GALLEY BEGGAR PRESS SHORT STORY PRIZE 2018/19
‘Above the fat’
HIS HAND HOVERS above the hot fat; not so hot as to be spitting and scarring his skin, but warm; warm enough to cook something; warm enough to be tender; warm enough for an egg.
The egg is inside his hand. He checks the temperature of the gas and makes a minute adjustment. If the fat is too hot when the egg hits the pan it will burn; the white will turn to rubber; the yolk will split. No. The fat must not be so hot as to do damage. He adjusts the temperature once more, the blue ring of gas shrinking ever so slightly, his hand motionless above the fat, the egg inside its shell, the fat itself thick and motionless, waiting.
Behind him in the sink is another pan, hurled in anger moments earlier after getting in from the freezer to find the first egg ruined. The pan was hurled across the service area and into a vacant sink. In an hour or so a boy of fifteen or sixteen will show up and find the pan upside down in the steel basin where the burnt egg may have slid towards the plug, the oil no doubt splattered across the clean walls of the sink. He has no idea how it landed. He didn’t look. He just hurled the pan across the room in anger, letting the industrial clang of metal on metal ring out across the silent kitchen. He swore, probably, but he can’t be sure what he said now. All he knows is that before the ringing even stopped he took another pan from the shelf above the hob, placed it on the ring, filled it generously with fat and took an egg from the tray, holding it – as he still does – above the fat, waiting for the temperature to be right, waiting so that he can be sure to have control over the cooking and not be playing catch up with a hot pan, determined to get this right.
Soon the boy – whose name he forgets – will turn up and be angry. He’ll see the sink with the burnt pan and moan. He will moan about the mound of washing up stacked beside him, he will moan about the potatoes he must peel, the spinach he must wash, the cheese he must cut and move out of the fridge to the shelf where it can come to room temperature. In the past the boy has forgotten to move the cheese and this has led to confrontations. The boy has been talked down to about responsibilities and the precarious nature of his employment – “Shouldn’t you still be in school?” the landlord said. “Shouldn’t you be bothering someone else’s workplace?” – but the landlord’s condescending tone will not stop the moaning. The boy will walk through the back door any minute now in his white trainers and spotless peaked cap and moan. In truth there are two boys and he is never sure which will turn up. It is something of a lottery with the boys. Sometimes they show up at ten when he asked them to arrive, other times eleven, sometimes twelve; occasionally they both show up at once and he has to send one of them home; and a few times neither of them has shown up at all, both later claiming to have no idea they were meant to be working. The landlord spat blood. They would be fired, he said. They were insolent. They were good for nothing. They were beyond all kinds of pale. They should be in fucking school. In the kitchen, though, he is more sympathetic. It is not impossible that they are right and he is wrong; that he did not in fact tell them when they were working; or that maybe he told the wrong boy or forgot to tell them entirely. There are two boys remember so it can be confusing. Besides, from what he can tell, both boys – whatever their names – spend a lot of their time stoned. During their afternoon breaks they invariably disappear up the lane to the field, returning half an hour later, clothed in a sweet, organic aroma, their hands focused intently on the warm water in the sink. For this, too, he is sympathetic. He knows that if you are fifteen there isn’t all that much to do out here other than get stoned. If he knew about the boys taking their breaks up in the field, the landlord would no doubt call the boys idiots, good-for-nothings, wasters, just as his own father in turn once called him an idiot, a good-for-nothing and a waster when he himself, aged fifteen, spent much of his time stoned. So no. The boys getting stoned is not something to worry about. It is to be expected and it should also be expected that stoned people are sometimes late or forget that they are meant to be working or don’t show up.
He figures he must have been around the boys’ age when his own father began to dislike him. His Dad was a respectable man. A solicitor. A parish councillor. A reader of neighbouring planning applications. An organiser of fetes and in weekly attendance at church. Around the age of fifteen or sixteen, though, his father began to look at him as if he were a weed peering through the soil of his garden; a stain on his white tablecloth; a speck of mould around the Belfast sink.
“Why does Dad hate me?” he asked his mother – an upstanding woman in her own right, although too often, he thought, lying down; stuck in her room, on her back, surrounded by pillows and well-wishers’ cards.
“He doesn’t hate you,” she would reply. “He loves you very much.”
But she was unwell and so she didn’t know how things moved in the kitchen. The old man’s eyes traced a line around his teenage frame and tried to cut him from the room. It seemed easiest to oblige him. He would stay out late, hanging out with a friend whose Mum worked nights. They smoked a bit of pot. It was something to do.
“You’re a criminal,” the old man said. “I’m a solicitor in case you forget. I can’t believe you’d bring drugs into my home.”
“It’s just a bit of pot Dad.”
He was grounded. No doubt fined pocket money he did not yet have. Angry at the injustice he fought back. He remembers breaking free from his bedroom window, walking for five miles to a party and falling asleep in a vacant playing field. When he returned his old man listed the moments in which he had been stupid, the points when he might well have died. Sanctions swirled around the house as the old man tended to his herbaceous borders.
Of course now, looking back, he can see that he did nothing to help matters. He would go out of his way to wind the old man up. He remembers once mowing the lawn and running the blades of the mower straight over the flowerbeds, shredding marigolds and dahlias until no flowers were left.
“You’re an animal,” the old man said when he found him. “Sometimes I’m not sure I know who you are.”
“Fuck you,” he said.
As soon as he could drive he saved up for a car and as soon as he had a car he left.
His head moves slightly, lowering his knuckles towards the fat as if plumbing for depth. He adjusts the gas. The egg is warming slightly in his hands just as the tray of eggs are warming ever so slightly on the counter where he placed them after he removed them from the walk-in fridge. Really he should not be wasting his time frying eggs, but instead breaking twenty of them into a bowl to make a custard tart. He has the pastry – made the day before – out on the counter and the cream and milk and sugar are ready where he left them before going out to the freezer to pull out five bags of peas that he had decided, suddenly, to turn into pea soup. Nothing special, simple pea soup, served with sour cream and watercress in a tiny bowl or maybe even a coffee cup. Not even something to put on the menu, just a way of clearing space in the freezer as well as letting the people who ate in the pub that evening know that everything was going to be okay. Or at least that was the idea that struck him just after he cracked the first, ill-fated egg, when he remembered all those peas taking up space and thought how well they would go with the fresh watercress he would send the boy to collect from the river – because it was all well and good to moan about how not one of his customers would know good food if it bit them, but what he should really be doing is educating them, and that was what the pea soup would do with its gentle sweetness and sour cream and bitter crunch of watercress. It would educate them. Because people are scared of things they don’t know and stick to patterns that are predictable and limited and safe. To educate, you have to change those patterns and that’s what the pea soup would do. It would say, don’t worry, the food you are about to receive is for eating, it is not an idea, it is not a promise, it is nourishment – and nourishment is what tastes good and not buckets of trash or white plates of pretension – and pea soup hit him as just about the archetype of nourishment, it was not cordon bleu, it was not from a can, it bridged the gap; it was pottage, full and whole and wholesome, people’s food, eaten by peasants in medieval fiefdoms, and that, he decided on the way back from the freezer, his hands numb from carrying five bags of peas, is exactly what he will call it: pottage; and no one will pay for it, it will sit on the hob and be sent out ahead of the starters to educate people, to set the tone, to let them know that everything was going to be okay, and he smiled to himself as he carried those peas and laid them out on the counter and he remembered the mint that grew in the garden two doors down that he would appropriate next time he nipped out for a fag, and he hoped that if whichever boy turned up today was feeling sharp maybe they could take charge of the pottage during service and that would be their job for the night and they might, in turn, find some worth in doing so, and maybe see a future beyond turning up late and pissing off the landlord; and he reached for the big pan almost with glee, diving under the counter for bay leaves and onions and leeks, and only when he saw the burnt egg did his smile drop as he hurled the pan across the room, the overdone egg hammering into the sink because who ever changed anything with pea soup?
Good food was the one bridge that crossed the ferment between them. For ten years he and his father only met over lunch; long meals where the two of them sat in silence perusing menus as they yearned for the waiter to bring a semblance of relief.
“Steak rare,” the old man would bark. “With béarnaise.”
The waiter would turn to him. “The same.”
Some fathers would smile. Not his. They returned to the culture of fury that weaved a seam across the tablecloth.
“What are you doing for money?” his Dad would inevitably ask.
He would shrug. “This and that.”
The steaks would arrive, the old man paring meat and lifting it to his lips. He bit. He chewed. He swallowed.
“You’ll need more than this or that to keep you in steaks and béarnaise.”
He wonders now if the old man’s barbs were responsible for him enrolling at technical college at the age of 26 and deciding to train as a chef. Either way his Dad was resolutely indifferent. He trained in London but didn’t stick around as everyone said that to be taken seriously you needed to have worked in France. He arrived in Paris knowing very little and left knowing a lot. He moved to Spain. Back to London. To New York, collecting references and menus. There was a girl in Paris. Another in Madrid. One in New York who actually meant something. They talked of taking their knowledge to a smaller town and having a life together. It didn’t work out. Last he heard she was making preserves and selling them in Williamsburg markets. Their email exchanges were terse. Options were slim. He came back to England and drifted in and out of work. With his experience he found he could walk into certain jobs, but just as easily walk out. A friend from Madrid said she was making a killing knocking out five course meals in Chelsea dining rooms as a private chef. He agreed to help out. The room was excruciatingly vacant and their host thought it was hilarious to give them their tips in cocaine. He did not go back. He was done with the city where food seemed to be nothing but small plates of ideas. It was theatre. It was perfume. No one got fed. No. London was done. Spain was too bankrupt. He worried he’d forgotten most of his French. The emails from Williamsburg were few and far between. There were other places to explore, sure, but in truth he was done with new.
When he returned home he found that the old man was older still; grey hair that thinned to a scalp and hands that rested on furniture when he stood. They ate lunch in the village pub, breaking the silence to agree that the food was a disgrace, before retreating to their respective sides of the table as lines of locals munched on burgers and buckets of chips. They must have said about ten words apiece while they were eating; one for each year he was away.
“Food used to be alright here,” the old man said, getting up from the table, hands pressed on the back of his chair. “But it’s gone downhill.”
He shuffled off. As they left the landlord explained that the chef had quit and run away to Malta.
“Malta?” the old man said.
For two nights he lay in his childhood room and resisted. Then he gave in. He pulled together a CV. He almost crossed a few placed out. He assumed no one round here would have heard of Per Se. He was wrong. He was given a kitchen and two fifteen-year-olds who would alternate doing dishes. The rest was up to him.
“How many covers do you usually do on a Saturday?” he asked.
“Depends,” the landlord shrugged.
“Depends on what?”
“On who comes in.”
His knuckles are warm now, not hot, but warm so with care he lifts his hand and taps the egg on the side of the pan – disturbing the fat ever so slightly – and carefully with two hands he opens the egg along the crack, barely a centimetre above the fat and lets the transparent gel spill out onto the surface where it does not bleach, but lies still, in the fat, and he lowers his hands still further with his knuckles all but in the oil so that the yolk, when it comes, does not fall and break, but rather slides softly into the small island that he’s built in the fat and as soon as the egg is out of the shell his hand whips away and the shell flies across the room in the direction of the bin, but he has no idea where exactly it landed because his eyes never stray from the egg in the pan, watching intently, already thinking about adjusting the heat, worried that it is too hot, but not yet, he must wait, he must give the egg time to settle because if he makes big changes too soon he’ll have another burnt egg on his hands and once burnt there is nothing that can be done for them.
The old man did not come on the opening night. Nor the next night. Nor even the week after that. When he did show up it was on a Tuesday lunch time. The boy who was meant to be washing up that day had failed to show and so the first meal he ever cooked for his Dad was served unknowingly amidst chaos and recrimination. He only realised the old man had been in when he went out for a cigarette and saw him shuffling across the car park. For a moment he could hardly believe it was him, then he couldn’t believe he hadn’t so much as poked his head round the kitchen door to pass judgement. When he asked the waitress, she said he just ate the meal and left.
“Fuck him,” he said.
He scratched around. He took a flat in town where it was cheaper and there were more pubs where he could drink. He looked up some old friends. He found them older and more tired than he expected. Some were married. Others divorced. Nearly all of them had kids, except one who was killed in a car accident. It was the same friend whose Mum worked nights with whom he would go and get stoned. Apparently he drove home late from the pub and wrapped his car around a tree. One evening after service he found tears in his eyes as he tidied the kitchen. The next morning he found himself watching the boy – forgiven for now – peeling potatoes in the deep sink, wondering if he had friends who one day might disappear. He strained for details. He recalled smoking joints in a tree house and riding their bikes down a hill. He found a photo online, alongside the article about the crash, but he could not recognise the face in the photo and he had no idea at what point they last spoke.
He drifted on, tugged by the edge of memories. He found someone to sleep with. She was younger. So much younger that he didn’t dare ask in case it brought up how old he now was. Hers was another world. They had no mutual friends. When she found out he was a chef she demanded he cook her something. He fried her an egg. A week later she disappeared to Thailand. “I go every winter,” she said.
The first thing he learnt when he arrived in Paris was how to fry an egg. There was one way to do it, the head chef explained, he would show him only once and after that every egg that was cooked in his kitchen would be fried in exactly the same way to the exact same standard, otherwise it would be thrown away. “A hen can only lay one egg a day,” the chef told him, “so an egg is a whole day’s work for the hen. You burn one egg, you’re on a warning. You burn two and you’re gone.” He can still hear that old French chef’s instructions now as he watches the pan. He knows that frying an egg to perfection is all about controlling the heat, at times it will cook too fast, at others too slow, but if he is reactive he can manage these imperfections. He has to keep the egg off the ground almost, floating above the fat, letting it rise and fall, moving the pan back and forth across the heat, adjusting the gas to keep the egg safe, the transparent gel faintly bleaching now against the black non-stick pan and the yolk starting to hold itself tighter.
He knew something had changed the day he went home to pick up some clothes and found the old man with a can of soup. It was late autumn and he had the tin open in his lap in the living room, drinking the soup in short sips as he stared at a blank television screen. It was impossible to tell if the old man had recently turned the TV off or was about to turn it on when he was interrupted, but he was more surprised by the soup. It was cream of tomato. He stared at the tin for a long time before he spoke.
“What are you doing Dad?”
The old man smiled. “Hello,” he said. “Do you want to try some of this soup?”
A red droplet was caught on the millimetre of grey bristle that was attached to his top lip. It was glutinous and the contents of the tin seemed to be cold.
“What’s on TV?” he asked, trying to make conversation.
“You should really try it,” he said, holding out the can. “It’s remarkably good.”
He said he was fine, thank you, that he was sorry for barging in like this, all he needed was a few clothes that he’d left by mistake, he hadn’t meant to interrupt.
“I’ve got to get back to work you see, at the pub.”
“I see,” the old man said. “Drop in any time.”
The fat cracks, faint pops disturbing the silent kitchen. Panicking he reduces the heat, dropping the gas right down. He must not rush now. The pan can always be made warmer, but if the egg gets too hot too soon then all is lost. He breaths in and out, slowly. A headache gathers behind his brow. No. Focus. Watch the egg. Trails of white start to sketch the egg’s circumference, like cirrus across a summer sky. All is well. The fat is under control, the yolk is still whole, the white slowly cooking. Ever so gently, he turns up the heat, warming the pan incrementally, tilting it to manoeuvre the oil above the flame, allowing small waves to wash against the sides of the egg, brushing past gently with their heat.
Ever since opening night there have been complaints. Regulars didn’t like the new menu. It was too fancy, they said.
“It’s not fancy,” he protested. “It’s just good wholesome food.”
“It’s too fancy,” they said. “Where’s the burger?”
“Yes,” said the landlord, already losing patience. “Where’s the burger?”
“Must there always be a burger on the menu?”
The landlord fiddled with his pen, doodling on an empty work surface. “People like burgers,” he said.
He caved to pressure and put a burger on the menu, but he would do it properly. The boys were coaxed into cutting potatoes to make chips and he attempted to teach them to mix relish.
People complained about the relish, said the chips were too big. When they bit into the burger they worried that the meat was pink.
“Exactly,” he said. “If you cook it through there won’t be any flavour.”
“Some people don’t eat raw meat,” the landlord said.
“It’s not about being raw or cooked,” he said. “Raw and cooked are two sides of the same coin – in a way everything is raw and everything is cooked, the whole thing’s a misnomer.”
“Some people don’t eat raw meat,” the landlord repeated.
“Some people are idiots.”
Because of the fuss he took the burger off the menu. He refused to serve food that lacked flavour. It went against everything he knew. It went against everything he’d ever understood. He would not kowtow to pressure. People would learn. But they didn’t; they complained.
“They want the burger back on,” the landlord said. “And to be able to choose how it’s cooked.”
“Do they want to come into the fucking kitchen and cook it themselves?”
“No, they just want their say – it’s a matter of taste.”
“There are lamb chops on the menu.”
“People don’t like lamb chops the way they like burgers. It’s the bones. It freaks them out having bones on their plate.”
He repeated that he was not in the business of sending out food that was not good to eat. People would have to learn. The night before he had served two lamb chops, perfectly cooked and rested to a couple who left most of the meat on the bone and then complained that there was no ice-cream for dessert. After service he drank. He sat up at the bar after the landlord had gone home and made the girl who was working pour him pints of beer. He drank several as the final guests departed. When the pub closed he said he would lock up and moved on to whisky. He became drunk. Far too drunk. It was not possible for him to drive. He could have, if he wanted, no one was there to stop him and there were many times in the past when he had, but he didn’t. He slept in his car. When he woke, with stiff limbs and a stomach that turned he knew he had to eat and since he had to eat he figured he might as well have breakfast, and since he was having breakfast he might as well have an egg.
At first he saw the old man so rarely that the changes in his diet were hard to notice. He would eat at the pub once a week. Never entering the kitchen but taking his meals alone by the front window. They never spoke. Instead he gauged his Dad’s opinion through any debris that was left on the plate. He was delighted when he saw bones licked clean, sauce spooned clear, crumbs of sweet pastry absent. One day, a few months after he first found him with the tin of tomato soup in his living room, the old man’s weekly order came in: one burger, well done.
“There must be some mistake,” he said.
The waitress was despatched to confirm but returned with the same instructions.
“He’s trying to mess with our heads. It’s all some sick game. Go back out there and find out what he actually wants.”
The waitress refused.
“There’s no way he wants a burger.”
“People like burgers,” the landlord screamed. “And they like them well done.”
“Not him,” he said.
He charged from the kitchen, soiled whites in tow. The old man was sat up by the window.
“Hello,” he said, smiling. “Is this some kind of joke.”
“You know,” he said. “The food here used to be terrible, but it’s got a lot better this year.”
His eyes burned. It was a set up. There was a game afoot and soon the old man’s fury would be launched across the bar and into the kitchen. He sent out the burger, cooked to oblivion, first the oven then the grill. The plate returned. Every scrap was gone. Not so much as a drop of relish left inside the ramekin.
“What did he say?” he demanded of the waitress. “Did he make a complaint?
Did he not leave a tip?”
“He said thank you,” the waitress said, sucking on her teeth, “and that he’d be back next week.”
The yolk is rising slightly, so slightly as to be indiscernible, but just enough to suggest that the egg will soon be done. All he need do is wait for the white to fully settle and then the egg will be cooked. “Every egg that leaves my kitchen looks like this,” that old French chef had told him. “Every single one.”
It would not do. He was done with the old man’s games. After service he left the kitchen and tore round to the house, determined to find out what he was up to. They were adults now. Had been for years, truth be told. They were too old to play games. He found the old man in the lounge, eating cheesy nachos from a large bag.
“Why are you eating fucking crisps?”
The old man paused, a crisp hovering half way between the packet and his open mouth. He seemed completely taken aback.
“Do you want to see the garden?” he eventually said.
They walked outside. It had been maybe twenty years since he stepped foot in the garden. He saw the lawn where he was told off for skidding his bike and the shed where he was once found hammering nails into a can of deodorant. He used to smoke behind the greenhouse until the old man caught him. It was the scene of many punishments. Weekends of forced labour in recompense for his sins. The flowerbed that he’d once mown with the lawnmower had long since re-grown.
Perhaps because it had been so long, the old man seemed to think he had to give a whole tour.
“Next spring,” he said, “I will plant marigolds here. They do so much better if they get the afternoon sun.”
He realised that the old man was grinning at him but found himself less and less sure of the joke.
“Do you have time for a glass of orange squash?”
But the old man was already bundling off to the kitchen to measure out two inches of syrup. They sat in the lounge and drank sickly squash. His mind whirled as the old man picked crumbs from the bottom of his packet of crisps.
“Doc told me to cut back on alcohol,” the old man said lifting his glass, “but I find these juices are just as refreshing.”
The liquid was grainy from where it had been overfilled with syrup. He drank his glass down and said he had to get back to work.
“So soon,” the old man said. “There’s so much to see in the garden. Will you be able to come again next week? Perhaps we can inspect the garden then?”
The visits became weekly. Part of a routine. On Tuesday the old man ate his lunch in the pub and on Thursday he went round for a glass of squash and a tour of the garden.
“Next spring,” the old man said. “I will plant marigolds here. They do so much better if they get the afternoon sun.”
One time, as the old man passed round jelly sweets from a bag that seemed to live in his chair, he pulled a photo album from a stack on the floor.
“Ah yes,” the old man said. “I’ve been looking at these. I like the pictures very much. This one is a particular favourite.”
On the page was a man, not dissimilar to him, and a boy, not dissimilar to the one he once was. They were seated at a table with knives and forks ahead of them, a joint of gleaming beef in the centre, vegetables steaming beyond.
He increases the temperature ever so slightly, nudging the egg onwards. It is starting to lift now, to rise above the fat and so long as he doesn’t mess around with the temperature it need never descend. At the right temperature the egg can sit there perfectly cooked, ready for when it is needed. He hears a door open, but it can’t be the boy as he always comes around the back. It is most likely the landlord, ready with his questions about burgers and ice cream and whisky.
Two days earlier, the old man did not show up at the pub for his weekly lunch. “Are you sure he didn’t come by?” he begged the waitress.
“No,” she said. “He did not.”
He left the kitchen and walked down the street. He found the old man in his garden, lifting Marigolds from the ground and planting them in a tray.
“I have to move these ones,” he said. “They’re not getting nearly enough sun.”
He watched the old man’s fingers, thick with sludgy mud, dragging the miniature flowers from the earth. He remembered the day that he mowed them, how the orange petals shredded with their green stems until they looked like confetti strewn across the flowerbeds. That day the old man was fury incarnate; today he seemed happy, content.
“Will you pass me that trowel,” the old man said.
“Dad,” he said. “Have you had anything to eat?”
“Is it that time already?”
The old man’s fridge was full of crap: tins of soup, readymade lasagne, crisps, chocolate bars, a great bottle of coca cola. One shelf was given over entirely to pre-sliced cheese; another to mini sausage rolls. The only ingredient was a box of eggs. The old man was already pouring out generous glasses of squash and shuffling off next door to sit by the television. He grabbed a pan, filled it with oil and fried an egg.
He was worried that the old man would say he wanted it over easy or that he preferred it fried to a crisp. Perhaps he now disliked eggs altogether and would rather live on coca cola and crisps. He didn’t. He ate the egg and toast greedily, cutting lengths of brilliant white and dipping them in the runny yolk, his jaw rotating rapidly and his lips licked clean by his tongue.
“I have to get back to work,” he told the old man when he was done eating and the plates had been cleared away, “But I can come again tomorrow if you like.”
“You know,” said the old man. “Sometimes I’m not sure I know who you are, but that’s one of the best eggs I’ve ever eaten.”
The boy has arrived, whichever one it is, and is already moaning about the dirty pans in the sink and the mountain of potatoes to peel. He ignores him. The landlord appears soon after and stands behind him in the kitchen. He sounds cross. The pub was not properly locked up and there is an empty bottle of whisky left lying on the bar. The landlord wants answers. There are no bookings for tonight and none for tomorrow either. “It’s the menu,” the landlord says, “It has to change. Things have to change.” Beside the stove he adjusts the gas. The egg is done now; perfectly cooked and ready to be put on a plate, but he will keep it there for a little longer, holding it for as long as he can.