The Grinch Who Stole our Christmas

‘Got my money today?’ my friend Kelly asked. I smiled as I reached into my purse for a £20 note. My mummy mate certainly wasn’t shy about coming forward!

We’d met at my six-year-old son Fionn’s nursery. My husband Michael, 47, and I had moved to a bigger house across town and Kelly took her daughter, Maisie, to the same nursery. We formed a little gang with some other mums, had fun going to bingo or hitting the shops.

When Kelly started a savings scheme though the Christmas club Park, we all decided to pay into it. As well as Fionn, I’ve got Niamhlen, 11, Ciara, nine, and Zachary, four, so the festive season is always a costly affair. Putting a little money aside each week throughout the year seemed the perfect way of having a worry free Xmas. By giving it to Kelly to pay in, I knew I wouldn’t be able to ‘dip into’ the funds like I had with other savings. The money would be given to me in the form of vouchers to spend on toys, gifts and other festive delights.

Throughout 2015, I gave Kelly £15 a week. Towards the end of year, my friend Emma went to collect her vouchers from Kelly’s flat.

‘I’ll get yours too,’ she offered.
It was ages until she turned up at mine.
‘There’s a problem,’ she said, handing me my envelope. I noticed immediately that £75 worth of vouchers was missing.

‘Kelly’s promised to pay you back,’ Emma explained.
When I confronted Kelly in person, she explained that her benefits had stopped so she’d lived off some our cash to make ends meet.

‘Why didn’t you say anything?’ I asked. ‘We would have helped you out.’
I sympathized with my friend. She was a single mum of two grown up kids and two younger ones. I knew what a struggle it was to make ends meet, even with a husband bringing in a wage.

True to her word, Kelly paid everyone back in time for Christmas and when she decided to organise the savings scheme for 2016, I readily signed up. This time I upped my payments to £20 a week. A couple of the gang decided not to save with her after the previous debacle, but most of us decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.

‘If you have any problems this time you’ve got to tell me straight away,’ I said to Kelly. ‘I don’t want any nasty surprises.’
‘I promise you nothing’s going to happen to your money,’ Kelly replied.

She’d given me her word and that was enough for me. After that, Kelly asked for my cash every Wednesday or Thursday when we met at the gates to pick up our little ones.
As autumn approached, the younger kids’ thoughts turned to presents and they wrote their letters to Santa. Zachary was still a bit too young to come up with an extensive lists of toys but Fionn said he wanted a Lego railway set, Ciara was hankering after a mobile phone and Niamhlen put in a request for a laptop.

Thank God I’ve been putting money aside every week, I thought to myself. I was really looking forward to spoiling the kids and giving them everything they wanted. By the end of the year, I’d have accumulated £950 worth of vouchers.

Towards the end of October, we started asking Kelly when our vouchers would be arriving.
‘I’ll let you know,’ she kept saying.
After several days of not hearing anything, I began to worry. I phoned Park, but because I wasn’t a direct customer they couldn’t speak with me about it and said they’d contact Kelly on our behalf.

The following day, Emma called. I could hear in her voice that someone was wrong.
‘I texted Kelly to ask her what was going on with the vouchers,’ she said. ‘I got a text back saying all our money is gone. She’s gambled it away! She asked me to tell everyone sorry.’
Sorry! That was everything I’d saved for Christmas. My mind raced with thoughts about what I was going to tell the kids. When Michael got wind of what had happened he took action immediately and called the police. They sent a policewoman round to our house to ask some questions and we were then asked to go to the station and make an official statement.

We tried to keep what was happening away from the kids, but they’d overheard when Michael called the police, could sense something was up. I was tearful a lot of the time. It wasn’t just the money, it was the betrayal by someone I considered a close friend.
‘Are we still going to have Christmas, Mummy? Ciara asked. It was one of the most heartbreaking questions I’d ever had to answer.

‘Kelly has taken all the money we were saving for Christmas,’ I explained sadly. ‘But we’ll do our best.’
One of Fionn’s little friends asked his mum if she could by him a present because Santa wouldn’t be coming to our house this year.

It was as if Kelly was the Grinch who had stolen our Christmas!
My only consolation was that I wasn’t going through this alone. I became closer to the rest of the gang as we discussed what we could do the salvage the festive season.
One of my good friends kindly offered to lend me £1000 so I could buy all the toys the kids had asked for.

Kelly, 44, was arrested and charged with seven counts of fraud against me and the other members of our club. It turns out she’d only even paid in the first weekly installments. She’d blown the rest – around £5,000 – on gambling.
Meanwhile, Michael took action again and emailed a few local companies to explain our predicament. Parke said they couldn’t help because Kelly hadn’t handed out the company’s official payment cards.

But to our surprise, the CEO of Tesco got in touch and said they were going to do something to help. We were blown away when things started turning up for the kids. Cinema tickets, clothes and even some of the toys they’d asked for. Five days before Christmas, all the families involved were invited to our local store and presented with a shopping trolley filled to the brim with a giant turkey and all the trimmings we’d need for our Christmas lunch.

But even though Christmas was salvaged, Kelly’s betrayal still smarted. I thought of how she’d brazenly asked for the money each week, all the while knowing she wasn’t putting the money into our vouchers. It didn’t just feel like she’d betrayed me, but my four kids too.

In February, I turned up to Hastings Magistrates’ Court to see Kelly being sentenced. Due to the seriousness of the offence, the case was referred to crown court. We went to Lewes Crown Court in March to see her sentenced to nine months in jail, which was suspended for two years. She was also ordered to pay back £20 a week, to be shared among all the victims. This means we’ll only see a fraction of what we paid to her.

During the court case, Kelly tried to blame her actions on the stress of being a single parent. She claimed gambling was her only relief. But I had no sympathy. What about the stress she’d caused me and the other mums, not to mention our kids?

As she was sentenced she didn’t look up once, kept her eyes fixed on her phone.
I thought seeing her face justice would give me closure, but even now I’m still angry and upset over what she did to us. I’m also gradually paying back my friend, which means I’ll have less to spend on Christmas 2017. The stress of what’s happened has made the symptoms of my Fibromyalgia, which I was diagnosed with as a teenager, much worse. My body constantly aches and the sleepless nights haven’t helped either.

What hurts the most is that Kelly used to tell me what a good friend I’d been to her. I can’t count the amount of times she came over to mine for a cuppa and a chinwag. I’ve always considered myself a trusting person, but now I’m much more wary of people and don’t take them at face value anymore.

I’m no longer friends with Kelly, but she still lives in the area and Michael and I have occasionally driven past her in the car. My once good friend now sends shivers down my spine – to me she’ll always be the Grinch who stole Christmas.

Ends