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Friday, 16 December 2011

She Promised Me Snow


1

The bathroom door creaked open and little Aiden’s seven year old fingers curled round the frame to try and stem the noise. He peeked his head round the corner to check the coast was clear before reaching for the light cord and tugging on it ever so gently. During the day you could take these noises for granted but sneaky little children soon discovered that during the night time when surroundings were stiller that they lent their allegiance to anti-tom-foolery and gave vigilant parents an insurmountable advantage. Still though, you had to try, didn’t you?
                Liam was watching his little double-o agent from the island between the two flights of steps, the darkness in the landing screening him like he was sat behind the observation mirror of an interrogation room. In truth he’d quietly resigned himself to the fact that little Aiden probably wasn’t going to make the secret service, sure he had the cunning, but physically he’d never make the cut. He was short for his age and ‘Little Aiden’ was how he had come to be known to all the other parents, teachers and grownups he’d encountered. It was like a hex, the longer they said it, the longer it was going to stick, and somehow Little Aiden’s little mind had absorbed it to order. Besides, how many secret agents do you know that go to work in bright blue, matching Thomas the Tank Engine pyjamas?
                He waited for Aiden to finish on the light, the painfully loud twang as it receded engulfing the hallway in relative darkness.
                ‘Oh no you don’t kiddo.’ Aiden let out a little gasp and turned around, searching for him in the gloom.
                ‘Dad?’
                ‘Where do you think you’re off to?’
                ‘To bed?’
                ‘Not without cleaning your teeth you’re not.’ There was a pause for thought.
                ‘I’ve already done it.’
                ‘So why are you sneaking around?’ By now his eyes had adjusted to the dark and although strained, the pair of them were making eye contact.
                ‘Umm.’
                ‘Turn around mister.’
Aiden did as father instructed, completing the full one hundred and eighty degrees turn and marching back into the bathroom. As he turned on the light he glanced back over his shoulder and Liam caught sight of his big doe-eyed grin before Aiden pushed the door further open and walked inside, disappearing into the light. Liam’s heart sank a little. Using it as a beacon he made his way up the stairs and followed him into the bathroom.
                When he got inside he found Aiden holding his toothbrush in one hand and a tube of toothpaste in the other, pushing them together and staring at them like he’d gone on a trip to Europe and forgotten to bring a two pin plug adaptor. He strolled over and relieved him of his possessions.
                ‘The quicker you can get this done, the quicker you can go to bed.’ He handed them back and Aiden took them but not before a big roll of his eyes. ‘What’s the matter? It’ll be over and done within minutes.’
                ‘But it’s so booooring.’
                ‘It’s not meant to be exciting.’
                ‘But it’s Christmas Eve! Don’t I get a day off?’
                ‘Father Christmas only gives the best presents to the children with pearly white teeth.’ Aiden grumbled.
                ‘When he’s not giving presents, is Santa a dentist?’
                ‘Ho, ho, ho. Don’t let him hear you say that! You might just get yourself a lump of coal after all.’ Or a fresh set of dentures, he thought to himself.
                With a big exaggerated sigh Aiden finally relented from his protest. He flicked the top off of the tube of toothpaste and angled it over his toothbrush, squeezing out a thick strip of red, white and blue from one end of the bristles to the other. Setting the toothpaste down on the ledge over the sink he then slowly brought his toothbrush up to the level of his mouth and exposed his teeth, before he jerked it away at the last moment.
                ‘Dad?’ Liam felt like screaming.
                ‘Yes?’
                ‘Why doesn’t Santa have a normal name like we do?’ Liam grated his teeth and not just because of Aiden’s blatant attempt at avoidance. Try as he might he just couldn’t get him to drop the ‘Santa’ tag he’d picked up from all the American TV he watched and sometimes, like now, he’d pronounce it in a drawling American accent that tipped him over the edge. He was forced to let it go.
                ‘How do you mean?’
                ‘Like my name, Aiden Norton.’
‘I suspect it’s to keep him out of trouble and keep his identity a secret for the rest of the year whilst he keeps himself busy.’ Aiden raised an eyebrow. ‘Okay, so as you suggested, he could have an alias as a dentist that goes by the name of Harold McCavity. When Harold goes off on his winter holidays all of a sudden Father Christmas starts showing up down the local shops. And just like with your dentist Harold reports back for duty, working year after year, outlasting all his colleagues and never looking a day older than when he first arrived.’ In fact Aiden’s dentist was also his own and he couldn’t recall him changing much since he was a child, could be I’ve stumbled onto something here… He chuckled to himself. ‘It would explain why people never hear from Father Christmas for the rest of the year don’t you think?’
He loved talking intelligently to Aiden, hoping that just a small part of it might be absorbed. It was a warm feeling he got when occasionally Aiden would use his extended vocabulary about the house, a real moment of pride when he got it right (or horrendously cute when he got it wrong).
                ‘Maybe.’ Aiden said airily. ‘Tommy says Santa doesn’t exist and that he’s just something your parents make up so you’re good.’
Tommy.
Tommy Tinkerman, one of the older boys in Aiden’s class had already had his appendix taken out, which made Tommy cool. If you were to listen to Tommy’s account of events, the doctor couldn’t cope with the sight of all the blood, leaving no option but for Tommy to finish the surgery on himself, blindfolded. (If he had seen all that blood Tommy said, the doctors warned him he’d have gone crazy.) Tommy Tinkerman was an attention seeker who was on course to become a neurotic, pathological liar. Liam made a mental note to add ‘Pinocchio’ to the Christmas viewing list.
                ‘Tommy only says that because he’s never seen him for himself. Now come on, would you please clean your teeth? Father Christmas also knows when little boys have been procrastinating.’ He wasn’t sure Aiden understood what procrastinating meant, but eventually his toothbrush disappeared into his mouth.
                Of course, once he’d started cleaning his teeth it was pretty smooth sailing. Aiden’s hand moved from left to right, down to up, fight the plaque with fisticuffs. Auto-pilot had kicked in and his facial expression glazed over in conformity.
                ‘Aidie? Are you in bed yet?’ A sparkle returned to his eyes and both he and Liam looked at each other. Aiden was about to withdraw his toothbrush to reply but Liam halted him with a raised hand.
                ‘Don’t you even think about it.’ He said softly before turning to the doorway and elevating the level of his voice. ‘Just finishing his teeth now honey.’
They could both hear her as she hobbled her way up the stairs with some difficulty. He considered sending her back, but she’d only have to struggle her way back up when Aiden was in bed. He thought it cruel in her state, so he let her continue. He didn’t offer to help mind, last time he’d been stunned at the salvo of abuse with which he’d been afflicted. Besides, he didn’t think he could trust Aiden to get on with the job unattended.
As he looked over a mischievous smile crept over Aiden’s face from the cheeks up and a slimy dribble of spittled toothpaste escaped from the parting in his lips. The boy had just confirmed it for him.

2

Holly reached the bathroom, poking one crutch round the doorway and Liam lurched forwards to open it the rest of the way to let her in. He opened his arm out to display Aiden at the sink in order to prove he was telling the truth, but to her the gesture instead felt as though he were an estate agent showing her around her own bathroom … And as you can see the room comes complete with troublesome boy… which Holly did not appreciate. He smiled affectionately towards her but she shot him a frustrated glance, annoyed at the distinction.
Liam felt instantly saddened as her eyebrows crumpled inwards, her beautiful brown eyes narrowing at him. It wasn’t how she was supposed to look; her normally flawless mousey blonde hair was unkempt and flatter on one side of her head from disturbed sleep, greasy and pressed into her forehead with the occasional outcrop of spindly strands that fell untidily over her face from her fringe. Her skin was pale, littered with cuts and areas of stitching like a patchwork quilt. Bruises darkened areas with an unhealthy mixture of deep purples and formed haloes of even brighter skin around it, a nasty one that had taken place around the eye furthest from him looking almost comical in its vulgarity and weighing down her lids so that it mercifully hid most of the red streaks of bloodshot that the impact had caused on the eyeball itself. She’d only been allowed to take the patch off yesterday.
                As she shifted her gaze towards Aiden her face sharpened.
                ‘Aidie! Stop that!’ Liam looked over and Aiden was leaning into the sink with his hands rooted on the side, pressing down all his weight as he stretched his head out under the running tap and filling his mouth as the water ran down his cheek. He withdrew instantly at his mother’s raised voice, not quite managing to collect what he’d consider a mouthful. ‘Don’t be so stupid! You’ll slip and hit your head! Use a cup!’ Of course, he was more likely to hit his head if he was surprised by someone screaming his name but neither Liam nor Aiden were going to tell her that.
                Aiden spat out the water before wiping at the side of his mouth with his sleeve, walking jelly legged towards her at the door, his eyes wavering like a wounded animal.
                ‘Where are you going?’ She barked at him. Aiden cowered a step backwards before finding a feeble response.
                ‘To get a cup?’ It was almost inaudible, but Holly’s ears were attuned now.
                ‘You’re not going downstairs again.’
                ‘But how will I …’
                ‘Use the tap.’ The tap she’d just berated him for using. Aiden couldn’t process it clearly but a look to his dad, who widened his eyes sympathetically, indicated it was not a time for questions.
                She visibly winced as Aiden stuck his head back under the running water but Aiden kept his gaze forward, didn’t want to see mummy’s angry face when he could already feel it burning into the back of him. He didn’t do a thorough job and didn’t even gargle to clear the minty essence from the back of his throat, just wanted to get away, but fortunately Holly seemed satisfied by his efforts.
                ‘Okay now come give mummy a kiss. Then get to bed already, do you have any idea how late it is?’ She shot Liam another disapproving glance, the question although worded to Aiden was definitely meant for him.
                Unsure of himself, Aiden walked up to her and stood in front as she hobbled another step closer, the crutches spreading out on either side of him like a spider encircling its prey. Using them as support she swung herself forward to make up the distance.
For a moment, Aiden rocked back on his heels like he thought she were going to head butt him, and in truth she nearly did, but she kept her balance and puckered up. Liam was thankful that as she did so she closed her eyes as she waited because it would have crushed her to have seen the scared look on Aiden’s face as he braved himself forward to kiss her, her injuries surely making Aiden think she was some kind of imposter.
‘Alright now get to bed Aidie, please!’
Aiden wandered off toward the doorway, his body disappearing behind the wall but his hand lingered on the frame. He popped his head back round the door to see if Liam was coming. He didn’t ask the question out loud, just prompted with an upwards flick of the chin.
‘Go on, I’m on my way.’ He smiled and Aiden left the two of them alone in the bathroom.

3

Liam waited until he could hear Aiden’s door close before turning back to Holly, who watched him.
                ‘What are you waiting for? It’s gone eleven o’clock. He should be asleep.’
                ‘Honey, are you feeling okay? Another headache?’ He walked over and wrapped his arms around the back of her, his hands criss-crossing over her chest and with his head resting ever so gently on her shoulder. Meanwhile Holly closed her eyes as she rigidly kept her balance.
                ‘A couple of paracetamol, I’ll be fine.’
                ‘I’ll bring some down with me shall I?’ He looked up out of her shoulder and caught sight of himself in the bathroom mirror. His skin was pale even next to hers and his big dark brown eyes were heavy from lack of sleep, prominent bags forming under his eyes. His fringe had been combed out over his forehead instead of raised in his eloquent gelled quiff and the bottom half of his face was covered in an unshaven neglected shadow. His general demeanour looked dishevelled and the contours of his face were dark. The pair of them burdened a heavily haunted appearance and when eventually Holly opened her eyes, the two of them looked into each other’s reflections.
                She wriggled free of him.
                ‘Yes, now come on. Put Aidie to bed.’ She hobbled over to the doorway and waited for him to open the door. Liam did so, stepping out after her and pulling the light cord, leaving the bathroom in darkness, before pulling the door shut and sealing that horrible image away with it.

4

As they reached the halfway point in the landing Liam held back a step in order to let Holly swing round into position at the top of the stairs and there seemed to be a long pause before she made any attempt to descend. A large sigh escaped her and Liam assumed it to be with effort, but when a couple more steps had been completed and he’d made his first movements towards Aiden’s room, Holly muttered something deliberately indecipherable under her breath. Liam ignored it, but then it came on a little louder.
                He walked back to the stairs and waited for her to reach his previous vantage point in the central island. In a long, wide arc, Holly swung round and faced him.
                ‘Take a picture, it’ll last longer.’
Liam’s eyebrows scrunched into his forehead and his body jerked backwards.
                ‘Whoa, what was that for?’
                ‘You seem quite content to watch me struggle down the stairs on my own.’ Oh yeah, he thought, and if I offered to help you down you’d accuse me of treating you like an invalid. He tried cheek as his bailout.
                ‘You seem to be coping.’ He said, loftily.
                She paused, and in that moment the hallway light seemed to dim. Aiden stuck his head outside his bedroom door just as Holly’s face began to curdle.
                ‘Coping? I think I’ve been coping very well all things considered. I’ve been redressing my own bandages, cleaning. I cooked your dinner tonight if you’d forgotten that? And did you help me?’ Her voice was gradually rising in decibels.
                ‘No.’ Liam replied sternly, his own emotions pulled into the mixer. ‘Because you wouldn’t let me. The same way you’d have thrown it back in my face if I’d offered to help you down the stairs.’ Bit scared now, her eyes were blazing at him.
                ‘Is it too much to ask for you to offer? Even if you were so sure I’d turn it down?’
                ‘What would be the point in that?’
                Compared to most of his friends Aiden rarely had to put up with listening to his parents argue all the time and he was also in the increasingly unique position of only having one set of parents to listen to, no step parents or new partners. Perhaps then that was what made it so hard to deal with? The rest of his friends were desensitised to the shouting, and bickering could be channelled into background noise. For Aiden, arguments between mum and dad were one of his true fears, it happened so rarely that each one carried worries of it being their last, and having to visit dad every other Sunday like his best friend Lester. Of course, they’d been a lot more frequent recently.
                ‘The point is it might make me feel better!’
                ‘How would it do that? The only thing that makes you feel any better is those painkillers!’
                ‘I mean EMOTIONALLY you bast- AIDEN!’ Aiden’s heart almost shot out of his chest, inverting his body as it pushed its way through with everything still attached. His eyes sprung open, the rest of him petrified to stone. ‘AIDEN! GET TO BED!’ It may only have been words, but he was sure the demon woman from the middle of the stairs was voicing pure bursts of fire at him. ‘NOW!’
                The dams inside Aiden’s tear ducts burst and a flood of them started streaming down his face. A quick foraging look to Liam and he turned tail and fled noisily and clumsily back to the safety of his room, culminating in a large slam of his bedroom door that shook the ornaments  balanced in the display cabinets across the hallway and rattled the frames of pictures that lined the walls.
Liam was angry that Holly had snapped at Aiden like that, but he also understood it wasn’t intentional. You just had to look at her face to realise it was a mistake; a fresh, worried look of apologetic guilt sheening over the worn in troubles that had hardened her features into a constant scowl. She made as if to come back up the stairs and seek Aiden to apologise, but Liam raised that flat of his hand.
                ‘I’ll go.’ She looked first at Liam, then somewhere towards Aiden’s room.
                ‘I didn’t mean to –‘
                ‘I know. I’ll be down soon.’
A sorrowful look down the other side of the hallway forced a tear to escape her and she relented, navigating the first of the lower flight of steps.

5

Liam watched as the top of Holly’s head disappeared from view, descending like an aeroplane escaping over the horizon, before his first meaningful step in the direction of Aiden’s room. He took long strides and forced himself to lock his vision forward and onto Aiden’s bedroom door, resisting the urge to glance to the picture on his left, feeling it inappropriate whilst the positive mood of the household was disturbed.
                Succeeding, he knocked on the door three times, using the first joint of his middle finger, his hand arched backwards.
                ‘Aiden? Can I come in?’
                ‘Hang on.’ Came the muffled reply.
Liam contented himself to study the name plate on the door. The letters were made out of a gabble of long socked legs with shin pads, the letter ‘e’ from a classic pentagonal black and white patched football in flight for the top half and with the player’s boot acting as the tail as the ball whooshed (depicted by straight lines and a dust cloud) towards a hapless, goofy faced goal keeper.
‘Alright, come in.’
Liam closed the door quietly behind him and turned round to see Aiden perched on the end of his bed, his big bright red stocking with the fluffy white top slung over his shoulder, a pen in one hand and his football autograph book in the other, open with a space primed and waiting next to Monsieur Thierry Henry.
‘Oh.’ He said playfully. ‘I thought you were somebody else.’ Liam couldn’t help matching Aiden’s massive grin.
‘You really think Father Christmas signs autographs?’
‘I’ve never asked him.’
‘Well if he does I don’t think he’ll be signing that…’ He watched with glee as Aiden looked the book over, trying to figure out what was wrong with it. In doing so he revealed the darker patches of blue on his sleeve where he’d dabbed the tears away before he’d allowed Liam to enter the room.
‘Why not?’
‘Because I heard he’s a Spurs fan.’ He expected Aiden to laugh, but it was easy to forget that he was only seven years old. Apparently he didn’t understand the concept of footballing rivalries yet, and instead he just sat there genuinely confused by the conundrum.
‘Oh… so he…’
‘Never mind.’
Aiden took his cue, setting his stocking down in the warm patch that had been his seat and placing his autograph book back into the drawer he’d taken it from. When he came back towards his bed Liam had already folded back the duvet and he crawled in, waiting patiently as his dad tucked him in. It got him every time, this duvet. The design was that of an Arsenal football player from the shoulders down so that whenever it was pulled up completely Aiden’s head on the pillow completed his transformation into a player, similar to head slots on naff picture boards at the seaside. Liam thought it little Aiden’s only chance to make it past six foot.
 He noticed that Aiden’s eyes were still a little raw from the tears he’d shed earlier.
‘Don’t worry about mummy okay? She’s just a little stressed out at the moment, we all are.’
‘Okay.’ He said quietly. ‘Don’t forget to hang my stocking on the door.’
‘Alright.’ He waved the stocking in front of Aiden’s face, Christmas was high on his list of priorities right now, obviously. ‘I know you’re excited but try and get some sleep okay? Night, night.’ He gave him an affectionate little stroke of his hair.
‘Night, night.’ Aiden echoed.
Liam made it all the way to the door, opened it, and even got so far as to step outside before Aiden called out to him.
‘Daaaaaaad?’ Liam turned round.
‘Yes?’
‘Do you think Santa will give me what I want for Christmas?’ Liam smiled.
‘Wish hard enough little man, and he just might.’ He turned out the light and stepped all the way clear of the door. ‘Goodnight.’

6

Liam entered the living room after a quick trip to get Holly’s paracetamol she kept by the bedside table. She was sat on the sofa, numbly watching whatever passed for television at this late hour, the absence of the room’s ceiling light causing the screen to bask her in a white-blue glow as she sipped from the wine glass in her hand, an open bottle of red on the table.
                Meaning to add some more colour to the room he leaned behind the Christmas tree and flicked the switch. He was dazzled by a full spectrum from the rainbow’s palette decorated around the tree in swathes of flower head bulbs, reflecting gently off the underside of gold and silver tinsel. Smiling, he looked over towards Holly. It soon dissipated as she scowled back and suddenly he remembered that the lights had been on before we went to watch Aiden.
                ‘Oh.’ He said, ‘Do you want me to…?’
                ‘No.’ She replied, but by now she was more concerned about what he held in his other hand.
                Visibly frustrated, he made his way over and held out the packet of paracetamol between two fingers, setting the glass of water he held in the rest with his palm down on the table.
                ‘I’m not sure about this.’ He said as she took the packet from him. When she slipped out the blister pack it was riddled with empties. She popped out a couple more. ‘When was the last time you had some?’ Her expression was severe.
                ‘You want me to be in pain?’
                ‘No, I’m just concerned is all.’ He handed her the water and she accepted it graciously enough… before putting it back on the table in favour of her wine, washing down the acrid taste of the powdery tablets with a couple of big gulps. ‘Not too happy about that either if I’m honest.’ But she ignored him.
                Liam resigned himself, gesturing with his head towards the TV.
                ‘Anything good on?’ He asked, unenthused.
                ‘I’m not really watching. I’m… just passing time.’ The second half was no more than a whisper, and she turned to face him with an apologetic smile.
                Being careful not to touch anywhere that would hurt, he shuffled closer to her and put an arm around her back.
                ‘I know.’ He said softly as she cuddled herself into him as best she could, and he planted a tender kiss on the top of her head.

7

So it’s not looking like a white Christmas this year either Sally?
                … No. Barring a Christmas miracle I’m afraid it’ll just be another cold one. So remember to wrap up warm and have a very Merry Christmas from all of us here at…
                Sally was the regional weather’s pretty blonde, blued eyed girl, dressed the part in a cute Christmas hat and wrapped in a deep red woolly scarf who’d be warming the beds of most of her male viewers’ imagination tonight – not that Liam had noticed. Instead he found himself staring over at the presents under the tree and imagining Aiden as he opened them, imposing a gauged reaction as he worked his way from the smallest box to the largest, same as every year. It sometimes meant that the more expensive gifts were housed in bigger boxes to avoid disappointment as the world continued its fascination with miniaturising anything with a digital interface. That wouldn’t be the case this year however.
                Out in the garage Aiden’s main present was waiting to be wheeled in at some point tomorrow afternoon.
                ‘Do you think Santa will give me what I want for Christmas?’
                ‘Wish hard enough little man, and he just might.’
                Aiden hadn’t stopped pestering him for this bike up until recently and under the circumstances Liam decided to break the bank. He was planning the classic move, waiting until all the other presents had been opened and letting Aiden think his time to receive was over before surprising him (and Holly) by wheeling it in front of the tree at some point when they’d both left the room. At the same time he was going to bring in the locket he’d had specially made for Holly. She’d harangue him over the expense but in all honesty he’d found throwing the money around to be a (not so) cheap form of therapy.
                Thinking of a way to placate the argument when it came his eyes wandered back to Holly’s head nestled into his torso. She looked gaunt and restless, her body in a perpetual state of micro movements and adjustments as she struggled to get comfortable. The way she’d managed to resist picking at the loose stitching on her face would have filled him with admiration, had he not know it was because her mind was distracted by the all-consuming, misplaced guilt. How was it her fault some ignorant prick decided to run the red light?
                Realising his hands were trembling, Liam took a deep breath. The TV might as well not be on, he realised, for Holly was staring longingly at the presents too.
It was a difficult subject to broach but Liam seized his moment, and with a heavy heart, he spoke.
                ‘Would you like me to move them?’ He asked softly.
                ‘I don’t know.’ Holly replied after a time, on the verge.
                The presents under the tree were colour coded; Holly’s wrapped in matted silver, Aiden’s in Gooner red and Liam’s in Chelsea blue. They were talking about the small number of presents wrapped in glossy gold.

8

Aiden tip-toed down the last few steps and followed the dim light down the hallway. His eyes were wide with excitement and slapped across his face was one of his best ever cheesy smiles. His heart pounding, he stepped inside.

9

‘… I don’t think it’d be a good idea for him to see them all leftover when the other presents have been opened, but at the same time, I don’t want to upset him and make him think we’ve forgotten about her.’ Liam was the one doing all the talking, but he didn’t push Holly too hard for a response.
                ‘Dad?’ He’d crept up on them totally unnoticed; perhaps there was hope for the secret service yet. ‘Where’s Kara?’
                So far Liam and Holly had been avoiding using her name. Whereas adults are adept at avoiding the elephant in the room, kids much prefer to say what they see. Hearing it now cut like a knife.
                Holly wailed out in pain as she struggled to rise and tears streamed down her face. Liam felt helpless as he watched Aiden’s face fall from an inquisitive grin to something feeble and frightened as Holly lurched her way past him on her crutches as she made desperately for the staircase. He could almost be angry at him, had he thought Aiden capable of any sort of malice.
                He knelt down and put a consulting hand on Aiden’s shoulder.
                ‘Aiden, Kara’s gone, I thought we had been through this?’ Perhaps he didn’t fully understand.
                ‘I know.’
Confused, Liam probed a little further.
                ‘So why would she be in the living room?’
                ‘Because she wasn’t in her bedroom.’ He offered quietly. ‘I checked.’
                ‘Okay,’ Liam said as he raised a hand to his head. He thought he could feel the start of a headache coming on. ‘I’m lost Aiden. Why would she be anywhere in the house? God took her to heaven with him, remember?’ It felt kind of patronising to put it that way but at the moment he wasn’t sure how else to word it. Aiden looked upset.
                ‘But you said –‘
                ‘What Aiden? What did I say?’ He realised then that he’d been snappy and apologised quietly. It took a little while before Aiden spoke.
                ‘You said if I wished hard enough…’
                A warm flush of blood swept through the entirety of Liam’s body, standing the hairs on the back of his neck on end as a precursor to the enormity of his pride.
                ‘Come here little man.’ He whispered as tears started to form in the corners of his eyes, and he reached out to embrace him.

10

Aiden was quick to bed this time around and Liam had found Holly sobbing quietly in Kara’s room, but she had told him she wanted to be alone. He went back to chat with Aiden for a little while and the subject had flirted around presents, football and various tales of what Tommy might be getting up to before it reached the lull in the conversation that Liam had anticipated. He counted twelve Mississippi’s…
                ‘Dad?’
                ‘Yes Aiden?’
                ‘Do you think Santa would let me trade all of my presents to bring Kara back?’ Liam was touched, he didn’t think many boys Aiden’s age would consider such an offer. He moved closer and started to tuck him in.
                ‘I think he would if he could Aiden, I really do, but it’s beyond his power I’m afraid. And I think Kara would want you to keep them. She’s comfortable too, you wouldn’t want to bring her down now, it’s cold and miserable, much warmer where she is at the moment.’ He realised he was babbling but Aiden didn’t seem to mind.
                ‘Do you think she’s watching us?’ Liam ruffled Aiden’s hair, the way Kara used to.
                ‘Always.’
                There was another lull as both of them sank back into their own thoughts.
                ‘Can you tell mummy I’m sorry?’
Liam swung round and had a very deliberate look towards the bedroom door. It took a second or two, but then Holly realised she’d been rumbled. She came in and sat on the bed and offered her arms out for a hug.
                ‘Don’t be sorry Aidie, you’ve done nothing wrong.’
                Liam reckoned they’d picked up their eavesdropper during the tale of Tommy’s battle with Rudolf as he struggled to get control over the reins of the sleigh. Aiden’s laughter was adorable and drew people in like a magnetic field.
                ‘Come on Aidie, try and get some sleep.’ She said as she kissed him goodnight. ‘It’s technically Christmas day.’
                ‘If you don’t fall asleep at some point tonight Father Christmas is going to have to reschedule.’ Liam added.
                Suddenly Aiden began to wriggle free of the covers and Holly shot Liam a glance as though it was his fault.
                ‘Aiden!’ He said, aghast. ‘What are you doing?’ He leapt free and started searching for his slippers.
                ‘It’s Christmas day.’ He repeated, ‘I want to see if it’s snowing.’
                ‘I think you’re going to be disappointed…’ The last time they’d had a white Christmas Aiden would have been too small to remember. Kara had only been fortunate to see a few, and she would have been fifteen in January. ‘… The nice lady on the weather said –‘
                ‘She promised me snow.’ Aiden said, adamant. No need to ask who he meant.
               
11

When he ripped open the curtains Liam could see Aiden’s disappointment in the reflection of the glass. He pressed his face up against the window and searched the sky desperately as Liam walked over to him, but to no avail. Liam could feel his shoulders slump when he rested his hands gently on top, and Holly hobbled over and perched beside him on the big toy box he kept under the window, rubbing a consoling hand up and down the top of his arm.
                ‘Sorry.’ Liam whispered, almost to himself.
                Holly stayed in place, looking out at the sky as Liam led Aiden back over to his bed without a word as Aiden fought valiantly to prevent the gathering tears from escaping.
                ‘Wait.’ Holly called out softly.
                Aiden came bounding over, the movement jerking one of the stemmed tears free so that it rolled down his cheek and glistened in the reflection of the light. He looked out but pulled back confused. Holly dabbed away the wetness on his face with her sleeve.
                ‘Look closer.’ She told him.
                Liam watched as he took another concentrated look outside and this time came away full of hope and excitement, reaching out to hug his mum. It was the first time since the crash he’d seen Holly smile as she took him in her arms and he wandered closer. In truth it was sleet rather than snow but the clouds behind were dense, the occasional full flake leaking out amongst the fine slush.
                Liam sat beside Aiden and wrapped an arm around his shoulder. Aiden turned to him, full of hope.
                ‘Can we stay up and watch the snow dad?’ Liam looked over at Holly for confirmation and she gave him a nod. Her smile had lingered and he was relieved, slightly worried it had been a flash in the pan. It looked good on her.
                ‘Of course, I’ll go and fetch us a duvet.’

12

The three of them had huddled together under the duvet by the window and by two o’clock little Aiden had finally fallen asleep, Liam could feel the deadweight of his head resting against his shoulder. When he looked across to ask Holly whether they should put him to bed he discovered that she had fallen asleep too.
                Kara had kept her promise.
                The snow outside had by now settled a fluffy sugar coating and transformed their small garden into a winter wonderland a couple inches deep with no sign of let up from above. Liam continued to watch his daughter’s work until his eyelids grew too heavy, drifting pleasantly with her face in his mind looking down on them until he lost his thoughts completely and surrendered himself to sleep.



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