The runner-up: a tale of secret romance at Christmas, by Linda Edmondson
I KNEW she wasn’t happy with the idea by the way she was stirring her tea.
Long, slow circles that scratched and jarred against the side of the mug: far too many of them for the half-teaspoon of sweetener that she’d sprinkled in.
“I don’t know, Dad... It’s a long way to go for just a couple of days. And it’s been so long since you saw them. It all seems a bit, well, a bit odd if you ask me.”
“But I’m not asking you, Sharon. I’m telling you. It’s what I want to do. We might not have many Christmases left...”
“Which is precisely why I’d rather you spent it with us, in the warm, with me and Andy and the children, and too much turkey and sprouts and too many Christmas specials on the telly.”
“Love, Derek only lives in Doncaster. They have electricity up there and everything.”
Smiling slightly at my over-worn joke, she put the teaspoon down and looked me in the eye. My heartbeat fluttered a little but I kept her gaze, nevertheless.
“Well, the least I can do is take you to the station.”
I nodded slowly, biting on my bottom lip as I did so. Keep it cool, old man.
“Yes, yes, I suppose so. That would be lovely. Thank you.”
I gulped my tea. Strong and steaming, it scorched the back of my throat, not unlike the carbolic my mother would have put in my mouth back in the day, when I was inclined to be economical with the truth.
So, the morning before Christmas Eve, Sharon swung her people carrier a little too hastily through the lanes en route to the station.
Physically, I leaned into each bend; mentally, I was rolling between suppressing my excitement of the adventure ahead and keeping my composure enough not to arouse suspicion.
“In the seats behind, my two weary grandchildren, wrapped like Christmas parcels in their pyjamas and dressing-gowns, snoozed as we travelled through the twilight of a late December sunrise. Yes, Derek’s lot were excited (despite being from Yorkshire). Yes, we’d have a proper Christmas dinner (they do have supermarkets Up There). Yes, I was wearing my walking boots already (it was bound to be icy in the Frozen North). Yes, I was looking forward seeing everyone. After hugs and kisses and – to my slight surprise – a few tears from all of us, soon enough I’d trundled along the coast, changed trains at Brighton (possible, even for a man of my age) and arrived at St Pancras in time to swim against the final surge of suits, making their last weary journey to town before the holiday commenced proper.
And at the Champagne bar on the station concourse, I saw my angel, my Christmas star. As she smiled and gently waved, I thought I would melt, like the first settling of snow on a sunny winter morning.
We bought a half bottle of non-vintage bubbly (it was Christmas, but it was still early) and toasted good health to all who passed, as we waited for the train to speed us to Paris.
From the Gare du Nord, we walked the short distance to our modest hotel, gloved hands linked continuously (it was her free-spirited idea to take rucksacks).
Having dropped off our modest luggage, we stopped at the nicest boulangerie we could find, tearing pieces off the crunchiest baguette I’d tasted – so sharp it almost cut our gums.
We sauntered through cobbled alleyways to Montmartre, and later we took the metro to the Champs-Élysées, walking the avenue until we reached the ferris wheel at the Place de la Concord.
And from the top of the wheel we marvelled at the salmon-pink skyline all around us, softened by freezing mists. Slowly, we ate hot chestnuts, cradled in our gloved hands, to stave off the chilled dusk air.
In the evening, we ate cassoulet and drank calvados as a jazz trio played softly in the corner of a cosy bar papered in yellowed posters and old bank notes – and all without a tinsel garland in sight. At midnight on Christmas Eve, we listened in wonderment as the bells of Nôtre Dame and Sacré Coeur sang to each other over the rooftops.
We watched the Eiffel tower sparkle like the largest, thinnest fir tree that you ever would see, and we walked back through glistening avenues, greeting strangers with Christmas blessings.
And on Christmas morning, we gave each other simple gifts of love, friendship and memories – and laughter, of course, at our daring escape from the trappings of tradition, back home.
On the journey back, she dozed, nestled in to my shoulder.
I stroked her hands, gently as I watched a wintered world whirl by and thought of the joy we had shared over those few sacred days.
Those fast trains, they take you away from everything but in the end they bring it all to a close so very suddenly.
All too soon, frosted fields became roads and rooftops, as we glided gently back to reality. Back at St Pancras, her footsteps echoed on the concourse, following the faint rhythm of the carols and Christmas classics escaping from the almost-empty bars and cafés.
I walked her to the barrier before her platform. After a gentle embrace, we smiled and parted. I watched and waved as she took the train north, back to Doncaster.
And yes, I remembered to give her the little present to pass on to her brother Derek, at their family gathering on New Year’s Eve.
As I took the last train back to Sussex, I began to look forward to the cold turkey buffet, the party games and the grandchildren’s new toys that were waiting to entertain and comfort me the following afternoon, at Sharon’s.
But before my journey had ended I’d already calculated how long it was until Valentine’s Day, and thought of a few new places to take my secret angel, next time.