The Christmas card

A mother refuses to let her daughter’s gap-year rebellion dampen her festive spirit – or ruin her family’s perfect image…

Image: www.phildisley.com

“In October we waved goodbye to our darling daughter, Angelica” – it crossed Penny’s mind to use the spelling that her daughter now preferred, with a “k”, but the thought was discarded – “as she left for her gap year in Chile, where she is now working for a charity helping the poorest street children, and she’s decided to spend Christmas” – a tear pricked her eye – “camping in the Atacama desert with her boyfriend, Chris.”

Behind these Pollyanna-ish words was a less cheerful story. They’d begged “Jelly” to come home for Christmas. Henry had even offered to fly her business class. But the Skype connection had been severed after a vehement two-word sign-off.

The most innocuous thing about Chris was his name. He was a monosyllabic recovering heroin addict 10 years older than her daughter, with sunken cheeks and a sleeve of tattoos. His presence in Jelly’s life had transformed her beautiful girl, seemingly overnight, from a shy, pony-loving prefect at Benenden into a black-lipsticked fixture on the back of a motorcycle. And then there was that… that thing through her bottom lip. Penny shuddered and composed herself. “Leo’s GCSE results were a great success,” she wrote. “Especially his A*s in textiles and dance, giving us great encouragement as he goes into his A-levels…”

The family newsletter written, all that was left was to finalise the photograph for the front of the card. It had become something of a Leighton tradition that their Christmas card would feature the whole family, nicely dressed, sitting together on the sofa. Of course, it was usually taken in November – Penny had suggested doing it earlier this year so Jelly could be in it, but after another row Jelly had point-blank refused.

But they couldn’t – couldn’t! – not have her in the picture. The Christmas box in Henry’s study had 18 precious photographs, starting with the first when Jelly was just a babe in arms and the sofa was in their first, tiny flat on Westbourne Grove. No, the tradition must not be broken. Penny would have to take things into her own hands. When they posed for the photograph they left a gap so they could Photoshop Jelly in, just between the arm of the sofa and the fire.

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She’d looked at Jelly’s Facebook page in the hope of finding a suitable picture, but the snarling she-wolf there (and when had she started calling herself “Spike”, for heaven’s sake?) would look so out of place beside the boys in their blazers and Penny in her cashmere. To say nothing of what Penny’s friends might think. No. It was Penny’s Christmas card and if Jelly – who was going to be on the other side of the world anyway – didn’t like it, tough.

She clicked the mouse and brought up the shot of Jelly they’d taken just before her A-levels. She was wearing a pastel cardigan, knee-length skirt and that pretty silver necklace that had been her grandmother’s. It was such a lovely shot. She was trying to keep her mouth closed, but Henry had said something to make her laugh and you could just see the glint of her braces – goodness she’d been self-conscious about those. As she placed it in the picture she was pleased to see that, by good luck, Jelly’s right hand was at just the right height to make it look like she was resting it on the armrest of the sofa.

Two weeks later, the phone in the hall went. “Nine four two oh!” chirped Penny. She yanked the receiver far from her ear in shock at the mayhem on the other end of the line. Was somebody being murdered? Somebody with – she recoiled – a rich vocabulary. Was that… Jelly? Something about Twitter and Facebook and – “A tumbler of what, darling? A tumbler for a G&T?”

As Jelly slowly calmed down, Penny gleaned that someone had got hold of the photograph – one of her school friends, probably – and it was all over the internet, and with such unkind comments. What was even worse was that Chris had seen it and – embarrassed – had dumped Jelly. Her little girl was angry, humiliated and heartbroken. “Oh, sweetheart,” said Penny. “I’m so sorry. We’ll get you on the next flight home and that’s the end of it. Come back to mummy. We’ll give you the biggest stocking ever.” On the other end Jelly sniffled her assent.

Before telling Henry the good news, Penny went into her study and fired up the computer. She cleared her browser’s history then logged into her administrator page for dweebychicks.tumblr.com, losergirls.tumblr.com and traintracks.tumblr.com. She smiled triumphantly and pressed delete.

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