This short story examines themes of identity, gender and the family dynamic in the claustrophobic setting of a middle class dinner table. What could possibly go wrong?
“And I said to him, ‘Look here young man. I understand you’re in a hurry to get back to the hospital, but I was in the queue first!’. And you know what he did then Gregory? He just walked out of the shop without a word. How rude! I’m beginning to question whether he was a nurse at all. A bit queer isn’t it? A male nurse?”
I sat listening to the strangled notes which carried her words. “How on earth,” I thought, “could she love the sound of her own voice so much?” The tone was somewhere between Marge Simpson and Anne Widdecombe. Being in her late-middle-age, Catherine must have become acclimatised to the voice which scratched at others’ ears. I couldn’t help but stare at her neck. She had wobbly skin which protruded over her faux-pearl necklace. The necklace was too small and was stretched taught. I’d like to think this was why she croaked and rasped in such a way, but it was most probably due to the thirty-a-day cigarette habit she’d maintained until three years ago. Plus the endless fucking talking.
Five days I’d been here. I’d come to this quiet, unremarkable village near Amersham for the national lockdown. It seemed like an appropriate place to bunker up, at least more so than the hustle and bustle of West London. Annabelle had told me there were lots of good walking paths around her house, but we hadn’t had the chance to explore them yet; not with all the Monopoly games, and then their aftermath, which had filled – or rather, emptied – the hours of the days. I hadn’t exactly been welcomed with open arms; more with a slow look up and down and a dry kiss on both cheeks. The routine tour of the house had followed. And the routine tour of the gardens had followed that. Catherine made sure to point out each ornament we passed and then allude to its value. Most things seemed to be from some “divine little shop” in North Norfolk. She made a particular show of a brass bowl that sat on top of the table facing the front door. The bowl was filled everyday with dried prunes. Annabelle had forewarned me that her mother Catherine (never Cath, as explained in the prewarning to the forewarning) had reacted coldly to the news of her new girlfriend. But these feigned half-niceties – the offers of tea; the insistence on joining their Sunday dinner – proved waring. The indelicate, probing questions had commenced the moment I crossed the threshold of the family house: “yes, I live in Hammersmith”; “yes, I was privately educated”; “no, I can’t speak French.”
Sunday dinner had commenced at four. Catherine had encouraged us all to dress up so that, in her words, “we could have an evening of normality and initiate Annabelle’s new girlfriend into the family.” I couldn’t help but think that my idea of “normality” did not comply with Catherine’s. And, if this evening were an initiation, its challenges had already far surpassed that of any freshers’ initiation I’d experienced. With this, I’d borrowed a long black velvet dress from Annabelle’s selection. It fitted poorly; too big. The material swamped me, accentuating the smallness of my tits and the narrowness of my hips. I’d then put on some of Annabelle’s red lipstick. It was far too bright. I sighed into the bathroom mirror, and then grabbed the lipstick again from the side of the sink. Smiling as widely as possible, I extended the lines of lipstick up the sides of my cheeks, then added the little semi-circles to finish the clown mask. I leaned into the mirror, looked into my eyes and whispered: “You’re an absolute joke.” Annabelle came in through the door behind me. She stared blankly. Then she laughed. Then she kicked me in the arse. Then she said: “Let’s go and get a drink.”
Before dinner, Catherine, her second-husband David, Annabelle and I sat on the front garden patio in an odd sort of circle. It looked like an AA meeting. A bottle of prosecco had been opened, and we sipped and spoke the smallest of small-talk until Catherine’s brother and sister, Gregory and Carole, arrived in a white Range Rover. They’d come from their shared house in the neighbouring village. Annabelle once told me that the two had moved in together as soon as they left their parents’ house. That was forty years ago.
After yet more introductions, we finally sat down at the round dinner table. Going clockwise, the sitting arrangement went so: Catherine, Annabelle, me, Gregory, Carole, David. The table was uncomfortably small, so much so that our feet collided underneath it each time we readjusted ourselves. As quite a portly man, Gregory’s thighs were large. Throughout dinner, he kept lifting his right leg up and down so it brushed against mine. Every time I retreated, he’d shuffle it closer. He’d then turn and smile slyly at me, his thin lips revealing stained and misaligned teeth. Carole was the opposite: her face was long and sharp. Her nose was set at such a steep angle that her glasses frequently slipped down. She had a habit of staring intensely at people, but you could see behind the eyes her mind was lost elsewhere. She wasn’t threatening, just boring. Gregory sat wheezing as he breathed in and out. Carole sometimes let out a simple straight “yes” to reassure the others of her presence. And both continued to nod obediently as Catherine spoke. It was almost difficult to know whether they truly bought into Catherine’s nonsense or were just willing to entertain their little sister. I suspected the former.
David was the only family member who seemed half-normal. He was slightly younger than the rest, and clearly in better shape. His shoulders were broad and you could see he had well defined legs beneath his trousers. His hands looked unusually soft. The docile husband sat beside Catherine as she spat out whatever words entered her mind, with or without sense or consideration. He would sometimes lean forward to inspect whatever objects were in close proximity on the table, straightening a knife or a dinner-spoon to create perfect right angles. He was almost totally blind, but still had a keen eye for neatness. He said very little. In fact, I expect he’d say little even if his wife would allow him the chance. I only had rare moments alone with him in which he expressed a surprising, avuncular friendliness. Quietly, he had asked about my studies, my parents’ professions and our corner of London. His soft kindness only made me pity him more.
“Run,” I imagined shouting to him across the table. “Run and see where you get.”
Into my mind arose the image of David standing bolt upright, shouting distain and explicit remarks towards the woman he had stopped loving a year into their marriage. He then toppled forward, grasping any stable object he could as he sought his way to the front door. “You fucking… I’m sick and tired of all this… I’m fucking leaving!”, I heard amongst the crashing and bashing as he inadvertently sent plates and glasses hurtling towards the floor. “You’ll never see me agaiiiiiinnnnn.”
“Don’t you think so Daisy?”
The fantasy of Annabelle’s manic blind step-father snapped. I looked up to see Catherine’s eyes burrowing into me.
“I’m sorry”, I spluttered. “I missed the question.”
“Don’t you think that this whole virus could be biological warfare? I mean how could it have spread so easily if the Chinese hadn’t wanted to ruin the economic fabric of the western world I mean they are such an arrogant people behind their timidity and on top of that they…”
“What absolute bigoted bollocks,” I retorted. I didn’t actually say it, of course, and was ashamed for not doing so.
Fortunately her expectant gaze moved away from me, circling towards the other victims of the dinner table with her racist drivel. The only aspect of my personality which Catherine found mildly intriguing was my economics degree; a “proper degree”, in her eyes, which so much shadowed Annabelle’s literature studies. Apparently economics promised me “far more opportunities, especially being a young LESBIAN.” This had taken me aback. Catherine had a strange habit of adopting the language of a Victorian psychoanalyst when referring to mine and Annabelle’s relationship – that is, when it was actually referred to, rather than lightly brushed over. Annabelle had told me that once, when an argument had emerged between her and her mother, Catherine had denounced her “pathological perversity” and “deficient psychological structure”. She’d obviously taken the words from some pseudoscientific website. I’m sure she’d tried some ‘pray the gay away’ methods as well. Besides this bizarre attitude, I resented Catherine’s lack of confidence in Annabelle. She shared her husband’s short-sightedness without irony. At university, when I stared at mind-numbing statistics on a screen, Annabelle’s humorous habit of blurting out quotes from Auden or Plath, glowing in their irrelevance, never failed to tickle me. Catherine wasn’t a fan of higher education anyhow. She had been delighted by the introduction of tuition fees. Catherine believed in self-education and business-like initiative; she specialised in trading antique picture frames. I hadn’t realised such a trade existed.
What with the roaring fireplace and the numerous candles – which I found puzzling, as it’d had been a surprisingly warm April so far – the air had grown hot and stuffy. A sheen of sweat had developed on everyone’s forehead, and I’d noticed small droplets escaping from my armpits and sliding down towards my elbow. I’d grown thirsty, but I expected this was not solely down to the heat. My wineglass was more frequently empty than it was full, and I’d developed a desperate reliance on Annabelle’s top-ups. As the heat grew, so did my impatience. I found myself frequently glancing towards the window which looked onto the Venetian garden, and then to Annabelle, who had resigned to either staring downwards at her fingernails or upwards at the chandelier. I couldn’t help but inspect her face, desperately hoping to find nothing that resembled her mother.
Catherine’s eyes fixated on each dinner guest, moving like clockwork from one to the next as she spoke. Each one would nod in agreement and offer a half-hearted chuckle as she squawked on about her disdain for “chinamen and chinawomen,” and her assurance that she’d never been fond of “oriental food”. Wine had loosened her lips, and the filter which temporarily held back the deluge of bigotry had been washed away. She blurted ceaselessly about the shortcomings of the current 1922 committee; the far superior Thatcherite premiership; the glories of neo-liberalism. She mentioned how Annabelle and I would one day “grow out” of our socialist ways.
“And this bloody furlough scheme!”, she exclaimed. “What are the government doing in paying the working classes’ wages for them?! They are only encouraging their natural laziness!”
And then Catherine moved onto the multiple social ills of British society: how the democratic principle of free-speech had been contaminated by snowflake and PC culture; how mine and Annabelle’s generation had become indoctrinated by Europhilia. When trans-rights came up, I mentally detached myself.
All the while, I kept my mouth shut. At moments, I contemplated challenging Catherine’s bigotry, but then thought against it. She was that worst kind of debater: one who didn’t listen and was so wrapped up in their arguments that the prospect of conceding, let alone acknowledging the opposite standing, was unthinkable. Occasionally David offered a “now now dear”, or a “well, let’s not be too brash.” But Catherine swept the interjections aside easily and charged on.
I could feel an anxiety begin to erupt from the base of my stomach. My fingers started to tingle and a light sweat appeared on my palms. A numbness entered my thighs and my head felt groggy. I didn’t feel at home here because it wasn’t homely. There was too much surface and not enough substance, and even the surface was coated with a spite towards everything and everyone that was deemed lesser. Suddenly my throat felt dry and croaky too, but then I realised it was because I was speaking.
“Sorry, I just need to go to the toi… Sorry, one moment, I’ll be back in a mo’. Excuse me.”
I lifted myself from the table and headed towards the dining room door. The sudden silence was dreadful and I could feel the five sets of eyes burning a hole in my back. After I’d shut the door behind me, I walked across the hallway into the kitchen and poured a glass of water. I gazed out through the conservatory windows. The sky had become overcast and a strong wind had picked up, driving branches forwards and backwards frantically. I was sure that the wind was fresh.
“Annabelle is nice I like Annabelle she’s nice she’s good for me I like her.”
I looked down at my glass and then back to the flowering trees and the air. What had begun as anxiety settled into a calm clarity.
“Fuck it,” I heard myself whisper.
I walked out of the kitchen, down the hallway, and crept up the stairs to Annabelle’s room. I searched quickly for my phone. After a flush of panic, I found it lying above the bathroom sink. I’d send Annabelle an apologetic message later, explaining how mum had urgently called me to say auntie Mary had symptoms and I needed to come home immediately in case she died. I didn’t want to interrupt the dinner, so I’d left instantly. It was plausible; auntie Mary had asthma. But Annabelle wouldn’t buy it and maybe she’d break up with me. I lifted my head, leaned once again into the mirror and said: “Dear lord. What a sad little life Jane.” I laughed even though I was unhappy, and walked out of the bathroom. My bag was still lying on the floor, half-filled with clothes. I picked it up and headed out of the room.
Shuffling quietly down the stairs, I came back into the hallway. My car keys were still dangling from the oak key-hanger on the wall. I dashed forward, snatched them up and made for the front door. I stopped and turned. The prunes didn’t make much noise as they dropped to the floor. With the brass bowl under my arm, I moved towards the door to leave.
by Tom Denham