A Winter Lingering
It always reminds me of dolls’ houses: night-time peeping into warmly-lit windows. A cosy home seen through the eyes of an outsider. Like the doll’s house my grandfather once made; with the mini lights and the tiny windows through which I used to watch petite figurines taking tea. Now, standing on the frostbitten pavement of this Cotswolds village, formerly my home of many years, I watch. And, like my child-self wishing to shrink into the house of my toys, I am – once again – the outsider. The imposter watching an inviting scene to which she is no longer invited.
Out of the small spiralled church drifts a choir’s carols. In the bleak midwinter, Frosty winds made moan… The angelic voices of prepubescent boys surge through these narrow limestone streets. They bestow everyone in the near vicinity with the usual buzz of Yuletide anticipation. Christmas time! Mistletoe and Wine!
But they wash over me.
The lounge is warm and inviting, haloed by a homely glow I never managed to achieve. There’s a fire. A Christmas Tree. The domestic scene is perfection. And there he is, walking into the room. That I can still feel the painful twinge is surprising. Little Tommy has grown into a strapping sixteen-year-old lad. His skin is terrible. Rick should’ve taken him to a dermatologist long ago. I can hear him now: don’t be ridiculous Maggie; it’s character building. But Rick always forgets he had it easy in school. The popular, floppy-haired captain of the rugby team. It was lucky we hadn’t met back then or I probably would’ve kneed him in the nuts and the twins would’ve never been born.
Once in Royal David’s City… Now a solo voice floats out of the same church I once made my vows in. The films get it wrong, you know. At least, for ceremonies in our village church. You don’t say I do; you say I will.
“Will you, Margarette Jane Addler, take Richard George Barker…?”
“I do… Sorry. I mean, I will.”
Ricky had winked. I had blinked back. (Our little joke because I never could wink.) My nerves were alleviated: this wasn’t a mistake after all. Twenty-two wasn’t too young. I was marrying my sweetheart; having met, both plastered, at some or other fresher party our first year reading History at Bristol. We’d been on and off for a few years. Now we were on for life.
Rick had proposed in Paris with a one-carat sparkler. My normal cynical self would’ve sneered at such clichéd romance. But when the man a woman loves proposes, her cynicism can disintegrate. The childhood-conditioned fairy-tale notion steals her away. Pure, concentrated bliss for a week or two. And then she starts to plan the wedding and her poor little feet turn intermittently cold and hot over the next six months. At the altar, Ricky’s wink made them warm again.
Rick and I never guessed we would end up moving back to this place, though. Back to my hometown. Or homevillage would perhaps be more accurate. Four or five years after we married, he got a job at a firm in the nearby town, and I got a job teaching at the local grammar so we left London behind. The housing market was down and we snapped up this beauty for well under what it was worth. A symmetrical wonder with period windows – a single round one at the top. It really was a doll’s house. My own adult dolls house I could dress as I pleased. So I did. I splashed it with vibrant colours. And then I filled it with two little toddlers.
But the interior is different now. Judy redecorated. All neutral colours. Gone are the bright ones I once picked. Ricky had thought them too “garish” anyway. He probably loves the current nude interior, which looks like a page ripped out of Homes & Gardens or some other shitty magazine featuring over-polished interiors.
Speaking of bland Judy, she enters the living room too. She is looking out of the window, from the warm light to the cold dark. Unseeing, she stares in my direction. I see for the first time her eyes are green. A rare colour. Pity there’s nothing else unusual about her, insipid woman. Is this jealousy? Was I ever the jealous type before? I don’t even remember now. The replacement wifey is now licking her thumb and rubbing a smudge off Tommy’s cheek.
Get your grotesquely manicured hands off him! I want to shout. He’s my son. But I don’t. I just watch. It seems to be a perpetual state: the unobserved observer.
Tommy awkwardly shrugs Judy off and edges out of the room.
I knew Judy before. She’d been a teacher in Tommy and Vicky’s nursery school. Like many women she’d hungrily eyed Rick. She tucks her silvery blonde hair behind her ear and gazes at her own smug reflection. Pale as the moon, is Judy. And willowy. Vampiric. And, like a vampire, Judy swooped in and preyed on the vulnerable widower. She certainly wasted no time sinking her fangs in. She painted my bright house nude. And now rubs the dirt off my son’s nose.
As Tommy shuffles out, Ricky struts in. He kisses Judy.
“I don’t think they’ll ever like me, Rick,” she sighs, voice strained.
“Give them time, honey.”
“It’s been six years.”
“Maybe they need a bit longer.”
Judy walks over to the fireplace and picks up a picture from the mantlepiece. A young woman smiles out of the frame, two toddlers perched on her lap.
“It’s not as though they can properly remember her anyway…”
“Perhaps that makes it more painful for them. They have no memories to hold on to.”
Rick quickly takes the frame from Judy. It must be weird: the replacement wife eying her predecessor, constantly comparing in a lifelong competition. It’s a cold comfort that I’ll always win. You can’t beat a cherished memory, after all.
Rick stares at the photo for a long time. Is he thinking what I am? He was driving that night all those years back. After a harmless bottle of vino over dinner. Don’t be silly Maggie; I’m fine to drive.
He forgave himself long ago. Whether I ever will is another matter.
“Do you still miss her?” comes Judy’s tentative question - her voice a horrendously phoney mix of sympathy barely concealing anxiety.
“Every day. But I know Maggie. She’d be happy for us.”
Well, that’s what we always say to each other, isn’t it? Should the unthinkable happen, everyone wants the spouse left behind to be happy. Little do people realise; it’s a lie.
Judy reaches forward and shuts the curtains. Perhaps deep down she knows it’s not the prying eyes of the living neighbours she shuts out, but also an otherworldly outcast. Gazing into the doll’s house of the living.