• Vol. 02
  • Chapter 06
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he lies in oak

When someone in our family dies there are no solemn gravestones -we celebrate - a lifting of glasses to mark a life; in this case, the life of my dear and wonderful father. Mother laid on a simple but beautifully executed meal , springy pasta flecked with ‘garden garlic’ and basil, Uncle Ted's mini black olives sulked in a home-made vessel, Granny’s purple tomatoes shine, loaded with pompous oil and cheeses of many shades of sliced yellow, lay on the large, flat serving dish splayed like playing cards. Father’s tall wine stands on its own, sweating cold basement tears. I laugh at Granny’s crooked paper hat that mirrors the angle of her stroke smile and the fact that Uncle Ted is tipsy. Sammy looks so naturally beautiful, with that ‘just got engaged’ glow. We collectively gasp as Aunty Jean brings out the glamorous, pregnant pudding layered with summer fruit, soft berries, crunchy meringue and vanilla cream. She takes a large, silver serving spoon and without a second thought dives into the centre, the pudding makes a swooning, sucking sound.

This oak table, this family bedrock, has served the family for generations. Bikes have been fixed on it. Several babies have been made on it. Endless Christmas Dinner turkeys have steamed on it. Booze has been split on it. I absent-mindedly run my fingers over its memories, some ingrained more deeply than others. Mother drops a single tear, it lingers on a lash briefly, until gravity demands another. She glances at me, nods, still smiling.

Uncle Ted tells a joke and the whole table laughs with oaken trills. I glance at the empty space where Father once sat. Stroking the table, I remember his perpetually strong, brown, bough-like arms, his lingering essence somehow ingrained in oak. Mother fingers her favourite knot, she teasingly circles it, still smiling, the tears have pooled and her long, delicate finger wades in the ocean of memories. Gran drops her teeth in her pudding! Everyone laughs with mouths shaped like O’s. Just for a moment, as if drawn by the reality of the situation, all eyes fall on the empty, oak chair pushed under the table.

1

crabs

“Can you see it Tommy? Look, there. See?”
The tiny crab scuttles between the rocks and tries to hide from their peering faces. He scoops it up in his net and lifts it gently out the water.
It is black and shiny as a pebble, barely bigger than the palm of his hand.
Disappointing.
Papa sees him frown, and misinterprets the reason.
“Don’t worry lad, it won’t pinch you.”
But that isn’t it. He simply wants to know why it isn’t red. In the picture books back home, crabs are red. They are fearsome things. Nothing like this.
He picks it out of the net and examines its undersides, its soft, vulnerable belly.
His disappointment turning to action as he throws it.
It plops into a nearby rock pool. At least the splash is satisfying.
Papa stares at him then begins to laugh.
“You scared of a tiny crab?” he asks.
He shakes his head.
“I want to find one that’s big enough to eat. That one has some growing to do yet.”
And Papa laughs again.
“C’mon then” he says “We can buy a pot up on the boulevard, if that’s what you’re after.” It isn’t.
“Where’s the fun in that?” he wonders.
He wants to catch his own and cook it there on the beach.
But he scrambles after Papa as they pick their way over the rocks, muttering that delicious new word.
“Boulevard.”
The fullness of it, rich and slightly unfamiliar feels good on the tongue. It’s a good word. A keeper. He hopes the crab tastes as good.

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2

This is my frame

This is my frame.
Four tines scraping, guns left silent
Debris flapping just within the corners
/Before absolution/
And I wonder how long I can inhabit this little slice of space time
You’ve seemingly handed me
A doggy bag of desperation
Not from my menu.
I’m sure you were referring to it
As hope.
This is my frame/
/And presentism never seems right on its own/And I try to change it/And I try to stay in the present moment/But there’s this thing called life chasing me/ And I want it back, hell, I want it back/
And so
I come to this shot again.
Mind fed on moving pictures ten times removed/An aria of crystal pixellations/sound repeating like a loop pedal that/ /Sometimes I even forget
Why I’m here.
Can you tell me?
This is my frame.
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3

Tongue/ Gusto

In my mouth, a restless muscle
wrestles in tidal - like motion
- longing from L to G through salivation

You can trace these leftovers
all the way back to my hunger
as I wait for a shot of espresso

On the table, the evidence of my satiation
My lips, now sealed with salt and moisture,
conceal the soft trail

The end of a meal arouses in me
the taste for something new -

and so my hunger becomes another.

4

When Each Meal is a Millennium

The night I turned 20, I brought Neruda home. Under the covers, he told me that eating alone feels like a chain of fishhooks trailing from one's heart. I paused to count how many I had accumulated thus far but retreated quickly at the sight of silent harpoons that made it difficult to breathe.

Reaching out is like sitting down to a fancy dinner and not knowing which fork to use. I would rather go hungry than make a fool of myself. I have reached an age now when the ingredients of my meals are younger than I am, even that tortoise I treated myself to last week. I eat with a paternal instinct, admonishing the rice grains when they slip off a spoon held by a shaking hand. I have nothing to say to the world that passes me by; my food takes up all my attention. Later, I drift into sleep before memory can upset my digestion.

I remember the night I realized that breakups get worse with age. After a certain point, you never quite come back. He had just walked out of my front door for the last time, leaving a bowl of soup from the Chinese place down the street as closure. I removed the tin foil that covered the bowl half-expecting to see chunks of my heart floating in it. Throughout the short 6 months that we had been together, I realized, I had crumbled into our moments, our meals like dry bread. I wonder if he misses waking up with croutons in his hair.

Youth taught me to pity the old people who ate alone in diners, always in a booth by the window. I thought I was whole, I did not know better.

5

Easter Seafood Fetish

We taste this excess flesh
while forgetting about the savior
so the sins just keep on flowing
but we laugh them off over a meal

It’s an Easter seafood fetish
with a bowl of soup on the side
to help blur out the lines of the past
so we can eat, drink, and be merry
as we fatten up and roll into the future

Sit around the table
like New Age disciples
Picking through the shells
to quicken the soul’s release

No more pure white robes adorn us
this is grunge flannel paradise
Sipping from a glass of wine
this is the blood that makes us holy

6

Remnants

Remnants of food
Some spillage
on the wooden table
hands undecided
over the plate;
Shimmering soup
like congealed blood
and some memories
discussed desultorily
over a dinner with family
meeting after a decade
for remembering someone
they had long forgotten---
rituals, unnecessary!
And then---long silences
And troubling solitude.

7

Enough

She forcefully throws her fork with disgust
Stomach crying out in a rumbling groan
Unable to stop when sufficiently satiated
Eating beyond all normal limits is a must

Looking at both ravaged plates, tears cascade
Food and shame are her only constant friends
Will she ever control the craving; compulsion?
Life, she sees, is a sloppy mess that she has made

Rising from the table, she pushes her chair away
As if this will somehow magically stop the madness
In only a couple of hours, she'll regress back to eating
Losing the hope and determination of a new day

She is an addict.

8

Broth

Prodding them, paring the meat, I can feel the rest of the family working them. If you can see synergy then I fold it into my eyes with every bit of focus and pulling of flesh from not quite oldest to youngest.

I'd imagined it just like this, extended from the sea to inside the cabin, a conveyor belt of working together with just a little bit of room to be different. I see young Kitty sneak a bit of flesh down her dress, no doubt to leave it as some pagan offering outside the fairy house she'd built in the woods. I see her sharpen her knife on the stone and know that is the real interest whatever she humours her parents to believe. I can see them all lapping up and down with chit chat and serious questions. Swimming in the broth of memories. Every big birthday, every snowed in Christmas here. We have rituals, we have a place, we have each other. We have plenty of spare tweezers and knives for little ones, lovers and even a good few losers.

Now though my head bows not in grace to start off the feast of wine and whatever sea we've been lucky enough to be sprayed with. Today I can feel the stickiness of the broth without tasting, feel myself be cellophaned up by the weird translucence of it. I always wanted a family of feasts and unspoken harmony. Now I want to dive for sponges with no air and know that I can come here if I survive. Know that they will catch the rhythm back and imagine me not hiding behind the leftovers but out drinking meaty broth straight from the bowl, pincers alive and pouncing at will.

We always crush the shells in the smokehouse the day after. I'll tell them then. Tell them that I will go where there is no sea, no islands, just woods. No shells, no places where we always sit. Just me, their mother, and whoever I decide to be.

9

In Their Shells

The boys came back after sundown,
Oozing petrol and seawater,
With their chattering crustaceans
And a sense of dizzy triumph.

Jane thought Michael looked romantic
With the blood around his fingers.
Abbie hunted through John's bag
In search of wrappers or receipts.

Crickets chirped around the inlet
As the kitchen boiled with vapour.
John opened expensive vino
From the Bergerac wine region.

Snap, crack, pick, pull. Pull, pick, crack, snap.
Snap, crack, pick, pull. Pull, pick, crack, snap.

10

Last Supper

We had met with him in an upper room,
his love reaching out to each one of us
in turn, and it is only now we have remembered
the heartbreak in his eyes as he gave Iscariot
his greeting. Blind moles - we offered him
nothing but puerile squabbles and ignorant ambitions -
hiding our fears and his anguish
in the dark ossuaries of consciousness.

But then there was bread and there was wine,
sanctified in his hands for us,
and a new meeting with the Almighty.
For a little space, in the balm of his voice,
time forgot to move on.

11

I’m Full

Children never finish a meal.
So rude , to see waste.
"But I'm full Mum, can I get down from the table?
I was given too much."
"You shouldn't have eaten those sweets before the meal
spoilt your appetite."
"Daddy gave them to me"
"He knew we were getting a take away,
he would, typical."

12

Did you know?

Did you know he said –
Crows can read signals?
To have nuts broken
They drop them on roads at
The green light
Letting the nuts be run over.
Be broken.
When green goes red
They fly down safe;
Pick them up again.

Did you know he said –
That Nootropics aren’t toxic
Even in unhealthy amounts?
They fed a dog 500 grams
Every day for five years
And nothing happened he said.

Did you know she said –
That cats eat their placenta
After giving birth to a litter.
When it bites into it, blood splatters
And becomes a messy thing.

Did you know that we too
Should eat the placenta, she said.

13

TABLE 15

My third toe on my left foot is needling me with sharp shots of pain from a new blister. The heat and everything else is making my feet swell. I lean against the counter.
“Table 15.” “Martha.”

Oh god. On a Wednesday? He never used to come in mid-week. Until he did that night and now I can’t get away from him.

One crab claws, one burnt-orange brulee. I know the dishes sitting on Table 15 and that’s why I can’t bear to clear them. I push a glass under the ice dispenser, buying time. When the first one is full I take another empty and also fill that to the brim with cool, square cubes.
I place the glasses on the counter with a bang and look up at him brightly.
“Douggie!”
His pupils are like pin-pricks in his pale blue eyes.
“Table 15, Martha.”
“I got it.” I tell him, smiling and brushing against him heavily with my body just to shut him up.

One crab claws, one burnt-orange brulee. The plates have been sitting for more than two hours. Whoever ordered the food did so before my shift. I can’t imagine how I missed them but it’s getting harder to keep it all together these days. I catch my reflection in the window. The seams on my pink and white waitress dress are straining to be let out but there’s no more fabric left to give.
The sight of the crab claws and the orangey-waterlogged dish hits me deep inside. Like a baby kick when the tiny flutters stop feeling cute and start to seem more like a warning shot. I rest my hand on the back of a chair. Just for a moment, as I know Douggie’s watching.
The orange sauce has congealed into a kind of blood or brain matter or a mixture of both. I stack the plates and head back to the kitchen.
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14

AN EMPTY BOWL.

He had time to finish
leaving bare remnants:
a full, robust, healthy meal.

He breathed pure heaven
before he died,
his legacy lives, an inspiration.

Why wax lyrical about an ordinary man:
make him into a god just to slate him?

His children loved him and thought him great,
to them he was just 'Dad.'

With the intuitive wisdom of a saint,
unafraid of himself, he was sane, profound.

15

Crush Shells

“What’re you a girl? Just break it.”

My father grabs the leg and its spines tear at the skin of my palm.

Blood, brighter than the crabs Mom boiled, beads on white flesh.

“Watch.”

Bare hands flex.

Crcrish.

His teeth pry meat sparse as our table from broken shell. My envious belly grumbles.

“See that? Ain’t nothin’.”

He dips it in the china bowl painted with skyless blue birds; butter runs down his chin as he swallows.

Clink.

He tosses the carcass onto my plate.

“You do the rest.”

Crab Night sucks.

“I won’t coddle you th’way your mom does.”

The knife is cool in my hand as I hover it over my last leg. Angry, I crush it like a man.

16

Blessed by this zest for life

It's what she did.
She invited you into her world,
She fed you with inspired positivity,
She nourished me when I felt like I just couldn't be.
She'd take one tiny hope and make something with it.
She'd place all the seemingly insurmountable dreams in a dish, fling in some spice ...
...and there you'd have it!
The journey seemed invisible and you began to taste the dream.

She always found time to feed your mind with delightful, unwavering belief.

And now we're all still eating
But nothing tastes the same
Because she's gone.

(I miss you more than words can say. An aching I cannot say out loud.)

I think.

She'd say 'let's have a glass of wine...or two or three.'
She'd say what are you doing for 'puds'?
She'd say 'get out there girl'
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17

Friday Night in Hades

And, as Mum’s dropped by
with the spring seed catalogues,
we order takeout
from the Erinyes’ new place.
It’s a good service –
within twenty minutes
Tisiphone is landing
in the courtyard.
(Cerberus goes nuts
until his left head
spots a newly arrived cat,
down by the ferry).

I fish for plates and cutlery
while Pluto opens a bottle
of Dionysus Nouveau
and Mum slices bread.
Then we delve into the cartons
and settle in for the evening,
talking over events above and below;
Medusa’s new hairdo,
Hermes’ latest escapade
and what Hera will do
when she discovers the truth
about Zeus and Leda.

Mum finds the Fortune Talon
in her soup.

18

Abandoned

I used to be happy
I don't know anymore how
like someone else’s past from history books
I only recall it from
pictures burned on cds
photos burned in the fire
burned meals
tastes from the happy moments
burned on the tongue
leaving scars in place of memories.
the table is left empty
everyone fled
as I stayed (staid).

19

Red and Yellow

We tried to never dine out because they would always look at us disgusted. You would bite my left ear, and I would screech because my piercings would start to bleed ever so slightly. A quick peck on my bare shoulders would make up for the rough love though, always. (Remember that sour woman in a vicious blazer on the bar counter, how she stared at you, and then at my muffin top? As if I wasn't good enough for your body that quite often resembled shiny men on glossy magazine covers.)

Thai red curry. Never at that tiny Thai joint two blocks away. No take outs from Kim's. "Your hands, they're magical." Something like that. That, maybe. You said that, didn't you? I would plead, heck, beg the woman who runs the salon to let me get off work early on Fridays, so that you would be enticed by the smells of my apparent magic as you walked in. So that you would forget that there were three six-packs in the fridge, so that you would stare at my eyes as you ate out of the golden ceramic bowl that my mother gifted us when we rented this dilapidated house. (But you always remembered the beer, didn't you? And the remains of the ceramic bowl that you kicked across the dining room, parts of which went flying through the window of the kitchen? Still in the fourth draw of my dresser in a plastic bag.)

I remember that last day. (Do you?) Red splatters across the kitchen floor. Well done, I'd say. It didn't look like blood really. No one would know. I wiped it clean, no marks. Just as I used to do when you spilled the tomato soup on that Sunday afternoon.

That diner across the road? I am going. Yellow scarf around my neck, no one needs to see anything.

"A glass of sangria, please."
"And?"
"A single portion of sticky rice with Red curry."

I see that woman with that blazer. It doesn't look so vicious this evening.

20

Essentially Eaters

Man runs to everywhere
Travels unrestrained
Overtakes and outshines
All he can
All for food
Food for belly
Food for pride
At times, struggles
Bleeds inside
Wriggles to expand
Waits to empower
Wounds when he must
Hurts when hindered
All for food
Food for savagery
Food for prestige
Few among men
Go deep inside
To the darkest corner
Of the expanding universe
Beyond rivers
Far from deserts
Into the caves
To look for a herb
Lost for long
That cures hunger
Of all kinds
Except for food
Food for body
Food for soul

21

A Ghazal on Easter

I must go out for a feast, today is Easter,
Cook the lamb, roast it, at least, it’s Easter!

Let the crab be caught out of its existence,
Let me savour its taste, it is Easter.

After cleaning up the soul, came the festival,
For thousands of years, it has been Easter.

When my sumptuous feast gets over,
Let me also feed the hungry, this is Easter.

Mused Roomy, pain goes in, celebration comes out,
Whether Passover, Diwali, Eid or Easter!

22

Last Supper

There is too much food here, far too much for human consumption and yet some take up the challenge with gusto. They gobble down steaks smothered in onions, chips drenched in ketchup or mayonnaise (occasionally both), apple pies bursting with wholesome fruit, golden syrup sponge oozing treacle, and still they cry out for more.

I watch the odd few unbutton their trousers, complaining of terrible stomach cramps while others hurl up their gluttony in the far corners of the feeding hall.

We all know why we’re here and no-one has willingly entered the hall, except the gluttonous few. Since this is our last supper, we get to choose what our last meal is. We can plump for something rich and calorific, or bland and meagre. In the end, it doesn’t matter which option you choose, the outcome is always the same – death. It’s funny how final that word is, it’s the word to end all other words, it is nothingness, absence; it is death. And now it stares at us either from the plate or the steaming bowl of soup we’ve chosen.

They haven’t told us how long the effects will take to kick in but I assume they’ve arranged it so that we utter our last breaths in the early hours of the morning. They’re very good like that, very thorough, our executioners.

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23

Re: past

I have a picture in my mind
of the family round the table.
It’s a blurry image
you in your chair
with arms
lifting the skin from fish
dribbling
oil spots on the cloth.
A fingerbowl would have been nice
you say. But it‘s not really
your sort of food is it?
Just because Clare’s tried
something different
you have, as ever, the need to criticise.
Cup of tea, anyone?

I didn’t think
the end would be like this
like you, yes, very like you,
I wanted time
to quantify the content
make neat piles
on either side of the bed
say this part is yours and this mine.
Hold hands even.
Yet I sit in the dying light
quietly raging.
As the days pass
what hardness
in me refuses to be moved?

24

Half

Enough in the bowl
for another to feed.
Everything shared you said.

You took one curtain
when you left.
Leaving one hanging alone.

Half a moon, always night,
empty hooks rattling
for something to hold.

No need to open
just one curtain
on such a small day.

25

Life Without

Half eaten meals and dirty plates begin to collect around the room. At first she does not notice the mess, slumping from bed to desk chair when needed. A week after winter ends she notices the first fly, buzzing unsteadily across her half-hearted vision. She tries to kill it, the fastest movement she has made in weeks, but misses badly. It bobs out of vision and she makes no second attempt on its life. It is hardly worth it.

The oak table is where he used to work; big enough for him to sketch widely while she perched on the other half, her legs swinging as she watched the concentration on his face. Now it is littered with the remnants of ill-timed meals and late night trips to the kitchen. Gathering dust is a bowl that may have once contained noodles or cereal, she fails to remember which.

A few tissues remain underneath the long simple table, the night after he left she had slept under it – as though this act would shield her somehow from reality. She had hidden from the room, the new perspective somehow reflecting the drastic and irrevocable change.

Pathetic and alone, she walked around in one of his shirts. He wouldn’t be coming back for the rest. Eventually his sketchbook and pencils would be the only surface in the room not covered in discarded bowls and cutlery, signs of life. She couldn’t sleep in the bed either, still half made from where he had left her that morning, having decided not to wake her. She continued to sleep curled up under his oak desk, wondering how she would ever live again.

26

The Birthday Dinner

Watching them at the table -

bright, unfazed, still new
to this unwinding road

straining to hear
let alone understand, their
generational yatter.

I felt miles from my thirties -
like looking through
the wrong end of binoculars.

The wine was, a little too
honeyed now for my grey
nostalgia, &

I settled my fork next to the
plate, at least it knows its
proper place.

27

the sudden quiet

And then the bombs came in black sounds the size of wombats. Mernda's chop stick legs buckling, moving around the plates and bowls, a stray utensil translucent in its nonchalance as she moved to their boom bass groove.

'Click your heels Mernda. Click your beautiful heels together. One. Two. Three. And we're off...' Stani sang.

The girl up high moved light, like the dust snowing from the lit up sky in sheets of electricity slicing through her memories. Flakes of sharp silence fell between them, settling quickly across the table and under her feet that kept tapping around the bread, soup and legumes as the moments shifted into the future. This time they knew it was different. It was a sudden quiet - whispering.

The left wall of the apartment had completely dissolved to leave the best friends framed in the bleeding ink sky. A work of art perhaps - like something you would see in a gallery. (A Dali, Breton or Man Ray.) The trees outside their once was window were hunching around the gaps of the building and over their roots dressed in white plaster booties. They had both just turned fifteen. Mernda's first short skirt over her long lean thighs rose as her sequined shoes took control. Stani clapped her hands, the silk from her own shirt floating over her skin in waves of beauty as she caught her friend's eye. Thirteen years they had known each other. Sisters.

And then the bombs came. Again.

28

WHAT WE SAY GOES EVEN IF WE ARE WRONG – SO THERE!!

Now you know you should eat breakfast.
The most important meal of the day.
It will stop you snacking mid-morning
and sustain you until lunchtime.

Fresh fruit is best but be careful of the calories.
and don’t eat ‘bad’ cereals – puffed up with
more sugar than you can stir a spoon at.

Please stop spreading your toast
with all those awful butter taste-alikes
but nothing remotely like – excuse me.

BUTTER IS NOW GOOD FOR YOU
Read more >

29

The sound of her own voice

It had been 18 months since the stroke. And while the tremor which had stopped the flow of blood to his heart had only lasted a second, a split second even, she felt the aftershocks every day.

She puts down her spoon and leans across the table to wipe his chin. Their eyes meet and he gives a small smile. What does that mean? Sadness that he can no longer eat soup without her help? Silent thanks for her care? Both? She will never know unless she asks him to write it down and she stopped doing that long ago. They only use the notepad now for important things, things that need to be said like are the bins out, the bills paid, the cat fed.

Words had never come easily to him. But those few words had been just for her, words which had contained all the sustenance she needed, high enough in calories to sustain her through times good and bad.

She had been too greedy though. She had come to do all the communicating with the outside world, talking for him, finishing his sentences, knowing in advance what he was going to say before he’d said it and moving on to the next thing before he’d had time to express himself. She’d grown fat on words while he had shrunk. At what stage did “I know exactly what you mean” and the thrill that those words entailed become a desire to talk for him. To talk over him.

It shouldn’t be like this. The doctor had predicted a full recovery. It’ll take time, he said, he just needs to practice speaking again. It’s like exercise for the brain. You need to fire the right pathways, make them strong, make the connections between his thoughts and the words that come out of his mouth. He knows exactly what he wants to say, he just can’t say it.

But how do you practice a skill lost long ago? Friends asked: How are you Jack? He’s doing really well, she would say. When are you going to physio Jack? He’s going on Friday, she would tell them.

She had always done most of the talking but not like this. Not into this vacuum. Not directed at a living wall. There had always been been the unspoken understanding that he could have replied, had he wanted to.

She chases her food around her plate and pushes it away untouched. She cannot eat any more.

30

Good Meal

The remains of the Annual Teague Reunion lunch that took many ungodly hours to both prep and cook lay cluttered and unloved around the ancient table, which according to family lore was crafted from the very ship our great-great… something granddad sailed on from the Emerald Isle back eons ago. Of course my Granddad Teague pointed out a few years back that the story came from the many drunken ramblings of his own grandfather so the family lore was likely wrong.

Gran eyed me and Granddad both with her eyes narrowed wafer-thin, we gulped as she approached us. “Good lunch love”, Granddad said with a nervous grin, picking up two empty soup bowls Gran rolled her eyes and left the room as quickly as she entered it.

I laughed as Granddad realized he had some groveling to do. Good meal indeed.

31

Enough

He left.

The day was going just like any other day, except it was my birthday. My 55th, go figure! He didn't remember. Not that I expected him to; in the 38 years we've been together, I'd grown accustomed to being ignored, abused and insulted in every possible way, so much so that it came to me just as natural as breathing. I was so ridiculously young when we met, and so abandoned by my father... and Pete was so ruggedly handsome, masking his cruelty as being protective. And I bought into it, as naively as you buy a lottery ticket along with a million other human sheep, expecting to win the big bucks and live happily ever after. And I wasn't even going for the riches; just the happily ever after mattered. And when I didn't get it, I blamed myself. And I hid it. From everybody. All the time.

Thousands of insults, regular bruising and cuts, four children, two miscarriages and six grandchildren later... and I have finally come to my senses. And all it took was a kid, a seven-year-old kid with my enormous patience, his grandpa's eyes and the beautiful smile provided by our daughter, his mother. The boy had called just before lunch to say 'happy birthday, granny' and asked me what grandpa had gotten me. When I said 'nothing', my grandson asked a simple question: 'Why?'

Why indeed, I thought.

I looked at Pete. I was trying to remember what I loved about him. I couldn't. I knew there had been something, but it seemed a lifetime ago, and the memory faded. I didn't blame him. I simply couldn't. I should have said 'no' 38 years ago. I should have left during any of those 38 years. But it was enough. 'I don't want to live with you any more,' I said calmly.

He was devouring his food and wasn't sure he heard me right from all the chewing, so I repeated my words in the same tone.

He looked at me. He seemed surprised. Then angry. Then disgusted.

He just pushed his plate away, kicked his chair back and left outside by the back door. I knew he'd be back, but I didn't really care.

I stood up, left the food on the table and put on my shoes. I took my bag and put on my jacket. I left our house by the front door. I didn't look back. I wasn't going to.

I left.

32

Aftermath

OK let’s see, I had probably about, oh, I don’t know, a dozen crawfish? Two dozen? I was trying to count them as I ate but Uncle Roy kept asking me about living in New York and I lost count.

Let’s just call it 200 calories, 5 grams of fat, 0 carbs and, oh, 20 grams of protein.

OK, that’s not so bad. But then there was the corn on the cob with butter. I probably shouldn’t have eaten two. But they tasted so good and I haven’t been home in three years so I’m allowed, right?

OK, so let’s call all that 260 calories, just to be safe, 11 grams of fat, 40 grams of carbs and 6 grams of protein.

OK, that’s OK so far.

But now the shrimp and sausage stew. Ugh. I don’t even want to know.

OK, let’s see, let’s call that, I guess I had about three cups of it so that’s, Lord, 575 calories, 18 grams of fat, 37 grams of carbs and 64 grams of protein. Well that’s a good amount of protein at least.

I knew I shouldn’t have eaten so much of it but Aunt Clara’s been talking about me coming home for so long and she wanted to make it special so what could I do? Not eat her famous stew she made just for me? I ate it with a fork instead of a spoon to at least slow me down, but I ate way, way too much of it. I shouldn’t have freaking done that.

Oh yeah, gotta log the wine too, OK, so red wine, I think I had three glasses so let’s call that 350 calories, no fat, oh my God, 90 grams of carbs and 3 grams of protein.

Jesus.

I shouldn’t have eaten all that. I mean it was good to see my family and all, but that was bad. That was really bad. I guess, I guess maybe if I skip breakfast and lunch tomorrow that will even things out a little. I'm sure they'll try to get me to eat grits and waffles and eggs but I’ll just say my stomach hurts or something or I think I’m coming down with something and just have tea and then, OK, yeah, then I should be back on track.

33

Misplaced appetite

I
used to
eye with my teeth
biting down on the wood
by habit, balancing on my toes,
the neglected uneaten crumbs reclining
on the plate with countless pockets for more
food which my mother keeps refilling with less love
and more duty, vestiges of my father's luxurious
meal, sizing them up, itching to touch
and hurriedly swallow when he isn't
looking.At least that's what dutiful
wives do on technicolour Malayalam
movies - our Sunday evening
family ritual. But it's cold
and dead and tastes
like his saliva that
sometimes falls
on my lips
when he
berates.

Now I spoon out my love in lukewarm porridge into my father's petulant lips, crumbs and all.

34

The Birthday Wish

Wooden tables smell. With imperfect sight, my memory and senses guide me, transported back by the craft that has been my life’s work. Pungent, unvarnished, raw, the texture of grey ash still melts under my touch. Even now, unspoilt wood radiates its yearning to be transformed, to be regarded as noble again. What is the fate of the tree? Surely everything deserves a purpose, a reason to exist and even to serve. Life may burn bright like a log in the grate or give a constancy of shelter like the wistful willow. The table is firm, weathered, a sturdy platform for this anniversary meal. No clean, crisp tablecloth. No opulence of air-con nor swanky waiters to hang on every whim. My fingers, sweaty, fumble across the bare oak. All the possibilities of the lathe spring to mind. How I’ve chiselled through the years. Commissioned to create carvings in Butternut, Linden, Cherry. Whittling intricate designs that leave my overalls mottled in powder-shavings.

Yet here I am, with a flurry of breadcrumbs in my beard. A stone cold and watery minestrone served to me with a fork. Why complain. I go almost unnoticed. I lift the bowl to my lips, perhaps an oversight that I have no spoon.

Urgently and with a strong twist I’m wheeled backwards, my senses spinning. I grip the arm rests and strain to focus. Advancing toward me at speed, I squint to see a blurry, semi-myopic fuzz of flame ahead. How far should I lean to blow out the candles? No need to second guess it as “Happy Birthday” crescendos with baritone aplomb. The youngsters, irked by adult insistence to sit in indefinite grace, suddenly clamour for an embrace. Kisses planted by sticky sweet lips upon my cheek. Great grandpa Gabi what is your birthday wish?

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35

Mistaken Lobster

The table was set before sundown— paisley tablecloth handmade from Jaipur, silver spoons and forks from Sheffield, porcelain dishes from Shanghai and napkins from the store down the road all neatly spread— for the return of our most anticipated family member, the Lost One, the Forgotten One: Tracy Langkamp. Adopted when she was two weeks old, I've never had the chance to catch a glimpse of my younger sister.

"Times are hard Jonny boy. We can't afford another child. We would really love for you to have a sister, but we had to," said my parents to me the day she was taken away by the prim and proper Dutch couple with fertility misfortune, while I stand motionless at the patio sobbing like a fountain. I was two. I had to cry.

The digital wall clock beeped twice at 8 o'clock. Seated in front of me; the gleaming face of Tracy and her accompanying golden locks. My baby sister, the angel. I could see from the faces of mom and dad that they were delighted with how Tracy turned out. Prim and proper just like her Dutch guardians. We were all in smiles but nobody dared to utter a word. Mom proceeded with serving us the first course of the night: a sumptuous lobster bisque.

"I hate crabs, they have eight legs," Tracy revealed, breaking the silence with a sharp tongue of disgust.

"Well, first of all crabs have ten legs. Second, these are lobsters. Lastly, don't you use that tone on me girl, I pushed you out into this world don't you forget that."

Silence continued to smother our little reunion dinner.

36

Sticky

Sticky liquid travels down my forearm
Tracing an orange line, showing a route to take
If only I could see it.

Tickling, it ties me to the oak grain
A captor, not letting me free
Wanting me to become a part of the furniture.

I tear away from the captivity and look at the effects.
A pattern of red dots multiply before my eyes.
Excusing myself, I quickly depart.

37

Digested.

Thoroughly digested.

Chin wiped clean.
Napkin folded and laid gentle down as if for someone else to use
or maybe oneself even, later, again.
Yes, maybe.

Resting on lap like a prayer of thanks.
Gratitude.
Stillness, for a moment.

And yet thoroughly digested.

Done with it.
All of it.

One leans on the counter
slowly placing feet on ground.

The bar stool was just a bit too high for comfort after all.
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38

RESOLUTE FRIENDS

As ever, suspicion submits to faint hope as the hot food is brought to the table. My guest looks at me eager for license, like a dog fearful that the offered dish is perhaps a cruel bait for the advent of some violent, unprovoked visitation. I pay the bringer his due with some small addition for the favoured recess and assure my guest the fare is freely given.

Whether compelled by joy or by studied artifice, the tears that accompany the eating are strangely affecting. A measure of that natural sincerity for which I am commonly regarded in more genteel company softens the smile I offer in return. All my guests stare like the anxious cur. All shed tears at table. They are so many while we are so few. Who would hazard a homely sort? The anguished occupy neither homes nor memories. For men of quality beggared by gaming or bad counsel, the pang of loss is never so great as the censure such declination invites. Destitution's ambition rises no higher than the cobbles it settles nightly to sleep on. Censure there falls only on the general condition. The man is left to dissipate outside the public discourse wheresoever he will. It is an agreeable arrangement.

I am mindful of the hour.

The plates are removed as clean as the cook could wish them and my guest accepts the offer of an ale house further east. I wait on my watch as I trail him through the obfuscating runs and alleys to my rendezvous. His legs dutifully buckle on arrival and I move close to stay his descent and preclude the inconvenience of trauma. I sit beside him as he labours through the throes and disclose nothing. I have practiced a speech praising sacrificial acts for the furtherment of what is known to us in the world but have never recited it: one does not dispirit the fatted calf with the sanguine truth of its preferment.

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39

Half-full

want slips past
the soul like a fork
in a soup bowl
coating
mouth-oesophagus-stomach-intestine-
with aphrodisiac-like eagerness.
want
seeks
soul
seeks
more
seeks
want
in the end,
remnants hang
over the moment,
their crustacean shells
emptied of all desire. all this talk
of contentment
is good until
the bowl appears
before you.

40

Ginger

When my great aunt came to stay with us, meals were never the same. She had won my great uncle with her culinary talents. Her pie crust was legendary. The way to a man's heart they said.

When my great-uncle died in a car accident, she had to sell their little house. No kids, and she couldn't afford it. So, she retired and came to stay with us, and brought her orange cat with her. He was all she had to love, now, she said. His name was Ginger.

Ginger soon had the run of our house, and we would find him in the warmest sunniest spot by the window, watching the sparrows in the yard. He was a big cat, but he would let us pick him up like a toy. He followed us around like a dog.

But he was most certainly a cat, possessed of that remarkable ability to do astonishing leaps with grace. Nothing to it, his green eyes seemed say when he would leap to the top of the bookcase. My great aunt would call from the kitchen, "Ginger, what are you doing?" He would act like nothing at all.

True, my great aunt spoiled him, buying raw chicken and beef livers to cut up just for him. "Fine with me," my brother said, "I hate the liver."

"Not the way I make it," my great aunt said, and she would work her seasoning magic. She used nutmeg and turmeric, thyme and coriander, curry and ginger, Even the names were delights on the tongue. Her meals transported us to these faraway places--Tuscany, Thailand, Madras, Barcelona, Paris.

She had difficulty with names, sometimes. "You kids!" but we always knew she meant us, even when she called one of us Ginger. "You're all Ginger to me," she'd say. Ginger was her word for love.

The kitchen was her artist studio, and we were her assistants. When her eyesight was failing, she needed help with the ingredients. By now, she had memorized the recipes, or forgotten. She knew the spices by their bottles. That one, she would point and we would hand her whatever it was. It was always ginger.

41

Biscuits and Drawings

It was during supper, supper my mother and I had made, that the car came to take her away. My father sat me on his knees and said she was in pain but not the kind of pain I could see. I asked him whether she’d suffered a cut on the inside.

“The doctor will let us know,” he said. “The doctor?” I said. “But Mummy doesn’t like doctors.” “The doctor will make her feel better.” I looked at the picture of the weeping woman above the sideboard, the tears running down her face, the napkin she stuffed in her mouth to muffle her sobs. I placed myself inside the picture; I felt I was taking a small share of her pain.

Two nuns had come inside to get my mother. She ran around the table. I could not take it. I ran upstairs to my friend Elaina’s flat. “Wash your hands,” Elaina’s mother said, “so germs don’t get in your stomach. Hurry! Elaina’s almost done dinner.” “I don’t want dinner,” I said. “I want to live in your house.” “Oh, darling,” she said.

She made Elaina and me sit on the rug and told us a story. I didn’t like it that much. I never liked her stories; my mother’s were so much better. Sounds of screeches and cries rose up to us. My father came to get me. Everything around me was gray, as if all energy was absorbed from me, as if an achromatic chaos infected me. I thought: this is not me sitting on my father’s lap; perhaps I am dead. My brother went around the house looking for my mother with his thumb in his mouth. He began to cry, so my father comforted him. I told my brother he mustn’t cry or he might make me cry too. He ran off to play.

I ran the kitchen after that. My brother complained often that I hit him. Elaina said that too. “Use your words,” her mother told me one day. “Elaina said my eggs were burnt, ” I said. “It’s not burnt, only extra fried.”

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42

she comma he

He waited till they’d all gone to say it. ‘But why?’ I said. ‘Why now?’ He just shrugged and picked at a crack in the table with a fork. Keep it light. Be normal. ‘I’ll make some coffee, then we can talk,’ I said, and grabbed some dishes and escaped indoors.

In the kitchen I waited while time brewed, dust settled, but when I took the cups out, he was halfway up the path behind the house, his jacket slung over one shoulder, setting the cow-parsley dancing behind him.

He’ll look back, I thought, and waited, but when he passed the last turn and still hadn’t, I cleared away the broken shells, blew out the lamp, and went in.

She said, ‘Why?’ or something. I think I shrugged. How do you answer a question like that? She muttered something about coffee, clattered a few plates together and went indoors.

I dug a rosemary stalk out of a crack in the old boards and rubbed my thumb along the grain. Never did finish sanding them. In the circle of lamplight, a single lobster claw curved, a comma dipped in sea-ink, a breath, a beckon: then/now, was/am. I drained my glass, pulled my jacket off the chairback, and climbed the long path up to the road.

In novels, no one ever looks back, but at the top I did. The lamp was out, the table empty.

43