The Christmas after they went to Scotland, the heating went out; something about the gas meter and a latent charge and an electrician with a serious expression and a miner's lamp on his head and apparently they could have been blown to kingdom come and they were very lucky. Bren thought that it was great that were very lucky, but they'd have been luckier if the gas and electric didn't have to be disconnected for three days with the snow on the ground outside and ice-crystals forming on the bathroom mirror. Tony said she should stop being a silly cow and give over complaining, but he kissed the top of her head after he'd said it and started to stick candles on all the windowsills.
"I'm just closing up below," he said, when he'd lit the last one, and went out down the stairs to the pub beneath.
"Shut that door!" she shouted, and when he had gone had a bit of a jig in the middle of the floor, because the candles looked pretty, reflecting in the glass, and it was nearly Christmas. The phone was still working, and they could order takeaway and huddle together for warmth, and in the morning it would all be all right.
She was just looking for her slippers when Tony appeared again, closing the outside door with a bang and blowing on his fingers. "Blimmin' freezing," he said, after a minute. "Yeah, you knew that, didn't you. Look what's come."
"Post!" Bren said, happily; they hadn't had much, and she'd had some of those quiet fears, that they'd forgotten about her back in Manchester, and she didn't have other family, so to speak.
"There was a hold-up somewhere and everything's come at once." Tony smiled at her. "Christmas cards, mostly – come from down south."
"Manchester's not down south," Bren said, and threw him his slippers, too. She'd got a little portable camping stove at the back of one of her kitchen cupboards, good enough for making tea on, and she set it going so the blue flame burning merrily away in the corner. "It's like, what do you call it. A state of mind, being southern. It's, like, in your head."
"That one's southern in the head," Tony said, nodding at the one on top. Bren took it, saw the familiar handwriting and the Surrey postmark, and laughed.
"Philippa!" she said, grinning. "I suppose she got the address from Dolly or Jean. Here, it's got a proper bit of writing in it too." She sliced it open with her thumbnail and held it under the closest flame. "'Dear Bren and Tony, I hope you're well and not too cold in the north. I am at home with my mother and it's positively unbearable. She keeps inviting her friends' ghastly sons over for mulled wine because she thinks I need a boyfriend. I don't need a boyfriend. I'm considering becoming a lesbian. A very merry Christmas and Happy New Year, love from Philippa Moorcroft.'"
Tony blinked. "Any boyfriend of hers, he'd have to be deaf. Are you making a brew, Bren?"
"You start it, I'm looking at these." Bren grinned and opened the next card. It showed a nativity scene. "'Dear Tony and Brenda, I am sending you a traditional card with the baby Jesus on it, none of these robins or Winterval cards. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas and New Year, kind regards, Dolly."
"Winterval?" Tony said, rummaging for teabags. "Don't tell me, it was in the Daily Mail."
"And here's one from Anita!" Bren got out a couple of mugs from the cupboard, one by one with a candle in the other hand. "I didn't know she even sent them. Aww, she's let the little one write it, look."
"Dunno," Tony said. "She's a good girl, Anita, but she's no Shakespeare."
"She's a good girl," Bren said. "Twink says we should have a good Christmas, or as good as we can expect to have seeing as we're geriatrics, and she wouldn't have sent a card only when she said she wouldn't her mum was narked."
"Not a bit of it," Tony said, with unexpected vigour. "Bet her mum doesn't know she even sent it."
"Season's greetings from Jean and Stan," Bren continued. "And Stan says that if we've got trouble with our electrics we should ask him up to visit."
"It'd probably be cheaper than Scottish Gas," Tony said, ruefully, and sat down beside her on the sofa, setting her mug on the table.
"You don't miss it, do you, Bren?" he asked after a while, as she carefully balanced the cards on the mantelpiece with a candle in one hand.
"Miss what?" Bren said, dripping hot wax. "Ouch. It's fun, though, when you get wax on your hand, you can spend ages picking it all off."
"You know. Manchester, the factory. The girls."
"Yeah, course I do," Bren said, and laid the candle down on the mantel. It was a big church candle and cast a warm, fuzzy light. "You do, don't you? When you were with people you liked, you miss it, don't you? It's, like, what's that word. Not ink that doesn't come off. Inevitable, yeah. It's inevitable. But I'm happy now."
"Yeah," Tony said. "Me as well."
"Well," she said. "Good."
"Good," he echoed, and they sat there in the dimness, and huddled together for warmth. After a bit, Bren thought, she'd ring up for a Chinese takeaway, with lemon chicken and prawn crackers. She was happy now.