“Please don’t sigh like that. You know how guilty I feel about this.”
Jonathan, who is in the process of pulling fishbones from salmon with tweezers, straightens, and turns to face Judy, who has appeared (looking pained) in the doorway.
“I didn’t know I did sigh,” he says.
“Yes you did. It was your special, big, oh-it’s-such-a-drag -having-to-do-this-all-on-my-own, sigh.”
“It actually wasn’t,” Jonathan replies. “It was a special, whoever-wrote-this-recipe -has-never-attempted-to-remove-bones-from-uncooked-salmon, kind of sigh.” Virtually all of his discussions with Judy revolve around intent. She’s a great believer that every throwaway remark must have been designed with intent, as if phrases were Cruise missiles. As if sighs were attack drones.
“Well, it still made me feel guilty,” Judy says.
“Then I’m sorry,” Jonathan says, now downing the tweezers and crossing the room to his wife. “That was not my intention.” He’s making extra special efforts, now that she’s pregnant, to avoid conflict.
Judy rears away from him as if repulsed. “Don’t touch me with your fishy fingers,” she says. “I’ve just changed my clothes.”
“Sorry,” Jonathan says again, now putting his hands behind his back and pulling a face as he leans in for a kiss.
Judy pecks him chastely on the lips, a kiss limited by ongoing reproach.
“And I still don’t see why we have to have fish,” she says.
Jonathan restrains another sigh and turns back to the chopping board so that Judy won’t see his eyes rolling. “Because Mum doesn’t think a meal is a meal unless multiple deaths have occurred,” Jonathan says. “You know this. We’ve been through this.”
“It’s time your mother learned a little more about nutrition.”
“She’s eighty-three,” Jonathan says, running his finger along the top of the salmon steak, then leaning down close to tweezer out another bone. “The woman’s not going to learn anything new now, so we just have to fit around her ticks.”
“Ageist, or sexist? Hum. I’m not sure…” Judy says.
“People can learn at any age, Jon. You know that as well as I do. Some just choose not to.”
“Well, she’s been choosing not to for eighty-three years. So all I’m saying is that the probabilities of the situation as regards my mother, favour stasis as opposed to revolutionary transformation.”
“I still don’t see why–”
“Judy. It’s meat or fish or half-an hour attempting to explain why there isn’t a ‘main’ course’. So a bit of fish is the lesser of two evils here.”
“Not for the fish it isn’t,” Judy says, a smidgin of humour in her voice.
“No,” Jonathan says, with a grin. “No, I suppose not.”
“Anyway, it’s her karma, not mine,” Judy says. “I’m not eating it.”
“I know you’re not,” Jonathan agrees, reaching for his glass of chardonnay.
“And don’t get drunk before the meal. Please don’t get drunk before they arrive.”
“It’s unfair. Especially when you know I can’t drink.”
“I’m not getting drunk,” Jonathan says flatly. “This is my first glass, and that was my second sip.”
“Sure,” Judy says, her voice full of doubt.
“You can check the bottle if you want,” Jon offers. “It’s in the fridge.”
“God Jon! You make me sound like the wine police or something.”
Jonathan chuckles. “The wine police. I like that.”
“I’m just saying, don’t get drunk before they even get here. Is that too much to ask?”
“No sweetheart,” Jonathan says, lifting the wine and placing it on the farthest corner of the windowsill, out of temptation’s way. “So, I’m wondering. If I feed Mum fish, whose karma gets fucked the most?” he asks, feeling suddenly devil-may-care and vaguely feisty, perhaps due to the now out-of-reach glass of wine.
“You’re being silly,” Judy replies. And it’s true. He is being silly. But all the same, the question seems like a good one. Whose karma does gets butchered the most here? The fisherman for fishing it? Him, for pulling the poor thing’s bones out? His mother for eating it? Judy, perhaps, for not stopping him, for letting him buy it with money from their joint account? Where do the chains of cause and effect and responsibility end, here?
“Anyway,” Jon says, momentarily forgetting and starting to reach for the wine before reigning in his erring hand. He reaches for the pepper instead: an alibi. “Maybe it’s the salmon’s karma that was stuffed. Maybe he was a really bad salmon in a previous life. Maybe that’s why he ended up on this chopping board in the first place.”
“Your grasp of karma is about as good as your mother’s grasp of nutrition,” Judy says.
“Yes. You’re probably right.”
“Just don’t let them gang up on me like last time, OK?”
“Of course not.”
“I’m your wife. And they’re your family. So I’m not allowed to fight back. So I need you to stand up for me.”
“I didn’t let anyone gang up on you last time,” Jonathan says.
“Well they did.”
And this is true.
Sophie had launched an minor attack against Judy via homeopathy. It had been nothing, initially but a border skirmish, but egged on by their mother (who loves her medicine) and a little too much chardonnay, and backed up, seemingly, by the whole of western cartesian logic, and sensing Judy’s weakness on the subject, Sophie had gone in for the kill. And Jon, despite believing vaguely that homeopathy probably did work (because Judy said it worked for her, and why would she lie?) had been unable to take position in defence of his wife; had found himself unable, when faced with Sophie’s mathematical explanations of the absence of any active compound in homeopathic remedies, to defend Judy’s floundering theories about water having memory. Judy had gone to bed early and made his life hell for almost a week after that one. And Jon had secretly stopped taking the Thuya 10ch pills the naturopath had prescribed (without any noticeable change to his health.) And there had not been another family meal since.
“Well I promise I won’t let them gang up on you,” he says. “Now go and put your feet up.”
“You want me out of the kitchen?”
“No. You’ve been saying you’re tired all day. So I’m saying you should make the most of the calm before the storm. That is all.”
“I am tired. Pregnancy is exhausting.”
“I know. Just don’t say it when Mum’s here or you’ll have the whole diet thing to deal with.”
“What diet thing?”
“Oh come on. You know this. If you say you’re tired, she’ll say you’re anaemic, and that it’s because you’re vegan, and then…”
“Jon, I’m sure your mother knows how tiring it is being pregnant.”
“Yes. I’m sure she does. But that’s still what she’ll say. And you know how she’s the world’s expert on pregnancy. And nutrition.”
“She’s the world’s expert on everything.”
“You’re right. She is.”
“What she was like with Sophie?”
“When she was pregnant.”
“I don’t remember much.”
“But you were old enough. You were six, right?”
“I was too busy building tree houses, I think.”
“Tree houses? You had a garden?”
“No, we went to Wales. For six months. We came back after Sophie was born.”
“Wales? I never knew that. Why did you go to Wales?”
“Mum was tired or something. I think the doctor prescribed lots of fresh air or something.”
“Huh!” Judy says.
“Well, you see. Even with her half-cow per day, she was still so tired you had to go on retreat to Wales. It’s called being pregnant. It’s very tiring, Jon.”
“I know,” Jonathan says. “No please go and sit down!”
“OK, OK! I’m going. Just shout if you need me, all right.”
Jonathan waits until he hears the sound of the television (a game show), and then sidles over to the glass of wine. He glances guiltily at the doorway, then lifts it and downs the contents in one. “Family dinners,” he thinks. “Ugh!”