Let Her Food Go Down

There were metal pans arranged on a whitecloth’d table in the corner of ‘The Dutch Room’; beneath each was a chafing fuel candle bobbing and brimming, fronted by a sheet of paper with the contents written on hastily: white rice, mutton biryani, curried chicken, Jamaican Escovitch fish, tikka wings, fried chicken, tomato chutney, mackerel cabbage & scotch bonnet, sweetbread, macaroni cheese, slaw, and a bowl of crisp salad. Music played, good music, ruined somewhat by an MC who insisted on speaking over it constantly with meaningless drivel. My cousin entered the room to applause in a second-choice dress after the first had split. Upon her head was a tiara that read ‘50’. She danced and laughed, spiralled by her husband in a parade, going round greeting all. Many kept the barstaff busy, and in between they went down to the entrance to smoke, kissing latecomers on the cheek. There was another party in the pub room below; men dressed as schoolboys, obese and unshaven, drunkenly eyeing young women, too young.
    The MC interrupted another good song to declare that the food was ready, and that children were to be served first. Then the adults began to queue. I was in no rush, stood beside my mother, nursing a beer that went down slow, like it was stuck in my throat. I did not feel like speaking to anyone, and, indeed, had not spoken to anyone, other than my aunt who had recently returned from a disastrous trip to Cairo; she did not wish to discuss herself, such was her nature, so we spoke about cats. Otherwise, I kept to myself, wandering in small circles, and if someone should approach then I would surreptitiously move to the side as though I had business elsewhere.
    It was my time when I noticed that the children were beginning to queue for their seconds with wrinkling paper plates. Something from each metal pan, then in the middle of the dancefloor I looked around for somewhere to sit. All of the tables were busy, people conversing loudly in competition with the music. It was dark. Discolights spun and wrestled colourfully, disorientating. Sitting down just anywhere without due care might require me to engage in conversation – with family, acquaintance or stranger – and I was not keen on the thought; I was tired; I was not sleeping right. Someone was calling my name. Was that it? Was my name being called in amongst the commotion? My sister-in-law was there on the other side of ‘The Dutch Room’ with her arm raised, beckoning. ‘You can sit here,’ she said, gesturing toward an empty seat next to my niece. I smiled at my niece—‘You all right, mate?’ and sat down with my overburdened paper plate.
    The two girls, my nieces, were a source of comfort, somewhat. Through their wide-eyed staring around, the rubbing of one hand against another, sandal’d toes going up & down, skittish flicks of the head, not as tall as their surroundings; I followed at their heel. Tenderly I would reach out and stroke the back of their neck or grasp their shoulder softly. They let me move with them, as though I had been accepted by a neighbouring tribe. My eldest niece had broken her arm a week previous, sporting a lightweight cast and sling that she carried around as though she had been born with it. Strange the grace of an eight-year-old.
    ‘No, let your food go down first.’
    And then we were sat side-by-side. My sister-in-law walked away, leaving us, my niece and I, her sitting there on the chair with immaculate posture, her dirty blonde hair tied in plaits, one arm in a sling, the other caressing it absentmindedly in her lap. Still she looked around in silence with wide-eyes. Our chairs were angled towards each other. Around us were strangers, but they chatted or ate, so that it was just my niece and me.
    First the tikka wings, sucking all the flesh and skin from the bones, every drop of sauce and some marrow, too. Then the fried chicken. Sweetbread to begin pushing gravy from one side of the paper plate to the other, back & forth, back & forth. She sat there, unsure whether she was watching, but patiently and obediently, waiting for her food to go down. O, how I wanted to just stare at her and adore her! to love her like I did when she was a baby and then a toddler, but now she was out in the world and the world might ruin her! It might ruin her! Just there, her feet not touching the ground but swinging, hands tinkering with nothing, letting her food go down.
    Finally, I broke the silence, leaning to her ear—‘You not got anyone to sign your cast?’ It was impeccably white and textured, flawless.
    She returned the lean—‘No, I am waiting for Margot to learn how to write her name first then I want her to sign my cast.’ She spoke assured, yet timid, politely.
    ‘That’ll be cool.’
    ‘Yeah, she is learning how to write her name.’
    ‘It must be cool learning how to write your name for the first time—’
    ‘Can you remember writing your name for the first time?’
    ‘I don’t think so. Maybe. It was a long time ago.’
    ‘It was… Whose name do you think is easier to write, yours or hers?’
    She thought for a moment, squeezing her lips, big eyes looking to the side—‘Probably about the same.’
    ‘But hers is six letters and yours is only four!’
    ‘Yeah, but my name is difficult to spell.’
    ‘… I think you’re probably right.’
    Continuing to eat as she continued to let her food go down; her tiny stomach and intestines pinching along. I asked her how she had broken her arm – although I knew the story – and she told it to me, detailing how determined she had been to swing from one monkey-bar to another. She thanked me when I told her how brave she had been. When I told her that her daddy had done the same thing when he was her age, she said—‘I know!’ and broke out into a big smile.
    ‘Your mummy said that your cast will be off in time for your birthday. I was worried!’
    ‘Yes! And I am having a Hallowe’en party!’
    ‘You are?!’
    ‘Yes! with my friends! Mummy says I can have three friends over and we will go trick-or-treating!’ When she was younger, my niece pronounced ‘mummy’ in a particular way, like mum-ay and it was adorable; but she had grown out of it.
    ‘Do you know what you’re going to dress up as yet?’
    ‘Not yet.’
    ‘Do you know what you want for your birthday?’
    She said something I did not know or understand, so I begged her pardon; she said it again, then spelled it for me over the music; her hot voice into the swirls and canals of my ear. I typed it into my phone and showed it to her; she nodded; I saved. She began to tell me what the thing did; it took photographs and made films. She was going to make films of Margot and her friends.
    ‘Are you going to make films of golf? Your daddy—’ and it still felt strange referring to my younger brother as ‘daddy’—‘shows me videos of you playing golf. Do you like it?’
    ‘You look good at it. Better than I am!’
    ‘Yeah! Daddy took me to the driving range the other day!’
    ‘And you play football, too! I’ve seen all the pictures of you in your Chelsea kit.’
    ‘Yeah, I go to training after school and sometimes we play in the back garden but Margot keeps using her hands! So I tell her not to.’
    ‘Your mummy told me that Margot doesn’t like tidying up at school.’
    ‘No! And I don’t know why! She nevertidies up! I tell her she has to, but she doesn’t listen!’
    ‘You have to tidy up if you make a mess.’
    ‘That’s what I tell her!’
    ‘You always tidied up when you were her age.’
    ‘I know! So the teacher – Miss Addison – gives everyone else a gold star but not her! And then she gets upset!’
    My sister-in-law returns, places her hand on my niece’s shoulder and tells her that she can get up now and go play with the others.
    ‘See you later, mate.’
    ‘Bye, uncle R—.’
    Once she is gone, I am by myself. There are others around me, but I am by myself. There is not much left on the paper plate, maybe some white rice and flakes of the Escovitch fish. My tongue is sweetly peppered.
    Then something happens that is strange, although it had been building for some time and I had done well to supress it. For one reason or another, I began to weep. I think of my niece and I think of the world and I think of perfection and love, of softness and innocence, I think of the way she is and the way that others are, and I begin to weep among a crowd of people in the middle of a party. I do not sob, no, I do not lose my breath, but my jaw hurts and my eyes weep tiny tears down my cheeks that I brush away with the back of a hand that was not used to mop a mouth. Goodness knows I try not to cry, and it hurts so, but I refuse it, like a yawn withheld, cheeks twitching and teeth clenched. I sit for a moment longer to catch my breath. How silly to weep at a party! But she is in the background now, playing with her sister and second-cousins, her arm in a cast, slung and speckled by discolights.
    After eating, after a few pints, I am a little more relaxed, yet still not ready to speak to others. My cousin approaches, his arms crossed, holding a beer—‘What do you think of the DJ?’
    I leap upon the chance to tease, for teasing is always unbearable when the teaser appears sincerely miserable—‘He’s decent. Similar to you, y’know? your sort of style and ability.’
    ‘Fuck off.’
    ‘Don’t be like that. I think he’s pretty good. Does the same sort of thing you do with the mixing and scratching and that.’
    ‘Fuck off.’
    ‘Sour grapes! I always say—“Why mix one song into another when you can just play an explosion sample?” That’s what I say. I’ve always said it.’
    ‘You’re winding me up.’
    ‘Would I ever do that?’
    He walks away.
    My mother sidles up to my shoulder—‘We’re gonna leave soon.’
    ‘Let me finish this beer. I’ll come with you.’ It felt like some kind of evening, something wasted, somewhere I felt alone until there was my niece. Reanimated, I spoke of her on the car journey home, only five minutes. The roads were quiet and my father drove parallel to the beach, where the moon hid, where the gulls slept. ‘We had a good chat while I was eating—’
    ‘Yeah, I saw you two talking.’
    ‘She’s so—’ I stammered for emphasis. ‘She’s so perfect. She was lovely as we were talking. It breaks my heart.’
    ‘She’s so wonderful, isn’t she? Bless her.’
    ‘She told me what she wants for her birthday but I got no idea what it is.’
    ‘She’s lovely. She really is. A perfect child.’
    My father drove homeward, not saying anything. The heating was on, but it only slowly warmed up.