By Anne Dorrian -
Maria puts the key in the lock like an expert defusing an explosive device. Now that Francesca is dead it's unclear what the rules are, so she opens the door and pushes aside a pile of letters as if she were crossing enemy lines. The hall smells of stale potpourri. It's unsettling. She takes her coat off and catches sight of herself in the gilded mirror. She looks thinner. Grief is a great appetite suppressant.
The last person to look into that mirror was Francesca. When she last left that house she was alive, if not in very good shape, and now she is dead. Death felled her as if she were a brittle tree. Maria wants her to say Come in! It's alright, you're not intruding but there is only silence. Maria wants her to say Look at your our hair, carissima, you need some rollers! Don't let your hair go flat. But of course Maria's hair is no longer of any concern to Francesca.
Francis is no help. He is a big, heaving mess of tears and snot. Maria tows him inside where he collapses on the sofa, upsetting the cushions. Francesca would have had something to say about that. Francis was Francesca's only child. She had him late in life and loved him fiercely, her treasured son. With his mother dead, Francis is devastated, incapacitated by grief. For fifty years his mother ran his life. He is rudderless now.
"Just sit." Maria tells him "I'll get you a cup of tea."
Francis' big shoulders sag. His jowls do too. Grief has made everything about his body that was solid melt. The big man is like an iceberg in the sun.
"You are not a boy anymore." Maria wants to tell him "You're in your fifties. You have fathered children, you are my husband. Yes, your mother is dead, but your children have lost their grandmother. Pull yourself together." It would be no use though. He needs comforting. He is a heap in the middle of Francesca's gold and beige striped sofa, intermittently shaking with sobs. A part of Maria is annoyed with him, but another, bigger part of her knows that it is his softness, that has made him such a kind companion all these years and such a patient father. So, instead of telling him to get it together, she gently puts a hand on his quivering back.
Across the sitting room, Francesca's collection of harlequins are lined up in their glass display case, white faced and mute, watching them. The blue one with the pointy hat was a present Maria brought back from their honeymoon. Its arched eyebrows lend its vacant expression an air of astonishment. Where will they all go, Maria wonders. A skip? The very thought hurts. She goes into the kitchen and clicks on the kettle.
She runs a hand over the marble counter. Pristine. There are many thing she should be remembering about Francesca right now: her hugs (warm and a bit tight), her smell (violets and cigarettes), the way she did her hair (wavy bob like a young Sophia Loren). But there's only memory that Maria can think about. It's stuck in her head like a catchy song off the radio: the image of Francesca, wrapped in a pink dress, head turned to one side, casually flicking ash from her slimline cigarette and saying: "Maria, you don't scrimp on a wedding cake." She had a way of turning her head to always show her best side. She would sit poised, majestically, one lacquered finger always ready to wag. It makes Maria want to laugh. In fact, it makes her want to laugh so bad that she has a hard time keeping a straight face.
It's all wrong. You don't laugh when your mother in law just died and you are standing in her kitchen making tea. Not unless you're a terrible, terrible person. And so Maria fights to keep on her sad face. And yet. She can't stop thinking of Francesca, holding forth on how you simply don't scrimp on a wedding cake. There's Francesca's austere profile, her Roman nose, her thin fingers picking up a fork with a morsel of wedding cake, the ashes of her cigarette still smouldering. Cigarettes, according to Francesca, are a great appetite suppressant.
Before the wedding, the two of them, bride and mother in law, visited one bakery after another for wedding cake sampling. Maria can still sense it now: the tinkling of the bell when they entered yet another pastel coloured patisserie, the scent of warm cake and vanilla, the swirls of buttercream, the candied petals, the molded fondant and the rouched icing. Francesca, who – by her own account – had "an appetite like a sparrow" would push a fork into a slice, break off a small piece and place the prongs of the fork that were holding the cake in in her mouth, using her teeth to draw the morsel of cake into it, delicately, deliberately like putting the pin back into a grenade. Maria would put a fork into a slice and get a good chunk, closing her lips around it, savouring the cake, letting it take over all her senses. Francesca meanwhile would drag on her cigarette and drop ash on the plate.
"We are here to taste, not to eat, Maria," she would chide.
Maria, plump and pretty as a peony blossom would swallow quickly and push the plate away. She was a blushing bride, literally; painfully shy and self-conscious.
"You need a big wedding dress with big sparkle!" Francesca said "A big dress for a big girl. You can't hide on your wedding day." Francesca's arched eyebrows provided the correct punctuation to her every pronouncement. And so the biggest, sparkliest dress they could find was bought; one, that Maria felt would eclipse her completely. It allowed her to hide in plain sight, like bridal camouflage. In this dress she married Francis, pink-faced, kind-hearted Francis.
Thirty years ago, thinks Maria, her hand still resting on Francesca's kitchen counter. The neatly arranged utensils, the kitchen clock with a picture of the Pope; these things now surround a Francesca-shaped void. Maria would never have touched that kettle while Francesca was alive. Francesca would have made the tea. "Sit" she would say "Sit. Let me do it" if anyone so much as lifted a finger in her house. Both a blessing and a curse, Francesca did everything. Dicing onions for the lasagne? "Ah you did big chunks. No good. Here, let me-" Beating egg whites for a Tiramisu? "There's an art to it. It's difficult. Let me do it right." Hanging the washing? "Sit! I'll do it. You're putting the pegs in all the wrong places." And she would rearrange all the pegs, a cigarette elegantly balancing on her bottom lip like a tightrope walker.
Now Maria is in charge: Francesca's funeral, Francesca's wake, Francesca's ashes. Maria must decide everything for Francesca. And today she is to decide what Francesca will wear. She must pick an outfit for her funeral. It feels far too intimate to Maria, as if she was going to enter the very core of Francesca, her wardrobe.
The kettle boils. Maria takes the tea through to the sitting room. She hands Francis the cup and a packet of chocolate biscuits. She watches him wipe his eyes and take the mug and bite into a biscuit, chewing between sobs. She watches as the crumbs on his chin mix with the tears. How could she not love him?
"I'm going up to the bedroom now." she says. He nods.
"Try not to get any crumbs-" she trails off. What's the point now?
She makes herself go up the beige-carpeted stairs. Upstairs, in the bedroom Francesca's scent lingers. The bed is made, there is a lilac satin throw over it. On the dresser is more pot pourri and the pictures of the grandchildren, all lined up. When they had the children Francesca's body became a marvel to her. She went from timid bride to proud mother. It amazed her that she could do such a thing as grow a baby, bring forth a whole little human. It was a marvel to Maria. Those were happy times. Francis' pride in his growing family, in their fecundity made the love between grow large and they revelled in what it brought forth.
It was Francesca who told her that she had ballooned when Maria felt that she had simply blossomed and borne fruit. Francesca helped with the children, helped with everything, but she also told Maria about other women who fit into their jeans right after leaving the maternity ward. She told her who had lost weight quickly and who hadn't. And Maria definitely hadn't. For the first few years, Maria let it slide but Francesca didn't let up. She left leaflets from slimming clubs around the house. She invited Maria to her exercise classes. She gave Maria low-calorie receipes. Slowly it took over Maria's head. She began to see herself differently. She began to see the rolls of fat, the stretched skin. She began to see how big her belly still was, years after giving birth. Once, someone offered her a seat on the bus. Another time her doctor ummed and ahhed over her blood pressure.
And so, eventually, Francesca picked up a leaflet. She started with Weight Watchers, then exercise. The weight came off, quickly at first, then more slowly. She made lovely salads and vegetable stews. She got the kids to eat healthy too. It became a point of pride. Francesca looked on approvingly. Maria knew that Francis ate takeaways and biscuits at work but let it slide. He was a big man, that's how she married him, that's how he would stay. But Maria changed. After three years she did one of those before-and-after shoots and Weight Watchers circulated her success story. She lost the weight and she kept it off. Everyone told her how good she looked.
The problem was that she did not recognise herself. She was able to wear slim jeans now and crisp white shirts which she would tuck into the jeans. She wore skirts that stopped above the knee and figure hugging tops. She felt lighter on her feet. She also felt invisible. All her life she had tried to hide because of her size and now that she was small she felt truly unseen. "There's nothing to you!" people would say and mean it as a compliment. Like this was what you wanted. "You're a slip of a thing!" they'd say and expect her to love it. Maria felt, more than ever that nothing fitted her, even though most things did – technically. She missed the softness of her body, she missed the space it took up. She missed the floaty black skirts and the wide tops and the big earrings she used to wear for a pop of colour. All of it would have looked ridiculous on her now. But Francesca cooed over her. She bought her clothes and jewellery and compared her favourably to other women. She gossiped about fat neighbours. And all the while Francis stayed as he was. Their lovemaking had become less joyous. Francis was always tired and Maria felt ashamed of the loose skin around her belly. Francis moved to the spare room. It seemed easier somehow.
And now Francesca is dead. Maria's loose skin to hangs off her belly more than ever. Grief is a great appetite suppressant. She closes her eyes, breathes in the scents in the bedroom. Violet with a trace of nicotine. Pot Pourri. Fresh laundry. Maria opens the wardrobe. Here are Francesca's dresses, lined up like showdancers, colourful and promising. It's a big wardrobe. There are hats and fur stoles and an old mink coat. She goes through the dresses, one by one, feeling the material between her fingers, guessing the occasion. Some of them she remembers: a lovely gold brocade one from Christmas, a purple taffeta one from a christening. And here is the pink wrap-dress from the cake-tasting. Others, less eye-catching ones, remind her of the everyday Francesca. The Francesca who made dinner while Maria tended to a newborn. The Francesca who got all the children to sit up straight at the dinner table, their partings neat and their noses wiped. Francesca who has folded all the laundry and tells Maria it's time for a Prosecco. Maria works her way through the wardrobe. One after another, flowery, plain, beaded, chequered. As she does so, the dresses get older. Here are some that Maria has never seen her mother in law wear. They are big. In fact, the further back she goes, the bigger the dresses. She rifles through them, going back further and further. She rifles frantically now and finds that all the dresses at the back are large, very large. These are old dresses, long out of fashion. Francesca must have worn them as a young woman, before she had Francis. Maria's hands shake as she pulls them out. They are big as tents and flowing, no waistlines, no structure. And suddenly Francesca starts to laugh. She laughs and laughs and she pulls out all the large dresses and arranges them on the bed. Here is Francesca she thinks in all her glory. Here is the Francesca who didn't have an appetite like a sparrow. Maria can't help it. She laughs and laughs until tears roll down her face. Big, fat tears for the woman who said that you don't scrimp on a wedding cake.
When Maria comes downstairs, Francis sits up.
"Are you alright?" he asks.
"Yes, fine." Maria smiles.
"I could hear you. You sounded like-" he trails off.
"I'm alright," she says "Look! I think she would have liked this one." She shows him the pink wrap-dress, the cake-tasting dress.
"That's a good one," he says "She always liked how slim she looked in it. Can we go home now?"
"In just a minute. I have to call the caterer first."
"A cake?" the man sounds puzzled "for a wake?" She can almost hear him scratching his head, standing by the phone in his chef's whites with the sleeves rolled up.
"Yes," Maria says "A cake for a wake."
"Right-o. If you say so. Customer is king an' all that. What kind?"
"A chocolate one. Dark. Make it a rich one."
"I could put a chocolate ganache in. Some cherries on top maybe?"
"Sounds good. Go all out, put some chocolate icing on top too. I'm not going to scrimp on cake."
Francis is waiting in the driveway.
"Finally," he says.
"Alright, let's go," she says "And let's get something to eat. I'm starving." She thinks about the chocolate cake, which she will eat in big forkfuls and which will make the folds of skin on her belly fill out.
When they get home, with their bellies full, she asks Francis if he would like to sleep in the big bed with her and he says yes and she holds him all night long while he cries for the loss of his mother and the beginning of a new life.
Anne Dorrian is an emerging writer who grew up in Oxford and now lives in Germany. She is currently working on her first novel.