Mr Scottley's house was so beautiful.
It was like a fairy tale.
The Christmas tree was at least ten feet high, covered with fairy lights. It was a real tree, and it had that gorgeous smell, clean and fresh and piney.
There were candy canes hanging from it, and chocolate baubles.
Angeline just couldn't get over it.
Now, Mr Scottley was an eminently sensible man.
He knew that Mrs Williams had her pride. Showering her and her offspring with gifts was out of the question.
So his present to her was to book her into a posh hotel for Christmas night.
Somehow it had been agreed that Boxing Day was to be spent with Brian. Someone had suggested it, and Livvy had piped up that it was a capital idea.
Mum wasn't so sure , but Olivia and her sister were all for it.
Besides, Mr Whiskers had no family, and no one should be alone at Christmas.
The bed was huge. The biggest bed they'd ever seen. So soft and comfy.
And the en suite! It was enormous.....with a big bathtub, a walk-in shower, two sinks, as well as a toilet and a bidet.
"Why is there a big toilet and a little toilet? Angeline asked. "Is it a special toilet for children?"
"No darling! It's not a toilet at all." Mum laughed. "It's for washing your bum tiddy um pum pum!"
Sniggers and giggles all round.
Having a really deep bubble bath was such a luxury! Laying back amongst the foam. Heaving a contented sigh.
A large snowy white fluffy towel to envelop yourself in afterwards.
Pretty much everything they owned was in the brown leather suitcase. A few clothes each. A couple of books and photographs.
It wasn't much.
Just what they had managed to salvage from the wreckage of the van.
But their mother had a knack of making even the darkest hour seem fun, an adventure, and this was the best adventure of all.
Changing into their pyjamas and settling down, all in the bed together, Mum made up a story.
Of princesses and castles, and knights in shining armour. Until Angeline fell fast asleep.
"Mum? Do you like Mr Whiskers?" Livvy enquired. Their heads side by side on the pillow.
"Of course! He's a dear." She replied.
"What is it Livvy?" Mum turned to face her eldest daughter, to find the childish brow furrowed, her look very grave and serious.
"Do you think you will fall in love with him?" She asked, tentatively.
"Oh Livvy! I doubt it. We don't need anyone, do we? Us three? We're perfectly happy as we are....."
Livvy Williams was silent.
"Night mum." She said, and turned over.
The door at the top of the second staircase was opened and flung back, a welcoming smile and a little mew from the floor next to his feet.
Bending, he scooped up the fluffy black and white bundle.
"Merry Christmas, one and all!" He said cheerily. "Come on in, out of the cold! This is Ruby!" He held the tiny cat close to his chest. "Say hello to everyone Ruby!"
Brian's flat was small. It was very clean and very tidy.
His doorman's uniform with its gold buttons, braid and epaulets hung on a padded hanger in the hallway, covered in polythene. Fresh from the dry cleaners.
The blue top hat in a box beside it.
A little tinsel tree stood on a small table to one side of the living room. There were presents beneath it.
Paper chains festooned the ceiling and the walls.
Mum had a feeling they were hastily and quite recently added.
Brian was watching the flushed and excited faces apprehensively, as they divested themselves of coats, gloves, hats and scarves, once the pleasantries were exchanged.
The two girls immediately sitting themselves down on the carpet to fuss over Ruby, who was almost as shy and nervous as her owner.
From the kitchen came the delicious aroma of roasting.
Mum sniffed appreciatively.
"It's okay.....it's not turkey!" Brian said quietly. "Mr Scottley very kindly gave me a joint of beef."
He smiled, and his face lit up with it. Little laughter lines appearing in the corners of his eyes. In fact, he smiled with those eyes, mum decided. A distinct and discernible twinkle.
Mr Scottley knew that his employee had as much pride as Mrs Williams. He also knew that he was a good reliable worker, a loyal and kind man, who didn't have much.
So it was in a quiet and surreptitious way that he'd offered the joint of meat to Brian.
"I hear you unexpectedly have extra mouths to feed tomorrow!" He said, in his usual ebullient manner, drawing Brian slightly to one side.
"The supermarkets are closed today, but I have more here than I can possibly eat by myself. I'm going to my sister tomorrow, so perhaps you could do me a favour and make use of this, so that it won't go to waste?"
He gave Brian a beaming toothy smile through his fuzz of beard, and clapped him firmly and sharply on the back.
How could he say no?
It amounted to a feast. Easily comparable to the fine Christmas dinner he'd already given them.
In a large saucepan on the stove, a Christmas pudding boiled noisily. The lid lifting and sinking as the steam leaked out at one side.
They began with games. Not conventional, run of the mill games, but games which Mum made up as she went along.
A version of ludo, in which you won a sweet every time you threw a six, and had to do a dance or sing a song when one of your counters reached home.
Happy Families, where the idea was to make the most oddly matched family possible.
Mr Bun the baker was married to Mrs Bone the butcher's wife, and their children were Peter Plod who was supposed to be the son of the policeman, and Katy Kipper the daughter of the fishmonger! Basically there were no rules. But there was a great deal of laughter.
After dinner, which was very tasty indeed, eaten all squashed together round Brian's little kitchen table, it was time for gifts.
"But Mr Whiskers! We don't have a present for you......" Livvy was most upset, as a parcel was placed in her hands.
"My present is having you, and Angeline, and your mum." He replied, in that soft and gentle Scottish burr he had, which Livvy thought sounded like warm syrup on a steamed pudding.
She opened it, and took out an encyclopaedia. It was from Scottley's book department, and it was the kind of present that made Olivia Williams the happiest person in the world.
"Thank you so much, Mr Whiskers! Can I give you a kiss?" She asked him, timidly.
"Of course!" He responded warmly, indicating a spot on his left cheek. She pecked him there, and he blushed furiously.
"Angeline! It's your turn now!" She cried, turning to her sister.
Angeline's parcel contained a brand new baby doll, because Brian had noticed that her old one had been badly scorched in the van explosion, and was very much in need of replacing. He'd bought it from the Toy Department especially for her.
Hugging it to her. She beamed a grateful smile.
"I love her Mr Whiskers. I'm going to call her Ruby."
Brian turned to his cat, who was scuffling around in the discarded wrapping paper.
"Did you hear that Ruby? She's named after you!" He laughed.
Reaching under the tree for a third time, he took out another small package, and handed it to Mum.
"This one is yours!" His eyes gave that precious little twinkle again, and the girls gathered close to see what their mother had been given.
It was a very long time since anyone had bought anything by way of a present for Mum, and an even longer time since she had treated herself.
Her embarrassment was painfully self evident.
"You shouldn't have bought me anything......" She frowned, " because I didn't expect it, and I don't have anything to give you in return."
"Christmas is all about the giving, not the receiving." He replied. "It's only a small gift, but I thought you might like it."
Inside the shiny paper was a small painted box. It was made of wood, pale blue, lacquered, and decorated in a brightly coloured Asian pattern.
"It's to keep earrings and things in......." Brian said, as she opened it, looking up into his face as she did so.
"........only I noticed you wear dangly earrings and stuff, so I thought it might be useful."
Mum was quite overcome.
"How very thoughtful, it's a lovely gift. Thank you Brian. You're a dear." Her smile was gone, and she looked very serious.
Sitting forwards awkwardly, she placed a small kiss on his cheek, then rubbed it with her thumb where she left a lipstick mark.
Brian coloured visibly.
Livvy and Angeline nudged each other and winked.
"Well!" Exclaimed he, clapping his hands together, to diffuse the situation. "Who's going to come out into the snow? I think we should work off the scrumptious dinner, and build a snowman. Is anyone with me?"
"Me! Me!" Both girls hopped up and down with glee.
Mum found herself watching Brian discreetly out of the corner of her eye, she couldn't help herself.
He went down on his knees in front of Angeline, buttoning her into her duffle coat, pulling her hat over her ears.
Talking to her the whole time.
"We need to make sure your little earholes are covered up! Or else Jack Frost will nip them off!"
He tweaked them with his fingers, and she dissolved into fits of giggles. Unaware of the scrutiny, he then turned to wooly mittens.
"Fingers too." He whispered, with a cheeky grin from under his moustache. "Jack Frost just loves little fingers!"
Mrs Williams was not the only one regarding Brian thus.
Livvy, too, was observing the man.
He was quite unlike any male of the species she'd ever known. Not that she'd known many.
The ones she'd encountered so far seemed rather boring, or eminently stupid, or both. Mr Whiskers was neither. He was nice, and she liked him more than she could possibly say.
Olivia did not remember her father.
Long gone, shortly after her sister appeared in fact.
A free spirit. A dreamer. Selfish. Unreliable. Hopeless with money. Not father material at all.
Mum didn't know it, but Livvy knew her parents had never married.
She'd been aware for a long time that her Dad had basically done a runner. Abandoned them.
He was not working down a well, or a mine, or salvaging on an oil rig, nor yet in the Foreign Legion.
Livvy Williams was a bright, practical and sensible child.
Not for one moment was she fooled by the parcels her mother sent to herself, pretending they were from their dad. Or the stories she told of how they would meet up with him, if only he could get away.
It wasn't that mum told lies exactly.
It was just that she wanted to keep up the pretence. Give them hope. Even if she had none herself.
An imaginary loving father figure in their lives.
But all she really knew in her life was the three of them together, a little self sufficient unit.
Mum was everything. Scatty and sometimes forgetful, but with a huge loving heart, boundless joy and imagination.
Now, here she was, looking on, as Brian stood up, tied her sister's scarf in place, and laughed as it muffled her, Angeline's beaming grin peeping out from between bobble hat and knitted neck warmer.
"There we go!" He declared. "Nanook of the North!" His hands on his hips as he surveyed his handiwork.
Suddenly there were tears pricking the back of her young eyes, an ache in her chest, and she didn't know why.
A winter wonderland.
Deep and crisp and even.
It had begun snowing on Christmas night, when they were at Mr Scottley's house, and continued until the following morning.
Not slushy wet snow, but crunchy pristine fluffy whiteness.
Like sugar icing.
As it was now afternoon, as they reached the park, the weak December sun was setting fast. Spangling through the trees as it sank lower and lower.
Everything tinted golden yellow for a few moments.
Then it was gone, below the horizon, and the sky was painted with a palette of pastels.
Candy floss and lilac, tangerines and butter, all melding into one, as the short day came to it's premature close.
The girls ran off to frolic in the undinted frozen pillow softness, rolling and kicking their feet, running and spinning. Lying down and making snow angels.
Mum put two fingers in her mouth and gave a piercing whistle.
"Girls! Stay close now!" She warned.
"That's some talent!" Brian observed, with a chuckle.
The two adults strolled companionably side by side.
"They've enjoyed themselves so much today." Mum remarked, nodding towards her daughters.
"Me too." He replied. His hands were thrust deep into his pockets, and he was gazing pointedly straight ahead.
"Where will you go?" He asked, his breath swirling around his face in clouds as he spoke.
"The council have found us a decent place."
She bent and gathered a snowball, throwing it expertly over arm, smacking Livvy square in the back.
A yelp of indignation, followed by a volley in return, threatening to turn into a full blown fight.
Brian ducked as one just missed his head.
"But will you stay there?" His question was a gentle probe, tentative, but requiring an honest answer.
"Who knows!" The reply was noncommittal, almost glib. "Putting down roots isn't really me, I like to keep moving."
"What about them?" He inclined his head towards the sisters, the one now brushing down the coat of her younger sibling.
"Oh, they like moving too. They love it. It's a big adventure." She gave a smile which didn't quite reach her eyes.
"Do they?" He turned to look at her then, his eyebrows were raised slightly, as if asking a question to which he already knew the answer.
All her bravado faded, she seemed to diminish, as if a light inside her had been switched off.
"They hate it. Especially Livvy. She wants to go to school......one school, where they know her name, and where she can make friends. Have them round to tea. She wants to be normal......God! I'm such an awful mother!"
Brian stopped in his tracks, turning to face her. Yet keeping his distance carefully.
"You're a wonderful mother!" He affirmed, honestly. "Unconventional perhaps, but you love those girls more than life itself. Anyone can see that!"
"That's as maybe. But look how we all ended up! Living in a department store! We have nothing. They have nothing! No real home. No dad. A mother with old socks for brains.....it's no life for a child at all."
"You have each other! That's more important than anything material. You may be paupers in possessions, but you're rich in love. I don't have that. I don't have a family at all, I have a cat! And a scruffy one at that!"
They walked on, and Brian suddenly found an arm insinuated deftly through his, linked at the elbow and pulled in tight.
It felt nice.
"Why are you on your own Brian? You seem so kind, so friendly......why has no one snapped you up?"
Her cheeks were rosy with the cold, the tip of her nose red, flecks of snow in her spiky hair, the expression earnest, and perhaps a little sad.
"Dunno." He replied, with a disconsolate shrug. "Haven't found the right one I guess. Perhaps I'm just too picky. I've spent the last year fending off the attentions of Miss Greystone. Evidently she was doing moustache research! She was apparently desperately keen to find out if it tickled!"
Mum laughed out loud.
"I can't see myself with any man. I value my independence too much. Afraid I'll be stifled or worse. Men are okay in small doses, but in the end, ultimately they all let you down. I've got used to relying on myself."
Brian gave a little wistful smile.
"Not all men are untrustworthy! You shouldn't judge all by what you've known so far."
Scuffing his feet through the snow, as if pondering, he looked up suddenly, as if reaching a decision.
"I was just like you once, you know." He admitted. Mum stared at him in surprise.
"Oh, yes!" He continued. "I lived in a van, moved around all the time."
"A Bedford....yes.....I remember now, you told me. Heavy on the petrol aren't they? Gear box is a bugger!"
They chuckled together for a second or two.
"I was a bit of a hippy. Yes......I know......." He held one hand up before she could speak, ".....hard to believe, but there it is. I travelled from place to place, playing my guitar, a bit of busking, odd jobs here and there. But eventually I got fed up with never having a place to truly call home."
"So you came to work at Scottley's?"
"And did you find it? What you were looking for? Are you happy?" Her question was almost sharp, as if she would immediately disagree with him, when he admitted he was.
Well, there was a curve ball!
"I like the work, I like meeting people, it's a regular job. Decent hours. The money isn't great, but that's not the most important thing to me. I just think I've gradually become a bit solitary. Now people look at me and say I'm 'eccentric'. On the road we shared everything, it was a sort of community. Right now I'm in a club of one."
"My point exactly!" She cried, releasing his arm and throwing her hands in the air. "And that's what I don't want to happen to me! Become a shrivelled old husk, miserable and lonely."
Brian frowned, and looked desolate.
"Thanks!" He muttered, but before he could say more the children returned to their side.
"Mummy. I've had enough now. Can we go back? I'm freezing!" Angeline's little voice piped.
"Of course you can my chicks! Come on, let's run, it'll warm you up!"
It was as if Mrs Williams had been saved from certain death. Her words stung even herself. She was never judgemental, never nasty, and what she said to Brian was horrible.
No one knew better than she, what it was like not to fit in, to be a little 'different'.
How ghastly she felt.
Giving a big puff of guilt and frustration and taking both her girls by the hands she ran with them. Leaving Brian standing, looking after them, cold and forlorn.
It was Livvy who ran back. Reaching him breathlessly.
"Come on, dear Mr Whiskers!" She smiled, and took his hand in her own, holding tight to his chilly fingers. "Don't be sad!"
Steaming cups of hot chocolate. With floating marshmallows.
Their cheeks as red as roses, fingers and toes coming back to life.
Full of the events of the day.
Damp hats and coats and mittens lined up along the radiator to dry.
A Christmas such as they'd never had before in their lives.
The girls were on the floor, with Ruby clambering over them.
Brian and mum sat side by side on the sofa.
"Where are you staying tonight?" Brian's eyes found mum's over the rim of his cup.
"Hostel. We move into our new place in the New Year. So it's only for a week." She replied, her top lip sporting a frothy brown moustache.
"Mum, you look like Mr Whiskers!" Angeline giggled. Livvy jerked an elbow in her direction and held a finger to her lips.
"And you'll stick around?" He continued, unperturbed.
"Maybe. We'll have to see." Her reply was deliberately evasive.
"Only, I was thinking. When you start work at Scottley's perhaps we could see each other sometimes? As friends of course."
Brian was aware that both the girls had gone very quiet. As if they were each holding their breath.
"Well.....that would depend......." Mum responded, eying him with a mischievous grin.
"On what?" He was quite taken aback and unsure of what was coming next. Goodness, this woman! So confusing! Such a minefield.
"On your definition of friendship." She nudged him slightly with her shoulder. Neither Livvy nor Angeline made a murmur.
"Well.......I........" He blustered. " I wasn't implying anything untoward......if that's what you're driving at......."
Mum gave him a wicked wink.
"Well, I was hoping that perhaps you were working up to asking me out on a date.......?"
She paused, as she watched the cogs in his head turn slowly, as he processed her words and tried to make sense of what she was trying to tell him.
"I......I......wanted to......but I thought........" He stammered, quite unable to form a coherent sentence.
"But of course, if you ONLY want to be friends......that'd be fine too!" She winked again, but this time at her girls, who sat in silence, a barely contained explosion, like two pop bottles which had recently been shaken up, and the lids about to be unscrewed.
"NO!........I mean......no!" The words came out all in a flurry. "I think you're absolutely wonderful, and I'd be honoured, if you......if you would consent to........."
Mum laid a hand on his arm, comfortingly.
"Brian." She said softly. "I'm teasing you, and making you all embarrassed. For that I'm sorry, in fact I'm very sorry for lots of things, because you've been so sweet and kind to us. You are also extremely handsome, in spite of that rainforest on your top lip, and you have the most beautiful eyes I've ever seen.
I think that you and I should try to get to know each other a little better. Don't you?"
He nodded dumbly.
"Once we get settled, perhaps I can find a babysitter?" Her smile was so warm that Brian felt that his chest might just burst open with happiness.
It was late.
Time to go.
Both girls gave Brian a very warm and very genuine hug. Thanking him for their presents.
The parting of mum and Brian was a little more awkward.
"It's been so lovely. Thank you." She smiled, as they stood in the hall, facing one another.
"Don't forget, when you move in, I'll come and help you decorate." He said, shuffling his feet, and staring down at them fixedly.
"Right! Well! Come on then. Time we were gone!" Mum cried. They moved towards the door.
"Mum! Where are your manners? You should at least give Mr Whiskers a kiss goodnight." Livvy regarded her mother critically.
Mum shot her daughter a glance, and gave an eye roll.
"Oh, come here then!" She held out both arms, and Brian moved closer, hesitantly.
When their lips touched, there were no fireworks, no electric fizzle nor clap of thunder. Just a warm and extremely pleasant tingle, which made mum shiver and catch her breath, and made Brian feel as though he were slowly melting, from his mouth right down to his stripy socks.
It only lasted a few seconds before they both separated, his arms, which had snaked around her, now falling to his sides, coy and bashful, stepping away from her.
Mum put her hand to her own mouth, as if it burned.
"It doesn't!" She remarked, with an amused smirk. Reaching out a finger and touching it to his top lip.
"Doesn't what?" He looked confused.
"Tickle!" She giggled. "It feels all soft and lovely."
All four laughed heartily together.