Alphabet Soup Commission


Silence fell on the table and settled there, like the dust that had settled on the mantelpiece, or the ants which had taken over the outside bin. It was disturbed, only, by the ticking of the kitchen clock, small, octagonal, with a leaf illustration for every hour and a post-it note on its surface which read MAURA in capital letters, and, occasionally, by the sound of Michael slurping at his gravy. No one else was eating.

“I don’t understand” he said, mouth still half-full, “Why do you want these plates anyway? They’re not worth anything are they?” No one answered, which was probably just as well. Michael didn’t ask questions so that people could explain things to him. He didn’t understand, so it didn’t make sense. Simple as that. Slurp.

Jeannette watched the gravy spatter and splat on the muted yellow of the plate, making a pattern disturbingly similar to the shirt Maura had worn to the funeral. The shirt had more frills, however, Maura was all about frills. She reminded Jeanette of the railway stations between Birmingham and Northampton, with their bubble writing and bright green railings and signs designed like they were airport terminals. The shabbier the station, the brighter the colour scheme.  Maura’s scarf was purple and her lips a particularly vibrant shade of orange. Jeanette wished the train would hurry on to the next station. It was a particularly shabby day.

She wiped the edge of her own plate with her finger, although it was already clean. If this had been a short story, one of the 500 word pieces she occasionally sent to the newspaper, and which sometimes, even more occasionally, were published, the whole thing would’ve been a lot more clean. They would have arrived, on time, with their own cardboard boxes, and efficiently sorted through what was theirs, and what was hers, and what could be shoved and quickly sealed in a bin bag and never looked at, or smelled, again. There would have been some excellent, and very moving, descriptions of mother’s photo albums, and Jeanette’s childhood memories, and the three siblings quietly united in grief. Maura would have worn lipstick that matched her skin tone, Richard would have stopped saying “It’s Fine!” when he clearly didn’t mean it, and Jeanette would have got the plates.

Instead, she got the damp, old carpet smell that she couldn’t wash out, and the post stacked up unopened by the front door, and the silence.

Richard scraped his chair more loudly than was necessary, and went to make a phone call. “Can it wait?” were Adrian’s first words as he answered. He was about to go into a talk about Efficient Interpersonal Solutions. Adrian did not usually bother with work conferences, especially optional ones, but this event had the distinctive benefit of being at least an hour and a half from Richard’s mother’s house, and not finishing until eight. “I’m doing what you said!” (Richard knew he didn’t give a shit about Workplace Cohesion.) “I’m standing up for myself!” Then lower, and with urgency, “I am having those plates.” Silence. “That’s great darling. I’m going now.” Richard listened to him hang up, and placed his phone down on the garden table. When he picked it up it had collected several ants, and a post-it note which read MAURA in capital letters.

MAURA, who was always in capital letters, didn’t want the table for her garden – she didn’t have one – but for the garden she would buy when her numbers came up, or when Michael got his furniture business off the ground. She felt the bingo was more likely. She used to do the same with mum, on the walk home from Tony Morning’s Second Hand Warehouse, gazing through glossy glass windows at brightly painted furniture and purple scarfs and yellow plates. “That’s what I’ll get when my numbers come up”. She remembered the plates because there had been a display that day, in the big department store – a pale ochre tea set which made her mother sigh. They found them, not quite pale ochre and slightly cracked around the edges, at the back with the colanders. “They’ll do”, mum had said, but she smiled as they walked home, a smile that looked like old photos of her at the beach, with their dad.

“I remember buying those plates” Richard had said, which was almost true. He remembered trudging to and from the second-hand warehouse, laden down with cardboard boxes, and sitting on the train with them piled up on his knees, with the clatter of the crockery offset against the clunk of the train on the tracks. Clatter, clunk and clatter, clunk. He remembered the old lady who sometimes sat opposite, sleeping with her mouth open and her head thrown back and her fingers clasped around a carrier bag. A man with small eyes and a small mouth, who read a book on Dealing with Teenagers. A girl who wore an anorak even when it was sunny.

When he went back inside, the plates had been stacked in the sink, in lukewarm water, ready for him to wash up. If Richard was a plate in that pile, he was somewhere in the middle, crushed on both sides and smeared with bits of other people’s dinner. A reel of cotton, wrapped up in problem’s that weren’t his. “You should let someone else wash up for a change”, Adrian often said, and he could’ve, but he didn’t. He just said “it’s fine”, though he clearly didn’t mean it.

In Jeanette’s short stories, people always said what they meant, and they washed the glasses up before the plates, so they didn’t get grease on them. That was how dad did it – he had shown her, like he’d shown her how to lay the table. Mat, coaster, knife, then fork, and always the yellow plates, except on special occasions. Michael didn’t even bother with a place mat and it made her teeth hurt.

He was in the kitchen now, looking at the plates but not drying them, and Maura was saying how they were very good for soup. “They’re bowl-like, you see? They’re not just plates, they’re concave”. “How are we going to get the books back to my flat, Richard? And the crockery?” “Or is it convex?” “I don’t know, Jeanette, the train?” “What, on my knees?” “I don’t know, it’s not my problem.” “We do eat a lot of soup.”

Clatter. Clunk.

They turned to watch the yellow shards spatter out from Michael’s feet.

Silence fell, and settled on the tiled floor, alongside a post-it note, which had once been stuck to the kitchen clock.