On the twelfth day of Christmas
My true love sent to me:
Twelve broken tree lights
Eleven grinning selfies
Ten turkey curries
Nine gastric ulcers
Eight toxic cocktails
Seven drunken uncles
Six yelling children
Five trolled tweets…
Four soggy sprouts
Three wrong texts
Two Facebook likes
… and a cartilage in a sore knee!
I pulled back the curtains expecting to see a new world, but it all looked reassuringly the same. Would it for much longer? In dawn’s dim light I could see the Bennetts’ ageing ginger cat sitting on their front step, now too old to bother to hunt or roam. The milk bottles, newly delivered, stood with pure white innocence and optimism. Today, there was nothing different in the way this long London street opened its sleepy eyes.
Bill was still snoring, oblivious to my wakefulness. I walked down the wooden stairs, careful to avoid the steps I knew would let out a painful cry, filled the kettle and set it on the range. I opened the back door and Fred, our mongrel dog, ran in. Always seeming to smile and dance, we named him Fred Astaire. He yawned and looked as if to say: “why so early?” I stoked the fire and cleaned out the ash. While it grew hotter I collected the milk and noticed that, yet again, the milkman’s horse had left a mess just outside our gate. I closed the door and saw Bill creeping downstairs, he too avoiding the creaky boards so as not to wake baby Lizzie who could be disturbed by the drop of a feather.
“Bit sodding early for a Sunday,” he said.
“Well I’m frightened and we all know it’s going to happen today.”
“Yeah,” he said, “probably will.”
“Aren’t you scared about what it’ll mean for us?” I asked angrily.
“Not much I can do to stop it is there?” was his sanguine reply.
I made a pot of tea and sat at the kitchen table. I thought of how the cloth needed a wash, how the kennel could do with a brush, I thought of chores, things to do, anything that would distract me. Through the window I could see Mary in her kitchen, now so solitary since Hazel died. We never knew whether or not they had lived as a married couple but they had worked together as teachers and lived side-by-side for over thirty years. Rarely venturing out beyond our street and seemingly without friends or family, she delighted in being asked to babysit. Mary wasn’t usually up so early either - surely she too felt this dread.
“Might go and see if Tom’s up yet,” Bill said as he drained his cup and placed it in the sink.
His younger brother and wife lived five minutes’ walk away. Maggie, so timid and frail, was expecting their first child. I had been worried about how she would cope with an uncertain future but as time went on she surprised me with her tenacious spirit, courage and unfailing loyalty to the family.
“If Maggie’s up tell her to come over,” I said.
I could hear Lizzie chattering away to herself in her cot. Not quite a year old, she started each day sitting up and talking to the rag-doll my mother had made. I put some milk into her bottle and placed it in a jug of hot water. Bringing her downstairs, I sat Lizzie in her high chair and mashed some of the milk into a rusk. Over her shoulder I could see the street beginning to stir. No longer half-light, the day was now bright and sunny, the air sultry after last night’s storm. As Bill left the house I went upstairs, washed and dressed and put on my lipstick while Lizzie watched. I heard the front door opening and Mum calling up. She visited most mornings at about 11 o’clock but over the past few days it had been earlier. As I carried Lizzie downstairs I could see Mum’s face etched with worry.
“I’ll put the kettle on,” she said. “You had anything to eat?”
“Not yet, Mum,” I answered. “It’s still only eight o’clock!”
“Sorry, didn’t realise it was so early. I haven’t slept much.”
We sat at the table sipping tea, nibbling half-heartedly on toast while we watched Lizzie pulling herself up to standing and trying to take a step.
“Won’t be long before she’s up those stairs,” Mum said, as if it hadn’t occurred to me.
Through the window I could see Bill walking back home with Tom and Maggie.
“I’ll put the kettle back on,” said Mum, grateful to be doing something useful.
We chatted and drank tea, ate toast and cake and felt each others' nerves. Maggie and I put Lizzie in her pram and took her for a walk. The day was as bright and beautiful as any I could remember. We stopped to chat to neighbours, to return balls to children playing in the street and to stroke dogs let out to wander for the day. When we returned the kitchen was silent and the family had been joined by Mary and two other women I recognised but did not know well. The radio was on and we knew what we were about to hear. Mr Chamberlain began his broadcast and soon we were weeping, each of us alone with our fear. Some of us in the room were too young to remember the Great War but for those who could, the pain and terror of another outbreak was unbearable.