The Anniversary Oysters

I post a little story from a couple of years ago that got an honourable mention in a competition.

 

The Anniversary Oysters

 

Early that morning, Julia had put all of the white wine in the freezer to chill. It was a special selection Hugh had made to go with the seafood that she’d bought for their fifteenth anniversary party: lobster, crayfish, smoked salmon and oysters…

Oh, the beautiful Scottish oysters! Still in her dressing gown, Julia had opened them, scraping her palms, spilling the cold seawater onto her wrists. She had lapped the spillages with her tongue, resisting the raw flesh of the still-living molluscs, all bar one, which she ate in lieu of breakfast, swallowing it down with its seawater in one sensual gulp. At least the salt-water didn’t freeze. Unlike the wine, for ice had formed in silvery clots inside the bottles. She stood them in a dripping line on the kitchen windowsill. They were like swimmers caught out by a sudden ice-age, frozen in mid-stroke, arms pointing upwards.

Hugh was furious. Of course, it was all Julia’s fault. Even though the fridge was very large, there was no room for the wine because of all the food Julia had bought – she had even used the drinks section for the blessed oysters. She had protested the previous evening when Hugh started turfing food out of the fridge and stuffed bottles into every nook and cranny, squashing the edge of a cheesecake and flattening one of the dressed lobsters. She had insisted he put all the bottles out in the back porch, where she hoped they would at least stay cool overnight. But, when she came downstairs early that morning, the sun had already begun its job of warming the porch, and the wine in the bottles glowed gold and green like a row of forgotten promises. She plunged all the precious bottles into the cavernous freezer in the garage whilst Hugh was still asleep.

Julia picked up a slippery bottle and shook it. ‘See, the ice is melting…’

‘Don’t shake it – it’s not fruit juice!’

‘You won’t have to bother with ice buckets.’ She tried to sound cheerful.

Hugh made an impatient little ‘shh’ sound though his teeth.

She had been shown the knack of opening oysters by a French fisherman who laughed at her struggle as she sat outside in a small quayside restaurant where she and Hugh were on holiday, the year after they were married.

‘Madame – your husband will not need these!’ The fisherman had kissed her hand and wished them happiness and many sunny days.

The half-shells of the opened oysters, like stony cradles, now rested on a large dish of crushed ice.

Hugh was busying himself with the polishing of crystal glasses and decanters, a job he could have done yesterday, but, typically, he wanted to do it when she was busiest in the kitchen, this time complaining that the sink was full of lemons.

She pointed out that they had guests arriving at lunchtime who would expect to be fed. She’d made shallot vinegar yesterday, but had mayonnaise to mix. Fortunately, the lobsters and the other seafood had been prepared by the deli. All she needed to do was to take it out of the fridge and put it on the table.

Julia heard the squeak of the linen tea-towel as Hugh squirmed it through the neck of a decanter. Four dozen matched crystal glasses for different wines were lined up in military grids on the sideboard in the dining room. Hugh had moved to one side the large bowl of flowers she had displayed centrally, making the sideboard arrangement appear arbitrary. Julia wondered at Hugh’s obsession with the crystal, as if it was a man’s solemn responsibility to provide and prepare it for his guests.

She cut the lemons into quarters, paring away the pithy centre and removing the pips. She could still taste the oyster from breakfast, and licked a little of the lemon juice as she set the lemons around the oyster plate. They looked like tiny bright yellow boats about to set sail across a frozen ocean. Julia picked up an oyster, felt the weight of it. They were so heavy for their size, like stones. The shell was cold from the ice, but not as cold as touching ice, as if there was some living warmth still in it.

She was cross about the flower arrangement, but Hugh had to show off his crystal. Ironic that this was their crystal anniversary and his love of crystal had started out with a wedding present set of inexpensive moulded lead crystal glasses. As he had become wealthier, he had bought better ones. Now, a large display cabinet was devoted to his collection, which came from all over the world.

In that small restaurant, Julia discovered that Hugh didn’t like oysters, after all. They’d laughed about it and made some ribald jokes about him being virile enough, with or without oysters.

The mayonnaise was thickening as she whisked in oil. She imagined her guests eating the food, licking their fingers with appreciation. She had chosen the seafood buffet in honour of that little French restaurant where the fish was so fresh you felt as if you had caught it yourself, wrested it, struggling and wet, from the ocean. There was a primitive magic in being so close to the food you ate. They had delighted in dipping the meaty tails of langoustines into rich mayonnaise, cracked open their claws and extracted delicate slivers of flesh with the extraordinary workshop-like tools provided instead of knives and forks. It was easy to laugh then, right at the beginning of things. Hugh’s smile had been like sunlight rippling across the ocean. Julia smiled in recollection. Beside her, the mature Hugh reached over the sink and picked up of a bottle of pale green Sauvignon Blanc, his face set in bleak lines.

‘Where this wine is made, the temperature rarely drops below freezing.’

‘It’ll be perfect for the oysters,’ she said, adding a dash of white wine vinegar to the mayonnaise.

‘You forget that I don’t like oysters.’

‘I haven’t forgotten, Hugh. But I am sure that our guests will appreciate them as much as I do.’

She noted that she had said ‘guests’ and not ‘friends’. Years ago, she could have imagined that her fifteenth wedding anniversary would be attended by their friends, familiar people they had known for all those years. Most of the people coming today were business associates and their partners. Julia had lost touch with so many of her old friends. But there were more important people missing from the celebration. She had once expected that they would have had their own children by now. Julia could almost see them, dressed in their best clothes, excited about the big party. She reached out, as if to take the hand of a child. Julia choked back tears and turned back to her the mayonnaise – it was rich and golden.

Hugh looked at her without speaking, his face a leather mask of his youth.

‘Let’s try and enjoy today, Hugh.’

He made a helpless gesture.

Julia laid out the banquet. She made it all look beautiful, then put on a lovely silver-blue dress she had bought especially for the occasion. Before the guests arrived, she poured herself a glass of the icy wine that hit her throat like a shock. Her plate of oysters looked inviting with the little yellow boats of lemons. She could imagine them sailing out over the frozen ocean, to a latitude where ice would melt and anything was possible.

 

 

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