Seaside Gothic

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Lemon Slices

Lemon Slices by Melissa Todd

It was an odd sensation, a little unhinged, the wrong side of happy, and yet steady and secure, changeless and timeless. And in the security she found something finer than happiness, more soothing, tainted by neither fear nor hope. What she had she could keep.

And what she had was the man she loved, and his wife, both tolerating her. She was allowed to hang out with them both, to be gently patronised and scolded. Not every day of course. She had her own job: finance department at the council. That was secure too, though not so glamorous. But weekends she went to their coastal house, watched them be busy, radiated their reflected joy. Not happy, no, but soothed. She washed up behind their impromptu coffee mornings, made small talk with their duller friends to spare everyone’s feelings, walked their bouncy, restless spaniel, bought small gifts of food and wine. Just like friends do. She had even insisted on changing their bed one glorious afternoon, so they could enjoy the sun for a few moments more. You’re always so busy, she told them. Let me help you. And they had hugged her and sat by the roses hand in hand, and she had taken turns to bury her nose in one pillow, then the other. She wasn’t sure which fragrance she preferred. Probably the middle, where they mingled.

‘You will be kind to Kirsty, won’t you?’ she heard Olivia ask. ‘She is so hopelessly in love with you.’ And James had chortled and squeezed her hand and murmured something she couldn’t catch. They were sitting by the pool today, matching loungers, feet intertwined. Kirsty was standing by the open kitchen window, slicing lemons for pre-dinner drinks, not trying to listen, but Olivia had a theatrical talent for making herself heard: four years of drama school, occasional repertory, but only if the project felt authentic. ‘You’re such a dreadfully wonderful flirt, you know, darling. We would hate to hurt her, wouldn’t we?’ We would, James seemed to say, pressing a strawberry between her open, waiting lips. Olivia had a natural bow pout, enhanced by the lip gloss she applied hourly: Orgasmic Blush. Kirsty had tried a dash of it herself, secretly, in their en suite. On her it looked shocking, vulgar, like a bloodied bruise. She rubbed with the back of her hand until her lips smarted.

‘Why, Kirsty is blushing!’

‘Kirsty has been rummaging in your knicker drawer again!’

‘Not our Kirsty! Messaging her chap some muck, no doubt. With pictures. Dirty girl.’

‘Kirsty doesn’t have time for any chaps, she’s too totally devoted to us, aren’t you darling!’ And Olivia squeezed her tight to show it was only teasing, placing gentle honeyed lips on her forehead.

Kirsty breathed in her scent. She only wanted to be near them. She wasn’t in love with either of them, not in a way that mattered. Nothing scary, nothing to alarm. She asked only to be tolerated, to belong in some small sense. Home was a complaining mother in a scabby flat. Here, parties, excitement, the sense life could be joyous, an art form.

‘But of course, you wouldn’t mean to be cruel,’ Olivia continued as Kirsty sliced, arranging sharp crescents on a silver dish. ‘I just worry sometimes she’s too attached, that’s all. How long she clung to your hand when you opened the door! I really thought I saw tears. I’m not jealous, of course,’—he threw back his head to roar at that—‘but all the same, perhaps we should encourage her a little less. Perhaps tell her we are out next Sunday? I want you all to myself, now and then. Is that any crime? Ease her off the tit gently. Agreed? You tell her.’

There was slow, thoughtful nodding. Kirsty echoed its rhythm in the push of her knife, sharp thin cuts, slice after slice, pretty and plentiful, just like they liked.