Exchanging gifts

Short story

xmasI’ve sometimes been asked what became of Lisa Doyle, the main character from The Armchair Bride. So for a change, here’s a short story for Christmas to bring you up to date on her life these days. Two years on from the end of that book, Lisa’s home with Brian for a family Christmas and about to encounter a ghost from the past!

Mam looks up from the pile of Christmas cards gathered on the kitchen table.
‘Do you have an address for Ginny Baker?’ she says. ‘Last thing I heard she was living in one of those new flats near the precinct.’
‘You’re not seriously sending her a card?’ I say and try to keep my voice even. ‘After everything she did.’
‘It’s a time to forgive.’
‘She almost got me killed.’
Mam shakes her head. ‘It was a toy gun.’
‘Nobody knew that.’
‘Guru Westwood says you have to forgive to be able to move on.’ Mam scribbles a greeting in the card. ‘Life’s too short to hold grudges.’
Two months ago, Mam saw a flyer in the library for The Golden Buddha Trust – a group for retired people in search of answers to life’s many questions. These days she loves everyone – with the possible exception of Muriel opposite who never puts the lid on her recycling bin.

Brian dumps the oversize bag I insisted he pack in the hall.
‘Do you need anything else from the car?’ he says. ‘I’ve left Amy and Sue’s presents in the boot like you said.’
Mum rolls her eyes. ‘What’s wrong with putting gifts under the tree?’
‘They’ll keep prodding at them. Let’s have some surprises this year.’
Both Mam and Brian stare at my belly. My huge, eight-month pregnant belly.
‘I think I’ve already had my share of surprises,’ she says. ‘Haven’t there been enough secrets in this family?’

I found out I was expecting Lucinda on my forty-second birthday. Brian held my hand as a nurse smeared gel over my distended stomach, and we stared at the monitor to make sense of random light patterns.
‘Do you want to know the sex?’ the nurse asked and before Brian could answer I said yes.
The name came two days later.
‘I read somewhere that the first name you think of is the right one and that you should write it down,’ I said and produced a scrap of paper from my pocket. On it I’d written Lucinda.
Brian peered at it. ‘When did you do that?’
My plan had been to act all mystical and insist the name materialised in a dream, spoken by angelic voices. In fact Lucinda was my Nan’s name and Dad once made me promise to consider it if grandchildren came along.
‘It’s been in my head a while,’ I said.
‘Lucinda?’ Brian made the name sound like one he’d never heard before. ‘It’s cute. Lucy for short.’
I enjoyed the smug feeling of someone who knew best. Lucinda was a noble name; one not open for teasing.

The doorbell rings and Brian is sent to answer. I hear voices and then a scratching at the door. Bertie pushes his nose round and dives into the bags gathered round my feet.
‘Does this dog ever stop?’ I cry as Mam laughs.
‘Give him a biscuit,’ she says. ‘He likes Digestives.’
The mere mention of the word biscuit has Bertie on his haunches, brown eyes burning into mine.
My sister drags two reluctant offspring into the kitchen.
‘Isn’t Amy here yet?’ she says and everyone exchanges awkward looks.
‘Glen has business to tend to,’ Mam mutters darkly. ‘Special business.’
Sue gets it at once and even though her face flushes she manages a smile.

Most families would applaud charity work. The idea of one of their kin giving up time to hand out gifts to orphans and the homeless should be a good thing. And maybe Mam would be totally on board with this had Glen agreed to disguise himself as Santa Claus or even as an elf. It’s his insistence on dressing as Susan Boyle that has her on edge.
‘What time is it over?’ Mam says.
‘Amy reckoned they’ll be here by five,’ I say and look anxiously around. All I want to do is change the subject before she launches into another distinctly unforgiving, un-Buddhist rant. I’m too late.
‘Don’t get me wrong. I’ve tried to understand,’ she says. ‘But it has me stumped. I sometimes wonder if I’d have been happier if he had been having an affair. Having a father who gets his jollies by wearing women’s knickers. Well, it’s not the right sort of environment for a child.’
‘How can you say that?’ Sue jumps in to defend Glen and Amy. ‘Tishiba is the luckiest little girl living.’
‘There’s that name again,’ Mam says. ‘She sounds like she should be stood in Dixon’s window.’
The door goes again and Bertie runs barking into the hall.
Brian goes to answer.
‘Probably carol singers,’ Mam says. ‘I had a group round last night. They couldn’t hold a tune in a bucket.’
When he comes back, Brian looks worried.
‘It’s for you,’ he says. ‘It’s Ginny.’

When I last saw Ginny Baker she wore a tight red dress and expensive heels. She’d been picking her way through the debris of an almost ruined wedding and I told myself that would be the last time we ever spoke. But even back then, a tiny voice inside warned that things remained unfinished.
The woman perched on of Mam’s sofa in the Good Room is almost unrecognisable. The long blonde hair has been cut short and left to grow out dark. The expensive make-up is a thing of the past. This Ginny regards me with empty eyes.
‘I’m dying,’ she says without any preamble. ‘Someone told me you were down for Christmas, so I thought I’d come along and tell you first hand. Save you hearing it from someone else.’
‘My God,’ I say. ‘Are you all right?’
‘Didn’t you hear what I said? I’m dying.’
‘What of?’
‘Cancer. Is there anything else these days.’ She shuffles uneasily. ‘Breast, metastatic into my bones. It’s incurable. They’ve said weeks not months.’
‘I’m so sorry.’
She nods. ‘People usually are.’
An awkward silence is broken when Mam pops her head round the door to offer cups of tea.
‘I really did cause trouble for you, didn’t I?’ Ginny says when we’re alone again.
‘It’s all sorted out now. We’re fine. Everything’s fine.’
‘And you even tried to make friends with me … that day when …’
‘Yes, well, never mind. It was a strange old day I suppose. We all said things we regret.’
‘Actually, Lisa. I didn’t.’ Ginny gets up and walks to the window. ‘I’m glad I didn’t give you what you wanted.’
‘OK,’ I say, unsure where any of this might be going.
‘I needed to get away from here. It was what I always dreamed of doing and really, you gave me the chance to escape. Right after that wedding, I got into my car and started to drive. I ended up in London.’
‘Someone told me that’s where you were living.’
‘I had a good few years there, all things considered.’ Ginny stops talking, turns around and stares at me. ‘I’ve come here to thank you. I suppose that was your gift to me.’
‘Thank me?’
‘I was the one holding me back. I blamed everyone else, but it was me in charge all along. You made me see that.’

Ginny sips from a glass of red wine and watches everyone open presents, try on slippers and gloves, spray each other with perfume and hand around expensive chocolates.
‘You did a nice thing,’ Brian says as he puts an arm around me. ‘Inviting her to dinner like this.’
‘She’s not quite the monster I used to think,’ I say. ‘Actually, inside she’s just the same as me.’
Bertie barks and the kids play tag. Mam sits in her chair, enjoying the love of her family; even Glen is permitted a smile despite the fluffy pink mules he insists on wearing – a gift from Amy.

The ambulance arrives at six thirty, just after Mam loads the dishwasher.
‘You’re calling her Lucinda?’ Ginny says as I help her into the wheelchair. ‘Loo, rhymes with Poo. That poor kid. Bullies will make her life hell. If I give you nothing else, take it from someone who knows.’
She laughs, a raspy wheezy rattle.
As they pull away, Brian slips an arm around me.
‘You OK?’ he says and I nod. There’s the smallest of kicks inside and I know what I have to do.
‘Sophie’ a lovely name isn’t it?’ I say. ‘Maybe we should rethink the whole Lucinda thing after all.’

 

 

The Armchair BrideThe Armchair Bride

We all say things we’ll regret on New Year’s Eve. Lisa Doyle is no exception. At the annual office bash, along with best friend, colleague and flat mate Andy, she contemplates another year as a singleton. Tired, emotional and a little worse for wear Andy challenges Lisa to find love before hitting 40. Lisa bets Andy he cannot land a decent acting job within the next year.

Will either rise to the challenge? Is Lisa destined to spend her evenings online, checking out old classmates? Could Andy’s audition morph into something excitingly concrete? And could love for Lisa be closer at hand than she’d ever imagined?

Add a cross-dressing relative and a wedding that turns into an homage to Tarantino and the scene is set for a year in the life of The Armchair Bride.

  • ISBN-10: 0955988535 | ISBN-13: 978-0955988530
  • Price: £8.99

Buy The Armchair Bride from Amazon | Buy The Armchair Bride from The Book Depository | Buy The Armchair Bride from Waterstones

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