She was putting up the ornaments. Some of them they’d bought together back then. Most of the ones they purchased in that little shop in that little lane were long gone. So was he. The tree used to be bigger back then, but so was the house she shared with him and the kids. The kids… They would be here soon. Carefully she picked another ornament, making sure she wouldn’t drop it.
It was Christmas day, but there had been no point in putting up the tree until now. She only did it for the girls. As soon as they left she’d pack it away again, ready for next year’s few hours of glory.
Her fingers, swollen from arthritis, had become clumsy. These days it took longer than it should to decorate her little artificial tree, but eventually all the baubles were hung, and twinkled in the bright daylight. She stood back, admiring the effect and telling herself that the lack of fairy lights made little difference. There were just three presents beneath it, one for each of the girls, and one for both of them to share, because it was her tradition to do so.
A rich aroma from the oven told her that dinner was almost ready. The tiny dining table was set for three. There was something wrong; an uneasy feeling, but she couldn’t quite bring her mind to focus on it. She hoped the girls wouldn’t mind the paper napkins, but she had searched everywhere and been unable to find her red linen ones, or the silver-plate napkin rings which only came out at Christmas. So many things seemed to have disappeared.
A shiver ran through her, as she recalled the nightmare. Wracking sobs had woken her in the middle of the night. She couldn’t remember when she had first experienced it, but for years it had recurred whenever her children were due to visit. In her dream the girls were young, still in primary school, and Ernie hadn’t left her. It was night-time and she was outside the house. One of the windows had just exploded outwards, and fire raged out of it. The front door was wide open and acrid black smoke smoke billowed into the cold air. She could hear screaming coming from deep inside her. A dark figure staggered out of the burning building, carrying someone. It was Ernie, with Marie in his arms. She rushed forwards and held out her arms, taking the soot covered child from him. He turned instantly and ran back into the house to save Juliette. She heard the approach of screaming sirens, and then nothing; a blank absence within the dream. When awareness returned the choking tears came with it, and she woke to a wildly hammering heart.
Her children were adults now, living their own lives, and Ernie, well, she couldn’t remember what had happened to her husband, but they no longer lived together.
A cold winter sun exposed the dust on the wine glasses. She thought back to the days when they shared sparkling apple juice, letting the children drink from these very glasses, and pretend it was wine. Again she felt a dip of unease, and shook her head to clear it. Today was a happy occasion; there was no room for dark shadows. Because there was nobody to disapprove, she picked the glasses up, one at a time, and wiped them on her cotton skirt. Ernie always used to hate it when she did that. She felt a pang of guilt; she should miss him, but she was glad he’d gone. Apart from his filthy smoking habit and his tendency to fall asleep in the sitting room after downing a few cans of beer, he had been a model husband, so she knew of no reason for feeling this way.
She heard footsteps in the hall and the door opened. Eagerly she rushed towards the sound, but it wasn’t her children. Standing in front of her was a blousey woman in her thirties, wearing green trousers. Her plump breasts strained as if in an effort to force their way through her white top, and made her pocket, embroidered with black words, look small and foolish as it perched on one bosom.
“Afternoon Doreen my lovey, how are we feeling today?” The booming voice was full of cheer, and without pausing for an answer, she went on “Ooh I say, your tree does look beautiful, what a shame no-one else can see it.”
Doreen opened her mouth to demand an explanation the rude intrusion, but before she had a chance to speak, the woman looked with dismay at the beautifully decorated table and carried on talking.
“Oh, Doreen, sweetie, what are you doing? I just came up to fetch you for your Christmas dinner. You won’t be eating up here. Everyone is dining in the hall. You’ll have such a lovely time. We’ve got crackers to pull and everything; and Maggie is down there saving you a seat next to her.”
Doreen was furious. Who was this ghastly woman, waltzing into her home unannounced, and what was she talking about? With dignity, she pulled herself up to her full height and walked towards the open door.
“I don’t know how you found out my name, but you’re at the wrong house,” she said. “I have to ask you to leave now. My daughters are coming for Christmas dinner, and I don’t want the day ruined.”
A look of pity crossed the woman’s face. She stepped close to her and tried to take Doreen’s hand. Doreen snatched it away.
“Sweetie, we’ve been through this before. I’m Roisin, and I work here. We’ve known each other for years. Please try to remember.” she said gently.
Doreen’s confidence fell away, and she felt an inexplicable moment of déjà vu. She tried to grab at a fleeting image, but it passed her by.
“Please, you’re upsetting me. Please just go away. I have to drain the vegetables and make the gravy. My children will be here any moment, and I want to be able to give them my full attention,” she begged.
Roisin tried to put her hand on Doreen’s shoulder, but she shrugged it off.
“But you haven’t got any vegetables lovey. You haven’t even got a kitchen. This is a care home. There are no children. They passed away fifteen years ago, but you have a happy life here, and lots of friends who are waiting downstairs to wish you a happy Christmas.”
Roisin wasn’t very bright, and she didn’t always say the right thing, but with Doreen she tried. Her mother always said she wouldn’t amount to anything, and she was right. She paid lip-service to her menial job, because she cared little for the residents and less for her employers. Doreen was the only exception. Some days she believed that Roisin was her daughter, and on those days love rained down upon her from Doreen’s lips. Other days Doreen didn’t know her, and had forgotten that both of her children had died in a raging house fire caused by a dropped cigarette, and that her husband had disappeared into the moonlight after failing to rescue Marie and Juliette.
She watched Doreen’s face crumple as she remembered, and she told herself again that she couldn’t bear to do this one more time. She should look for another job, but she knew she couldn’t leave Doreen.
She put her arms around Doreen. “We all love you.” she said, adding in a whisper “I love you.”
©Jane Paterson Basil