A re-posting of my short story published in Indigo Journal March 2011
If you were floating above the table right now, you would see her fussing – placing, replacing cutlery; arranging, rearranging plates. You would see that her precise parting is not quite straight, that her movements are sharp and edgy. Her children are scattering toys, but when she scolds they neither hark nor heed. She does her very best with them, but always suspects a shortfall, because, as you can see from where you are, the sword of bad mothering is hanging by a thread above her head (Installed by a previous generation).
It is a long time since I have been here to dinner and things are not as they should be. You might see me enter now, being careful where I put my feet and words.
In the kitchen she is boiling over and things are spilling out – doctors
diagnosis and principals reports. They have sent home words in magnetic block letters. Her children are bordering and at risk, they stick her to the fridge.
D A D ?
Where is the he, by the way?
She thinks he is working late. She hopes he won’t be long.
Tension is beating the cream within an inch of its life.
I am wondering why we are doing this – it’s not what you would call entertaining.
While she is busy we can look around the room. There is a Christmas tree – yes, well, it’s that time of year, when peace and goodwill shred as easily as tinsel and lie on the floor under pine trees, where, as we all know, nothing ever grows. The children are attached to the TV by wires and tubes, a dialysis machine where thoughts are cleansed and returned empty.
The cat is crossing the line among the dishes on the table.
Having bitten me twice in its zeal, the Christmas puppy is now flinging itself at the window from the garden. Everyone shouts at it, but no one takes any notice.
You probably can’t see him yet but he’s walking in the back door. He is wearing singlet and shorts; looks dishevelled and damp. He went for a run after work, he’s sorry he’s late, he’ll just grab a shower.
He is also not as he should be. (Genial, affable, present when guests arrive.)
Questions and answers go chasing around the table with the children:
Why would you go for a run when you are already late for dinner?
Because you needed a shower.
Why would you need a shower if you hadn’t been for a run?
Because you weren’t squeaky clean.
Why did the chicken cross the road?
Because he was seeing someone on the (other) side?
Watch now. A peck on the cheek could draw blood.
Here he is, showered and changed and still absent. Not careful where he puts his feet he treads heavily on the conversation. The children’s squeals go arc-ing across us like distress flares. The dog, inside once more, is damaging its reputation beyond repair.
Stay above the table to watch.
There are candles and a piece of ice. The children have melted into sticky sleep.
He has a secret; it’s in his soup. He is hiding it carefully with his spoon.
The secret is in her soup as well, but she doesn’t know – it sticks in her throat.
I am looking for their future in the bottom of my bowl and there is nothing there.
Luckily we have some old conversations lying around, because we can’t make any new.
He has a secret and his jaws are wired shut. She is eating very
fast to keep the words down. Can you see me doing all the talking? I am juggling balls of words to keep them in the air – some drop to the floor and some go into hiding.
He is full and she is empty.
No one now is eating.
Everything is over – including dinner.
Do I know his secret? Yes yes yes.
Does she know? Not yet.
She thinks her problems are asleep on her lap. I want to hold up warning signs but can’t find the right one.
Contains sex scenes and steep descents
Explosive – keep clear
Shall I tell?
I could see the colour drain from his face and rise in hers. You could see the pretty symmetrical pattern of a round table and three chairs that fall as we jump to our feet and a candle fizzing out in the ice puddle and all the untouched food. And you could see us moving like synchronised swimmers – hands to mouth, hands to table, stepping back and stumbling over fallen chairs; smiling in the face of drowning.
Or shall I not?
You could blow out the candles and I could carefully pick up my feet and pick up my words and leave the house, though not the way I had come.