Flesh & Bones
My father and I were sitting opposite each other in that Polish place in Whitechapel, because it was cheap and they made the kinds of soup he liked – chilled in summer, hot and sour in winter. I had just wolfed down my salt beef sandwich, and was thinking of you, Zeb, while I picked at the last shreds of lettuce on my plate. I watched my father slurp, his face close to the bowl, giving the soup his full attention as he tore off little pieces of soft white bread from the basket and stuffed them sideways into his mouth.
‘Not plumping out much, are you?’ he said, finally looking up at me.
The last time I’d seen my father, it was my hair that needed sorting. The time before that, he’d said my teeth might be worth investing in.
‘No,’ I replied. ‘Not plumping out.’
Usually, I’d keep my mouth shut and look away or smile at someone on the next table. So it took him by surprise, me answering him like that, and he gave me one of his short, square smiles, that look of irritation and confusion tinged with little-boy hurt.
At least being thin, I could squeeze into crowded tube trains and hide in broom cupboards. But by the way my father’s eyes were moving over me, he seemed to have clocked the small breasts again too. He always just about managed not to mention those, but you could tell what a challenge it was for him, so much wanting a daughter, his very own flesh and bones, to be beautiful and clever.
When he’d finished his soup, my father sat up, arched his back and clicked it straight. He wiped the corner of his lips with his paper napkin and began to work a toothpick around his mouth, letting his eyes drift over the panelled wall behind me, eventually, pointing to something directly above my head. It was a weeny gold-plated clock in a dark wooden box with some kind of temperature gauge dangling from it and a copper-coloured cockerel that moved up and down. My father likes multi-function devices so he began explaining to me how it worked. But I probably didn’t seem too interested, because he stopped, bemused, to look at me again.
‘Nada, Nicht,’ he said. ‘Just like your mother. Don’t know a thing.’
I could have told him I knew plenty. That I’d read the whole of War and Peace, that I could talk backwards and make perfect omelettes. I could have told him I knew how to spell words like rhythm and Presbyterian and that when I was stoned I could read people’s minds. But my father was giving me his short square smile again, baring his little grey teeth, as if to say he was only kidding.
‘So how is she, the old bitch?’ he asked. I didn’t intend answering the question but he was fixing his eyes on mine like he needed the answer right away.
As it happened, my mother was in the Asturias mountains with a crystal healer named Miguel la Galaxia, and I was home alone with the new lodger from Bratislava who had parked her cello in the hall and was filling the fridge with noodles and black sausage.
‘All right, is she?’ my father persisted.
‘She’s fine,’ I said.
My father nodded slowly and turned down the corners of his mouth.
‘Well, as long as she’s all right. I think I’ll have a slice of that blueberry cheesecake. Want to share some?’
‘Yeah, okay,’ I said, although a growing girl like me, I could have handled a whole slice to myself.
‘Sabrina makes a great cheesecake. You ever tried Sabrina’s cheesecake?’
I had not. Sabrina was my father’s second wife who preferred not to have the kids about. She was everything my father could have wished for: curvaceous and bossy, an expert on the domestic front. Sabrina had a bunch of children from her first marriage too but that hadn’t stopped my father from taking over the cracker tin and the best spot on their sofa.
I thought of telling him how I’d recently bumped into her younger son, Gordy, because for a time he and Gordy had enjoyed dismantling small appliances together. I could have told him that Gordy had nailed a job in Do-it-All, that he’d grown a little moustache, and was living above Nandos with a lady-friend on the Holloway Road. But I wasn’t too sure what my father would make of that. In any case, he was busy catching the attention of our waitress and pointing at the cheesecake in the glass cabinet.
‘Yeah. We’ll have a slice of that,’ he said, turning back to face me. ‘So, what is it you’re doing again?’
‘Temping.’ I said.
‘Oh, all kinds of stuff,’ I said.
I didn’t bother telling my father about the publishing house opposite the British Museum that specialised in coffee table books on religion and Far Eastern philosophies, how I had spent three days there typing six rejection letters and used up a whole bottle of Tippex. I didn’t tell him about the ad agency on Charlotte Street either, where I had licked envelopes for men behind smoked glass doors who stared straight through me when they passed my desk. Although I could have mentioned the trick I’d learnt of dissolving red wine stains on carpet with white wine. My father would have enjoyed explaining the chemical principles behind it.
‘So any offers of a real job yet?
‘Not that I’ve said yes to.’
My father took out a clean folded hanky from his pocket, freshly washed and pressed by Sabrina by the looks of it. ‘Ah, well. Keep trying. You never know,’ he said and wrapping the hanky around his nose, he gave a dry trumpet blow.
When our cheesecake came, I watched my father take a deep scoop out of it and roll it about on his tongue with an intense expression on his face, like he was giving it a score out of ten. And then out of nowhere, the face of Sabrina’s daughter, Lacey came to me, clear as day, with her huge blue eyes and mean looking mouth. She had not been mentioned in years and I had only met her the once, in the back of my father’s Skoda for a Sunday drive. We had ended up at some stately home that day so that Sabrina and my father could spend an afternoon snooping about inspecting perennial borders and four poster beds. While her brothers kicked a ball around the car park, Lacey and I had gone into a nearby wood to snap branches and later we had rolled up our shirts to sunbathe across the bonnet of the car. It was then that she’d told me what an arse my father was, how more than once he’d given her a fat lip and, oh, man, was I lucky I didn’t have to live with him.
My father wiped the corners of his mouth and breathed a sigh. ‘Well, I gotta get going,’ he said. ‘Important meeting to prepare for Monday.’
I never pushed him on it, but I always suspected he just took minutes at these ‘meetings’, as a favour to his boss. So he could hang about with the big knobs.
Our waitress brought the bill and my father cracked a joke – that she seemed to tolerate – about how she shouldn’t lean forward quite so much, it could do a man some damage. He read the bill carefully and pulled out a ten pound note.
‘Got any shrapnel?’ he said.
It looked like he was a few pennies short of an eight percent tip so I pulled out a pound coin from my pocket, and missing the tin ashtray on the table, it flipped into the sugar bowl. I didn’t dwell on it though. I even managed to stand up first because I was feeling good. Because I was meeting you, Zeb, at three o’clock outside the Lumière. You had tickets for a movie about an Iranian boy who couldn’t stop running, and later we were going for the best crispy duck in Chinatown.
Zeb. I said your name in my head a lot back then. It sounded so cool, though I couldn’t swear it was your real name. We had spent our first weekend together swimming at Highgate Ponds and you’d introduced me to Campari from your parents’ drinks cabinet. We’d had some deep and funny conversations on your carpet too – your magic, rented carpet that absorbed ash, gin and orange, sweet and sour sauce, just about anything. You were sweet and kind and frighteningly handsome and I was still half-expecting you to come to your senses any day. But I smiled as I waited for my father by the door. You’d already left two messages on my answer phone since Thursday. Skinny and lithe, you said I was. Skinny and lithe.
Stella Klein graduated from the MA in Creative Writing programme at Birkbeck, University of London, in 2016. She has had short prose and poetry published by Pyramid Press, The Mechanics Institute Review in print and online, as well as Southbank Poetry Review and The Blue Nib magazine. Stella lives in London and is working on her first collection of short stories. When she is not writing, she is a study support tutor at Goldsmiths University and Central St Martins School of Art in London.
Image: Flickr /J Lippold