Short story: A Catch – 1976
Thunk, thunk, thud. Debs brought the mallet down hard, again and again. She couldn’t stop once she started. Blood spattered across the melamine worktop polka-dotting the magnolia walls of the new kitchen extension. Jaws clenched, eyes staring, her malice was fully focussed. Damn Norman.
Beaten, limp and lifeless, the flayed rib-eyes slumped on the large chopping board whilst the steak mallet, with shreds of meat embedded between its wooden pyramids, now bobbed in the washing up bowl. The kitchen resembled a busy day at the abattoir.
Why, for God’s sake, did Norman insist on a cooked dinner in a heatwave like this? Look at them next door, they’ve brought their table into the garden and are eating, let’s see, what is it? Oh yes, ham salad and new potatoes. Nobody there has been sweating over a stove.
‘Make sure it’s tender next time,’ he had said, waggling an admonishing finger.
She’d give him tender. She’d give him bloody tender alright and he’d better bloody notice. Just let him dare take it all for granted or criticise. Eating without comment or conversation was infuriating. Sometimes he’d come in, eat in silence and fall asleep over the South Wales Echo which would soon drop to the floor. Mouth open and elbow propped on the arm of the chair, his finger would point at her, as if he was about to say something but she had not been worth staying awake for. Through the walls she would hear the neighbours having conversations. Proper conversations too: talking and listening then talking about what had been listened to.
‘Plenty of it too, I like, when I’ve been working all day, Proper meat, sometimes two meats like steak and sausages for example and veg of course. Money’s not an issue, we can afford to eat well.’ That’s what he had said.
She unwrapped the thick pork sausages from their paper and laid them out on another chopping board from the set. Pop, pop, the fork punctured their skin. Bang, it went right through to the wood.
Morgan the butcher had commented that morning:
‘I hope Norman realises he’s a lucky chap, the prettiest wife in the village and steak for tea.’
It had felt both flattering and nosey. She had smiled, he was harmless, just being friendly.
‘Settling in alright? Married life suiting you? Getting to know everyone now?’
‘Yes fine,’ she’d heard herself say. No, no and no hadn’t surfaced yet.
Deb’s hair was sticking to the back of her neck, the glass-roofed extension was incendiary. She couldn’t even get a drink of water as she’d forgotten to fill up all their containers and there was no more until the tanker came. She opened the fridge, at least there was milk, she poured herself a full glass and sat by its open door.
She looked around. A battalion of sneering wedding gifts. The shiny new pressure cooker taunted: ‘bet you don’t know how to use me’ and reflected her glowering, blood-freckled face. The three-tier cake stand: ‘ever made a cake? Sunday morning is a good time, whilst the roast is cooking.’ Worst of all the smug hostess trolley: ‘I’ll be ideal for when you are entertaining.’
Her in-laws, Vi and Cyril had given them the trolley, along with hopeful looks seeking an invitation.
‘I’ll let you know when we are free and you can try it out with us.’ Vi had said.
They really were expecting to be entertained. She tried to picture herself wheeling tea (in the best china) and cakes (on the cake stand) before them. She couldn’t.
‘Or we could come to Sunday lunch, we haven’t got golf next weekend have we Cyril?’
Hell, Sunday lunch! Deb panicked silently. She had no idea how to cook a roast.
‘Plenty of room you’ve got with this new extension.’ Vi had said. ‘We’ve got some wine we could bring. There’s a nice bottle of Bulls Blood if you are doing beef or we’ll bring the Blue Nun if it’s chicken.’
Vi was enthusiastic about their wedding presents and the new kitchen. She had offered to come around and help Deb with finding a place for everything and showing her how things worked. Deb had declined the offer (the last thing she needed was Vi presiding over her lack of home skills) and over half of the gifts were still boxed up.
‘Now Deb, that mincer is a handy thing, you can use your offcuts of meat, anything a bit tough or fatty and put it through there and hey presto you’ve got mince. Versatile it is, you can make rissoles, faggots or meatloaf, I can lend you some recipes and show you how to set it up.’
Vi couldn’t help herself, dispensing advice constantly. Overwhelming. When in conversation with Vi, Deb shrank with a sense of her own inadequacies. She’d even been given tips on keeping the freezer stocked:
‘Cook more than you need and freeze portions for another day. Label everything with the date and contents so that you don’t get mixed up with what’s what.’
Deb thought about this, no chance of getting things mixed up at the moment, all that was in the gigantic humming chest freezer was a packet of frozen peas and two boxed Arctic Rolls which Vi had given her, ‘for when you want a special dessert.’
Deb walked into the front room and flopped on to the settee. More wedding presents crowded her: carriage clock, magazine rack and hideous chunky glass fruit bowl. She reached for the transistor radio and flicked it on. Dave Lee Travis was sharing a recipe for home-made sun lotion; main ingredients olive oil and vinegar – (wasn’t that salad dressing?)
‘Stay with me for the sounds of summer!’
The Star Land Vocal Band advocated ‘afternoon delight,’ then the Bellamy Brothers urged her to let her ‘love flow like a mountain stream,’ whereas Paul Simon suggested that there were ‘fifty ways to leave your lover.’ He had a point.
Why did Norman feel so much older than her? He was only five years her senior. Was it because he was so grown-up and sensible, so traditional, so set in his ways? Had he been overly moulded by his over-bearing mother? She wondered if he ever had, or ever would, do anything spontaneous. Why had it seemed like a good idea to marry him? Her mum had thought he was ‘a catch,’ so had Aunty Jean. ‘He’s not bad looking, he’s got his own business and a house, you’ll have a chance to leave the estate behind; not worry about debt all the time.’
Norman’s family had been generous about footing the wedding bills as they wanted an extravagant do. Once plans started getting made it was as if each one added weight to a runaway train. A hundred and twenty guests, a sit down three-course meal, a Rolls-Royce, four bridesmaids and her bespoke raw silk wedding gown. But with their generosity came assumed control of proceedings: His mum had chosen the hymns: (Love Divine, Bread of Heaven and All Things Bright and Beautiful) his aunt had organised the flowers (carnations and freesias) and his sisters had insisted on the colour of the bridesmaid’s dresses (cornflower blue). Deb had felt like a spare part in her own wedding. She thought she would enjoy the splendour and the finery, after all, she liked to dress up. This time last year she had just won Carnival Queen.
The control didn’t end with the wedding either, Norman’s mum had a habit of phoning Deb to check what she was making for his tea. ‘He likes a nice bit of steak, don’t they all? Medium rare and tender, what I do is season it well and go over with the steak mallet.’
She was starting to dread answering the phone but didn’t want to miss a call from mam. She missed mam and Suz. Living at the estate had been relaxing. No expectations to live up to. After work at the factory, mam would come home and sit outside with them on the low front wall, smoking a Woodbine and telling stories from her day whilst they sat around painting their toenails and flicking through the Gratton catalogue. Then she would give them money to get chips for tea. She blinked hard and swallowed back her homesickness.
Deb wandered back to the kitchen and looked out of the window again. There was Al, in the garden next door. Make the most of him, she thought, he’s back to college next week. He was stacking buckets, bottles and jugs into a wheel-barrow.
She ought to do the same, she couldn’t forget again. Maybe she ought to tidy up a bit too. Unlike Norman, it didn’t come naturally to her. His shed was an example; a place for everything and everything in its place. He delighted in order and systems. All his tools were hung on labelled hooks with a shaded template painted behind each one. The hand-saws: bow, hack, pruning, keyhole, rip and Japanese were lined up in order of popularity. The Japanese, his newest and favourite. Then there were the powered ones: chop, band and circular saw. All gleamingly well maintained.
Deb wiped the blood and sweat from her face with a tea towel as the doorbell rang. Through the frosted glass she saw a tanned torso and denim shorts. She opened the front door and blushed.
‘Tanker’s down the road.’ Al said. ‘Put your bottles in my barrow if you like.’
She tried out her first smile of the day and went to collect her containers. Walking down the road with Al, she felt a frisson of excitement. He was lean and muscular whereas Norman was getting porky and she had noticed the beginnings of a double chin yesterday evening when he’d dozed, slumped in his armchair. Just let him dare do that again after she’d made an effort. She couldn’t imagine Al slumping in an armchair.
She ran through her defence, doubting it would stand up in court, before sticking the last of the labels on the packages in the freezer: liver, kidney, rib. To close it, she sat on the lid before fastening the hasp and heading back to the kitchen table and the mincer. She turned the handle determinedly, felt resistance and crunching as it ground through gristle, cartilage and the bone of the pointing forefinger (distal phalanx she thought it was called.) The mince dropped out into the shiny metal bowl.
She was moulding it into balls on a floured board, enjoying the feel of it, like playing with play dough as a kid. It was soft and yielding she could shape it how she wanted. Burgers? Faggots? Meatloaf?
Burgers, and a Barbecue. She raced to Norman’s shed. There it was beneath his work bench. She wheeled it out, clattered it into position and poured in the remains of a bag of charcoal. In the shed, Deb wiped the surfaces with the remains of a discoloured vest from the rag box. Then she tried to clean the circular saw blade but its shark-like teeth snagged on her cloth refusing to relinquish their sanguine hue.
When the phone rang, she hurried to the hall to answer it, leaving smudgy red fingerprints on the cream coloured receiver.
She heard herself invite Vi and Cyril.
‘What are you cooking?’ Vi asked.
‘Are they home-made?’
‘Yes, with the mincer, like you said.’
‘Oh, what a clever, clever girl.’
‘I’m doing them on the barbecue, it’s lit ready.’
‘Can you do the barbecue?’
‘Norman generally does it doesn’t he? Is he there, can I have a word?
‘No, he’s not, he’s late.’
‘Come on round though, let’s say six thirty.’
‘I was wondering what wine to bring?’
‘Bull’s blood, go for the Bulls Blood.’
Dawn Thomson, originally from Bedwas, often draws upon her South Wales roots for ingredients for stories, plays and poetry. She is currently writing a dystopian novella and a biography of Robert Hurdle, RWA, a centenarian artist friend who lives in Bristol.