At the End of the Meal

Thank you so much to MIRLive for including me in last night’s excellent evening of readings. Unfortunately there was a problem with some of my audio so, as requested, I’m posting my (very, very) short story here…

At the End of the Meal

“So – Tim’s decided he’s gay!” Heather says.

She’s breathless; her cheeks are pink, her eyes flashing silver, but she winces when her dessert spoon scrapes across the bowl.

It’s the end of the meal. We’ve dispensed with her Thai chicken and the seasonal small-talk, with all the general gossip. We’ve downed almost two bottles of starchy Pinot already, and it’s that time of the evening – the time for flushed skin and glittering eyes. For revelations, truth and ice-cream.

It’s the moment when we connect, when we reconnect, at last. It always happens and though we never say it, I think we both understand that this is why we go on meeting the way we do, why we continue the ritual of a meal in Heather’s big, warm family kitchen when I’m back in town each Christmas. It’s why we still describe one another as best friends, though we rarely meet during the rest of the whole long year.

“Tim!” I say, although it takes me a moment to remember who he is.

He’s her son of course. Her son, how could I have forgotten? It’s the wine, I think, making me drift. I’m too easily distracted – too busy looking at Heather’s things, at the bowl of nuts, gathering dust, and at the strings of cards and tinsel. I notice how the cracks are beginning to spread around Heather’s eyes and how her lipstick has worn off.

And through the window, snow is falling exactly the way it does in films and dreams, a steady heartbreaking dance of night and light. I lift my fingers to my own lips to check that my similar rosy smile is still in place.

“How old is Tim now?” I ask.

“Sixteen!” she says, and raises her hands, her eyebrows.

“Sixteen,” I echo. “Christ.

And I know that she thinks I’m exclaiming over the way the years have rushed by, how it only seems like yesterday that I was a bridesmaid at her wedding, that she was matron of honour at mine… But what I’m actually thinking is sixteen.

It’s the age we were when we went on our school skiing trip to France. When she was the pretty one, the graceful one, the girl who flew down the slopes and skated perfect figure-of-eights on the sparkling rink. While I spent much of that week flat on my back against the ice.

More snow, I think, my gaze moving between the window and her talking, eating, lipstick-less mouth. Her teeth part, and I watch the ice-cream slipping in a small, pale cloud between them, but I’m the one who shivers.

I’m remembering how freezing it was in those chalets, so cold that even after Heather climbed into my bunk, we couldn’t get warm enough. We were never warm enough. Her hands on my back – I can feel them still – were as cool and smooth as metal…

“We thought it was just a phase,” she’s saying. “But then I caught them! Actually kissing! And under the mistletoe of all places!”

She laughs, perhaps a little too loudly, with her head thrown back, showing me the pallid curve of her throat, the point of her chin. And though her hair has a lot of grey in it, even some white, I think how it still falls in exactly the same heavy way. Like cloth, I think. Like winter water. She’s still the pretty one.

“They just looked so funny,” she says. “So strange. Two boys, holding one another like that, hardly more than children. And they looked so alike! It was as if Tim was kissing himself, his own reflection…”

I down my wine quickly and lean across, trying my best to keep hold of her tin-foil eyes.

“Have you ever…” I begin. “Would you ever…”

But I can’t do it. Whatever I was going to say, I can’t say it. It’s suddenly too hot in here, suffocating. I glance down at my bowl instead, at the peaks and spreading pools of untouched vanilla, and at my own spoon, turning over in my hand.

The silver jumps as it catches the light. For a second it’s blinding, and in that second, Heather reaches over and takes it from me –

And I feel the creak, and then the avalanche, as she lifts it to her mouth.