Talk about scrabbling around on my hamster-wheel, yesterday was as nuts as a squirrel’s winter stash. I plucked myself from the cosy embrace of my hotel bed down by the sea in Vũng Tàu, and raced the 100km, give or take, back to Sài Gòn, in time to gulp a Caramel Freeze by way of teaching fuel. Then onwards, to two rounds of teenagers, the second of which involved an agenda of multitasking baking: one fine-looking slab of Oreo-pimped Brownies, and one Sunken Chocolate Amaretto Cake, courtesy of the Domestic Goddess, Nigella.
This evening, having gotten over the whole biking-induced broken arms and arse issue, I settled on a Frangipane Tart as my bake of choice. This being me, I generally followed James Martin’s recipe, swapping out his ginger and apricots for dried figs and walnuts. Because that’s what I have, and the scrounging up of such ‘foreign’ oddities as apricots and stem ginger in Ho Chi Minh City, while vaguely possible in theory, is just not within the realms of an achievable goal at 10 at night here in Vietnam.
My oven just pinged, and the smell is divine. I’m wondering if this thing needs a red wine syrup to go with. Hmmm.
And now, on with the romantic saga panning out on the slopes of Switzerland. Nearly finished now. On more instalment after this should do it.
Ice-Block Fingers, One Hundred and Two Per Cent Grey and Blowing Hot Come-Hither and Arctic Don’t-Touch-Me
Caleb paused, stared out past the glass at the darkening mountainside, at the whirling snow. Imogen’s hand clenched in his. ‘Best split up. Two on foot. Two on skis. Cover more ground. What’s the signal like up here? I’ve tried both of them,’ he held up his iPhone in evidence. ‘Nothing.’
‘Usually, fine, apart from a few areas. You are sure they had phones with them?’
Caleb looked to Imogen, out of his depth, helpless.
‘They certainly had them earlier on. Remember? I checked before they shot off.’
Caleb shook his head. Of course he didn’t remember. He’d had only one thing on the brain since… since far too long. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. His ex, Katrina, was going to slaughter him. Ritually. With one of those pearl-handled dessert forks she’d insisted on, the stuck-up, holier-than-thou bitch. She’d never let him forget it. Worse, she might never let him take the kids again. He felt more expensive legal costs and a court injunction coming on. He’d failed in so many ways. Was an abysmal excuse for a father. But this… Katrina would drag him through shitty, eternal hell for this. And for once, she’d be absolutely right.
The worst of it was, this time, he’d actually been trying. Trying to be different. Trying to be the kind of Dad a kid would want. The kind of Dad he would have wanted, rather than the abusive absentee he got. And had become himself.
‘We’re lost, admit it,’ Tabby threw down her ski poles. ‘You have no idea where we are.’
Lucas turned. Looked down at the poles in the snow, back up at her face. His expression like he blamed her, when it was all his own stupid fault. Not that he’d admit it.
‘You won’t get very far without those, idiot.’
‘We’re not getting very far anyway! Pro’bly going in circles.’ Her voice was shrill. Like a baby. ‘And I’m cold, and tired. I want to go home. I want Imogen! She wouldn’t have –’
‘Wouldn’t have what?’ he snapped. It was like his sister was infecting him. Unsealing the tight lid he’d been keeping on his panic. Panic, fear, he expressed as anger. All of it frothing and spitting out. ‘She doesn’t care about us! She never did! It was all a horrible act to get close to Dad! She’s got what she wanted now. As far as she’s concerned, we can disappear out here.’
‘You’re wrong!’ Tabby shouted.
‘Oh yeah? Then why are you crying?’
Tabby swiped at her face, smeared freezing tears across her cheeks with clumsy ski-gloved hands. Her nose was running. ‘Because I’m cold and tired and we’re lost,’ she raged, shouting now. ‘And my stupid brother thinks he’s Hitler or somebody but really he’s just a know-it-all freak who can’t trust anybody because of –’
About to turn away from her, Lucas seized up. Turned to ice. A snowman on some lost Swiss mountainside. Around them, snow was falling through the thick canopy of fir trees.
‘What. What were you going to say.’
Tabby looked up at him through the snow. Her eyes red-rimmed and watery, her little face dead pale under the floppy ears of her hat and her frizz of golden hair. Pleading. For what, he didn’t know.
‘You think just coz Mum and Dad broke up, that means you can never trust anyone ever again.’ Her voice had become a tiny thing, a tiny snail, retreating into the tight protective circle its tiny shell. Brittle. Fragile. And so very, very small.
He was meant to look after her. After Dad went away, that was his job. Always had been, really. As far as he could see. Together or divorced, their parents had always been more interested in their own lives, and in their never-ending, bitter feud of one-upmanship and mutual recrimination, to give much of a toss about him and Tabby.
‘Well, you’re wrong! Imogen does care!’
Imogen was important to Tabby. He felt the wrongness of trying to break that, trample on it, like his feelings had been trampled and stamped on by Mum and Dad.
He stepped forward. Gathered his sister into a hug. She was stiff in his arms, and shivering. ‘Maybe you’re right,’ he relented.
‘So… can we turn our phones on?’ she said, her face mashed into his ski-jacket, little voice muffled further by the puffy lime green and neon fashion statement that he’d noticed – since they’d stopped moving and Tabby had helpfully drawn attention to it – wasn’t keeping him half as warm as the advertising promised.
He fumbled his phone out with ice-block fingers. Bashed the on-switch with his numb thumb. Watched the backlog of missed calls and increasingly frantic messages pile up. Ignored the lot, and cued up Imogen’s number from his contacts: less likely to give him an instant bollocking and grounding for life than his Dad.
‘Hey! Hey! Stop a minute!’ Imogen shouted over the roar of the snowmobile. ‘My phone’s ringing! I won’t be able to –’ she was thrown forward, into Philip’s broad back, as he hit the brakes, cut the engine. Around them, silence and snow, their breath pluming from their mouths.
‘Lucas? Lucas! Where are you! We’ve, everybody – ‘
She listened, eyes widening and widening. Philippe turned in front of her, listening, scanning her face for clues.
‘Right. Ok, don’t worry. Just stay exactly where you are. We’ll find you. And keep your phone on, ok? Can you do that?’
She ended the call. Said, ‘You know that Rescue Centre? Someone mentioned it before – ’
‘Safety Centre. Yes.’
‘Think they can track a phone signal?’
‘I will call,’ he already had his phone out, was dialling, holding it to his ear. ‘If no, the police will –’ The call connected. He mouthed call the father, then reverted to rapid German, cupping his mouth and the business end of his phone.
‘Caleb. Lucas called. We’re calling this Safety Centre place, see if they can get a trace on the phone.’
‘Right, guys. Inside. Pyjamas.’ Imogen watched their drowsy faces in the rear-view mirror. Both kids had slept most of the dark drive back to the chalet. She glanced at Caleb a fierce, blow-dart look – keep those perfect lips zipped. ‘I want you at your hot chocolate stations in five. Then, bed. No argument. I want sugar plums dancing round those warped little brains of yours before I go any greyer.’
‘You’re not grey!’ Tabby squealed.
‘Ha! You just can’t see in the dark of the car. After tonight, I am totally, one hundred and two per cent grey. Now get!’
‘That was absolutely not how Christmas Eve was supposed to go,’ Caleb said. Luxuriating in the man-eating depths of the sofa by the fire, nursing a long-delayed heat-proof glass of mulled wine.
‘How the hell would you know, Scroogy-Pants?’ Imogen slugged him with a handy velvet tasselled cushion. ‘When was the last time you did anything but work on the twenty-fourth of December? I bet you can’t even remember.’
‘Not true! I can remember very well, thank you. Two years ago exactly. I got rat-faced when my bloody divorce finally came through. Spent Christmas working, though. Only way to survive the mother of all hangovers.’ He grinned ruefully, with a twist of self-mockery. Briefly considered the glass in his hand. Shrugged, went in for another sip, cinnamon and clove scented steam enveloping the lower half of his face.
‘Oh. Not… not quite what I meant.’ Imogen took a sip of her own wine. Continued to clutch the glass in squirrel paws, almost on a level with her nose. As if for comfort. As if still feeling the chill of the dark mountain in her bones. Quietly added, ‘I’m sorry.’
‘What are you apologising for? Not your bloody fault I got divorced, is it?’
‘No. But. Well.’ She forced herself to meet his eye. He watched her intently, waiting. ‘I didn’t mean to bring up such a painful subject.’
‘By accusing me of being a workaholic? Okaaaaay.’
She laughed, a nervous titter. ‘Ok, well, we all have our own coping mechanisms, I guess. You gotta do what works for you.’
‘Work works for me. Or…at least, I thought it did. Now I’m not so sure.’
‘Really. I’m shocked. Stunned,’ she quirked half a smile, as if at a private joke, looked at him from under her lashes. Such thick lashes, like the wings of a miniature bird. ‘And why would that be, Mr Scroogy-Pants?’
‘You’ve got to stop calling me that.’
‘Why? It suits you.’
‘Because,’ he growled, setting his wine down on the low glass slab of a coffee table, ‘All this talk of pants is giving me ideas.’ He lunged for her. She shielded herself with the velvet cushion. Slopping a wild soupcon of sticky, warm wine as she jerked back instinctively from the sudden attack. He Who Must Not Be Named a spectre between her and the rest of her life, her own fear a phantom, haunting her.
In that instant, the alarm in her face, the fear, there and then gone, brought him up short. ‘Imogen?’ he asked. Suddenly unsure of himself. Reminding himself that he barely knew her, had no idea what might have brought her here, to a rental house in the Swiss Alps, caring for a stranger’s kids, when most people were locked in a battle of mutual-irritation with their families, consuming a button-popping mountain of turkey, a reservoir of gravy and booze and a few lame Christmas Cracker jokes and crinkly tissue-paper crowns.
Deliberately, Imogen forced her shoulders down. Breathed. In and out. In. And out. Felt her heart banging like a kid let loose on a new drum kit.
‘Sorry. Sorry. Slight overreaction there.’
Caleb sat back, stumped. Looked at her like a puzzle he’s trying to figure, like those damn US tax return forms still waiting for him on the laptop. Reached for his wine again, changed his mind halfway there. Settled his elbows on his knees, let his empty hands flop between them.
Looked at her again, beleaguered. ‘That’s one way of putting it. And I told you. Quit apologising.’
‘But I’ve pissed you off.’ Almost a whisper.
He ran a hand through his already ski-hat scruffed hair. ‘No-o-o.’ He leaned into the word, stretching it out over three syllables, rising, falling, rising again: forbearance. ‘You’ve confused me. That’s different. I’m not saying I like it; I’d rather understand what’s going on with you, blowing hot come-hither one second and arctic don’t-touch-me the next. But I’m not pissed off.’
She rose. Carefully placed the pillow over the imprint her delectable arse had left on the sofa cushion. Said, ‘Look, I’m sorry. I know you don’t want to hear it, but I am. I just. I just can’t. Sorry.’
She hurried from the room, head bent, leaving him sitting there with two glasses of tepid wine and the smouldering remains of a log fire in the grate.
He held his head in his hands, clutching bristling fistfuls of hair.
Really, really not how Christmas Eve was supposed to go.