A sneaky Christmas peek...



The flight attendant had one of those sing-song voices. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Glasgow. The weather outside is currently…’
‘Raining,’ Shauna said.
‘… Raining, and the temperature is…’
‘Bloody freezing,’ Lulu added.
‘Zero degrees. For those of you travelling onwards this morning…’
Shauna and Lulu zoned out of the rest of the announcement, gathering up their belongings and packing everything back into the handbags that had been obediently placed under the seat in front. Shauna glanced around at her fellow travellers, wondering how many of them were coming home to spend Christmas with the people they loved, to be with their families. It was the twenty-first of December, the last Friday before the crackers came out and, perhaps she was just being sentimental, but it felt like there was a buzz of happy anticipation, despite the fact that the day had barely begun.
The seatbelt sign pinged off and almost all of the other passengers immediately jumped to their feet, ready for the exit scrum. Shauna and Lulu sat where they were. It would be at least ten minutes until the doors were opened so what was the point of jostling?
‘Is it wrong that I want Scotland to live up to the stereotypes?’ Lulu mused, while slipping her second bottle of on-board wine into the sumptuous red suede tote she brought out every year for the month of December. ‘I want ten burly men in kilts clutching trays of shortbread and bottles of whisky to greet me as I disembark.’
Shauna nodded. ‘Don’t worry. They’re sending them for me. Apparently it’s all part of the service for Scottish descendants travelling here for the first time.’
The irony was that with her wild mane of red hair and creamy pale complexion, Lulu was the one who looked more likely to have Scottish heritage, despite the fact that she didn’t have a relative north of Watford. Shauna’s Glaswegian granny, Annie, had a glorious mane of auburn hair before the grey had set in, but those flame-haired follicles hadn’t made it through the gene pool to Shauna, who’d been bestowed with a shade of mousy brown that had demanded blonde highlights every eight weeks since the beginning of time.
Shauna still found it bizarre that this was her first visit to Annie’s homeland. She’d grown up not too far from her grandmother in Wimbledon, about half an hour south of where she lived now in the London borough of Richmond upon Thames, and – strange as it now seemed – Annie had very rarely mentioned her Scottish roots and her childhood in Glasgow. Only now, with the benefit of hindsight, did Shauna wish she’d asked why. As it was, there had been few details and any questions were met with hazy answers. Her granny was an only child, she’d said. Her parents had passed away years ago. Shauna hadn’t realised it at the time, but looking back through a lens of maturity, she could see that Annie had kept that early chapter firmly closed, instead waxing lyrical about the next stage of her life. After a few festive Babychams, Annie would retell all her favourite stories of the trip to London on which she met Shauna’s grandfather, Ernie, at a party, and within six months they’d married and set up home in Wimbledon. She said they chose to settle there so she could get in the queue early to watch the tennis every year. Annie was funny, she was fierce, she said exactly what she thought and she revelled in being absolutely outrageous, but she was also loyal to a fault and would fight any battle for the people she loved. That’s what made it all the more incomprehensible that she’d had a family in Scotland that she’d walked away from and – worse – kept hidden for decades.
Annie had died back in 2009 but Shauna had only found the letters a few months ago, when she decided to take one of Annie’s beautiful old handbags to a wedding. Inside, she’d found a slim sheaf of letters, bound with a red velvet ribbon, between Annie and her family members, her brother, George, and sister, Flora, in Scotland. Shauna had been truly shocked and intrigued. Why had Annie never mentioned them? Why had she spent a lifetime hiding her past? The mystery had given Shauna something to think about, to take her mind off… Colm.
She stopped, catching her breath. Two years, three months and twenty days. That’s how long it had been since her beautiful, funny, intoxicating, Irish husband closed his eyes for the last time and her world had stopped. A brain tumour. One minute he was there and they had a family, a fifteen year marriage, endless love, naive hope that he would beat it… and then he was gone, taking a piece of her heart that had never returned.
In the first few months, she’d have stayed under the duvet from morning until night if it wasn’t for Beth, their daughter, who was six when she lost her dad. Shauna had done everything she could to keep Colm alive in Beth’s memory, and her girl had shown that childhood resilience and shrugged off the cloak of loss as the weeks moved on, finding happiness in everyday life.
Shauna had failed to find the same peace.
Only in the last few months could she think of him without a searing shock of pain gripping her heart. In truth, that was one of the reasons she’d been delighted when Lulu had volunteered to come with her this weekend, figuring her friend’s predominant personality traits of cynicism, sarcasm, humour and flippancy would stop her sinking into sadness and sorrow. God knows, she’d had enough of that over the last few years.
It had almost been a relief when she’d closed the door on her flat overlooking Richmond Green this morning and drove the eight miles to London’s Heathrow Airport. She’d moved to the flat from a house a few streets away after Colm passed away. It was upstairs from the duplex owned by Lulu and her husband Dan and it helped to have them in the same building, gave Beth a sense of family. Although, it would also have given her daughter a sense of a few great swear words if she’d been around to hear her mum rouse Auntie Lulu from her bed at 5.30 a.m. this morning, to head to Heathrow.
Today all sorrow was put to one side. She was going to a city that she’d never visited with Colm or anyone else. No memories here. No sentimental nostalgia. He’d never breathed Glaswegian air. This was somewhere new, where the only experiences would be the ones that Shauna and Lulu encountered before they flew back home tomorrow.
At the front of the plane, just beyond the flashing reindeer antlers propped on the grey haired bouffants of two elderly ladies in the front row, a stewardess was trying to suppress her understandable annoyance at the passengers who were already pushing their way forward, despite the fact that the doors were still not yet open.
Lulu leaned towards her. ‘It must take every ounce of discipline and tact not to pick up that tannoy and make an announcement along the lines of, “Ladies and gentlemen, you may have noticed that there’s nowhere to fucking go yet, so sit your impatient, unreasonable arses right back down in your seats.”’
‘There’s a reason you don’t have a job that involves dealing with the public,’ Shauna replied, trying not to give in to laughter. It only encouraged Lulu to express more opinions.
There were several simultaneous beeps from nearby phones and they reminded Shauna to switch off airplane mode. As soon as she did, a picture message flashed up. Beth. At eight, she was already so tall, with Colm’s dark hair and his green eyes. Colm, however, had never possessed a pair of Minnie Mouse ears, an Ariel costume, nor posed for a photo holding up a large, furry Daisy Duck.
Shauna immediately turned the phone to let Lulu see the picture.
‘Aah, she’s gorgeous,’ Lulu said. ‘And I’m not going to say that her Auntie Rosie is trying to buy your daughter’s affection. Nope, not saying that at all.’
‘Good,’ Shauna replied, with a raised eyebrow of scepticism. For over twenty years, Rosie had been the third friend in their trio. She’d slotted right into their group when Shauna and Lulu met her as teenagers, and their childhood duo became an adult trio. The three of them had developed a bond that was as close as sisters. Which was just as well, because like any family, they’d had a few dramatic ups and downs along the way. Somehow, though, their friendships always managed to get through everything life threw at them, and most importantly, Rosie and Lulu were incredible godmothers to Beth. Although, she couldn’t remember it being in the christening vows that spiritual guidance included whisking your godchild off for a freebie weekend in Disneyland Paris, thanks to Rosie’s new boyfriend being a travel writer who had received a personal invitation to an audience with a Mr M. Mouse. But hey, if a 1000 word article in an in-flight magazine got Beth the weekend of her dreams, it was worth it.
She texted back,
Gorgeous! Miss you so much! Hope you’re having a fabulous time sweetheart. Love you!
and was rewarded with ten love hearts and a happy face emoji.
Shauna thought of a late comeback to Lulu’s comment. ‘Anyway, can I remind you that it was you who bought my daughter an iPhone for Christmas and then gave it to her early? Just saying…’
Lulu adopted her very best innocent face. ‘That was purely for safety purposes. I was looking after her well being.’
‘You were trying to be the super-cool, favourite auntie,’ Shauna countered. She was touched that her friends were so kind to her daughter, and yes, they probably spoiled her more than a little, but Beth was a grounded, non-materialistic little kid who had been through so much when she lost her dad. A little bit of indulgence from her aunts wasn’t going to ruin her.
‘Absolutely not,’ Lulu objected, before adding, ‘but I’m way ahead of the competition. Even if they are bribing her with Minnie bloody Mouse ears.’
The doors finally opened at the front of the plane and the line of passengers slowly began to move forwards. Still, Shauna and Lulu sat. Another five minutes would clear the queues in front of them, and then they could disembark and head straight out of the airport, as they were travelling light with just hand luggage. Shauna’s cabin bag was one she’d bought sometime back in the nineties, while Lulu’s was brand new and came with Gucci tags. That pretty much summed up the difference between them.
Shauna slipped her phone into her bag, her fingers touching the letters as she did so. They were old, written back in the fifties, way before Shauna was born. She’d read them so often she knew them off by heart, but there was one that she thought of more than the others, one that had lingered in her mind long after she’d read it.
32 Parkland Street
Dear Annie,
Forgive me. I know that is more than I deserve, and that I have no right to ask… I have no defence for what I did to you, no excuses for my actions, for I always knew he was yours. I can only hope that in time the pain of my betrayal will lessen and you’ll find a way to think of me fondly once again.
Your sister,
The first time Shauna had read it, she’d flinched as she got to the end. Your sister. How many times over the years had Annie made the comment that one of the things they had in common was that they had no siblings? And yet, there it was. Your sister.
And Flora wasn’t the only one. In the letters, Shauna had discovered an entire family. As far as she could tell, there were three siblings in total – two sisters and one brother – her brother and sister both a similar age to Annie. Parents were mentioned too. It was all there – Annie had a family, one that she had left and never went back to. And Shauna wanted to know why.
Actually, it was more than that. She wanted a connection to someone. Anyone. She wanted to give Beth relatives, history, a family tree, now that there was just the two of them. They travelled to Dublin to see Colm’s family in Ireland once a year but they’d never been close and they rarely heard from them between visits. The only living relative Shauna now had was her mum, Debbie, and that paragon of self-centred shallowness was currently living in Marbella with a wealthy, paunchy, retired businessman who looked exactly like Shauna’s late father and – like her dad – spent his days playing golf. Shauna received the occasional call from her in the rare moments her mother had free between shopping, spa days and throwing dinner parties for other expats who were exactly like them – wealthy, entitled, and totally self-indulgent. Debbie was no loss; Shauna had always fell somewhere below international travel, a daily blow-dry and early evening gin and tonics on her priority list. That’s why Annie, her dad’s mother, had stepped in and been more of a parent than the DNA donors that created her.
A surrogate parent who had, it now seemed, told her a pack of lies about her background. Disbelief had come first, then a flash of intrigue, with a topping of incredulity. Annie was the most forthright, honest, loving and loyal person Shauna had ever known, so if she’d kept this a secret there must be a good reason why.
The mystery had nibbled at Shauna’s curiosity, so when Rosie had scooped Beth away for a weekend of commercialised cartoon characters, she’d thought about coming here for the first time, but a booking by one of her regular clients to provide a Christmas lunch for thirty had stopped her. She’d scaled back her catering business after she became Beth’s sole caretaker. Gone were the children’s birthday parties, the weddings, christenings, soirees and dinner parties. Now, she only took on corporate clients and worked Monday to Friday. At first it had made a big dent in her income, but as word spread, she’d gained more and more professional business – functions, office lunches, board meetings. Her balance sheet was finally as healthy as her work-life balance, so she hadn’t minded when today’s lunch had been cancelled due to a flu epidemic at the client’s offices earlier in the week.
On the night that the cancellation had come in, after a couple of glasses of wine, she’d re-read the letters and the next thing she knew, she was on the internet, on the British Airways website, and using the loyalty points she’d accumulated over the years to book a trip to visit her granny’s homeland. A trip for two. Lulu worked part-time, or rather, whenever she felt like it, doing marketing for Dan’s company, so she’d been delighted to have an excuse to bunk off. They’d hoped to do Friday to Sunday, but the pre-Christmas rush had squashed that plan. The only free seats were on the first flight up this morning, and then an early flight back tomorrow. They had twenty-four hours to learn something, anything, about Annie’s life.
As yet, that was as far as the plan went. Shauna had the old letters with addresses and that was it. She’d tried social media, internet research, birth and death registers, and had ascertained that – as far as she could tell – Annie’s two siblings were still alive. From the addresses on the letters, she’d located the houses on Google Maps, so they were still standing. It was somewhere to start. However, she had no idea if Annie’s relatives were still there, so she was flying by the seat of her pants.
There was a ninety-five per cent chance this quest for living relatives was going to be a complete waste of time, but hey, it gave her something intriguing to do this weekend and took her mind off missing Beth, so how bad could it be?
Besides, it was ages since she’d had time away with Lulu and if all they did was explore a new city, do a bit of Christmas shopping and drink cocktails, well, that would be absolutely fine. It was better than the alternative, which would mostly involve doing anything at all to stop herself from rehashing memories of every Christmas she’d had with Colm.
The queue in the aisle had cleared, so Shauna and Lulu finally disembarked and made their way through Glasgow Airport, stopping when they exited the glass sliding doors in front of the taxi rank. And yes, it was cold, and yes, it was raining, but it didn’t dampen Shauna’s excitement. Glasgow at Christmas. It was as unexpected as it was thrilling.
‘So what’s the plan?’ Lulu asked, as they headed towards the car at the front of a line of white taxis.
‘Let’s go and drop these bags at the hotel. We’re probably too early to check in, but I’m sure they’ll let us store these,’ she gestured to the small wheeled cabin bags they were both pulling. ‘Then I’d like to go see where her sister sent the letters from because I think there’s a good chance that was where Annie grew up. And then maybe go to the address on the other letters too.’
Lulu nodded in agreement. ‘I’m down with all of that as long as we get a cocktail in between every step of the mission.’
‘Wouldn’t dream of doing it any other way,’ Shauna replied, feeling a weird sensation of liberation. Back home, she rarely drank alcohol, as most nights were followed by early morning school or sports runs for Beth. It had been way too long since she’d relaxed and been an independent, commitment free grown-up for the day.
She followed Lulu into the taxi. ‘The Blythswood Square Hotel, please.’ She’d been intending to book a Premier Inn, but at the last moment had decided to treat them to a more luxurious experience – a twin room in one of the city’s most lavish hotels. If it all proved to be a waste of time, at least they’d get a hot stone massage and a night in a comfy bed with Egyptian cotton high thread count sheets. Not that she was entirely sure what Egyptian cotton high thread count sheets actually felt like.
The taxi pulled away and Shauna looked towards the hills in the distance as the strangest feeling descended. She’d never been here and yet it all felt weirdly familiar. She half expected to turn a corner and see Annie standing there, waiting for her.
Shauna just hoped that today was the day that her grandmother was ready, finally, to share her secrets.