We're delighted to present a new short story by Sheila Armstrong, entitled Lemons, taken from the new anthology Best European Fiction 2019, edited by Alex Andriesse and published by Dalkey Archive Press.
High-flung handfuls of white polystyrene shapes, falling in gentle waves.
A package has come early for Christmas, and the two children have stolen away the S-shaped filling to make snow showers in their small, street-facing garden. Leaping into the air from balled toes, they catch pieces in their mouths, biting down so hard their teeth meet in the middle and slip to the side with a dry, squeaking noise. The taller girl spits a chunk of soft plastic out, and the other copies her in echoing delight. With it comes a smear of blood; a loose milk tooth has left a pinkish trail across the surface. She begins to cry, in fright, and panic fills up her eyes.
The older one laughs at the sight of the blood; she is eight years old and afraid of nothing, fierce as the sun. A thick headband scrapes her hair back against her skull, and she is barefoot through the cold grass, weaving around the thistles stippling the cramped front lawn of their terraced house. Her sister’s brief terror subsides, and they resume their dance. They are whirling together in a snow globe, and they must catch each piece of polystyrene and launch it skywards again; if all the pieces fall to the earth at once, they will become figurines, frozen in place forever.
Across the road, a wet-lipped man leans against a gray cement windowsill and watches the handfuls of soft foam float down. His right hand is hidden in his trousers; the dark jeans full and bulging. He has cut a hole in the scooped lining of his pocket so he can grab himself through it, to pull and pull and pull.
The girls look up as one, sparrow-like, to see him staring. The older one becomes suddenly afraid, unsettled by the man’s jerking motions; a marionette moving without strings. They run inside, hand in hand, and the last of the polystyrene settles down on the lawn to wait for the wind to carry it off and up against the chain-link fence.
The girl is thirteen, and her teeth are chattering, like they do in cheerful adventure stories, but this is a painful, jumping thing and her jaw hurts from the strain. The sun had lashed whip-cracks of red across her back where her mother’s sun- cream-coated hands had missed, but the ocean had been cold, so cold, so cold the shock of it had stunned her, and it had taken the scraping of a foot against a line of needled rocks to shock her back into breathing again. Lacey, a friend so new the thread between them remains spiderweb thin, had jumped in straight after her, almost on top of her head, and they had been pulled under together into a swirling, gray-green crypt.
Now they are shivering in the single shower cubicle together, clinging to each other in a giggling, salty mess. Lacey rubs her sanded hands up and down her own body, pulling her swim- ming togs away from her chest with an elastic snap. For a sec- ond, her soft, rounded breast is on display; a puppy-fat nipple the color of strawberry lollipops.
The shower is only warm compared to their chilled skin, and as they thaw they begin to shiver again, so they rub them- selves dry with rough, over-washed towels before throwing on sweat-damp clothes. They walk from the beach to the shop to buy chocolate cigarettes, eating them in nibbles, paper and all. A shared dip-bag of orange sherbet grit-coats their lips.
Later, as the girl cycles her bike home alone, her salted togs wrapped in a towel and lodged in her armpit, she will think of the nipple, wet-sleek and smooth as a pencil-top eraser.
Just like a period, but heavier than usual, the instructions had said, in fractured English, but the cramps are coming faster and harder, so she is pressed against the side of the mildewed bath, the chill of the porcelain nibbling at the edges of pain. The room spins unfairly, shuddering up and down, and closing her eyes makes the feeling worse, so she stares at the wall, counting the tiles from the top to bottom, making sure the diamond pattern repeats cleanly.
The pills had sat in her mouth for too long, turning her spit thick and choking and bitter, and the memory of the oval out- lines still remains under her tongue. They had come in an anonymous package from France, wrapped up with a silken scarf and some almond sweets that had been stale as soon as they had come out of the box. Her disapproving cousin, a pharmacist, hadn’t added a postcard or note, and she had suspected the tablets were fake; a blast of B12, or a dose of iron to combat pregnancy-related anemia. But now she can finally, finally feel the movement inside her, and she raps her forehead against the rim of the bathtub in gratitude, once, twice, and again.
The whine of the Smashing Pumpkins seeps in; her housemate is listening to music as he works on his final thesis corrections. She is angry at the intrusion into what should be hers alone, in a sealed-off container of experience. But now reality has wiggled through the walls and is drawing lines from the pain in her abdomen to a cassette player in the next room, across the sea to an American singer with a razor in his throat, and all the way back to this flat, this bathroom, this tiled floor.
The pain crests again, in anger.
The clumping will be lemon-sized, she has heard, but this is too strange for her to understand. Lemons are tart and firm, waxy and unyielding; joyful exclamation points that are too bright, too yellow for this comparison. Her teeth clamp into the fleshy part between thumb and wrist, hard enough to dent, the outline of each tooth individually carved.
The singer hits a high note, a belly-song of hurt, and then there is a final wetness, a pulling from deep inside, and the pain comes stronger and truer than ever.
Her little sister is twenty-two, drunk, and sobbing; those wet, clunking things that come up from the diaphragm in retches to spill out over the lips. They are sitting on her couch, leather-backed and designed to fit the angled walls of her rented apartment. The room is small; cramped and low ceilinged, but the orange couch wraps around it like a hug.
A row of half-drunk cups of tea move from hot to warm to cool along the table, and she taps them gently with a teaspoon while she waits for a pause in the flood, each singing out a different note, weaving a song that is bright and pure. The cups are white china, a gift from an elderly aunt, and usually live on a shelf above the microwave, with chunkier supermarket mugs for everyday use. But the nighttime knock on the door, the sour, nostril-burning tang of vomit; this moment requires more help than those mugs can provide, so the china has come out, to fill up with heartache.
Her sister’s head comes up from its hollow in her lap and falls backward against the arm of the couch, her neck a convex of misery. Her upper lip shines with mucus, and a silvery trail dances along the backs of her hands, up the black sleeves of her knitted jumper.
The telling is not easy—a party, a couch, a drink—the words that come out are put together wrong, the sentences fall apart, and tears overwhelm meaning again. So she smooths her sister’s hair down again and again, but the red dye has made it rough and sticky, so it is an uneasy thing, like stroking a cat backwards.
About The Author: Sheila Armstrong is a writer and editor. She grew up in the west of Ireland and is now based in Dublin. She has been published in The South Circular, Literary Orphans, The Irish Independent, Litro magazine and gorse. In 2015, she was nominated for a Hennessy Award in the First Fiction category, and she contributed to Young Irelanders, a short story collection published by New Island Books. She is currently working on her first collection of short fiction.
Best European Fiction 2019, edited by Alex Andriesse and published by Dalkey Archive Press, is available now.