Lynnette gave the packaging around the gateau on the worktop a little squeeze. Yes, that appeared to be defrosting according to schedule.
Something caught her eye through the window, moving across the garden. The fox was back, leaving tracks in the otherwise undisturbed snow as twilight settled over the roofs in the distance.
She shuffled a chair out of the way to get to the door on the left-hand side of the dresser. This mighty object arrived when they emptied her grandparents' old place. It was all she had to remember them by. And remember them she did, every time she had to rearrange the furniture to get anything out again.
Bob protested when her father and brother pulled up and insisted he help them get the monstrosity from the van and wrestle it indoors. Nevertheless, it came inside and stayed there.
He always referred to it as the elephant, and recently she started doing the same. They hoped to move one day to a larger property, where the scale of the furniture matched the heights of their dreams.
She lifted out the tablecloths, which had grown into a collection without her noticing, to get to the one at the bottom. It only came out once a year, and always on this day.
After every airing, it was washed by hand, ironed on a low heat and folded carefully. Then she wrapped it back up in the tissue the boutique on the Champs-Élysées used when they sold it to Bob on his significant birthday the year after they got married.
She remembered it well. That Tuesday was the warmest day of their holiday so far. She quickly tired of Bob racing ahead, pulling on her arm like a puppy exploring somewhere new. Shaking her hand free, she sat on the nearest empty bench and waited until he noticed.
And that was when she saw it. An explosion of lace and frills, hearts and flowers, angels and heaven only knew what else, on a cream fabric which shimmered upon contact with sunshine. By the time he found her, she had already navigated her way through the steady stream of people to get a closer look. When he arrived, he found her transfixed. He laughed and said it was the most Parisian thing he ever saw. She took a photo and showed her parents when they got home. Neither found it either as wonderful or funny as they did.
They went back to the shop three days later, but it was no longer in the window. She suggested asking if they had another, but Bob was hungry and she was hot and tired. They wouldn’t be able to afford it, anyway.
“A gift from the city of love”, he said, handing her a parcel on Valentine’s Day next. Then he stepped back and grinned like a seven-year-old until she finished swimming through the oceans of wrapping. She was speechless, with no idea how he pulled that off without resorting to magic.
He wondered why she was crying. All she could think of was to throw her arms around his neck and kiss him until the tears stopped. She’d only bought him a box of chocolates from the supermarket and a tacky card. She never found out what he paid for it, nor ever dared to ask.
One year ago today, however, it stayed wrapped up out of sight.
On a crisp and brittle morning, ten months earlier still, she awoke beside him when his alarm sounded. She never knew him to sleep through it before. Way beyond the tender beginnings of their relationship, she prodded him in the side to rouse him. No response. She put her hand on his shoulder and shook him. Then she realised he was colder than anyone she ever touched before. He didn’t feel like her husband at all.
She’d known Harriet since school. When Bob’s great big heart gave up, her friend encouraged her back into the world of the living, often more quickly than she was comfortable with.
“He’s lovely, darling. Just your type”.
Lynnette had given no thought to what her type might be since her first meeting with Bob, an event which left her underwhelmed, contemptuous even. She thought so little of him she shared her disdain with anyone prepared to listen and continued for weeks after. When she accepted his dinner invitation - at the fifth, sixth, or possibly seventh time of asking - her friend never once reminded her of their long, late-night conversations about this man she would never, ever, go out with.
“His name’s Trevor. His wife died or left him, or something. A long time ago, I think. He’s even fairly interesting as acquaintances of my husband go. We’re taking him to that restaurant by the church and you’re coming with us. I’ll need someone to talk to. When would suit you?”
Lynnette tried not to laugh. Since Harriet never took no for an answer, she knew there was no point in even feigning resistance.
“Friday after next?” That was her stock answer whenever Bob suggested they entertain. “You can all come here if you like. It's been such a long time since I cooked for anyone. I think I’d like to”.
“Perfect! I’ll tell them they’re coming and get back in a bit”.
She only spotted the significance of the date when she went to put it on the calendar and called Harriet straight back. No, she said, she hadn’t realised, but what did it matter? She and John hadn’t marked the day for years. It might give Trevor the wrong idea, of course, but that would simply add a little frisson to the evening and might be fun to watch.
It certainly wasn’t a date.
“Plus, it will give you an opportunity to use that ridiculous tablecloth”.
While putting the main course into the oven earlier, she realised she was almost as nervous as when Harriet dragged her to their school disco for the first time.
Was it a date? After so long, she was unsure whether she knew what one entailed any more. At least Harriet and John would be there to referee and ensure their tame gentleman behaved himself. She expected to spend the evening bonding with Harriet over shared memories while the menfolk talked about whatever they had in common. Please, oh great and powerful Oz, let it not be football. It wouldn’t be long before she found out.
Not much left to do now.
Taking the last of the candles out of the packet, she pushed three of them into a silver-plated candlestick from another inaccessible corner of the dresser. The fourth went, not without a struggle, into the neck of an empty wine bottle. Finally, she laid out cutlery, glasses and napkins. The last of these were ghosts from the dinner of a Christmas long-past, sporting green holly leaves on a red and gold background.
She stepped back to admire her work. Not bad, she thought. Better get out of this pinny and slip into something smelling less of cookery. That long woollen dress, perhaps. It was a sort of creamy beige colour. Bob warned her against entering municipal buildings while wearing it, lest she found herself rendered invisible. The dress, over a black top and leggings, with a wide belt, would be fine. She brushed her hair and thought about makeup. She rarely used the stuff and decided not to make an exception this evening. Harriet would only make a sarcastic remark and use it as a springboard to pick a fight with John and Trevor about female emancipation.
It felt chilly in the flat, so she turned up the heating as she returned to the dining room. All she had left to do was light the candles and turn down the room lights on the dimmer. And open the wine to let it breathe, just as Bob used to, even if half the bottle ended up inside him before it had a chance to inhale.
She poured herself a glass and set it on the table.
The butterflies were back. This time they were dancing around in hobnail boots. Five minutes to go. Had she overdone the romantic lighting? Never mind, Harriet would turn it up if they started walking into one another or the furniture.
The bell rang.
Harriet and John were never early. Oh goodness, it must be Trevor. Out in the hallway, she checked her hair in the mirror next to the wedding photo.
Not bad, she thought, even if those glasses made her look like a secretary. Since she turned forty, her eyes weren’t what they used to be. She took them off and put them down on the table by the door. They could go back on later, once all the first impressions were out of the way.
Often, she used to tease Bob over the enigmatic expression he wore in the picture, and likened him to the Mona Lisa. Sometimes it was a smile, occasionally he looked baffled or, on rare occasions, disapproving. Since he went away, she used the photo as a barometer to gauge her mood. She glanced across now through habit. Without her glasses, it was impossible to tell.
She opened the door to a figure she guessed was male. He wore a full-length overcoat and a scarf which obscured his face. On top was a hat, making no concessions to fashion.
“Hello”, she said. “Come in”.
He stepped inside and thrust the largest bunch of flowers she ever saw into her hands.
“Oh, thank you. They’re beautiful. Wine, too. Hang your things there, if you like”.
Apart from the funeral, she couldn’t remember the last time anyone gave her flowers. Bob disapproved of them on the grounds of air-miles or something. She went to the kitchen and wondered if the only vase she owned would be large enough.
“Come through and sit down”, she called. “Help yourself to a drink. They’re on the dresser”.
Oh, glory. It was the same wine Bob always picked up for special occasions. Seeing the label again left her feeling a little unsteady. She leaned forward, held the edge of the kitchen table and took deep breaths until she calmed down.
She carried the flowers back through and placed them on the table. No, that was silly. They wouldn’t be able to see one another over dinner.
Better put them on the dresser as well, then.
She turned to her guest, ready to see what he looked like without all the cladding. He had made himself comfortable in Bob’s old chair.
In the semi-darkness, he looked just like Bob. Same hair, same glasses. Had she not known her late husband was an only child, he might easily be his brother or an identical twin.
If this was Harriet’s idea of a joke, she didn’t think it was funny.
Then she heard a car pulling onto the gravel drive.
“They’re here, I’ll be straight back. The bathroom? Second on the right, just down there”.
“Oh, Harriet”, she cried. “And John, lovely to see you”. She threw her arms around her friend. “How could you?” she hissed. “What on earth were you thinking of?”
“What are you talking about?” She felt her friend tense as a third figure loomed into view. “Lynnette, darling, this is Trevor”.
She gulped. “Then who’s in my bathroom?”
“I don’t know, darling, who is in your bathroom? Have we got a gatecrasher?”
“I thought he was... Oh God, what’s going on?”
She dashed along the hall, pursued by her guests, and knocked on the door.
She tried again. Then she turned the handle, and the door swung open. Cautiously, she looked around and inside. If anyone had been there, they weren't now.
“Are you feeling quite yourself, darling?”
“But his things, hanging up by the door”.
No, hold on. Were they?
“Did you see a big coat in the hall? And a scarf and hat?”
“I don’t think so. I didn’t notice”.
She dashed back out to the pegs. They’d all vanished, like their owner.
The alarm she set earlier on her phone let her know dinner was ready, and she nearly leapt through the ceiling. Harriet accompanied her to the kitchen to make sure she didn’t burn herself or drop anything.
“Harriet, look! Out the window”.
“What am I looking at?”
“Footsteps. There. In the snow”.
“What about them?”
“They weren’t there an hour ago”.
“Are you sure? Hey, hold on. They stop halfway across the garden. About twenty feet short of the gate. How does that work?”
“I need to sit down”.
Harriet helped her back to her chair.
“I poured you a drink”, said John. “We brought you some flowers as well. Not as impressive as those, I’m afraid. Who’s the admirer?”
“I don’t know”, she replied weakly, emptying her glass.
John arose and wordlessly poured another.
“I don’t know what just happened”, she said, “and I don’t know what’s going on”.
“There’s an envelope here”, Harriet said. “Tucked into this green frondy stuff”. She pulled it out and handed it over.
Still shaking slightly, her complexion paler than her dress, Lynnette ripped it open. A Valentine’s Day card. With a cute bear on it.
Be happy. Live every day like it was your last. All my love forever.
She recognised the handwriting. At least, she thought she did. Even without counting, she knew how many kisses there were. One for every year.
“I need a few minutes with my thoughts”, she said. “Make yourselves at home. I’ll be back shortly”.
The dinner she cooked was fabulous.
Harriet watched her carefully throughout the meal. If she hadn’t known her friend was a terrible actor, she might have wondered whether it was a practical joke. Lynnette passed the evening as if in a trance. For the rest of the evening, she looked entirely at peace, as if her world just started making sense again.
John was quiet, as always. Trevor was, as promised, thoroughly charming. He proved far too cultured, or enthusiastic, to allow impressions from his first ten minutes in Lynnette’s company to colour his future judgement. When he asked if she would like to go for a walk with him the day after tomorrow, she tried not to appear too eager. As they prepared to leave, he kissed her hand, and she repaid him with one on the cheek. She saw them to the door, watched through the window until they were out of sight, then turned again to the photo.
“So, what have you got to say for yourself, then?”
Bob smiled. Approvingly, she thought. He looked as happy as she remembered ever seeing him.
And she was glad.