But, the doorbell, the bloody doorbell. It rang again. It played ‘Come to the Cookhouse Door’, a stupid joke from years ago, he should change it. George had a key; he didn’t need to ring twice. They would think that he was going deaf! He straightened his shirt.
On the doorstep stood not his son, but Maia. She carried a large coolbox, so big that her chin rested upon it. No sign of George. The car was George’s, and it was parked on the drive, but there was no George.
‘He’ll be along,’ she said. ‘Work.’
‘Ah,’ Lester replied, feeling that he should relieve this tiny woman of her burden. He reached out and attempted to lift the coolbox from her arms, encountering a pair of disconcertingly warm hands that seemed in no hurry to relinquish their load.
‘It needs to be kept horizontal. Or it’ll be a disaster!’
Her voice was authoritative and well-enunciated. It could slice meat as cleanly as one of George’s French knives.
Lester tried again. This time, he was allowed to take the box. It was heavier than he anticipated, and it wobbled in his arms. Maia’s face took on a pained expression, her teeth clenched. Somehow, she looked beautiful even with a grimace.
‘It’s OK. I’ve got it.’
But he almost dropped it. Maia sighed. Before she could retrieve it, Lester backed away from the door and did a 180 degree swivel with the box, and headed towards the kitchen as fast as he could manage. He set the box down on the kitchen table like an unexploded bomb. He thought better than to open it. Or even look at it. Whatever was in it was not his responsibility. He stood, leaning against the kitchen table, attempting nonchalance, but his heart was beating faster than he would have liked. He heard the car door slam and the sound of the remote lock. Maia swung through the front door, carrying an ethnic tote in her right hand, and very smart handbag in the left. Her long, dark hair cut a swathe through the air as she walked. She wore a beautiful white silk – he was sure it was silk – tunic that moved – no was animated by her movement – and the tightest jeans that outlined her legs as if they had been sprayed. She had pushed the sunglasses to the top of her head and looked at the hallway decoration as she walked through. Lester was aware that she must see his age through the furnishings he had selected. The wallpaper, fashionable twenty years before, looked dreary and over-embellished, ditto the fiddly light fittings and the patterned carpet. It was all a jumble of old-fashioned notions. Her being there made his house look old and worn out. He must look old to her. She glowed with youth. Her skin had a golden cast, not just the expensive make-up. He guessed she was mixed race. The burnished hair could have been dyed, but he thought not. She stood quite still in the kitchen doorway. Clearly he had been staring at her. He was making her uncomfortable.
‘Drink?’ he offered. ‘I’ve some white wine…’
He had selected it especially from the wine club. One of the ‘summer gluggers’ range.
‘No thank you. I’ll wait for George.’
‘You won’t mind if I…?’
‘No, please. Do go ahead. I need to start this cooking. May I use the oven?’
‘Of course. I hope it’s clean.’
He wished he hadn’t said that. He had cleaned it, after a fashion. He knew that George would tut over the greasy spills, comment that it was a ‘challenge’ to cook in a 30 year old appliance with an unreliable thermostat. Somehow Suzanne had produced miracles from it. She knew its ways, its hot spots and cold spots. How to play a tune with the thermostat. She had said, ‘Much can be achieved by playing to the weak hand.’
Maia opened the oven door. She sniffed and clicked her tongue.
‘It’s old, but serviceable…’
She looked at him as if anticipating the obvious innuendo.
‘I was thinking of getting a new one. Perhaps you could advise me,’ he lied.
‘Just because I am a woman, it doesn’t mean that I know about ovens.’
‘No, of course not.’
She sighed, carefully opening the top of the coolbox and extracting a foiled tray, like a surgeon removing a donated organ.
‘I’ll ask George. I suppose that he must know something about them. After all, he’s the cook…’
Lester giggled. He knew he sounded very foolish.
‘I’m sure that George won’t be long. Perhaps you should have that drink.’
She seemed to be in control of his kitchen all of a sudden. The power dynamic had shifted.
‘Yes, I will. The sun’s well and truly over the yardarm.’
Maia raised her eyebrows – contemptuously? Sod it, he would have a drink. A glass of the summer glug would restore his chutzpah.
Whilst she frowned over the controls for the oven, he dived into the fridge. The bottles were lined up – three wines for different eventualities. Which one for restoration? He slipped out a snazzy little Gewürztraminer. A hot selection from the club’s wine adviser. His wild card wine. The glasses were ready on the worktop. Ah, it made a reassuring splash. The oven door was opened – it creaked a little on its hinges. The rubber seal unpeeled itself lazily from the glass door. Oops – that needed some attention. The foiled tray was unfoiled and slipped onto the top shelf.
Maia washed her hands at the sink. She had to use washing up liquid as he had no handsoap. He hoped that it wasn’t too harsh on her hands. She hunted around for a towel, but Lester knew it was fruitless… She shook her hands of droplets. Oh, dear, he was failing… but the wine was taking an edge off his nerves. Somehow, he had drunk half the glass whilst Maia dealt with the first tray of food. She removed a second dish. This time, he could see it was some boned-out partridge, with some kind of stuffing.
‘I don’t suppose that you have a decent frying pan?’
‘I must suppose not…’
He had ruined the one Suzanne had cherished. It was not fit to be seen.
‘Never mind. I’ll roast it as is.’
She left the dish on the table.
From the tote, she brought out a large pan and a chopping board. Presumably. George’s famous knives would be somewhere amongst the kit.
For a moment, Maia cast her gaze over the kitchen. It would have been installed before she was even born. Even he could see that the chipped work surfaces and drooping cupboard doors needed attention. He remembered when he and Suzanne had chosen the tiles. They were a farmhouse style with rustic patterns. A border of chickens clucked over a brown farmyard. She raised her hand to push aside her hair, revealing a perfect armpit and the top of her bra band. He almost choked on his wine. But he noticed a faint round bruise just under her arm. Not where it could easily be seen, not where she could easily have bruised herself. She quickly lowered her arm, and attempted a frozen smile.
‘George will be here soon. Quite a retro kitchen you have, er Mr Flynn…’
She had either forgotten his first name, or George hadn’t mentioned it.
‘Lester,’ he said. ‘Do call me Lester.’
‘Maia, but George did introduce me.’
He re-filled his glass.
‘The kitchen, by the way, was designed by my late wife.’
He thought he’d needle her a bit. Perhaps provoke some reaction, but she looked at him directly, folding her arms across her body. She wore wide gold bracelets that appeared to bind her wrists like handcuffs.
‘She has been dead for a long while?’
‘Two years, not so long. But it seems longer. Are your parents both living?’
Maia cast her eyes downward.
‘They are both dead. A long time ago.’
How she turned the tables on him. He muttered an apology, but was rescued by the sound of George blundering through the front door with a heavy carrier that clanked.
He nodded to his father, and went over to Maia, kissing her elaborately, holding her hands behind her back. Lester turned away, peered into the oven, from which an appetising smell emerged. He heard them kissing and the clink of Maia’s bracelets on the worktop behind her.
George muttered something that sounded like ‘later’ to Maia, and turned his attention to the carrier bag.
‘Got some wine in the fridge, George,’ Lester ventured, pointing at the glasses.
‘Keep it in there Dad, keep it there safe and cold, but get out the flutes. I’ve got something more appropriate for a celebration.’
‘Let’s just say I had a good day at the office!’
He made a half-wink at Maia. Her lips were pursed.
‘I’ll put the birds in the oven…’
‘You do that, my love.’
And he turned his attention to one of the bottles. Ready-chilled champagne that Lester knew his son would have paid good money for. If his son paid good money for anything. George eased to cork and it burst out like a dirty secret. Champagne coursed into the flutes hastily placed by Lester, and it foamed onto the old table where family meals had taken place, where Suzanne used to make Christmas cakes, where he had sat each morning for the last thirty years and eaten breakfast.
‘So – to what do we owe this little benison?’
George, touched the side of his nose, and winked. He slid damp glasses across the table to Maia and Lester. And commanded a toast.
‘To business!’ he said. ‘Bloody big business.’
Lester’s stomach sank. He worried his son was getting in over his head.
‘Not drinking, Dad? It’ll put some spritz in your bits…’
He could feel Maia looking at him. Her eyes were clouded. He sipped, the champagne sizzled over his tongue.
The meal was served, but George insisted that they ate at the old table. Lester thought of his dining table, polished and ready. He imagined showing off to Maia the view over the lawn that swept impressively into the distance and a stretch of woodland, as if his house was a grand estate. He wanted to impress her. The champagne increased his frustration to be noticed, to be the man of the house, the alpha male. Not his son, who wanted to eat in the kitchen. He could claim that he had a wood – it was part of his property, and another burden that he found increasingly hard to manage.
Maia drank sparingly and said little. It was as if she was a maid. She served first a terrine of duck liver and truffles. She placed it upon one of the everyday tea plates. He wanted to tell her that she should use the best china, but he knew it would sound provincial and needy. The terrine was soft and luxurious. Even upon the humble plate, it smelled sexy and enticing, and it was utterly delicious. Lester ate it obscenely quickly, as if he would never again be offered such a treat. He felt like a child in the kitchen offered a taste of adult food before his parents had a party. He made a big show of his wine, talking it up like the brochure, emphasising the herbs and terroir. He loved terroir, the whole idea of it, the grandness of the concept, but it came out like ‘terrier’. His proffered burgundy was much too heavy for the sensual paté. But the plentiful champagne carried them through to the partridge, which had suffered in the too-hot oven, making it dry and scraggy. The stuffing was unable to rescue it, nor was the wonderful potato concoction with chanterelles and cream. It was as dry as cardboard, despite the kitchen being full of wonderful and promising smells. Lester thought that George would criticise Maia, but he appeared mellow and thoughtful. Perhaps his grandiosity would continue, and not deteriorate to a drunken sulk, as so often happened when he didn’t get his way. What puzzled Lester, was not this mellow tolerance, but why George was here and not in some fancy faddy restaurant in the city. Surely George should be celebrating with his business colleagues, not his father? Not three people in a kitchen eating off old plates around a scratched melamine table. He knew George wasn’t altogether popular, but free champagne would buy a couple of hour’s company from most of the ones he’d come across, they were all freeloading toadying sycophants.
‘Let’s go outside,’ George suddenly proposed. ‘I’ve a daft little cognac in the car that’ll round off the evening later.’
It was August, so the evening was still warm, and light. But not so warm that Lester didn’t need a cardigan over his shirt. he was puzzled, but said nothing. There was still champagne in the glass, and he picked it up.
‘I can show Maia the garden.’
He tried to make it sound like a prospect she’d relish. But George had other ideas.
‘Maia, darling, you won’t mind clearing up?’
He winked at her, gestured to the dirty plates, the pathetic carcasses of partridge, abandoned like burned-out firework shells. She said nothing, just picked up plates. Lester saw how graceful she was, how beautiful her wrists were, how the gold bracelet pivoted around her thumb joint, the curve of her thumb, the pointed, manicured nail, painted the colour of fuchsia. Her arm was a lush honey shade right up to the glorious armpit he had seen, where there was a tiny bruise in the pale flesh of her armpit. The silk tunic sighed over her shoulder, showing a dainty bra strap on the opposite side. She lifted the plates to the countertop and started to scrape the waste food into the rubbish bin.