Sunlight streams in, catches the edge of a teaspoon placed just so beside The Good China cups, prized museum pieces brought out for an exclusive exhibition. Shadows of steam from the thrice-boiled kettle dance over the wallpaper, distant churning storm clouds the ship’s crew knows they’re destined to meet. The kitchen holds its breath. I’ve dreaded this moment since mum welcomed me home for the weekend by asking, “Guess who’s coming to visit you?” Her hands can’t stay still; a microadjustment to a napkin, the butter dish lid removed and replaced, a smoothing of the fancy table linen.
Was that a doorbell chime or a klaxon calling all hands?
Mum’s eyes dart over the table. The line between her eyebrows says it’s not perfect. Don’t worry, I want to tell her, even Sylvester Stallone re-cut Rocky IV.
My cousin Kirsten is resplendent. Of course she is. There should be a halo above her head, spun from the same golden weave of her hair. Look at that smile. My God, those teeth. Modelling agencies for dental hygiene products must be clawing over one another for her signature.
She’s me, or, what I was, once.
She’s the future, an obelisk to potential and promise, unblemished by the foul winds of real life, not chipped away by taxes or covered in graffiti discoursing the state of the job market. No thunderheads loom over the cobbled plaza, scaring away tourists, rumbling about being single in your thirties, threatening a deluge of tears because the wait for a grandchild has been extended by a conservative estimate of three years.
“Hi.” Her voice is a pearl, natural spherical perfection. The racket of crockery and cutlery as I bang my knee while standing to take her hand draws a look of fury from mum. My cousin isn’t bothered, though. Of course she isn’t. Her giggle is a shimmering windchime.
Roles established already. The princess deigning to meet the local jester. How quaint to slum it with the plebs for an afternoon.
Behind her, my aunt; the lady-in-waiting, the shadow, already eclipsed, already resigned to it, already manoeuvring to recast herself as playing the part she was destined to, a festival of repression, too heavy on the cosmetics, fussing at invisible lint, ear-whisperer, access-denier, making a vocation of being a personal assistant.
I’ve barely remembered to scrape a smile together before mum urges us all to sit down, please, to help ourselves to the Victoria sponge cake. Home-made, you know. Not by her, no. By a friend of hers. But still, homemade.
“A tiny slice for Kirsten and I,” insists my aunt, tittering, the idea of enjoying a normal-sized slice of cake a fantasy. Tiny, my foot. The pursed lips, the eyebrow manicured to within an inch of oblivion creaking into an arch, they bring me such joy as I shovel myself a heap of sponge, making sure to get the crumbs, too; the detritus is the best part. Kirsten pinches her fork, a surgeon angling a diamond-tipped tool for the crucial incision, dissects the cake, masticates until every nutrient is extracted. Mum’s eyes rove between us, a tennis coach watching her once-star player embarrassed by a young and hungry (ha!) upstart.
“Any new romances?” asks my aunt. “Sad about Andrew. So sad. Nice young man.” Correct me if I’m wrong — aren’t smiles and sadness diametric opposites? Clearly not, because my aunt shoots me a leering grin over her teacup even as she professes sorrow at the smoking crater of my love life.
Mum hisses, knows I won’t demur, knows I can’t leave it. Her Sisyphean efforts at refinement teeter on the precipice. I don’t mind shoving.
“That’s men for you. Right, Kirsten?” I chuck a faux-conspiratorial wink at her. Mum’s eyes close, her shoulders sag. Too late. The townsfolk below are doomed. My aunt’s nostrils flare. Before any flame gouts, before any smoke puffs, I’m in with the follow-up. “Although, the boys are probably falling over themselves for you! Gosh, I can’t imagine who’d be more jealous, the boys or the girls? At your age? With those teeth! You probably have a new date lined up every weekend!” I can’t help myself. I love it. It’s awful.
“Actually,” says Kirsten, her smile a flickering mirage, uncertain at anything but fawning deferral, “there’s one boy—”
“Christopher,” says my aunt, choking on the name.
“Chris,” says Kirsten, wearing a storybook fairy’s distant dream-glaze.
“He sounds lovely.” One last attempt by mum to hurl herself into the boulder’s path.
“Oh, next time I see you, you’ll have forgotten all about Chrissy,” I say, inhaling a chunk of sponge, licking my fingers. “Boys’re all the same. Girls, too, for that matter.” Mum stares into her teacup, a child whose Christmas presents were set afire. And would you look at that? Never noticed that vein on my aunt’s temple before. Kirsten’s face is blank. Even stupefied, she’s extraordinary. Sleepwalking beauty. My fingers scratch the plate, scrabbling for every crumb. “Just wait,” I say, inspecting my haul. “Boys and girls become men and women. That’s the real fun. They’re all actors. Assassins. Smiling. Laughing. Professing love. Holding their knives behind their backs, waiting.” The silence is a gigantic, congealed film. “Any more cake?”
“Five minutes. Not five bloody minutes.” Ceramic clinks. Mum’s showing a callous disregard for The Good China. I know what I did. Even regret it, a little. Just…not enough to push back, to tell her to remove the stones from her eyes and see my aunt for the gloating provocateur she’s become. I’m tired. So, I do what I do best. Shrug, deflect. I ask if she needs help in the garden.
It’s not a no.
Brushing at the begonia’s roots, I tell myself it’s for the best. Kirsten has to learn. Best start early. New soil, some water, replace the plant, doesn’t matter. The petals are already wilting at the edges. Regularly changed earth, protective, preventative, well-intentioned, misguided measures — nothing stops beauty fading.