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Everything in This Room Is Edible.

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Fortnightly Fiction

By KATHY STEVENS.

THE BOYS WERE typically shy, friendless; embarrassed by themselves and by the phone call they were making. They weren’t — for their own, hidden reasons — the kind of boys to confide in their mothers. They confided in her though, oh yes. ­

They wanted an older woman (not too old), or else they wanted a plump-cheeked girl, fresh in white linen (so much could be achieved with a little theatre). They wanted natural breasts beneath their trembling fingers (they couldn’t tell the difference). They wanted: a blonde, a redhead, a brunette. As if a ‘type’ might fix them. Some of them wanted a boy, and then it was her turn to watch.

She treated them all the same. She fed them. She laid her hands on them. They were, each one, her children.

Her own hair had drained to grey a decade hence. Thick make-up and candlelight kept the secret of her age. She regularly changed her colouring — applying new personas in daubs of chemical paste — but not as often as she changed her name and address. SHE wasn’t a type; indeed, she could mould and meld herself, with the lightest of brushstrokes, to become — for one night only — whatever the boys thought they needed. SHE could be coquettish — playful as a pussycat. SHE could wipe the rich, homemade sauce from their pockmarked chins (just as mother never had). SHE could don thigh-high black-suede boots, call them callous names, and set their youthful pulses racing (a terminal sprint). SHE could make them surge, and grow, and bloom.

For one night only. That was the rule. If a cat takes pleasure in the hunt, then she was a spider. She waited, safe, in the centre of her clever web, for the boys to wander unwittingly in and adhere themselves. They rung her, they arrived, punctually, at her door. They made a widow of her, one after another. They made meals of themselves.

The phone she reserved for appointments was vibrating on her coffee table, sending shivers through the hardwood floor to her bare, long-toed feet. It was nearly a month since her last encounter; she was hungry – supplies were dangerously low – but still she didn’t rush. She finished her brunch of croque madame, savouring the bitter crackle of buttered sourdough toast on her tongue, took a sip of rioja, and answered the call.

She listened to him breathe.

‘Hello?’ A young man’s voice.

‘Hello, yes?’

‘I saw your ad.’ He was uncertain; fawn-young. ‘I thought we could Mmm-muh-muh-meet.’ A stutter – Quel oiseau magnifique!

‘And what do you hope to gain?’

A silence.

‘Like your advert, I hoped you could teach me h-huh… h-huh…’ he coughed, mumbled apologies.

She asked him if he was free that evening. He said that he was. She licked her lips, took another sip of wine to pique her growing appetite. Before she hung up, she instructed him to arrive hungry.

‘I’ll skip lunch.’

HE ARRIVED WEARING jeans. She hid her distaste, reminding herself that it barely mattered. He said ‘hey’ to her ‘good evening’. He didn’t wipe his feet and left a track of dirt, like a trail of breadcrumbs, to her dining table.

‘Nice place.’

‘Thank you.’

‘You live here alone?’

‘Only sometimes. Please, take a seat.’There was something wrong. He didn’t seem nervous. He wasn’t tapping his foot, chewing his nails – none of the usual ticks. His stutter seemed to have vanished. He looked about him, taking in the crackling log fire – the mantelpiece above it ominously devoid of ornaments or photos. A large, ugly mirror hung on the opposite wall. He looked at her too, but with the same cold gaze he used to scan the plush burgundy carpets, the matching velvet curtains and the polished silver cutlery before him on the table. Not as young as she’d thought. Less a fawn, more a buck.

‘Do you prefer Napa Cabernet? Syrah? Malbec?’ she said.

He looked blankly back.

‘The meat is unctuous and very fresh, if it helps you make your choice’.

‘A beer, if you have one,’ he said.

‘I don’t.’

He sighed. ‘The last one then, ta.’ He scratched his chin, and she heard his nails move in dense stubble.

‘Make yourself at home,’ she said, not trying to hide the edge to her voice. She left him, sitting knees-apart at her dining table, and went to fetch the wine.

THE MEAT HAD been thawing since the morning. It was dark, dark pink, and so delicately enlaced with fat it looked as if it had been wrapped in a Chantilly veil. When she pushed the flat edge of a knife against it, it gave, just a little. Nearly time to cook. She filled two glasses and re-joined the stranger at her table.

‘What are we having?’

She took her time to answer, sitting down opposite him and sipping the wine before speaking. The dining table was six feet of molten caramel between them. ‘The best meal you’ve ever had.’

‘Oh yeah? Something French and unpronounceable?’ He smirked.

She thought of the exquisite cut of flesh coming slowly to room temperature on her cutting board, of the thrice-cooked pommes frites, roasting now — for the final time — in a shallow tray of truffle oil.

‘Steak and chips,’ she said. ‘Not too hard to say.’ Then, ‘Why did you come?’.

The boy smiled, and she saw now that he was handsome. His skin was flawless, berry-brown from outdoor living. He was young, but not very young. He was strong with confidence. He was definitely no virgin.

‘You look at me like you know me,’ he said.

She bit back her ‘no’, because now he came to mention it, he was familiar. And something about that earlier stutter. There was a memory lodged at the back of her mind. Try as she might to jiggle it loose, it wouldn’t budge. He was waiting for an answer.

‘You must have one of those faces,’ was all she said.

As they chatted, she tried to place his familiarity. She asked him the when’s, where’s and how’s of him, and he responded vaguely, parrying her questions with ones of his own. They spoke copiously, but the meat of the conversation was lean.

There was something about the clumsy way he held his wine glass; there was a memory hidden in his accent. He scratched his chin again, and she saw the shadow of another man in the gesture. He was a ghost. She shuddered – ghosts frightened her.

‘Are you hungry?’ she said.

‘Starving.’

As she disappeared back into the kitchen, he called: ‘Can I smoke?’ And she heard the strike of his lighter before she could object. Shrugged it off; no matter, no matter.

SHE PREPARED A SAUCE of horseradish, fresh herbs and garlic, which she whisked into a half pat of English butter as it melted. She lit a flame under a well-seasoned skillet; the delicious-dirty aroma of previous cuts of meat permeated the kitchen as the pan came to smoking temperature. It almost covered the stink of his cheap cigarette drifting in from the dining room. She cooked the meat for a minute either side (a moment more would have been sacrilege). Removing it from the pan, she carved the single piece in two, cutting against the grain. She put the slightly larger share onto her own plate, and piled the empty white space of his with golden truffle fries. The sauce was poured straight onto the still-smoking meat.

‘I don’t really eat a lot of red meat,’ he said, when she placed his meal before him.

She felt the anger flare hot, then louche, in her empty stomach. Watching them eat it was exquisite foreplay. Adam thought it a waste of good product, but for her, it was nearly half the pleasure. ‘I hope you’ll make an exception tonight.He stared at her for a long moment, then took up his cutlery.

‘How is it?’ she said, when he’d taken a loaded mouthful.

‘Good… strange,’ he said. ‘I never ate steak like this before.’ The meat had a glistening, gelatine appearance, was buttery to cut and soft in his mouth, with a sudden, filthy flavour and then, quickly, nothing.

‘This filet mignon was taken from a young Tajima male named Ouji.’ She slid wet meat from metal, using nothing but her steely smile. ‘I slaughtered him myself,’ she said, with discernible pride.

They ate in silence for a while — she, taking carefully balanced morsels and savouring them; he, dry-swallowing the fatty pink flesh like a pill and trying to forget its donor’s name. He finished before her, and laid his knife and fork on his napkin. Grease spots bloomed on the white linen. No matter, she had removed more persistent stains than butter. White wine for red, lemon juice for fat, hydrogen peroxide (the same she used to strip her hair and personality) for blood. He watched her finish, flushing Ouji’s taste from his mouth with the last of the wine. The meal sat heavy in him. His brother had been the real meat-eater in the family. Jason shifted in his seat, trying to remember, trying to forget; that familiar, transverse tug-of-war in his hippocampus – the tension of which made his eyes smart.

Andrew. A timid boy, two years Jason’s junior. He’d seemed older, he’d seemed younger… a young man’s body, a child’s bland face, an old man’s clouded eyes. Andrew had only emerged at mealtimes. That strange, painfully shy man-child, shut away in his childhood bedroom, stagnating.

While Jason had racked up disappointments — the wrong girls, a minor driving offence or two, a string of lost jobs — his brother had stood photo-still. He was the perfect son: sexless, maternally dependent, preserved like a doll (lacking only the sailor-boy costume). Their mother used to joke that one son got older while the other got younger. She was a cold woman.

Andrew was just nineteen when he’d stalked purposefully into a misty bout of back-end weather, two Novembers ago, and disappeared. Like a feeble flame gone out, their mother had lovingly intoned. And now Jason wasn’t welcome at his mother’s house any more. She couldn’t bear the familiar way her eldest son spoke, drank from a glass, held a knife. Andrew moved minutely in the shadows Jason cast. I’d sooner have no sons at all, now he’s gone, she’d said. I’m sorry, but that’s the truth.

FOR DESSERT, HIS hostess brought him an angular sliver of dark brown paste, arranged artfully off-centre on a wafer-thin slice of bone china.

‘Where’s yours?’

‘I was born without a sweet tooth. Please, eat.’

It was incredible. A dessert made of silk and velvet. For a moment he even forgot why he was there.

‘I know who you remind me of.’

He opened his eyes to look at her. He hadn’t realised they were closed.

‘Adam,’ she said.

‘Andrew,’ he said.

‘Funny,’ she said. ‘He introduced himself to me as Adam. I can’t remember who I was at that time. Lilith, perhaps.’ She laughed, her face stretching in a jackal grin. There was a thread of white fat stuck in her teeth, and he tried not to look at it. ‘Where was it? Manchester? Sheffield?’

‘Nottingham.’

‘How could I forget?’

‘His name was Andrew. He was my brother. He was only nineteen.’

‘An old soul at nineteen. And such refined tastes.’

‘I want to know what happened to him.’

She looked at Jason with something like maternal kindness. The expression didn’t suit her, as if she’d stolen it from somebody else, and practiced wearing it in the mirror. This young man looked so much like his brother, or was it the other way around? They were like two actors, born generations apart, playing versions of the same character.

‘I don’t think you do want to know,’ she said. ‘Come along, eat. There’s coffee for after, and cheese, if you still have a place to fill.’

He hit the table with a tight, closed fist, and she jumped.

‘I want to know.’

The boys were always the same. They wanted. They needed. They thought they were ready; they never were. The young man before her was no different.

There had been an exception, just once. Dear Adam… that lost lamb of a boy. All those consonants lost in mumbles. Those huge, child’s eyes. She’d helped him, just as she always helped them. He’d confided in her, like they always confided in her.

I can’t help what I am.

Shhh… come here to me.

I thu-thu-think about the taste of it. I can’t sleep for thu-thu-thinking of the taste of it.

I know, baby boy. You’re not alone, come here…

How much he’d changed.

Adam always whispered into the victim’s ear, right before he pressed the knife in. She didn’t know what he said to them, but she felt sure the words were strong as cartilage; smooth as liver, and sweet.

‘ALL RIGHT’ SHE said. ‘I’ll tell you. Or, better yet… Adam?’ She addressed the wall behind Jason’s head, where the large, ugly mirror hung. ‘Would you come in here a minute?’ Jason felt an unpleasant tingling at the nape of his neck. ‘Dinner’s almost ready.’


Kathy Stevens is from Stratford-upon-Avon, where she works as a restaurant hostess. She has an English degree from Bath Spa university, and an MA Creative Writing from UEA. Several of her stories have appeared in print, and, in 2017 she won the Bath Short Story Award.

 

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