Home > Christmas at the Cupcake Café (At the Cupcake Café #2)(3)

Christmas at the Cupcake Café (At the Cupcake Café #2)(3)
Jenny Colgan

‘They should,’ said Issy.

‘Pink mixing bowl … Girl’s World … what’s that?’

‘It’s a doll’s head. You put make-up on it.’ Issy had heard the other girls in her class talking about it. That was what they were all getting. She hadn’t heard anyone wanting a mixing bowl. So she’d decided she’d better join in with them.

‘You put make-up on a plastic head?’ said Marian, who had perfect skin and had never worn make-up in her life. ‘For what, to make her look like a tramp?’

Issy shook her head, blushing a bit.

‘Women don’t need make-up,’ said Marian. ‘That’s just to please men. You are perfectly fine as you are, do you understand? It’s what’s in here that counts.’ She rapped Issy sharply on the temple. ‘God, this bloody country. Imagine selling make-up to small children.’

‘I don’t see too much harm in it,’ said Grampa Joe mildly. ‘At least it’s a toy. The others are all work tools.’

‘Oh Lord, it’s so much stuff,’ said Marian. ‘The commercialisation of Christmas is disgusting. It drives me mad. Everyone stuffing themselves and making themselves ill and trying to pretend they’ve got these perfect bloody nuclear families when everybody knows it’s all a total lie and we’re living under the Thatcher jackboot and the bomb could go off at any moment …’

Grampa Joe shot her a warning look. Issy got very upset when Marian started talking about the bomb, or made noises about taking her to Greenham Common, or forced her to wear her CND badge to school. Then he went on calmly buttering the bread they were having with their turnip soup. (Marian insisted on very plain vegetables; Grampa Joe provided sugar and carbohydrates. It was a balanced diet, if you included both extremes.)

Issy didn’t bother sending the letter after all, didn’t even sign her name, which at that point had a big love-heart above the ‘I’ because all her friends did the same.

Two days later Marian had gone, leaving behind a letter.

Darling, I need some sun on my face or I can’t breathe. I wanted to take you with me, but Joe says you need schooling more than you need sunshine. Given that I left school at fourteen I can’t really see the point myself but best do what he says for now. Have a very lovely Christmas my darling and I will see you soon.

Next to the card was a brand-new, unwrapped, shiny-boxed Girl’s World.

Issy became aware, later in life, that it must have cost her mother something to buy it – something more than money – but it didn’t feel like that at the time. Despite her grandad’s efforts to interest her in it, she left the box unopened in the corner of her bedroom, unplayed with.

They both woke early on Christmas morning, Joe from long habit, Issy from excitement of a kind, although she was aware that other children she knew would be waking up with their mummies and probably their daddies too. It broke Joe’s heart to see how she tried so hard not to mind, and as she unwrapped her new mixing bowl, and her lovely little whisk, all child-sized, and the tiniest patty pans he could find, and they made pancakes together before walking to church on Christmas morning, saying hello to their many friends and neighbours, it broke his heart all over again to see that some of her truly didn’t mind; that even as a small child she was already used to being let down by the person who ought to be there for her the most.

She’d looked up at him, eyes shining as she flipped over a pancake.

‘Merry Christmas, my darling,’ he had said, kissing her gently on the head. ‘Merry Christmas.’

Austin had his own reasons for hating Christmas. He’d never really bothered since that first one after their parents died, when a tiny Darny hadn’t cried, hadn’t yelled, hadn’t moaned, had simply sat in silence, staring bewildered at the ridiculous number of presents from everyone he had ever met cluttering up the corner of the room. He hadn’t wanted to open a single one. Austin hadn’t blamed him. In the end, they’d unplugged the phone from the wall (after Austin had turned down endless invites, everyone rang to coo pitying noises at them, and it was unbearable) and gone back to bed to watch Transformers on the computer whilst eating crisps. Somehow, watching ludicrous gigantic machine robots smashing lumps out of everything was as close to their mood as they could get, and they’d done something similar every year since.

But last year, he and Issy had been so new together, so wrapped up in one another, and it had been thrilling. He’d thought for ever about what presents to get her, and she had been utterly delighted: a going-out dress from her favourite little Stoke Newington vintage shop, and a fancy pair of shoes that she couldn’t walk in. Oddly, it wasn’t the fact that he’d bought them so much as what they represented: nights out, and fun, which could be hard to come by when you were working all hours.

‘I thought you’d get me a pinny,’ she’d said, trying on the blue dress, which made her eyes a vivid bluey-green and fitted her perfectly. ‘Or a mixer or something. Everyone else always does! If I get one more cupcake jar, I’m going to start selling them on the side.’

And in the bottom of the bag, bought with his bonus – he had been the only person in the entire bank to get a bonus that year, he seemed to recall – a small, but immaculately cut, pair of diamond earrings. Her eyes had gone all big and wide and she had been completely unable to speak.

She had worn them every single day since.

And they had spoiled Darny horribly with games (Austin) and books (Issy), and watched telly in their pyjamas and had smoked salmon and champagne at eleven, and the weather was too disgusting outside for anyone to mention a walk, and Issy had cooked an amazing lunch … Issy had … she had made it all right again. She had made it fun; made it their own Christmas. She hadn’t tried to gussy it up, or push them into party games or silly hats or church or long walks, like the aunties would have done. She understood and respected entirely their right to watch Transformers all day in their pyjamas and had sweetly been there with them whilst they did so.

‘I can’t wait till Christmas,’ said Austin at the airport. ‘But I wish you were coming to New York.’

‘One day,’ said Issy, who longed to visit more than almost anything. ‘Go and be clever and impressive and wow them all, and then come straight back home to us.’

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