Jan stands by the Christmas tree, waiting for everyone to settle down with their drinks before she dishes out the presents. She scans the room with mounting excitement, hoping they’ll be pleased with what she’s bought. There are darts for Mike, a Discman for Rob, ballet shoes for Amy, a knitting basket for Mum, golf bag for Dad, not to mention all the other bits and bobs she’s enjoyed wrapping. She’s done well this year; made a little money go a long way.
But wait a minute. Who’s that in the corner? Oh God, no! There’s someone she forgot. Her throat tightens as her eyes begin to fill. She holds in a cry, wondering if there’s something she has hidden away upstairs, that she can quickly wrap and pass off as a thoughtful gift. She needs to divert their attention while she runs through the house, looking for something – anything. She stifles a sob but the pain in her chest is too great…
She wakes up, moisture glistening on her arms in the half light. Tears pour down her face as she rocks backwards and forwards. That dream again. Will she ever manage to lose it?
The exam nightmare also pops up from time to time, when she’s under pressure at work and her boss is looking to downsize again, but she hasn’t spent the night trying to squash endless clothes into tiny suitcases for a long time. She hasn’t had a holiday in years. Not since Mike left.
Pushing back the duvet, she swings her legs over the edge of the bed. It’s nearly time to get up anyway. She pads into the bathroom and sits on the loo while the bath fills and fragrant steam clouds the room. She’s recklessly added the last of the Orange Blossom bath oil. What the hell? It’s Christmas Day, after all.
Jan has no idea why she’s panicking this year. It’ll just be the two of them; her and Mum. She’ll pick the old lady up from the The Laurels and bring her back for lunch. They’ll watch a bit of telly – her mum still enjoys seeing the Queen – and then she’ll make a cup of tea with a piece of M&S Christmas cake. Mum will open her present; some lavender smellies from the chemist down the road and ten pairs of sturdy cotton knickers. She won’t remember that’s what she had last year, and the year before.
It’s been a long time since she’s had a gift in return. Not since her divorce. Jan understands Mike blames her for the breakdown of their marriage. Her refusal to put her mother in a care home was the last straw, but Janet knows she would make the same choice again even though, in the end, she had to admit defeat. And that’s another failure she’s learned to live with.
The kids come home when they can, but they’re busy with their own lives and off round the world at every opportunity. Jan doesn’t blame them. Life’s for living. She wishes she’d understood that sooner.
These days it takes a while to shake off her anxiety dreams. She lies in the bath until her fingers have wrinkled, breathing in the scent with closed eyes. Eating toast in the kitchen, she hums along with carols on the BBC. The voices soar and tears sting her eyes. They used to go to the service at the church on the corner, but now she’d feel too exposed. Anyway, she has the veg to prepare and it won’t do to be late at The Laurels. She can sing along with the radio and no one will see her tears fall into the potato peelings.
She arrives early at the Home and they’re already herding the residents into the dining room. The air is rank with boiled greens and disinfectant, but the staff are wearing paper hats and jollying everyone along. Barry’s waiting by the tree with her mother. He towers over her as she sits in the wheelchair, her small wet eyes darting about under her best hat. As Jan approaches, he stoops and whispers in the old woman’s ear.
“Happy Christmas,” her mum says, thrusting out a gaily wrapped package.
Barry pats her shoulder. “That’s my girl.”
Jan stammers her thanks, holding the gift loosely, as if she has to pass it on.
“What’s that?” Her mother points at the parcel with suspicion.
Barry’s voice is gentle. “It’s Orange Blossom. Jan’s favourite.You told me so yourself.”
“Goodness! When did she say that?” Jan gapes in astonishment. Her mother hasn’t said anything relevant for such a long time.
Barry’s cheeks colour above his neatly trimmed beard. “A couple of years ago.”
“And you remembered?”
Jan glances up and notices how blue his eyes are. How kind and full of interest. Heat rushes to her face and she looks away, fumbles with her mother’s coat buttons. Barry shuffles and clears his throat.
The chaotic procession around them gradually filters into the next room and they are alone with only an old woman in a wheelchair between them. Jan feels lightheaded and realises she’s holding her breath.
“Jan,” Barry says, at last. “Are you doing anything tonight?”
Jan waits by the tree until everyone’s settled. She hopes they’ll like their presents. She’s done well this year; made a little money go a long way. But wait a minute! There’s someone else, sitting quietly in the corner. Her stomach lurches. She squints, moves closer until she can see his face. His blue eyes crinkle at the corners as he leans towards her, offering her something bright. She takes the little package and her heart thuds as she removes the paper.
Orange Blossom. He remembered. It’s her favourite.