Friday 13 October 2023

Karma by Melanie Ferbreach, a ginger and lemon tea

Meredith Lawrence, usually cool and unflappable, stood at the bar, quivering and in a cold sweat. She greeted the bar’s owner, Jan, as though she were a stranger rather than the friend and confidante Jan had become during many years of Meredith’s after-work visits. But Jan knew that, for Meredith, tonight will be different. Tonight salutes patience. Tonight brings champagne with a ghost.

             After giving Jan her order and briefly nodding to a woman dressed in jeans and a polo neck jumper, perched on a stool at the bar, Meredith chose a quiet table at the far end of the wine bar. A bartender brought her order on a tray and Meredith noticed Jan had generously included a shot of brandy. Meredith swallowed the brandy in one gulp, annoyed by her general sense of foreboding. She breathed deeply, feeling the heady vapour ease her tension. There was no reason to fear meeting Claudia Talon again, she told herself. In fact, it will be interesting to hear what Claudia has to say about her life over the last twenty years.

            Meredith sat with her back to the far wall, facing the entrance. She waited. And waited. After forty minutes she went to the bar for a glass of water, just for something to do. She recalled reading that police sometimes keep suspects waiting, to unnerve them. Maybe Claudia’s employing this tactic. Or maybe she’s had the experience herself.

            As Meredith wondered whether Claudia would turn up, the front door opened, admitting both Claudia and the sharp November chill. Meredith shivered as she recognised Claudia instantly by what was still apparently her trademark blaze of red hair. Meredith was about to wave when she noticed Claudia standing stock still, head held high, hands on hips, looking around, as though everyone in the bar should stop talking and drinking, and notice her. Other than a glance by the woman on the stool at the bar, no one did. With jutted chin and pursed lips, Claudia shrugged off momentary irritation and surveyed her surroundings. A smart, stylish venue is probably not what Claudia was expecting.  

Meredith composed herself, stood up, and waved. Claudia flicked her hand in recognition. Meredith watched her stride across the polished oak floor, visibly pleased with the menacing, rhythmic clack of her red stilettoes.

When Claudia reached Meredith’s table she removed her camel coat, revealing a red wool dress snuggled against her bulky body. She dropped her red Mulberry clutch bag onto a spare chair. A heavy-scented aroma wafted around her. Meredith, having come to the wine bar straight from work, remained in her work clothes – a dark, plain trouser suit and a simple cream blouse. Her make-up was minimal, and her brown bob was much like her schoolgirl hair.

            ‘Hello Claudia,’ Meredith said, smiling, still standing, and holding out her hand.

            Claudia brushed Meredith’s hand with hers. ‘Been here long? We said around six.’ They had agreed six o’clock.

            Meredith smiled and sat down again. ‘It’s okay. I thought we’d mark our reunion with a bottle of bubbly,’ she said, removing a bottle of champagne from what was now a bucket of ice slopping in icy water. She popped the cork and half-filled the two champagne flutes. ‘My treat. And help yourself to nibbles,’ Meredith said, gesturing to the bowls of crisps and nuts.

            As Claudia sat down facing Meredith, Meredith noticed her catch her reflection in the window to the side of the table, a smirk flitting across her face. Claudia picked up her glass and, before Meredith could clink it for a toast, swallowed a mouthful.

            Meredith held up her glass and said, ‘Cheers’ before taking a sip.

            ‘Oh, yeah, whatever,’ said Claudia, taking another gulp.

            A tsunami of memories hurtled towards Meredith as she subconsciously touched the three-lined scar on her cheek. She had long come to terms with the effects of Claudia’s cruelty but now, that voice – that unforgettable, inimitable, aural scratch – shot a tremor through her.

             ‘Well,’ said Claudia, ‘it must be dead urgent if you’ve tracked me down just to meet up in this dive.’

            ‘It’s my local, actually. I know a few people in here now.’

            Claudia snorted slightly. ‘Yeah, right.’

            Meredith ignored her. ‘Anyway, it wasn’t difficult finding you – you’re a whizz with social media.’

            ‘Yeah, it’s the twenty-first century,’ said Claudia. ‘So, come on then, what’s the big mystery?’ Claudia took a handful of peanuts, pincering one between the tips of the nails on her right index finger and thumb before popping it into her mouth.

            Meredith, with hands resting easily together on the table, watched her. ‘There’s something I need to tell you, Claudia. In person,’ she said, holding Claudia’s gaze. She felt Claudia study her, probably amused by her naked, matured face, unlike Claudia’s own, thickly cosseted, alabaster pallor.

‘I’m all ears,’ said Claudia. ‘It must be something fantastic if you’ve ordered shampoo. So come on then, spill,’ she said, swigging some champagne. ‘No, hang on, let me guess. You’re gonna moan I nearly ruined your life, complain what a bitch I was, but you’ve now soared to dizzying heights of success.’ She laughed without amusement then drained her glass. She grabbed the bottle and re-filled her glass. ‘Don’t mind, do you?’

Meredith smiled. ‘Make the most of it,’ she said.

‘I will. So, what is it? What’ve you managed in twenty years? Conned some gullible, rich man – or woman – to marry you? Never could imagine you with a bloke,’ she said, laughing. Meredith, motionless, looked neutrally at her.

‘No, hang on,’ Claudia continued, ‘I know – you’re gonna boast you’ve won the lottery. Flaunt how living well’s the best revenge.’ Her eyes narrowed, and her thin lips formed a cold, false smile.

‘Hardly, Claudia. You obviously haven’t read Confucius. One who sets out on a path of revenge should first dig two graves.’

Claudia stared at her. Meredith detected a fleeting twitch in the smooth façade – an almost imperceptible tremor – as Claudia swilled champagne around her glass.

Meredith continued. ‘But I’m glad you acknowledge what you were, Claudia. All those years as the school — no, I mustn’t say it. But honestly, do you ever think about the people you were at school with, the ones who – how shall I put it? – entertained you the most?’

Claudia pincered a nut, popped it into her mouth, and crunched.

‘I’ve no idea what you’re on about, Meredith, but I’m sure you’ll get there, eventually.’

‘Do you remember Masato, for example?’ Meredith asked. ‘That brilliant boy whose homework you often burned?’

Claudia shrugged. ‘Masato. Masato.’ She frowned.

‘Masato Morimoto.’

‘Oh, yeah, I remember. Always either swotting or glued to the piano.’

‘He was a very clever and talented boy.’

 ‘Sure. But burning homework? Not me, Meredith. All I burned were ciggies.’ She chuckled. ‘And I quit that waste of money years ago.’

Meredith recalled Claudia being suspended for the only time she was caught setting fire to Masato’s homework. ‘And dropping dirt into his food?’ Meredith said.

Claudia laughed. ‘More accusations! Not me. Maybe it was you, although you never were into having fun.’ 

‘Was it fun slamming the classroom door on his hand the week before his grade eight piano exam?’

‘You know that was an accident. How could I’ve known Masato was holding the door open? Accidents happen, especially to neurotic kids. And Masato was a real nervous wreck.’

‘Some say we are what other people do to us, Claudia,’ said Meredith. She paused and looked out of the window at the lights and movement of the passing traffic.

Claudia followed her gaze before settling smugly on her own reflection.

Meredith continued. ‘Your own memories of school, how’ve they sat with you all these years?’

Claudia sighed. She picked up her glass, turned around and surveyed the wine bar. For some inexplicable reason her attention was drawn to the woman perched on a stool at the bar, chatting with a bartender. The woman turned, glanced towards Meredith, and immediately turned back on noticing Claudia also focused on her.

Claudia returned to face Meredith. ‘Whatever I did at school was only to defend myself from you lot. All you ever did was laugh at my hair. I can’t help being a redhead.’

‘Yes, we laughed at your hair, Claudia. Even you thought it hilarious, dyeing it a different colour each term, and sometimes multi-coloured. You did it for attention, which was all you ever wanted.’

Claudia proudly patted her hair and smiled. ‘And I get plenty. Men adore my hair. And women – you should see the looks I get!’

Meredith could imagine the looks Claudia attracted. Sitting very still, Meredith looked directly at Claudia who was guzzling more champagne.

‘Many years ago,’ Meredith said, ‘on one of those calm, warm summer mornings, Masato’s younger sister was playing in woods near their home. She found him hanging by his neck from a tree.’

Claudia choked slightly, spluttering the liquid down her dress. The woman perched on a bar stool glanced at her. Claudia grabbed a paper napkin and dabbed her dress. She looked up and stared at Meredith.

‘Yes, Claudia. He didn’t even graduate. He would’ve got a first. I keep in touch with his parents and sister, but their lives now – shrouded in devastation.’

Claudia let out a loud sigh. ‘Same old melodramatic Meredith.’

Meredith ignored her. ‘Masato’s parents told me he suffered severe depression for years since school.’

‘Pretty common among arty-farty types. Fashionable, even,’ said Claudia, shrugging.

‘And counselling didn’t help. He was so depressed that he couldn’t keep up with his course. Ended up cheating in his final exam.’

‘Well, that’s his fault. Pretty dumb for someone supposedly so clever.’

‘And when he was caught, the shame he felt he’d brought on himself and his family was unbearable. So that was Masato’s life. Bullied. Tormented. Brilliance sabotaged. His future obliterated.’  

‘And that’s my fault because…’

‘Tiny ants labouring through our school lives, Claudia. That’s all so many of us were to you. Pests to be trampled under your feet.’

Claudia smiled, drained her glass, and refilled it with the remains of the bottle.

‘Warming up in here. You don’t seem to be drinking much. Shame to let it go flat.’

‘Go ahead, I’ve still got this,’ said Meredith. ‘You hold your drink well.’

‘Yeah. Comes in useful,’ Claudia said, taking a few crisps. She turned towards the window and blinked at her reflection, now slightly out of focus.

‘You know, you’ve really got into this blame-game thing,’ she slurred slightly, turning back to Meredith. ‘People are responsible for themselves. If Masato topped himself, that’s on him. Choices, Meredith, choices.’ She got up and picked up her bag. ‘I’m going to freshen up then I’ll get another bottle.’ She tottered towards the washrooms.

Claudia returned, enveloped in a sickly musky scent, brandishing a bottle of house white wine. She stumbled into her seat, poured wine to the brim of her glass, swigged it carelessly, and dribbled wine down her chin. She wiped her chin with the back of her hand before fumbling with a napkin to mop wine off her obviously false, long, red nails.

Meredith quietly observed this chaotic scene, surprised at the clumsy spectacle Claudia was making of herself. Claudia realised Meredith was staring at her.

 ‘So,’ said Claudia, trying to sound bullish, ‘you’ve dragged me here just to lay all this Masato stuff on me?’ She gulped some wine. ‘Wasted your time but, more importantly, wasted mine. Life’s what you make it. Even you must know that.’

Meredith turned towards the window and noticed the traffic had eased. She welcomed the calming sight, just visible through the darkness, of the rain gently falling in the soft light cast by a streetlamp across the road. She closed her eyes for a second, breathed slowly and deeply, then returned to face Claudia.

‘I’m glad you came, Claudia, as I was half-wondering if you’d chicken out.’

‘Hah! Me? Chicken?’ she snorted.

Meredith continued. ‘I never understood why you picked on people like Masato and me. What do you think I’ve said about you when people ask me about my scarred face?’

‘Oh, you’re still such a bore.’ Claudia crunched a crisp. ‘Now come on, Merry. Live up to your name. I’m done with reminiscing.’ She gulped more wine.

Meredith finished her champagne and poured herself some wine. ‘I imagine you’re married, Claudia. How many times?’

Claudia laughed. ‘Cheeky! Only twice. First hubby had a heart attack. Copped it.’

‘Sorry. And the second?’

‘He’s great. And our two brilliant boys. Redheads, naturally. Don’t take any crap from the kids at school. How about you?’

‘Married ten years.’

‘Condolences to your hubby,’ Claudia giggled.

Meredith blinked. ‘Two kids, and one adopted, but that’s irrelevant. He’s treated as our own.’  

‘Everything about you is irrelevant,’ Claudia chuckled.

‘We’ll see,’ Meredith said, holding Claudia’s gaze.

Claudia made an exaggerated sigh. ‘So come on, Meredith. I hadn’t planned on spending all evening here, much as I’m enjoying seeing you again.’

As Claudia swilled more wine, Meredith tapped her phone and laid it, screen up, on the table. It displayed a photo of a woman cowering and crouching on a floor, surrounded by fallen bank notes.

            Claudia spluttered and coughed.

            ‘Do you believe in karma, Claudia? You know, what goes around comes around?’ Meredith watched a frisson of fear irritate Claudia, whose forehead now glistened with perspiration. Claudia refilled her glass, took a large gulp, and dabbed her forehead with her napkin.

            ‘Yes, Claudia, you should feel nervous,’ said Meredith. ‘This is actually what I wanted to talk to you about, although I thought you should know what happened to Masato.’

            Claudia let out another exaggerated sigh. ‘Oh, come on, then. Impress me with photos of your exciting life.’

            ‘You’ll remember the armed robbery at the bank across the road from here, last month.’

            Claudia froze.

            ‘So you do remember, then.’

            ‘Vaguely. Get to the point before I die of boredom.’

            Meredith continued. ‘The new cashier was shot. She died a week later. Only twenty-seven. Married just five months. Pregnant too.’

            ‘Yeah, well, life’s a bitch.’

            ‘But one robber – astoundingly stupid and clumsy – didn’t wear gloves. Dropped wads of notes, some splattered with blood. Must’ve cut himself – or rather, herself – on those razor-sharp, brand-new banknotes. Almost laughably clumsy.’

            ‘Bor…ing!’ Claudia’s grating voice cracked the air. A group at a table nearby glanced across.

            Meredith continued in a quiet, measured voice. ‘And there I was, the bank manager, hiding behind the counter, quaking, with blood-spattered banknotes raining down on me. All on CCTV.’ The heightened colour in Claudia’s face drained to a cloudy pallor. She glared at Meredith. ‘And suddenly, your unique, unmistakable, rasping voice, rattling up from history. Now threatening people in the bank.’

            ‘What are you on about, Meredith? Someone should’ve stopped your barmy gabbling years ago.’ Claudia snatched her glass, gulped noisily, and dabbed her perspiring forehead.

            Meredith watched Claudia’s rising panic engulf her. ‘And then there’s your hairbrush. You’ll remember hurling it at me, breaking it and my nose?’

            ‘Oh, Meredith. I can’t believe I’m still here, listening to you harp on about trivia from twenty years ago.’

            ‘Well, anyway, I keep a little box of a few mementos from school, including your brush – still matted with your red tresses.’

            ‘Glad it’s such a treasured souvenir.’

            ‘I can’t think why I kept it, except to remember how my nose was broken. But it reminds me there are people like you around…’ Meredith paused and looked directly at Claudia until their eyes met. ‘Though none with your DNA.’

            Meredith carefully observed Claudia’s reaction. She watched her pale face deepen in colour so that she looked sunburnt. Her small green eyes flashed at Meredith, lasering the space between both women. For a split second, the fear from Meredith’s school days paralysed her. She gripped her glass and breathed steadily, holding Claudia’s stare.

            Claudia laughed, as people sometimes do as a last resort. She drained her glass, grabbed her bag and coat, and stood up, wobbling slightly.

            ‘I really have absolutely no idea what you’re rambling about, Meredith. But I always knew you were raving. Shame for you nothing’s changed. I only wish you hadn’t wasted my evening proving it.’

            ‘The real shame, Claudia, is that you haven’t changed.’

            ‘Goodbye, Meredith.’

            Claudia tottered towards the main door. Standing in front of it, obstructing Claudia’s exit, was the woman whom Claudia had noticed earlier at the bar. She was a little taller than Claudia and her eyes were fixed on her.

            ‘Excuse me, please,’ said Claudia.   

            ‘Claudia Talon.’ The woman sounded assertive.

            Claudia looked at the woman’s expressionless face. The woman held open her police warrant card so that Claudia could see it, and started reciting her rights on arrest. Claudia spun around, locking eyes with Meredith.

            Meredith held up her glass. ‘Meet Comes Around,’ she whispered.


About the author

Melanie lives in south Hampshire, in a coastal village frequently battered by howling gales and the occasional mini tornado. A latecomer to fiction writing, two of her short stories – one, to her surprise, being a prize winner – have been published during the past year in a literary quarterly. 


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