We're delighted to present an extract from Dinner Party: A Tragedy, the debut novel by Sarah Gilmartin, published by Pushkin Press.
Kate has taught herself to be careful, to be meticulous. To mark the anniversary of a death in the family, she plans a dinner party – from the fancy table settings to the perfect Baked Alaska waiting in the freezer. Yet by the end of the night, old tensions have flared, the guests have fled, and Kate is spinning out of control.
But all we have is ourselves, her father once said, all we have is family...
When the Gleeson twins were eleven years old, they ran away from home one afternoon. They made it as far as the old mill on the outskirts of town before their mother's red Jeep pulled up beside them in the rough. The girls got into the back without a word. They didn’t look at each other, just knew somehow to accept defeat, because most things in life were to be accepted. Later that night, Elaine had woken Kate up, her cold fingers prodding Kate’s shoulder across the divide of their single beds. In the soft darkness of the room, Elaine had announced that one day soon they would get off the farm. They would, in fact, get off the island of Ireland entirely and be free to do whatever they wanted in some unknown country with no family ties at all. Kate, who was used to keeping her ideas to herself, especially in the middle of the night when she wanted to go back to sleep, didn’t point out that if the twins were together, they would always have family wherever they went. Instead she’d squinted at Elaine, pulled the duvet over her shoulder and rolled in to face her side of the wall.
Every year on her sister’s anniversary, Kate thought of that night with useless, superstitious longing. If only she could change it. If only she had said yes, for once. What parts of her she would give to have another chance. Her arms, her legs, her rickety bones. But no—enough—this game helped no one. As the bus back to Raheny stalled in the morning traffic, she tried to focus on the day ahead. She shifted closer to the window, away from her seatmate and his sandwich. With a cool swipe of her hand, she cleared the condensation and looked down at the street, the chalky pavement of College Green and all the people rushing by.
Today was the sixteenth anniversary of her sister’s death. An incredible number, but you couldn’t argue with numbers—they had no give. This evening the family, or some of the family, were coming to her apartment for dinner. Kate had the day off work to prepare, the recipes laid out on the counter at home, the final few things she needed in the lime green grocery bag at her feet. It wasn’t even half eleven. Everything was going to be fine.
At the turn for the Northside quays, the bus missed the lights. A woman in front of Kate said to the person next to her, 'There’s so much traffic we’re going backwards.’ The seatmate agreed and the conversation went relentlessly round, each of them talking over the other, saying the same things, until Kate felt that she might never get off the bus. The windows had fogged again and the vents at her feet piped sour heat up to her face. She popped a button on her coat, elbowing the man beside her by mistake. ‘Sorry,’ she said. He ignored her and leaned forward for another bite of his breakfast bap. The yolk split, smearing the ketchup like pus into blood. Kate moved as far away from him as she could, which was not very far at all. Her right ear started to ring, a kind of static fuzzing inside her head. Across the aisle, a toddler screamed, his sharp little cries sucking the light right out of the sky.
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Listen: Sarah Gilmartin talks to RTÉ Arena
At Fairview they stopped for more passengers. A group of teenage boys stomped up the stairs, all jerky limbs and stale smoke. The tallest one pulled on a Scream mask and lurched at some girls by the stairwell. Kate closed her eyes, drowning out the shrieks. She ran through the evening’s recipes in her head, visualizing the photo of the Baked Alaska, the sheen of the meringue, the torched golden tips.
A loud hiccup broke her concentration. The man had finished his bap. Instantly, the teenagers took up the challenge, their frog chorus bouncing hiccups and burps around the deck. The noise, the way they seemed to liquify and fill the space—graffitied satchels, bum fluff, trainers with scraggly laces. Some unknown floor gave way inside her. Reaching for her shopping, her hand touched the man’s rucksack and she stood up too quickly, her thigh striking the frame of the seat. ‘Excuse me,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry.’ The man made room for her to get out. At the bottom of the stairs, a standing passenger stared at her with dense curiosity. Two women in the disabled bay nudged each other. Kate moved past them, pressed the red button on the side panel and bit into a hangnail while she waited for the Coast Road stop.
Home, finally, she dropped the bags on the couch and kneaded her thigh. The apartment was cold, but she left her coat on a chair all the same, glad to be free of it. Incense from the morning’s mass was still on her jumper, woody and cloying. She’d tried to light a candle after the service but the slot snatched her euro without a flicker. Looking over her preparations now, she wondered if it had been a sign. The four settings on the dining table, immaculate last night, seemed cramped and showy in the daylight. The gold-rimmed china her mother had given her for her thirtieth was meant for a grander room. But no, she was being ridiculous—it was just her family coming for dinner. Her two brothers and her sister-in-law, that was it. Peter, the eldest, on his own from Carlow, then Ray and Liz, who could be all over each other or not speaking to each other, depending on the day. They were her family, and she had made them dinner before. They were not hard people to please. And yet. The feeling returned, stronger than before: she could so easily have cancelled. She could have stayed in and drunk a bottle of wine. Three bottles of wine. She could have taken the Luas to Ray’s house in Ranelagh and gone trick-or-treating with Liz and the girls. She could have gone home to Cranavon and sat up with Peter and Mammy until the early hours, like she’d done for other anniversaries. Instead Kate had invited them all for dinner, though if you pressed her, she couldn’t say exactly when this had happened. Things had been strange for a while now. Life was blurry; each morning the sun rose in a muslin veil. The small stuff was more to the centre, somehow, taking up all the space, blunting her capacities.
In the kitchen, she unloaded her shopping and folded the bag into the bag of bags. She lined up her spoils on the island. Truffle oil from the Arno valley, elastic bands, a pre-carved pumpkin, hand cream, cereal, juniper berries for Liz’s G&Ts. She left the pumpkin and cream to one side and put everything else away. On the counter, the recipes in their clear plastic sleeves were shining in the morning sun. Kate looked out the picture window and thought of her sister.
Between the chopping and the mincing and the rolling and the baking, the hours passed quickly. Her last job was to pipe meringue over the ice cream and slot the dessert into the freezer. When she’d finished the spikes, she stood back to admire her creation. She was proud of it, a mad looking thing like a jester’s hat. All at once, the evening stretched in front of her, full of possibility. She opened the window over the sink as wide as it would go and the fresh, salty wind came across the room. Outside the light was low in the sky, a strip of pale blue between two bands of cloud. ‘Everything is OK,’ she said out loud to no one.
At ten to seven, she rushed into the bedroom and took off the silk dress that had seemed like such a good idea earlier in the week. The olive green did nothing for her complexion, her mother was right. Kate’s eyes were the wrong kind of brown, different to Elaine’s—their amber warmth, the dark limbal rings around the iris. Non-identical twins. Fraternal twins, their mother used to say. If Kate had been able to salvage something of her sister’s, it would have been her eyes. These were the kind of terrible thoughts she’d been having for years. There was no one you could tell. The only person who would get it—who would, in fact, have been thrilled to hear it—was dead.
Dinner Party: A Tragedy by Sarah Gilmartin (published by Pushkin Press) is out now.