“Aw, no, come on. Don’t go in there. I don’t want to go in there.” Sanne Jensen’s plea fell on deaf ears as her quarry hurdled the stile and took off over the field. She watched him flail about in the gathering dusk, slipping on slushy sheep shit, tripping over a random divot, and sending all the ewes scarpering. “He’s gone into the east field,” she said into her radio, one boot poised on the stile’s lower step. “Wish me luck.”
“Good luck!” Nelson sounded far too chipper for her liking, probably because he was bringing their car down the lane rather than hurdling hedgerows. “I’d say ‘break a leg’, but under the circumstances...”
“Yeah, yeah. Bugger off.”
He chuckled. “Do you want me to call for back-up?”
“Nelson, he’s about three stone soaking wet.” She jumped down from the stile. “And nine years old.”
“Kids are feisty at that age,” he said, over the crack of his tyres hitting a pothole.
“Yeah, tell me about it.” She sneezed into her gloved hand and started to jog across the frozen mud. The beam from her torch picked out the worst of the hazards, though it could do nothing about the wind slapping her hair into her eyes, or the snow that was beginning to fall. The flakes were as big as fifty pence pieces, and they quickly covered everything, hiding the thin streams flowing from overworked drainage pipes, and the icy puddle that suddenly sent the lad flying. Even from a distance, Sanne saw his arms pinwheel and his skinny legs twist like a pretzel. He yelped and disappeared over the edge of a small incline.
“Man down,” she told Nelson. “Not sure how far down, though.”
“Bloody hell.” He huffed, and she heard his car door slam. “I’m not dressed for this. All my long johns are in the wash.”
“That’s a shame.” She directed her torch into the ditch, tracking an obvious path in the newly flattened snow to where it ended in a small huddled form. The lad’s hand moved to shield his eyes as the light hit his face. “I’ve got him, Nelson,” she said. “He doesn’t seem too worse for wear. Hang fire if you want, and I’ll bring him out.”
“Oh, okay.” Another slam of the car door, followed by the rustling of material as Nelson settled back in his seat. “That’s a very good idea.”
Taking slow sideways steps, she negotiated the slope without coming a cropper and crouched by the lad. “Hey, Alfie.”
He looked up at her, his face streaked with snot and dirt and tears. “I didn’t mean f’t’ do it, miss,” he said. “Please don’t arrest me.”
She used a tissue to wipe the worst of the muck away. “What might I be arresting you for, Mr. Potts?” She and Nelson had gone to Alfie’s house to speak to his elder brother, but something had obviously sparked Alfie’s ill-advised flight.
“I pinched a couple of bags of crisps, miss,” he said, sniffling into his sleeve.
“Mmhm, did you now?”
He nodded, his eyes as big as dinner plates in the torchlight. His toes were poking from holes in the ends of his trainers, and he looked like a bag of bones. “And these,” he muttered. Gold flashed onto the snow as he emptied his trouser pockets. For a second, Sanne thought bank robbing might run in the family, before she realised exactly what the loot was. She selected the largest of the coins and peeled off its foil wrapping.
“You hurt anywhere?” she asked, offering him the disc of chocolate.
“No, miss. Just cold.” He stuffed the entire coin into his mouth, as if worried she might have second thoughts and confiscate it as evidence.
She took off her coat and wrapped it around him. “Shall we get you home, then?”
He nodded and gripped the hand she held out. “Am I going to get done for nicking stuff?”
She glanced down at him. His dad was already serving three to five for assault with a deadly weapon, his brother was their prime suspect for an armed raid at a local NatWest, and his mum had another three children under the age of twelve. He flicked a coin in his fingers, making it disappear like a magician.
“I got these for our Corey,” he said. “He loves ’em.”
“Well, they are irresistible,” she said. “How’s about I let you off with a warning, just this once?”
He grinned at her, displaying gappy teeth speckled with chocolate. “Thanks, miss. Me mum would’ve clobbered me.”
Sanne waved at Nelson as they neared the stile, and then bent double as a fit of coughing hit her.
“Aw, no, San,” he said, stepping well back. “I thought you’d got rid of that.”
“Yeah, you and me both,” she said, and sneezed into her hanky.
“On the last day before Christmas, Sheffield Royal gave to me...”
Standing by the Majors whiteboard, Meg Fielding cut herself off mid-verse to tot up the cubicles on her fingers. “Four UTIs, three abdo pains, two pissed-fallen-over—”
“And yet another red-flag bloody sepsis,” Liz concluded, far more tunefully, as she waved the ambulance pre-alert in front of Meg.
“Balls to that,” Meg said. “Asif’s in Resus. I’m sorting out a nineteen-year-old with bellyache and then I’m going home.”
“Sounds lovely.” Liz gave her a tiny chocolate reindeer and laughed when she beheaded it. “Are you at Sanne’s mum’s tomorrow?”
“Nope. Teresa has well and truly got the travel bug, and is currently living it large in Tenerife with a friend she met on her cruise. Tomorrow will be me and San, on our own, tucked away in her little cottage, stuffing our faces with crispy roast spuds and pigs in blankets.”
“Please tell me she’s cooking.”
“She is. She insisted.” Meg did her best to look mystified. “I offered to help, but she declined rather strenuously.”
“Can’t imagine why.” Liz passed her the notes for her chosen cubicle. “The hCG’s positive, by the way. Have fun.”
Meg groaned and stuck two fingers up at her. “I hope Father Christmas puts coal in your stocking,” she said, and went the long way round to the cubicle in question. Despite her best efforts to make eye contact with all the junior doctors en route, not one of them waylaid her, and she eventually conceded defeat, pulling back the curtain on cubicle seven and stepping over its threshold.
“Good evening,” she said, startling a young couple who had clearly decided that the four-foot gap between the bed and the visitor’s chair was too much distance for them to bear, and had both squeezed onto the trolley.
“Uh.” The lad cleared his throat. He’d turned so pink that his acne was glowing. “Do you want me to, uh...?” He pointed at the chair.
“If you wouldn’t mind,” Meg said. She waited for him to disembark, unplug his mobile charger from the wall, and retrieve the vomit bowl he’d kicked under the bed.
“Fer fuck’s sake, Dylan.” His girlfriend rolled her eyes and then did it again for the benefit of everyone on Snapchat.
“Right,” Meg said, in her best back-to-business voice. “I’m Dr. Fielding, and you must be Maria Stevens. Your triage notes state you’ve had low central abdominal pain and intermittent vomiting for a couple of weeks. Have you noticed a pattern to the vomiting?”
“It’s green, mostly,” Maria said, after a pause for careful deliberation. “And it splashes everywhere.”
“My fault for asking,” Meg muttered, and attempted to clarify. “Is there a particular time of day when it’s at its worst? Evening, for example? Or after meals? Or perhaps first thing in the morning?”
Dylan clicked his fingers. “That one.”
“Meals or morning?”
“Morning. It’s every morning, and she’s chubbed up a bit too.”
“‘Chubbed up a bit.’” Meg scribbled in her notes. “This is all useful stuff, Dylan. Any guesses from either of you as to what might be going on?”
“Our Martha reckons it’s irritable bowel, ’cos I’m all bloated and my jeggings won’t fit,” Maria said. “And she’s always googling, so she’d know.”
“Excellent. It’s very helpful when you’ve done your research. Doctors love it.” Meg pulled on a pair of gloves. “Scoot down a bit and roll up your sweater for me.” She carefully palpated Maria’s abdomen, noting the lack of guarding, rebound tenderness, or any reaction whatsoever beside a giggle when she hit a ticklish spot.
“Is it trapped wind?” Maria asked. “Our Martha’s been giving me loads of peppermints, but they just make me hungry.”
“She’s hungry all the time,” Dylan confirmed. “’Cept when she’s puking.”
Meg flicked her gloves into the bin and perched on the edge of its lid. “You’re pregnant,” she said, deciding to take the bull by the proverbial.
Dylan’s jaw dropped so low that his gum fell to the floor. “Shut the fuck up.”
Maria gaped at her. “I can’t be. He’s never...he always...I just can’t be.”
“Have you been using protection?” Meg asked gently.
“Rhythm,” Maria said. “Just like our Martha told me.”
No, then, Meg thought, but she gritted her teeth. “The rhythm method is only about seventy-five percent effective, and it’s completely useless against any kind of STI. Can you remember the date of your last period?”
Maria frowned, checked her phone’s calendar, and continued to frown, which went some way toward explaining her current predicament. “Ten weeks?” she hazarded at length.
“Is that how old Dylan Jnr. is?” Dylan said. He stood by the bed and leaned his ear against Maria’s abdomen. “I can’t feel him kicking or owt.”
“He might be a girl,” Maria snapped.
“And she’s currently the size of a walnut,” Meg added. “She won’t be booting you for a while yet.”
Dylan shoved back on the bed and took Maria’s hand. “What do we do now, Doc?”
Meg sat on the bed with them and propped her feet on the side rail. “I’ll refer you up to the Early Pregnancy Unit. They’ll be able to do a preliminary assessment, make sure everything’s ticking along, and answer any questions you might have.”
“We’re keeping her,” Maria said, her hands encircling her belly. “She’s like a miracle or summat.”
“We can call her Holly,” Dylan said. “Because it’s festive.”
“She’ll probably be due in midsummer,” Meg pointed out, but they weren’t listening.
Marie grasped Dylan’s hand. “What about Angel?”
“Satsuma,” Dylan murmured.
“You mean Clementine,” Meg said.
“Yeah, that too.” He beamed at her. “This is better than the year I got a BMX.”
Meg couldn’t help but smile. “I’ll finish your paperwork. You take care now. All three of you.”
She left them smooching and wandered back to the nurses’ station, where Liz was drawing up drugs and snarling at a doctor’s handwriting.
“How’d it go?” Liz asked.
Meg slumped on the stool next to her. “I think I’m getting soft in my old age. They’re both nineteen, unemployed, and gormless as the day is long, but they were so happy that I almost felt a tug on a heartstring.”
Liz attached a large needle to an equally oversized syringe. “Better watch that. You have a reputation to uphold.”
“I know.” Meg threw up her hands. “Whatever will become of me?”
“Whatever will become of them, more like.”
Meg unwrapped a drumstick lolly and stuck it in the corner of her cheek. “I’m sure Marie, Dylan, and little Satsuma will be just fine.”
Liz slapped the syringe onto the desk. “Satsuma? Get the fuck out.”
Meg laughed and kissed her on the cheek. “Merry Christmas, mate. I am done. I am off to the shops, and then I am going home.”
“’Twas the night before Christmas and all through the office,” Nelson said, his smooth baritone carrying across the desk he shared with Sanne, “the only thing you could hear was Sanne Jensen snotting.”
Sanne laughed, hacked up what might have been a hairball, and lobbed a tissue at him. “Fuck off, it’s not funny,” she said, and thumped her head onto her folded arms. “Ow.”
She’d had the virus for a week. Seven days of phlegm, fever, wheezing, and Fred calling her ‘Rudolph’. Eleanor had given her three days off as time owed in lieu, and she’d been a good little patient for Meg, putting her feet up, taking regular paracetamol, and relinquishing her hot water bottle when her temperature spiked. Declaring herself fully recovered, she had returned to work a day earlier than expected and promptly relapsed after chasing a nine-year-old through a load of sheep crap. There was undoubtedly a moral to the story, if she looked hard enough.
“More tea?” Nelson asked, all innocence.
She squinted up at him. “Yes, please.”
He collected her mug and ducked beneath the crime scene tape quarantine that George had erected around their desks. No one wanted to be ill for Christmas, but George had at least made her a postbox for cards and presents before spritzing the perimeter with hand sanitizer and hot-footing it to the other side of the office.
She twiddled her mouse, reviving her report on the day’s escapades. A trip to the Mission Cross had seen Alfie return home with new shoes and a food hamper, while his brother was now spending Christmas Eve in the custody suite, having been arrested by two eagle-eyed response officers.
She turned to see Fred attempting to limbo beneath the tape and almost garrotting himself when he overestimated how flexible he was.
“Bleedin’ hell,” he said.
“God, be careful!” She reached across and raised the tape for him. “Martha will have your guts for garters if you knacker your back again. Oh, hey, that reminds me”—she rummaged in her desk drawer and retrieved a small gift bag—“This is for your lovely bride-to-be, and you are not allowed to peek at it until the big day.”
He blushed to the tips of his ears. “Is it lacy?”
“I’m not telling,” she said, adding an extra strip of tape to the top of the bag. “Let’s just say it fulfils the new and the blue part of the tradition, and leave it at that.”
He took her hand and kissed the back of it, and then plonked a cake box on her lap. “Home made,” he said, as if there was any doubt. “Martha’s had them currants soaking for six months, so don’t drive after you’ve had a slice.”
Sanne raised the box and took a deep breath. Even with a stuffed-up nose, she could smell the heady mix of brandy and spices. Christmas cake and Christmas puds were the only boozy things she ever indulged in, but there were some traditions she was happy to be a lapsed teetotaller for.
“Tell Martha thank you, and we will see you both on the thirty-first.”
“Suited and booted?”
She gave him a one-armed, still-seated hug. “Suited, booted, and ready with the buttonholes, I promise. Meg is positively beside herself at the prospect of seeing me in a three-piece. Now, go on, get out of here before you catch my lurgy.”
He did as instructed, holding the tape for Nelson and then Eleanor, who already had her coat on.
“Well, you look like death warmed over,” she told Sanne.
Sanne winced. “Thanks, boss. Did the sarge get anything out of Eddie Potts?”
“Nothing besides expletives.” Eleanor perched on the edge of Sanne’s desk, well beyond sneezing range. “But the bank recovered an extra CCTV file upon which the stupid sod can be seen raising his mask to light a cigarette, so he’ll be spending his next few Christmases at her Majesty’s pleasure.” She took a bottle of whiskey from her bag and set it in front of Nelson, and then handed Sanne a gift card for Sheffield’s most eclectic sweetshop. “Don’t spend it all at once.”
Sanne laughed. “I won’t. I’ll be sure to pace myself.”
“Home time, you two,” Eleanor said. “If I see one report submitted beyond the next ten minutes, I’ll put you on a warning. Have a merry Christmas.”
She negotiated the tape with remarkable grace for someone wearing two-inch heels and strode toward the exit.
“You heard her, San,” Nelson said, logging off his computer and gathering his belongings. “We are officially on holiday.” He met her on her side of the desk and offered his arm.
“Aren’t you afraid I’ll sneeze on you?”
He put his arm around her and pulled her close. “I think you’re worth the risk,” he said.
A thick layer of fresh snow made Meg’s drive down the access lane to Sanne’s cottage even trickier than usual. She fishtailed around the final bend, shouted an obligatory “Hallo, sheep!” to the flock in the neighbouring field, and slammed her anchors on just in time to avoid colliding with Sanne’s Landie. The bang of the car boot must have disturbed Git Face, because he crowed his disapproval from the safety of the coop.
“Shut it, you little monster,” she said. “If I had my way, we’d be serving you up for tomorrow’s dinner.”
Laden with bags, she took care walking down the path, guided by the snow sparkling silver-blue in the glow of the full moon. Her breath puffed out in frosty clouds as she stopped on the step and looked back across the garden, toward the fields and the distant hills. It was so quiet that she could hear the rustle of the snowflakes landing on the hedgerows, and the only light she could see came from the night sky. The Dark Peak was beautiful no matter the season or the weather, and she didn’t think she would ever grow tired of living here. Smiling, she unlocked the front door and launched her bags into the hallway.
“Anybody home?” she called from the mat. There was no answer, so she swapped her hiking boots for ridiculous fur-lined slipper boots and headed for the living room. “Hallo? San? You in here?”
“Mm. Hiya.” Sanne sounded half asleep, and Meg found her lying the length of the sofa, almost hidden beneath a mound of throw rugs, with Pickle, their idiotic rescue kitten, snoring on her chest. She hadn’t lit the fire or turned on the heating, and all the Christmas lights were off. On the telly, a perky yet wholesome brunette was imploring a moustache-twirling businessman not to close her orphanage for cute kids and puppies.
Meg perched on the arm of the sofa, taking in the pile of screwed-up tissues and Sanne’s reddened eyes. “Sanne Jensen, you’re not—are you? Are you crying,” she checked the TV guide, “at Save My Christmas Kiddiwinks?”
Sanne laughed and then coughed, disturbing Pickle, who yawned and eyeballed Meg.
“I’m not crying, you daft sod,” Sanne said. “Although I did have a bit of a moment when three scruffy little cherubs sang Silent Night a cappella.” She sighed and picked an imaginary speck of fluff off the blanket. “My lurgy came back.”
“Oh, San.” Meg crouched beside her and put a hand on her forehead. She felt warm but not overly so.
“That’s nice,” Sanne said, nudging up into Meg’s palm. “Keep doing that.”
“I’m not going to say I told you so.” Meg changed hands, swapping her newly heated palm for her cool one, and rearranging damp tufts of Sanne’s hair. “But I did strongly recommend—” She frowned and tugged on the uppermost blanket to reveal Sanne’s T-shirt. “Did you go for a bloody run?”
Sanne chewed her bottom lip. She would probably have denied it, were she not still wearing her gear. “Only a short one.”
“I give up,” Meg said. “You’re dafter than that cat, and his favourite game is trying to get in the log burner. While it’s burning.”
“I thought it’d make me feel better. Kill or cure, y’know?”
“Couldn’t make it upstairs to get changed, though, eh?” Meg said in a softer tone. She knew how much Sanne loathed being ill, and thankfully it didn’t happen very often.
Sanne shook her head. “I went all dizzy, so I thought I’d lie down and watch cheesy Christmas crap until you got home and shouted at me.”
She looked so guilty that Meg couldn’t be angry with her. “Sorry, love. I’m not really cross.” Meg stroked her cheek. “Have you had any tea?”
“At work.” Sanne squinted at the clock on the mantel. “Maybe four and a half hours ago.”
“Can I trust you to stay put for five minutes?”
“Absolutely.” Sanne tucked a fold of blanket around Pickle and turned up the telly, getting a blast of Jingle Bells gangsta-style for her troubles. “Bloody Nora, I make a better tune blowing my nose,” she muttered, and hit mute again.
“Right, you, come on.”
Sanne blinked, momentarily disorientated, until she saw credits rolling on the television and realised she’d dozed off some time before the film’s heart-warming finale.
“Where’m I going?” she said, her mouth gummy enough to stick her words together.
“Into the bath.” Meg held out her hand. “Before I have to prise those shorts off you with a palette knife.”
“Promises, promises.” Sanne set Pickle in a nest of pre-warmed bedding and then tripped over her own feet when her head began to spin. “Uh-oh.” She sagged against Meg, who managed to keep her upright by grabbing and then pinching her arm. “Hey! That hurt.”
“Are you going to faint on me?”
“No,” Sanne said, as the nip of pain cleared her head. “Do you do that to all your patients?”
“Only those I’m very fond of.”
Citrus-scented steam billowed from the bathroom when Meg opened the door. Sanne stopped midway across the tiles, drawing in deep breaths that cleared the stuffiness from her nose and eased the tickle in her throat.
“Arms up,” Meg told her, and she obliged without complaint, letting Meg take off her running top and stepping out of her shorts and underwear when Meg slid them down her legs. Goose pimples rose in the wake of Meg’s fingers, and Sanne shivered at the gentle touch. Reading her like a book, Meg chuckled and pressed her lips to Sanne’s belly.
“You need to get better very quickly,” she murmured, her lips still moving against Sanne’s skin.
“I will,” Sanne said, almost dancing on the tiles. “I am highly motivated.”
“That’s good to know.” Meg steered her toward the bath. “Shout me before you get out. I don’t want you keeling over.”
Sanne groaned as she sank below the suds. “I will shout, and I won’t keel, I promise.”
Kneeling by the tub, Meg dabbed froth onto Sanne’s nose and then smiled and gathered a whole handful of foam. “Remember this?” she asked, fashioning herself a beard and matching ’tache.
Sanne laughed. “How could I forget?”
They had been seven years old and giddy as kippers, sharing a bath on Christmas Eve. Their dads were at the pub, and their mums were downstairs wrapping last-minute presents and filling the house with the smell of brandy snaps and mince pies. Sanne hadn’t got the roller boots she’d wanted, but she’d got to spend Christmas Eve with Meg, making foam Father Christmas beards and sneaking out of bed to spend hours cuddled up by the window, waiting to see whether they could spot his sleigh. They had fallen asleep there eventually, wrapped in bedspreads and each other’s arms.
“I keep thinking this is our first Christmas,” Sanne said. “And I keep thinking I’ve wrecked it by being ill.”
Meg used a sponge to wipe Sanne’s face clean. “Naw, San. We’ve had loads of Christmases, and you haven’t wrecked anything. You forgot the cardinal rule, that’s all.”
“I know, I know: never kiss ’em on the lips. I couldn’t help it. She’s cute, and she caught me off guard.”
Kiera—her unofficial favourite of Keeley’s many kids—had been standing in Sanne’s lap at the time, carefully dividing Sanne’s hair into tiny pigtails. The first sneeze had been enough of a warning, and Sanne was on the verge of beating a hasty retreat when Kiera kissed her. Full on the mouth. Snot and all.
“The cute ones are the ones you have to watch out for, San. They’re proper sneaky.”
“True,” Sanne said, but then tilted her head, considering. “But I don’t think you’re sneaky.”
Meg bopped Sanne’s nose with the sponge. “That kind of flattery will get you all sorts of lovely festive treats. Later. When you’ve stopped coughing. We could possibly pencil them in for New Year.”
“New Year?” Sanne covered her face with a flannel. “How’s about Boxing Day?”
“Don’t push your bloody luck.” Meg tugged the flannel away and kissed Sanne’s forehead. “Have your bath, and I’ll make you a cheese toastie.”
“Close your eyes,” Meg said, stopping Sanne by the living room door.
Sanne did as she was told, stepping over the threshold with her eyes firmly shut and her hands held over them for good measure. Without her sight, her other senses kicked up a notch; she could hear the crackle and snap of the fire, and smell something savoury that made her mouth water. She let Meg manoeuvre her into the centre of the room.
“Okay, you can look now.”
Sanne lowered her hands and turned in a slow circle. “Oh! It’s beautiful.”
Meg had obviously bought a load of new Christmas lights, and she had decked out the living room like a fairy grotto, draping them across the mantelpiece and around the hearth, and adding more to the tree. The fire was burning brightly, blasting out heat and throwing shadows onto the walls, and the sofa had been turned to face the window. Bowls of soup sat on the coffee table beside toasties and a packet of Hobnobs.
“Is it okay?” Meg asked, and Sanne could still see that seven-year-old in her, flushed with happiness and expectation.
“It’s absolutely perfect.”
They ate on the sofa, dipping the toasties in the soup and then the biscuits into fresh brews.
“How are you feeling?” Meg asked, cradling her mug with both hands and poking Sanne’s slippered foot with her own.
“Fine.” Sanne’s standard reply came automatically, but then she hesitated, surprised to realise it was the truth. “Actually, quite a lot better.”
“Cheddar is renowned for its restorative powers,” Meg said, and then shook her head in despair as Pickle pinched a piece of Hobnob and darted under the tree with it. “That dreadful beast has no manners whatsoever.”
“I don’t know who he gets it from,” Sanne said, watching Meg use her thumb to poke crumbs out of her tea.
“It’s a mystery.” Meg yawned, shuffling down and leaning her head back. “How much snow are we forecast?”
Thick flakes were drifting onto the sill, and Sanne’s front garden was barely discernible beneath a deep layer of white.
“Lots. It’s a good job we’re off for a few days and well provisioned.”
“Mm. Git Face is always an option if we get desperate.” Meg lifted her arm so Sanne could tuck herself in.
“He’d be tough as old boots, and we’d have to catch the little swine first,” Sanne said. “He’s proper nippy for an old chook.” She nestled close and rested her head on Meg’s chest.
“True. We should probably go to bed.” Meg’s words were a low rumble beneath Sanne’s ear.
“Probably,” Sanne said, arranging blankets over them. “Or we could sit here in front of the fire and watch the sky until we fall asleep.”
“Okay, I’m going to vote for that.” Meg settled her cheek against the top of Sanne’s head. “I wonder how many Christmases it’s been for us now.”
“I have no idea.” Sanne couldn’t even begin to count them. “Loads. Some better than others.”
“Aye,” Meg said. She was quiet for a few seconds, no doubt remembering a few she’d tried to forget. “San?”
“Only good ones from now on, all right?”
Sanne found Meg’s hand and held it tightly. “Only the very best ones,” she said.
*** The End ***