To her right the North Sea was sneezing and grumbling. It cleared its throat repeatedly, looked drab and out of sorts. Lily’s own state of mind exactly. The inside of her head was full of shifting layers of, what? Sand, most likely. Sand and, or, mud. To her left, winter-empty beach huts, colours muted, paint needing attention, doors padlocked against roaring tides, seaside names now ridiculous in their brash humour.

Her brain froze on the thought – Jamie in prison in the UAE. Her Jamie, even though there was media saturation of his story. Her own totally innocent, hardworking husband. A writer. A thinker. Over there to do precisely that – think and write. His face had been grey, eyes bloodshot, staring on the phone’s screen a week ago. She had recognised his intention to overcome his own terror and hers. He had told her the thing he dreaded most was never seeing her again. How to digest that thought? How to digest any of it?
Deep in her jacket pockets her hands were terribly cold.

She stooped forward against the rising easterly wind, shook her head and sobbed raggedly. What more could she do, when the powers of the Foreign Office could apparently make no progress? But she would think of something; she definitely would. She blew a runny nose.

Jamie must be rescued, must be removed from the threats of life imprisonment or its unthinkable alternative – death. Lily heard herself shout ‘No! No!’ into the wind, and began to plod heavily up the tarmac slope to Zak’s café and the car park, drizzle sitting on her eyelashes along with her tears, drizzle weighting down strands of hair on to her forehead and cheeks.

If John was on duty in the café he’d make her pancakes. This comforting vision opened a tiny window in her brain and with that chink of light she was able to open the door to the café and half fall through, almost wanting to limp heavily so someone would come up to her and give her a hug.‘Oh, goodness, hello – are you OK? Let me help you to a table.’
Thank God for dear, familiar John.

His anxious face deserved a civil response but she just couldn’t compel her voice to come out of her throat. She made a kind of gargling noise mixed with the sobs she couldn’t control either, and blew her nose again.

‘Oh dear, oh dear. Of course we understand what you’re going through. Janet, a coffee for our friend Lily here, please. Don’t you even try to talk sense, my dear; there’s not much sense going around at the moment, is there?’

Faces of the usual mix of cyclists, runners, young mums and elderly couples had started to turn towards them from around the café. Kind voices made cooing words sound like a gentle, distant humming song that Lily tried to concentrate on, tried to absorb. These were the real people of her world and they wished her well, and Jamie.
‘Pancakes, Lily, with maple syrup? OK. With you in a minute, and here’s your coffee. We’re all sending wishes and prayers to you and to Jamie. Is there any news at all?
Lily made yet another effort at self – control and managed to shake her head. Other sympathetic heads were shaken; she registered tutting in the murmurings, but knew they were benign.
Pancakes arrived under her nose, with the familiar warning about the very hot plate. Lily lifted her knife and fork, and promptly clattered them to the plate and the table as a yell from near the door rivetted everyone’s attention.

‘Hey – they’ve pardoned him! They’re releasing him! It’s on the news – come and see!’, mobile waved aloft.

Once again Lily’s voice refused to obey her. As she grabbed the table to force herself up, the man with the phone started towards her.

‘Sorry – I’m coming. Please – I’m coming. Isn’t it wonderful?’

He leant across her table so his grinning face and the lit screen were up close.

At last her voice was obedient, but scraped from her throat, ‘I can’t, I can’t believe it. You mean now? Now they’re letting him come home? For Christmas?’

Tears spouted right down her face to her neck. She thrust a tissue in the approximate direction, stuttered, ‘Jamie, Jamie my love!’ and thumped back on to her chair, wide mouthed and wide eyed in the cheering.

Ah – now it became clear – the monochrome room her brain had presented as she came through the door was actually laden with Christmas sparkle, with multi-coloured streamers, and with human laughter, glad shouts and clapping.

She waved her arms in a general sort of way, then blew a huge, all-encompassing kiss around the café.
‘Glad tidings of great joy’, indeed!

Someone started to bawl ‘Oh come, all ye faithful!’ in a very weird key, and the place erupted with giggles, with delight, and very quickly with something resembling the ancient carol – joyful, and triumphant.

Judith Osborne