In the room, someone laughed. Sam joined in automatically. She looked around, a wide smile on her face, hopeful for a clue as to what had caused such hilarity. Miranda stared back, that standard quizzical expression on her face, from the 42 inch flat screen telly Sam’s son Jason had given the family this time last year. Sam took a swig from her can of lager and watched as the comedienne bungled about.
“Stupid upper class bitch.” Sam muttered to herself as she put a cigarette between her lips. Taking a drag, she looked around the room again. In the corner next to the patio doors stood the Christmas tree. Sparsely decorated with twinkling fairy lights and uniform white and silver baubles (“so it doesn’t look cheap, mum” Angela had insisted) it glowed gently, a beacon of hope in the otherwise grey afternoon. Below it was the usual stack of presents for the kids, the grandkids, Dave. It had been a struggle this year, but Sam wasn’t one to let the family down when it came to Christmas.
“Er, hello? Earth to mum!”
Sam turned in her seat to look at her daughter, her mouth already open to put her back in her place for her cheek. Behind her youngest stood Ellie, the new girl on the estate who seemed to have latched on to Angela and the other more established kids. Sam tried to pull herself into a more upright position on the slouched sofa but, with her can on one hand and a fag in the other, soon gave up. She heard her daughter mutter something (Pissed. She had used the word pissed.) but chose to ignore it.
“Y’all right girls? What you up to? What’s going on?”
Angela rolled her eyes to the ceiling.
“We’re going to the pub. It’s too cold to hang around out there. You got a tenner?”
She held out her hand. There was no negotiating in her daughter’s large brown eyes, the eyes that never failed to bring back her father’s face to Sam no matter how hard she tried to block it out, to forget. Sam sucked at her teeth and rolled her eyes in return as she popped her cigarette between her lips and delved into her jeans pocket. Casually she inspected the contents. One crumpled ten pound note, a couple of pound coins and some shrapnel. All she had left until the 28th. And certainly not enough to pay the rent.
The rent. Sam nearly snorted a laugh. She coughed slightly as untamed smoke curled down her throat.
“Alright, alright. But that’s all I’ve got, okay? Look, I’ll see you down there in about half an hour.”
Sam gave Ellie a nod as she handed over the cash. The new girl stared back at her mildly before turning and walking out of the lounge, Angela in tow. As the front door slammed, Sam crumpled back onto the sofa. She listened to Angela’s high pitched voice as it faded behind canned laughter from the telly. Sam felt tears well in her eyes. Angela was always in a hurry to get away from her these days. She’d become an embarrassment to her own daughter. Okay, so she admitted, they’d always had a difficult relationship (those eyes) but she’d moved completely out of Sam’s reach in the last six months. It had been bad enough when Jason moved out, but at least he called Sam every day, or texted her at least. But Angela. She’d already lost her, even though they lived under the same roof. For now, anyway.
Sam let her gaze travel to the stack of paperwork, newspapers and catalogues next to her feet on the coffee table. The most recent letter from the Council was near the top, its full contents obscured by the latest edition of Take a Break. Sam inhaled deeply on her cigarette and leant forward to stub it out in the ashtray on the floor. She pinched the letter between her finger and thumb and carefully extracted it from the pile before reclining again. Squinting, she read the bold subject line.
Eviction: 27 December 2013
Sam scanned through the rest of the letter. Bailiffs, co-operation, police, legal advice, housing options. She scrunched the letter in her fist and pushed it down the side of the cool leather of the sofa. It wasn’t going to happen. How could it? She hadn’t been able to attend court. There was no way the judge would make that decision before listening to her side of the story. Her solicitor had got her off before, he’d be able to again. Sam swallowed her lager as the thought of all those missed calls and un-listened to messages from the Law Centre seeped into her inebriated mind. No. There was no way they’d evict her two days after Christmas.
She raised her can to her lips once more and tipped it high, higher. It was empty. With a sigh she sat up again and eased her feet to the floor. An empty can toppled over. She looked down at the floor. Three, four, five empty cans. Plus the one in her hand, and the ones she had cleared up earlier. But it’s Christmas, she reasoned as she pushed herself up to stand. Holding onto the wall behind the sofa, she felt her way out of the lounge and along the hallway to her bedroom. She pulled a handful of tops out of her wardrobe and threw them onto the unmade bed. Rummaging through them frantically, she stopped once she found the lowest V neck in her collection. She might not have the figure she had twenty years ago, but she still had the cleavage. And the landlord at the Prince Albert was always a bit more generous with his drinks when she played it to her advantage. She pulled off her hoodie and slid into the snug-fitting top. Carefully she removed the butterfly clip from the back of her head and teased her long blonde hair around her chest before grabbing her reddest lipstick from a grubby bag of aged make-up. She applied the colour with unsteady hands, pressing her lips together and stepping back to inspect the overall effect in the mirror once she had finished. Satisfied, she walked back into the hallway, bashing her shoulder against the door frame of the bedroom on the way. Cursing at the pain that seared through her body, she pulled on the lone fleece hanging by the door, grabbed her keys from the laminated floor and strode out of the flat.
“Sam! Y’alright darling? Haven’t seen you in ages. Merry Christmas love.”
Sam curled her mouth into what she hoped was her most seductive smile as Andy held out his arms for an embrace, his eyes fixed on her chest.
“Happy Christmas to you too sweetheart.” As he released her, Sam gave him a wink. “So, how about a little Christmas drink, eh?”
The landlord moved his gaze from her bosom to her face with effort.
“For you anything. On the house. What will it be?”
Sam let her smile broaden as she slid onto a stool at the bar.
“On the house? Well, in that case I’ll go for a pint of Stella, young man.”
Andy grinned back as he abandoned his glass collection and scurried behind the bar. Sam watched him as he busied himself finding a glass and carefully pulling her drink. He was a good three inches below her stature, and almost as wide as he was tall. She eyed his long, tobacco stained fingernails and slick greying hair uneasily. She knew full well that she’d be paying for his generous hospitality another way. She swallowed down the rising feeling of shame with a mouthful of lager.
“Cheers!” She smiled at the landlord again before casting her eyes around the room, searching for a distraction from his unwanted yet needed attention. The pub was already starting to fill up, despite the early hour.
“You seen Angela?”
“Yeah, she’s out the back having a fag with that lad from number 83. Henry, Harry, or something?”
Sam lifted her chin in acknowledgement. Harry was at least three years older than her daughter and, despite his relatively young age, was already getting a reputation when it came to women. Sam took another sip of her drink and stood up.
“Well, I’ll just pop out and say hello to them. Back in a sec.” She tugged her top over her ever expanding belly to reveal a bit more flesh at the top and flashed Andy another smile. He leered back.
“Angela? Angie!” Sam pushed her way through the group of young men by the door, ignoring their protestations. At the back of the beer garden, she spotted her daughter sitting at a table with their neighbour. Harry was already very handsome. Sam would have fancied him herself at Angela’s age, what with his clear green eyes, dark hair and chiselled cheekbones. But age and experience had taught her a thing to two about men. They were all the same, even Dave, her Dave. But at least Dave helped her out, bought her shopping and stuff. And he didn’t hit her, not even when he was angry. Which was more often than not these days.
“There you are!” As she approached the table, she noticed Harry’s hand jump away from her daughter’s crotch to the safety of his jacket pocket. Sam met his gaze as she lit the cigarette clasped in her smiling mouth. “Ho ho, did I disturb something over here? I think Harry was about to unwrap his Christmas present a day early.”
Sam’s laugh was rough with the countless cigarettes she had already smoked that day, that week. As it morphed into a cough she took a step back to steady herself. The dog yelped before she could register that her foot had landed on something other than hard ground. She turned to profess an apology, spilling beer down someone’s sleeve as she did.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry.” Her hands held up, she backed away from the table, the mutterings, the whimpering animal. Reassured that her clumsiness had been excused, she took another sip of her beer and looked around.
He was sat on his own, pint and paper arranged on the wooden slats of the table in front of him. Even in the fading light, she could see that he was watching her.
“What the fuck are you looking at?”
Through the semi-darkness she thought she saw a flicker of a smile at the corner of his pink mouth, a glint in his eyes, as grey as his receding hair. She heard him take a deep breath.
“Nothing I haven’t seen before, Sam.”
She stared at him as the meaning of his words sank into her alcohol-stained consciousness. What had her neighbour seen before? The screaming rows between herself and her daughter, herself and Dave, herself and the police after Pete called yet again complaining about the noise, the parties, her very existence?
“Well, if you’ve seen it all before, you don’t need to look at it now, do you? Prick.” She muttered as she turned away from him, cooling the burn of anger rising in her stomach with more Stella.
“And hopefully I won’t be seeing it ever again come Friday.”
Sam caught her daughter’s eye as he uttered the words. Angela’s flushed and angry face slowly paled, her eyes widened.
“What does he mean, mum?” Her voice was loud, urgent. Sam took a drag on her cigarette, already burnt down to the filter, before casually grinding it into the ground with her heel.
“He means nothing, sweetheart. Not to me, not to you. Not to anyone. That’s why he’s here, all on his own, on Christmas Eve.”
“If you should be worried about anyone this Christmas, young lady, if should be yourself and your mother. At least I know I’ll have a roof over my head come the New Year.”
Sam heard him shuffle out of his seat behind her, the rustle of his paper as he picked it up, the scrape of his shoe against the gravel floor. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a moment, but opened then quickly as her balance threatened to fail.
“Mum? What does he mean? I thought the court had sorted it all out, that we were okay? Mum? Mum!”
Her daughter’s voice faded into the background as Pete’s words reverberated around Sam’s head, their truth cutting through the haze of alcohol, cruelly severing the hope, the denial.
Angela was screaming now, her youthful, flawless face close to Sam’s. Those eyes stared at her, full of fear, anger, panic. The same eyes that had let her down years ago, left her with two kids to bring up on her own, left her with a huge amount of debt and no way to pay it back. Left her on her own to fight what had evidently become a losing battle.
“I’d give up if I were you. Your mother’s gone from drunk to catatonic.”
His voice again. That grating, smug, vengeful voice. Sam turned around to face its source. Stood only a couple of feet away, Pete stared back. He’d wanted her and her family off the estate since she moved there fourteen years ago. This Christmas, he had got his wish. In his pale, ice cold eyes, she recognised triumph.
He had won.
The plea was too late. By the time the first word was out, the pint glass had already been smashed against the brick wall. Sam’s hand, bleeding itself, was already at his face, pushing the makeshift weapon deep into his skin. The roar from the blooded man in front of her drove her on, fuelled her desire to inflict the pain she had felt so deeply for so long on somebody else.
She didn’t resist when she finally felt Andy pulling her off him. Her need had been satiated, her anguish anesthetised. She let herself be bundled back into the pub, let the commotion slip over and around her. Obediently she sat on the padded bench she was led to and watched blurred figures as they rushed past her to take a look at the drama outside. Above the chaos she heard him screaming and balling.