A Hope Christmas Love Story
A Hope Christmas Love Story Julia Williams
Published by Avon
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First published in Great Britain by HarperCollins Publishers 2014
Copyright © Julia Williams 2014
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Julia Williams asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
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Ebook Edition © December 2014 ISBN: 9780008131951
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First day of Year 13 and I feel faintly sick. By rights, I shouldn’t be here. I should be heading off to uni with all my friends. Instead I’m a year behind them, taking my A2s at Shrewsbury College where I know plenty of people, but no one really knows me. Or could possibly understand how different my life is from theirs. I probably should have come clean about Lou Lou from day one, but I can’t explain it, I just wanted a bit of my life to be like everyone else’s – to pretend that I was a normal teenager doing normal teenage things. And now it’s too late to tell anyone. No one here knows I’m a single mum, with a twenty-month daughter. Or how much pressure I’m under to get things right. Thanks Andy Pilsdon, for screwing up my life …
First day of 6th form college, and I feel sick. By rights, I shouldn’t be here. I should be setting off to uni with all my mates. Instead I’m resitting Year 13 in a college in Shrewsbury where I know no one, and no one knows me. That last bit is a bonus.
But the rank feeling of failure follows me. It should have been so different. Predicted A*s and A’s after AS Levels, it all went to pot from day one. A whole year spent listening to Mum and Dad tearing themselves apart and ignoring Izzy and me in the meantime. A whole year spent of nights up until all hours searching for Izzy when she’d gone off god knows where. No wonder I didn’t get the grades.
So now I have to sit the damned things again. And I’m really feeling the pressure. Thanks Mum and Dad for spectacularly screwing up my life …
I’m queuing up to register for my English A Level class when I first see her. Like me, she was on her own, which seemed surprising. She was so lovely: pretty with long dark hair and gorgeous blue eyes. I couldn’t believe she didn’t have hordes of guys wandering after her. There was a slightly haunted air about her, she seemed kind of waif like and all I wanted to do was go and put my arms around her straight away. Which was ridiculous. I’d not even spoken to her.
“Welcome back, Melanie,” I heard our tutor say. “And well done again on those great results.”
Melanie. The name suited her.
She blushed at the compliment and scuttled away as fast as she could. I wanted to say hi, introduce myself, but something about her manner made me think she wasn’t too keen on casual conversation, as she raced away, head down towards the library.
I didn’t see her again for the rest of the day.
Second day of term and already the summer feels far away. I’m missing Lou Lou badly and wondering just how I’m going to cope next year when I’m at uni. If I get there of course.
All everyone is talking about is how important this year is, and how little time we’ve got. And I have less time than most. How many of my fellow students have to get home in time to pick their daughter up from nursery, feed her, bathe her, and put her to bed before starting their studying?
Over the summer she’s got into bad habits as well. I recently got rid of the cot, and she’s having far too much fun running around her bedroom to actually go to sleep. Why would she want to do that? I’m already fretting about how I’m going to get any work done. Mum and Dad are great but I can’t always impose on them. Lou Lou’s my responsibility. And much as I love her, sometimes it feels really unfair …
I’m walking to English and a guy I haven’t seen before stops me in the corridor and asks where our class is.
“It’s Melanie isn’t it?” he says, looking a little nervous and flicking his fair hair out of his deep brown eyes. It’s a fatal combination.
I clock that he’s good looking, but squash that thought instantly. After Andy, who got me pregnant and dumped me pretty quickly, I’m taking no chances. Lou Lou and I can survive perfectly well on our own. I can’t afford any more setbacks. When our future is secure, then I can maybe think about a relationship again. Not now though. Life is far too complicated.
“How do you know my name?” I ask a bit more belligerently than I intend to. I normally put out so many negative signals, boys have worked out that I’m a no go area. I’m nervous that this one doesn’t seem to know that.
“Stood behind you in the queue to register on the first day,” he says cheerfully and his grin does funny things to my stomach. Oh stop it, Mel, don’t go all weak at the knees because some random guy has a cheeky grin. “It’s not a crime knowing your name is it?”
“No, I suppose it isn’t,” I say reluctantly.
He does have a nice smile, and I like the way his eyes dance as he speaks. Suddenly feeling a little confused and overwhelmed, I point him in the direction of our class, before fleeing to the loos to compose myself before facing him in English. This will never do. I’m completely entranced by a total stranger and I don’t even know his name.
I’ve made progress; I actually spoke to Melanie today. Even if it was only to ask where our English class was. Seems like this is quite a traditional college, and I’m one of the few guys doing English, and History, though it seems about equal in Law.
Melanie disappears to the loo, so I enter the classroom alone. None of the girls pay me any attention and the dozen or so guys in the class all seem to know each other well and are sitting together. So I end up at the back of the class with two other newbies, one of whom is clearly gay and dressed up in such flamboyant clothes he’s clearly waiting for a reaction, which I don’t give him. The other has his head down in a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, which isn’t even on the syllabus. He grunts at me; clearly he’s making a different kind of statement.
Melanie slips in just before the lesson starts and sits at the front on her own. She seems to be alone a lot, though I have noticed her sometimes with a group of girls in the common room.
I can’t take my eyes off her. She is quietly enthusiastic and answers questions intelligently. I’ve barely known her a week and I think I’m half in love.
I’m determined to speak to her at the end of class, but she seems like a woman on a mission and vanishes before I can say a word. There’s something about her that intrigues me. I have to find out more …
“Mum, you are still ok to pick Lou Lou up from nursery aren’t you?” I shout as I come down the stairs, my little girl squirming in my arms. She’s clinging to me, and holding on determinedly to Bunny, a scrubby rabbit she insists on sleeping with. I can never get it away from her to put in the wash, so poor Bunny is quite filthy. I love the feeling of her against me, the warmth of her breath against my neck, the way she puts her hands round me so trustingly. However difficult my life is sometimes, I’d never be without her.
Mum had said she was picking Lou Lou up for me, but my granny has come to stay unexpectedly, and I know she’s very stressed.
“I already said, didn’t I?” Mum says in exasperated tones I know well, giving Lou Lou a tickle under the chin.
“I know,” I say, “I just don’t want to be a nuisance, what with Gran and everything.”
Mum’s so busy. She’s working on a new TV series, as well as coping with Gran and my brothers and sisters; I hate putting her under more pressure.
“You’re not,” says Mum giving me a hug, “you know I’m always happy to help.”
“Gaga,” says Lou Lou holding out her arms to Mum.
“You really are the best,” I say.
“I know,” Mum says, rolling her eyes. “Now have you had breakfast? I know Lou Lou has.”
“Yes, yes, don’t fuss,” I say, though I haven’t. I never have time in the morning, and Mum has enough to do kicking my lazy siblings into touch to get them ready for school, so I look after Lou Lou despite her offers of help. And it’s always such a battle. Lou Lou wants to play first thing, and if I have time, I play too. It’s my favourite part of the day, and I always feel mean on nursery mornings, taking her out of her nice cosy bed, getting her dressed and ready by 7.30, so I can drop her off at nursery by 8. But college starts for me at 8.30 and it’s a half hour drive down winding country lanes. I’m always just managing to screech in on time. I’m sure everyone thinks I’m a ditzy airhead who can’t get out of bed in the morning. If only they knew …
I kiss Mum goodbye, give my little sister Ruby a quick hug (my other sister Paige and my brother James still haven’t emerged from their bedrooms), have my normal battle to get Lou Lou into her coat and shoes, and head for the door.
Then the morning takes a turn for the worse. I realise within seconds of leaving that my petrol gauge is low, so I take a quick detour to fill up, which means I arrive in the mid drop-off rush at nursery, so it takes longer than usual to get Lou Lou settled. By the time she’s prepared to let me go it’s gone 8.10 and even if I put my foot on it, I’m going to be late.
After a frustratingly slow drive, stuck behind a tractor nearly all the way to Shrewsbury, I scream into the college car park at 8.35, grab my bags and leg it to the office to report in late as I’ve missed registration. Our first lesson starts at 8.45, so with any luck I might just make it. I have English first lesson and Tom, my tutor, has been giving me a hard time this year ever since I told him I wasn’t going to sit Oxbridge. I’d love to sit Oxbridge, but it’s not practical, and of course Tom has no idea why. So instead I’m applying to Birmingham to do a Media Studies course, so I can continue to live at home. It’s not what I would have planned, but nothing since Lou Lou came along is.
Whenever Tom makes sarky remarks about me being late, it’s always on the tip of my tongue to say it doesn’t seem to be affecting my grades, but I hate drawing attention to myself, so I never do.
I’m in such a hurry, I don’t see someone else bowling in the opposite direction towards me till it’s too late. We collide, I go flying and so does he. I look up groggily to see Will staring into my face.
I hadn’t seen Melanie till the last minute. I’d been late leaving because Izzy, my sixteen-year-old sister was being stroppy. She didn’t want to go to school again, so I’d physically had to make her, shouting at her all the way.
It’s partly Izzy’s fault that I’m here, resitting Year 13. Most of last year was spent chasing her up, making sure she was in school, and driving round Shrewsbury late at night to keep her out of trouble. I don’t blame her. She’s found Mum and Dad splitting up even harder than I have. She’s such a Daddy’s girl, and Daddy, quite frankly, has behaved like a shit.
In fact, both our parents have. They’ve always been spectacularly selfish, but once the divorce came through it felt like they couldn’t wait to get shot of us. Mum moved straight in with her new partner and got pregnant pretty much straight away, while Dad stayed for a little bit. But you could tell he was furious with Mum for jumping ship first. As soon as he could, he was off with his new partner and her adorable little kids who are much easier to deal with than a difficult teenage daughter and grumpy son. It feels like we don’t exist anymore.
Sure, they give us money, and we get to stay in the house and be totally independent. I know lots of kids who envy me for that. But it’s not great, not really. Not when you have a shitty day at school, and you want some advice and your parents aren’t there to give it to you. Or you get home from college and discover the washing machine is on the blink and you have no clean clothes, and you’ve forgotten to go shopping so you have get takeaway pizza again.
They’re very generous, I’ll give them that. We never want for anything material. But what kind of parents abandon their children in the middle of exam year? It’s rubbish and Izzy isn’t dealing with it too well.
Anyway, that’s why I’m so late and preoccupied and I don’t see Melanie till the last minute, so we end up in a rather embarrassed, tangled mess on the floor. Oh god, it would be her. She must think I’m a complete twat.
“I am so sorry,” I say, helping her up. “I don’t know how that happened.”
“Me neither,” she says, giving me a quick shy and completely endearing smile, and gathering up her books and pens. “It’s just as much my fault as it is yours.”
As we sort ourselves out, we register that we are now fifteen minutes late, the magic number after which the college will ring our parents if we’re late too often. Not that my parents would give a damn about that. And I’m eighteen anyway, so as far as I’m concerned so long as I show up and do the work it doesn’t matter what time I roll up. After such a disrupted year last year, studying and getting it right is all I care about.
We slink into class to the inevitable sardonic phrase, “Nice of you to join us, Miss Carpenter, Mr Harris,” from Tom, our tutor, and knowing grins from the rest of the class. I’m cringing so much I daren’t look at Melanie. After two weeks here I’ve taken an instant dislike to Tom. It seems I’m not alone. He’s not very popular, judging by the brief chats I’ve had with people in the coffee bar.
My dislike of Tom has intensified by the end of the lesson, as he spends the whole of it trying to catch Melanie out. He seems to have a real grudge against her, I don’t know why, as she’s so clearly star pupil material. She certainly seems to know more about The Bell Jar than anyone else in the class. I’m baffled by the way he treats her but Melanie just shrugs her shoulders when I ask her about it.
“He hates me being late,” she says, “but Monday mornings, you know what they’re like.”
I do know what they are like. But I doubt Melanie has a clue how hard it is to get yourself and your sister out of the house on time, and run a home. I don’t think anyone knows what that’s like. Least of all, Tom.
I tell myself to stay away from Will. It’s far easier and less complicated if I avoid boys. Besides, who in their right mind wants to take on an eighteen-year-old single mum? Not that I’ve even mentioned that in the short time I’ve known him. I haven’t really told him about anything that really matters.
But he’s good company, and I think he’s lonely. And I’m lonely too. I know people at college – Karen and Lizzie are always friendly – but I haven’t got any close friends, the way I had at school. And my mates in Hope Christmas have all gone to college this year. My best mate Shaz is full of tales of drunkenness and mayhem. I try not to, but I can’t help envying them.
The girls at college are nice enough, but they’re all younger than me, and though they’re focussing on their studies, outside of college they just seem to want to party. Our lives are worlds apart. I drift around the corners of their social lives, Lizzie often invites me for drinks, but I don’t join in very often. Mum and Dad are great about babysitting if I want them to, and even my brother James will step in if they can’t do it, but I don’t think it’s fair to impose on them, so I turn down most of the invitations I get. And they don’t come round so frequently anymore.
So it’s nice that Will comes and seeks me out at the coffee bar, and asks my opinions about essays. I tell myself he’s just being friendly and we’re mates, so I can still feel in control. I’ve not even given him my mobile number, and we never meet away from college. We’re friends, that’s all. And that’s the way it’s going to stay.
After we bumped into each other the day we were late, it’s suddenly become easier. Melanie is often on her own in the coffee bar at break time when most people go to Shrewsbury. I go sometimes with a couple of the lads, but I’ve got so much work to catch up on, I don’t want to get distracted. So most of the time I stay in the coffee bar too. If Melanie’s not there, she’s in the library studying. I swear that girl always has her head in a book. She studies with a sort of manic intensity, as if she daren’t ever stop. I ask her about it one day, and she mutters something about being under pressure to do well, so I assume her parents are always on her case.
She doesn’t talk about her family much, and I know very little about them. She has two sisters and a brother. I have no idea what her parents do, or where she even lives. It must be a way from here, as she drives in every day. I’d push her on it, but I get the feeling she’d just clam up on me if I ask her. She seems happy to talk about anything except the personal.
I also get the feeling that someone hurt her pretty badly; she’s so wary and shy of me, like a damaged fawn. I’ve not even held hands with her yet, though we do now give each other an awkward hug on meeting. And a peck on the cheek when we say goodbye. I’d like to move things on a bit further, but I’m wary of pushing her away. And I really don’t want to do that.
Because somewhere between our meeting at the college gates and now, Melanie’s become very necessary to my existence. In fact, I think I’m falling for her hard. Which wasn’t part of the game plan. Not at all.
Somehow it’s early October and the leaves are turning yellow and falling off the trees. I’m lucky to live in a place like Hope Christmas, which always shows nature off to its advantage. But the weeks are flying past. Lou Lou is saying more every day and turning into such a little bundle of fun I am finding it harder and harder to leave her. Even though I know she loves nursery, and on her non-nursery days Mum is there to look after her. I know it has to be this way, but sometimes I really hate it.
At least college is going well. It’s hard work, but I’m loving the subjects I’m doing and I’m glad I’ve met Will. I don’t know where it’s going, but it’s nice to have a proper friend at last. He’s so easy to talk to and I miss him when he’s not around. Most days now we have lunch together. And sometimes in our frees, if we’re not too stressed about work, we sneak off for a coffee in town – something everyone else does, but I’ve never had reason to till now.
He knows to buy me a hot chocolate; I know he always has an Americano. I like that, on the sharp crisp October mornings, warming our hands on our takeaway drinks, and wandering round Shrewsbury. Will’s a mine of information. He knows all about Roman history and other stuff. And I love the way he gets animated when he’s explaining something to me, then looks awkward and says, “I’m not boring you am I?” It’s really cute. In fact he is all round cute, and if I hadn’t foresworn boys …
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