The Sweet Unsweet
by Jay Merill
Here is the last but one house. Three girls stand in the hallway. One of them is me. It is morning. We are on our way to school.
Then along comes Mandy. She is the girl of the house. Her mother wears coral lipstick and a lilac-patterned top and is all bright cheeriness. Feeling glad Mandy has friends that come to call for her. But Mandy is not popular. It's because of the treats we hope for that us kids appear each morning. And also because Mandy's mother smiles at us with that smile of hers which makes us feel popular too. I am a new girl, living with my down-at-heel aunt on the dismal side of town. My mother had left home; my father couldn’t cope. The world feels a scary place.
None of the girls here is popular at school. We are all outsiders, close to the threat of persecution. But instead of sticking to one another and being our own group, we pull faces behind one another's backs and spread rumors. I found out these girls behaved this way the first day I was at the school. But then I started doing the bad faces too. You had to, to show you didn't belong together. To avoid being ridiculous, being despised. So you could play the game with yourself that you were one of the popular kids. In reality, what you had to aim for above anything else was to get by unnoticed. This way, you escaped being set upon by the gangs and bullies.
This house has wrapped candies in a cut-glass jar on a circular step. Right inside the door. Through thick-paned windows, you can see the sea. Just the blurred image of it. You can't hear the sound of waves and screeching gulls because the door is closed.
Mandy’s mother is tapping at the lid of the jar with a pink-pearl pointy fingernail. Click, click, click. She tells us we may take a sweetie each, and so we take one. Then she says to take another one to keep the first one company. We all have our hands in amongst the candies as quick as anything to find our favorites. We all laugh. Mandy's mother laughs the loudest. The top of her tongue is murky white and a smell puffs out of her that is flowery yet sour.
Soon it's time to leave, and we go on a strange raggly route to Carrie-Bella's. Hers is the final house. It is the one nearest to the school and stands at the bottom of a narrow alley that reeks of cabbage. Carrie-Bella's mother has a watery look. It is rumored there’s something the matter with her. There always seem to be tears in the corner of her eyes. Sometimes they drip down onto her face but she doesn’t seem to notice. She offers us shortbread but I've never wanted to take any because I couldn't shut out the idea they might be soggily poisoned—there's this dense brown paste inside each one. Carrie-Bella's mother says it's fig, only simple fig. But it could be mashed ant is what I think.
It’s late afternoon. Time to go home. I meet up with the same bunch of girls and we traipse back the way we'd come. Carrie-Bella's first. Now the alley smells of dog pee. We make puke noises as we go down it, hold our noses.
At Mandy's, we hear the sound of shrieking. It's her mother. Having one of her funny turns, is the way Mandy always describes them when they crop up out of the blue like this. She says the word funny to make us think there’s nothing seriously wrong. We all know Mandy is trying to tell us to make light of things so we shrug as though to say we aren't fazed. She doesn't really want to knock on the door as her mother looks foul when these turns come on and Mandy won't want us to witness this. Our outlines have already been spotted through the muzzy panes though and the door's flung open there and then.
“What you all staring at?”
Mandy’s mother lurches sideways on the indoor step, a bottle gripped tight in one shaky hand. Her face is blobby with lipstick smears. She lets out a squealing sound. The patterned shirt has a scrunched up look as though she's got it in for the lilacs and has been clawing at the cloth.
We say nothing but start backing towards the gate while Mandy rushes through the open doorway and up the stairs to her room in one. Her mother slams the door.
Before we've got too far we hear the sound of smashing glass. It is louder than the crash of sea against the breakwater. Then nothing whatever. I imagine the glass jar broken, the hallway layered in shiny-papered sweets, the unsmiling face of Mandy's mother. And all of this in silence. Not even wave sound or the call of birds.
I was part of a group of girls who walked to school together and there was a house with this sweet jar on the inner step. Its presence made me smile and yet there was always an accompanying shiver. When writing this story, I became conscious of how two opposites can flow together.
Jay Merill is published or has work forthcoming in The Bohemyth, Cheap Pop Lit, Hobart, Jellyfish Review, Soliloquies Anthology, Toasted Cheese, Thrice Fiction, and Trafika Europe. She is a current Write Well Award nominee, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and the winner of the Salt Short Story Prize. Further work has appeared recently in 3:AM Magazine, Blue Lake Review, The Citron Review, Corium, Epiphany, Eunoia Review, Literary Orphans, Per Contra, Prairie Schooner, SmokeLong Quarterly, Spork, Wigleaf, and other great publications. Jay lives in London, UK, and is Writer in Residence at Women in Publishing. She is the author of two short story collections published by Salt—God of the Pigeons and Astral Bodies—which were nominated for the Frank O’Connor Award and Edge Hill Prize.