It was unearthly, unreal, disorienting: black sky and flying whiteness faintly illuminated by the dim orange halo of a street lamp. Houses, hedges, walls and gardens were cloaked in similarity. They had assumed disguises, changed shape, shifted position.
Eighty-five-year-old Gwen Baines had enjoyed the large pre-holiday party her niece hosted every year, but she had been glad to leave early.
“Number 6 Banbury Gardens,” she had told the kind gentleman who had offered to drive her home. “Just put me down at the corner. I’ll be fine.” But she wasn’t fine. There was something subtly wrong. She stood for a moment, hesitating and uneasy, then walked a few paces up and down the road so she could look at the buildings from a different angle. Yes, this little estate of sheltered housing was surely Banbury Gardens where she and George had lived since they sold up their family home; of course it was! Neat and cosily compact, the bungalows were the right buildings in the right place. It must be the black sky and the white snow that were confusing her. That, and the nagging feeling that there was something important she had forgotten. She shook herself, impatient with her hesitation, then stepped determinedly up to the house on the corner. And here was her front door, just where it should be, with the number 6 plainly visible above the knocker. All she wanted now was to get indoors and have a consoling cup of tea.
But where was her door key? It wasn’t in her coat pocket or her bag. She must have had it in her hand and dropped it as she fumbled with the door of the kind gentleman’s car. Frantic, peering blindly through the whirling, flaking, shifting air, she retraced her steps, kicking feebly at the snow and scrabbling in the drifts whenever she thought she saw a glint of metal. To no avail. Then, suddenly remembering that she kept a spare back door key in the coal shed, she turned round and tottered back to Number 6. Crying with relief she retrieved the key, unlocked the back door, and tumbled into the kitchen.
She looked round in horror. Surely she hadn’t left the kitchen in such a mess? The floor was filthy and the walls were splashed with grease. Every surface was covered with dirty dishes, rancid pans, and gaping cartons of half-eaten take-away meals. A great pile of empty wine bottles had been tumbled into a corner (when had she taken to drink?), a smelly trash can was spilling food scraps, used tea-bags and margarine wrappers onto the floor, a half-eaten apple and a ham sandwich had been left to moulder on the window sill. It was disgusting.
And so was the old man who was standing by the table pouring boiling water over a teabag in a chipped mug.
“By gum, lass!” he said. “You’ve taken your time, haven’t you?”
The old man was as dirty as the table he stood at. His sparse hair was flattened to his head with weeks of grease, tufts of waxy hair sprouted from his ears and nostrils, he’d lost most of his teeth, and his finger nails were rimmed with grime. He wore a torn, food-stained sweater over filthy corduroy trousers, and down-at-heel slippers shiny with ground-in dirt.
Who could he be?
“Well, Missus, now that you ARE back,” the old man said, reaching for another mug, rinsing it briefly under the tap, and giving it a quick wipe on his trousers, “I suppose you’ll be wanting a nice cup of tea?” So saying, he filled the mug from the kettle, took the teabag out of his own mug, dunked it briefly in hers, slopped some milk into it, and handed it to her.
“Let’s take it into the front room and you can tell me where you’ve been all this time,” he said.
“They told me you were dead, you know,” he said, slurping his tea noisily and wiping his mouth with a dirty handkerchief. “‘Mr B.,’ they said, ‘we’re sorry to have to tell you that your missus passed away this morning.’ But I didn’t believe them. I knew you’d be back. They wanted to put me in a home, you know.
“Nursie – you know, the woman that keeps an eye on us all here? Her name’s Mrs Smith, but we call her Nursie. You remember, don’t you?
“Well, Nursie came in and said, ‘Now Mr B.,’ she said, ‘you know you won’t be able to look after yourself properly now your Mary’s gone. You’d better come over to Bayview where we can care for you properly.’ But I told her, I told her straight, ‘No way!’ I said. ‘I’ve heard about them care homes,’ I said. ‘They do experiments on you, they give you the needle and do things to your brain, and when you’re dead they sell your body for medical science.’ ‘Now, Mr B.,’ she said, ‘don’t be silly. It’s all the same staff. I’m in charge at Bayview as well as at Banbury Gardens, and I haven’t experimented on you yet, have I?’ But I said, ‘I’m not going! You can’t make me. I can take care of myself till the missus comes home.'”
He looked round with great satisfaction at the spotted carpet, the peeling wallpaper, and the broken suite. “I was right, wasn’t I? I can look after myself, and you have come back.”
He paused for a moment, studied Gwen critically, then added,
“Mind you, you do look a bit different now.”
“You look different too, George,” said Gwen.
That was one of the many things that puzzled Gwen as she set to work putting the bungalow back into order. That first evening she had been unable to find any clean sheets for the bed or towels for the bathroom. In the morning she had found the wardrobe full of dresses she didn’t remember buying. Downstairs in the front room she had been distressed to find that her books and ornaments had disappeared and where was her piano? Something was very wrong, but she couldn’t put her finger on it; there was something she must try to remember. In time it would come back to her, it always did.
Meanwhile, there was work to do. Each day she sent the old man out into the snow with a shopping list — detergents, disinfectants, bleach, soap powder, salad stuffs, oranges, flour, butter, eggs. She washed the bed linen, scrubbed the bath, cleaned the windows, swept the floors and, each day, reclaimed a little more of the kitchen from the filth and grime.
She set to work on the old man himself: she threw away his favourite clothes and sent him, grumbling, to buy new ones; she cut his hair; she found his false teeth and insisted he wear them; she made him take baths and wash his hands. She was fulfilled and content; it was good to be needed, busy and useful.
There was one thing, though, that kept niggling her,
“Why do you keep on calling me Mary?” she asked.
“Why do you keep on calling me George?” he replied.
By the afternoon of Christmas Eve she felt she could sit back and enjoy her achievements. The old man had bought a Christmas tree and she had spent the morning putting fairy lights and tinsel on it. She’d baked a fruitcake and decorated it with icing-sugar snow, holly and robins. A large turkey, trussed up and stuffed, was waiting in the fridge.
They were just sitting down to a cup of tea and one of Gwen’s mince pies when the back door opened and they heard a professionally cheery voice calling, “Anybody home?”
“Come in, Mrs Smith,” the old man called back, “we’re in the front room.”
“It’s Nursie,” he explained, “doing her Christmas rounds.”
A stout woman appeared round the door, stopped dead, gasped.
“Why, Mr Brown! What a transformation! Santa’s elves have certainly been busy here! I hardly recognised the place. And look at you! A regular fashion-plate!”
Gwen smiled. She was pleased that she had insisted that George wash his hair and have a good shave this morning; she’d given him a manicure too, and got him dressed up in a white shirt, a tie and a pair of nice flannel trousers with a sharp crease down the front of each leg. He was a real credit to her.
And now he was turning to her and smiling (she was so glad he was wearing his dentures!)
“Mary, love,” he said, “here’s Mrs Smith come to wish us Happy Christmas. Why don’t you make her a nice cup of tea and give her one of your mince pies?”
Astonished, Nursie turned to his companion,
“Mrs Baines!” she exclaimed. “Whatever are you doing here?”
A chasm opened in Gwen’s mind and she fell into a pit of darkness. As in a jerky film, she saw George dead, she saw herself wrapping her books and ornaments in newspaper and putting them into packing cases, she saw her new lounge suite and her piano being loaded into a van, she saw herself taking one last sad look round No. 6 Banbury Gardens, she saw herself getting into a taxi, and she saw Nursie welcoming her to Bayview. How long ago was that? Five months? Five years? Yesterday?
Through the invading blackness she saw the old man, stunned and shocked, collapsing onto the nearest chair, and she heard Nursie talking agitatedly on the telephone.
“Your aunt … Banbury Gardens! … Oh dear! I thought she was with you! … changed plans, crossed wires … I see … no, she’s fine … I’ll take her back with me … sorry for the confusion.”
Gwen’s head was swimming, she felt sick; she reached for the plate of mince pies and toppled to the floor.
When she came to, she was lying on the sofa, with Nursie chafing her hands. She sat up carefully.
“Alright now, Gwen sweetheart? You’ve had a nasty turn,” said Nursie. “Now, Herbert, off you go to your smart new kitchen and make this lovely lady a cup of hot sweet tea. After she’s drunk that up, we’ll get her home.”
“I am home,” Gwen quavered, turning beseeching eyes on the old man. “I am at home, dear, aren’t it?”
“Of course you are,” the old man said, bending towards her and lovingly stroking her hair, “and I’ll never let you go again.”
He straightened up and faced Nursie.
“It’s OK, Mrs Smith,” he said. “Thank you for your concern, but we’ll be fine together now. It’s ‘in sickness and in health, till death do us part’ for her and me.”
Outside the snow had stopped. Everything was bathed in bright winter light. They could see clearly now, and it was beautiful. The old man knelt by the sofa and kissed Gwen’s tear-stained face. She reached for his hand.
“Merry Christmas, Herbert dear,” she said.
“And a Happy New Year, Gwen love,” he replied.