‘Come on. Let’s go out. We’ve been stuck in the house for days. I’ve sucked the flowers off the carpet, and we’ll be down to boards if I can’t get out for some fresh air soon.’
‘It’s freezing out there,’ I said, ‘were you watching something different to us just then?’ I turned my face back to the television, and it popped and the screen went blank. Barbara was holding the remote control, and she tucked it away in its holder by the side of Donald’s chair.
‘If it’s not frost, it’s flashers,’ she said. ‘We’re entitled to get out of the house. We’re going stir crazy. Look at your father.’ Donald was twitching the antimacassar on the back of my chair. ‘And anyway,’ she raised her eyebrows, looked at me meaningfully, although whatever it was she did mean was lost on me, ‘you’ve got a little errand to do, haven’t you Laura?’
I slumped into the chair and ignored her.
‘Come on. Shoes and coats. Lola, you can wear your new one. Just don’t let me see you dragging your cuffs along the railings.’
She stood Donald in front of the hall mirror to go over him with the lint roller before she would open the front door and let us out.
Even though I should have been prepared for it, the cold outside shocked my lungs, bit the insides of my nose and made my teeth ache. We are two weeks past the longest night of the year in this story, but winter was working backwards and spring felt like it was getting further and further away. The paths and the walls of the house were scratched with frost and without saying a word to each other Barbara and me stood on either side of Donald – not touching, but hovering as he navigated the slippery, glittering pavement. We walked all the way into town like that, up the hill and past the train station three abreast under the white, freezing sky. Barbara tutted and shook her head at people who didn’t want to let us by. It was a bright, bright day. All the shiny surfaces: car bonnets, illuminated advertisements in bus-shelters, the green and gold plastic litter bins, were coated with their own thickening layer of white, and Donald’s coat was a light beige sports jacket that was dated and gleaming and wasn’t right for the weather, but it was all he would wear.
When we got to the shopping centre, Barbara took Donald’s arm and pulled us through the revolving doors together. The three of us were wedged into a single segment of the turning mechanism. The blast of the hot air heater was directed down at us, and Donald was sweating heavily.
‘Don’t worry,’ I said, and pointed through the glass, ‘they’ve still got the Christmas trees up.’
‘Your father isn’t a child,’ Barbara said, and I let the sigh out, very slowly between my teeth so she couldn’t hear it, and the door completed its revolution and we were spat into the warmth and twinkling light of the shopping centre. It was still prickling with silver tinsel and the air was clogged with the dry, solvent smell of spray-on frost.
‘Where are we going?’ I said, and peered across Donald to Barbara, who was heading towards Boots and brandishing a handbag so brown and shiny it looked like it was made of wood. Brandish is right – she carried it over her wrist, held in front of her like a weapon. I wanted to walk away. I wanted to turn and melt into the crowd like a curl of steam. I knew, then, what she was going to do, but Donald was smiling and tugging me gently along, a fold of my new coat gripped between his finger and thumb.
The decorations in Boots were more subdued. When we got to the perfume counter the woman who was supposed to be serving us was kneeling on the top of a short step ladder. There was another ladder on the back of her tights, disappearing up her skirt, and she didn’t notice us until Barbara dropped her handbag down, heavily, on the glass counter. She was up on the ladder winding a red ribbon around the display cases on the shelf behind her. Red, heart shaped stickers dotted the boxes and bottles because there was a special offer for Valentines Day and they were getting ready for it already.