“Hello Jeremy. Hello Alice.” Mary squatted to the level of her neighbour’s children, aged seven and five. Both eyed her shyly from behind the activity bags they were clutching tightly to their respective chins.

“Go on Jem and Al. Say hello to Aunty Mary.” Nancy shook her head in disbelief. “You wouldn’t guess that they play here almost every other day.” She turned to her children. “Has the cat got your tongues?”

“Aunty Mary’s cat died,” Alice explained solemnly.

“Don’t worry Nan. They usually see me dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, sans make-up. Come on you two, William and Henry are in the playroom. I’ll bring you all supper once Rhona arrives.”

“Is the train set out?” Jeremy cautiously lowered his activity bag.

“It is.”

“Yay! Thank you Aunty Mary.” The two children ran down the familiar passage, calling to the boys long before they reached them.

“No wonder they’re dumbfounded Mary, you’re looking absolutely gorgeous tonight.” Nancy handed her friend a square parcel wrapped in white paper and bound with a dainty silver ribbon. “Oscar will be over soon with the sleeping bags. You know him, he’s still glued to his computer – says he’s checking through some last minute assignments that have come in.”

“Eric has been working through various thesis proposals too. I think the Academic Higher Degrees Committee meets later this week.”

Nancy hugged Mary. “At least you understand. Happy wedding anniversary by the way!” The two women headed for the kitchen, where Eric was opening a bottle of wine. “Happy anniversary, Eric.” Nancy kissed him lightly on the mouth. “Goodness, the place smells heavenly!”

“All thanks to my dear wife.” Eric looked past her. “Is Oscar here?”

“Still looking at assignments.” Nancy rolled her eyes. “I don’t know how you’ve lasted for fourteen years. I sometimes want to move a bed into Oscar’s study and lock him in there!” She laughingly accepted a glass of wine from Eric. “Bread and water only!” They clinked glasses. “He’s been up since four this morning.”

“Darling, I think I hear the Leonards arriving. Won’t you see them in while I plate the starters?” Mary reached up for a stack of small plates. “Oh gosh! That macaroni cheese needs to cool for the children!”

“I’ll sort their supper out, Mary. What’s it to be?”

“Macaroni cheese and then I’ve made a red jelly with purple custard – that was Henry’s request.” Mary moved to the front door. “Hello Rhona!” She took the little girl’s hand and led her down the passage. “Alice will be glad to see you.”

The kitchen was filled with visitors on her return. Peter thrust an enormous bouquet of flowers at her. “Happy anniversary Chicken,” he whispered in her ear. They had known each other since she had baulked at going down a slide at his eighth birthday party in the local park.

“Happy anniversary!” Sarah slopped wine onto the floor as she leaned forward to kiss Mary over the flowers. “Well done! Though why the women get gifts and not the husbands is beyond me,” she announced to the kitchen at large.

Mary lifted down a large vase for the flowers and turned to see Eric stealing a roast potato from the warming drawer of the oven. “Out with the lot of you,” she said firmly. “Eric’s already guzzling and I must plate the starters.”

Sarah pointed to some snacks and dips on the counter. “Are these to come through?”

“Please,” Mary smiled. “Eric should have placed them in the lounge earlier. She saw Nancy disappear with food for the children and turned her attention to unmoulding a miniature salmon mousse onto each plate she’d set out in a row.

“Need some help with those?” Mary turned sharply at the sound of Oscar’s voice.

“Can you put a wedge of lemon on each of these?” She leaned into his hug. “When did you arrive?”

“I’ve just brought the sleeping bags over.”

“A drink then?” Mary gestured toward the fridge. “The others are in the lounge.”

At last everyone was seated around the beautifully set dining room table. Eric kept the wine flowing and either Nancy or Sarah helped clear dishes and bring in other courses. Mary could feel herself relaxing. Everyone had laughed at Eric’s brief speech and were sharing anecdotes about when they had met each other. Good friends, good food, good wine, a lovely husband and two adorable sons. She was so fortunate, Mary mused while casting her eyes around the table. She halted at Oscar’s empty chair and looked at Nancy.

“Checking on the children,” she mouthed.

The dessert plates were empty; the banter was continuing; Peter had helped himself to a third serving, winking at Mary as he did so. “Sarah doesn’t give me pudding anymore, says it feeds my gut.” He patted his thickening waistline. “Nothing a good run won’t work off though.”

Oscar’s chair remained empty. Nancy simply smiled at Mary’s querying glances and continued chatting. She later reached across for his dessert and ate it absentmindedly whilst laughing at the flowing conversation. Mary served coffee in the lounge.

Eric was pouring liqueurs when Oscar appeared, accepted a glass and sat down next to Nancy. “The children are all fine.” He patted her knee reassuringly, quite oblivious to the tell-tale grid pattern of the playroom carpet and a pencil imprinted on his cheek.

Sarah almost choked on her coffee. “I see you are too!”

Oscar smiled at her over his coffee cup. “Very refreshed, thank you.”

Good food, good wine, and such good friends. Mary smiled at Eric as Nancy handed Oscar a dish of red jelly smothered with purple custard.

“Purple custard? What a magnificent end to a wonderful evening!” Oscar raised his spoon at the assembled company before tucking in.



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