My unmittened finger pauses – mid-air. I glance back. ‘Best behaviour, please.’ My breath is billowing vapour. Vik makes wide eyes of theatrical offence, puts an imaginary key to her lips gives it a twist, then throws it over her shoulder. I turn back and press their doorbell.
We had a drink with breakfast, Vik and me. Well, if you can’t today – when can you? I only had a glass – maybe two – but there was an empty bottle dropped, clanking into the bin, as we left.
I can tell it’s India bustling toward us, even through the distortions of the glass, all hale and hearty with her, ‘Hello, hello, here we all are’, even as she’s opening the door. And she’s on me, from two steps up on their porch. I throw my hands up in surrender to her embrace, caught off guard. I hug her back. The doorbell is still finishing its Christmas chime.
‘Come in, come in. You must be freezing.’
India’s parents were quite posh, hence the name. Thank heavens she was a little more sensible in her choices. She’ll have that Kiss The Cook pinny on and off all day. The children, who are no longer children, troop down the corridor from the living room. Josh is so tall now, back for the holidays. We haven’t seen him in months. I want to say ‘lolloping’, not quite used to his height. But oh, he’s handsome. I don’t have a favourite, but Teresa is so like me at that age – adventurous, a bit daft. It’s all hugs and kisses. India’s going through the plans for the day – the same schedule as last year. Vik helps me to sit down on the stairs so I can yank off my boots. It’s warm, stifling after the chill. The air is filled with noisy chatter, cooking smells and potpourri.
Matt will wait in the living room. He doesn’t like to make a fuss.
As India’s hanging my coat up, Vik asks if I’m okay – again? I nod again.
Lolo, their big daft boxer, is here, wagging her tail like billyo. Vik’s straight down on the floor, getting a thorough licking, so she can be sure someone’s thrilled to see her. ‘How’s my girl? How’s my favourite girl?’
Then Vik gives me that looks that asks if I’m okay to be left. I nod and say, ‘spend some time with the kids. I need my wits about me in the kitchen.’ I watch them heading off toward the sound of machine-gun fire that quickly drops away to silence; one of Josh and Matt’s video games probably. India’s going through the menu. There’s turkey, of course, and Teresa is a vegan, so there’s nut roast, ‘If you fancy having a taste of that.’
I’m a bit of a focal point this year. There’s a little silence and India’s clasped hands, ‘Are you okay?’ she says, and that sympathetic smile appears.
I tell her, ‘I’m fine, absolutely fine,’ unravelling my scarf, smoothing back my hair.
Matt is standing when we reach the living room, stepping forward, enveloping me in a great man-hug, offering a quick stereo patting on both my shoulder blades. ‘Are you sure you’re up to a bit of cooking mum?’ he asks.
Josh is shooting people on the TV screen; bits of heads are exploding. It’s quite distracting. ‘The kitchen is my favourite place to be,’ I say, which is usually true.
He leans closer to say, ‘Save us from India’s turkey,’ and winks.
I punch his shoulder. When did he get so much taller than me?
Then India’s back with my ‘Chief Chef’ apron. They like to keep me busy, and I love to pitch in.
‘Have a big teaspoon of honey and you’ll feel better,’ Vik says quietly. That’s our old hangover cure. She looks at me a little more closely. ‘Are you okay?’
‘Oh, not you too,’ I say, but I seem to be having trouble with the apron strings. She helps me guide them around my back. I cinch them tight, tie a bow, and say, ‘Have fun, killing zombies.’
Matt oomphs back down onto the couch.
After a while in the kitchen, I find I’m standing looking out of the window. India is talking, emptying something into the sink, enveloped in the ensuing mushroom cloud of steam. Apparently, Josh’s haircut is called a ‘Meet Me At Macdonald’s’. I’d call it a short-back-and-sides. India perms the top for him. Teresa calls herself ‘Terri’ now. She’s a Buddhist. India pushes back her damp hair with her wrist, saying, ‘Kids! She was talking about gluing herself to a train to save the environment last week.’ India’s looking for something. ‘I wish she’d just dye her hair purple and get drunk like me when I was her age.’ The nut roast is stuck to the Pyrex. ‘Oh, balls!’ she says, tapping it with a spoon. I’m having trouble keeping up.
Outside, Josh and his daft hair are lolloping around on the lawn, kicking snow, chasing Lolo. Vik’s sitting on their little wall, looking cold, such thin hair I can see her scalp. She turns, almost instinctively, and blows me a kiss through the misty glass.
There’s a little bit too much going on, three things to remember, I have a spatula in my hand, which I give to India. She looks blankly at me, but smiles and puts it on the draining board. I’m remembering that it was a while ago that she asked for it.
‘A vegan and Buddhist?’ is all I can think of to say.
‘I think the two go hand in hand.’ India sounds distracted, squinting at the instructions on the packet of gravy that she is holding up. ‘How are those carrots coming along?’ I lean on her lovely wood counter and look at the saucepans. Things in water? I can’t remember which ones are carrots, but she leans across, seems to spot them and says, ‘Well done. Sherry break?’
We stand at the windows and she comments that the snow is falling a little heavier, and everyone is lined up at the edge of the lawn, watching.
‘Oh, would you mind keeping an eye on the feast for a min? So rare to have them all lined up and smiling,’ India says, brandishing her phone.
I sip my sherry, watching her step out from the conservatory, fists bunched under her chin, shivering. But Vik’s not out there now. I can feel her behind me.
‘Hello.’ Her warm breath in my hair. We watch them for a moment, India’s school teacher voice, all bright and breezy even through double glazing. Vik says, ‘How’s it going, Tit-Willow?’
‘I’m forgetting more and more things.’
‘But only the new stuff, and that’s all rubbish anyway. You’ve still got the good stuff.’
I don’t answer.
‘Where did we meet?’
Without a heartbeat’s pause, I say, ‘In that grimy old pub in Manchester. Filthy place. I saw you at the bar, and we had a quick chat. Just seeing you gave me the collywobbles. Oh, it was a grubby place.’
‘I made the girls come back with me every evening on the way back from college, even though it was a bit out of the way. So I had to buy the drinks. Cost me a fortune, but you weren’t back there until Friday. And that first time I saw you had been a Monday.’
‘Some of us were working full time.’
‘You looked like a beautiful boy in your daft boots. And I could see you worked the buses. And sometimes I took your bus and just watched you. Watched the back of your head.’ I tell her, though she already knows.
My focus has slipped. The windowpane is crisping into focus, a frost etching of a garden. My glasses fog with steam. ‘I’d draw a heart in the steamy glass sometimes and hope you’d find it. Oh, I was dreadfully soppy.’
My head fits under your chin so nicely. You’re the last piece in my jigsaw. And I’m 24 again, and your hands are on my nineteen-inch waist, gathering the hem of my pullover, sliding your cold fingers underneath and up. ‘I’ve never done anything with a woman before,’ I had said, tipsy, emboldened, and strangely defensive.’ And I know you have.’ Which was quite an accusation back then.
‘Then you married a fella for five years.’
‘That was a terrible mistake.’
‘Not really,’ you say, a little wistful.
They’re taking a lot of pictures out there. Matt’s taking pics of India with the kids now. They’re all posing with snowballs.
‘Well, not all bad. He was a good man. It was wonderful. But the marriage itself was…’ As I’m looking for the word I trail off. ‘It wasn’t his fault. Not at all.’ I smile and drift a little. ‘I followed you around like a puppy. But we didn’t do anything about it for quite some time. We went out for drinks and neither of us really knew how to broach it. You hung around with some rough girls back then. You really did.’ I put my hand to my mouth because I’m going to cry again.
I can hear you sigh with frustration. ‘That’s the trouble with you. You have a drink and you’re great fun for an hour, then you’re morose for the rest of the day.’
‘I have a right to be morose,’ I shout in a teary voice, immediately looking around to check nobody has walked back in.
Vik steps back, eyebrows raised, staring, blinking slowly, like a cow. I turn to argue a bit more and swipe away tears.
She says, ‘You know, if you smile, the blood flows to your brain differently. Cheers you up.’
‘You always say that, and it’s absolute rot.’
‘Well, try plastering a bloody smile on and give it a whirl.’
I turn back to the window and you put both arms around me, reaching to grab the air in front of my breasts, squeezing an imaginary horn, saying ‘honk-honk’. I snort a ragged little laugh despite myself.
‘Cheer up Titty-Kaka. Your glasses have steamed up.’
I take them off, wiping the lenses with my thumb through the pinny. India is marshalling them into a lineup again; someone didn’t like the first set of pictures.
‘You did okay,’ Vik says.
‘We did okay. I’d better check the feast.’
My knees crackle as I bend to my haunches and we look into the dark, ominous oven, and you say, ‘Good luck with that. It’ll be tough as old boots like last year.’
When India comes in, she’s shivering, ‘All alright in here, are we? Any sherry top-ups needed?’
There’s no way I can save her blackening parsnips, and that nut roast should’ve gone in last. But I let her faff as I head for their cupboard under the stairs to fish out the pills from my coat pocket. I chuck them back. But when I go to tick them off as taken, it seems I already took them today. This’ll make for a dozy afternoon. I won’t tell anyone, not even Vik. She can be a bit crotchety in company.
We relax in the living room, leaving everything cooking or ready to be reheated. Vik’s kneeling on the carpet. Lord knows what that’ll do to her knees. Her hand covers mine on the arm of my chair. Lolo is falling asleep as Vik meditatively strokes and strokes the crumpled fur of her brow. Those great rheumy eyes close. The TV is on mute. My fingers smell of Satsumas. Then I hear it and feel tears prickle. I know the notes, and then I know it’s ‘Somewhere’, original cast recording. Our song is Johnny Mathis’ ‘Warm’, from the Christmas album. But she used to sing bits of ‘Somewhere’ to me when I got back from the divorce people or when my poor ex was being difficult about the children. It always cheers me up.
‘Vik. Did you put this on?’ I say, a little too loudly. She shakes her head and gives me that sympathetic smile. That same annoying smile. It’s all I get these days – from doctors and boys giving up their seats on buses. But I let it slide and say, ‘Oh I haven’t heard this in twenty years!’
But when I look around, that funny little silence has settled, that exchange of looks meaning I’ve mucked up again. So – I have heard this song, I have just heard this song. Teresa gets up from the sofa to save me and sits at my feet.
‘It’s Alexa,’ she says. ‘It’s on the playlist Vik did for us last year.’
‘So, I suppose I did put it on,’ Vik says. She’s as confused by technology as I am.
I know there are six people in this room and Alexa isn’t one of them. ‘She’s the music playing machine, isn’t she?’
Teresa smiles, nods and puts her hand on top of Vik’s – on top of mine, a triple pack of hands. She’s grinning expectantly, sitting at my feet, making me feel like some old dowager. There’s a tattoo peeping under her collar. ‘D’ya like your new slippers?’ she asks, for want of something to say.
I look down and, sure enough, there are new slippers on my feet, gold and red, quite lovely. I’m not sure how. We gave cheques again, the same as last year. It’s impossible to know what kids could want. I sip my sherry, buying a little time because I should speak to her, ask her something. I know there’s something, a subject I can bring up…
‘So, I hear you’re a – ‘I can’t think of the word. Spatula? Vegetarian. Carrots?
India leans over us with a box of chocolates and says, as she rattles the dwindling assortment, ‘Buddhist.’
We have a chat about that. Teresa can’t even eat those chocolates. There are bones in them or something. She won’t be having gravy with her nut roast, won’t even eat honey – ‘That’d be cheating the bees.’
I nod sagely. The Queen’s speech is coming up. It’s so toasty warm in here, so I close my eyes and relax, surrounded by their lovely, happy chatter.
The boys down the front were cheering because it was an American film, not a cheap British one. Sometimes you couldn’t tell until the titles came up. We were at the back, scooped low in our seats. The light from the projector swirled with cigarette smoke. Vik held my hand, down low, where an usherette’s torch wouldn’t pick it out. ‘I’m going to marry you,’ she told me.
‘And I did.’
‘Forty years later.’
‘A very long engagement.’
‘I could’ve hugged and kissed till the cows came home. But with you, it was always going somewhere,’ I say. I don’t know why I’m complaining.
‘It never went anywhere you didn’t wanna go.’ You’ve said that to me before. ‘What film was showing the first night I kissed you?’
Easy – ‘The Sweet Smell Of Success. Tony Curtis wasn’t as pretty as you.’ I think I’m saying that out loud.
‘And Debbie Reynolds wasn’t as pretty as you.’
‘Debbie Reynolds wasn’t in it – ‘
Then suddenly I’m rousing to your voice: ‘Hey wakey-wakey Titty-Kaka. Shift your stumps. They’re waiting.’
The room is empty but for Lolo at Vik’s feet, looking up with the same adoration I feel, and it’s not the cinema, it’s the living room. Their huge screen TV is blank and dark. The Christmas Tree sparkles in the slow, hypnotic flash of its lights. From the dining room comes the pop and bang of Christmas crackers, excited voices and groans.
‘Get your bum in there. We’re waiting,’ Vik says, towering over me.
‘I wasn’t hiding,’ I say, still shedding vestiges of the dream. ‘I just conked out.’
We enter the dining room to cheers and garbled voices, ‘ ‘Ere she comes. Drunk by lunchtime’; ‘Oh Leave her alone, it’s Christmas,’; That’s your last drink mate’; ‘Ignore them. Come and sit by me, Nan.’
I take a bow and sit next to Teresa. Matt says the turkey is a bit tough, but India goes round the table, and we all agree it’s delicious. Lolo will eat well tonight. I switch to Diet Coke.
Afterwards, whilst the kids are clearing the plates, I skype my sister and her kids. India helps me set it up, but it’s all quite hectic. I can’t tell who’s talking. I tell them Nana Vik sends kisses. Then one of her little ones needs the loo, so it sort of unravels. There are two lovely great-grandkids, blonde boys… their names are on the tip of my tongue.
The next time I look, it’s dark outside. So, with their family duties fulfilled, Josh and Teresa are heading out or upstairs or wherever kids go. Matt insists he’ll take us home, though it’s only a twenty minute stroll. The pavements will be quite slithery by now. India gives me a big squeeze at the door, looking a bit teary. I see Vik roll her eyes and sneak around the back of her, pulling a face, leaving me to it. It’s just the usual warnings, ‘Careful on the ice, keep the heating on, call us if you need anything,’ and another lovely hug. She looks so sad. I feel I should comfort her.
‘She was starting to get on my chuff,’ Vik mutters behind me as we’re gingerly following Matt down the crispy, frosted path.
Snowflakes swarm in the headlights. The roadsides are banked with filth-spattered drifts. We chit-chat for the five-minute trip: Josh is enjoying college, Teresa is in trouble for getting that tattoo, nobody approves of her boyfriend. Then our headlights sweep across the For Sale sign, so we are home, something else that is to be taken from me. I thank him for the lift and get an awkward hug across the hand brake.
He’s been wondering if he should ask, all the way back, last chance now: ‘So Mum… How are you feeling,’ and there’s a tiny pause, ‘in yourself?’
I’ll be the last to know. No point asking me. But I do have a wonderful gift for being able to read upside down, so I know all the medical terms for what’s going wrong up here. I just say, ‘They’re doing some more tests.’ But I know they know.
Vik’s waiting on the porch. It’s too dark to see her expression.
As I’m standing in the open door of the car, Matt leans low across the passenger seat, looking up at me. I haven’t seen him cry in forty years, but there’s a ragged edge to his voice, ‘Are you sure you’re managing?’
‘Yes, yes, I’m quite fine.’
I wave to his car from the living room. He won’t go until I put the lights on. I imagine there’ll be
An India and Matt crisis discussion tonight.
‘Your family have been wonderful to me,’ Vik says as I’m closing the curtains.
‘They’re your family too, ‘I say, ‘A better father to them than their real…’ Then I trail off and find I’m staring at the lovely quiet curtains. Eventually, you say ‘father’, but I’ve forgotten the subject. I open a bottle of wine, one of the good ones, and drink a glass quickly.
‘Sip don’t glug,’ Vik warns.
I’ll take the rest up to bed, watch a bit of telly. ‘Is it sad to drink on your own?’
‘You’re never alone,’ you say, following me up the stairs.
‘Oh well, this is working out well for me.’ I laugh because I’m funny and, because, somehow, I’m in that first hour of ‘drunk’ again.
Later, when we’re in bed, in the dark, listening to the central heating, I ask, ‘What shall I do?’ And feel the bed shift as you maneuver closer.
Your cheek is warm to my scalp. ‘How about windsurfing?’
‘Oh, you’re no help.’ I feel I might cry. I may as well. I screw up my tired eyes, so tight that there’s a rushing in my ears and my shoulders bob and jerk with the effort of holding back hot tears.
‘Oh, come on ya big Nelly,’ you say, but not unkindly.
‘I want to be with you.’ I whisper to my pillow, no louder than the issuing of my breath.
‘You are with me.’
‘No, not like this. Really with you.’
And you’re quiet for a minute before you say, ‘So what ya gonna do, put your head in the oven?’
I smear away tears.
‘There won’t be any more really,’ your voice has tempered, not even jokingly abrasive now. Your breath is cold at the back of my neck, just a draft. ‘Calm down. I’m waiting. You’re ancient. Have a little patience.’ And your lips are warm through my fine hair.