She paused at the door, smoothing her hair and skirt, checking her reflection in the glass: no new spots, OK, a little shiny, but perhaps that was acceptable, even fetching? Too late to fix it, anyway: his bulky bald form was on its way to the door.
Her dad’s new house. His and his stupid new wife’s. This was her mum’s idea. Well, her rigid insistence, really, that she keep contact with the old goat, in case she regret it later. She doubted that would happen, but even if it did, surely then would be the time to make contact? Not now, her heart hammering so angrily she had to cling to the wall, scraping her knuckles against the bricks in hope the pain might stop her feeling. But too late. He was opening the door and smiling at her, a smile that looked as anxious and wretched as she felt.
“Come in, Jess.”
A tiny front room, packed with books, musty smelling, sour with neglect; beyond it, a long gallery kitchen and in there, a woman who must be her, the woman, the new woman. Jess clutched at the sofa that barred her path, her fingertips coming into contact with something sticky. She rubbed her fingers against her skirt, blushing.
“Good to see you, dad.” Although this was patently a lie, and should they hug now, or shake hands, even though either would involve making some bit of him sticky? He wore a maroon cardigan that looked pretty manky already, in fact, and since he’d already reached out for her, rather glumly, she felt no compunction about giving her fingers another swipe against his back. They made contact as delicately and distantly as they could.
“Would you like tea?”
No. But she said yes, and watched his maroon back when he disappeared. Silence from the kitchen while the kettle boiled. Was the new woman not going to acknowledge her? She peaked her head round the arch, but jumped back when she saw the two of them standing as far apart as possible, in perfect, stony silence, heads bowed. The woman was bent over a chopping board, it seemed, smashing something into tiny, jagged pieces. And coughing. Smash, cough, smash, cough; a one woman band, singing a tale of destruction and fury.
So she wasn’t wanted here. Well, that was just fine. She had no interest in being here. A single cup of tea, a few questions to fence about school, then she’d be gone. She sat gingerly on the sofa edge waiting for her dad. Smash. Smash. Cough. Nothing else. Fear curdled in her gut. He came back at last, wearing that same uneasy smile, carrying a tray of tea and – oh God, sandwiches. She couldn’t eat that. Not in front of him. Not ever. Nothing from that kitchen, with that awful woman holding angry court; no, nothing from this house. He kept smiling at her, as though she were a wild beast needing to be pacified.
“Your mum said you have a tendency not to eat as much as you should, Jess…”
The poisonous, disloyal bitch.
“…So I made you a nice load of cheese and chutney sandwiches. The chutney’s homemade. Jane loves making chutney. She’s making more now, in fact.”
So, he’d said her name and no one had fainted or died. She stared at the monstrous plate of food, oozing oil and red. She cleared her throat, took a swift sip of tea that scalded her tongue.
“What – what sort of chutney is that?” she whispered.
He paused, frowned hard, as though their entire future depended on his finding the right answer.
“Beetroot. I think.”
Beetroot. Who the hell makes chutney out of beetroot? Coughing stabby woman, apparently, her long dark hair dangling greasy over the chopping board. She could not – could not – put that muck into her mouth.
But her dad was staring into her face, their knees touching, here in this tiny airless room he’d waited a year to see her enter. From the kitchen came smash, smash, cough. He sat wringing his hands until his knuckles whitened; the wedding ring he still wore hanging loose on his finger. She picked up the plate. Watched his shoulders sag in relief.
The bread was hard and dry, white, some fancy artisan shit, with a thick crunchy crust. The cheese was melting into oily globules before her eyes, the other muck pooling like blood. She snatched at it, forced it into her mouth, feeling acid bile rush to meet the mouthful as she took it. Her eyes watered. He smiled at her.
“Good girl. So – how’s school?”
The food packed her mouth like a ball gag. She reached for her tea, tried to breathe through her nose and beam reassuringly, giving a thumbs up to indicate she just needed a moment to chew, chew and think, although the sweet earthy dough was swelling in her mouth, working hard to suffocate her. She retched, tried to make it seem like a cough; reached for a tissue, couldn’t find one. Bread packed her cheeks: cheese and that other slimy filth dissolved on her tongue to be absorbed into her blood stream and block up her heart. Too late she remembered Persephone being condemned to remain in hell upon eating its fruits.
“Course work going well? Still enjoying art? And hanging out with the same old gang?”
Gradually she managed to clear a space for her tongue. The loathsome filth was working its way down her gullet, scratching at her throat, leaving her giddy. She fought to breathe, control her gag reflex, keep smiling.
The plate sat monstrous between them. She tasted snot, bile and that sugary, visceral slime, rotten, bloated vegetation, greasy dark hair and mucus, oozing too thick to run. The sound of production from next door, like overhearing an execution.
He beamed at her, face glistening.
“That’s it, love. That’s a good girl. Swallow it down.”