It will end badly. She knows this from the start, although for whom she is less sure. Her boyfriend of six months proudly offers her up for his parents’ approval, like a cat bringing home a particularly juicy mouse.
The old man does not move from his chair. His eyes travel slowly from her feet to the top of her head and back down again as he noisily sucks on a Polo mint. He swallows twice, then licks his lips before speaking. He can tell she is a girl who enjoys her food, he says. She forces a smile, wrapping her cardigan around her.
It will be ham salad for tea, her boyfriend has confidently informed her. Sunday is always ham salad. Monday is cottage pie, Tuesday is some strange dish he calls ‘Scouse’. So it goes on, week after week, with no deviation.
The meal is set out on the table already. A hard-boiled egg with black rimmed yolk nestles on a limp lettuce leaf. One large, watery tomato has seemingly been shared between the four of them. They have each been allocated three chunks of cucumber. Slices of ham are beginning to curl at the edges. There is no dressing. A fly hovers greedily
She has been well brought up. Smiling politely she rearranges the components of her meal on her plate, taking the occasional small bite. When she looks up, the old man’s eyes are upon her.
‘Get some bread with it.’ he commands, indicating a pile of thick white slices in the centre of the table.
‘Best butter’, her boyfriend’s mother boasts. These are the first words she has spoken.
She is a student, which is a source of irritation. Could she not find a job, the old man asks. Flushing with indignation, she babbles about the importance of education, career goals, long-term plans. He snorts, not even trying to hide his contempt.
‘We’ve got a right one ‘ere.’ he tells his son. Everyone laughs, although she knows he is not joking.
It should end here. She is worth more, she tells herself. But she is reluctant to relinquish that feeling of satisfaction when girls much prettier than her wonder how she has snared this perfect boyfriend. He is ridiculously good looking. And, even better, he appears to have no opinions of his own. He waits to be told what to think, and she can be the one to tell him. She can mould him into a man fit for her purpose. She can steal him away from this culinary desert.
She begins to feed him. He grows greedy for each new ingredient. He has never tasted a mushroom, is unable to identify a courgette. She teaches him to eat spaghetti without embarrassment, to use chopsticks. Gently, she mocks his parents’ weekly menu. He joins in. One Sunday, at tea, he suggests that his mother should purchase a bottle of salad dressing. There is a silence. The old couples’ eyes flick accusingly towards her, knowing this is her doing. She holds back her smirk of triumph.
Bolder now, because she knows she has him, she begins to voice her opinions at the tea table. At first, the old man laughs, as at a toddler trying on her mother’s high heels. Then, as she grows more ruthless in her trampling of his long held beliefs, he grows angry. He roars, pounds the table, spits his venom at her. After one heated exchange, she scrapes back her chair and silently leaves, knowing she will be pursued. She has won.
They go back, of course, weeks later. For his mother’s sake, they tell one another. There are tears and apologies. They agree to differ. The old man meets her eye over his son’s shoulder as they embrace awkwardly. She is not forgiven, he silently tells her.
Time passes. They marry. She has her career and then, because she is a reasonable woman, and willing to compromise, a late baby, at the tail-end of her fertility. She works from home. Her husband’s mother dies as quietly and uncomplainingly as she has lived. The old man grumbles his way through widowerhood, existing on the home-cooked chips which are his entire cooking repertoire. His sight begins to fail. The chip pan proves to be his downfall. Left forgotten as he trudges to the corner shop, it bursts into flames, which consume most of the house before he returns.
There is talk of a nursing home. It will be the death of him, he moans. He sobs, his head in his hands. They have four bedrooms, and only one child, as his older siblings are swift to point out. There seems only one solution.
His presence invades every room in her house. His stained, battered armchair, the only thing salvaged from the fire, spoils the clean, minimal lines of her living room. He pulls it close to the television, from which the inane daytime shows she despises blare at full volume. She waits for the neighbours to complain. She says nothing. Her nails make permanent indentations in the palms of her hands.
She comes to dread visits from friends or business clients. He is like some grotesque Dickens creation. His clothes shame her – trousers worn and shining at the knees, with a lifetime’s fluff and crumbs collecting in their turn-ups. His jumper carries food stains older than her daughter. She purchases new things, which he refuses to wear.
‘These will see me out Lass, ‘he says.
She travels miles, every day, to purchase his newspaper of choice, fearing the judgement of her local newsagent. He holds it close to his face, then alerts her to the latest threat to her existence. Asylum seekers, epidemics, impending hurricanes. Every word he accepts without question. From time to time he picks up her own newspaper, gives a derisory snort and tosses it aside.
‘Waste of money’ he proclaims, as though his own money has been wasted.
She lovingly smoothes out the pages, knowing better now than to speak.
She turns away when he eats, but nothing blocks out the sound of his toothless gums smacking together. Occasionally he reaches into his mouth and extracts some half –chewed morsel.
‘Can’t get shut of it,’ he complains. Each time, she understands it as a personal rebuke.
He has a talent for seeking out the negative in every good thing. He asks to see her daughter’s report. The child waits expectantly, a shy smile on her lips, anticipating the praise she is accustomed to. He reads in silence, his head nodding. Finally, triumphantly, he pounces. His knobbly finger jabs the paper. She is reluctant to join in with PE. She needs to improve, he tells her. The child gasps. Her departing glance, as she flees is reproachful. Her parents have exposed her to unexpected pain. She asks to have her meals in her room.
At night, she listens to his breathing in the next room. Even her toes clench in irritation as he snorts and wheezes his way through the night. Sometimes, there is a silence. She waits, hovering between fear and hop. But always, he splutters back to life. Oblivious beside her, her husband sleeps soundly.
Most of the food she puts before him is rejected. Her al dente vegetables are too hard. Most of the dishes she prepares are foreign, thus potentially hazardous. He knows what he likes. She begins to feed him separately, boiling his vegetables until they are drained of their nutrients.
She discovers her daughter plotting her grandfather’s demise. Cross-legged on her bed, she plunges a knitting needle again and again into an old family photograph. The child looks up with tear-filled eyes, awaiting reprimand. She sits beside her, resisting the urge to make some stab wounds of her own. She winks conspiratorially.
She serves the Sunday meal. Her husband says he will have what the old man is having. Together, trays on their knees, they devour their overcooked vegetable, smaning at the television. The old man looks up at her, with victory in his eyes.
She prepares lunch. She knows he will reject a prawn sandwich. Seafood is unexplored, forbidden territory to him. She sandwiches the pink morsels between white bread and best butter. It is ham, she tells him. He begins to chew.
She watches in awe as his throat begins to swell. His lips become enormous, until she fears they will burst. His breath is a high pitched whistle. She marvels at how, for once, the God she doesn’t believe in is on her side. She waits just long enough for it to be too late, not quite long enough to arouse suspicion. As she dials the number, she thinks how smart those new black shoes will look in the coffin.