MBE

by Rebecca Burns
Despite Dad’s glower and Mum’s increasingly rapid, bird-like twitch, Ruthie turned up the volume on her cassette player again. Marc Bolan’s T-Rex yowled out, swallowing up the soaked tones of the presenter on Radio 4. Squashed in beside her on the back seat, Claudia gave her sister an elbow; she could see Dad’s eyebrows meeting in the middle in the rear-view mirror. It was not such a happy day that he wouldn’t lean around and give Ruthie’s bare legs a slap.

But Ruthie didn’t turn the recorder down and Dad glared but said nothing. Claudia saw Mum pass him a Foxes mint, probably to distract him, and Dad crunched; the sweet smell of mint filled the little Cortina, making Claudia feel sick again. They’d already had to stop at Watford Gap services on the motorway for her to puke, Mum rubbing her back sympathetically as Claudia threw up watery cornflakes in front of a group of truckers. Ruthie and Dad had stayed in the car; Dad smoking and gripping the steering wheel tightly, Ruthie looking furious.

Marc Bolan finished and Doctor and the Medics started up. Even Mum liked this one. Her endlessly-moving fingers found a rhythm as Norman Greenbaum set off to find his Spirit in the Sky – Claudia could see her relax. It was okay to fidget and move constantly when you were in time.

Only Ruthie kept still. Claudia glanced at her. Her sister’s face was stony and taut, and the tips of her fingers were white around the cassette player. Her stare was fixed at the back of their father’s head, only shifting when Mum’s chin began to bounce in time to the music.

“Nearly there, girls,” Dad said. He held up a map, balancing it on the steering wheel. “We should get to the hotel by eleven. Plenty of time to change and take the tube to the Palace.”

He said this so casually, but Claudia knew he’d practiced it. The chaps from the office had been round earlier in the week for a celebratory drink, scented wives in tow, and Dad had rocked on his heels as he talked of their plan. “Yes, we’re stopping in St James’s Park overnight. We’ve given ourselves plenty of time to get to the Palace.” He’d tried make it sound the same as when he spoke of popping along to the shops or the bank. Just off to see Queen Liz, toodle-pip! Except his face had pinked up and Jerry, the office junior, had doubled over inappropriately.

Mum leaned over, across the gear stick and rubbed a hand on the top of Dad’s thigh. Claudia goggled. “Look at her!” she breathed to Ruthie. She’d never seen their Mum touch Dad like that. It had been a topsy-turvy world since the gilt-edged letter had arrived three months ago.

Ruthie gave a tiny shake of her head, the movement oddly, savagely aggressive. Claudia sighed. She wondered if Ruthie had fallen out with Gavin again. Or, to use her boyfriend’s new name, Peace and Love.

Dad had pushed the boat out with the hotel booking and the Carousal Hotel stood squat and magnificent on the street. Dad parked outside, manoeuvring the Cortina into a tight space expertly. There was even enough room to retrieve their bags from the boot. A man wearing white gloves held the door open for them.

“Look at the floor,” Claudia said to Ruthie. Shiny, colourful squares in the shape of horses wearing garlands, tumbling clowns, acrobats. Claudia’s eyes widened to the size of sovereigns; she stepped along a swirling, whirling firework and stood in the centre, beaming. Dad, checking in at the reception desk, looked over his shoulder and chortled.

But still Ruthie stood, mute. She clutched her tape recorder and tie-dye bag, looking everywhere but the mosaicked floor.

Dad had booked two rooms with connecting doors. A bag boy with unapologetic acne showed them the first floor and nodded curtly as Dad folded a crisp pound note into his pocket.

“Quick bath, girls,” Mum said. “We’ll meet downstairs in an hour.” She cast a look at Dad that made Claudia feel awkward. There was that movement again, Mum reaching out to touch Dad unnecessarily, this time on the inside of his elbow. And the way Mum stood, legs slightly parted, toes of one high heel lifted off the ground.

“Can you put your music on?” Claudia muttered to Ruthie when they closed the door to their own room.

Ruthie, though, threw her cassette player on the bed, the single one nearest the window. She blew out air noisily and went to stand by the glass, looking down onto the busy street below.

“What is it with you today?” Claudia said. Moments passed, Ruthie’s fingers the only sound, drumming on the ornate window frame. “Ruthie? Did you argue with Gav – Peace and Love again?”

“Look at this!” Ruthie burst, turning and holding out her hand. The gold, painted window frame had crumbled onto her fingers. “Plaster! Tarted up with paint.”

“Don’t make a mess, Ruthie.”

“It’s false, that’s what it is!”

From next door came a hard knock, a muffled press of wood on wall. Then a low murmur and a gasp.

“You don’t think they’re…” Claudia said, dipping her head into her bag and blushing.

“Of course they are.” Ruthie’s face was a sneer and she turned back to the window. “They’ve been at it for the past three months. It’s as though that letter about the MBE came with scissors for Mum’s knicker elastic.”

Claudia groaned, the image too awful to contemplate. She pulled out a pair of red court shoes, new ones from British Home Stores. There was a tiny heel on each, her first ones. She loved them. Mum had bought them two weeks ago and only allowed her to wear them in the house; Claudia had paced the living room carpet, turning suddenly, almost over-balancing. Once she had fallen, onto the sofa. But she didn’t care; the red leather gleamed like coals. Oh, you know my father? Yes, he’s finally being recognised for his war work – I’m told he broke many codes. Won the war for us, really, but much of it is still classified. These old things? British Home Stores!

And now she could wear them. Claudia kicked off her plimsolls and took off her socks. There were faint pink lines around her ankles, like links between sausages. She rubbed her flesh, hoping they would fade before the ceremony.

“Ruthie, do you think Mum will let me shave my legs? I’m old enough now, aren’t I?”

“For God’s sake,” Ruthie said and her voice sounded so hateful Claudia felt tears. She watched as Ruthie grabbed her bag and shook out a packet of cigarettes. Ruthie cranked open the window, the bubble of the room suddenly speared by the shriek and crunch of traffic below.

“Are you really going to smoke?” Claudia asked. She swallowed. “Ruthie…”

Ruthie ignored her and puffed on a cigarette. It balanced precariously in her fingers and her face paled, contorting the smoke in. She coughed but took another drag, determinedly, a line thickening in her jaw.

Claudia edged closer. There were louder, more rhythmic bangs from the room next door. “Could I try one?”

“You’re too young to smoke.”

“So are you!” It was too tempting. “Give me one, Ruthie, or I’m telling Mum.”

Ruthie glared but handed the packet over. Wordlessly, she lit a fag for her sister: when Claudia inhaled and started retching, immediately, she did not laugh. “Told you.”

“Did you pinch them off Dad?” Claudia wiped her streaming face. She looked up, seeing again that hard, bitten look come into Ruthie’s eyes. “Ruthie?”

“Did I ever tell you PL’s uncle works for the government?” Ruthie said, suddenly. She picked a piece of tobacco off her tongue.

Claudia shrugged, confused. “PL?”

“Peace and Love, dimwit. Gavin. It’s amazing what his uncle has access to.” Ruthie adjusted the cigarette in her hand.

“What are you talking about, Ruthie?”

“Our father.” Ruthie nodded aggressively at the closed door to their parent’s room. “How marvellous for him, to be honoured for his war work with an MBE. To be given an award by the Queen. How magnificent. Something to celebrate, all right. But do we actually know what he did?”

“He was a code-breaker.”

“Amongst other things.” Ruthie flattened her palm against the gold-painted window frame. “And we’re here to congratulate him, to the background of him bonking our mother stupid.”

Claudia looked down at her lovely, red shoes. They pinched her feet, but she didn’t want to let on. She wore heels now; women who wore heels weren’t intimidated by sisters who made no sense. “You never could be happy for him, could you? Not even today.”

“Don’t be a fool, Claud. Ever wonder how he was able to buy the house in France?”

“He saved up.”

Ruthie snorted. “That’s not what PL’s uncle said. He says Dad spent money during the war like it was water, much more than he should have had on the pittance the War Office paid. PL…”

“It’s Gavin, Ruthie! Bloody Gavin!”

Ruthie’s face smoothed over and she looked very much like their mother. “I respect the name he has chosen for himself. Peace and Love is an autonomous individual, asserting his identity.”

“Which is posh talk for being a bloody idiot.” Gosh, the red shoes hurt. Claudia wriggled her toes.

“I respect his choice,” Ruthie repeated again. “PL is entitled to determine the kind of person he wants to be. Anyway, that’s not important. What is important is that our dear Daddy isn’t whom we think he is.”

“I don’t think he’s anyone,” Claudia said. “Just Dad.” The banging next door had reached a crescendo; there was one almighty knock and a muffled squeak, and then silence. Then the zip of a cigarette lighter being turned on. “They’ll be out soon.”

Ruthie had finished her cigarette and threw the stub out of the window. She leaned against the glass, watching the red spark float through the air onto the street below. “Wonder if it will land in someone’s hair and set fire to it?” she said, quietly. “Imagine that. You’re walking along, thinking all is right with the world, and boom! Your hair goes up in flames. Bugger of a way to mess up your day.”

Claudia eyed her. “Are you going to do something today, Ruthie? At the Palace?”

Ruthie said nothing but smirked. The glass frosted over with her breath.

“Only I’ve got these shoes – it’s the first time I’ve worn them out the house!” Claudia felt tears ready to burst from her. “And I’ve got a new dress! You can see my bra strap through it and everything!”

“I do think you’re pathetic,” Ruthie sneered. She seemed about to say more but paused as Claudia’s lips trembled. She held out her hand – “oh, Claud” – but then pulled her fingers away. She straightened up. “I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to do. Peace and Love was able to give me some interesting papers.” She held up her hand dramatically. “Don’t ask me where he got them from! I couldn’t possibly say. But don’t get too used to wearing those shoes, Claudia.”

Claudia didn’t know what she meant; sometimes Ruthie said things that her sister felt should make sense to her, but could not furrow through to the kernel of meaning. And she thought Ruthie liked being that way. Enigmatic.

A creak and pop of the mattress and the sound of a plug being slotted into the bath-tub. Their parents would be ready soon. Claudia jerked her head around, back towards her sister. Ruthie had heard the noise too and knew what it meant. She stood by the window-frame, hand on the gilt paint.
Rebecca Burns is an award-winning writer of short stories, over thirty of which have been published online or in print. Her story collections – Catching the Barramundi (2012) and The Settling Earth (2014 – were both longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Award. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011, winner of the Fowey Festival of Words and Music Short Story Competition in 2013 (and runner-up in 2014), winner of the Black Pear Press Short Story Competition in 2014 and, in 2016, was been listed for competitions including the Evesham Festival of Words and Music, the Chipping Norton Festival, the Sunderland Short Story Award, and the Green Lady Press Short Story Award. She has also been profiled as part of the University of Leicester's "Grassroutes Project", a project that showcases the 50 best transcultural writers in the county. Her debut novel, The Bishop's Girl, was published by Odyssey Books in September 2016.

© 2015, Rebecca Burns