For what we are about to receive

A short story by Jane Seaford

Her mobile rang as Julia was cooking.

             ‘Answer it someone,’ she yelled out as she poured hot stock onto the wilted scallions

and spinach in the pan. Stephen came into the kitchen as she was grating a little nutmeg

into the mixture.

             ‘S’aunt Rachel,’ he said, passing the phone to Julia.

             ‘Hi, Rach,’ Julia said.

             ‘Hi sis. What you up to?’

             ‘Cooking supper.’

             ‘Can I come over? Tim’s away for work and I feel the need for company, for family

company.’

             ‘Sure. You can eat, too. There’s plenty.’

             Rachel arrived just as the meal was ready.

             ‘Glass of red?’ Julia asked waving an already open bottle at her sister. She called out

for Stephen and Tilly to wash their hands and that she would be serving up shortly. She

poured the wine and put a large bowl of mixed salad and a basket of bread rolls on the

table.

 

             The soup looked perfect, a lovely bright green highlighted by the small creamy

dollops of yogurt. It smelled delicious, too. Julia smiled and looked around the table as she

reached for her spoon. She watched Stephen and Tilly as they ate.

             ‘Yummy,’ Rachel said.

             When they’d finished, all except Julia, she cleared away the soup bowls and took the

dish of pasta, chicken balls and tomato from the oven and put it on the table. She loaded the

plates and passed them around.

            ‘There’s parmesan,’ Julia said and Rachel reached for it and sprinkled the cheese

liberally on her meal before passing it to Tilly.

            ‘You not having any?’ Rachel asked Julia.

            ‘Had a big lunch.’ Julia shrugged. ‘You know.’

            Rachel raised an eyebrow and stared at Julia. Then she gave a little shake of her

head and started to eat.

***

            Julia watched as Dad stood at the side board carving the chicken, piling up the slices of

white meat, the legs, thighs and wings. He spooned stuffing from the bird and added it to

the meat platter. Delia took two bowls of vegetable from the oven and placed them on the

sideboard. She put gravy and bread sauce on the table.

           ‘Now let’s thank God for this precious food before we eat.’ Julia bent her head and

closed her eyes as Delia said grace and then asked, as she did at every mealtime, ’Are we all

deserving of this food? Have we done good deeds and thought kind thoughts?’

           Julia squeezed her eyes even further shut, curled her toes and clenched her hands.

She tried, she did try to.... love Delia. Or at least to like her just a little.

 

           The smell was delicious and Julia’s stomach growled slightly as she heard the chink

of china and silver; Delia was serving the food. She opened her eyes, took her plate, and,

when they were passed to her, helped herself from the gravy jug and the sauce boat. When

dessert came, Julia said she’d had enough, a small atonement, and watched as the others –

Dad, Delia, Rachel and little Tommy – carried on eating.

 

Rachel had been a baby when their mother died and Julia four years old. Rachel had no

memory of the time before Dad married Delia when Julia was nearly seven.

            ‘Tell me about Mum,’ Rachel asked. Lying in her bed, she stuck her thumb in her

mouth and rubbed what remained of her baby blanket against her nose. And Julia, sitting

fully dressed on her own bed, took off her shoes, lay down, closed her eyes and started the

familiar story about their mother, about life before Delia, before the birth of Tommy. There

were variations but it always started and ended the same.

            ‘Once there was a beautiful mother who had two daughters. Julia and Rachel. The

mother had yellow hair and big brown eyes. Rachel was a baby and the mum fed her milk

from her bosoms, but Julia was older and the mum made her cinnamon toast and hot

chocolate for breakfast, or sometimes porridge with cream and honey. She took Julia and

Rachel to the playground. Julia played on the swings and the mum took Rachel out of her

buggy and cuddled her and cuddled her. When they were back home Julia had apple pie

and ice-cream and Rachel sucked more milk. The mother read to her children before they

went to sleep. She kissed them goodnight over and over. She loved her girls very much.’

            ‘If she loved us so much, why did she die?’ Rachel asked. The usual question.

            ‘To make way for Delia.’

            ‘That’s the wrong answer,’ Rachel shouted. ‘You always say, “She didn’t choose to.”.’

            ‘Maybe I was always wrong,’ Julia said and sat up.

***

            When the meal was over and the dishwasher loaded Julia and Rachel sat at the kitchen

table with the last of the wine. Stephen and Tilly had gone to their rooms, no doubt playing

games on their i-pads.

            ‘You back into not eating?’ Rachel asked.

            ‘Don’t be silly. I cook don’t I? Cook like a demon. Everyone loves my food.’

            ‘But you don’t eat it.’

            Julia started to hum, she took a swig of wine. ‘Let’s change the subject,’ she said.

            ‘No. I’m worried. You’ve got worse... since Greg walked out.’

            ‘He didn’t walk out. We agreed to separate.’

            ‘Sure.’

            ‘Is that why you came over, to annoy me?’ Julia asked, standing up, going to the

fridge, pulling out the container of left-over chicken balls, taking one and putting in her

mouth. She chewed and chewed and eventually swallowed. ‘See. I can eat.’

            ‘You look like you’re about to faint,’ Rachel said. ‘That was hard work. You hate

food.’

             Julia decided not to reply and put the chicken balls back in the fridge and sat down

again.

             ‘Shall Tim and I swing past and pick you all up on Sunday?’ Rachel asked.

             ‘Sunday?’

             ‘You haven’t forgotten?’

             ‘No, of course not. It’s Dad’s sixty-fifth,’ Julia said, remembering, a flush of guilt at

having put it out of her mind.

             ‘And a big party at Mum and Dad’s.’

             ‘Wish you wouldn’t call her Mum.’

             ‘Delia’s the only Mum I know,’ Rachel said.

             ‘Perhaps that’s why you decided not to be a mother,’ Julia said in her head but not

aloud.

             Sunday came, hot and sunny. Julia woke early, feeling hungry. She put bread in the toaster

but when it was done she couldn’t face eating it so she crushed the slices for breadcrumbs

instead. Fetching pen and paper she sat at the kitchen table and compiled menus for the

coming week and then a shopping list. It wasn’t true she hated food; she loved thinking

about it, cooking it, serving it, watching people, especially family, enjoying it.

             Later, when she reminded Stephen and Tilly about the birthday party, they

grumbled about wasting a whole day.

             ‘It’s only once a year,’ Julia said before making them their favourite breakfast;

wholemeal pancakes with chestnut puree and whipped cream.

             Delia was at the front door, smiling, but only with her mouth.

             ‘Welcome,’ she said, the top of her arms wobbling as she briefly embraced them one

by one. Still using the same perfume, Julia noted, almost gagging at the familiar, sweetish

smell. They went through the hall and out into the garden where Dad was sitting next to

one of their aunts. He stood up and walked over to greet them. He thanked them for the

presents and sat back down again to open them.

              Tommy came out of the kitchen with a jug in each hand.

              ‘Drinks,’ he called out, heading for a table laid with glasses, bottles and a bowl of

what looked like punch.

              ‘He’s fatter than ever,’ Julia murmured to Rachel.

               A little later Julia and Rachel helped to load lunch onto trays and trolleys and to

bring it out to the big table on the patio. There were a few hot dishes; a goulash – Dad’s

favourite – with noodles, chicken thighs in a herb sauce and pasta with creamy

mushrooms; there were cold meats, a variety of smoked fish, all sorts of salad, dishes of

olives, gherkins and little stuffed eggs.

              ‘Come on everyone, I’ll say a short prayer and then all help yourselves,’ Delia said.

               Her face was pink and she was sweating slightly.

              ‘Eat something,’ Rachel said handing Julia a plate when the grace was over and the

other guests were loading their plates and making appreciative noises.

              Julia took some mixed salad and a few radishes from a bowl. She hesitated and

added a sliver of salmon.

              ‘What are you scared of? You look as if it might eat you rather than you it,’ Rachel

hissed.

               ‘I’m not scared. It’s only food.’

               ‘It’s never only food,’ Rachel said and walked away.

***

               ‘What’s the matter with you?’ Delia shouted. ‘I slave away, cooking lovely dishes and all you

do, miss, is push stuff around on your plate.’

                They were all looking at Julia. Delia, Dad, Rach; even Tommy had put down his knife

and fork.

                ‘I’m not hungry.’ Julia whispered. She couldn’t explain why meals made her...

uneasy. Didn’t understand what the feeling was. There was nothing wrong with food; she

liked food. And had been able to manage Delia’s cooking for a long time in spite of the

growing ...shame that gripped her when she sat at the dining table, when the food was

served and grace said.

                ‘Don’t talk rubbish,’ Delia said. ‘You didn’t have breakfast, hardly any lunch and now

look at you. Either you’re a secret eater or you’re hungry.’

                 ‘No,’ Julia said. Tears filled her eyes and she speared a slice of carrot and raised it to

her mouth.

                 ‘Let her be,’ Dad said softly.

Julia chewed on the carrot remembering a time, long ago, when food had been a

pleasure to eat.

***

                 The day wore on. Julia and Rachel had helped to clear the lunch away. And now it was tea

time. Cups and saucers and several large pots of tea had been brought outside.

                 Tommy waddled out of the kitchen carrying a huge cake covered in chocolate icing

and two large candles; one in a six shape and the other a five. There were little beads of

moisture on his forehead and his fat cheeks were pink. Behind him came Delia. She helped

to place the cake on the table then lit the candles. They all sang Happy Birthday. Dad stood

up, looking sheepish, and blew out the candles.

                 Delia cut large slices of cake and Tommy passed them round. When he was done he

came and sat next to Julia.

                ‘She’s a great cook is Ma,’ he said and licked crumbs of his lips.

                Julia stared down at the rich slice on her plate, picked up her fork and prodded the

glistening icing.

                 ‘Delicious isn’t it?’ Tommy asked as he raised the last of his portion to his mouth.

                  She turned to look at him.

                  ‘You can have mine,’ she said softly. No one was watching as she slid the cake from

her plate to his.

                  ‘Thanks, Ju,’ he said; thickly, as he was still chewing.

                  Julia remembered him, a two year old, sitting on his mother’s lap while she fed him

rice pudding rich with raisins, his mouth ever ready, the spoonfuls going in and going in

and when he’d finished Delia saying, ’Good boy, good boy.’

                  What a good boy he is, Julia said now to herself as she pushed her empty plate away.

And what a bad girl I am.

Jane Seaford’s two novels, ‘The Insides of Banana Skins’ and ‘Archie’s Daughter’ and her short story collection, ‘Dead is Dead and Other Stories’ received excellent reviews. Her stories do well in international competitions, appear in anthologies and magazines and are broadcast on Radio New Zealand.

She had a column in ‘Bonjour Magazine’ and has sold articles to the Guardian, the Independent and other British publications. Her website is janeseaford.com