Falling in love is like lighting a scented candle. You spend years in the dark and suddenly everything is filled with light and the sweet smell of berries and roses. But before long, it’s snuffed – a part of you forever melted away until the wick is lit again. This can only happen for so long until you’re left with nothing but a pool of cool wax.
After the first few loves of my life, I only had boyfriends I couldn’t stand. Jake with the specks of toilet paper stuck to razor cuts on his chin, or Troy who peed in the sink while brushing his teeth for “convenience”. There was always an urge, squirming, eyeless and hungry, under the surface of that once-sweet fruit. To feel more.
So, I started crashing funerals.
I remember my first, sat in the pews as a glassy-cheeked widow choked out a speech for her dear Myron. I cried enough tears to fill a bathtub. Recently, I’m struggling to wring out a single drop. Last month I attended the wake of a sixty-something alcoholic hit by an ice cream van in broad daylight. Her photo was projected onto the hotel function room wall. I pictured her bleached hair in disarray, bleary eyes staring at the sun as blood oozed onto the road like raspberry jam from a doughnut. But I didn’t feel anything.
Today, I’m trying again. I’m sitting near the church window with a huge magnolia tree outside, like the one from home. My sister Polly and I spent hours on the garden swing chair in the summers of our youth, talking about boys and who we wanted to be, while our younger siblings chased ladybirds and wiped cupcake-fingers across clean sheets pegged on the line. I thought the magnolia blooms above looked like pink birds. To Polly, they were more like baby cheeks.
We stand for the coffin, and I don’t know what to do with my hands. I pinch my skirt, rearranging the satin on my hips. I use my pinkie to neaten my boysenberry lip gloss. It catches the light, as do the teardrop earrings. My aesthetic today is Darkly Ethereal, like a Glasswing butterfly preserved perfectly on a windshield.
All heads turn to the back of the room as a shining silver casket enters. A bouquet of dark pink roses and gypsophila rests on top. The petals shake as the coffin hovers down the aisle to eerie guitar music until the pallbearers lay it down.
A man taps me on the shoulder and offers me an order of service. My heart tenses when I look at the page. The girl in the photo is beautiful. She has long black hair, vermillion lips, and skin as pale and luminous as morning light. The name reads ‘Bianca Isbert 1998-2022’. With this, I notice the rows of young girls with quivering tissues in hand, tears moistening the shoulder pads of their boyfriends’ suits.
I shudder and swallow sour spit.
‘Please be seated,’ the vicar says.
I grab my things and duck out. A few faces turn when the doorman asks if I’m ok.
I ignore him.
Outside it’s hot. The sun is a bonfire in the sky. I unwind my chiffon scarf and bundle it into my bag. I never get the times wrong. I was supposed to go to Leonard the 92-year-old horticulturalist’s send-off. Not a young woman’s. Never.
When I get home, Lyle is still in bed. I fall onto the couch next to Opal, my Persian Ragdoll. She purrs and rolls closer as I open my laptop. ‘Welcome Tabitha,’ the screen says. A search for ‘Bianca Isbert’ returns a long list of news articles. I click on the first one. The headline reads:
New Party Drug ‘Magic Apple’ Kills Bianca Isbert and Dozens of London Revellers
The article begins with a faceless list of lives lost beside a photo of a cute apple-shaped pill. At the bottom of the list is Bianca’s name. I blink away an image as I read:
Miss Isbert (24) was found by her boyfriend Andrew Foyle after a house party in Stratford, London. This is the latest tragedy caused by the drug which remains in circulation despite its potentially lethal effect.
The pill is thought to be made of various psychotropics with the ‘occasional and unpredictable’ measure of cyanide. ‘Taking it is like playing a game of psychedelic Russian Roulette,’ the journalist dares.
I thumb a text to my weed dealer.
Lyle appears in the doorway in his boxers, picking at his ear with the arm of my sunglasses. ‘How was the meeting?’
‘Ok.’ I close my laptop. ‘Dinner tonight?’
‘Sounds good. I’ll cook.’
I blow Lyle a kiss and he makes a heart with his hands. A pungent steam cloud of bergamot fills the flat when he leaves the bathroom door open. I consider watering the Spider Orchid wilting on the windowsill, but I need to relax. Besides, I like the way it looks – like a quirky spray for a coffin.
A lullaby of pigeon-song and rush-hour traffic drifts through the window. I stand in the bedroom in a maraschino-cherry-coloured balcony bra and thong and open the bag of green and red pills, pinching one between thumb and finger. It’s glossy red, like boiled candy. I lift it to my nose, but the apple stink makes me retch.
I return the pill to the bag and tuck it in my bra before draping a deep blue dress over my body. The hem skims the tattoo on my ankle. Polly and I got them for her 18th birthday. I chose a Ferris wheel; she chose a glass slipper.
Polly’s face was one of instant regret when the needle was lifted. ‘What if my husband hates tattoos?’ she gasped.
‘I think you need to find a boyfriend first, Pol,’ I joked.
She looked at me with watery eyes. The confetti freckles of our childhood had endured on her face. Mine were long gone. I did my best to reassure her, but Polly wore socks with her battered Mary Janes every day that summer.
Lyle is plating up a beef bourguignon in the kitchen. The room is woody from the mushrooms.
‘Smells delicious,’ I say.
‘Good.’ Lyle kisses my cheek and removes his oven gloves. ‘You look hot.’
We sit down to dinner in the draught from the open window, a bottle of Shiraz and a candle between us.
‘So, yeah. I think I’ll take Valerie to Monaco,’ Lyle says.
‘The boat. Remember? Dad wants me to take her for a spin. Keep her happy.’
‘It’s a bitch because I have to be back on Friday for an executive meeting.’
Yeah, must be a real bitch inheriting a jewellery business and having to do no work for it.
‘Mm,’ I say, forking beef into my mouth.
‘You can’t come, right?’ he asks. ‘Because of work?’
‘I mean, I don’t have any executive meetings, but I do have insurance to sell.’ I swig my wine.
‘Are you okay?’
He points his fork at my plate. ‘You ate that quickly.’
‘Did I?’ I’m thinking about the drugs in my bra. My heart thuds in my temples and my free hand leaves a sweaty ghost on the dining table. I wipe it on my dress. ‘Food was divine.’
We eat strawberry and dragon fruit panna cotta for dessert. The fuchsia syrup sticks to the roof of my mouth while the cream chills my tongue. I close my eyes and let the sensation calm my nerves.
‘Music?’ Lyle asks.
I wrap myself in a blanket on the couch and lick my dessert spoon.
‘Sure.’ Lyle scrolls his phone and the sound of jazz piano trickles in from the speaker in our kitchenette. He joins me on the couch, still looking at his phone. At first, I don’t recognise the tune, then the shadows around the room shift and the keys clunk loudly. An image strobes into view. I jump up, dropping my spoon. It whirls on the linoleum.
‘What’s wrong?’ Lyle asks but I’m running to the bedroom.
I smack the door closed and sit on the bed as the memory flashes. I feel the fizz of cheap alcohol from my date on my tongue, smell Polly’s lavender hand lotion as I check her pulse. Her skin is as cold as china, and I know I’m too late. I hear the silence behind piano keys.
It was winter. Polly and I shared a flat at university. She’d tried to make things cosy with crushed velvet and fresh flowers, but a chill made it through the thin walls and Polly’s bedroom was ice cold. The ashtray on her bedside table had a few peach chewing gum balls and a half-smoked menthol inside. A glass of pink wine and a well-thumbed copy of Little Women sat nearby. The TV was muted as the radio played lazy piano music. And sat up in bed, cast in blue light from the screen, was my sister – eyes in another dimension, blood stopped in her veins. She was beauty, stilled. A mermaid frozen in a waterfall.
Polly left me a few empty pill packets, a hole in my heart, and a note that said, ‘I’ll never find love’.
Tears leak from me now and my chest heaves. I pull out the bag and tip two tiny poison apples into my hand. My palm shines and my fingers shake.
Lyle comes into the room.
‘Tabs?’ He sees the tears shimmering on my face and the drugs in my hand. His face floods with shock. ‘Are they those Magic Apple things?’
I throw them into my mouth.
He grabs my shoulders. ‘Tabs, spit them out!’
My heart whirs and there’s a whomping sound in my ears. The candy shell softens in my mouth and my adrenaline turns to wicked fear. It’s like the Big Dipper has taken off and crashed in the same minute. I don’t want to die. I just want to feel something other than this.
Opal mews from the bed and I sob. The pills fall from my mouth. I run to our en-suite and hang my mouth under the tap, swishing the water around my teeth and tongue before spitting it out. I breathe deeply, hands on the rim of the sink.
Lyle taps on the door. I open it and he secures me in a hug. ‘What’s going on?’ he asks.
We sit down with Lyle’s arm around me, and I tell him everything.
‘I’m so sorry.’ He exhales. ‘Why don’t I already know this?’
‘I don’t know. I tried so hard to block it out. Then it was like I couldn’t remember it and I couldn’t feel anything.’ I shake my head. ‘That music you played. What was that?’
‘Art Tatum. He was Pat’s favourite.’
I blink. ‘Pat?’
‘I thought I told you.’
I shake my head.
‘Oh.’ Lyle plays with the cuff of his shirt. ‘Well, put it this way, the only reason I get the jewellers is because my brother died.’
‘That’s awful,’ I breathe.
‘Yeah. Pat was the oldest. He got into a jet ski accident in Monaco.’ Lyle bites his top lip. ‘Sometimes I go there to feel close to him.’
‘Oh.’ I hang my head. ‘I’m sorry. I assumed you didn’t have problems.’
‘Everyone thinks that. Yet everyone has them.’
I give him a minute, keeping my hand close.
He holds it.
‘I’m sure I could take a few sick days,’ I say.
Lyle looks up. ‘You’ll come to Monaco?’ ‘Yeah. I could do with a break.’ He smiles.
‘I’d love that. Are you okay though?’
‘I think so.’
Lyle picks up the pills. ‘Let’s just put these here. We don’t need them.’ The tablets hit the wood of the dresser with an innocent plink, but leave a green and red stain on the carpet. ‘There’s still some wine left.’
‘Actually, I feel woozy.’
Lyle stops. ‘Are you ok? It’s not the—’
‘It’s just the wine. Let’s go for a walk.’
The extractor fan in our en-suite hums soothingly. I wipe away the mascara crescents under my eyes and think of my sister. That someone so sweet and delicate was related to me, with my thorns and rust, seemed as beautiful and impossible as a blue rose. The loss was painful. But you can’t heal a wound with poison.
I flush the drugs and a whirlpool of luminous green and red disappears down the bend.
In the living room, Lyle hands me my coat and kisses my forehead. It tingles after.
‘Yep,’ I say.
He switches the light off but the room flickers. Our candle burns on the dining table, its magnolia scent warming the air. It’s funny, I don’t remember buying this candle, let alone lighting it. But sometimes the heart does its own thing, and it turns out I’ve got wax left to burn.
I lean in and pause. Untouched on my plate, in a lagoon of magenta syrup, is a perfect strawberry. I blow out the candle and pop the berry in my mouth. And in the dark, it tastes even sweeter.
Catherine Roberts is a new mum powered by black coffee and illuminated by a laptop at night when she finds the time to write. Catherine holds a first-class BA Hons degree in Creative Writing from the University of Portsmouth. She has had several articles published by hyper-local news website www.starandcrescent.org.uk. She can be found on Twitter under the handle: @CRobertsWriter