The night glitters with all the allure of a beautiful mermaid beckoning love sick sailors onto razor sharp rocks. Claire stands uncertain on the edge of the balcony, poised for a timeless moment between the cold hard pavement below and the soul sucking desperation of her gritty apartment. Her fists clenched tightly by her side, her body frozen as her mind whirrs on like a broken clock. Her eyes stare unseeing at the night sky. Her mind grasps anxiously at any thought, any thought at all, trying frantically to find a place where it all makes sense. Images, sounds and emotions fly across the movie screen in her mind, as she sorts through them, searching desperately for hope, for salvation. The door opens behind her and the depression stammers to a halt as a warm hand rests on her shoulders. “Come inside, hon” says a soft voice. “You oughtn’t to be standing outside on such a chilly night”. She sags into the warmth, into the humanness of another being. Not this night, then. The gods have sent her a reprieve. She turns blindly to her saviour. “I’m fine” she says shakily. The worried brown eyes that meet hers are full of doubt, but the mouth curves upward into a gracious smile. “I know you are, just it is cold out there. I got worried when you didn’t answer the door. I hope it is ok that I came in”. They move together back into the old apartment and she gazes around as if seeing it for the first time. The hungry desperation of poverty, the stale stink of old buildings and the rank, dank ugliness of it all. It hurts her to live in such a place. She adores beauty. She misses it so much in this place that has so little of it. She moves to the photographs to touch them and reassure herself that somewhere in the world, there exists loveliness. The pictures of her girls stare back at her, frozen in time and space, laughing eyes and mouths captured forever. This simple act of touching the frames seems to send strength into her body. She remembers why she waits here, what her purpose is. “Are they your daughters? Do you see much of them? ” She answers slowly, finding her voice sounds much stronger than she thought it would. The lie slips out easily “They will be here for Christmas, I can’t wait. I look forward to their visits very much.” “I am sure you do, dear. Now, would you like something to eat? I brought some sandwiches.” The Meals on Wheels lady unpacks her meals on the small, rickety table and sets them out on a pretty tablemat. “Here you are dear, I hope they are good.” She looks at them dubiously. She doesn’t want to offend this new Meals on Wheels lady, but she really doesn’t like sandwiches. She knows that she isn’t supposed to care about carbs at her age, but she despises the thick, doughy white bread and the carelessly made meat and cheese sandwiches. She knows that if she makes a fuss, it will only end up causing headaches, visits and concern. She carefully arranges a smile on her face as she sits down to eat. The new Meals on Wheels lady stands back and says cheerily, “Well, there you are then, dear. I have time for a cup of tea, if you want some company.” A little tendril of warmth sneaks into her heart. It has been months since someone sat down for a cup of tea with her. “I would like it” she says graciously. “Let me get it” the new woman says. “I brought some apple ginger teabags with me.” She bustles around the tiny kitchen area, plugging in the kettle, rattling the cups a little as she puts them down in their saucers and grasps the old teapot firmly by its finely carved handle. “What is your name?” she asks this new woman. She feels as though she is fighting to speak. Her throat is unaccustomed to talking. “I’m Darleen, dear. I just started today. What do you think of the sandwiches? Are they ok? Is it all right if I call you Claire?” She nods. It sounds odd to hear her name. She wonders when she heard it last. Darleen sits down with her, and they sip companionably on the tea. She likes the apple ginger flavour that Darleen has chosen. It brings back memories of days when she would stand in her old kitchen, sipping tea while baking for the children. Days long gone now. They chat, and Darleen tells her that she has just recently retired, and has started to volunteer because she wants to help people. Darleen pauses for a moment “After I stopped working, I felt pretty lost for a bit, but today I feel better. It feels good to be doing something again”. She admires Darleen’s attitude. It would be good to think of others. All too soon, the visit comes to an end. Darleen washes the dishes up and makes sure the towel is hung properly to dry. Claire appreciates these small things. She watches anxiously as Darleen turns to leave. “I’ll be back tomorrow” she says cheerily. “Would you like to turn the television on for you? X Factor is on.” “X Factor?” she says curiously, “What is that?” “Oh goodness, dear, you have to watch it. Let me find the channel for you and we can talk about it tomorrow. Here, you see, it is going to start in a few minutes.” Darleen bustles around again and gets the television going, the dishes are put away and the lights are all put on. Satisfied with her work, she nods briskly and helps Claire over to her favourite chair. “I’ll be back tomorrow, dear” she says comfortably. “Enjoy the show, and tell me what you think.” Claire nods, feeling a little bemused by the unexpected way this day has turned out. She watches as Darleen bundles up for the cold, and lets herself out the door with a cheery wave. She wonders when the lights were on last. She wonders how many evenings she has spent sitting in the dark, not thinking to turn the lights on. It feels different somehow, as though there were some new energy in the room. The dingy poverty of the room seems a little less shabby with light. She listens to the voices on the television, and despite herself, gets drawn into the drama as the contestants vie for a spot on the singing show. She doesn’t like some of the music, but their voices are good. She wonders which of the acts Darleen likes and tries to think of things to say for tomorrow. She wonders if she will remember the names of the singers the next day, and shakily writes them out on the blue notepaper beside the chair. The evening seems to go much faster than usual, and as she readies herself for bed, she realizes what a difference the small slice of human companionship has made. She lies in her hard narrow bed, thin quilt tucked tightly around her, listening to the noises of the night. The fall rains have started in earnest, and she hears the rattling noise as the water hits the balcony railing. She has always liked the rain, though it can be very inconvenient. She hears the hum of the small, elderly fridge as it turns on and off. Voices can be heard occasionally, muffled through the walls of the apartment. The clock on the bedroom table glows with its mysterious blue green light, silently marking the passing of time. Her eyes grow heavy and she slips quietly into slumber, a faint smile curving the corners of her lips. Morning brings rays of sunshine pattering across the quilt, as the leaves from the old maple tree sway a little in the morning breeze. She gets out of bed, wincing a little as her feet come into contact with the wooden floor. She really should get a bedside rug. The floors are so cold in the morning. She feels around with her feet for the old white slippers hidden under the bed. Once she is up, she looks over at the window. She hasn’t opened it in months, but today, she decides to open it and let some of the fall air in. It takes a little effort, but she manages it at last. The window slides open and a rush of chilly fresh air enters the room like an impish child. She actually laughs a little at this unexpected delight of actually breathing in clean smelling air. She stands, looking out the window, at the people below. Dozens of people are going about their business, to and fro, to work, to school, taking dogs and babies for walks, getting groceries, talking on cell phones, jogging and all manner of activities. She feels as though she has been locked away in a tower for a long time. She watches all the activity and feels a stirring of emotion in her chest. It feels good. It feels good to watch the world with interest. She putters over to the closet and surveys her clothing. She wants something special to wear today. She wonders what she should wear – the blue dress, or perhaps the black and white one? Maybe a dress is too formal for the occasion, though she does feel like being dressed up. She fingers the navy pants and notices how worn they are. Not them, then. She finds her black dress pants, and a light blue blouse. She knows that she looks good in blue. She daintily steps into the shower and takes her time. She carefully soaps her body, reflecting on the changes that time has made. Once out, she wraps her hair in a turban, like she used to do in the old days. She sits at her dressing table and shakes out her makeup bag. The remnants of her makeup are old and caked, but she uses a little water to refresh, and carefully applies a little foundation to her wrinkly skin. She is not displeased with the results, and goes on to add a tiny bit of blush, and a little pink lipstick. She laughs a little at herself, getting so excited for a visitor, but it feels good. It feels good to care about what she is wearing, and how she is looking. She puts on some of the eyeliner, not too much. She doesn’t want to look like a clown. She adds a tiny bit of mascara, feeling a little daring as she does so. Then she gets started on her hair. As she brushes it out, she reflects that her hair used to be her pride and joy. It has been cut and coloured many times over the years. When she was younger, men used to comment on the beauty and strength of her hair. She admits that she was vain about it. She was saddened to see it start thinning as she got older. And when the hairdresser starting making hints about going shorter, she knew he was thinking, because older women don’t look good with long hair. She knew it, though she didn’t want to admit it. The day that he finally talked her into getting it cut short, she thanked him prettily, assured him that she loved it, then walked home crying all the way. She never went back. She looks at her reflection in the discoloured mirror, and thinks that she hasn’t done too bad a job. She knows that she looks prettier. She is glad that she has made the effort to freshen herself up. What had Darleen thought of her, sitting there like a lump on a log. Well, today will be different. She moves around the apartment, fussing with the ornaments and straightening the pictures. She even decides to do a little dusting, and gets the cleaners out from under the sink. She is careful around the photographs. It would be terrible if they broke. This newfound energy gets her thinking about the days when she used to always offer her company a little something to eat. She knows there isn’t much in the cupboards, the rent, utilities and Meals on Wheels payments take up much of her small pension, but there are still some forlorn groceries. She looks through the cupboards and is pleased to see that there is a little flour and some sugar. She knows that there are eggs and margarine in the fridge. Margarine. She remembers the days when she would never have cooked with margarine. Only butter. Well, it can’t be helped. She discovers some cornstarch and a few other items and knows that she has enough to make some shortbread cookies. Darleen would love to taste her shortbread. She has been told that she makes the best shortbread ever. She isn’t really supposed to be baking, but she knows that she will remember to turn the oven off this time. She gets the ingredients ready, and turns the television on while she mixes everything together. The television does help. She hasn’t had it on for a long time, but the voices are cheery and she watches the news with interest. She puts the dough into the fridge to chill and watches a talk show. One of the guests talks about the importance of hope. She leaves the show to put the cookies in the oven. Her oven is small, so it takes awhile to get all the cookies done. Her wrists ache from the unaccustomed work of lifting the cookie sheets in and out of the oven. When she is finished, the house smells amazing. The fresh baked smell of cookies overwhelms the odour of poverty. She wishes she had some flowers for the table, to make it look a little more festive. It is getting close to time for Darleen to arrive. She doesn’t want her to see the kitchen in a mess, so she hurriedly washes the dishes up and puts them away. She glances in the mirror and sees that she is a little warm looking. She freshens up in the bathroom, and touches up her lips. She returns to the kitchen and moves around, making it look nice for Darleen. She puts the kettle on to boil, and gets out her special chinaware cups for tea. She picks over her few remaining tea bags, and decides to use the lemon zinger. She thinks that Darleen will appreciate the flavour. She places the cookies carefully on the plate, and debates where to put it for best effect. She finally determines that the table is the best place. She remembers that she needs to make sure the oven is off. She doesn’t want Darleen to be worried that she is cooking. She gives one last glance around the apartment – it is clean, there is the fresh smell of cookies in the air and she knows that she looks good. She settles down in the living room chair to wait for the knock on the door. Hours later, she moves stiffly in the chair, hearing a light knock on the door. Finally! She walks wearily, yet excitedly to the door and opens it, wondering what has happened. No one is there. She looks down at her feet. There must be a new Meals on Wheels person. The congealed meal is sitting on a plate outside her door, the cover lying a little ajar. There is no one in sight. The night still glitters with all the allure of a beautiful mermaid beckoning love sick sailors onto razor sharp rocks. Claire stands uncertain on the edge of the balcony, her momentary reprieve gone, poised for a timeless moment between the cold hard pavement below and the soul sucking desperation of her gritty apartment. Images, sounds and emotions fly across the movie screen in her mind, as she sorts through them, searching desperately for hope, for salvation, for the strength to go on for just one more day.