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The Barcelona Review

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It was nearly fifteen years ago that Elaine had stood peering toward the harlequin bustle of the fourteenth floor, doped by the static September heat, watching the glass panelling refract and scythe. It was one of those sneaky summer days, one that lounges around a chilled August, making a wild and unpredictable cameo, hoodwinking you into knits, swindling you out of sandals. She’d already taken to whispering ‘You get to a certain age’, to no one in particular; the tiny bones in her hand creaking like violas, shopping bags cutting into the skin of her wrists; whispering it beneath her breath, the words a smooth tonic.
       You get to a certain age.
       She was thirty-five.
       Joan met her at reception, dressed head-to-toe in black, like some sort of devastating widow; her lips a woozy red, her foundation a flawless white facade. They took the lift, staring silently ahead, slim parallel lines, a vertical Hays Code, counting off the floors.
       ‘Hot, isn’t it?’ Elaine ventured.
       ‘Not especially,’ Joan replied, buttoning her cardigan with a pointed elegance.
       The office was a mess: a scatter of half-opened boxes, the cavalier architecture of a child’s fort; the ceiling fan flickering off and on; the paint drying in patches. But Elaine saw its potential, the order in the olio, feeling the compact thrill of a nice meal or good art. Her thoughts had slowed to a plod in the heat, circling slowly, like the fish in the bowl her husband had gifted her. She grappled for half-formed ideas; wispy responses dispatched into the air, floating away like dandelions huffed into the wind. To her surprise, Joan offered her the job – Personal Assistant – and she rose to her feet, not quite knowing how to accept the offer, announcing ‘Shall I just get us a cup of tea?’ a conspicuous affirmation.
She was Officer Manager now, but still retained a few PA duties, picking up dry-cleaning here and there, swirling stevia into coffee. Everyone needed a bit of looking after. Even Joan.
Elaine liked to look out for people. She was a tall woman, and as a tall woman, she suspected she was made for it; made to protect, to watch over. Everything about her seemed to accommodate her height; her airy, echoing vowels, the swooning lumber with which she moved. But then she hit fifty, felt the uteral twangs, the telling hot flushes and fluctuations of mood, and realised her body wasn’t made for height, for elevation; it was made, and had always been made, for menopause. She gained a little weight, developing a pleasing paunch she’d rub admiringly. She’d sit at the kitchen table breaking off squares of cooking chocolate. She rang her sister to say she wouldn’t be coming home for Christmas, and while she was at it, could she stop being such a goddamn tramp her whole life. She had crème-de-menthe with dinner. She listened to Cher. She booked a trip to the Peak District alone.
       Her husband wondered what the hell had gotten into her. He’d curse and rumble, rolling his eyes at her elasticated waistbands, ask her why she’d stopped wearing make-up. But it didn’t bother her; things were looking up for old Elaine!
       ‘You want to take an old girl to the cinema?’ she asked.
       ‘Not especially.’ he replied. ‘But I will.’
       ‘Old woman,’ he said, after a pause. ‘Old woman.
Elaine got in early to leave a plastic pot of maraschino cherries, and a small bottle of vodka, on Joan’s desk. Performing secret good deeds was a guilty pleasure for Elaine - a covert joy, a sort of private joke, really, shared only with herself. She would perform secret good deeds, flush with joy, made glad by the baffled delight they’d bring. She’d slip ten pound notes into charity buckets. She’d pay for drinks. She’d order slices of cake, have them presented to young couples, watching them across the café. She occasionally imagined secret good deeds were being performed for her, the world fluent in a silent language of kindness. Upon finding an apple on her car bonnet, a Pink Lady, as yellow and red as the sun, beaming a smiling curve of white light, she thought: Who left this for me? What lovely person left me this? before noticing the rest of the car, a punnet of raspberries smeared across the windscreen, an orange squelched into the numberplate, and a note, tucked and fluttering, beneath the wipers.
       Can you keep your fucking car out of the loading bay?
       But the slow drag of disappointment had grown numb, hard, like a frozen waterfall, it barely registered. There were things to get excited about in this life. Things to thrill for. Like zumba and sugared almonds. Water aerobics and flavour liqueur. Cher.
       At three she popped out to get Joan some lunch. She selected a smoked salmon bagel and an iced tea. At the till, John the Sandwich Guy, literally the name of his business, slipped a French tart into her bag. Elaine smiled. A big screwball smile. As big and sinking as the Titanic.
       ‘Thanks, John,’ she said. ‘You’re a good egg.’
       ‘You’re a good egg!’ he replied, chuckling floridly. ‘An Ananov egg! A Fabergé egg! Eggs Benedict!’
       She left giggling, letting the door click softly behind her, and the thought suddenly struck her, as occasionally it did, that she didn’t have a single true friend in all the world.
She got home to the smell of pizza, the sound of the seaside, tinkering from the television. She located the pizza box, a paper white square, balanced on top of the kitchen table, promising slicks of grease and steam marbling the lid. She teased it open, knowing already there would be none left, and made instead for the fridge, compiling a plate of leftovers. She ate at the kitchen table, watching the fish circle its bowl, the seventh fish, she thought, Moby Dick the seventh. She set down her fork to sprinkle fish food onto the water, pink and orange flakes, that had the texture and smell of chicken stock. She felt subversive, transgressive, radicalising the food chain like that. The fish wriggled hurriedly to the waterline, its orange mouth nipping sweetly at the surface, its big black eyes frozen in a kind of permanent disbelief, a doubtful and necessary trust.
       Once, she had wanted kids. And then she wanted a kid. Then she wanted a cat. But now she was fully committed to this: a solitary goldfish, eternally circling the left-hand corner of their kitchen table. She looked at the goldfish, swimming and flickering, the little hinges of its jaw, chomping up and down. She loved it, she thought, in the smallest, saddest way. She wanted to fish it out, to feel it in her palm, to stroke its slick, twitching body and feel its satin-soft fins.
       She finished her food, depositing her plate into the sink, and made her husband a cup of tea. She placed it on the carpet next to his feet, on the flattened pale ring of shag, kissing his head as she went to bed.
       ‘Wait,’ he called. ‘What do you want for your birthday?’
       She paused between the top and the bottom, stasis on the stairs, fingering the covered buttons of her jersey.
       ‘Just your health and happiness,’ she replied. She thought he’d forgotten.
       ‘And a million dollars.’
       ‘How about that trip to the cinema?’ he said.
       ‘Well wouldn’t that would be nice,’ she replied, thinking she wouldn’t be able to sleep with all this excitement flip-flopping in her heart.
She worked on her birthday. She always worked on her birthday. There were things to be done! – papers to file, phone calls to make. Plus Joan needed looking after: at eleven she would deliver her morning cappuccino; at one she’d remove the cherry tomatoes from her salad; at four she’d make her lemon and ginger tea; past six, she needed to be told to go home. There was a catharsis in it. There was a ceremony. It was a full-time job. It was literally a full-time job! Elaine made time to treat herself too; treats could save a person, she thought. ‘Treat yourself every day,’ her mother had told her, and she did: taking herself on little walks, an expensive haircut here and there. Once, her husband had treated her, courted her - whisked her off to restaurants, showed her off to his friends. Now her treats were reserved for her birthday - and even then, they didn’t always manifest.

At the end of the day, Joan called her in, asking if she’d shut the door behind her. ‘Don’t think I forgot,’ she said, beckoning Elaine over.
She thought Joan looked more pale, more delicate in the milky evening light. She wondered if she was getting enough iron. Joan gestured at a brown parcel, tied with string, propped amongst the scattered jetsam of admin on her desk. ‘That’s for you,’ she said, and Elaine began unwrapping the parcel, pulling back the folds. ‘What are you doing?’ Joan said. ‘That needs couriering. Tonight.’ Elaine blushed, a hot pink hue, arching her nose and cheekbones. She resealed the package and tucked it beneath her arm. She could drop it off on the way to the pictures.  
She removed her coat from the back of her chair, swinging her bag across her shoulder, noticing her phone flashing, a staccato red reminder. Voicemail. Her husband. Delivering a flimsy excuse for cancelling their plans. She returned the phone to its cradle, sat back in her chair and thought about her life. It was like the time she went to an art gallery, expecting something grandiose, something moving, something, perhaps, profound: swampy colours, powdery paintings of girls in profile. Instead she found hokey sculptures, marble penises extending from the corners. Being given salt when you wanted sugar. An olive not a grape. That was it, she thought. That was her life all over.
She waited in line at the cinema. She’d decided to go alone, though her irritation lingered, like a stubborn base note of leather or sage. She looked at the people queuing around her: couples, mostly, but a few people on their own, also. At the front desk she asked for a ticket for herself and another for the young girl behind her, a fellow solo cinema goer, nervously thumbing the lapel of her coat. She asked they just give her the ticket - no fuss made, no details given. She left the desk, her own ticket printed and folded in the palm of her hand. She thought about the young girl, thought about how surprised she might be, about how nice it was to be treated.
       She thought about all the nice things people had done for her, from historic dates with her husband to the brief moment she saw that apple, perched on her car; how her heart had skipped a beat like it might leap out of her chest. She thought she’d treat herself to some popcorn, and a hotdog too, taking up the space around her, stretching out her arms and legs, and enjoying the film. She thought about how it was her birthday, and not a bad one at that, and her heart did a little leap on its own; you could do that, to your heart, you could be so kind to yourself you could make your own heart leap.

After all, she thought: what goes around comes around.

© Lara Williams

This electronic version of “Treats” appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the publisher and the author. It appears in Best British Short Stories, edited by Nicholas Royle, published by Salt Publishing, 2017; originally appearing in the collection Treats, published by Freight Books, 2016; and due out in the US and Canada by Flatiron in Oct. 2017 under the title A Selfie As Big As The Ritz. Book ordering available through and

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Author Bio
Lara WilliamsLara Williams is a writer based in Manchester, UK. Her debut short story collection Treats was published by Freight Books in 2016; and will be published in the US and Canada by Flatiron in October 2017 under the title A Selfie As Big As The Ritz. She has also had essays, feature, culture and opinion pieces published by The Guardian, The Independent, i Paper, the New Scientist, The Times Literary Supplement, The Debrief, Dazed & Confused, The New European, Vice, Grazia, SomeSuch Stories, and others. She is a graduate of the Manchester Writing School.