DOWNSTAIRS, THE TABLE was laid and glasses were being filled with red wine. Geoff took the stew out of the oven and carried the dish to the table with the pride of a crown-bearer. Richard, Karen and Anna sat around the table smoking cigarettes and drinking. The logs in the fireplace had burned down to dark, branch-like embers.
Geoff placed the pot in the centre of the table. Richard and Karen let out a small cheer, while Anna sat silently, smoking her cigarette. Geoff removed the lid, releasing a cloud of steam; a rich, savoury fragrance spreading across the table, mixing with the cigarette smoke.
‘Does someone want to call our young guest?’ asked Geoff.
‘Here she is…’ said Karen. The girl entered from the hallway, shy in her oversized clothing.
Karen stood up and walked over to the girl enthusiastically. ‘Are you hungry?’ she said, putting a hand on the girl’s shoulder, guiding her to the table.
They sat down with the others. The girl looked up at Anna with quiet assurance. Anna put out her cigarette and stroked the girl’s hair.
‘Okay, who’s hungry?’ asked Geoff.
He ladled generous portions into each of their bowls.
‘Would you like any of the meat or just the sauce?’ he asked his young guest.
‘What kind of meat is it?’
‘It’share.’ said Anna.
‘Oh. No thank you,’ said the girl flatly, though not meaning to sound rude.
‘Just the sauce then,’ said Geoff, filling her bowl before she had time to answer. ‘There’s bread here as well.’
They began to eat, each of them tearing at the large loaf of bread in the middle of the table. The sound of chairs shifting into place, and cutlery rattling against the china, chimed across the table. Richard was the first to try the hare. He struggled with his forkto tear the meat from the bone, expecting it to fall away with ease.
When he placed it in his mouth, it was dry and tough; he could hardly swallow it without first taking a large sip of wine. The others all ate quietly, while the girl dipped her bread into the stew until it dissolved into the cream. The others chewed loudly through their meat.
‘Hmm,’ said Geoff, after a short but uneasy silence. ‘It’s pretty grim, isn’t it?’
They all assured him it was good; though it was almost completely inedible, and the polite lie only made things worse. It was not only the texture, but the flavour of the meat itself; so gamey and dark, it overpowered the broth which would have been delicious on its own. Instead, it brought to mind how one might expect fox, or badger meat to taste.
Karen looked at Anna, as if to ask if there was a plan for the girl. Anna responded by calmly moving the plate away from the girl, who sat back in her chair with a grateful expression.
They carried on awhile in the same awkward manner. Geoff was particularly dismayed by the outcome of the meal. His disappointment turned to churlishness, as he turned to the girl, and said somewhat curtly:
‘You know, we really ought to get you home soon, I think. Do you have your mother’s number?’
The girl looked up from her bowl, unable to respond; looking to Anna for some kind of answer.
‘We’ll give her a call once we’ve cleared the table,’ said Anna.
‘Fine.’ Geoff said, satisfied, though unchanged in his temperament.
After everyone had given up on the meal, Anna insisted on clearing the table. She piled the plates in her hand, placing the cutlery on the top plate, then carried them to the sink. She looked up toward the window, expecting the darkness of the field – instead a white glow, which seemed to intensify as soon as she laid eyes on it. The plates fell from her hands into the sink.
‘What’s the matter darling?’ asked Richard, on seeing the look of horror on her face.
Without answering, Anna moved swiftly towards the back door, shutting it loudly behind her as she left.