28-year-old Ivy Davies isn’t living her best life. She’s with the wrong man, working in the wrong career, has a troubled relationship with her mother, and like many of us is spending too much time focusing on the wrong things. Until one Christmas Day she discovers a letter written in her own handwriting claiming to be from her future self that proclaims her untimely death from cancer in five years’ time and lists the things she must do to improve her life in the short time she has left. The only problem is that Ivy doesn’t believe the letter, and aside from writing it off as a potential practical joke she discards its advice when some of its portent doesn’t quite ring true.
But one year later the cracks begin to show when it emerges that her now fiancé has been cheating on her, her lecherous old boss has overlooked her for promotion for the second time, her health has taken a nosedive, and her mother has deceived her in the greatest way possible. Ivy is left with a choice – to heed the words of the letter and make the necessary changes to enrich her life or to ignore them at her peril – but will either option be enough to save her from the fate her future self has dictated? And is it worth trying to change the journey if you cannot change the destination?
‘When do you plan on making an honest woman of my beautiful daughter then, Sammy?’ asked Ivy’s dad, Andrew, good-naturedly over Christmas lunch after one too many shandies.
Though Ivy cringed with embarrassment she couldn’t help peering across the dining table at Sam anyway, to see what his answer might be this year. Who knew, perhaps it had changed since last Christmas?
Or perhaps not. Sam looked as though he’d swallowed an onion, and a flash of irritation marred his fair, handsome features, but so briefly that Ivy was pretty sure she was the only one who’d noticed.
‘Oh, you know how it is, Andy,’ Sam answered him dismissively, ‘we’re still saving up for a house deposit and weddings cost a lot of money these days. We’ll wait until we’re in a better financial position.’ And he returned to his beer, engaging Ivy’s tone-deaf Grandpa George in conversation as he did so as though to indicate in no uncertain terms that that particular line of questioning was closed for today.
‘WHAT?!’ Grandpa George bellowed as he twiddled with his hearing aids.
Though she put a brave face on it so as not to spoil the day’s festivities which were always eagerly anticipated by the close-knit little family, Ivy couldn’t pretend she wasn’t at least a little bit disappointed by Sam’s response. After all, they’d been together for three years now and they weren’t getting any younger. The first year her dad had asked him this question he’d said he needed to focus on his career as that could only benefit them both in the future. The second year he’d said they were both very happy with the status quo and he didn’t want to risk ruining a great relationship for the sake of a piece of paper when the divorce rate was so very high. And now this – it didn’t look promising.
Still, she reasoned, maybe Sam meant what he had said this time, though it was the first she’d heard of any intentions of his to buy a house. If he was thinking of them making such a big financial commitment together, perhaps it was a hint that things were finally moving forward in her favour after all? But given he’d avoided all eye contact with her ever since the question had been spoken, she wasn’t so sure.
‘I still remember the day I married your mother,’ Andrew began, his youthful face taking on the wistful look it always did when he spoke of Michelle, even though they’d been divorced for many years now.
Sam rolled his eyes as Andrew continued with the familiar tale.
As Ivy listened, she couldn’t recall a single occasion in which her mother had ever spoken about her father like that, and it hurt knowing that he still pined for the loss of this woman who didn’t return his affections, who possibly never had even though he’d brought up Ivy as his own from babyhood. Though he’d had opportunities with other women Andrew had never quite managed to move on, yet despite all that had passed over the years his belief in the sanctity of marriage had never wavered, and his ex-wife’s reckless treatment of him had done little to diminish his naturally affable and optimistic disposition.
Ivy tried to reconnect with her enjoyment of the afternoon; but though her favourite Christmas tracks were playing in the background, the turkey roast was as succulent and delicious as ever, and the whole of her dad’s side of the family were altogether and in very jovial spirits as they engaged in a game of Cluedo with her younger sister’s two children; she found her mood had been somewhat marred by Sam’s declaration thus she excused herself and sought the temporary sanctuary of her childhood bedroom.
Sam barely noticed her go.
Ivy sat on one of the twin beds that had once belonged to her and her half-sister, Katia, and sighed. She could hear the melodic notes of Bing Crosby’s deep voice singing White Christmas as it strained up through the closed door, and the exuberant yelling of the twins as they got caught up in their game. She could also hear Sam’s deep drawl and the barking responses of her grandfather. Her father was obviously teasing her nephew about something judging by their raucous laughter.
Ivy’s red paper hat from a Christmas cracker slipped down over her eyes and she pushed it back atop her crown of tight, golden curls she’d inherited from her mother that her mother had always hated. Her mother would painstakingly straighten her hair after every wash and avoided damp weather like the plague, whereas Ivy had eventually grown to find her curls unique and she was proud of them, even if her hair was unruly and there was little she could ever do to tame it.
She had a photograph of her mother somewhere, fresh-faced and tired-eyed after having just given birth to Ivy at seventeen years of age. It was the only picture in which her mother had been caught unawares by Ivy’s impending arrival and therefore had been unable to get her wayward hair under control before she’d had to make her way to the hospital. Of course she was part of the pre-straighteners generation, so it had never been as easy for her to tame as it was now.
Ivy felt a sudden longing to see that picture again, for it was one of very few photographs she possessed in which her mother had seemed to look at her with anything approaching genuine warmth, before the preoccupations and disappointments of her life had stolen that look from her eyes, seemingly forever. She stood up from the bed and went over to the wardrobe opposite, straining onto tip toes to locate her memory box in the same place it always was – hidden away high up on the top shelf lest her niece and nephew get a hold of it during one of their sleepovers.
The box was a shoebox from the time Kickers had been all the rage at school, and it was wrapped up in a poster representing Ivy’s favourite band, the Spice Girls, who were stood together in their best girl-power poses. There was a selection of school books and drawings that had been lovingly preserved by her father, years’ worth of school reports, a signed shirt from her final year of sixth form, a brooch that had belonged to her grandmother who’d passed away when she was eleven, mementoes of her very first relationship with a boy who had been a couple of years her senior, trinkets from childhood best friends, letters between herself and a pen-pal before social media had become the only way to communicate, dance certificates, her mother’s engagement ring (Katia had been given her wedding ring following their parents’ divorce); and a selection of holiday souvenirs, as well as a wallet of family photographs that formed a chronology of Ivy’s life growing up.
Ivy found what she was looking for immediately – given it was the first photograph that had ever been taken of her it was located at the very front of the pack, slightly browned now and ragged around the edges. And there was her eighties mother with a full face of make-up, lying back in her hospital bed as she peered down adoringly at the sleeping baby in her arms; the only sign that she’d just given birth a hint of dark shadow beneath her eyes.
Ivy couldn’t get over how terribly young she looked, nor how happy in comparison to the bitter, depressive woman she had become over the years. Her biological father had taken the picture, and little had they known it was the last either of them would ever see of him before, overwhelmed by the onset of responsibility, he’d deserted them in favour of a life overseas. Her mother had soon lost track of him, and despite the advent of Facebook they still had no idea where he’d ended up.
Ivy noted that she shared her mother’s pale complexion, her eyes of palest blue-grey, and her blonde ringlets; but her nose and face shape were entirely different, presumably inherited from her faceless birth-father. Ivy’s half-sister Katia was all their real father – the warm colours of chocolate and honey and with the gregarious personality to match. The two sisters were as opposing in looks as they were in personality, and Ivy couldn’t shake the feeling that it was Katia her mother had always favoured, though through no fault of her own.
Ivy smiled as she fingered through the photographs and leisurely re-explored the other contents of the box for the first time in years, a lifetime of memories good and bad flashing through her mind, when her eyes were unavoidably drawn to a plain white envelope lying at the very bottom of the box that she had no recollection of ever having seen before, and yet the word Ivy on the front was quite obviously written in her own hand. That’s strange, she thought, I don’t remember putting that there. Still, it’d been a while since she’d last looked.
The envelope was still stuck down she noted with a frown, and unlike the rest of the box’ contents it appeared new and untouched and nowhere near as well-fingered as the other items in there. She used a pointed finger to prise open the envelope and inside were several plain sheets of lined paper. When Ivy unfolded the pages her eyelids flickered and her frown deepened because, for a letter she obviously hadn’t written, the handwriting looked starkly like her own and the words appeared to have been jotted down on the page in a great hurry.
She leaned back against the pillows slightly and began to read, an inexplicable sense of foreboding rising in the pit of her stomach when she took in the date noted in the top right-hand corner – 25th December 2025 – five years from now. Was this some kind of joke?
Ivy, the letter began, I know you’re going to find this hard to believe, but you have to trust me. It’s me – or to be more precise – it’s you. I’m writing this from my bed in the hospice where I currently reside, and soon I’m going to ask Katia, who is coming over with the kids and all the family to visit me later, to take it home to dad’s and sneak it into our memories box for me. And yes, you read the date correctly, it’s Christmas Day 2025, and I’m sorry to have to tell you this way, but we’re dying. We have advanced cervical cancer and it has spread, and I know in my heart that my time is now nearing its end.
Oh Ivy, I don’t want to go. I’m not ready. All the hopes we had for our future have come to nothing, and here we are. Do you remember when we were children that we believed Christmas was a time for miracles; a special, magical time of the year when anything could happen? Well Ivy, never have we needed a miracle as badly as we do now, so I’m taking a chance by writing this to you today. I trust you, and I need you to trust me too, because right now, both in the past and in the future, we need each other.
By the time she’d reached the end of the first page, Ivy could feel the colour draining from her face and she paused with the unfolded sheets of paper in her hand, unable to read any further. Her roast dinner suddenly felt heavy on her stomach, and she wondered if she was about to throw up. If this was some kind of practical joke then there was nothing funny about it, but the idea of it being anything other was nothing short of ludicrous.
I’m not sure if you can stop what is about to happen, the letter continued, but even if you can’t there are still some things you could do for me – for us – to make all this easier, while there’s still some time:
- GET A PAP SMEAR! – It might already be too late, but it can’t hurt. Don’t put it off. I did, and look where that got us,
- Ditch Sam – He is NO GOOD. Pay attention to actions not words insofar as men are concerned,
- Forgive Mum,
- Do more of what you find meaningful,
- Spread love.
Life is short, so most of all appreciate what you do have and spend the time you’ve got left with those who make you feel good. And don’t compare yourself to others – it will drain you of joy and from the opportunity to enjoy them for who they are. Remember that whilst others may not have your unique hills to climb, they each have hills of their own.
I’m counting on you; please don’t let us down. Sending all my love and positive wishes your way, Ivy x
Ivy jumped at the unexpected knock on the bedroom door and she felt a cold shiver running down the back of her neck. The door opened and her sister appeared, as slender and petite and exotic-looking as ever – at six-feet Ivy had always felt like a tall, ungainly lump in comparison.
‘Are you coming downstairs soon, Ivy?’ Katia asked. ‘The twins want you to join us in a game of charades – it won’t be the same without you.’
But Katia paused when she took in her sister’s ashen face as she sat on the bed with a letter in her hand and the contents of her memory box strewn all about her. ‘Are you ok? You look as though you’ve seen a ghost.’
‘I’m fine,’ Ivy lied, hastily shoving everything back into the shoebox, the letter included, and forcing down the lid. ‘I’ll be there in just a minute.’ She didn’t want to disappoint the children on Christmas Day.
And though she gave Katia her most reassuring smile, somehow she felt as though she had seen a ghost – but the ghost was her very own.