The Start, by Manuel Zarb - Insite's Short Story Competition

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The room wasn’t as messy as usual. More of an in between. The in-laws had been to visit, and every time they came they had to tidy up the house, switch the dining table sheets, run a damp cloth over the furniture so everything was shiny and nice, brush their teeth so they were shiny and nice when they smiled. The father sat at the kitchen table weeping, in a very intense way. His eyes were red and his face contorted grotesquely with every stuttering jolt, like an African dancer wearing a mask.

**

“Hello! Hello how are you!”

“Come in!”

“Hello! The door won’t open. Could you come down and open the door for us, please?”

On the television they were showing a rugby game but when the mother in-law arrived someone switched it over to a soap opera, one of the children. Lucia had two daughters – the tall darker one, and the young one whose hair curled like someone had done it on purpose and had strands of white which no one knew where they came from. The older one had brown eyes, and the younger had eyes that were greenish and looked particular.

The father was short and had brown eyes and straight black hair, and the mother was shorter and portly and had curly reddish hair which she went to do regularly at the salon.

**

On the way to Lucia’s house, the father-in law was muttering something underneath his breath. The volume increased at every moment the car lurched to a halt.

“What’s wrong?”

He would not give her the satisfaction.

He was smoking, flicking at the cigarette every few seconds and blowing smoke into the air as they went past. He could not remember if that was illegal or not, and did it anyway.

** The devilled eggs were lovely. The start of the whole affair was when the father-in-law said something and the mother, raising her head and baring her suddenly reddening cheeks said “Please don’t start.” After that, there was no stopping it.

The family was eating in silence, dipping various slices of meat into various different sauces which had one taste or another. The father-in-law cut slivers of pork into very small rectangular slices, dipping them into brown sauce which tasted faintly of candles and whisky. After that he looked up at Lucia’s husband, letting his eyes rest a few seconds. Feeling the presence of that stare, the father would look up to see the other’s nose buried into the dish. Before the start, they were talking about the Olympics in moderate voices, which shuddered slightly sometimes.

**

It was clearly Lucia’s mother that had started it. They had run out of eggs at the grocer’s, so the host had bought some nice cuts of ham instead and put them onto a wooden plate, which she had seen on television once. When the comment came, slicing through them all like a knife, the oldest daughter rolled her eyes and Lucia glared at her mother, very briefly. The youngest was messaging someone underneath the table, and would not have noticed if the father leapt onto the table and started barking like a dog.

“I don’t think what you just said was appropriate, mama,” said Lucia. “We said not to talk about politics last time.” She turned, mid-sentence, to the grey polo-shirt on her husband’s back, which was retreating quietly out of the dining room, through the living room, to the bathroom at the end of the hall. The door opened and shut.

**

The father did not understand why his daughter could have said what she did. They had discussed it many times beforehand. He had talked at her through the bathroom door as she did her hair. Now that the words were out in the open, she looked at him with her eyes widened as her mouth made a small O shape. Shame. He was rooted to his chair, his mind far from the chicken and vegetable skewers which lay before him barely nibbled at. He observed them.

Across the table, the father in law’s brow furrowed, and he lowered his bald head into the plate as well. Lucia’s mother only stared away, seemingly distant but listening intently. The telephone gave off a loud beep and then stopped mid-way. There was no fixing the bloody thing.

**

The older daughter prepared the onions whilst her sister was upstairs talking to some boy and worrying about what he meant.

**

The evening before the younger daughter stood in the kitchen and prepared the onions. She was not a natural cook, but figured she was old enough to figure it out at last. Lucia had said “You should wash them in cold water before you slice them, you’ll cry less that way,” and “Put a few slices first, horizontal and vertical. Then just chop it into small pieces.”

The daughter stood at the kitchen sink and ran the water over the onions and let her thoughts run with the water. She never knew what to wear for these occasions, was thinking maybe she would not do her assignment and should she ask Andrea or someone, what that boy and the other one had meant by what he said, and she didn’t like this song anymore – took out her earphone and let it dangle off her jean trousers, and she washed the onions in cold water before she sliced them she’d cry less that way and she washed the onions in cold water before she sliced them she’d cry less that way and she washed the onions in cold water before she sliced them she’d cry less that way

**

The moment that started it arrived like a flash of lightning when Lucia spilt half her mother’s soup on the floor leading from the kitchen to the dining room. “Oh dear,” said the mother-in-law leaping up, as the others shifted in their chairs and turned towards the noise.

The younger daughter was asking, “Mama, shall I get the mop?” but she had already vanished upstairs looking for it, taking each step two at a time. The father stood up to help also. Lucia’s father stared after him blankly.

“It’s alright, I wasn’t that hungry anyway,” the mother in law was saying. “Don’t worry. It’s enough.”

**

The veal was to die for. Slicing it into digestible pieces with your teeth as you moved your jaw up and down, you could almost feel the farmer’s hand as he struck the deliberate, fatal blow. “This is very good,” said the elder daughter dutifully. The rest of the table murmured assent. Then the room was quiet, except for the mother-in-law talking about her neighbours, the dull noises coming out of the television and the person washing his car outside in front of his house. The clock ticked steadily in the background; the father-in-law counted sixteen strokes before raising the wine to his lips and drinking deeply. It was at this moment that the father started talking about some inane topic and the father-in-law responded with something close to enthusiasm. They discussed it for a couple of minutes. The father-in-law picked out a word and made a joke, and the father laughed. The father also made a joke, and the father-in-law did not laugh, but he smiled in a generous sort of way. Then the father made an effort to keep the conversation going, and they started to talk about something else.

Across the table the mother-in-law’s lip curled upwards, but she was only looking at the young one texting under the table and she made no comment. Lucia was positively beaming. It took some verbal prodding for her to remember to start eating again.

The telephone gave off a loud beep and then stopped mid-way. No one paid it mind. At the end of the meal, the children hugged their grandparents and the father-in-law and the father looked at each other and the former nodded, and the latter did as well. The father did not even mind that Lucia’s mother had not kissed him on the cheek, as she usually did after a family meal.

Lucia’s mother and father left in the car, which was old and did not work properly. Lucia was still beaming as she returned to the kitchen, took out the ice-cream from the freezer, and dumped it into the bin. They had eaten the older daughter’s trifle instead.

**

It was always Lucia’s husband that started it. He realised his mistake immediately, and he met his wife’s look with the countenance of an African dancer who had lost his mask.

Written by

Manuel Zarb

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