I stared at the slip of paper that told me my bank balance was as meagre as I had suspected. My sister Kate was coming home for Christmas but there was no way that I could afford the sort of celebrations that she had provided for me last year. It wasn’t that I begrudged her the good luck and the well-paid job and the house in a pretty village, but now that I had to meet all the bills on my own there wasn’t much left over for treats.
I thought back to last year and how I’d driven down in my rusty old car, with tinsel tied to the car aerial, listening to carols on the radio, to spend Christmas with her in her new home. I’d arrived at Kate’s cottage just as the first snowflakes were dusting my windscreen.
“Emma!” she’d cried, hurrying out into the snow to welcome me. “Happy Christmas!”
“Kate!” I’d hugged her close, realising how much I’d missed her since she moved away.
She’d made Christmas really special for me. Inside there was a huge real Christmas tree, decorated with strings of beads and baubles and lights. Underneath it were piles of intriguing parcels waiting to be opened. There was a huge log fire roaring in the grate, mince pies and mulled red wine were warming on the hearth, and a plump turkey was ready in its dish for the oven. There were boxes of chocolates, bowls of nuts, tangerines, apples and Christmas crackers everywhere. She must have spent a fortune.
Next morning I woke to the sound of church bells, sunlight from a pale azure sky glistening on crisp white snow and the aroma of bacon and coffee. It had all been perfect.
“Next year it’s my turn,” I’d said as I lay in an armchair and watched my exhausted sister stifle a huge yawn.
I’d been planning a huge tree, decorated with silver and gold; a ham as well as a turkey and all the trimmings; expensive presents; champagne for breakfast… in fact an even more lavish affair than she’d provided. But it’s always been like that with me and Kate. We’ve always vied with one another since we were children to see who could run the fastest, skip the longest, swim the furthest. But I had to admit to myself that this time I couldn’t compete. The trouble was, she’d said how much she was looking forward to Christmas and I didn’t want her to be disappointed.
I thought back to how much I used to love Christmas when I was little girl. Every year it was the same. Dad got the artificial green tree down from the loft and set it up on top of the chest of drawers in the front room. Then he brought down the old cardboard box and Kate and I pulled out the familiar coloured baubles and lengths of tinsel that we used every year to decorate it. Finally Dad would add the fairy lights and Kate and I would squabble about whose turn it was to stand on a chair and fix the angel to the top.
Then on Christmas Eve we would hang out the same red sacks on the ends of our beds for Father Christmas to fill. In the morning they would be bulging and crackling with brightly wrapped presents and in the toe of each one there would be a tangerine, a red mackintosh apple and a few shiny new pennies.
Years later Kate confessed that she’d known it was Dad who sneaked in with our presents when he thought we were both asleep, but she never spoiled my Christmas by letting the secret slip. Now I wanted this Christmas to be special for her. But how could I manage it?
In the end I climbed up into the loft and found the old tree. I decorated it with the same old baubles and tinsel that we used when we were children. The angel was a bit faded, but the old fairy lights still worked and it brought back so many memories. All it needed to be complete was the chocolate Santas.
I shopped on the market for vegetables and fruit and bought lots of shiny red mackintosh apples. I bought Kate a few small gifts – some scented soap, a fragranced candle, bubble bath, a warm scarf, a pair of gloves, and finally I found I had just enough money left for a bottle of wine to accompany our Christmas dinner.
By three o’clock on Christmas Eve I was ready, waiting as it grew darker, for Kate. She eventually arrived in her shiny new car as a fine drizzle was falling. I hugged her tightly.
“Sorry I’m so late,” she shuddered. “There was thick fog all the way from Birmingham!”
She opened the car boot and began to unload her bags and huge stacks of brightly wrapped presents, and I felt guilty about my meagre offerings as I helped to carry them inside.
“Where’s the tree?” she asked.
“In the front room.”
She stared at the scrappy old tree standing lopsided on a small table. “That’s the one we used to have when we were little! Do you remember how Mum used to tie the little chocolate Santas onto it after we’d gone to bed and pretend that Father Christmas had left them?”
“Yes,” I smiled. “I remember.”
She followed me through to the kitchen at the back of the house and watched as I filled the kettle for a cup of tea.
“Mince pie?” I asked, taking the plate from the oven where I was keeping them warm.
“Home made!” she said as she helped herself. “They taste just like the ones Mum used to make.”
“I kept her old recipe book. I made a cake as well,” I said, taking the lid off the tin to show it to her. She stared at the two bedraggled robins on either side of a weary looking snowman.
“I didn’t know you still had these decorations. Mum used to put them on the cake every year. Do you remember?”
“Yes,” I said. “I remember.”
Then she picked up an apple from the bowl on the table, but instead of biting into it she breathed in its scent and sighed. “The smell of Christmas,” she said. “All this is bringing back so many good memories.”
We took our drinks and sat in front of the warm fire. I switched on a CD of Christmas carols and Kate took off her shoes and closed her eyes.
“I feel as if I’m a child again,” she said. “This is what Christmas should be like every year.”
I smiled at her sleepy face. Upstairs, her red sack was waiting to be hung up. When I was sure that she was asleep I would fill it with some shiny pennies, a red apple, a tangerine and the little gifts I’d bought her. But before that I would tie the chocolate Santas onto the tree, just like Mum used to, so that when she woke up in the morning, Kate would know that she really had come home for Christmas.