Once There Was a Country

By Abigail George

Alice missed making difficult meals for her father and herself (this was way before Joyce had decided it would be best for all of them to put him in a home). Storing meals in Tupperware had brought her joy and pain. Sometimes it would make her teary-eyed.

Alice had thought, ‘Lasagne’. Alice went to the trouble of buying the store-bought kind do-it-yourself-in-a-box. ‘It’s kind of a celebration that you’re home. Or we could have meatballs and spaghetti then. If you feel like it.’

‘I don’t feel like eating pasta.’ Joyce answered from the sitting room as if she were a guest in her own house. ‘I’m just not that hungry.’

‘Of course, you’re hungry. You haven’t had anything to eat today. I’ve got new recipes to try out. Could make these easy-peasy vegetable parcels. Got the recipe in a magazine I was reading. A real budget beater.’

So, that’s what you do these days. Joyce wanted to retort but didn’t. Find budget beaters in magazines. Joyce kept her mouth shut. Didn’t want to start a fight.

Was it Alice’s imagination or did Joyce make a snort of derision about her (about her life, about her cooking habits, about her lifestyle now).

There’s the sound of silence in Alice’s bedroom in the morning. No kids jumping on her to wake her up.

To make her breakfast in the morning. No husband to make her coffee. French toast. Waffles with the waffle iron.

‘Meatballs. Sauce. Spaghetti. You sure. I can simply just whip that up. Won’t take me that long. Everything’s store bought.’ Alice tried to reach out to Joyce again but she wasn’t buying any of it.

‘There’s cold tomatoes out of the garden in the icebox in the fridge.’ Joyce said nothing to this.

Alice had moved around a lot from high school to high school. Eventually crossing borders. Doing her O’ levels in Swaziland. Leaving Joyce far behind in sunny South Africa to look after their alcoholic father. She liked to imagine that working in her garden now was a healing space. She looked at her sister Joyce’s open, hungry and vulnerable face.

James Jones, a prefect died in a car accident. In a car speeding down a highway. Bound to happen right especially if you were speeding. His mother was sitting next to him. She survived the car crash. They had a memorial service for him at her boarding school in rural Mbabane, Swaziland.

Years later, Joyce had the opportunity of traveling to Prague. Did not speak the language but she fit. Got along with the people. She could get on the bus and find her way to the mall during the day. In the early hours of the morning she could get lost and find her way home again. Her temporary home being her friend’s sister’s flat somewhere in Prague.

Alice spoke again as if she hadn’t said anything beforehand about supper. ‘So, what’s on the menu tonight? We could get a takeaway. Burgers. Pizza. Fish and chips.’ Joyce shook her head.
She had made her way to the kitchen now and leaned against the counter top massaging her temples.

‘How about Peri-Peri prawns with rice? Yummy, right? I know a good place. We don’t have to sit down or anything. Just place the order. Or they have killer melt-in-the-mouth calamari.’ Alice felt ignored.

‘Headache?’ Alice asked with concern in her voice.
Joyce shook her head slowly. ‘No, I’m just tired, that’s all. Don’t worry so. Takeaways on a Sunday! Goodness no.’

‘It will take me ages to cook chicken and rice. You should have said something before. I could have made a plan. Gone to the shops and bought a Rotisserie chicken or a proper Sunday lunch.

‘Never mind.’ Joyce said in a calm voice. ‘You don’t have to go to any trouble for me. I don’t mind.

‘That airplane food is terrible. What you need is a proper sitting down affair. Soul food. A good homecooked meal.’ Said Alice trying her level best not to lose it in the face of Joyce’s calm attitude.

‘Is there anything in the fridge to snack on?’ Joyce asked.

‘There’s fruit. Peaches I think. Olives and cheese. There’s crackers in the cupboard.’ Alice replied. ‘Oh, you haven’t seen the garden yet!’ Alice gushed. Proud.

‘I’ll see it in the morning. I don’t really think that I am that hungry at all come to think of it. Don’t go to any trouble on my account come to think of it. Let’s just watch the movie that comes on at seven o’ clock and go to bed. I didn’t think I would be this tired.’ Joyce said.

‘I can make microwave popcorn to go with the movie. Just wait a minute while I wash my hands. I’ll be with you in a second.’

Alice’s baby sister Joyce walked ahead of her into the family room that hadn’t changed much since Joyce had been there last. High school. Holidays from the university. Easter. Christmas. Joyce brushed her plait over her shoulder, sat on the comfy couch and reached for the remote.

‘Oh, I picked up some banana bread from the store earlier today. Want a slice?’ Alice made her voice sound cheerful even though she didn’t feel it on the inside for some reason.

‘Yes, I think I will. You know me and my sweet tooth. I’ll have a generous slice and can I have a glass of milk with that please. I’ll make something nice for the two of us to eat tomorrow. Give you a rest.’ Finally, a reply in the positive. Alice glowed from the inside-out.

‘Thanks. That’s nice of you.’ Thoughtful is what Alice meant to say. The plates of welcome home food sat untouched on the coffee table. Joyce’s favourite flavour of crisps from their teenage years, Mediterranean tortillas and hotdogs.

When Joyce had come through the door she had not gravitated towards the ‘homecoming food’ Alice had called it. Joyce didn’t even hover near the food. Her frame was not thin anymore. She was skinny. Skin and bone. Glamorous flesh.

‘I’m in the mood for a thriller.’ Joyce said with palpable excitement in her voice for the first time that day.

As usual Joyce, didn’t wait or even ask for Alice’s opinion. Alice thought back to high school. Joyce five years below her embarking on her American sojourn. NASA then a visit to Disneyland. Eating out with her Rotary exchange program hosts Chip and Donna Gibson. After that for Joyce it was New York, the beaches of Thailand, Singapore, Bali, Prague, and India.

‘Almarie, please don’t do this. I haven’t even told my sister about you. Like I said I’m just waiting for the right time.’ Alice leaned with her entire body weight into the wall hoping to disappear into thin air. The floorboard creaked. Alice imagined Joyce turning around. Fuming, staring at the door. Waiting to turn upon anyone standing there.

There she was. Joyce. Hair perfect. Standing out as always even in jeans. What did the fashion magazines call it?

Wearing skinny jeans and a fashionable t-shirt showing off her toned arms and a body that was in how they say it ‘peak physical condition’. Joyce ran marathons at the weekend for fun.

She was wearing her hair differently Alice noted. A fish plait hanging over shoulder. Alice’s hair was kept short. It was a mass of unruly curls.

The haircut didn’t really suit her she knew but she didn’t have time on her hands to go to an expensive salon to do her hair. Joyce waved. No smile. Alice’s heart sank.

Alice manoeuvred the car in front of the big white sign marked ‘Arrivals’. The car came to a stop. Alice smiled. She opened up the foot from where she was sitting.

Joyce did not return Alice’s warm smile. ‘Perhaps she didn’t see.’ Alice told herself. In fact, Joyce looked as if this was the last place on earth that she wanted to be.

‘I’ll just eat porridge. Do you have Jungle Oats’ Joyce said the next day drinking the coffee she had made before Alice had got up at the kitchen table.

Alice wanted to fry up a traditional breakfast bacon and eggs. Make toast. She had bought honey and marmalade especially. They spent the day avoiding each other in their childhood home.

On Tuesday evening, they sat at the dinner table in amicable silence until Joyce decided to stir things up.

‘I can’t eat this.’

‘What?’ Alice’s voice came from far away.

‘Is it gluten free? It’s the box stuff, isn’t it?’ Joyce’s voice was terse.

Alice didn’t say anything. With an effortless, elegant swoop, she gathered the dishes and took it into the kitchen. She didn’t even know what gluten was. Didn’t want to ask.

There was enough tension in the house as it was. Alice went about her business as if Joyce had said nothing at all.

You’re an illusion. Alice wanted to tell Joyce. Illusions are not real. Perhaps our mum and dad weren’t good for us. We needed attention. Girls always need attention from their mothers. Their self-concept and self-worth comes from their fathers.

There was always an absence in the house. Lack of mother love. Morning were a rush to get to school. To get ready in the morning. To get their father Joe to take a cold shower. Joe would drive them rain or shine. Alice knew then that she would never be a part of Joyce’s world.

As Alice made her way down the passage lit with a fluorescent bulb she thought to herself. This is why I have abandonment issues. Anxiety. Delusions that life owes me something. Pain.

I don’t know who you are Joyce Snyder. I tolerate you but for the life of me (I mean, you’re my sister so of course I have to love you). I don’t understand you. Belinda, Wanda, Mona, Carol. They become reading women, part of couples.

Alice thought back to high school in Swaziland. She had lost touch with all of her girlfriends. Loved them. Belinda became a matron at an orphanage in Swaziland, Wanda became a Maths teacher, Mona moved to America, and Carol the one who had had the most promise killed herself.

Every night since Joyce had come home she would hear the click of the telephone in its cradle. Whispers. Long sighs and then a hush. Even tears. A muffled voice sobbing. One night Alice thought, ‘this is my house now. I have the right to do as I please. Secret phone-calls or not.’

She made her way to the kitchen to make a sandwich and tea and overheard a conversation she wasn’t supposed to hear.

Joyce, her sister, gay! It had never entered her mind before (but didn’t it kind of make sense to her). That Joyce would be attracted to women. It had just never come up in conversation.

Alice had taken for granted her whole life that her sister’s love life had pretty much been like hers. A string of broken relationships with boys and as she had grown older, wiser, more set in her ways, relationships with men older, married, with children, divorced with children, married, married with children.

Eat. Alice wanted to scold Joyce. The skin’s the best part of the chicken. I don’t know why people think it’s unhealthy. Live a little.

Joyce looked across at Alice with fat glistening on her lips and her greasy hands and made a face.

Alice wiped the grease off her lips and fingers neatly with a serviette. Joyce, she wanted to say. Are you happy? Are you happy with the choices you’ve made?

But looking at Joyce’s face and seeing the answers there, what was written there made her want to say nothing at all. The last thing that Alice wanted to do was interrogate her sister.

‘Why’d you get the dog?’ Joyce asked out of the blue one day.

‘Companionship, I guess.’

‘And the name Phoebe suits her.’ Joyce smiled at this.

Phoebe was sitting upright on the bed. Her ears cocked. Alert for any sound. Movement downstairs in the house.

‘What is it Phoebe? Did you hear something?’ Alice fondled the dog’s ears.

‘No, it’s just me.’ Came Joyce’s voice. Alice fell back on her pillow.

‘Oh, what are you still doing up?’ Alice asked with relief in her voice.

‘I’m going to make tea and have a bowl of cereal with cold milk. Want a cup of tea?’ Joyce asked.

‘No. I’m fine.’ Alice replied. She thought of their conversation that day as they had visited their father.

‘Hello, dad. How are you?’ Joyce asked but of course he couldn’t remember her.

‘Your mother ran away.’

‘Yes, she did.’ Alice said.

‘How is she? Is she still as lovely?’

‘We haven’t seen her since we were girls, dad. She must have gone to Australia. Built a new life there.’ Joyce answered.

Alice gave her look as if to say why the heck did you have to go and say that. Can’t you see it’s difficult for him to understand what it happening around him.

Joyce turned her head away, ignoring Alice.

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Abigail George

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