I watch my children launch themselves gleefully at the pile of presents under the tree, but take no pleasure in their joy. My heart feels cold and hard as a stone, and the bitter taste of guilt catches and won’t wash away in the back of my throat.
Sarah is the oldest. Always the thoughtful one, she organises her younger sister to sort the parcels into three piles, one for each of them. It’s meagre pickings, I think dismally, but they don’t seem to notice. Caitlin normally resents Sarah’s bossiness, but on this occasion normal hostilities have been temporarily cast aside. Jojo, not even a year old, crawls happily through the chaos, more absorbed in the crunch and rustle of the bright paper than what it conceals.
My brave bold trio, who already in their short lives have seen a side of it no child should have to witness. I won’t have their childhood stolen away from them, I just won’t.
I pull Jojo onto my lap. She wriggles, trying to free herself.
“Girls,” I say. “Open some pressies for your little sister.”
They show her how to tear the paper, and she cottons on quick, squealing with delight, shredding the paper and mashing it into a squidgy mess with damp, pudgy hands.
When all the secrets have been revealed, it is Sarah who comes to me with a hug. I am surprised to see sadness in her eyes.
“But Mammy,” she says solemnly. “There’s nothing here for you.”
I gulp back the lump which has formed in my throat, and force a cheery smile. “Santy only brings presents for the children, didn’t you know that? Anyway, your Nana will be over later, and she will have a little something for all of us.”
“Hooray, more pressies,” whoops Caitlin, who has overheard, and Sarah rolls her eyes.
“You’re so materialistic,” she says smugly, and I stifle a grin as she stumbles over the unfamiliar word, my first genuine smile of the day.
I set Jojo back down, and go to the kitchen to prepare breakfast. The window is a black square; it is still early, but I can see lights twinkling vaguely in the windows of some of the neighbouring houses, and know that inside, the same ritual will be playing out, only without the guilt.
I lean on the worktop as panic overwhelms me. I am gasping for breath, my heart hammering so hard, that for a moment, I fear a heart attack.
It was the worst thing I have ever done, and I will never forgive myself, but if I have to, I will do it again. For my girls.
“Is Dad coming today?” Sarah is standing in the doorway, clutching her new Barbie. Of the three of them, she was always closest to her Dad, and his leaving hurt her the most. He hadn’t even said good bye. Just woke up one morning a couple of months ago and said he’d had enough, walked out the door as casual as if he was heading to Tesco.
I can’t say it surprised me. He’d threatened it many times, but I never believed he was strong enough or desperate enough to see it through. And at first, I just felt… relieved. No more rows, no more accusations, no drunken violence. To be fair, all of that only started after he was laid off the previous year, and couldn’t find work. I’d thought we’d muddle through, that love would lift us up above all that. Of course, I was wrong. Everything always comes down to money in the end.
Then the relief faded and reality kicked in; Christmas was coming, I had no man, no money, and no one to turn to for help. But I was fiercely determined to make Christmas special for my girls.
I sold my wedding ring, paid the gas and electricity bills, and bought a frozen chicken and a Christmas pud. The girls wouldn’t notice the difference between a turkey and a chicken. They probably wouldn’t even eat the pud, but Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without one. That left precious little for gifts.
Nevertheless, I was drawn to Toys R Us, even though I couldn’t afford to buy anything. I drifted up and down the aisles like a ghost with big, hungry eyes. Sarah wanted the latest Barbie. And there she was, the last one on the shelf. I gazed at her longingly. She was beautiful, layers of puffy princess-pink organza wrapping her svelte tanned form, an impossible confection of overblown feminine perfection smiling blankly from the chaste prison of her box. I reached towards her.
“Excuse me.” An arm snaked past me and snatched the doll from the shelf. Outraged, I turned to glare at the thief. It shouldn’t have mattered; I couldn’t afford it anyway, but for a few moments, in my head, that doll was Sarah’s.
A woman in a grey coat with a fur collar and very pink lipstick deposited the Barbie on the summit of a mountain of toys in a shopping trolley, and wheeled it past me. It was full of girl toys, all the things I would have bought my daughters, if I could. Next to Barbie nestled Frozen’s Elsa, which had been top of Caitlin’s wish list. Tears stung my eyes.
I rushed out the store, mind in a turmoil. What was I going to do? My head ached, and I leaned against the cool shop window, thoughts fluttering as wildly as my heart, searching desperately for inspiration.
When the woman in the grey coat emerged with her purchases all bagged up in the trolley, I followed her. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t have a plan. I was just obsessed with the over-indulgence of her shopping spree, and the unfairness of it all. Her daughters were getting too much, while mine were getting nothing at all.
She had parked in a far corner of the car park beside a crumbling brick wall. Badly, I noticed contemptuously, as the wheels of her car protruded into the neighbouring space. I lurked behind a big four wheel drive, watching. Tall whispering evergreens shielded us from the main road beyond.
There was no alarm on her car. She piled the bags in and locked up, pushed her trolley back to the store, and then headed towards TK Maxx.
As if you haven’t spent enough, you bitch, I thought, made irrational with jealousy.
In that moment, my passions consumed me; anger at my husband for abandoning us, fury at my helplessness, jealousy of this woman’s affluence, fear of my children’s disappointment on Christmas morning, repugnance at my inability to provide for them.
These terrible, powerful emotions took control, they moulded me into the shape of someone I barely recognised, an aspect of myself I abhorred, but did not resist. I thought of my daughters’ happy smiling faces, and that was all the motive I needed.
I worked a brick loose from the wall, and hurled it as hard as I could at the passenger door window, more from rage than anything else. The glass shattered. I didn’t expect it to, but it did. I knocked some of the shards out till the hole was big enough to fit my arm through, then reached in and unlocked the door. It clicked open.
I stared at the treasure inside in disbelief. It couldn’t be that easy. But it was.
I didn’t take everything; I couldn’t completely destroy their Christmas. I just grabbed two bags and ran, hoping one of them contained Barbie and Elsa. When I got home and emptied them onto my bed, there they were, glorious and bright and beautiful.
But as I wrapped them, my hands trembled, and with the adrenaline gone, feelings of self-loathing began to push at the boundaries of my mind.
Dad does not come, but Nana does. The girls jump on her immediately, and give her no peace until she laughingly hands out her gifts.
“Where’s Pete?” she asks, looking around and noting his absence. “I bought him a book. Does he know how to read?”
“Mam, don’t,” I protest, and burst into tears.
She wraps me in her arms for a moment. “I’m sorry love. But he does wind me up, the way he treats you sometimes.”
I push her away and retreat to the kitchen. The chicken is roasting, pots bubbling away on the stove, giving the false impression that I am in control. The window is lined softly with steam, whilst outside a grey sky drizzles relentlessly.
“He’s gone,” I say, and the whole story comes out, a torrent which cannot be dammed. Only when the flood has abated am I able to stop and sip at the mug of hot, sweet tea Mam places in my pale, shaking hands.
“Oh love, why didn’t you tell me all this before? I could have helped. You’re not alone, you know.”
“You’re a pensioner, Mam, struggling as it is. I couldn’t burden you with my problems too.”
“I know. There’s nothing I can do about it now. I can’t give them back. I have no idea who she is.”
“If I ever get my hands on that rotten good-for-nothing husband of yours…”
“Stop it, Mam. He’s still their father.”
“I know. He doesn’t deserve them. Or you.”
Our conversation is interrupted by the ring of the doorbell.
“Daddy,” shriek the girls, rushing to answer.
“Talk of the devil,” Mam mutters darkly.
But it isn’t Pete. Two tall policemen fill the doorway. I feel so weak, I think I will faint. The girls gaze up at them shyly, clutching the evidence. Behind me, I hear Mam’s sharp intake of breath, and am aware of her scooping Jojo off the floor.
My heart sinks. CCTV. The car park must have CCTV.
“You’d better come in,” I say, leading the way back into the kitchen. “Mam, make another pot of tea, will you please?”
“Sorry to do this to you, Sue, today of all days, but we’ve got Pete again. He’s in the nick now, drunk as a skunk,” says the elder of the two.
I sit down quickly, before my legs give way. So they haven’t come for me after all. I let out a long, shaky breath.
“He walked out on us, about two months ago, Ed. Haven’t seen or heard from him since.” How many times has this happened in the last year? So often, I’m on first name terms with the local coppers.
He left, I say to myself. He is no longer my responsibility.
“You’ll want to come and get him,” Ed replies, taking something out of his pocket and laying it in the middle of the table. A little square of paper.
“It’s a lottery ticket,” bursts out the younger officer, face pink with excitement. “That’s why he’s so drunk; he’s been celebrating. He’s only gone and won the lottery!”
Ed scowls at him, but then directs a smile at me. “It’s true. We checked. I know that man has taken you to hell and back over the last couple of years, but he’s asking for you and the kids. Maybe he can finally clean up his act, with your help.”
I can’t speak.
“Do it for the girls.” Mam’s voice comes out as a croak.
But I can’t, even for them. They are my life, yet I will not be bought. I have hit rock bottom and committed a crime. I won’t make things worse. I won’t condemn them to a life with a drunk and aggressive father.
“What will happen if I don’t help him?”
Ed shrugs. “He’ll get turfed out when he’s sober, cash in his winnings, and use them to drink himself to death most likely.”
There is a sob from the kitchen door. It is Sarah.
“Mammy, is Dad dead?”
“No darling,” I soothe, opening my arms and enfolding her. “He’s just not very well, that’s all.”
“We can look after him,” she says, wiping her eyes, and pulling away to look at me hopefully.
Ed clears his throat. I know what he’s thinking; the money will make everything better. “It’s a considerable sum,” he says.
I level a cool stare at him. “I married Pete for love, not money. He was the one who let money come between us. Keep the ticket. We don’t want it.”
“Susan, no,” gasps my mother, but my mind is made up.
The two men gape at each other. Raw, ugly greed darkens their features as they weigh up my offer. Ed pockets the ticket.
“What ticket? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says, getting stiffly to his feet.
I shrug on my coat and kiss the girls. “I’ll be back soon,” I say to Mam. “Take the chicken out of the oven at three.”
I hold my head high as I step out the door, fully aware of all the neighbours’ curtain twitching.
As we leave, Ed ruffles Sarah’s hair and winks. “All I wanted for Christmas was the day off.”
“I asked Santy for my Daddy back. I’d rather have him than a hundred Barbies,” she announces.
“The big man was obviously listening.”
She nods solemnly. “I’ve been very, very good.”
He looks uncomfortable, can’t meet her steady gaze. “Well, that’s more than can be said for the rest of us.” Then he follows me into the police car.