On Christmas morning there was a slight overnight frost in the outlying suburbs, but here in the centre of the town it was too warm for there to be any trace of it. Herring gulls, unaware of the fact that this was a holiday and that no trains were running, made their raucous way to the near-by station in the hope of finding scraps of food left by the commuters.
Nikki opened her eyes and forced herself to smile at her daughter before looking at the red figures on the radio alarm. 5.35am.
>Father Christmas has been and left me loads of presents. And he=s eaten the milk and drunk the... No, he=s eaten the mince pie B silly me B and drunk the milk and he=s taken the carrot for the reindeer. Look what I=ve got, Mummy.=
Nikki sat up and held back the corner of the duvet.
>Come on, sweetie. Cuddle up with me before you get cold.=
>Look, I=ve got a colouring book and some crayons and a new dress for Dolly and socks with puppies on them and a banana and... What=s this, Mummy?=
>That=s a yo-yo. I=ll show you how to play with it after breakfast.=
>And look at this donkey, Mummy. When I press the bottom he goes all floppy and lies down.=
>Well, that=s all very nice, dear. Now, it=s still dark and it=s far too early to get up, so why don=t you pop back into your own bed. You can eat the banana and do some colouring for a little while and then perhaps you=ll go back to sleep.= >I hope,= Nikki added under her breath.
Katie wasn=t really expecting a puppy as her present from her mother so she wasn=t disappointed when none appeared after breakfast. Instead, Nikki gave her a large, gift-wrapped parcel. Katie pulled off the wrapping paper to find a cardboard box, inside which was another gift-wrapped parcel. And so it went on, just like a set of Russian dolls, until she came across a puppy! Not a real one, of course, but one which could be made to walk by pumping a bulb attached to a rubber tube.
>Wow! Mum, this is wicked! I=m going to call him Spot, >cos he looks just like Spot in the books. Come on, Spot, walkies.=
Irena was up early as well. Not as early as Katie, but early for her. She prepared the vegetables and had the turkey on the work top ready for the oven before having a bath. Sitting at the table with a pot of tea, she consulted the list that she had prepared the evening after she had invited Tom for lunch. She crossed off Apeel pots@ and Aprepare sprouts and carots@. (Spelling was not one of her strong points.) Ah yes, Amake stuffing@, that was what she had to do next. With Radio 2 playing softly, Irena hummed along as she worked methodically through her list of jobs to be done.
By half past eleven, all that was needed was for Irena to turn the vegetables on and heat up the Christmas pudding and mince pies. The turkey was coming along nicely and the pigs in blankets could be popped in beside it a bit later. Time to lay the table before getting changed. But a cup of tea first.
So far this morning she had been too busy to think of anything other than preparing the meal, but now that Irena had nothing else to occupy her mind, apprehension set in. It was a long time since she had entertained anybody in her home, let alone a man. In fact, she couldn=t remember inviting anybody in B other than the meter reader B since she moved to Brighton. The surprising thing was that she didn=t feel lonely. She supposed she must just enjoy her own company. No wonder she had butterflies in her stomach. Well, she thought, it was no good wondering if she had done the right thing. She had done it, and that was all there was to it. Now all she had to do was to get on with it.
Somehow, time for Irena ceased to exist that morning and she was still wearing her apron and basting the potatoes when, a few minutes before one, the doorbell rang. She hastily pulled the apron over her head and stuffed it in a drawer, then smoothed her hair in the hall mirror before opening the door.
Tom was unaccustomed to company, other than his fellow workers on the caretaking staff at the university, so the prospect of having to make conversation had worried him all morning. He had practised saying >Merry Christmas= in various different ways but had given up trying to decide which version sounded best. All this went out of his head as soon as he saw Irena.
>I brought the wine,= he blurted out, thrusting a supermarket carrier bag towards her. >And this is for you,= holding out another bag.
>Come along in, Tom,= she smiled. >Merry Christmas to you.=
>Oh, yes, merry Christmas. What shall I do with the wine? It=s been in the fridge all morning so it should be cold.=
>Just put it on the side there for the moment. Oh, perhaps you could open a bottle now? Lunch won=t be long but we could have a glass while we wait. I=ve got a corkscrew somewhere around.=
After roast turkey and all the trimmings, Christmas pudding with cream, and mince pies B not to mention several glasses of wine B Tom felt considerably more relaxed. Drinking wine was a novelty for him, and he had found that it went down almost too easily. Irena had been more circumspect. She was still trying to forget an episode in Torquay many years before which had resulted in a night in police cells and a hearing before the town=s magistrates the following morning. After that she had turned almost completely teetotal, although over the years she had allowed herself just the occasional glass of wine when out with friends.
By three o=clock, the salt and pepper pots were acting as wickets and salted peanuts marked the various fielding positions as Tom tried to explain cricketing terminology. What with silly mid-on, gully, square leg, leg spin, off spin and googlies, Irena felt as though her head was spinning. She suggested Tom move into the front room while she put the kettle on.
The room was cosy and warm with just the gas fire and a table lamp providing illumination. By the time Irena came in with the tea, Tom was asleep in an armchair. Irena smiled as she looked at him.
>Well,= she said to herself, >you might not be the most gorgeous specimen of manhood, but it feels nice having you here. And I=ve got no room to talk. When did I last fit into a size twelve anyway?=
As she waited for the kettle to boil for one last cup of tea before bed, Irena concluded that the day had turned out very satisfactorily. Admittedly, Tom would never set the Thames on fire, but he had turned out to be better company than she had expected. She smiled as she remembered how embarrassed he had been about falling asleep in the armchair and waking to find that Irena had done all the washing up from lunch. And he hadn=t expected to be asked to stay for tea. She glanced across at the table cloth that had been used for lunch. As it was made of paper, she had put pencil crosses against the various fielding positions that Tom had marked with salted peanuts and written down the names as best she could remember. If this was going to go anywhere she would need to learn at least some of them. Which led her to wonder: did she want it to go anywhere? And if she did, what should she do about it? How long could she reasonably wait for Tom to make a move? Or would he be too shy to do so?
She decided to give it a couple of weeks at least.
On the other side of the party wall, Tom was also boiling a kettle for a cup of tea. Looking back, he was surprised at how much he had enjoyed the day. This was the longest time he had spent in the company of any one person, man or woman, since his mother had died. He had enjoyed it, but, he wondered, had Irena? He couldn=t recall her saying very much, whereas he knew he had chattered on, probably boring her rigid with all his talk of cricket.
>Let=s face it,= he said to himself, >it=s not likely to be repeated. Pity, though. That was the best meal I=ve had in years.=