Fiction — 29 April 2016

short story contest

by

Scott Derry

photo “Frozen Berries” by Nana B Agyel, Create Commons License

Editor’s Note: This is the winning story in our 5th annual Southern Pacific Review Short Story Contest. It is high art. Creative writing at its finest. Technically flawless, confident, witty, and just so intensely sad.  Not an easy read. Its persistence tends not just to show to but evoke in the reader the same irritation and, yes, even tedium that Mrs Delaney’s neurotic persuasions and rituals evoke in her extended family.   A meticulously plotted, brilliant character study with a pitch-perfect ending.
Mrs Delaney’s Crumbling Façade

I. A Brief History of The Gathering

The Gathering was planned to celebrate what would’ve been the ninety-fourth birthday of Delaney’s Great Aunt Eliza. Had a disappearing host not intervened, its highlight would’ve been Delaney’s mother’s presentation of one of her famous hot and cold buffets, tended to throughout the day and laid out with love and care on her kitchen table, which would, after a ceremonial unveiling, have been surrounded by guests sharing their enjoyment of either a hectic or a quiet Christmas. Because Christmas is always enjoyable. Nobody admits to their family and friends they haven’t enjoyed Christmas, even if such displeasure has occurred. Some things are inviolable.

Christmases were wonderful during Delaney’s childhood. He and his twin sister spent the mornings emptying man-size sacks of their gifts, sacks which were too large and clean to have been squeezed down their chimney, which was only a flue pipe behind a gas fire and so in any case Father Christmas must’ve needed an alternative means of entry. This didn’t deter their parents from promoting the idea that magic was at play in the big man’s descent.

Delaney and his sister took turns opening gifts so their parents were each able to watch both of them and enjoy their reactions without missing out on the other’s. Post dinner, afternoons were spent at Green Rock Lane, at the house Delaney’s paternal grandma shared with her sister, Great Aunt Eliza, where more gifts waited. The sacks there were smaller but the gifts inside equally as shiny and alluring.

Delaney’s family returned to Green Rock Lane two days after each Christmas to celebrate Eliza’s birthday. The house there always seemed too small to accommodate the same group of reserved and refined adults and elderly relatives who’d attend each year, but numbers thinned as guests passed away and as infirmity precluded others’ attendance, and for several years The Gathering was attended only by Eliza, Delaney’s paternal grandma, and Delaney’s immediate family, i.e. he, his parents, and his sister. His grandma’s move to Greenacres and her inability to return home for Eliza’s birthdays was countered by Delaney inviting his girlfriend and his sister inviting her boyfriend. Eventually, Eliza’s increasing age and loss of mobility led to The Gathering’s relocation to the Delaney family home and to invitations being extended to include the immediate families of Delaney’s girlfriend and his sister’s boyfriend, and extended later to include Delaney’s girlfriend’s four siblings and their partners and children. The Gathering’s growth was finally stemmed by the eldest of Delaney’s girlfriend’s two younger sisters having borne three sons to three fathers of equal ill-repute, causing Delaney’s mother, despite her love of family and her generally welcoming all to her own family’s bosom, to insist that three steroid-assisted and tattooed bodybuilders were under no terms welcome to attend what’s historically been a gentle celebration of a life lived selflessly and modestly, especially given their aggressive competition for the attention of the mother of their children. No. Delaney’s mother suggested to invite them wouldn’t be conducive to other guests’ contribution to or enjoyment of the desired celebratory atmosphere.  

Both Delaney and his sister married late in Eliza’s life and, via their respective marriages, produced three children for their great aunt to cherish and to spoil with fuss and sweet treats on the few occasions she saw them before her admittance to hospital midway through her ninetieth year, from where she didn’t return. Since Eliza’s passing, Delaney’s parents have often spent the cold mornings of her birthday visiting Bloxwich cemetery. There, they’ve tidied the area around her headstone whilst remembering her cheerfulness and that she was without doubt the most selfless person they’ve ever known. Their whispered conversations at the cemetery won’t have included mention of Eliza never marrying or raised the question of whether her celibacy allowed her selflessness or whether her selflessness contributed to her celibacy.

Delaney’s mother told her son how it was easier—no, not easier, less hectic, because ‘it’d be unfair to associate a death, especially of somebody as lovely as Eliza, with things becoming easier,’ she insisted—but that organising and preparing for The Gathering was less hectic now a portion of the afternoon was no longer lost visiting Eliza on her birthday. It was during this conversation, on the first 27th December after Eliza’s passing, that Delaney wondered for the first time about what The Gathering had come to represent in recent years. Had the event become a celebration of Eliza’s birthday in name only and not in sentiment? Delaney thought then and still believes the answer lies in the fact more than half the attendees of recent gatherings hadn’t known Eliza beyond brief introductions at family functions, and some of them hadn’t known her at all.

Had a disappearing host not caused The Gathering to be cancelled, Delaney’s wife would’ve assisted with his mother’s preparations despite their significant and upsetting-for-both-parties falling out several years prior, an event which has long been swept beneath the rug. The falling out left Delaney’s wife constantly afraid, suffering a semi-permanent nag in the part of her mind where memories are stored long term, out of sight but unforgotten, and leaves her still now waiting for the day Delaney’s mother feels it necessary to draw back the rug.

Delaney’s mother would’ve been grateful for the assistance provided by his wife and for that offered by his sister, too. Each year she’s been less and less able to complete her preparations with the speed and precision she’d like due to the gradual decline in the usefulness of her hands. She’d have needed assistance removing hot trays from her oven and carving meats with knives she could no longer grip. His wife and his sister would’ve dressed the table. They’d have watched Delaney’s mother’s clumsy attempts at covering savoury bites as she explained defensively how she’d never mastered the use of cling film. And so what hope was there now, she’d have said. All of the time, hovering around her spacious kitchen, Delaney’s mother would’ve pretended to go about her business as normal, pointing and directing and organising like a sports coach on the sideline, her crippled hands, hidden always in gloves, weaving patterns and drawing shapes which were involuntary extensions of her words.

That Delaney and his sister and their respective families would’ve arrived early enough to assist their mother with her preparations means, with three generations in attendance, the house would’ve been a hive of noise and activity as the first guests arrived.

The availability of more time in which to create her buffet has in recent years reduced Delaney’s mother’s stress over having everything prepared and presented by the time guests start to arrive, e.g. meats cooked and cooled, finger foods baked, trifles and other desserts prepared and set, etc. A reduction of time-related stress has allowed her to worry instead over the punctuality of her guests, and therefore, she’d argue, and has in the past argued, the degree of respect shown by them.

Delaney has suggested that if his mother considers poor timekeeping disrespectful then she should be more precise when stipulating arrival times for invitees. Through experience his mother has learned that to be vague with her preferred start time, e.g. “after lunch”, begets only trouble and stress caused by guests arriving throughout a particularly extended window of time. Delaney has also suggested to his mother that to encourage guests to arrive at random, non-specified times might easily play havoc with her unveiling her buffet or his attempts to begin The Game or both.

Regardless of the length of time taken for guests to arrive, they, the guests, would’ve during this time, had not a disappearing host caused the cancellation of The Gathering, met and acknowledged and greeted and caught up with each other whilst displaying varying degrees of delight and surprise and happiness, though to measure their happiness would’ve been pointless due to many of the guests’ two-facedness and conceitedness and the vacuous nature of their conversations which would’ve been camouflaged by ceaseless grins and smiles and OMG!s which might or mightn’t have concealed their true inner feelings about whichever other guest(s) they were with at the time.

Real or otherwise, such giddiness would’ve cooled by the time the final guests had arrived, by the time cliques had formed in certain parts of Delaney’s mother’s (and father’s) house, including both reception rooms, one of which would’ve been occupied by a gaggle of excited and noisy children eager for the lights to go down in their very own temporary cinema room. The kitchen, too, would’ve been a meeting point. Here, the proud buffet would’ve tempted all with its complementing and conflicting smells, watched over by Delaney’s mother who would’ve mock-threatened all comers with a carving knife wielded loosely in thick sheepskin mittens whilst conversing with her son and her daughter and her daughter-in-law about subjects such as her deteriorating health, the ongoing saga of modernising her house without her absent husband’s assistance, her strengthening desire to downsize, her inability to maintain her garden to the standard she desires and that which her neighbours have come to expect, her dwindling number of true and reliable friends, her ability or otherwise to cope with life in general, and other subjects which historically have been, currently are, and will continue always, she thinks, to be linked to “The Situation”.

Delaney’s mother baked a birthday cake for the second occasion of The Gathering after financial considerations had, the previous year, meant Eliza and her sister were only able to provide for their guests leftover Christmas pudding.

Boxing Day became known as baking day in the Delaney household and Delaney’s mother each year produced a fruitcake rich and boozy and flawlessly iced. Later, as her friendship with Delaney’s then girlfriend (now wife) developed, and as Delaney’s then girlfriend’s bakery skills improved, his mother suggested The Gatherings might be the ideal occasion for her to showcase her considerable talent.

Delaney’s then girlfriend’s first effort was a colourful fairground carousel. Everybody thought this appropriate as Eliza often recalled the times she escorted the Delaney twins around the fair which visits Pelsall biannually, where she oversaw their safe enjoyment of rides and where she watched and listened to their cries and laughter, where the smell of diesel clung to their clothes and where generators and music shook the ground beneath them.

Since the carousel there’s been a cake designed to look like a bag of fish and chips, a snooker table with balls of black and white and varying shades of grey (resultant of a private joke not told since Eliza’s passing), and a gardener’s tool shed with tiny pigeons perched on top. For two years running, including for the recent cancelled celebration, Delaney’s wife has produced, on the suggestion of her daughter in the first instance, a 40cm-high vanilla sponge version of Wise Wendy, an intelligent owl used in primary schools to encourage and assist in the learning of arithmetic and English. Delaney’s wife paid great attention to the detail of Wendy’s plumage and to the realism of her eyes, which were, in their several sugarpasted layers of concentric crescents, coloured white, taupe, chocolate, citrine, metallic gold, and russet. These were the things which would’ve been (were it not for the intervention of a disappearing host) and which were the previous year most gushed over by guests as they filled their plates after the buffet’s dramatic ceremonial unveiling. That Delaney’s wife felt compelled to remake Wise Wendy for the recent cancelled celebration is due entirely to the events which unfolded at the previous year’s gathering.

II. The Game (Part One) and an Introduction to “The Situation”

It was several weeks prior to the 27th that Delaney decided the game of the day would be Monopoly®. He planned to talk down advocates of Trivial Pursuit™ with a persuasive argument rooted in the bad feeling which marred the previous year’s contest. He’d argue the bad feeling was caused by certain competitors retreating to the smoking area, i.e. Delaney’s mother’s (and father’s) rear patio, where the length of time required to smoke a cigarette seemed equivalent to that needed to research using a smartphone the name of the semi-autonomous city-state which incorporated the Polish city of Gdansk during the inter-war period and, later, the name of the other French cultural icon who perished on the same day as Jean Cocteau. This prompted Delaney to insist to his father, who as organiser and administrator of The Game had the final say on such matters, that all internet-capable devices be placed on the coffee table, visible to all, for the remainder of the contest. This, Delaney’s father announced, would ensure fairness for all involved.

There was also the issue that many questions in Delaney’s mother’s edition of Trivial Pursuit™ had become outdated with the recent significant shift in The Gathering’s demographic, that many questions are based upon events which predate the birth of more than half of the contestants, which, some of them would’ve doubtless argued given the chance, causes significant disadvantage and highlights their need to use smoking breaks as a cover for web-based cheating, and that if their recourse to cheating were to be stifled then the disadvantage of their youth would, actually, be wholly unfair. Under no circumstances would Delaney have reminded them he’d been correctly answering questions on Aberfan, Profumo, and Isandlwana since his introduction to the game aged fourteen. Equally, under no circumstances would he have suggested that as Trivial Pursuit™ was a game of general knowledge, its participants might be expected to be equipped for such a contest. No, he wouldn’t have suggested that. To do so would’ve only drawn bad feeling and further encouraged cliques to develop and thus highlight divisions between certain members of Delaney’s nuclear and connubial families, something he’d desired to avoid at all costs ever since the significant and upsetting-for-both-parties falling out between his wife and his mother. It was for these reasons Delaney was determined The Game would be Monopoly®.

Before his mother’s cancellation call, Delaney and his wife had been required to make a decision re their attendance due to their daughter contracting chickenpox the previous week. Should they decide to keep her home, Delaney knew, he must decide whether or not to attend The Gathering alone.

Delaney and his wife act both as a glue and a conduit between their respective families, which, due to the possibility of cracks appearing or deepening between the two factions, isn’t only a good thing but necessary in the extreme. In all likelihood, Delaney had thought whilst deciding whether or not to attend the event without his wife and daughter, his lone gluing and conducting wouldn’t be enough to maintain the façade of good and healthy relations. His desire to attend alone was reduced further by his knowing that every conversation he’d share at The Gathering with his mother would reference in some way, however direct or tenuous the link, “The Situation”. His inability to cope, conduct, or glue well during such circumstances made his decision an easy one: he’d stay at home, and he knew as much before his mother called to cancel.

Delaney’s heart sunk on hearing, during the twenty-five minute phone conversation with his mother, that his father had returned to Alcudia. Not because his father’s return to Alcudia was necessarily a bad thing, for he’d return home again at some unknown point in the future, but because he knew he’d miss his father during his absence and that he’d feel a very deep emptiness in the pit of his stomach until his return was imminent. That Delaney was forty held no sway over his inability to control his feelings or emotions regarding his father’s regular disappearances, despite being used to them since before his teenage years due to both his father’s great work ethic, of which he was proud and envious, and to his father’s infidelity and all that resulted from that, e.g. “The Situation”, of which he plainly wasn’t proud and envious.

His mother’s revelation of his father’s departure caused Delaney to relish for a few moments the prospect of acting as organiser and administrator of The Game and at the same instant to dread it, a strange emotional cocktail which momentarily replaced the very deep emptiness in the pit of his stomach. Had The Gathering proceeded as planned, he’d have needed to speak to his connubial family with authority and garner their respect. But what if they wouldn’t respect him as they had his father in previous years because his father was a successful businessman who commanded respect in everything he did, at least in the eyes of those who weren’t aware of the cause or the gravity of “The Situation”, e.g. Delaney’s connubial family? What if they talked over him and ignored him and The Game became a farce because nobody was interested due to a lack of respect for the traditions of The Gathering? Would he need to plead to the contestants that he deserves greater respect than his father because he’s monogamous and respectful of his wife and his daughter, and that this should trump any lack of respect he deserves for his failed business ventures and that he struggles to pay the bills and sometimes relies on his wife’s supplementary income to buy groceries, and that, whilst these things mightn’t ingratiate him to them, his connubial family, he’d never fuck somebody else and jeopardise his daughter’s future happiness or equilibrium or risk have her feeling the same very deep emptiness in her stomach that he suffered and would’ve been suffering right then at the head of the table around which they would’ve been sat, faux happy, their smiles misleading, their conversations forced and sometimes awkward, playing Monopoly®?

The brief and strange cocktail of anticipation and dread passed as soon as it had arrived, and Delaney’s stomach felt once more swollen by a very deep emptiness. He recognised the feeling from other times his father had returned to Alcudia or that place or her. Most often it was just back, e.g. ‘Your dad went back again yesterday,’ as if back was enough because it didn’t reveal to where or to whom his father had returned. The very deep emptiness was a feeling of some integral part of his life having been taken away, something to which during his mid-to-late teens he’d clung like a terrier, as his mother and his sister had too, reluctant to let go, but which had eventually been ripped from their grasp and returned intermittently to provide brief respite. Despite his thinking he should’ve outgrown such feelings by his age and that he should’ve manned up or something, it’s a feeling which, when settled in his stomach, still breaks Delaney’s heart and at times makes him want to return to his childhood which was warm and cosy and full of laughter thanks to the comfort of a loving, happy family which included two grandmas and a Great Aunt Eliza.

Delaney would suggest the very deep emptiness he feels is caused in part by seeing and hearing and knowing the complete and utter uselessness his mother feels being stuck in her ongoing and perpetual predicament, and knowing he can’t do anything more than to be there for her and all that involves, which is mainly listening and offering the occasional opinion and driving her to hospital appointments as and when required, which means taking time off work, and being self-employed that means losing money and repeat custom. For none of this does he blame her, but instead his father, though blame isn’t something spoken of, it’s more that it’s just there, present, huge in its obviousness and its eternity. His mother doesn’t blame his father, she blames “The Situation”, and Delaney sees in this a perverse loyalty to the man whose unceasing and dick-happy antics first created and then nurtured “The Situation”.

In her call to her son to cancel The Gathering, Delaney’s mother suggested the event couldn’t have proceeded in any case, regardless of her husband’s sudden and unexpected absence, for there’d appeared above the entrance to her (and her husband’s) large front porch a significant hole in the render which shared the properties of an equilateral triangle. ‘It’s like a giant hazard warning triangle,’ she said. Delaney’s father had discovered the fallen plaster on the front door step whilst making his sudden and unexplained departure, and, Delaney’s mother told her son, she’d decided almost on the spot she’d have to cancel. ‘What’d my guests think about having to avoid falling masonry?’ she said. ‘I have no hard hats for them.’

Delaney replied that he’d instruct his wife to tell her family The Gathering had been cancelled on grounds of health and safety. His mother’s response, as predictable as ever, was to wheel the subject—whichever subject, you name it, she’d make the link, she has done for almost twenty years—around to “The Situation”, “the big S”, “the unmentionable”, “the situ-fucking-ation”—

(and that’s not to suggest her wheeling the subject around to “The Situation” at this moment was in any way a response to Delaney’s failed attempt to inject humour into their conversation; it wasn’t. It’s more that the further she perceives her life to have spun beyond her control since “The Situation” began, the more closely she perceives any negative events or circumstances which arise or may arise to be caused by and linked inextricably to “The Situation”. She’s created an ever-present and self-perpetuating defence mechanism, and whilst its existence as an actual state of affairs isn’t in question, it’s taken on a second identity, it’s become her method of rationalising her thoughts and choices and actions and moods. One would only need propose such a theory to her to substantiate it. Her response would be evidence enough; she’d without doubt blame such a perceived mental fracture on “The Situation”)

—at which point her voice became distant, like those belonging to his wife and his daughter had increased in volume to distract him from his own conversation. His mother’s voice gained occasionally and rendered him once more a vessel only for listening, a sounding board ready when required to stand in his lounge window nodding in agreement with all she said, lacking the energy to disagree with whatever she offered, imagining her at the other end of the line, one mittened hand articulating her words in strange shapes and patterns whilst the other clawed her phone in only a thin, white, cotton glove not unlike those worn by mime artists. He felt now that he was fulfilling his primary objective; he was there. Whilst he wasn’t actually there, in his mother’s presence, she’d long since conceded the impossibilities of her children always being there when she needed them and that they’d their own lives to lead and families to tend, and that being there for her included being at the end of a telephone line, just listening and nodding and hmm-ing in tired semi-agreement.

‘In any case,’ she said to him in an unprompted departure from “The Situation”—the sort of which he’d grown accustomed to, as if his mother was conscious of her rerouting of all subjects to this single magnetic point being unnecessary, obvious in the extreme, and analysed by her own offspring—‘it wouldn’t be much fun for you to be here on your own, what with Niamh’s chicken pox and all.’

‘I guess not,’ was all Delaney offered in return. She was right. She was always right. He didn’t dare mention the fleeting moment of anticipation offset by dread he’d felt at the prospect, on hearing of his father’s sudden and unexpected absence, of acting as The Game’s organiser and administrator. No. That line of conversation would only lead back to “the big S”.

It was what his mother didn’t say in their telephone conversation which spoke loudest to Delaney. He thought she’d have found relief in her opportunity to cancel The Gathering without revealing what he believed to be her true motive. Even though she’s smiled her way through every 27th December for so long as Delaney can remember, for years he’s believed she’s yearned for the day when she no longer needs to hide behind a façade the longevity and porousness of which, like most other aspects of her life, she feels less and less able to control. She said nothing to this effect in their conversation, nothing to indicate any desire to permanently terminate The Gathering, to put it out of its misery. Instead, she included in her list of reasons for cancelling, alongside her husband’s sudden departure and the crumbling render, her coming down with a heavy cold, which, after concentrating on the gluey sound of her voice, Delaney conceded to his wife sounded a genuine thing. All things considered, Delaney fears his mother will continue her attempts to defeat “The Situation” or deny its existence to certain parties, e.g. her children’s in-laws and her friends and neighbours, that she’ll persevere with hiding behind her façade, and that she’ll continue with the annual celebration of Eliza’s birthday until it becomes something physically beyond her. At their conversation’s close Delaney concluded his mother’s cancellation of The Gathering didn’t signify the end of an era, only a temporary interruption of service. He didn’t blame her for this. How could he? Wouldn’t anybody in similar circumstances want or need to put on a show which demonstrated some kind of suburban normality?

III. A Ceremonial Unveiling

Delaney’s grandma’s unveiling of modest buffets presented on a foldout table might’ve hinted at irony or been used to instil a sense of occasion each 27th December. The ceremonies grew more elaborate as the guest list shrank: she darkened the kitchen before lighting candles and cutting a ribbon, and all of this preceded her removal of tea towels to reveal her modest offering.

Delaney’s mother continued the tradition in her own kitchen as the guest list expanded, minus the candles and ribbon. She’d have everyone gather around her magnificent spread to hear her speech in honour of the birthday girl, which in recent years has included the suggestion she’d be looking down on them from heaven, before making a simple declaration: ‘I declare our feast open, so tuck in, and please remember, happy birthday, Eliza,’ to which the gathered crowd would offer in return, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and disinterest, ‘Happy birthday, Eliza.’

Had not a disappearing host, a mild dose of chicken pox, crumbling render, and the onset of a heavy cold caused the cancellation of the most recent celebration of Eliza’s birthday, Delaney’s mother’s ceremonial unveiling of her buffet might’ve, as it had the previous year, highlighted the increasing distance between the origins of The Gathering and what it’s recently represented. As Delaney’s mother offered birthday wishes and encouraged remembrance of Eliza at the previous year’s dramatic and prematurely terminated event, chatter drifted into the kitchen on a cloud of cigarette smoke from her (and her husband’s) rear patio. From the front reception room she heard the laser blue beeps of text messages being tapped and the distracting tones of quick-fire replies received. From the rear reception room came the noise of excited children, children to whom Eliza was only a name, a word, something far removed from the reverence Delaney and his sister had shown her as they’d grown up loving her as a third grandma. Halfway through her self-conscious and theatrical grand unveiling, on hearing phones beep and buzz and on hearing chatter accompanied by cigarette smoke, and on being annoyed by an external door left ajar by smokers which disturbed her solicitous temperature management in the kitchen and both reception rooms, her fragile, already-bowing mind unable to cope, Delaney’s mother said out loud to those with enough courtesy and sense of occasion to be present, ‘Oh! What’s the fucking point? Help yourself and enjoy.’

The background chatter during her short speech and the use of mobile phones, and the disappearance of certain guests to the rear patio for smoking, too, all signified to Delaney’s mother a lack of respect for herself and for the occasion. Those responsible all happened to be her son’s in-laws, and though their lack of respect for the occasion might’ve stemmed from a lack of knowledge of its origins, she thought shortly after her event’s dramatic and premature termination, would it have been so difficult to gather in a specified room for two minutes and appreciate the lengths to which their hostess had gone and her reasons for doing so? Is the pull of nicotine too strong to resist for such a short buffet-unveiling time? Are the contents of text messages so important that their sending or reading can’t be delayed for a few moments?

Immediately before she lost it, before she asked, ‘Oh! What’s the fucking point?’ Delaney’s mother pinned the disrespectful behaviour of her son’s in-laws on their upbringing. She scanned her kitchen and caught the gaze of those listening to her out of respect and an understanding of the occasion. She doubted some of them, wondered if they were truly respectful or if they were simply playing along with her ceremonial unveiling. She sought but knew she wouldn’t see her son’s mother-in-law, who’d be texting or smoking or both. A thought flashed through her mind of having to sit opposite this woman during The Game. She imagined her leaning across the table and whispering in a discreet but disingenuous manner, ‘That was a lovely little speech. Eliza would’ve loved your spread.’ No, Delaney’s mother had no desire to hear that at all. It would’ve been the tipping point. Her façade had been breached, and this, a final indignity, was more than she’d be able to cope with.

Delaney’s mother’s first thought upon losing it was of her own mother, who’d raised her to be both morally and behaviourally conservative. What would she have said had she heard her daughter’s repugnant question? What would she have thought of her only daughter, her church-going daughter, her morally correct daughter, her daughter who’d fought tooth and nail to preserve the image of a fully functioning, social ladder-climbing, respectable Christian family? These thoughts and the associated disappointment felt by Delaney’s mother only furthered her from feeling capable in any way of reconciliatory acts towards her son’s in-laws. It was quite final now; they were through.

During the time it took Delaney’s mother to scan the room and find her son’s mother-in-law absent, and during the few seconds her broken mind needed to register that all those missing were either her son’s in-laws or their partners or other associates, all of her narrow-minded and stubborn preconceptions about that family overloaded her fragile and bowing state of mind, which until then had been held together by a determination to conceal her true state of mind within the protective environment of her own home, behind the façade of a well-designed, well-appointed, well-pointed, and well-located family home, a home for a functioning family, not for a fractured, non-functioning family. She didn’t consider she might be accused of lowering herself to their level with her snapped rant. There was no time for her to consider how her rant untied her theory of her family being more socially advanced than that family due in the first instance to her husband’s success in business leading to their social elevation via new connections and friendships, and, more pertinently, to that family’s behaviour not meeting her criteria of what is acceptable at a social function, i.e. they’re loud, uncouth, and overbearing. Delaney’s mother’s dislike for the family to which she fears she’ll be tied in perpetuity—notwithstanding the slim chance of her son’s marriage failing as spectacularly as her own, though on this point she’d contest the definition of failure—has grown alongside their very public fragmentation and some of the traits which have revealed themselves as a consequence, traits she finds morally repugnant, classless, and perhaps, she thinks, traits which might even suggest that family is a microcosm of modern society. That that family were fractured long before her own doesn’t on its own determine her feelings of superiority, but their failure to recover or reassemble into a unit which outwardly resembles a functioning family does. If this is the case, Delaney has discussed with his mother, then she fails to see the only significant difference between her own family and his in-laws is that the decaying ruin for which she, as matriarch, is half responsible is shielded by the affluence and relative wealth afforded by her husband’s success and all its accompaniments, like a detached house with high hedgerows shielding striped front and side lawns, hedgerows which grow expeditiously and which are trimmed quarterly to maintain a degree of immaculacy that might, in the minds of those whose lives are shielded by such perfect foliage, project outwards that such immaculacy exists within.  

Neither, too, between furtive glances around her kitchen and the moment her bowing mind snapped, did Delaney’s mother have time to weigh the consequences of her outburst in relation to how her daughter’s mother-in-law, secretly known by the Delaneys as J-Snob, views the family into which she allowed her only son to marry. There wasn’t time for Delaney’s mother to check her tongue or to remind herself of how J-Snob looks down on her family, with the exception of her husband, whom she admires due to his business acumen and how he’s made much of himself after leaving school to work as a tool setter.

Subsequently, there was no time for Delaney’s mother to dwell on the contradiction of J-Snob’s snobbery, that her oft-declared admiration of Delaney’s father is at odds with its consequences, the Delaneys’ climbing of the social ladder, which, Delaney’s mother would suggest with conviction, causes J-Snob to feel threatened. Nor was there time before her unexpected and stentorian outburst for Delaney’s mother to consider how her outburst might reflect on her or damage her attempts at projecting the type of façade required to first maintain and then elevate her social status.

Speaking to Delaney later, after her outburst but before The Gathering’s dramatic and premature termination, Delaney’s mother blamed it all on “The Situation”. Delaney wasn’t sure how big it was or what form it took, but he nodded and hmm-ed and, when his mother turned to warm her ruined hands on the radiator, he rolled his eyes.

IV. The Game (Part Two)

Without the intervention of a disappearing host, chicken pox, crumbling render, and a heavy cold, Delaney’s most onerous task as administrator and organiser of The Game would’ve been to gather, post-buffet, the disparate and cliquey groups assembled in different parts of his mother’s (and father’s) house in order to facilitate recommencement of The Game. This operation would’ve involved herding smokers from his mother’s (and father’s) rear patio and persuading others to put down their phones. Then there were the children who would’ve needed resettling in their temporary cinema room, a difficult job due to the late hour and the children’s proportionate lack of concentration. He’d also have needed to wait for his mother to finish in the kitchen, where she’d have been clearing and tidying and rearranging the remains of her buffet, with which tasks she’d have been assisted by Delaney’s wife and his sister and J-Snob.

At the previous year’s dramatic and prematurely terminated event, Delaney’s mother’s three assistants remained quiet and exchanged knowing looks whilst tidying in the kitchen in the wake of their hostess’s loss of composure. It took Delaney thirty minutes to corral and cajole everybody into returning to the front reception room and to resettle the children, but by the time Delaney’s mother and those assisting her had finished in the kitchen and made themselves available for The Game’s recommencement, those first corralled and cajoled had grown bored or else were conversationally otherwise occupied, and some of them had reached a state of such craving for a cigarette they’d returned to the rear patio. They, the smokers and the cliquey group members, became disillusioned and then annoyed at Delaney’s continued encouragement for them to re-return to the front reception room, and the eldest of Delaney’s wife’s two younger sisters grew angry and told Delaney to, ‘Leave us the fuck alone.’ Bad feeling and resentment bubbling below his surface since his mother’s outburst, Delaney replied, ‘Well, why the hell attend a social event if you’ll employ any means available to avoid joining in with the fun and sense of occasion and—’ He stopped, then sighed an exasperated punctuating sigh before continuing, as his mother had earlier, by asking, ‘Oh! What’s the fucking point?’ before returning to the cleaned and tidied kitchen where Wise Wendy, as yet uncut, sat tall in the centre of the buffet table, proud, important, arithmetically and grammatically knowledgeable, concentric eyes full of perception yet blind to her impending spectacular and messy demise.

Delaney regretted his own outburst immediately. Anybody else, he thought, but not her. The eldest of his wife’s two younger sisters loves a scene, a drama, a fight. In other words she’s a keen wearer of the spotlight at social events. Further, she’s an attention junkie. Once the drama has passed she feeds off it for days or weeks until the spotlight fades to leave her needing another fix. Delaney knew she’d followed him into the kitchen, knew she was looking for trouble, knew she was spoiling for verbal fisticuffs at least, maybe even a physical altercation, but he didn’t anticipate her picking up all fourteen-and-a-half pounds of Wise Wendy, multi-crescented eyes, sugarpasted beak, finely detailed ears and the rest of her, and bringing it down with precision and real intent onto his head whilst retorting something like, ‘Fuck your game, fuck your party, and fuck your stupid fuckety owl,’ though he wasn’t certain of her final retortive clause due to vanilla sponge and jam and cream clogging his ears and reducing all noise to an owly muffle.

Half blinded by the marzipan plumage of Wendy’s broken breast, Delaney staggered into his mother’s (and father’s) darkened rear reception room, inducing from the children a collective shriek. Back into the kitchen he stumbled, spitting cake and threatening to find the owl killer. She’d fled the scene no sooner had she terminated Wendy’s wise existence, promising foully as she went to call in one or more of her children’s fathers should Delaney seek satisfaction. He stood stock still as his mother wiped his brow, collecting cake and cream on her sheepskin mittens as she wiped. He cussed when J-Snob raced to see the commotion and again when she asked with glee what had happened. He swore furiously whilst his wife picked the remains of Wendy’s wings from the epaulettes of the new limited edition navy-and-white-gingham Abercrombie and Fitch shirt she’d given to him for Christmas two days prior. They’d had a quiet Christmas, Delaney and his wife and their daughter, a lovely Christmas. Then there was this, a sick festive punctuation mark stamped on their festive calendar.

As she fled, three confused and overtired children at her heel debating the scariness of Delaney’s owl-cake monster, the eldest of Delaney’s wife’s two younger sisters hissed over her shoulder at Delaney who, cake scraped from his eyes now, had followed her across his mother’s (and father’s) striped front lawn. Straddling the low wall of the graveyard opposite Delaney’s mother’s (and father’s) house, she hissed that at least parties organised by her own friends were fun ‘compared to these Terry and fucking June events.’

On she shouted and cursed and blasphemed along a zigzag course through crooked headstones. A light came on at the vicarage at the graveyard’s far edge. Front porches lit up along the lane and a group of Delaney’s mother’s (and father’s) neighbours congregated at the tops of their driveways from where they pointed at four scurrying silhouettes and from where they looked along the lane to see Delaney’s wife and his mother shouting across the graveyard whilst picking cake from Delaney’s hair.

The neighbours watched as the hissing silhouette exchanged volleyed abuse with the Delaney entourage, their heads turning to the left and to the right and back again, spectators engrossed in a festive game of curse tennis. Back and forth the abuse bounced over the graveyard’s sleeping tenants until, upset and able to take no more from her sister, Delaney’s wife sought refuge in the house.

Delaney’s mother winced as she lowered herself to her knees on the striped lawn, sheepskin mittens hiding her useless hands hiding her tears. There was a crash behind her as more render fell to the flawless tarmac, leaving the triangle of bare brick more isosceles than equilateral. She turned and saw J-Snob in the porch, eyes wide and ears pricked, and wondered if the render would’ve damaged more than her sprayed hair.

The sight of Delaney’s mother on her knees was enough to disperse the neighbours. They shook their heads and whispered and turned for a final glance to see Delaney giving his mother Balearic brandy, and to see him comforting her and wrapping her in a blanket to combat cold which bit as deep as his in-laws’ disrespect, as deep as the deep, gnawing pain in his mother’s fingers, and as deep as the pain caused by her being stuck ceaselessly and perpetually in “The Situation” and by her relating everything in her decaying existence to “The Situation”, and by her not knowing whether “The Situation” was the cause or the effect of her ceaseless and perpetual pain. Cold, too, which bit as deep as the certainty of the neighbours’ breakfast time chatter, and as deep as Delaney’s mother’s agonising need to avoid them now for, well, eternity was her first thought. Because how could she face them? What would she say?

Ends.

Scott Derry Scott lives with his wife and daughter and two guinea pigs in Bilston, a small town in the post-industrial wasteland of England’s Black Country. His fiction has appeared in Clamor, Debut, and Passages (an anthology). He has written most of what he hopes will become his debut novel, which is about family, loss, and industrial decline.

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