Alice was an easy baby. From her high chair, she watched me with her serious eyes as I set out breakfast. Always the same; it was better for everybody.
Wipe the gingham tablecloth, damp-wipe with the cloth and shake out into the bin. Fill the glass jug from the tap; let it run clear and cold first. Set the cutlery; Alice’s own little set or she would not eat, that she did mind. The wooden-handled set, not from the best drawer. A napkin each, Alice’s choice from the drawer; I would hold them up to her. Flowered, checked, plain. Plain. Yellow eggcups. Toast rack. Butter curls, cold from the fridge the way Edward preferred, I didn’t mind giving him pleasure in this way first thing, it was nicer for everyone.
What else. Newspaper, collected from the mat. Put the egg on to boil, set the timer. Put the toast down. Set the plates, a cup for me, saucer, little two handled mug for Alice. Put the kettle on to boil. Cornflakes out on the table. The big cream jug from the pantry; fill it with milk. Then everything at once; call Edward from the bath, eggs in cups, tea in pot, toast in the rack, and finally more or less at the same time with me up and down a lot, I forgot the salt and pepper, again, finally we would sit together for ten minutes or more. I liked it. Edward would read out the crossword questions and I would answer quickly, I was good at them and I liked this team effort first thing, and Alice would watch us both, her huge eyes switching from one to the other, the flow of words between us.
Sometimes she would join in, and we would respond to her, praising her, sending jets of love around the table from person to person, bathing in one others’ attention, working hard to keep it fair, Edward too, pulling his weight, and then an unwelcome gasp – would you look at the time! – Edward would take his plate to the sink, kiss the top of my head as he passed, clean his teeth, thunder back down the stairs in his shoes and be gone.
And Alice would watch me and keep me company while I put each item back in the pantry, in the cold room, in the sink, ran the water for dishes, put on my gloves and set the kitchen back to order, before thinking about the other meals of the day and the shopping they needed, and planning a little route for Alice and I in her big navy pram with the basket underneath and the visit to the greengrocer and the bakery for bread every other day and cream cakes if it were Friday and the cheesemonger and the butcher if it were Thursday or Saturday and I was happy, I was safe and happy and loved my baby and my husband and I didn’t need anything else, or let anything else come to mind.
Goldie asked for oat milk in tea. The nurse just looked at her, carried on pouring from the regular jug and moved onto the next chair without a word. Goldie sat dead forward, looking straight through the picture window, and then she tipped a whole mug of tea onto the carpet.
“Goldie!“ The woman ran to get a cloth, and Goldie watched as she rubbed the red-brown-blue pattern into a dairy dampness. Shame. Lifting her slippers into the air obligingly, she noticed a bald patch in the parting of the carer’s hair, and felt a surge of pleasure.
Robena had said she would come the day after tomorrow. That was on Wednesday. Now the wall sign said Friday. It must be today. Yesterday was tomorrow and so today must follow on from that. But she should check. Goldie had already made that mistake once, and had spent the afternoon crying with disappointment in bed as a result.
Late afternoon light glanced off the steel drinks trolley; made the nurse's hair copper rather than grey-ginger-red. Goldie watched. She knew that at least three or four of the other room-mates would be watching too. There was sometimes little to pass the time, now that Facebook access was out of bounds. Staff would delete apps, or threaten to tell your visitors how you were spending your time, maybe even if you were using dating apps. Even your spouse. Especially your spouse.
Goldie was okay, as a widow. No one would say anything to Robena; they saw Goldie only as a widow, though Edward had been dead twenty years now. They might refer to Robena as her friend, is your friend coming tomorrow; it infuriated her but distantly, an echo of the rage and pain it had brought her in earlier phases of her life.
When Robena did arrive, Goldie was asleep, and the whole visit was then coloured by the embarrassment this caused her. The fact that I was being watched, she kept saying. You watched over me! Like a nurse. I can’t get any privacy in here. Even if I’m asleep. Even from my family - Even from you – and she stopped, eyes flashing; still beautiful, thought Robena. Not merely undimmed, but bright, glowing, impossibly beautiful eyes, you couldn’t look away if they were on you.
The rose pink burnt along the high bone of Goldie’s gentle, handsome face. A little bit Eastern European, her bones, Goldie would say in explanation, but really the whole thing was a gift; not a collection of parts, but everything together. Robena felt the familiar ache of something missed; the decades of having loved not wasted exactly, but there was something so cruel in spending so many years without seeing Goldie’s face. Without seeing her face.
Something stuck in her throat, at the idea of Edward waking up next to that face and not even seeing it, not even thinking about the colour of her cheeks, the light on her bones, just dumbly, daily getting up, living his life, blind to his great good fortune and the blessing of all the years.
Robena! Goldie shouted. Come back! You’ve gone again, come back. And she had, Robena had gone but she forced herself to come back into the room, to be present with the Goldie that was with her right now, in the little study room with its pretty mid-century furniture and velvet curtains, its flattering light, the stack of Vogue magazines; her eldest Alice made sure things were good for Goldie to look at. She was going again, she caught herself. Bring it back, she whispered, and it helped her to take Goldie‘s hand, to feel that ancient jolt between them, even though Goldie was still annoyed with her she knew.
How was your day? asked Goldie, softly. Who did you see today?
This could be a difficult question between them but Robena tried to answer carefully; to pick her battles. Without saying much about it they very quietly began playing an old card game, and Robena moved to sit on the bed, and stroking Goldie‘s hair afterwards it was briefly almost like old times.