"Do you like my cushion?" said Heidi.
Lara affected a look of interest. The cover was made from old ties machine-stitched together - cheap silk ones with repeating patterns of reindeer and plum puddings. Christmas Market, she thought, dismissively and in Alastair's voice, for it was exactly what he might have said had he been there. Nothing in Belfast was quite good enough for Alastair - not a bar or restaurant, not the Ulster Museum, not the Titanic Building ('who in their right mind commemorates a ship that sank?') - but the Christmas Market put him in especially bad twist. He'd have laughed at Heidi's cushion, or been snide about it.
"So, do you like it?" said Heidi.
Lara set it back on the faded settee and looked at it in a way she hoped appeared admiring. "Very nice... Colourful."
"Marion… my careworker lady… Her little ones chose it. For 'Miss Heidi'."
Lara stretched her arm so that her watch could peep out from under her sleeve. "I'd need to go… "
If you wanted to exit Heidi's, you had to announce the intention three or four times before she actually accepted you were leaving. And even then, she'd invariably come out to the front to see you off, keeping you talking while the driver glared, then waving in a guilt-inducing kind of way, as you were finally driven off.
That first announcement - "I'd need to go…" - it was like the initial reading of a piece of draft legislation in the House of Commons, done for the show of it and in the knowledge that the real work was still ahead and might not run to schedule.
"Hitler," said Heidi, by way of nothing they had been talking about. "Did I tell you I heard him on the radio?"
"Today?" It was conceivable. Just a few weeks back, she'd seen Sigmund Freud on Royal Avenue.
"Hardly!" said Heidi. "No, years ago. When I was a little girl… Eight…nine, maybe, I heard him… I mean, I heard him many times, but this particular time he said… In the future, youth will rule. The young people will rule the world, the Fuhrer said. And I thought - the youth, the young people, that's me. In the future, I will rule."
Lara set her half-drunk cup of tea on the occasional table, lifted her handbag and sat forward so that she was perched in her chair like a sprinter ready to launch. In a moment, she would say again that she had to leave. She was about to speak when she saw some writing in Heidi's uncertain hand on the back of a flyer from a double-glazing firm.
Luxembourg - pretty girl, good voice.
Germany - boys, novelty tune.
France - elegant lady, very French
Notes on the Eurovision Song Contest, Lara realised. Maybe the most recent contest, but just as likely the one from last year, or the year before. She sensed the loneliness that had motivated her downstairs neighbour to write them. Notes scribbled in lieu of a friend to talk to. Notes to consult when the scores were being given - Allemagne, deux points; Luxembourg, douze. Next time it was on, Lara resolved, she'd call down with a bottle of prosecco and some nibbles... Next time... For sure...
"The young people will rule the world," said Heidi. "And he was not wrong. At night, when I cannot sleep (which is almost every night these days) I look out of my window and I see young people walking home - the boys full of beer and bravado, the girls, naked almost, hardly able to walk…"
Lara raised herself but Heidi was not done. "And in the morning, the bus shelter is smashed yet again; some paint spray on a wall." She sighed. "That's the young, ruling the world while the old stay indoors and keep their heads down."
"I know what you mean," said Lara, standing up. She herself slept with earplugs and valerian, or with Ambient Sounds from the Equatorial Rain Forest.
"Are you going?" said Heidi. "But you've hardly warmed the chair." Lara made an apologetic face.
"I'm sorry, but I need to get to the airport."
Heidi beamed. "Why didn't you say? Is it somewhere nice?"
Lara laughed. "Oh, no such luck. No, I'm going up to meet a friend at the airport hotel before they fly on to Boston."
"A friend?" said Heidi. She tutted in a disapproving but maternal kind of way. "Maybe that man friend of yours, the one who snores?"
"That's the one," she said.
"Some friend," said Heidi, "fitting you in between flights like a business meeting."
"Busy man," Lara managed, sensing the old woman's gaze on her, feeling as though she were being judged and found wanting. "He's hoping to land a big contract."
"The day after. Ordinary day there."
"Give him up," said Heidi. "It's his work he loves, not you." Heidi sighed. "My mother always said, 'If you have to run after him, he's not the One. The One is the one who runs after you…'"
Lara smiled. Often, but especially over the past twelve months, she had sensed the pointlessness of her life with Alastair, their brief times together, the long, and lengthening, times apart, the sudden, unexpected invitations to lunch, or dinner, or Italy. It was like being held in a queue on the phone where they periodically reminded that you were important and valued. She'd been on hold so long that hanging up had ceased to be an option. It would be like calling time on hope, acknowledging that five whole years had been a waste, then resigning herself, and soon, to a life like Heidi's, on her own with the Eurovision Song Contest, and some tat from the Christmas market.
They were at the main door of the apartment block by then. Heidi went to open it, then she stopped. "Oh, I'm so stupid! I've something for you... "
"Oh, there's no need," said Lara. She could see her taxi waiting in the car-park with the engine running and wondered how long it might have been there. If it had arrived at the time she had booked it to arrive, it would have been there a whole ten minutes, the driver seething, surely, and with the meter running.
"I can't let you go without your Christmas gift," said Heidi as she shuffled off back into the apartment.
"But I've nothing for you..." Lara called after her, having discounted the idea of dashing upstairs to her own place and fixing a stick-on bow to a bottle of last year's liquid soap. Christmas presents were another Alastair no-go area. The unequal exchanges annoyed him. Two years ago, he had given his sister Mags fifty pounds in an envelope and in return received a framed photograph - "Herself and the layabout nephew at Torr Head." By mutual consent he and Lara bought each other nothing lest the value of their respective gifts fail to net off in the great Bank of Christmas Reckoning.
"Here," said Heidi, handing her a box, wrapped in thin, partridge-in-a-pear-tree paper. "Merry Christmas!"
"Thank you" said Lara. She shook her head. "You shouldn't have." She could see through the paper that it was the tin of amaretti she herself had brought Heidi from Siena at the end of June, a reward for having kept a watch on her flat in case the feckless young people took a shine to it. She planted a kiss on the old woman's cheek and made to go but Heidi clutched at her arm.
"Give him up," she said, whispering. "If you leave him… God will send you an angel…" She smiled, mischievously. "It's what they say…" She let go of Lara's arm. "And if he doesn't send you one, maybe he'll send one for me instead..."
The airport hotel was decorated for Christmas - subtle trees, tasteful Santas, and, via discreet speakers, jazz trio versions of the festive standards. There were only a few people in the lobby. Alastair, rounder and more stooped than last time, had nabbed himself a corner table by the window and was sitting with a purple paper crown perched at an angle on his head. At first she thought he hadn't seen her arrive as he was occupied dipping a dessert spoon into a stainless steel teapot and seemed oblivious to everything else. But when she was almost at his table, he looked up.
"I asked for a cup of tea and a pot of hot water," he said, "and she goes and brings me a pot of tea." He sighed. "I mean, how hard is it? CUP… OF… TEA…" He pretended to drink a cup of tea, sipping it with his little finger raised like a maiden aunt. "AND A POT OF HOT WATER… I mean it's not integral calculus."
"Can I have a cup?"
"But it's awful." He made a face. Tea where Alastair was concerned had to be just so. Also, toast and porridge. Stamps on envelopes had to sit straight and wine arrive promptly and before the starter. At the cinema, crunchers of popcorn and rustlers of sweet papers were routinely shushed or tutted at. What had once been endearing had lately become slap-round-the-head annoying. Or had she only started noticing what was always there.
"I'll risk it," she said, taking the teapot from him and pouring. The tea splashed dispiritingly dark against the white of the cup.
"I ate the biscuit they gave me," said Alastair. He held up his index finger. "One biscuit…"
"I've biscuits here," she said, tapping the gift-wrapped lid of the amaretti.
"I'm fine," he said. "But you have one."
"I'm fine too…" Outside a plane lifted itself into the clear night sky. It climbed until it became a speck of light, indistinguishable from the stars but for the fact that it was moving. And then it was gone. "Wonder where it's heading."
"There's only a few flights tonight - London… Birmingham, maybe…"
"London's special," said Lara. She thought of a show at the Palladium when she was small, a baffling conjuror on the Thames Embankment, buskers playing Beatles songs when the Beatles were still new, her hand in her father's, that last winter of contentment... "Did you see Mags?"
"Couldn't make it. Said it was too big a trek out here for just a bit of lunch. I'll pay, I said, but no dice."
"Oh well," said Lara.
Alastair yawned. "Oh well indeed."
She spotted his laptop - perched on the side of the table, charging, purring softly like a sleeping, contented cat - and tried to recall if she'd ever seen him without it.
"I'd a card from my father," she said, shrugging off her coat. There had been a card for her that morning, lying on the cold chessboard tiles of the communal hallway -a canary yellow envelope with an American stamp and her father's return address on a pre-printed sticker. The card itself was a print of Connecticut Hall in the snow.
Alastair fished about in the tea-pot with his spoon. "Oh really... what did he say?"
"From Dad, Debs and kids." Same as always.
"And Debs is?"
"I told you - Wife Number Three."
Alastair reached across and began to ease open his MacBook.
"What will you do tomorrow?" said Lara.
"Sleep. Then work." He flipped the screen fully upright. "I've my pitch to finalise."
"And you can't take the day off?"
"Why would I do that? Everything's shut. It would drive you to work."
"Well, I hope you're giving Bob the day off."
"Bob? Bob who?" He tapped the space bar and the screen lit up showing an unread message with a red exclamation beside it.
"Cratchit." said Lara. "Bob Cratchit."
Alastair smiled, his eyes still on the screen. "Tiny Tim can go take a running jump… God bless him… So, what about you?" He pecked out a sentence or two on his keyboard. "Tomorrow? Plans?" There was a whooshing sound to indicate that an email had been sent.
"You know me - quiet," she said. Three days off; one microwave dinner per day; one sensible glass of wine to keep it company; three walks with her Fitbit. Then the office would re-open and things would soon be back to the way they were.
Alastair looked up from his computer, glanced at his watch, then edged a key card for the hotel room across the table to her. "Give me a few minutes to tidy the place up, would you." He got up, groaning as he did so, and shuffled to the lift, his laptop under one arm, the plug trailing, the purple paper crown still on his head.
Her taxi, white and faintly grand-looking, rolled up to the kerb. The driver stepped out, thirty years old, maybe, tall and solidly built, his hair black and cut close. Despite the cold, he was wearing a white T-shirt that set off his summer tan. "No luggage?" he said. He had an accent, eastern European, Lara reckoned, but maybe further afield.
Sheepishly, she handed him the tin of biscuits and her coat, then he held open the door. Inside was warm and smelled of cinnamon. There was music playing — glockenspiels and voices in a sparse, engaging rondo. “Are you just arrived?” he said as they drove off.
“Yes,” she said, because it saved her saying more.
“For family?” he said.
“… an old lady I know,” said Lara. “From Vienna, originally.”
“Vienna…” the driver said, wistfully. The hair on the back of his neck was a dark stubble. He wore a slim, gold chain, something she would not normally have liked but on him seemed oddly appropriate. His driving was competent and reassuring, not fast and flash. When they reached the traffic lights, they flicked from red to green as though they had been expecting him.
“You’ve been there?”
“No. But someday…”
“Me too.” She watched a plane — a shimmering dot in the sky — that was either taking off or coming in to land. “Any plans yourself? For tomorrow, I mean.”
“God laughs at plans!” he said. He slapped the steering wheel. “This is what I’ll be doing.”
“The whole day; the whole night!”
“Isn’t it dangerous?” said Lara, picturing Heidi’s young people roaming the darkness like imps of mischief.
“People are always glad to see me, especially this time of year. Besides, I was in the army back home. Military service. A whole year of it… Now I’m for peace and love — peace for the man, and love for the woman...”
She smiled, extricating her phone from her bag. There were three missed calls since she’d switched off the sound... four now. And any number of unread texts. She pressed it to her ear and heard Alastair’s recorded voice: “Are you okay? Are you coming up or not? We’ve little enough time as it is...”
It made her laugh out loud.
“What’s funny?” said the driver.
“Just a voice message... my Christmas voice message...”
She sat back and let the cinnamon and the glockenspiel music drift over her, feeling herself slip into a kind of half sleep that lasted maybe half an hour and left her feeling rested and renewed.
“That’s a thing you must see,” the driver was saying. He nodded to his left. “The Titanic place.”
She yawned. “The ship that sank,” scolding herself for slipping into Alastair-speak.
“The ship that sank…” he said. “And also all the ones that never sank.”
She looked at it, austere and illuminated, reflecting in the dark blue of the still channels around it, like a star briefly come to rest on a perfect calm.
In the morning, Lara lifted the better bottle from the wine rack and slipped it into a Santa-stuck-in-the-chimney wine bag. She took her ready meals and a heat-up baguette from the fridge, unwrapped the box of amaretti and managed not to let the whole lot fall as she walked carefully downstairs. She would do it, she had decided. Spend the day with Heidi. Share what she had with her. Indulge her, all her old talk about Vienna in its twilight. Drink coffee from her dainty cups with the jugendstil owls, laugh at some bubbling celebrity on a pre-recorded Christmas special — two sad cases, happy at last.
Martin Tyrrell is a Belfast writer whose stories and essays have appeared in a number of publications including Verbal, Cadenza, Critical Review and the Dublin Review of Books. In 2014, his story Father Figures was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is a current grant holder under the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s Support for the Individual Artist Programme.