“I’m leaving,” said Russ. “Did you hear me?” Ramona was ripping the flesh off the carcass with a carving knife. She piled the leg, breast, wing, and thigh on a plate. She turned the bird over, splayed it and held it secure with one hand, fingering the ribcage for meat. Below the throat she located the wishbone. She inserted the blade and twisted it until the clavicle dislodged. “I’ve been thinking about it,” Russ went on, blinking his long lashes. “For a while, actually.” Ramona looked up at him and concentrated on the Adam’s apple straining in his throat. She wore the bird like a boxing glove, grease sliding down her wrist. “Are you listening, Mona?” Russ held her gaze, very steady like an athlete, an act of physical endurance. Her fist inside the bird began to shake, so she carried it to the bin and dropped it in. She ran her hands and the little bit of bone under the hot tap, until the grease slid into beads and the water burned.
“One of us can make a wish,” she said, turning and holding out the piece of bone. “A merry-thought, that’s what they used to call it. Did you know? For a girl to make a wish about the man she hopes to marry.” She gave a strangled little laugh. “You’re supposed to let it dry first,” she patted the bone against her apron. “Let’s see who gets the wish then.” And she offered Russ a prong.
“Mona,” he said in a croak. “Do you see what I’m saying?”
Ramona said nothing and looked at the bone between them. She concentrated on remaining completely still, but she felt her blood pumping stubbornly. Russ was straight and strong as a post in front of her. Eventually, he sighed, his shoulders sank, and he hooked his finger round the bone so that their knuckles knocked. They began to pull, the two sides clinging to the mound of pale cartilage holding them together. Ramona wanted more than anything to win. She thought perhaps she might, not out of greater strength, but sheer persistence, grim hope. Suddenly it snapped. “Oh,” she gasped. She wasn’t going to cry. “You get the wish.” Her voice was very small. Russ stared at the flake of bone in his palm. “Make a wish,” she whispered. “Don’t tell me, though. You mustn’t tell me or it won’t come true.”
After they’d let Georgie go, Ramona began to cook.
“Therapeutic, if you’ve got the time,” Steph had said.
Ramona made simple concoctions to begin with: stir-fries, ragouts, soups and stews, combinations that sat in saucepans and spat or bubbled greedily. The dishes grew bolder as the months wore on. Flans, flageolets, fricassées. The noises in the kitchen expanded too, pans clattering, whisks wheezing, green, brown, yellow sauces splattering the walls in hiccups. The smells upended themselves like bonobos, arses in the air.
“You’re compensating,” Russ said meanly, slurping his coffee, watching the sink fill up with mixing bowls and baking trays. The high chair in the corner was a useful surface on which to balance pots and pans. Sometimes Ramona tried puddings. She cut up apples and tossed them in cinnamon, she grated lemon zest and ginger, pinches of nutmeg. She crumbled flour, sugar, and butter together until the mixture gave up sticking to her fingers and fell back into the bowl. She greased cake tins and basted pie crusts. The concentration took over her mind, leveling thought like a snowdrift. She even bought herself an apron that said Home Sweet Home in red lettering. She hardly thought of Georgie at all.
The flat sat above a bakery, aromas rising through the floorboards, beginning before daybreak, accompanied by the whir of the ovens. The bedroom was at the front, overlooking the street. It was a busy city street, mothers with prams, women with shopping trolleys, delivery vans and buses carrying men and women to work. The kitchen was at the back and overlooked a stretch of uncultivated garden shared with the downstairs, reached down a cast-iron fire escape. The earth had been suppressed for years beneath a thick layer of gravel. The only thing that grew through it was a crooked pear tree by the side wall. Decades of pears had fallen onto the shingle and now the gravel squished and crunched underfoot.
The owner of the bakery, Mr. Fertado, marked his share of the plot with concrete pavement, and the girls he employed came out and stood nonchalantly on the gray slabs, smoking cigarettes and drinking cups of coffee before going back inside to bring bread out of the ovens. They tipped their loaves into wicker baskets lined with starch-white tea towels. “How-can-I-help-you,” they said as one word, heads cocked, lips pressed together, faces sullen as dough. Granary, whole-grain, rye, soft and warm like babies’ heads.
Ramona looked out from the kitchen window and watched birds hop across the blanket of stones, or cling to the branches, pecking at unripe pears. She imagined Georgie set down on the gravel in his highchair, dazzled by the light, watching the tree, its leaves dipping and dancing. His wide eyes catching anything that flicked across his view: sunshine glinting off the window, the bakery door opening and the white aprons of the girls coming out, haloed, standing like angels on the gray pavement.
“I’m going to dig up the gravel and lay a proper lawn,” Russ said one Saturday, coming up from the garden. Ramona was unpacking groceries. Flour, eggs, dishwasher salt.
“That’s a massive job,” she warned, without looking up. Tea bags, onions, marmalade. “And the gravel’s fine. We can put rugs down if the weather gets nice.”
“A lawn, though,” Russ said. “Imagine a lawn. We should have done it ages ago.”
“Don’t, Russ.” Bicarbonate of soda, shampoo, root ginger. “Mr. Fertado might not want grass. Have you thought about asking? You’ve got to ask. And all that slog then, for nothing.” Sesame oil, vinegar, bleach.
“The slog,” Russ spat, “will be nothing. You’ll see.” He didn’t catch her eye. She was putting things away in their places, opening and shutting cupboards. Russ kicked the leg of a chair repeatedly with the toe of his shoe. He needed something to occupy his time now they’d settled like this. And now more than ever, since his job had let him go.
“Georgie would have loved grass,” Ramona murmured into the bread bin.
“Don’t, Mona,” Russ warned. “Not that again.”
Later that morning Russ tussled with the ivy that sealed shut the shed that leaned against the back wall. He came out eventually with a spade and a wheelbarrow. She watched him scrape the gravel, clattering loads to the far end of the plot and tipping them out in a heap. The gravel had suited them fine when they still drank beer and ate pizza from boxes out there with friends who left as dawn broke and the bakery ovens began to whir. But things were different now, times change. Ramona turned down the flame, stirred butter and sugar against the steel bottom of the pan. It splattered up in little welts. One of the girls from the bakery came out and lit a cigarette. She stood there watching Russ shovel, occasionally knocking ash onto the pavement, until her cigarette burned to its bitter end and she trod it out and went back inside. Russ looked up and watched her disappear.
Eventually, the gravel was gone. A smear of black plastic lay beneath. Russ yanked it free, then his spade went in and out, chopping heavy wedges of ground, dark as tarmac. Fat white roots clogged the earth. Inside, Ramona sifted flour over the melted butter. She creamed it into a smooth paste and stuck a finger in. She boiled the kettle and dissolved a tablespoon of chocolate powder in a jam jar. Birds squabbled in the branches of the tree. She put her hands to her ears and listened to the sound of the heart beating inside her head. The digging went on until it got dark.
When Russ came in he had streaks of earth on his cheeks. His hands were gloved in dirt and he was breathless, his eyes bright. “It’s coming along,” he beamed. “I’m half way, I reckon.”
The cake had not quite set and was slush in the centre. Russ picked off the blackened edges and chewed on the soggy middle. “Not bad,” he said, through the glue in his mouth. Ramona watched his jaw work, muscle pulling bone, turning the sponge round on his tongue until it finally dissolved enough to be gulped down. The physical effort had made Russ glow, puff up and fill out; watching him made her feel cold and tired.
“I miss him,” she said in a kind of whisper. “I want him back. Let’s bring him back.”
Russ wiped his mouth of crumbs. “I know. But we agreed . . .” He coughed, forcing a smile. Downstairs the ovens shuddered to a standstill for the night.
Making things up had become important, the little fictions like life rafts. Ramona had told the bank she needed a loan for a degree; Social Politics, she’d said when they asked, hoping they wouldn’t press for more. She put the money in her account. In Mothercare she’d chosen a cot, a pram, brightly colored toys, clothes in blue and yellow, baby books with pop-out heroes and talking rabbits. She had the large things delivered, the assistants looking at her for signs of a bump, but she just smiled back at them, feeling warm inside.
Russ churned the garden again with his spade, great lumps of earth stacking precariously. Inside, Ramona dolloped vegetables into boiling water. She tipped in herbs, salt, and pepper. She added beans and turned down the heat. Then she filled the sink with water. Sunshine fell in squares onto the walls, across the highchair, onto her hands.
“Tip of the day,” a gardening expert announced through the wire mesh of the radio. “Pour the last of the boiling water from your kettle onto your gravel paths to stop the weeds. When you make a cup of tea, don’t waste the last bit of water. Keep those unwanted plants at bay.” The audience let out a burst of applause. She imagined gardens choked with gravel, in the stranglehold of green sinews, and inside cups of tea left stewing, growing cold.
Steph came over with William in his buggy. “You know what I think,” Steph said, jiggling the baby on her knee. “I think there is a part of a person, a lovely part, that never stops trying. Irrepressible hope is always there, bubbling up.” Ramona had her elbows on the kitchen table, her head in her hands. “But,” Steph went on, wiping dribble from William’s chin with the end of her sleeve, “it’s that same optimism and persistence that sometimes gets on someone else’s nerves, after not so long. The drag, the nag, you know, Mona, the bore. Because, well, you’re keeping on like this and, well—” Steph hesitated, “well, it might be what’s driving him away.”
“So what should I be doing?” Ramona looked up. The baby gurgled, green mucus bubbling from its nose.
“I don’t know, Mona. But, you know, I think there are the choices we make, and then there are the choices that are made for us. Don’t confuse the two, that’s all. No point begrudging the things you can’t control.”
Russ went to the garden center and bought a jumbo pack of grass seed. He shook it out and hosed it in. Birds flew down to peck up the excess, so he set up a complicated structure to keep them away. He got the spade out of the shed and drove it into the earth, then he leaned the sledgehammer against it and pulled an old tee shirt over the top. He balanced above it a straw hat.
“The pigeons won’t be fooled,” Ramona said, rolling out pastry.
“Use your imagination, Mona,” he said. “They might think it’s human from the sky.” He set an old pair of trainers onto the ground like feet. That evening he stood beside his scarecrow in the twilight with the hose. Ramona watched him from the sink; he looked protective and proud and she felt chilled again, her body weak. Day after day he shooed away pigeons, murmuring words of encouragement, until eventually fine blades pushed up, green down just visible over the soil. Some couples have babies to fix their relationship. Russ and Ramona got rid of Georgie in order to mend theirs. It had been difficult to do, mind over matter, but soon he’d almost entirely slipped away and other things took over. The cooking helped, and the gardening. Focus first on a career, they’d said to each other; but careers can go off-kilter, be aborted against your will. Now they had neither. Russ would get another job of course, and perhaps Ramona could do the degree in Social Politics, which she’d said aloud she’d do. That often was enough, to begin with—the speaking of something, like an incantation.
Ramona took a deep breath. “This is nice,” she whispered, tunneling down into the dark of the bed beside him, her mouth pressing his neck. She was cold, but Russ’s body was still warm. She smelled earth on him and reached her arms and her legs like a spider. His heart knocked loudly. Russ had wanted Georgie to be real in the beginning just as much as Ramona had. “Shall we wake him?” he’d whispered. “Is he here in bed with us? Would he mind if we made love?” Ramona studied Russ’s face and saw Georgie there. She imagined the same round brown eyes, the same animated body, only smaller, in miniature. It was a private conversation, close and compact under the cover of the duvet. The fragile people they were became stronger, more permanent with the invention of a third, half and half of each of them. But the more they talked about him—the more they said his name, discussed how he might wriggle between them in the bed, how he would love the taste of pear—the more unreal they felt themselves. They could not make love or see friends or talk of their lives apart from him, because Georgie needed them not to deny him. To deny him would mean their own future together was less certain, for if Georgie wasn’t in it, what course would it take?
“Your leg’s too heavy,” Russ whined. “It’s like a dead leg.” Ramona let it fall back onto the mattress.
“Kiss me,” she breathed into his cheek.
“Don’t always ask.” He turned his head. “It’s not appealing when you ask.”
She rolled over and hugged the pillow so that it held her head, her breast, and hip. There was the sound of a bus pulling off in the street. She turned back and took another breath, slowly pushing air out and then dragging it in again. “Russ?” He didn’t answer. She tried to burrow in again. “We’ll be like this until we’re old, won’t we?”
She heard him murmur back: “It’s too hot, Mona. You’re making me hot.” She stared out at the starless sky. There were stars up there, she knew, only they were too high and not bright enough. In the ground there was Georgie, his name hardly mentioned now, the blurred image of him dug down into the soil like all the other things she’d imagined and let go. She closed her eyes. She tried to sleep, but she twisted and turned so that the sheet buckled under her. Outside the grass carried on growing.
Soon, Russ had started to snore. Far away thunder rumbled. Ramona saw the shiny line of his eye showing beneath the eyelashes. She got out of bed and went to the window. The pear tree stooped in the dark, the walls and the backs of the houses were black. Ramona could hear crying. She put on her dressing gown and went to the spare room. There was the cot, its rungs like bulrushes and in the middle the white cotton sheets like a moonlit pool full of ripples. Lightning flashed in the sky, filling the window, the room, with a quick lick of brightness. The toys, the mobile, the shelves of baby books, shone white and then gone again. He wasn’t there. She heard the crying from somewhere else now and moved down the hall to find it.
In the kitchen the high chair was hidden under saucepans and chopping boards. She opened the door onto the fire escape. She thought she might lie on the grass, feel the little prickles and the quiet stir of the earth. But from the concrete pavement, the grass looked like deep water, sucking painfully like the sea. Lightning flashed again, illuminating the pear tree, the scarecrow, the heap of gravel against the wall. Large drops of rain began. Ramona waited, listening, but the cries were so faint and the rain was steadying. She closed her eyes and concentrated on the feeling of the rain. She stood there until just before dawn, when the judder of the ovens began and the buses started groaning to a standstill and hissing slowly off again.
All that week it rained and the grass continued to grow. It licked up the trunk of the pear tree, spreading out over the pavement. Ramona still felt cold and wore extra layers even though the air was muggy now and mild. She baked another cake, with self-raising flour this time, but she ran out of butter and used olive oil instead. Russ spat it out. “Never mind,” he said.
Russ did little now. He occasionally applied for jobs; he watched the grass, the rain, went to the pub, came home with his shirt untucked, smelling of beer. He had money to live off from the payout, but his days were inactive and his athletic body expanded with inertia.
“Have you got a plan?” Ramona asked one morning.
“No,” he shot back sharply. “Have you?”
By the summer, the garden looked lush and the pear tree was laden. Ramona picked up the windfalls. She dug out the bugs and chopped off the bruises. She bought four pints of cream and a bag of sugar and made pear fool. Then she made pear crumble. It was soggy on the bottom and burnt on the top. She soaked pears in wine and baked them. She stewed them and served them with ice cream. She sliced them very finely and laid them out like corpses on top of an almond sponge. “Good effort,” Russ conceded, trying them all. Ramona stood with her hands sunk in washing-up water, gazing out at the garden. Weeds tangled over the heap of gravel against the back wall. Bindweed matted the grass. She thought she would mention the trick with the hot water from the kettle, but every time she was about to, she didn’t.
“It’s funny,” she began. Russ was tucking into thirds of the cake. “You work so hard to grow a lawn and well, now you’ve got it, you let it grow completely wild and out of control.” Russ gave her a look, chewing, swallowing, and taking another bite. But later that day he went back to the garden center and bought three different types of weed killer. He studied the instructions and found the tools he would need: a bucket, a wooden spoon, rubber gloves. Steph and William came over, bringing scones from downstairs.
“It smells funny in here,” Steph said. “You been cooking again?” She laughed. She held the baby on her hip, which made her body tilt to one side. She bounced up and down on her heel. William needed the high chair to sit in, but Ramona said it was difficult to get out, so could he just crawl around on the floor. “Sure,” said Steph, “as long as there aren’t any dangerous objects lying around.” She looked tired. She said she’d not had a full night’s sleep in months.
Ramona sliced the scones with a carving knife. “I envy you, Mona,” Steph said. “The freedom, the sleep. It’s constant, this baby business, it’s not easy.” She rubbed her face with her hands. “I haven’t had more than half an hour to myself in months.” Ramona tried to smile. She wanted to talk about Georgie, to explain how he’d held things together. No point staying together for the sake of the children, she knew that, especially if the child had never been born. She knew Steph would look at her as if she’d lost it. Not see how even an imagined child can take up your time, take over your mind, leave you hollow and cold when he’s gone.
“I’ve let things go around here, I’m afraid,” she said instead, clattering plates into the sink, draping a tea towel over the dirty heap to cover it from view. She sat down.
“They have machines for making babies,” Steph was saying. “But they should invent machines for looking after them too. You and Russ are right to take your time, that’s all I’m saying.” Ramona looked into her cupped hands. The skin was bloated and creased. She swallowed.
“Not that I couldn’t do with the company. It’s lonely, you know. Not that many other mums, you know, like-minded. Didn’t you have some names you liked, ahead of time?” Steph looked at Ramona expectantly, with something like a smirk. William had crawled over to the washing machine and was gabbling wordlessly to himself.
“Kind of.” Ramona’s voice was very small. She had to concentrate not to cry. “We liked George,” she croaked eventually, not daring to look up. “Georgie was the name we liked.”
“Oh no,” Steph said, her face had gone white. “Oh god.” She stared down toward the corner of the kitchen, her body sprung and tensed.
“What?” Ramona followed Steph’s gaze with her eyes. She heard Russ turning on the hose down in the garden, the spit-spat and choke as the water eased through the length of plastic. Steph swooped past Ramona and down to where William had his tiny fist inside the box of weed-killer. “Oh god, what’s this? Oh god,” she spluttered, bunching the baby up in her arms. “It’s in his mouth, Mona.” White granules were tight in his hand and frothing on his lips, spilling down his front. He had started to scream, the inside of his mouth was open and salty like the inside of a shell. Steph sluiced at his face with water from the tap. “He needs a doctor, oh shit, oh god,” she kept saying, jiggling William, who was howling, his eyes scrunched shut. “It’s ok. It’ll be ok. It’s going to be ok.”
Russ drove them to emergency. When they’d gone, Ramona cleared the high chair. She heaped all the pans, the cookbooks, and blender onto the draining board. She took the high chair outside onto the thick carpet of grass. When she’d wrestled the sledgehammer free from the scarecrow and bindweed, she raised it above her head. The blow of it cracked the wood like bone. She heard a yelp as the hammer hit. She lifted the hammer and hit again and then again and found that she was laughing, coughing and gulping for air through her laughs. When she’d finished, she carried the splintered limbs to the far end of the garden and hurled them onto the heap of stones, where they clattered to rest.
“Is this what it’s going to be like?” Russ said later that week, pulling out a crumpled shirt from the laundry basket.
Ramona had stopped cooking. There seemed little point anymore. The pans sat unused like empty wombs, chopping boards and wooden spoons, the whisk, the grater, the mixing bowls, all stacked up idly, old food hardening.
William had been fine. They had pumped his tiny stomach just in case, and put Steph on the At Risk register. “No wonder you aren’t ready for parenthood,” Steph had spat, and Ramona had hung up and gone back to bed. Russ went out all day, she didn’t know where. She lay under the duvet and thought of nothing at all.
“I said,” Russ raised his voice, “is this what it’s going to be like?”
“What?” Ramona’s voice was muffled by the covers.
“No supper, no food in the fridge, nothing for breakfast.”
“You don’t eat breakfast.”
“Well I might want to,” Russ shot back. “And I’d eat supper, if it was offered.”
“There are pears still on the tree . . .”
“I’m sick of fucking pears.”
“Or have you poisoned the pears too?” she spat. Russ whistled in air through his teeth, but Ramona went on. “And your bloody grass has grown completely wild.” She clenched her fists into the soft dough of the duvet.
“What the hell has that got to do with it?” His voice was shrill with hatred.
Ramona uncoiled stiffly and came out from under the covers. Russ stood before her, his hair a mob of curls, his eyes gray slits. She took a deep breath and walked past him, out of the bedroom. In the kitchen she found a large knife and rinsed it under the tap. Hot water cut through the grease until its blade shone. She found an onion and sliced it so the layers came away like wet leaves. Heating oil in a pan, she warmed the little slithers, and when they were soft and yellowing, she added a spoonful of sugar and a slosh of vinegar. She stirred and they sizzled. She could hear Russ moving around in the other room, but she’d stopped caring. She got mince out of the freezer and hacked it into little red chunks. The pan fizzed. She tipped in tinned tomatoes; the mixture went dark red and began to bubble and spit.
“I’m off,” Russ called. He stood in a crumpled suit and tie at the far end of the hall. “Wish me luck.” Ramona didn’t answer. She heard the door slam, the bus arrive outside; she pictured him getting on it and riding away. Then she tipped the contents of the pan into the bin. When Russ came home he looked like he’d been crying. Ramona didn’t say anything, didn’t ask him how the interview had gone. Russ took off his jacket and tie and went out into the garden. She watched him pouring white granules into a bucket, adding water, stirring. He carried the bucket to the far end of the garden and began sloshing the liquid over the grass. He worked systematically, left to right across the rectangle of lawn, backing toward the
The grass didn’t react straight away; it only sank slightly. By the evening the vivid green had lightened and by the following morning it looked like lank blonde hair, limply spread across the ground. One of the girls from the bakery came out and Ramona watched Russ go over to her. The girl offered him a cigarette and he lit his off the end of hers, the two red tips touching, their lips pushed out in a pout. They stood together on the pavement and blew smoke out at the flattened yellow lawn. She said something, and he laughed. Inside, the timer went, which meant the roast chicken was ready, with the wishbone waiting like a catapult, lodged inside its neck.
Amy Shuckburgh writes short stories and poetry that have won numerous awards including the Bridport Prize, and she is currently working on a novel. When she is not writing, Amy takes portrait commissions (her sitters include the late playwright Harold Pinter) and teaches creative writing. She lives in west London with her husband and three children.
“Pudding and Pie” was originally published in The Glutton’s Kitchen (TLR Summer 2014)