A cold gust of wind blew along the street, bringing the last few wayward leaves to order. They scuttled into a corner near the ice-cream shop and crowded into a heap as though they were trying to keep warm. Nina kicked them gently with her worn ankle boots, an old childhood habit. She caught sight of her reflection in the window. Her slight figure and neat bob belied her years. She could have passed for a young girl. She sighed and dug her hands deep into her pockets to try and keep them warm. ,She had come out of the factory to do some quick Christmas shopping and hadn't realized how cold it was. The sky was ominously grey and the nearby mountains were no longer visible. Nina walked on to the new emporium that had just opened up, maybe she could get all her presents there. She passed the Florists and paused to admire the lavish display of Christmas compositions. The young girl Giada who worked there was putting some finishing touches to the display of holly and mistletoe centre pieces.
' Did you have a nice birthday? Did you like the roses? Your husband said he's been sending you roses for forty years now. I think it's so romantic.' Giada beamed.
'Oh yes they were beautiful. Thank you. I like the silver glitter too, makes them look very festive.'
Nina walked on thinking about the roses. She had never got over the disappointment of that day all those years ago, when she had just left school. Fulvio had arrived at her house with his small cinquecento overflowing with roses. He had bowed low in a dramatic gesture and told her they were for her and could he take her out. Her mother and sisters had gasped and simpered and ran to tell her father. It was only when they had been married some years that he admitted that the roses were in fact free. His friend Marco grew flowers for the local market and had given him the first crop which would otherwise have been thrown away.
Now every year on her birthday Nina reminded him of this. Yesterday when he came in with her birthday roses she had put them in a vase without looking at him and mumbled
'What's the use of all these roses, they only last a couple of days.'
She didn't see the hurt look on his face as he left the room.
Nina walked past the war memorial. It was covered with garlands and red ribbons, damp and faded now after the November commemoration service. She looked at the familiar surnames engraved on the stone. Most of the family names of her small Northern Italian town were written there. Her mother's brother and her father's cousins, her uncle's best friend, not one family had been untouched. The same names were above the shop fronts and on the local builder's and plumber's vans and in the classroom registers. They told a story of sacrifice and survival. This Winter the mountains would soon be dotted with colourful skiers who would drink mulled wine and hot chocolate when darkness fell, but a hundred years ago there was quite a different scene up there. The soldiers in their dugouts would have watched gun fire light up the moonlit sky and sat shivering and frightened in their greatcoats waiting for dawn.
Whenever Nina and her sisters had sulked or threw tantrums because their clothes weren't washed or their hair was a mess or their boyfriends had left to work in Milan, their mother would point to the war memorial and remind them of the sacrifice that had been made so they could be free.
Nina turned as someone called her name. It was her neighbour Sandra coming out of the perfume shop clutching a whole array of gift-wrapped parcels.
'Oh Nina how nice to see you out and about, have you got time for a coffee''
Nina smiled at her . She liked Sandra. She had been her eldest son's Italian teacher and had given reassurance and comfort when Nina had despaired of her son ever passing his exams. He was now a confident young man in charge of the commercial side of the business and a devoted husband and father, but it had been a hard struggle for Nina..
'Thank you Sandra, I'd love to, I'll do my shopping first though because I've only got an hour.'
?I'll be in the café in twenty minutes then,who gets there first can order.'
Sandra left behind a waft of perfume, she must have been trying the samples. Nina pulled a strand of hair under her nose to see if the minestrone smell had gone. She seemed to smell of vegetable soup all the time. She was forever making soups and stews in the little kitchen at the factory for her son and daughter and the grandchildren. Most days there were six or seven people sitting round the small table. Nina was so tired. She had too much to do. She was a mother, a grandmother, an accountant, a cook and a cleaner.She hadn't been on holiday with Fulvio for years. She couldn't think of the future. She tried to take one day at a time.
Nina went into the emporium with a heavy heart. She greeted the young Romanian girl, Dana, who was married to Giacomo, who worked in the factory.
There was a mirror above the till and for a moment Nina didn't recognize the woman who stared back at her. How had she got so old? Where had all the years gone? Deep furrows on her brow and at the sides of her mouth gave her a permanently anxious look. She felt drab and grey and colourless.
Dana smiled at her.
'What beautiful blue eyes you have got, you should wear blue to bring them out, we've got some new blouses in just the right shade, they're at the back on the left.'
'I've come to buy presents for other people no time to think of me.'
Nina then felt ashamed then at her dismissive tone. Dana was probably only trying to be kind. Giacomo was one of the best workers at the factory.
She went to the back of the shop to search for gifts. This year had been the worst ever for the factory. Her husband had struggled to keep his forty employees working seven days a week. He was determined not to let any of them down. The markets had changed so much. After the glorious sixties when their small region had exported as much as the whole of Greece, they were now having to compete with China and it seemed like a losing battle.
Nina stopped in front of some pretty red nighties with fur trim. There had never been anything like that in the shops when she was young and it was too late now. Fulvio was so tired in the evenings that he went to sleep on the sofa. She would find him in the morning with the television still on. She couldn't remember the last time that she had woken up to find his warm body pressed against hers.
Dana came up to her.
'Aren't they pretty? I've sent some home to my mother. You can be sort of Mother Christmas. There's one left in your size.'
Nina studied Dana's face. Was she making fun of her or did she really think she could wear one of those flimsy things? There was a strange flutter in her stomach at the thought. What would Fulvio say? She thought of the roses and wished she had shown some enthusiasm.
Dana was pulling out some boxes.
'Here we are, this is perfect for you. Turn the lights down low and put on some nice romantic music.'
Nina stopped herself laughing as she saw the expression on Dana's face. She really was serious. On an impulse Nina hugged her.
'Thank you Dana, I'll take one and a blue blouse too. I'll come back tomorrow for the presents.'
Dana gift- wrapped the red nightie saying it was her present to Nina. She knew it had been a hard year. Nina looked at herself in the mirror again. She couldn't stop smiling, was it her imagination or did she look younger, lighter. Her blue eyes shone brightly like a sudden patch of blue sky breaking through the clouds on a rainy day. As she crossed the square to meet Sandra she felt like a teenager planning a date for the evening. Maybe she could ask for some perfume samples.She imagined herself dancing with one of the roses between her teeth. It was as though something had opened up inside her letting in light and new possibilities.
She would still take each day as it comes, but today was going to be really special.