Spilt Milk by A. K. Shaw

Mandy had been gone almost four weeks by then. That’s why I was reasonably surprised when my boyfriend, Mike, reached his arm inside our fridge and after a few moments of rummaging produced a large plastic tub.

‘The hell is this?’ he asked, extending his arm so it was closer to me than to him, and wrinkling his nose.

‘Oh,’ I said, putting down the potato I was peeling, ‘That must have been Mandy’s.’

He waited, arm still extended, as if anticipating additional instructions. I pinched my lips together and picked the potato back up. 

‘So…’ he drawled, waving the tub closer to my face.

‘Just put it back in the fridge,’ I said, ‘I’ll deal with it later.’

He stood, arm out like a flagpole, as if my answer had been incorrect.

‘Seriously,’ I said, not looking up from the potato in my hand, ‘It’s yoghurt, it will be four – more than four – weeks old by now. It will be gross. I’ll deal with it when I’m not cooking.’

There was a pause, and I even ventured to think that might be the end of it, but it ticked over into too long. My hands gripped the edge of the counter as if to steel for an earthquake. Sure enough, as I turned, the blue and yellow logo on the front of the yoghurt pot was thrust in my face, hands wrapped around it, ready to prise it open.

‘Here we have a truly fascinating discovery. Ancient yoghurt, made long ago from prehistoric Lactobacillus Primevalis cultures now extinct…’ Mike had adopted an old wildlife presenter’s voice and hunched over the pot, offering his own body for its protection. His hands moved across the lid menacingly. The cold marble of the counter pressed against my back as I recoiled, the lid unsealing and revealing the blue-yellow clotting inside. 

‘The last time eyes were set on this inspiring sight, it was…’

I turned my head away, my whole face wrinkling, gagging at the smell.

I made a retching sound and pushed forward, almost toppling the container out of his hands. As he regained his balance, I snatched it and turned away, not sure I could keep up the look of fury I had given him. I opened the fridge door too hard and made an awful kerfuffle as I tried to slide the pot back in without disrupting the myriad of jars that lay about apparently celebrating their release. The fridge door clicked closed and I walked straight back to my station, avoiding his eye contact all the way.

‘It was just a joke,’ I heard him say. Swallowing, I tried to ignore him, to let him actually apologise for once. I’ve never been too good at holding silence.

‘I know,’ I said, ‘Just had a long day, that’s all.’

I heard him sigh and smack his lips together before leaving the room. All I did was let out the breath I had been holding on to in a very thin, silver stream, just as my therapist had taught me to do. Once it had all gone, dissipated into the air like vapour, I brought my attention back to the object in my hand and caressed it gently with long, lingering strokes, as if looking after something young, tender and frail. The shards of skin piled up beneath my hands.

Mandy was the type of person who bought yoghurt in huge vats from the cash and carry, not understanding why everyone else thought it was strange. It was always the same brand; the biggest pot they had of Greek-style non-set natural yoghurt. On one occasion, at exactly sixteen minutes past midnight, there had been a scream of rage that echoed through our flat as Mandy took her first spoonful and discovered that she had bought fat-free. It was a story we would come to laugh about, dissolving into fits of giggles on the floor as I stirred pasta into thick red Bolognese sauce that would leave dots and dashes all over our white splashguard, trying not to spill it everywhere while my stomach shook, but at the time she was livid. Almost inconsolable. After she had gone to bed, I went out and bought a smaller pot from the 24/7 around the corner and put it in the fridge ready for her to find. I left a sticky note on the door too, I remember now, just in case she was too bereft to even consider looking inside the fridge. It turned up later, tucked under one of our counters, the edge ripped off in her haste, or joy. In the morning when I emerged from the shower, still glistening with hair all piled on top in a towel she threw her arms around my neck, and I thought she was never going to let go.

‘What are you daydreaming about?’ 

Mike leant against the fridge as he upended his bottle. I hadn’t heard him come in. The thoughts left my mind like doves out of a magician’s hand and I shrugged, smiling at him in a way I hoped was endearing. All I could hear was swishing sounds as he rinsed the dregs of beer around his mouth. His dentist had told him to stop doing that. 

‘Any plans for tomorrow’s dinner?’ he asked, leaning a little heavier into his hip. 

I don’t know, I thought, I haven’t even finished today’s.

‘I thought we could have Bolognese,’ I blurted.

‘What, for a change?’

I said nothing. Staring into the pan of boiling water, I prodded one of the potatoes to check how close they were and tried not to think too much about what it would feel like plunging my whole arm into it.

‘That’s alright,’ Mike said, opening the fridge, ‘Might go out with the guys anyway. Let me know what you decide.’ 

I felt my eyes drop to the floor and turned to the asparagus so I had something to focus on. It suddenly felt quite strange that my hands were my own. As I gathered the asparagus into them each stroke along the shaft felt almost warm, as if it were not only still alive but some protrusion from some other being. Picking one up by each end, I recalled the magazine article I’d read that had inspired me to pick the bunch up in the market, when I usually would have walked straight past. ‘Bend it gently,’ the author had advised me, ‘until it snaps at its natural point.’ When it did, at a point nearer the tip than I had anticipated, I couldn’t help but feel like the poor thing had been beheaded. The head, covered in the little protrusions and peculiarities that made up its anatomy, seemed to me the most precious part. The most sensitive to the rift I was inflicting. I almost felt guilty for feeling so much pleasure doing it.

My world seemed to have more angles in it now. More straight lines than when Mandy was here. It was like she had the ability to smother sharp edges, to curve them up and over like soft peaks of meringue, smooth, supple and silken. We made a pavlova, once. She appeared in the doorway of the kitchen, eyes wide and arms outstretched with two Bags for Life that never lasted more than one usage. I had tried stuffing them into all corners of the flat to prompt her to take them when she walked out the door, but her shopping trips were always so sudden, seemingly unpredictable. I had resorted to simply folding them away guiltily, all in one overflowing drawer. 

I knew she was waiting for me to ask her what she’d got. It seemed she viewed her life as a series of dramatic, punctuating distractions linked together by mind-numbing banality, and so it was important that the exciting bits received proper flourish and appropriate audience. These days, she was overwhelmingly forced to settle for me as her appropriate audience. I treated the task with the gravitas I knew it demanded.

‘What have you got?’

‘Tonight, Nigella-’ she declared, mixing up two television shows with gleeful abandon – ‘We’re making, pavlova.

I raised my eyebrows high as I had forgotten to clap my hands. Missing out on the immediate show of joy meant I had to present surprise as my excuse. I had learnt this from Mandy.

Undeterred, Mandy swung the bags down onto the floor next to the counter, announcing each product before slamming them a little too roughly for my liking on the countertop. Despite this, I found myself on my feet and keen. My whole life, I later realised, was spent in constant anticipation of instruction from someone else. Unlike Mandy, my life was a series of restless wanderings between instructions given by others; the only time I felt truly useful and, therefore, alive.

We whisked and folded and squealed with laughter, egg white and sugar on our noses and elbows, stickiness in between our fingers. It seemed to go on forever, though all too soon the pavlova was in front of us, our labour come to fruition.

As she looked to me, eyes wide with greed and lustful appetite, I felt my stomach fall with my face, despite my best efforts to keep the grin wide and fixed. I felt protective of this thing we had created. It felt almost sinful to desecrate it. Cannibalistic, almost. I pretended to watch and murmured with delight as her knife cut into it, but really my eyes were closed. Her arm looked so perfect, just in that moment before the knife descended into that rolling pile of whiteness speckled with red berries. My mouth still waters when I think of it.

She would have it for breakfast, the yoghurt, a swirl of raspberry jam struck through it like an apostrophe. I remembered her eating from the edge inwards, licking it off her spoon as she gazed at news articles on her laptop. Then she would rinse the bowl and stack it on the drying rack, where it would remain until the next day when she would once again spoon in exactly three heaped spoons and give it a vigorous stir before reaching for the jam. Nothing was ever left to fester, or crust, or congeal, like the tub had been left during the last few weeks. Mandy was unwavering in her meticulousness. There wasn’t a chip out of anything she owned. That bowl was as much of a symbol of home as my own slippers were.

Occasionally, on a bad day, she would pick up the whole thing and take it to the sofa. She would bring a dessertspoon that she had already dipped in the viscous red jam, a big globule of it hanging off the end. As Mandy watched television with the vat cradled in her left arm she would spoon the yoghurt into her mouth, each time sucking a little bit of the jam off until it was all gone. Then she’d look down at the pot, almost affectionately, returning it to the fridge as if putting a child to bed.

I remember the day she left. I remember standing just outside the front door, and the soft look on her face as she turned back for the last time.

‘I can always come back, you know,’ she said, and I nodded even though only now am I beginning to understand what she meant. Mandy always meant more than she said. I think she saw more than she said, too.

I think she like the whiteness of it. When she was a little girl, she had found her neighbour dead in her house in the middle of the day in a pool of blood. Mandy said she used to go round a lot to keep her company, the woman was old – ancient in Mandy’s eyes but probably only mid-sixties or so – and Mandy never minded because she always ate snacks and got to stroke her cat. One Saturday she let herself in as usual and found her lying in the kitchen. It looked like she had lost her footing while standing on a chair reaching for something in the top cupboard, hitting her head on the counter on the way down and spilling and splattering red all over the chequered, tiled floor. The milk, sitting calmly on the counter, minding its own business, had been taken with her, suffering much the same fate. Mandy never forgot that detail, no matter how many times she told the story. She seemed almost mystified that they should have mixed in that way, the woman and the milk for her tea. Such a portentous synthesis, an unholy amalgamation – it baffled her. I remember feeling uneasy after she told me that story. Someone in my middle-school psychology class once told me early childhood trauma irreversibly affects brain chemistry, and I guess I’m ashamed to say it made me see her in a different light. But then I would see how she looked at that yoghurt, the thick, creamy whiteness of it, and I would feel better again.

I opened the oven to check on the pie. I could hear it bubbling away inside, frantic and frenzied under the steadily browning crust. It had been so fair when I had started. I heard footsteps and imagined picking the whole thing up by its scalding handles and hurling it at whatever was coming through the door.

About The Author

A.K. Shaw is a recovering classicist with an MA in Comparative Literature. She lives and works in London and is always surprised how many mugs there are to wash up. This is her first published work of fiction.   

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