Three glasses of the house white meant Jane’s chopsticks were not to be humoured further. She forked three strips of shredded beef onto her plate then wiped a splat of sauce up with her index finger and licked it with scornful flamboyance. How many times had they been here? Every third Saturday of the month since the beginning of time. It used to be called the Golden Dragon, now it’s the Happy Buddha. It’ll be something else next year. It’s the only thing that changes. Family Night, he calls it. What a tiresome git. She’d like to drown him in the hot and sour soup but the fat bastard would probably gulp it down and belch in admiration.
Barry turned the Lazy Susan until the black bean beef was in front of him. He picked up the bowl and tipped the pile of food onto his plate. He gobbled the lot, gravy dotting his rugby shirt. What a success Family Night had been yet again! How the lads down The Plough must envy him.
Charlie shovelled special fried rice onto his place. His phone buzzed in his hand: u watchin football?
Charlie replied: nah, family chinky. whos even playin?
Charlie grinned and typed: wat channel that on… comedy central?
😂 😂 😂 FFS
The spare ribs slid past Ruby. She’d managed to convince her mum she doesn’t like half the dishes, knowing the order would never change. The other half is easy enough to hide. The warmth of crab claws and kung po chicken seeped through her napkin and made her thighs sweat. She always made sure to be polite to the waiter so that he wouldn’t reveal her secret. It wasn’t always possible to excuse herself and flush the food down the toilet. Late at night, when she couldn’t sleep for the twisting in her stomach, Ruby often thought of the waiter discovering her parcel of food as he cleared the table, some of it chewed into a wet, grey sludge.
Doris pawed at her plate of vegetable chow mein. Where was she? She seemed to spend all her waking hours pondering her whereabouts these days. “Edward,” she whimpered, “Edward?” Where was he? She didn’t recognise the young faces either side of her, one tapping at a glowing slab, the other scraping orange meat into her lap. There was something she needed to tell Edward, but she couldn’t remember what. It had never been so hard to focus. She sat back and her hand quivered until the fork dropped to the floor. She remembered that morning, waking up to wet sheets. She had stumbled to the bathroom to take her pills, but she couldn’t stop her hands shaking and she dropped them down the drain. “Edward! Edward!”
“Shush, mum!” Barry brought his plate to his mouth and slurped the mixture of sauces. “How many times do I have to tell you, dad’s dead. Pick up your fork and eat your noodles.” She’s absolutely useless these days. Still, she’d be dead soon. They’d be able to go on another cruise with the money. The Caribbean appealed to him.
Charlie typed women footballers into Google. He pasted the top result into Twitter then tapped out a message: how r u able to play football when ur not allowed out the kitchen. He screenshotted his tweet and messaged it to his group chat. A torrent of emojis in response:
Jane helped herself to two more spring rolls. The insufferable tyrant gave up on his body long ago; why shouldn’t she eat whatever she wanted? She dipped a prawn cracker in hoisin sauce and let it crackle on her tongue. At least she had the kids. Ruby didn’t cause drama like other girls her age. And Charlie! What a sweet boy, nothing like his ogre father. It comforted her to think of Charlie’s future with a wife and family of his own for him to love. He wouldn’t enforce Family Night on them, wouldn’t rule over them like a dictator, wouldn’t lash them with his belt when he came home pissed after a lock-in at The Plough.
Ruby used her fork to squash the rice on her plate into a tight pile. It now looked as if she had eaten more than half her portion. She took some pride in her powers of deception and the way she honed her techniques and adapted them to evade detection. Wasting food brought her no joy though. At home she was able to slip her portion to the dog, either discretely under the table or later when dad went to the pub. When Charlie retired to his room to sit in the glow of his laptop and mum snuck out for a ‘secret’ cigarette in the garage.
The waiter came over and asked if anyone would like another drink. In jovial spirits, Barry licked both his middle fingers then used them to pull back the skin at his temples so his eyes narrowed to slits. “Resh prease mister, anrother breer ash shoon ash possibrle.” He belly-laughed but noticed a young couple staring from a nearby table. “The fuck are you looking at?” They resumed eating their vegetable stir-fry. Honestly, you can’t even have a laugh these days. Why is everyone so bloody miserable? Look at the state of those two for example, the nosy killjoys; her hair’s so short she might as well have LESBIAN tattooed on her forehead and he’s so skinny a gust of wind would carry him across the Channel. And good riddance too! You’ve got to blame the parents in these situations. If you let kids do whatever they want when they’re young they’ll get eaten alive when they grow up and enter the real world. Then all that’s left is to be offended. Honestly, when did it become fashionable to be insulted by everything? Their parents should have slapped some sense into them. Charlie and Ruby were kept in line and they’ve turned out alright.
If Doris could just find Edward then maybe she could explain to him about the pills. She couldn’t remember what the pills were for or what would happen if she missed another dose, but she recalled the grave nature her doctor (nurse? daughter?) adopted when talking about them. It seemed Edward was always wandering off recently. He was getting old. They both were. The thin girl next to her flicked an orange lump from her plate to her lap. Doris didn’t understand but she did the same.
“For fuck sake, mum,” Barry sighed. “I won’t bother inviting you if you’re just going to throw your food all over yourself. Help your grandma out, Ruby. Show her what to do.”
Buzz. Charlie smirked. The footballer had replied: Another pathetic troll hiding behind an anonymous account. The haters only make me stronger! He replied with three fishing rod emojis then screenshotted the exchange and posted it to his group chat.
Ping. You’ve got her on strings Chaz!
Ping. FFS mate your going to get banned again…
Ping. Your the undefeated king. Add that bitch to the list of your victims. 😂
Jane knew what she’d say to a friend if they were married to Barry: get a divorce! But she’d never take her own advice. When you’re married, your lives get jumbled up. My things become our things: our whisk, our wheelbarrow, our debt. And heaven knows kids only make things more complicated. This is true if your partner is Prince Charming or the devil. Divorce was easy enough in principle. In reality, it was like trying to remove the sugar from a cup of coffee.
Another pitfall of Family Night was the restaurant’s oppressive temperature. It was always stifling hot, which made Ruby’s insistence on wearing a jumper a potential topic of conversation. She wondered how they would all react if she rolled up her sleeves and reached for the sweet and sour pork, displaying her scars and weeping wounds. Dad wouldn’t tell the odious crowd at the pub about the jagged white marks across his daughter’s forearms, would he? That’s nothing to brag about. If she wasn’t so scared, Ruby would have loved to do the deed just so Mum and Dad would have to withstand the accusatory glances as they walked down the high street. Their friends would abandon them and label them accessories to the crime. Maybe somebody would even paint the word MURDERERS in red paint on the garage door like they did in television dramas.
Hundreds of notifications paraded down Charlie’s phone, most liking his tweets, some insulting him, plenty expressing their gratitude. One in particular caught his eye, a full 240-character paragraph with big words and unnecessarily correct grammar. It was some girl explaining how she had suicidal thoughts after being bullied at school for liking football instead of ‘traditionally feminine pursuits’ but was inspired after watching the Women’s World Cup. A load of waffle. Charlie typed out: dont kill urself babe. their will be nobody to make my sandwiches if your six feet deep.
“Tell you what,” Barry announced, “they aren’t useful for much else but they make good food.” He dragged a rib onto his plater, leaving a trail of greasy brown across the white tablecloth. “You can tell it’s good because we’re not talking.” The Chinks weren’t so bad, all things considered. It was the Muslims who had disfigured the country. Filthy vermin who divided and multiplied like bacteria. A disease that grew more potent with each day that passed. Barry wasn’t the violent type but he didn’t intervene when he saw Graham’s oldest choking a terrorist-in-training at the school bus stop. And he kept quiet when he drove past a huddle of lads clutching bricks outside the mosque at two in the morning. After all, rats had to be exterminated. Did they still teach kids about the plague at school? History had probably been replaced by Trans Rights or some bollocks.
Doris’ hand trembled as she slowly lifted the glass of water to her lips. It tasted just like the food. That was something else that happened without her realising. It must have occurred gradually but it felt like one morning she woke up and everything tasted the same. Everything smelled the same too. Her senses had weakened and fused in an attempt to survive. Oh, God! Edward! He wasn’t in the kitchen making tea and toast with marmalade. He was dead. That was why she remembered a ghostly outline of herself in a black dress and a veil reflected in the hallway mirror. How long ago was that? A week? A year? What a tragedy it is to mourn the loss of your love time and time again. This is why she opened the gates to confusion when it marched upon her; for mercy.
Jane drank the last of the wine from the bottle. Vomiting in the en-suite just before bed had become as much a fixture of her nightly routine as brushing her teeth.
Charlie’s phone battery drained as the replies barrelled in. Hundreds of depression-sufferers explained to him the damaging nature of his words with varying degrees of restraint. He replied to each one with a single word: yawn. A couple of verified accounts quote-tweeted him, lambasting his attitude. Charlie relished it. He changed his display name to Vile Troll™.
Looking around the table, Ruby thought intensely about her great fear. What was on the other side? This question had looped her mind for months. At that exact moment, Dad failed to suppress a belch and she decided whatever was there could not be worse than a life punctuated by infinite Family Nights. She reached for a skewer of satay chicken and placed it on her plate.
“That’s it, Rubes,” Barry roared. “Get stuck in, girl!”
She forked off the rubbery chicken and held the metal skewer up like a wand. She tested the point with the pad of her thumb. With enough force, it would be sharp enough. She slid it in her pocket then stood up and said sheepishly, “I’m just going to the bathroom.”
“Good idea!” Barry bellowed. “Make room for more, eh?” His laugh quickly became a guttural cough and he hocked up a lump of yellow gristle into his napkin. As she passed the waiter, Ruby looked him in the eyes and mouthed, “Thank you”. He replied with a courteous nod and she knew he understood.
Doris thought of asking the thin girl to look for Edward on her way to the bathroom but didn’t know if she could trust her. He would be back soon anyway. Ever since the day they were married, he was constantly busying himself in another room with something or other. But he frequently popped his head in to ask if her teapot needed refilling. It’s the small memories that matter most.
Charlie turned his phone off. He had never got a reaction quite as passionate before and he could tell it would carry on long after he was bored of the whole thing. Unburdened, his hands sought out a triangle of prawn toast. What does guilt feel like? How do you know when you are truly remorseful?
“Right then,” Barry declared as he pushed his plate away, “let’s settle the bill and get back. You’re alright to drive, aren’t you?” Jane shrugged. “It’s not far. No point wasting money on a taxi if we’re just going down the road.” He scribbled on an imaginary pad with an invisible pen and the waiter scuttled away. “Ruby’s been a while in the bog, hasn’t she? Go on, love.” He knocked on Jane’s knee. “Go drag her out so we can get going.”
About The Author
Nicholas Elliott lives in London. In 2019 he was shortlisted for the New Writers’ Prize by #Merky Books, an imprint of Penguin. Since childhood he has been just as fascinated with the process of storytelling as the content of fiction. He has First-Class honours in Creative Writing.
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