Today on the book tour for Claudia Carroll’s brand new book, ‘All She Ever Wished For’, I’m delighted to have a short story from the well loved Irish author.
A New Year’s Eve short story.
I’d just stepped out of the shower to a pile of voice messages on my phone, each one sounding even more panicky than the last. First up, it was my best friend Jayne.
‘Suzy, are you getting my messages? I’m so sorry about this, the signal is lousy here! Thing is, I’m at the airport and my flight’s just been cancelled because of this terrible snowstorm. Oh honey, I’m so sorry to let you down, but it really looks like I won’t be able to fly down to Spain in time for your party tonight…’
Then hot on her heels, my sister Becky called.
‘Suzy, you just won’t believe this! It’s a blizzard here, complete and utter whiteout! So I just went online to check with the airline and it seems they’ve cancelled all flights out of Heathrow until further notice…I really am so sorry to miss your New Year’s Eve party. And I was so looking forward to our little girlie break in Malaga too!
In a panic, I flicked on Sky News, about the only channel I was able to get down here in English. And sure enough, there it was. All the confirmation I needed.
‘Freak snowstorms have brought the UK and Ireland to a halt and look set to last for at least the next seventy two hours. Travel chaos is set to disrupt all road and rail journeys and all of the main airports will remain closed until further notice. Passengers intending to travel should contact their airlines for further information.’
I grabbed my phone and called the girls back immediately.
‘Don’t worry!’ I reassured them both. ‘It’s an act of God and it can’t be helped. Just stay warm and cozy at home and hopefully you may be able to fly down here in a few days.’
‘I really hope so,’ said Becky. ‘Can’t tell you how jealous I am to think of you in that balmy sunshine while I’m snowed up here in sub-zero temperatures. And with nothing but left over Christmas food to eat as well. If I see another mince pie, I think I’ll throw up!’
I laughed at this and told her that I’d be here till mid-January anyway, so there really was so rush to get down.
‘But it’s New Year’s Eve!’ Becky insisted. ‘I hate the thoughts of you all alone in your apartment, tonight of all nights. Particularly after the year you’ve had. This is nothing like what we’d planned, now is it?’
‘Can’t be helped,’ I smiled. ‘So you just stay put and don’t worry about me.’
‘You’re sure you’re OK?’ she asked before hanging up. But then that’s the thing about sisters, isn’t it? They can always tell when there’s something up.
‘Absolutely,’ I lied stoutly, before we said our goodbyes.
I wasn’t though. And now to add to everything else, I found myself on New Year’s Eve, all alone and with the whole afternoon and evening stretching out ahead of me.
I glanced around the stylish, hacienda-style apartment I’d rented and felt a sharp pang of disappointment that all the trouble I’d gone to for tonight was for nothing now. The plan had been that the girls would arrive at 8pm local time, grab a cab from Malaga airport and still be here in plenty of time for a little New Year’s celebration.
My dining table was stuffed full with party food I’d baked from scratch earlier in the day, (thank you, Mary Berry,) and the smell of cinnamon from the mince pies I’d made earlier was wafting back at me from the kitchen. All the traditional, Christmassy smells that somehow seemed at odds with this gorgeous, sun-lit apartment with its breathtaking view down onto the swimming pool just beneath.
It was just coming up to three in the afternoon, so with a nothing better to do I slipped into a strappy little sundress, poured myself a crisp glass of white wine and padded out onto my favourite sunlounger on the balcony. This was by far the best time of the day, if you asked me. Just pleasant enough to sit out in without shivering, so unlike what everyone else was suffering through back home.
New Year’s Eve. This was meant to be a whole new start for me, a chance to turn a fresh page and finally try to put the past to bed. Because last year was certainly one I don’t think I would ever possibly want to re-live, I thought, sipping on the delicious wine and really savouring it.
They have a way of quantifying what I’ve recently been through you know. They call it Holmes and Rahe scale of the most stressful events that a person can possibly experience and last year, I managed to score an astonishing four out of five on it.
Firstly, after twenty-five mostly happy years, suddenly and most unexpectedly my marriage broke up. Derek announced he was packing in his job, upping sticks and moving to Scotland if you don’t mind, to work as a theatre administrator. Derek, who had to be physically dragged to see a play or any kind of cultural event. Classic mid-life crisis, Becky had said supportively. Wait till you see, the eejit will be off getting a tattoo, a younger girlfriend and a Harley Davidson next.
For me though, it meant one full year of unbearable heartache as I watched the last two and a half decades of my life spectacularly implode. Then as if that wasn’t enough, my daughter Rachel left home to go to college which meant of course there was just me at home, rambling around a way-too big house all by myself.
But I refuse to wallow in this, I thought to myself. A brand new start; that was just what I needed. The house was getting in on me, every corner held a precious memory and it was impossible to escape ghosts of the past. The Living room, where Rachel had taken her very first steps. The Dining room, where Derek and I had hosted so many happy family Christmases in the past. Even the giant master bedroom which he and I had shared, made me shudder now. Because for the last few years when I thought we were a perfectly normal, compatible couple rubbing along nicely together, turned out he’d been plotting and planning his escape the whole time.
It was a horrible thought and one I couldn’t get away from, no matter how positive and forward-facing I tried to be. So I joined support groups, went for counseling and started an evening class to learn Spanish, something I’d always wanted to do and just never had time for. I even took up golf for God’s sake, in the hopes it would get me out of the awful rut I found myself in, but nothing seemed to work.
Then it was Becky, my gorgeous, whacky, dippy sister who hit on the perfect solution.
‘A change of scenery,’ she pronounced over dinner one night. ‘That’s exactly what you need. Right now. You’ve got to strike when the iron is hot. Rent out that mausoleum of a house of yours and take yourself off somewhere sunny and exotic for Christmas. Trust me, you won’t know yourself.’
‘But I can’t just up sticks that easily!’ I spluttered into my glass of wine. ‘For a start, what about Rachel?
She’d be devastated not to have Christmas at home, like we always do.’
‘Rachel is a grown adult and she’ll get over it. Besides, we’ll all come out to visit you for New Year’s Eve.
Why not try Spain? You love Spanish culture and here you are even learning the language. Just give it a whirl. Make some new Spanish friends. What’s the worst that can happen?’
So I found myself trawling estate agency websites till I found my perfect apartment, this blissful sanctuary where in spite of everything I actually did manage to have a happy Christmas. Rachel flew down and we had a fabulous few days re-bonding together, but then of course she was anxious to get back to her college pals for New Year.
Leaving me here alone and now with no one to even ring in the stroke of twelve with. Cursing myself I though, why haven’t I reached out more with people here? I had a great social circle back home, but how could I ever possibly expect the same lifestyle in Spain unless I at least tried to make friends? Wasn’t that what this whole Spanish sojourn was meant to be about in the first place?
It was twilight by then and that’s when I first noticed a shift in the atmosphere. Twinkling lights were glistening through the trees and there was the tinkling sound of chatter coming from the pool beneath.
Curiously getting the better of me, I slipped on my flip-flops and padded downstairs, just to check it out for myself.
‘Well hello there!’ I heard from behind me, making me jump. Turned out it was an older lady, laden down with three bottles of sparkling water. Funny thing was though, I felt like I almost knew this woman. Her face was so familiar to me; but then I’d seen her strolling around the complex all week with an incredibly handsome husband at her side. He was a lot younger than her, about my own age, sallow skinned and with the blackest eyes I’d ever seen. Spanish, I’d figured, thinking how lucky she was to have such a gorgeous guy on the go.
‘You’re in apartment 7A, aren’t you?’ this stranger smiled warmly.
‘Yes, that’s right,’ I said. ‘I’m Suzy, great to meet you.’
‘And I’m Clare,’ she said shaking my hand. ‘So, if you don’t mind me asking, are you on your own?’
I filled her in on what had happened and she nodded in recognition.
‘Snap! Same here,’ he said. ‘My son and some of his mates were all due to fly out today, but of course that’s all cancelled now. So what are you doing for New Year?’
‘Looks like it’ll be an early night for me,’ I laughed.
‘Don’t be daft. Come down to the pool and meet the rest of my family. We’ve all been wondering who the glamorous lady in 7B was all week. We’ve been inventing all sorts of fictitious backstories for you.’
So first up, I met Claire’s cousin Lisa who was lazing in a sunlounger by the pool cousin and she turned out to be just lovely and full of fun and chat. Next thing Claire’s husband/boyfriend/partner strolled in casually to join us.
‘Well, look who it is!’ he said, the black eyes dancing as he shook my hand. ‘So we finally get to meet our mystery neighbor in apartment 7B.’
‘Hi,’ I said, flushing a bit, but then exposure to good-looking men tends to do that to me.
‘We’ve been seeing you about the place all week you know,’ he chats on easily. ‘But you were with a girl who looks just like a younger version of you….’
‘Ah, that’s my daughter Rachel,’ I explained.
‘Well you both looked like you were having such a good time we didn’t like to intrude. But it’s great to finally meet you,’ he said, still holding onto my hand, I noticed, with a gorgeous, warm, crinkly smile.
‘You too,’ I smiled back, then hastily added, ‘and of course your wife too.’
That’s when there was a chorus of loud guffaws.
‘Are you kidding with all that husband rubbish?’ laughed Claire, ‘this is Don, my baby brother!’
Brother, I thought, recalibrating everything in my head.
So I happily sat around the pool for the next hour or so with Claire, Lisa and Don, all of them, full of chat and good-humoured fun. Then the most astonishing thing of all, as I discovered after a good hour with them.
Turned out Don and I were in exactly the same boat; his marriage had broken up in the last year too and he’d found himself at a loose end over Christmas.
‘So my big sis here came to the rescue,’ he smiled, again that gorgeous crinkly smile. ‘She suggested I book a flight down here and stay for the whole holiday.’
‘Mind you, he’s driving me mental now and I’ll be shoving him back onto the plane come next week!’ Claire joked and we all laughed. The next hour just whizzed by and I completely forgot about airports and snowstorms and cancelled flights and visitors who wouldn’t now be arriving after all.
Next thing Don glanced down at his watch.
‘T minus two hours,’ he said. ‘We’re getting closer to the stroke of midnight. So what do you ladies fancy doing? Apart from belting out a few choruses of Aul Lang Syng, of course.’
‘Actually, I’ve got a suggestion,’ I offered tentatively, as a fresh thought struck me.
‘Well it’s just I’ve got a fridge full of party food in my apartment, not to mention a few lovely bottles of wine. So if you’d all like to ring in the New Year with me, you’d be so welcome.’
‘Wow, that’s so generous of you,’ said Don.
‘Fab! So what are we waiting for?’ said Claire.
And this, I though happily is what New Year’s Eve is all about. Not forgetting old friends but never being afraid to reach out to new.
And who knows? Maybe, just maybe this might be a Happy New Year.
You can buy All She Ever Wished For from Amazon and is available to buy from good bookshops.