Mary was in aisle nine – sauces, condiments, seasonings – and had her hand on the packet of star anise when he rang.
‘I’ve Googled another recipe,’ he said. ‘This one says cinnamon sticks and cardamom pods and palm sugar.’
She tossed the star anise in the trolley and looked along the rows of tiny bottles. Cardamom, ground. Cayenne pepper. Chilli flakes. Chilli powder. Cinnamon, ground. No cardamom pods.
‘Ground cardamom will have to do.’
‘No, it says pods. And cinnamon sticks. Can you get cinnamon sticks?’
‘Seeds or ground, it won’t matter.’
‘Not seeds. Cardamom pods.’
‘Same thing. Anyway, ground will have to do.’ She spotted cinnamon sticks in the next rack and dropped them in.
‘Are you sure? This recipe sounds a lot better than the other one.’ His voice had crept up in pitch, like when he was uncertain, fearful.
‘Trust me. It will work the same.’ Mary wedged the phone closer to her ear, keeping her voice low. She despised shoppers who did this. Especially the men, standing blankly before the stacks of nappies, saying did you want infant or toddler size? Asking what was the difference between two per cent and skim, or should they get the soy. She could always imagine the women sighing on the other end of the phone.
‘It also says to wash the meat.’
‘Wash the meat?’
‘I don’t know. You skim it then strain it then wash it. That’s what it says.’
‘Okay, I’ll look at it when I get home.’ She spoke even lower, as if they were conspiring in a robbery. ‘I’m just grabbing the last few things then I’ll be out of here.’
‘Palm sugar,’ he repeated before she said goodbye and pressed the button. She put the phone into the trolley, but before she rounded the corner it had clattered through to the floor.
Andy watched as she lifted it with the chicken-patterned pot holders. It was the biggest stockpot, too big for him to hold and pour the steaming liquid into the bowl. The mush of meat plopped into the strainer, the bones sticking out, grey and bare. She wiped the scummy tidemark from around the inside of the pot, rinsed it under the hot tap and placed it back on the stove.
‘Get me the other strainer, can you?’
He fossicked in the drawer for the one with the wooden handle.
‘The conical strainer is better,’ she explained. ‘See how the mesh is finer? You get a clearer soup that way. But the handle is broken.’ It sat askew in the bowl. She took it out and placed the other one over the pot, poured the stock back in, and turned up the flame.
‘Now you taste it.’ Mary held the serving spoon to his lips.
‘It’ll be too hot.’
‘No, it isn’t.’ She sipped from her side of the spoon. ‘Tastes good.’
He pursed his lips, touched the spoon with them, then recoiled. ‘How can you do that? It’s boiling.’
She smiled. ‘Asbestos lips.’ She sipped again. ‘Tastes beautiful to me.’
He finally tried it. ‘Hey, that’s just like the one in the noodle restaurant.’
‘Wait until it’s simmered another hour or so, it’ll be perfect.’
Mary showed him how to skim the fat off the surface of the stock and spoon it into an empty yoghurt tub. He tried to copy her movements with the smaller spoon, but it wobbled from stockpot to tub, dribbling fat onto the kitchen bench. She leaned against the bench, holding in her impatience to do the job quickly and efficiently, watching the spoon move back and forth to the yoghurt tub until he had scooped most of the fat out.
‘Sometimes at school,’ Andy said thoughtfully, ‘I say yoggit. Yoggit. Just like that.’
‘What, so kids think you’re English?’ She tore off a piece of paper towel and mopped up the bench.
‘Not really. Just for fun. Hey, what about the palm sugar?’
‘I didn’t get it.’
‘You forgot it.’ That accusatory pitch in his voice again.
‘I didn’t forget it, I just didn’t get it. We can use brown sugar.’
‘It won’t taste the same.’
‘Trust me.’ She sealed the yoghurt tub and dropped it into the garbage bin.
He poked at the meat and bones heaped into a bowl. ‘Now it says we have to wash the meat.’
‘Andy.’ He looked at her. ‘I refuse even to think about what that might mean. All we have to do is pick out the biggest bones and stuff. We can save the scraps for Tommy.’
Together, with a pair of tongs each, they picked off the loose bits of gristle and lifted out the largest bones and lumps of meat, placing the rest back into the stockpot for the second boil. She had bought the beef bones and osso buco from the Vietnamese butcher, where the owner and his wife worked seven days a week in the cleanest overalls she had ever seen butchers wear.
Mary hadn’t consulted any recipe, but Andy had, researching it like a school project, bringing his laptop onto the bench, comparing sites and chewing his bottom lip as he read over the instructions. Palm sugar. Meat washing. She disliked following recipes.
After she cleared up the curls of onion and garlic skins, put away the spices and rinsed the strainers and bowls, she went back to her bookcase. Ikea. Sixty-nine dollars. She timed herself and got it assembled in twenty minutes, no swearing. She was getting better at this, though to be fair it was probably the company’s simplest item of furniture. She positioned the bookcase in the kitchen and began moving the books across from the stack on the floor that had been there too long, wiping the dust as she went.
‘I don’t even know why you want a bookcase for your recipe books,’ Andy said, eyeing her from the doorway. ‘You never use them.’
Then his phone chirped. He turned away, curling the upper half of his body into the phone just as his father did.
The soup was boiling furiously by the time she finished the books, and she lifted the lid, turning off the gas. The broth was rich and fragrant, the heavy saltiness of meat closing like a fist around the first delicate waft of spices. She breathed it in, catching the smell of star anise before it floated off, then black pepper and cardamom. Andy came over to sniff deeply too.
‘All those bones, all that marrow and gristle,’ she said. ‘It’ll be so nourishing, full of protein.’
It was true she never used her recipe books. Some she had never even looked at. But it was the idea of the books. Mary collected them, glanced through them, then replaced them on the stacks of other books, returning to recipes in her memory or imagination. Once she had decided to collect the stray recipes, the ones cut from magazines and newspapers, the ones on scraps of notepaper in her mother’s or a neighbour’s hand. She would write them neatly in a book and leave it for the children, for when she was older, or gone. It would contain their favourite dishes, the ones she had never written down, the ones she could have cooked in her sleep. They might have no idea how she made the dishes that had sustained them all through their childhood: the macaroni cheese, the spinach flan, the crumbed chicken, the jellies made with real fruit, not from a packet. She had even cooked her own baby rusks, way back when Frances was teething, tiny bagel-shaped ones enriched with malt, a touch of honey.
The book was almost blank, the recipes still in her head. Mary took it now and placed it next to Classic American Recipes. The last book she stacked was a vegetarian cookbook, bought when Frances was thirteen. She flipped it open. Spiced risotto cakes. Tabbouli. Lentil bolognese. She couldn’t remember either of them using it. It seemed to her now that her daughter had lived on a diet of white, soft foods: cauliflower cheese and mashed potato, bread and bananas. Yoghurt and vanilla milkshakes. White food, all of it.
By the time the broth was ready for its final straining, the boy was bored, back in his bedroom hunched over his laptop. Mary glanced in. Facebook. She went back to the kitchen, threw away the bones and boiled onions, and took some of the cooled meat over to the dog’s bowl. Tommy came sliding into the kitchen out of nowhere, swallowed the meal in a few gulps, and looked up with his tail wagging. He followed her hopefully and sat behind her at the sink while she again washed the strainers and other utensils. When she was done she went back to Andy’s room. He was on the phone again. She walked across to the other bedroom, pushed the door open, and stepped inside.
The room was dark, close. She shut her eyes and breathed in the smell. Perfume – she had no idea which one, there were several brands set out on the desk – leather shoes, hairspray, incense and under it all a smell of stale apples, fainter than faint.
When she opened her eyes she saw that Tommy had jumped onto the bed. She sat next to him on the quilt, which was rumpled from his previous visits. Next to the pillows was an empty shoulder bag gaping open, and an uncapped pen that had bled to death, leaving a blue stain on the sheet. Next to it was a DVD in an unmarked cover, the disc blank except for the sticker of a professional photographer. Mary sighed, rose and went over to the wardrobe. Inside, every second or third hanger was empty. She leaned down to pick a hairpin off the carpet in front of the mirrored doors, then placed it in the glass dish on the desk. There was a mug next to the vase of incense sticks. It held a half inch of black coffee with a film of scum.
Andy appeared at the doorway. ‘We have to go now.’
‘Okay, okay. Come on Tommy, out of there.’ Holding the mug, she shut the door and leaned her forehead against it for a few moments, her eyes shut. Then she walked quickly along the hall and took the mug to the kitchen where she ran the hot tap into it for a long time.
‘And I said I’d take him some soup, but he’s just rung and said he’s nil by mouth because they’re going to operate tonight.’
‘I doubt that. Not on an evening, not on a weekend.’ Mary locked the back door and went to her bedroom for her jacket.
Cooper was off his drip but still in bed. One hand was dark and swollen, with a cannula stub taped and bound tightly, as if it might run away.
‘I’d kill for a coffee,’ he said.
‘But you can’t eat or drink.’
‘No.’ There was silence as the boy tested the only chair. Experience had taught him they were all wobbly. Mary put her bag down and gazed around. The bed beside the window was empty but a pair of sandals sat beside it and the sheets were flung back. The man in the opposite bed was dozing, his mouth an open hole in a skull of yellow skin so thin and stretched it seemed like every breath would tear the hole wider. He looked at least a hundred years old. In the fourth bed, next to Cooper, another man was sitting upright, his hair fuzzy, his eyes bright, looking for an opportunity.
‘Did you bring your notebook?’ Cooper asked in a low voice. ‘It’s like absurd theatre here. All day.’
‘Hey fella!’ The boy looked up from his phone. ‘Come over here, will ya?’
The boy sauntered over, glancing back at his parents with a wry smile.
‘What’s ya name, fella?’
‘Sandy?’ The man barked, cupping his ear.
‘Andy,’ the boy said, louder.
‘Oh, Andy. Listen Andy, are you good at English?’
He shrugged. ‘Kind of.’
‘Course you are, I can see you’re a clever boy.’ The man was almost shouting, though the boy stood right by his bed.
‘Now I’ve got a question for you, Andy. Is it correct to say the yolk of the egg ARE white or the yolk of the egg IS white?’ Sensing resistance, he added, ‘Are or is, come on
now, what’s correct?’
‘Err … is,’ Andy said, smiling at his father. ‘Of course.’
‘No!’ The man slapped his thigh. ‘The yolk of the egg is YELLOW!’ He laughed so deeply he started coughing.
‘See,’ Cooper said quietly from his bed. ‘Every day, it’s like a play.’
Andy came over. ‘I know it’s yellow,’ he said to his mother. ‘I just thought he was mad and I didn’t want to correct him.’
She held his arm and leaned over to his father. ‘Can I get you something? A magazine?’
Cooper shook his head. Mary went with the boy down to the vending machine for a Coke and waited until he finished it all, so as not to be drinking in front of Cooper.
When they returned, the man in the bed opposite had reappeared and a nurse was writing in the chart at the end of his bed. The wispy-haired man was still sitting upright, interrogating.
After the nurse left he shouted, ‘Where do you come from?’, frankly eyeing the long black legs sticking out of the gown.
‘Ay? Somalia? Where’s that?’
‘Somalia is in Africa.’
‘AFRICA! Well, I never.’ He paused, glanced round the room. An audience. ‘Somalia. Is that a good country?’
‘No, it is a very bad place.’
‘There has been a war there for many years.’
‘What are you doing here then?’
‘I am a refugee.’
‘A refugee!’ This was gold. The man looked around again, trying to catch the eye of Cooper, or Mary, of anyone. He leaned further forward on his bed, his eyes brighter than ever with expectation.
‘And a footballer,’ the Somali man said.
‘No!’ Now the wispy-haired man leaned back on his pillows, silent for a few moments, considering the patriotic implications of such conflicting roles. Then he said slowly, ‘Footballer, ay? What, here, or in Somalia?’
‘In Somalia I played professional football. Here I am semi-professional.’ He closed his eyes.
The man crossed his arms and blew loudly out of his mouth, fluttering the white hairs fringing his domed forehead. After a moment he leaned forward again and said,
‘What are you in this place for then?’
The Somali man opened his eyes. ‘Observation.’ Then shut them again. When no more explanation came, the wispy-haired man turned to gaze at Cooper and the boy next to him, open mouthed, shaking his head. The wonder. The rudeness. Mary saw the Somali man’s lips twitch. His eyes opened again, and he added, ‘Following a car accident. I am in for observation. My car was hit by a truck. We are all alive, but require observation.’
‘All? How many of you?’
‘Five. All members of my football team.’
An orderly arrived, followed by another nurse with a clipboard. The Somali man was helped into a chair and wheeled out of the room.
The wispy-haired man turned to Cooper and said, ‘Somalia, ay. D’you reckon he’s making that up?’
Then the ancient man in the opposite bed groaned in his sleep, the noise so long and slow that it was like a final exhalation. They all stared at the white mound in the bed until they could see the chest rising and falling again.
‘Told you,’ Cooper said to Mary. ‘Beckett.’
The nurse who had escorted the Somali man returned. ‘Sorry to tell you this,’ she said quite cheerfully, ‘but theatre’s rung again and they won’t be doing you until later tonight.’
‘It’s after six-thirty.’
‘I know.’ She smiled, picking up his wrist for his pulse.
‘So it’s already later tonight. They won’t do it tonight, surely.’
‘Do they even operate at night?’
‘Of course. For emergencies.’
‘Which I’m not.’
She shrugged again, scribbled on his chart.
‘Weren’t you meant to be done first thing this morning, Dad?’
‘You’re waiting all day and you can’t even have a sip of water?’
The boy dug out his phone and resumed playing. Mary flipped through the colour supplement, then put it down in the litter of newspaper sections beside the bed.
‘Have you heard from her at all?’
‘Once,’ said Cooper. ‘Yesterday.’ He looked her in the eye. ‘You just need to give her some time.’
‘Hey fella,’ barked the man next to him.
‘I can’t stand it any longer,’ Mary said, jumping up.
‘Come on, I’ll get you a hamburger or something.’
Andy glanced up from his game. ‘But aren’t we having the soup for dinner?’
‘It’ll be too late by the time we get home.’
The hospital cafe was closing up. There were a few cellophane-wrapped sandwiches, hot pies, a slice of pizza. She bought him the last of the hot chips and a chicken sandwich, set him down at a table, and brought over a packet of tomato sauce. She went back to the cold food bar, inspected a bowl of fruit salad. Picked up a yoghurt, then replaced it. Yoggit. Sometimes I say yoggit. Frances would always eat yoghurt. Her favourite was apple cinnamon, low fat.
Mary sat back at the table where Andy was squeezing the rectangle of tomato sauce onto his chips. He dipped them one by one into the puddle of sauce. They would have the soup tomorrow. The stock only needed some mint and noodles, beansprouts and lemon. No chilli for him, lots for her. And fresh fillet steak, sliced thin as wafers. She would half freeze the meat before cutting it. If there were only the two of them, it would make several meals. Too many. She took her phone out, considered sending a message, then replaced it.
Back in the ward the boy took Cooper’s hand, the one that was not bruised and swollen under the taped cannula. The other men were asleep, and the Somali man had still not returned from X-ray.
‘We’ll get going,’ she said. ‘He’s got school tomorrow.’
The nurse walked in once more. ‘Sorry about this, but your op’s not happening until tomorrow now.’
‘Tomorrow morning, or tomorrow night?’
‘We’ll have to wait and see. But you can have something to eat if you like.’
‘God, so much waiting,’ Mary said. ‘It’s unbearable.’
She dropped into the wobbly chair, putting her face in her hands. The boy and his father looked at each other, then at her, then away. After a while Andy said, ‘Maybe we could get you a sandwich now, Dad. Or a pie?’
Cooper shook his head, drew the boy closer and held him with one arm.
Finally she lifted her head, drew a deep breath and blew it out again, then said, ‘It’s all right. I’m okay now.’
‘You sure?’ Cooper said.
‘It’s just all the waiting.’
As they left, the man in the next bed began calling out again but Cooper called out louder, waving his good hand.
‘Stoppard,’ he said. ‘Definitely Stoppard.’