by Phil Cummins

SHE CAME INTO the kitchen where me and Viv sat doing our homework at the table, her eyes red-rimmed and lips clamped tight, the hall phone having been slammed hard back down into its cradle just moments earlier. ‘Fuckin’ bastard!’ she muttered, two words that told us he’d left her stuck for a few bob again. We kept hush as she set to work peeling spuds at the sink, her broad back trembling as she worked the knife under the skins.

Scattered over the counter was the makings of a coddle–spuds, carrots, onions and parsley all set to be boiled up with soup mix or chicken stock into a browny green mush, a few cheap sausages and streaky rashers chucked in for good measure. A poor man’s stew Mam sometimes called it. For extra flavour she’d sometimes squirt in a dollop of Chef Sauce or a spoonful of Bovril if we had any. Mam used words like “hearty” and “full of goodness” and “even nicer reheated the next day” when serving us coddle. A meal to “put hairs on your chest” she’d sometimes say to me. No great fan of the coddle meself, I tended to think of it more along the lines of “the most shite dinner ever invented” and “fit only for billy goats and scruffy farmers.” Dished up in a bowl, the sausages resembled rude little pink cocks floating in broth the colour of ditch water and the rashers with their fatty rinds boiled to rubber would stick between your teeth like elastic bands. Almost as bad was the gamey hum of the stuff wafting off the walls of the flat for days afterwards. But I knew how much she loved us; that she was just trying to make do with what she could afford.

When she was done with her peeling, she paused for a minute to stare down into the sink before abruptly rinsing the spuds off and slicing them up on the draining board into chips. I shot a hopeful glance towards Vivienne, whose eyes were as wide as saucers. Mam turned around then, rooting her smokes out from the front pocket of her apron. ‘Would you pair look crooked at a plate of chips?’ she asked us, a strained smile just barely lifting the corner of her mouth as she wiped the heel of her palm under her eye.

‘But it’s not Friday, Mam,’ said Viv.

‘Don’t you mind what day of the week it is, pet,’ she replied. ‘Get the chip pot goin’ for me like a good lad, Tommy. I’ll just be outside havin’ a fag.’

I didn’t need to be asked twice. Compared to coddle, a plate of thick cut chips deep-fried to a crispy golden brown and drenched in vinegar was “manna from heaven”–that meant “food from the Gods” according to our teacher, a lanky streak by the name of Mister Sweeney. Moving at speed before she could change her mind, I hauled the chip pot out from the cupboard beneath the sink and wrestled it up onto the stove’s main gas ring. Burnt black on the outside from countless Fridays, the inside of the pot contained a two-inch thick cake of hardened dripping that Mam would occasionally top up by lobbing in a half-pound bar of Frytex. It was only as I reached across to fetch matches from the windowsill that I caught an unwelcome sight inside the pot that convinced me coddle was back on the menu. The solid dripping, normally as smooth as a baby’s arse, was etched with dozens of tiny paw prints that trailed across its surface to cluster around a half-gnawed sliver of deep fried gristle jutting upwards from the milky white grease cake like the tip of an iceberg. Their owner had long since scarpered. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, having sometimes heard the soft sounds of skittering coming from the sink cupboard.

Gutted, I looked out the kitchen window, trying to decide if I should go out and tell her. She just stood there gazing out into the cold night beyond our balcony railing, no doubt lost in the memory of happier times before he stopped caring about us. The tip of her cigarette glowed as the light from the bare bulb winked off her tears. Turning towards Viv, I saw her head back down in the copybook, her little tongue poking out from the corner of her mouth as she practiced her joined-up letters.

Striking a match, I set a flame under the pot then and watched the evidence melt away into boiling oil. What they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. Sure, the chips would still taste grand and the heat would burn up any germs.

oOo

Phil Cummins is a Dublin-born academic and writer. He has previously been a runner-up for the Fish Publishing 2020 Short Memoir Prize and his short stories have been long/shortlisted in various competitions. His writing has featured in a range of publications and anthologies including The Galway ReviewThe Dillydoun ReviewFictive DreamBooks Ireland, and Storgy.