me, Amy and Mum. We normally did this until we ran out. It was going to be quicker this year since Dad had insisted on waiting until he’d seen us like he needed proof Mum wasn’t about to sell the presents on EBay or something.
Amy arranged us all in the beige living room. Michael and Mum sat on the smaller sofa, the twins and I on the bigger one while Amy and Jason sat in front of the fireplace to pass out the presents.
“I thought this year we’d spice things up a bit!” Amy grinned at us as she passed us each a gift. “We should give out the presents we’ve bought for others so these are what Jason and I have got for you all.”
I glanced at Ollie and Iris who looked equally as impressed by the change but we didn’t argue. I’d tried to put some thought into the gifts this year. I passed mine out when it came to my turn to be “Santa”. I’d bought Mum a new dressing gown since she’d always worn Dad’s. Michael loved the DVD boxset of Only Fools and Horses. I’d gone halves with Mum to buy Iris a new iPod and to get Ollie’s new drum kit. Although she strongly claimed Santa had hauled both gifts here on his sleigh. Amy insisted she was thrilled with the pyjamas from Jason despite the fact they were an ugly brown colour but from her grimace and the way she shoved them back into the gift bag, I knew she hated them.
Mum served up some bacon sandwiches which Amy refused since might have taken her up a dress size between now and her wedding day next week. We continued to sit in our designated places.
“So what do you want to do at university, Eleanor?” Jason asked me.
“Creative writing hopefully,” I replied. I looked over my book to see Amy’s disapproving look. Amy was all about practicality. She’d taken a job as a lawyer and hated anything short of stability. The only reason she liked her best friend’s creative job was because her jobs were never ending. She was able to get work anytime she needed it from her cousin who was a Bollywood film director.
Michael nodded. “My brother wanted to be a writer. He decided to be an English teacher instead.”
“El, have you ever considered that?” Amy questioned as she ate her bran flakes.
“I’m not doing this, not today,” I informed her. “My application has been sent off, Amelia. I’ve applied for it now.”
“It’s never too late, El. Come on. You’ll waste your life trying to get a book published and you’d be so much better off becoming something practical –”
“It’s Christmas Day and all you want to do is talk about this?” I set my plate down on the coffee table and stood up. “You followed your dream, let me follow mine. I don’t ask for much from you, Amy, but I’m asking for your support which doesn’t cost you anything. I’ve lived my entire life trying to justify your absence, I’ve excused your behaviour to everybody and I have never ever asked why you seem to hate having siblings so much. It’s your life, I get that. I have always had to be the one who tells Iris and Ollie that you don’t hate them. So now, all I want is for you to stop bashing my dream if you can’t be my big sister. Okay?”
Amy’s mouth hung open slightly for a moment. I guessed it was a moment as I marched upstairs to get out of the way.
Landing on my bed, I browsed through the many generic “Merry Christmas!” messages on my phone and found Danny. I texted him about how the morning was going so far though I knew that he’d still be asleep. Oh, what it would be to be an only child on Christmas Day.
A small knock followed by Iris saying my name made me put my phone down.
“Can I come in?”
“Of course you can,” I replied and patted the space next to me.
Iris joined me with two cups of tea. I took one from her and watched the steam rise up from it.
She sighed then started to talk. “It’s all a bit much with Amy, isn’t it? I mean, I love her and everything but, God, she’s annoying me. All she keeps saying is this Christmas has to be perfect because Jason’s here. I doubt his parents went through this much effort last year.”
“She’s trying to prove to him that we’re as wonderful as his neat family with their Cambridge degrees. Not that she should have to prove anything to a guy who is supposed to be in love with her,” I said. “Ollie and I were sat together last night in the garage to avoid the chaos. You could have joined us.”
Iris ran her hand through her coppery coloured hair. “I was trying to understand our sister’s motives but no joy.”
“You don’t have to impress her, you know. She’s always been like this, all flustered and a perfectionist, but she loves us in her own special way.”
My younger sister nodded. Sometimes it was hard to see past the twins being twins and see them as separate people. They looked so alike and spent so much time together, they always had done, that it was difficult to see where Iris’ personality finished and where Oliver’s started. Yet there were subtle differences between their natures I’d noticed as they’d hit their teens.
“I guess I’d better go down and start getting things ready,” I mused after I’d drained the mug of tea. “Thanks for coming after me, Iris, especially with tea.”
She smiled at me. “You’re my sister, El. I’ll always bring tea.”
At midday, I had the entire feast laid out. I had the fun task of trying to carve the turkey since I wasn’t giving Dad the satisfaction of carving it at the table like he had done every year prior to this.
Dad had shown up with his new girlfriend, Jennifer, five minutes after Amy had asked him to arrive for. He looked older. His brown hair was interrupted by grey streaks and his face was more lined than it had been before.
He’d walked into the kitchen while Amy poured him a glass of red wine.
“How are you, Merry?” he’d asked.
I’d nodded. “Nobody calls me that anymore. Eleanor is on my birth certificate for a reason.”
Iris and Ollie had launched into conversation with him which stopped him from talking to me. Iris had looked over at me and smiled weakly. She’d been there when Dad had decided to take the divorce out on me. She knew more than Ollie, we decided to keep it like that. Ollie didn’t need to have the only male in the family tainted by angry words.
Between the two of them, the twins had lulled Dad out of the kitchen.
I ferried the plates onto the table with a chorus of “ooh” and “ah” like I’d set off a firework display. I took my place at the table and smiled.
“Nothing’s burnt so I suggest you eat it before it gets cold.”
We all began to tuck in.
“The mashed potato is really tasty, Eleanor,” Jennifer, who was apparently American, said.
“So do you miss the States, Jennifer?” Mum asked.
Jennifer launched into some speech about how she was making her home here and how wonderful it was that she’d met such a lovely guy. It pretty much lasted the entire dinner. The twins helped me clear the plates away.
“If I hear one more word about America, I think I might cry,” Iris admitted as she scrapped the plates.
“At least she’s more interesting than Jason,” Ollie chipped in. “All he can talk about is the house they’re buying in Surrey.”
I held my soapy hands up. “I can’t wait for round two.”
Ollie loaded the dishwasher and hit a knife against a wine glass to create a bell while I served up pudding.
Once we were back at the table, the same awkwardness resumed.
“So,” Jason began. “Shall we tell them our big news?”
Amelia frowned. “What news?”
“About the baby? I knew you wanted to tell me, Amy, but we should tell your family too,” Jason explained.
Amy got up, threw her napkin onto the table and walked out.
Jason froze. The kind of freeze a small child adopts when they’re caught stealing cookies, the deer in the headlights look that is so blatantly obvious.
Mum looked after Amy. “She’s not pregnant, Jason. Good Lord, why didn’t you ask her in private?”
She went into the kitchen after Amy, Jason followed.
Jennifer held up her spoon. “This is a really nice fruit cake, Eleanor. You’ll have to give me the recipe.”
I rolled my eyes and headed into the kitchen.
The kitchen was tense; they all stared at me as I walked in.
“El, are you pregnant?” Amy questioned.
I stared at her then started laughing. “What? Amy – are you being serious? Is that a legitimate question?”
Mum had gone a pale shade with shock.
“Jason found a positive pregnancy test a few weeks ago and that’s why he didn’t call the wedding off. He doesn’t want to get married to me. He’s in love with bloody Rebecca. He thought I was pregnant. It’s not me and it certainly isn’t Iris. That just leaves you, El. You can tell us. Does Danny know? I thought you guys were smart enough to use protection.”
I didn’t ask who Rebecca was.
“Amy, I’m genuinely not pregnant. Thanks for the concern and everything but I’m not knocked up. It’ll be a funny story to tell Danny later though.”
Amy shook her head and frowned at me. “Then whose test was it?”
Jason placed his head against the wall. “It could just have been a mistake.”
“No,” Mum finally spoke. “It’s not a mistake.”
“How do you know that?” Amy asked.
Mum took a deep breath, “Because it was mine.”
My head dropped forward out of surprise.
Amy stared at Mum like she’d grown an extra head. “What?”
“Michael and I were going to tell you later on tonight,” she explained. “We weren’t exactly planning on having children, I’m forty-four for goodness’ sake, but we’ve decided it’s his first child and probably his last chance. I always wanted a bigger family. So what do you think?”
Amy hugged Mum inelegantly with one arm. “That’s why you haven’t been drinking. I thought you were ill or something. Congratulations, Mum, you and Michael have ruined your early retirement plans though.”
I laughed with them. “Mum, please don’t follow your vowel pattern to the very end. I can’t imagine having a sister called Ursula or a brother called Uriel.”
“I promise we won’t follow the pattern,” Mum resolved. “The vowel pattern theory of a, e, i and o had to be pointed out to me!”
Jason just stayed awkward against the wall.
“Amy, I think we need to talk,” Jason said.
“You think?” she said hastily. “First I think I should go tell my dad what’s happening before he starts talking about grandkids.”
Mum sighed heavily. “I suppose I should tell your brother and sister that the fantastic four are going to be five.”
I glanced at the clock on the wall. “I’m going to meet Danny. The stuff for tea is in the oven, can somebody watch it while I’m gone?”
Quickly grabbing my coat, I ran out of the door before anybody was able to protest. The snow crunched under my feet as I walked up the main street. Danny lived four houses up from us thankfully.
I ran up to his door as best as I could and knocked.
He appeared in his maroon Christmas jumper with the coat I’d bought him for Christmas over the top of it. He shut the door behind him before turning to me.
“El!” he sang. He bundled me into a bear hug. “Merry Christmas!”
I laughed as he kissed both cheeks then my lips.
“Merry Christmas, Danny,” I replied with a smile.
“So, how are things shaping up at your house?”
I gave him a look that I’m sure made him regret asking.
“Mum’s pregnant, the wedding is cancelled and I’m sure when I get back Dad will say something enlightening as always.”
Danny’s eyes widened. “What? Woah, go backwards. Your mum is pregnant?”
“Yeah,” I replied as I took his hand. “And they thought it was my test.”
He chuckled to himself. “Imagine us as parents. We’d probably leave the kid in Tesco or something.”
I thought about it for a moment. “I think we’ll be good parents someday.”
“El, I need to tell you something.”
“You’re pregnant?” I joked.
He laughed and shook his head. “No, El.”
His face became serious and he stopped us two houses away from mine. He took both of my hands.
“You know how I was talking about taking a gap year? Well, I was looking at what I could do and found a scheme worth doing. I’d be taking a year out in South Africa to work with orphans. I think it sounds amazing but I’d be gone for about nine months.”
He looked at me with a glint of hope.
“Danny, you’re right. It does sound amazing.”
“But I’d miss your birthday and Christmas. I’d be leaving just as you started university.”
I placed my hands on his shoulders.
“Stop making excuses not to go. Fine, you’ll miss important things but I’m not going to stand in your way. We can talk about this tomorrow and start filling in applications if it’s what you really want.”
His face broke out into a grin as he hugged me. “I knew I’d picked the right girlfriend.”
“Come on,” I said. “If we don’t get back soon, I think I’ll freeze.”
Danny took my hand again and we started walking back. We stopped on the backdoor step and waited. I heard the shouting already.
“I’m sorry I’m dragging you into this, babe,” I apologised.
“This Christmas may have been a disaster, Eleanor, but it’s only one day out of the year. Just think, we’ll have many more Christmases and they’ll all be ten times better than this.” He kissed my forehead. “In fact, we’ll have Christmas in July. I vote we redo Christmas on July 25th. Ollie and Iris can join in too! What do you say?”
I grinned and opened the door.