by Cath Barton
a large glass of good Burgundy
I put down my fork, folded my arms and raised the thumb and index finger of my left hand to my mouth. It’s something I do when I’m bemused. I don’t know how long I stayed like that, maybe twenty seconds. My sister Elaine was looking at me, waiting for me to respond to what she’d just told me. Eventually I lowered my hand, bit my lower lip and shook my head slowly. Then I picked up my glass, took a sip of wine and wiped my mouth with my napkin. The wine was good, much better than I’d usually drink, but this was supposed to be a treat for Elaine’s birthday.
‘Say something, for goodness sake.’ She was folding and refolding her napkin, smoothing the folds over and over.
I poured us both more wine, picked up my fork and continued to eat my salad. The prawns were very large and very garlicky; I chewed each one slowly.
‘Have one,’ I said, holding out my bowl.
‘No, no, I can’t, Simon doesn’t like – ’ My sister’s voice tailed off.
I raised an eyebrow. ‘Doesn’t like what?’ I said. ‘Kissing a woman with garlicky breath?’I kept my voice down, as Elaine had done. Neither or us wanted to attract attention from the other diners.
‘You’re angry,’ she said, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her right ear and then rubbing her hand on her jaw.
‘Why would I be angry?’ I said. ‘Drink your wine.’ I pointed to the bottle. ‘No point in wasting it.’
Elaine was toying with a piece of dry bread, crumbling it on the tablecloth.
I took a deep breath; she opened her eyes wide.
‘So,’ I put my hands down flat on the tablecloth. ‘Are you going to carry on?’
‘What do you mean, carry on?’ she said. ‘Yes. No. Yes. I don’t know what you mean.’ Her voice tailed off and she looked down at her lap.
‘With this affair,’ I said.
‘Why do you have to put it like that?’
‘How else would you like me to put it? Dalliance? Liaison? Fling? If you’re not going to drink your wine I’ll have it,’ I said, reaching across for Elaine’s glass, but she took hold of the stem and pulled it towards her, spilling a little of the red wine on the white tablecloth. The stain spread quickly.
‘You sound so –, so cold,’ she said’ ‘I thought you would understand. Oh hell, now look what I’ve done.’ She was dabbing ineffectually at the mark.
I hadn’t seen this coming. I had thought Elaine happily married. And Gary wasn’t just my brother-in-law; he was my friend.
‘Understand?’ I laughed now.
‘What’s funny?’ she said.
‘Nothing’s funny, nothing at all. It’s ludicrous. To throw your life up in the air for Simon.’ I said his name with a hiss.
‘I love him.’
I shook my head and bit my lip.
‘Pudding?’ I said. Elaine shook her head.
‘Silly me asking, Simon wouldn’t like that either, would he?’ I laughed again. ‘Did you tell Gary you were having lunch with me, by the way?’
‘You wouldn’t– You won’t– oh my God, please don’t tell Gary – ’
I laughed again. It had not actually occurred to me to do such a thing, and I never would, but Elaine could wriggle for a bit. I picked up her glass and downed the rest of the wine in one.
‘I have a meeting at 2 o’clock,’ I said as I stood up. And left before she could say any more, glad that I’d ordered that ridiculously expensive wine; she could pay for it.