:: Article

A formidable etiquette

New fiction by Helen McClory, with art by Leonora Carrington

DACS; (c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation



Mar was wearing silver furs over a plain school blouse and skirt. She waved Aophe in and shut the door.
“Tatra is upstairs.”
That meant, go upstairs and do what Tatra ordered.
Aophe went upstairs, carrying her pug. She felt warm until Tatra ushered her into the dining room. No one was there. She chose a seat near the head of the table, and looked around. Noodle squirmed. Cold. Cold enough to put a sheen of frost on the candelabra, even though there were lit candles in it. The candles the colour of watery poached eggs, she decided. A rusty sound came from outside the door: someone was playing a string instrument. It turned out to be Tatra, who backed in, propping the door open while he played. In came Mar, who stood at the sideboard. She glared at Aophe,
Aophe thought a moment, and stood. It seemed that there would never be an end to this. She changed her mind, and sat.
“I’m sitting,” she said, her voice strained.
“I can see that,” said Miriam.

A woman in grey, a woman, yes. Necklace of teeth on a red chain, the suggestion of a chignon at the back of her neck. How old she was it was impossible to say – her face was like something made by a painter tired of holding the brush. But there was a terrible steadiness behind. Behind Miriam’s glasses, the eyes like cracked opals. And on the table the spoon gleamed too bright for the ambient lighting, and Aophe would not tremble. There had been too much build up, she had decided. She rubbed Noodle’s brow, the pads of her paws.
Miriam folded her hands on the table top.
“Are you afraid of me, my dear?”
“What? No.” Aophe put her elbow on the table. The wood flinched.
“Are you quite sure?”
“Quite sure,” said Aophe, “Miriam. Thanks though.”
Tatra and Mar were looking at each other. Then they sat, both opposite Aophe. Miriam had taken the head of the table, with the sea behind her like her very own sea. Mare Miriam.
Aophe breathed in and out with her belly. The chandelier tinkled, and shards of ice fell in the bread basket, the empty wine glasses.
“Very good,” said Miriam, “I like a girl who knows when best to lie, even if she’s extremely transparent.”
“Well,” said Aophe, “I like hosts who make it clear just what they want of their guests.”
“And let’s begin,” said Miriam, as if nothing further had been said.

Terrine for Tatra, furring as he looked at it with a new bluish mould. And on Aophe’s plate, the split, sauce-dribbled lobster twitched. Noodle stared glassily at it, for once her big pugtongue hidden. A clink of a glass against teeth. That was Mar. She wasn’t always poised: her own dinner, a baked potato topped with plain cottage cheese, had just sprouted eyes.

The steak tartare, too, was more wrong than anyone cared to admit.

Still Miriam spoke sometimes and smiled, if it could be called that. The food eased when cut, becoming normal, if it could be pressed between the lips. Cold bubbles in an empty glass, and Aophe focused on the fact that somewhere else there was news, and that storm volcano, just off somewhere, marking the air over and over with its brief and endless language.

“Terrorism,” declared Miriam, as Tatra cleared away the dishes. The boy’s cuffs were crisp and clean, his wrists narrow and his fingers ugly and red. He stopped. Something slipped; a plate to the floor. It rang out its china frequency around the room, around the rich wood panelling. Miriam turned to him. Tatra showed teeth, backed out of the room with everything clasped to his chest, all stains and mortification and jarred bone.

“Terrorism,” Miriam said again. She pulled out a bronze knife and slit a line under Mar’s collarbone, through the white fabric. Mar held still this time. Miriam pulled out a sheet of paper from the cut. A single slicklet of blood dropped into Mar’s glass.
“The dessert menu, since no one thought to state their preferences.”
Even so, Aophe found a way to remain discreet.
Lesson: if the police ever come, you are to let them in. The police are no more a threat than a branch knocking against a dark window.




Helen McClory is a writer from Scotland. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow and an MA in Creative Writing from UNSW, Australia. Her first flash fiction collection, On the Edges of Vision, was published by Queen’s Ferry Press in August 2015. Her debut novel, Flesh of the Peach, will be published by Civil Coping Mechanisms in 2016. There is a moor and a cold sea in her heart.

Leonora Carrington was a British-born painter and writer (in French) who took Mexican nationality in 1942. After studying in Florence, Paris, and London, in 1937 she met Max Ernst and settled in France with him; in the following year she began exhibiting with the Surrealists in Paris. After the outbreak of war in 1939 and Ernst’s internment, she fled to Spain, where she suffered a nervous breakdown, recounted in her book En Bas (1943, translated as Down Under, 1944). From Spain she went via Portugal to New York and then settled in Mexico in 1942. This painting is called ‘The Old Maids’.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 14th, 2015.