‘Come on Gina, hurry up,’ Dimitri called from outside the bathroom door. ‘I need to have a shower too before everyone gets here.’
Georgina heard her brother rapping on the door and lifted a damp hand to wipe away tears as she stood in a steam-filled room. ‘I’m just drying myself. I’ll be out in a sec.’
‘Dry yourself in your room. If it’s not you locked in there, it’s one of the other two. The curse of having three sisters!’
‘More like a blessing – and if you hadn’t stayed in bed all day you’d be ready by now,’ she countered while catching her hazy reflection in a lopsided mirror hanging above the washbasin.
‘I got in at six in the morning.’
Georgina exhaled with irritation at the sound of his body slumping against the door. When she was ready, she flung the bathroom door open, sidestepping Dimitri’s stumbling form. Wrapped in a frayed bathrobe, with a towel swathed around her piled, wet hair she rushed past.
‘Hey, what was that for? You could’ve warned me.’
‘I’ll remember to knock next time, before I open the door.’
Georgina was halfway up the stairs when she heard Dimitri slam the bathroom door. She had been careful to avoid her brother’s gaze, fixing her tear-reddened eyes on the floral patterned carpet - though she doubted he would have noticed anything amiss: unlike her sisters, perceptiveness was not Dimitri’s strong point.
It was time to get ready for her thirtieth birthday party, organised by her mother for the benefit of bringing together every member of the family residing north of the Thames. Cousin Peter alone had not been invited: he lived in south London and surfaced for weddings and funerals. Anything else and it would have been too far for him to travel. He had called late last night above the sound of jazz music and, with a chorus of his friends, sung happy birthday. Georgina appreciated the call, but the party mood evaded her.
Pattering towards the large pane window, she drew the curtains before switching on the single bulb in its mint-green shade. Her bedroom overlooked their well-kept garden, which backed on to an undeveloped small plot of land. The owner, Mr Macaroni, lived on the parallel road. He had initially hoped to build a few flats on the plot, but local residents had objected. Behind the plot of land stood a chain of Edwardian houses, all relatively close. If someone happened to have a handy pair of binoculars, they could conceivably see more of Georgina than she dared expose. She had learnt to be alert and not let her guard down, like a soldier protecting the crown jewels.
Discretion had been instilled in Georgina, together with a generous dose of social conditioning and family expectations; Georgina was only too aware that her aging singleness was not something her parents had bargained on. She was planning on getting through the day by neither feeling nor thinking – just functioning.
Everything was in place; laid on the brilliant white duvet was a top in subtle hues of green and a chocolate-brown skirt. Tan shoes stood to attention at the foot of her bed. The only problem was that the cloak of I’m-doing-just-fine was proving to be a challenge to wear. Her body trembled and goose pimples travelled up her legs, even though the room was warm. Her breaths were coming in short sharp succession and her eyes felt sore from the sobs she had not been able to hold back as the showerhead sliced hot water over her face.
‘Come on, you can do it.’ She gave herself a pep talk.
Moving in front of a full-length mirror, Georgina unwound the turban-style towel and light brown hair cascaded over her shoulders. Critical green eyes challenged the direction her life was following, but she was jolted out of her thoughts by Sophia hobbling in; she had pedicure pads between her toes to separate them for drying.
‘I should have done this at work, but Roulla, the stupid cow, fully booked me and I didn’t even have time to go to the loo, let alone have a pedicure.’
Georgina glanced at her younger sister’s scarlet-varnished toenails and then at the shiny pearl tips of her own toes. ‘I’ve never had a professional pedicure done.’
‘That’s your own fault because you think it’s a waste of time - and you think you can do it as well as a professional beautician.’ Sophia angled her head speculatively, ‘Your eyes are red and puffy.’
Georgina shrugged. ‘I’ve got an eye gel I can use. It’s soothing.’ She noticed Sophia gripping an empty bottle of frizz-easing spray and used the little bottle to deflect attention from herself. ‘Oh, are you out? I’ve run out too. I wanted to buy some last week, but I didn’t have time.’
There was a moment of silence; Georgina was fully aware of Sophia’s probing stare, but she wasn’t about to open up.
‘Great, now I’m going to look like Bernie if Katherina doesn’t have any either.’ Mrs Bernly had been their chemistry teacher at school and was notorious for having unruly frizzy hair.
Georgina was grateful that Sophia had dropped the subject. ‘I doubt Katherina will have any. Her hair is naturally glossy without any spray,’ she said, as Sophia swivelled on her heels. ‘But you can try.’ Georgina could hear the sound of the choking vacuum cleaner and felt sorry for her sister being lumbered with the task of vacuuming with the dated appliance.
‘Mum … Mum,’ Katherina bellowed, slamming her foot on the off button and calling out again. ‘This vacuum cleaner is useless, it’s not picking up properly. I thought Uncle Kyriaco fixed it!’
‘Kyriaco fix it last week and change button. Move it around,’ her mother called out from the kitchen, above the din of the working extractor.
Katherina wiped the perspiration from her forehead and looked down at the changed switch, as Sophia’s freshly varnished toenails appeared before her. ‘Nice colour.’
‘Thanks. Not working again?’
Katherina regretted not using Sophia’s excuse for avoiding vacuuming by arguing that it doesn’t do the job properly; she was right. ‘Uncle Kyriaco apparently fixed it last week, but I can’t say it has helped. I’m finding it difficult to see what temperature I should put it on.’
Sophia smiled broadly. ‘He’s taken that button from an old cooker. I’ve had enough fights with that vacuum cleaner to know to keep away! Do you remember when he used an old radio button on the toaster Mum had given him to fix? I don’t know how many times I burnt my toast trying to figure it out!’
‘Dad bought a new one in the end. But I think he still gave the old one to Uncle Kyriaco – just in case he could use any of the parts.’
‘There you go – lucky you didn’t get the radio control again, then you would’ve had to choose between FM or AM.’ Sophia giggled and Katherina reluctantly joined in as she gazed at the incongruous jutting switch. ‘Listen, do you have any of that frizz-easing hair spray left? I’ve run out.’
‘Not sure, I hardly use it. Check in the top drawer of my dressing table. ’
‘Thanks.’ Sophia turned towards Katherina’s bedroom. ‘Hope you’ll work as hard for my thirtieth birthday,’ she joked as she hobbled away.
‘You’ve still got a few years to go. And by then I hope to God I won’t be living at home.’
‘As Mum would say, your words in God’s ear,’ Dimitri pronounced in a heavy accent imitating his mother as he caught the tail end of the conversation.
‘Glad to see you’re out of the shower, Adonis. Someone else needs to use it too.’
‘I know, I can smell you from here,’ he jeered, strutting to his room with an exaggerated swagger.
‘Thanks,’ Katherina retorted with a huff as she bent down to drag the vacuum cleaner, which resisted movement like a stubborn mule. ‘Glad it’s not my thirtieth birthday.’
Katherina remembered the months leading up to her thirtieth birthday and how it had been filled with a frenzy of prospective Greek husbands. Her parents had worked relentlessly to have a ring put on her finger by anyone who fit the bill: Greek, educated, not a gambler, not a smoker, not a drinker … the requirements changed, as she got older. Sophia had teased that as long as he was Greek and did not have a criminal record, their parents would find him an acceptable suitor.
‘Good, you finish. I go and tidy bathroom after Dimitri and then you go in.’ Christina had switched off the rings on the gas hob in the kitchen and had come upstairs to do a last minute tidy-up.
‘It’s your fault you know, that he’s going to be a nightmare for some woman one day.’ Katherina could not help the criticism spurting out. ‘It shouldn’t be your job to tidy up after him.’
‘Any girl who have Dimitri will be very lucky,’ Christina said proudly, increasing a few inches in height as she spoke. She opened the bathroom door and stepped back from the pool of water that floated on the aqua-tiled floor.
‘He’s not careful, because he doesn’t have to be. You let him get away with so much.’ Exasperated, Katherina watched her mother bend down and pick up Dimitri’s discarded towel to wipe away the excess water. ‘Look at the mess he’s left behind!’
There was no reply as her mother turned her attention to the washbasin and rinsed dark stubble from the white ceramic surface. Katherina walked away, knowing there was no point in trying to change her mother’s attitude towards Dimitri: he was a boy and expectations were different.
Georgina sighed heavily as she heard the sound of marching footsteps approaching. She knew her mother meant well, but today her nerves were taut. As expected her mother did not knock before entering. Her mother would knock only before entering Dimitri’s bedroom; she had started knocking on his door ever since he was fourteen, after an embarrassing encounter.
‘Gina, why you not ready?’ she asked while collecting laundry, which Georgina had left neatly on the chintz-upholstered armchair by the window.
Resentment rushed up Georgina’s chest and into her throat, but she pushed it down again: it was pointless to argue about being left to do things for herself, so she confined her response to a curt, ‘I will be, soon.’
Christina glanced at the clothes laid out on her daughter’s single bed and nodded with approval. Her lips then drew into a rigid line. ‘I go see what Sophia wear.’ Her brow furrowed, leaving lines like a railway track running across her forehead.
‘I’ll be downstairs soon.’
Georgina liberally applied moisturiser over her defined cheekbones and along her neck. Did she look her age? She stared dispassionately into misty green eyes and felt a sense of detachment from the woman who looked back at her. She was thirty and alive but not living. The last rush of adrenalin she had felt was after a forty-five-minute group cycle class at the gym. Perhaps she did not even know how to let go and enjoy life. Having fun was something her younger sister was better at.
Walking into a large bedroom with music blaring out of two small speakers, Christina tutted and grumbled, ‘I donno who you take afta.’ She laboriously bent down to pick up the discarded garments.
Sophia was sprawled on the unmade bed, browsing through a hair magazine. She did not bother looking up; her mother’s stare could be as penetrating as a laser boring through someone’s eyeball during retinal surgery.
‘You not ready, Sophia - and they here soon.’
‘I am. This is what I’m going to wear.’ Turning a page in her glossy magazine, Sophia studied the picture with a quirk of a well-delineated eyebrow. She was in the mood for a change. There was an interesting jagged crop on the centre page, but she was not sure she was ready to chop her salon-coloured auburn hair to that extent yet.
‘You canno wear jeans to your sister’s party! And they looking so old.’ The colour seeped through every vessel and artery in Christina’s body to gather on her rounded cheeks. ‘Change, Sophia, you not come with those clothes,’ was all that Christina said as she threw a black lacy bra on top of the pile of laundry she was carrying.
The finality in her mother’s tone fuelled Sophia’s sense of injustice and she gnawed her lower lip. ‘There is nothing wrong with the way I look, it’s called fashion and …’ Christina strode out, closing the door on Sophia’s indignant outburst. ‘Fine, have it your way, I’ll change, but not the jeans. I’ll dress up with my glitzy top. I don’t care if I don’t fit into your picture of a how a good Greek girl should look!’
Sophia paused as she heard the shrill of the phone ringing in the hallway and then a resounding shout from the bottom of the stairs; the call wasn’t for her.
‘Gina, telephone!’ the voice bellowed again.
‘Who is it?’ Georgina was not sure she wanted to speak to anyone. There just had to be more to life - the thought kept tormenting her like a mirage in the desert.
‘Frankie.’ Her colleague’s name had initially been a source of confusion for her mother, as she did not know if it was a male or female colleague.
Georgina picked up the cordless phone from the upstairs hallway and leapt up the final flight of stairs before closing the door and sinking into her armchair. ‘Frankie, I’m not sure you want to speak to me today.’
‘That bad, is it?’
‘I feel so ungrateful. Mum’s been working hard getting everything ready - even Dimitri was roped into helping yesterday but …’ her voice trailed off as she gazed out of the window.
Mr Macaroni was busy inspecting his vegetable patch while balancing on planks of wood that had been strategically placed to avoid soiling his shoes. Georgina was struck by how light-footed he appeared for a man of his solid frame. He seemed as agile as a sprinting hare. No doubt, they would soon be seeing him leaning over the fence and exchanging homegrown vegetables with her mother; both would be careful to select the best ones to illustrate their success.
‘It’s probably the last family birthday party you will have.’ Frankie’s optimistic voice drew Georgina back. ‘How about going to see the new romantic comedy that’s come out? We can get a bite to eat after work tomorrow - and then go to the cinema?’
‘Okay, that’s something to look forward to.’ She watched with amusement as Mr Macaroni leapt across wobbly planks of wood to chase away Rambo, the neighbourhood cat, who was making his way towards the spinach patch. No wonder her mother washed the spinach thoroughly before cooking it.
‘I’m sure we can both do with a bit of escapism after work on a Monday.’
‘Mondays,’ Georgina groaned as she remembered the Year Team meeting tomorrow with all the Year Nine form tutors; she should go in early and prepare some of the points she needed to address in the meeting. There was also a pile of essays on Romeo and Juliet waiting to be marked.
‘When is your governors’ meeting? It’s not tomorrow?’
Georgina closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Why had she chosen to be a teacher governor as well as a head of year? It was just another responsibility and more meetings to attend. ‘No, it’s on Tuesday evening. I’d really appreciate some fundraising ideas. One of the parent governors raised it at the last meeting and it’s on the agenda.’
‘Sure. We can talk about it at lunchtime.’
‘See you tomorrow then, I better go now before the first guests arrive.’
It was approaching four o’clock. There was no more time to waste on thinking about her life. It was time to get into family-party mode. Her mind was like an enormous rug with lots of things swept under it and now was not the time to spring clean.
You can do it, Gina, she repeated like a mantra to align her mind with what she had to do. It had worked in the past. I am strong and in control, she told herself, as she strode down the stairs with a cream cardigan in the crook of her arm.
‘Are you okay? You look like you’re going into battle.’ Katherina’s tone was laced with concern.
‘Do I? I was just gearing myself up for the big event.’
‘Don’t worry, I don’t think Mum has got thirty candles for you to blow out.’
‘No, but she has got thirty guys!’ Dimitri taunted, closing his bedroom door before Georgina or Katherina had a chance to reply.
Katherina smiled with resignation, showing dimpled cheeks. ‘I wonder if you can take out insurance policies against brothers. They certainly are a liability.’
‘You could always find out at work tomorrow.’
‘We could be the first to make a claim.’
‘That amongst other family claims! Seriously, I don’t know how I’m going to get through another family birthday with everyone giving Mum and Dad the pitying you-have-three-unmarried-daughters look.
‘What other people think is not our responsibility. And you can’t stop people gossiping. It takes away the attention from their problems.’
‘I guess you’re right.’ Georgina stroked down the flowing fabric of her skirt and wondered if she was overdressed.
‘You look nice. I haven’t seen that outfit before.’
Her sister always knew the right thing to say. Georgina breathed out slowly, easing the constriction she had been feeling all day in her chest. ‘Thanks. I splashed out in a boutique that’s opened up in Muswell Hill.’
‘It suits you. Don’t put the cardigan on - it hides the whole look.’
‘Okay, I guess I don’t need it now.’
‘I’ve got to rush before they come, otherwise …’ the sound of the doorbell ringing echoed around the house.
‘I better go and get it.’
The formidable frame behind the stained-glass door belonged to Uncle Theo, Christina’s older brother and Georgina’s godfather. Uncle Theo was known for his amusing stories and old Greek anecdotes. Some he would impart in a hushed tone when his wife, Aunt Thelma, was not within earshot as they were X-rated.
An unavoidable grin spread across Georgina’s face. At least it was an entertaining start to the evening; soon she would be weaving in and out of conversations, avoiding prying questions by uncles and aunties and hoping that no one would mention the “b” word.