After the death of my husband, I dreaded Christmas. I’d lost him suddenly, to a heart attack. One moment we’d been a couple; the next there I was, single again after fifteen years, a widow. It was unthinkable, the most awful shock. Inch by inch, I crawled through the days and months following his death and I even started to think that I was managing pretty well; but then came Christmas.
It’s the time for family, isn’t it? A time of good cheer, yuletide greetings and cuddling up with loved ones. But I had no close relatives and no children; my only loved one was gone. Sympathetic friends tried to tempt me out to their homes, but their jollity only made my own aloneness more painful.
So as my next Christmas as a widow rolled around, I devised a plan. I would tell everyone I was going away for the Christmas holidays, but I would stay home alone. I told myself there would be some great stuff on the TV and I could buy in my favourite foods. Then I wouldn’t be a burden to anyone or have to see the pity in their eyes.
‘Poor Jessie,’ they would whisper. ‘Isn’t it a shame?’
I didn’t like the idea of being anyone’s charity case, so my plan seemed like the best option.
‘I’m going to the Maldives on a singles break,’ I said. ‘The break will do me good.’
And some of them looked quite relieved. I was off their hands; they didn’t have to worry about me sitting alone, crying into my sherry and eating turkey sandwiches.
‘What are you doing for Christmas this year?’ my kind and rather handsome neighbour asked me when we spoke over the garden fence. He’d been friends with my husband for years; writing away, working, I had rarely even seen him to speak to.
‘Oh!’ For a moment I almost forgot to lie. ‘I’m going away. The Maldives.’
‘That’s nice,’ he said.
‘You?’ I asked.
‘Visiting family I expect.’ He had near relatives, but had never married.
‘Well … I’ll see you later.’
The date crept closer and closer. December the twenty-fifth. D-day. The day before Christmas Eve I battened down the hatches. Did the last of the shopping, bought myself some smoked salmon and even a bottle of champagne. If I was going to be miserable, dammit, then I was going to do it in style. I locked the doors, dimmed the lights, stoked up the fire and searched feverishly through the TV listings for something watchable and came up with the Great Escape.
How many times had I seen that film? About a million. Or two. But sitting there alone on Christmas day (I hadn’t even bought a tree) suddenly my own wretched loneliness and the brave struggles of the prisoners overwhelmed me and I sat there and sobbed.
I sobbed all through the bit where Steve McQueen gets caught in the barbed wire, and where James Garner leads poor half-blind Donald Pleasance to safety. I sobbed when everyone got shot. I drank champagne and wished I really had gone to the Maldives, because this was awful, anything would be better than sitting here, widowed and sunk in misery, over yet another flipping endless Christmas.
Then there was a knock at the door.
I sat bolt upright as if shot. Then I scrambled for the remote and turned the volume on the TV down.
Thank goodness I’d had the presence of mind to pull the curtains closed. It would be one of my well-meaning pals, but soon they would give up, go away. I kept quiet.
‘Jessie? You in there?’ A pause. ‘I know you’re in there, there’s smoke coming out of the chimney. You all right? Thought you were going away!’
It was my neighbour’s voice.
Damn! I tottered, slightly drunk and red-eyed, out into the hall and threw open the door. There he was. My kind, concerned neighbour. And he was holding a large bunch of mistletoe and sporting a large grin.
‘Kiss me then,’ he said. ‘Since you’re here.’
And reader – I did. And the rest, as they say, is history.