Cosy up with a mug of hot chocolate for some festive sparkle from bestseller Jessica Redland.
Everyone is getting into the festive spirit on Castle Street – snow is falling, fairy lights are glistening and Christmas shopping is underway.
But for Tara Porter, owner of thriving cafe, The Chocolate Pot, this is the most difficult time of the year. From the outside, Tara is a successful businesswoman and pillar of the community. Behind closed doors, she is lonely.
With a lifetime of secrets weighing on her shoulders, she has retreated from all friends, family and romance, and shut her real self away from the world. Afterall, if you don’t let them in, they can’t hurt you. She’s learnt that the hard way.
But as the weight of her past becomes heavier and an unexpected new neighbour moves onto the street – threatening the future of her cafe – Tara begins to realise that maybe it’s time to finally let people back in and confront her history. It could just change her life forever…
A rattling of metal stirred me from my sleep. Rolling onto my back, I lay still for a minute or two, steadily transitioning from the world of dreams into the world of reality.
The rattling started again and I smiled. ‘I can hear you, Hercules. I’m on my way.’
My two-year-old Flemish Giant house rabbit was more effective than any alarm clock I’d ever owned. At 6 a.m. every morning, without fail, he nudged the door of the huge dog crate where he slept at night and kept rattling it until I got up and let him out.
Peeling back the duvet, I paused for a moment and my stomach sank as I registered what day it was: Christmas Eve. Great. Sighing, I pulled on my slippers and a fleecy top, then made my way to the crate.
Hercules wiggled his scut as soon as he spotted me, just like a dog wagging its tail. I swear he identified as dog rather than rabbit. The moment I opened the door, he bounded out of his crate for cuddles, then followed me into the bathroom, eager for more attention. It wouldn’t surprise me if, one morning, he rolled onto his back so I could tickle his belly.
After I’d put some fresh food and water out for him, I took a shower, the powerful flow helping to ease the tension in my shoulders. It was nearly over. There was just today to get through, then tomorrow, then Christmas was done for another year. Of course, I wasn’t out of the woods at that point. There was still New Year’s Eve to face – the worst day of all – but one step at a time. One difficult step at a time.
Christmas Eve used to be my favourite day of the year. Even as a child, I preferred it to Christmas Day. My dad pulled out all the stops to make Christmas Eve exciting and magical. In the morning, our house would be filled with the tantalising aroma of gingerbread as the pair of us mixed the dough then rolled out the shapes needed for our construction project. When the gingerbread was ready, we’d build and ice a house and Mum would help me decorate it with sweets. Sometimes she only had the energy to manage a few minutes up at the table but even the smallest amount of time meant the world to me.
Dad and I would spend the rest of the day making Christmas crafts while seasonal music played. When dusk fell, we’d wrap up warmly and wander up and down the local streets, looking for the best-decorated house. I’d take a notepad and felt-tip pen with me and we’d award scores out of ten for how pretty they were. The winner was treated to a home-made congratulations card and a bar of chocolate through their letterbox ‘from Santa’s Elves for the prettiest house ever’.
As bedtime approached, Dad and I would go outside and bang a wooden ‘Santa stop here’ sign into the middle of the front lawn – or into the flowerbed if there’d been a heavy frost – while Mum made hot chocolate with marshmallows.
We’d each open a Christmas box containing a book, new PJs, a pair of slippers and, in my box, a teddy bear. Wearing our new gifts, we’d finally watch a family Christmas film – just the three of us plus my new teddy – snuggled on the sofa together. Perfect.
‘So, my little Pollyanna,’ Dad would say as we prepared drinks and snacks for Santa and the reindeer after the film, ‘do you think Father Christmas will remember to visit this year?’
I always giggled when he called me Pollyanna, after the main character in the children’s book of the same name. ‘My name’s not Pollyanna. It’s Tamara.’
‘But you’re just like Pollyanna, aren’t you? A little ray of sunshine and positivity in our lives.’
Then he’d hug me tightly and tell me how much he and Mum loved me and how lucky they were to have me, especially when ‘the black cloak’ wrapped itself round Mum and she struggled to see the sunshine through the darkness.
‘Promise me you’ll always be like Pollyanna,’ he’d say.
And it wasn’t hard back then, despite Mum’s situation. An eternal optimist, just like Pollyanna, I could find the good in anyone and any situation, no matter how dire. I believed in the Tooth Fairy and Father Christmas. I believed that friends and family were people who loved you unconditionally and would never hurt you. I believed that people were good and told the truth.