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The lift came to a sudden halt and Tom cursed under his breath. He hated anchor lifts, while the Scandinavians seemed to love them. In the Alps, where he usually skied, they had the good sense to invest in gondolas, in which you could ascend the mountains with some style and no effort. And it was so bloody cold. He'd seen from the large thermometer at the ski hire centre that it was -15C. His carefully groomed stubble was now white and brittle with frost, his lips dry, his cheeks burning from the chill wind cutting into the mountainside. The lift suddenly started again. Slowly, oh so slowly, Tom, perching alone on the two-seater bar, ascended the mountain. He cursed his old friend – why come to a ski resort for the holidays if you want to stay in bed half the day? When Ricky hadn't showed up at breakfast that morning Tom had sent him a WhatsApp. When he replied – 15 minutes later – he said he was having a lie-in and would meet up with Tom later.
Finally, at the top of the small mountain, Tom freed himself from the lift and skied towards the slope. He'd had the foresight to take a piste map from the hotel reception. Åre was different from how it had been in his youth; new slopes had been added and some of the old ones redesigned. He was on his way to one of the few pistes that was served by a proper lift.
There'd been a pretty blonde behind the desk of the hotel and he'd stopped himself from flirting with her just in time. She'd looked barely twenty, and more suitable girlfriend material for his sons than him. Oh, how drab and boring it was to be an old man. He thought about his family, the two boys, Luca and Marco, now 21 and 24, who were in Milan for Christmas with Emma, his ex, and her new husband. He was not welcome at that gathering. Truthfully, he would rather be here with the Nordic winds nearly cutting the nose off his face, and with a potentially embarrassing rendezvous on the horizon, rather than with his loud, disapproving in-laws and the oh-so-wonderful George. He missed his boys, of course, but he'd see them for New Year, when they'd promised to spend a couple of days with him in his new flat in Helsinki.
If only his mother hadn't been taken so suddenly six months ago, he would now be enjoying a luxurious celebration in her central Milan flat. How he missed her!
Oh, well, he thought, as he spotted Father Christmas, his red costume flapping in the wind, zigzagging at speed down the pathetic little mountain – a hill really. He'd go along to the date, have a meal with her, give her a kiss goodnight afterwards and then never see her again.
The snow hung heavy on the pine trees as Kaisa and Tuuli drove towards Åre, the Swedish ski resort. The Christmas lights from the few houses they passed twinkled over the mounds of snow on either side of the road. The whiteness of the landscape was so complete, it almost blinded Kaisa. They passed a lake, and suddenly a strip of vivid orange appeared above the line of pine trees, evidence of the sun, which had only just set. Kaisa pointed out the vibrant colours to Tuuli, who was driving their hired Volvo.
'This was a good idea, wasn't it?' Tuuli smiled.
'Yes,' Kaisa sighed and closed her eyes.
The morning flights from Helsinki via Stockholm had taken the best part of the day, and she'd not been able to sleep the night before the journey. She was only going to spend a week – the Christmas week – with her best friend in Åre, but during the long hours of the night she'd worried whether she should have stayed with her mother in Helsinki over the holidays instead. Jetting off with her friend seemed selfish; she'd heard it in her sister Sirkka's voice when she'd spoken with her, and seen it in her mother's eyes when she'd said goodbye, giving her the presents to put under her small tree in the flat in Helsinki.
But she couldn't bear a traditional Christmas without Rosa. When her daughter, her beautiful 26-year-old daughter, had announced in August that she would go travelling for six months in the autumn, leaving Kaisa alone for the holidays, she'd held back the tears that pricked her eyelids. Rosa had been so excited; she'd spent the last two years working hard at an ad agency in central Helsinki, saving her money.
'I'm getting an open return, so I can come home at any time. 'And,' here she'd hugged Kaisa, placing her arm around her mother's shoulders, reminding Kaisa again that her daughter, now a grown-up, was taller than her. 'We can keep in touch every day. I can Skype you from all the places I've booked ahead.' Rosa's dark green eyes, so clearly her father's, were sparkling. Her auburn hair, cut into a short crop, was ruffled, and Kaisa saw she could hardly contain her elation. She remembered when Rosa was a little girl and would jump up and down out of excitement, clapping her hands. Now, she swayed a little instead, moving her lanky body as if to a slow piece of music.
Kaisa smiled; she could never resist Rosa's enthusiasm. Then she remembered something, 'What about your job?'
Rosa went quiet, and looked down at her black Nike trainers.
'Look, mum. I know it's a good job, but they said they'd take me back if there was a position when I return. And I'm sure there will be.'
Kaisa said nothing. Noticing she'd crossed her arms over her chest, she immediately freed her hands. She didn't want to appear confrontational.
'Mum, if I don't travel now when I'm young and not in a relationship, when will I? Just look at Sia! She's been with Jukka since the Lyceum, and there's no way she can go anywhere without him now. All they're thinking about is saving for a place of their own!'
Kaisa had sighed. Rosa was right; her daughter's best friend was on her way to settling down. As comforting as that was for her parents, whom Kaisa knew well, they'd also said they were worried that it was all far too soon. But how could any of them stop 26-year-olds from doing what they wanted? Kaisa herself had already been married to Rosa's father, Peter, her Englishman, at the same age.
Rosa had always been sensible, she'd never had any problems with her over boys, drugs, drinking or even smoking. Kaisa was sure she'd done some of those things, or even all of them, with Sia, but her daughter had never been in trouble of any sort, or brought trouble home. It was quite remarkable really, having had no father, and having two countries, two languages.
'Besides, mum,' Rosa had added, moving away from her mother and hugging the cup of coffee Kaisa had poured for her before they'd begun this serious discussion. She sat down on a white leather-covered stool. Kaisa had recently replaced the tired-looking high chairs that they'd had at the breakfast bar for twenty-five years – the length of time they'd lived in the two-storey wood-cladded house in Lauttasaari.
'I know you'll be OK with mummu and aunt Sirkka and that lot. But I can't bear the thought of a Christmas without the phone call from Wiltshire.' Rosa spoke into her coffee cup.
Now it was Kaisa's turn to go and put her arms around her daughter.
Peter's parents had passed away the previous spring in quick succession. First it had been his father, who'd had a massive heart attack, and then Viv had just withered away. There had been no evident reason for her death, apart from the fact that her heart had stopped beating. Kaisa knew she had died of a broken heart and sometimes wondered if she would have done the same, if it hadn’t been for Rosa, when she lost the love of her life, Peter, twenty-seven years ago.
'OK,' Kaisa had said. 'But you'll have to keep your promise on those daily Skype calls, young lady!'
Kaisa brushed aside the sinking feeling each time she thought about Rosa and where she might be at that very moment. She'd often wake up in the middle of a preposterous dream of her daughter being held captive somewhere, by men in dirty clothes, their faces half-covered in makeshift masks, or dangling from a branch in a wild forest like Tarzan's Jane, a lion or other wild animal pacing below. Instead of dwelling on all the ills her daughter could fall foul of, Kaisa glanced at her friend's profile. Tuuli had a concentrated look on her face, but when she sensed her friend's gaze, she turned and smiled.
Kaisa thought that a Christmas holiday away from it all was perfect for her friend too. It was Tuuli's second Christmas without her mother, but more importantly, she'd managed to settle her elderly father into a sheltered apartment in a retirement home this autumn. Her dad had been adamant that Tuuli should go and enjoy herself, rather than, as her father had put it, 'Spend the holidays with the soon-to-be-departed.' Tuuli's dad was a retired teacher, and he'd never been demanding of Tuuli's time. Kaisa smiled. It was from her father that Tuuli had inherited the no-nonsense approach to life, the attribute that had often lifted Kaisa out of the mire of grief over Peter, and helped her overcome the struggles to raise a child on her own. Now that same quality had brought her here to the beautiful Scandinavian mountain range.
'Tired?' Tuuli said, jolting Kaisa away from her thoughts. They'd arrived in Åre, where the friends had first skied in the early days of Kaisa's return to Finland. This was their third time skiing here, but they'd never stayed in such an expensive place before. They'd agreed that for a Christmas holiday they'd pull out all the stops. They'd decided on Tottbacken, a three-storey building with views across Lake Åre and the ski village below. It advertised itself as one of the best places to stay in Åre. It was a ski-in, ski-out lodge, next to an anchor lift that took you up the mountain. Following the instructions emailed to them, Tuuli drove up the hill away from the main road that ran alongside the lake. They turned onto a smaller private road, which snaked further up the hill. Leaving behind the houses clad in dark wood, their balconies and windows strung with Christmas lights, they eventually parked in front of a large house built into the snowy mountain. It had two alpine style sloped roofs, with four large balconies.
Kaisa glanced at her friend and smiled, 'It's beautiful.'
Large Christmas stars adorned the windows, and there was a layer of snow on the roofs as well as the low-slung stone structure that served as a car port below.
'We have the middle floor to the left,' Tuuli said. ‘And I believe we can park inside.'
Kaisa glanced at the temperature gauge in the car; it showed -17C.
'But we have to wait for someone to come and open up.'
There was a slight snowfall, which gave the whole scene a magical air. The two women grabbed their warm padded coats from the back seat and got out of the car. Behind them, the Christmas lights of the ski village shimmered in the late afternoon dimness. The sun, which had set at the bottom of the valley behind beyond Lake Åre an hour or so previously, had left just a faint peachy light along a layer of cloud. Gone were the flaming colours they'd witnessed during the drive. They stood for a while admiring the view. Kaisa's friend took a deep breath and gazed at the fairytale scene in front of her.
'It's going to be a perfect day for skiing tomorrow!'
What a contrast, this silence, the pure air, and the lights reflecting in the snow was to the dark and miserable Helsinki they’d left behind that morning. In the capital, they had only had one snowfall that autumn, early in October. Then the snow had come in a storm, some 15 centimetres falling overnight, but by the following day all the snow had melted and only left a scattering of dirty-looking patches here and there at the side of the roads. In Lauttasaari, where Kaisa lived overlooking the sea, the snow had stayed a day or so longer than in the centre of the city, but even there by December, the constant rain and sleet made the landscape look dark and bleak. Everyone in Finland was obsessed about having a white Christmas, but not in Helsinki, not this year.
Kaisa breathed in the clean air and gave her friend a hug. 'Thank you for convincing me this was a good idea!'
Tuuli didn't have time to reply when a thin blonde woman emerged from the building wearing a wide smile. 'Welcome to Tottbacken!' she said and opened up the door to the large garage housed at the entrance of the building.
The apartment the young woman showed the friends was more luxurious than any ski chalet, or hotel, Kaisa had ever seen. The beds looked wide and blissfully comfortable, the linen was pure Egyptian cotton, and a new sauna was attached to a double walk-in shower. They each had their own bathroom and views over the village in the valley and across Lake Åre. In the living area, there was even a small Christmas tree, adorned with stylish ski-themed decorations.
The next morning, after a deliciously long lie-in, Kaisa and Tuuli put on their snow suits, slung their skis over their shoulders, and made their way to the ski lift, just behind the chalet. Kaisa felt a little shaky on her skis. It had been ten months since she'd last been on the slopes. They had to make their way up the snowy edge of the piste, where the snowploughs had deposited the excess snow, and then ski down a short part of the slope towards the lifts. Kaisa was relieved when she pulled up next to Tuuli. As they waited in the queue, Kaisa glanced up the length of the piste. She noticed that just by the entrance to the ski store of their apartment, where they'd come from, there was a patch of ice. The slight wind had removed the thin layer of snow that had covered it. She made a mental note to avoid that spot when they returned at the end of the day.
As Tuuli had predicted, it was perfect skiing weather; although cold, faint sunlight illuminated the mountaintop. The pistes were well prepared; the stripey pattern created by the snowploughs was broken only in the very middle of the slope, where the few skiers were swishing down the mountainside. The scenery at the top looked inviting.
The slopes were not as busy as either of them had expected. Tuuli, who had spent several Christmas holidays in Sweden, had warned Kaisa that they may not be able to go skiing as often as they would like; it could be stormy, too cold or too windy.
'And when the weather is good, everyone will be on the pistes,' she'd warned Kaisa.
But today, everything was perfect. There were other skiers about, but they didn't disturb their day. Even the sun peeked out from behind the clouds for an hour or so, making the snow sparkle under its rays.
At one point they'd passed two guys dressed in Father Christmas outfits. They'd waved and wished God Jul to the two women. Their skiing was erratic, dangerous-looking, so Kaisa and Tuuli stopped on the side of the piste and watched them make their way down the mountain.
'They've had a few too many glöggs, I think!' Tuuli laughed.
‘The last Christmas’ by Wham was blaring out of the speakers as their lift deposited them on top of the mountain furthest away from Tottbacken. Kaisa suddenly had the most overwhelming Christmas feeling. Peter had loved this song, and usually she'd feel tearful just hearing it. But not today, not looking at the view in front of her, of almost deserted pistes above snow-capped pine trees with a bluish sky and opaque sun.
After two hours of energetic skiing, Tuuli suggested they stop at one of the bars on the mountainside for a glögg. They were close to a restaurant called Fjällgården. She chin pointed down the hill. 'You ready?'
Kaisa nodded and followed Tuuli down towards a snow-capped building clad in dark wood at the bottom of the piste. Kaisa enjoyed the mountain views almost as much as the thrill of moving fast down the piste, controlling the turns while letting the skis take you freely down. Half-way down she noticed a Christmas tree twinkling outside the restaurant and people milling about the entrance.
Fjällgården was a pretty Alpine-style restaurant, buzzing with skiers. Inside, the lights were low, barely showing off the high wooden ceiling and huge chandeliers made out of reindeer antlers. There was a bar with a few long tables in the middle, with benches on either side, busy with youngsters drinking and laughing. Tuuli moved further back into the large restaurant beyond, where they found two free sofas opposite a huge open fire in the middle of the room.
'This is excellent,' Tuuli said, removing her helmet and settling herself opposite Kaisa. They lifted the glasses of hot glögg they'd ordered.
'Here's to a wonderful holiday!' Tuuli said.
The scented wine warmed Kaisa's body. She glanced at her phone and saw it was nearly three o'clock. She also saw she'd had a missed Skype call from Rosa and immediately dialled her number.
'Sorry mum, can't talk now. I'm OK, it's really hot here and all is well. Byeee.'
'Bye, love you,' Kaisa replied and then the line went dead.
'Your God daughter is alive and well anyway,' she said to Tuuli, and they clinked their glasses again.
'That's good to hear,' Tuuli said and finished her drink. 'Another?'
Kaisa looked at her friend. 'We're not skiing any more then?'
'No, don’t think so, do you? The lifts close in half an hour, but we can take the little train from here to Tott Hotel, which is just by our apartment. I'm having a beer. I think I've earned it, you?'