FICTION: Maria’s Party by Elena Shalneva

From the top of the cliff, Maria’s jacket looks like a red stain flailing in the heavy white foam of the breaking waves. She thrusts forward, stops, stumbles back, clutches on to the slimy wall of the cliff with both hands, slips. Thick fog wraps her in a pallid haze, disorients her.

Maria is my twin sister. And my best friend. There is a whole world in her, an exciting world. Today is 13 October, our birthday: we are seventeen. Our party, on a large makeshift terrace above the beach, is just two hours away. I can’t wait.

This morning, we descended on R, a tiny holiday town an hour’s journey north of Lisbon, in a happy and rowdy crowd. “Great beach”, our friends nodded approvingly. And what an odd beach it was, too: wide, thirty meters or more, bordered by a solid mass of cliffs, with not a single gap between them. The cliffs isolated the ocean from the rest of the town like a high-security prison wall. From the plateau above, you could see the water, pale-grey like the pale sky above it – but not the shore.  To see the shore, you had to stand on the very edge of the cliff and lean forward. I watched people do that and it reminded me of a suicider before the jump.

We wanted to sit on the sand and eat our sandwiches, but the wind was too strong, so we walked instead: for a mile, maybe more. Then Alex suddenly said:

“This beach is dangerous. We should mark the exits.”

In class, Alex was average.  He saw no use in most subjects, and so sat at the back drawing scenes with Javier Bardem in Skyfall or looking at the blackboard with his dreamy dark eyes. I was afraid of those eyes: they looked at you kindly, they did not seem to judge – but they could spot your tiniest flaw.  Did they see through me? Some nasty things they might see.

Before the summer break, we all went out, drank cheap champagne, kissed randomly. On the dancefloor, feeling brave, I pressed myself against Alex, raised my lips to his, stared into his eyes, waited for a kiss.  He drew back and looked away in embarrassment. He kissed no one that night. He never kissed anyone at all. We never really understood him. But we all knew that he would go far.

But then sometimes he would just be a nerd and say silly things like this one about the exits on the beach – and we would ignore him.

Maria had spent the summer with our cousins, learning to surf. I was invited too, but surfing is a dangerous sport, so I decided to stay at home.  On the first day of school, she walked into class looking tall and bronzed and athletic, her thick auburn hair shining with health, radiating the unmistakable confidence of a beautiful woman. Was she beautiful? I had been looking at my sister’s face since we were children, trying to decide. No, Maria was not beautiful. But you could not find a flaw in her face either: not a single plain angle, not a flat expression.  Her features were small, but vivid, alive, fitting together in happy harmony. She had a face you wanted to contemplate and study and marvel – like a stretch of the ocean. I have Maria’s features, but my face looks different. Earnest, as our mother says.

How happy I was to see my sister again, how much I had missed her. We had the whole two months to catch up on, and sitting at the back of the class, I splurted in a loud whisper all my summer anecdotes: elated, desperate to show her what an eventful time I, too, had had. I would regret this later, when I sit down to homework and not remember a word said in class. But for once, I did not care.

“And now let’s hear from Claudie”, the biology teacher’s voice suddenly boomed, “for a summary of today’s lesson”. I froze.  Several heads turned towards me lazily:  they knew I had the answer, I was top of the class, predictably good, the teacher’s favourite.  “Just a few key points”, the teacher added encouragingly.

For the first time, I would let my fans down.  I stayed silent, tried to look disdainful. They better think me insolent than know the truth: that my brilliance, my spontaneity in class came from long, dull, lonely hours spent at a wide sturdy desk in the middle of my room bending over books.

“Maria, over to you then”, the biology teacher went on. “What have we learned today?”

“The muscles of the heart are supplied with blood by two main coronary arteries”, Maria replied without missing a beat, as if she was expecting the question. “The right coronary artery supplies blood to the right atrium…” She finished, paused, fixing the teacher with her light brown eyes, almost mocking, as if saying: “You tried to catch me, but looked stupid in the end”.

After class, Maria tried to cheer me up – “It’s only biology, we’ll forget about it the moment we graduate” – but I could see a tiny glint of triumph in her face. Where I had to work, my sister grasped things effortlessly. I was capable – she had talent. She knew that. We both knew that. It was our secret.

“You should get a tutor,” Alex said to me the next day, “if you want to keep up with Maria”. Perhaps he was in on the secret as well.

The wind brings the smell of eucalyptus to the cliff.  Our hotel sprawls behind me: low-built, shabby, beach towels drying on chairs, small white-stone bungalows cramped together. “Room with sea view”, the ad said. I guess we can see a tiny patch of the ocean, but mostly our view is over the car park.

I have not smelled eucalyptus since I was a small child, when I suffered with sore throat and mother made me inhale its vapours. “Why aren’t you more careful?” she used to say, “Maria never gets sick”.

The washed silk of Maria’s red jacket is flapping in the wind like a scarecrow. Red is her favourite colour: crimson red, scarlet-red. Blood-red. I see her pulling on the strings of the hood, tucking in her neck, trying to protect her ears from the violent gusts. Maria, Maria, in that white seething wasteland, exposed to the tide and growing waves, your ears are the least of your concerns.

The boys are playing ping-pong on three parallel tables: the girls cheer loudly, the wind carries their excited screams. We are still children: naive, full of primitive energy, not too different from five- year-olds screaming their hearts out in the playground. But tonight, we will be playing very different games: we are all in love with each other, all in crazy lust.

I want tonight to be my first time. With Alex. I have my own room. I share it with Maria, but she’ll go somewhere else. She’s cool, and she knows I am in love: I tell her all the time. I don’t know who she is in love with. She never says. Noone, it seems. How is this possible.

At three o’clock, the countdown to our party had started in earnest.  In the wardrobe, hanging from an ugly plastic hanger, gleamed the gem of the night:  my dress. Slowly, I took it out, arranged it on the bed, gave it a final look-over. How I relish this moment. One by one, I took my make-up from its case, put it on the bed. Maria did the same. Our narrow rectangles of beds were transformed into a kaleidoscope of party pieces, like a Christmas ad for a department store. My ad was understated, well-organised, perhaps a bit austere: the classic black dress lying solemnly in the middle. Mother helped me choose it, she said I needed to wear clothes with a simple, elegant cut not to draw attention to my hips.  I had only just seen Maria’s dress: it is red, chiffon, shimmering, it would flow easily on her lean well-trained body when she dances. I wish I did all that sport. How stylish my sister is. How proud I am of her.

It’s four o’clock, and both Maria and I had showered, put our make-up on, done our hair: mine is arranged in a bun, very grown-up, Maria’s is flowing freely.

“You look like Audrey Hepburn”, Maria says. “So elegant”. I rejoice at her approval.

“Teachers would love it”, she adds.

There is nothing else to do, the room is small and dark, and so we take our party-ready selves for a walk. The fog has grown stronger since the morning, and there is no one outside. We have the town to ourselves. The wind is getting chilly, so we put our jackets on and make our way through the long grass. I follow Maria on a narrow foot path. I like taking long walks with her:  she navigates the way, while I walk behind and daydream. I imagine meeting characters from books.  When I was younger, I dreamt of hanging out with Hobbit and riding horses with Ivanhoe. Actually, I wanted to marry Ivanhoe and disappear with him into the murky Scottish sunset.

“Let’s go to the beach”, says Maria when we reach a wide downward slope.

“You go, I like the view from up here.”

Maria descends.

She is strolling cheerfully along the beach. I follow her from the top of the cliffs. She can’t see me.

Someone is fast approaching from the far end of the key.  I know this silhouette. I stop breathing.  This is a perfect moment: there is the ocean, the mist, no one around. He must have sought me out on purpose.

“I look forward to tonight”, Alex nods politely, but keeps walking.

A pang in the heart. A shudder of disappointment. But I tell myself quickly that Alex is shy and does not chase girls. And not all is lost after all: we still have tonight.

After a while, I turn around, half-expecting that Alex is already out of sight. But there he is, just a stone-throw away, standing still on the edge of the cliff, his body tipped forward, his clever face focused, intense. The unmistakable longing in his eyes. I’ve never seen this look before. There, on the beach, Maria’s red jacket is bouncing around like a broken cursor on the screen, as she runs in the sand dodging the waves. I can hear her laughter.

Alex is gone, while Maria continues her stroll. It’s high tide, and the beach is covered in foam. Once in a while, a freak wave breaks so close to the shore that the water washes up all the way to the cliffs. Maria utters an excited shriek and jumps up. She loves this, my adventurous sister. And I am here to keep an eye on her, just in case.

From the cliff, the ocean stretches all the way to the horizon in a pale rippling mass, and I can see that, in the distance, the waves are getting higher. Down below, Maria is walking along briskly, now up to her knees in foam, squared in between advancing water and the cliffs.

“Come down here, Claudie. The water is warm!”

She knew that I was following her. I don’t answer.

After a while, I bellow: “Alex is in love with you”.

“Aren’t they all?”

I look down on her, this fortunate creature, this lucky creation, gliding through the beach as effortlessly as she glides through life.

But what is this? Maria is not enjoying herself any more. Her movements are jerky, erratic. She no longer looks at the ocean in wonder – instead, she nervously peers at the cliffs. She is searching for something.

This morning, we were mocking Alex: “What’s wrong with this beach? Are you afraid of a big bad shark? What do we need the exits for?”

“We are ok now, but we are in low tide. Look at these cliffs. They are like wet soap, standing in a single block.  There is not a bump on them to hold on to, not a hole to escape into. If there is a storm, we will be washed into the sea”.

My sister is looking for an exit and she is going the wrong way.

Maria, there is a decrepit ladder just behind you: it’s made of rotten wood and old rope, but it will do, it will hold your light body. You just need to turn around and you will see it. Go there. Run.

She can’t see it. I need to tell her. Instead, I shout out:

“Maria, why do you always win?”

But she is not winning now. She raises her face towards me.  Her eyes – always so bold, commanding – are gleaming with fear. With each wave, she is thrust towards the cliff, then pulled back. As the pull gets stronger, she clings to the plain stone, arms wide spread, water coming to her chest.

You are not that smart after all, Maria. Look at these cliffs, how glossy they are. Did you not wonder why? They’ve been glazed by the centuries of stormy seas. Look how high they are, how impenetrable. They are there to protect the land from the might of the waives. Look around you, there is not a soul in sight. That’s because the beach is dangerous in high tide. Alex knew it straight away. I’ve figured it out. That’s why I stayed up here, in the safety of the cliffs.

I’ve been in your shadow all our lives, Maria. And that was fine, because you were my brilliant sister: talented and beautiful and brave. I thought you were better than me.  But you are like the rest of us:  small and weak. It’s just that life has never tested you before.

All my life, I’ve played a second fiddle to an ordinary girl.

And now I need to save her.

There is a ladder just ahead of you, Maria, two steps away. You can make it. Don’t panic, or you’ll miss it. Yes, this is it. Step on it and hold tight with your legs. Now reach out for my arm.

I sprawl myself on the ground, legs wide apart, gripping some spiky weeds with my left hand for balance. I reach my right arm out.  In a second, I will clutch my sister’s wrist, and I will pull and pull and I will not let go.

I feel my fingers brush the silk of her jacket. We are almost there. Just one more thrust, Maria. Yes, I caught your wrist. You are safe.

Her contorted face is inches away from mine, eyes transfixed. Her body is shuddering. How absurd she looks. How ordinary.

I despise you, Maria!

I despise myself.

I loosen my grip. Maria gasps, her fingers cling to my sleeve, her eyes widen in astonishment – then fix mine in a desperate plea.

This is the happiest moment of my life. Does Alex know this about me? Perhaps this is why he avoids me.

But don’t worry, Maria: you are weak, but I am weaker still. I will go on playing your second fiddle for as long as you let me. I quite enjoy it. In fact, I would not know how to live differently. So tonight it will be all back to normal and no one will ever know of this affair. In an hour or so, you will get over the shock, you will put on your red dress, you will go to our party. Everyone calls it “Maria’s party”, by the way.

I push my body into the ground for balance, press my heels into the muddy soil, free my left arm. I take a deep breath, I brace myself.  In one powerful thrust, I propel myself forward, grab Maria with both arms, pull her up to the cliff.

As we sit on the grass in silence, I watch the familiar expression of calm superiority slowly return to her face.

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Elena Shalneva is a London-based journalist and literary critic. Elena writes a regular column on management and office politics for City AM and literary reviews for Standpoint Magazine. Elena was born in Moscow and grew up in the US. She has a Ph.D. in Germanic philology from Moscow State University.

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Read Elena’s previously published short stories below:

Come With Me

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The Guincho Beach

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