On the thirty-first of December, Emily locked the door, closed the curtains and played classical music to drown out all noise from outside. She started with Chopin. Outside the sun was shining. Beams of sunlight crept through gaps in the curtains and she had to keep tugging them shut. She dusted the bookshelves and cleaned the bathroom, all the while pretending it was evening, a Tuesday, somewhere in January.
Around noon someone in the street set of a couple of firecrackers, and Emily twisted the volume knob on her stereo. Even at maximum volume, the delicate, haunting strains of Chopin’s nocturnes couldn’t quite drown out the racket from outside. She put on Mozart instead. The kitchen was next. She emptied out all her cupboards and vacuumed up the spilt rice that lurked in the corners. She filled the sink with hot, soapy water and washed the outside of the honey jar, the bottle of olive oil, the flasks of balsamic, soy sauce and tabasco. There was a lump of ice at the back of the fridge and she hacked at it with a spoon until it broke off, then wiped the shelves until they sparkled. She spent more than an hour cleaning the stove top, applying baking soda, vinegar, ammonia and everything else the internet suggested. She scrubbed until her fingers were raw and bleeding. It didn’t hurt. This wasn’t pain, but she told herself that it was. She ran cold water over her hands and bandaged her fingertips. It was mid-afternoon, and Mozart was still keeping the outside world at bay.
A week’s worth of groceries were stacked haphazardly on the kitchen counter. Emily took a knife and chopping board. Slowly and methodically, she diced carrots and onions, tore broccoli into florets, cut tofu into cubes and set them in marinade. She told herself she always did this, one evening a week. Meal prepping was a glorious invention. She crammed everything into mismatched tupperware and old ice cream tubs which she stacked neatly in the fridge.
Five years ago, she thought, I was making canapés.
Cherry tomatoes, brie, cranberries, blinis, olives, red onion chutney, mozzarella balls, onion rings. A hundred thousand different flavours and textures. Her friends had come over. She remembered the seven of them dancing around each other in the kitchen while the stereo played 80s hits that they loved despite their awfulness. She remembered singing along to the instrumental bits while they passed around a bottle of wine. Five years. A lifetime ago.
Mozart’s symphonies filled the apartment as Emily wiped the counter a final time. The kitchen gleamed, but the floors were dirty. It was late afternoon now, and the world behind the curtains was slowly darkening. If she took her time, she thought she could make vacuuming and mopping last an hour and a half. Her vacuum was old and noisy and the cord kept tangling around chairs, but it took her only fifteen minutes. Too quick, she’d never fill the time. She went over the apartment again, trying to go slow, but the mundane noisiness of it all was too soothing and this time it only took twelve minutes. She mopped the floors with the tiniest strokes possible. The all-purpose cleaner smelt sickeningly of lily-of-the-valley but she couldn’t open a window. There was another bottle of cleaning fluid at the back of the cupboard and she mopped its fake lemon scent over her floors.
Four years ago, she thought, I just swept the worst dust bunnies under the sofa.
That year, she had invited over her relatives to celebrate. An assortment of aunts and uncles and cousins had come, and it didn’t matter that the apartment was not sparkling clean because they were all loud and comfortably messy. One brought wine, another bread and cheese, a third had baked a cake. Someone broke a glass and that patch of floor was properly cleaned and vacuumed but only because no one wanted to start the new year with a shard of glass in their foot. Her mother had been there too, and her father, and…
Emily stopped Mozart mid-symphony, and put on something particularly bombastic of Beethoven’s. It was after sunset, and she was hungry. If she spent an hour cooking something fancy and complicated, she could spend an hour cleaning the kitchen again. She toyed with the idea, but in the end she couldn’t face an elaborate meal. She opened a tin of soup and heated it on the stove, stirring with a wooden spoon. Usually she had toast with soup, but nothing could burn today. She ate her soup with a piece of limp white bread, then washed the bowl and the spoon as slowly as she could.
Three years ago, she thought, I went to that rooftop bar.
It had been freezing outside, but no one wanted to be inside behind the floor-to-ceiling windows at midnight. There had been people on all sides. Laughter, shouting, singing. The lights of the city below had been softened by the fog to a fairytale glitter. Sleet had melted into cocktail glasses. The memories glowed hazy around the edges, mellowed by champagne and cranberry margaritas. She couldn’t remember being cold that night.
It was evening and there was nothing left to clean except the windows, but that was for another time. There were still things to tidy, there always were. Emily opened the door of her wardrobe and swept the contents to the floor into a great jumbled pile. There were skirts she never wore and shirts with holes. Dresses that were so delicate they wouldn’t last the week. Itchy woollen jumpers that had been knitted by great-aunts with more kindness than skill. She tossed them in a corner. Some people made New Year’s resolutions to clear out their closet and live with a capsule wardrobe, but that was not was she was doing. This was spring cleaning. Or summer cleaning. Anything but midwinter. She found a few hand-me-downs that she pushed back into the wardrobe without looking.
Two years ago, she thought, I was wearing a sparkly dress and high heels.
One of her friends had thrown a fancy dinner party, the kind where there were little name cards on the table and three different forks. The clink of glasses had provided a gentle rhythm to their chatter about work. Mean bosses, horrible co-workers, the lack of decent coffee. As the night wore on, the rhythm had become faster and they had talked about everything else. Holidays in far-flung places, concerts they had been to, books they had read, parties when they were younger, parties they would have when they were older.
Emily closed the wardrobe door. There were too many hours left in the day. She had already dusted the bookshelves, but she could dust them again and sort the books in different ways. She sorted them by colour first. That was stupid. Then she sorted them by topic, by size, by age, by anything she could think of before she put them back as they were, alphabetically by the author’s surname. She didn’t touch the shelf of books from her childhood that her parents had read to her. Her mother had probably called her a hundred times already, and her father would want to meet tomorrow. She pulled the books off the shelf and started again.
She would not think about the previous year.
Emily wandered through her apartment. What was there left to do? There were books she hadn’t read, but she couldn’t sit down now and read them. There were movies she hadn’t seen, but this was not the time. On her laptop was a folder containing thousands of photos, going back more than a decade, that she had been meaning to sort for ages. But not now. Beethoven was still doing his best to keep the bangs and cheers and shrill whistles outside. Flickers of light in different colours showed through the curtains. Emily sat in the hallway, away from the windows. Midnight. She stared at the wall and counted to a thousand.
Seventeen minutes past midnight. That was the moment. Her stomach was swooping and there was something in her lungs and a ringing in her ears. She continued counting. Five hundred seconds. Twenty-five minutes past midnight. Eight minutes, that was the average response time for an ambulance. Faintly, through the Beethoven’s thunderous melodies, she heard sirens. She stuffed her fingers in her ears and hummed along with the music. Eight minutes could be an eternity.
She had thought, perhaps, that she could sleep after midnight, when the noise and lights had died down. Of course she couldn’t. She remained where she was and let her muscles grow stiff and sore. When dawn crept around the edges of the curtains, she got to her feet and pulled on her shoes and jacket. It was late enough for the last revellers to have staggered home to bed, but too early for dog walkers and joggers who couldn’t wait to get started on their New Year’s resolutions. It was foggy outside and there were dark puddles on the street. Perhaps it had rained last night or perhaps it was blood. A faint gunpowder whiff of burnt fireworks still lingered in the air. It clawed at her throat. Burnt sparklers had been crammed into an overflowing trash can and she wondered how many people felt like that today, sodden and useless and disappointed after a brief spark of euphoria. She stepped over smashed beer bottles and empty firework cartridges. How many eyes and fingers had been lost? How many lives?
The gate to the graveyard was closed but she climbed it easily. She knew the way by heart now. The stone was a little more weathered every day, but the date of death was still clearly visible: 1 January 2019. She crouched down and touched the stone with her fingertips.
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Wow Marte, I loved the way you introduced great aunts with more kindness than skill... I was carried along with your character who was trying so hard to not celebrate... The very end of your tale left me gasping as it all made sense... That final line that brought the whole thing together... Nicely written...
Thank you for reading! What a lovely comment!
I read this story three times already, your plot line is genius and your writing style is amazing! Best wishes to you!
Glad you enjoyed it! Best wishes to you too!