Tinned Peas

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I was going to post a festive something or other for Christmas Eve but I’ve decided to post this short story instead. There’s been a lot of talk in the news about food banks in the run up to Christmas this year. Whatever side of the debate you fall on, it’s hard to ignore the fact that food poverty is currently an enormous and ongoing problem throughout the UK. This is a quick short I wrote about what life is like for some of the many people who are now reliant on food bank donations. It’s very easy to make assumptions about the kind of people who use food banks and yet, in the last few years volunteering with Storehouse, I’ve become more and more convinced that there isn’t a “kind of person” who uses a food bank. I’ve heard so many different stories from service users, some of which I’ve struggled to relate to because they are so far outside my own range of experience, others which sounded scarily like parts of my own story.

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I’m so proud of my brother as he’s worked incredibly hard over the last few years to set up and run Storehouse. They’re helping to fight food poverty in Belfast every week and have managed to maintain an ongoing emphasis on dignity and care for the service users they provides for. This Christmas hundreds of people in Belfast will be able to enjoy a fresh Christmas dinner and enough groceries to keep them going over the holiday period because of the hard work of Storehouse volunteers and the kind donations of those who’ve given so generously to meet the need. You can check out the amazing work Storehouse do throughout the year at www.storehousebelfast.com and if you don’t live in Belfast, track down a similar project and get involved. The problem isn’t going away and people are going hungry while the politicians sit around discussing how to tackle it.

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Tinned Peas

At night the table slid sideways. Chloe and her father grabbed a handful of plywood each and tugged until the melamine top came away from itself, dividing like a pair of elevator doors and reconnecting to form the barest beginning of a bed. The table-bed left splinters in Chloe’s fingers and a solitary skelf of plywood embedded in the flesh between her wrist and elbow which -making a bolt for the bone- had ghosted itself to become a pale grey punctuation mark, ill-defined as an underwater fish. Weeks later, bored in maths, Chloe went at her arm with the sharp end of a compass but the skelf was deeper and more determined than she’d anticipated. She bled a thin border of blood dots, like Morse code, crawling across her textbook until the girl who sat next to her, sliding, as the term progressed, further and further away from Chloe’s damp wool smell, seized the compass and hissed, “are you a mentalist, Chloe? There’s places for ones like you that cut themselves.” Chloe tried to explain about the bed which was also a table but everyone else in class had separate places for sleeping and eating.

At first, building her own bed felt like camping or Christmas. In the weeks directly following her mother’s departure everything seemed an occasion of sorts. Normal service succumbed to the rules previously governing birthdays and family funerals: take-away meals and early morning nights, her father, briefly and uncharacteristically inclined towards affection. Each small indulgence settled like a layer of loft insulation over her father’s sadness until it was impossible to read the shape of his loss buried beneath all their anxious bravado. They were giddy, Chloe and her father, high as helium gas on the effort required to reassure each other.

“We’re moving into your Granda’s old caravan in the back field,” her father said when they could no longer afford the rent. “It’ll be a right laugh.” His smile was a spade, dig, dig, digging an old-fashioned trench against the very many looming things which threatened them now from all directions and below.

Fathers, Chloe knew from television, were meant to leave. Mothers, were designed to stay behind, sweating it out with tears and sometimes drinking. This was the proper order of disintegration. She felt ashamed for her father who had not managed to get out the door quick enough. Instead of saying, “why?” and “no way!” or “are you some kind of halfwit?” Chloe had said, “great Dad, sure I’ve always wanted to live in a caravan. It’ll be like going on holidays.”

It had been nothing like going on holidays. For weeks they kept the pretence running like telegraph wires between their old life and the caravan. Bolstered by the success of making it from morning breakfast to midnight, relatively intact, her father would joke with Chloe as he turned their table into a bed, tossing pillows at her head like padded punches, making a circus of shelving the condiments and placemats which stood guard over their daytime table. They slept top to tail. “Like tinned sardines,” he said, though they’d never been the sort of family who ate sardines. The stench of his feet were Chloe’s first and final taste each day. They bookended her dreams which were sweat-thick full of empty mothers and portable homes. In the morning their bed returned to its natural state.

They lived like this for months, stacking and shuffling the caravan’s furniture to preserve the illusion of normalcy. By March her father was no longer able to stomach the effort of pretence. The bed remained a bed from one morning to the next; sheets rising and pooling like pudding meringue; pillows shrivelling in a defeated line beneath the windowsill. They ate dinner on the sofa balancing picnic plates- still scum-smeared with the previous night’s meal- perilously on their knees and drank from mugs, stained the damp-sand colour of a North coast winter. Spoons served for knives, forks and occasionally ladles, saving on the washing up. Chloe could manage most everything but meat with a spoon and, with the price of winter lingering like a stubborn aunt all the way through the Twelfth fortnight and beyond, they could rarely afford meat. They were weekend carnivores, favouring fish fingers with red sauce, or bacon, black burnt and gritty from the ancient frying pan. “Here now, Chloe, a wee slice of bacon for you,” her father would say as he arranged rashers like quotation marks around a puddling dollop of baked beans. “You’ll know we’ve hit rock bottom when your old da has to turn vegetarian”.

Routine kept them rotating from one end of the week to the next. Round and wearily round with nothing to show for the triumph of arriving at another weekend, intact.

On Thursdays Chloe’s father left early for the job centre. On Friday evenings he returned late, his hands crease-cut from lugging plastic bags out of town. Each week on a Friday, they claimed two bags from their local food bank but, without dietary restrictions or religious affectations to act as leverage, had no say whatsoever over the contents. Arranging the bags on the floor at Chloe’s feet they worked their way methodically through their haul: dry pasta, toothpaste, UHT milk- which tasted like soap on cornflakes but lasted weeks- sandwich spread and snot green sauerkraut swimming in the jar, tinned ravioli, chocolate Hob Nobs, toilet roll and shower gel, (though the caravan’s cramped shower had long since expired so matters of personal hygiene were now restricted to a damp flannel and a weekly excursion to the local swimmers, where the unemployed could bathe with the chlorinated regulars for fifty pence an hour).

“No vegetables again, Clo,” her father would say, hands stomping across the shelves as he unpacked the food bank groceries. “They never give you vegetables. I always ask, but there’s never anything fresh.”

Chloe would dig deep into the carrier bag, rummaging past the plastic packs and cardboard wrappers in the nervous hope of locating a carrot, a pear or shock-haired head of broccoli. She’d make a tremendous show of excavating the groceries, holding her face like a pregnant pause, like the night before Christmas, never once expecting anything more perishable than a long-life loaf. All this and other excesses were for her father’s benefit. Lately he’d begun to look like a dropped stitch.

Her hands, fumbling through the week’s groceries were not the hands they’d been six months previously. Her skin, no longer blushing from Sunday roasts and lunch box mandarins had paled the sap grey colour of old dishwater. Her nails were raggedy and both hands, a scribbled network of raised blue veins. Her eyelids, when she occasionally had the chance to examine them in the school bathrooms or, upside down, in the back of a soupspoon, were bruised and almost transparent like baby bird wings held to the light.

There were never any vegetables. Neither Chloe nor her father expected them. Other things had also disappeared with her mother: unprovoked laughter and packed lunches, Eastenders omnibus on a Sunday and a pair of china figurines, only slightly chipped, which had once belonged to the Great Grandmother in Larne. Chloe knew not to mention these things aloud with words. Her father could no longer cope with anything more serious than the farming supplement. Recently she’d begun to keep a list for her own records. Allocating each loss a number and filing it between the pages of her homework diary leant significance to Chloe’s smaller losses so, quilted toilet paper and properly braided hair did not fall forgotten between the towering grief of losing a parent, a house and a working television set.

Chloe had always been a logical child, ill-inclined to misplace things or create a scene when an explanation would suffice. Chloe had, her mother always said, come out of her belly, already frowning; too serious to settle into the name Melanie, which they’d pre-picked for their new daughter. She enjoyed maths, physics and documentary programmes on all television channels, but had never been able to understand the appeal of children’s fiction.

She was not without a measured dose of emotion. Beginning on the morning after her mother left, Chloe had cried for a solid week, careful to do so in damp places such as the garden, (which was, in line with long-established local customs, sodden for eleven months out of twelve), and the shower, (which had yet to be sacrificed with the house and its eight other furnished rooms). In the right conditions, with water falling, it was impossible for her father to tell she’d been crying. Otherwise, Chloe would not have permitted herself to bother. After a week she’d run out of energy for tears though there had been times, even recently, when the cold showers at the swimming pool had triggered a reaction in her eyes, unstoppable as any August downpour. This, Chloe assumed, was something to do with chemical reactions and the chlorine which permeated every inch of the leisure centre.

On Friday evenings when the bags arrived her father seemed to fold into the caravan’s cramped larder, a little more diminished with each item of own-brand, non-perishable, kindly-donated food. Chloe longed for the luxury of a shower in which to cry, uninterrupted, like an ordinary little girl. The air around their collapsible table grew shrill as sugar glass. Even when the gas bills arrived and left unanswered and grandparents came to deliver sanctimonious ten pound notes in envelopes, these Friday evenings were always the worst and thinnest moments of their entire week. Chloe, crouching on the floor between her father and the groceries, could pinch the tension between finger and thumb. It felt like a packet of already broken, value brand biscuits. The rest of the weekend was hers to mend or shatter. Christ himself would have had more room to manoeuvre.

“There’s peas,” she’d cry, fishing the tin out of the bag and holding it above her head like a consolation prize. “Peas are vegetables too, Dad.” There were always peas; sometimes one tin, sometimes two. On good weeks there was also sweetcorn and baked beans, though never the real brand; only the supermarket equivalent.

Her father, moving from the floor to perch wearily on the edge of the table, which was always a bed now, would take the tin from Chloe’s hand and turn it gravely round, clockwise or anti-clockwise, as if looking for a point of entry.

“Peas are vegetables,” he’d mutter, as if anxious to convince himself. “Tinned though; not as fresh as you’re used to Clo; not as good for you.”

His eyebrows, flatlining across his forehead, would form the same frown Chloe saw every time she peered into a reflective surface. It was reassuring to see her own concern, mirrored.

“Peas are my favourite, Dad,” she’d say. It was a lie of course, but neither the worst nor largest Chloe had offered lately. “Fresh peas would be better, but tinned ones are grand for now.”

“They are?” he’d ask, optimistic as a two storey elevator. When Chloe agreed, wholeheartedly with teeth, the roof of the caravan would rise slightly, no more than half a cautious inch but just enough to release the glowering pressure. Tinned peas became the pillars holding their weekends up.

Each time they had peas for dinner, boiled or briefly nuked in the microwave oven, Chloe kept two or three aside, tucking them into the ear of her pocket. On Thursdays, when her father left early for the job centre Chloe wrestled the bed into a table, arranging the condiment bottles and placemats across its melamine top in some semblance of routine. Then, creeping under the caravan, past the gas canister, the tow bar and the tinny steps they used for ascending and descending their own front door, she planted her saved peas in neat rows, two inches beneath the glarry muck. They would, she knew, take weeks to sprout, longer still to produce fresh peas. But Chloe was a sensible girl, capable of persevering through March, April, May and enough stolen peas to dye the pocket of her school skirt a particularly violent shade of lawn.

On the first Friday evening in June, encouraged by the feeble, infant shoots, periscoping through the topsoil Chloe dragged her father from his grocery bags, hunkered him in half and squeezed him beneath the caravan’s floor. There was a taste in her lungs like cut grass and next summer.

“Look Dad,” she said, nudging at a tiny pea plant with her baby finger, “I planted some peas so we’ll have fresh vegetables.”

“Those are weeds, Chloe,” he replied, too tired to approximate disappointment. “Vegetables won’t grow under here. It’s far too dark.” As if to prove a point, he scooped the fledgling plants out of the soil and threw them far down the field into the early evening drizzle.

Chloe lingered for an hour beneath the caravan, listening to the heaviness of her father as he stacked tins and packets and, for her benefit, turned their bed into a table. She allowed herself to cry for it was as damp beneath the caravan as anywhere she’d recently been.

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