A Light Supper with Friends by EJ Robinson
A light supper with friends. That’s how he described it to me. When my husband mentioned arranging a get together with the lads, I assumed they’d eat out. Instead he hired a room and asked if I’d do the food.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘Strictly no plus ones, and my mother’s offered to help on the night.’ I knew it was difficult to get the boys together. My husband travelled a lot for his work as a
motivational speaker. When he wasn’t away, he divided his time between his role as a husband and
his duties as a son. This particular circle of friends had known each other many years, they’d weathered some storms. Their gathering was a significant occasion. Agreeing to feed a herd of writers, several of whom would be making notes, was a challenge that called for something truly fabulous. I knew what I wanted to serve.
Egyptian in origin, versatile, satisfying, simple to make but to make well is outright art, ladies and gentlemen: bread. My breads are the queen of any table they grace. I’m an expert at producing a range with different textures and flavours. For the light supper I planned a bread heavy with seeds, crammed with luscious dried fruits and fragrant with oil, featuring a crunchy exterior with an inside fluffy as cloud; a bread to melt on the tongue and linger on the palate. I always bake fresh for
special events. This would be no exception. However, when my husband followed the sound of my singing to discover me up to my elbows in flour kneading my happy heart out, he said, ‘You’re not making bread, are you?’
I looked up through the fog of flour, sneezed, then said, ‘What if I am?’
‘You can’t do bread for a main.’
‘My bread is delectable.’
‘We can’t invite people all the way here then serve them rolls. It’s got to be lamb.’
‘They can’t eat symbolism.’
‘They can eat lamb.’
This went on for a while. My husband is difficult to argue effectively against; I’m not alone in this opinion. I would eventually concede to lamb as the main dish on the proviso that since I’d already made the dough, bread would be the main-side-dish.
‘I’ll supply the wine,’ he said.
‘I took that as a given,’ I said.
The morning of the gathering I left him in bed (snoring), and headed out to procure ingredients. Some hours later my mother-in-law Maria and I staggered to the venue with our loaded baskets. As well as the bread dough I’d prepared, we carried a small but succulent lamb joint, a glittering sea bream, olives, legumes, fruits and oil.
‘How many did you say are coming?’ Maria asked.
‘Fifteen including us, Mama. Jude’s invited, too, I believe. No doubt he’ll have another get rich quick scheme he’ll want to twist my ear about investing in.’
‘That’s what happens to women with money, child.’
‘It’s a blessing and a curse, Mama. That’s the house just there, on the right.’
The house itself was modest, but from where it nestled on the hill was a view fit for a king. Golden valleys speckled with emerald trees and dotted with villages; off in the distance, sun-soaked mountains stretched to the skies. It was the kind of view that demanded contemplation. But alas, a woman’s time is so rarely her own; the men were due in three hours.
We arranged ourselves in the cooking space and washed our hands, then Maria rolled up her sleeves and began to expertly sort through a basket of shiny black olives, tossing the bad ones out the window.
‘What else is on the menu?’ she asked.
‘Bread and olives with dipping oil to start. Then fish and lamb with vegetables for mains. Fruit for dessert.’ I surveyed the spread foods. ‘Do you think it’s enough?’
Maria nodded. ‘It will go further than it seems.’
She set to work de-scaling the fish while I fired up the oven and prepared the lamb with herbs before sliding it in to cook, noting the time. It had to be done to perfection.
The gate clanged outside, and Maria glanced out the window. ‘Simon’s early,’ she said.
‘That’s normal. He’s always a little over zealous.’
Simon waved from the path, then entered the house. The soft tread of sandal on stone echoed up to us from the stairwell.
‘Ladies, good day to you both,’ he said.
‘Good afternoon, Simon,’ said Maria, her arms shiny with fish scales. I looked up from washing the vegetables. ‘Hi, Sy.’
‘I brought olives.’ He held up a decorated stone jar, beaming.
Maria elbowed our brimming olive basket out of sight. ‘How kind of you, Simon!’
‘My pleasure.’ He set the olive jar down. ‘Can I do anything to help?’
‘No, Sy, we’re fine,’ I said, tensing as he picked up an earthenware oil jug.
‘I’m happy to.’ He set the jug safely down; Maria and I exhaled. He then knocked over my bag of flour which exploded on the floor with a puff, like a magic trick. I handed him a stack of dishes.
‘Why don’t you set the table, Simon?’ I said.
The men arrived with the buzz of games spectators. Simon met them all at the entrance, although we didn’t ask him to. We listened to the friends greet each other with embraces and claps on the back. They saluted when we hailed them from the window and came up in twos and threes to greet us. Jude, to my relief, did not.
‘Smells wonderful, ladies,’ Phillip wafted the cooking scents towards his nose. ‘Where’s the main man, Mary?’
‘Probably held up chatting with neighbours, you know how he is, Phil. He’ll be here. He wouldn’t miss this evening for the world.’
‘Cruising on the tide of his recent success, I shouldn’t wonder. It’s been a long time coming. He’s worked hard.’
A tumult went up from the men outside. Maria threw down her knife and wiped her hands.
‘He’s here,’ she said.
We went out to welcome him. He walked through his friends towards us and I stood aside for Maria, who pulled him down to her shoulder. His cheeks bulged where she cupped his face to kiss it. The world in his hand, yet still he wriggled like an infant under his mother’s caress.
‘How’s the lamb coming along?’ he asked me.
I flapped one hand. ‘Not as good as bread would have been. But we’re ready to serve if you’re ready to eat.’
He turned to the gathered company. ‘Are we ready to eat, boys?’
‘I brought olives!’ We looked up to see Simon hanging out from the window, holding his olive jar above his head, and laughed. He always had been a little over zealous.
The men seated themselves while Maria and I bustled back and forth, placing dishes of garlic stuffed bread and bowls of olives and legumes on the table, filling jugs with oil. As the sky blushed into sunset, the olives were sucked to stones, all legumes consumed, and laughter rolled like tides between the men as they passed the dishes around and relaxed into the conversation of old friends. My only dissatisfaction was in noticing my bread remained uneaten. As I went around refilling the oil jugs I pointed at the bread cakes.
‘Why are those untouched?’ I said.
‘He said save space for the lamb,’ said Peter.
I glared at my husband, who raised his shoulders to his ears and spread his hands. It’s symbolic, he mouthed.
I rolled my eyes, and removed my bread from the table.
Maria and I were crouching by the cooking pot preparing to plate the lamb when a shout from the next room startled us to our feet. The shout was followed by commotion, the groans of chair
legs scraping against flagstones and voices raised in indistinct uproar. Below us, the front door’s slam shuddered through the house. Simon’s empty olive jar twirled on the counter, then plunged into pieces against the floor tiles. Maria and I hurried to the window in time to see a lone figure striding away from the house.
‘Who is that?’ I whispered.
Maria said nothing. We watched as the figure passed below our window, then slipped, careening into bushes with an undignified grunt. Maria clapped one hand over her mouth, pointed to herself, then mimed tossing imaginary olives out an imaginary window. When we looked again, the figure had vanished, merging with the evening shadows. Murmuring resumed next door. I regarded my mother-in-law where she stood staring into the middle distance with eyes glistening like
obsidian glass. For the first time it occurred to me that my husband had not told me everything.
‘You know who that was,’ I said. ‘Why would one of them leave?’
‘Tonight is a celebration,’ said Maria. ‘No matter what, we—’
‘Mama!’ I grabbed her arm. ‘Do you smell burning?’
Applause went up from the men as we entered carrying the main course, then faded when they saw the contents of the platters. As I set mine on the table I scanned the remaining faces. Jude was
missing. One empty chair stood far back from the table at an angle facing the wall, as though he’d gotten up in haste. I leaned into my husband’s side and tipped my head to indicate the empty chair.
‘What was said to Jude?’
‘A few home truths. More importantly, what is this?’ He gestured to the platters, where two stacks of gorgeous, aromatic breads steamed amidst a rainbow of vegetables and fruits.
‘The lamb met with foul play,’ I said.
My husband looked at me. Everyone else looked at Simon, whose head retracted into his shoulders. He raised one finger.
‘Well, it didn’t look like it would be done in time to me, so, um, I gave it more heat.’
‘Two minutes we were away from the cooking space for. Two,’ growled Maria. ‘Just long enough for a man to wreak havoc.’
‘Bread will have to be symbolic enough, my love,’ I said.
Maria and I joined the men at the table. My husband filled fourteen cups with wine and passed them out, starting with his mother. I took mine and seated myself beside Matthew to give Maria the central spot beside her son. The bread was broken, the platters passed around. Thomas looked sceptical when given his portion, but soon, appreciative munching filled the air.
‘This bread . . . This bread is divine,’ mumbled Phil through his mouthful.
‘Why thank you,’ I said.
‘Should’ve been lamb,’ groused a grouchy someone.
Suffice it to say, there was a lull in conversation while my bread was savoured. I sipped my wine and turned to Matthew.
‘How’s the writing going, Matti?’
‘Oh, you know. Slowly. There’s so many people and places it’s hard to keep it all straight and engaging, you know?’
‘Go for short stories in little chunks. That’ll keep readers’ attention.’
‘Good idea.’ He made a note. ‘You ever think about writing, Mary?’
I gestured around the table. ‘With so many men in this world that need looking after? Of course not. Besides,’ I nodded at the mother and son who sat talking with hands intertwined. ‘I’ll be needed in other ways soon.’
Matthew touched my shoulder, then shook himself. ‘Honestly, Mary. What would people say if they saw you now? Sitting at a table of men with a wine in your hand.’
In spite of everything, I laughed. ‘Well when you get to this bit, Matti, maybe don’t mention I
was here. No one has to know.’
‘We’ll have your back, ma’am.’
‘Oh, Mary,’ called Andrew. ‘What’s for dessert?’
‘Baked apples,’ I replied.
‘Baked what?’ said my husband.
I looked at him wide-eyed. ‘What’s the matter?’ I said. ‘Not tempted?’
Navy evening wore into black night. Spirits rose as wine flowed. The fish was picked clean. Purple fig skins like beetle husks dotted the table from which moistened fingertips had picked up every breadcrumb. Looking around the familiar faces, it seemed impossible things wouldn’t stay like this forever. Everywhere I looked I saw arms around shoulders, smiling faces, touching hands. Yet there stood Jude’s abandoned chair. Evidence of change in motion.
My husband caught my eye. Winked. I moved to sit beside him.
‘I’d say this little get together was a success,’ he said.
‘You heard Phil. My bread’s divine.’
‘Thank you for cooking.’
‘I love you.’
‘How much wine have you had?’
‘In fact.’ He hefted himself clumsily to his feet and raised his cup. ‘I have things to say.’ I cringed, tugged his sleeve. ‘Sit down,’ I hissed, ‘you’ve had enough.’
‘Let us give thanks! Thanks to the ladies for the meal we’ve all enjoyed tonight.’ Maria and I waved away the cheers.
‘It wasn't lamb, but it was still delicious. And I want also to say,’ he paused to hiccup, ‘that I love each and every one of you. Every person in this room. And I love every person not in this room. And I’m so grateful to you all, my friends, for coming today.’
The men around the table began sniffing and hiding their faces in their cups. Peter pretended to have something in his eye. His brother Andrew slipped him a cloth.
My husband hiccupped again, violently, sloshing all the wine out of his cup. ‘Whoops! Ah,
well. Plenty more where that came from. Le chaim!’ The men cheered and banged the table.
‘But seriously,’ he continued. ‘You’re more than my friends, you’re my brothers. All of you. And I’m so glad we had tonight.’
He raised his cup and drank from it, then passed it around. His mother took the final sip. He waited for her to finish, then leaned down just in time to wrap his arms around her as she dissolved into tears. I threw my arms around them both. Simon dove to hug the three of us. Andrew leapt in pulling Peter with him, followed by James, then Bartholomew around them. Thomas followed Matthew on the heels of Phillip who was joined by Thaddeus and our other James, and somewhere among all of them was John. Eleven men and one wife, holding up a mother and her son, knowing there was nothing we could do. Knowing all our love would make no difference. But that it also, somehow, made all the difference in the world.
Maria and I rose to clear the remains of supper while the men slipped their sandals back on. I looked back over my shoulder to watch them at the table together. I saw him, a slightly tipsy smile on his face, seated at the centre of the table with his friends on either side of him, and they looked, every single one of them, happy. They looked like a picture.