This piece was Highly Commended in the 2017 Feminartsy Fiction Prize.
There was nothing for dinner again. Nicole moved from the pantry to the fridge and back, hoping something would magically appear. She turned over half an avocado wrapped in plastic, then replaced it face down on the shelf in the fridge. She stared aimlessly at a can of tuna in the pantry for five minutes, then finally pulled herself away to sit heavily at the kitchen table. It felt like her eyes were being stitched shut. She pressed her knuckles into her eye sockets, and told herself to get it together.
She went over her options as she traced a finger around some bread crumbs on the table. She could pull something out of the freezer and zap it in the microwave. There was some stir-fry chicken and some mince, but she so hated de-frosting meat. Something about that semi-frozen feel of it raw made her stomach turn. She could order pizza. Unhealthy and disgusting. The thought of food put her off these days, it was hard to cook when she didn’t have the energy to eat. She never really felt hungry any more, only hollow. Maybe she could do something with the tuna. Tuna and avocado slices on toast. It didn’t appeal to her.
If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands.
The singing was coming from the lounge room. Nicole poked her head around the corner. Thomas was standing on his chubby legs in front of the TV, a biscuit in his hand that he was waving like a conductor in time with the insanely happy adults jigging around on the screen. He turned and gave her a soggy, biscuity smile. She’d planned to never let him have biscuits before dinner. Or watch more than the recommended 30 minutes of TV per day. The tiredness surrounded her body in thick glue. She waded back through it to the kitchen. She’d planned to make exciting and nutritious meals every night, while her loyal husband played mentally stimulating games with their son. Then they’d have story time together, the recommended three books per night minimum.
Nicole ripped open the pantry door. Her lethargy was making her angry. She felt like she was living in a kind of grey zone, the world had lost its sharpness of edges, everything was blurred. She moved some items aside in the pantry until her hand came upon a plastic packet half-filled with white grains. Arborio rice. A small flame of inspiration flickered in her mind. Risotto. She could make risotto. Nicole did some quick calculations. Risotto could take up to forty-five minutes, and it was already nearly 5pm, the time she and Thomas normally had dinner. She quickly went to check on him again. He was still conducting along to play school. She could cook it before he got too cranky, if she worked fast.
Then you really oughta show it, if you’re happy and you know it clap your hands.
He was clapping out of time with the play school presenters, smooshing his biscuit together between his fingers as his hands connected. Nicole went back to the kitchen. She turned on the stove and went to work. She found a bag of mushrooms in the fridge. Perfect. Mushroom risotto it was. She focused on sliding her thumb nail into the groove at the bottom of each mushroom and peeling the skin off, finding satisfaction in the way the dirty brown tops turned fresh and white as the outer layer ripped off. The task energised her. She worked quickly, chopping onions, heating oil, throwing the ingredients into the saucepan.
If you’re happy and you know it pat your head.
Under the sizzle of onions and mushrooms Nicole heard the sound of little feet padding into the kitchen.
‘Hungy now! Hungy now!’
The depressing thing was that there was never going to be an end to the dinners, Nicole thought as she scooped Thomas up and held him on her hip while she stirred the ingredients. Every night she had to cook one, and even if she skipped one and ordered pizza, the very next night she would still have to cook one. She saw her life now as an endless row of dinners to be cooked, stretching out before her in one lonely line.
Not to mention the dishes.
She knew what people meant now when they talked about getting through something. Somehow, she had to get through this lifetime of dinners and dishes. In between the getting through was the filling in. Filling in time with endless park visits that you use just to get out of the house, living on endless takeaway cappuccinos until it’s impossible to get the taste of cheap coffee out of your mouth.
Thomas wriggled against her hip and she let him slide to the floor, feeling the tiredness tug at her as she straightened up again. She stepped over him to grab the rice off the bench and tipped the white grains into the saucepan, listening to the chinking sound as they bounced off the sides.
She felt like she was a stretched elastic band, unable to snap back. She had let the idea of a proper family stretch away from her. She had felt her husband pulling away, staying out later and later at the office, and she had just let him stretch the band, longer and longer until it could never snap back, and so he had gone. In a way she could understand it, if you had the chance to go, before you become a useless, broken rubber band like the person you are living with who has no energy for you anymore.
His arms wrapped around her leg, Nicole pulled him across the floor towards the stove. Risotto needs constant stirring, she couldn’t let it stick to the sides. She stirred as he clung to her leg. She had to turn the kettle on to boil the water for the stock, so she dragged him back across the kitchen floor, pulling her leg with him attached behind her like a broken wing. She flicked the kettle on and then knelt down to him, hooking one arm around his body and picking him up. She opened the cupboard with her free hand and pulled out a biscuit.
‘Here,’ she placed the biscuit in his chubby fist and carried him to the lounge room, plonking him down in front of the TV. He sat and chewed.
Nicole raced back to the risotto and scraped the grains from the side of the saucepan. She poured out the hot water and made the stock, then added it to the rice, working the spatula quickly against the sides of the saucepan to unstick the remainder of the grains. She kept adding the stock and stirring, adding and stirring adding and stirring, dinners and dishes dinners and dishes, if you’re happy and you know it add and stir. She felt an enormous sense of achievement that it was coming together. The rice was light and fluffy and it smelt so good that she started to feel a stirring of hunger deep within her. She grated some parmesan, and even went to the garden and found some parsley to chop over the top.
She spooned the finished risotto into the bowls triumphantly, watching the steam rise and curl up towards the ceiling. A sprinkle of parmesan and a smattering of parsley and she carried the two bowls out to the kitchen table, they would eat together like a proper family tonight, instead of crouching in front of the TV.
Nicole went to the lounge room to get Thomas, then stopped and stared. He had tipped forward from his usual positon on the mat by the TV, and landed there with his head curled under his rounded body, like a turtle. When she went closer she saw that he was sound asleep, a half-eaten biscuit clutched in his hand and a dribble of biscuity saliva running from his mouth onto the mat. She wanted to burst into tears. She stood leaning over him, staring helplessly at the dribble of biscuit saliva. Then she leant down and scooped him into her arms. She deliberately didn’t think about the rice crusted onto the dishes, that she would have to clean tomorrow, as she carried him up the stairs to her room. She thought instead of the comforting heaviness of his body in deep sleep.
She lay down with him. ‘Never co-sleep, it instils bad habits,’ her maternal health nurse had told her. Nicole nuzzled into his warm body and gently kissed his eye lids, as she closed her own. She thought about all those long nights she had sat by his cot with an arm stretched over the side rail, going mad with the pat pat, pat pat, of her hand on his froggy body, mimicking the heartbeat. Now, she just pulled him close to the real thing and drifted off.
Image: Ehud Neuhaus
Alexandra O’Sullivan writes articles for The Radical Notion, along with writing fiction and creative nonfiction. She has been published in several literary journals, including Meanjin and Tincture Journal. She recently received a Highly Commended in the inaugural Horne Prize for creative nonfiction.