New Year's Day

If the first day of the year sets the pattern for the rest, then a hangover, a 5am alarm call and soured milk are certainly telling you something. But what? A short story by Fay Weldon

The phone rang and woke Clare. She reached over Alan's sleeping body to take the call.

"Your wake-up call," said the computer voice. "The time is 05 hours and 6 seconds."

"I didn't ask for a wake-up call," said Clare, but what use is it to protest to a disembodied voice? She replaced the phone. She did not wake Alan. Why be unkind? She loved him. They had not got to bed until past two, exhausted, the sound of "Auld Lang Syne" drifting up from the street outside. Three hours sleep.

She was headachy, and her skin itched where it touched Alan's. She must have drunk too much bad red wine. Last night they'd been to a party given by Alan's best friend Dave.

"I don't want to go," she'd said. "It will be terrible."

"It's the only one on offer," he'd said, "and we can hardly sit at home like your mother to see the New Year in."

Clare had been right. Dave and Dave's flat were designed for TV viewing and microwave cooking, not parties. All there'd been to do was drink. Too many of the guests were Amy's friends; they'd moved away when Clare approached. Amy had been invited, but had gone home at once when someone told her Clare was there with Alan. People were very strange. Amy was the one to have broken up the relationship; Amy had walked out on Alan, not the other way round. Why should Alan not bring his new partner along? Clare had no objection to Amy; she had nothing against her - she even thought she rather liked Amy's taste in mugs, plates, bed linen and so on. Why should Amy be upset? This was the end of the 20th century, people changed partners - it was a fact of life. Love ebbed and flowed; you went with the current.

Amy was pregnant but it was her own doing. Alan had made it clear from the beginning he didn't want to be a father. Amy had lost Alan's love, by trying to make him one. Love abhors a vacuum: Clare had replaced Amy in Alan's affections. It was natural and inevitable. Clare slept.

"Happy New Year!" said Alan. It was 10.15am. He'd brought up a breakfast tray. Coffee, milk, toast, butter, jam. She'd have to wean him off butter onto margarine. Amy, from the photographs Clare had found in the kitchen drawer, had been at least a stone overweight. Beach photographs: Amy in a bikini. You had to be very sure of love in the eye of the beholder if you were to trust yourself, a stone overweight, in a bikini, to a camera. Safer to lose weight.

Clare skimmed butter onto her toast. She put milk in the coffee. Drank. She felt her mouth puckering.

"This milk is sour," said Clare.

"It can't be," said Alan. "I got it from the doorstep only just now."

"It must have been there since yesterday," said Clare. "No one delivers milk on New Year's Day."

"I'm sure it wasn't there last night. I'd have noticed," said Alan.

Clare drank her coffee black. She told Alan about the 5am wake-up call. Alan said that sometimes did happen at the exchange, though rarely. You could get an impulse contact from adjacent wires and receive someone else's call. Since Alan worked for a telephone company, Clare supposed he knew what he was talking about. She was in PR herself, an altogether livelier occupation: all speculation, very little fact.

"An impulse contact," she said. "I suppose that's like a contact high in the drug world."

Alan laughed, but uneasily. She moved the tray off the bed and drew him down beside her. She thought he'd lived a sheltered life. She would re-educate him. He was only 30. He'd been with Amy for seven years. His love-making was remarkably enthusiastic and uncorrupt. Amy hadn't taught him much. In time, he would come round to wanting a baby. Since Clare was 32, she hoped it would be soon. Clare had had lovers but never lived with a man before.

She ought to say to him now, as they told you to in the magazines, touch me here and touch me there, but somehow she couldn't bring herself to do so. It was different if you knew a man was going home after breakfast; then such instructions didn't hang around the house to embarrass you. It seemed easier now just to pretend satisfaction.

The front doorbell rang. Clare put on a pink silk wrap Amy had left behind and went down to answer the door. It was the police. They said they'd had a report of noise and domestic violence from the house. Alan followed Clare down in his pyjamas: they made an obviously quiet and peaceable pair.

"But we had two phone calls allegedly from separate neighbours," the police said.

They made a few notes, a phone call or so on their mobiles. They had a dog with them, which squatted to make a long soft turd on the path.

"Someone fed her whisky last night," said the younger policeman. "This is always the worst weekend for practical jokes." They left.

"I hope this isn't going to be the pattern of the next year," said Clare, trying to find the wherewithal in Amy's cupboards to clean up the dog's mess. They weren't Amy's cupboards, technically, but Alan's. Alan and Amy hadn't married: Amy had moved in with Alan seven years back and had since been paying her share in food, petrol for the car, holidays, music and so forth. Amy worked as a librarian for the local authority. She didn't get paid much. Unless you had a child within a relationship, you had no rights as a common law wife. Alan didn't see why he should pay for a baby he had specifically asked someone - whom he wasn't even married to - not to have.

Clare found paper, knife, bucket, mop and so forth, and soon the path was clean again.

"Alan," said Clare, "you do seem to take it for granted that I'm the one to clean things up."

"Darling," said Alan, "you're right and I'm wrong. One of my New Year resolutions is to help more about the house."

They went back to bed. The telephone rang. When Clare picked it up, it went dead.

"Impact contact," said Alan. "It must be at the exchange."

"I suppose so," said Clare. "But a wake-up call at five in the morning, one sour bottle of milk on the step, two phone calls to the police? Do you think someone doesn't like us?"

"Can't think who," said Alan. It occurred to Clare that she'd paid for the taxi the night before. They hadn't gone in Alan's car because he hated the whole idea of designated drivers. Alan had patted his pockets and said, "No change. I hate carrying change." When she thought about it, Alan very seldom carried any change. His suits hung beautifully: they were expensive. The sheets beneath her were real linen: creamy white and a slightly roughish texture. Amy's choice.

"I suppose Amy will be coming back to collect her things," said Clare. "I'll be sorry to lose the sheets."

"Oh no, she won't," said Alan. "She came with a suitcase and left with a suitcase."

"Like I will?" Clare asked, sadly.

"You don't understand. I love you," he said, his long, lean, bare body close against hers. "I never really loved Amy. I mean to marry you." Clare felt great joy. She'd put her flat on the market the day he'd asked her to move in with him. The place had sold within the week, to everyone's surprise, for the asking price. No time for second thoughts. Once the mortgage was paid off, she'd even pocketed pounds 10,400. Now it sat in her bank. Ten years' worth of hard work, long hours, doing what you didn't really want.

"If I pay off your mortgage," she said to Alan, "we could put this place in our joint names."

"Don't talk about money," he said. "Talk about love. Don't think about mortgages, think about going to the Bahamas." She was ashamed of herself.

The smoke alarm went off. Clare went downstairs. The kitchen was full of smoke. Something was burning in the oven. It was a bread roll she'd forgotten to take out the night before. She'd cooked Alan coq au vin. A celebratory dinner. She'd slipped into the shops on the way home from the office, lugged everything home. How much had she spent on food? More than thirty quid. In two weeks, pounds 10,400 was already down to pounds 9,000 and something, one way and another.

The smoke alarm shrieked on. Clare held her nose and fetched the cindery black oval from the oven, using Amy's kitchen tongs. Stainless steel kitchen tongs! What a luxury. She dunked the crisp black thing under the tap, and it softened and smelled even worse.

Alan came down to the kitchen. He stood on a chair and took the battery from the alarm. The quiet was wonderful.

"You can get alarms you shut off from a switch on the wall," he said.

"Aren't they very expensive?" she asked.

"They're smart and good-looking," he said. "Quality's worth paying for. And standing on chairs is dangerous."

"I'll look out for one," she said. "But this is so spooky, I swear I turned the oven off last night." But when she looked, its little red light still glowed. She turned it off. "Amy could have got in," said Clare, "after she left the party. She could have turned the oven on. I expect she still has a key."

"I changed the locks," said Alan. "My, you are paranoid! You'd better clean the oven out really well, or the smell will linger. Of course, Amy could always get in the loo window, if she forgot her key. But I hate talking about Amy. She's gone, gone, gone. This is your place now."

"Shall we fix a day for the wedding?" she asked. He said he'd always wanted to get married in the summer. Perhaps when they went to the Bahamas, they could have a beach wedding.

Clare felt fidgety and irritated, short of sleep and hangovery. She ate a lot of toast and jam, she wasn't quite sure why, after she'd opened the front door and the windows and flapped away most of the burnt bread smell with Amy's apron. Alan buttered the toast for her, really thickly. It melted in and tasted delicious.

"Um, um, um," he said, "I love to see a woman eating."

Someone was coming up the stairs - a tall, lugubrious man with a cavernous face and a dark suit.

"The front door was open," he said, "so I came in. Where's the body?"

"Who are you?" asked Alan.

"I'm the undertaker," he said. "I had a call to say someone had died. I came right out. Always open for death, even on New Year's Day, that's me."

"A male or a female body?" asked Clare.

"That's a funny question," said Alan.

"Not to me," said Clare.

"A female," said the undertaker. "A young woman died from strangulation."

"It's a hoax," said Clare, feeling her neck. "You can see I'm alive. I must have an ill-wisher."

"It's New Year's Day, love," said the undertaker. "I expect this sort of thing on public holidays. It's the parties plus the hangovers. It turns people sour."

As he left, the undertaker pointed out that the metal No 6 on the door had fallen and was hanging from one nail, so it looked like a 9. They watched him go to the house across the road, the real No 9, and knock. The door was opened and he went in. There was a police car and an ambulance outside.

Later, Clare and Alan went for a walk in the park, holding hands. It was a beautiful winter's day, crisp and bright. The air was like nectar.

"We're so lucky to have each other," said Alan. "I have never been so happy in all my life. Let's just get to the top of the hill before we turn back."

But when they got to the top of the hill, it was only Alan who stopped: Clare unhooked her hand and found herself just going on walking. She walked and walked until she thought it was safe to look back, and Alan was a small, startled figure dwindling against a setting sun. After that, she went on walking, knowing what she was doing, all the way to her mother's, and never looked back once.

"My lucky day," said Clare to her mother, "New Year's Day. Thank you, God and thank you, Amy, for sending so much luck"

This story was originally commissioned for Radio 4's `Short Story' and will be broadcast on January 1st, 4.45pm

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