The Best Gift
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The living room was warm, decorations were up, and pretend snow had been sprayed into the corners of the windows, now behind closed curtains.
A five-foot tree, a real one, stood in the corner, firm in its plastic bucket which is covered in red tissue paper, next to heTV.
A silver star, made by Jan when she was five, sat atop the tree which was covered by little candles, chocolate Christmas figures, tinsel, coloured glass balls and baubles.
Presents had been carefully placed under the tree.
It was 8.30pm.
The music channels were all playing the same old festive videos they did every year
Everything was in place, but Jan was feeling down.
This was her fifteenth Christmas, and a family member would be missing for the first time.
Mum was putting on a brave face, being practical, keeping herself and Jan busy so they would have things to occupy their minds, and not dwell on the disappointment.
Things went unsaid; there was no point in moaning.
'Just the two of us for Christmas lunch then,' thought Jan....
"Mum, the tree's finished."
"Okay babe, I'm coming. Want a Christmassy hot chocolate?"
"Yeah thanks, can I have spray cream on top, please?"
"Of course, hold on, I'll be there."
Jan turned off the main light and looked at the little plastic lights illuminating the tree, they gave the room that grotto feel.
Mum pushed the door open and passed a red mug topped by a mound of cream to her daughter.
"Thanks....I wish Cal was here right now to see this, like every other year."
"Sweetheart, you can't just book Christmas leave when you're in the Army, you know that.
We have to make the most of it, you and me, and have a big welcome on New Year's Eve.
Don't forget, we're going to Skype her in the morning, all the way to Afghanistan.
Cal booked a slot, so we'll be fine, and don't go throwing a moody when we chat. Cal wants to be here, we know that, so we have to be cheerful, fair enough?"
"Yeah, I know, but it's always been the three of us and it's a bit strange, that's all."
Mum nodded sympathetically and kissed Jan's forehead.
"Drink your chocolate; you've done a great job on the tree, it looks lovely babe."
Jan sipped the hot, sweet, creamy drink, her big brown eyes settling on the star.
"So, what are you doing for the rest of the evening, sweetie?"
"Not much really, I've got to wrap your main present, but that's about it. What about you?"
"Well, later on I'll lay the table for breakfast, so I don't have to do it in the morning, and I've still got a few things to wrap.
That reminds me; Mr and Mrs Shah are giving me some nice material from their family's shop to make a scarf, and wouldn't take a penny for it.
I've bought him some after-shave and her some chocolates.
He's going to be dropping it off about 10 o'clock, so I'd better get a wiggle on. Then I have to peel the vegetables, which will take about an hour.
It'll all be done by about two o'clock; it's certainly easier now you two are older."
"Look Mum, I'll wrap up the stuff for the Shahs if you like, I haven't got much else to do. It'll keep my mind off things, and I like wrapping pressies."
"Oh, that's great Jan, that'll help a lot."
She gave her daughter a quick hug and a big smile.
"Drink your chocolate while it's still hot."
Then she went back to the kitchen.
Jan decided there was nothing else to do except make the best of the situation. Anyway, her mum had worked so hard to get everything ready, as she always did, and Jan didn't want to be selfish and give her a hard time.
'Where were the scissors and paper?'
At 9.50pm Jan and her mum were on their second hot chocolates, sitting at the table in the normally clean and tidy kitchen, which seemed full of vegetables, shopping bags, pots, pans and full black rubbish sacks.
"It'll all be okay, won't it?" said Jan quietly.
Her mother smiled slowly, "Of course it will..."
The conversation was interrupted by three hard raps on the door knocker. "That'll be Mr Shah, you answer the door and I'll grab a couple of rubbish bags."
Jan strode to the front door and opened it, ready to greet their neighbour.
Immediately she caught her breath, and her eyes nearly popped from their sockets.
"What are you doing here?"
"Well, that's a nice way to greet your big sister after she managed to wangle early leave, and travel half-way round the world to get home to you and Mum."
A massive smile spread across Cal's face.
She dropped her Army holdall, took off her Artillery Regiment cap and hugged Jan tightly.
"Carole? Get in here and give me a kiss!" shrieked Mum.
Jan beamed with joy.
'The best Christmas gift.'
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