The Annual Visit: an original short story by Janet Ellis

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This short story forms part of our Six Tales of Christmas series. Learn about the authors and find more exclusive fiction here.

The front door opened. One floor below, in the kitchen, Sadie heard their voices as they came into the hall. They would be slipping off coats and taking cases up the next flight of stairs. She put the kettle on and stood next to its loud, accelerating hiss as it came to the boil. She could say she hadn’t heard the door and that’s why she hadn’t run up the stairs to greet them. She wanted to savour these last few moments alone. She’d spent a long time untangling them, now the fairy lights hung in the window, twisted round the catch to hold them in place, because no-one would need to open it until long after Christmas. By then, their visitor would have gone, too. She didn’t want to wish the holiday away, but at least that was something to look forward to on the other side of everything.

The configuration of their converted basement meant that people’s legs descended long before the rest of them became visible. Especially when their owners walked as slowly as this. Sadie watched the two shiny, black high-heeled shoes ker-plunk awkwardly from one stair to the next. They were the sort of shoes you might wear to a smart wedding or even a funeral, they were a ridiculous choice for a long, cross-country coach ride. Above them were two stout legs with hardly an indentation at the ankle and a thick tweed skirt. Next, a short, tailored jacket with a sparkling brooch pinned to one lapel. “Hello, love,” said the little head on top of this ensemble, as it finally came into view. Sadie smiled in an oh-goodness-it’s-you kind of way. “June!” she said, too loudly. “Good journey?”

“Not too bad.” Her mother-in-law patted her perm. It was set hard, to ensure it would last out her stay. Actually, Sadie thought, it would probably survive a nuclear war. All they’d find after the dust settled would be some cockroaches and June’s grey helmet of hair. “Bit of a hold-up round Watford Gap, but there were on-board facilities.”

“Did you buy a sandwich this time?” Sadie asked, knowing what the answer would be. “Oh, no,” June shook her head vigorously. “I made some at home. I’m not paying out. They’ve got you held to ransom, haven’t they?” Nothing would alter her long-held belief that most people who ran any kind of business usually put exploiting – or outright stealing from – their customers before anything else. “Speaking of making something,” she said and heaved a bag onto the work surface. It was covered in a garish fake tapestry, chock full of lions and unicorns standing about next to oversized flowers. June unzipped the top and produced two little Tupperware containers. “Mince pies!” she said triumphantly. “I’ve always loved making them. How many will we be?” She prized the lid off one and held it in front of Sadie to reveal five pies, so small they’d be gone in a bite. “Twelve,” said Sadie. The older woman looked momentarily despondent. “Oh, well!’ she said brightly. “We’ll have to make do with shop bought for the others.”

Does anyone really like mince pies? thought Sadie, decanting them into a tin. And if you are going to offer to make something, at least make the right flipping number. A corpulent Father Christmas winked at her from the tin’s lid. “Been busy?” said June, inspecting the kitchen for any changes. “Of course you have,” she answered herself. “You two are always busy.”

“Have you offered Mum a cup of tea?” Mark came down the stairs at a clip. Sadie shot him a look. “I haven’t had a chance yet,” she said, stressing the last word so that he’d understand she hadn’t been deliberately unwelcoming. “I’ll get it,” he said brightly. “She’s had a long journey, haven’t you, Mum?”

“I know.” Sadie couldn’t help sounding angry. “Your mother’s just given me these and I was putting them away.”

“Oh, I don’t want to be any trouble.” The older woman looked from one to the other of them helplessly. “Tea can wait. I’ll go and unpack first. Am I in the usual room?” Of course you are, thought Sadie. And how long will it be before you tell me what a good nursery it would make? “Let me take that,” she said, wrestling the bag away from June’s reluctant grip. “Thank you,” her mother-in-law said. She sounded disappointed. “Then we can have a good old chat, can’t we?”

She always makes me feel so tense, thought Sadie, opening the spare room door and putting the terrible tapestry bag down next to June’s familiar, battered suitcase. Surely she could go somewhere else at Christmas? Mark had insisted that he wanted to keep an eye on her and that she loved being with them. “Anyway,” he’d said, “she’s no trouble, is she?” Strictly speaking, it was true. June didn’t interfere or criticise, if she occasionally spoke her mind it was without malice. It was her presence Sadie found so irksome. Why couldn’t it just be the two of them? She wanted a cosy, picture-perfect Christmas without an old woman busying herself in the background. She was about to go back downstairs – her teeth gritting at the thought – when she spotted the picture frame, sticking out of the bag.

It was a photograph of a couple and their little boy, standing beside a Christmas tree. She recognised Mark, he looked about six or seven. It would have been taken a year or so before his father died. He was looking up at his parents with the wide smile of a child who knows that this is the best time of year and these are the best people to spend it with. With a start, and just before her eyes filled with tears, Sadie realised that June would have been about her own age then. Her smile was as wide and bright as her son’s. Sadie tucked the picture back under June’s optimistically sparkly jumper.

“Sorry, I had a bit of a headache,” she said, rejoining them and kissing her mother-in-law’s soft cheek. “I’m better now. I think we should have some of your mince pies. They’re too good to share and I can’t wait. In fact, I’m going to eat two of them!”

The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis (£7.99, Two Roads) is out now

Illustration: Clym Evernden