Short Fiction by Judy Darley
The pinnacle of our trip should have been a sighting of the aurora borealis: green and lilac ribbons of light flexing above us in the Icelandic sky.
“My namesake,” my sister Aurora reminded Derek, nestling her head under his chin, her shoulderblades against his impressive man-boobs.
“And who’s your namesake?” Lawrence asked me.
“Anne of Green Gables,” I shrugged, already bored. “Except my name doesn’t have the ‘e.’”
Only someone who’d been a literary geek as a child could have unravelled that particular lament.
We were only out there because of my sister. Iceland was a sort of stepping stone between our two locations, even if it was a fair bit closer to Lawrence and me, living in England. I hated the cold far more than Aurora ever did and sometimes wondered how she ended up in super-heated Sacramento when I was the one who spent our childhood with chilblains and red-chapped hands, suffering a perpetual snotty nose. She posted pictures on Facebook of bright blue #nofilter skies and tropical flowers, while damp crept across the ceilings of the house Lawrence and I shared in Wiltshire.
Aurora suggested we meet in Reykjavik in February, “sans rug rats!” and catch up, while experiencing a place with minimal daylight and sub-minimal temperatures. There was no way to refuse without seeming churlish, especially as she and her jock broker husband had already arranged to offload their four squirming offspring on the in-laws down somewhere called Marin County. “I wouldn’t have minded seeing the nephews,” I said to Lawrence as we queued with our passports in Bristol airport. “They’d have made it fun to be in the snow.”
“It’ll be fun anyway,” he told me, running his slender fingers over mine. “We can have snowball fights and make snow angels.”
I imagined the elegance of a snow angel created by his graceful limbs, then pulled a face. “I hate snow.”
When we landed at 11.40am, we were greeted by drizzle that smeared the windows of the bus we boarded. Just like home. I glowered, gazing beyond the smudged glass. The colours were richer than in England, though, I noticed – the earth an earthier, coppery shade of brown, with layers of mustard and a subtle violet hint.
Rain transformed to snow somewhere between us unpacking our bags and Aurora’s text asking if we’d arrived. Let’s meet at the penis museum, she suggested. I hear it is adorbs!
I showed Lawrence the text and rolled my eyes.
“Give her a chance,” he said. “You know how you get with her.”
“Only because she brings it out in me!” I snapped.
He shrugged. “All siblings are like that. Come on, let’s go.”
The settling snow glittered with fractures of miniature rainbows. I found myself converted as we strolled amid the drifting flakes, boots crunching into the crisp surface. A smile broke out over my face. I grabbed for Lawrence’s hand and held tight, our mittens squishing together. He cast me a sidelong glance and I knew he was wondering what cheerful changeling had replaced his sceptical wife.
The Icelandic Phallological Museum housed a treasury of nether parts, mainly from whales, with a selection harvested from smaller creatures and an assortment of mythical beasts, including elves. There was even a whole human member, with scrotum and testicles, donated by a 95-year-old, plus last will and testaments from other men promising their bits to the museum in a bid for immortality.
“What do you think, should I bequeath mine?” Lawrence asked.
I shook my head. “Nah, I’m keeping yours in an old olive jar as a souvenir.”
“Good to know,” Lawrence exclaimed, and then laughed as Aurora bounced out from behind a vast sperm whale schlong. “Perfect timing!”
“Sorry we’re late,” my sister said, not sorrowfully at all. “We landed hours ago but then jetlag hit hard. Isn’t this place the cutest?”
“Very cute,” I agreed, letting her envelop me in a hug. “God, you sound so Yank, Rory.”
“And you sound so Brit.”
“Because I am,” I reminded her, as Derek swept in from the other side and added his fleshy heat to the reunion. “Hi Derek. Good flight?”
“The best! Hi Ann. Any particularly lovely willies in this place?” Derek liked to thrust English idioms at me whenever he had the chance.
“Only my husband’s,” I said quickly. “Seen enough yet?”
“Of my best sister-in-law? Never!”
I cringed inwardly, wishing away the faux flirting he relied on as charm.
We ate dinner that evening at a seafood buffet that included minke whale and puffin, Aurora and I each attempting to hide our dismay about what we were swallowing.
“How are the nephews?” I asked.
“Boisterous,” Derek said with mock resignation, pride glinting. “And how are your parents?”
“Mum’s settled into the care home; Dad’s getting used to living alone,” I told him, with half an eye on my sister’s face. “It hasn’t been easy, but we’re through the worst of it, for now.”
Aurora’s expression remained neutral, mouth opening only to take another bite of minke whale.
“What do you think of it?” I asked as she chewed the dark meat. “Doesn’t it taste like the liver Mum made us eat when we were kids?”
“Yikes, yes! Remember how you’d make me eat yours too?” she grimaced, and then grinned. “This is even nastier. Dunno why I keep eating it.”
“Who knows why you do any of the things you do?” I countered in a breezy enough tone to half-disguise the burn.
She narrowed her eyes at me for a moment, and then grinned. “Remember the baby shower Mum held for Auntie Zeena at our house?”
“That was a hen party,” I corrected her. “Remember the cake…?”
“Oh god, the cake!” Aurora hooted. “They told us it was shaped like a bone…”
“…Because Auntie Zeena liked dogs,” I finished as she half-collapsed with mirth.
Aurora and I had been invited downstairs in our pyjamas to try that cake. In retrospect, it looked nothing like a bone, covered in gluey pink icing and tapering at one end with two bulbous circles coated in shaved chocolate at the other.
Zeena cut one circle into two and slid the pieces onto plates for us. “Go ahead, girls, tuck in.”
The hush in the room made me edgy – it had an expectant weight to it. I’d been to enough sleepovers to know that not everything tasted as good as it looked.
Aurora bent down, lapping at the icing with her tongue. “Mmm, am I a good puppy, Auntie Zeena? I love bones!”
One of the guests snorted.
“Well, A for enthusiasm, darling,” Zeena said, and laughter erupted around us.
“Which bachelor was that, one or two?” someone squealed.
“Bachelor Number Three. What could be sexier than constructive criticism?”
I searched for Mum in the crowd of women, seeking reassurance, and caught the swish of her skirt as she dashed down the corridor. A latecomer was tottering up the front path. The phallic foil balloon bobbing in her wake abruptly informed me what the cake was meant to be.
“Aurora, stop licking!” I shrieked. “It’s not a bone.”
“Maybe this is how it’s meant to be,” Lawrence had suggested when I fumed at my sister’s failure to help out as Mum and Dad reached crisis point. “We look after the previous generation, and your sister and Derek take care of the next.”
“The world doesn’t work like that, chores and privileges split down the middle,” I’d argued, choosing not to add, otherwise I’d have been named something like Sierra or Moonbeam instead of Ann without an ‘e’.
When Aurora turned seven, I persuaded Auntie Zeena to take her to get her ears pierced, telling her our parents had agreed. Why she didn’t check, I can’t imagine. Guilt, I suspect, for being instrumental in our humiliation at her hen party.
Aurora’s blonde hair was long then, hanging to her shoulders, so we were confident we’d get away with it. That night, she crept into my bed, complaining her lobes were throbbing, and I whispered to her how it was a sign she was a grown woman. We held hands and grinned at each other in the darkness.
Within 24 hours her piercings were infected, and, naturally, as the elder sister, I got the blame.
We emerged from the seafood restaurant to find snow falling once more. I paused and tilted my chin upward, watching starry ice crystals whirl a secret semaphore.
The four of us strolled together, Aurora surprising me by taking my arm instead of Derek’s. When we reached the hotel where Lawrence and I were staying, she kept holding on.
“Come for a walk?” she asked. “Derek can visit with Lawrence till we’re done. You don’t mind, honey, do you?”
Derek agreed that he didn’t mind, while Lawrence and I exchanged What the….? glances over their shoulders.
Truth was, though, I wasn’t that surprised. Aurora and I had always chatted more easily while walking, and better yet after dark. We swapped platitudes about the wonder of the snow and the city’s safety. “You know they leave their babies outside stores tucked up in their strollers?” Aurora said.
I’d noticed the prams lined up outside shops, but had assumed they were empty.
“If I’d been allowed to do that, I’d have gone home without picking mine up, for sure.”
I laughed, then saw the seriousness in her expression.
“Motherhood is hard,” she said. “I never know how to make them behave.”
“You’re not alone in that,” I said.
She shook her head. “Everyone does it better than me, even Derek.”
She admitted how out of place she often felt in Sacramento – how she sometimes held back from speaking to delay her identification as a foreigner. “It wasn’t so bad before the boys, when I was working and had a career, a status. Now I’m just ‘the English Mum’.” She pronounced the latter word with a distinctly British brittleness, and I understood why she’d taken such pains to blur her accent.
“I feel I’ve missed out by never living abroad,” I confessed in turn. “Lawrence preferred being in Wiltshire, and now it’s too late.”
“With Mum ill, and Dad needing us…” I shrugged. “I’m not saying we’d have done things differently, but… we lost our chance.”
The road opened into a broad sweep of snow where the Hallgrímskirkja church rose like a rearing dragon. Aurora unlinked her arm from mine and spread her hands palm up, catching snowflakes. “Our lives are what we’ve made them,” she said. “We were lucky, we had choices. And we’ve still got choices, right? You can travel more. I can… try to be kinder to myself about my kids. Try to be kinder to them, and to Derek.”
“Sure.” I grinned. “Now, shall we go and rescue our menfolk from the perils of small talk?”
We boarded the Northern Lights excursion coach at dusk the next day. It was one of more than a dozen vehicles each holding around 50 tourists, all straining to see the electrically charged particles collide.
“Beer, anyone?” Derek asked, producing a can from a bag at his feet.
“Oh, Derek.” Aurora rolled her eyes in the way that still had the power to irk me.
“Not for me, thanks, mate,” Lawrence demurred.
“I’ll have one,” I said, and thought I saw gratitude in Derek’s grin as I took the proffered beer, popped it open and raised it in salute. “Cheers!”
By the time we reached the viewing spot, I was clamping my thighs. While my sister gazed at the stars, I ran to join the line for the loos, then gave up and hurried into the nearest snowfield. “Don’t let it happen without me,” I muttered to myself, wishing the lights away, for now at least.
Returning to the hordes craning their necks skywards, I announced, “And that’s why they tell you not to eat yellow snow.”
“Oh Ann,” Aurora groaned. “You could’ve missed everything, for the sake of a beer!”
“But did I?” I snapped. “Did I miss anything other than the chance to stand and freeze alongside you?”
She laughed, catching me by surprise. “No, you doofus. You got to crouch and freeze alone with your panties round your ankles.”
My anger escaped in a hiss so hot I wasn’t surprised to see condensation form in the air between us. “God, even your insults are American now. What next, douche, jerk, booger, caboose…?”
“Most of those aren’t even insults, Ann.”
“They sure sound like they are!” I imitated her faux-American drawl, layering it on thick. “How about fanny-pack, scuttlebutt, speluuunker.” I drew out the words with relish, eliciting rumbles of laughter from Aurora.
“Seems like you got your Anglo-American homework upside down and back to front!” she squawked. “’Course, you always were the square-eyed nerd, weren’t ya?”
“At least I bother to study before seeing you again,” I told her. “How else could we have a snowball’s chance in Sacramento of understanding each other, sis?”
The humour dropped out of her expression and she held my gaze for a long moment.
“People,” our tour guide called out. “The Northern Lights are shy tonight, so we’re going to sing a traditional Icelandic song to encourage them to show up. Everyone join in now, and then we might get to see some magic!”
Aurora turned herself cross-eyed and we tried to smother our giggles as the singsong began.
We travelled back to Reykjavik that night without catching a glimpse of emerald green or indigo. In the shadows of the coach Aurora leant across the aisle and pressed a small package into my hand.
“Unwrap it,” she said, her eyes fixed on mine.
I loosened the twist of tissue paper. The tokens inside were slender and delicate. I recognized them from the museum shop. “Oh my,” I breathed. “Elf penis earrings! You really shouldn’t have.”
“Wear them when you visit Mum and Dad,” she said, her accent distinctly English just this once. “If you dare.”
Her eyes glinted, reminding me of how she’d goaded me into getting Auntie Zeena to take her to get her ears pierced.
“Willy earrings to flaunt in front of the parents?” I stared her down until she shrugged.
“Just a bit of harmless mischief.”
“But why is your mischief always so mean?”
She grinned, her expression steady. “What else are siblings for?”
I closed my eyes, head dropping. “Mum’s lost herself, don’t you get that? She’s forgetting who we are. Dad’s bereft. I miss you like crazy.”
“I miss you.” Her voice came out very small.
My eyes snapped open. “Dad misses you too.”
“I…” she exhaled loudly. “I know. I’m… It’s been a long time. Life’s just so hectic. And I’m… I’m not sure I could bear it.” She pulled a face that flattened out the fleshiness of her lips, and I had a fleeting flash of how she might look as an old woman.
“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” I said, suddenly exhausted by the whole conversation, the whole trip. “I just wish…”
I felt a warning pressure from Lawrence’s palm on my thigh and saw the shame flaming on Aurora’s face. I recalled overhearing Mum and Auntie Zeena bickering on the night of the hen party. “But Margaret,” Zeena had exclaimed. “It was just a bit of mischief! No one got hurt!”
“You really believe that? God, I hope if you have children you remember the look on your nieces’ faces tonight, with all your friends laughing at them.”
We didn’t see Auntie Zeena for a while after that, and she never did end up having kids. I wondered if that was another deeply buried grief.
“Listen,” I said to Aurora, pulling a face at her in the vehicle’s half-light. “I’ll wear them, okay? I’ll wear the elf penis earrings next time I visit Mum and if she asks I’ll tell her they’re something very special, and that they came from you.”
Aurora grinned. “And tell her that I miss her. And that I will be back, some time. When life gets less… you know?”
By my side, Lawrence took the hand that wasn’t cradling the earrings and laced his fingers with mine. Beyond the windows the sky was a swathe of darkness, picked through with jagged stars.