coffee in a thermos
'Christmas day ramble. Meet at 1.30pm at the park gates for a 2 mile walk - weather permitting. For more information, please email me.'
Meg was satisfied see her ad in the local newspaper again.
She wondered who would turn up. Her mind wandered back to the previous Christmas day. … two new people from last year were a retired, gentle vicar called George, and Alec, an fifty- something, attractive, divorced chap around Meg's own age.
Last December was Alec's first Christmas without his wife. Meg had sympathised. She knew how it felt to be alone.
Not everyone was lucky enough to be happy at Christmas, she reflected, as she booted up the computer. Just how do you fill those long hours if you lacked a partner and a range of close friends and family?
Meg and her late husband Rob hadn't been blessed with children and since the accident, her friends - all in couples - had drifted away.
The Christmases without Rob were so very different. The only way to describe it was like going from glorious colour to dreary black and white.
In those early raw days, getting though the festive season was an absolute nightmare. That was when Meg began to organise her Christmas day rambles. They were tailored for people who were cast adrift, yet craved company.
Her eyes scanned the computer screen as she checked her email messages.
Oh good - George wanted to come along again. But sadly, there was no message from Alec. When they'd met, she hoped that perhaps he'd make contact. Yet it didn't happen. Would he appear for this year's ramble?
* * *
Christmas day morning dawned bright and sunny. The weather had forecast showers for later, so she packed a waterproof jacket in her rucksack.
After breakfast, with a background of carols on the radio, she reached for a new novel by her favourite author and spent the next few hours escaping into a tense thriller. The book was a gift from a friend. Because she looked after elderly parents, she was unable to spend Christmas with Meg.
At 11, she ate a turkey and stuffing sandwich, then got ready and set out.
At the park gates, she was relieved and pleased to see George waiting for her. Yet her heart sank when she discovered there was no Alec.
'Hello Meg,' he beamed.
'Nice to see you again, George,' she said. 'Let's hang on while we wait for the others.' Some people didn't bother emailing her – wanting to escape festive stress, they often turned up on impulse.
Meg's spirit rose when Alec ambled into view, but she was taken aback when she realised he had a high- heeled female companion in tow. She was slim and attractive with dyed red hair. Meg hid her disappointment well.
'Hi everyone, I'm Jean!' she gushed.
'Hello there,' George nodded.
She turned to Alec. 'We've just had the most marvellous three-course lunch, haven't we darling? In a gorgeous top-notch hotel. Alec booked it especially. In fact, I'm still a bit tipsy from all that wine! All I wanted to do was go home, slump on the sofa and watch TV but Alec wanted to go for a walk. So here we are!'
'I hate being cooped up all day,' Alec said.
'We appreciate your company.' Meg smiled warmly, yet she held reservations about Jean's motivation. She clearly wasn't the hiking type and had tagged along purely to keep Alec happy.
Under a clear blue sky, the foursome headed out down the valley.
'Alec and I met at a neighbour's Christmas party, ' Jean began. Meg wasn't really in the mood for her lively narrative. All the same, she listened politely.
Later, she managed to escape and joined George.
Behind them, Alec and Jean giggled away, while George and Meg marvelled at the wonderful variety of birds and wildlife.
After two miles of nothing but fields and woodland, they reached a pub, appropriately called The Traveller's Rest.
Meg knew the pub well. She and Rob had sometimes popped in for a soft drink when they'd been summer hiking.
'Let's have a Christmas drink!' Jean piped up.
'Why not?' Alec grinned.
'I need to sit down. My feet are killing me!'
'I''ll give it a miss,' George mumbled. Meg knew that, like her, he was a teetotaller.
'There's a beer garden around the back. We'll wait for you there,' she said. She hated pub crowds. A Christmas one would be even worse.
As Alec and Jean pushed open the door and sailed into a blast of jaunty pop music, the other duo found a picnic table and got settled. Meg rooted in her rucksack for her thermos and shared her coffee with George.
'Thank you Meg. That's very welcome. And here's something to go with it.' George reached in his rucksack and brought out a tupperware box.
'My own home-made mince pies,' he explained.
'This is better than any pub grub,' Meg said.
'It's good that Alec's found a partner,' George remarked.
She hesitated. 'Yes.'
It was time to let go of her hopes regarding Alec. Let's face it, she mused, he wasn't interested in her. He'd had a whole year to ask her out.
Out of nowhere, a tiny robin swooped down and landed on their table.
'Hello there,' Meg crooned.
George fed it crumbs. It chirped, eagerly gobbled them up and promptly flew away.
'I can't remember the last time I saw a robin on Christmas day,' George chuckled.
'Neither can I.' Hmm. Rob's name wasn't Robert. It was Robin. Was the robin a sign to move on with her life?
The sky gradually darkened as they chatted. Then suddenly, the back door of the pub smacked open. Jean and Alec staggered out.
'Sorry, we have to cut this short, Meg. We've phoned for a taxi,' Alec called.
'Well, this hike idea was a bit silly, really wasn't it, darling?' Jean added.
Meg and George finished the ramble, and at the ancient crossroads, under the bare branches of the old oak tree, they shook hands.
'Until next year.'
'Thanks for your company. I've really enjoyed it,' she said. 'And thanks for the mince pies too. They were delicious.'
He hesitated. Meg felt he intended to say more, yet he simply bid farewell and went on his way.
* * *
When Meg arrived home ten minutes later, the heavens opened and a violent hailstorm thrashed down.
It was hailing when, fifteen years ago, a police officer rang her doorbell on Christmas Eve evening. He was here to inform her that her husband had died instantly. He'd been hit by a drunken driver.
Rob had been out late night shopping, buying last minute gifts for Meg. She blinked back tears as she stuck the kettle on and made another turkey sandwich.
She seemed to live on sandwiches these days. George's mince pies had been a very refreshing change.
Meg didn't fancy the TV programmes on offer, so to help move the day along, she booted up the computer and checked her inbox.
There were cheery seasonal greetings from the novel-giving friend, but also, to her surprise, there was a message from George:
I wondered whether you would like to meet for a daytime cuppa in the New Year sometime?'
What a nice surprise! For the first time in years, her heart warmed with promise.
Meg had a funny sort of feeling that next year, she could be experiencing a very different kind of Christmas...
About the author
Sharon is forty-something, married and lives in West Yorkshire.
She has had letters, opinion pieces and poetry published in a range national magazines.
Her short stories have appeared in My Weekly, Your Cat, The Weekly News, Take a Break's Fiction Feast and Prima and Ireland's Own.