Winner: Ninevoices Summer Short Story Competition 2019
The Chocolate Summer
by Barbara Leahy
Six months after my father died, when the money had run out, Grandmother Allen found us a cottage by the river, and paid the first month’s rent. Our new home squatted in a shady hollow, overshadowed by yellow-leafed birch trees. The sagging roof gave the impression that the cottage was sinking into the landscape, in retreat from the river, the fields, the road beyond. The inside was dark, the ceilings low.
‘She’s coming to see us tomorrow,’ my mother said, folding my grandmother’s letter. She sat in my father’s old armchair, drinking spoonfuls of tea from the cup I’d brought her, something she never allowed me to do. ‘Don’t forget to thank her.’ The tea became a bitter medicine; she swallowed with difficulty, sending the spoon rattling back to the saucer.
‘It is a pity about the children. He is not used to children.’ I came downstairs next morning to find Grandmother at the basin, sinking a jug into the water, rinsing my mother’s long brown hair. ‘They say he lives in a chateau in Normandy.’ Grandmother eased my mother’s head from the basin. ‘It is your only hope, Margaret.’ My mother knelt in silence, dampness darkening the back of her blouse.
Later, I watched my mother dress. She was going to a dance at the Grand Hotel with a man she had met that afternoon, a man my grandmother knew. He was a Frenchman, an old college friend of my father’s. He came to the village every summer to study the wild flowers on the riverbank.
My mother had only one evening dress; a coral satin she had not worn since my father died. ‘Sponging would ruin it,’ she said, fingering a wavering tidemark at the hem. I saw a dark spot form suddenly on the satin, then another. She stood up, covering her face. ‘Run and cut roses for my hair. Watch for thorns.’
We weren’t allowed into the parlour when Monsieur Florian called. Tom hushed May and the twins, and I pressed my ear to the door. I heard a voice, light and musical, yet still a man’s voice; a voice that seemed to dance around the room.
Footsteps approached. With a swish of her skirt, my mother came into the kitchen and placed a box on the table. ‘For you,’ she said. ‘From him,’ and with a warning finger over her lips, she slipped back through the door.
The box was pink and flattish, tied with a maroon ribbon holding an adornment of silk roses. I uncurled the soft petal of one rose with a fingertip. ‘Fancy sweets,’ Tom said, turning away.
I took one end of the ribbon and pulled, until the bow unravelled and fell away from the box. The lid glided upwards in my hands.
It seemed to me then, that something pushed up through the earth and slate into the dimly lit kitchen; a fragile, unfurling hope. The box was filled with glossy chocolates, their perfect polished surfaces unclouded by touch. Crystallised violets, Grecian silhouettes, iced curlicues in a language I could not read. They nestled in delicate paper cups, frilled, lacy underthings. I breathed in cocoa butter and salted caramel, strawberry fondant and coffee cream.
‘Bastard!’ Tom said, grabbing the box and mashing the lid closed. He swung the back door open and ran through the garden. At the river’s edge he raised his arm, and the box flew, lid lifting, chocolates jolting. The pink cardboard floated downstream, dragging a clump of sodden flowers behind it.
One night, later that summer, when I brought roses for my mother’s hair, she was sitting at the mirror, smoothing fingertips over her cheeks. ‘Henri loves roses best,’ she said, as though speaking to her reflection. The satin dress had been massaged in cold water, rolled in fresh towels, but two tear stains still showed on the bodice.
Monsieur Florian greeted me every week with a precisely angled bow and a kiss to my right hand. We used to sit together in the parlour, waiting for my mother. Sometimes he jumped to his feet to admire the view of the river. ‘I am a botanist, like your father,’ he told me. ‘I knew your father; a good man.’
Soon footsteps would sound on the stairs. Like a magician, Monsieur Florian would conjure a box from nowhere, present it with one word, ‘Mademoiselle!’ I would take the box with a stab of longing for the chocolates clustered in paper petticoats, knowing they would be thrown, minutes later, into the river he had admired.
One evening, he told me he was writing a book about flowers native to the region. ‘I have discovered varieties most rare,’ he said. ‘Someday, perhaps, you would like to see?’
Before I could reply, my mother came in, her hand already extended for his kiss. They left me in the doorway, staring at the gauzy crepe paper wrapping of his latest gift. The box smelled faintly of orange blossom. I would make Tom keep it, I decided. This time I would taste the dainty chocolates.
But that box followed all the others, flying through the air, floating downstream. The pulped cardboard caught on a rock, released, and washed away.
The following Friday, Monsieur Florian told me the foliage of weeping birches should be green, not yellow. ‘Disease,’ he said, tapping a forefinger against the window pane. ‘An advanced case.’
Words spilled from me. ‘Tom throws your chocolates in the river. You must never bring them again.’
He turned to face me, and I saw I had confirmed something for him, stamped a seal on a letter already written.
‘So many children,’ he said.
Next morning, my mother’s bedroom door was closed when I arose, and downstairs I found three roses wilting on the slate floor.
It was midday when I found the parcel on the doorstep. I brought it upstairs, and my mother turned away when I placed it on her pillow.
When I returned later, her face was grey. One fist clutched a closely-written page. She nodded at a package lying on the sheets. I read my name, underlined with a flourish. Inside, wrapped in crackling cellophane and tied with a spray of curling gold ribbons, was a chocolate heart, as big as my hand, iced with an embroidery of flowers and twisting vines. I traced stem to leaf to flower, finding a tiny sugared butterfly, a candied ladybird, hiding among the petals. ‘He was fond of you,’ my mother said. ‘Yes, I am certain he was fond of you.’
I could hear her weeping softly as I closed the door. I thought of sharp teeth biting into the heart, crunching through the sugar paste, crushing the intertwining flowers. It was too beautiful to eat.
At the foot of the stairs I saw the flowers I had woven into my mother’s hair the night before. The edges of each petal were tinted russet brown, the colour of dried blood. The chocolate heart would melt in the heat of the summer, the icing would crumble. Whether it was eaten, or thrown into the river, or hidden in a cigar box under a bed, it could not last forever. Outside, a gust of wind sent a flurry of decaying yellow birch leaves rattling against the cottage windows. Autumn had arrived.
Barbara Leahy is from Cork, Ireland. Her short stories and flash fiction have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies including Flash Magazine, The National Flash Fiction Day Anthology, The Irish Literary Review, and the Bridport Prize Anthology. Her stories have also been broadcast on RTÉ (Irish National) radio. She is delighted to have won the 2019 Ninevoices’ short story competition.