Marmalade

(Winner, The John Marsden and Hatchette Australia Prize for Under 18s for Fiction, 2016, age 14)

She didn’t have visitors very often, to tell you the truth, much less young, uninvited boys. So on the pale Tuesday morning Maddy unlocked her front door, stowed her umbrella and coat away neatly and discovered him in her sitting room, she was far less surprised than she probably ought to have been.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“Probably not,” said the boy.

“I was about to make tea. And toast.”

The boy nodded.

“Would you like some?”

He nodded again.

Maddy took the silver tray from the little table in the center of the room.

“You know, you would probably be more comfortable if you sat down.”

He sat.

She bustled around in the kitchen, striking matches and pushing buttons and opening cupboards. Spoons clinked, a kettle whistled and a jar popped as it opened. She returned nine minutes later, the tray laden with a teapot, two cups and saucers, a miniature jug of milk, a small bowl of sugar complete with spoon, and two plates of toast spread liberally with marmalade.

The boy surveyed the spread with wary eyes.

“I don’t like marmalade.”

“Don’t you?” said Maddy, settling into a low, winged armchair and picking up the teapot. Fragrant tea poured from the spout and she filled both cups.

“We don’t have it at my place,” he said.

“That’s quite a shame.” She popped a spoon of sugar into one of the cups; the tiny crystals dissolved into the dark-amber liquid within seconds. “I love marmalade.”

She added half the milk from the little jug and her tea turned the colour of pressed flowers. She picked up the cup and a plate of toast.

“I like jam,” he said. “Do you have any jam?”

“I’m afraid not. I don’t often have guests. It’s usually just me.”

The boy made no comment or apology on his presence in her house but stared at the toast and the offending orange spread still on the tray.

“It’s the little bits in it. The fruit. I don’t like the little bits.”

“I think they’re the best part,” Maddy said quietly. “You should drink your tea, before it gets cold. Do you take sugar?”

“I don’t know,” the boy said, suddenly worried. “Should I?”

“You would probably like it better.”

“Okay.” He leaned forward and picked up the little sugar spoon, emptying four heaped mounds of sugar into his cup, and then the last of the milk in the jug. He picked up his tea and left the toast on the tray.

For a minute they sat in silence, the boy’s eyes keenly darting around the room, drinking in the sight. It was a strange room, crammed with priceless relics from different places and different times. Whittled wood; bottles of strange liquids; uncut gems; shells; a dead, stuffed monkey; one deer antler; faded bottles bearing labels in strange languages; smoothed driftwood; rocks; paper fans; rusted coins – and yet, the only thing the boy had expected to see – photographs – were absent, except for one.

While the boy acquainted himself with her room, Maddy studied him. He was young, but not very young. The age where girls still have germs but you start to notice how nice their hair is sometimes. He looked the sort of boy who was always outside, not particularly bad in school, not particularly good. In fact, he looked the sort of boy who was not particularly good or bad at anything. A very average sort of boy, but not the sort of boy who would be found late on a Tuesday morning having tea and toast with an eighty-or-so-year-old woman.

But here he was, in Maddy’s sitting room, for no apparent reason but to tell her why he disliked marmalade. And while she sipped her tea and watched him, Maddy puzzled about this.

“I don’t know what your name is,” she said, finally.

The boy glanced at her.

“Who is this?” he said, pointing to the only photograph in the room – black and white, framed, and sitting on a side table; it was of a girl – sixteen or seventeen – standing on the prow of a little boat.

“Me,” Maddy said, smiling. “Or, it was.”

“Was?”

“It’s not me anymore.”

The boy nodded.

“Was it your boat?”

“Yes.”

“Where is it now?”

Maddy laughed.

“I have no idea. It could be waiting in the harbor of an African town, or maybe it’s lost at sea, drifting between waves. Perhaps it is on the beach of a tiny island inhabited only by crabs and coconuts, or it’s rotting on the ocean floor. I don’t know.”

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

Maddy looked at the boy seriously.

“You ask a lot of questions.”

He shrugged. She sighed.

“It bothers me a little, I guess. I spent a lot of time on that boat…” she paused. “But it was only ever just a thing.”

“This room is full of things.” He gestured to the walls.

“Yes,” she said, very quietly. “Yes, it is.”

There were several heartbeats of silence.

“I sold it.” She said suddenly. “To a man. A fisherman. Very bushy beard.”

“Maybe that was a mistake.”

“Maybe.” She paused, hesitant. “My father gave me a monkey when I was young. Little grey, stuffed thing with bits of Velcro on its hands. It used to go everywhere with me. One day I decided I was too old for silly things, and gave half my belongings away to a charity store. The monkey, too. I always regretted it.” Maddy laughed suddenly and shook her head.

“Look at me. All sentimental.” She got to her feet and placed her empty tea cup and plate back on the tray. She took his cup too – it was untouched, but she made no comment. She picked up the tray; it shook in her hands.

“More tea?” She was gone before he could answer.

Seventeen minutes later, she returned, the same tray laden with everything but the marmalade toast. She placed it on the center table and added her sugar and milk, and then the boy added his sugar and milk, and then they sat in silence and she sipped her tea and he didn’t, and she waited for him to ask his next question, because she was quite sure at that point that that was why he was there.

He pointed at the stuffed, dead monkey on the wall.

“Where is that from?”

“The Amazon. We found him like that – dead, I mean. Not stuffed. I had him stuffed – I brought him home with me.”

“What was The Amazon like?”

“Wet,” she laughed. “And very green.”

“What about that?” He pointed at the single deer antler, perched on a shelf.

“American road trip,” she smiled. “The deer survived – my car was less lucky.”

“And that?”

And so it went on, a lengthy interrogation about the curious relics that covered her walls. Stories emerged from the most unlikely places – the paper fan she received at the wedding of a Vietnamese woman she met in a dress shop, the time she traded a kiss for a secret name written in sand.

Hours passed, and the light faded into a muted twilight outside.

“You shouldn’t have gotten rid of the monkey,” he said, finally.

Maddy put down a set of bones inscribed with unfamiliar runes.

“I know.”

“Maybe if you still had the monkey, you wouldn’t need all these things.”

“I know.”

A pause.

“It’s like marmalade.”

“What is?”

“Life.”

“How so?”

“It’s full of all those little fruity bits. A house and a car and a sitting room and armchairs and a silver tray and a teapot and deer antlers and monkeys and money and everything people think you need to live, and you do in a way, because life is marmalade. Not jam. You can’t pick the little bits out of marmalade without it stopping being marmalade, you know?” The boy stopped talking and contemplated his feet.

“You don’t like marmalade,” Maddy said quietly.

“I don’t,” he agreed. Silence. And then: “Your whole life is in this room.”

“Yes.”

“Doesn’t that scare you?”

“Oh, yes.”

“You don’t look scared,” he said doubtfully.

“It’s not that type of scared.”

“What type is it, then?”

“Empty. It’s an empty sort of scared. I’m afraid it was all pointless.”

“All?”

“Life.” She smiled. “Marmalade. I used to think if just one person remembered me positively, my life wouldn’t be worthless. But eventually, everyone who knew you dies. So that doesn’t mean anything. It can’t. And  it can’t be pointless. It has to mean something , you know? The whole cycle – life and death and the world – there has to be a reason I’m here.”

“So you surrounded yourself with things. They are your point.”

“Yes.”

He nodded slowly.

“What was travelling the world like? I mean, really like.”

Maddy sat still for a very long time.

“The thing nobody tells you is, when you travel, you always take yourself with you. You don’t become a completely different person or – or discover yourself, or any of that. You’re just you. In a new place. I guess it’s a bit anti-climactic. You go away for a very long time, and when you come back you’re the same person with a lot of stories and a lot of things.”

The boy nodded.

“I should go.”

Maddy nodded. She knew.

He stood up.

“Thank you for the tea.”

“Will they have missed you?”

He smiled, for the first time.

“No.”

He walked across the sitting room and into the hallway, out of view. Maddy waited and listened, but she didn’t hear the door open. She stood up and crossed the room. There was no one in the hallway.

She entered the sitting room again. His cold, untouched tea was still on the table. The colour of pressed flowers. Unsteadily, she lowered herself back into her chair, all confused thoughts and shaky breath.

And weeks later, that is where they found her.

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