JULIE

I only take puddings to parties. Fruit salad is my specialty. The secret is to be specific. Be sparing. Be thematic. Don’t be scared of grand ideas nor pomegranates. 

Kiwi and banana – gentle yet exotic. My warm apple and pear – I call it ‘Scents of a French forest’. Strawberry, grapefruit and lime – now trust me on this – is a Showstopper. Not as simple as it sounds though.

A fruit salad can be evocative; a statement. It avoids the new money Bored-geoisie of mozzarella and rocket; the vegan-atti glare of anything containing ham; the shame of coleslaw.

I hadn’t made a fruit salad in months… since the government became such party poopers. 

I tried a dragon fruit and gooseberry – an exercise in form and technique. It filled Mother’s trifle dish like an insult. In the end I didn’t taste it – there is no more profound cry of desperation than dragon fruit. And one does not eat fruit salad alone unless one is wanton.  

The dish stood on the granite counter, a monument to my aloneness. It had to go.

Supine on the couch I wiggled into my hazmat suit. I had found it online actually; from a fancy dress outlet. It may not be hermetically sealed, but it keeps the public at a distance.  

I took the salad down to the shared garden. An abandoned barbeque stood on the slabbed area, crusted in festering sausage – Top Floor’s act of summer hostility. My notices of removal had had no effect. Tragedy of the commoners.

Stood outside in the Winter half-light, salad held above an open bin, I faltered. The other apartment buildings surrounded me, watching. 

I don’t enjoy the silence that has descended over the city, but find it a comfort. Loud people are unclean and in my experience, shirkers, shifters, and flouters. For breaking lockdown law, flouters receive a small fine. Two hundred pounds and a warning for taking part in mass murder.

But I do miss the parties.

A commotion came from Building ONE ZERO TWO – third floor I thought.  I put down the bin lid and moved towards the sound, stepping over the fallen wall that split the common areas. The back door opened – its lock broken. The stairway smelled of urine and damp shoe – I held the salad closer to my nose, the gooseberry tang hid the pong. 

The noise grew as I ascended, unmistakably riotous. I walked past the offending door – oak with an Art Deco obscure; the welcome mat worn. From downstairs came a crash then the sound of heavy boots traipsing upwards. I climbed further and waited on the landing between floors. 

The police arrived, a woman and a man. They knocked loudly. Bangs echoed in the stairway. The music quietened, the door opened a crack. Fittish whispers and suppressed laughter snuck out. 

“Good evening officer,” said a well spoken male voice. “How may I help?”

“There’ve been complaints of an illegal gathering at this premises.” said the female officer.

“Oh no, I don’t think so – household only.” He said.

“May we come in?” She asked.

“Oh no, I don’t think so – household only.” He said.

The police left with little fuss.

I stood, wondering what to do. The hazmat suit made joining impossible… but to waste the salad…

I left the dish on the doormat, knocked loudly, then zipped downstairs – Joe Wicks has worked wonders with my cardio. And you can tell he’s such a nice boy. 

For two weeks I couldn’t relax. What had become of my pudding? Partially the salad, but more pressingly Mother’s dish. Real Waterford crystal; its glass foot raised the effort like a stage. 

It makes such a difference to the experience.

The olfactory experience of an individual can be greatly affected by other stimuli. For example, give someone a blind whiff of parmesan, tell them it’s vomit, and watch the gagging begin. The human animal is open to suggestion when making sense of its surroundings – this is why presentation is everything.

I hadn’t made my Showstopper in nearly a year. 

Each morning I went out and bought fresh strawberries, grapefruit and lime. Step one – peel the grapefruit and cut into small pieces – too large and guests find them a tad intense. Step 2 – cover with cling film and leave to marinate in the fridge. Step three – with a few expert slices the strawberries become edible roses. Lastly – squeeze the lime over the strawberries to keep fresh. This is the basic recipe, but one is free to improvise. 

At eight each evening I assembled the salad on a disposable dish, then waited by the window. It was on the fifth night I heard them. I put on a dress – the fresh air felt strange on my skin – then entered ONE ZERO TWO by the back. I walked up to the oak door and knocked.

A handsome man answered. He looked me up and down with a ‘not bad for an old bird’ smile.

“Good Evening?” I said.

“Good Evening.” He said.

“I was having my own little party downstairs – same household of course,” I winked. He nodded in conspiration. “And I realised I’d made too much pudding.”

I held out the dish and he took it.

“Thank you,” he said. “Did you leave the last one?” 

“I did.” I said.

“Dragon fruit?” He asked. 

I froze…

“It was lovely,” he said. “I’ll make sure everyone gets a taste.”

Then he shut the door – not a hint of an invite. I stood there, unsure what to do. I had hoped to watch them try it.

The main active ingredient in my car’s battery, sulphuric acid, smells surprisingly like red grapefruit if given the wrong context. Where they differ though is in effect. If ingested, both leave a sour taste in the mouth, but sulphuric acid will also inflame the gullet and burn the lungs, causing quite a violent cough. 

It was thirty minutes before the coughing began. I was about to leave when I remembered Mother’s trifle dish. I turned the handle but the door was locked. A symphony of spluttering and panic emanated from within. A moment later, the door opened and a well dressed woman appeared clutching her throat. She took a wrong turn and tumbled down the stairs. 

I entered. Art covered the walls, the lighting just so. Prostrate forms writhed on the laminate, firework displays of blood and vomit erupted from their lips. Someone spoke in another room.

“They’re not breathing, please come quick, please… cough cough cough…”

Mother’s trifle dish was on top of the microwave, cleaned. I picked it up and headed for the door – the handsome man (less so now) appeared in the hall, blood on his shirt, phone in hand. He gaped at me, then the dish, till realisation dawned. He lurched forward, mouthing, gurgling. He followed me out to the stairway. 

Death had rendered the well dressed woman a trip hazard – caused me no trouble but he caught a foot. I zipped downstairs, his footsteps echoed as I ran out the front door.

A taxi cab was waiting outside with its light on. I got in and asked him to drive quickly.

“You were at a party?” asked the driver.

“Oh yes,” I said looking out the back window. The tenement receded behind us. “Just a few friends.” 

I watched the handsome man run out then collapse on the road.

“There’s been a lot of parties in there recently.” said the driver.

There was a click as the doors locked. I faced forward.

“In fact,” I said. “You can let me out here and I’ll walk.”

With one hand he put on a gas mask – the kind soldiers used in the great war. 

“Not at all,” he said, his voice distorted. “You must be exhausted…”

He chuckled, then reached out his window and pulled in a silver pipe. I heard it slapping along the side of the taxi. 

“Could you let me out here please?” I asked.

His window went up till it held the pipe, smoke flowed from the end.

“Did you enjoy yourself?” He asked. His mask’s dull lenses reflected in the rear view mirror. 

I gripped the trifle dish.

“I only took a pudding…Just dessert.”