by Sheena Billett
a Bailey’s Irish Cream with ice
The details on the fir trees were finished and Sam sat back to study her work. She knew she could always do more, but had learnt over the years when enough was enough. Leaning back in her chair and stretching her arms above her head, she noticed the robin, perched in his usual place on the back of the bench in the garden. He tilted his head, looking at her solemnly through the glass.
This piece was special which made the pressure to achieve perfection even greater. It was her father’s Christmas present and she’d been working on it all through November. Mirroring the robin, she tilted her head and examined it again. The winter sun on the water was just right, and was reflected in a rosy blush on the mountain peaks in the distance.
Just a few stray snowflakes maybe? No, let the light be the main focus. Her photographer father would appreciate that, she hoped.
Leaving the canvas to dry, Sam went to make a cup of coffee and, putting on her puffa jacket, went to sit on the bench outside – the robin having disappeared as suddenly as it arrived. Blowing on the steam rising into the cold air Sam clasped her hands around the mug for warmth. She was fighting a battle for her father’s love and attention and her adversary was Diane, apparently, her soon to be stepmother. Sam considered Diane – only a little older than herself - a talented singer and musician (her father always went for arty types), and, most worryingly, still young enough to have a child. After her mother’s death when she was six, Sam and her father had been a tight unit – clinging to one another for survival in the shared memories of Lisa. Yes, he had had ‘girlfriends’, Sam was realistic enough to know that would happen, but Diane was different. The look in his eyes when he introduced them over dinner had told Sam everything – he looked at Diane with a look that had always been hers until now. He even called her the same names – Sweetie; Hun; Princess (yes really!) In the past Sam had cringed at the last one, but now that someone else was claiming ownership of it, it was suddenly worth more than gold.
A few days later, over a coffee and cake debrief around the corner, her father had said, ‘Well?’
‘Well what!’ Sam had been unable to hide her panic.
‘Don’t patronise me, Dad. You go live your life. Look at me, I’m all grown-up now. I can look out for myself. You get on and live your life.’ Sam hated the self-pitying, needy feeling inside, but was unable to stop it from having a voice.
‘Maybe if you got to know Diane better—‘
‘Don’t…just don’t suggest a girly shopping trip!’ Sam stopped him, holding a stop hand in front of her.
She’d felt his sigh, but unable to stop the force of emotion threatening to overwhelm her, Sam had fled from the shop.
As she strode up the drive on Christmas day, Sam felt a tingling excitement at the thought of her picture holding pride of place, maybe in the hall? Or above the fire? She had had it wrapped and delivered a week ago – plenty of time to get it hung, she figured. The Thanks for the present xx text confirmed that it had been received. Sam had been taken aback by the lack of effusiveness in the message at first, but having thought about it, she came to the conclusion that her father was saving all the praise for Christmas day – not wanting to even try to express his feelings in a text. Confident that her reasoning was correct, Sam knocked on the door full of anticipation.
‘Happy Christmas, angel.’ The hug was warm and Sam felt safe. (Although, ‘angel’ was new)
‘Happy Christmas, Dad… Diane.’ She nodded a greeting at her adversary, hovering at the bottom of the stairs.
‘Let’s take your coat and it must be about time for some Christmas mulled wine.’
Glancing around the hallway, Sam could see no sign of her painting – maybe in the lounge then? A roaring fire greeted her as she approached the Christmas tree.
‘What do you think?’ Diane and I thought we’d start some new traditions, so we’ve got a new look this year.
‘What about all our old ones? The ones we always have?’
‘Well maybe you would like to have them, for when you have your own tree… and maybe your own family.’
‘Sam, this is how it is. I’m sorry if it’s hard for you.’ There was that impatience in his voice again. That unheard sigh.
And no painting. Maybe the kitchen?
‘I’ll just go and see if Diane needs any help – I know where everything is.’ She followed the sound of clattering saucepan lids and running water.
‘Hi Diane. Anything I can do?’
‘No thanks.’ The reply was ice cold.
Still no picture.
‘Looking for your picture?’
‘Well, yes, actually.’
‘It’s in the upstairs spare room for now. Until I’ve moved my stuff in, it’s difficult to know where to put such a … large painting.’
Sam felt the breath leave her body and clung onto the back of a chair for support. She detected a sneery tone of triumph. Yes, it was a large canvas. She’d wanted to make a statement.
‘You okay, Sam?’ Diane was all concern now. ‘Bob, I don’t think Diane is feeling too good.’
Her father rushed into the room, putting his arm around her. ‘What is it, princess?’ Okay, ‘princess’ was back, a good sign.
‘I’m getting a migraine, I don’t feel well.’
‘Okay, I’ll take you home.’
‘Thanks, Dad. Would you mind? Sorry Diane. I’ll try not to keep him too long.’
This skirmish had been a draw but the war was far from over.
Over the following months, Covid made any personal contact more difficult and Sam put up a wall of silence following the disaster that had been Christmas day. After a heated argument her father had left Sam’s flat, exasperated, slamming the door behind him. He had changed – Diane had changed him – becoming distant, and irritable with her neediness. Her old father had always understood how Sam had felt – she could have told him anything, but to this new father, she was an irritating nuisance. Everyone’s Christmas had been ruined.
Since then, texts, calls and emails from her father remained unread and unanswered. Eventually, they stopped coming altogether and the rift was established while Sam regrouped and planned her next move. Sam hated the person she had become – vengeful and angry, but found a strange comfort in being that person. More than anything she wanted to destroy Diane and punish her father, even if it meant causing herself pain in the process.
Everything changed when she met Dan. Over the summer holidays romance blossomed as they spent long, languid days and nights away from the stress and pressures of college, teaching under Covid restrictions. Sam had been drawn to him immediately when he joined the staff at the beginning of the summer term. As they got to know each other over coffees and long walks, she could feel her icy anger and bitterness beginning to thaw under his kindness and good humour. One night, she had told him everything about last Christmas and he had held her, tears in his eyes. ‘I’m so sorry, Sam, it must have been awful. How unkind and cruel. Maybe it’s better to let them go their own way if they’re going to treat you like that.’
‘But that’s not who my father is. He’s changed.’
‘The people we meet often change us as we fall under their spell, and not always for the better. There is nothing you can do, Sam, and you’re not a bad person for keeping your distance and keeping yourself safe. Think of it like your father is under a spell. You can’t do anything until he wakes up.’
‘You think?’ Sam sat up and looked into his eyes.
‘Yes, I do think. He jumped up. ‘You need a distraction. I know, let’s get the train to Cambridge and go punting.’
Sam loved his spontaneity and sense of fun. Over the months Dan filled her mind and her life until there was no room for her father and Diane. The war had seemed petty on reflection.
The first time Sam met Dan’s mother, she wished she had been her own mother instead of the ghostly memories she had made do with. There was a warmth in the house and Sam had immediately felt at home. Like her, Dan had lost a parent in childhood, but unlike her, he still had the remaining one. Sam found herself spending more time with Dan at Mia’s house and eventually started visiting on her own when Dan was busy. Mia was an amazing cook and taught Sam all the basic skills, right from boiling an egg. They spent many happy Saturdays in Mia’s kitchen.
While they were having a cup of tea and waiting for the bread dough to rise one afternoon, Mia said, ’Why don’t you invite your father over?’
Sam immediately froze, the cup halfway between the saucer and her mouth. ‘What?’
‘I know you’re not in touch, and I can only imagine how painful it is for you. Why don’t you message him and see how he is? Even if you do it for yourself.’
‘Sam, eight months have gone by. Things may have changed for him, as they have for you. Why not find out how things stand? Give him a chance.’
Sam pondered when she got home. She thought about how her feelings for Dan had blossomed and understood how her father might have felt the same way about Diane. Her finger hovered over the buttons on her phone.
Eventually after a large gulp of red wine she messaged, pressing Send before she had time to overthink:
Hi Dad. I was just wondering how you are. Sam
An immediate reply bounced onto the screen:
Sam, how lovely to hear from you. I’ve missed you so much. I’m so sorry about what happened at Christmas. Xx
Without thinking, Sam typed a reply:
Can we meet for coffee?
Yes. Usual place? Are you free tomorrow morning?
Yes, ok. See you at 11 x
Once they were seated at their usual table, her father reached forward and took Sam’s hand. There was a long silence as they looked into each other’s eyes.
‘Sam, I’m so sorry about last Christmas, we were nasty and cruel to you. I don’t know what I was thinking.’ He squeezed her hand. ‘I absolutely love your painting and I can guess how much work went into it. Can you forgive me?’
Sam drew her hand away and looked down at the table. ‘What about Diane?’
‘Well, things are complicated.’ He sighed. ‘I have realised that she is not the person I want to share my life with. I can’t forgive her for the way we treated you – I know it’s not just her fault – I allowed it to happen. It’s like I was under some kind of spell.’
‘Anyway, I’ve asked her to move out but she’s refusing, so it may come to taking legal action. Things are very tense,’
Suddenly the ice melted as Sam’s eyes filled with tears. ‘Oh Dad…’ She squeezed his hand. ‘I’m so glad I’ve got you back.’
Preparations for Christmas were well underway, even though Covid restrictions seemed to be changing by the day. Sam had spent time with her father repairing and healing the wounds of battle. Diane, when threatened with lawyers had reluctantly and angrily moved out. As promised, Mia had invited them all round for Sunday lunch a few times, and Sam had a sneaking feeling that her father may have received some invitations that she and Dan hadn’t been privy to. In return, Sam’s father had insisted they all come to his house for Christmas Day, as long as Mia was in charge of the cooking, ably assisted by Sam.
As Sam and Dan walked up the drive on Christmas morning, she reflected on how things could have turned out so differently. What if the anger and bitterness had kept growing? What if she hadn’t met Dan… and Mia?
‘You look miles away, Sam.’ Dan put his arm around her and held her close. ‘It’s going to be different this year. You know that don’t you?’ It was almost as if he could read her thoughts.
Her father flung open the door and enveloped Sam in a tight, safe, bear hug. He gave Dan the same warm reception. ‘Happy Christmas, princess.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake, Dad. I’m not six!’ Sam felt a warm glow inside. There was no room for ice now.
‘Well, what are you waiting for? Get those coats off and let’s get stuck in to coffee and mince pies.’
As if on cue, Mia appeared with a plate of goodies. ‘Could you get the coffee pot, Bob?’ Sam noted the familiar tone and smiled to herself.
As she entered the room, Mia stopped breathing. There was her picture, in pride of place over the roaring fire. ‘Ohhh.’ She could feel self-control slipping away as a sob escaped her.
‘Oh Mia… that is something else! You are wasted at the college.’ Dan’s eyes shone with admiration.
She rushed, childlike, across the room to the Christmas tree. ‘Ohhh, they’re all here!’ Her father put his arm around her, pulling her close. He smelt like Dad again.
‘These are all our Christmas memories,’ he said to Dan and Mai, indicating the decorations on the tree – all except last Christmas, which we shall erase.
As they exchanged presents, enjoying the coffee and mince pies, Sam spied the robin perched on a branch near the window. He tilted his head to one side and they gazed at each other for a few seconds before he flew off.
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