Sour Grapes – Lisa van Hees

The doors burst open to reveal an army of waiters, each balancing plates of food and trays of drinks on their arms. The lady in the front is dressed in cobalt butler attire. Her hair is short, curly and grey, the same colour as her eyes. Her mirror-shine shoes slide over the hardwood floor as she dances around the table. She places plates in front of the four dinner guests and two empty seats.
        “Tonight’s appetiser is an aubergine roll filled with fleeing deer, drizzled with lemon thyme dressing and bread to the side.” Two waiters come in, placing a small basket of bread next to each plate. Another waiter goes around to drizzle dressing over each dish.
        The butler accepts a bottle of wine from one of the waiters and starts pouring. The bald man near the head of the table lifts his hand to block his glass, but the butler pours around it and gives him a pat on the back.
        “I’ve added something to calm the nerves. This is a Catena Zapata Estiba Reservada from 1997. Infused with French oak, tobacco and vanilla. Its heavy aftertaste is a perfect match with the deer’s red meat.”
        The butler continues to the man’s neighbour; a child propped on a tower of cushions to reach the table. The child accepts the glass of wine with a smile and studies the plate in front of her.
        The tall butler moves to the other side of the table to fill the glass of a teenager drowning in grey clothes. She continues to fill the glass of a twitching lady, who is skin over bone. The glasses at the empty seats are filled as well.
        Heavy smells waft from the plates of food. The guests look at their plates. One looking nauseous, one disinterested, one in a mild panic and one in satisfactory excitement.
        “Enjoy,” the butler says. She bows and moves out of the room with her army of waiters in tow. The old parlour falls silent. Black squares framed by golden trim hang on the wall where there should have been windows.
        “B-bon appet-t-tite,” the thin lady says, the words quivering so much they shake out of her crispy lips. As the rest start to poke at their food, she doesn’t take up on her well wishes.
        “How has everyone been?” the child asks. She cuts into the aubergine.
        The teenager in grey huffs. Their large clothes hide their shrug. They push their aubergine, squashing it into the dressing.
        “G-g-great,” the thin lady says. Her dark skin has tints of yellow and green. Thin braids coil into a bun at the back of her neck. Silver baby hairs frame her face.
        She cuts off a piece of aubergine that needs a magnifying glass to spot and brings the fork to her mouth. With the tips of her teeth, she grabs the bite and quivers.
        There is a soft sniff in the corner. A figure sits in the corner of the room, folded together like an origami crane. Their shoulders shake once and go still. Their clothing is the same colour as the dark corner and their face is hidden under a sheet of dark hair. Despite the room not being that big, they have managed to find the furthest and darkest corner.
        Next to them, a large grandfather clock stands bent with age. It ticks without a rhythm, not showing seconds, minutes, nor hours. Though a large clock hand does measure something. It rotates at its own pace. Sometimes it speeds up fast enough for the hand to become a blur. Sometimes it slows down to a standstill. And sometimes, it even seems to travel backwards.
        “Death,” the teenager says, their voice monotone, their eyes unfocused.
        A fork clatters on the plate.
        “What?” the bald man squeaks. “Death? Why? Who’s going to kill us?”
        “Shh. No one is going to kill us,” the child says sternly. “We’re safe here.”
        The teenager grins.
        “I don’t feel safe,” the man squeaks.
        “Yeah, you shouldn’t,” the teenager says. “It’s best to die so you don’t have to live through it.”
        The bald man screams.
        “Calm down. They are trying to set you off. You are upsetting Noemí,” the child says, but she is drowned out by the man’s wailing.
        “Here we go again,” the teenager says, rolling their eyes. They slump down in their chair and poke at their food. Their mouth pulls into a snarl as they watch the aubergine wobble on their plate.
        “This is your doing,” the child reprimands. She sighs. “Let’s not get ahead of things.” She takes another bite and sits straighter. “We do have some things to discuss. It’s important we all stay calm at this news, okay?”
        The bald man’s eyes widen.
        The teenager shrugs their mass of grey clothes.
        “Noemí has been invited to a party,” the child says.
        The doors open again, masking the man’s scream. The butler re-enters with her legion of waiters. They spread out around the table to whisk away the half-eaten plates. The second wave of waiters enters with the main course.
        “Where is the party? Has she ever been there before? She’ll have to find the door and the right doorbell. I hope it’s not an apartment complex. But of course, it’s an apartment complex. What if she rings the wrong bell? I hope there will be people she knows. She can take the train, right? Or will she be expected to stay over? Oh no, she will have to sleep there, won’t she?”
        The thin woman pushes her plate away, the green greyish tint of her skin intensifying.
        “Next up, is shaking beef, topped with butter, skin fried potatoes on the side and a beetroot salad for some refreshment.” The butler raises her voice to be heard over the onslaught of questions still spilling out of the bald man’s mouth. “Enjoy.”
        “Control yourself. Leah is going with her,” the child tells the man.
        “The worst thing will be the unspoken rules. What do you even wear to a party like this?” the teenager says, pushing around their food. “Let alone say to people. It’s going to be a wallflower moment and not the cute kind.  Yikes.”
        “That’s not at all what is going to happen if we just calm-”
        The man lets out a shriek. “Her entire social status is going to be ruined.”
        “Most definitely,” the teenager says.
        The skinny lady retches. She grabs a bucket from under her chair and retches again. Her body shakes, but the bucket stays dry. Her dark complexion has turned ashen grey.
        “Butler!” the child calls. The doors fling open and the butler rushes in. The waiters flock after her, coming to a halt in a perfect V-shape behind her. The butler’s eyes immediately land on the convulsing woman.
        “Oh, dear. Diane, have some tea ready. Chamomile. And some water.” The waitress, called Diane, hurries off. The butler moves toward the woman and lays a gentle hand on her back.
        “It is important that you do finish your meal, okay?”
        The woman nods and retches in the bucket. The iron handle of the bucket rattles against the woman’s shaky hands.
        “Good girl,” the butler says. She straightens.
        The butler snaps her fingers. Her legion of waiters gets to work, filling glasses of wine and whisking away empty glasses and dishes.
        The bald man grabs his filled glass and chucks it as he watches the woman wiping the sweat from her forehead with a damp towel. The teenager clears their plate and pushes it forward. They grab the glass of wine in both hands and take a slobbering sip.
        The thin lady cautiously picks up the dainty mug of steaming chamomile tea. She takes the tiniest sip of tea. The warm content of the mug washes away some of the tension in her shoulders.
        Behind her, the large clock on the wall picks up speed as the chamber’s residents continue their meal.

        The door bursts open. Its force carries a gust of wind. It lifts the tablecloth high enough to hide the first few seconds of the newcomer’s entrance. The cloth falls to reveal a man in a velvet waistcoat, bowed over, his hands on his knees. His puffed cheeks are as red as his waistcoat. Behind his oval glasses, his eyebrows bristle like thick caterpillars.
        “I have come bearing news,” he pants. “Dire news.”
        The bald man lets out a scream. He has gone as white as the tablecloth.
        A fork clatters on the floor.
        “S-Sorry,” the thin woman whispers.
        “What news?” the child asks, sitting up straighter.
        “Leah has just cancelled. She’s not feeling well,” the messenger says. Another scream leaves the bald man’s throat.
        The teenager sighs loud enough to be heard over the screaming.
        “Fucking Leah,” they say, slumping back into their grey bag of clothing. “It’s probably some lame excuse not to go.”
        “I doubt it,” the child says. “Leah is never sick.”
        “Which further proves my point. She acted strange the last time she saw Noemí. It was as if she didn’t really feel like being there. When Noemí asked her what she was going to do this weekend, she didn’t even listen.”
        “Well, the conversation was quite hectic.”
        “Fool,” the teenager mutters. “She should stay home tonight.”
        “That will make her a weird loner,” the lady whispers, staring at her plate.
        “Then what do you suggest we do?” the teenager says. They throw their fork down. It clatters on the plate, chipping the edge.
        “I d-don’t know,” the lady says and shakes her head.
        “We have two hours to mentally prepare her,” the messenger says.
        “Three. She shouldn’t be exactly on time. That’s even worse. If she’s going to go, she has to blend in by showing up when most, but not everyone, are already there,” the teenager says. “Duh.”
        “Won’t it be rude if we’re too late?” the bald man whimpers.
        “It isn’t a kid’s party. Get a grip.”
        The doors open and the waiters re-enter. They whisk away the plates. They are replaced by dessert plates, filled with bright pink meringue, a red fruit sauce and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The man in the waistcoat plops down on the empty seat and starts gobbling up his dessert.
        The routine pursues; the child deftly eats her dessert, the bald man mumbles a string of worries, the teenager pushes his food together until it is an unrecognisable mush, and the lady watches an empty spot on the table. Her scoop of ice slowly melts alongside the one on the plate next to her. The lady too droops further into her chair.
        The butler enters on her own, carrying a platter with a single letter and a decorated letter opener. Behind her, her waiters are standing in an antechamber, their bodies turned towards a blank wall.
        The butler sets the plate next to the man in the waistcoat. He nods thanks to the butler and takes the two items. The ripping of the paper is the only sound in the room as all eyes are fixed on the paper being unfolded. It’s blank.
        “Noemí headed out half an hour ago,” the man says, his voice heavy. He closes his eyes. “She’s at the doorstep right now.
        A plate scrapes over the table as the lady pushes away her plate. Her stomach rumbles and she presses her hands over her stomach. It pushes against her belt, bloated with anxiety.
        A whimper rises from the huddled figure in the corner. The clock ticks, yet the clock hand doesn’t move.
        “Fuck me,” the teenager whispers.

        Black liquid pools into six white cups. It swirls around, reflecting a distorted version of the dining hall until a dash of frothed milk breaks the consistency and wipes away the reflection. A waiter puts down an etagere with five storeys carrying a selection of confectioneries. The spaces of gold plates that aren’t filled with treats reflect five strained faces.
        “Any news?” the child asks the butler when she sets down a cappuccino.
        “None yet,” she says. She takes a small liquor glass from the waiter behind the child’s chair and puts it down next to the coffee. The liquor is of a thicker viscosity. It swirls around like oil.
        “Your fifth course consists of a coffee from an Indonesian dark roast. We have added some milk to make it easier to swallow. This,” she points at the small glass, “is a Spanish Moscato. We have made several confectioneries from all over the world. Klepon, Crème Brûlée, Alfajor, Cannoli, Chokladbollar, Daifuku, Borma and Dan Tats, to name a few. Enjoy.”
        “That’s… new,” the bald man says. He looks at the etagere, studying every pastry with comprehension.
        The messenger plucks a random pastry from the etagere and stuffs it in his mouth.
        “They’re great,” he says, his mouth full. “You should try them.”
        “I believe you,” the bald man says, but he doesn’t move to grab one.
        The messenger takes a tablet from his coat pocket. He starts swiping his finger over the black screen, his eyes locked on the invisible content scrolling by.  The messenger picks up pastry after pastry and stuffs them in his mouth. He washes the sweets away with a gulp of his liquor.
        “Anything?” the bald man asks.
        “Sssh,” the man in the waistcoat says. He pumps up the volume button and squeals in delight. “Ah, here! Found her! Ten minutes ago. Truth or dare.”
        “And now everyone will know she’s really fucking lame,” the teenager mutters.
        “Of course not,” the child says.
        “They will slay her,” the teenager says.
        “They will,” the bald man says. His heavy brows push further down on his beetle eyes. He grabs the small liquor glass and downs the contents. “I don’t want to feel anymore.”
        “Calm yourself,” the child says, but the man keeps on wailing.
        “I guess this is the end of her social life,” the teenager notes and sips from their coffee.
        The child closes her eyes and presses her hands to her forehead, massaging her skin.
        The man in the waistcoat picks up his coffee and fills his hand with sweets from every tier. He stuffs a Chokladbollar in his mouth and gets up.
        The others watch him shuffle out of the room. Waves of coffee threaten to spill over the edges of his mug like a sea being confined. Behind the door, the waiters have returned to their wall-facing position. The messenger takes his place next to the frozen butler right as the door shuts.
        “We should go after him,” the bald man says. His chair topples over in his rush to get up.
        “We can’t, not until she is home,” the child warns, jumping off her chair. Standing up, she barely reaches the edge of the table. “Sit down. I’ll check what is going on,” she says but before she can reach the door, the bald man stumbles past and pushes through the door.
        “No!” the child shouts, but the door slams shut behind the bald man. The child pulls at the door, but it’s too heavy and it only gives a little before her strength gives out and the door slams shut again. She tries again, catching a glimpse of the scene behind the door. An entirely blank room without windows or doors stares back at her. The waiters and their butler still stand facing the wall. The messenger is standing next to them. The only one whose face the child can see is the bald man. He is mumbling a continuous stream of worries. The lines in his face are deep. The room rumbles around him. His eyes are blank.
        “Can you at least help me?” the child snaps at the teenager and the woman. She loses grip of the door. It slams shut again, yet the rumbling can still be felt.
        The woman doesn’t give a response. The teenager shrugs and starts piling small desserts on their plate while stirring the thick milk through the coffee. The child keeps dragging at the door. She manages to keep it open a few centimetres, but no more than that.
        Behind her, the woman starts breathing heavily. She wails. Her wails are echoed by the figure in the corner, who is still curled up in a ball, sobbing softly. The teenager pushes the chair on its two back legs and rocks back and forward. Every time they reach the table, they take a bite from the pastries in front of them. The sounds form a strange rhythm that blends into a monotonous noise.
        The door flings open and the child is propelled backwards. The bald man, the messenger and the butler are standing in the door opening.
        “She is on the train, on her way home. She decided not to stay because she had another attack,” the messenger says, glaring at the bald man. “The host sounded disappointed when Noemí said she wouldn’t be staying over.”
        “That’s a concern for later. She can sleep in her own bed,” the child says, out of breath.
        “Don’t keep her awake with your endless chattering,” the teenager tells the bald man.
        The bald man shakes his head and finds his seat. He folds his arms on the table before laying his head on it. One by one, the others follow suit.
        “I will be back tomorrow, with breakfast,” the butler says. She turns off the light, dousing the room in complete darkness. The door shuts. A deep snore shudders through the room, followed by a softer, higher-pitched snore.
        “I hope her laugh wasn’t too weird,” the bald man mumbles in the dark. The light switches on. The grandfather’s clock hand comes to a halt. Five pairs of eyes are blinking into the bright light.
        “That laugh was definitely weird,” the bald man says, sitting up straight. In the corner, the figure begins to wail. The ticking of the clock resumes.