Lemon Perfume

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One time after school, I’d gone back to Yvonne’s place. We sat in the living room, watching television. Mrs Morelli brought us cups of tea and slices of fruit cake on a tray decorated with labels from Italian liquor bottles. After she’d put the tray onto the coffee table, she lit a cigarette with the golden flip-top lighter on the mantelpiece. She clamped the cigarette in her mouth, looked in the mirror over the mantel, and fixed her hair until she was satisfied. I watched her without turning my head, because I didn’t want her to know that I was looking. But when she was finished, she took the cigarette from her lips, said, ‘There,’ and smiled straight at me in the mirror, so that I almost jumped.

Then she came over and sat on the arm of the sofa, next to me. As she crossed her legs, there was the sound of fabric on fabric, like someone saying shush in the library. She said, ‘Tell me about school today.’

I looked at Yvonne, but she was absorbed in the television, so I turned back to Mrs Morelli. Her lipstick was the colour of cherries, and it had been freshly-applied with precise care, following the line of her mouth exactly. She wore a perfume that smelled like lemons, and black make-up around her eyes.

‘It was okay,’ I said. I tried to think of something that had happened that day. Just one thing.

‘Do you like fruit cake?’ she said.

‘Yes,’ I said, even though I hated fruit cake then.

‘Have some,’ she said, ‘it’s home-made.’

I stood up to get to the tray, but she placed her hand on my shoulder, like she was holding me in place on the couch. And then she was passing me the plate and I took a slice of cake. She held the plate in one hand, her cigarette in the other, and she looked at me holding the cake.

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Here.’ She handed me a napkin.

She watched me eat. I felt clumsy. I couldn’t make my face into the right shapes. Crumbs kept dropping onto the couch.

‘Don’t worry about that,’ she said. ‘Do you like my cake?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it’s nice.’

Where her hand had rested on my shoulder, there was the smell of her lemon perfume, and it stayed with me for the rest of that day.

© Barry Lee Thompson and ‘Stories, by Barry Lee Thompson’, 2013.

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