ReadingRoom

Short story: Last Drinks, by Laura Borrowdale

"The countdown clock ticks 2, then 1, then the prime minister raises her drink": dystopia, by Ōtautahi writer Laura Borrowdale.

You stand in the centre of the room, and around you, the guests seem to swirl and blend into one. There’s a mouth, gaping and red, filled with laughter. A yellow dress turns a corner and the skirt flares out as a woman runs too fast in the house. There are hands waving as noise tumbles over and around you, and there are voices and voices and voices.

You take a breath and draw it all in, holding the mess inside you, churning in your gut like your drink. The glass in your hand is cold and wet, the drops of condensation welling at your fingers, the meniscus bursting. When you look down, there are long streaks of water down the satin of your cocktail dress.

You’re moving through honey as you place the glass on the sideboard, everything slow and sickly, and you hold the edge of the wood for a moment as you struggle for balance in a constantly moving world. You need Tom.

“You need a drink!” Alison snatches up your glass, and the world comes into focus for a moment. The sideboard, its sixties perfection, Alison’s carefully curated art glass, the brass lamp, the dark ring where the water from your glass has stained the wood.

“No, I’m ok, Allie. I just. I mean, I think I’ve ruined your sideboard.”

“Doesn’t matter tonight, does it? I’m headed back into the kitchen- what can I get you?’’

“I think I’ve had enough.”

“Nonsense. We’re not at the end yet, Sarah.”  She moves briskly, like she isn’t as drunk as you know she is. She swipes a hand at the watermark, but doesn’t even look to see if she made a difference.

“Allie,” you call out. “I haven’t seen Tom for a while. Do you know where he is?”

She turns back for a moment. “He’ll be somewhere. Maybe in the den.”

*

The anxiety has chased you all day. You changed the sheets on the children’s beds, the outlines of their little bodies indented in the rumpled folds before you yanked them from the bed. You wash them, and they erupt from the machine warm and wet, spilling out of the machine and into the basket. On the line, they flap like stingrays, the linen-y fresh smell surrounding you.

You stand by the front gate on the way back in, watching and waiting, the dog at your heels, his head hung low, even though his tail still wags slowly, beating against your leg. But the green clouds roil in the sky behind the hills, and you can wait just as well inside.

You feed the children, and you feed them again. You cut apples, still plentiful, falling off the neighbourhood trees. There’s the end of a loaf of bread and you toast it and slather it in jam. Your daughter laughs in delight as a drip runs down her wrist. She follows it with her tongue back up to the source, her toast crumb cheeks stretched in a smile.

At the sink, hot water and dishes and your hands up to the elbow. It’s too hot, but you can just about bear it, so you do and you watch the front gate some more, just in case, because surely he’ll be home soon.

The kids sit in front of the tv, a cartoon in dusty colours, animals racing across a barren landscape, the kind of barren you might have imagined before. You sit on the floor in front of them, and your son rests a chubby foot on your shoulder. Your daughter leans down to whisper in your ear, her long hair swinging at your neck. She smells of grass and raspberries.

The children are still hungry, and although you said you’d wait, you’re not sure you can any more. The watch you turn around and around on your wrist says 5 o’clock.

The three of you pull open the pantry, and although it’s been basically empty for days, you let them find the packet of chocolate biscuits you’d saved from months ago when they were still in the shops.

There’s such greedy glee on their faces, but you follow the rules and get out a plate. The kids arrange the biscuits into a circle and you all sit on the sofa.

It’s funny that before, the children, the white linen couch and chocolate would set you alight, but now, you just let them take one after another after another.

You bath them, splashing the water, tipping full plastic cups of water over your son’s head, his hair running in streams down his face, his wide eyes full of joy and chocolate biscuits and the delight of an adult being silly. You stroke their arms and legs stretched out in the water, their bodies pink and brown, their skin pruney at the ends, and it isn’t til the water starts to turn cold that your daughter asks to get out.

It’s nearly bedtime, but there are things to do before you can move onto the next thing. You stack the dishes that have drained by the sink, you boil the kettle for cocoa, you squash the biscuit packet into the bin. You look out the window, just in case, but there is nothing.

*

The corridor is less full of people, and you stumble past them, stopping to lean against the wall and wait for the dizziness to die down.

A girl you went to school with tumbles out of Alison’s spare bedroom, followed by a man whose wife was cutting snacks in the kitchen last time you saw her. The girl, you can’t remember her name - was it Livvy? - has a mess of dark hair falling out of a bun, one side tangled and mussed. She looks at you and shrugs. The man laughs.

You’ve been looking for Tom all day. But he’s been gone, and it doesn’t matter where. But you’re hoping he’ll make it right, now.

In the den, wood-lined, dark ceiling, low slung longline couches, he’s standing in a group of men. He has a beer in his hand- one of the only things that has seemed to increase in supply, rather than the incremental diminishment of everything else. The ring of men are laughing and there are all kinds of hand gestures you’re not prepared to interpret.

He looks up and sees you, and his face changes. The drunken bravado falls away for a moment before you see it roll back over his face.

“Sarah,” he calls, “come over here and meet my old friend Ed. Not sure you’ve met before.”

Ed looks at the ground, turns his can in his hand. You nod at him, the futility of introductions.

“Tom, it’s nearly time.”

But he hasn’t had the weight of today, he hasn’t done what you’ve done, and he’s talking with the boys. You stand beside him, unable to compete, but not prepared to go. You wish you were at home with the children.

Finally, Allie breezes in, her hair somehow still perfect, a fresh glass in her hand.

“It’s time, everyone. Come on, into the lounge with you. Last drinks,” she calls and the men all raise their cans to her. Tom crushes his in the middle.

“Need another first, Allie,” he says, and she smiles.

“Plenty in the other room, doll, but it’s nearly the announcement, and we don’t want to ruin everything, do we?”

*

The dog might be the hardest part. It’s certainly the first commitment. You hoped that he’d be here to help. You hoped that you wouldn’t have to do this alone. But you know how he is.

You split the pill open down the middle, the powdery insides scattering into the ramekin. You shake it over a thin slice of beef, then roll it up like a cigar.

“Timmy. Timmy,”  you call, the old yellow dog thumping his tail against the floor before ambling over. He’s bigger than you thought, or maybe you were expecting your husband to be here, to help. But you can see he’s too big for you to be able to lift, especially as a deadweight. The right height to rest your hand on his head as he stands beside you.

“Bed, Timmy. Bed,”  you say, and the tail thumps again. He looks at the meat, and at his bed. “Bed, Timmy.”

You walk with him, your free hand resting on his spine. His bones stick through, the months of rations have cut hardest with him. In the basket, he lies, looking at you sideways so he can keep the beef you’re holding in view as well, the tip of his tail flicking side to side. He licks his chops.

You lean into the basket, sit down beside it, kiss his nose, run your hand across his brow, let his ears play through your fingers.

“Love you, boy,” you say, and you lower the beef in your closed hand to his nose. He whines and you open your palm, letting him lap it off your hand. He tips his head back as he snaps at the meat. You rest your head on his side, your fingers tangled in the shaggy ruff of hair under his collar. He turns his head towards you, still licking at your fingers, and then his head rests heavily on your hand, and the rise and fall of his chest slows under your head.

From the kitchen, you go up to the children, in their dressing gowns in front of the tv.

“Come on, you two. It’s bedtime,” you say.

*

“This is it, folks. Last drinks. Please make sure your glass is full.” Allie is flushed, her face glowing, and she’s tucked herself under her husband’s armpit, looking up adoringly as he speaks.

“So I know this has been a tough time for us all, but we’re lucky to have had a government looking out for us. Always there with a handout,” and some of the men chuckle, especially those that you know did not vote for this government. Behind Todd, the television is on mute, but there’s our prime minister and there are the ministry officials and they’re standing in front of a huge countdown clock, and each of them is holding a glass of water and a tightly clenched fist.

“And if the handout this time were the pills you’re all holding, well, it’s just to keep us safe,’ he continues. “These last months have made it clear the emergency is getting worse, not better, and we’re seeing what’s happening in other places, and if I can, let me remind you that it’s become clear that we need to do this now or risk a far worse death. So here’s to us! And to our last drink.”

He throws the pill from his left hand into his mouth, followed by raising the glass in his right to his mouth. Behind him, the countdown clock ticks 2, then 1, then the prime minister raises her drink.

You are standing close enough to Tom that you can feel him shaking. He calls out “To us!” as loudly as everyone else, and he raises his tablets to his mouth, but you know he’s scared. You’ve known he’s a coward all day, ever since he left you with the children and the dog and the things to be done. And you’re glad that he’s swallowing. You’re glad that you know how gentle this will be but that he does not. He hasn’t seen that slow slipping away, and he thinks it might hurt, and for his sake you hope that it does.

But you put your own pills to your mouth and you swill a mouthful of wine. You close your eyes and you think of the old yellow dog at the gate, the children in their peaceful beds.

*

The mug gleams in the low light of your daughter’s nightlight. You close the book you’ve been reading, its yellowing pages so familiar, a book from your childhood, and you place the bookmark in the pages where you stopped, and you slip it back into the bookshelf.

On the bedside table, a drip of cocoa has run down the side of your daughter’s mug. It’s dried, a powdery trail, an earthy brown ring on the surface of the glossy white table.

You pick up the mug, cupping the cold porcelain in your hands. There is a trickle of cocoa at the bottom. You have to resist sipping it. You take the mug, wipe the top of the bedside table, pause at the door and try not to look back.

Laura Borrowdale's first book of short stories Sex, with Animals (Dead Bird Books, $30) is available in bookstores at the end of June, and is available now from the publisher. Next week's short story is by Elizabeth Smither.

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