Fiction by Tamar Hodes (Israel/UK)
Published in The Ofi Press issue 46
At first, Adam found Minna’s habit enchanting: each meal, she left a potato or piece of meat at the side of her plate. She explained that it was to do with her frugal parents who did not believe in greed. In their large converted rectory with high ceilings and no heating they had advocated cold baths, long walks and a ritual of never eating all your food. This, in their minds, represented gluttony and, besides, while there were children starving in the world, it seemed indecent to eat it all.
But as time grew, Adam began to find this routine a source of irritation. The logic behind it was crazy: her leaving one sprig of broccoli like a miniature tree or an abandoned brussel sprout did not help anyone suffering from malnutrition and it seemed silly. If you were going to eat most of it, why not all?
It was also other people’s reactions that began to bother him. In a restaurant, the waiter would see the one chip at the edge of Minna’s plate or a slender green bean and it would confuse him. ‘Are you finished, madam?’ And when they went to eat with friends, Adam could feel their surprise at the one carrot left on the rim of her dish. Did she not like it? Was there something wrong with the meal?
It went beyond food. Minna gave up on books after only a few pages. She would happily walk out of films if the pace was too slow or the landscape dreary. And friends? She shed them like a skin.
‘You’re so sentimental,’ she said to Adam one night as they lay in bed watching the moon blanche through muslin curtains. ‘Relationships don’t last forever. You move on. It doesn’t matter.’
Adam thought of his friends: Simon from school who he met three or four times a year for a drink at the pub and whose company he didn’t really enjoy; Mark who used to live next door until his family moved to the Midlands; Terry from university who was rather tedious, and a few colleagues from work who were also involved in training engineers but with whom he always ended up talking about the job.
He wondered now, in the light of Minna’s sharp words, why he didn’t abandon them, what exactly he was clinging to. Maybe as the child of army parents he wanted stability. But that was too facile an explanation. He kept people on his Christmas card list who he knew he would never see again but somehow he could not press the delete button on his laptop and wipe them off. Frustrated at not being able to understand his need to cling to old acquaintances, Adam rolled out of bed and put on casual clothes.
‘Coffee?’ he said.
Minna’s certainty rendered him passive, as if she had answers to questions he had never even considered. At thirty two, he was four years older than her yet emotionally he felt that he was lagging behind. While she raced ahead, he was standing in the middle of the road, uncertain how to find his way home.
After they had made love, Adam liked to lie in bed with Minna, listening to the rain hurl itself at the windows or the birds punctuate the air with their sharp songs. He enjoyed lying on his back and have Minna rest her head on his chest. He could feel her smooth legs, still moist, curl around him and her hand on his tummy. But she always left too early as if that was something ticked off her list. ‘Right’, she would say, and he would see that lovely bottom moving away from him. ‘I need to get the bread made’ or ‘pick up my prescription’ or any other mundane action which seemed so unimportant compared with the expression of their love.
Left in the still-warm bed, Adam would curl on his side and sometimes sleep again or lie on his own, feeling abandoned. It reminded him of going to yet another new boarding school, while his parents travelled the world and he was deserted, lying in an unfamiliar bed with a metal frame and rough sheets.
Not that Adam and Minna didn’t enjoy being together. Travelling through Wales, once, they enjoyed the hedgerows, high tapestried walls with dog roses and honeysuckle weaving their coloured threads through the leaves. Freed from the city, they felt lighter although navigating the roads for Adam was like passing through dark tunnels, hoping that no other car would approach and then the awkward dance would begin: who should reverse? Was there a layby? Who should submit and who power forward?
But when they reached their destination, how lovely it was to see that triangle of blue peering brightly through the green. Adam sensed that they were happier in the countryside where there were fewer human issues to discuss and resolve: the purple cliffs; the reeds blowing like needles in the slight breeze; the sky puffy with clouds. One morning, they walked from their B and B to watch the sea suck its water in, dragging the sand with it and then spew it out, sending waves rolling and curling towards the expectant shore.
In the evenings, they enjoyed having a pint at the village pub and hearing the locals gossip. There was invariably an old chap perched on a high stool at the bar, telling the landlord his life story as the patient listener dried the glasses and hung them, upside down, like bats from a rack.
The days held a mundane beauty about them: walking over the dunes; eating and drinking in the town; pleasing each other in the bed with creaky springs and avoiding disapproving looks at breakfast.
Yes, Minna still rolled the last piece of food to the rim of her plate; yes, she still spoke coldly about her parents, still, in the eighties, shivering in the rectory and about people whom she no longer saw but somehow nature diffused it, was simpler. The crumbly sand; the baggy skies; the flowerless lily pads floating like saucers on the lake muted Minna’s words so that they fell on a soft landing and seemed less harsh. Humans complicated their relationship and she seemed sharper when society was involved.
Back at home in their flat, Adam felt aware again of her nudging people and objects to the edge. Inevitably, and with a sense of despair, he wondered if she would one day push him away. Sometimes he wondered what was keeping the relationship going. Maybe he was pleased that like the man clinging to the bucking bronco, he was still holding on. Perhaps he felt flattered that this tall, lithe woman with sharp features and clear blue eyes wanted a short, slightly balding lover. Adam could never decide whether Minna was beautiful or not. It changed according to the scenery. On the sandy Pembrokeshire dunes, with her hair ruffled by the slight breeze she had looked adorable but when they met in a wine bar in the city one evening and she rushed in from the office, her features looked sharp as if someone had chiselled her nose and chin and made them more pointed and wiped the pretty softness from her cheeks.
She also changed according to the seasons. Summer softened her; autumn brought out the auburn streaks in her hair but through the winter she was as sharp as an icicle; brutal as sleet. It seemed a long time until the spring when she would unwrap narcissi from brown paper and let their scent sweeten the air.
It was November. The days were dark and hopeless. Adam and Minna worked long hours and then tumbled into their flat where they’d rustle up something to eat, catch up on correspondence and chores and then fall into bed. They did not talk of the future, as if that was forbidden territory. Adam knew that Minna didn’t want children and he wasn’t yet sure if he did.
As usual, winter brought out the worst in her. She always left the remnant of food on her plate but now there was more, the lack of light darkening her language; cynical comments about the homeless; criticising Adam because he wanted to make a donation to charity (actual help, he thought, not tokenism) and when Adam suggested that they invite some colleagues for a dinner party she scoffed at that.
Sometimes Adam thought about leaving but it was the practicalities that deterred him: the rent for the flat and the bills in their joint names; where to go next; the thought of moving again; having to tell his parents that yet another relationship had failed (although they had met Minna and clearly disliked her) and he felt nailed to the spot.
Their lovemaking dwindled; conversation was forced; life felt without purpose.
On yet another long evening with the blinds drawn and hours to go until bedtime, Minna said:
‘Sorry, Adam. I don’t think it’s working, do you?’
And with these words, he felt himself pushed to the margin.
To the edge of her plate.
Tamar Hodes was born in Israel in 1961 and has lived in the UK since 1967. She read English and Education at Homerton College, Cambridge. For the past thirty years she has taught English in schools, universities and prisons. Her novel ‘Raffy’s Shapes’ was published by Accent Press in 2006. She has had many stories on BBC Radio 4 and in anthologies including ‘The Best British Short Stories 2015’ published by Salt. She is married with two grown-up children.
Image: "Empty Plate" by Quinn Dombrowski.