1

1st December

Waterloo Station, London

 

 

She wasn’t meant to be here. That was the worst thing.

 

She should be sitting in a plush velvet seat at the bar, sipping a champagne cocktail, feeling a growing frisson as the minutes ticked by. Enjoying that little spark of tension not knowing exactly when he would arrive…

 

Nicola winced as she stepped on to the escalator, her shin colliding with a fold-up bike. Though rush hour was over, the escalator from the underground to the main station was packed solid on both sides. A crush of bodies, swinging rucksacks, surreptitious jostling and pushing. At the top of the escalator there was a pile-up and the tip of her stiletto heel almost got caught in the moving metal. With an almighty lurch into the man in front of her, she came on to stable ground.

 

Her phone buzzed in the pocket of her coat with an incoming text. She retrieved it, hope rekindling inside her. Maybe he’d changed his mind – he was texting to say that he was on his way to the little hotel on Charlotte Street that was their place. She pictured him: walking in, wearing his smart suit and black cashmere overcoat, his hair combed, his face clean-shaven, a hint of cologne. Polished and perfect, ready for her to dishevel, deconstruct. Teasing her, pretending to look at other women, but in the end, his eyes locking only on her…

 

Damn Ollie.

 

As she drifted along with the other commuters towards her usual platform, Nicola opened her messages. The new one was from Chrissie, her PA, reminding the department that Friday was ‘Christmas jumper day!’ She deleted it and opened the texts from Ollie in case she’d missed one. There were work texts, flirty texts, downright shocking texts. Texts that had once made her fizz with the anticipation of seeing him again. And the last text:

 

Sorry Nic, duty calls. Can’t make it tonight. Ox

 

Nicola put away her phone. It was fine – really– it would have to be. Shemade a plan. On the fast train, she’d be home in thirty minutes. Turn off her phone, kick off her shoes, have a long soak in the bathtub, a glass of wine. Or two—

‘I am sorry to announce that the nineteen twenty Southwestern Railway Service to Reading via Richmond is cancelled…’

The announcement droned on.

 

Nicola stopped moving and looked up at the boards. The words blurredas her eyes filled with tears. Every train delayed, cancelled. This was just… so… wrong—

 

Angels we have heard on high

Sweetly singing o’er the plains

And the mountains in reply

Echoing their joyous strains 

 

She turned as the chorus of voices rose up over the background noise. The crowd of commuters closed in around her. She was almost at the middle of the station opposite the WHSmith, where, over the weekend, a giant Christmas tree had been put up. Its branches were sprayed white, and it was trimmed with red and gold baubles and white lights. Above, the station clock was trimmed with a big red bow and sprigs of plastic mistletoe, like the stage set for a bad production of Brief Encounter.

 

In front of the tree, standing on risers, was a choir.

 

Glor oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo ria. In excelsis Deo!

Nicola looked at the earnest faces, the ‘O’ shaped mouths. The choir was made of up men and women of a range of ages – about twenty members in all – wearing red or green jumpers and black skirts or trousers. Some of the women had glitter hairbands of holly or reindeer antlers, and a few of the men were wearing Santa Claus hats. Along the sides of the risers, two women and a man were carrying around trays, passing out mince pies and iced gingerbread stars.

In front of the choir, his back to her, was the conductor. He was a tall man with thick dark hair that came down to the edge of his collar. He was wearing a black suit and knitted fingerless gloves in a bright Christmas pattern. She watched his hands: his right hand rose and fell vigorously in time with the music, while his left hand cued the various voices in the choir. He shifted on his feet, almost like a dance, conducting his band of train station carollers as if they were a famous choir singing at the Royal Albert Hall.

The jostling and nudging started up again as people in the crowd edged closer to get a better view. A few hardened-looking commuters dropped shoulder bags and rucksacks to their feet, and, after the next verse, began bellowing out the chorus:

Glor oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oo ria. In excelsis Deo!

 

Nicola tried to move away – she was in no mood for festive cheer – but she was hemmed in on all sides. If she could get through the crowd, she could pop in to M&S Food and buy a bottle of red wine. But, just then, a platform was announced (not her train) and a river of bodies flowed towards the ticket barriers. She gave up swimming against the tide, the M&S Food shop receding like a mythical island swallowed by mist. She managed to extricate herself near one of the old ladies with the trays of sweets.

 

‘Smile, dear,’ the old lady said cheerfully. ‘You look like you need a mince pie.’

 

‘No, I do not,’ Nicola said through her teeth, holding up her hand. She neededto get away. She squared her shoulders, ready to push her way out of the wake of the choir.

But as she did so, the song ended. Applause erupted around her.

The conductor turned to face the crowd. Along with the ridiculous gloves, he was wearing a candy-cane striped tie over his starched white shirt. Nicola felt an irrational surge of anger as he bowed low with a flourish, his hair falling over his eyes. He rose from his bow and addressed the crowd.

‘Thank you for listening,’ he said. He had a strong accent – Italian? Eastern European? ‘We are the Choir of St Anne’s Church. My assistants will be handing out song sheets.’ He gestured with a flourish to two women in choir garb who were holding baskets and passing out papers. ‘Please feel free to come and join us, even if it is only for a few minutes while you wait for your train.’

The women with the song sheets were swamped by commuters eager to join in. While the song sheets were being passed out, the conductor launched the choir into an up-tempo version of ‘Deck the Halls’. The noise seemed practically to take over the station:

Deck the hall with boughs of holly,

Fa la la la la la la la la!

‘Tis the season to be jolly, 

Fa la la la la la la la la!

‘Excuse me.’ A bald man in Lycra wielding a rucksack like an offensive weapon sidled past Nicola and caught her off balance. For a hair-raising second, she teetered on her heels, barely managing to stay on her feet. The man drifted into the space that had been cleared in front of the risers, and was subsumed into the musical spectacle. Setting down his rucksack, he sang off-key at the top of his lungs:

‘Don we now our gay apparel

Fa la la la la la la la la!

Troll the ancient Christmas carol

Fa la la la la la la la la!

‘Oh for God’s sake,’ Nicola muttered under her breath.

The conductor stepped back to make more room for commuters joining the choir, until he was only a few feet away from her.

Nicola gave up trying to get away. She stood there watching the scene the way people stop to look at a car crash. The song seemed to go on and on.

With a sigh, she looked back over her shoulder at the board (still no time shown for her train). When she turned back to the choir, three men and a woman wearing navy uniforms, orange vests and name badges had joined in the wretched singing: Southwestern Railways staff. Annoyance turned to something bordering on fury. The rational part of her knew that they had no control over the delays. But, surely, they should be trying to look like they were in control, or at least show some concern over the cancelled trains. Make some kind of effort at customer service. Instead of enjoying themselves.

 

The song ended. The crowd applauded again. A hand – someone put a hand on her arm. Nicola whirled around. It was a young woman with large dark eyes and black hair tied neatly back in a French twist. She set down the basket she was holding and held out a song sheet to Nicola.

 

‘Would you like to join in?’ the woman asked her with a cheerful smile.

 

Nicola stared at the woman – maybe for a second, maybe longer – it was like time had stood still. ‘No. I. Would. Not,’ she said with a hiss. ‘And frankly, I wish you people would just shut up!’

 

The conductor turned around. He had a handsome face: high cheekbones, full lips, a sharp, aristocratic nose. His eyes were dark brown, and they narrowed as they met hers.

‘I mean, don’t you people have jobs? Things to do? Places to go?’ Nicola’s voice rose in volume, as she turned away from the woman and began venting her rage directly at the conductor. ‘I’ve had a bad day. I don’t want to listen to carols or think about Christmas. I just want to get my train, go home. But no, I can’t, because, in case you hadn’t noticed, every damn train is delayed or cancelled. I’m trapped here. And they…’ she gestured in the direction of the train staff, ‘don’t seem to care one bit. I mean, this is a bloody outrage.’

 

Without even meaning to or realising what she was doing, Nicola kicked at the basket and it tipped over. Song sheets went everywhere. The dark-haired woman looked at Nicola, her mouth opening in shock.

The crowd started to murmur, and a few people turned to look up at the boards. It was as if her making a scene had jarred some of the people, at least, back to the reality of being stranded in a freezing station.

The conductor moved forward until he was right in front of her. Nicola felt the world narrowing to a bubble around the two of them, with people outside watching tensely to see what would happen next. Nicola shivered, uncertain whether he would shout at her, swear back at her, or say nothing. He opened his mouth.

‘I am sorry that you feel that way,’ he said. ‘I hope things get better. Happy Christmas.’ And then his face broke into a smile that lit up his face, the amber flecks in his eyes shining like sparks. He turned back to the choir, now doubled from its original number, breaking the moment. ‘Next we will do number six on your song sheet. “Joy to the World”.’

Nicola didn’t hear the loudspeaker announcement or notice that a slow train to Richmond was now boarding from platform 17. She stood there unable to move, as the song began. The dark-haired woman and a few people from the crowd knelt down to pick up the scattered song sheets. She watched the conductor, mesmerised by the energy flowing between him, the singers, and the audience. The song echoed through the station, growing in volume, gathering strength: 

Repeat the sounding joy

Repeat the sounding joy

Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

It was only as the crowd surged towards the platform that Nicola once again came to her senses, went through the ticket barrier, and boarded the train.

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