Nativity

Dorothy moved to the kitchen, and poured another J&B into the small tumbler. Just a snifter and then she’d start the lunch. The turkey would have to do one more meal, though God knows it had been dry as cardboard on Christmas Day. Jane had had to rescue it while Dorothy locked herself in her room and cried, and only the four of them and the baby sat down to all the trimmings, and the home service on the wireless playing hark the bloody herald angels again. She shouldn’t have gone for a twelve pounder really, with the boys away and Jane being on yet another of her diets, picking at her sprouts. If she’d known rationing, she wouldn’t be taking it into her head to look like Twiggy. She’d eat her semolina and jam and be grateful.
Dorothy lit another Senior Service with the Wedgewood lighter, took a mouthful of scotch through the smoke and rummaged in the vegetable rack for enough spuds for six including Lizzy, who could eat them mashed with gravy. Those’ll never do us. Drew is always so ravenous these days. She shouted up the stairs to Jane to run to Cullens for her before it closed for lunch, but there was no response. She started up the four flights, and on the first landing, passed the baby’s room. Its smell of talcum hardly masked the ten dirty nappies in the bucket by the door; another job she should have done yesterday. Five years of washing nappies out of the last sixteen. Rinsing your childrens’ shit, washing and ironing their clothes, cleaning up after them. She could’ve been a doctor if she hadn’t been pregnant with Drew before the finals. And now she had five and no support. Her mother had never liked the children when they were small. That was probably down to her being adopted and one of ten, out in the railway cottage in Ffestiniog. She told Dorothy once she was born Olive Christmas but had become Peggy Franks. She’d lost her nativity.
Another flight and past the open door to Tom’s austere grey sanctum; the king sized bed with its rock hard mattress. Not that she’d been in to him for as long as she could remember. She could hear his snoring from the doorway, and she stepped quietly into the room to study his heavy features as he lay on his back, with his shoes off. The room was more of an office really, dominated by his desk. The unopened packet of Embassy in the top draw for the last two years said it all. The bastard was always in control of his emotions. Like that bitch of a mother, Miriam. Mamushu. He still calls her ‘mummy’ at 45. Twenty years since he got her out of Poland and she still won’t speak proper English. Never good enough for her golden boy. “My Tomasz vos top of zee cless, you know”.
Dorothy left the room without waking him. Give him a few more minutes. Give her a bit of peace and quiet.
Standing silently on the landing, she thought of Tom’s body. She tried to remember how much she’d wanted him at the start, but all she could think of was Michael, her first lover, and her first time. It was at Miss Dawes’ house when they were both evacuated from London in forty-two. She was sixteen and he fifteen, and neither had had any experience before. It had been tentative, delicate in the beginning, but like a bonfire of dry kindling, it had become a blaze in almost no time. Something just threw them at each other, and they couldn’t fight it. That summer was idyllic. Hot afternoons cycling the South Downs, evenings in the orchard, nights slipping quietly between his room and hers.
She’d gone back to London and joined the Waafs, before being accepted to study medicine at Guys. While she was dodging air-raids in Bloomsbury she’d met Tomasz, resplendent in the uniform of the Polish Free Army. He’d struck Dorothy as sophisticated and brilliant, and she’d quickly been whisked off her feet. By the time she saw him in a different light, they were married and she was pregnant, and he quickly lost his appeal.
She’d have to wake him to go and collect Joe from the Abbey, as she just didn’t feel up to the drive. She felt so tired. He was snoring loudly now. Always snoring. Falling asleep in his dinner, drooping over the steering wheel, the car swerving, snoring over the papers, snoring through The Forsyte Saga. Her mother-in-law, Miriam, hadn’t told her about Tom having been diagnosed with narcolepsy till after they were married. They couldn’t go to the theatre or cinema without him snoring like a drunk, or falling across the person sitting beside him. If only Miriam had told her sooner, it would have been a sure way to stop the marriage Miriam didn’t want, and save them all a lot of heartache.
She and Michael hadn’t seen one another for almost twenty years after Rottingdean. Then, quite by chance, they’d run into one another at a teachers’ conference and it had been like digging in embers and finding glowing coals. For almost ten years, they’d met for a night or a weekend every few months, between the births of his children and hers, between his commitments and hers.
The last time had been in Lyme Regis, over a year ago. “We can’t do this any more.” He’d said that before, but this time, she knew was their last. She’d tried to hide her stretch marks under the sheet in their pale blue room with sea views. God knows why. Michael and his wife had eight, so he’d seen it all before.
And now Michael had decided to stop and was gone from her life, like everything good. The only man she’d truly loved. “God, what’s it all for? What’s the point?”
She stood on the landing by the door to her own room, and felt like going to lie down, but forced herself to pass it, instead opening the airing cupboard opposite and taking out sheets for Joe’s bed, which she’d stripped six weeks earlier after half term and forgotten to make up yesterday . Another flight to Jane’s room, and that incessant rock and roll music. For three days now she’d played that Rolling Stones LP non-stop, lying on the carpet with paper and pencil, transcribing the lyrics to Satisfaction and a song called Mother’s Little Helper. What was that about?
“You, Dorothy” Jane had muttered. She was a right little madam these days; fighting for her independence, staying out after ten, snogging boys, spending hours in the bathroom. And now she’d started calling me Dorothy, not mummy, since Drew had almost choked Tom by using his first name over the Christmas pudding. Very funny really. Tom didn’t think so. Children should be seen and not heard.
“I’ve been shouting up the stairs for ages. Turn that off, and nip out to Cullens for me, will you, and pick up some spuds and carrots?”
“What’re we having? Not turkey again?”
Dorothy smiled, and knowing the shopping would have to wait till the end of side two, she closed the door on
Men just aren’t the same today
I hear ev’ry mother say
They just don’t appreciate that you get tired….
One more flight and into the boys’ room. Jeremy wouldn’t be home for another couple of days from Worcester, but Westminster’s term ended on the 28th, after all the carol services. She might as well make up both beds, and sort out their presents. God knows who was due what. Every year she wrapped the gifts in one roll of paper, and forgot to label them, so the easiest thing was to buy interchangeable presents, lead farm animals for Joe and infantrymen for Jeremy, or the other way around. Twenty years since the war and still they play Tommies and Gerries.
While she made the beds, she listened to Drew strumming the opening bars of House of the Rising Sun in the next room, and then his voice, mimicking Eric Burdon’s nasal twang:
There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun….
It must have been months since she’d been in his room. At sixteen he forbade it and she respected that, though God knows what it smelt like. It was all she could do to get his dirty washing off him, and there was precious little of that since his Dylan uniform was rarely changed. She hummed The times they are a-changin’ as she tucked in the flanelette sheets.
On her way back down, she stopped at Tom’s room, balancing the small pile of presents on the bannisters and went in to wake him. It always amazed her how he woke into full consciousness after a short sleep, and pretended not to have slept.
“Can you drive in to collect Joe? I’m too busy.”
“I’ll be down in a minute.” He swung his legs to the floor and stood straight into his shoes. She touched his sleeve, briefly, while she searched his dull gaze for some sign of affection, and then turned and left the room
She brought Joe’s bag of presents down to the lounge. This peaceful room was her haven. Its high Victorian skirting, William Morris wallpaper from Sandersons, and framed prints of Utrillo and Canaletto hanging over the marble mantlepiece. She still loved the faded gold velvet curtains, and her 1895 Bechstein, waiting silently for her in the bay window. The tree was lying in the back garden. Up on Christmas Eve, down on Boxing day, its needles hoovered away and order returned to the room. When had she lost her nativity?
She went over to the lounge phone and lifted the receiver and listened to the constant buzz of the available line. Blandford 11527. She had the number embedded in her memory. Dial and listen.: if he answered, say “hi, it’s me,” if she answered, put the phone down or say “sorry, wrong number,” though Janice would recognise her voice, even after all these years. She listened to the buzz without dialling and after a few seconds, replaced the receiver.
She picked up the parcels from the velvet-covered sofa. At least there were no stockings this year. Not that they had ever been stockings. Rather Tom’s old army socks, stuffed late on Christmas eve with an orange, a chocolate penny, a Groucho mask and a bag of marbles or whatever. Oh yes, and those bloody tubs of fairy liquid with a plastic ring attached to the lid.
She arranged Joe’s few parcels in the corner of the lounge, on the Indian rug, and sat on the embroidered piano stool, resting her hands on the ivory keys before gently picking out a few chords from the Beethoven score already open. Piano Sonata Number 57, the Appassionata, slow movement. She struggled through the sonata and then the andante from Mozart’s piano concerto, the Elvira Madigan. Then she sat, smoking, drifting, before flicking back through the score to find the Moonlight, Michael’s favourite.
She stopped playing when she heard the running steps of the small boy, and looking up, saw Joe in his grey flannel shorts and grey shirt, grey v-neck and striped blue and gold tie, slightly askew. He stopped still, framed in the doorway, looking across the room at her. Hesitant, smiling. She felt lightheaded, almost sick with his anticipation and her emptiness. She so desperately wanted to hold onto that moment, to frame it as a memory. In that rosy bubble. With Michael.
He looked over to the small pile of presents in the corner. She stood up. She stubbed out her cigarette in the large glass ashtray on the piano. She left the room as quickly as possible, unable to bear the look of hope on his face, unable to stay and see it through.

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