It’s two o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. It’s summer. It’s still and it’s stifling. There is no air conditioner, no fan, no breeze. Christmas is approaching.
The necessities for a Saturday lunch are in place. My father stands silently at the back door. His gaze is distant. The heat shimmers off the burnt-off lawn of the backyard.
Stephen. Michael. My mother calls our names. We’re downstairs playing under the house – the only possible escape from the oppressive heat.
Stephen. Michael. We hear our names again. There’s an edge to my mother’s voice that alerts me to danger. There’s something going on. It’s bubbling. The pressure cooker is getting ready to blow.
The table is set. A floral plastic tablecloth with mock embroidered edges covers the pine table. Four plates are set. China plates with a floral pattern which fights against the floral tablecloth. The plates mark the limits of the table. They surround the Saturday meal – cold corned meat, sliced tomato, tinned beetroot, iceberg lettuce, slices of block coon cheese and, for my father, slivers of raw onion. Every other space on the table is crowded with condiments and options from the fridge – bright yellow pickles, salt, pepper, fresh bread, a bottle of vinegar, mayonnaise, and a large jar of home-made pickled onions – my father’s only link to his Italian heritage. And in the wings – cake.
My mother has typically catered for all possibilities. Catering for her men is her forte. Over catering, her vice. Year’s later, family picnics became logistical nightmares where the venue was chosen to accommodate the team of pack horses required to ferry food from the car to the picnic blanket, where the limits of tables gave way to the acreage of picnics in parklands. Quiches, olives, ham and corned beef and occasionally a home made brawn fought for space beside bread and bread rolls, butter and margarine, scones and butter cake, tea and coffee.
Back in the kitchen it’s not just the weather which is bearing down on us. The atmosphere is thick with foreboding. Silence.
There is nothing more painful than a silent meal.