'Can you light the candles in the living room, dear?' Heather asked. She wiped her hands on her apron, leaving bright orange stripes from her narrow waistline towards her wide hips. She took a box of matches from the drawer next to the gas cooker and handed them to her daughter. 'Jeffrey should be here any moment now.'
Maggie shrugged and left the kitchen with the matches.
'And lift your feet, will you? You'll damage your denims.'
Maggie sat down at the dinner table and looked at the three plates. She really didn't understand why she had to meet this man and why it had to be tonight. She knew that Daisy and Hannah and most other girls from the transitional class would eat at Burger King before going to the classroom party. She'd much rather be with them. Not that she liked her new classmates – why would she? They were boring and stupid and liked to make fun of her bright red hair and freckled face – but she disliked it even more to draw their attention by showing up late at the first party of the year. They might think she was afraid of them! But her mum insisted she would first have dinner with this Jeffrey-guy before driving her back to school. Apparently this was the only night he was free, and Heather seemed to think his schedule was more important than Maggie's.
She lit a match with her left hand and sniffed the dash of sulphur. When she was a kid she once struck match after match just for the smell of them, until the box was empty. She could still remember how angry her mum was. 'Will you never, never, never do that again,' she kept repeating, shaking and squeezing Maggie until the tears reached the collar of her blouse. Ever since, she'd been thrifty with matches as if they were exotic sweets – even now that she understood her mum had been upset about the risk, not the waste. It had just turned into a habit.
'One... two... three...' Maggie counted aloud while she lit the candles. She glanced across the table: three more to go. The doorbell rang. Instead of blowing out the match, she fixed her stare on it, and carefully put two fingers between the round top and the flame. She was too quick: the head burned in her right thumb. In utter concentration she tilted the match so that the fire could crawl up the last bit.
'Maggie, can you get that?' Heather asked from the kitchen.
'In a minute,' she shouted while shifting her chair back. She leaned over the table and lit the last three candles.
With her burned thumb in her mouth Maggie opened the front door. In the early autumn gloom she perceived a tall man in a grey raincoat, in his left hand a leather briefcase.
'Jeffrey Patel,' he said, holding his free hand out to her.
She wiped the spit from her sore finger, reached for his hand and shook it. 'Maggie Marshall,' she replied, 'come on in.'
He stepped into the cosily lit hallway and put his briefcase down under the hall-stand. Maggie watched him grab a coat-hanger and noticed that all her jackets were gone. In an attempt to make the house look tidier than it was, her mother had put them all upstairs. Who is this man, Maggie wondered, and why is he so important? Normally her mum would only clear the hall-stand for parties.
'Darling!' Heather exclaimed when they entered the living room. 'Please meet Maggie, my little girl.'
'I'm not small! I'll be thirteen next month.'
'We've met,' Jeffrey smiled and put his hairy hand on her head. 'She's adorable. If I didn't know any better, I would think the two of you were sisters.' It was a lie. Maggie took after her dad, and apart from the copper curls she looked nothing like her feminine mother. Jeffrey stepped forward and hugged Heather.
The creep, Maggie thought, watching his hand slip from her mother's waist to her bum. She had never known her father, but she wondered if he once used to greet her mum in the same way. She hoped not.
'Would you like some wine?' Heather gently pulled herself away from Jeffrey's embrace.
'Yes, please,' he said. Not that he had much choice: she had already poured two large glasses of red wine. 'Very well,' he commented as he sniffed it. They looked each other in the eye as if Maggie wasn't even there. Anything would be better than this, she thought. Even a bloody meal at Burger King with those shallow girls that are actually happy that they're developing breasts!
'Smells like something is burning,' she interrupted their romantic moment.
'Oh my, oh my oh my!' Heather rushed into the kitchen and left them in an awkward silence. Maggie inspected the dry skin of his lips, the dimples in his cheeks, the permanent lines in his forehead, focussing on all of his features except for his eyes. She had learned not to look people in the eye before she knew she could trust them. Eye contact was the tool of the most dangerous liars: looking people in the eye makes you feel more comfortable around them than rationally justifiable.
'So how are things at school?'
'Fine,' she said. None of your business, she thought.
He picked up the completely burned match from the table-cloth. 'I'll bring this to the kitchen.'
'What are you cooking?' Jeffrey asked. He looked over Heather's shoulder at the pot on the gas cooker.
'Nothing special.' She let him slip his hands around her waist. 'Just pumpkin soup, plain but healthy.'
'I love pumpkin soup.' He kissed her neck. 'I hope it won't have a burnt taste.' He turned her around so that he could kiss her on the lips.
'I don't think it's that bad,' Heather said after a while. She handed Jeffrey her glass of wine and poured the soup out over three bowls. With a spoon she scraped the last bit out of the pan, blew on it and held it in front of his face. 'What do you think?'
'Excellent.' Jeffrey smiled when Heather slowly retracted the spoon from between his lips. 'Very sweet. But not as good as the cook herself,' he added, pushing her against the sink.
Heather giggled and almost knocked over the glass of wine.
'Mum, why are you drinking?'
Maggie's appearance boggled both grown-ups. Henry pulled his tie and wiped his face in case it had lipstick on it.
'That's my decision.,' Heather poured herself another glass and downed it at once.
'I thought you would drive me to the classroom party after dinner,' Maggie said. Her voice was higher than she intended. 'How are you going to drive when you're drunk?'
'I'm not drunk!' Heather said. Jeffrey, who had been too focussed on his own appearance to listen to their conversation, grabbed his girlfriend by the chin. He took a towel from the heater, spat on it tried to adjust the lipstick she had smeared all over her chin and upper lip.
'Obviously not!' Maggie shouted. Her voice rose even higher than before, as if somebody was strangling her. If I don't leave now, she thought, I'm going to cry. Trembling all over she turned, shut the door behind her and shambled into the hallway. She pulled the only coat from the hall-stand – Jeffrey's coat – and ran off. When she slammed the front door behind her she could finally breathe again. Now what?