Small Things

A F Tyson 2013

The light beams above the tops of the curtains like stage lights. I am twisted up in the sheets, sweaty and uncomfortable. Meredith is asleep, still and calm, her long dark hair fanned out on the pillow. Her book is digging into my hip. She reads cookbooks in bed, page marking with slips of paper the recipes that catch her eye. Occasionally she turns to me to ask if I like pine nuts or crystallised ginger or some other exotic ingredient, smoothing her dark hair with her hand while recalling a fantastic ginger fudge she once made that I would love or musing that lightly roasted pine nuts smell better than they taste. She loves fragrant spices in her food: cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. We’re going on a tour of the East Coast’s vineyards and restaurants, buying bottles of wine, jars of jam, some new crockery or more cookbooks at each little town we stop at, filling the house a little more with these found treasures. But first there is a matinee; I am finally meeting her mother.

Her Mum runs a cafe with her husband, with a side business in cakes and muffins. Meredith and her mother talk on the phone about dishes they’ve cooked and recipes they’ve tried. They can talk about food and restaurants and cooking for hours. At home food was tipped out of cans and poured out of packets, heated then eaten watching TV. My mother baked only when it was our birthdays and then she pulled out the Edmonds. When it was my turn to choose any cake I wanted, I would read and reread the recipes as if muttering the instructions under my breath would conjure the dish before me and help me choose between Yoyos or Afghans. Cream. Butter. Caramelize. Bake until golden. The very language of cookery is comforting, words that you can taste like some crazy kind of synaesthesia. I move the book to the floor, roll over again, shut my eyes.

We are late leaving because of me. I lay awake for hours, my thoughts jumping until I heard the birds beginning to wake. Meredith has spent all morning packing and repacking the boot of the car while I slept. Now she is in the front passenger seat, the map in the glove box alongside a handwritten list of places she already knows she wants to stop at. Her sunhat is on her lap, her hair held off her face by her sunglasses. She smiles at me but I can see impatience in her eyes. She wears clothes that could only look good on her, long flowing skirts made with clashing scraps of patterned fabric that drag slightly on the ground behind her. Tight singlets, or skivvies in winter, that skim her breasts and cling to her hips. Scarves, silver bangles and rings. When she bakes her long pale fingers delve into the dough, rings and all, as if the jewellery is part of her. She projects herself through every ring she wears, every book she reads, every painting she chooses to hang on the wall.

The city has encroached further and further into the rural landscape. Large boxy buildings surrounded by overgrown paddocks. I grew up in outskirts like these, where suburban streets lay cheek by jowl with highways lined with large biscuit and jam factories. Most days it felt like Merrick was the only place in the world, the sky stretched out flat above us, the tar sealed streets empty save for cats crouched by letterboxes and children minding their business on bikes while waiting for the Mums to get home. We drive for an hour or so, passing large hand painted signs announcing the sale of apricots and nectarines and peaches, before Meredith asks me to pull into a fruit orchard. I get out of the car but stand by the roadside smoking, waiting for her to emerge clutching plastic bags full of fruit.

I took her home to meet my mother after six months. Our family home doesn’t have any paintings on the wall or books on shelves or knickknacks. There is a calendar in the kitchen. A mirror in the hallway. A framed family photo in the lounge. It looks temporary, like we could pack up and move out at any time. Meredith had looked awkward sitting on the plush purple couch. Mum didn’t look much more comfortable in the chair opposite. She brought us instant coffee and biscuit seconds from the factory. We all took hasty sips and bites while an awkward silence grew. Mum cleared her throat, and then asked how we’d met. It wasn’t exactly a conversation starter but it broke the silence.

I’ve always been drawn to women like Meredith. After a week of filling in spread sheets and producing invoices and emailing, these are women who look forward to going to the local market for fresh produce, mulching their garden or meeting their friends for coffee – savouring the simple life after a week spent staring at a computer screen. They savour small things and their worlds seem so much bigger. Mum dreams of winning lotto or an overseas holiday but Meredith talks about finding the most luscious quinces or a perfectly spiced chutney.

We drive for most of the day and when we finally pull up the long gravel driveway, her Mum is kneeling in the garden weeding. I feel a little nervous as I get out of the car and hang back as Meredith runs into her mother’s arms. Molly is tall and wide hipped, her long grey hair piled into a loose bun. She pulls her gardening gloves off and kisses her daughter on the cheek. I can’t catch what she says until she turns to look at me, “And you must be this partner I hear so much about.” She strides towards me and grips me by the shoulders with strong hands, welcoming me to her house, before leaning in to kiss me on the cheek. I start and turn my head the wrong way so that for a split second we are like two chickens pecking in the dust before she pats my shoulder and turns toward the house calling at us to follow her. I turn to pick up our bags, loath to catch anyone’s eye.

After we’ve put our things in the guest room, we all sit around the solid wooden table in the kitchen, drinking wine and talking. That awkward moment in the driveway seems like nothing as we sit, with just one lamp lit for light, and talk. Actually I hardly speak at all but listen to Molly and her husband Gerald talk about their house and their trip overseas. I listen and drink and look around the room. A dresser lines one side of the room, laden with dinner plates, each a different pattern and colour. Alongside another wall, a low bookcase is stuffed full of photo albums and books, with photo frames, a telephone and pen and paper on top. A corkboard hangs on the wall, choked with messages and photos and doodles. A breakfast bar separates the kitchen from the dining room while a large window looks out upon the hill that rises above the cafe. My face is flushed from the wine and we are all heading to bed when Molly grabs me by the hand to quickly show me around the house in case I wake up in the night disorientated. Meredith tags along as I am shown the bathroom, the lounge, the games room and the back porch. I fall into bed, tired and drunk and immediately fall asleep.

I awake in the middle of the night, almost as if Molly had predicted it. The room is so dark I can’t see my hand in front of my face. I flick on the bedside lamp; Meredith squawks and pulls the sheets over her eyes. I pull on some pants and go out to the back porch. At the back of the house a hammock hangs between two trees, moving slightly in the breeze. The dogs murmur in their kennels. I sit and smoke for a while and am lighting one cigarette off another when Molly taps me on the shoulder, asks if she can cadge a ciggie. We sit there quietly smoking for a few moments until she says, “I thought you’d wake up. I always do when I sleep in a new place for the first time.” She says it as if she expects I will stay again. Molly fills the silence before it grows, asking about my job, my family and so on. We talk and pull on our cigarettes until we’re in danger of smoking the filters, before heading back inside.

At the local Sunday market the next morning Meredith is enchanted with some wind chimes, made of shell and stained glass and fishing wire. She brings them home, wrapped in tissue and tied with string. I look desperately at each stall for something to give her Mum, something she can put on the hallway side table alongside the family photographs and other knickknacks, or in the glass cabinet in the lounge crammed with crystal and porcelain. Finally, while Meredith and Molly are distracted talking to an old family friend, I buy a small agate egg.

We eat dinner that night outside at a table dressed with candles and cloth napkins. The fish is cooked on the barbecue with lemon juice and fennel in tinfoil, the salad mixed with fresh herbs, the potatoes brushed with olive oil and garlic, the sauvignon blanc is cold. Meredith and I had dinner at Mum’s the other week and took a bottle of merlot. After an hour or so we’d sat down for dinner at the old kitchen table. Tablecloth. Stainless steel knife, fork and spoon at each place. Stainless steel salt and pepper shakers. Small, thin wine glasses. And the bottle of red wine in the centre of the table, now covered in tiny beads of water. Meredith said nothing, gave nothing away, even said in the car that it had been a lovely evening, that she liked my mother. “Music!” Molly cried. “I’ve forgotten the music.” She rushed inside to open the veranda doors and turned up the stereo, before coming back with another bottle of wine. “Now we can sit back and relax.”

I am late to the breakfast table the next morning, my head fuzzy and my mouth dry. I walk into the kitchen, the agate egg in my pocket. Everyone has finished eating and is sitting drinking coffee. As I butter my toast, they talk of itineraries and wineries and cheese factories. After a while, they fall to silence. Gerald shakes the paper out as he turns the page. Molly gazes out the window. Meredith smiles at me and then looks away.

It is time to go. We stand in the driveway and hug our goodbyes. At the very last moment, I go to draw the stone from my pocket and place it in Molly’s hand, thank her for having me. I cup the egg in the palm of my hand. It is warm and heavy and smooth. I turn and get in the car, unable to bring myself to let it go.