NIKITA’S husband died in a skydiving accident, and at his funeral everyone tells her how sorry they are for her loss. But as we discover in this darkly gripping short story by Dickson Telfer, even in her grief Nikita has plenty of her own secrets too.
As she walks towards the church, Nikita focuses on the sound of birdsong. She’s fed up hearing the words ‘I’m so sorry for your loss’ but knows she’ll hear them again countless times before the day expires. The slight chill in the spring air is affecting her breathing, but she does her best to draw as little attention as possible to her short, sharp breaths. In silhouette above the church, a flock of birds dance in the vastness of an azure sky. Nikita is mesmerized by their hypnotic energy, how they change direction so suddenly, yet majestically, as if their movements have been expertly choreographed.
“Nikita, darling, I just want to say how sorry I am for your loss,” Auntie Marjorie says, gripping her arm tightly, as if Nikita was, at any moment, going to lose her balance and topple to the ground. “What a terrible thing to happen! And listen, if there’s anything I can do, don’t hesitate to ask, okay?”
“I’ll be okay, Auntie Marjorie.” Nikita pats her aunt’s arm with her opposite hand.
“ . . . ”
“ . . . ”
“Look at the birds up there. Amazing, aren’t they?”
“That’s what Paul was, you know – a creature of the skies. Never happier than when he knew he was going skydiving. He used to say to me that I should take it up too, so we could go on skydiving holidays together and see the world’s landmarks from a bird’s eye view.”
“Is that right, dear?” Auntie Marjorie is now stroking Nikita’s arm as if it’s a dog.
“You should look up some of his videos on YouTube. The views on his parachute-cam are awesome. You know, I would’ve been up for giving it a try if it wasn’t for the little fact that I’m scared of heights,” Nikita laughs.
“Yes, dear, probably not the best of hobbies for someone like you,” Auntie Marjorie smiles, continuing to stroke her arm. She knew not to use the word vertigo. Nikita preferred ‘scared of heights’. It sounded less official, as if it could be cured, or that she’d one day get over it.
Before the service starts, another three people – Auntie Hannah and two of Paul’s pals – tell Nikita that they’re sorry for her loss and offer their help. Nikita sits next to her parents during the service, her mother’s hand on top of hers, fingers interlocked. Paul’s mother gets up and says a few words about her son, but she has to cut it short. It’s such an emotionally-charged moment that most of the congregation has to wipe tears from their eyes. Paul’s sister, Carlie, howls. Nikita keeps it together, her eyes dry, concentrating on her breathing.
At the wake, partly because there’s alcohol, people hug each other. With bottles of beer in their hands, a group of Paul’s friends from the skydiving club huddle together gracelessly, arms around necks, ties loosened, singing out of tune Britpop songs. After many awkward conversations and hugs, Nikita finally manages to finish her first glass of wine and heads to the buffet for a refill. While she’s there, one of the hotel’s catering staff brings out a smooth, dark brown, dome-shaped cake and places it at the end of the table.
“What is that?” Nikita asks.
“Refrigerator cake,” the girl says.
“Refrigerator cake? What does that . . . mean?”
“It just means it has to be kept in the fridge. Well, you can take it out of the fridge, obvos,” she laughs, “but if it doesn’t get eaten, or put back in the fridge, it begins to sort of shrink and fall apart.”
“Grab yourself a plate. You can have the first slice.”
Nikita picks up a plate from the other end of the buffet table as the girl plunges a knife into the heart of the cake.
“There you go.” The girl lifts a generous slice onto her plate. “And I take it you’re after a refill too? White is it?”
“Oh, yes, please.” Nikita examines the slice. “A cake you have to look after, eh?”
“Yip. If it was up to me, I’d call it TLC cake. If you look after it, it looks after you.”
“Eh? It looks after you?” Nikita says, quizzically.
“Yeah, ‘cos it tastes gorgeous,” she laughs. “Go on, try it.”
Nikita takes a bite of the cool, soft, succulent cake.
“Your face just lit up,” the girl grins.
“Bloody hell, that is gorgeous! It kind of reminds me of tiffin . . . oh, and Christmas cake too, only less rich.”
“Have a look online, you’ll get plenty recipes there. That one’s apricot, raisin and pecan, but there are loads of variations.”
“Mmmm, thanks, I will.” Nikita takes another bite, looking round to see if anyone’s watching.
“Don’t forget your wine.”
“Oh, yeah, thanks.”
Nikita places her glass on a nearby table and hopes she can take a few moments to herself to finish her slice of refrigerator cake. But with her cheeks bulging from the last bite, she sees Carlie emerge from the crowd and totter towards her with open arms and wine-black lips.
“Nikita, honey, come here,” she bubbles, her face like a mother consoling her toddler after a banged head. She squeezes hard, running her hands down Nikita’s hair, the occasional strand being caught by a scraggly nail. “We’ll be okay, honey, we’ll be okay. We can help each other through this.”
Nikita’s jaws work hard to break down the refrigerator cake. As Carlie continues to squeeze, Nikita makes sure her mouth is firmly closed, conscious of the possibility of inhaling one of her wavy golden locks or refrigerator cake being squeezed onto the back of her jacket.
When Carlie finally stops, Nikita swallows the last of the cake and looks into her eyes.
She sees resemblance to Paul and her eyes flood with tears.
“That’s it Nikita, honey, you let it all out, you let it all out, there, there, honey, that’s it, that’s it, it’s good to grieve. Oh God, look, you’ve got me started again too. Oh, come here you.”
“No, Carlie, no!” Nikita holds up her hands. A few people look round, including Nikita’s parents. “Just give me some time to myself, okay?”
“Darling, are you alright?” her mother asks. “Is there anything we can do?”
“I’m fine, Mum, I’m fine! I just need some time to myself, okay? Just . . . just give me a bit of time.” Sobbing deep, shaky sobs, she picks up her glass, power walks out of the hotel and makes her way along the farm road towards the river.
Once she gets there, Nikita sits on the riverbank and just listens to the sounds of wildlife. The spring breeze has dried her tears on her face, leaving defined tracks. She finishes her wine and rests her glass on the grass. The sky is still azure and clear, bar a few fluffy, picture-book clouds. The sun reflects off the surface of the river, whose continuous flow is satisfying against the stillness and greenness of the riverbank and permanence of the river birches and weeping willows.
Nikita clocks some movement in nearby vegetation. Curious as to what’s there, she fixes her gaze, her mind occasionally playing tricks on her, making things move when they haven’t.
And then, despite blinking several times, she sees the whiskers and nose of an otter poking out of its holt. It pops in and out, showing no more of its face, assessing its environment for danger.
When it disappears, Nikita waits, hoping it’ll come out again. She doesn’t want to move in case she scares it, so she sits patiently and quietly, her mind focused on keeping her breathing inaudible, helped by the backing track of birdsong and distant barking.
And then, just as she is considering giving up, the otter appears, accompanied by a cub who seems reluctant to take to the water. But with a bit of encouragement from its mother the cub soon accustoms itself and they swim downstream together. And although it’s all over in seconds, Nikita feels privileged to have witnessed the apprehension and excitement of new life experiencing new adventure.
Her tears begin to flow again. She lifts up her blouse and examines her cracked ribs and bruised torso, still aching from Carlie’s hug. Underneath her bra she can still feel the pain of his bite. Of course, her face was always fine so she could go out in public. Paul knew what he was doing. He claimed her shortness of breath was because she had been clearing the loft and was exposed to a lot of dust.
Nikita never found out why he did it; why he kept doing it. For a while she blamed her vertigo ‘cos it prevented her from jumping out of planes with him, but there had to be something deeper. At least she hoped there was. But any time she asked, to try and help him, he lashed out.
Crying only aggravates her injuries, so she closes her eyes, straightens her back and concentrates on calming down. To the sounds of a chiff-chaff chorus, she breathes the fresh country air in through her nose and out through her mouth, meditating her way back to normality. When she opens her eyes, she looks into the river and thinks she catches a glimpse of the otter cub, but it’s probably her mind playing tricks on her again. Squinting a little against the sun, she gazes up at the sky and thinks about Paul jumping into it at 10,000 feet, and the panic on his face when he deployed his parachute and his frayed lines snapped, thanks to her penknife.
She looks at the river tumbling and burbling with momentum, breathing and hissing, carrying its habitat in one direction, and feels lucky to be alive. “Time to begin,” she announces to the nature around her, smiling through the pain. She picks up her empty wine glass, carefully levers herself to her feet and makes her way back to the hotel.
Dickson Telfer lives in Central Scotland with his partner and two dogs. He works full-time in Learning Development in the HE sector, currently at a university in the west of Scotland. His spare time is spent writing prose and plays, attending, organising and performing at live literature nights, playing in bands, visiting Edinburgh regularly, and following East Stirlingshire FC. His first volume of short stories - The Red Man turns to Green - was published in 2013. His second, Refrigerator Cake, will be published next month by Fledgling Press.