WRITTEN BY ELAINE CHONG
Since her sister passed away, Jack and Annie’s elderly neighbour was getting through quite a lot of their favourite tipple…
“That the blazes is Amontillado?” Jack asked as he walked into the kitchen waving a shopping list.
“It’s Mary’s favourite sherry,” Annie replied, plucking the piece of paper from his outstretched hand and scanning the contents. “Apparently, it’s not too sweet and not too dry.”
“What you might call medium sherry, then,” Jack said with a twinkle in his eye.
Annie cuffed him playfully
“Don’t be cheeky!”
“I’d swear there was sherry on last week’s list, too,” he remarked.
“There was. Something called Oloroso, if I remember correctly.”
“What’s she doing with it? Watering the flaming geraniums?”
“You know what she’s doing with it.”
In the house next door, Mary Bury was setting out sherry glasses on a silver tray. They were very old and very fragile; Mary’s hands trembled when she washed them, but Alice had insisted that they be used and not left to collect dust.
Alice had insisted on many things, and it had given Mary a sense of purpose to continue to follow Alice’s wishes when she had first found herself at home alone.
It was comforting to do the things they had always done together
The afternoon ritual of sharing a glass of sherry and a small slice of Madeira cake was something they had both enjoyed; it was comforting to do the things they had always done together.
“We just need to keep an eye on her, now that she’s on her own,” Annie was telling Jack. She folded the paper and slipped it into her purse. “She’s grieving,” she went on. “You forget: she spent her whole life living with her sister. This is her way of coping.”
“Well, if she goes on drinking Alice’s share of the sherry, then she won’t be long for this world either,” he said. “I’m telling you, she’s losing the plot.”
“Don’t be unkind,” Annie scolded.
“I’m serious,” he said. “She’s still putting two of everything on that battered old silver tray. I saw her just now: two china plates; two cake forks; two sherry glasses.”
“She misses Alice dreadfully. It probably makes her feel better to pretend that she’s still there.”
“Maybe you should say something,” Jack suggested. “You know… point out to her that seeing as Alice has passed over, she can’t eat cake any more.”
Playfully Annie grabbed hold of his tie and pretended to tighten the knot around his throat.
“All the subtlety of a brick, that’s you, Jack. People deal with loss in their own ways – I’m sure she’ll be fine in a while.”
Mary carried the tray into the sitting-room, taking special care not to spill the sherry. It was the rich, amber-coloured Oloroso. It had a strong, nutty flavour and this was the last of it.
Mary was secretly relieved. She’d emptied the last dregs of the bottle into Alice’s glass. It was rather full and would undoubtedly earn her a stern look of disapproval.
The Madeira cake was homemade; it had been their mother’s recipe, and it was a favourite with both sisters. Mary was fond of cake and had cut herself quite a generous slice.
She’d spent the morning polishing the silver tray until it shone like a mirror. When she looked down, she could see her face in it; her expression was hopeful but also a little bit fearful. She hated goodbyes.
“I think I’ll pick these things up for Mary straight away,” Annie told Jack, putting her purse into her bag. “It’s only a few bits and pieces, and I need to collect my coat from the dry cleaner’s.”
Jack was already engrossed in the football pages of the newspaper; he grunted a reply when she placed an affectionate kiss on his cheek.
The smell of freshly cut grass still clung to his skin, and tiny spots of green speckled his hair. He’d spent most of the early afternoon mowing their long stretch of lawn – and Mary’s, too. He was a kind man, she thought to herself – with a warm, infectious grin.
As she unlocked the car, she glanced across the garden fence into Mary’s front window. The heavy net curtain made it impossible to tell whether anyone was home, but she guessed that Mary would be sitting in her usual comfortable chair next to the fire.
It made Annie smile to remember how the two sisters would sit in the darkened room at either side of the low, stone hearth – “like a pair of worn out old bookends,” Jack used to say.
Mary was standing in the middle of the room with a glass of sherry in one hand
In fact, Mary was standing in the middle of the room with a glass of sherry in one hand and a slice of the Madeira in the other. Little crumbs of cake trickled between her fingers onto the carpet, but she didn’t seem to notice.
With shaking hands, she raised the glass to her lips and downed the last mouthful of amber liquid. Alice always said that it reminded her of Christmas pudding. It wasn’t exactly unpleasant, if you liked the flavour of sun-dried raisins, Mary reflected.
She took a big bite of cake, smiled and closed her eyes, letting the buttery, lemony sponge melt in her mouth.
All at once, the grandfather clock in the hallway chimed. Quickly Mary took her place to the left of the hearth as the clock counted down to the hour.
On the last stroke of four, the air around the chair began to glow faintly. Mary held her breath as slowly Alice materialised in her usual place on the other side of the hearth.
Annie found a space to park her car and then collected her coat from the cleaners. It made her sad to think of Mary sitting by herself and drinking too much sherry, to fill the well of loneliness she now endured.
Quickly she made her way inside the supermarket. She walked purposefully up and down the aisles, checking the shopping list for the items Mary needed. On the sherry shelf, it didn’t take long to find a bottle marked Amontillado.
She drove straight home, and was surprised to see Jack standing in the front garden when she arrived.
Jack was pacing up and down the path
He was pacing up and down the path. When he recognised the vehicle and its driver, a look of profound relief replaced his expression of anguished agitation.
“I think we should call the police,” he said to her as soon as she had got out of the car.
“Why? What’s going on?” she asked.
“All sorts!” he exclaimed. “Shouting; plates breaking; glasses smashing…”
Mary sat in her comfortable chair next to the low, stone hearth and waited for Alice to materialise once again. She was surrounded by pieces of shattered glass and fractured china.
The chair on the opposite side of the hearth rose from the floor and then crashed to the ground, making a horrible crunching sound as the wooden frame twisted and broke apart.
“You can stop that right now!” Mary shouted. “Look at all this mess – and who’s going to have to clear it all up? Not you!”
Mary recognised the angry, petulant expression
Alice re-appeared on the other side of the hearth. Mary recognised the angry, petulant expression on her pale face. She took a deep breath.
“We can’t keep doing this. I know it’s been hard for you to leave, but the thing is, Alice, it’s time for you to move on. You’ve been hanging around these last few weeks since… well, since you know what… and I’ve decided that I’ve had enough.” She hurried on. “I’ve always loved you, Alice – you’re my only sister – but I really don’t need you hanging around here any more.”
Alice looked surprised.
With a heavy heart, Mary stood up and walked over to the window. She reached up, grasped the pole which held the net curtain, and dragged it down. The room was flooded with sunlight.
She didn’t want to order Alice to leave the house. She’d never ordered Alice to do anything before – but when she turned around she found that Alice had already left, leaving only a lingering sweet scent of sherry behind her.