1. Old Christmas Is Past
The air was cold when Mycroft woke up. It chilled his hair and his nose, which poked out from beneath the covers, but everything underneath the covers was lovely and warm. There was a lump at his back that gurgled and squashed a little when he rolled over. It was the hot water bottle that Mrs. Barnet had tucked in with Mycroft when she had put him to bed the night before. At seven years old, Mycroft considered himself too old to have to be put to bed by a nanny or a babysitter, even if Mummy and Daddy had been out at a dinner party. And, to be fair, the new baby was almost here, and Mycroft supposed that Mrs. Barnet needed to practise.
The light that peeked through the sheer white curtains was brighter than Mycroft expected. Perhaps it had snowed in the night. Mycroft took a deep breath and wriggled out of the warm cocoon of his covers. He quickly stuffed his feet into his new bunny slippers and trotted over to the window to look out.
It had not snowed, but a thin rind of frost rimed the trees, the pavement, the bins, and the cars in the drive. Mycroft checked to make sure that neither Mummy nor Mrs. Barnet had tiptoed into his room when he wasn’t looking, and then huffed out a breath that spread in a fog over the windowpane. With his finger, he wrote in the mist 1976. That was the new year. It was just five days old, and Mycroft wasn’t sure what he thought of it yet.
He had enjoyed being allowed to sit up to midnight on New Year’s Eve, even if he had fallen asleep on the sofa and Mummy had had to shake him awake so that he could hear Big Ben chime with the rest of his family and their party guests. They had made a great deal of noise, shouting and whistling, and lots of people had kissed him, and everyone had sung “Auld Lang Syne,” which Mycroft had learned in school. The adults had passed glasses of champagne, and someone had given Mycroft a glass of grape juice mixed with fizzy water, which tickled his nose. After he had drunk the juice, Mummy had been the one to take him upstairs to bed. Mycroft had had to switch the night-light on himself, because Mummy had grown too big to bend down and reach it.
Thinking of the grape juice at the party, Mycroft noticed that he had to pee. He took his dressing gown from the hook on the door, wrapped it around himself, and went out to the lavatory. When he was finished, he opened the door, and noticed that something smelled good. He followed the delicious smell down the stairs to find Daddy in the kitchen frying something in a pan. The sight was unusual, and Mycroft blinked in surprise.
“What are you doing?” he asked, completely forgetting that it was polite to say “Good morning, Daddy,” first.
Daddy didn’t seem to notice Mycroft’s rudeness. He smiled and scraped at something in the pan. “Mummy isn’t feeling right this morning, and Mrs. Barnet is delayed because of the ice on the roads, so I’m making breakfast today.”
That was something Mycroft had never seen before. He hadn’t known that Daddy could cook at all. “Boiled egg with soldiers?” he asked.
Daddy nodded. “What about bacon, too? Is that something you like for breakfast?”
Mycroft paused, unsure how to answer. It was true that he liked bacon very much, but Mrs. Barnet almost never made it for his breakfast, claiming that it was too rich for little boys. But then, Daddy hadn’t asked Mycroft about what Mrs. Barnet usually made. “Yes,” he said. “I like bacon for breakfast.”
“Good.” Daddy scooped two rashers of bacon out of the pan and set them on a plate that held a steaming egg nestled in its little Peter Rabbit egg cup surrounded by buttery soldiers. “Go sit at the table,” Daddy said. “Your breakfast is almost ready.”
Mycroft hopped up onto his chair and remembered to unfold his napkin and spread it neatly over his knees. “Napkin on the lapkin,” Mummy always said. Daddy sliced the top off of the egg, brought the plate to the table, and set it before him. Mycroft attacked the bacon first, just in case Mrs. Barnet arrived and started to scold him.
Daddy watched him eat for a few minutes in silence. “Oh, thought you should know,” he blurted suddenly. “Mummy will probably have the new baby sometime tonight.”
Mycroft froze, a toast soldier in his hand, dripping egg yolk over his plate. “Tonight?”
“Yes. She’ll ring me at the office when she’s ready, and I’ll come to take her to hospital.”
“Oh.” Mycroft wrinkled his nose. “Does it have to be tonight? I wanted to go to the panto.”
“It’s not a choice,” Daddy said. “Babies come when they come. There’ll be pantos again next year.”
Next year was so far away that Mycroft couldn’t even begin to imagine it. He slumped in his seat and scowled. Daddy laughed.
“Buck up,” he said. “Can’t do anything about it, might as well enjoy it.” He glanced at the clock. “Listen, I’ve got to be off. The job won’t wait for Mrs. Barnet. Be a good little man, put your dishes in the sink, take care of Mummy, and let Mrs. Barnet in when she arrives, will you, Mycroft?”
Mycroft shoved a soldier into his mouth to avoid having to answer. Daddy got up, ruffled his hair, and left. The house was suddenly very quiet, the first time it had been so since Christmas Eve. Mycroft finished the last of his toast and egg and carefully carried the dishes to the kitchen. He was tall enough to reach the worktop, but his arms weren’t quite long enough to put the china into the sink, so he left the dishes next to the sink instead, trusting that Daddy would understand. At a loss for something to do, he wandered out into the sitting room.
They had taken the Christmas tree down a few days earlier. Daddy had loosened it from its moorings, and Mycroft had wrapped all the ornaments in tissue paper for Mummy to pack neatly away in boxes. The furniture had been moved back into place, but some stray scraps of wrapping paper still remained, along with the pile of Mycroft’s new toys. His prize gift that year was a View-Master and several reels to go with it. Mycroft remembered that there were quite a few that he had not looked at yet, and he hurried over to the toy pile.
He found a reel of Doctor Who images and settled down on the sofa. Soon, he was happily clicking his way through pictures of monsters and space adventures. The zing of the doorbell startled him back to reality. For a moment, a chill washed through him, and he wondered if there might be a burglar at the door. Daddy had said to take care of Mummy, and Mycroft assumed that that meant not letting burglars into the house. He set the View-Master down on the sofa, slid to the ground, and picked up the poker from the fireplace. Thus armed, he tiptoed towards the door.
The doorbell rang again. Mycroft set the poker next to the door and waited.
“Hello?” came a voice through the door. “Is anyone home? Mrs. Holmes?”
Mycroft blew out a breath and relaxed. He knew that voice. He turned the handle and opened the door to admit the plump, bundled-up figure of Mrs. Barnet.
“Oh, hello, Mycroft,” Mrs. Barnet said. “Sorry I’m late. The roads were awfully icy today.” She took off her coat and hat, and hung them neatly on one of the pegs near the door, and then looked around the entryway. “Where are your parents, then?” she asked. “Are you all alone? What’s this poker doing here?” She picked it up and carried it back to the sitting room.
Mycroft followed her. “Daddy had to leave for work, and Mummy isn’t feeling well. I thought you might be a burglar, and Daddy said to take care of Mummy.”
Mrs. Barnet laughed. “Did he now? Aren’t you a good boy. Well, I’m not a burglar, so you can stand down and I’ll get to work. How’s your mum?”
Mycroft shrugged. “I don’t know. Daddy said she wasn’t feeling well, and he said she was going to have the baby tonight.”
Mrs. Barnet nodded. “I see. Well then, I’ll go up and pop my head in. You’ve got to be extra good today for your mum. Have you had breakfast?”
“Yes.” Mycroft elected not to tell Mrs. Barnet what he had eaten. “I left my dishes next to the sink. I couldn’t reach to put them in.”
“That’s a good boy. I’ll just pop up to see your mum, and then I’ll wash those for you.” Mrs. Barnet shuffled upstairs, and Mycroft returned to his View-Master. He had clicked through all three of his new Doctor Who reels by the time Mrs. Barnet returned.
“Everything’s going just as expected,” she told him, “so you don’t need to worry about your mum. She’ll be down in a bit. I’ll just do up those dishes and then we’ll get you washed and out of those pyjamas. Baby or not, you’ve got to get dressed.”
By the time that Mycroft was washed and dressed in comfortable play clothes, Mummy had come downstairs. She was drinking tea and eating plain cream crackers, and there was a magazine open on the table in front of her. She looked up when Mycroft arrived. “Good morning, darling,” she said. “Come give your Mummy a kiss.”
Mycroft did as requested, and then stepped back to regard Mummy’s swollen figure. “Are you really going to have the baby today?”
Mummy nodded. “Sometime tonight. Your little brother or sister. Won’t that be nice?”
“I suppose.” Mycroft wrinkled his nose. “How’s the baby going to get out? Are you going to have to have an operation?”
“I hope not,” Mummy said with a laugh. “The rest is for me to know and for you to find out.” She turned to Mrs. Barnet. “Can you take him for the day? I’ve got so much to do here. Make sure he has lunch and goes to the Common.”
Mrs. Barnet nodded. “Very good. You’ll let me know if you need help, of course.”
Mummy nodded and turned back to her magazine.
Mycroft spent the rest of the morning playing with his new Christmas toys. Mrs. Barnet made him a Spam sandwich for lunch and then fetched his coat for their walk on the Common. With a sigh, Mycroft tore his eyes away from the View-Master and did up the toggles on his coat.
“Come along,” Mrs. Barnet said. She took Mycroft’s hand and they left the house. As they walked down the road, Mycroft decided to take advantage of being where Mummy couldn’t hear him.
“Are you going to come back and be nanny again?” he asked.
Mrs. Barnet nodded. “I am. With a new little one around, your mum’ll need help.”
“Will you come back and live in your old room again?”
“No,” Mrs. Barnet laughed. “Times have changed, I guess. Your mum and dad only want me days this time around. I’ll come in the mornings, and I’ll go home after tea.”
“Oh.” Mycroft tried to imagine what life would be like for the new baby without Mrs. Barnet’s comforting presence at night. “What if the baby gets frightened at night?” he asked. He didn’t want to think about a baby crying, uncomforted, all night long.
Mrs. Barnet shrugged. “I suppose your mum will take care of it. No reason why she shouldn’t. That baby will take an awful lot of her time, though. You may have to put up with me when you want her.”
“I don’t care,” Mycroft said. “I’m going to prep school next year.”
“You’ll be all grown up before you know it,” Mrs. Barnet said absently. “Now, run along and play. Get some good fresh air.”
She gave Mycroft a little shove, and he trotted obediently out onto the Common. He spied a few boys out kicking a ball, and went to join them. One of them turned out to be Harry Nethersole, one of Mycroft’s friends from school. He waved to Mycroft, and Mycroft hurried over to him.
“Hello, Mycroft,” Harry said. “Are you here to play?”
“This is Charles and this is Andrew,” Harry said, indicating the other two boys. Charles smiled a little, and Andrew kicked the ball in Mycroft’s general direction. Mycroft chased after it, and the four boys settled down for a good romp.
Later, while they were catching their breath, Harry showed off his new talking Dalek toy that said “EX-TER-MI-NATE!” when he pressed the button on its head. All of the boys were impressed by this toy, and they all took it in turns to push the button and listen to the toy threaten destruction.
“I got some Airfix models,” Andrew said.
“And I got both Cluedo and Monopoly,” Charles added. “What did you get, Mycroft?”
Mycroft shrugged. “A View-Master. It’s got Doctor Who.”
“Can we come over and look at it?” Harry asked.
“I don’t know,” Mycroft said. “We’re going to have a new baby tonight.”
“Oh, bad luck,” Harry said.
Harry had two little sisters, Mycroft remembered. One of them was four, and the other was two. “What’s it like, having a baby around?” Mycroft asked him.
Harry shrugged. “They cry a lot, and they wee in their nappies. And Mummy pays more attention to them than to me.”
“My Mummy said I could play with the baby,” Mycroft offered.
“Well, you can’t,” Harry said. “Babies are too little to play with, and they aren’t any fun anyway. They can’t do anything except cry and wee.”
The prospect of a new baby was looking less attractive now. “But maybe when they’re bigger?” Mycroft asked, in a last desperate attempt to salvage his future.
“I guess if you get a brother,” Harry said. “Sophie and Lucinda don’t like to do anything fun. They just play with their dolls. There’s all these Sindy dolls and horses all over the place now.”
Mycroft shut his eyes and wished for a baby brother with all his might. Then he opened his eyes and smiled. “Let’s play with the ball again,” he said. “Then I’ll ask Mrs. Barnet if you can come to my house for tea and I’ll show you my View-Master.”