The doorbell rang while Vee was filling the profiteroles.
“That’ll be Ross,” she said to Jim, who was sharpening the carving knife. He looked at the clock and shook his head.
“Fashionably on time,” he said. Rose had always been the late one, of Ross and Rose.
Vee flicked the excess cream off the tip of the piping bag, sucked her finger, wiped her hands on a tea towel and skipped to the door. She nodded to herself once, abruptly, and pulled it open.
Ross was standing there, looking wholly unlike himself in a round-necked sweater with no shirt underneath, no tie, not even his habitual tweed blazer. He was clean-shaven too, his face almost adolescent without its full, frowning moustache.
A small woman was standing next to him carrying a potted poinsettia. Her frizzy, dyed-copper hair was greasy with mousse.
“Ross!” Vee said, and gave him a hug, pressing her breasts against the bottle of wine he was holding.
“This is Karen,” Ross said. “She’s a good friend of mine.”
Karen held out the plant. “I hope you don’t mind me gate-crashing,” she said. She had the kind of gums that encroached over the top half of her teeth. Her hair was thinning at the front exposing baby-smooth scalp in places.
Vee took the poinsettia from her. “Lovely!” she said, though she could see the tips of its leaves were already dry and browning. “Brrr,” she said, “You both must be frozen. Jim’s inside. Come on in.”
They must have met at Breathe, the bereavement group Vee had found for Ross on the internet. Fine. It was a difficult time of year even under normal circumstances and now there were equal numbers: three men and three women. Vee could slot Karen in between Mark and Jim.
“Jim!” she called.
Jim emerged from the kitchen and slapped Ross on the back.
“This is Karen,” Vee said. “Ross’s friend.”
Jim showed Karen ten fingers and put his hands in his front pockets. Vee went to pour everybody a pomegranate martini. She wrote Karen’s name on a blank place card with her calligraphy pen, and, at a loss for a fitting illustration to accompany it, drew a pair of holly leaves with three berries.
“Mark and Helen will be here any minute now!” Vee said, coming out of the kitchen with the drinks on a tray.
“Yummy,” Karen said, taking a glass. For her height, she didn’t have a bad figure, with the slim waist and resilient bust of a child-free existence. It was a shame about the hair, and her outfit did nothing for her, with all the draping and pattern clash, the floral chiffon skirt, a tight, plunging top in leopard print and a beige, ribbed cardigan. Rose had been more of a stretch denim person, with well-cut white shirts and lots of noisy bangles. And of course, before the chemo, she’d had the kind of enviable blonde hair that never admitted any grey.
It turned out Ross and Karen knew each other from work. Vee had never been sure what Ross did for a living, but she gathered now it was something to do with office supplies.
“Karen’s our Credit Control Manager,” Ross said. “I have to do what she tells me.”
“He’s my bitch!” Karen said.
“Woof,” Ross said, and they both started laughing.
Helen and Mark arrived then, thank goodness. Mark was wearing a Santa hat with a flashing reindeer on the front and his leather biker trousers. His left eye was slightly bloodshot and his breath smelt of wine.
“Sorry we’re late,” Helen said, after all the coat-taking and greeting. “Biscuit had a bit of a tummy upset.”
“Which one’s Biscuit again?” Vee said.
“The tabby.” Helen said. Her grey fleece was covered in cat hairs. She could have made more of an effort, changed her clothes or put some lipstick on.
“Mine’s a Persian,” Karen said. “Ruby.”
“Oh, heavenly.” Helen said.
“Ross is allergic,” Vee said. “Aren’t you, Ross?”
They all turned to look at him. He put a smoked salmon blini in his mouth and raised his eyebrows. The nasty patch of eczema around his hairline had cleared up. It was ironic it should finally go now, after all Rose’s efforts with the acupuncture and the homeopathy. It had become standard dinner party conversation: What to do about Ross’s skin.
Vee went into the kitchen to prepare another round of drinks. Mark followed her, his reindeer still flashing. He made wide eyes with his mouth pulled down as if he were inserting contact lenses.
“Oh they’re just friends,” Vee said. She handed Mark a fork and half a pomegranate. “Seeds,” she said. “Careful.”
“I’m saying nothing,” Mark said, and set about extracting the seeds with the fork. After a while he said, “Three months!”
Jim came into the kitchen, took a bottle of beer from the fridge and opened it.
“Three months!” Mark said to Jim. “Do me one of those would you, mate?”
This was how the lines had always been drawn, Vee only half chastising the naughty boys in the kitchen, leaving Ross and Helen to make small talk in the front room. Rose would have been in here too, perched on the breakfast bar with her feet on a stool, sucking taramasalata off a carrot baton.
“I’ve put Ross in charge of party games,” Vee said, counting out the knives.
“Jesus wept,” Jim said. “We’ll all be playing Scrabble.”
Traditionally party games had been Rose’s responsibility, and hadn’t she come up with some corkers. Pictionarace, where you had to run into another room to retrieve each clue from Rose and run back to your team to draw a canoe or whatever. That was how Jim had chipped his front tooth, by tripping over the kitchen step at Mark and Helen’s. Then there was the game where you had to pass a banana to the next person in the line by holding it between your thighs. Hilarious.
It had started when the children were young, a tea party type thing with Jammie Dodgers and bowls of Hula Hoops, rotating between their three houses. Over the years it had evolved into dinner and drinks and even now the kids were all grown and gone the six adults upheld the Rectory Road Christmas party. After the games, Rose would usually commandeer the music player and start the dancing with a solo twirl to Fleetwood Mac, pulling Mark up to join her. She had even coaxed Jim up in the past, Jim who never danced.
Vee had edited the CD collection in advance of tonight. Bruce Springsteen, Elton John and Neil Diamond had all been moved temporarily to her bedside table. She for one couldn’t listen to Blue Eyes without weeping.
She took the cutlery into the dining room to lay the table. She had sat herself next to Ross. She would steer the conversation towards safe topics like work, Ross’s vegetable patch, and how his shepherd’s pie was progressing since the cookery lessons she had been giving him. She would make sure he drank enough wine to relax, but not so much as to become morose.
There was a warm, low current of conversation coming from the living room. Vee peered in and saw the five of them gratifyingly filling the space. The room had that delicious Christmas smell from the cinnamon sticks and clove-studded satsumas in the fruit bowl. The tree decorations were all edible – baked pretzels, iced star biscuits, dried pineapple rings. She had even used jelly laces to secure them to the branches.
Just then Karen laughed at something Ross had said, a dying ha! ha! reminiscent of a passing seagull.
“Who’s ready to ee-heat?” Vee called. “Darling!” she said to Jim, jerking her head towards the kitchen. Jim put his bottle of beer on the mantelpiece and went off to carve the beef.
“May I escort m’lady?” Mark said to Karen with exaggerated gallantry. She linked arms with him and he led her through to the dining room. Vee followed Helen and Ross through with the potato dauphinoise.
“Sit sit sit,” she said as Jim brought in the beef. “Everybody’s got a name.”
Mark picked up his place card and looked at it. “Oh, you,” he said. Vee had drawn a little motorbike in the corner. “A fitting tribute to my midlife crisis.”
“That’s lovely, Vee,” Helen said, looking at hers, which had a tiny cat’s face on it. Jim had a cricket bat, and on her own she had drawn a semiquaver.
“What have you got on yours, Ross?” Karen said.
Ross picked it up and looked over his glasses at his illustration. “It’s a cabbage,” he said. Mark barked a laugh, and Karen followed it up with her seagull impression.
“It’s a rose,” Vee said.
Ross looked down at his hands, drew his fingers into fists, gave a tight smile and nodded.
“Of course,” he said. “Thank you, Vee.”
“Crackers!” Vee said.
They all crossed arms to pull them, retrieved the scattered contents from the table and the floor, put on paper crowns and examined their toys.
Karen had a giant paperclip. “That’ll come in handy,” she said, smiling at Ross.
“What did the fish say when it swam into a wall?” Mark said, reading his joke.
“I don’t know, what did the fish say when it swam into a wall?” Helen said.
“Dam,” Mark said, and drummed his hands on the table. “I’m here all night.”
“What do you call a blind reindeer?” Vee said.
“No eyed-deer!” everybody chorused.
“Oh well it’s not my fault.” Vee said, and stood up to dish the food.
“Got the boys coming down for Christmas, have you, Ross?” Jim said once they were all settled to eating.
Ross had his mouth full. He nodded, and looked at Karen.
“He can put his cookery lessons into practice!” Vee said.
“Dan’s doing the food,” Ross said.
“Oh,” Vee said. “Well, nice to have Jon’s little ones around anyway.”
“Yes,” Ross said.
“How is Daniel?” Vee said.
“Dan’s Dan,” Ross said. “Still slogging it out in that bloody restaurant.”
“Good to have a vocation,” Vee said. “And any work’s a distraction – you know.” She wondered how Daniel was keeping on top of his rent without Rose’s monthly “don’t-tell-your-father” cheques from her personal account.
Mark was retelling an anecdote they had all heard before about a restaurant he had visited with a client who had found a false nail in his bread roll. Karen helped herself to more wine and stood up to refill Ross’s empty glass across the table. When she set the bottle back down Vee reached over and took it to top up her own glass. There was only a dribble of wine remaining. She went to fetch another bottle from the fridge.
“Rumour has it we’ve got a new master of ceremonies tonight,” Helen said when Vee returned.
“Yes, Rossco!” Mark said. “What have we got? Bobbing for tangerines? Pin the cocktail stick on the cheese board?”
“Oh God,” Ross said. “I’m sorry, Vee. It completely slipped my mind.”
“Never mind, never mind,” Vee said. She had anticipated this eventuality. “We’ll play musical chairs! Everyone remembers musical chairs from when the children were young, don’t they?”
“Oh my lord,” Helen said.
After the profiteroles, and after coffee and cheese, Vee dragged four chairs from the dining table into the living room and arranged them back-to-back to create the four sides of a square. Flipping through the CDs on the shelf, she found one Louisa had made for her 18th birthday celebrations called “Party Time”. She put it in the machine and pressed play. The first song came on, too loud. She turned it down slightly. A Little Bit of Jessica, it was that one.
“Off you go!” Vee said. “One, two, three-four-five,” she sang to the music.
The others began to walk round the chairs in a circle. Mark was clapping, kicking his feet up as far as his leather trousers would allow.
“Faster!” Vee said.
Helen stepped up the pace to a jog. Vee paused the music.
Jim was the first to be out. He wasn’t even trying, still precious about his teeth. Helen was the next to go.
“Oh well,” she said, and slumped down on the sofa next to Jim.
It was just Mark, Karen and Ross remaining, with two chairs between them. As they jogged around in time to the song, Ross rested his hands lightly on Karen’s hips as if they were performing the conga. Vee pressed the pause button again. Mark sat down heavily on the chair nearest to him while Ross and Karen both went for the other. Ross got to it first. Karen landed on his lap and the chair tipped and toppled over to the side. They fell with it to the floor, Ross landing first, Karen half on top of him, half sprawling on the carpet.
Karen was laughing uncontrollably, her bosom wobbling around in that tight top of hers. Her skirt had ridden up so you could see the crotch of her tan-coloured tights. Ross had his arms around her waist. His glasses were all skew-whiff and his comb-over had come unstuck from his scalp.
Ross clambered up and pulled Karen to her feet. They stood close to one another and began to sway together in time to the music. Mark sat down next to Helen on the sofa.
“Another round?” Vee said. “Or wink murder? Sleeping lions? Musical statues?”
“Oof,” Helen said.
“Is there any more of that red?” Mark said.
“Fine,” Vee said. She dragged the chairs back to the table and fetched the bottle of wine for Mark. If Rose had been here they would have been on to the Cointreau by now and Vee would have long since banished the bolshy, near-tearful martyr who was still following her around.
Karen and Ross were still swaying to the music, Ross standing behind Karen with his fingers slotted together in front of her stomach. Eventually the song changed to something more sedate, LJS or one of those. Karen took hold of Ross’s hand and began to lead him in a slow, poorly-timed waltz.
“Oh, hello!” Mark said. He stood up and bowed low to Vee. “Mrs Bradley, may I?” he said.
“I don’t think so,” Vee said.
Mark, pretending offence, began to dance with his wine glass, holding it with both hands away from his body and bringing it up to his face to kiss it.
“Careful of the carpet,” Vee said. She was watching Ross and Karen. She couldn’t bear it, to see Ross all undone like that, and Karen with the ugly red flush across her chest. She felt like switching the lights off so she wouldn’t have to look at them. From the way Ross was holding Karen tightly to him so their groins were touching, it was quite clear to Vee they had already been intimate with one another.
She remembered a day twenty years ago, shortly after she and Jim had moved to Rectory Road. It was summer. She was three months pregnant with Louisa and being sick all morning and most of the afternoon. The smell of the kitchen bin was enough to send her sprinting to the downstairs lavatory. Still in the pre-glow phase, she just looked fat, with swollen, red spots all over her jaw line. Even with daily washing her hair was never clean.
Jim was working long days at the office to avoid the homebound bedlam of unpacked boxes and upturned paint lids. He would leave before the twins were up and return only in time to kiss their hair and switch off the hot air balloon nightlight beside their bunk bed.
That particular day, sleep-deprived and cross after a hot, breezeless night, Josh and Abi had been fighting without cease. Vee’s every task had been soundtracked with overlapping whines broken up by cascading wails whenever one of them was physically hurt. All day she had been pulling them apart, resettling them, placating, bribing and punishing, the tension never quite leaving her shoulder blades.
There had been a period of relative quiet for about half an hour while she tackled the ironing. Unnerved, she had looked into the sitting room where she had left Josh and Abi playing with Duplo bricks. They had been sitting cross-legged on the floor, each holding a felt tip pen. A spag-bol explosion of brown and yellow scribbles covered a large patch of the wall Vee had painted white only the day before.
Vee uttered an inhuman roar and stepped over the discarded bricks to yank the pens out of her children’s hands. Josh’s face quaked as he shuffled on his bottom away from her. She forced herself to turn away and leave the room, but in the kitchen the anger built in her like the dawning pain of a trapped finger. She paced, vibrating with rage, unable to do anything, even boil the kettle, in case she caused someone harm.
She switched the iron off and pulled the plug out of the socket. Her hand was shaking as she did so and she brushed her wrist against the edge of the hot plate. She screamed and jogged furiously up and down on the spot. She turned and caught sight of Josh and Abi looking around the kitchen door. They darted away from her.
A few minutes later Rose had rung the doorbell and, hearing noises, peered through the window to see Vee sitting at the kitchen table with her face in her arms, Josh and Abi standing on either side of her, bawling. Rose had forced her hand through the letterbox to open the door from the inside, found a couple of ice lollies in the freezer, dispatched the children to watch Sesame Street, sat down opposite Vee and held her fingers across the table, pressing lolly-cooled thumbs into her palms until Vee could finally lift her head to look at her.
“I know,” she had said. “I know.”
Half an hour later they were drinking mugs of orange squash and discussing escape plans via Paris, Barcelona and Morocco to Cape Town. Abi came into the kitchen, sucking her thumb, her lips blue and slimy from the lolly.
“You wouldn’t mind, would you, Abigail?” Rose said. “If Mummy went away for a while?”
“No, Mummy!” Abi said, and threw her arms around her mother’s neck, pressing her sticky lips to the sleeve of Vee’s t-shirt.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Vee said, relieved.
Now was supposed to be the time she and Rose would implement those plans, the plans they had continued to refine while their days were still circumscribed by the school run, the food shop, the guinea pigs, mealtimes, homework, dentists’ appointments and parents’ evenings. They were going to take up rock climbing, keep bees and hitchhike to Goa. There were just Louisa’s A-Levels, Josh’s graduation and Daniel’s precarious finances to take care of, and they’d be away.
Instead, the plumber came. That was how they referred to it afterwards.
The plumber came to repair the leaking radiator in Rose and Ross’s hall. Unscrewing it from the wall he discovered an envelope that had fallen behind it. The letter it contained, sent three months earlier, invited Rose to a routine breast screening.
In the changing room at Next, while Rose was waiting for the biopsy results, Vee saw her best friend’s breasts for the first time. They were large and hung low, the bottoms of them almost in line with her rib cage. The nipples were like tiny, pursed lips. The right breast looked about a cup size bigger than the left and the skin around the nipple was red and swollen, covered with little raised bumps like a pink grapefruit. Rose had assumed it was mastitis, though she hadn’t suffered from it since the boys were breastfeeding. There in the changing room Vee pressed the area of red skin and felt the hot life inside. It was her turn to keep her expression steady for Rose, to communicate unfounded assurances. She felt the warm skin retreat from her hand as Rose took a breath.
It was called inflammatory breast cancer. The cancer cells blocked the lymph vessels and spread quickly. Despite the radical mastectomy, the removal of all the lymph nodes under Rose’s right arm and the surgery on the lining of her chest muscle, it had already reached her bones. It had taken six months to kill her. Vee had wondered at the time, stupidly it seemed now, if it was the knowledge of the disease that had precipitated Rose’s symptoms. If the plumber hadn’t come, if he hadn’t found the letter, if Rose hadn’t had the test, would she still be well?
Poor Ross had been quite unequipped to cope. These men, they couldn’t be expected to know, always with their office refuges, always with air-conditioned meetings and difficult clients to distract them, to take them away from the business of living. Ross, Jon and Dan had been like little boys again without Rose to act as their choreographer. Wide-eyed with hands in pockets they occupied the kitchen, answering phone calls and making endless cups of tea that went un-drunk.
It was Vee who had taken charge of Rose’s dying. It was she who had persuaded her to drink the ice cream smoothies, thickened with scoops of Horlicks, that were the only thing she could swallow. It was she and Rose’s daughter-in-law Lara who had wiped her face with cucumber toner and applied fresh make-up while Rose’s grandchildren played on the floor at the end of the bed. And it was Vee and Helen who had persuaded Canon Christopher to allow Sweet Caroline to be played at the end of the service.
Jim was beginning to fall asleep on the sofa, his wine glass wedged between his knees.
“Jim!” Vee said, taking the glass from him and pulling him to his feet. “I need you in the kitchen for a minute.”
“What now?” he said once Vee had shut the door behind them. “Everybody’s fine.”
“We have to separate them!” she said.
“What?” he said.
“We have to separate them,” she said. “I’ll dance with Ross and you take Karen.”
She went back into the lounge. The song had changed again and Karen and Ross were now galloping vigorously around the room, a sheen of perspiration on Ross’s forehead. Mark was still dancing on his own, his trousers squeaking as he moved. Vee side-stepped behind him into the centre of the room. As Ross and Karen came dancing round in her direction she slipped her arm through Ross’s and yanked him away from Karen. She jogged around, pulling him in a loose circle. She took hold of his hot, damp hands and lifted them high above her head, ducking between them and pulling away so his fingers trailed along her shoulders. She caught a menthol whiff of his aftershave. She glimpsed Jim, stepping awkwardly from side to side and clicking his fingers at Karen, who was copying his movements, shaking her head and laughing.
Vee pressed her palms out to one side like a mime artist, pressed them to the other side and threw her arms above her head, clapping her hands. She twisted her hips, stuck her bottom out and bent her knees, lowering herself slowly to the floor. She touched the carpet with her fingers and straightened up again, her knees aching. She heard her hip click. Breathing heavily, she flung herself around in a circle, became disorientated and trod on Ross’s shoe. She laughed, and jumped up and down on the spot, jabbing a finger at Ross. She loved this song!
Ross’s face had narrowed with concern. He had stopped dancing and was watching Vee. As she jogged round in slow motion, flapping her arms like wings, hands in fists, she noticed Jim was standing still, also watching her, and Karen too, and Mark, his glass halfway to his lips. It was a while before she realised the music had stopped.