by Kerry Hadley-Pryce
IT’S STILL LIGHT when the taxi pulls up outside the house. Jamie pays with cash and adds a little tip. For some reason, Susan had suggested taking a taxi, though they could have walked from the station which was literally only moments away. There are lights in all the windows of the house, and the curtains, Jamie notices, the net curtains, flicker. There’s a short wall at the front on which there is a smallish hand-painted sign saying, “Beware of the Dog.” Susan, having put on a bit of lipstick, smiles at him, then at the house. The road is a cul-de-sac of 1960s semi-detached houses. Jamie looks down the road and realises that from a particular angle, the precision of all the roofs looks like an art installation. German Expressionism. Perspective, that, he thinks. As he looks more closely, he realises that in the upstairs window of each house, someone, a child perhaps, stares out, unmoving. He calls to Susan, to point it out to her, but she’s half way down the path and doesn’t seem to hear him, and when he gets his phone out to take a quick snap to show her later, he can’t seem to get it to work, it won’t switch on. He think he must have used up all the battery and plans to charge it up later.
Susan’s mother, wearing an apron, is at the door.
‘I’ve got my key,’ Susan says, and she laughs and rattles them as if she’s just won them in a competition.
Jamie stands on the tarmac drive leaning the suitcases against his legs as the women hug on the doorstep. He realises how alike they are, Susan and her mother, even on first glimpse like that. When he looks up at the upstairs window of the house, no-one is there, no child looking out, and he thinks he might have just imagined things and perhaps it’s the long journey making him more tired than he realises.
Susan’s mother’s eyes are closed for what seems like a long time, and her hands are bony, maybe slightly arthritic, clutching the shoulder blades of her daughter. Jamie coughs. Not because he wants to attract attention, particularly, but because the air is a bit thick and smoky what with them being so close to the station. Susan’s mother’s eyes, when they open are fogged with something, tears or cataracts, or both. ‘Oh,’ she says, as if she wasn’t expecting to see anyone but her daughter. ‘Come on in.’
Inside, the hallway is made up almost entirely of stairs and the smell of roasting meat. ‘Lush,’ Susan says, when she smells it and her mother looks as if the very word has unlocked something in her.
The carpet feels a bit thin under Jamie’s feet and the swirling pattern reminds him of science fiction films he’s seen as a child, or in episodes of Dr. Who. Susan’s mother leads them into the lounge, which is a through-room at the end of which is a dining table, not set. Jamie struggles a bit with the suitcases and doesn’t notice, at first, that someone, a man, is sitting in one of the armchairs.
‘Dad,’ Susan says, and goes over to him and reaches for his hand as if to pull him to a standing position. Jamie notices that this man, Susan’s dad, doesn’t move. In fact, he stays sitting, as if he’s a fixed point in the room, as if seated on a horse, perhaps, his legs splayed with a sense that something might be amiss, orthopaedically.
‘Dad,’ Susan says again. ‘This is Jamie.’
Jamie steps forward, a bit self-conscious, and extends his hand. Susan’s dad looks at him and there is a sense of something, like radio waves emitting. Jamie immediately notices the pockmarked skin on Susan’s dad’s face, like something vibrating just under the surface. Acne, he thinks, surely. Susan’s dad’s eyes shimmer, unfocused.
‘James,’ he says.
‘Jamie,’ Jamie says.
Susan’s mother says something about taking coats and looks benignly at the suitcases blocking the doorway. When Jamie scoots them out of the way, she scurries out saying something about checking the food then appears again carrying plates.
Susan has sat down on the sofa and Jamie notices she’s moved a cushion so that there’s room for him, so he sits down next to her. The gas fire shoots a bluish flame as he does.
‘How are you, Dad?’ Susan says. She’s sitting forward in this way she sometimes does, her body arched as if ready to pounce.
Her dad has a jumper on with a brown stain, a drip of something, soup or gravy or something, down the front. It’s a big jumper, misshapen by frequent wear or over-washing. It makes him look like he’s shrunk. He looks out beyond the back of their heads at the feature wall there, and nods.
‘Your mother’s cooked,’ he says.
‘I’ve cooked,’ Susan’s mother says, as she sets out the plates and cutlery on the dining table.
True enough, the smell of cooking is strong and rich, hanging around in the air, almost visibly so. Jamie suspects it’s roast beef or pork, something animal-based, and he shuffles a bit in his seat.
‘There’s enough for everyone,’ Susan’s mother says, brightly. ‘Don’t move yet.’ And she disappears, or seems to.
There’s a kind of gap, a void, that happens, with only the hiss of the gas fire filling it, and Susan smiles, looking around the place, then says, ‘Jamie’s just finished his PhD.’
‘Nearly,’ Jamie says. ‘I’ve still got the viva to do.’
Susan’s dad heaves a sigh and seems to shake his head, his eyes trained on Jamie’s hand, which is holding Susan’s. ‘Think you’re clever, do you?’ he says.
There’s a clock, a carriage clock, gold coloured, on the mantelpiece that has four balls visibly twirling clockwise, then anticlockwise, and the minute hand clicks, quite loudly to the hour.
‘Ready,’ Susan’s mother calls, and Susan and Jamie stand up, quickly. Susan’s dad shuffles to the edge of his seat and pivots himself up, unfolding into a standing position, grunting, placing his hand on the small of his back. Jamie motions to him to go ahead, but he ignores it, and lets Jamie go first.
The table is covered with a red tablecloth and placemats with pictures of vintage cars. Three of the plates match. Jamie takes the place with the odd plate, and the chair wobbles as he sits. When he looks down, he can see one of the legs is slightly skewiff. Something about the fixing at the seat end isn’t tight enough. Susan’s dad seems to notice him adjusting the way he sits, and shakes his head.
Susan’s mother brings in a baking tray using oven gloves, and places it in the centre of the table. Jamie is right, it’s meat, the carcass’ steam wafts a heavy, salty smell. It still sizzles in its own fat. It still looks like part of a live creature to Jamie—not a leg, more than that. Out of the corner of his eye, Jamie sees, or maybe he just feels, Susan look at him. Susan’s mother brings in dishes of peas and roast potatoes. Susan’s dad, who hasn’t yet sat down, starts sharpening the carving knife with the honing steel. He seems to perform the process as a kind of art form, as an interpretive dance. Watching him is like watching a magician about to produce a bunch of flowers or a rabbit from nowhere. Jamie feels the knife come perilously close to his head but is afraid of moving too much because of the chair, and the loose leg.
Eventually, Susan’s dad stops sharpening the knife, and begins carving the meat. Jamie watches as the knife saws through the flesh, and blood seeps through as if from a fresh wound.
‘Ladies first,’ Susan’s dad says, placing the first slice on Susan’s plate. ‘Gentlemen second.’ And he places the next slice onto his own plate.
Susan’s mother says, ‘Yum.’
Susan picks up the dish of peas and looks at Jamie. She spoons some onto his plate.
Susan’s dad delivers slices of meat to Susan’s mother’s plate, and then on top of Jamie’s peas.
‘Who put the ‘Pea’ in PhD, James, old son?’ he says, and Susan laughs and nudges Jamie’s arm with her elbow. When he looks at her, there’s lipstick on her front tooth and he wants to tell her, but doesn’t. The table seems to rattle, the cutlery; and the tray of meat seems to stir as if, to Jamie, it might awaken, unfurl itself and escape.
‘Vibrations from the train,’ Susan says, and places her hand on the table as if to steady it. Susan’s dad picks up an entire slice of meat with his fork and slowly brings it to his mouth, saying, ‘Late’ or ‘Eat.’
Jamie watches as Susan and her parents cut up the meat on their plates, and eat, hungrily. There is gravy or juice or something running down Susan’s mother’s chin and she doesn’t wipe it away. His own plate of food remains untouched. To attract Susan’s attention, Jamie rests his hand very gently on her thigh. She turns to him and says, ‘Lush,’ then returns to eating her food. Susan’s dad notices and with his mouth full, says, ‘Is he always like this?’ And he turns to Jamie and says, ‘Are you?’
The table rattles again, worse this time, and a couple of peas—four or five—roll off Jamie’s plate onto the red tablecloth. He’s not sure whether to hold onto the table, or his chair, which is also vibrating because of the passing train. When he looks down, he sees the fixing is even looser, and the chair leg has moved to a strange, acute angle. He raises himself slightly so as to take some weight off, and feels the muscles in his legs tense and begin to tremble almost straight away.
Susan has almost finished her meal, and whilst he has been fretting about the chair, she has begun cutting up the meat on his plate. She’s having to work at it because she’s cutting against the grain, and her knife isn’t all that sharp. Still, she pins it down with her fork and saws at it until there are several bitesize pieces. To him, it looks like a child’s meal, cut up like that. Jamie watches as Susan lifts the forkful of food towards his mouth. The meat drips juice, or blood, down onto his thigh—still trembling because of the way he has to sit—and he watches it advance closer and closer still. Susan sits forward, in that way she sometimes does, her mouth open in a wide expectant O. Behind her, Susan’s mother’s mouth is also open. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Susan’s dad’s lips forming the exact same shape. To Jamie, they suddenly look like their open mouths are the only possible openings they have, the only possible way in. And it’s a reaction, maybe unconscious, maybe just an emulation, when he opens his mouth like that, and he feels, rather than tastes the meat on his tongue, and he chews it, and his whole body is trembling, not just his legs. And Susan smiles at him again, her lipstick completely worn away, and she says, ‘Lush,’ and, once he’s swallowed, he plans to say it back.
Kerry Hadley-Pryce is a British writer and academic. Her first novel, The Black Country, published by Salt Publishing in 2015, was part of her MA Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School, for which she gained a distinction and was awarded the Michael Schmidt Prize for Outstanding Achievement 2013–14. Her second novel, Gamble, also published by Salt Publishing in June 2018, was shortlisted for the Encore Second Novel Award 2019. Her third novel, God’s Country, will be published by Salt Publishing in February 2023. She is a PhD candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University researching Psychogeography and Black Country Fiction, teaches creative writing, and has contributed to Palgrave’s ‘Smell, Memory & Literature in the Black Country’ anthology as well as having had short stories published in Fictive Dream and The Incubator and read by Brum Radio: