Part 1 of 4.
The central heat comes on later every year. It was mid-October the year before last, and end of October last year. This year the vents don’t start humming until the morning of November 3rd, and for a moment caught between sleep and wakefulness Nita thinks, the bombers are here again. Why didn’t the raid sirens go off? She is halfway out of bed and planning her route to the tunnels when warm air blasts her in the face, and she remembers she isn’t twelve anymore.
Simon can’t make New Year’s Eve again. He goes for the late shift at the airport, eight in the evening to 4am on New Year’s Day. Someone has to handle the baggage for the stragglers, those desperate to be somewhere for the new year, or those who live half their lives in the sky and don’t give a monkey’s what day it is. Good work for triple pay. Anyway, Simon says, they’d just spent Christmas together.
It’s not the same. Christmas is the whole clan, Nita having to take the minicab out to Bexley, fifty of them crammed into cousin Judy’s backyard. She loves seeing the children, the babies newly arrived this year (there is always at least one), but there are so many people, so much talk, and by the afternoon her mind is like soggy trifle and always she fears she can’t hold her bladder in the minicab home. At Christmas Simon is with the lads, talking football and the racetrack. But he’s a dutiful son. He comes around every Monday, brings a Tesco frozen dessert that she finishes off in the oven. Apple crumble or blackberry pie. She makes them better from scratch, but she doesn’t have the strength to roll out the short crust these days.
She still cooks, though. Simon gets a mum meal once a week. He loves his Chinese takeaways too much, deep-fried in batter and dripping with fluorescent orange sauce. Nita pokes the roll of fat around his waist and tells him he’d better learn to cook before she’s gone, and he only laughs. ‘You’ve got years left in you,’ he says. ‘Decades. You’re the toughest old bird around.’
‘He’s not coming and of course I don’t say anything,’ Nita says to Becky, the volunteer visitor. ‘I don’t want to be that mum. But this might be my last New Year’s Eve.’
‘You said that the past three years,’ laughs Becky. Nita has two volunteers, both good girls, signed up with the local charity to visit the elderly. Becky comes on Friday afternoons after work, and Lena on Wednesday mornings to take Nita to do her shopping.
Nita stares forlornly into the distance and waits. A long pause, and then Becky says, ‘I suppose Mark and I can stop by on New Year’s Eve.’
‘I’ll make sandwiches,’ Nita says.
She spends the afternoon of New Year’s Eve making sandwiches. Tuna mayonnaise, egg and cress, ham and cheese. She cuts them into little rectangles without crusts, the way they serve tea at the Savoy.
‘You made enough for ten of us,’ says Becky, stomping snow from her boots as her husband kisses Nita on the cheek. They have brought Marks and Spencer vol-au-vents to heat up in the oven. Nita puts on the new Christmas CD and tells them the story from the end of the war, the one where she stood in the crowd in Piccadilly Circus, listening to Vera Lynn sing out of a high window. The memory still sends a fizzy jolt down her spine.
‘It must have been amazing to be there,’ says Becky’s husband, awestruck.
‘Hardly anyone remembers now,’ Nita says. ‘Soon there won’t be anyone left.’
They are dutiful kids, even if neither can hold a conversation without glancing down at their phone every two minutes. They are both making good money in the city but they don’t plan to have children. ‘I know it cramps your style, but nothing compares to the joy of your own children,’ Nita says with conviction. ‘You’ll understand when you’re my age.’
They smile politely. She knows what they are thinking. We’re here and Simon’s not. She falls quiet and feels a bubble of rage expand in her sternum; she shouldn’t have to explain to them that he’s a good boy, that he loves his mother, that he’s working because he needs the money. At nine on the dot she yawns and says it’s her bedtime. The kids look relieved and say they can stay longer, but she won’t hear of it. She offers them the remaining sandwiches to take away, closes the door and listens until the elevator door dings shut.
She returns to the living room and leaves the dirty dishes on the table. She’ll do them tomorrow. She is tired now, and the heating is finally on. She won’t stay up to see midnight, hasn’t done for years. She manoeuvres herself clumsily into bed. She has no bum whatsoever now; the bones of her seat push and grind no matter how she sits. Once she would have killed to be this thin. Now all she wants is the fat back, so that she can sit down and lie around without feeling like she’s constantly being poked by knitting needles from the inside.
She is woken by the sounds of drunken cheers on the estate, the kids setting off fireworks. Her bedside clock says 12:03am, its numbers glowing red against the gloom.
So she’s lived to greet another year. She wonders how many she has left.