Jo Mazelis is a writer and photographer. Author of ‘Ritual, 1969’, ‘Diving Girls’, ‘Circle Games’ and Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize winning novel ‘Significance’. The elevated quality of Jo’s superbly crafted fiction derives from the philosophical depth, poetic vision and psychological insight Jo invests in all her work which blends, to a perfect pitch, craftswomanship with intellectual insight and scholarly erudition. Her work is always a reminder of the potency and potential of literary art and she has won herself a deserved place in the hearts of an ever growing group of sophisticated readers.
‘The Weather at the Dinner Table’ is a fine example of Jo’s observational acuity and showcases her ability to draw psychological significance from mannerism and an astute turn of phrase. The Gull is immensely proud to present this distinguished piece of fiction from one of Britain’s finest current writers.
You can also read a new story by Jo in the upcoming issue of excellent short story and poetry magazine The Lonely Crowd.
The Weather at the Dinner Table
‘We are almost like a world without a sun…’ her mother often said, using one of her infuriatingly overblown similes, then she would turn her gaze to her male child and add, ‘except that we have you Frank to keep the elements at bay.’
She’d said it the day their exam results arrived while the two envelopes sat unopened next to her dinner plate. It was a foregone conclusion that Frank would pass and go on to great things, while Eileen would naturally fail – her destiny unbruised by such unnecessary encumbrances as qualifications. Therefore it was Frank who’d been given extra coaching in arithmetic and English, there being not enough money for the both of them to see Mr. Gilbert on Wednesday and Thursday evenings after school.
Miss Withers, their lodger, who hardly ever said a word and had wanted to be a nun, was at the head of the table in the place where their father used to sit. The twins, Frank and Eileen sat opposite one another and their mother took up the helm nearest the door so that she could nip in and out to the kitchen.
To mark the occasion they were having something new for supper; spaghetti bolognaise. While it had been cooking it had smelled a lot like the mince and onions they had at school, but this was different, as they’d be eating it not with lumpy lukewarm mash but long impossible strings of pasta. Their mother dished up a portion for everyone, then from a small drum-like container, she shook out a dusting of a strange powdery cheese that smelled unmistakably like vomit.
Eileen was enchanted by this new development in their menu, by the idea that while everyone else they knew tucked into boring old sausage and mash, or ham with boiled potatoes and greenly glutinous parsley sauce, they were going continental.
When they were finished, their mother left the table and returned proudly bearing a cake stand on which sat an Arctic Roll. Frank and Eileen ‘Ooh-ed’ appreciatively at the sight of the Arctic Roll. They had seen the adverts for it on the television – where it looked a great deal larger. Their mother lifted a knife and was about to begin slicing when Frank, in an act of inspiration and suspiciously unusual thoughtfulness, said pleasantly, ‘You sit down and relax, Mum. I’ll do that.’
Their mother gushed with pleasure, ‘Oh, Frank, thank you, darling!’
Eileen knew what this kind deed of her brother’s meant – the smallest portion he could get away with for her, the largest for him. She therefore watched him carefully. He cut two equal-sized pieces for Miss Withers and their mother and handed them out with a flourish. Then, while the two women picked up their spoons and began to investigate the dessert as if they were archaeologists uncovering some precious and fragile artefact, Frank cut the remaining sponge into two pieces – one almost three inches thick, the remainder barely an inch and put them on two plates.
Finally, knowing Eileen was watching, he grinned and licked his lips. He lifted a plate in each hand and began the movement that would deliver the small slice to Eileen, while he kept the biggest piece for himself.
‘Mu-um!’ Eileen said sharply, indignation giving her voice a grating high note. Their mother had been nibbling at her dessert, completely oblivious to the storm brewing. She dropped her spoon with surprise at Eileen’s voice.
‘Mary, mother of Jesus! Don’t do that, Eileen.’
‘Frank’s giving himself a huge piece and I’ve only got a tiny bit!’
Their mother looked at Frank. He froze, as if shocked by Eileen’s words, still holding one plate in each hand.
But cleverly, Frank had subtly switched the position of his hands. Now the plate bearing the generous portion of Arctic Roll was proffered to Eileen, while the miserly slice was nearer him.
‘Huh?’ said Frank.
‘Let me see,’ their mother said, standing up to get a good look at both of the plates. ‘Someone’s jumping to conclusions.’
Then in a judgment that was Old Testament in its swiftness, Mother took both plates from Frank and crossed her arms over so that Eileen now got the tiny piece, Frank the large one.
‘But, Mum,’ Eileen whined.
‘Be quiet, Eileen,’ Mother snapped.
Eileen should have recognized the dangerous note in her mother’s voice, but somehow she couldn’t shut up.
‘It’s not fair!’ she said. The injustice of it was intolerable. Eileen felt the small muscles in her chin begin to violently twitch and crumple, dragging the corners of her mouth down.
‘Not fair? Not fair! I’ll show you what’s not fair!’ said their mother in a fury, and she picked up Eileen’s plate, slid its contents onto Frank’s and returned it empty to Eileen. The plate bore sad witness to the lost dessert; a smear of ice cream and a couple of crumbs. ‘There,’ their mother said, brushing her hands together with grim satisfaction. ‘That’s not fair.’
Eileen looked at her empty plate, then folded her arms and glared across at Frank. He was pursing his lips and sucking his cheeks in, trying to hold back a laugh.
‘Oh, Mum,’ he said. ‘Poor Eileen hasn’t got any now!’
‘Serves her right!’
‘Here you are, Eileen,’ said Frank, brotherly love oozing like saccharine. He picked up the smallest slice of the cake with his spoon and leaned across the table ready to drop it onto Eileen’s plate.
She would not, could not eat it now. She raised her hand, meaning to signal no, but as soon as she did it, Frank’s hand jerked violently sideward and the cake sailed off the spoon. Eileen’s hand had not touched it, but somehow Frank had made it look just as if she had. The payload, once released from the gravity of the spoon’s silvery embrace sailed past Mother’s head and landed with a dainty splat on the head and shoulders of a china figurine called Top o‘ the Hill which stood in pride of place on the sideboard.
They all watched.
Their mother’s mouth fell open. The china figure with her billowing scarlet crinoline and despoiled face rocked wildly and made a faint grinding noise. Miss Withers, who had always admired the ornament, thrust out her hands uselessly as though she might somehow stop its giddy dance from where she sat.
The momentum of its dangerous rocking kept the object upright for a few seconds as they watched. But when it slowed, as the laws of science decreed it must, it would either settle back in an upright position or fall. And fall it did, crashing onto the fireplace in an explosion of red shards.
No one doubted that Eileen had knocked Frank’s hand causing the whole tragedy.
Frank said, ‘I’m sorry, Mum. I just wanted Eileen to have some.’
At this their mother got up and fled the room.
Miss Withers began picking up bits of broken china and soggy, mangled sponge cake. She placed them carefully in the palm of her cupped hand. As usual she said nothing. It wasn’t that Miss Withers couldn’t speak; it was just that most of the time she didn’t. Eileen watched her down on her hands and knees, her skirt hitched up, the tops of her stockings and her shiny white thighs showing.
Funny, she thought, coming back to the present and the task in hand, Miss Withers’ thighs had been the colour of a skinned squid.
Frank had resumed eating. He had an air of pious satisfaction about him. He was eating very slowly, licking his spoon in an exaggerated way, making ‘mm’ noises and watching Eileen all the time, wanting to catch her eye.
She remembered how she had often hoped that one day Miss Withers would notice all the bad things Frank did. That she was really an emissary from God who kept watch on them. Such work could fill and explain her silence.
Miss Withers’ hair was blue-black like their mother’s; there was always a packet of Sea Witch hair dye on the go in the bathroom. Eileen thought it was an oddly named product for such pious women as her mother and Miss Withers.
Miss Withers’ left hand was now full of smashed china; Eileen watched as she gazed at it in wonder, then sat back on her haunches and did a quick genuflection with her free hand. Her lips were moving, silently mouthing words that no one ever heard. Miss Withers read the bible every day. Miss Withers had never married. Miss Withers had moved in not very long after their father had moved out. She wasn’t much of a substitute; her presence was ghost-like and ineffectual. She did her best, but couldn’t cook, couldn’t clean, couldn’t make beds, never smiled.
Even now she was making a calamity of picking up the broken ornament, slowly plucking bits of it from the carpet and dropping them into her open hand. Eileen thought she should help, should fetch the brush and dustpan from the kitchen, but was afraid of doing something wrong again.
Miss Withers seemed to be moving more and more slowly, gazing with narrow-eyed concentration at each bit that she added to her hand. Then just when Eileen thought she would get up and throw the bits in the kitchen bin, Miss Withers closed her fingers around the broken shards, her hand shaking as she increased the pressure, until at last a drop of scarlet blood was wrung from the scarlet china and fell to the carpet below into a pool of melted ice cream.
Miss Withers turned suddenly and met Eileen’s gaze. She nodded slowly, then smiled a slightly crooked Mona Lisa smile and Eileen suddenly understood; Miss Withers did see all and know all.
‘Well then,’ their mother said, bustling into the room and patting her hair into place. She wore a tight-lipped smile that almost seemed to vibrate so forced was it. ‘Let’s open these envelopes, shall we.’
She picked them up and held one in each hand, momentarily undecided which to open first.
‘Now,’ she paused, regaining herself. ‘Frank Brian Doyle,’ she read and dropped Eileen’s results back on the side plate. At this, quick as a dervish, Miss Withers leapt up and snatched the second envelope. The crockery rattled alarmingly, but nothing was broken, not this time.
At opposite ends of the table, the two women, each moodily ignoring the other, opened their envelopes. Frank was slouched over, his face, a comic book rendition of boredom and smugness, was propped on his folded arms, his eyes lazy and rolling in his sugar sated head.
Their mother’s lips moved silently mouthing each word on the page.
Miss Withers was the first to make a sound. True to form, she did not speak, but emitted a queer high pitched, ‘Oh!’ Like an opera singer going through her scales, she varied and yodelled in louder and more elaborate sounds. As if this weren’t enough she began to flap the letter by way of accompaniment.
Eileen, both concerned and astonished, reached across and gently took the paper from Miss Withers’ convulsed and birdlike hand.
‘I’ve passed the exam,’ she said in a small voice that no one else seemed to hear.
Frank sat up a little straighter; his eyes on his mother as she silently refolded his letter and, standing up, slipped it into her apron pocket. She looked strangely lost and giddy as she made her way to the kitchen, lilting sideways as if she were on board a broken ship in a terrible storm.