Friday 22 August 2014

The Christmas Burn-Up - Part 2!

Time for my second snippet of The Christmas Burn-Up and a second chance to enter the Written Fireside August Blog Hop Rafflecopter!

The Christmas Burn-Up - Part 2

     The snow had stopped. At last something positive.    

     She turned away from the bus stop and walked the short distance to their house. Correction: her house. If she was going to properly move on she needed to at the very least stop thinking about things in a joint way. Maybe the woman on the bus had a point now that she thought about it. Her single life was still heavily laced with Daniel. Her phone memory was still chock full of his grovelling messages, asking her to give things another try, protesting that they were both at fault in their own ways. The bloody cheek of it. Only one of them had declared he felt like he was wearing a ball and chain. The house was still stuffed with belongings he’d neglected to collect and reminders of their time together.

     Maybe it was time for a clear out. That part of what the crazy old bus lady had said actually made a certain kind of sense. How the hell was she supposed to move forward when she was surrounded by reminders of him everywhere she looked? And it wasn’t as if she had anything more pressing in her social diary for the evening.

     The little house was easily identifiable. It was the only one in the terraced row that wasn’t sporting some kind of flashy Christmas illumination. The Thorp family, three doors down and slaves to vulgar, had a sleigh and reindeer in flashing neon lights on their roof. Next door had attempted tasteful, with a minimalist row of mock candles in the window. End of the row had an inflatable snowman bobbing about in their front garden and brandishing a ‘Santa Please Stop Here’ sign. Charlotte’s tiny house stood in darkness.

     She opened the front door and was immediately tripped up by Cinnamon the cat, launching his assault from the side table in the hall where he’d been staking out the doorway for her arrival, winding his way hungrily between her feet. This time last year, exactly to the day she realised with a pang of nostalgia, she’d found him. A tiny ball of oily, grubby, spiky fur with a high-pitched pitiful mew that tugged at her heart. No collar. Skin and bone. Found sheltering from the snow near the bins at the back of the terrace.

     She’d mocked up a leaflet and dropped it through every letterbox on the street and had put up posters for good measure. No one had come forward to claim him, much to her delight and Daniel’s grouching. She’d talked Daniel into letting her keep him. Of course she had. Didn’t the perfect couple in their perfect home need a pet? It was practically a requirement. It went with the image.

     She swallowed. When it came right down to it, image had really been all they were about. Playing house. Fitting what each of them thought a steady cohabiting relationship should be and clashing like crazy because their expectations were at opposite ends of a very big scale.

     The wistful smile faded from her lips. She was not about to be diverted from her task by a stupid nostalgia trip about a cat. Dodging out of Cinnamon’s way, she whisked through the house like a dervish on a wave of new momentum, picking up anything along the way that reminded her of Daniel, some of it his stuff that he’d failed to pick up, some things they’d bought together. Daniel’s football programmes, a photograph of the two of them on a day trip to London, a cheap painting they’d bought together, a spare jacket of his that he’d left behind.  Since the house was a tiny two-up two-down, it really didn’t take long. At last she held a teetering pile in her arms that she dropped by the back door while Cinnamon watched disapprovingly.

     ‘What?’ she asked him. ‘Where’s your sense of loyalty? He wanted to call you Crimbo. And do you really think you would have been allowed to stay here if I hadn’t been around? Two words: Animal Shelter.’

     She opened the back door. A rush of freezing air swept in and Cinnamon bolted up the stairs.


     The garden was as tiny as the house. A square of lawn, a miniscule patio that had just enough room for a small table and chairs and a titchy shed at the bottom corner. Next door had carried the theme of Christmas-meets-Vegas into their back garden too, with a zingy string of coloured fairy lights along the dividing hedge and Rudolph’s reindeer face depicted in lights on the back of their house with a red nose that flashed rhythmically on and off.

   She carried the pile of belongings to the bottom of the postage stamp lawn and carefully built up a base stack of rubbish for a bonfire, adding in some old planks of wood that lay next to the tiny shed and some garden tat she found inside it. She lobbed a few firelighters in the middle, leftovers from a summer barbecue when they’d sat out here with friends and Daniel had wielded the barbecue implements – stereotypical. She pressed her lips together. That’s exactly what their life had been. She’d seen to it, she realised now. That was what you did in summer when you lived together: you had a civilised barbecue with your man turning the burgers while you rustled up a jug of Pimms. Daniel’s mates had turned up, each brandishing a girlfriend and a six-pack, and it had turned into more of a raving party than the sedate grown-up thing she’d had in mind. Instead of having a laugh, she’d felt somehow disappointed, as if she’d failed at the point of the afternoon. It all seemed a bit ridiculous now. Prior to moving in with Daniel, she would have been partying along with the rest of them. Sharing bricks and mortar had somehow made her lose sight of herself in some mad quest to become Mary Berry.

    The fire was glowingly warm. She held her palms out to it. A melty circle grew outward from it on the frosty lawn as the heat thawed the ground. It was actually cosier out here with the dancing flames than it was inside the house. You could hang up more tinsel and fairy lights than you could shake a holly branch at, but it didn’t actually generate Christmas cheer. You needed people for that. 

     Pretty soon she had a nice burn up going on.

     She settled herself to one side, next to her pile of stuff, and picked up a photo from the top of the stack of herself and Daniel, which had been tacked to the fridge under a magnet when he’d lived here. Since he’d packed his bags it had been stuffed into one of the kitchen drawers so she didn’t have to look at it every time she grabbed her microwave meal-for-one.

     She looked down at the picture. A friend’s housewarming party, the second week they’d met. She’d moved in on week three. Daniel looking impossibly handsome. Herself looking happy. What the bloody hell was happy? Happy had gone AWOL since this relationship had gone tits up. She tossed the photo into the air and watched it flutter into the fire where it curled and blackened, that moment obliterated forever.

     Now didn’t that feel better?

     Well no, actually. She just felt bloody sad. She shook her head lightly. Maybe it was a question of volume. After all, one photograph was hardly enough to cut the mustard, was it?

     Turning back to the pile, she had a good rummage and came up with the perfect you’re-better-off-without-him item: his loathsome 2006 World Cup T-shirt, ‘England’s Barmy Army’ splashed across the front, worn as hell but which he insisted on still dragging out as leisurewear. She held it up. It absolutely typified him: unwilling to let go of lad culture, still always up for the laugh. She should be chucking it on the flames without a second thought but for some reason on impulse she held the shirt to her cold cheek. She breathed in the smell of him: warm and laced with the woody fresh scent of the aftershave he always wore.

     Her stomach turned over softly. Didn’t the shirt also represent the essence of what she’d liked about him when they first met? How much fun he was, how spontaneous, always up for a joke. For some reason living together in her world meant sensible and grown-up. Why did it need to? Why couldn’t his sense of kiddish fun coexist with them being a proper couple?

    It was too late to let second thoughts muddy the waters now. To prove she wasn’t wavering, in a surge of determination she balled the T-shirt up and threw it on the fire, then for good measure she heaved on Daniel’s skanky old dartboard that she’d loathed on sight but which he’d insisted on hanging in the corner of the lounge.     

     The dartboard must have been particularly fusty and dry because the fire really took hold now, spitting and crackling and billowing grey smoke into the darkness. The heat baked her cheeks and she smiled into the glow. Who knew? She clearly had a natural aptitude for fire-building. Bear Grylls had nothing on her. Unfortunately the stab of pride at her outdoor skills suddenly disappeared as she realised the flames were licking up the side of the neighbour’s dust-dry hedge.

     She glanced quickly around, realising that she’d epically failed at fire safety by not having some kind of extinguishing item to hand. She’d been so swept up in the moment that she’d forgotten to bring out a bucket of water or sand in case things didn’t go to plan. Daniel’s voice danced through her mind – Fire can be unpredictable. You have to respect it.

     She dashed to the house, ran into the kitchen and shoved the washing-up bowl under the cold tap. It seemed to take forever for the sodding thing to fill. At last she grabbed it and speed-walked back down the hallway, trying not to slop water onto the floor, out the back door and down the garden.

     She lobbed the bowl of water over the smouldering hedge, causing a massive sizzling sound. Smoke billowed into the air, catching in her throat like pepper and making her cough. Then the air cleared a little and she could see the flames seemed to have died down. She was just congratulating herself on getting the situation back under control when next door’s Christmas lights shorted with an audible bang plunging her into darkness except for the orange glow of the bonfire and an odd blue flashing that seemed to be coming from the front of the house.

     How to make a fresh start?

     Burn everything that reminds you of the past.

     How not to make a fresh start?

     Lose total control of the sodding fire, prompting emergency attendance of the very person you want to forget. The fact Daniel was a firefighter hadn’t occurred to her because she hadn’t intended to set the bloody hedge alight, and now he was here with his firetruck and all its flashy blue lights.

Look out for the story in full at the end of the year! Thanks for reading and I hope you've enjoyed these snippets. Don't forget to check out the next author in the hop, the very lovely Romy Sommer!

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It's Written Fireside's August Blog Hop!! The Christmas Burn-Up

Yes, yes, yes, I know it's August!! But the fantastic travelling blog hop Written Fireside is covered in tinsel and wearing a Santa hat and who am I to argue? And as if that isn't exciting enough, there's a monster giveaway running alongside the hop - see the rafflecopter below to enter for your chance to win lots of lovely books, e-books and a $70 Amazon Gift Card.

This time all fifteen authors have been given the same opening paragraph, written by competition winner Georgia Beyers, and challenged to write a Christmas short story with the theme 'Christmas by the fire.'

These short stories will be published later this year as a Christmas e-book anthology by HarperImpulse and I am so excited to be one of the contributing authors. Today and tomorrow I'm sharing snippets from my story 'The Christmas Burn-Up', before I pass the mantle to the next author. So without further ado...

Here is the starting paragraph written by Georgia Beyers...

     Charlotte sat at the bus stop wondering whether she would make the naughty or nice list this year. Last year she had rescued a stray kitten and therefore considered herself most definitely ‘nice’. This year she had broken Daniel's heart into a million tiny pieces, so ‘naughty’ seemed to be the only answer. There’d be no Santa Claus coming down her chimney anytime soon.

The Christmas Burn-Up - Part 1

     Then again, she supposed it all depended whose side Santa would come down on if he knew the facts. Did Santa realise that for all his repeated claims that she had broken his heart, Daniel had broken hers first?
      And Daniel might have told her, repeatedly, that he was heartbroken when she refused to take him back and give things another chance, but could his heart really be broken into a million tiny pieces when three weeks earlier he’d ended their relationship himself? He’d made a mistake, he said, as if that was somehow a good enough reason for her to take him back. He’d decided the grass wasn’t greener after all. That’s what it boiled down to. She’d broken his heart because she wouldn’t let him change his mind. How the hell was that HER fault?
     She’d stood her ground firmly in the face of his apologies.
     Her stubbornness or his desertion? Whose side Santa would come down on? Santa was a man. She bet he’d back Daniel, just like Daniel’s gang of firefighter mates had closed ranks.
     The air was cut-glass cold as she breathed in and she pulled her coat around her more tightly. The bus stop seat was freezing against her butt. She watched the soft snowfall in the headlights of the early evening traffic. It was the last Friday before Christmas. The cars were full of people free of work for the holidays, full of excitement and Christmas cheer, heading off to visit relatives or to get ready for parties. Her stomach gave a miserable churn. Maybe if she tried really hard to block out all things Christmas and holed herself up at home for the next few days, she could convince herself it was a different month. March perhaps. No big events that time of year, no Valentine’s Day, nothing to remind you that you were tragically single.
     She got to her feet as the bus came to a standstill at the kerbside and the double doors flipped open to reveal an interior festooned with tinsel and a driver wearing a Santa hat.
    Just great.

     She deliberately chose an empty double seat near the back of the bus, the better to stare out of the window and deny Christmas. Unfortunately the plan only worked until the next stop, when the doors slid open and an old woman got on. She inexplicably ignored the plentiful empty seats and sat down instead next to Charlotte, parking her shopping trolley-zimmer frame combo in the aisle. She wore a knitted hat with tufts of grey hair above each ear and a massive hairy coat, and her eyes were bright blue in her wrinkly face. Charlotte caught a whiff of gardenia that made her think of childhood visits to her grandmother.
     She stared sideways out of the window thinking that if maybe she just ignored the old dear she could avoid a conversation.
     ‘Looking forward to Christmas?’ The old lady had a crackly voice.
      Oh great. The last thing she needed right now was a cosy seasonal chat with a geriatric. She just wanted to get home and hide until the New Year.
     ‘Not particularly.’
     The woman pursed her wrinkly mouth.

     ‘No big family parties? Turkey and stuffing?’ She waved a fingerless-gloved hand in the air.


     The woman raised her eyebrows. The expectant silence begged for an explanation.

     Charlotte sighed and gave in.

    ‘I live alone,’ she said.
     ‘No one special?’
     She shook her head.
     ‘We broke up.’ Maybe that would put paid to twenty questions. Surely the old lady wouldn’t want to pry. It was basic politeness after all.
     ‘Sorry to hear that. What went wrong?’
     It seemed the basic politeness rule didn’t apply to old people. The woman sounded genuinely interested and sympathetic and Charlotte brightened up a little. If they had to have a conversation, it was unexpectedly nice to have a fresh person to offload to. She’d bored her friends rigid with the Daniel debacle over the last six months. Any mention of him now was perceived as a refusal to let go of the past.
     ‘He decided he felt tied down,’ she said. ‘Didn’t want to be with me anymore. I’d thought everything was fine between us and then out of the blue he packed his bags.’
      Not strictly true. Describing their relationship pre-walkout as fine was bending the truth bigtime. But you didn’t throw in the towel just because things were difficult, not in Charlotte’s world anyway. She threw up a hand.
      ‘No staying power. He just chucked it all away and then…’ she leaned in towards the old woman, warming to her subject now ‘…a month or so later, he grovels to come back. He’d made a mistake, he says. Didn’t realise what he’d had. Blah, blah, blah.’
     ‘And you said no?’
     Was there a hint of surprise in the woman’s tone? Charlotte choked amazed laughter.
     ‘Are you insane? Of course I said no. Take him back as if nothing had happened and wait for him to hurt me again? No chance.’
     ‘Did he leave you for another girl?’
     She shook her head.
     ‘No. As far as I know he’s still living the single life with his firefighter mates.’
     ‘And he apologised and tried to explain?’
     ‘Oh constantly. I had to unfriend him on Facebook and turn off my phone until he gave up.’
     Being the one in the right had its own satisfaction. It was only once the attention stopped that she’d realised how bloody lonely the moral high ground was. Since then she’d held onto her pride for grim death.
     ‘You don’t think that was a bit hasty?’
     In terms of what she wanted to hear, it was all a bit pants. Where was the female solidarity?
     ‘No I don’t,’ she snapped. ‘It was never going to work anyway. We moved in together after three weeks. Big mistake. It was doomed to failure from the start.’
     The woman shrugged.
     ‘If you’re right for each other, it shouldn’t matter whether you marry or move in together on day one or day one thousand and one. You’re the same people. Life is short.’
     A surprisingly liberal attitude from a woman who made Charlotte’s own mother look like a spring chicken. Her mum had made it clear from the outset that moving in was madness. But then she would, wouldn’t she? When you had a thirty year successful marriage under your belt you could claim that your relationship advice had merit. Irritatingly, it had turned out she was right.
     ‘It’s not that simple,’ she said, channelling her mum. ‘On day one you don’t know each other. You don’t know each other’s expectations. It stands to reason that if you uncover all of those BEFORE you move in together, the whole thing has a much better chance of working.’ She sighed. ‘At least I got to keep the house.’
      She nodded.
     ‘It’s only rented and it’s tiny, but at least I didn’t have the hassle of finding somewhere else.’
     Daniel had offered to move out, even though it had been his place, probably to salve his conscience. She’d moved in with him, not the other way around. She shook her head lightly. A lease did not make up for a lack of trust.
     ‘In actual fact everything worked out well. I’m feeling really healthy. Looking forward to the future, dealt with all that old baggage. Onwards and upwards.’ She punched the air to make her point.  
     ‘You think you’ve moved on?’ There was a definite sceptic edge to the woman’s voice.
     ‘Have I moved on?’ Charlotte heaved out a massive sarcastic laugh. ‘Are you serious?’
      The old lady examined her gnarly fingernails.
     ‘It’s just that this Daniel is all you’ve talked about since I sat down.’
     ‘You brought him up! And have you heard a single positive syllable about him pass my lips?’
     ‘He let you keep the house.’
     ‘Apart from that.’
     ‘It sounds like he’s apologised until he’s blue in the face.’
     ‘And that.’
     ‘He’s a fireman.’
     Oh for Pete’s sake. Was there no member of the female species who didn’t have a firefighter fantasy? Age was clearly no barrier.
     ‘That’s a negative,’ she snapped. This conversation seemed to be getting way off-topic. ‘It’s a closed-off boys-only group. Trust me. They’re a species all their own. It’s all about their social life, their boys nights out, male bonding, flirting with firefighter groupies.’

     The woman held up a hand.

     ‘And still…’ she said ‘…we’re talking about him.’ She leaned in as if imparting a great secret. ‘Trust me. I’ve been there and I know. There’s only ever one way to really move on. You have to cut all ties, make a proper and total fresh start. Purge your life of all references to him. Clean sweep, removal of all reminders. And when you’ve done that, there’ll be nothing left to make you look back.’ She sat back and clasped her hands in her lap as if her work was done. ‘You’ll be free.’
     ‘I. Am. Over. Him,’ Charlotte said.
     ‘Of course you are, dear,’ the old woman said in a voice that screamed the opposite, an if-you-say-so smile lurking around her wrinkled lips.
     Charlotte stood up gladly as the bus trundled into her road.

      ‘This is my stop,’ she said, squeezing out into the aisle in relief to be free of the mad old bat who clearly had herself pegged as some kind of relationship guru – I mean, honestly.
      ‘Merry Christmas, then,’ the woman called after her.
      My arse.
      Charlotte waved a vague hand over her shoulder.

      She glanced up at the bus as it pulled away, expecting to see Daniel’s new biggest fan gurning at her out of the window. Maybe the old dear was Daniel’s mad great-aunt or something. That would explain the total lack of female support.

     She did a crazy double-take.

     She could clearly see her own recently vacated seat on the bus through the wipe mark on the window that she’d made with her glove. Empty. Nothing surprising about that, except that the seat next to it was empty too. The doddery old woman with the zimmer trolley had either moved seats like a dynamo the moment Charlotte left the bus, or she’d never been there at all.

     Oh for bloody hell’s sake. She really was losing it.

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