I just burned my hand, well not my hand, the inside of my wrist, and not burned, singed with steam, taking the lid off the chicken roasting tin, I forgot to turn it so the heat would come out away from me, instead it came out all over a me, but it made me sing and made me think about all those times that I survived, something, anything, just survived, like the time he came home, when I was making cheese sauce, grater in one hand, block of cheddar in the other, standing at the counter that was always a little too high for me, and he slouched up against the kitchen door, that stupid look on his face, ‘What’cha doin?’.
Why do people ask you that question when they don’t want you to ask them that question? ‘What’cha doin?’ means don’t ask me ‘What’cha bin doin?’. No, he never wanted me to ask, so instead I caught the whole kitchen on film, in little snippets, my brain winding and snapping, click, there’s the old plastic handle on the back door, dark brown, chunky, click, the bad paint slopped over the glass, no one had cut in properly, it hadn’t mattered, the place was only for rental, and poor rental, seventeen pounds a week each, except when we didn’t have it, then we’d hide in the garden or jump over the wall into our neighbour’s. The landlord couldn’t find us. We couldn’t find the money. Click, the roll edge of the stainless steel sink that was always stained with water, not rolling over the worktop, leaving a jagged edge instead, click, dirty glasses, click, a screwed up tea towel on the side, click, the lino that didn’t fit properly and rose at the corners. I took it up once, to look at what was underneath, it was sticky and black and could’ve been tiles, there were some cracks, I put it back down quickly.
‘Makin’ cheese sauce,’ I said. And I didn’t ask what he didn’t want me to ask. What the head don’t know the heart don’t grieve about. But of course I knew. I always knew. It was the grin that gave him away. The less he had to smile about the more he grinned. I wondered how much. A hundred pounds? Two hundred? Five hundred? A thousand?
I hated grating cheese, the soapy feeling against metal. The Nazis used to make soap out of the Jews. That greasy, soapy feeling made me feel sick. He ambled over, forced nonchalance, almost a swagger, and took some of the grated cheese from the pile. ‘Lasagne,’ I said.
‘Mmm, my favourite.’ He kissed me on the side of the head, non committal, a swift kind of kiss, a glancing blow. I stood my ground, if only not to recoil, if only because I typically stand with my legs crossed and any sort of sudden movement sets me severely off balance. There would be no sudden movements. It would come out later. He would cry, approximately three hours after the lasagne, four if we had cheesecake for pudding. He’d cry, say he was sorry, justify it with a logic I just couldn’t understand, try and explain it by letting me into his world. ‘I was sitting on the toilet and the third horse came in, I couldn’t believe it, so when the fourth was running I was back to the toilet, then the fifth. Twelve thousand quid, Chris, Twelve thousand quid.’ But he didn’t have twelve thousand quid. It was always nearly, could’ve, should’ve, if only. Always.
And I’d comfort him, while he begged my forgiveness, snuggled into my breasts. He’d lost, but at least he hadn’t lost me, no, he’d never lose me, I’d stand my ground, in the kitchen, against the too high work surface, grating soapy Nazi cheese, feeling sick, day after day, for lentil roasts, baked potato toppings, quiche, I’d grate and grate and grate, taking pictures in my head of knobs and badly painted back doors, never turning them or opening them. I’d grate until my teeth were on edge and my fingers were bleeding. I’d grate and smile and wait and see and I’d hope, I’d hope like only a true believer can ever hope that somehow, in some way, he’d escape.