The short story below is the winner in the Sussex Together Festival of the Arts.
A Box of Chocolates | Amanda Kearsey
After checking that they have finally left, she feels safe enough to retrieve her shopping from the front doorstep. It takes two trips, and she is slow, but she manages to get the bags into her kitchen.
Milk, eggs, white sliced bread. She frowns. She doesn’t like ready sliced loaves, but she supposes it will have to do. Bacon, pork chops, cheddar cheese. It’s the wrong cheddar. Cheap stuff, - mild with no taste. She tuts to herself. She unpacks vegetables, butter, cream and puts them in her fridge – like her, it’s a bit worn and discoloured with time.
But at the bottom of one of the bags she finds a surprise. Attached to it is a short note, with her name and a message in a spidery scrawl saying “Enjoy x.”
She couldn’t remember the last time she had been given chocolates. Maybe it had been that Christmas, oh how many years ago now? When she and Harry had been courting perhaps. Yes, that was it. But the courting had come to nothing in the end. Harry had drifted away, and one day, she realised he was no longer there at all. She hadn’t really minded; had not particularly noticed his increasing absence at the time. Now, as she gently holds her gift within bent arthritic hands, she wonders if it might have been better to have had someone like Harry, or even Harry himself. To have not spent all these years alone.
The box is wrapped in cellophane and she runs her fingers gently across it, feeling its smooth, shiny surface. It has a big, red bow tied around it too, of real satin material. She places the box on her kitchen table and looks at it admiringly. The cover promises untold delights of the sweets within. Small, pieces of bliss filled with strawberry cream, caramel, nougat, and her favourite: Turkish Delight.
She remembers her father giving her real Turkish Delight; small pieces of sugary confection, nestled within a beautiful golden coloured box. He kept those treats locked in a cupboard; the key hidden away. She closes her eyes as the sensory memory of rosewater fills her nostrils, evoking the rough feel of her father’s coarse woollen uniform. He had hugged her close, ruffling her curly hair before walking away down the garden path. She hadn’t eaten that last piece. Instead she had wrapped it in a handkerchief; kept it safe with her other treasures. A talisman of faith. If she didn’t eat it, he would come home.
She found her treasures years later, moving back and emptying the house after her mother had died. A dusty collection of rubbish; shells from a family trip to the beach, a magpie’s feather, a piece of sharp flint. And still wrapped in her handkerchief, now yellowed with age, was the piece of Turkish Delight. Covered in fluff and dust, it was a solid, dried-up version of its former self. The scent of rosewater had long since dissipated; instead, it smelt of age and loss. She threw it in the bin.
Now she stares at the unexpected gift on her kitchen table. She hesitates to open it, reluctant to break the seal. What if it isn’t really for her? What if it was a mistake? She liked her quiet, solitary life: it held no surprises. She had floated calmly through her days; unflappable and self-possessed. That’s what people used to say about her: she was unexcitable. Yes, that’s what she was.
She frowns though, unable to shake away mutinous thoughts. She thinks, I am monotonous, lacklustre. I am unexciting.
I am lonely.
She feels unsettled; restless and distracted – itchy, like she wants to scratch her old skin off. And find new, fresh skin underneath.
Unable to sit still any longer, she stands at the window, gazing into the deserted cobbled street. Although only early evening on this balmy April day, there is no one there. No one passes by on the way to the nearby pub or restaurants, no groups of tourists taking in the quaint old town. No one at all. She finds she misses the noise and bustle. The quiet is perhaps, too quiet.
She draws the curtains shut with a decisive snap. But, she thinks, she is content, she is safe. She has everything she needs. What more can a person want?
She picks the box up and puts it carefully in the drawer of her kitchen dresser, turning the key. There. It’s better locked away. Perhaps every so often, she might bring it out again, just to look at. A little bit of indulgence; a treat for herself. She will admire the red bow, the unwrapped cellophane, and the pictures of the sweet chocolate delights within. Perhaps she’ll eat one, next time. Or perhaps not.
But for now, she will keep it locked away and protected. Her box of treasures.