Petra stabbed with her fork at the final square of mushroom ravioli, disappointed to have finished so quickly. Feeling overweight and undervalued, she envied the healthy meal her older sister had ordered. She already regretted revealing she was on a diet, felt hungry all the time and was lonely in the cramped flat she rented.
Jordan, fretful and fifty, pushed a salad round her plate, her thin face pinched with discontent. It was her turn to whinge about her troubles – an absent husband, two exhausting teenage sons, the dreadful telephone bill.
Hilary, elegant and in her seventies, had devoured her salmon quiche and satisfactorily aired her week’s cargo of woes: her widowhood, the pain of her arthritis, her neighbour from hell.
The three women met once a month on a Saturday for lunch. The conversation was dedicated to their problems. They played an elaborate female game where each one of them tried to make the others feel guilty for not having such a bad time as they were.
Hilary picked up the menu and with a knowing smile gave it to her younger daughter, who savagely shook her head.
Jordan, bracelets jingling on her slim wrist, patted her sister’s hand. “Go on, Petra, spoil yourself – have a wicked dessert. Don’t worry about the calories.”
This triggered Hilary’s jaunt into the past. “I was a child during the war. Eggs and cream were scarce and we rarely had puddings. You don’t realise how lucky you are ….”
Jordan, who had abandoned her chicken salad, interrupted. “Mummy, do tell us about about the times you longed to go travelling and had no time for holidays,” she teased.
The elderly woman patted her tight grey curls and looked wistful, “I called you both after a place and a country I always wanted to get to and never did: “A rose red city half as old as time.”
Petra put some money down on the table for her meal and tried to head off the inevitable. “We’ve heard all about your struggle bringing up two daughters with a husband on the dole and little money for food.”
“Life was difficult then,” said her mother with a frown. “You have it easy these days.”
“I find life hard now. The boys rampage around the house, ignore me and eat everything in the fridge,” Jordan wailed, turning to her sister. “I envy you the leisure of a single woman with nothing to do when she gets home from work.”
This made Petra livid. She decided to mutiny. “I love my life. My job’s great” (it wasn’t), “I’ve got a gorgeous new man” (she hadn’t), “I’m having a much better time than you two – and I refuse to feel bad about it!”
Her mother and sister stared at her in silence, amazed at this flagrant breach of the unwritten rules.
Petra stood up and announced, “The way to win the guilt game is not to play,” before stalking out of the restaurant.