by Mary Winter
The kitchen had been fine until Covid struck, thought Anna grimly. Now, it was the nexus of a very full household, and the strain was showing. The tap dripped more insistently; the cupboard doors banged more loudly. She fully expected to come down some evening and find that the walls had burst and emptied the entire contents of the kitchen into the garden.
Anna tried to tell herself that the same number of people lived here as before. Herself; one husband, well-worn and comfortable; one daughter, grown up and blessed with a (possibly hereditary) opinionated streak; and one partner of said daughter, who was certainly housetrained but whom Anna didn’t know very well.
Was Lockdown really a fair way to get to know anybody? Was it not possible that only people’s faults would show up? Or was it, in fact, a time when the truth was most likely to come out?
She sighed and tackled the most recent pile of washing up. It was astonishing how many cups of tea people seemed to drink when they were working from home.
Ted came into the kitchen and grimaced in irritation. He’d just been about to wash up his cups from the day before, but as usual, Anna had beaten him to it. He’d been telling her for years that if she’d just LEAVE THEM, he’d get round to it, but she seemed determined to show him up.
It wasn’t as if he was drinking any more coffee than he would at the office. Less, probably. But there, they all put their cups straight into the dishwasher, and somebody would run it once a day. Not usually him, he had to admit. Perhaps they needed a dishwasher here – but the kitchen wasn’t really big enough. Not if they were all going to be able to sit down together for a meal. Which, he had to admit, was probably a useful ritual when the rest of the day was spent trying to keep away from one another.
Ben checked that the coast was clear, then came into the kitchen to make his lunch. He adored Sarah, and he actually quite liked Ted and Anna, but living with the in-laws-to-be had its downside. The pandemic, though, had brought work on their new house to a standstill, and a room in Sarah’s childhood home was better than a cardboard box.
Ben came from a family that had always had ‘dinner’ at noon, and quite frankly, he couldn’t stand the whole sandwich-at-the-desk thing. He wanted something hot in the middle of the day. A toastie. Scrambled eggs. Whatever. But you couldn’t prepare anything hot without creating a bit of a mess.
He greeted Anna cheerfully as she came into the kitchen. She cast a pointed glance at the saucepan, bowl, knife and chopping board, which, to be fair, were scattered across quite a wide expanse of countertop.
‘Don’t worry—I’ll clear up!’ he assured her. ‘Just going to eat this while it’s hot.’ He sat down with his steaming plate and got out his phone.
Anna took the hint. She’d been planning to make a sandwich and sit down with him, but the phone was a clear signal that company was not wanted. She grabbed a pot of hummus and some carrot sticks and went outside to eat. At least the fine weather had allowed them to spread out a bit. If they’d had the usual British spring, there might well have been blood on the kitchen floor by now.
Sarah appeared in the kitchen, sniffing loudly.
‘Have you just made lunch?’
‘Yep – finished now. I’ve got a Zoom meeting at one.’
‘Is there any left?’
‘Nooo – you always have salad.’
Sarah was silent. It would have been nice to be asked, especially if Ben was going to fill the kitchen with gorgeous smells of frying onions and hot toast.
‘Look, Sarah, don’t freeze me out. If you want me to cook enough for you, just ask. You know I like cooking.’
True, true. It wasn’t worth having a row about. Sarah adored Ben and was dismayed at how frequently she felt tempted to bite his head off.
‘Sorry, you’re right,’ she managed. ‘I do usually have salad. How about you ask me tomorrow, though?’
‘Sure,’ said Ben easily. He laughed. ‘That’s two people I’ve lost the chance to eat lunch with today. Your mum rather pointedly left the kitchen when I got my phone out.’ He stood up and started to clear away.
Perfect, thought Sarah. She would have her row with her mum instead.
‘You have to stop judging him!’ Sarah said. Anna, who had only popped back into the kitchen to make a cup of coffee, hadn’t been aware that she’d been judging anybody. Couldn’t a person have a preference without being judgemental? Perhaps not…
‘Every time he gets his phone out or says he’s got a game, it’s the same thing!’ Sarah’s voice rose. ‘You’re making him feel unwelcome!’
‘Now that’s not fair, sweetheart – ‘
‘Oh, what’s FAIR about any of this?’ cried Sarah. ‘If things were fair, we’d be in our own place by now!’
‘And thousands of people wouldn’t be dying in a global pandemic,’ Anna reminded her somewhat astringently.
Sarah’s eyes darkened. How dare her mother seize the moral high ground? She left the kitchen before she could say something she might regret, slamming the door behind her.
Ted crept in cautiously.
‘What was all that about?’
Anna sighed. ‘Apparently, the fact that I misread Ben’s cue when he got out his phone over lunch means that I am a nasty, judgemental person.’
Ted filled the kettle. ‘Nasty, no. Judgemental, occasionally.’ Anna swelled indignantly, then collapsed with a laugh. After all this time, Ted had (possibly) earned the right to tell her the truth about herself.
‘And,’ Ted went on, fishing as usual in the bottom of the tea caddy for the freshest teabag, ‘you’re so often right in your judgements that I’ve given up objecting to them. Mostly,’ he qualified, scattering the usual dusting of tea on the counter. Anna gritted her teeth and said nothing. He’d just paid her a compliment, after all.
‘Thanks,’ she said, with hardly any stiffness in her voice.
Her husband turned and looked her in the face – a thing that happened so seldom now that she practically snapped to attention. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘we’re not doing so badly in this household despite the strain it’s putting on this poor little kitchen.’ He patted the lightly-speckled countertop fondly, and Anna was pierced with a sudden memory of the two of them (three, if you counted the unborn Sarah) looking at samples in the builder’s supply store and exclaiming simultaneously, ‘That one!’
‘No, we’ve not done too badly,’ her husband repeated. ‘Have you heard the latest on the domestic violence figures since Lockdown began?’ He poured out his tea and left the kitchen, heading back to their bedroom computer.
Anna had a class to teach, and she wasn’t, technically speaking, meant to use the bedroom. Besides, Ted was there. Well, everybody was finished with lunch, so she would use the kitchen. She brought her laptop downstairs, dodging the screen where Ted was discussing procurement of medical supplies. It was people like Ted who were currently getting the blame for the lack of PPE in the country. Like it was their fault, they’d been begging for years for a stockpile to be built up.
She set up the laptop in the kitchen and opened her files. It was a reading and discussion lesson, so it shouldn’t be too bad. It was just so difficult to keep the momentum going, though, with so many pauses while people unmuted. She’d not realised until she started teaching online how much the pace of a lesson relied on the capacity for a prompt response.
The lesson on the shooting of Candy’s dog in Of Mice and Men was enlivened by the appearance onscreen of several real-life dogs. Anna had a moment of pure happiness. Teaching always held surprises, and this was one that simply could not have happened without the kids being stuck at home. Soon, the stories started – the dog that had been really old, the one that had had to be put down when it broke its leg… Then the tears started, but that was okay. Anna always felt that literature-related tears from fourteen-year-olds were a pedagogical triumph.
When the lesson was over, she closed her computer with a contented sigh. As if on cue, the door crashed open, and Sarah erupted into the room.
‘Mum, if you’re going to have a lesson in here, you could at least WARN us!’
Sarah and Ben were cooking that night. The meal rota was an unmixed blessing; Ben had brought a whole new range of recipes into the household. Anna, who was heartily sick of cooking after thirty years of it, regularly scraped her plate and asked for more.
The kitchen was humming. Sarah was multi-tasking by Skyping a friend while she chopped onions. Anna and Ted retreated to their room and turned on the news.
It was, of course, grim. Nearly a month into Lockdown, deaths were topping a thousand a day, and still, the new cases kept coming.
‘And that’s only the ones they’re testing,’ remarked Ted grimly. He had his own theories about the lack of testing: you couldn’t run a hospital without a whole lot of nurses – and what would you do if you knew they had Covid? Better not to know.
More uplifting bulletins followed the Covid news. Dolphins in the newly-clear waters of Venice’s canals. Lions basking on empty South African roads. And in the UK, a 99-year-old was forging ahead with his ten laps per day of his garden to raise money for the NHS.
‘Dinner!’ came Sarah’s summons from the kitchen.
‘Better get a move on,’ said Ted. ‘She’ll be sitting at the table tapping her fingers.’
But when they arrived at the kitchen, Sarah was not seated. She was leaning over her laptop, which was still on Skype. On her face was a look of horror.
‘Stop it!’ she yelled. ‘Get away from her!’
Ben stood frozen, the spoon in his hand dripping sauce onto the floor. Sarah was still yelling at the screen. Anna and Ted dashed to her side, then stopped in disbelief. Sarah’s friend, Celeste, was cowering in the corner of her living-room while her boyfriend punched her.
Anna found the phone in her hand without knowing how it had got there. 911 – thank God they picked up right away.
‘Which service?’ asked the calm voice.
‘Police!’ gasped Anna.
‘And what is the nature of the emergency?’
‘There’s a woman being assaulted at –’ she glanced at Sarah. Sarah was still yelling at Celeste’s partner, who clearly didn’t know that he could be seen and heard. Celeste must have been using earphones, thought Anna, otherwise, he’d hear us…
Ted grasped his daughter by the shoulder. ‘Anna. What is Celeste’s address? Your mother needs to give it to the police.’
‘Oh – 343 Riverside Drive – I think –’
Anna repeated it.
‘Thank you, the police are on their way. And the flat number?’
‘The flat number, Sarah?’ repeated Anna.
‘I – I can’t remember – Oh God, oh God – it’s the last one on the left –’
Ben was thrusting Sarah’s phone into her hand. ‘Is it in here?’
With shaking hands, Sarah scrolled through her address book and found the flat number. Anna finished the call and hung up. They all stood glued to the screen, unable not to bear witness. Sarah clung to her parents and whimpered with every blow. Ben stood at a slight distance, almost as if being male and young had at that moment cast him, too, under a shadow.
At last came the sound they had been waiting for: a heavy pounding on the door of the flat.
‘Open up! Police!’
Celeste’s boyfriend jerked upright as if on puppet strings. There was a moment of frozen silence; then the pounding started again. Stiffly, still breathing heavily, he walked across and opened the door.
‘What can I do for you, officers?’ he asked with the smile that had won Celeste’s heart months ago.
But with Celeste crouching, bleeding in the corner, the police were immune to his charms. To his protestations that his girlfriend had ‘had a bit of a meltdown and hurt herself’, one of the police simply gestured to the laptop and said, ‘You’ve got witnesses.’ The last thing they saw before the screen went dark was the boyfriend rushing at the screen with his fist raised.
‘Got him,’ said Ted with satisfaction. ‘Twice over.’
Sarah stared at him blankly.
‘I recorded it,’ explained Ted. ‘Always keep a record of conversations.’
Anna squeezed his arm. He was entitled to his moment of smugness.
Sarah came shakily to life. ‘I need to be with her. Which hospital will they take her to?’
Anna stroked her daughter’s hair. ‘You can’t love. Covid restrictions. Now, send her a text and a voicemail, and she’ll get back to you. And when you’ve had something to eat, we’ll call the police back and offer ourselves as witnesses.’
Slowly, Sarah sat down. Silently, Ben served them all. Then they sat together and ate, the walls of the little kitchen enfolding them in a close embrace.
Mary Sylvia Winter is a writer of novels, short stories, poetry and children’s fiction who combines writing with teaching English, to the mutual benefit of both. She divides her time between Canada and England, and can both make scones and use a chainsaw. She finds that ordinary situations can give rise to extraordinary insights, and tries to communicate these in her writing. She shared the peculiarly British experience of the Covid pandemic, which she brings to life in ‘Four Adults, One Kitchen’, the opening story in her collection ‘Covid Tales’.