Happy Birthday
by Jane Seaford



Across the table sits Justine, her back straight, her gaze unwavering. She ignores the waiter who slides their plates in place and with a mocking bow, hands clasped high in front of him, wishes them: ‘Bon appetit’ and leaves.

‘Happy Birthday,’ Justine says, the words dry and empty of emotion. She raises her glass, sips her wine. Her thin-lipped smile is neat, contained. Nothing soft about her, Amy thinks, as Justine deftly cuts a small portion of fish, spears it with her fork, raises it to her mouth. All the while her elbows are tightly pinned against her sides, as if she were sitting between strangers on an aircraft.

Amy looks at her plate, at the mound of creamy pasta, and knows she cannot eat. She reaches for her glass, admires the deep red colour and drinks.

‘It would have been Lucy’s birthday, too,’ she says.

‘Of course,’ Justine replies, her voice clipped. Of course, Amy thinks, of course, of course.


Lucy crammed more and more cake into her mouth, breaking pieces off with both hands. Creamy icing was smeared around her mouth. There was some on one cheek and a smudge on the side of her nose. Her cheeks were bulging as she ate. She grinned at Amy and then licked up the dribble of half-masticated sponge leaking from her open lips.

Amy clasped her hands tightly together in front of her and tried not to cry. The beautiful birthday cake was broken. It stood on its silver platter, one side of it crumbled into a ruined castle, its candles discarded, its wide pink ribbon untied.

‘Don’t you want any, Amy?’ Lucy asked through her mouthful of cake. She chewed and swallowed, chewed and swallowed. Then she laughed. It sounded like hens cackling. Amy put her head on one side, looking down, biting her lip. She wanted Mum to come and take Lucy away. But that wouldn’t happen. She wanted Lucy not to be like Lucy was now. She couldn’t stop the sob that came from inside her. Lucy pulled at Amy, poked her in the tummy, rubbed her dirty hand on Amy’s party dress, leaving a damp mark, spoiling its satiny prettiness.

‘Baby,’ Lucy almost spat at Amy.

‘Stop that. Now!’ There was Justine in the doorway. She dragged Lucy out of the room. Amy could hear the shouts as Justine pulled Lucy down the hall and into their bedroom. She heard the slam of the door and Lucy’s scream rising and rising, filling the house with the sad strangeness of a wild-animal wail, filling Amy’s ears, till she covered them with her hands and made her own sobbing, little-girl sounds.


‘Of course,’ Amy says now. A strange nebulous feeling balloons inside her. It could be anger, impatience, sorrow, the pain of loss. She can’t tell. She’s never been good at identifying her own emotions. Instead, she somehow understands how others feel. She sometimes thinks it’s because she’s a twin; finds even now that she thinks of how Lucy would react when something happens.

Justine raises an eyebrow. She’s good at that. Her face remains impassive but she can move one eyebrow and not the other.

‘Are you mocking me?’ Justine asks. Her voice is light. This is not serious, she’s telling Amy. There’s no bitterness between us.

‘Of course,’ Amy says. She smiles. She mocks. But Justine will assume it’s a joke. ‘The beautiful bland.’ Before Lucy went away she used to call Justine that.


Justine sat on her bed, saying nothing, looking at the wreck of the room. Amy watched her sister as she took it in, seeming to photograph each piece of mess and consign it to a place inside her where, later, it could be analysed and explained.

On the floor lay Lucy, her face marked by her wide grin. Her eyes were open, somehow vacant and savage at the same time. But when she blinked a little crease appeared between them, making her look tired, too, as if she’d had enough of this day, this day’s activity.

Amy held her breath, waiting. The wardrobe was empty, one door hanging on a broken hinge. Their torn clothes were strewn around. All the drawers had been taken out and thrown about, the toys spilled out of their box and some of them smashed or broken. The books were in a pile, bent open, trodden on.

Amy wanted put her arms round Lucy, she wanted to hug her and have Lucy hug her, too. Sometimes in the night this happened, Lucy crept into her bed and clung onto Amy. In the morning, she’d always be gone. Amy wished that she could be bad, too. She wanted to share this with Lucy, so that her twin did not have to make so much anger. But she didn’t know how. She felt that she was squashy inside, a cream-centred chocolate; Lucy was hard, a hard almond or praline. Justine was harder still so that she could control them all.

‘Shall I fetch Mother?’ Amy whispered. This is what they call her now. ‘Mum‘ became too comfortable a word; too soft, ‘Mummy’ was long gone. Mother was a shell. She lay on the sofa and looked at Amy when she spoke to her, but didn’t answer. Sometimes she smiled, but when she did, she turned away, as if there was a secret she didn’t want to share. 

‘No point,’ said Justine. She stood up. Amy thought she could hear the cracking of her joints as she straightened her legs and pressed the heels of her hands together.


Justine finishes her fish and salad; she wets her lips with a sip of white wine; she looks critically at Amy’s untouched meal. She starts to speak and stops. She clears her throat. Amy knows what Justine wants to say. She wants to ask why Amy is so plump and yielding when she eats so little. Amy thinks of telling Justine that being with her spoils her appetite, how normally she enjoys her food.

‘It was difficult for you,’ Amy says. She wants Justine to stop pretending.

Justine shrugs; still her arms stay neatly pressed to her sides. ‘We survived,’ she says.

‘Not all of us,’ Amy reminds her.


‘If Mother had been more…’ Amy starts. She wants to order another glass of wine but knows that Justine will disapprove. She’s not sure that, just now, she could bear that.

‘It was not Mother’s fault,’ Justine says. Her hand jumps up to summon the waiter. ‘Shall we have coffee?’ she asks.


In the beginning, Amy thought, in the beginning it was not so. She remembered the sandpit with Lucy, both of them with buckets and spades. Amy was making a castle.

‘I’m just diggin’ a hole,’ Lucy said. ‘I’m goin’ to get in the hole and be a rabbit.‘

Mummy laughed. She used to laugh then. She and Daddy laughed a lot. That day the sun shone. Justine played on the swing, her yellow hair flying in the air, her legs swishing back and forth, back and forth making her go higher and higher. When they were bigger, Amy and Lucy would be able to swing like that without being pushed.

Before Lucy knocked over Amy’s castle, she asked if she might.

‘No,’ said Amy.

‘I’m goin’ to anyway. Cos I want to and it’s silly.’

Amy often thought about that day. Lucy taking her spade and bashing the castle. How Amy tried to stop her and felt the bang of the spade on her arm. The anger that spurted from the pain and the struggle for the spade. How she, Amy, hit Lucy twice on her head. What Amy remembered most is, later, the taste of her tears mixed with sand, when she lay down in the sandpit and buried her face, sobbing with the desperation and unfairness of being punished, when it was Lucy who had knocked down her castle and hit first.

Was that the start? She would wonder, screwing up her eyes to picture other days in the sun, family picnics, meals when they were all together with no dark shadows.


‘Whose fault then?’ Amy asks.

Justine frowned. ‘No one’s. It was just one of those things.’

‘Didn’t it begin when Father left?’

‘Father didn’t leave…. Waiter…’ Justine clicks her fingers. Amy notices the tight shininess of the skin over her knuckles. She doesn’t contradict Justine, but she knows that Father left. She remembers his absence, even though he still came home. Mostly, he came home. And when he wasn’t there and something happened, there would be a holding-your-breath-and-wait feeling in the house.


Lucy laughed and jabbed again at Amy’s hand with the scissors.

‘Don’t,’ Amy yelled. ‘I’ll tell Daddy.’

‘You can’t, he’s not here,’ Lucy grinned. ‘No one to stop me,’ she whispered, screwing up her face and widening her eyes at Amy.

Amy ran into the hall. ‘Daddy,’ she called. She ran into the living room. Mummy was on the sofa, staring out of the window.

‘Lucy hurt me,’ Amy said, offering her the damaged hand. Mummy turned to look at her and Amy waited to be seen, to be noticed. Years later, she would recall that long heart-stopping moment as her mother’s eyes came slowly into focus. Amy stood, holding her hand to her mouth, licking it slowly, tasting the rustiness of her spilled blood.

‘You poor little girl,’ Mummy said finally, her voice cool but not soothing. She took Amy's hand and held it. ‘How did that happen?’

‘Lucy did it. She poked the scissors…’

‘No, Amy dear, Lucy wouldn’t do a very naughty thing like that.’ Mummy laughed. It sounded like water going down the plughole after a bath.

‘I did do it,’ Lucy called from the doorway. When she giggled, it was like upside-down crying. Amy shook her head, confused.

Later, when Daddy came home, he sat with the two little girls, explaining how bad Lucy had been and how she must say sorry to Amy. His voice was so tired it sounded all used up.

Soon after that, Lucy started making her wolf face and growling at Amy, at Justine, at Mummy, Mum, Mother.


‘Lucy wanted… It was mother not reacting that made her…’ Amy turns as the waiter comes to the table. He looks at her uneaten pasta and looks mournful.

‘Finished?’ he asks in that deferential but accusing way that waiters have. Amy nods. ‘I’d like another one,’ she says, all in one breath, lifting her wineglass. She hears Justine sniff. Amy keeps her face turned away; she imagines the rising of the single eyebrow.

‘And I’ll have coffee, ‘Justine says. ‘A small black.’ The waiter slinks away. ‘Mother was reacting,’ Justine explains. ‘She was dealing with… Lucy’s illness.’


Lucy was trembling. It was almost imperceptible, but Amy could feel it. Sometimes it was as if she and Lucy were still connected, as if their bodies were not completely separate. Lucy started to grin, her teeth showing white in the growing darkness of the garden, but Amy could feel her fear. Between them was the broken lump of fur and blood that had been next door’s cat. Amy wanted to tell Lucy that she’d gone too far this time. This was not something Justine could put right, smooth over, pretend was just a little blip to make them all appreciate even more their family happiness. She could feel Lucy’s hot breath on her check. She could smell it too: a sour and rancid, bloated scent. Amy shook her head, imagining Lucy’s tongue dead and swollen inside her mouth.

‘I’m going to give it to Mother. She hated that cat. She’ll be glad to see it dead.’ Lucy’s rasping voice sounded close to her ear.

Amy shivered. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Let’s bury it. Pretend it never happened.’ She felt Lucy’s fingers digging into her shoulder.

‘Mother wants it,’ Lucy hissed.

At first Mother didn’t seem to realise that it was a cat, a dead cat, on her knee. Lucy sat cross-legged on the floor in front of her, grinning up at her, while the cat lay, oozing a little blood, which finally started to make a thick, dripping sound on the floor. This image, this sound, is etched in Amy’s brain, she often closes her eyes and sees and hears it as if it were still happening. The smell, too, is there: sweet, gummy, meaty. 

While Lucy waited for their mother to acknowledge the gift, Amy stood in the corner of the room, her hands clenched in front of her, mouth open as if ready to scream. Finally, it was Mother who screamed.

In Amy’s memory, the scream is loud and high enough to crack the glass in the windows. It lasts for a long time and is confused with the sound of an ambulance coming to take Lucy away. In reality, Amy knows it didn’t happen like this. Justine took charge, telephoning for their father, for the doctor. Throwing the cat’s body into the garden, putting on rubber gloves and cleaning up, running a bath for Mother and putting her clothes in the washing machine. And locking Lucy in the bedroom, who some days later was taken away to hospital, but gently, in their father’s car.


‘No,’ Amy says, feeling bold with her second glass of deep red wine. ‘Lucy was trying to bring Mother back to us. It was that way round.’

Justine smiles: an almost painful twist of her lips. She shrugs, her shoulders moving only slightly. ‘If you want to see it like that, I can’t stop you,’ she says, meaning that she knows she’s right, and Amy, like her twin, is hopeless and confused.


When Amy came back from school one Friday, Mother was in the kitchen. There was a smell of baking.

‘What are you doing?’ Amy asked.

Mother smiled. ‘I’m making a cake,’ she said. ‘We’re taking it for Lucy tomorrow.’

For a while, Amy was silent. ‘I didn’t know you could cook,’ she said finally and started to cry. Later, she came back into the kitchen, drawn by the smell of burning. There was no cake to take to Lucy the next day and Mother did not come to the hospital. She was still in bed when they came home. She remained there for the rest of Amy’s childhood. This memory, Amy knows, is true.


‘Mother couldn’t even come to Lucy’s funeral,’ Amy says as her birthday meal ends. Justine says nothing. This time she cannot disagree, Amy thinks with a little frisson of tired triumph. ‘Perhaps she couldn't cope with the suicide,’ she adds.

‘Lucy’s death was an accident,’ Justine said, her mouth snapping open and then sharply shut.

‘Well,’ said Amy. She turns away and sees the waiter who steps forward with his false and patronising smile. Amy smiles back. It’s so much easier to deal with the rudeness of waiters than the pretence of happy families.



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