Wednesday 6 December 2023

The First Christmas Without Mum by Angela Fitzpatrick, spiked hot chocolate

Zoe looked up from her journal as the front door opened, bringing in a blast of icy air and a small swirl of snow. Zach, Zoe’s twin brother, stamped his feet on the coir mat and dumped a canvas kit bag on the floor before turning to close the door.

She put down the book and stood. ‘You came then.’

Zach remained standing near the door. ‘You asked me.’

Zoe nodded. ‘Come in. Have you eaten?’

‘Couple of burgers before I got on the train.’

She glanced at the wall clock. ‘I bought cheese and biscuits in case you were hungry. Or we can get fish and chips on the way back.’

‘Back from where?’

‘There’s a thing at the Community Hall. I’ve got us tickets.’

‘I’m knackered. You go without me. I’ll watch telly.’

‘No really. You’ll want to see this. It’ll be worth it, I promise.’

Zach shrugged. ‘Whatever.’

‘But we really need to go now.’ Zoe slipped her feet into a pair of wellies by the front door and pulled on her coat. ‘Can you put your bag by the sofa? We’ll make up the bed when we get back.’ She paused. ‘Sorry, did you want to change before we go?’

Zach looked down at his camouflage fatigues. ‘I’ve not really got anything else to wear.’

‘You’re not staying long, then?’

He shook his head. ‘I’ve just got a 48-hour pass.’

Zoe turned away and pursed her lips as she thought, ‘that’s convenient.’


She locked the front door behind them, and they set off, trudging through the snow in the dark. A fresh fall had coated the refrozen slush and Zoe put out her arms for balance.

‘Come here.’ Zach grabbed her arm and pulled her in to lean against him, making over-sized steps in his black army boots. Zoe laughed, then her throat tightened, and she swallowed.

‘I’m sorry you couldn’t make it…you know.’

Zach shrugged. ‘I was in Somalia. I didn’t get your text till days after.’

‘I had to give up the house; you weren’t on the lease.’

‘I didn’t want the house.’

‘I…I’m sorry but I couldn’t keep all your stuff for you – you know how tiny my house is. I tried to save the most important things. There’s two boxes in my bedroom.’

‘I don’t have anywhere…’

‘It’s okay. They can stay where they are. I’ll put a cloth over and pretend it’s a table. There’s a little money, too. Not a lot, but….’

‘I don’t want any money.’

They walked on in silence for a few moments.

Zoe cleared her throat. ‘The charity shop came and cleared everything.’

Zach didn’t answer. They crossed the road and joined a small procession of people walking in the same direction. As they overtook an elderly lady, she held up a hand. ‘Hello Zoe.’

‘Oh, hi. Are you going to the concert?’

‘My granddaughter is playing the guitar. I’m sorry to hear about your mum.’

‘Thanks. This is my brother Zach; he’s come to visit.’

‘Hello Zach, nice to meet you. I can see the family resemblance.’

Zach nodded but didn’t make eye contact.

‘You kids go ahead. I’ll see you in there.’

When they were out of earshot, Zoe said quietly, ‘Sorry I couldn’t introduce you. She comes in the café, and I think she was in the gardening club with Mum.’

Zach shrugged again.

‘So, how are things in the army? Do you know where they’re sending you next?’

Zach stopped walking. ‘You don’t have to, you know.’


‘Take over. Step into Mum’s shoes.’

‘That’s not what I’m…’

‘Don’t deny it.’ He shook his arm free of Zoe’s and walked off.

‘Wait!’ Zoe followed, but he was a few inches taller and had a long, military stride. She caught up to him outside the community hall, where she had to weave through parked cars. Zach had his hands in his pockets and was looking at a poster taped to the inside of the window.

‘Is this what we’re here for?’

‘It’s raising money to send disadvantaged kids on holiday. It’s a good cause.’

‘We never got holidays. Talking of which, have you let Dad know?

Zoe shook her head. ‘I thought about it. Come on, let’s get in the warm. Here, take this.’

He read the ticket. ‘It cost twenty quid? Bloody hell!’

‘Trust me, it’ll be worth it.’

Zoe bought a programme. Zach mumbled about another waste of money. They sat just as the lights went down and a disembodied voice announced, ‘Please welcome the first performance, the choir of St Joseph’s Primary.’ The curtain opened to reveal two dozen small children in jeans and rainbow-coloured shirts. They sang a selection of Bob Marley songs, and Zoe found her foot tapping to Three Little Birds.

At the end of the act, a few dads cheered, and the audience applauded. Except for Zach. He stared toward the back of the stage, frowning. He didn’t move.

The announcer said, ‘Now, please welcome the orchestra from Ferry Lane School.’

The audience applauded at the start and again at the end. 

A woman in the row behind them said to her neighbour, ‘That’s my grandson, third from the left, on violin.’

Zoe imagined everyone looking at Zach and disapproving. She whispered, ‘Would it kill you to clap?’

‘They don’t deserve my applause.’

‘Oh, please! They’re small children.’

‘The kids can’t see if I’m applauding or not.’

Zoe pinched her lips between her teeth.

Bayshore Academy were followed by Meadows Grammar, then a row of tiny girls in tutus pirouetted for Greenland’s Kindergarten. Still Zach sat with his hands palm down, on his thighs. Zoe folded her arms and wished they hadn’t come.

Zach leaned forward as if to stand. ‘I can’t take any more of this.’

‘Please.’ Zoe grabbed his arm. ‘Look.’ She pointed to the programme and Zach followed her finger.

‘Matt Kensen? Don’t be ridiculous.’ Zach sat down. ‘He’d never be seen dead in a place like this.’

Zoe couldn’t keep the spite out of her voice. ‘Actually, his grandson goes to St Thomas’, and they live in the next village.’

‘You know him, then?’

‘He comes into the café. Brings the kid for ice cream. He’s quite an old man now.’

‘Well.’ Zach leaned back in his chair. ‘Who’d have believed it? Nice one sis.’

‘And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, the final act of the evening, please welcome Mr Matt Kensen.’

The rest of the audience applauded politely, but Zach was on his feet, cheering before the curtains opened.

Zoe tugged his jacket to make him sit.

Matt Kensen walked onto the stage, microphone gripped between both hands, as a backing track played the intro to his most successful chart hit.

Zoe smiled, watching her brother’s face, remembering how they’d fought over the poster in Smash Hits magazine. Mum had threatened to burn it, so Zoe’d agreed to give it up rather than see it destroyed. And when she’d cleared out Mum’s house, had found the poster safely preserved in a cardboard tube at the back of Zach’s bookcase.

Zach glanced at Zoe and pursed his lips. ‘You’re doing it again.’


‘Trying to be like Mum. Looking like her.’

‘This is my face. I can’t help it!’

‘Poor you!’

They both laughed and Zach nudged Zoe with his shoulder, then they began to sing along to the chorus of their favourite song, swaying from side to side.

When they applauded at the end, Zoe felt a tear track down her cheek. She glanced sideways and saw Zach’s eyes were shining too.


Previously published as Family Christmas in – Why Would You Go Through There - Mar 2023 Short Story Anthology


About the author 

Angela mostly writes short stories and has been published in Cafe Lit, Backstory Journal as well as shortlisted in various competitions. She is currently working on her debut novel having recently completed an MLitt in Creative Writing with University of Glasgow. 


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