by Tamar Hodes
I could always sense when Aunt Bertha was about to visit, the smell of mothballs and woody perfume pervading the air. Without any discussion, my parents would disappear mouse-like into the larder and return with the table leaf, a flat piece of wood, a burden held dutifully between them.
Carrying it like a coffin into the small dark dining room, each parent jiggled one side of the table apart. It creaked a bit but eventually opened, revealing the skeleton, a criss-cross of wood like the ribs of a ship. Peering into it was glimpsing something I was not meant to see: the inner workings. It reminded me of when my parents closed their bedroom door and I knew that behind it lay a dark, delicious secret.
Without joy but with much deftness, they would insert the slab, slotting it into place and then nudge the edges with their body weight until it locked. Standing back, they were satisfied with this first part of their work. Now the table had to be dressed like a mannequin in a shop window or a patient about to endure a surgical operation.
A thick piece of material, carpet like, would be placed on the oval table, having been cut to size by Father. Like everything he did, it was not perfect, its edges slightly ragged, the wool fraying, but well-intentioned.
Over the underlay went a shiny white tablecloth, its long-term storage evidenced by the square marks showing where it had been folded. We never usually had a cloth, simply cork mats to protect the table from hot plates.
But the ritual didn’t stop there. Starched white linen napkins, as stiff as swans, folded under each fork, followed by our best plates. We used them so rarely I barely recognised them. I felt that they belonged in another house. Gone were the thick beige dishes with the dark rim and out came thinner ones that you could see your hand through, a silver leaf embossed in the china. Cut glass tumblers which caught the light; silver cutlery; a delicate cruet set with tiny spoons for the salt, pepper and mustard and mint sauce in a diamond-shaped server. It was all so unfamiliar that I felt like a stranger in my own home and our dining room in the wrong house.
The kitchen filled with steam. All four rings on the gas cooker were occupied as was the oven, sending out billows of angry smoke when Mother opened the door to check on the meat.
Unusually for us, there were three courses: home-made oxtail broth; lamb with roast potatoes and three vegetables and a trifle too, made the day before and now setting smugly in the fridge. My parents’ faces were red, but I could not tell if this was due to the cooking or the visit.
And then, that evening, she sailed barge-like into our home, wider than she was tall, her bosom protruding like a shelf, her hair arranged stiffly on her head. She was a rectangle on legs, waistless. My father took her coat, folded it over his arm and kissed her reluctantly on the cheek.
‘Say hello to your Aunty Bertha,’ he instructed me in a voice so flat that he sounded depressed. I did as I was told, repulsed by her cold, rubbery skin.
She was not our aunt at all, of course, but a second cousin of my father’s. She only visited occasionally which made it even scarier. She wore a thick tweed skirt, a white blouse buttoned up to the neck and a grey cardigan. Her nose was so sharp I felt it could scratch me; her eyes cold and hard, boring into me with their stare.
Mother behaved like a servant towards her and I disliked seeing my parents humbled in this way. They were small, modest people but somehow in her presence they seemed diminished; she had shrunk them even further. Aunt Bertha was installed in the best chair, given a cup of tea (with a saucer, of course) and offered expensive biscuits. Our usual ones came in a long stiff tube and the biscuits were flat and brown. These, however, emerged from a box, its tissue leaves opened like curtains. The biscuits were chocolate tipped and curled in on themselves. Aunt Bertha held one between thumb and forefinger; it was beneath her to touch it. When she bit into it, the biscuit shattered like broken glass, the biscuit clearly fearing her.
She gazed around my parents’ front room. I could see her take in the two-barred heater and assorted ornaments: a faded photograph of my parents on their wedding day; a small gold carriage clock which had ceased to work years earlier; a miniature silver bell, purely ornamental; a white swan made of plaster with her cygnets attached clumsily to her; a bottle filled with layers of brightly coloured sand, bought on a day trip to Margate. Behind the shelf was wallpaper, with brown stripes but a different shade from the beige roses on the carpet.
‘I thought you were having the room redone,’ said Aunt Bertha, crunching again into her collapsed biscuit.
Mother and Father looked at each other.
‘No,’ said Mother. ‘Maybe next year.’
‘Oh.’ Aunt Bertha sniffed and sipped her tea.
‘Are you still at the Post Office?’
My father said that he was and again Aunt Bertha looked disdainful.
‘And you?’ She looked at my mother. ‘Still at Bourneville?’
My mother nodded, uncrossed her legs and looked down at her cup, as if ashamed.
I was only twelve or thirteen at the time but I loved my parents dearly and I hated the discomfort she was causing them. I had never seen them look so uneasy and it was painful to watch. I had vague memories of Aunt Bertha visiting when I was younger but maybe, as with all nightmares, I had wiped them out.
I had been thinking a lot about God, ever since Mrs Armstrong had said in assembly that you could feel his presence everywhere, that we were made in his image and that he loved us all. When she spoke, I felt comforted by what she said. I thought of my parents, kind people. You were supposed to hate your family but I loved my mother with her hair pinned back so tidily and the way she adored flowers and butterflies and Father, his gentle words and the way he tried so hard to be good.
I loved the way they worked together, every task taken seriously. Even if it was preparing a meal, they shared the chores, Father peeling the potatoes while Mother stirred the stew, side by side in the kitchen, their faces pink with the heat, the wireless playing Glen Miller.
But when I thought of Aunt Bertha, Mrs Armstrong’s words fell flat. Why would God create someone like her? If she was made in His image, did he look and smell like her? Was she the very best He could manage?
When we moved to the dining room, the atmosphere followed us. Aunt Bertha sat at the head of the table and Mother and Father flanked her. I was at the other end with a full frontal view of her. Even from a distance, her cold eyes drilled into me. My parents scurried around, bringing her plates, taking away her empty soup bowl, passing her mint sauce, offering her more lime cordial before tending to themselves. She barely thanked them, looking down at her food, as if viewing a foreign object.
She made occasional comments: ‘Of course, you’ve heard about Albert’ or ‘Did you know that Dora died? I suppose you couldn’t attend the funeral, due to work,’ and bizarrely, ‘Still the same dining set, I see.’ I could not understand what that had to do with her.
I did not know any of the people she was talking about and she ignored me totally. I felt an alien had landed in our universe and I could not wait for it to fly away.
Mother brought out the trifle, perhaps hoping for a compliment from Aunt Bertha but none came. I could hear the scrape of spoon on glass and second helpings emptying the bowl. It sat there, smeared and ashamed.
We had coffee and tea back in the front room and the evening dragged on. My parents were shadows of themselves, agreeing with everything she said, jumping up when she needed replenishing, feeding the monster.
Eventually she announced that she was ‘retiring for the night’. Off she went without a thank you and the room gradually emptied itself of her, her smell lingering, a kind of musty, woody scent which I found highly unpleasant.
I helped my parents clear away and we could hear the floorboards above us creaking as she moved between bathroom and spare bedroom. We washed up, dried, put the crockery away and spoke little, as if recovering from a trauma.
I hugged my parents goodnight (they were going to stay up a while and listen to the wireless, maybe try to heal). I went up to bed but as I was passing Aunt Bertha’s room, I saw that her door was ajar. I peeped in through the lighted slit and to my horror she was on the floor. She was in her under garments, a strange layering of corset, lace, cotton and silk. Her short legs and arms were podgy and pink but her face was ashen. As she heard me pass, she called in a rasp,
‘Help me, Susan. Help me.’
I was astonished by her pleading voice and pushed the door slightly open. From the corner of her mouth, there was a line of blood which dripped to her chin and a red pool staining the carpet beside her. Her face was twisted in pain, her eyes large and bulbous, the whites shiny and terrifying and she was stretching her left arm trying to clutch the bedspread. Her body rocked from side to side, as she writhed in pain, a low moaning coming from her like a wounded animal.
Her voice was hoarse and small. I thought her ugly and helpless, her fat body exposed, like a large beetle on its back struggling to right itself. I felt loathing towards her for the way she had treated my parents so I walked coldly to my bedroom and closed my door, climbed into bed and fell easily asleep.
In the middle of the night, I was abruptly awoken by my parents screaming and my father was on the telephone and there was an ambulance and Aunt Bertha was carried away on a stretcher to hospital and it was all a smudge and a blur.
Aunt Bertha died that night.
Later that day, we left the hospital where my parents had to sign some forms and went home, just the three of us, the way I liked it. I had never told my parents about her calling to me that night. The table had been dismantled and the leaf stored away. The house had rid itself of Aunt Bertha’s smell and resumed its old identity.
‘Well,’ said Father softly, ‘the old dear’s gone.’
‘She had a kind heart,’ said Mother.
‘Really?’ I was amazed. ‘I thought she was mean.’
‘Oh, that was just her manner,’ said Father. ‘She was kind underneath. Look what she gave us when we married: money towards the house, the cooker, the fridge. We’d have had nothing if she hadn’t helped us.’
‘And the dining table and chairs,’ said Mother. ‘Don’t forget the table.’
Tamar Hodes was born in Israel in 1961 and has lived in the UK since 1967. She read English and Education at Homerton College, Cambridge. For the past thirty two years she has taught English in schools, universities and prisons. Her novel, Raffy’s Shapes, was published by Accent Press in 2006. She has had ten stories broadcast on Radio 4 and in anthologies including The Best British Short Stories 2015 (edited by Nicholas Royle) and published by Salt. Her stories have also appeared in The Pigeonhole, Your One Phone Call and have been printed by the Ofi Press in Mexico.