Even after more than sixty years of living in Australia, eighty-four-year-old Lola Quinlan couldn’t get used to a hot Christmas. Back home in Ireland, December had meant short days, darkness by four p.m., open fires and frosty walks. Snow if they were lucky. Her mother had loved following Christmas traditions, many of them passed down by her own mother. The tree decorated a week before Christmas Day and not a day earlier. Carols in the chilly church before Midnight Mass. Lola’s favourite tradition of all had been the placing of a lit candle in each window of the house on Christmas Eve. It was a symbolic welcome to Mary and Joseph, but also a message to any passing stranger that they would be made welcome too. As a child, she’d begged to be the one to light the candles, carefully tying back the curtains to avoid the chance of fire. Afterwards, she’d stood outside with her parents, their breath three frosty clouds, gazing up at their two-storey house transformed into something almost magical.
She was a long way from Ireland and dark frosty Decembers now. Sixteen thousand kilometres and about thirty-five degrees Celsius, to be exact. The temperature in the Clare Valley of South Australia was already heading towards forty degrees and it wasn’t even ten a.m. yet. The hills that were visible through the window were burnt golden by the sun, not a blade of green grass to be seen. There was no sound of carols or tinkling sleigh bells. The loudest noise was coming from the airconditioner behind her. If she did take a notion to start lighting candles and placing them in all the windows, there was every chance the fire brigade would come roaring up the hill, sirens blaring and water hoses at the ready. At last count, the Valley View Motel that Lola called home had more than sixty windows. Imagine that, Lola mused. Sixty candles ablaze at once. It would be quite a sight. Almost worth the trouble it would cause . . .
‘Are you plotting mischief? I know that look.’
At the sound of her son’s voice, Lola turned from her seat at one of the dining room tables and smiled. ‘I wouldn’t dream of it. You know me, harmless as a kitten.’
Jim simply raised an eyebrow, before pulling out a chair and sitting down opposite his mother. ‘I was talking about you with Bett and Carrie today. We’ve all agreed it’s not too late to change your mind.’
‘About what? My lunch order? It’s Friday. I always have fish on Fridays.’ Another tradition from her days in Ireland, even if she’d long ago stopped following any religion.
‘About you sending us away and taking charge of a fifteen-room motel on your own for five days. At Christmas. At the age of eighty-four.’
‘You make me sound quite mad.’
‘I don’t, actually. You manage it perfectly well on your own.’
Lola stood, reached for her stick and drew herself up to her full five foot nine inches, fixing her sixty-four-year-old son with the gaze that had worked to silence him as a child, but hadn’t had much effect for many years now. There was a brief staring contest and then she started to laugh. ‘Of course I’m mad, darling. You don’t live as long as I do if you have any sense. What’s the point? Hips giving up, hearing going, wits long gone —’
‘So you admit it, then? Will I call off our driving trip? Tell Bett and Carrie to cancel their holidays too? Say that you’d gone temporarily insane and you didn’t mean it?’
‘And what? Let you and Geraldine down? Let down my poor adorable granddaughters and their even more adorable children, not to mention their handsome husbands and their handsome husbands’ families? Never. In fact, why don’t you leave now, all of you? Begone. Leave an old lady in relative peace. Literally.’
‘That’s what I’m worried about. What if we’re not leaving you in peace?’
‘It’s the middle of one of the hottest summers on record. We haven’t had a drop of rain in years. The Valley is beautiful, yes, but as dry as a bone. Who on earth is going to choose to spend Christmas in a parched country motel?’ She opened the bookings register to the week of December twenty-fifth and placed it in front of her son. ‘See? Not a sinner. Or a saint. It’ll just be poor old me rattling around the place on my own, while the turkey stays happily frozen in the coolroom, the puddings soak in their brandy for another twelve months and you and Geraldine and the girls hopefully get to have a proper Christmas break.’
Jim flicked through the pages, frowning. ‘It’s odd, isn’t it? This time last year we were much busier. I thought we’d have at least one booking, that you’d have someone to talk to.’
‘I’ll be grand, darling. I’ll have the radio for company. They have lovely programs on Christmas Day for lonely, abandoned old women like myself.’ She laughed at the expression on his face. ‘I’m teasing you, Jim. Don’t get guilty on me and insist on staying, please. You know I enjoy my own company. Now, shouldn’t you be helping Geraldine pack your bags? Getting the tyres pumped up? Checking the oil? A driving holiday won’t organise itself.’
Jim was still distracted by the empty bookings register. ‘That’s the last time I try an online advertising campaign. Everybody kept telling me it’s the only way people find motel accommodation these days, but it obviously didn’t work for us. Our computer problems haven’t helped, either.’
‘Never mind, darling. Worry about your advertising next year. Off you go and leave me alone. I have eighty-four action-packed years I want to sit here and reminisce about before I go do my shift at the charity shop.’
‘I think you should cut down your hours there, by the way.’
She put her fingers in her ears. ‘Not listening, Jim. Reminiscing.’ She shut her eyes, tight, like a child, until he left the room.
After a moment, she opened one eye to be sure he’d gone.
Thank God. Any longer and she’d have been forced to tell him the truth. That in fact his online advertising campaign had worked wonders. She’d been receiving email enquiries all week. Not on the motel computer, of course. It had been broken – been ‘down’, in the computer parlance she loved using – for the past four days. Her official story to her fortunately distracted son and his wife was that the server was having problems. (‘Server!’ she’d said, pretending more amazement. ‘In my day that word meant maid or waitress!’) The truth was she’d pulled out the internet cable on the office computer. Hidden it, too, to be doubly sure they stayed offline. The last thing she needed was Jim or Geraldine seeing the emails asking for more information about their Christmas special offer. As it happened, they didn’t know much about what that Christmas special offer comprised, either. Why bother them, when they were in almost-holiday mode? When even the hint that there could be a Christmas guest or two at the Valley View Motel might make them change their minds about going away?
Lola had given her plan a great deal of thought. Firstly, Jim and Geraldine badly needed a break. Or, more accurately, Jim was due a break and Lola badly needed a break from her daughter-in-law. She loved Jim dearly but there had never been any love lost between herself and Geraldine. It had never been open warfare, for Jim’s sake – more subtle, underlying hostility. Lola herself could talk to a stone on the road if the occasion warranted it, yet in all the time they’d known each other – almost forty years – she and Geraldine had never managed a single lively, interesting conversation. The tragic events in the family nearly five years earlier had prompted a thaw, a brief closeness between the two of them, mothers both, but it hadn’t lasted. Lola thought Geraldine was a po-faced, humourless milksop, and Geraldine thought – well, really, who cared what Geraldine thought of her? As Lola liked to say airily whenever she caught Geraldine giving her a disapproving glance, ‘Don’t worry, dear. You’ll be able to pack me off to a home for the bewildered any moment now. I’m sure I lose more of my marbles every day.’
Lola’s opinion of Jim and Geraldine’s daughters was a different story. She didn’t just love them. She adored them. Anna, Bett and Carrie, her three Alphabet Sisters.
Theirs had been an unconventional childhood, living in motels, moving from town to town. Lola had taken over their care while their parents both worked. She’d revelled in all three girls, filling their lives with fun, adventure and especially music. She’d even coaxed them into a short-lived and frankly unsuccessful career as a childhood singing trio called, of course, The Alphabet Sisters. A young Anna had taken it seriously, Bett had cringed through it and Carrie had basked in the attention. Lola herself had been thoroughly amused and even more entertained. Everything about her three granddaughters had amused and entertained her.
But where there had been three, now there were two. Like a line from an old poem, so true and so heartbreaking, still. It was almost five years now since her oldest granddaughter Anna’s death from cancer at the age of thirty-four. Years of pain, sorrow, tears. Lola knew they were all still coming to terms with it, each in their own way. Even now, thinking of Anna sent a too-familiar spike of grief into her heart, less sharp now, but ever present. She knew Anna was gone, visited her grave once a month if not more often, yet sometimes she found herself reaching for the phone to call her, wanting to tell her a story or be told a story in return. Share a memory. Laugh about something. Simply hear her beautiful voice one more time.
Lola knew it was no coincidence that her other two granddaughters had stayed in the Valley, close to the family motel, since Anna’s death. There’d been a need to be near each other, to talk often and openly about Anna, to cherish and celebrate good times and happy events. The missing link was Anna’s daughter Ellen, now aged twelve, who lived in Hong Kong with her father Glenn. In the years since Anna’s death, Glenn’s work as an advertising executive had taken him and Ellen to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and now Hong Kong. It hadn’t been easy on any of them, Anna’s only child being so far away, but they had all understood that it was best for her and for her father to be together.
A family never completely got over a loss like theirs, Lola knew. The Quinlans hadn’t. Instead, they’d changed shape. It was the only way they’d been able to go on. And what better way for any family to change shape than with the arrival of babies, to help fill the gap Anna had left behind? Lola smiled even at the thought of her great-grandchildren. Carrie and her husband Matthew now had three children, Delia, aged four and a half, Freya, three, and two-year-old George. They’d kept up the family tradition of alphabetical names. Ellen had already bagged the ‘E’ spot. Lola’s middle granddaughter Bett and her husband Daniel were the proud if exhausted parents of seven-month-old twins, Zachary and Yvette. They’d kept up the family naming tradition, too, although from the other direction. The twins were, in Lola’s opinion, the two most glorious babies on the planet, but heavens, the racket they made! Like echo chambers – one making a noise would set off the other.
An old friend of Bett’s had invited them to celebrate Christmas with her and her husband at their beach house near Robe, volunteering their teenage children for twin-sitting, meaning sleep-ins for Bett and Daniel. Lola had seen the longing in Bett’s eyes at the idea of it. Lola also knew that Carrie and Matthew and their little ones hadn’t spent a Christmas with his family in New South Wales yet. It was definitely time they did. The two girls had also expressed concern that Lola would be on her own in the motel at Christmas, but she’d argued just as forcefully with them that it was what she wanted. ‘I’ve had zillions of family Christmases,’ she’d said. ‘Let’s all try something new this year. And I’ve been managing motels since before you were born. I can easily handle a few days on my own.’
She checked her delicate gold wristwatch. Good, nearly ten a.m., the time she’d arranged to be collected for her stint at the charity shop. Her alleged stint. Oh, she would do a bit of sorting and selling while she was there, but, frankly, she had bigger fish to fry these days. One step through the ordinary faded curtain at the rear of the shop and it was like being in a NASA control room, not a country thrift shop storeroom. There was not just a computer, but a modem, scanner and printer. Even a little camera.
‘Ladies, we have ourselves a portal to the world wide web,’ Lola had announced the first day it was in operation, enjoying the look of surprise her young friend and computer guru, Luke, gave her. But of course she knew about the world wide web. And emailing. And blogging. She spent hours during the night listening to the radio, poring over newspapers, watching TV documentaries – how could she not know about new media? She’d been dying to give it all a try herself. And once the equipment was in place, she’d taken to it like a, well, not duck to water . . . What term would be more appropriate? Bill Gates to money-making? Luke had been amazed she’d heard of Bill Gates, too. Honestly, did he think she’d spent the past eighty-four years in an isolation unit?
She couldn’t wait to get onto the keyboard again today. She had so much to do. Catching up on the motel Christmas situation was a priority, but she also had an email to write to Ellen in Hong Kong. Lola didn’t get to see her nearly as often as she’d like, once a year at most, but the letters, phone calls and latterly emails they exchanged kept the bond between them strong. They had a regular correspondence going these days. Lola had even learnt how to email photos of herself to Ellen. At Ellen’s request, in fact. For some reason, Ellen seemed to find Lola’s fashion style amusing.
Wow, Really-Great-Gran! she’d written in her last email. Pink tights and leopard-skin dress as day-wear? Watch out, Lady Gaga!
Lola googled this Lady Gaga and rather than being insulted, had been inspired. Which reminded her – she wasn’t fully dressed yet. Fine for around the motel, but not spruced up enough for the shop. She made her way to her current room – number eleven of the motel’s fifteen rooms, the one with the beautiful view over the hills with just a glimpse of a vineyard. It was part of her arrangement with Jim and Geraldine, that she lived in her pick of the motel’s rooms rather than share the managers’ quarters with them. She’d just finished adding the final touch to her day’s outfit of purple pantsuit and gold belt – a large pink flower pinned in her short white hair – when she heard the sound of young Luke’s old Corolla straining its way up the drive. Ah, that lovely boy. So reliable. So clever too.
It was twenty-three-year-old Luke who’d organised the entire computer setup in the charity shop. After finishing his apprenticeship with a local electrician, he’d moved to Adelaide, trained in IT and was now rising through the ranks of a successful computer installation firm. The shop computer was what he called his ‘after-work work’, a labour of love whenever he was back in Clare visiting his mother Patricia, another of the volunteers. There’d been opposition at first from some of the other ladies, but once they’d seen it in operation, well, it had become quite a computer club. Lola had needed to set up a schedule to be sure she got enough time for her own activities. Between Lola’s oldest friend Margaret and her online bridge club, Patricia and her Etsy handicrafts addiction, and another volunteer, Kay, with her eight hundred Facebook friends, it was sometimes hard to get even an hour at the computer to herself. There was also Joan, who loved posting videos of her cat on YouTube, another lady who skyped her son in Copenhagen every Saturday, and even Bill, the shop handyman, who made a big deal of not having a TV at home but spent hours each week watching reruns on TV network websites. Remarkable all around, really. Their average human age was seventy-five. Average computer skills age mid-twenties, according to Luke. ‘You oldies pick things up quickly, don’t you?’ he’d said admiringly, early on in his training sessions. ‘I wasn’t sure you’d get a handle on all of this.’
‘I’ll have you know I used to run my own accountancy business,’ Margaret announced, piqued.
‘I was CEO of a local council,’ Joan said.
‘These hands helped more than a thousand cows give birth,’ Kay the dairy farmer said, holding them up.
Luke had looked quite shocked.
As Lola pulled the door to her room shut behind her now and made her way to the front of the motel, she thought she saw Geraldine look out the dining room window. She gave her daughter-in-law a cheery wave. If Geraldine saw her, she didn’t respond. No manners as well as no personality, Lola thought. ‘Bye for now!’ she called to whoever else might be watching. ‘Off I go into town. Off I go to do some useful charity work.’
An hour later, Lola’s mood wasn’t so bright. She’d been mistaken about the response to the Valley View Motel’s online Christmas offer. Yes, there had been more than a dozen enquiries via email, but not a single follow-up booking. God forbid she would actually have to spend Christmas alone. She peeked through the curtain separating the office from the shop itself – only one customer browsing and Margaret was well able to handle her.
Lola frowned as she checked the emails again. No bookings at all? Why ever not? She clicked on one of the queries at random, and noticed the mobile number under the person’s name. Was it standard business practice to make a follow-up call? Perhaps, perhaps not, but how else was she to find out? She took out her mobile phone. Luke had been astonished to see that as well. ‘You use a mobile?’
‘Only for the time being. I’m saving up for an iPhone,’ Lola told him. It was true, she was.
Her call was answered on the third ring. Lola put on her most polite voice. ‘Good afternoon. My name is Lola Quinlan and I wonder if you can help me. I’m doing a marketing survey into a recent online advertising campaign. No, please, don’t hang up. I won’t be long. Let me cut to the chase. You enquired about but didn’t book the Valley View Motel. Why not?’ She listened for a moment. ‘But it’s not expensive. Not compared to other places. Really? You did? For three nights and Christmas lunch included? My word, that is a bargain. I’d have gone there instead myself.’ She made three more calls. Two gave her the same answer – they’d found cheaper packages elsewhere. The third person had decided to stay home for Christmas.
Lola clicked on the different computer files until she found the wording for her Valley View Christmas Special online ad. Jim had given her his version before he’d sent it to the online accommodation sites. She’d tinkered with it a little bit before sending it out to some more sites of her own choosing, but obviously she’d not tinkered enough. Luke had given her a lesson in something he called meta-tags, words that people might use when going searching – ‘surfing, you mean’, she’d corrected him – online. She’d rewritten Jim’s ad until it included nearly every Christmassy word she could think of. Christmas. Pudding. Santa. Carols. Holly. Come stay in our lovely ho-ho-hotel! The Valley View was actually a motel, but still . . . The special offer included three nights’ bed and breakfast and a special three-course Christmas lunch – turkey and all the trimmings! She’d also added a line about a surprise gift for everyone. They would be surprising – so far they included a travel clock, a wooden picture frame, a jigsaw puzzle that she hoped had all its pieces and a rather alarming red tie, all chosen from the bags of donations left for the charity shop. Lola had paid for them, of course. Above the odds, too.
She peeked through the curtain again. The customer had left and Margaret was now dusting the bookshelves. ‘Everything okay, Margaret?’ Lola called out.
‘Counting down the minutes, Lola,’ Margaret called back.
Drat, Lola thought. She’d hoped Margaret would forget about her turn. She quickly sent an email to Ellen, sending her lots of love and asking for all her news, then turned her attention back to Christmas. She shut her eyes to concentrate hard for a moment, trying to remember marketing tips from the online course she’d completed the previous year. Eye-catching headings, tick. Clear concise offers, tick. Irresistible offers. That was obviously where she’d gone wrong. Her current offer was too easy to resist. What would make something irresistible?
If it was free?
It took her only a minute to compose the new ad. Just as well, she only had eight minutes left before she’d have to hand the computer over to Margaret and her online bridge game. If Lola had followed Luke’s instructions correctly, the next group of people who emailed asking for extra details about the Valley View Motel’s Christmas package would receive this automated email in return:
CONGRATULATIONS! You are the lucky winner of the Valley View Motel’s special Christmas package draw! Three nights’ accommodation, breakfast each day and a slap-up Christmas lunch – all completely free! Simply reply to this email within twenty-four hours and include your contact details and I’ll get right back to you.
For extra authenticity, she added her own signature – she’d recently learned to scan it – and her mobile number. She pressed send, sat back and smiled. The bait was out there. All she had to do now was wait.