It’s my turn to take over the Rainbow Advent Calendar and wish all of you a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Cool Yule, Wonderful Winter… whatever you’re celebrating, I hope you have a lovely time.
This year, I’m once again revisiting a couple of characters from my debut novel Submerge – there will be no spoilers, however, and it stands alone. For those of you who have read Submerge already, this takes place before the book starts. For those of you who haven’t: if you want to see more of these characters, you can find the book here.
Now, without further ado, I present…
A New Tradition
Addie had never really cared about Christmas; her family were Muslim, so Jesus was just another prophet as far as she was concerned, and she’d never quite got on board with all the mixed symbolism that seemed to saturate the high street from October onwards. What did bringing trees inside have to do with a baby, and where did reindeer come into it? None of it really made sense, and her parents weren’t confident enough in their own understanding of the Western world’s traditions to explain it all to her when she was younger.
Gina changed everything, when they met at the club. Addie had fallen head over heels, and although she’d been afraid of coming on too strong, too fast, it hadn’t been a problem in the event. The first Christmas after they’d met, Miles had thrown a big Christmas party for everyone who worked at the club. Gina had been Addie’s plus-one, even though Miles had invited her anyway, and they’d had a wonderful night dancing and laughing together. They’d been together ever since, after a few weeks of hesitation as they each tried to work out if the other was on the same emotional page, and Addie had been delighted to find that her feelings were returned, even if Gina was a little shy about showing it.
A year later, they were set to go to Addie’s mum’s house. Addie always spent time over Christmas – when the café where she worked closed for nearly a fortnight – with her mother, and it had seemed natural to invite Gina to stay for a few days. There had been a slightly awkward moment when Addie’s mum, Esther, had absent-mindedly asked if Gina’s family would mind her not being at home for Christmas – given that Gina was estranged from her family, that was hardly an issue – but the strained conversation had passed quickly and she’d accepted the invitation to stay with Esther and her new partner, Steve. It would be their first Christmas all together, and it would probably be a quiet non-event, as Christmas so often was in the Crewe household. None of them had quite been prepared for the Steve Effect.
Steve, as it turned out, loved Christmas. The first Addie heard of it was in the second week of December, when she popped in to see her mum and found a large plastic tree in the living room.
“New interior decorator?”
“Steve.” Esther smiled fondly. “He did ask me first. Obviously, he knows my beliefs, and I know his, but he wanted to show me why he loves Christmas so much.”
“I thought he was an atheist,” Addie admitted.
“Agnostic – and a lapsed Methodist, apparently. But he’s not worried about the religious aspect-”
“I just like the festive tat,” came Steve’s voice from the hall, and Addie turned.
“All the traditions – the tinsel, the turkey, the pretending it might snow. The decorations,” he added with a grin, giving the box he was holding a little shake. “Hello, Addie. You don’t mind all this, do you?”
“Why would I mind? It’s your house, and Mum’s.”
“Yes, but- well, I know you’re not Christian, and Ess tells me you don’t usually celebrate, so-”
“I’m not very Muslim, either. I mean, really, when was the last time I went to mosque? And even if I was, I don’t see why you shouldn’t put a big plastic tree in your living room if you want to.”
“Great. Want to help hang things off it?”
It had been an oddly warm sort of feeling, engaging in an unfamiliar tradition with the newest member of their little family. Addie had seen plenty of Christmas trees before, of course, but she’d never actually taken part in decorating one. As Steve showed her his very precise method for threading lights among the branches, she couldn’t help but think that Gina would love this sort of thing. She must have said it out loud, because Steve raised an eyebrow.
“Your Gina? Invite her, if you like. We can stop for a tea break until she arrives, can’t we, Ess?”
“Of course! And Gina is always welcome, even if she does always look like a frightened rabbit around me.”
“She has her reasons to be nervous around parents,” Addie reminded her, and went to call her girlfriend.
Gina must have run across town to get there as fast as she did, but she barely stopped to catch her breath before she began picking through the box of decorations Steve had produced.
“Where did all of these come from?” She was holding up a little gold bird, and Steve laughed.
“Oh, there are a few of those. They’re just things I’ve collected over the years – you know how easy it is to hoard Christmas decorations. If I’m not mistaken, that’s one of the turtle doves.”
“One of them?” Addie asked.
“There are two,” Steve and Gina answered in unison, and Esther raised an eyebrow. Gina blushed.
“Sorry, I just – I remember seeing the set a while back. The twelve days of Christmas, right?”
“Yeah – though I’ve lost the pear and most of the little people. I used to have my nieces and nephews look for them on the tree, to practice their counting when they were younger, and I think a couple of the lords and maids must have gone home with them by mistake. In fact, I know the partridge is on my Dad’s Christmas tree, though he denies all knowledge.”
“That’s nice, though. Your whole family sharing something special like that.” Gina looked wistful, and Addie made sure to touch her arm in reassurance as she leant round her to look into the box.
“What are these?” She held up a rather lumpy, misshapen clay snowman and several squashed pipe-cleaners that looked as if they might once have been twisted into the shapes of stars.
“Oh, er. I should probably chuck those out. I made the clay snowman in school, if you can believe it. Well, even if you can’t. I did. Made a snowflake as well, but that didn’t survive as well. The snowman’s too heavy to go on the tree, so I tend to just prop it up somewhere. And the pipe-cleaners are from my RAF days – we got bored on base one year, so we made some. One of the officers had done the same thing with his kids the year before, and he threw a few packs down in the mess hall to ‘keep the kids out of trouble’. Just as well, really, some of the other blokes were talking about going into town to get snow spray and decorating the fighter jets.”
“Surely they’d have got kicked out for that?” Esther was laughing as she said it, though.
“Definitely. So thank goodness for the pipe cleaners.”
Addie flattened out a star and went to hang it on the tree, but Steve stopped her.
“Hold on – tinsel first. It’s too much of a pain if you try to string it round afterwards.” They wrapped the tree in gold tinsel, and Addie couldn’t help but remember the silver tinsel that had adorned Miles’ usual bowler hat at the Christmas party the previous year. Gina glanced across at her with a small, secretive smile, and she knew that her girlfriend was thinking of the same night – the night they’d kissed under the mistletoe in front of everyone, a sign that Gina felt safe in acknowledging their fledgling relationship within the sanctuary of Submerge, even if she couldn’t quite bring herself to be entirely open about it outside those walls.
Addie was lost in her thoughts for a while, barely paying attention as Steve and Gina playfully argued their cases for different ornament placements. Gina seemed so happy and at home, even making occasional jokes with Esther – a woman she was unnecessarily, but understandably, terrified of because she was Addie’s mum – and Addie hoped she would get to see her enjoy more Christmases in the future. They hadn’t been going out for very long, but they’d been friends for a while now, and Addie knew enough of Gina’s quirks and faults to know that none of them were worth breaking up over.
She also knew enough about the things that brought Gina joy to be surprised when she didn’t immediately reach for the glittering star Steve had pulled out of the box, ready to top off the tree. Instead, she glanced between him and Addie, grinning excitedly. Steve was looking at her, too, she realised.
“Er… well, in my family we always got one of the kids to put the star on top. I thought… you’re not a kid, obviously, but you’re Esther’s kid, so… would you like to do it? For our little family?”
That was how Addie found herself balancing precariously on a dining chair, Gina dutifully holding the chair steady with one hand and holding Addie steady with the other, lowering a shining golden star onto the top of the tree. It wasn’t her tradition, or her favourite holiday, and the family was still new, but it felt wonderful to come together for an activity so reminiscent of the adverts she’d grown up with all her life. It felt warm, and familiar, and Addie was happy.
She was even happier when Steve nudged her shoulder and showed her a secret, special ‘decoration’ settled on his palm. It sparkled in the light, the emerald reflecting a thousand fairy lights. A hanging loop, like that of a bauble, ran through the golden band of the ring, but its meaning was unmistakable all the same.
“What do you think? Should I hang this one up later?”
“I think Mum will love it,” Addie confirmed quietly, and hugged him. “And I know she hasn’t answered yet,” she whispered, “but welcome to the family.”
“What are you two whispering about?” Esther called from across the room, where Gina was helping to root out Addie’s favourite green-wrapped sweets from a large tin.
“Oh, nothing,” Addie told her with a grin, “just saying Merry Christmas.”
If you enjoyed the story, please share it with your loved ones and don’t forget to join the Facebook group for updates on the Rainbow Advent Calendar. This year, we all get two treats a day! There’s also a masterpost here if you’d rather keep track that way.
Addie and Gina’s story continues in Submerge. ‘A New Tradition’ is a free story, but if you feel moved to give money by way of appreciation, please direct it towards a charity of your choice – I recommend Marie Curie or Crisis. I know those folks would really appreciate it!
Merry Christmas, everyone, and I’ll talk to you soon!