The Cream at the Top of the Milk

Flash
Anita Goveas


Photo Credit: Nav in ATL/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Susan’s mum excelled at inventing treats, marrow sucked from chicken bones, the skin off the kheer, the cream off the top of the gold-topped milk bottles. Her dad had the biggest piece of chicken or fish-fry, and Susan and her older brother Xavier competed for the treat, reciting times tables, making up spelling tests, declaiming Bible verses. Joking, laughing, shouting. They were one school year apart, so Susan helped with maths and Xavier helped with spelling. Their mother inconspicuously ensured no one got too many treats in a week or a month, endless calculations in her head. But the competition made the prize sweeter, made everyone content.

When Xavier went away and Susan was sent to stay with Aunty Seraphina, he came back thinner and shaven-headed and otherwise the same but their mother was different. She made his favourite cardamom-scented milky kheer pudding every day, and cream from the gold-topped bottles went straight in his new Spiderman glass. It was if he always won. Susan wanted to yell she was disappearing, but no one raised their voice for any reason now, everything happened in whispers. Their father never let go of his rosary.

Xavier spent more time in their bedroom, stopped going to school. Susan heard him sloshing at night, full of stolen cream. On her walk home from school, she dragged her bag through clingy mud, stepped in all the murky puddles. No one noticed. She worked at her spellings, stayed up at night to memorise them while Xavier’s dairy-soaked breath rattled in his throat. The day she won the Year 4 prize, her mother waited for her in the kitchen. Take this glass of milk to your brother, please. Susan threw the blue-and-red glass in the sink. It didn’t smash the way she’d hoped but the cream splashed her mother’s face and her own wrist. It tasted warm and slightly rancid.

Baccha, Mother said, her face streaked, tracks running down to her dripping chin. It’s come to the surface now but it’s so little and precious and we can’t save it. Let’s enjoy it while we can.

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Anita Goveas is British-Asian, London-based, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, most recently in X-Ray lit, Flash Frontier and Bending Genres. She’s on the editorial team at Flashback Fiction, an editor at Mythic Picnic’s Twitter zine, and tweets erratically @coffeeandpaneer Her debut flash collection is forthcoming from Reflex Press, and links to her stories at Coffee and Paneer. Email: anitagoveas[at]hotmail.com