British romance novelist Katie Fforde shares an exclusive Christmas short story with woman&home readers about a cottage with zero festive cheer in which single-mom Jennie lives.
Can Jennie create the impression of a cheerful Christmas scene before it’s too late? Read on to find out…
Christmas Tree Countdown by Katie Fforde
This is so kind of you,’ said Jennie to the man who was holding the gate open to the Christmas tree farm. ‘I thought for sure you’d be closed!’
‘That’s OK,’ he said. ‘As long as you’re quick. I should have shut an hour ago.’
‘I have to be really quick for my own reasons,’ said Jennie, mentally cursing the holiday let that wouldn’t let her in before four o’clock. Now, at half-past five, she had very little time left to get everything ready.
She inspected the small pile of trees. ‘Which is the littlest?’ she asked the man. He had a beanie hat pulled down over his head against the cold and wore a boiler suit and wellies. He indicated one.
‘I’m not sure you’ll get it in though. It’s not a very big car.’
‘I’ve got to have a tree – decorated and looking lovely before my daughter Skypes me at eight o’clock my time. Nearly two hours. Should be fine!’
‘How old is your daughter?’
‘Eight. Is that relevant?’
‘Not really, except I’ve got a niece that age, too.’
Jennie smiled. ‘She’s gone to Walt Disney World in Orlando, with her dad. She worries about me. Otherwise I wouldn’t bother with a tree.’ She bit her lip. ‘Is there anything smaller?’
He shook his head. ‘It would be easier for me to deliver this one. Where do you live?’
‘Little Churton. I’m in a holiday let.’
‘That’s not far. I could easily drop it off for you.’
‘That would be really kind. Now?’
He grinned and nodded. The whiteness of his smile made her realise his face was a bit muddy.
‘So, what’s the address?’
Jennie burrowed in her pocket and pulled out the letter with the details.
‘Here’s the postcode.’
He took the paper from her. ‘Oh, I know where that is.’
‘I’m in the smallest cottage. The one that isn’t quite finished.’
‘Sounds lovely.’ He smiled.
It wasn’t all that lovely, but he didn’t need to know that. ‘What do I owe you for the tree?’
‘We’ll worry about that later. It’s a bit spindly. I’ll follow you back. Now let’s get going.’
Jennie was confident she knew the way to her house until she realised she should have reached home a good half hour ago, and was now driving through a wood she didn’t remember. Then the man following her flashed his lights and she pulled over. Although she’d have died rather than admit it, she was just a bit nervous driving along in the dark in a wood in an area she didn’t know.
When he appeared at her window she opened it. ‘You’ve gone wrong,’ he said. ‘Better if you follow me.’
She switched her imagination firmly off and did as she was advised. To her relief, they were out of the wood and on a familiar road in no time.
He found the little group of converted farm buildings where she lived and pulled up outside hers.
It was very obvious which one it was. The others all had lights on, a couple had a tree in the window and hers looked empty and had a cement mixer where she would have liked a tree.
‘Is this it?’ he said.
‘It is. Thank you so much. I have no idea where I went wrong or how I ended up in a deep dark wood.’
He laughed. ‘It’s all right, the Gruffalo doesn’t live there any more. He had to move. People kept pestering him for autographs.’
Jennie laughed too now. ‘Well, let’s get this tree in and you can get off home. Your family will be waiting.’
‘It’s OK. Now, have you got a bucket?’
‘Only a mop bucket. Will that do?’
He shook his head. ‘Never mind. We’ll manage without.’
Although grateful for his help, Jennie felt guilty. ‘I’m sure I’ll cope. You probably need to be somewhere else. Let me pay you for the tree.’
‘I haven’t got anywhere else to be and I’d like to see the tree properly set up. Part of the Christmas service. I’m Olly, by the way.’
‘Hello Olly. It’s very kind of you but…’
‘Have you got any decorations? Or lights?’
‘Yes!’ She did have fairy lights, several sets.
‘OK. You go and find them. I’m going to get this tree to stay upright in the corner if it’s the last thing I do!’
As she hunted for the bag marked ‘vital items, do not lose’, Jennie realised she felt very safe with Olly. She shouldn’t feel safe with a strange man in her house, but she did.
‘I’m not absolutely sure they work,’ she said, when she had found the bag.
‘I’m sure I can make them work. Now you find the other decorations. We haven’t got much time.’
Jennie took them to him. She’d bought a job lot from a DIY store. The tree was now upright and you could only see it was leaning against the wall if you looked at it from the side.
‘Oh, brilliant,’ said Olly. ‘Now you get them on while I make the lights work. I don’t suppose you have a screwdriver?’
Jennie went to her handbag. ‘One of my first actions as a single woman was to buy my own tools,’ she said. ‘And I have a screwdriver with me at all times.’
‘You’re my kind of girl!’ said Olly, and then looked embarrassed. ‘Please don’t take that the wrong way. I’d hate you to feel uncomfortable.’
Now she did feel uncomfortable when she hadn’t before. ‘It’s fine. It’s very thoughtful of you to help me.’
He looked at his watch. ‘I reckon we’ve got about half an hour. Getting lost in the woods took up a bit of time.’
Jennie looked up at the clock above the table in the hall. ‘Cripes!’
Suddenly worrying whether or not this kind man was flirting with her seemed a trivial problem. ‘You do the tree; I’ll do everything else. What shall I do if Essie wants a Skype tour of the house?’
‘Tell her there’s a dodgy connection or something. She may notice that the tree is just propped up.’
‘We’ll turn off all the lights except the fairy lights,’ said Jennie, ‘I have loads of battery-operated ones.’
‘Let’s just get the rest of this corner looking decent. You need some presents round the tree really.’
‘On it! I’ll wrap the cushions.’
A very short time later Jennie’s laptop indicated a Skype call coming in. She checked it was angled towards the tree and Olly turned off the main lights. Then she answered.
‘Mum!’ said Essie, sounding pleased and outraged at the same time. ‘Have you got yourself a boyfriend for Christmas?’
Jennie and Olly exchanged glances – they’d forgotten to hide Olly.
‘If you have,’ Essie went on bossily. ‘He must take his hat off. I need to check he’s not bald!’
Olly pulled off his beanie hat, revealing lots of very static-affected hair. ‘I’m not bald,’ he said. ‘And I’m not your mum’s boyfriend. But I am going to work on that.’
‘OK,’ said Essie, obviously satisfied. ‘Happy Christmas, Mum!’