This week marks the start of Fiction Month on Anecdotage. In this first, dark story two very different daughters attend a celebration of their father’s life-only to find that his young widow is absent. But where on Earth can she be?
The Crackling Feast [Part 1]
Who are all these people? Alex squints into the still bright glare of the late afternoon sun as she tries to identify someone-anyone amongst the chattering guests. She watches them standing around on the paths and the lawn, glasses in hand, appearing and disappearing in the intermittent billowing smoke. This disconnect must come from living at the opposite end of the country and having become an infrequent visitor.
“He knew a lot of folks, your dad. He was involved in everything, you know; amateur dramatics, music society, history society, Scouts, gardening club, church council…”
“I know.” She cuts him off. It is Reg, her father’s old scouting friend. He is bent and frail, the hand enclosing his supporting cane wrinkled and liver spotted. His voice has grown tremulous.
“He was generous with his time and his money. Look at all this! Even at the end he made sure that everyone he knew could have a get together and have a good time. But Jacintha’s not here. I find that odd, don’t you? Do you know why she chose not to attend?”
Alex turns from the photos she’s been inspecting, the visual archive of her father’s life. She’s in some of them, a grinning toddler wielding a beach bucket or sitting squarely with a large dog. There’s one of them all together; she and Christina, their mother and father, posed against a backdrop of the Houses of Parliament.
“No. I’ve no idea why she isn’t here, Reg. Have you asked the solicitor?”
The old man shakes his head, shuffling away towards the bar and muttering. “It’s not my place to pry.”
Now her sister is making her way across the grass, clutching her wine glass, wrinkling her nose as a drift of smoke engulfs her. “Darling!” she drawls, kissing Alex on the cheek. “Good God-was that us?” She bends towards the photo, a slender vision of elegance in pale green shot silk. “Whose idea was it to have this ghastly hog thing? It’ll make everyone’s clothes smell like a bloody bonfire, not to mention greasy drips all over everything. I can’t believe Jacintha allowed it; she being such a rampant vegan and all that other hippy stuff.”
“Jacintha’s not here.”
“No, she isn’t, is she? There might be a God after all.”
Alex raises a brow at her sister. “She made Dad happy, Chrissie and looked after him when his health failed. You surely didn’t begrudge him some happiness in his last years.”
Christina straightens and takes a sip of dry, white wine. “I don’t begrudge him getting a wife younger than us. I do begrudge her taking our inheritance. I don’t know about you, darling but I could just do with a few grand at the moment.”
Alex sighs. “Divorce is expensive, you know that better than most.”
Her sister’s impudent grin is accentuated by the jaunty hat perched on the salon-perfect highlighted hair. “It is an essential, darling, not a luxury. Have you met Simon yet?”
Alex frowns. She must mean Simon Patterson, their father’s solicitor. How is Chrissie already on first name terms? Feeling an urge to escape the sibling she cannot relate to she leaves her with the photographs and wanders out towards the source of the smoke, where a rectangular metal box like a coffin revolves over a nest of coals. Here, intense heat has not deterred a throng of spectators all fascinated by the revolving steel casket. Upon each revolution an oblong window reveals a glimpse into the interior, where the russet skin has already wrinkled and cracked in glistening rivulets of fat, a plump carcass sizzling and spitting on its long skewer. The watchers murmur together in a shared commentary of greedy anticipation and disgust. “Mmm-smells wonderful, doesn’t it?” “How long until it’s ready?” “Not sure if I fancy it now”.
Alex stares, fascinated as the window comes around. Whatever body part is visible has not burnt enough to obliterate a dark blue shape like a stamp.
She leaves them to their ghoulish observations and returns to the house; the home that they grew up in, now customised by Jacintha’s enormous paintings, batiks, weavings, appliqués, pots, sculptures and installations. She’d been nothing if not prolific in her output, filling every wall, alcove, shelf, nook and cranny with her creations, eradicating every vestige of their mother in a sustained and vigorous onslaught; elimination by pottery. Alex climbs the stairs. From the landing window she can see the carvery taking place below on a trestle table which is also laden with bread rolls, paper plates, bowls of salad and plastic boxes of apple sauce
In their marital bedroom she opens the door to an immense old oak wardrobe in which the profusion of Jacintha’s hand-dyed flowing skirts, shawls and dresses is barely contained and wonders where her father kept his clothes? A musty scent emanates from the clothing-faded perfume overlaid with hints of her skin. She’d been into anything alternative and believed that a rigorous regime of personal hygiene destroyed the body’s natural oils. Alex can remember the shock she and Chrissie had experienced on meeting her, almost ten years ago now. They hadn’t been prepared for their father to begin a new relationship, still less with a pierced, tattooed, dreadlocked artist wearing rainbow harem pants.
She is startled by her sister’s voice calling upstairs and returns to the landing to look down.
“There she is! We were looking for you darling! Come down and meet Simon.”
Alex makes a slow descent to shake the hand of a tall, angular man standing by her sister. He is a man who is accustomed to a luxurious lifestyle, judging by the sweep of his grey hair and his casual but expensive clothes. A pale blue cotton sweater is slung around his shoulders and his feet are bare inside designer deck shoes. “I own a classy yacht” the clothes say and the deep, tanned skin is a clue to where he sails it.
“I’m delighted to meet you”, he tells her, his voice deep, rich and aristocratic. Chrissie is wearing an expression Alex has seen before on too many occasions, like a child with the run of a sweet shop. “Come on Alex. Let’s all go and get some food. We should sit down or we won’t get a table. The firm that supplies these hog roasts is something else, you know. All their carcasses bear a trade mark. I saw it come in on the truck, proudly displaying a shield in blue ink on its rear end.”
She follows the two of them outside and over to the counter, where a queue has formed for rolls stuffed with hot, greasy pork, crisp crackling and sweet apple sauce. Next to them in the line a woman is also explaining to her companion that each hog carcass is etched with a code in some kind of hieroglyphics detailing the heritage of the pig, its lineage and place of birth. “It seems almost indecent, doesn’t it?” she laughs. “As if we were eating someone we’ve been introduced to!” Her friend is chuckling and Alex feels a slight nausea at the idea of the greasy meat topped with crisp, bubbly crackling. Ahead of her she can see Chrissie and Simon sharing a joke or an intimacy, her head tilted up towards his, her lips parted in a smile. The familiarity of this scene makes her weary. She breaks free of the queue and walks down to the end of the lawn to sit on a bench in the shade.
Read Part 2 of ‘The Crackling Feast’, the conclusion, next Sunday-