‘Bub, I’m excited for this New Year! I just know that 2020 is going to be full of lovely surprises.’
‘Don’t fall for that bullshit, Lovey. It’s the booze talking. Be careful with them tumblers.’
While tidying the Community Centre kitchen after our New Year party, Bub and I were swigging fruit punch, not from the huge alcohol-free bowl on the buffet, but from a secret jug in the broom cupboard. I hadn’t asked light-fingered Myrtle where she got the bottle of rum she emptied into it, because I’d never been more in need of a stiff drink. Leaning against the fridge, I dabbed my forehead with a tea-towel. ‘Can you believe I’ve had an email from my baby sister? It’s ages since I’ve seen her.’
‘I’d keep it that way if I were you, girl. My sister’s a stuck-up cow. I don’t speak to her, unless I have to. And ain’t it a bit sad calling your sister a baby, when you’re nearly fifty?’
‘Amy is a baby, compared to me. She’s only twenty-eight.’
‘So your Mum….’
‘Had me at twenty-two, Amy at forty-two. We’re from different generations. I never know what to say to her.’
‘Happy New Year should cover it.’
‘Don’t be cynical, Bub. Amy wants to build bridges within our family. She suggested that she, Mum and I spend this weekend together at a nice hotel in the country. What do you think?’
Bub squashed one too many squares of limp quiche into a plastic storage box, and tried to force the lid shut. ‘How much will that set you back?’
‘Amy’s going to pay.’
‘Then she wants something.’
Before I could explain that my sister was simply missing her family, Erica popped her head round the door. ‘Has anyone seen Myrtle? I can’t find the rum the Yoga group gave me for Christmas.’
Quick-thinking Bub emptied our mugs of Myrtle’s spiked punch down the sink while, swaying slightly, I faced up to our manager. Unfortunately, Erica’s sense of smell is every bit as keen as her nose for trouble, so she took in the situation at a glance. I did my best to distract her. ‘Sorry, Erica, I’m feeling quite emotional. I was just telling Bub that my family and I have booked some bonding time. We’re going away together this weekend to a hotel in a lovely country village.’
Erica gave me one of her looks. ‘How nice for you! I adore those little touristy towns. They always have gorgeous old-fashioned sweet shops. Be sure to bring me back some home-made fudge. Rum flavour, if you please.’ Without another word, she strode off in search of Myrtle, who, as usual in these situations, was long gone.
‘Shit a brick,’ said Bub, ‘we’ve had our fun, and now we’ve got to pay the penalty. Whatever happens on your weekend away, Lovey, make sure you don’t forget Erica’s fudge.’
So, dear reader, on a dismal Friday in January, you find me deep in the countryside, driving along unlit lanes under naked tree branches. My mother, who hates travelling, is sulking in the passenger seat. I’ve turned off the satnav, because ever since the airport it’s been nagging me to turn around. Except for the rattling of my ancient Ford’s undercarriage, the silence is deafening. Remembering that this is a bonding opportunity, I open the conversation. ‘How was the flight, Mum?’
‘Full of people sneezing. I’ve probably caught a cold.’
‘This weekend is such a great idea of Amy’s. How long has it been since we were all together?’
‘At least three years. Your sister hasn’t even been over to see the estate.’
What my mother calls her estate is three boggy acres in Northern Ireland left to her by an aunt after Amy’s father ran away to Spain with their dog groomer and the cockapoo. On the doubtful principle that, when life goes wrong, you should go back to where it all began, Mum’s chosen to live there. Her tumbledown bungalow is full of cats, unfinished paintings and tangled knitting. She says she loves her new life.
Amy greets us on the hotel steps. When I last saw her, she was dressed like a student, in ripped denim and cheap pumps, with technicolour hair. Today, she’s sleek in skin-tight city black, her blow-dry is immobile and you could wear her studded ankle boots to war. The over-friendly receptionist smiles politely at our ill-assorted trio, and asks us to fill in the register.
‘Helen and…. Lovage. What an unusual name!’
‘Helen named me after a herb,’ I say. It was a characteristically random choice by my mother, but now that I’m a professional gardener, it’s appropriate. What’s more, at the Community Centre, Erica calls everyone Lovey. I know it’s sad, but I can’t help feeling smug, because I’m the only one who’s ever addressed by her real name.
‘And….what’s your name, dear? It looks like Antibilious, but that can’t be right.’
Helen is pocketing peppermints from a bowl on the desk. ‘Her handwriting always was terrible.’
‘Everyone calls me Amy, but my name is Amaryllis. It’s a flower.’
‘Helen, you named both of your daughters after plants! How sweet!’
‘Not guilty,’ says Helen. ‘I named Lovage, but Lovage named Amaryllis.’
In the lift, my sister glares at me. ‘So it’s you I have to thank for my ridiculous name!’
‘You should be grateful! Amaryllis flowers are beautiful, if a bit over the top.’
Helen scrunches a peppermint. ‘You certainly got Amy’s personality right, didn’t you, Lovey?’
Not another word is spoken, until we re-assemble in the lounge. We order coffees, and Amy breaks the silence by telling Helen and me she has a new job in something called bioinformatics. Neither of us has ever heard of this, but we don’t want to admit it, so the conversation withers away. When I mention that I’m starting a one-woman gardening business and volunteering at a Community Centre, my mother and sister stare at me in shocked incomprehension. The only thing we agree on is that nobody wants to prowl the wintry streets of a strange country town, searching in the dark for a decent restaurant, so we decide to throw ourselves on the mercy of the hotel chef. Soon, we’re smiling defensively at each other across a table decorated with a tin of plastic forget-me-nots.
‘I’m so happy that you both accepted my invitation.’ Amy is turning on the fatal charm I remember so well. ‘How long has it been since the three of us sat down to a meal together?’
‘Umm,’ says Helen. ‘Was it summer 2016, somewhere on the South Coast?’
‘Oh yes, of course,’ says Amy. ‘Brighton. You were both being silly about the Brexit referendum.’
I know I should ignore this, but I can’t help saying, ‘I’ve never expressed an opinion about Brexit.’
‘That’s what I mean.’
Helen’s hooded eyes flash danger signals. ‘If either of you says one more word about politics, I’m going to bed. Don’t you remember what happened last time?’
My sister and I both know that our only mutual parent always acts on her threats, so we change the subject to our outfits. This is safer ground, although there’s no way I can compete with my youthful half-sibling. Amy looks gorgeous in a blue woollen top, and, as always, I’ve made an effort to look my best. I’m especially proud of my new red earrings, which set off my loose white linen shirt. Helen, whose generation was brought up to dress for dinner, is letting the side down in full-length pink polyester printed with enormous yellow roses. She matches the dining-room curtains, which for some strange reason makes her happy.
The food is good, and although it’s seriously overpriced, Helen and I don’t complain, because Amy’s picking up the tab. This bio-wotsit business must pay well, because she even orders a bottle of Merlot. Everything is fine, until she says, ‘I do like your earrings, Lovey.’
Oh no! I try to signal her to drop the subject, but it’s too late by thirty years, and Helen is already on the case.‘You’ve always had an eye for jewellery, haven’t you, dear? Did you ever find Granny’s diamond earrings?’
I put down my fork and swallow a gulp of wine.
‘Mum, I never had Granny’s earrings.’
‘Yes, you did. I lent them to you for your eighteenth.’
‘That was in 1990, and I gave them back to you.’
Amy stops picking tomato out of her salad. ‘Do you mean those old-fashioned dangly things? I know where they are. Dad gave them to Dogface.’ Her words fall like a thunderclap from a clear sky. The timid waitress who is offering us the dessert menu, sees Helen’s expression and backs off. ‘Do you mean to say your bloody father gave his girlfriend my mother’s diamonds?’
‘Don’t worry, it’s okay,’ says Amy. ‘She had them valued. They’re not real diamonds.’
After Helen has stormed off to her room, I indulge in chocolate mousse therapy while my sister polishes off the Merlot.
‘Oh, bugger. Have I blown it, Lovey?’
‘You never can tell with Mum. Maybe she’ll be in a better mood tomorrow.’
At breakfast, the waitress steers clear of us. I point out to Helen that Dogface must have ripped my stepfather a new one for giving her fake diamonds. As a result, she cheers up and orders the full English. Amy is hung over, toying with a piece of toast. She says, ‘I don’t know when I’ve had a worse night’s sleep.’
With a mischievous chuckle, Helen looks up from the sausage she’s dissecting. ‘I do. Cornwall in 1999, the solar eclipse. You and I were fast asleep in our tent, until Lovey collapsed it on top of us. She was mucking about with that hippie boy she used to live with, and they lost their balance.’
This tickles Amy so much that she laughs into her orange juice, snorting it all over the table. ‘Lost your balance, did you, Lovey? What on earth were you doing?’
I remember every shaming detail of the position my ex and I had been attempting, and exactly how we lost our balance, but there’s no way I’m going to draw my mother and sister a diagram. Furious at being made to recall a long-forgotten night of bad cider and worse sex, I allow a red mist to overwhelm me. ‘I don’t know why you’re laughing, Amy. As I recall, you threw a tantrum because it was too cloudy to watch the eclipse.’
‘That was perfectly understandable behaviour,’ says my sister, ‘from a disappointed seven-year-old. Remind me, what age were you?’
It’s my turn to retreat to the sanctuary of my en-suite. Feeling suddenly homesick for our little gang at the Community Centre, I text Bub. ‘How’s everything?’ A pause, then her reply buzzes in.
What’s all this? Has Mrs Scraggy Bun developed an interest in classical music? Or is it wrong predictive text for….? No, I’ve got it. Predictive has struck again, but it’s not the four-letter-word I first thought of. I’d forgotten all about the rum debacle. I need to go on a fudge hunt, but I can’t possibly leave Helen and Amy alone together, or they’ll gang up on me.
I find them in the lounge, pretending to read year-old copies of ‘Hello’, and announce that we need some fresh air. Half an hour later, we’re undergoing the full horror of a British holiday venue in January. All the tourist shops are full of discounted Christmas merchandise, the pretty High Street is blocked by Saturday parking and a persistent drizzle penetrates our city rain-wear within minutes. To make it worse, in my trainers I can cope with the picturesque cobbles, but Amy’s shiny boots have spectacular heels, and Helen’s feet are the only parts of her body she will admit are ageing. Our expedition grinds to a halt outside a cosy-looking coffee shop, with ornate cream confections displayed in its bijou bow window. Helen almost drools at the sight.
‘I’m not walking a step further without coffee and a cake.’
‘Can’t you wait, Mum?’ A vision of returning to face Erica and Bub without my penalty gift flashes across my mind, and it isn’t pretty. ‘I really have to buy some fudge.’
‘Well, I really have to sit down and eat something.’
‘I’m with Mum,’ says Amy. ‘These cobbles are mad. One wrong step and I’ll break an ankle.’
As I feared, they’re ganging up on me, and it’s too much for my jangled nerves. ‘I give up. There’s no doing anything with you two. It’s one squabble after another. Amy, I don’t know why you suggested this bonding weekend. It was never going to work. As for you, Mum….’
‘Mind your words, dear, or I won’t invite you to my wedding.’
Amy and I laugh so loud that passers-by turn to look at us. I say, ‘Why would you want to get married, at your age?’
‘Why not? It’s on my bucket list. I’ve never been married before, and I love a party.’
‘Were you thinking of marrying anyone in particular?’ says Amy
In perfect stereo, Amy and I scream, ‘Whose father?’
A small crowd gathers. One look from Helen, and they disperse. ‘Amy, if Dogface sent your father back to me in a basket, with clipped nails and a bow on his dick, I wouldn’t have him. Lovage’s Dad and I are getting married. He came to stay with me last month, and I popped the question.’
My heart takes refuge in my sensible shoes. ‘Are you sure about this, Mum? You and John were never good together.’
‘We were too young when you were born. Things are different now. Two pensions are better than one, and the sex is fabulous.’
My sister’s face is a mask of disgust. ‘You can’t do it, Mum.’
‘Of course we can. We’re only just seventy.’
I almost feel sorry for Amy, who’s trying to tear out her hair without disturbing her blow-dry. ‘I’m not talking about your crumbly attempts at coitus’, she says. ‘You can’t get married because I need you to sell the estate. Where else am I going to get the deposit to buy a house?’
Bub was right. Amy does want something.
‘No way,’ says Helen. ‘My land has been in our family for over a century.’
‘Only because it’s so crap nobody wants it!’
‘Actually,’ I say, ‘when I was over there I spoke to the sheep farmer next door, and he’s interested.’
Mum quivers with rage. ‘Have you been trying to sell my property to the neighbours?’
The pussy of truth is out of the bag, and there’s no way to shove it back in. The three of us are jostled by busy shoppers while we freeze on the brink of an emotional abyss. That’s when I spy a nearby shop sign. The word ‘FUDGE’ is winking at me, in bright pink illuminated letters.
‘We’ll talk about this later,’ I say. ‘Come on. There’s a fudge shop.’
The shopkeeper greets me at the door. He looks as if he’s seen better days. Averting my eyes from the ‘sale’ signs hovering around me like fluorescent vultures, I say, ‘I’ll have a pound of your finest rum fudge, please.’
Behind me, Helen and Amy release two days’ worth of pent-up anger in gasps of horror. Hearing them, I look around. The cramped premises is stuffed with racks of cheesecloth dresses, rows of sequinned clutch bags and lines of dusty candles. There’s no fudge.
In my hurry, I’ve made a silly mistake, and the shopkeeper vents his frustration on me. ‘Are you taking the proverbial, woman? This is a gift shop! The name is a play on words. Can you understand that? Or are you as illiterate as everyone else? Don’t you know that the word “fudge” means a bringing together of disparate items or opinions, to form a satisfying whole?’
I’m desperate to tell him where he gets off, but I’m gagged by embarrassment. What would Bub say? I’m struggling to channel my friend, when my mother steps in front of me. ‘Of course we know what fudge is. It’s tempting, and people want to buy it. Satisfying, you say? I’ve never seen such a load of old tat in all my days.’
Amy flanks her, bristling protectively. ‘My sister didn’t mean to take the piss. It’s your own fault, for giving your shop such a dumb name. Leave her alone.’
‘Aye,’ says Mum. ‘Leave my wee girl alone, you gobshite..
We retreat in good order, but have to move fast to dodge the barrage, of faulty bath bombs and leaky lip gloss, aimed at us by the disgruntled shopkeeper. Outside a supermarket, we pause for breath. ‘Look,’ says Amy. ‘Fifty percent off all Christmas confectionery.’
When we get back to the hotel, clutching bags overflowing with fudge, truffles and all things rum – including a bottle of actual rum – a young man is waiting for us in the foyer. He’s built like a brick outhouse, and has a beard so magnificent that I barely notice the rest of his face.
Amy embraces as much of the newcomer as she can reach. ‘This is Ivor,’ she says, and the beard emits a low rumbling sound, like a cart over cobbles. Ivor turns out to be Amy’s significant other, and he’s staying over.
That evening we enjoy a fine family dinner in the hotel, with two bottles of Chardonnay paid for by Helen. We all have dessert, and tip the traumatised waitress generously.
‘It’s okay if you and John want to keep the estate, Mum,’ says Amy. ‘Ivor and I have a plan B.’
‘And what is this Plan B, if I may ask?’
‘We’re going to live with Lovey, while we save for a deposit.’
A few days later, back at the Community Centre, Erica is delighted with my offerings. Having also managed to shame Myrtle into replacing the rum Bub and I drank, she’s now well ahead of the game. I tell Bub about my weekend away. She says, ‘When are your sister and her hipster moving in?’
‘Next week. They’re going to help me plan Mum and Dad’s wedding.’
‘Well, you’ve only got yourself to blame, girl. You said you wanted 2020 to be full of surprises.’
Loarn is currently trying to place her first crime novel and working on a range of short stories she aims to self-publish this year. Her day job is supporting hearing-impaired university students, she also volunteers and has recently passed British Sign Language Level 2. ‘The Penalty Fudge’ is the latest instalment in her series ‘Up the Community Centre‘ which she generously writes for Funny Pearls.