Rose put her journal back in the pocket of her bright yellow tweed jacket and approached the tall windows of her bedroom. Her fingers were shaking as they played with the lace trim at the neck of her jacket. It wasn’t just the arthritis that made her hands shake this morning. Reading her journal was not for the weak-hearted. She reached out, pulled the white curtain a little to the side. For more than fifty years, she’d looked out this particular window, and the view always took her breath away. Rows and rows of dark-leaved trees with bright yellow fruits and delicate white flowers. Every day of the year, Fruits and flowers crowned the Eureka trees.
The sun had just begun its journey, but already it was sending playful rays through the leathery leaves, and Rose felt it as if it was shining on her own body. She could feel the lemons grow fatter and juicier by the second. Her lemons. The foundation of her fortune, her pride and joy. When an idea came to her, she smiled. She was going to serve them lemonade today. They all hated it, but they would drink it to please her. She went back to the bed, hesitated, then took a little hip flask from underneath the mattress and put it in the pocket not occupied by the journal.
The carpets in the hallway of the old mansion were so fat no one heard her as she laboriously made her way to the study. Silently she closed the door and went for the cellarette. There were lots of old bottles from times gone by, but she only opened the five decanters. Funny how predictable people were. Last time she’d done it, she’d only had to spike one bottle, Shevas Regal. To this day, she remembered the name printed on the bottle while her memory of him was a bit fuzzy. A bad man altogether. Well, she’d been younger then, and lonely. Touching the decanter in front of her, she looked over her shoulder. Then she took the flask from her pocket and poured a few drops of the liquid into to each of the five crystal bottles, swirled them, then replaced the stoppers, put the hip flask back in her pocket and left the room as quietly as she’d come.
Her hand reached up to pick the darkest and juiciest lemons on the tree. Looking up, the hand she saw gripping a lemon was much younger and stronger. It was the hand of fifty years ago, when it had all started. She let the lemon fall into the basket beside her, searched for another one. February 13, 1967 had been a turning point. It had been warmer that morning. Sweat had been tickling between her shoulders as she worked. Only six days before, her husband had shot himself through the jaw, ripping off half his forehead. She’d found him down by the lake. Horrible sight, and the smell had been simply godawful though he’d only been there an afternoon. Dr. Drake ruled it a hunting accident, God bless his soul, otherwise Rose wouldn’t even have gotten the life insurance. She’d known her late husband gambled, but she’d had no idea that everything was gone: every penny on Rosedale Estate, the surrounding land and wine, her inheritance, the bonds, everything. The life insurance would keep them going for six months with current expenses. It was all she had, that and three screaming kids and twenty lemon trees in her backyard, blooming with lemons.
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Rose made a killer lemonade. She’d never revealed her secret recipe, one she’d inherited from her Canadian-born mother. For days, she’d squeezed lemons alongside the two maids and the cook. She’d added her secret ingredients alone in the pantry. Later, she’d gone to the local supermarket, talked to the manager. ‘Exclusive Lemonade from Rosedale Estate,’ was he interested? He was. They all were as she drove from one store to the next, making deals to sell the lemonade for ridiculously high prises. It sold like candy. She’d had the wine uprooted, more lemon trees planted. It had taken less than six months for one of those giant food companies to contact her. They had wanted to take ‘Exclusive Lemonade from Rosedale Estate’ national, then international.
In less than five years it was one of the most sold lemonades worldwide, only topped by an Italian brand. By that time, of course, it was so synthetic and sweet, nothing was left of the original sourness, and most of the lemons came from elsewhere. That was when Rose had made her cookbook, Life gave me lemons, with every imaginable recipe containing the delicious fruit. Rose had been a sharp business woman, always inspired by Eureka that set new flowers at the same time as the fruits were ripe.
Rose let the last lemon fall into the basket beside her. Twenty, that ought to be enough. The basket felt heavy when she lifted it to her chest and started the journey back to the kitchen. Her feet were reluctant to go, they wanted to stay under the lemon trees. But it had to be done no matter how much she dreaded it. She supposed it was all her fault. There hadn’t been much time for the kids in her life. There’d been lots of travelling and leaving them alone with whatever nanny she could find. Later on, she supposed she’d given them too much out of guilt, and because it was easy.
Though scrambled eggs and bacon were cooking on the stove, Cook was nowhere to be seen. Just as well. Rose found the large steel carving knife and went to the pantry, closed and locked the door. Standing there by the little oak-wood desk, slicing the lemons in halves, she felt like in the old days. She took half a lemon in her hand and squeezed it into a glass bowl, the juice running over her fingers as the tangy smell filled the room. Old, rheumatic hands as they were, they could still squeeze every last drop from the lemon. She dried her cheek with the back of her hand and was surprised to find tears.
Rose took the journal from her pocket again, leafed through the pages. Her memory wasn’t what it used to be, but everything was in the journal, clear as daylight. Three times they’d tried to kill her. Four, if you counted the car accident eighteen month ago, and you probably should. It was after that accident her memory had started to fail her. Thank goodness she had her journal so she knew to be careful. And yet, two days ago, they had almost succeeded. A string as thin as fishing line had been wired across the top landing. It was a sheer miracle she hadn’t broken her neck. But the line was a little too slack, she’d only tripped down two steps. Daniel’s work, no doubt, he never could do anything right. Before that, it had been the overdose of sleeping draught that had made her sleep for two days. Surely that was Lilly’s work, James had been behind the peanuts in her salad three months ago. If she hadn’t had her epi-pen in her purse, he would have been rich by now. They all would.
She wondered why they wanted to meet today. She’d never told anyone of her suspicions. Maybe they thought she would hand over more money. Rose patted the flask in her pocket and grabbed the carving knife again.
Her hands gave out before she’d squeezed all twenty lemons. It was okay, she had enough for a bottle. Rose found her secret ingredients on the top shelf behind her. Maple syrup instead of sugar and two twigs of mint for the shaking, then remove them. One wouldn’t want a strong taste of mint, just a hint so slight one barely noticed. Slowly, she poured the lemonade into one of the clear bottles from back when everything was produced in this very pantry. Then she found a stopper in the bottom drawer, but before closing the bottle, she poured the rest of the content from the hip flask into the lemonade. She put in the stopper and found an old label to seal it properly.
“Madame, I didn’t know you were in the pantry. What have you been doing,” Cook asked when Rose stepped back into the kitchen.
Rose held up the bottle. “Found this old bottle. Thought I’d serve it for the kids today.”
Cook frowned. “That old thing? It must be too old, Madame.”
Rose shrugged as if it meant nothing at all. “I’ll try it. If it’s too old, I’ll pour it out.”
“Let me take it, Madame. I’ll make it ready.”
“No, I’ll do it myself. It… It brings back fond memories.”
Cook nodded, spread parsley on the scrambled eggs, grabbed a bread-tray for the still hot buns. “Breakfast ready in five minutes, Madame.”
The meeting was to be held before lunch in the study. All three of them were there when Rose entered, the lemonade resting in the crook of her arm.
James came to her, arms outstretched, his weak chin drawn back. “And how are we feeling this morning, Mother? We missed you at breakfast.”
“Fine, dear. I had my breakfast in bed.” Rose patted his arm. His charcoal wool suit felt smooth and soft under her fingers, good quality, handmade no doubt. Well, he could afford it. As the only one of her kids, he’d made it through business school. She’d put him in charge of one of her companies, having high hopes for him. But some weeks ago, she’d found out that he was embezzling it. It was a matter of months before someone else found out. Unless he could lay his hands on a large chunk of money.
Rose moved to her favorite armchair by the window. One of the maids had opened the window, though it had begun to heat up outside. As Rose lowered herself into the chair, the fresh smell of Eureka’s blossoms breezed through the shades.
“What do you have there,” David asked, nodding toward the bottle she was still cradling.
“Oh, lemonade, found it in the pantry. Thought it would be nice to share.” She put it on the table beside her chair. “Would you bring me four glasses, David dear?”
He got up from the French settee, his nod accompanied with a snort. The back of his suit stretched to a critical point as he reached for the glasses on the shelf beside the cellarette. God, he’d grown fat over the last year. Unlike his brother’s suit, David’s was shapeless and wrinkled. Wonder whether he was living on his allowance, or if it had been spent on some project gone up in smoke? The allowance should be able to keep him better clothed.
“Don’t bother with a glass for me,” Lilly informed her brother. She was perched on the armrest of her deceased father’s armchair. Her hand swiped away a hair or a fly in front of her, and her eyes darted to the liquor bottles. Then, when she noticed her mother’s stare, she crossed her arms and clenched her jaw.
Rose smiled to her. “Oh dear, share a glass of lemonade with your old mother.” Lilly looked like her mother. The same square face, the same stout figure and long legs. But a lifetime of substance abuse had taken its toll, and although she was only fifty-three, she looked ten years older. Such a shame. She’d had talent and drive to some extent when she was younger. In her twenties, she managed to land a big part in a Broadway show, people from the movie-scene had expressed interest too. But she couldn’t take the pressure. Pills, alcohol, everything that would numb her up, had gone down her throat. She’d lost her part, people lost interest. Her hair had grown white, Rose noticed. She hadn’t seen that before.
David put the glasses on the table next to Rose and stomped back to the settee, filling out more than half of it.
“Maybe you’d like to tell me why we’re having this meeting?” Rose said as she found a little pen knife to break the seal on the bottle. She tried to unscrew the stopper but gave up and handed it to James. “Please dear, it’s too tight for me.”
“Well, Mother,” James said, twisting the stopper and handing the flask back to her. “It’s a rather delicate business.”
“It’s about the accidents you’ve been having lately.” David made air quotes when he said ‘accidents’ and snorted again.
Rose’s brows lifted and her fingers gripped the bottle tighter. “Oh, what about them?”
“Well, they’ve worried us,” James said, placing a hand on her shoulder.
Rose felt herself stiffen at his touch. Her hands started to shake again. She moved forward in the chair, started pouring lemonade into the nearest glass.
Lilly’s sharp voice made her look up. “Yeah, especially because you keep thinking we’ve got something to do with them.”
A splash of lemonade landed on the table. “Beg your pardon? Why do you say that?” Rose looked at her daughter, feeling her cheeks glow. How could she know?
“Because you keep telling us, you old fool, you’ve forgot?” David sneered.
“I’ve never said…” Rose sat back in the chair, clutching the bottle, her hands shaking violently.
James stepped forward. “Enough, David. You’re upsetting Mother.”
“But she has forgot,” David exploded. “You can see it in her face. She forgets everything and then she goddamn blames it on us.”
“I’ve never…” Rose started again.
“Mom, you’ve told all of us, so cut it out,” Lilly said.
“Anyway,” James broke through, raising his voice. “The accidents have worried us, which was why we decided to put up a bit of surveillance.”
“Surveillance?” Rose looked from James to David to Lilly. What on earth were they talking about?
James fetched a leather briefcase, took out an Ipad. “Mother, you need to see this, then we’ll talk, okay? Now, I know it’ll upset you, but there’s no way around it, I’m afraid.”
Rose was still clutching the bottle as she moved forward in the chair again and took the Ipad with her free hand. James pressed play and, on the screen, she saw her dark hallway and stairs. The camera must have been placed just above the picture of Sir William Burlington, her husband’s grandfather, the founder of the estate. Half a minute of silence went by, then she saw something stir at the outer frame, something white. As it came into view, Rose realised she was looking at herself in her white lace dressing gown, wearing the plush hat she always slept in. Something inside her turned hard as ice, she didn’t want to watch anymore, she didn’t want to see herself fall. Rose bit her knuckle, turned her head, but when no scream emerged (she vividly remembered screaming when she fell) she turned to look again. On the screen, she was on her knees, on the first step, doing something at the bottom of the top landing post. James zoomed in on the Ipad, and although Rose couldn’t see exactly what she was doing, she saw the shaking hands trying to tie a knot. James zoomed out again and a couple of more seconds passed before the Rose on the screen slowly got up from her knees and started working on the other landing post. Done with her task, she touched something between the landing posts, something as fine as fishing line, testing it, then she stepped over it and tottered back to her room.
“No,” Rose cried. The bottle and the Ipad slipped from her hands and fell on the floor. Bright yellow liquid spilled onto the hardwood and the rug under her chair. “No,” she cried again and lifted both hands to her face. It couldn’t be true. “I would know. I would have remembered.” Tears sprang from her eyes.
“I think it was the car accident, Mother,” James said gently, and touched her knee as he bent to pick up the Ipad. “I think you hit your head in a bad way. At least, now we know. We’ll get the best doctors.”
“It isn’t true, James. I never did that.” Rose grabbed the sleeve of his suit. “You have to believe me.”
“You can’t argue with a video recording,” David said. A cruel smile tore apart his lips. “But don’t worry, we’ll take good care of you. Real god care.”
Rose gasped, unable to breathe. She coughed and leaned back, trying to heave in air, but everything stuck in her throat. She leaned forward again, spluttering, coughing uncontrollably. James’ hand patted her back.
“Give her something to drink,” Lilly said.
A glass was handed to her and Rose gulped down the liquid. It wasn’t till she’d already swallowed, she realised they’d given her the lemonade. “No.” she put her fingers in her mouth, tried to retch. “Water,” she screamed.
“Someone get a hold of the doctor,” James shouted.
Rose fell to the floor, cramping, her vision blurring. How long she lay like that she didn’t know, but toward the end, she opened her eyes again and stared at the ceiling. She’d stopped coughing, whatever air she heaved in seemed to stop in her nostrils. They filled with the sharp smell of lemonade. She’d never noticed it before, but her ceiling had the exact whiteness of the Eureka blossom. The more she looked, the more convinced she became that she could actually see the blossoms as a tightly woven tapestry across the ceiling, across the sky. One by one, her children’s faces came into view. She read surprise in their eyes, disgust too, but most worrisome was the relief that seemed to shine from all three pairs of greedy eyes. She chose to look past them, to focus on the blossoms.
“She’s gone? As in… dead?” Lilly looked at James who prodded a limp arm with the tip of his shoe.
“It looks like it,” he nodded, scratching his neck. “We should probably wait another couple of minutes before we alert anyone, wouldn’t want her to resurrect.”
“Got that goddamn right,” David snorted. In a fit of disbelief, he got down on his knees, put his cheek above her mouth. “I can’t believe it. The bitch isn’t breathing. She’s really dead.”
“Your language, David.”
“Oh, shut the fuck up, James, she can’t hear you anymore,” Lilly said and went back to the armchair she’d been leaning against. “Something’s wrong. She died like that,” she snapped her fingers.
“Could it be…” James picked up the bottle of lemonade and sniffed it. “Is it just me, or is there something unfamiliar with this smell?” He held out the bottle for the others to smell, but they both backed away.
“Jesus Christ, you think she was planning to poison us?” David’s eyes grew big as he looked from James to Lilly.
“Wouldn’t be the first time.” Lilly bit her fingernail. “Remember that guy who used her as a boxing bag? She did him in.”
“Now, we don’t know that,” James broke in.
“I know. She confided in me when I found my own “boxer” a few years back. Said she had the stuff to make everything go away. And we know she put the rifle in dad’s hands and told him to end it or she would. We saw, James. Remember?”
James shook his head. “Not the same thing. Still, we should probably save this bottle.” He turned and cocked his head. “Well, all things considered, this is a far better outcome than any of us could have expected. I foresaw months of struggle to have her committed so we could take power of attorney. You did excellent in that video, Lilly. Even I felt compelled to think it really was Mother when you did the shaking hands.”
Lilly shrugged and smiled sourly. “It’ll be my best paid performance.”
“Someone should probably call the doctor,” David said. Perspiration had formed on his forehead.
“Oh, what’s the rush?” James waved away the doctor with limb wrists. “She’s dead now. Why don’t we celebrate? No one will know we took a drink after she died instead of before. If she hadn’t been planning to poison us, insisting we all drank that foul lemonade, we would have had a drink by now.” James went to the cellarette.
“I thought no one would ever ask,” Lilly sighed and bounced off the armchair. “No, not the cheap stuff.” She approached to help her ignorant brother. “Mother always keeps the best stuff in the decanters.” She poured three generous glasses, handed one to each of her brothers. With just a hint of the sour smile still on her lips, she said, “to Mother, whom life handed lemons.”