I’m baking a cake, a well-mixed paste of carefully measured amounts of flour, eggs, oil, sugar, banana, baking powder and a pinch of cinnamon, ready to go in the oven for 45 minutes, when she knocks on the door. I think of taking my apron off, but I decide not to. It’s cute, with birds frolicking in a pink world. I look like an unusually traditional woman for our time, I feel. A woman. A kitchen. An apron. A cake. Pink. But I feel something perverse, almost noble, in quietly subverting these clichés still viciously clinging to these symbols.
She’s tipsy, glowing with excitement. She usually drops in before Dave gets back from work, has a drink or two, then heads out for the night. She dresses with care, always something different about her outfit or makeup, wearing strong bittersweet perfume, more commonly worn by older women. Women around my age. Late forties.
Her embrace, surprisingly, manages to be both soft and intense at the same time. Her arms are strong, supple, tense, but her body and skin are soft against mine. We squeeze each other firmly, imagining that this was all we needed. Or at least, I do.
I take out the bottle of Chardonnay that I’d put in the fridge earlier. Two empty glasses, waiting for an hour. She’s wearing deep purple lipstick, and her eyes are watery. Just the way they always are, ready to pour out tears. Most of the time, they project confidence, a seemingly uncanny acceptance of the always beautiful yet damaging opportunities of life. Hovering on the edge of a moment when life is offered over death. Crying out to release an overwhelming excitement. And, of course, sometimes just tears, the usual tears of pain. Painful to witness, at least.
We say cheers, smiling. She is chatting passionately, flitting from subject to subject. She doesn’t ask about the article I’d sent to the Guardian. It was about the ‘Me Too’ campaign and I’d thought she’d be interested. She forgets to ask me about it. I’m not surprised, but I thought she might have remembered. Instead, she tells me about some new boy she’s seeing. He’s a bit short, and not exactly the smartest, but God, what muscles, she whispers joyously, conspiratorially. I change the subject, perhaps a little too bluntly. She notices.
She tells me that has an hour to spare, if I need help setting the table or anything for the party. Everything’s ready. I just need to decide where to put the flowers I bought from the market earlier. I put them all in a big vase this morning, still wrapped and squashed, waiting to be arranged. She takes the whole batch, holds it in the sink and takes a good look at it. She removes the wrapping and rearranges some leaves and flowers, hidden or flattened. She splashes them with water, then lays them on the kitchen counter. She asks for a pair of scissors. “I think they look beautiful just the way they are. Tall and uneven. I wouldn’t cut them short,” I say. “Oh and by the way, the Guardian hasn’t got back to me yet. They’re probably receiving hundreds of articles a day on the issue.”
She’s facing the sink, playing with the flowers, and I notice she pauses for a second.
“Oh yeah, I was going to ask. They’re idiots if they don’t publish it!”
I give her the three best vases, before going down to the cellar to make sure it’s tidy enough. Dave always boasted about the cellar. He’d plastered the walls himself, creating a damp-proof space which had added thousands of pounds to the value of the flat. It wasn’t completely damp-proof, though, and little bits of mould were creeping in through the corners, especially behind the wine-rack. It was full of old things I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of – wetsuits, hiking boots, university books and clothes that had gone out of style. It had lately acquired a mini-fridge, a broken hoover, as well as the usual tools and dried-up paint buckets.
The light switch is on the wall next to the staircase going down. As soon as I turn it on, the bulb blows.
Hana shouts down, “What’s your password? I want to put some music on.”
In the cellar, I realise how stressed and nervous I am. The university crowd, most of them at least, back together after about 15 years. Coming to the house we’d bought five years ago, some of them meeting Dave for the first time. Anybody who got to know Dave liked him, but not at once. He could come across as snobbish and unfriendly, but he softened up over time.
Hana is singing along to Billie Holiday’s ‘Love is Here to Stay’, and I can hear her footsteps, precise but light. The steps of one who knows rhythm and harmony.
I’m standing in the middle of the dark, damp cellar, and suddenly, it’s clear. I’m not worried about Dave or the damp or the party itself. It’s the thought of Matthew. Was it the right thing to invite him? His divorce had been messy, apparently.
Matthew used to play this song in the car. It was about twenty years ago when he’d opened the door to the pub at the top of my street, The Railway Tavern, rushed in, snowflakes clinging onto his hair and coat. He fixed his eyes on me. “Marry me Jane, marry me!”
He looked like a madman. People were staring. Not what you’d expect at a marriage proposal. There was something worrying about him. I’d sat him down, smiled nervously and said, “Don’t be silly, Matthew. Let’s talk.”
I wish I’d sat him down next to me and drawn his head onto my chest. I wish I’d kissed his beautiful face, embraced his vulnerable obsession. At that moment, he was the most genuine thing he could ever be.
It was summer when we’d driven out to his hometown together for the first time, where he’d put in an offer for a summer house that he’d had an eye on for a long time. He wanted my approval. A three-storey converted chapel in the middle of a small town, or more like a village, with five bedrooms and high ceilings, a large, open-plan living area, looking out over the lake and the mountains. A dream.
I’d chosen the loft as my study and we discussed the furniture, wood burner and what we could do with the garden and the patio. At night, there would be a fire, lovingly made food, and silence.
The music stops, and I hear Dave’s footsteps through the thin floorboards. Heavy, tired steps. He shouts down, “You ok in there?”
Everyone is on time but Matthew. An hour late, he arrives looking jolly. There is nothing awkward, or maybe I’m drunk enough to cope with it, or drunk enough not to notice. Everyone welcomes him with exaggerated friendliness, commenting on his neat haircut and smart clothes.
“Look at him! Our city man, bossing the stock market, and looking great!”, Ali says while greeting him.
Matthew smiles at me uncertainly before I say, “I’m so glad you came.” I consider telling him that I’ve missed him, but think better of it.
Dave passes a glass of champagne to Matthew and says, “Good to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
An hour later and everyone is sat by the dining table, while I’m rummaging through the fridge and the cupboards, not knowing what I’m looking for. I open each door, look inside and pause. I wait for a steady, still, calm moment, before returning to the table. A pain, throbbing behind my eyes, tells me I look red-faced and puffy. Unsteady and tired. The sight of me, the sight of the new me, has disappointed them. Signs of ageing always disappoint. Not Dave. Not him. No. But what about Matthew? I wish I could go out for a cigarette without anyone noticing.
Soon, I’m distracted by the praise and delighted expressions as they taste the food. How ‘divine’ it is, as Jess puts it. I smile at my guests, not to them. It’s true – it’s not that difficult to distract me anymore. Or to please or upset me. I swallow, fake a smile, taste its bitterness.
Half an hour passes. Matthew’s talking about the new government policies on Brexit. He mentions ‘great opportunities’ and ‘safe borders.’ Ali lowers his eyes and sips at the red wine he hasn’t touched since dinner. I look at Dave and see his eyebrows twitch.
Before I know it, I’m saying, “Come on, Matthew! Let’s not get political tonight.” My voice is shaking slightly.
I laugh nervously. “This reminds me of the old days. Remember? Always debating stuff… endlessly.” Awkward laughs and a series of weary “yeah”s come from around the table.
It wasn’t long before we’d broken up. The chapel hadn’t been a success. I wouldn’t leave my job. He’d refused to succumb to the rat-race. Compromise hadn’t been as easy as we’d thought it would be. We’d argued about restaurants, movies, recipes.
“I’m just being realistic. You want safety for everyone, right? Inside and outside the border. Hypocrisy won’t help anyone, including the next generation.”
“Surely, the next generation would be better off without this lot – our lot – deciding their future,” Dave says, scornfully. That sets Jess off laughing.
I turn to Ali, answering his earlier question about how I’d made the sauce, when there’s a knock on the door.
It’s Hana, looking distressed, with her mascara smudged.
“Oh my God, are you ok? What happened? Come in.”
She’s shaking, almost sobbing. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. It’s just this fucking… why are all the guys such fucking nightmares?”
“You look terrible, darling. Come in, sit down for a bit.”
She nods, tearfully. I hug her. Her body feels small, fragile in my arms. Light, and shaking. Her hands cling to my shoulders. I hold her, perhaps for just too long. She lets go, quickly steps inside, then stops, looking around.
Everyone’s staring at her in awkward silence. Matthew turns in his chair, sees Hana, and stands up. He’s not sure whether to shake hands.
“Guys, this is Hana. Hana, this is everyone. All old friends. Come join us.”
“What can I get you?” Dave offers.
“I’ll just be a minute,” she sniffs, and sneaks off to the bathroom.
She’s gone for 10 minutes, and I can hear her using my makeup and hairspray. Dave prepares some more drinks. He’s holding up the bottle, explaining how this gin has been made the traditional way, and won several awards in a professional tasting – just the right amount of bite, without going crazy on the botanicals. Character, but without showing off. He passes round the tray. The good crystal tumblers from Barcelona.
Hana re-enters, clearing her throat, looking shy but gorgeous. She’s vibrant, and apologetic. Young and beautiful, unstable. I wonder if these qualities always come together, or if it’s something specific to her. A quality. A wish. Can instability be beauty? Or is that just how I see her?
She looks at me with a small half-smile.
“Have you eaten?”
She nods briefly, then shakes hands with everyone, and sits close to me.
The conversation resumes, bubbling up again. No politics for now, thank God. I carefully look around. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. Gradually, I relax. I see Hana smiling, nodding along, following the conversation.
I feel light, filled with love. It’s different this time, I reassure myself. And I have reasons to believe it. This lightness is new, but strangely familiar, too. I feel that it’s going to stay – that it’s not going to escape. It’ll be something that I’ll introduce to the kitchen, the cellar, the sofa and the coffee table tomorrow morning. And to Dave, of course.
Hanna goes through my vinyl collection, but can’t find anything to dance to. She plugs her phone into the speakers, and puts something on. It builds up slowly, a beat – Latin – gradually taking shape over electric synthy bass and a steady, hypnotic, percussive rhythm.
Holding her glass, she starts moving to the music, slowly. She moves with such grace, almost balletic with her arms. Her fingers are long and slim, with round, cherry-coloured nails. Matthew joins her, and I watch them. They stand out, changing the energy of the room. She thrusts her arm almost viciously in the air, and lets it swirl slowly downwards to the rhythm, her face half-turned away from him, her eyes closed, lost in the music.
Matthew is more confident than I remember, grinning and posturing as he sways back and forth. His eyes are locked on her.
She spreads her arms wider. She’s drifting away with the beat, more alluring than ever. I struggle to take my eyes off them. Then, I feel a hand on my shoulder, squeezing softly. Dave’s touch is familiar. He’s smiling, and winks at me.
He holds up the bottle – the expensive gin I knew he’d been saving. “Another one, hon?”
I’m about to say yes – a warm, fuzzy affirmation of the strange, tormenting joy I’m feeling – when there’s a sudden stumble behind me, and Hana knocks into me, clutching my arm. The bottle smashes on the tiles. Everyone jumps to their feet.
Hana’s shocked, pale, eyes swimming. Her hand still grips my arm for support. It’s hot, sticky, sweaty. Alive.
“I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t worry, darling. It’s fine. It’s OK.”
“Yeah, it’s nothing,” says Dave, “There’s another one downstairs, anyway.”
Immediately, Hana’s eyes widen, eager to make amends. She’s already halfway across the room. “I’ll get it. I’ve got the keys.” She leaves quickly – the door left swinging open behind her.
“I’d better go with her,” Matthew says quickly. “Make sure she’s OK.”
Matthew follows Hana. The living room grows grim at once. Everyone starts talking again, but I can’t concentrate. It’ll be awkward for the two of them to fit down the dark, narrow staircase. I feel discomfort in my bones, and I hug myself. My breasts feel small. Matthew will probably be cracking jokes while Hana leads him down. It won’t be pitch black in there – they’ll leave the door open. They’ll be able to see each other in the dim yellow light creeping in. Matthew is going to tease her about the spiders and Hana’s going to say she’s never been scared of anything. She’ll be in front, looking for the bottle, and he’ll be staring at her narrow waist, her tight jeans, her legs. She’ll turn and there’ll be a spark. They’ll pause and stare, laugh slightly, embarrassed and mock-shy, but not really. For a second. Not more. They’ll smile, fully this time, eyes sparkling. Or maybe whisper something like, “What if the door shuts and nobody notices we’re gone? What if we get trapped here and have to spend the night, wait for someone to rescue us?”
They’d laugh at the thought. He’d reach out and touch her softly on the arm, feel her heat. He’d look into her eyes, check for a response. Then grip harder, and move his hand higher up, caress her shoulder. They’d be suppressing their giggling, quietly, trying to keep their balance on the stairs.
Dave’s telling a story about something that happened at a college party years ago. Something similar – but not quite – to tonight. I don’t want to know about Dave’s college friends. Or the cellar, or Hana and Matthew. It’s something else I want. Something else. A time and a place without any of that, of this. How would it look like, be like, without any of my small, cluttered, hazy world?
I look at the empty vase on the fireplace. Standing steady on the white marble. Light and empty. Nothing but fragile glass. Underneath, flames are burning, dancing, shouting light. The vase is standing tall, elegant, bare. Maybe I’ll put something in it tomorrow. Or I might not.