It was all because of the Berlin Wall.
If it wasn’t for the Berlin Wall Cecilia would never have found the letter, and then she wouldn’t be sitting here, at the kitchen table, willing herself not to rip it open.
The envelope was grey with a fine layer of dust. The words on the front were written in a scratchy blue ballpoint pen, the handwriting as familiar as her own. She turned it over. It was sealed with a yellowing piece of sticky tape. When was it written? It felt old, like it was written years ago, but there was no way of knowing for sure.
She wasn’t going to open it. It was absolutely clear that she should not open it. She was the most decisive person she knew, and she’d already decided not to open the letter, so there was nothing more to think about.
Although, honestly, if she did open it, what would be the big deal? Any woman would open it like a shot. She listed all her friends and what their responses would be if she were to ring them up right now and ask what they thought.
Miriam Openheimer: Yup. Open it.
Erica Edgecliff: Are you kidding, open it right this second.
Laura Marks: Yes you should open it and then you should read it out aloud to me.
Sarah Sacks: There would be no point asking Sarah because she was incapable of making a decision. If Cecilia asked her whether she wanted tea or coffee, she would sit for a full minute, her forehead furrowed as she agonised over the pros and cons of each beverage before finally saying, ‘Coffee! No, wait, tea!’ A decision like this one would give her a brain seizure.
Mahalia Ramachandran: Absolutely not. It would be completely disrespectful to your husband. You must not open it.
Mahalia could be a little too sure of herself at times with those huge brown ethical eyes.
Cecilia left the letter sitting on the kitchen table and went to put the kettle on.
Damn that Berlin Wall, and that Cold War, and whoever it was who sat there back in nineteen-forty-whenever it was, mulling over the problem of what to do with those ungrateful Germans; the guy who suddenly clicked his fingers and said, ‘Got it, by jove! We’ll build a great big bloody wall and keep the buggers in!’
Presumably he hadn’t sounded like a British sergeant major.
Esther would know who first came up with the idea for the Berlin Wall. Esther would probably be able to give her his date of birth. It would have been a man of course. Only a man could come up with something so ruthless: so essentially stupid and yet brutally effective.
Was that sexist?
She filled the kettle, switched it on, and cleaned the droplets of water in the sink with a paper towel so that it shone.
One of the mums from school, who had three sons almost exactly the same ages as Cecilia’s three daughters, had said that some remark Cecilia had made was ‘a teeny weeny bit sexist’, just before they’d started the Fete Committee meeting last week. Cecilia couldn’t remember what she’d said, but she’d only been joking. Anyway, weren’t women allowed to be sexist for the next two thousand years or so, until they’d evened up the score?
Maybe she was sexist.
The kettle boiled. She swirled an Earl Grey teabag and watched the curls of black spread through the water like ink. There were worse things to be than sexist. For example, you could be the sort of person who pinched your fingers together while using the words ‘teeny weeny’.
She looked at her tea and sighed. A glass of wine would be nice right now, but she’d given up alcohol for Lent. Only six days to go. She had a bottle of expensive shiraz ready to open on Easter Sunday, when thirty-five adults and twenty-three children were coming to lunch, so she’d need it. Although, of course, she was an old hand at entertaining. She hosted Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Christmas. John-Paul had five younger brothers, all married with kids. So it was quite a crowd. Planning was the key. Meticulous planning.
She picked up her tea and took it over to the table. Why had she given up wine for Lent? Polly was more sensible. She’d given up strawberry jam. Cecilia had never seen Polly show more than a passing interest in strawberry jam, although now, of course, she was always catching her standing at the open fridge staring at it longingly. The power of denial.
‘Esther!’ she called out.
Esther was in the next room with her sisters watching The Biggest Loser while they shared a giant bag of salt and vinegar chips left over from the Australia Day barbecue months earlier. Cecilia did not know why her three slim daughters loved watching overweight people sweat and cry and starve. It didn’t appear to be teaching them healthier eating habits. She should go in and confiscate the bag of chips, except they’d all eaten salmon and steamed broccoli for dinner without complaint, and she didn’t have the strength for an argument.
She heard a voice from the television boom, ‘You get nothing for nothing!’
That wasn’t such a bad sentiment for her daughters to hear. No one knew it better than Cecilia! But still, she didn’t like the expressions of faint revulsion that flitted across their smooth young faces. She was always so vigilant about not making negative body image comments in front of her daughters, although the same could not be said for her friends. Just the other day, Miriam Openheimer had said, loud enough for all their impressionable daughters to hear, ‘God, would you look at my stomach!’ and squeezed her flesh between her fingertips as if it were something vile. Great, Miriam, as if our daughters don’t already get a million messages every day telling them to hate their bodies.
Actually, Miriam’s stomach was getting a little pudgy.
‘Esther!’ she called out again.
‘What is it?’ Esther called back in a patient, put-upon voice that Cecilia suspected was an unconscious imitation of her own.
‘Whose idea was it to build the Berlin Wall?’
‘Well, they’re pretty sure it was Nikita Khrushchev!’ Esther answered immediately, pronouncing the exotic-sounding name with great relish and her own peculiar interpretation of a Russian accent. ‘He was like, the Prime Minister of Russia, except he was the Premier. But it could have been –’
Her sisters responded instantly with their usual impeccable courtesy.
‘Shut up, Esther!’
‘Esther! I can’t hear the television!
‘Thank you darling!’ Cecilia sipped her tea and imagined herself going back through time and putting that Khrushchev in his place.
No, Mr Khrushchev, you may not have a wall. It will not prove that Communism works. It will not work out well at all. Now, look, I agree capitalism isn’t the be all and end all! Let me show you my last credit card bill. But you really need to put your thinking cap back on.