Technically, Deirdre met Mary at the door.
More accurately, Mary had been standing on the front stoop for some time before her niece had bothered. She had rung the bell, twice, then knocked and rapped her knuckles on the windowpane when she began to worry the buzzer might be broken.
Her niece, when she opened the door at last, seemed oblivious to all of this. Beaming like a gracious hostess, she ushered Mary into her new home. The illusion lasted all of a second before Deirdre turned the full wattage of her smile on her front living room, opening her arms wide to take in the entire space.
“Don’t you love it?”
The flat was a downstairs one, with large windows overlooking the street. Easy enough to see if anyone was on your doorstep. Especially given that Deirdre hadn’t bothered to put up blinds yet.
“It seems... very large.” Mary said, translating ‘too expensive for your current salary‘ into a compliment as best she could.
“Yes, but that’s the point. I think Jasper is going to ask me to be his livein.”
Mary stopped undoing her coat for the moment. Clearly it would take all of her attention to make sense of this conversation. “Then why hunt for a new place at all?”
“Because I don’t want to live in his, of course! It’s all very well to move in together but I refuse to do it in an apartment where the plaster is more crack than wall.”
“I believe they call that old-world charm,” Mary said dryly, though privately she agreed.
“Besides, he could do so much better. He makes absolute bank, you know.”
Ah, there it was. Her niece didn’t expect to keep paying for this apartment. “Well, as long as he’s willing to move...”
“Oh, Aunt Mary. You don’t understand love at all.”
“I suppose I don’t,” Mary agreed, looking around the room. “Do you have a coat rack? Or a closet?”
Deirdre looked around the half-unpacked space as though she expected more furniture to come sidling out of the piles of boxes and present itself to her. “Oh, no. Just throw it over anything. You’re well and truly layered up, aren’t you?”
“The forecast said the storm’s to begin by two,” Mary reminded her. “And it’s bitterly cold, even without any snow on the ground.”
“Don’t be silly, it’s clear as a bell. Anyway, it’s much more feminist if he agrees to be my livein.”
Mary was used to switching tracks with Deirdre. Privately, she even thought of multitasking as a sign of her niece's intelligence, though she wished it didn’t always appear in her more casual conversations. “Even if he’s paying the rent?”
“Especially then. It means I’m free to pursue my passions. And I’d pay for him if I could, you know. But as a single mother...“
“Yes, where is Colin?” she asked, feeling as though she’d led the conversation to an uncomfortably critical place and eager to move on.
Her niece shrugged. She had always taken a relaxed approach to parenting, and sometimes Mary felt it might verge on disregard. But it was easy enough for her to think that. She had never been mother and father to a preteen boy. “Sulking, I think. He misses having a back yard.”
“I imagine he would. I've never seen a boy with so much enthusiasm for life. And by 'life' I think I mean trouble. What’s he calling everything now, by the way? Last time I saw him, the whole world was ballistic. Which doesn’t even make grammatical sense, does it?”
“Doesn’t it?” said Deirdre vaguely. She probably hadn’t even noticed her son’s quirks of vocabulary. Or perhaps you developed a sort of natural version of an interpreter implant, living with the boy day in and day out.
“I expect I’m just out of touch,” Mary admitted, which seemed kinder than saying that Deirdre could use a few more adult friends to chat with. Speaking of which— “Is your kettle unpacked yet?”
“Oh, yes. I suppose we have time for a cup. But you did promise me you’d help me move in, and I’ve told Colin we’ll be ready to go by four.”
This particular leap caught Mary off guard. “Go? Where?”
“To the Holiday Fair. You said it yourself, Colin’s too restless to keep in a flat all day. And don’t you want to buy him a present?”
“I haven’t yet,” Mary admitted, “But I’m sure they’ll have closed early. They can’t stay open in a blizzard.”
“It won’t snow,” Deirdre repeated, chin jutting dangerously— and very much like her son’s often did. “Now come and help me move these boxes so we can get into the kitchen.”
Ten boxes (over half of them unpacked), one cup of tea, and forty-five minutes wasted sorting all of Deirdre's pots and pans into one cupboard only to have to undo it all when her niece decided that space would work much better as a pantry instead, and the view from those lovely front windows made it abundantly clear that not even blind determination would force the winter weather to blow over. Snow was already settling thickly on the windowsills and blanketing the sidewalks.
“Maybe they will close,” Deirdre admitted forlornly, which was as close to abandoning her hopes as Mary expected her to come. The sad look on her face reminded Mary of her niece’s childhood— busses missed and tests not taken because her college professors had turned her away, always only five minutes late, Aunt Mary, I swear. It made her heart swell with the old familiar need to protect her niece from a world that never did, and never would, run according to plan.
“I’ll tell Colin,” she offered against her better judgement, patting her shoulder gently.
Colin was sitting on his unmade bed, paying half-hearted attention to a handheld vid game. It didn’t seem to capture his whole interest until Mary sat down next to him, at which point he became entirely, if falsely, absorbed. “It’s the snow, isn’t it,” he said without looking up. He probably imagined that he sounded nonchalant.
It’s your mother, Mary half-wanted to tell him. But Colin loved Deirdre too much to brook any criticism, and so did Mary, usually, if you came right down to it. Instead she dusted her hands briskly on her skirt. “Don’t be silly. It’s just that I’m needed back at the hospital. One of the University students...” she trailed off, not quite sure how to continue. “... well, they’ve hurt themselves.”
Colin sat up a bit straighter. “Did they come to you too late? Is it gangrenous?”
Trust her grand-nephew to think of something sufficiently gory. “No, that was last week.”
“Ballistic,” he said with real feeling, dropping the vid. Which meant that particular piece of slang was still in favor, and Mary would probably be able to keep up with his chatter. That was good. “Are they still there? Can I come see?”
“Certainly not. You haven’t had your inoculations— the seasonals,” she added quickly, holding up her hand to forestall argument.
“Well, then, the monthlies. Doctors need to stay very up to date, you know.”
“Can I get them?” he asked, eyes shining with undeterred excitement.
Mary made a face. The last thing she wanted was for Deirdre to spend money on unnecessary doctor’s visits. She would, too, if Colin said his Aunt thought he needed more shots done. Medicine was one of the few places where Mary's word was sacrosanct. “Well, maybe you have had them. I’ll ask your mother about it. But not today.”
He nodded, seeming to accept the urgency of the situation. But he was still watching her like a hawk, clearly unwilling to let her go so easily. “But I can visit you, can’t I? Sometime soon?”
It was very difficult to resist the people you loved. Almost without thought, she found herself responding. “I would like that.” She had to admit it would be nice to have someone come to her for once.
“Excellent.” The boy broke his unnerving eye contact at last and flung himself forwards, rummaging under the bed. “I need to do lots of research, you know. I’m thinking of becoming a doctor.”
“Well, or a nurse.” He came up with a bag of something red and sugary looking— gummies, probably —and popped several sweets into his mouth, chewing around his next words. “Doctor seems like it could be difficult.”
“Being a nurse really isn’t any easier.”
“But they’re both necrotically exciting jobs, aren’t they?”
Mary decided to operate on the assumption that Colin didn’t know what that particular word meant, other than colloquially, and answered the question as best she could. “They can be, but there are plenty of dull moments too. I think that’s true of any job.” Colin looked a bit defeated at that, and she continued. “But I’m sure you’re up to the task— be it boredom or hard work.”
“Hard work, maybe.” Her nephew muttered.
“Hard work, definitely.”
Mary was always a bit awkward about affection when it came to Colin. At what point did little boys stop being little enough that you could tousle their hair without setting off a chain reaction of embarrassment and sarcasm? As always, she gave in and made the experiment. “But you know... you should look for a job you love, not just one you find exciting.”
Colin permitted the gesture, only rolling his shoulders and slumping away a little. “Can’t it be both, though?”
“Well, perhaps. Just make sure it's really true.”
He nodded, serious as an eleven-year-old could be. “I'll give it some thought,” he said solemnly, and then ruined the effect by picking bits of red jelly-candy out from under his fingernails and putting them directly into his mouth.
Mary sighed, and drummed up a last smile regardless. “Good.”
“But I can still see you at the hospital?”
“You can,” she agreed, pushing herself up off the low bed. Lord only knew when he’d get a chance, but all things were possible. Maybe Deirdre could be persuaded to spend next Christmas at Oxford.
“I honestly do want to, you know.”
“I know,” Mary told him. She felt suddenly awkward with the knowledge of how much the boy cared, and how much she cared in return. “It’s an absolute promise, Colin.”
“Good,” said Colin, “Then I’ll come and visit you soon.” And he handed her his bag of candy as a peace offering.