Daphne did everything in slow motion these days and moved about the kitchen very carefully.
The vegetables were done and keeping warm on a low flame. She’d had a look at the half-breast of turkey — no point buying a whole one now — and it looked about ready. She got some of the juice she’d taken from the tray earlier, mixing some gravy in a small pan on the stove.
Then she took the turkey breast out of the oven, poked it with a sharp knife and decided that it was perfect. She cut a slice off.
Daphne tutted and shook her grey-white head at her silliness; Tom had been missing for days.
He liked to go out. On occasion he’d spend all night in the neighbouring streets or gardens, presumably seeing to whatever business he had with other cats in the area. But it had been four days now; Daphne had lost hope, given the stories she heard of local vandals and their cruelty to strays. She’d prepared his little stocking, full of treats and toys, and hung it by the fireplace, but today she’d taken it down. It was sitting in one of the kitchen cupboards.
She paused in the preparation of her lunch, took an already damp tissue from under the cuff of her cardigan and blew her nose. Then she finished preparing her food and took it through to the living room on a tray. Once upon a time Christmas lunch would have been at the table, with her Gordon and the boys. But that seemed like a fairy tale now, so the armchair it was, by the open fire, crackling cosily away.
The taste of the turkey brought the memories flooding back for Daphne. She finished eating and dabbed at her eyes with a paper napkin, edged with a holly design. She sat staring at the dancing flames of the fire, letting the memories flow.
Christmas morning, with Bobby and Peter still young, presents placed under their beds, the distinctive smell of roasting turkey floating through the house … after the opening of the presents, the boys playing football in the garden, even when it had snowed, while Gordon helped her prepare lunch … lunch itself, around the table, with crackers and their contents of paper hats, silly jokes and gifts — those plastic lips that she’d worn all day, to much hilarity … the afternoon, watching films, Gordon snoozing in his favourite armchair … the evening, when her sister Philomena and husband Alfred would come over for a marathon of little ‘tree’ presents, drinks, turkey sandwiches and fine chat.
As the scenes drifted though her mind, so Daphne felt herself drifting in and out of sleep, enjoying the rosy warmth the memories left in her chest. But then other, black memories came — the ones she didn’t welcome.
Gordon’s sudden, unheralded heart attack, with no time to prepare for the shock of the second one that killed him in hospital that same evening … Bobby’s prolonged illness and his final days in the hospice, a withered shadow of the bright, cheerful person he’d always been … Philomena’s similar passing … her own illnesses, assailing her mercilessly during the last ten years or so … and her quarrel with Peter.
Peter was the younger of the two boys and — she could never voice this — her favourite. He’d left home, had been in several unfruitful relationships and, into his sixties now, seemed to have settled down to a single life. That was his choice, though Daphne had always hankered after grandchildren; Bobby hadn’t come through in that respect.
So Peter had emigrated to Spain and Daphne saw very little of him in recent times. To be fair, he did try to get back at least once a year at this time, but he’d told her he wouldn’t be coming this year. She’d been having a terrible day, reacting badly when he gave her the news over the phone. That was two months ago now and they hadn’t spoken since. Daphne was a proud woman; she wouldn’t call him, but she missed his voice so much.
Daphne emerged from this half-sleep to darkness in the room and embers in the fire, red glowing through the cracks in the grey-white surface of what was left of the logs. She felt immensely tired, despite the sleep; the long years had taken their inevitable toll on her frail body. The sombre nature of the latest memories was still with her. She brought the napkin that she was still clutching up to her eyes.
She was about to get up to put more logs on the fire when one of the embers cracked open with a short spray of sparks. She watched on, fascinated, as low flames licked around the moribund log with a gentle hissing. And she fancied that beyond that noise she heard another. A scratching?
Yes! Coming from the kitchen. She got up as quickly as she could, still a little groggy, and shuffled out. The light in the kitchen was off but when she turned it on, there he was, a marvellous vision at the window: Tom, scratching at the frame, mewing weakly through the glass.
The following minutes were a happy confusion of relieved scolding and affection, Tom preoccupied with the turkey Daphne put in his bowl, Daphne getting her fill of kisses, strokes, squeezes. At one point, as she retrieved his stocking from the cupboard, she caught herself giggling like a toddler; Tom, home! And then, through the sounds of scoffing, mewing and giggling, another sound.
Daphne cocked her head. A ringing. The phone in the living room.
The phone! And Daphne was sure that could mean only one thing. Forgetting all care, she hurried through towards the sound, a broad smile on her lips now, and a glorious singing in her heart.