“If you had the perfect plum, what would you do with it?” Charlotte leaned across the back of the sofa and grabbed at the bowl of fruit on the dining table. Her younger sister ignored the question; her mind was on a painting she wanted to finish.
“Are you listening to me, Eleanor Czsinsky?”
“No. Can you hurry up and pick your fruit and go? I want to work.”
Eleanor, the quiet one, was impatient today. Something in the air told her she’d resolve the problem that had eluded her, ever since she had begun working on the canvas tacked up in her studio. It was her first time, making a painting this large; that was part of the problem. The sheer scale of it was daunting and exhilarating, at the same time. Charlotte had come round to tell her the New York lottery was now worth seven hundred and twenty-four million (as if she didn’t know).
“Ellie, seven twenty-four is your birthday. You have to enter. It’s a sign.”
Eleanor rolled her eyes. Her sister continued to chatter away like a canary. The only thing that will stop her, Eleanor thought, is if all the oxygen disappears from the room; standard cause of death for birds in a mine shaft when the air gives out. Eleanor was not unkind by nature; sometimes her sister drove her mind to extreme thoughts. Still, she couldn’t complain. Charl’s incessant babbling, like a brook oblivious to the fact that it was deafening the trees nearby, was also a source of inspiration. How was it possible that she and her sister were related and yet so different? This was a question in her art she never tired of exploring: how things apparently related could be so diametrically opposed.
“I’m serious, Charl. You have to go. I have to work.”
“You’re just like Mom. Work. That’s all she ever cared about. Everyone says you’re just like she was at our age. All she ever thought about was art. That’s why—”
“Dad named me, Eleanor. I know.”
“I didn’t mean—. I meant—.”
“It’s all right, Charl. I don’t mind talking about Mom, honestly, I don’t. But not today. I really do need to get on with my work. Talk later, okay?”
* * *
“Not crowded, then, Hari?” Eleanor smiled at the young man in the newsagent on the corner of her street. “I thought it’d be packed.”
“Comes and goes, Ellie. The big rush’ll be right before we close at ten forty-five. We’re staying open late, special like.”
Hari’s parents had moved to New York in the nineties, in search of a better life than Mother India had provided. And a better education for their son.
Eleanor took the pencil Hari offered and began to black out the numbers. Thirty-eight, three, and eighteen, for her mother. Twenty-one, for the boy whose kiss had moved the earth under her feet…the song buzzed in her head. Twenty-two, for the tree of life she’d learned about in a comparative religion class. And, then, her birthday. “Seven twenty-four. It’s a sign,” Charl had said. Eleanor didn’t believe in signs, but perhaps, just this once, she should.
“You pick a winner, then, Ellie?” Hari joked as he slid the card through the lotto machine. Eleanor crossed her fingers and smiled.
Beautiful girl, Hari thought, as Eleanor left the store, surprised by the sudden spike of blood that rushed through his head.
* * *
There’s no such thing as the perfect plum, Eleanor reflected, sucking on a plum stone before spitting it into her hand. There’s only the exact moment of ripeness, and the way the sweetness seeps into your tongue and slides down your throat. The way an idea appears and, unfailingly, you know it’s exactly how the big bang felt, the instant nothing became everything.
She looked at the clock. Three in the morning. Perhaps Charl was right. The money could bring to fruition all kinds of things she had never imagined. It didn’t have to alter her belief in the importance of earning a living on the strength of her art. Perhaps she’d have to change her name: she knew from the rules her name would be plastered all over the news the minute she cashed in the ticket. But what was a name?
Hadn’t Shakespeare said: a plum by any other name would taste as sweet.
I contemplated the idea that became this piece, the night of the mega New York lottery at the end of March 2012. I wondered whether a writer or an artist in any discipline would stop wanting to earn money on the strength of their work if they won the lottery. I came to the conclusion that I would not and Eleanor took on my view. I also imagined what might transpire if Dev Patel’s character in Slumdog Millionaire met a girl like Eleanor. What he might think of her and what she might she think of him.