By Elodie Barnes-
It was their mother’s sixtieth birthday. As children, neither of them had ever dreamed of their mother being sixty. It was an age reserved for grandparents, and yet there was the cake with its six-zero candle on top. There were the cards, covering every available surface with “60 today!” in glitter and sparkle. There were the garlands that had yet to be hung, and the sandwiches that were still being made, and the scones that needed precisely twelve minutes in an oven heated to two hundred and twenty degrees, and the fifty guests who would be arriving in precisely two hours. There were no flowers. The flowers hadn’t yet arrived. Their mother said that she would go and fetch them herself, just like Mrs Dalloway; she had always fancied herself as the very respectable middle-class hostess-of-the-novel, but Emily had other plans. “Don’t be silly, mother,” she said soothingly. “Norah can go, can’t you?” Norah looked up from the slice of bread she was buttering. All the way to the edges. Their mother was very particular about butter all the way to the edges; dry crusts were an abomination, even if they were destined to be cut off and fed to the birds. “I’m sure they’ll turn up. They’re only fifteen minutes late, they’re probably caught in traffic.” She ignored the tightening of her mother’s lips, the similar pursing of her sister’s mouth. She continued buttering bread, placing delicate slices of smoked salmon on top, topping those with skinned slivers of cucumber cut so finely that she could see through them. Emily, of course, had taken charge of those. She would never have entrusted Norah with something so precise. When she reached the end of the loaf of bread, she put the butter knife down and stood up. She could only hold out for so long these days, and she wasn’t sure when it had changed. “I’ll call them.” When she returned to the kitchen, her mother and sister had moved on to the salad. More slices of cucumber. Tomatoes, perfectly shaped and jewelled like pomegranates. Radishes with their pungent heat sliced open, pink skins flaring to white. Her mother’s knife and her sister’s knife moved in synchronised motion, just like their days, just like their lives since Emily had moved back home. The decision had tied one so intimately to the other that Norah doubted her sister had even noticed how she chopped the salad exactly the same way as their mother, how her crow’s feet nestled in exactly the same place, how her voice had adjusted its timbre to fit their mother’s age-lightened tone. “They’re on their way,” she said, hiding the I-told-you-so in a reassuring smile. “They’ll be here within an hour.” “I thought so,” Emily said placidly, and reached for a tomato. Norah’s sandwiches had been cut into neat triangles and lined up on a large platter, the blue-and-cream china pattern obscured by rows and rows of white and pink and watery green. Her knife had disappeared to be washed. There was no more bread. Her sister and mother were both slicing tomatoes horizontally, not vertically, so that the patterns of seeds spread out like stars. She looked down at her own hands. Pale skin stretched over light blue veins, the same shades as the two women opposite her, but she would never have sliced tomatoes like that. “Could you start on the fruit, Norah?” It wasn’t a question, and there was no answer except yes. She went to the fridge and retrieved the strawberries. There were figs too, and grapes, and raspberries to be served with thick clotted cream. Behind them languished a mango, old and imperfect, a remarkable feat of survival in a kitchen where both her mother and sister cleared out the fridge at least weekly. When she touched it, she felt the pattern of wrinkles on its skin. Flesh yielded under her fingers. She brought it out too, balanced on top of the strawberries, and Emily shook her head. “Not that. Bin it. I meant to do it the other day.” “I’ll eat it,” Norah said, and her sister gave her a look that she ignored. She took another knife and began to hull and halve the strawberries. Each stalk came away with a soft twist, leaving a fissure, a crack in the fruit that she carefully stretched with the knife until the whole thing fell apart. Opposite, her mother and sister now shared a bowl of cold potatoes. They were to be mixed for potato salad, and there was no need for either of them to give instructions to the other. Each potato was carefully peeled, cubed, tossed with herbs and capers and mayonnaise in the recipe that had dubious origins - her mother, or Emily? - and that Norah had never particularly liked. She ignored the peppery smell and carried on working her way through the mound of strawberries, her fingers gradually staining red. She wanted to lick them, to taste some of the sweet blood; the perfect cubes of beige potato made her want to turn feral. But her sister would notice, would comment on it, would remind her sharply that they were catering for guests. Never mind that of course she would wash her hands before plunging them back into the fruit. Licking fingers was for children. Even Emily had done it once, but Emily had grown up.
Once the fruit was done and the potatoes were done and the scones had been baked for precisely twelve minutes in an oven heated to two hundred and twenty degrees and then laid out on the cooling rack, Norah took the mango and slipped out of the kitchen. Emily had said that she would take charge of the flowers. When she asked where Norah was going, Norah replied, “to the roof, as usual,” and Emily face pursed in disapproval. As children, they had often climbed into the loft, seeking out the hatch door that would lead them out into the forbidden world of slate and chimney pots, of sky and sun and cloud, where the house and all its tensions were left far below in the gutters and they felt like walking clichés up among the stars. Neither of them had ever felt afraid of the three-storey drop. They never even considered it. Now, though, Norah knew what Emily’s little frown meant. Her sister wouldn’t come with her to the roof this time. Her sister had become responsible, and her sister thought about what would happen if they fell. Rooftops stretched out in layers before her, one seeming to curve over another. She sat down where she always used to sit, near the edge, on the gentle slope of the attic with her feet propped against a chimney pot, and cradled the mango in both hands. The sun shone in her eyes, flashing red and orange around the corners of her vision; when a cloud briefly dimmed the light it was like plunging into a cool bath. She hadn’t brought a knife. Instead she pushed her thumbnail hard into the fruit, and felt skin give way to flesh. It came away bit by bit in her fingers, leaving an uneven oval behind that was pockmarked with the crescents of her nails and fingertips. Trails of juice dripped down her hands. Norah didn’t care. Perfection belonged downstairs, under the gaze of her mother and her sister. Only on the roof could she peel and eat a mango with her fingers. It was sweet and overripe, a deep yellow that mimicked summer. Slippery flesh made it hard to hold. She balanced delicate mouthfuls of it on her tongue, and she let the sugar dissolve before tearing the pulp with her teeth. She smeared the stickiness over her lips, gnawing the stone one end at a time. She hadn’t even brought a tissue. Her hands and mouth and chin glistened with dried sweetness, and she imagined crystals forming in the afternoon light, a glass-spun glaze of sugar that would eventually crack like the top on a crème brûlée when she greeted one of her mother’s guests. She smiled in perverse pleasure at the thought of their faces. The flowers had arrived. She could see the van, the bouquets, each individual bloom that Emily had carefully selected. She wanted to bring them up here and shred them, petal by petal. She wanted to toss them into the air, to watch the pale peaches and pinks and creams twist and swirl on invisible currents before falling on the roof and on the ground. She wanted her sister to take half, to shriek with laughter as it rained flowers like confetti and they drenched themselves in colour. She wanted to feed her sister handfuls of mango, but there was no mango left and she tossed the heavy stone across the roof. Emily was by the gate inspecting the flowers. Despite her sister’s insistence that she would handle it, Norah knew that any moment she would be called; a request would be directed towards the roof and she would be expected to heed it, to hear and obey immediately. Emily looked up in the direction of her chimney pot, and Norah thought she saw a vague look of longing cross her sister’s face. It was there and then it was gone; a lingering yearning for forbidden fruit, the petal from a rose, the echo of a time when it was them against the world. “Norah? Can you come and help, please?” She turned and went back through the hatch door, sinking all the way back to the ground. The roof clung to her. She stood in the open front door and licked her fingers, tasting the still-sharp sweetness of the mango, and watched as Emily hovered. The remnants of the fruit drew her sister, but her sister had also grown up enough not to listen to siren calls anymore. It was at least a minute before Emily spoke, and she sensed their mother’s presence in the words more than ever. “Clean yourself up. And then take these inside. People will be arriving soon, and I want everything to be perfect.” She thought about saying no. She thought about simply leaving; after all, she wasn’t perfect. She never had been and she never would be and both Emily and their mother knew it too, but the look on her sister’s face reminded her that it was their mother’s sixtieth birthday and implored her to pretend. She smiled, and took the flowers from Emily’s hand. A practised smile, a perfect smile. Just for today.
Elodie Barnes is a writer and editor. Her short fiction has been widely published online,and is included in the Best Small Fictions 2022 Anthology published by Sonder Press. She is Books & Creative Writing Editor at Lucy Writers Platform, where she is also co-facilitating What the Water Gave Us, an Arts Council England-funded anthology of emerging women and non-binary writers from migrant backgrounds. She is currently working on a collection of short stories. Find her online at elodierosebarnes.weebly.com.