Authors: Rachel Joyce
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Literary, #Short Stories, #Single Author, #Genre Fiction, #Holidays, #Literary Fiction, #Single Authors
A Faraway Smell of Lemons
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A Bond Street Books eBook Original
Copyright © 2013 by Rachel Joyce
by Rachel Joyce copyright © 2013 by Rachel Joyce
Author photograph © 2013 by Fatimah Namdar
All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication, reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system without the prior written consent of the publisher — or in the case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, license from the Canadian Copyright Licensing agency — is an infringement of the copyright law.
Bond Street Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House of Canada Limited.
Published in the United Kingdom by Transworld a member of The Random House Group, London.
Cover design: Claire Ward/Transworld
Cover illustration: Andrew Davidson
This book contains an excerpt from the forthcoming book
by Rachel Joyce. This excerpt has been set for this edition only and may not reflect the final content of the forthcoming edition.
Published in Canada by Bond Street Books,
a division of Random House of Canada Limited
A Penguin Random House Company
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It is half past nine, and Oliver will be eating porridge in his Asterix porridge bowl. At the age of thirty-three, Oliver has no regular habit but this and he adheres to it religiously.
“Sod him,” Binny snorts, wading into the stream of Christmas Eve traffic. Despite the High Street billboards and flashing illuminations wishing peace on earth and goodwill to men, she is met with a rude fanfare of traffic horns. Cars are packed with families and presents gift-wrapped in festive paper. “Sod him,” she repeats. She will not stop for anyone. And neither will she weep. The wet streets glisten under the heavy December sky.
Everything that is wrong with Binny’s life points back to Oliver. Things she never used to expect him to remember or notice are now his direct responsibility. The broken glass in the front door: his fault. The shower: his fault. The fresh cuts to her hands and the broken china left scattered on her kitchen floor. The fact that she has bought no Christmas cards. All, all, his fault.
Now that she has dropped the children off at school for their final dress rehearsal, Binny has five hours to fix Christmas. She has done nothing so far. Only this morning, Coco pinned two large wool socks, for herself and Luke, above the mantelpiece. (“Just so we don’t forget,” she said.) If only the machine that is Christmas would come and go without Binny. To her horror, she spots one of the other school mothers springing toward her along the pavement like a toy deer. Binny stops in her tracks, looking up and down the High Street. She is not the sort of person who can easily hide.
Tall and broad, Binny towers over other people, even when she stoops. When she looks in the mirror, she finds a wild-haired giant who seems to come with inbuilt shoulder pads. (“Big-boned” is what her mother called her. “Healthy”—that was her father’s version. He called an abundant crop of potatoes healthy as well as a rise in stock shares and a second helping of pudding. Binny has her father’s eyes, her father’s intelligence, and also, sadly, her father’s height and shoe size.) She is dressed, as always, in something long and shapeless she found tangled on the end of her foot this morning as she staggered to the bathroom.
The woman approaching her wears a festive jogging suit with sparkly trim. She even has festive red fur ear warmers and gloves to match. She is something to do with the school PTA, but Binny can’t for the life of her remember what, because she never reads the letters or the emails and she never attends the functions. If she stands very still—if she pretends, as it were, that she is not here—maybe the woman will not notice her.
“Binny!” the happy jogging suit calls. “Hiya!” She maybe shouts something about the
Nativity play too, but she is panting a little and more than ten yards away.
The performance is this afternoon. It was only last night that Luke revealed he was playing the part of Bill the Lizard. “But there is no lizard in the Nativity,” said Binny. She was aware she was beginning to wail. “Bill the Lizard is the innkeeper’s pet,” said Coco. “He is very important. He brings Mary a cushion for the birth and he sings a solo about ‘Wherever I leave my hat that’s my home.’ Also, I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.” When Binny complained it was no good, she couldn’t make a lizard costume at the drop of a hat, no one could, and actually the Ghost of Christmas Past was in another bloody story altogether, Coco and Luke exchanged a small but solemn look. “It’s all right, Mum,” said Coco slowly. “Meera’s mother said she will make our costumes. Luke is going to have a blue tail with spikes and everything. I am going to have a lamp and a fur hat.” Coco seemed more than happy about that.
The jogging suit is so close there is almost no hope of escaping. There will have to be a full conversation, and the jogging suit will ask if Binny is all sorted for Christmas, and Binny will want to swear. Binny slaps her hand to her head to suggest she has just remembered something important—a crucial last-minute piece of Christmas Eve shopping, such as the turkey, for instance—and then bounds toward the nearest shop. Like the boutique farther down that sells designer clothes for very small and very wealthy women, it is not a shop she has ever had cause to enter. The cuts in her hand smart like tiny prickles as she slams her palm against the door handle. “Tosser,” she grunts, hurting for Oliver all over again.
, sings the shiny glass door. Binny stoops to avoid knocking her head as she steps inside.
She has told no one what has happened, not even the children. When she tries, she is struck by the lightness of what is about to come from her mouth and feels betrayed. What she really wants is to deal the blow as violently as it was landed on her, and to watch someone else reel, someone else give way to the tide of burgeoning grief Binny herself will not allow. Why do all the words that are to do with feelings sound so ordinary, so full of
feeling? She shuts the door behind her, waiting for the jogging suit to pass.
It is as if Binny has passed through a black curtain and discovered a new hemisphere. For a moment she just stands in this strange place, where the dust particles swirl like glitter. The silence is unearthly. There are shelves and shelves of cleaning products in jars, canisters, and bottles, some plastic, some glass, all arranged at regular intervals and in order of size. There are displays of brushes, cloths, scourers, dusters—both the feathered and the yellow variety. There are boxes of gloves—heavy duty, latex, nitrile, polythene—as well as
Kentucky mops, squeegees, litter pickers, and brooms. Binny had no idea cleaning could be so complicated. Right beside the till stands a small plastic angel, the only indication of the time of year. She has a halo and a crinkly white dress and two pointed tinsel wings. There is a clean smell Binny can’t put a name to, but it makes her think of lemon peel. Clearly there is nothing here for a woman like herself.
Binny is about to retreat when a female voice chimes through the silence, “May I help you, madam?”
It appears there has been an assistant in the shop all along. Now that Binny squints in the direction of the voice, she sees a slight woman coming toward her. The made-up face looks younger than Binny expected. The woman’s skin is smooth and soft, as if coated, and she stares with dark, liquid eyes that are rimmed with a pencil line. Maybe she is only in her twenties. She wears a crisp white dress that suggests a dentist’s but clearly can’t be, and she has scraped her black hair so hard from her forehead that it pulls at her temples. Everything about her is restrained. The young woman stands with her fingers clasped and crepe-soled shoes touching, as if even an untidy arrangement of her hands and feet is offensive.
Coco is the only one who understands tidiness. (Her grandmother’s child.) Luke does not understand it, and neither does Binny. The daughter of a girdled woman who had people
Binny has made a point of embracing both chaos and abundance. Her house is bound in a thicket of ivy. Only small scraps of light squeeze through the leaves that flatten themselves against Binny’s windows, and the rooms are so full of her parents’ Victorian furniture (“Junk,” Oliver calls—
—it) that many of them have been reduced to passageways. Surfaces are felted with dust and piled high with old magazines and newspapers and tax returns and letters Binny has never bothered to answer. The carpet is thick with dust balls the size of candyfloss, screwed-up bras on their way to the washing machine, nuggets of Lego, and also a dead shrub Luke has been using for a Christmas tree. The children have decorated it with cutout paper animals and pigeon feathers and milk-bottle tops.
“Don’t you sell something that I could buy?” asks Binny. “Coffee or plasters or something?”
The young woman is curt. Not exactly rude, but she isn’t friendly either. “This is a family business. We’ve never sold anything but cleaning products. We supply mainly to industry.”
“Blimey,” says Binny. She gives a slightly foolish shrug of her shoulders, which is supposed to make the young woman laugh.
Unspeaking, the young woman stares with eyes as brown as chestnuts. This unsettles Binny. She often puts herself down in order to make people like her. It is her height that is her problem. She fears she dominates a room even when she folds herself into a chair.
Binny examines the bottles that gleam from the top shelves like colored eyes.
KEEP OUT OF REACH OF SMALL CHILDREN. PHOSPHORIC ACID. BENZYL SALICYLATE. IF SWALLOWED
, DO NOT INDUCE VOMITING. “Is this stuff legal?”
“We never sell a product if we can’t guarantee it will work. We are not like those supermarkets where the bleach you buy is water. For instance, some bathroom cleaners are specifically good for shower tiles, and some react badly with the grouting. You have to take these things into account.”
“I suppose you do. I don’t have a shower. That is, I do, but it has no door. And the water doesn’t shower. It sort of dumps on you.”
“That’s a shame,” the young woman says.
“It is,” agrees Binny.
“You should get it fixed.”
“I won’t, though.”
The shower is one of the things Oliver has spent the last five years offering to mend. The shattered pane of glass in the front door is another. Oliver is easygoing, slightly fuzzy at the edges, always wearing his T-shirt inside out and socks that don’t match. He can spend ten minutes untangling loose change from the lining of his trousers for anyone who happens to hold out a hand and ask for it. The rest of the time Oliver is so busy gazing at the sky that Binny has long suspected he will one day lift his arms and soar upward.
It never used to matter that Oliver was a good ten years younger than Binny and had no regular income, because he was an actor who couldn’t get what he called “proper acting work,” only the odd commercial. It never used to matter that he left the keys to the van in the driver’s door and forgot about things like replacing toilet rolls. It never used to matter that he might go to fix the shower and notice his reflection in the bathroom mirror and drift straight back to the kitchen to ask Binny if she had some anti-blemish concealer because he was afraid he possibly might have a boil coming.
The truth was, they had stopped looking after each other. Only a month ago he had asked if she was happy. “I don’t know,” she’d said. “I can’t remember.” She had begun to nag him. She couldn’t help it. She swore every time she banged into his guitar at the foot of the bed. Or: “Why must you always use the moisturizer?” she’d complain. “I didn’t think
you’d mind, Bin.” “I
because you never replace it and you always leave the lid off.” “Well, I won’t use it then,” he would say with a shrug. “But if it were mine, I’d just share.” He would wander upstairs to play his guitar, leaving her even more irritated because now she felt not only disgruntled but also less than him.