Olivia poured the sparkling liquid into her sister-in-law’s glass. The tiny bubbles exploded, releasing a citric, wild scent. As the fizzing faded, a chalky sediment sunk to the bottom of the wine glass.
“I can’t believe you made this yourself, Olivia. It’s gorgeous,” said Noreen.
“It was really easy actually. Sorry it’s still a little cloudy,” answered Olivia.
Noreen took a long sip, leaving just over half in the glass.
“You’ve become a real earth mother since you started working from home. Brewing and baking cakes.”
“I can give you the recipes. The flowers are gone for this year, but you could do your own next Summer,” said Olivia.
“I wouldn’t have time to be making Elderflower fizz now, Olivia. Not with the kids, and work, and everything.”
“Take a few bottles away. I’ve made plenty.”
“Thanks Liv. You’re very good,” said Noreen.
She turned her head and gazed out, through the patio door. The women’s husbands sat outside on a bench drinking beer, deep in conversation. Beyond, on the lawn, Noreen’s children played on a rusty swing set.
Olivia pointed to the back of the garden, at the Elder tree beside the shed.
“I’m going to pick elderberries too, and make red wine. I can’t believe I’ve never tried all this home brewing before.”
“Hmm, you might save yourself some cash, making it yourself.”
Olivia smiled. “It takes a year to mature the red, but we’ll have it in time for when Colin turns forty-five.”
“So organised! And you seem to be managing, with Evie moving in, it can’t be easy for her, or you,” said Noreen.
Olivia tensed. Evie had slunk off to her room once ‘Happy Birthday’ was sung. She spent most of her time up there, doing whatever fourteen-year-olds do. Ten years after her marriage, and legal assimilation into Colin’s family, Olivia was still intimidated by Noreen. Before she could manage to form a reply on her altered domestic arrangement, they were both startled by the thundering of feet descending the stairs. The approaching footsteps became squeaky on the polished wood of the hallway, and Evie burst through the kitchen door. She eyed her silent aunt and stepmother in the dining area, scanning the glasses on the table.
“Can I go to Molly’s?” she said breathlessly, staring at Olivia.
“Evie, it’s your Dad’s birthday. Can’t you go out in the fresh air and play with your cousins for a bit?”
“But she just skyped me about her new puppy. It’s fine with her parents. Oh, please? Come on, Olivia. It’s still the holidays.”
“Ah, let her go,” said Noreen. “She’s only bored here with my smallies.”
Olivia relented, unwilling to play the role of wicked stepmother in front of the in-laws. She made her way to the marble island in the centre of the kitchen and grabbed a knife.
“Take some of this cake over with you. Save me picking at it later.”
“You could do with putting on a few pounds, Olivia. You’re like a rake,” said Noreen. Olivia bit her lip and dissected the vanilla sponge she had slathered in butter icing. She wrapped it in tin foil and handed it to the scowling teenager.
Olivia quickly realised that harvesting the elderberries was a much more difficult task than the flowers had been. Her arms ached from reaching and tugging at the branches overhead, yet the bucket was only half full. Flakes of dust from the empty nests she had interrupted stung her eyes. She willed herself to keep going, imagining herself opening a bottle of her very own, home-brewed, red wine this time next year.
She carried two full buckets inside and placed them on the table, then proceeded to tear the berries from their flimsy stalks.
Half an hour later, Evie waltzed in the front door, and down the hall to the kitchen. She stood, staring at her stepmother.
“Oh, Evie. Great you’re home. Give me a hand will you please?”
“No way. What a mess. You shouldn’t even be asking me to help you. It must be illegal.”
Olivia let out a pained sigh and continued with her labour. Evie disappeared upstairs. At least she’ll be back to school next week, she thought.
She washed the berries in the sink and moved them back to the buckets. She tried squashing them with a potato masher. When that didn’t work, she used her hands, imagining it was Evie that she was pummelling. She added the sugar and water as the website instructed. Covering the buckets with the shabbiest of her pillowcases, she decided then to improvise. She added bread yeast to the mix a few days early. To boost the fermentation. If it didn’t work, there was always next year.
He hovered between the table and the buckets of wine, peering under the pillowcases. He had his cereal bowl in hand, the precarious spoon resting against the side.
“The smell would knock a horse, love. And is it supposed to be fizzy?” said Colin.
Olivia was emptying the dishwasher, drinking black tea. Colin had used the last of the milk on his corn flakes. He proceeded to pour the surplus down the sink. A few renegade flakes followed, clogging up the plug-hole. Evie had not rinsed her plate before she was instructed to start the cycle last night, and now a mashed potato residue covered everything. Her revenge for being asked to help out, no doubt. And no, she thought, it’s not supposed to be bloody fizzy.
“Look, I’ll be bottling it up today, Colin. It’s been five days.”
Evie strolled into the kitchen, still wearing pyjamas.
“Why aren’t you dressed? I’ve told you already, I’m not driving you to school if you miss that bus. We are not starting out the school year like this, I’ve a busy day today,” said Olivia.
“And what do you have to do? Pick berries is it? Dad, do you hear the way she talks to me?” Evie wrapped her arms around herself as she stared up into her father’s face.
“Ah, ladies. Please. It’s far too early for this. Calm down.”
“She’s always picking on me, Dad. She makes me do everything around here.”
Olivia flung her mug across the room. It shattered against the wall, leaving ceramic splinters in a pool of tea on the floor. Colin and his daughter stared as Olivia strode over the mess and left the room.
Upstairs, she locked herself into the bathroom and turned on the taps to block out the whispered hiss of arguing from downstairs. She turned on the air jets and added the bath foam. Soon the room was filled with the steamy scent of lavender and roses.
She stood into the sunken tub, feeling the heat of the water rush into her legs. The higher branches of the Elder tree were just visible through the open upper window. The heads of the berries she could never reach bobbed aimlessly on the September breeze. Sinking below the layer of bubbles, she sat down and lay back her head. She closed her eyes, but she did not relax.
She was dressing in their bedroom when Colin sloped in the door behind her. He moved towards her back and stretched his arm around her unyielding waist. He inched closer, kissing the nape of her neck.
“She doesn’t mean to upset you, love,” he whispered.
“I think she does, actually.”
“I know it seems that way, but she’s finding the change tough. Not being with her mother, I mean.”
“She didn’t have to come live with us. She could have moved with them,” snapped Olivia.
“Ah Liv, you were there when they said they couldn’t manage her and the new baby. She doesn’t get on with Patrick either. It’s not her fault.”
“She’d really have something to complain about if she went with them. Out in the middle of nowhere, no friends, new school, stuck changing nappies and Patrick giving her a hard time.” Olivia realised she was trembling.
“I know all that too. But the decision’s been made. It’s just going to take us all time to adjust.”
“And this obsession with what we drink? It’s ridiculous, Colin.”
“Look, you know why. It’s after the trouble her mother had. They don’t ever have booze in the house because of it,” said Colin. “We’ll talk more tonight. I’ve to get her to school. Have you seen my keys?”
In her office, Olivia turned on the laptop. She flicked open the blinds and watched from the window as they left the house. He threw himself in behind the wheel, his tie crooked and Evie pulled her skirt down to an acceptable level over her bare thighs, before folding herself into the front passenger seat. Colin reversed out of the driveway. Evie sat scowling behind the moving windscreen, flicking her hair over her shoulder. She looked just like her mother.
After lunch, she filtered the wine. She added more yeast, and poured the mixture into recycled wine bottles. She shoved the corks in as far as she could, willing them to stay put. Ten bottles, hardly worth all the effort, she thought. She moved the bottles into the sideboard behind the table. Here, they could mature in the dark. They sat nestled between a crystal vase and a glut of scented candles, unused Christmas gifts from Noreen.
As she gave the table one last wipe down, she caught sight of her reflection in the patio door. Noreen was right, she had grown thin. She placed her hands on her angular hips and turned to the side. She pushed her belly out as far as she could, to see how she would look if she were ever pregnant. With the passing of time, the familiar sting of regret grew stronger. She could have tried harder, instead of living in a vague hope that it might ‘just happen’. Neither of them had pushed for their own child. Colin already had Evie, and a failed relationship with her alcoholic mother when he met Olivia. She was forty-two now, and she knew her chance had passed. Still, the regret seemed to take on a life of its own, budding away like yeast in the dark corners of her heart.
Evie put on a show at dinner that evening, delighting Colin. She complemented Olivia’s lasagne and cleared away their plates without being asked, even rinsing them before adding them to the dishwasher. Olivia had finished her wine and was considering a refill when Evie plucked the glass, by its stem, from before her. The girl’s thin smile revealed more than she meant it to.
A week later, the weather changed. The East wind tore leaves from the garden trees, while a persistent sideways rain made a swamp of the abandoned lawn. On a stormy Friday night, Olivia had lit the fire and was sipping a glass of shiraz when the house was plunged into darkness. Evie ran down the stairs, shrieking.
“When will it be back?” she asked.
“No idea. In this weather, the ESB will be run off their feet. It could be out all night. I have a torch here somewhere. Hang on.”
Olivia rummaged in a drawer.
“Working late,” said Olivia.
She found the torch and made her way to the sideboard for Noreen’s candles. Evie followed her, silently. Olivia couldn’t help feeling smug at the girl’s fear. She opened the sideboard to discover that a cork had popped at some point from one of the bottles, leaving a sticky red mess on everything. Too much gas, damn that yeast. She grabbed two candles and wiped their glass holders with a dish cloth as Evie looked on.
The candles flickered as Olivia pulled two armchairs to the fire and gestured at Evie to sit.
“I’m not sitting here all night watching you get drunk.”
“Jesus, what is your problem?” shouted Olivia. “I can do what I want in my own fucking house, and you better get used to that!”
Evie said nothing. She sat down. Olivia hovered, formulating her next sentence when a flash of lightning lit up the room. There was a terrible crash from the back garden and she ran to the sliding door. The Elder tree lay beside the shed at an unnatural angle, the roots exposed to the torrential rain. The branches once so far out of reach now lay broken and twisted on the grass. The last few bunches of berries clung on to them in spite of the wind. Evie appeared beside her.
“I’m sorry,” said the girl, her face ghostly in the darkness.
Olivia put her arms around her, squeezing the current of her love against the force of adolescent resistance. Less than a minute passed, before a loud clicking startled them and they separated. They faced each other as all the lights came back on, the fridge hummed into life and the dishwasher gurgled. From the sideboard came a pop. The heady smell of ethanol filled the room, and in the stark light, a red froth gushed out from under the doors. It pooled and settled, almost like blood, at their feet.