“Something had saved Goldilocks but she couldn’t remember what it was”: a story of home and hunger

Pauline Talbot walked along Greenham Street carrying a cup of gravy. The top of the cup was covered in Gladwrap and the whole sheathed in silver foil. She held it in both hands, like a chalice. In her urgency she had no thought of a basket or any of the other motherly things that might have been appropriate: a gingham cloth, a jar of cookies or a napkin lightly enclosing a few scones. But in every other respect she played her role. She was the bearer of gravy.

Heart pounding with that high precious energy that might precede an actor’s soliloquy, she had lifted the roast she was cooking out of the pan and set it aside before it was properly done. Then she drained the fat, stirred in a heaped tablespoon of flour and boiled the jug. Soon the gravy was bubbling and thickening. She took down a cup – “Just a cup, Mother, that’s all I need, no more for heaven’s sake” – and tipped the pan towards it. She set the roast back in the remainder for the rest of its juices to run, turned the oven off, got her keys and the chalice, and left the house.

It would be just a handover, Pauline knew that. It was implied in Melissa’s voice. You might be able to make gravy but… and then came vagueness, strained sensibilities upon which a cup of gravy could expect to make the same impression a twig makes on a forest floor. Pauline found herself thinking of the Three Bears as she walked down the hill at the end of her street and rounded the corner where there was a rustic pub and a car yard. Something had saved Goldilocks but she couldn’t remember what it was. Modesty or not clearing a bowl, though in the TV advertisement the old hierarchies were restored and Father Bear scooped up the largest share of the chocolates, leaving Baby Bear only one or two.

*

Melissa, looking anxiously out the window of the near-falling-down-house she and Jack had rented for the first six months of their marriage, touched the flaking wooden sill. Her father-in-law had re-covered the worst of the bathroom walls with new Gibraltar board, a puzzle to the landlord when he came to advise the demolition date. “The bulldozer is booked,” he said, looking meaningfully at the fresh beige walls. But Melissa was grateful for the extravagance, sensing it meant approval. She emulated it in smaller ways: daisies in jars on the window sills, a frilled curtain to cover the dark maw under the sink where rustlings were heard at night. The wind came through the cracks in the walls and the carpet runner undulated over sinking floorboards.

Even in their first married weeks certain decisions had been taken. The studio would occupy the front room because it had the best light, while the living quarters would be relegated to the back. In the evenings, while Jack worked at his cleaning job, Melissa cooked on the rusted stove whose door did not close properly.

The image of herself bending over a little casserole she had lovingly prepared, lifting the lid, bringing her nose close and feeling her cheeks flush with steam, would stay with Melissa long after the marriage was over. She wished Jack could have witnessed the tenderness she felt was in her gesture. She was still in her work clothes, though she had kicked off her shoes and her stockinged toes snagged on the scrap of carpet. One ear – part of the tenderness – was on the doorbell which Jack would punch, and she would slide the shepherd’s pie back into the oven and – the largest tenderness of all – run to answer it.

And now, leaning out the window of the studio, Melissa saw her mother coming along the street, back ramrod-straight and something in her hand throwing off silver gleams like a mirror.

*

Jack Nightingale had two hours before he needed to leave for his cleaning job at the railway station. He was nursing a beer while he argued with Lawrence Blount. Blount was a minimalist whom Jack privately despised. He ignored the fact his own art – expressionist, given to powerful surges of feeling in which viewers could participate through sheer raw power – also had elements of calculation. It was the excessive prior thoughtfulness of Blount’s work that annoyed, as if 90 percent thought was required to 10 percent execution. Still Lawrence was a useful foil, and they had been at Art School together before Jack walked out. They might have a joint exhibition, though no gallery had as yet offered. Now Lawrence pulled out a folder of geometric drawings, and Jack put his beer down and peered at them. When he didn’t offer a remark, Lawrence started saying something about the artificiality of the skull grimacing on the swatch of purple cloth, the Vat ’69 bottle with gutted candle. Jack was thinking he needed a model and wondering if Melissa would countenance one and how he would go about it.

It was almost a relief to be at the railway station, one of the band of Excelsior Cleaners with their overalls, buckets and mops. The old station could never be made clean. Every night just after they finished a goods train came through and the dust and grit from the rails flew up, sticking to the still-damp windows. This undoing, so irritating to their supervisor, made Jack laugh. And so did the thought of the roast dinner Melissa had promised. It would be 10pm before he got home, but she would be on full alert, warming the plates. He remembered his mother’s roasts and hoped Melissa had mastered gravy.

*

Pauline had intended to hand the gravy over without a word, turn on her heel and leave, but of course that was impossible. The walk had made her tired – thoughts of her daughter and her marriage kept intruding, though she tried to concentrate on the houses and gardens she passed. An elderly man had called to her and waved, and she had waved back, tempted to stop and rest. Soon she was climbing the steep unfenced path to her daughter’s house. There was no garden, just a lawn of weeds and seed heads. The path, of broken slabs, continued around the side of the house. Pauline knocked at the back door and Melissa’s voice came from behind her, almost making her drop the cup. Her daughter was knee-deep in the long grass, pulling towels and sheets from the clothesline.

“When is it coming down?” Pauline asked when the gravy, unacknowledged, had been set down on the bench. From the oven came the scent of meat cooking.

“Five more weeks,” Melissa said. “We’ve started flat hunting.” There were lines of cars to inspect even the most dilapidated place. Jack might have to elbow someone out of the way, to use his charm on the landlady. Useless to try to explain to her mother that this really was their first home. Images would come from it, not just in paintings in which not a single item would be recognisable, but in individual touches: the brown striped teapot, the ruffle under the sink, the cage holding the slice of yellow soap that was agitated in the sink. In the hallway an earthenware pot, one of the wedding presents, held dried grasses and hydrangeas that had turned remarkable colours as they were denied water.

“I can’t think why Jack’s father bothered with the bathroom.”

Melissa didn’t answer. She knew it was affection, an imprimatur, like a book blessed by the Church. From their first meeting she had felt this liking, though Jack had dominated.

“You’ve got a small saucepan?” her mother asked. “You can just heat it on the element.”

“I think I can manage that,” Melissa said.

“And you won’t tell Jack I brought it.”

‘I’ll pretend it was an angelic visitation.”

A flicker of understanding passed between them. Understanding between them was rare. There was a generalised sympathy, but it was far back like a vista from a window. Pauline went to the window now, as if she was expecting Jack to appear, though it would be hours before he did.

“At least you don’t need to mow the lawn.”

“Perhaps at our next place,” Melissa said, and already, even if they fought off the hordes, it felt like a loss.

“Well, I must go.”

“I appreciate it,” Melissa said. “I know Jack likes gravy.”

“I expect his mother was good at it.”

“Superb, I expect. But not as good as you.”

*

“Gravy,” Jack said, when he had thrown off his overall smelling of smoke and carbolic, and washed his hands with the gleaming cake of Lux soap in the newly gibbed bathroom. He examined the stubble on his cheeks in the foxed mirror above the basin and decided it suited him. He was ravenous. The openness of the platforms, the air passing through, seemed to have a hungry, devouring edge to it. He always made sure he was leaning on his mop or dabbing futilely at the stationmaster’s window when the 8.50 Express came through. The way it filled the space and left it bereft. The sheer sexuality of it lifted his spirits. And now a little roast from some tender innocent animal and a rich gravy which could be poured over the mashed potatoes Melissa had kept hot in a green dish with a lid.

“I thought you said you couldn’t make it,” he said, helping himself to more than half the gravy boat.

“You can’t expect me to reveal all my secrets,” Melissa replied archly. Perhaps he would think it was a recipe book. His mother-in-law bearing a silver cup was a stretch too far. But Jack was eating voraciously and reaching for more before she had her share.

“Don’t eat so fast,” she said.

*

By day Melissa went to her job in Fauntleroy’s Bookshop and Jack painted in his studio. Friends dropped in and watched as he stood at the easel. If no one called, he played music: Stravinsky, Bartók, Mahler. The wallpaper was hanging in strips, so he wiped his brushes on it before setting them to soak in a big jar of turps. The room smelled of linseed oil and stewed coffee mixed with the scents of last night’s cooking. Behind the easel were two easy chairs, one with a tapestry fabric stiffened with paint. A tea trolley held tubes of paint, dry brushes in a dry jar, unwashed coffee cups, a bag of sugar with a sugar-encrusted spoon. After a good morning’s work Jack would light a cigarillo and stretch out his legs in the fabric chair. He would turn his head towards the window, source of the unforgiving north light that was the artist’s friend. Already he had done a sketch of Melissa in that light and she had protested at the lines around her eyes.

Melissa at the same time was unpacking new stock and checking invoices. Fauntleroy’s was in a good location but it was very cramped. Melissa considered the black walls were a mistake. Still the book covers glowed, especially the line of Penguins. There was a low table with a bowl of gerberas, and a glass of pencils and Biros, always threatening to topple, beside the till.

At 1pm Melissa took her sandwich, prepared the night before, from her satchel. She crossed the road and sat in the municipal park close to the statue of a philanthropist. The air was faintly chill, so she pulled her scarf close around her throat and held her sandwich, in its greaseproof wrapping, between fingerless gloves. The remainder of the roast she had left for Jack. The gravy boat was soaking in the sink.

*

At 2pm,  the same moment Melissa was wrapping a copy of Françoise Gilot’s Life with Picasso for a young woman, Jack was holding an embryonic salon. He had put his old dressing gown on over his corduroys. The piping on one of the sleeves was loose, and he raised his arm to his face and bit the braid off with his teeth.

“Scissors, Jack,” one of the gallery staff, a young blonde woman called Suze, laughed. “I’ll donate you a pair.”

“Melissa will have some somewhere,” Jack remarked, turning back to his canvas. It was a still life – the coffee pot was discernible, and a bowl and a spoon, but none of the edges were defined. The bowl overlapped the coffee pot like the moon rising from a lake.

“Where is Melissa?” Suze asked in a slightly accusatory manner, as if there was a dereliction of duty.

“At work. Where else?” Jack began filling in the background with silvery tones.

Besides Suze, there were Hamish and Rollo, identical twins whom Jack was thinking of painting, Brendan and his quarrelsome girlfriend Maria. The little studio was crowded. Melissa would have been surprised at so many visitors. By 4pm they had all gone, eased out by Jack. Something in the still life was not working and he rubbed angrily at the background with a cotton rag.

At Fauntleroy’s the young woman had deliberated for a long time over her purchase, taking the book to the sofa and looking closely at the photographs. Melissa knew one of them by heart: Françoise Gilot trudging heavily through the sand, with the elderly Picasso holding a parasol over her head. There was a capering quality in the artist’s gesture, though this may have been caused by his bandy legs.

“Would you like it gift-wrapped?” Melissa asked the young woman when she came to the counter.

“No thanks,” she said.

The rest of the afternoon was stocktaking. Quite a few books were missing. Despite their vigilance, there were still book thieves operating.

*

On Tuesday afternoons, her half-day, Melissa visited her mother. Usually the visit lasted little more than an hour because she was anxious to get home. This particular afternoon she intended to ask her mother to write down the recipe for gravy. At first she had imagined they might make it together, her mother demonstrating while she adopted the pose of a trainee chef. Then she realised that gravy – the sort that was not mocked up from a packet of powdered ingredients – required the cooking of meat. However, her mother seemed pleased to be asked and even suggested that packet gravy, in an emergency, could be disguised with a dash of red wine or a teaspoon of Bovril dissolved in boiling water.

“How much wine?” Melissa wanted to know, and Pauline understood her daughter would never be a cook.

Then, since Melissa was looking tired and had dark rings under her eyes, Pauline suggested she have a rest on the day bed before she left. Unwillingly Melissa lay down, and her mother covered her with a soft chenille throw.

“Wake me in an hour,” she said as her mother backed out as if in the presence of royalty.

But Pauline had let her sleep on. Two hours, three. She slept like someone felled.

When Melissa finally awoke there was a short sharp argument and she practically ran from the house. Along the street her mother had carried the gravy, down the hill and across the intersection. She hardly knew why she panicked and her heart pounded.

Jack had left for work when she arrived. And she had left the gravy recipe behind.

*

       Remove the roast from the pan and pour off all the dripping

       except the amount needed for the gravy. Add the flour and

       brown slightly. Add boiling water and stir until thickened.

Pauline found it on the bedside table where Melissa had put it before she fell asleep like the Sleeping Beauty. A sleep that sometimes overcomes young children who have played all day without a moment’s pause. Melissa and her brother Paul had played like that. At midday she had washed their hands and handed them a peanut-butter sandwich and a glass of milk. At night they fell asleep almost the moment they were lifted from the bath. Her husband dried Paul in a big fluffy towel while she dried Melissa.

Her husband had died while Paul and Melissa were teenagers. He had left a legacy for each, so Paul was able to study law and Melissa go to Art School. Pauline was thankful he had never met Jack, though she missed having someone to share her concerns. For surely her daughter was too weak to withstand a force of personality so much stronger than her own. The way she had sprung from the bed and rushed off, barely stopping to dash water on her face and comb her hair. And now, instead of putting her art training to good use, she was working in a bookshop.

The least Pauline felt she could do was to write the gravy recipe out again in her best handwriting. She got a clean sheet of paper and headed it Basic Gravy. When the ingredients and the method were set out in a manner that might have satisfied Julia Child, she added a few notes at the bottom. It was important not to be alarmed when the flour and the rich drainings from the roast formed a kind of roux. The water must be boiling properly. Finally, she took an envelope and addressed it to her daughter. On the back flap she wrote her return address. There was still a letterbox and the mail would be delivered, although a demolition notice had appeared on the fence. And if the letter disappeared it would be no great loss.

By the full stop after her name Pauline added a small x which would probably go unnoticed.

*

Deliberately Melissa avoided dishes that needed gravy. She cooked pasta and wove vegetables through the white coils and strands; she made macaroni cheese with a single ham steak cut into cubes. And she discovered lamb shanks after she and Jack and the salon group dined at a tiny bistro in the suburbs. It was called The Blue Door and the two young chefs who ran it were fresh from cooking school. They chatted and flirted, and late in the evening when the guests were drinking coffee one of the young men, still in his chef’s uniform, brought out his guitar and played his own compositions.

“Rousseau probably ate lamb shanks”, Lawrence mused, mopping up the last of the rich wine gravy with a piece of bread and then running his middle finger around the plate for good measure. “Someone should write a book and call it Artists’ Food.”

“The Food that Artists Ate”.

“The Food that Inspired the Art”.

“I should have thought most of them had pretty lousy digestions. All that booze…”

“Absinthe, sloe gin…”

“Calvados,” sighed Jack. He was thinking of Simenon. He didn’t see why, if he cut a hole in the door between his studio and the passage, Melissa couldn’t set his meals down at prescribed hours.

“Are you a Simenon fan?” Suze asked, turning her eyes towards him.

It was a coup-de-foudre. Mind-reading and then desire. Not that he planned to be unfaithful to Melissa. Or not just yet.

“I couldn’t read him again after his autobiography,” Melissa said. She avoided Jack’s eye. “He was such a bastard.”

*

Pauline had done everything in her power to stop Melissa marrying Jack. She wished her husband was alive to say that women are not good judges of men. He could have suggested it gently, offered himself as a loving adviser. Perhaps they are not meant to be, she thought. Despite this, some chose with good sense and others fell into a fast-moving river and were swept away.

She saw that Jack offered everything that was the opposite of her late husband’s character. She wondered if Melissa possessed an unacknowledged half-ashamed anger at her father’s death which she equated with abandonment. Pauline had felt something similar when her best friend went on a cruise, and it had taken a considerable effort on her part to behave in a welcoming manner when she returned.

And now her role seemed to consist of little household hints: how to remove a stain, how to make gravy. Yet she could not relinquish her disapproval. It was not concealed from Jack, and sometimes she imagined it might even be admired. It was certainly acknowledged.

‘I say,’ he said several nights after she had delivered her chalice. ‘It wasn’t the witch who brought the gravy?’

*

Jack’s first exhibition – a group show – was at a gallery called 21. Melissa, climbing the stairs behind him, straightened her shoulders and tugged down the hem of her skirt. She felt her face settling into a bland expression: interested, ready to beam if a sale went through. A red sticker elicited a shriek from the gallery owner and a dash into the storeroom. A circle formed around the chosen painting and a few people clapped. Melissa smiled at the number of people who were on the verge of buying what was now safely out of reach.

That evening three paintings sold, not a bad result – no stickers would be dire – and the most eminent critic was seen snooping about like a bloodhound, going up close to an exhibit and then standing back.

It was late when the last glass of wine was drunk. If it had been New York they could have repaired to a speakeasy and waited for the first reviews. But reviews for a group show were unlikely, though the critic might graciously single out one of the three. Melissa hoped it would be Jack.

Only the pie cart was open in a side street. It looked like a long white slug. They ordered pies with mashed potatoes and mushy peas.

“You don’t have gravy?” Jack asked.

*

The bulldozer arrived and began to demolish what was left of the stone wall, then the concrete path. Then it moved to the back where it tore up the grass and brought down the clothesline with a nonchalant swipe of its blade. Melissa, packing kitchen utensils into a cardboard box, saw an old apple tree upended, its clustered roots like a bunched-up skirt.

Miraculously, through charm and word of mouth, Jack had found a flat. He had simply let it be known, starting with the art show, that he needed painting space and somewhere to live. He implied these could be separate. Some old commercial building with a high ceiling and north light. In the end he had both a flat and a studio. The flat was half a house in not much better repair than the house that was now being demolished.

“Pity about the bathroom, love,” the bulldozer driver had said. He had his eye on some of the gib board. Melissa told him to help himself.

Melissa yelped suddenly when a mouse trap with a slice of ancient cheese caught her finger as she reached under the sink. She thought, as she packed the green casserole with its crackled glaze, that she would take only the expression she had felt herself wearing as she bent over and raised the lid. She was beginning to have an inkling of where art led. Gravy was the least of it.

*

Yet in the next flat and the one after, the eventual house with its bourgeois mortgage, Melissa did learn to make gravy. She got out her mother’s recipe (found among her cookery books after Pauline died, with an inscription for my dear daughter) and wrote notes in the margins alongside her mother’s elegant hand. At first, discovering it, she had cried, and then she remembered her mother’s walk. The queenly procession, the chalice made of tinfoil. She thought she might stand at her mother’s grave and recite it. Lift the cooked meat from the pan and set aside. It is important for the meat to rest. The bringing of the gravy.

“Gravy” is taken from a stunning collection of short stories The Piano Girls by Elizabeth Smither (Quentin Wilson Publishing, $35).

Elizabeth Smither has published written 18 poetry collections, six novels and five short story collections.

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