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Spring/Summer 1995, Volume 12.2

Fiction

 

N. W. O. Royle

Light Lunch


N. W. O. Royle (Ph.D., Oxford University) is currently teaching in the Department of English Studies at the University of Stirling in Scotland. He is the author of
Telepathy and Literature: Essays on the Reading Mind (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991) and, with Andrew Bennett, of Elizabeth Bowen and the Dissolution of the Novel (MacMillan, 1994).

 

Rosemary and Kenneth lived in a house that was rather too large for them. It was situated, by itself, on the edge of a village near Guildford, in the south of England. A half-visible testimony to the indifferent survival of green-belt affluence, it stood in almost two acres of land, surrounded by a five-and-a-half foot brick wall and a lot of trees. They had been living there now for eleven years and, given a shared and consuming passion for beautiful things, it followed naturally enough that the house was beautiful. And they filled it with beautiful furniture, sculptures, paintings, tapestries, books, and objects of silver and gold. Endowed with not inconsiderable inherited wealth, admirable incomes and no children, and being in possession of almost viciously discriminating tastes and sharp eyes for good investments, facilitated their continuing to buy, and seldom to part with, their beautiful things.

Following in family footsteps, Kenneth was a financial advisor in the City but was also particularly interested in antiquarian books, some of which he had inherited from his grandfather, who had been a successful banker before retiring to a leisurely life in the trade. Rosemary, an engineering consultant, shared with her husband a marked predilection for an uncluttered social life and domestic peace and quiet. Apart from Kenneth, she needed no one. Apart from the house and their beautiful things, she needed nothing. When she visited galleries with a view to buying, she would do so alone and by appointment: sometimes, she would ask Kenneth along for a second opinion before committing herself. Secretly, however, she had no real interest in others' judgments concerning paintings. The drama of second-viewing and indecisiveness was merely a pantomime of supplementary pleasure. Secretly also, Kenneth was perfectly aware of this.

At the end of the summer they had been on holiday to Italy. They had gone in the middle of September, partly to avoid the crush of peak-season and partly to avoid the heat. They had spent a few days in Florence and Rome. It had been extremely enjoyable and often nostalgic: they loved Italy and had been there together so many times. It was after they had returned, to their beautiful house and their jobs, to the clear damp days of English autumn, that things seemed different.

One rainy evening, near the end of that month, they were sitting in their customary places at the expansive mahogany dining-table. They had eaten an Indian meal that Kenneth had driven over to pick up from Guildford, from a take-away place they both liked. Since finishing eating, however, neither had spoken, and the atmosphere was uneasy. Normally, if anything were amiss, if either seemed upset or anxious, the other would immediately inquire, show concern and give comfort. They got on together so well, normally, that comfort was easily and naturally given, and easily and naturally received. Few difficulties or worries failed to resolve themselves rapidly. They were the modest biographers of each other's emotions. But this time it seemed different. For what was now being shared was this very sense of uneasiness.

Usually, after supper, they would retire to the drawing-room. They would sit in armchairs and have a drink and talk together, or they might read. And on damp, cool evenings such as this, Kenneth would light a fire in the elegant Adam fireplace. But this evening they just continued to sit at the dining-table, their finished dinner plates pushed to one side, neither looking at one another nor speaking. After some minutes Rosemary finally looked up from her lap and gazed directly at her husband, expecting, at last, some response. But he didn't look at her. If he'd been aware of her gaze, he didn't show it. He seemed to be strangely absorbed by the tabletop. Rosemary took out the dinner plates and left them in the kitchen, on the draining-board. Still disturbed, she returned, faltering a little, to her seat opposite Kenneth. After a moment or two of apparent hesitation, she finally broke the silence, asking softly,

"What is it, Ken?"

Suddenly animated, he looked at her and answered: "I don't know; I'm not sure But what's the matter with you?"

Rosemary confessed to feeling uneasy, rather uncomfortable, and not feeling sure either. He agreed:

"I feel somehow empty. And dissatisfied."

They tried talking about various things, how everything was at the office, the rather potty work of consumer fiction he'd been reading recently and hadn't quite finished, a splendid painting by a minor French Impressionist she'd seen in a catalogue that had arrived that day But they talked with difficulty. Every time there was a change of subject there was a kind of flooding back of the unease, the disquieting silence, as if everything were far too conscious. It was as if everything was far too conscious but somehow beyond their control. Kenneth knew beforehand, as he changed the subject again, and mentioned a particular evening in Florence, that Rosemary had felt it flooding back and would have to let it go.

She had begun to cry. He put out both his hands across the table and held hers. He told her not to cry. He told her there was nothing for either of them to be crying about. Yet even as he was doing so, the strange feelings were making their impressions. But then Rosemary stopped crying, and she was apologizing at the same time, saying how ridiculous she had been, and that she didn't know what had come over her. Kenneth, still holding her hands in his, looked kindly towards her. He asked her would she like a drink? She smiled and he smiled and they stood up and he embraced her, lightly and quietly, and they walked through to the drawing-room.

"You know, Ken," his wife said suddenly, sitting opposite him by the blazing fire, holding her vodka and orange-juice, "you know, I think I'm still rather peckish."

At first Ken laughed, but in an almost hurried way, and then said, "Rosie, I think that's what our problem is! We're still peckish."

And he put down his drink and got to his feet, declaring, as he left the room, that he'd find them something choice. A few minutes later he returned, apologetic, with two small rounds of cheese sandwiches, some gherkins and two medium-sized tomatoes. He said he hadn't realized there was so little in the house, while they both arranged themselves in their armchairs, smiling, by the fire, and began to eat.

"It's funny," he said, as he picked up the penultimate gherkin, "I felt so odd this evening, earlier on. And this is really doing just the trick!"

Rosemary laughed happily and agreed; and half an hour later they went happily to bed.

Over the succeeding days and weeks, the couple's inclination to being peckish only seemed to increase. When they ate at home, in the evening, the plates would be slightly fuller—regardless of which one of them prepared and cooked it. Indeed, although throughout the earlier years of their marriage they had enjoyed their food and taken considerable pleasure in cooking for one another, this enjoyment and pleasure was now being superseded by something far more energetic and significant. For Kenneth to produce one of his special dishes for Rosemary became a form of delightful exuberance, a joy, a kind of muted lyricism which he would offer to her and they could share. And it was the same for Rosemary—she would cook roast beef, roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding, with several vegetables, and set it out on the dining-table with a feeling of extraordinary happiness; and they would eat, only partially aware of each other, with bliss.

Nor were their newly extravagant suppers enough. For it became habitual for them, only an hour or so later, while sitting reading or talking in the drawing-room, to agree that they were feeling peckish again. And when they went out to dinner, by themselves, to small restaurants around Surrey, or met for dinner in London after work, they would eat far more and with far more busy pleasure than they had ever done before—and still they would come home, often tired and late at night, and agree that they were rather peckish. Indeed, they came to reckon on this, to anticipate it in advance, by making sure there was always something to nibble, should they need to, when they got home. Tasty nibbles, too—which one or other had bought the day before, during their lunch hour in the City. As the weeks went by, their meals and their snacks became increasingly frequent and important. It wasn't something they talked about—only acknowledged it in practice. Weekends turned into occasions for eating, as much and as well as possible. One evening, Rosemary, rather shyly, asked her husband whether it might not be a worthwhile idea to get an extra fridge, so that they could be certain they wouldn't run out at awkward moments. Kenneth had looked at her with a serious expression, agreed with her and then suggested they should buy a larger freezer as well. A week later, he was cooking supper at home, a favorite of his, beef stroganoff, and he brought it to the dining-table with real joy. Without explicitly discussing the subject, eating to them had slowly but surely become not simply a passionate activity, but a compulsion, a delirious and even continual necessity. He had bought a bottle of vintage champagne; he'd cooked enough beef for half a dozen people. And they ate it voluptuously, ravenously, gulping down champagne as they did so, and talking in animated voices about the food and the day and the world-news and the dessert to follow—chocolate cream pie—and what they would choose from later on, in the eventuality of becoming peckish again. Kenneth also, during that meal, suggested they get a housekeeper. He realized this was something they'd preferred in the past to do without. This would be someone not to do the cooking necessarily but to bring food into the house for them, prepare the odd thing maybe, but basically to `keep the home-fires burning'—and he laughed. She laughed as well:

"Kenneth, I think that's an excellent, excellent, excellent idea!" They were both a little drunk.

Mary, the new housekeeper, moved in just three days before Christmas. She was a quiet and rather melancholy woman, and kept very much to herself. But having no family of her own, she was happy to stay over Christmas and see to the couple's needs. Seeing to these needs, however, was by this point becoming no easy task. In a matter of only a couple of months Rosemary and Kenneth had put on an enormous amount of weight, and yet neither seemed to be aware of it. Their desire had taken the form of a constant demand, mutually recognized yet never discussed as such. Mary, even on her first evening, had been quite amazed by them. It was as if they were simply blind to what was happening to them. And then, despite their displays of unseeing gluttony, they remained perfectly amicable and polite, They kept up a charming tête-à-tête as they ate, even if they succeeded always in exhibiting at least equal passion for what they were eating as for what they were saying or listening to.

The Christmas period was, in Mary's eyes, an astonishing and seemingly never-ending scenario—the husband and wife never stopped eating. Indeed, they had started to sleep less, specifically in order to make more time for what really mattered. The day would begin with coffee, cornflakes, eggs, bacon, sausages, mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, American hash-browns, fried bread, hamburgers, croissants, toast and marmalade—such was breakfast. But `breakfast' was never distinguishable from fruit juice, more toast and marmalade, more coffee, cheese sandwiches, ham sandwiches, apple pie with clotted cream, a box of chocolates, oxtail soup, hot French bread—at this point perhaps one might have argued that lunch was, if not already in progress, at least on the horizon—more chocolates, avocados and prawns, duck paté, roast chicken, potatoes and other vegetables, a cold bottle of Liebfraumilch, ice cream, cheesecake, chocolate mousse, cheese sandwiches, ham sandwiches, coffee and then the picnic hamper which Mary would have been feverishly preparing since two hours beforehand. Almost the size of a laundry-basket, this would take them, in due course, into the region of tea-time when, as often as not, the post-breakfast routine, with certain variations, would begin again. There was no longer any occasion on which either of them was given sufficient pause to admit to being peckish: such a nicety belonged to their dim past, to the early clear damp days of the autumn.

As the months went by, they became renowned. When they walked into restaurants in London, people would vacate the tables all around, speechless and overwhelmed. Kenneth and Rosemary had become physically huge: they began, both of them, taking days and eventually weeks off work, to carry on, in restaurants or at home, with what really mattered. Mary, contrary to all that one would have expected of her, sold her story to one of the tabloids; and she never came back to the house, not even to collect what few belongings she had. "Must have been too bloody embarrassed!" Kenneth had remarked. And Rosemary, smiling, with a chicken leg in her right hand, had agreed with him. Photographs of them duly appeared in the paper: it transpired that Mary had had few scruples, and so the nation had been informed of all and anything, however indiscreet, that Mary had witnessed during her stay. Rosemary knew they could have sued, but she and Kenneth talked about it, over masses and masses of scrumptious food, and decided it wasn't worth the trouble. What was much more important, was what really mattered.

One day Kenneth came in from work early. It was a beautiful spring afternoon, at just the time of year when nearly all the fruit-tree blossoms were out. Rosemary had taken the day off and was preparing an enormous feast. She had been feeling somewhat melancholy, in fact, thinking about how little space there was in the house now, because it was so heavily stored up with food. There were tins and boxes piled high in every room, as well as several additional freezers. It was difficult to see some of the paintings; and Ken himself was saying, just the other day, that he couldn't find that early collection of poems by Yeats, a first edition containing a personal inscription to a fellow-aesthete, because of all the food stored everywhere. But her quiet thoughts were interrupted by Kenneth's excited entrance.

"Rosie, my love! Rosie I have something to tell you," he declared: "It's come back to me. What I was thinking about in Italy. I've decided: I am going into politics!"

He threw his arms around her, in a long warm embrace, then got a bottle of champagne from the fridge and so began to celebrate. They celebrated and celebrated, finishing two and a half bottles of champagne, and at one o'clock in the morning they were still eating the ginormous meal Rosemary had prepared. It was such a beautiful meal.

The following Wednesday, on Kenneth's suggestion, they both took the day off work. Kenneth made Rosemary stay in bed, bringing her a vast breakfast and continual delicacies and titbits to sustain her through the morning and accompany her reading of some work of pulp fiction, while he prepared the lunch. Shortly after midday he went upstairs and joyfully told her it was ready. And she came down to the dining-room to find him sitting, smiling, at the table, unable to have prevented himself from already starting to dig into avocado and prawns, hummus and taramasalata and French bread, melon, smoked salmon and Parma ham. She joined him, quietly self-possessed and feeling extraordinarily happy. The hors-d'oeuvre was followed by a whole roast lamb, with potatoes, carrots, Brussels sprouts, garden peas, cauliflower and spinach, with mint, cranberry and bread sauces. There was no dessert.

"That was gorgeous, Ken," his wife said; "what's to follow, dear?"

Kenneth was looking closely at the mahogany table, strangely absorbed, then stroking it softly with his fingers. Smiling brightly he finally looked up and said, "I've a surprise for you, Rosie."

She returned his smile with a suffused joy of anticipation: "Oh! What?"

Rosemary noticed that he was still strangely absorbed by the table-top, or perhaps by her plump arms resting on it. Then she caught the light in his eyes.

 

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