second draft - feedback please!
‘And if you let them sweat on a low heat, they’ll release their juices quicker and you won’t have to add water. Pass the-’
He handed her the butter-dish again and she scraped ruefully at the inside of the white porcelain. The hard, thick smell of fat filled the room and he made tiny whooshing motions with his hands to clear the air. Cara took a deep, dramatic breath and shuddered in pleasure.
‘Nothing like a bit of butter, a bit of bought butter, the best bit of bought butter.’ She repeated the tongue twister, once, twice, and tittered as she stumbled over the words.
She wasn’t really talking to him, he knew, but he listened anyway. Every now and then she would address a remark to the air, and seeing as he inhabited that air, it was enough excuse to remain perched on the kitchen table, waiting.
‘Where’s the – thank you, meat – I’ll brown it in this one so that it doesn’t stain,’ she said to herself, beginning to slice chunks off the slab of beef, keeping them uniform and well rounded. They bled only slightly before she tossed them into the old cast-iron pan, sizzling in the hot oil and spitting bits of fat back at her like an ungrateful child. She stirred, oblivious, ignoring the goblets of oil that flew through the air and caught in her loose hair.
She brandished a jug full of slurping, tumescent brown. ‘… And the amazing thing about stock is that it lasts forever – this is the turkey from last Christmas, can you believe it?’ She looked briefly up at her second son, legs dangling over the table.
He could believe it. He remembered the turkey well. It had been monstrous, far too big for the five of them, but that was Cara. Some fancy about stuffing growing boys had been drilled into her when she was young, and she had never left it behind. And so she had surrounded the bird with mounds glistening potatoes and vegetables fried into anonymity, and had bowed her head when they couldn’t manage a third helping.
She scooped the fat from the top of the jug and set it aside for the potatoes, then poured the yellow-brown mix in with the vegetables. It left the jug with a soft glump-glump sound that sickened him to his stomach.
Molly, their greying and overweight lab, groaned in her sleep as Cara stepped around her, perhaps taken by some fleeting scent memory. Well she should remember the smell. The massive turkey bones and entrails had been left out for the dogs in the days after Christmas. They had bickered and fought before settling into the usual order – Molly was first; she took the choice bits of flesh and dragged them away to a safe distance, glancing up to make sure the others had not followed. Stinker had nipped forcefully at Trudy’s muzzle with his greening teeth and had gained the second spot, leaving the dirty-white poodle mix to dart in and out between his legs. Still, Trudy had eaten till she was sick; a corrosive stream of bone fragments and white meat, then lapped it up again, growling at Stinker till he lost interest and retreated. Then they withdrew to sleep off their swollen bellies and return.
Their Da had done the same, dabbing gracefully at his stained and pocked chin before retreating to his room for a nap. Cara had cleaned up while the three boys watched a Disney movie that they were all too old to enjoy, but no one had dared to change the channel.
The vegetables were swelling again, taking in moisture from the stock. ‘Salt-and-pepper, salt-and-pepper’, she chanted. ‘Your father loved beef casserole. Oh yes, he did. He did! My recipe, anyway.’
Her son hadn’t spoken, but she hadn’t lifted her head from the stove or turned towards him, so he did not respond. It had been six short weeks, and this was the first time Cara had mentioned him since they had finished with all the fussing around coffins and flowers and priests. He watched her carefully, but nothing more seemed to be forthcoming.
He worried for her, sometimes. They had mourned, as much as they could, for a father whose rotting and flabby body repulsed them and had gradually eaten away at any affection that had remained. But Cara seemed to have just erased him from her life, wiped the slate clean. Now she looked only to her sons.
She still slept in the same bed, on the side that he had died on. It had always been her side, in truth, but in his final throes he had rolled over, gasping and rattling his life away. He hadn’t reached, or hadn’t wanted to reach, the panic alarm that had been installed by the bed just a few months previously. When she found him, she had dragged her sons up the stairs, as if their presence was needed to make it true.
Niall, the eldest, had called the ambulance and made the arrangements. His mother had just sat by the bed, holding his hand and weeping. He remembered the low, throaty sound that had come from Cara’s mouth, like a wounded animal that was trapped in her throat. It had filled the house until the walls reverberated with her keening. Steven, only seven, had wept at her tears. The ambulance had taken him away with sirens muted and unhurried. The dead could wait.
Danny felt he should say something, something to fill up the silence that had slunk into the room as the meat stopped sizzling and began to slide sullenly around the pan. But he didn’t.
‘In you go,’ she told the beef, not unkindly, letting it slide into the bigger pot of half-sweated vegetables. The smell of roasting flesh had begun to rise through the house, and Niall could be heard stirring from his computer upstairs. Steven was in the front room at the television and had a unique sense of when food was on offer. He would not appear until the plates were set on the table.
‘A can of Guinness, if you wouldn’t mind.’
He slipped, surprised, from his perch on the table, stepped carefully over the elderly dog and out into the pantry. He knew where the remaining beer was kept; it had been doled out liberally during the three or four days it had taken for his Da to be buried and forgotten. Cara didn’t seem to notice the missing bottles that often ended up on Niall’s floor, nor the slowly sinking level of whiskey that had been brought by neighbours and friends. But his father’s Guinness was never touched. This was the first time they would be used, since he had died.
Without turning the solitary light on, he found a can from memory and brought it back to his mother. She cracked it open with a flourish and tipped it into the stew as he took his seat again, watching his mother’s fingers as she stirred. They were as slender as they had ever been, her wedding band loose below her second knuckle. Sometimes he thought she was shrinking, like a wicked witch doused with water, but then he felt unkind.
The stout bubbled and simmered; the smell of sour earth pouring from the pot.
His Da had loved to eat, and she had been overjoyed to oblige. Even when he had come home with the doctor’s orders – no fats, no sugars, no alcohol – she had snorted and merely reduced her portions by a finger’s width. His father hadn’t complained – three meals a day set before him and a few cans of stout in the evening were all he desired in the world. Their father had taken his diabetes seriously, at first, but under Cara’s care he had soon forgotten all thoughts of diet plans and exercise. She had told him his chest was too weak to take long walks in the cold. She had fed him like a prize cow, beaming when he cleared his plate and looking so sorrowful when he left drippings that he had always reached for a hunk of bread to wipe up the rest.
The stew simmered in its own juices, and she hummed to herself. A dozen waxy potatoes flew out of their jackets and fell sizzling into the turkey fat.
When he had begun slowly rotting away, she had only fussed and fretted more, sure that he just needed some more of her attention. He had been twenty-odd stone before he took to his bed, and on his second heart attack, but Cara insisted. Soon, the smell of proud flesh had sunk into the room’s oak panelling as his feet began to ulcerate, but still she had tended him with fried meat and eggs and batter. And so he had stewed, alone in his bedroom.
Now she took a carton of cream from the fridge and poured it into the casserole, glub-glub, tapping the bottom with a wooden spoon to get the last few drops. The mixture turned a marbled white-and-brown before the cream was swallowed whole, sucked down to the bottom where it would thicken and simmer.
He wasn’t really hungry. His waistband was already uncomfortably tight and he felt bloated, like he had swallowed a child’s balloon animal. But the potatoes promised to be golden brown and the casserole was so thick he felt he could take a bite out of the air and live for a day off the fumes. The other dogs, Trudy and Stinker scratched at the door, aware that it was dinnertime. They would get their own meal of the fatty, discarded meat, perhaps topped off with some gravy and crisp fragments. He let them in and they joined his silent vigil as Cara stirred, and hummed, stirred and hummed.
Soon, she set out four large plates and heaved the massive pot of casserole over to the worktop, teetering slightly under its weight. She built a buttress of roasted potatoes and ladled a generous amount of meat and vegetables into three of them. For the forth, she merely dribbled some gravy over the puniest roasts of the batch. She opened the door to call for her eldest and youngest soon, but there was no need. Niall was already blinking in the doorway, dazed by the kitchen lights. A door slammed in the house, and Steven’s footsteps echoed down the hall. The three boys took their seats at the table and she laid out their meal.
She stared at her own pitiful plate for a moment. They pointedly did not look towards their Da’s empty chair. The angles in her face caught the light and her eyes were hollowed, like she had darkened her lower lids by mistake. Then she turned to her three sons and smiled, swollen with pride.