My Other Self
Copyright © Isabella Dalzell 2017. All RIghts Reserved.
My other self is sitting at the kitchen island surrounded by sparkling Formica kitchen units, a sparkling kitchen hob and a sparkling clean white tiled floor. Everything is neatly in its place with the latest kitchen gadgets housed in their own special enclaves. I twist and turn on the cushioned black leather barstool and survey the cakes I’ve made earlier for the coffee morning. There are fifteen, each on their own individual cake stands, of every flavour conceivable and each has their own flag pinioned to the spongy surface to inform the guests whether it be “Lemon Drizzle”, “Coffee and Walnut”, “Death by Chocolate” or a myriad other combinations of fruit or nut.
My husband, in his trendy smart yet casual wear, dispenses coffee or tea as the guests prefer, entertaining them with expansive stories of his life in Geneva, his apartment there and his expeditions with friends across the European continent by motorbike at weekends. He is a good storyteller, regaling the rapt audience of mostly women of a certain age- well coiffured and smartly dressed, jewellery glinting- with details of their wine soaked meals in rural auberges as the posse of adventurous, middle aged motorcyclists journey across northern Europe. I quite envy them their wealth and freedom, but then, it’s my choice to stay here and groom my sparkling house and neat garden. Besides, there is our daughter, an adopted Chinese in her teens now, to chaperone, chauffeur and care for. And of course, my friends to lunch with, go to the gym with, the dog to walk and the church to raise money for. Which of course is what today is all about.
I survey the rooms grouped around the wide, sun filled hallway and rising from my seat, monitor that my guests have all they need and that the chatter is evenly distributed. I draw in those marooned without acquaintance and introduce them and everybody chats in an inconsequential and inclusive way. A few breakout and stand in the warm sunshine outside or sit at the neatly grouped garden furniture. Mostly professionals, my guests converse in an intelligent and friendly manner, assured. Assured of wealth, family connection but not always of good health or youth.
The cakes begin to disappear, slivers distributed on paper plates leaving crumbs on the immaculate cake stands. Cups of tea or coffee are refilled and the sun filters through the gleaming windows filling the kitchen with warmth. Money is stuffed into the central collection box, gifts for the rebuilding of the church. The conversation buzzes as if on a tide, now high, now low. Not all the guests are known to me, some have brought their friends along to swell the numbers and increase the donations. One woman is sitting in her slightly ethnic clothes, a bit out of place. She has no ring on her finger and no chatter of children or family to dispense, or of holidays taken abroad; her hair is not so slickly groomed as that of my other guests. She is about my age and has obviously taken a different path through life and I wonder what her story is. She could almost be my other self.
I move towards where she is sitting and start a conversation. Raising the coffee pot in synchrony with my eyebrows I ask, casually, “Would you like some more coffee?”
“Please.” She replies, looking down at the swampy dregs of coffee grounds at the bottom of her empty cup.
“Are you new hereabouts? I haven’t seen you before at the Church.”
“Oh, no, I don’t belong to the Church. I’m a friend of Hannah’s; we met only recently at the Pain Management Clinic and knowing my penchant for cakes, she invited me along. I hope you don’t mind?” She smiles at me.
“Goodness me, of course not. The more the merrier. It’s in a good cause, after all.” I nod towards the collection box sitting squat amidst the cakes.
“Well, they’re very good.” She waves her laden fork about and again, gives me that smile as she wipes a crumb from the corner of her lip. "Did you make them yourself?”
From the corner of my eye I can see Gavin looking over at us, or rather, at her. I nod slowly.
“And what line of work are you in? Do you know anyone else here?” I ask, wondering if it will turn out to be the same as Gavin’s. She doesn’t answer the second question.
“Well, I was in management consultancy, and I used to paint as well, you know, to relax. But the fibromyalgia put paid to that.” She turns her hands palm up, looking at them, before continuing, encouraged by my silent attention, “I was unable to work for years, but gradually changed direction so now I teach part-time. Special needs, higher education. And now I write a bit on the side. With the aid of speech technology." She looks back at her injured hands. "And you?”
Marvelling at her persistent creativity, I reply, “Oh, Poppy and Gavin keep me busy enough. And the house. And the Church and so forth. It’s enough for me. But tell me, if you don’t mind, how did you fall ill?”
“Travelling in China. I went after my mother died and my relationship broke up. Caught a nasty viral infection sailing up the Yangtze River. At least that’s what the haematologist said, I don’t think they really know. I was housebound for eight years and it was only in retrospect that they worked it out. I’d had three whiplash accidents in two years as well, you see, so it could have been that.”
“So, it was pursuing your dream of freedom?”
“Well, you know what Janis Joplin said. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” She shrugs.
Taken aback at her directness, I turn away uncomfortably, with a polite smile, waving the spout of the coffee jug towards another guest. The hubbub is beginning to die down now and my guests are departing slowly. I watch from the other side of the table, as she and Hannah gather their things and depart, with a last, smiling wave towards me. I notice as Gavin sees them off at the door.
The remaining chunks of cake are sliced into triangles, wrapped in serviettes and given as presents to departing guests, as if at a child’s tea party. I close the door on the final one and my husband and I roll our eyes at each other. Smiling, we embrace.