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Caitlin Rothery

When the guests had gone, they served themselves without pretension, with spoons sticking from metal pans on the hob, and carried a bowl each to the table where five places were set. Warm light from the overhead struck shadows on their brows, a stripe across their eyes when they bowed their heads. It made green the walls, a turquoise which seemed to grow in the gloam, go back and back for miles, giving the impression, thought Cathy, of their being at the bottom of the sea. The driving rain on the windows only added to this sense, its muffled din subduing the party whom it drenched in its sound. The conversation was reassuringly slack, the high energy dissipated, effortlessly tepid. The soup, which had been sitting too long, was lukewarm.

Plastic beads at her sister’s neck clacked as she pulled them absently and, with her right hand, drew an apathetic spoon to her lips, opened them slightly, ate the soup. Cathy watched the window, black now, and her own reflection, face on, a defiant imitation, moving very little. The glass was imperfect; it distorted and betrayed its own mimicry. Now her forehead stretched up and up, illimited, now it compressed and the cheeks elongated, elastic features. The dark outside hollowed her eyes and struck a chiaroscuro effect, a picture of a yellow, skull-like form out of focus. When she changed her gaze, sought the night, the panes rippled, opaque and impenetrable. A fox’s yelp rang on the glass, the strange music of the agitated night troubling the walls, which sealed them in.

The five of them, unified in their lack of pretence, were at once relieved and lost. The absence was absolute: in the empty chairs around the table, leggy and brittle; manifest in the dull passivity of Cathy’s father’s stare. The stray sock on the radiator seemed vividly red, he thought, eyes glazing. Alice, Jason, the four children, and Halle and Paul, all packed up and all gone and this red sock on the radiator, only small enough for little Alfie, all they had left with their absence. He thought, but for that, they were never here.