It was already seven o’clock in the evening and the cookie dough still had to be made.
With the solemnity of a priest putting on his stole, Margaret tied her starched apron, took a large bowl from the drainer and broke two eggs. With surgical precision, she separated the yolks from the albumen. She poured milk, measured out sugar, flour and baking powder. She halved the stick of butter that was already softening and added it to the mixture. She held the electric mixer, taken from its still neatly stored packing box, and set it at intermediate speed. The ingredients were blending in.
She turned the oven on and rotated the temperature knob to one hundred and eighty degrees, rolled out the dough and cut out thirty graceful shapes with a small knife: flowers, stars, little moons. The forms were placed on a greased baking sheet and immediately put into the oven.
Margaret ran to the bedroom and from the closet with four doors she chose a dress in grey wool, perfect for an evening at a friend’s house.
For how many years now had she spent Friday evening at Mary’s? She had lost count.
She heard the keys slipping into the keyhole: John came into the house.
He abandoned his work case on the chair in the hall, crossed into the living room and collapsed on to the couch in front of the TV, which was on.
Margaret ran to bring him his slippers: she had waxed the floors just that morning and the floor was shining almost as much as the wedding ring on her finger.
At eight fifteen, the cookies were removed from the oven and placed into a pink cardboard box.
The evening news had just finished and Margaret and John Osoppo could leave their apartment.
They crossed the narrow landing and rang Mary’s doorbell.
As expected, the women lightly brushed cheeks. Mary held out her hand to John. The butter cookies were welcomed with the usual affected surprise.
The three made their way into the living room, the scene of all their Friday evenings.
John and Margaret took their seats on the flowered sofa. The images of a quiz show were flashing on the screen of the TV, still a CRT.
Mary poured some sherry into small crystal glasses and sat in the armchair.
John threw a fleeting glance at the soundless TV. The two women chattered incessantly.
Margaret leaned languidly on her husband’s shoulder and gave him chaste kisses, exhibiting an intimacy that appeared only there, in Mary’s living room. Her wedding ring, worn with the pride of a medal, looked brighter on those evenings, as if it were not only the living room floor that had been polished.
Margaret loved to look at herself reflected in the eyes of her friend and was pleased with what she saw: a wife and a husband who looked close and well matched and, every Friday, illuminated a colourless neighbour’s spinsterhood. On that flowered sofa she rediscovered her pride in being a married woman and, for one evening a week, she loved her husband again.
The day that Mary passed away, hit by quite an inappropriate car, Margaret felt distinctly disappointed, thinking of all the forthcoming Fridays that had suddenly become empty. But soon a shiver went through her at the idea of her debut before the new neighbours who would occupy the deceased’s apartment.
A vague sense of guilt made her shed a few tears, which mixed in with the dough of the butter cookies.
Like every Friday, she baked the biscuits and flew to the bedroom, opened the closet with four doors and looked at its contents critically. Then she smiled.
The fine black lace, a souvenir of a trip to Spain, would magnificently adorn her mourning of a most cherished friend.
Translation by Anna Anzani (edited by Roma O’Flaherty)