55 - Meat Loaf
Staring wistfully out of the bedroom window Winston listened to the hail and rain machine gunning the window panes. There was a lot for him to worry about these days. If the glass might smash was one of them. Watching the trees unnaturally bending was another and that made him shiver. Not to mention all the other things that persistently got him down. His face carried that lack of sleep look making him appear haggard. Were those worry lines? Or just the effects of age. With a quiet subdued voice aimed at the window, he said, “Sunday…. They’re coming today. I hope this storm won’t stop them. We’ve always looked forward to them coming.” Looking towards the bed, he continued, “I’ll go and make breakfast.” And slumped off down the stairs gloomily staring at the treads.
The kitchen had an obvious woman’s touch but Sunday was traditionally his wife’s day off. A chance to rest from the stresses of ensuring a happy household while he went off to work. The gas ring flared. The whistle raised through the octaves to scream until Winston placed the kettle on the metal trivet. Toast popped and the scrambled eggs thickened with the last couple of stirs. Thick spread butter melted with the creamy goo. Then a sprinkle of salt and a pinch of pepper.
Sitting on a chrome, padded chair at the small table with one drop leaf up and a loaded fork he could see the photograph through the serving hatch. A smiling woman with a lemon-yellow blouse. The top three buttons undone. Was that a hint of white flesh and underwear? A risque thing in those days. She was spinning, her arms twisting around her grey skirt. There had been a wind that day and her long blonde hair was captured within a swirl that swept strands across her face. She was not just smiling but beaming with sheer delight as though she was experiencing an unexpected pleasure for the first time.
His mood lifted more than a fraction and he managed a smile. That memory was strong within him. It touched his soul. Forcing himself to chew eggs and toast he suddenly realised he had never discussed with himself exactly how much he loved his wife. He knew he loved her very much. But exactly how much? Then a thought came to him. What about meatloaf? Wednesday was meatloaf day. For the past twenty years it had been meatloaf day and he hated it. She put pickle in it. That brown pickle with the tang that hit exactly the wrong spot. Just the thought gave him a room 101 moment. But he did not complain. He ate it all until one Tuesday about three years ago when he plucked up the courage.
Dreading to offend he quite sheepishly said, “I know Wednesday is meatloaf day but is it possible to have a change? Can we have something different on Wednesdays?”
She simply smiled with that smile of hers that lifted the corners of her mouth and crunched her eyes. He loved the way she smiled and felt guilty as she said, “Certainly darling.” That was all and he was left undecided. Was she offended? He could reach no conclusion and that worried him.
Anyway, the next day, Wednesday of course, there was no meatloaf. There was a lamb chop. Thursday was usually lamb chop day but that did not necessarily cause him any immediate concern. Was that a bit naive? Apparently so. Sitting down to dinner on Thursday there was meatloaf and it came with a wondrously excited face and, “I know it’s your favourite so I thought I’d swap days. You’ll not miss out this way.” He was trapped. To say more would simply confirm his previous dilemma so he ate it all with a well disguised relish and has done so ever since. Meatloaf with pickle.... That was how much he loved his wife he thought and that far exceeded his ‘very much’ assertion.
His Sunday routine was like granite. Out with the duster, polish and vacuum. Tea at ten thirty with their favourite shortbread. Winston loved the vacuum. It gave him power. The one thing in the house that was genuinely his domain. Bad backs and the vacuum did not mix. But these days like everything it was a struggle.
Talking of mixing. Flour, eggs and other things went into the bowl. A Victoria sponge with raspberry jam and cream filling. His wife’s favourite that he now made the last Sunday of the month when their twin daughters came for tea. That thought momentarily lifted his spirits.
With the cake in the oven he peeled vegetables struggling with shaking hands. He had started going to church on Sundays for mid-morning service while lunch was cooking. She always went to church so he knew she would appreciate his involvement. Beef today. Just a small cut. Not so much was needed these days.
The oven dinged and he removed the sponge. Pushed in a slender probe and satisfied, put the cake on a rack to cool. With the oven hot he put in the beef, the potatoes and carrots. Set the timer to resume cooking in thirty minutes for one hour.
A subdued tie was best, he thought. Neatly tied over a fresh white shirt with her favourite Windsor knot. Then he was pulling on his jacket. It might have been the right size but it drooped off his shoulders as though it was expecting more pounds to grip onto. Checked the oven timer then out of the front door for the short stroll to church. The large umbrella struggled to remain intact in the strong wind. Fortunately, he was walking into the wind and able to crouch walk behind it as he pushed his way through the gale. The rain had eased but still managed to sneak under the canopy to soak the bottoms of his trousers.
Shaking the umbrella nearly dry he left it in the church porch. He always forgot how cool it was inside. Too much stone and bare wood. The solid pews and all that stone had virtually no acoustic quality. The echoey rhythm of the sermon today was virtually irrelevant. The priest standing in his pulpit foolishly hoping there might be some late comers. Droning on about infidelity in the modern age. Something that had never applied to Winston. The collection plate took only a few seconds to pass through four pairs of hands.
Walking back the wind had abated. It had stopped raining. He looked at his watch. Thirty minutes for the beef to finish so he took his time. The bench in the village square on the green was empty so, wiping it dry with his handkerchief, he sat. Stretched out his legs. Leant back with his hands behind his head. Closed his eyes. He saw his wife sitting up in bed smiling through the obvious pain as he brought her tray of eggs for breakfast. One triangle of toast that he knew she would not eat. Tea she would let go cold before taking maybe three sips. She did eat some of the eggs. That at least was something. She would have lunch but he needed to cut the meat so finely. One potato. A small carrot. Ten or twelve peas. Even then she would mainly push it all around the small plate that seemed so large. Watching her slowly fade away was so upsetting. He sighed, sat up, checked the time and walked the last ten minutes home. The smell of roast beef was encouraging. He suddenly felt hungry and that surprised him. He felt hungrier than he had in over two years.
After lunch the cake had cooled and Winston made the cream and raspberry filling. Spread it thickly just as she liked it. Then to the conservatory to lay the table for tea. Four places. A plain white table cloth. Pale yellow plates and silver cake forks. Matching cups and saucers. Small yellow vase of her favourite sweet peas from the garden where they miraculously came up each year. On the window sill a picture of the girls when they were three. Wearing their identical lemon-yellow dresses. He was meticulous not wanting to let her down. Everything was ready.
At 4.45 Winston put on the kettle and waited for the whistle. Warmed the large pale yellow teapot. Put the cake on the fancy white doily on the low yellow cake stand. Put it in the centre of the table. Polished the silver cake knife. Put milk in the small white jug. He had dropped the pale yellow one only a few months ago and that had made him cry. Sob uncontrollably to himself for at least ten minutes slipping deeper into depression for days. He looked out of the window. The sun was just visible as a silhouette through the rapidly thinning clouds.
Five o’clock there was the rattle of a key and talking. Then a loud, “Hello…. Dad it’s us.” Winston knew it was them as soon as he heard the key. Besides, no one called much these days. Socialising was his wife’s domain. He heard them hang coats on the newel post. Laughing talk as they came down the hall. They were cheerful, he thought.
“I’m in the conservatory,” he shouted and saw them come through the dining room. Laura and Lucy, identical twins. Wearing identical lemon-yellow blouses. He felt so lucky to have not one but two girls who even at forty still looked exactly like their mother when he first met her when she was twenty-five all those years ago. She had been wearing a lemon-yellow blouse and grey skirt, her blonde hair swirling around her head all the time laughing in the wind.
“How are you Dad?” Laura said with a concerned look on her face. She looked at Lucy who just nodded. Their father looked thin. Thinner they thought than last month.
“Bearing up.” He said, “I’ve done all the usual work. The place is spotless.”
“Did you have breakfast?”
“Scrambled eggs. The same as always. It was her favourite Sunday breakfast.”
“Beef. She loved beef. But just a small bit. Enough for one these days.”
“Have you been to church?” Lucy asked.
“Yes, for the midday service.”
“Did you speak to her?”
“Yes, and she’s looking forward to seeing you today. I’ve made her cake and picked the sweet peas. Look. Everything is as it should be, isn’t it? Just as she would've liked it.” He looked at them both, his sad eyes desperate for their approval. He cut them a slice of cake. Poured the tea.
Laura said, “We’re concerned dad. Are you looking after yourself?”
“I’m getting better at it. I was hungry today at lunch. Ate all the beef and vegetables. I’m happier now. I look at her photo and the depression lifts a bit more everyday.”
“That’s good but you need to try harder dad. She’s been gone for two years now. Is it time to move on yet?” Lucy said, looking at the empty place.
“Soon. I think I’m in transition. I’m moving from loss to acceptance. That’s what the counsellor said anyway. It’s memories now that are important. That’s what she said. It’ll be very soon now, I’m just about ready. You know, I’ve stopped making the meatloaf so that’s a good start, don’t you think?”