I am sitting across the dinner table from my sister-in-law when I realise something: I don’t want to be with my husband anymore. The thought comes together innocently enough. It’s one of those background thoughts that play over someone’s conversation. You’re not fully committed to what the other person is saying so you have a few tabs open in the background:
Bugger, I forgot washing up liquid.
Did I send that email, or just draft it? Must check.
Can’t remember whether the car is booked in for the morning or the afternoon, better check that too.
I think I want to leave my husband.
Is this chicken cooked?
‘Is your food okay?’
The sound of Dara’s voice startles me more than the idea of leaving my husband does. She’s is staring at me like I’ve done something outrageous, triggering another thought:
I wonder what she’d think if she knew what I was thinking.
‘You made a face when I was talking,’ she starts again. ‘Is it your food, or what I said?’
‘Oh, the food.’ I force a laugh; I have no idea what she was saying. ‘I was wondering whether this chicken is cooked.’ Dara leans over and throws a judgemental look at the breast meat lying in the centre of my plate. I am overcome with a need to shield it from her, as though she is lecherous, a voyeur. She is in fact a lifelong vegetarian, which makes me feel even more violated for reasons that I can’t even put my finger on yet. ‘You know, I’m sure it’s fine,’ I say, because I want her to stop staring at the breast.
‘It looks pink.’
‘Isn’t chicken meant to be pink, sometimes?’ I am instantly aware of how stupid I now sound. ‘No, that doesn’t sound right. Pink is never right, not for chicken.’
‘But other meat is fine?’ she mocks.
‘Waiter?’ I am not prepared to have another conversation about the ethical and moral implications of eating meat with the woman wearing leather knee-high boots. ‘Does this look a little pink to you?’
The young man stares at my food for what feels like an unnecessarily long time.
‘Yes, Miss, it does look a little pink.’ He makes no effort to remove the food, though. For a good eight seconds this man stands in front of me and does nothing about the little-pink meat on my plate and for whatever reason, in this situation, I feel like the one who is not behaving appropriately. ‘Would you like me to dispose of the meat, Miss?’ He says the sentence warily, as though he isn’t sure this is the right line. It is, I want to tell him, but it is ten seconds too late.
‘Please, if you could.’
‘Would you like something else?’
‘She’d like her dead meat cooked, if the chef can manage it.’ Dara hates waiting staff. It is one of the things that I dislike most about her.
‘Of course, Miss.’
‘Jesus.’ Dara shoves a chunk of tofu into her mouth. ‘Did he just fall off the boat or what?’ I laugh and nod because I am not really sure what the question means.
Dara has finished her dinner in a matter of minutes and there is no sign of my replacement so I excuse myself. I catch a waiter – a different waiter, one who can string full sentences together in a timely fashion – and I say:
‘Can you just take the chicken off our bill? We’re ready to go, really, so there’s no need for the chef to bother with a replacement. Terribly sorry about that, though.’ The apology falls out quicker than I can catch it. Another thought:
How typically me to apologise for something that isn’t my fault.
By the time I have been to the toilet and wandered back to the table, Dara is already standing – coat on, bag on shoulder, foot on the cusp of tapping.
‘Sorry, you’re ready?’ I ask, wondering only briefly how she knows I have cancelled my replacement meal.
‘Absolutely, this place is dire. Honestly, who can’t even cook a chicken?’ She says it loud enough for three members of staff to turn around and glare at her. I want to apologise again but I force myself not to. ‘Do you want a Subway or something? I can get the car to stop on the way home.’ Dara refuses to drive herself anywhere and this is another thing that I dislike about her. ‘You shouldn’t go home without eating anything, lamb. You’ve had two-thirds of a bottle of wine; I’m surprised you aren’t sloshed.’
I have had one glass of wine; Dara drank the rest of the bottle. But I shrug off the accusation, appreciating it for the untruth that we both know it is. I tell her that I’m fine and that I wouldn’t mind walking home, actually, if she doesn’t mind riding home by herself. She minds, though, I can tell from her expression.
‘Is there something wrong?’
‘You’ve been distracted all evening. Like, were you even listening to what I said about Vaughn’s birthday? I feel like I’m doing all the planning and he’s your husband.’ She laughs.
‘But he’s your brother?’ My voice rises at the end despite my effort to stop it.
‘Honestly, though, you’re okay,’ she says then. It isn’t a question so I smile, because that feels like a good enough half-answer. ‘But you can always talk to me, you know? You can drop the in-law because you’re actually the sister that I never had, and I totally support you with everything.’ She goes on like this for some time – again, longer than really feels necessary. She returns to her most recent break-ups – in the last twelve months there have been four, so this in itself takes what must be another twenty minutes to discuss – and how during those difficult times, I was completely there for her. She’s over-exaggerating, of course, because all I actually did was give her a lot of wine – and the only reason I did that was to shut her up. ‘But you were totally there for me, and I owe you, totally, for that.’
So, you know, totally in the interest of being totally honest, I say:
‘Okay, I think I’m going to leave your brother soon.’
Dara looks like I have slapped her. If she doesn’t say something soon, then I decide I might have to. Don’t people slap people, when they’re in shock? Or maybe I’m just looking for an excuse, it’s hard to say. I find myself so wrapped up in the thoughts of slapping my sister (in-law) though, that the silence passes between us quite easily in the end. Broken only when Dara finally says:
‘Okay, well, you can’t talk to me about that.’
Charley Barnes is a Worcester-based poet and author who spends most of her time drinking tea and thinking about words. She has recently gained her Doctorate degree in Creative Writing and now spends her days wondering what to do with it. Barnes’s debut short story collection, The Women You Were Warned About, was published in May 2017, and her debut poetry pamphlet is due to be published later this year.