The Saturday before Christmas Anna decided to use her day off to escape the crowds of the city and headed to the refuge of Abigail’s once more. If ever she struggled to feel in the festive mood, an hour spent in the home of her aunt brought back all of those child-like emotions of anticipation and excitement. Abigail’s house at Christmas was crazy but wonderful with fairy lights draped throughout, a simple tree covered with an eclectic array of ornaments and the scent of fresh mince pies an ever-present feature. Abigail loved this season with a passion and no corners were cut in making it special each and every year. For some people Christmas began once they’d seen the tree at Jenner’s department store or visited the market, but for Anna it didn’t truly feel like Christmas until she’d been to Abigail’s. She had a lovely memory of a year they all came for dinner, driving down after the early morning madness of stockings and presents to arrive in North Berwick for a feast of turkey and trimmings, films by the fireside and family games around a huge box of chocolates. Anna remembered it as the best Christmas Day ever and now as she walked through the town towards the harbour she smiled wistfully recalling the sleepy little girl who was carried to the car at the end of the night, cheeks rosy and belly full, unaware that it was one of only a few Christmases that would feel so special. Thankfully this year there was a glimpse of hope for something new, a different dynamic at play in the relationship between her and her Dad and the possibility that a touch of the magic of the season could be restored to their home once again. The previous weekend the two of them had decorated their tree together for the first time ever, that usually being the job of Anna and Julia. Standing side by side with the task accomplished they had admired their handiwork with shared satisfaction.
“Your mother loved Christmas,” Struan recalled, as though remembering something long forgotten. “I’ve always found it so painful since she left us. I couldn’t bear to decorate or celebrate, but I tried for you and the boys. I don’t think I did a great job though. Thank goodness for Fran and Julia.” He smiled and let his fingers lift an ornament on the nearest branch, a star made from ice lolly sticks with a few remaining patches of glitter still holding on after many years of use.
“Was this yours?”
“One of the boys did that I think.”
A festive hymn on the radio filled the space between them.
“Dad, there’s actually one more thing to go on the tree.”
Anna produced a small box from behind a picture on the fireplace.
“I just bought it. For you.”
She offered the gift to her Dad who looked almost confused by the gesture. Anna nodded encouragement as he fumbled with the ribbon before opening the lid, pulling out a purple glass bauble. Holding it up by the string and watching as it spun around, he saw the letter J written on one side in gold script. A glimpse of a smile appeared at the corner of his mouth as he watched it twist back and forth in front of his face.
“I think we should remember Josie on the tree. She’s a part of this family too.”
There was a pause as Struan gathered himself.
“Thank you,” he whispered, clearing his throat. “So where shall we put it?”
Anna cast her eye over the tree and found a spare branch on the side nearest to her father’s favourite seat.
“How about here? Then when you’re in your chair she’s on your right, exactly where she should be.”
He nodded, not quite able to speak. As she watched her father hang the ornament on the tree Anna had a sense of years silently being restored. She was profoundly grateful.
Standing on Abigail’s front step Anna admired the luscious wreath, verdant and rich against the bright yellow door. The blend of the fresh intertwined branches caught up with ribbon, cinnamon sticks and slices of dried orange came together to bring the aroma of Christmas to your nostrils before you’d even crossed the threshold. However because this was Abigail’s wreath, there were also a few unconventional additions; a small toy car, a thimble, several items once belonging to a dolls house and sitting at the top an ancient bear complete with festive jumper. If I had made this, Anna thought, it would look a mess. Shaking her head in admiration of her aunt’s creativity Anna rang the doorbell. The person to answer was Nigel, bedecked with an apron and Santa hat, sherry in hand.
“Welcome, welcome,” he declared with a flourish and a bow. “I am but a humble servant of this fine establishment. May I take your coat dear lady?”
Anna stepped inside and kissed Nigel on the cheek before playing along.
“Thank you kind sir, you may.”
“The mistress is in the kitchen at a critical stage of baking process. If you’d like to follow me.”
They walked together through the house, Anna drinking in every twinkling light and festive flourish, feeling joy rising in her with every step. The kitchen was a riot of activity with mixing bowls and baking trays stacked precariously, a light dusting of flour or perhaps icing sugar covering every surface and in the midst of it all stood Abigail, sleeves rolled up, swaying to the carols playing on the radio while mumbling instructions to herself.
“You are now entering Christmas HQ Anna. Tread carefully,” warned Nigel. “I was handed a bowl and asked to stir, or maybe it was fold…whatever it was I did the wrong one and she nearly had my arm off!” he winked conspiratorially.
“I can hear you over here you know!” Abigail scolded, before offering apologetically to her niece, “I’m a little behind in my schedule today. How are you my love?”
“I’m good thanks. Can I help with anything?”
“Please. The butler here will get you sorted with a pinny and a sherry and then I’ll set you to work.”
The next couple of hours passed in cosy haze of stirring bubbling pots and rolling pastry, keeping a watchful eye on the baking shortbread and double checking instructions in the wine-splashed recipe book propped up beside the cooker. The three of them co-ordinated their moves around the kitchen with the nudge of a hip or a ‘watch your back’, falling into a rhythm of harmonious activity until finally Abigail could find no other tasks to be completed. The three of them sank into the large sofa in the living room and enjoyed a well-earned cuppa and some of the fruit of their labour.
“So, now that I’ve worked your fingers to the bone, tell me what’s been going on with you,” Abigail began. “Did you get to Elie to investigate the cupboards and boxes up there?”
“I went a few weeks ago and found some stuff. Mum had actually done a lot of digging into family history, but more on your stepdad’s side than your biological family. There were letters and a diary and a family tree that seemed to go back for generations.”
“That sounds fascinating. Did you read it all?”
“Not yet. There was something else I found that sort of distracted me. Did you know that Dad had a twin?”
Abigail’s eyes widened in surprise.
“I know,” Anna continued, “a sister. She died when they were seven, run over by a car. It seems he never really got over it. Mum found a way to get through to him, at least in some way, but when she died it brought everything back all over again. It’s why he fell to pieces like he did.”
Nigel sniffed beside her.
“Nigel are you crying?” Anna asked gently.
“Sorry, that took me a bit by surprise. I lost a sibling too, a brother. I was older than your Dad was, and he wasn’t my twin, but it’s still a devastating thing to happen. Like part of yourself is taken away, part of the landscape you’ve always known and navigated by suddenly disappears. You grow up knowing that someday you’ll lose your parents, but I hadn’t ever considered that I might lose my only brother. It just never occurred to me. ”
He took out his handkerchief, wiped his face and took a deep breath.
“Your poor Dad.”
He put his arm around Anna and pulled her close as she in turn rested her head on his shoulder. Abigail turned to face her friend.
“I never knew you had a brother. We’ve been friends for twenty years and I didn’t know this.”
Nigel shrugged apologetically.
“It was a long, long time ago. And it was painful, so …” his voice tailed off.
Abigail reached across to take the hand of her friend.
“Losing someone dear to us certainly shapes who we are. And who it is, and how and when it happens, has a huge bearing on how we experience it and how we navigate what comes next. It certainly gives me a new perspective on your father Anna.”
There was kindness in her voice, and a hint of regret.
“Yes it explains a lot, doesn’t it? We’ve had some good conversations around it all and things feel quite different now. He’ll tell the boys when they come home for Christmas. I’m so glad you sent me in the direction of Elie. Now that I know, I would hate to think we might have gone through the rest of our lives not understanding each other like this. Thank you.”
Anna leaned over to give her aunt a squeeze.
“So what about the rest of this family history?” Nigel asked. “When are you going to read the diary and letters? I’m intrigued!”
“Yes me too,” Anna smiled. “I might try and get back over between Christmas and New Year. I want to be able to take my time with them.”
“Well promise you’ll come back and tell us what they say.”
“Deal,” Anna nodded, reaching for another round of shortbread.
It was the loveliest Christmas Anna could remember for a long time. Both brothers were home for the holiday for the first time in several years, having previously been with girlfriends or working too late in London to get away. This Christmas Day the four of them sat over their meal laughing and telling stories, spurred on by the items brought back from the boys’ bedroom at Elie. It led them to naturally talk about their Mum and this time Struan joined in, finding himself able to speak about his wife in a way that he hadn’t for a long time.
“It’s nice to hear you talk like this Dad. It’s good to remember her when we’re together.”
Robert smiled across the table and raised a glass towards his father.
James and Anna joined in as Struan reached slowly for his wine with a simple “yes indeed” as he clinked glasses with his children. Feeling the need to break the emotional tension after an awkward pause, James drained the bottle of wine into his glass and nodded at his brother.
“Right then Rob, time for your customary whooping at chess. I’ll set up the board shall I?”
“Go for it. I’ll grab another bottle and bring it through.”
James swaggered through to the lounge quietly singing We Are The Champions and getting ready to beat his brother for the umpteenth time. Hector and Struan followed behind as Anna filled the kettle and dug out a tin of chocolates from the cupboard. Turning around she saw Robert leaning against the kitchen cabinets seemingly lost in thought.
“You ok?” she ventured.
She didn’t expect too much in return. Their ten year age gap meant that there hadn’t been too many meaningful conversations between them over the years.
“Yeah, good. That was nice just then, the moment with Dad. Thanks for bringing the stuff from Elie, Anna. It’s been a very long time since I’ve been up there. I guess Mum must have tucked those things away for us. How’s the old place looking?”
“Same as always. That’s why I go – helps me feel close to Mum because she loved it so much. You should come up some time.”
“I’d like that. Not sure I’ll manage it on this visit, but maybe we can go next time I’m here?”
Looking across at Robert she realised that the ‘we’ he talked about included her. The ‘we’ had always been the brothers as a unit and she had been the little sister tagging along far behind. It would never even have occurred to them that she wanted to join in with them, but she had. Always. Finally and perhaps for the first time she was being spoken to as something of an equal.
“Great, let’s do that then,” Anna smiled in response.
“Robbo?” came the challenging call from the front room.
A wicked grin spread across Robert’s face.
“What are you hiding Rob?”
Leaning closer and whispering to Anna, Robert confided, “I’ve been taking lessons. Little brother’s about to get his ass handed to him on a plate!”
Gathering up the wine, he relieved Anna of the chocolates and headed for the chess board. Left alone in the kitchen Anna surveyed the detritus of their Christmas meal with a deep sense of warmth and satisfaction. Perhaps she could find a true sense of home in this place at long last.
Several hours later James slept on the sofa still wearing the quizzical expression of one entirely surprised by an ambush he never saw coming, while his brother basked in silent glory by his side. Their father dozed in his favourite chair cradling an empty whiskey glass, having hypnotised himself to sleep staring at the new ornament twirling on the tree by his side, and Anna sat beside a panting Hector in front of the hearth. The buzzing of a mobile phone disturbed the brothers and James roused himself to take the call. A plan was made to go and meet friends for a late drink and as they prepared to gather themselves from the sofa Struan woke with a grunt.
“You boys heading out?”
“Just a quick drink with Stu and Mark. You don’t mind do you?”
“No, no, not at all,” he replied, his eyes drifting back towards the tree and then to the floor.
“Actually, before you go, could I have a minute? There’s something I need to tell you.”
The hesitation in his voice changed the expression on James’s face. He leant forward, nudging his brother to do the same.
“What is it Dad?”
“I should have told you all this years ago, but it was just too painful. And then when your mother died, well… it just made everything so much worse.”
A weighty silence filled the space as he searched for the right words.
“I was a twin too. I had a sister, Josie, and we were, well… you know,” he gestured between his sons.
“Closer than close. We were everything to each other. And then there was an accident when we were young and she died. At that point…” he shook his head, once more lost for any language to convey how he felt.
“You lost half of your world. Half of yourself.”
Robert filled in the blanks.
“I can’t even begin to imagine Dad. I’d be a mess if that happened to me.”
Struan nodded in agreement.
“Exactly. Then at Watson’s I was given structure and discipline and that became the box in which I survived. Survived by striving, seeking to excel, to make up for what was lost. Except really, I was the one who was lost. Your mother brought me back to life. She helped put the pieces together, so when she left us, they all fell apart again and I didn’t know what to do.”
The revelation sat between the three men for several moments.
“So,” James began and then hesitated, rubbing his chin as he grappled for the right way to shape what came next.
“How did you feel when we were born? Was it hard? To watch us be twins I mean.”
Struan tilted his head back and exhaled deeply.
“I felt so many things. Of course I was overjoyed to have children, to have sons. And I was terrified that something would happen to one of you and the other would be left alone. And sometimes, yes, there was deep pain and envy as I watched you together, saw your connection and unspoken ways, and was reminded of what I had lost. It’s a strange thing, to love your children so much and yet feel sorrow at the same time. I’m sorry if it meant I was sometimes a bit distant with you. And I’m sorry that I didn’t cope with your mother’s death better. I didn’t know how.”
James came across and knelt on the floor beside his Dad, placing a hand on his arm. “You did the best you could Dad. We seemed to turn out alright. Well I did, you might have screwed Robbo up a bit but…”
Struan gave a short laugh and smiled in appreciation of the joke. He patted his son on the arm before glancing back towards the bauble hanging by his right hand. James looked across at it and joined the dots.
“J for Josie,” he nodded, “that’s why you’ve been staring at that ornament all night.
“It was a gift from your sister. She thought we should remember your aunt and have her with us.”
“Josie is short for Josephine,” Robert realised aloud. “That’s why you gave Anna that middle name.”
For the first time they all looked across at the hearth to see Anna’s tear-stained face looking back at them.
“I think this was harder for you than for us. We had each other and were away from home a lot.”
The emotion caught suddenly in Robert’s throat as he thought of his little sister and it finally occurred to him what she must have dealt with over many years. Anna scuttled over to the sofa and tucked herself under his arm and let herself be held. In this conversation, as in so many others through the years, she had felt on the outside. Being so much younger, a girl and not a twin and not driven by the same things as her father and brothers, all of these things had kept her on the edge of this family after her Mum had died. It’s why she had gravitated to Abigail so much, and to Julia and her family, because with them she felt a place of belonging. But perhaps now, now that the truth was known and real words had been spoken, she could find her place in her own family.
“Anyway, I’m glad you all know now. I should have done this years ago. I’m sorry I didn’t.”
Struan’s eyes met each of his children’s faces in turn.
“But for tonight you boys need to be heading out and this old boy needs to go to bed. Thank you for a lovely Christmas.”
He rose and gave each of them a tender kiss on the head before making his way out the door and up the stairs. Robert sank back into the sofa.
“Bloody hell,” he whispered, staring at the ceiling, taking it all in.
“Anna when did you find out?” James asked, coming to perch on the coffee table to face them.
“Just recently. I found a family tree that Mum had researched when I was up in Elie. Josie was on it and so I spoke to Dad about it when we were out for my birthday. It felt good to know the truth, like it explained so much about him.”
The fire popped and hissed in the grate as the light from the muted television danced around the room.
“We haven’t always been great brothers to you Anna. I guess we had our twin thing and then we were off living our own lives. Sorry if that’s been a bit crap for you.”
James wrinkled his face in apology.
“Yeah, we’ll do better now, promise,” Robert added, squeezing her shoulder.
“Thanks,” Anna smiled at them both.
Hector stretched himself from in front on the fire and nosed in on their trio with tail-wagging expectancy.
“And yes, you need to go out boy.”
“We’ll walk with you the first bit on the way to the pub,” James offered, extending his hand to pull her up from the sofa. A few minutes later, coats on and gloves in hand, the three siblings headed out onto the night, parting on the street corner for the first time as friends.