Short fiction

Issue #10

The Bitter Taste of Lemons

Theresa leaned against the cool kitchen surface and neatly cracked four eggs into a ceramic bowl. A distant memory of her mother standing in this same spot, apron tied over her Sunday best, nagged at her thoughts. May, their mother would call. It’s nearly time for lemon sweethearts. And May would hurtle straight for the cupboard to find her favourite heart-shaped biscuit cutter, blunt with use, to press into a warm lemon tray-bake, again and again.

Theresa poured the lumpy batter into a loaf tin and placed it with reverence into the humming oven. After a moment the familiar smell of banana bread seeped into the warm kitchen and Theresa breathed it in, comforted. The cottage had changed imperceptibly since she was a child, but it hadn’t felt quite right until she had once again saturated everything with the fresh scent of baking. The poster-paint-creations, the fading photographs, May’s tiny school shoes by the front door; these should not be disturbed.

In the last few months that she had stayed there, Theresa had conducted a methodical process of reclaiming the bedraggled cottage as hers. At first she had kept bumping into things, catching an elbow on the banister or smacking her knee on a stray coffee table, as if she couldn’t quite reconcile her adult body with her memories. Then the weeks had evaporated to evenings spent curled in front of the TV with her face buried in the itchy woollen rug, and afternoons in the sunshine remembering when May had tried to teach her to turn cartwheels on the plush, mossy grass.

The banana bread should be cooling when her parents arrived for afternoon tea, a timing meticulously calculated so that it would be ready to serve next to the lemon cake sweethearts that she had baked late the night before. Her suitcase was packed and stood up next to the bed, and her bus and train tickets were ready to escort her back to the city again in the morning. Everything prepared, and still time to sweep the floor again; the relentless thrusting of the bristles into each corner would help to calm her.

The unannounced presence of a gleaming car – for it was sure to be gleaming – was going to positively thrill the neighbours of this tired little village. Merely her quiet appearance in the new year had caused a susurration of rumour to upset the elderly community: she had heard many wild conjectures as to why she was wasting her youth in such an isolated, behind-the-times village. She was fleeing from heartbreak in the city, she was ill and had come back for the fresh air, she was pregnant and hadn’t told the father. This last one had been disproved by time, but by then her presence was unremarkable. My mother’s return ought to shake them up, Theresa thought. Her stomach clenched at the prospect.

Theresa surveyed the kitchen. The kettle was full, the milk was in the blue-patterned china jug, and three places were set at the table. She resisted a childish impulse to switch the knives and forks around, knowing how this disorder would pucker her mother’s immaculately made-up face into a frown. Throwing down her apron, she meandered into the garden – there was still a little time before they arrived.

The uneven patio was erupting into miniature chasms, relentless weeds levering the bricks apart. A damp and rotting bird table stood in the shade of the willow tree, desperately void of food. Theresa traipsed over the lawn and trailed a hand through the overhanging branches, leaves caressing her skin. Someone had taken care of the flowerbeds under the fences, had coaxed brilliant colour to bloom in a haze of petals. Perhaps May would have taken up gardening; she certainly delighted in covering herself in soil, head to wriggling toes, even in her best pinafore.

Theresa smiled when she reached the stream and perched directly over the top if it, in the middle of the old fallen tree that straddled the water. Her feet were stained green and she’d scuffed mud up the inside of her calf - just like May would have done. She swung her legs rhythmically into the air whilst clutching the knotted mass of dead vines that crawled over the tree trunk to steady herself.

They had been sitting on the riverbank, their pale toes dangled above the water, and May’s arm had been hot against hers. Bet you I could balance across, Tess. May’s arms looped above her head and she wobbled into an arabesque. Like we’re learning on the balance beam … stuff you can’t do. Bet you I could. Theresa had refused to watch, and scrambled away in search of daises. She didn’t remember May until she had made a chain that was as tall as she was when standing on tiptoes.

When she had seen May’s body her ears had started roaring, and her heart had beat too hard. The face pressed down into the riverbed. Clothes stained dark by the undulating water that whispered over pallid fingertips poking out from the sleeve of a red cardigan. Drifting hair blending with the flickering rivulets in the stream, until the stream was her hair, flowing and writhing over rocks, brushing the riverbank and tangling between overhanging roots. Theresa remembered May’s colourful clothes, her loathing of long school days, and the way she would sing to herself under her breath. The first Sunday that Theresa had tried to bake a lemon cake for her mother had been a disaster, with the floury mixture hardening in the roaring oven and her mother’s terrible, grey eyes just watching her.

     Her father had moved Theresa and her mother out of the cottage in too much of a hurry to stow their lives neatly into cardboard boxes. The dust was left to fall freely for years, undisturbed. Theresa had started a new school, deep purple shadows that under her eyes, and the other kids had made up stories to whisper in the playground. She was a ghost, she was possessed, she haunted the school and stayed there at night time. As if May’s death had manifested itself in Theresa’s every gesture.


Her parents were punctual, as always. The ring of the doorbell stabbed through the air, and the garden became darker, hostile to their intrusion. So they hadn’t dug out their front door key.

‘Theresa, darling!’ Her mother’s face was stretched taut into a smile. Her father said nothing, only smiled in his familiar way, his skin crinkling at the corners of his eyes. Her mother’s hug was perfunctory; Theresa held her limp arms around a cashmere jumper and looked over her mother’s shoulder.

‘How are you, Dad?’ He bobbed his head and ventured an inarticulate but contented sound.

‘Well, it’s just lovely to be back in this old place,’ her mother said. Her head was swivelling in all directions, assessing the living room. The insane smile still distorted her features. ‘It must be nice to be staying here again.’

‘Yes,’ said Theresa. With an effort she found more words. ‘It’s been really relaxing actually, being in the village again.’ Her father rapped his knuckle against a low, bowed beam.

‘Old girl’s still holding strong. No rot, or damp?’ His voice was steady and gruff.

‘Nope. All ship shape,’ Theresa said lightly. Their cottage, the pirate ship … The Blue Lilac. Theresa had chosen Blue for the sky. May had chosen Lilac to match her new dress. They had argued about the different colours, until their father had shown them the colour of Forget-Me-Nots next to the river. ‘Can I get you some tea?’

They gathered around the kitchen table, and her father pulled out a wobbling chair for her mother. She fussed with her scarf for a while, and Theresa could hear tiny exclamations bursting forth. ‘The old milk jug! Oh and the china chickens … I always said that this table would last, didn’t I, Derek?’ Her mother’s eyes darted to the walls, and the ever present poster-paint-creations. A desperate spasm of relief.

Theresa lined the tea cups up perfectly, handles at forty five degrees, spoons resting at twelve o’clock. The kettle hissed and spat on the stove. She thought of the cakes, resting quietly in the cold oven. Anticipation tightening her lungs. The teabags dropped into the mugs, one, two, three.

The kettle’s whistle dampened the sound of her mother for a while. Theresa didn’t move; the shrillness cut through her thoughts, leaving her mind empty.

     ‘Trying to explode the kettle, Tess?’ her father asked.

Theresa pushed the sugar towards her mother, who took it absently and began to enquire politely about her job and her apartment. Theresa stared at her mother’s lipsticked mouth while it moved. Like a sparrow’s beak.

‘Actually, I quit the office,’ Theresa announced. ‘I didn’t want to work there any more. It’s not what I want to do.’

‘Oh,’ her mother exclaimed, scandalised. But Theresa watched her father, and breathed. He was still smiling. She explained to them again exactly just how boring her job had been.

‘But you’ll still be in the city, yes?’ Her mother’s voice was querulous. ‘I can still make you Thursday Dinner?’

Thursday Dinner. Theresa ground her teeth together. Last time had been so wildly unsuccessful … It had become a bad habit. First a way to pass the time in a new city, then baking and dinner, a simple trick to keep her mother feeling happy. Theresa had left the last one with eyes stinging, her mother’s careless voice trilling, over and over. Surprise, darling! I’ve made lemon sweethearts, just for you. Your absolute favourite.

Theresa fetched the oven mitts - more for show, really, than anything else - and crouched down by the oven. She could still smell the banana bread, a recipe she had perfected with her mother over the years. Cinnamon, they had decided, was their secret ingredient.

‘I’ve baked especially for afternoon tea,’ Theresa said over her shoulder. Her mother cooed.

‘You used to bake every Sunday, you know,’ her mother said. ‘Every Sunday you would make something for us.’ She sniffed, then fetched a floral hanky from her sleeve. She was tearful now. ‘You remind me so much of her.’

Theresa’s stomach convulsed. Her mother went on, oblivious.

‘And I know you always tried to make up for it, for her. I do know that you tried.’

Her father interrupted. ‘She knows that, Vera.’ His voice was sharp, uncharacteristic. Her mother sniffed again, but dabbed her eyes and stuffed the hanky back down her sleeve when Theresa presented the banana bread on a blue chipped plate. Our favourite, she heard her mother say. The lemon sweethearts were slid onto the table. Theresa’s own plate sat empty in front of her, as she watched her mother and waited.

‘I still think of her,’ their mother said around a tiny bite of lemon cake. She dabbed at her lipstick with her ring finger. ‘Especially being back here. Has it been hard for you, dear?’ She didn’t pause to let Theresa answer, which was just as well. Sick disappoint was clogging her throat. ‘She would have been taller than you are now, I know it. I always thought she was a tall one. I said, you know, when she was growing–’

‘That she’d need to get some body to go with her legs,’ Theresa finished. ‘Yes.’

Her mother gabbled on. ‘May would probably have enjoyed your job, well, old job now darling.’ Theresa offered a plate to her father, but he shook his head and patted his belly; the universal I-am-on-a-diet gesture. Theresa put the kettle on again. ‘All that chatting to people and investigating things. So curious! I wonder that you were never as curious, always sitting inside reading your books.’ Her mother’s hands shook slightly and she glanced at the poster-paint-creations again. The one of the five-legged sheep had always been central on the kitchen wall. At the bottom, in uneven blotted red, was signed ‘Theresa May’.

Her mother cut herself off with another lemon cake, her mouth too full to do anything other than make appreciative noises. Theresa was mesmerised by the hollow cheeks popping in and out, in and out, bulging obscenely, and wondered whether her mother had ever given herself over to cravings. Piles of empty wrappers and laden supermarket trollies flashed across Theresa’s mind. Her mother was so thin, so angular. Probably not.

Theresa stared at the dry and flaking paintings, and the words ‘Theresa May’ that were disintegrating on display. The thought of that fragile, sodden body in the river bloated in her mind. The exact brown shade of her hair, the freckle below her right ear, the way she poked her pink tongue out in concentrating when she was whisking eggs. In the little bedroom upstairs they had pretended that a chasm separated their beds, yawning hungry in the darkness, and May’s body under the duvet had thrown dark silhouettes like mountain ranges against the wall. Theresa let that chasm bloom again now, and the kitchen seemed to sharpen into focus. Her mother was sitting before her under the glaring kitchen light, smacking and chewing furiously. Theresa could glimpse pulverised yellow paste sticking to the violently red roof of her mother’s mouth.


The absence of her parents blossomed into the space of the kitchen long before their gleaming car roared away. Cool air was seeping through the open kitchen door, stealing in from the purple twilight to laze in the warm yellow light of the cottage. Theresa shut out the garden with a firm shove, and cleared away the mess left over from the afternoon tea. Then she cleaned the fridge and switched it off – breakfast could be bought at the train station – before stowing the kettle back in a cupboard and giving the long kitchen counter one last wipe clean.

Satisfied, she slumped back into her chair and gazed at the untouched banana loaf that had sat waiting on its plate throughout the afternoon. Its rounded top was molten golden, and a deep fissure had cracked down its middle where the elastic gluten of the flour had broken under the heated strain of a growing, swelling body. Theresa took the knife next to the plate and sunk the blade into the loaf, one perfectly measured slab falling onto the table. She nibbled the corners first, rounding the edges into a wobbly circle, before placing the centre of the slice in her mouth. Theresa sucked at the sponge, consumed slice after slice, carefully pressed the last crumbs with the whorls of her fingers, then licked those too. By the fourth slice her stomach felt heavy, anchored to her navel. She stopped looking for the taste of banana in all of the hidden things that had surged forwards when Theresa had taken that defiant step away from her mother’s last, clinging embrace.

Catriona McLean

© 2014