The Summer We Ate Off the China
by Devin Jacobsen
She has been kneeling over the toilet, arms on the cool of the seat, when the light goes off on the phone. From the far side of the bed the man turns from watching her and reads the number without any name and is about to ask, “Shall I answer it?” but before he is able he hears it coming up into the bowl.
When at last she turns off the light and goes to the bed, so long has it been she would have thought he were sound asleep, but she finds him awake, waiting there, knows he has deliberately stayed awake and is waiting to speak as he coaxes her to his arms.
After a while he clears his throat.
“Everything all right?”
“Are you sure?”
“It’s only a headache.”
Her answer seems to satisfy him, and they lie there on the bed unmoving except for the shallow breathing until eventually he squeezes her tightly while he whispers to the back of her head.
“I love you so much. I always will.”
* * * *
An hour until the event.
She is standing over the tables, where she sorts and sets the silverware, folds the napkins into tiers of equal threes, arranges the glasses so that the spine of the knife is tangent to the outside of the water glass while looking for smudges that are then cleared on the hem of the apron, going along the pulled-back jacquard drapery and cherry wainscoting and the portraits of long-dead dons and clergy whose faces of dour wrinkles give the impression they have done nothing but be extinct, preserve the indefinite death of forebears, now and then returning to the kitchen to refill the tray or replace a glass with another that is unstreaked by suds from the wash, the mounting ache in the feet, even after standing night after night in the uniform black slippers that are well broken in, sometimes overcoming these efforts to beat the clock so that there almost arises the need to sit, and indeed once the guests start to arrive she is standing over the tables still, adjusting linens, adding, removing chairs, setting and lighting candles, filling glasses from a pewter pitcher (the pitcher is wrapped with linen to soak the condensation that might fall on the laps of guests) that is repeatedly returned to the kitchen to be refilled, putting down bread still warm with toasting, their tops having been brushed with egg white and sprinkled with Cornish salt, cleaning up spills, answering requests and inquiries, even suffering herself to be accosted by a gentleman with a club pin on his lapel who casually slips a gratuity into the apron in return for the act of setting it there, the hand feigning at not making contact with this woman on the careful face of whom there are no freckles but a dark mole above the upper lip and another before the temple that is half hidden by the tied-back hair, the noise in the hall steadily climbing to a roar, a sea whose turbulent surge is a constant clinking of silverware and donors shouting over each other to be heard, so loud and riotous, unavoidable, she knows merely by the nod of his head that it is time to clear the hors d’oeuvres, that he will call her later … later …
* * * *
At her apartment, the lights turned off, shoes cast off on the floor not far behind her, she stares at the light shining under the door, waits for his knock. In the Underground the headache returned, and though there were few people out at the hour, she would not let herself do anything but wait for the train to come barreling down through its wormhole, that and check the phone.
He said he was stopping by after work. He said he had never had feelings for anyone before like the feelings he felt for her and he hoped she understood.
Now she waits for the shadow, for the light to be interrupted in the hall, for the knock to come at the door, and while she waits she listens to the message from the number she does not know.
“Hello, Maggie. It’s Lisa Erskine. I hope you don’t mind … it’s a bit bad. I don’t suppose you remember; ever since the accident Morris’s required a bit of some extra care—yes, now that I’m having a think on it I suppose it’s all news to you. But the thing of it is I’m in a bit of a kinch with my ticker. They’re saying I don’t have very much longer, only maybe another month or so. So we were thinking—honestly hoping—if you’d be for coming to Muckross, if there’s anything of Collum’s you care to take home, something, some kind of memento, you’d be more than welcome to come have a look. Take what you want. Only, being you studied law, I’d be quite grateful for any suggestion so they don’t go taking the house. You can reach us at East Neuk Care on Market …”
Even after the message has ended and she is listening to air, or attuned to the sound of the voice in her memory, and even then not so much remembering, hearing the bumbling weight of the voice and knowing what is meant by what has been said, as feeling the nonplus of darkness and silence required to anchor these words to some authentic potential of being and resolution, to dissolve them and forget, it is only the knock at the door, the light abrupted by shadow that recalls her to where she is—the night, the floor, a headache—that reminds her she is waiting for the shadow to go away.
* * * *
For the last four hours she has been hunched on the seat of the train, holding and squeezing her knees, head against the cool of the window and eyes pinched hard to stop out the light overhead in the car and the lowering sun as they wind further along up the sea, and still is, curled on herself, the day having almost turned to dusk, and they have passed York now, have passed that stout cathedral established by the victorious Normans that holds the incorruptible relics of the reluctant and holy saint, the bridges of industrial Newcastle keeping their ironwork vigil over the slumbering Tyne, when the conductor, with a light tap to the shoulder, offers some paracetamol, thinking she has taken too much to drink, which she forgoes with a wave of the hand.
* * * *
The cab that took her to the inn drove for barely a minute—she had remembered the size of the village but not the proximity of the station—though she would not have walked had she recalled this still. Too dark to see anything except cobblestones and fronts of lime harling made anonymous by the harsh light of the lamps. The brief breaks and turns bearing the outline of familiarity. At the inn she goes to the pub and orders a room.
“Business or pleasure?”
“Neither,” she says, taking the key.
“Come only to get away?”
She goes to the room and, without switching on the light, lies down on the bed. She does not take off shoes and socks, nor does she stretch out and grab the pillow and think how luxurious it feels to stretch out on a big bed in a new country, nor does she note the faint odor of gorse on the thick white sheets. There is a TV, a view of the harbor, a phone, and a painting in acrylic of a bird. The throbbing in her temples, when it ebbs, leaves little room in its wake but dread of the next wave.
After a while she picks up the phone and sends the message she has been planning:
Sorry, not feeling well. X
A few moments later the light goes off and she reads the following, which she has expected more or less to read:
Came by last night but you weren’t there? Yes of course. Shall I stop by after work? You’re amazing! X
She stares at the phosphorous glow of the screen until it goes off. She has read the words and memorized them, and now she repeats them, waits for their meaning to subside until they are no longer signifiers that bear relation to time or history, sets down the phone by the bed, and takes up the key.
* * * *
“Aye, ‘warm pudding’? Don’t the Swiss prefer you to read?”
“It’s not my reading, Don, needs mending; it’s these dodgy descriptions that account for the lack of a proper menu. ‘Fish and chips,’ okay. ‘Hamburger,’ I don’t take any real issue. ‘Bangers and mash,’ all right, well done. But ‘warm pudding’ I draw the line. That could mean almost about anything. Sticky toffee, melted ice cream, warm chocolate cake, or candy bar you set in the microwave.”
“No, Don, your descriptions are wasted on the likes of an unimaginative mind such as myself. If I cared about what I was eating, I’d’ve gone down the street to the bistro, wouldn’t I?”
“To Plat du Prince?” says the other man beside him, his friend.
“That’s it precisely. Instead of ‘warm pudding,’ you’d find something there along the lines of ‘le dessert chaud,’ which, simply for the sake of being in French, already renders the same ambiguous item a hundred times more delicious, and under the heading of which, I’m sure, is a sumptuous meditation, a feast for the general eyes, something along the lines of: le dessert chaud is composed of grain culled from the courageous plains of Culloden, where it has been combed daily by the Highland winds and matured under the gaze of a fickle Caledonian sun, just as the milk, which we here extol under the name of ‘sweet cream,’ was derived from the udders of indomitable beeves who grazed on the graves of Glencoe and coerced by the milk-white fingers of virtuous Jacobite maidens who, drawing forth this milk brose by which in reading you are truly about to taste, sang forty-two ‘Charlie My Darlings’ while the sparrows of the field accompanied her in melodious counterpoint and the swank and steeve fillies raised up their tongues in merry neighs. The raisins, equal no less to the finest of Burgundy, dried in the tropic sun—”
“I’ll order that, please,” says the friend.
“Sorry,” says the bartender, reclaiming the chalkboard, “all we got’s warm pudding. Hiya, would you like any drink for you?” he asks the woman who has come to the bar.
“May I recommend the warm pudding,” says Andy, after the bartender has finished her order. “Here on business?” In response to which she shrugs. “Cold as the North Sea are we? Oh, right, ‘neither business nor pleasure.’ A little bird told me. And judging by the likes of you, I’d say you were the friendliest ever to come north.”
The other man sitting at the bar says something, and the two of them confer.
“Will you let us buy you a drink?” says Andy.
“No thank you,” says the woman.
“A wee hair of the dog? Or perhaps a tactical chunder is more in order?”
“It’s not like that,” she says.
“Teetotaler are we?”
“Right. I’ve played all my cards.”
The other, approaching after some hesitation, says, “I’m Alasdair, and let me offer you my apologies on behalf of the voice of my friend. The two of us were friends—”
“Key word being were.”
“—ever since we were lads, and he’s always been off his trolley. Without any harm. He’s manager with Forbo Nairn, and I’m in Leven right now on business, leading a training for the coastguard. It’s a beautiful village, aside from being a two-pub town.”
“I believe our slogan should be: Muckross, a place you didn’t know you didn’t want to be. A beggar’s mantle fringed with coal.”
“Aye, there’s another lovely description.”
“That’s Jimmy the Sixth, whose words have well stood the endurable test of time. Four centuries no less. Take my dad as an illustration: spent every day working by the light of fishheads in the mines of Kirkcaldy. Owned barely a thread in his sweater. And thousands of folks just like him. Your dad as well.”
“You’re lucky for your education. He went down to London—to your neck of the country—and now he’s paid for saving lives. Search-and-rescue teams he calls it.”
“Did you hear all the helicopters flying overhead this morning—that’s us, I’m afraid.”
“I only arrived,” she says.
“Oh, right. Well, you will then tomorrow. And I offer my preemptive apologies.”
“Here’s hoping you have a restful night’s sleep.”
“Fish supper.” The bartender sets down her plate.
“Might I bring this upstairs?”
“The plate, you mean, to your room? That’s fine. But don’t walk away with my plate. I’d only feel comfortable making these gents eat off the wood.”
“So long,” they say, but she has already left to eat on the bed upstairs.
* * * *
She woke to ghosts of a dream unlived.
It was early, and she lay in the bed very still except for the shallow breathing as the light around the curtains grew stronger, the barking of the seagulls perched on the chimneys redounding off the stone, slate, and moss, heard down by the harbor. Already the lobstermen have returned from their run, and a man in waders is pressurewashing the brine from the creels while a gaggle of sailors are sipping coffee and confer on a boat, a seagull watching them from the hawsers with the hauteur of its snide yellow eye. The tide is going out, and in the revelation of mud a heron stalks, darts his strong orange bill in a pool and lifts up proudly his catch, which is flexing in the dawn. Not far behind them, in an open atelier within what appears to be a warehouse-converted-to-garage, two men in jumpsuits repair the creels. As the one, with flourishes of sparks, welds the old gleed, the other is hunched at his needle and twine. To study the exercise of his hands, the rhythmic threading and pull, one might guess he were at some endless cat’s cradle, were knitting some entanglement to ensnare all the world’s felons, but not before long he pauses, halts at his loom, draping this twine-become-warp over a pot new restored, upon which instant he takes up his needle and thread and resumes his motions of earlier. And now a formation of red and white helicopters charges the harbor, where, on reaching the surf, the pairs of them divide, one side toward the bluff, the other out toward the bay, the drone having grown to a deafening roar that, even when they are out of sight, lingers in the ears, a vespine hum.
Soon children, besuited in navy blue blazers lined with gilded thread, scour the sidewalks, their hair yet lank from their baths not an hour ago, the gowl renewed around their eyes, shouting and gesticulate as they struggle to keep up with friends, the smell of young leaves in the rising spring sun flooding both parts of town, overpowering the aroma of the strand laid bare of the tide, the vines encroaching between the crinks in the coping of the old village walls among which magpies are already driving off pigeons to the cobblestones to waddle and search for crumbs, above them the seagulls in flight blown back on the updrafts, the offing in their eyes as they regress ever farther inland, higher.
They will arrive where they need.
* * * *
“Are you kin?”
“Then you must be a friend?”
“Then a friend of a friend?”
“No, not exactly.”
“Just a stranger you are passing through?”
“I’m an old acquaintance.”
“Right, it’ll be a minute if you’d care to have a seat.”
She has been sitting in the bed, she and the man at her side, watching the television—they are not so much following the program as they are waiting for her reaction, perhaps to a commercial that will come on about medicine or Lotto, or perhaps to the too-gaudy dress worn by the soap-opera femme fatale, or perhaps the reaction will occur more as a recollection, as a memory or regarding some chore to be done, to the man who sits in the chair by the bed and who works at his hands, though he is not working, only sitting.
“A visitor,” says the nurse, who introduces the woman and goes.
“Maggie! Oh thank heavens, you came! What a glorious, great surprise! Morris, it’s Maggie. You remember, Collum’s fiancée from donkey’s years. Come over and pull up a chair.”
The man—it is unclear whether or not he knows her: he has looked up once and smiled, a courteous nod above the fiddling of hands, but such a gesture may be mere politeness since he makes no follow-up display of familiarity or allusion that he recalls her from fifteen years back.
“Come up for the day?”
“I came up last night.”
“And you’re staying in town?”
“The Golf Inn.”
“That’s Greg Wishart’s boy running it now, I believe. Lovely little place. But it must’ve been three or four years since I last set foot inside. Please, do come over and take up a chair. You’re not running off? Lord knows Morris and I will take all the help we can get these days.”
“I can’t stay,” she says, touching but not sitting down in the chair. “I have a job.”
“I understand,” says the woman. “Kids these days, they’re so used to running around, going every which way, can’t sit still for a second and smell the breeze. In my day even going to town was considered a great event. When Collum said he was off for London, I knew right then there’d be no tying that boy down. He’d been running off to Dundee for painting every chance he could slip away. What kind of law is it you’re practicing these days? Please say ‘estate.’ Oh please say ‘estate law’ for the love of Jesus you’re practicing. Morris and me’ll take all the help we can get sorting this business of wills.”
“I’m not practicing. If it’s any help, Scottish law can be quite different, so I’d like as not be lost on setting out.”
The old man continues twisting and pulling some imaginary string, smiling toward the point in the bed where the woman’s feet protrude in the covers, smiling at nothing. Or perhaps he is smiling at everything.
“But surely you have some friends, some friend of a friend who can help guide us along, guide us in the right direction with sorting this business of debt management plans, so they don’t come pulling the house right out from under poor Morris’s feet. I just want him to have a roof over his head, you know—that and a warm meal is all. Florian and the lads have promised to help with meals. Surely you must have a friend.”
“I’ll try to think.”
“Well think hard, deary, and quick. They say I’m lucky if I can string myself along for another full month. I’ll be lucky to see the rapeseed. Morris’ll never forgive me if they turn him out of the house. If I’d known I’d sunk all my savings in mischance on the Lena, I’d just as soon let her sink. A feast for the barnacles and things at the bottom of the world. I tell you, growing up, you make so many mistakes—it’s becoming a sorrier version of yourself. If I’d had the foresight how much all the repairs were for the costing, I’d just as soon let her sink—just as if I’d known about there’d been that storm, I’d never have let Collum go that day from the house. I’m sometimes sure she passed a minister or been built in an eclipse. It’s a sorrier sort of yourself, growing up: just look at these tubes and tanks. I prove my point. But you go by the house and have you a poke around. If there’s anything of Collum’s you care to take, anything you see fit to want, you claim it as good as yours. You’ll do that, Maggie?”
“There’s really nothing I need.”
“Wait,” she grabs the man’s wrist, which twists under her grasp. “The china. I was having a think on it only this morning. There’s china up under the bed. Me and Morris never used it save only the once, but for the summer once we were married—a wedding gift it was from Morris’s Great-Aunt Frey. We were saving it until we could come up in the world, you know, but all it did was serve dust. You take it, every piece of it with you home. Morris knows but the eating off paper plates, and they’ll auction it off with the rest of the portables, so you go and grab what you want before it falls prey to strangers and bankers. The door’s wide open. It’s up there under the bed. And while you’re sorting through everything, you have yourself a good think on this business of the estate. You think of some way there is to save us. You’ll do that, won’t you, Maggie?”
* * * *
She has been sitting on the carpet, between the bed and a worn sidetable whose support is a ship wheel on which a lamp, some crumpled magazines, and a partly drunk bottle of Irn-Bru reside—sitting and scarcely thinking. She has come into the house, into the cramped, low hall, passing the warmth of the oil-burning cooker in the kitchen, and gone up the stairs and passed without looking the pictures hung on the walls, passed without looking the shut door to the bedroom she once spent hours in—she can still remember the water stain in the shape of Belarus on the ceiling, the Dürer prints over the desk, the Munich self-portrait, the view of the signs on the street—and gone straight to the room where the china is.
In the yard, among the periodic barking of seagulls, a few of them stamp their feet, mimicking the effect on the lawn of rain, now and then pausing to see whether worms have come up at the feint.
At last she pulls out from under the bed a large plastic container and removes the lid. Inside are stacks of cups, saucers, and flatware protected in bubblewrap. She picks up a creamer, undoes the tape, unwinds the wrap. The creamer is in pristine condition. A gold trim runs along the handle, base, and aperture, and within the bone-white luster she can make out the reflection of the sun coming off the mirror up behind her. She imagines using the pitcher for a tea, the cups and saucers, the sugar bowl; there will be a delightful spread of biscuits, fruits, and sandwiches, a nondescript music playing smartly in the background, a fire in the fireplace, and a table set with linen, and before she can imagine who is thanking her for hosting such a nice tea, she has returned the piece to its wrapper, snapped on the lid of the tub, and slid the container back under the bed.
* * * *
A number she does not recognize. Somewhere in London. A friend?
“Margaret. I’m sorry for calling like this, on the phone of a friend. The trouble is I dropped mine and am presently in desperate want of a replacement. I hope you don’t think I’m too crafty?”
“It’s fine. What is it?”
“Is everything all right?”
“Yes, of course.”
“So then you’ll be at work?”
She sighs, lies down on the bed, rubbing her temple. “I’m still laid under with a migraine. But I intend on returning soon. Will that do?”
“Yes, of course. Shall I come by tonight after work? I could make myself very useful as a nurse.”
In the pause she does not so much gather her thoughts as brace herself to say what she must.
“Edward, I don’t think this is going to work.”
Beyond the window she can hear men shouting down at the harbor. A gull.
“What? Why not?”
“Because … you make me feel more alone.”
“But I said ‘I love you.’”
“Yeah,” she says, “I know.”
* * * *
When she goes downstairs to order the meal that she will bring back to eat on the bed, she is startled to find in the parlor a loud band of three men playing music and another man calling out steps to those—aside from the ones who are pushed to the walls and drinking on the crammed-in chairs—lining up, closing in, pairing up, swinging round, breaking up, and lining again together, only to repeat the steps with a new partner, and then again, again.
Once the music stops, she orders the meal.
A male voice behind her.
“Right.” It is the man from last night, not the talkative one. “Would you care to dance?”
“See, I was hoping you’d say ‘yes.’”
“I’ve a bit of a headache I’m afraid.”
“Well, seeing as dancing is the body’s forgiveness to itself, I’m thinking I may hold the cure.”
After she turns back toward the bar, she feels a slight tap come testing the stuff in her shoulder.
“If you dance with me only this once, I promise never to ask you for anything ever again.”
The music resumes, the fiddle filling the room with its dizzying promise of order by which the barker soon explains the sequence of steps, and now on they go, forward, around, whirling and clasping hands, sundering only to meet in another part of the parlor, opposite where they were, whirling in a rushing, roaring whirlpool set about as much by the music as passion, swirling in pairs in what seems a riptide of chaos within a maelstrom of riptides each, the laughter part of the music as she cries out not to be spun but a turn, in spite of which he spins her hopelessly out of it all so that they are struggling to keep back up, the whirling, rushing confusion, and on they go and on …
* * * *
She wakes to the call of a seagull, the pale dark fringing the blinds and imbuing the room with a suggestion of space, the weight of the slept-in clothes still on her and the arm of the man draped over her chest.
Carefully she slides from the bed, taking the key, and then slowly, soundlessly turning the door. Outside all is quiet. At this hour there is no car on the road, no pedestrian on the sidewalk—only the pad of her steps and the rote of the far-off surf. She realizes she is going down to the harbor, where already she can smell the scent of the creels, which, together with the tide, smell something like a wet dog, and in the faint portent of the day she can see there is no one about on the beach, the low tide meaning the boats will not be back for several hours, and it is not until her flight has reached the bluff and climbed high above the town and sea and fulmars that now and then leave and return on flapless wings, the broad sky freaked with the beginning of pink, that she realizes why she has come. Wishes she had not.
His hands. Their imprint shaped in prayer. A soft tracery of veins, azure. She feels them against her scalp, how he laughed at her purring and looked on with green and sensitive eyes. The aroma of gorse is as strong as the memory itself. She is lying on his bed.
“He didn’t turn back.”
She has curled up on the path and is holding herself.
“Oh come back. Come back please, for anything.”
* * * *
He has been standing before his workbench, undergoing the gestures accompanied by needle and twine, pulling and twisting the thread that he fashions into his unfinished warp of loops, the voices of children on their way to school hushed when the bands of them stop and watch, and then go fading among the tide, the man working the twine as he has, and will, only severing his eyes from the netting, his hands still performing the rhythm, to see the roar of helicopters come overwhelming the sky, the pairs of them not dividing but continuing in formation, even on reaching the surf, as they veer toward the rocks by the bluff, away from the light and into the world somehow bettered by the alchemy of the dawn.
Devin Jacobsen‘s debut novel, Breath Like the Wind at Dawn, was published in 2020. His fiction has appeared in The Beloit Fiction Journal, Hobart, The Saturday Evening Post, and other places.
Photo: Dimitra Peppa/Unsplash