It’s too damn hot, we all agree. Mal lets out a cheer before silently slipping just that little bit lower in his deckchair. Loose elastic at the top of his shorts catches on the end of one of the wooden slats and his shorts stay put while the rest of him slides down, until he looks as if he’s been hung up on a hook like a side of meat. Janelle reaches over and grabs his empty bottle of beer, swiping it from his slackening fingers and placing it under her chair, where it rocks for a moment on the uneven concrete, and we all watch it, waiting for it to fall, or not.
‘Mal, we can see your undies!’ yells Chris, but Mal’s wife, Lindsay, throws him such a dirty look he shuts up and slides lower in his own chair. Lindsay’s own undies are extremely well hidden beneath a sundress that reveals no visible panty line. Alas for Mal, and for Lindsay, that he can’t say the same.
We’re like a bunch of soufflés gone wrong. The blokes, that is; all the girls are still mostly upright, only their glazed eyes and the slump of their shoulders telling another story. Draw a straight line from one head to the next and you get an arrhythmic heartbeat worthy of any cardiac patient. We’re the last supper, alfresco style, clustered around the barbecue (standing in for Jesus) as if our souls depend upon it.
Helena, my wife, heaves herself out of her deckchair and starts to collect plates. Half-eaten sausages and bits of still-raw chop rattle together as she scrapes and stacks until she’s holding a leaning tower of scraps. Then she leans forward and chucks the whole lot into the fire. We watch as it sits for a moment doing not much at all before bursting into flames.
‘We could have reused those, you know.’
It’s Janelle, of course. Chris groans in a theatrical manner and Helena turns and gives Janelle a look, her tolerance for her sister-in-law at its lowest ebb after a whole afternoon in her company, especially when she starts in on saving the bloody earth.
‘She’s an idiot, Nick.’ I’d been chopping cucumber for salad when Helena made this remark. An hour before the party was supposed to start and I’d been waiting all morning for her to start in; wouldn’t have been the same without it. She’d twisted her tea towel into a lethal weapon and flicked my thigh with deadly accuracy.
‘You should be feeling sorry for me, your wife,’ she’d said with another fatal flick, for emphasis, ‘your loser friends and Janelle, all in one sweet afternoon.’ Then she’d begun washing up, tea towel draped over one shoulder.
Naturally, I’d said nothing, it being wiser not to fan the flames of this particular argument. Pointless, because my fingers always end up burnt anyway, my dear wife having an excellent memory for my transgressions, of which, I’m informed, there are many. Janelle also has an excellent memory but that’s different, something about growing up in the same house that turns transgressions into folklore, those glory days of childhood casting a golden glow over actions that once caused blood to boil and siblings to contemplate murder, or, at least, a modicum of torture. And now Helena and Janelle have a history of their own, all half-truths, grudges, and dark looks at Christmastime and birthdays.
‘She’s mean,’ is what Janelle says, and, to be honest, she’s not wrong. Janelle-baiting is Helena’s favourite sport, her eyes lighting up with each platitude about the ozone layer or rising sea temperatures, although it’s usually Helena’s temperature that starts to rise, my dear sister infuriatingly oblivious to barbs or slights tossed her way; she’s got more important things on her mind.
Now all that’s left are the chop bones sticking up out of the ash, like someone pointing a finger or making a point.
‘We could have brought our own plates, Helena.’ Janelle is nothing if not persistent.
‘Why the fuck didn’t you, then?’ Chris rolls his eyes, looks around at the rest of us, and Janelle looks away.
‘I use my own mug at work,’ Melissa offers, laying it before Janelle like a dead mouse from a cat. Janelle brightens and Melissa looks pleased.
Chris and Melissa: the bad and the beautiful. It’s people like Melissa who’ll inherit whatever’s left of the earth, while Chris cracks jokes and farts right up until the final reckoning. It’s obvious why Chris asked Melissa to marry him, but, as Helena says, it’s a complete bloody mystery why Melissa said yes.
Melissa was keen on me once, long before Chris lumbered into view, but not even Helena can hold that against her. The trouble is we all suspect Melissa’s not the only thing Chris holds against himself. There’ve been a few sightings of him with his arm draped around someone very much not Melissa.
‘And you’ve got your own mug at home, too, Melissa,’ says Lindsay, and while the rest of us snigger and snort our drinks out through our noses, Chris scowls. Lindsay’s got a sharp tongue and most of us have the paper cuts to prove it, but, like all who have lived through the horror of a school playground, we enjoy seeing someone else in the hot seat.
‘Hoy, Nick!’ It’s Chris, never one to not bounce back, jiggling his empty in my direction. ‘More beer, more beer, more beer!’
I start to get up, pretty sure there’s no beer left, when Melissa suddenly stands and throws her scrunched up serviette in Chris’s face.
‘Shut up, you … idiot.’
Janelle looks worried. Helena has a small smile on her face as she turns her gimlet eye on Chris and I half expect to see smoke to pour forth from a tiny hole in his forehead. The rest of us—even Mal, woken by the rare sound of Melissa getting cross—just stare.
‘Just … shut up, you!’ Melissa waves her arms like a dodo trying to get off the ground and Chris, for once, is frozen in place. Melissa’s arms float in the air for a second more and then she collapses back into her chair, spent of whatever force had her in its grip. Chris looks at the ground and the rest of us just keep on staring. It’s like a comet or an eclipse of the moon: it probably won’t happen again for a very long time, and, while we get the feeling we shouldn’t have been looking in the first place, none of us can tear our eyes away.
The ground’s littered with empty bottles. We’re like a group of mastodons waiting for the beer to run out and extinction to hit. The afternoon’s a process of attrition, slowly gnawing away at whatever brain cells or ability to think straight we might still have, the lot of us sunburnt and sunstruck, our skin red and raw. As well as no beer I’m pretty sure there’s no tonic either, meaning from now on it’s either straight gin or some not quite cold white wine I hastily put in the fridge when Helena very kindly took the opportunity to point out to me that I’d forgotten to do so when I should have.
Is it time for another drink? I have my misgivings but the afternoon and all of us are too far gone to stop now. We’re like that disaster movie in which the lava slowly pours down the side of a mountain, soon to lap at the borders of a small town full of ordinary, God-fearing folk. Some of us are the lava and some of us are the folk, and I suspect Chris is, at least for the moment, in two minds as to which camp he belongs.
But I’m the host and I get up to see what I can find. As I do I pick up a couple of empties to chuck in the recycling bin. My fingers slide smoothly into the necks and I wonder if I can hold five bottles on five fingers so I’ll look a bit like a glass Incredible Hulk. I give it a go but then make the mistake of waggling my fingers at Lindsay as I pass her chair and one of the bottles falls off and smashes onto the concrete path.
‘Christ, Nick!’ Helena jumps up and runs in to get the dustpan and brush. Everyone hoots and Lindsay catches my eye just for a moment before letting her own slide away towards something more interesting. I’m in the process of pulling the rest of the bottles off – better safe than sorry when Helena’s got her back up—when Chris, evidently feeling more like his usual self, reaches out, grabs the bottle off my little finger, and lets it drop on to the concrete.
No one moves, and then I think what the fuck, point my fingers straight down, give them a bit of a wiggle and watch as the other three join their mates in pieces on the ground. Chris grins, grabs four bottles lying on their sides in the grass next to his chair and, without even bothering to slide his fingers in, chucks them on the path.
Then Melissa, apparently still possessed by whatever it was that made her shake off her long-suffering wife routine, picks up the bottle Janelle placed under Mal’s chair, stands up, and raises it above her head, like an avenging angel or the statue of liberty. No one says a word. Chris, bending down to pick up some more for himself, pauses halfway to the ground. I guess there’s a fierce battle waging inside Melissa’s head, and a bit of me can’t help hoping that, for once, the bad side wins out. She looks at me, then at Helena, back with the dustpan and brush and observing Melissa with the look of someone who’s finally enjoying herself despite her best intentions, and then at Chris. He’s got a bottle in his hand and one hand reaching for another but still he doesn’t move.
And then, at last, Melissa starts to slowly lower her arm, and we all sigh with disappointment.
‘Do it, Mel!’ Like the urgings of the bad angels traditionally found on the shoulders of those wracked with moral indecision, Janelle’s voice rings out, clear and forthright, recycling be damned. And Melissa does do it. She raises her arm again and chucks the bottle on the concrete with as much force as she can muster, and we all watch it smash into lots of shiny, sharp pieces. Then she lets out a small shout of what sounds like pure glee, before letting herself flop back, once again, into her deckchair.
Miniature glaciers crowd together on the path and I find myself waiting to see if they’ll start to melt, before I remember they’re actually glass. I’m feeling a bit of pure glee as well, but this is shortly tempered when I catch sight of Helena’s face. She gives me a look that would have real glaciers melting before you can say ‘global warming’ and chucks the brush and pan at my feet.
‘Moron,’ she says, and goes to sit down next to Lindsay. I can tell already that in the world according to Helena it’s all my fault. There’s no collective responsibility in evidence here, only my own culpability, my worse for wear friends and my little sister, who, just right now, I can’t help but admire.
Time for that white wine, I think, and, stepping over the dustpan and brush, I go in and grab the bottle from the fridge and two trays of ice. I pour the still lukewarm wine into glasses, throw a few ice cubes into each, and distribute them round the group.
For once, no one says anything. Instead, we just sit there, watching the ice cubes melt in our glasses and the glaciers of broken glass glitter in the sun.
Kate Paine, 1st place
Kate Paine is an Australian musician, teacher, and writer living with her husband and daughter in a little house near the lake in Meilen, Kanton Zürich. On the music side, she has a music-teaching studio at home and regularly sings with a big band or with her jazz-piano playing husband. As for writing, she has published creative non-fiction and has just finished writing an historical novel as part of a Ph.D. in creative writing through Deakin University in Australia. She has an academic writing and research skills coaching service in English for students of all ages and for organisations. She finds music and writing go together beautifully. Not only are they both so creative but they also really ask something from you that is challenging yet
also incredibly rewarding.
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