by Tamar Hodes
I remember the day the table arrived.
The wood was so light, bleached, a huge slab of pine, rubbed and scrubbed, laying itself bare. I loved its blankness, its endless possibilities.
My parents, over from the States, had been appalled to see Marcus, the children and me, crammed around our circular Formica table. It was so small, we had to put the bread basket and salad bowl on the floor, reaching down when needed, as if they didn’t merit a surface.
On the last day of their stay, my folks called us downstairs and said that a delivery van was on its way. We were so excited.
‘It’s gorgeous,’ I exclaimed as the men assembled it in our kitchen. It was great to witness it take shape, mounted on its legs for the first time, like a new foal. Marcus said little, as usual. I was worried my parents would interpret his silence as rudeness and filled the gaps with my effusiveness, ‘Hey Marcus, just look at that. Aren’t we lucky?’
‘Yes,’ he said quietly and without looking at anyone. ‘Thank you.’
I could imagine them going back to California and telling their friends about their cold, ungracious British son-in-law.
We all sat round the table and had tea and cake and toasted the new addition to the family. I remember Fay in her high chair chuckling without knowing why.
I remember the day the table arrived. It was big, far too big.
Jody’s parents always interfered. It made me feel inadequate, that I couldn’t provide for my family. The previous table was fine and I had intended replacing it when the business grew.
However, I came home from work and there it was, without warning: this massive slice of wood, dominating our kitchen.
We never discussed who should sit where. I went to the far end, because the kids took all the other seats. I like having Reuben at my left side as he’s quiet like me. Jody has all the girls clustered around her. They laugh and whisper and I rarely understand what they’re talking about.
Sometimes I feel distant, like I’m on another planet.
There are lots of noisy girls in our family: my mum and three sisters. Dad and I like to sit at the far side of the table. Sometimes I do feel that we’re excluded. Everything happens down that end, as if someone’s decided that it’s the front of the ship and we’re at the rear. There’s no doubting who the captain is.
Mum always opens the letters and announces good news so whenever there’s a birthday or Christmas or Thanksgiving (Mum still likes to celebrate it even though she’s lived here for over twenty years), it’s Mum who makes the toast, raising her glass to give a little speech. It’s always her who brings in the birthday cake or the dish she’s made and so all our heads are turned down that end, as if watching a magic show.
I do feel bad for my dad. It’s like he’s got the cheap theatre seat with restricted views.
My high chair was always next to Mum so that she could help me eat. I’ve seen photos, me with my face smeared in chocolate or tomato sauce. When I got older, I had a proper chair (with a padded cushion) but even now I still sit in the same place. I like the warmth of Mum’s body next to mine and the smell of her perfume, so light and sweet.
Because I’m the youngest, I’ve always been attached to her. I like being near the action, the centre of the family. Martha and Maya, being twins, have always been close, giggling about some private joke.
I enjoy being the baby of the family. So many Christmases, birthdays, we’ve celebrated at this table. It’s a great place to be when there’s good news.
We’ve done so much drawing and painting here, too. Mum likes crafts. We’ve made pots here and done potato printing (that was fun) and threaded bead necklaces. There are some stains now, when we used the wrong kind of paint; when Reuben accidentally cut the table with scissors when he was cutting out shapes. Once Dad was really angry and he banged his fist so hard it dented the table. I can’t remember what that was about.
It’s not all good news. Once, Mum opened a letter there and she cried. It was a few years ago now but she was ashen, tears blotting her face and she wouldn’t tell anyone what it said. She just looked at Dad and he looked down. I hated seeing them unhappy. I can remember gripping onto the table with my fingers, as if I was going to lose them all, as if the table was a boat and I wanted to stop it floating away.
I thought it was good of Gran and Granddad to buy us that table. I’ve always had a bond with them. That’s why I decided to study at Berkeley. It’s near them and I had to separate some time from Maya.
People always treated us like we were two halves of the same person or we were glued together. If one of us was invited to a party, so was the other. We even sat side by side at the kitchen table!
As we grew older, Maya was much more Sciences, and me arts. She’s training to be a nurse and I’m doing Humanities.
When we come home, though, we always sit in the same seats, next to each other. We become children again when we go back and Mum treats us like that, baking our favourite cakes, giving us treats. We’ll come down to breakfast and there’ll be a chocolate bumble bee on our plate or a pastry heart. It’s good to have that once in a while but it can be a bit intense, all of us there, and there were times when I couldn’t take it and had to leave the table and go to my room. Through the floorboards, I could hear them all talking and then the sound of plates being cleared and cutlery clashing and I was sad to be away from them but happy too.
In the centre of the table, Mum always had flowers: daffodils, bright and shiny in the spring and dark roses, almost black, in the winter.
We’ve all left home now.
I miss our house. Living in nurses’ accommodation in a dingy part of London, I think of our table at home where celebrations occurred. Sunday lunches with vegetables gleaming in a dish; toasted teacakes with butter dripping off the edges; Mum’s homemade cakes, slightly lopsided and never looking anything like the photos in the recipe book but it didn’t matter. We all faced inwards towards each other and shared food and conversation. Sometimes we argued. Sometimes one of us stormed off, usually Martha and wouldn’t come back, her plate half full of food, her knife and fork left at awkward angles like the hands of a clock, marking time.
Now in the digs we haven’t even got a table. We just balance a plate on our laps and it’s not the same.
It’s great travelling. I feel so free and there’s a whole group of us. India made me see my life in a new way. Now we’re in Nepal. It’s hot and dusty but it’s amazing and I’m pleased I’m here. I send my parents postcards and I can imagine Mum sitting at the table, reading them aloud, pressing the card to her chest as if she’s connected to me. I wonder if she shares my news with Dad?
It’s strange to think of the two of them sitting at that table, without any of us.
It must be quiet. I really miss home.
I work with Dad so I see him a lot. I do go home sometimes but it feels weird, me at the end of the table next to Dad and Mum down the other end on her own.
She still makes me meals and she’s always kind but it’s not the same now.
When my sisters first left home it was great: I liked the silence. You could actually finish a sentence!
My folk look older now. Mum’s let her hair go grey and she’s cut it short. Dad is thinner than he used to be, as if part of him has drained away.
They don’t need such a big table now. I’ve told them. Dad agrees but Mum won’t hear of it. You can get these tables with extension flaps but there’s no point. When Mum has made her mind up, there’s no persuading her otherwise.
It’s only when you lose something that you begin to appreciate it. I really admire the way that Mum made us feel united, six of us against the world.
We didn’t really socialise with other people. It was just us, facing each other.
We knew where we belonged. We knew we were a family.
Everything happened down Mum’s end. The food was brought in from the kitchen there; the singing started there; the light shone from there.
We hardly ever turned to look at the other end.
I remember once, Mum filled a glass bowl with water and put tiny tea lights on its surface. Then she lit them. Silver discs floated across the pond, reflecting themselves in the glass and water. All eyes were on that bowl and the miniature boats. We watched, bewitched, until the flames went out and the metal cups twisted themselves into flat coins.
Mum certainly had a sense of drama. Poppers were pulled; birthday cakes were lit; a paper disc was extended until it became a lantern.
You almost believe she could pull a rabbit from a hat!
Once she hung a paper donkey from the ceiling, I think they call it a piñata, and we hit at it with spoons until it burst its skin and we were showered with shiny-wrapped sweeties. I loved that, candy raining down upon our heads.
I’ve told Jody I’d like a new table. The old one’s covered in gashes and stains, really shabby. The business has done well and I can easily afford a new one. But no. She won’t hear of it. She feels the old table carries memories. The point is, they’re not all good ones.
I’ve watched her opening bills we couldn’t pay when the kids were small and that letter…It’s a long time ago now but I still feel bad about the pain it caused her. The affair with Angie was a mistake and I regret it but to go and write to my wife and tell her. Really cruel. What kind of woman does that?
When the kids were younger and I was working, Jody sometimes took them to see her family (her parents often sent them tickets to see them in the States. They didn’t send a ticket for me, I suppose they’d think I was too busy at work) and I was left here alone.
I’d still sit in the same place. It was lovely and quiet the first two days: no one fighting over the last piece of cake; no shouting but then I felt lonely. Just me at the end of this vast piece of wood, staring into a void.
Marcus wants to replace this table. No way. Our history is engraved in its skin, like a tattoo. It is our family map. I want my coffin carved from this table. Marcus says that’s morbid but now I’ve got this diagnosis. We’ll have to see what the tests reveal. I haven’t told the children. Opening the hospital letter reminded me of his affair. Marcus looked pained. It was as if he felt the illness was somehow his fault.
Even though the kids have left home now, I keep their chairs tucked in at the side, like the folded wings of insects.
We still sit in our places, even when only one of them is here. I like the angle from my seat: looking around and seeing everyone, like a lighthouse perusing the sea for lost ships. The sun pours in, illuminating their faces.
Mostly, however, it is just Marcus and me. Martha lives in Berkley with her partner, Sophie, near to my widowed Pa in his retirement home. Maya’s nursing in London and Reuben’s got his own flat. Fay’s travelling.
I run my fingers over the bumps and wounds of this table. It is authentic; tells no lies.
Marcus and I rarely talk these days. Heads bowed, hair thinning, we eat our dinner quietly. We have run out of words. In my mind, I recall laughter and singing and clapping filling the room from floor to ceiling. It is a happy film running inside my head. The surface is a mirror; I see us aging in front of it.
The vast table stretches between us, like an empty road.
Tamar Hodes was born in Israel in 1961 and and lived in Greece and South Africa before settling in the UK in 1967. She read English and Education at Homerton College, Cambridge. For the past thirty two years she has taught English in schools, universities and prisons. Her novel Raffy’s Shapes was published by Accent Press in 2006 and chosen as the book of the month by Waterstones in October of that year. It was followed by The Watercress Wife and Other Stories in 2011 and later The Water and the Wine described in the San Francisco Review of Books as ‘a fine treasure.’ Tamar has had stories on Radio 4 and others in anthologies including Salt’s Best British Short Stories 2015, The Pigeonhole, Your One Phone Call, the Ofi Press (Mexico), and MIR online (Birkbeck College). Her novel The Mauves was shortlisted for the Wells Literature Festival children’s writing prize; her story The Boating Pond longlisted for the Frome prize, and Letter to the Sea was a runner-up in Elle magazine’s short story competition. The City of Stories won third prize in the Retreat West Flash Fiction competition.