MY mother used to say you should always cook too much. “More than you can chew,” were her exact words. She said that, if you always had more prepared than you needed, God would sooner or later provide the company. As a child I liked that notion–I was a chubby girl. I loved the sight of mother’s richly laid tables, enjoyed the extra portions I could put on my plate.
Still, of all my mother’s sayings—and she had a couple—I never expected this to be the one which stuck. I lost all that extra weight in my teens, and moved into my first own flat slim as a stalk, most of my mother’s proverbs long relegated to the dusty back of my mind—if not altogether forgotten, as dead as herself. Yet, once adult life had caught up to me and I was just another disenchanted, worn-out, tired woman, those old words came back to me. With cooking my only hobby, it wasn’t hard to get in that extra time and effort to make “more than I can chew”. And as a lonely single lady who could count her acquaintances by the fingers on one hand, there was a dire need for company.
So I cooked more than I could chew, and held out for the doorbell to ring; for God’s little gift, a friend, a hungry neighbour to appear. Yet the bell never rang. And soon I learned that there is truth to the words: old habits die hard; and I shoved that extra food onto my own plate day after day, night after night, and learned another thing: I can easily swallow “more than I can chew.” And now I’m not just a lonely single lady; I’m a fat old lonely single lady. And I keep cooking too much. Keep eating more than I can chew. And I guess, deep down, I keep holding out for my mother’s smiling promise: sooner or later, God will provide the company.
My belly begins to grumble this Saturday evening, right on time as it always does—by necessity, for there is no wrong time to be hungry. (Another one of my mother’s.) Still, blinking at the clock I keep on my side table, tucked in between a bag of crisps, another one of gummy bears, and a box of chocolates, I find that it’s unusually late for me. I must have dozed off at some point after lunch, right here in my recliner where I sat down to watch reruns of old Dr Phil episodes. Sure enough, there’s something different on TV now; what looks to be a dark, grimy horror flick I certainly do not want to see—the current scene has a half-naked woman shrieking like the devil himself were biting her behind off. I really can’t have been paying attention. I fumble for the remote control, find it half-submerged between my thighs, and quickly turn off the TV. I can feel my joints aching—a rather new development: encased in thick layers of flesh and skin, they have until recently responded in kind to my restful lifestyle, never bothering me all that much. I guess age is beginning to tell on me. Ignoring the strain, I heave myself onto my feet, shake off the lid-dragging daze that is all my supposed afternoon nap has brought me, and drag myself into my kitchen. I might have missed dinner time, but I’ll be damned if I was going to miss dinner. Woozy, the daze clinging despite my best efforts, I cook. I’m making my favourite tonight: mash-and-cheese-topped meatloaf with bacon and gravy … and peas. I’m not that big on peas, but it’s not a meal if nothing green’s involved.
Which, I realise as I stir the chopped onion in its bath of heated oil, is yet another of my mother’s sayings. I haven’t been aware of that. Yet I’ve lived by it, forcing beans and leaves of salad and asparagus down my throat alongside preferred delicacies, feeling good about myself for not throwing my health entirely overboard. A joke, really. But I’ve been holding off the punchline as of yet.
These drab and dreary thoughts boil away with the potatoes. When I cook, my heart soars. I’m good at this, and I like it, and it pays off. When you cook, and do it well, the reward always follows hot on the heels. Hot on the peels. I laugh. Who said that?
Oh. Mother, of course.
The meatloaf’s browning in the oven, the golden mash of mashed potatoes and grated cheddar basking in the heat, the dish more than halfway to perfection, when the doorbell rings.
Dumbfounded, I remain beside my oven.
The doorbell rings again.
But just who for the love of God is that?
I peek at the oven clock, just to make sure that I haven’t misread the time before, haven’t slept through the night in my recliner and mistaken eight am for eight pm. But that wouldn’t have made any sense, of course. It’s dark out, and I had no reason to be so exhausted as to sleep that long. On the other hand, I had no reason to be exhausted enough to sleep at all, so–
And a third ring.
Alright, nothing for it. I’ll have to go and check. Perhaps a door-to-door salesman … at eight in the evening? Well, then maybe a neighbour—maybe a cat has strayed, and they’re handing out flyers …
I open the door, sensing that a fourth ring is imminent, and find myself face to face with a stranger.
I know immediately, instinctively, that it is indeed a stranger, a perfect one, a … strange one. Not a neighbour; not an old friend made unrecognisable by the years apart; not one of a fixed and sensible or at least somewhat tangible cause: no salesman, no delivery man, not even a religious solicitor. No, I see—I sense—that this person is of a strange kind indeed.
Wrapped in the finest suit my eyes have ever fallen on—and I have been to two funerals and even a wedding once—the stranger looks down at me from beneath a black top hat, the kind dandy gentlemen wear in movies, the kind they wore long ago but I’ve not seen on anyone’s head in real life, ever. Thick locks of dark hair—ashen in in shade—cascade down the sides of his face and tumble to his shoulders, around which is draped what appears to be a black cape. His eyes are a piercing colour, hard to define—first I think they’re impossibly dark, then they’re the same as his hair, then the bright blue of a chip of ice—but whatever the colour, they’re intense, the way they stare at me. He smiles, though, and the smile’s pleasant enough—lavish maroon lips (if with what looks like a blue tinge at the edges, but that might just be the light) pressed tight together and drawn long across a thin face of harsh angles, a smile so broad it threatens to cut the head right in two. At least it seems so from my perspective: I have to tilt my head back to see that smile. The stranger towers over me, six foot three easy, maybe higher than that. Usually I’m a bit wary of tall people, but oddly enough—especially considering the circumstances—I’m not afraid of this unexpected … nightly apparition. That’s really the only name I can think of. To speak of a man would flatter all other men I’ve ever met, and to speak of a visitor would make no sense, for I never have visitors. Obviously he’s mistaken the door, or has lost his way. Someone like him—someone who wears fine clothes like that, and a top hat—wouldn’t come see me. I don’t know people like that. Rich, tall, slender people with pale, blue-washed faces and eyes that have seen everything.
And yet … those very eyes. They look at me like they have seen me, too. Like they know me.
And the smile, though ever so polite, is not cold or distant. It is a smile of welcoming, of friendship. Of promises.
Then the apparition speaks. His voice, somehow both smooth and rasping, sounds of smoke and dimly lit tables, of whispered secrets and many worlds.
“I worried I was late.”
With this drawled announcement, he steps past me. His top hat good as brushes the ceiling. It is only now that I notice the cane, a stick as black as coal and as smooth as still waters, which stands almost as high as my bosom while it barely reaches the other’s midriff. He has one hand of long, lathy fingers, blue-pale as the face, wrapped around the cane’s head. I think I recognise the partly obscured shape as that of the face of a beast of some sort or other, though I couldn’t say anything more. I can’t even decide whether the finely crafted, silvery design was fashioned from metal or carved from the cane’s wood and then painted—but it’s not like any of that mattered, anyway.
What matters is that a complete stranger has just entered my house without waiting for an invitation, and that he now stands tall and natural as a crow in a cherry tree in my tiny anteroom. The arm not connected to the cane is placed patiently behind his back.
And he still smiles. He smiles like he means it.
Stunned, I stand between him and my open door and return his gaze. After a moment I realise that my mouth gapes wide in my bedazzlement; I must look a right fool. Struggling to get a grip, I move to shut the door, then halt, hesitate, recalling that a stranger’s entered my flat without my bidding. I shut my lips so as not to come across all dumb, then pull them right apart again, grasping with a jolt that perhaps I should speak, ask him what he thinks he’s doing—grasping this, not least, because he’s raised his eyebrows by now and is looking a question at me, as though expecting words of recognition and reception.
That is all I manage. His eyebrows move higher up his forehead, almost to the brim of his top hat. Ridiculously, this encourages me. “W-what …” I stammer, and, gaining courage from hearing my own voice, finally ask, “Who are you?”
Abruptly, the man stoops—and I recoil, thinking he’s attacking me, flinching back against my door, pushing it to in the process. But he doesn’t attack.
He’s bowing to me.
“My dear lady,” he says as he stands upright again—smiling, still smiling, but different now: it’s, absurdly, something like a stern smile now, a serious smile—“I am, of course, your company for the evening. Your guest, arrived in the nick of time to sup with you. Shall I proceed into the dining room?”
Without waiting for an answer, he does exactly what he just invited himself to, cape-like jacket and shoes and all. He strides past me into my kitchen and through it, on into my living room, where I take my meals. Not much of a dining room, I think, not what that man’s used to, I’d wager—
But that’s beside the point, I remember, startling myself. My heart, which seems to have stopped beating, begins to race now. My breath comes in stertorous wheezes, threatening to stay away entirely. I feel my forehead and neck and palms break out in sweat as I struggle to understand what is happening …
And yet, even so, I do not run away, or even arm myself with one of my trusted knives as I too walk through my kitchen. I guess—and I’ve never had a chance to learn this lesson until now—I guess panic turns me into an oafish jackass instead of a rabid fighter, one who’d walk along peacefully and look on dull and moon-eyed, rather than kick and bite and drive her hooves into the ground, as she’s led to the slaughterhouse.
Like a woman in a dream, I follow the stranger.
I remain in my kitchen—not just so as to put distance between the man and me, but because I feel like this is where I ought to be right now, like a vague sense of something at least akin to safety clings to me here—and look in on him through the arched doorway connecting to the living room. I eat at a cheap wooden table which is large enough for four if they don’t mind cramming it a bit. And even though I always occupy it by my lonesome, I’ve put a chair at the end opposite mine, telling myself it’s there only because I’ve bought them as a pair and don’t want to waste the beautiful thing.
Now, a guest–no–that’s not what he is; I must not forget that–now, a stranger in a top hat and a black cape stands behind that second chair, one hand still on his cane, one on the chair’s pretty bright pink headrest. He’s about to pull it out, it looks like. He stands there for all the world as though it were his apartment, his table, his chair, he the host and I his visitor who’s just arrived. Stands there as though to pull the chair–my other chair—for me.
He’s looking at me again, all expectant and hopeful, all polite smiles.
“Are you a burglar?” I hear myself ask—whimper, more like. A pathetic child’s question in a pathetic child’s voice.
For a moment I reckon I can see the stranger’s face falter—the gallant front waver like water disturbed by the plop of a small rock, the tight blue skin pucker and tear—and I think now I’ve done it, now I’ve sealed my own doom. I shouldn’t have said anything, then maybe he’d have kept pretending and I might’ve had a chance to flee, but not now, not anymore, now that he knows that I know, he’ll do what he’s really come here to do, he’ll—
Suddenly, his face—back to its pale noble self—flat-out beams at me. No more modest smiles. His icy eyes flare up with strange lights, almost like them what they have in the arctic, aurora beams or what they’re called, and his lips break apart to reveal all of his shockingly white, sharp teeth.
“Oh—oh, no,” the stranger sighs, half-laughing, never taking his eyes off me, never moving an inch from the table. “You must not misjudge, dear lady. I have been invited here—asked here—and I couldn’t be here if it were not so. Do not fear that I would steal from you.”
And he lets go of the chair for a moment to spread his arms around him, indicating the room at large, his lifted cane almost knocking on my ceiling. He’s too decent to say it, but his gesture says it all anyway: what is there to steal? he’s asking.
I take a deep breath to steady my nerves. It doesn’t work. “B-but,” I stutter, frowning, feeling rooted to the spot when really I should bolt, “I d-don’t … I don’t even know … I’ve never seen the likes of—I’ve never met you before.” Somehow gaining courage from hearing my own voice, I say as decidedly as I can: “I never asked you here.”
His eyebrows flit up to his hat again, as though surprised by my words. “Have you not? Do not misunderstand. I have not come upon any appointment you have affixed. I have been sent to you. Sent by two common friends, who have only your best interest at heart.”
My frown deepens … yet at the same time, the longer I look into his twinkling eyes, the more clear it all becomes—the more alright this all seems. Though I cannot put my finger on why that is, his explanation seems to make sense, to … click. It fits, come to think of it, though I don’t see how it could.
Then again …
“I don’t have any friends.”
Startled by my own words, I wince, and stare at him in shock, almost as though afraid my words might have insulted him.
“You do,” he assures me.
I cannot help but believe that voice. And those eyes. How intently they are directed at … me. How they shine. “Two common friends …” I repeat, my mouth still working of its own accord while my brain labours fruitlessly. I’m on the verge of understanding, I think, but it seems my tongue’s quicker than my mind tonight, and my mind won’t talk to the rest of me.
“Yes,” the man replies, again with that broad, toothy smile, inclining his head ever so slightly, but remaining otherwise as erect as a statue. One of his hands grips the back of the chair again—strong, so strong that grip appears, though the pale fingers are so spindly. “Two common friends. Your mother, for one.”
His eyes throw another spark at me, catch mine as easily as a kingfisher catches a stickleback. Peering into them—looking, truly looking—I quietly echo: “My mother … but she’s—”
“Dead now,” my visitor finishes for me, with a graceful nod and another flashing of his shiny teeth. “Naturally.”
My dead mother has sent him … and—distracted by his gaze as I am—that doesn’t seem so strange … and yet: who, then, would the second mutual friend be, when I have no friends at all, and my mother is long gone?
Always cook more than you can chew …
I can almost hear her voice ring out to me over the ripple of years. Like she’s right beside me again, with me in my kitchen, reminding me …
And—yes! Certainly. There is my answer.
“You have called,” the stranger emphasises, removing one hand from the chair to indicate the as yet bare table with a slow, wide wave, elegant like a dance move, “and you have been heeded. Thus, I have been … provided. It is simple as that. I trust that, in due course, you will in return provide what you have promised?”
I feel all fear leaving me, myself deflating like a balloon filled with air that’s been too warm, too thick. I heard the man’s words, heard them very well, and though I wouldn’t have thought it possible seconds ago, a joy now replaces my dread, a joy such as which I haven’t felt in … forever. Suddenly I’m giddy all over, bask in the strange figure’s glare just like a meatloaf in the light from an oven lamp, and Holy Lord, d’you know what? The man’s not quite so strange anymore as what I thought to begin with, not at all. Because I know now. I know that he’s what’s been due me. A promise from long ago, finally abided. Words which I’d held to, never knowing it, kept.
And like I said,” my company speaks up again, widening his eyes and lowering his pointy chin to convey his meaning more properly, “I was afraid I would be late.”
It’s all I can do not to laugh and clap. Not from finding anything funny, but from my cheer, from the sheer excitement of it. I content myself with smacking my hands together in front of me, once and very loud, before I say: “Oh, but—but you are most punctual!” And he is, and need not have feared that my dinner’s integrity depended at all on the time of his coming: I never let a meatloaf overcook, or cheese burn, or any meal be ruined by any coincidences of misfortune. On my cooking one can depend. “D-dinner is—it’s almost ready! Here, please—” My words tumble over each other as I hasten forward, arms reaching for his coat. “Let me—let me take your …”
He holds up the hand with the cane. I feel like the stick is pointed at me—more, stabbing me, boring into my breasts—when in fact I can see it dangle stiffly from his palm. His open palm, as though glued to it. The cane almost seems to still connect with the floor, even though his hand’s raised to his chest.
“I’ll have to keep my coat on,” he purrs. “You understand, I am certain.”
I gasp, nod, lower my arms as quick as though a snake had struck at me. “O-of course! Of course I understand.” Smiling nervously, I bow, and bow again repeatedly as I retreat into the kitchen, behind afore. “Dinner’ll be ready in a jiffy!”
And so it will be. He really has come right on cue. My work in the kitchen is nearly done. Fiddling und fuddling about with the gravy ladle, I’m spurred on by an inner turmoil which wickedly pleases me some proper way. My heart flutters mad like a trapped bird, doesn’t seem to know whether to leap into my throat or burst out of my chest. I’m hot all over, not like one expects to be in a kitchen running at full steam, but with a heat that is alien to me, an inner boiling which makes me grin like an idiot (I feel the corners of my mouth pulling apart as though my ears were rightly tugging at them, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it), has me feeling much like a warm, toasty meatloaf myself. Quivering and shivering, occasionally bursting into uncontrolled bouts of stifled giggling, I hack and stab at some final herbs for garnish–not usually my forte or preference, but my guest, I feel, calls for some such dainty hassle.
My guest. I barely dare believe it!
Yet I have to believe it. And why should I be surprised? My mother, after all, has promised.
Finally, with the two best, most beautiful, heartiest plates of mash-and-cheese meatloaf I have ever prepared, I hurry–with a rare spring to my half-dancing step–back to my company. But before I round the doorway, I halt, as does my heart. What if he isn’t there any longer? What if he’s disappeared like a wisp of smoke, like the illusion that, I inkle now, he surely must have been all along? What if I see myself in my recliner, still asleep and dreaming all this, and wake up with a gasp, twisting my head this way and that to find no one at the table and no one (or worse: myself) on the threshold to the kitchen?
Holding my breath, I take the final step. At first, it seems to me that my nightmare-in-a-dream has come true: where he should be, there appears to be nothing but emptiness, a black whirl of mist, and the vision is so corporeal that, in my wonder, my heart forgets to break from disappointment. Then the vision clears: he’s sitting down now, is all. I must’ve mistaken his top hat for a spook. He’s taken his seat, and he’s smiling at me again.
I blush, catch my breath, and join him at the dinner table, sitting across from him. After another brief and courteous meeting of our glances, we begin to eat. The first bite tastes salty on my tongue, but not too salty, I hope; I like it this way, and pray to God he does too. We’re silent still when I cut my second forkful, and the awkwardness I sense is threatening to overshadow my joy. Yet as much as I grapple for words, none will come. I will my eyes to at least squint in his direction, yet they stay stubbornly lowered to my plate; my mouth to open, yet it remains resolutely shut …
His words, as honest and warm as a holy vow, make my face heat up again, but also fill me with the courage to raise my gaze. There’s just a tiny bite missing from his loaf, which only irritates me for a second: I guess it is befitting a man of his noble and lean stature to take but little at a time, and his earnest mien adds weight to his appraisal.
“You speak true?” I beseech him anyway, barely daring to accept it, even though I take pride in my cooking and know full well that I’m good at it.
No one else has told me so before.
In response, he guides another midget of meat to his mouth. His tongue rolls out from between his sharp teeth and thin lips to greet it. It’s a very pink and very pointy tongue, and kind of out of place amidst his pale, edgy features, but I barely notice.
“It is quite easily …”
His tongue enwraps the fork, good as licks the meat off, and disappears back into his mouth like a timid beast into its cave. A soft shiver runs through me as he swallows, and my own mouth waters, and my body stiffens, and I want him to stay here with me at my table forever.
“… the best thing I’ve ever eaten.”
I laugh like a chittering bird, or like a flattered maiden, and the heat now threatens to burn holes right through my cheeks.
“Thank you,” I say, suddenly comfortable enough to speak freely, and even surprise myself by adding: “You mustn’t have eaten many things, then.”
His eyes flare, conveying he’s recognised the half-joking tone. “On the contrary, my dear! I have eaten more than my share.”
After that, a real flow enters into the conversation, unlike any conversation I’ve had in a while. In fact, I can’t remember my last conversation that hasn’t been business, or necessity, or some such. It’s a real chat, an amicable toing and froing, yet no pointless yakking: a sensible talk among … friends. That’s what I feel like: a friend speaking to someone who’s familiar, intimate, equal. I tell him of my favourite TV-shows, and about that time I, still a young, foolish thing then, almost let my chicken burn to crispy ashes because I was so absorbed in that book about a noble daughter’s secret romance, and about how Eileen from my first job always tried to one-up me (which is something I haven’t thought about in a long time). He comments and applauds and utters regret in all the right places, showing interest in everything I have to say. I eat as I speak, and speak as I eat, and soon another cut of meatloaf is on my plate, although I can’t remember fetching it, and another memory comes to me and leaves my mouth again as soon as I’ve got a hold of it. He’s such pleasant company, I can’t help myself.
That is … he’s such pleasant company for the most part. Occasionally, he gets a little … weird. Or at least, weird to me. But that, I must admit to myself, is more my fault than his, for any other woman in my position would probably be well pleased, most pleased, where I find in his deportment cause for retreat. What puts me off—and what would only ever begin to really put any other girl on, I suppose–is when he goes from the posture of a fine acquaintance—friendly and dear, but polite; hearty and devoted, but distant—to something a little more … intimate. What I don’t like is when he leans in closer, or when he begins to whisper, or when that gleam enters into his eyes–strange and dark, all … mystery-like—that glint which shines of rough and mean and naked things. I don’t want all that, and I think he can tell, for whenever I spy something which hints at it, it is gone as quick as it has come, as though he’d seen me shrink back and kenned himself rebuked. Or maybe it is all a misunderstanding. After all, what would a man like him want with a wench like me? Not man-woman-things, that’s for sure.
No, I know what he wants. What good company always wants. What my mother wanted for me, and what God wants for me. I can tell from all his remarks and from every little bow of his well-formed head and from his tiny amused wheezes in response to all my tittering giggles and from the inviting movements of his arms and hands … and from the way he never stops me talking, even asks for more, keeps me going.
He wants to get to know me.
He wants to hear it all.
He even keeps my glass filled, ready with my own jug whenever I’m almost empty, though I don’t think it’s my water he’s pouring. I don’t even mind. It’s tasty, very tasty.
And my plate seems to reload too, however that’s possible. I don’t ask. I’m too busy talking. Talking to those curious eyes and cocked ears. I can barely taste my meatloaf anymore, yet I keep on eating, and talking, and my company keeps on listening, and watching, and oh, how I enjoy myself! This is so much better than anything they show on TV …
And his eyes grow rounder, brighter, bluer as he listens, and his ears prick up higher, pointier, wider, and it seems like he grows paler the more I tell, the more I give him …
He feels with me—feels me …
I have found a friend at last.
She lasts rather long, which surprises me a smidge: I had not expected there to be this much depth to her despair, for she had from the beginning seemed rather simple-minded. How delightful that these creatures should, even after all this time, still find ways to surprise me.
Dry, so much dust on wobbly sticks, the husk of the woman crumples onto her own table. She might regenerate in time; she might not. I don’t bear her ill will, and deign her whatever is best—she has served me well, and I am grateful for the excellent course. But from what I’ve learned, I’d wager her staying under, her leaving this world behind after tonight’s exhaustion, would be better for her than a continuation of her pitiful life, which will lead nowhere … unless, of course, someone were to use her well. And I presume someone will, sooner or later. There are so many who enjoy the games of power, who need the likes of her to help them win.
I leave her at the table where the meatloaf is beginning to rot. I have another appointment tonight. And just down the hall, too.
I knock this time, with a patient yet powerful fist, for the inhabitant’s ears have for years been unable to pick up on the bell’s shrill chime. After a moment, he opens by a hand’s breadth. The man’s wizened face is pale and fearful as it pokes out between door and frame, but it won’t be so for much longer.
I present him with my most generous smile.
“I worried I was late.”