Books

‘Merry Christmas, Steve’ by Ruth Ware

In this Christmas Eve short story, a woman faces her first Christmas without her husband.

It’s Christmas Eve. And I’m sitting here on the sofa, the cat on my lap, my wine glass in my hand, leafing through the Radio Times. It’s the only time of year that I read it, normally I use the digital guide like everyone else, but there’s something about Christmas that makes you want a real paper version. Steve always used to buy the Christmas double edition from the shop at the corner of the road, and by the time I came home from work, he’d have circled everything he wanted to watch in red pen.

This year, I realised if I wanted it, I was going to have to buy it myself. It was an odd moment, standing there in the supermarket, carton of milk in my hand, looking at the magazine rack. It felt like a symbol of everything that’s changed.

Cat playing

“As I sit here, the cat purring, I can’t help thinking of all the other people and what they’re doing right now”

Christmas is a funny time to be alone, isn’t it. So much of it is about family, and couples. As I sit here, the cat purring, I can’t help thinking of all the other people and what they’re doing right now. What I was doing this time last year. Wrapping presents. Brining the turkey. Kissing under the mistletoe.

But… not me. Not this year. This year, for the first time in more than twenty years, I’ll be by myself. And the realisation makes my hand shake as I pour another glass and gulp it down. Because he’s gone. And sometimes – often – it’s hard to take that in, hard to remember it even. I find myself looking for his shoes as I walk through the front door, I find myself waking in the night, wondering why it’s so quiet, listening for his snores. I find myself calling his name – and then catching myself, knowing that he won’t answer.

My friend Sally says that it’ll get easier. Her husband walked out on Boxing Day two years ago and she said the first year alone was very hard, but that this year she’s quite looking forward to eating M&S turkey crown baked in a foil tray, with no washing up. Apparently he phoned, told her that he felt sorry for her, and said would she like to have Christmas day with him and his new girlfriend. She told him to – well, I won’t repeat it. But it was two words, and seven letters. You can do the maths.

Steve didn’t leave me of course, but what I realised this year, was that I did it all for him. The turkey, the mince pies, everything. It was all for him. I never ate turkey myself – somehow, after spending half the morning with my hand up its stubbled bum, I just couldn’t fancy a slice. Even the Radio Times. I never circled a programme myself because he’d already marked everything up. What I wanted was never important. The only thing that mattered was Steve.

Turkey for Christmas dinner

“I never ate turkey myself – somehow, after spending half the morning with my hand up its stubbled bum, I just couldn’t fancy a slice”

My friend Diane, who was widowed three years ago, says I should try not to think of him as gone, because he’s not, she says pressing her hand over her heart. He’s right here. He’s with you. Always. She’s right, of course. In a way.

I’ve made some home improvements this year. A new patio. Fresh carpet in the lounge. A lick of paint in the hallway. Now, as I look out of the window to the new patio, it’s beginning to snow. Great white flakes whispering down from the sky, lying over the strong concrete slabs.

Steve never liked the snow, but I’ve always loved it, right from when I was a little girl. Even now, when I’m old enough to worry about broken hips and burst pipes, I can’t help thinking how beautiful it is, spiralling silently down, and how much Steve would have grumbled, if he were here.

Because of course, Diane’s right, he is here. Though not quite in the way she meant.

He’s here with me, and he always will be. Out there. Underneath the patio.

And so this year, I can have my Christmas, not Steve’s. Not his turkey, that I never liked. Not his shoes left in the hallway for me to clear up, and his presents that I had to buy and wrap for him. And not his blasted circles in the Radio Times. Because now, for the first time in more than twenty years, as I leaf through the schedule, I can circle the films I want to watch. The “nonsense” he never liked, and that never fitted round the bloody darts anyway.

In fact, as I turn the pages, one of them leaps out at me – Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. Steve would have hated it – and I turn the TV on, and smile as the music to the opening credits fills the room.

And the cat leaps off my lap – the cat Steve never wanted, and would never let me get while he was alive – and I hear him clatter through the catflap to relieve himself in the pristine snow that covers the new patio.

And I think yes, it’s going to be a very Merry Christmas after all.

Ruth Ware is the author of The Death of Mrs Westaway, (Harvill Secker, £12.99)

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