2 a.m., Tuesday, January 1st, 2013. A new day, a New Year, and I’m still awake.
Oliver isn’t. He’s lying beside me in our bed, snoring gently, exhausted from all our hard partying on New Year’s Eve.
I’m exaggerating, naturally. New Year’s Eve consisted of putting the children to bed, opening a bottle of wine, and falling asleep on the sofa in front of Trading Places, waking only when the new year was already fifteen minutes old. After a half-hearted exchange of Happy New Year kisses, we staggered upstairs to bed, where Oliver immediately fell asleep again. I, on the other hand, have tossed and turned this last hour and a half, wishing I hadn’t napped so late in the day, and dreading tomorrow’s combination of energetic children and an acute lack of sleep.
Hard partying on New Year’s Eve doesn’t happen for parents of three children under the age of four. Besides — have you ever tried to find a babysitter for December 31st? Even the stalwart Maggie couldn’t come up with the goods this time.
“I’m so sorry, Libby,” she said, when I asked her about it just before Christmas. “If I were here, I would, of course. But I won’t be. I’m going on holiday.”
The only time Maggie leaves Woodhaven is to go to the mall, two towns away.
“Anywhere nice?” I asked. Boston, maybe…a cabin in Vermont… watching the ball drop in Times Square…
“The Seychelles,” she said.
If I’d had a cup of coffee, I’d have spluttered into it.
“How lovely,” I said, feeling my complexion turn a light shade of avocado. “Get away from winter and stock up on some vitamin D.
Maggie nodded. She didn’t seem very enthusiastic, I thought.
“To be fair, it’s not exactly a holiday,” she said. “Business more than pleasure, you could say.”
I wondered what kind of business could take a sixty-something woman to the Seychelles while removing all pleasure of anticipation of the trip. Knowing Maggie, though, and her (by all accounts) shady past, I didn’t like to ask.
* * *
2:30 a.m., and still sleep evades me. I turn over yet again, bash the pillow into a more comfortable position, and am just drifting off when there’s an explosion of light outside. It shines directly on my side of the bed, through the uncovered skylight in the bedroom’s vaulted ceiling.
I get up and peek through the blinds on the front window. The owners of the house opposite take their Christmas decorations seriously. During the two Decembers we have spent in Juniper Drive, their front lawn has been filled with inflatable snowmen, Disney characters, Santa Clauses, reindeer. Pride of place at the front of the garden this year is a new, five-foot-high Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus. I wonder how they find these articles; the acquisition of such tackiness takes considerable determination, not to mention cash.
The inflatable figures always light up in the evening, along with the LED icicles hanging from the house’s eaves, the winking coloured lights on the eight miniature fir trees in the yard, and the dozen giant candy canes lining the path to the front door. Everything appears to be on a timer, because each day these tasteful ornaments illuminate at precisely 4:30pm (causing a slight dimming of lights in our own house) and turn off again five hours later.
Tonight, instead, they have taken a unilateral decision to dejuice the power grid at 2:47am.
The neighbours’ driveway, I notice, is still covered in six inches of untrampled snow, following a storm two days ago. It’s a clue that the owners of the house and tacky inflatables are probably seeing New Year in somewhere other than Woodhaven, and therefore will not be getting up to switch the lights off. The snowstorm, I recall, robbed our street of power for a few hours, which must have reset the neighbours’ timer to this unsociable hour.
I wonder how long they’re on vacation. One thing is certain, though: no way will I get to sleep now.
I might as well get up.
* * *
Downstairs, I take a mug of tea to the den, sit in the squashy armchair that looks across the back yard, and cover myself up with the microfleece blanket that lives permanently on the chair. The house is quiet, apart from the occasional snore upstairs from Oliver and a huffing and smacking of lips from Fergus the dog, lying in his basket in the kitchen.
I haven’t mentioned Fergus for a while, and there’s a reason for that. He has adopted Maggie. On our walks with the children, when we reach Maggie’s driveway, he either sits down and refuses to move, or he howls heartrendingly and embarrassingly. If I start to walk up Maggie’s driveway with him, however, he morphs into the ideal, obedient hound. Over time, it has become easier to leave him for a few hours with Maggie while the children and I do what we need to do. These occasions have gradually lengthened from a few hours into a couple of days; indeed, his last visit stretched into three weeks. With Maggie in the Seychelles, though, he is back living with us, and unfortunately I’m realising how much I enjoy his absence.
It’s January 1st, a time for resolutions. I scrabble around in the side-table’s drawer for my journal, and turn to a new page.
2013, I write. New Year’s Resolutions.
1. Talk to Maggie about her taking permanent custody of Fergus.
That might take some explaining when Sandra comes to visit, but never mind. Talking of Sandra and dogs:
2. Go to England and see what sort of a dog’s dinner Sandra has made of our house.
Sandra has been living in our house in Milton Keynes ever since we moved here. The original idea was that it should be a temporary situation until she found her own place — her previous landlord wouldn’t renew her lease — but so far she’s been content to live in our house, rent-free and lease-free. Whenever I ask Oliver how she’s doing, and what she’s done to the house in our absence, he’s been suspiciously vague. I need to see for myself.
3. Check out the local elementary school and enroll Jack for kindergarten.
I read this sentence again. It looks innocent, innocuous. Behind it, though, lies so much more.
You see — kindergarten starts in September 2013. Oliver’s two-year contract in Massachusetts was supposed to expire in July 2013.
We will not be moving back to England this summer.
It’s because of the promotion that Oliver decided to accept a couple of weeks ago. His new contract — get this — is for another three years, starting in July. We won’t be going home until the summer of 2016.
If I’m honest with myself, it is this knowledge rather than the neighbour’s Blackpool Illuminations that keeps me awake. Staying in America for five years was never part of the deal. Had Oliver said to me, that evening back in March 2011, that we would be living in Massachusetts for five years, I don’t think I would have agreed to the move.
But here we are, and although the future ain’t what it used to be (to quote a song), it’s exhilarating in its uncertainty. You can plan as much as you like, but — to quote another song — Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
Still, one has to make plans nonetheless. Which brings me on to:
4. Find another house.
After everything that’s happened, neither of us wants to continue living in this house that belongs to Melissa. And much as I will hate to move away from the security of having Maggie as a neighbour, I think it has to be done. Oliver has even hinted that we could buy a house rather than rent. A scary thought, but exciting.
5. Make friends based on their personalities rather than nationalities.
Silly, isn’t it? I have any number of acquaintances here I’d ignore in the street if we were in Milton Keynes, but to whom I’m drawn here simply because they have the same accent as me. That’s no way to make lasting friendships. So the first thing to do is go and see Anna Gianni in the Italian restaurant. With all the trauma of the last few months, I’ve ignored her, and yet she’s the nearest to an American friend that I’ve got. She—
“Libs? Are you OK?” Oliver stands in the doorway, his hair (what’s left of it) tousled, his voice cracked and sleepy.
I stuff my journal down the side of the chair cushion and cover it up with the blanket.
“Couldn’t sleep because of the neighbour’s light display,” I say.
Oliver crosses the room to the chair, takes my hand, and pulls me to my feet.
“You’re freezing,” he says, rubbing my hand. “Come back to bed where it’s warm.”
In bed, I put my cold feet on him, but he doesn’t murmur or wince. Instead he asks, “Was it just the lights keeping you awake? Or are you thinking about the new job?”
I’m not sure what happened to Oliver in 2012, but somewhere, with the year’s rows, bitter silences, tears, and — let’s not forget — elation, he’s learned to read my mind. Occasionally, anyway; for that I’m thankful. It wouldn’t do to have him always know what I’m thinking.
“A bit,” I admit. “I’d got it into my head that we were going home this year, and now…”
Oliver doesn’t answer right away.
“Don’t worry,” he says into my hair, as at last I feel sleep overtaking me. “It doesn’t really matter where we are. If we’re together, we’re home.”
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