- STAFF PICKS
- GIFTS + GIFT CARDS
- SELL BOOKS
- FIND A STORE
The Devil's Larderby Jim Crace
Someone has taken off — and lost — the label on the can. There are two glassy lines of glue with just a trace of stripped paper where the label was attached. The can's batch number — RG2JD 19547 — is embossed on one of the ends. Top or bottom end? No one can tell what's up or down. The metal isn't very old.
They do not like to throw it out. It might be salmon — not cheap. Or tuna steaks. Or rings of syruped pineapple. Too good to waste. Guava halves. Lychees. Leek soup. Skinned Italian plum tomatoes. Of course, they ought to open up the can and have a look, and eat the contents there and then. Or plan a meal around it. It must be something that they like, or used to like. It's in their larder. It had a label once. They chose it in the shop.
They shake the can up against their ears. They sniff at it. They compare it with the other cans inside the larder to find a match in size and shape. But still they cannot tell if it is beans or fruit or fish. They are like children with unopened birthday gifts. Will they be disappointed when they open up the can? Will it be what they want? Sometimes their humour is macabre: the contents are beyond description — baby flesh, sliced fingers, dog waste, worms, the venom of a hundred mambas — and that is why there is no label.
One night when there are guests and all the wine has gone, they put the can into the candlelight amongst the debris of their meal and play the guessing game. An aphrodisiac, perhaps; "Let's try." A plague. Should they open up and spoon it out? A tune, canned music, something never heard before that would rise from the open can, evaporate, and not be heard again. The elixir of youth. The human soup of DNA. A devil or a god?
It's tempting just to stab it with a knife. Wound it. See how it bleeds. What is the colour of the blood? What is its taste?
We all should have a can like this. Let it rust. Let the rims turn rough and brown. Lift it up and shake it if you want. Shake its sweetness or its bitterness. Agitate the juicy heaviness within. The gravy heaviness. The brine, the soup, the oil, the sauce. The heaviness. The choice is wounding it with knives, or never touching it again.
Grandma said I wouldn't catch him eating the dough. "That's only greedy birds," she explained. "The angel comes to kiss it, that's all, otherwise my bread won't rise." And sure enough, I often saw the birds come down to peck at our strip of dough. And sure enough, my grandma's bread would nearly always rise. When it didn't she would say the birds had eaten the strip of dough before the angel had had a chance to prove it with his kisses.
But I never saw an angel on the windowsill. Not even once.
The thought of angels in the yard terrified my girls, and so when we made bread — in that same house, but thirty years along the line and Grandma long since gone to kiss the angels herself — I used to say, "To make good bread I need an angel in the kitchen. Who'll be the angel today and kiss the dough?" My girls would race to kiss the dough. I'll not forget the smudge of flour on their lips. Or how, when I had taken the scarred and toppling loaves of bread out of the oven, they'd demand a strip of hot crust to dip into the honey pot or wipe around the corners of the pâté jar. This was their angel pay. This was their reward for kissing.
Now there are no angels in the kitchen. I'm the grandma and the girls are living far too far away to visit me more than once or twice a year. I'm too stiff and out of sorts to visit them myself unless I'm taken in a car, but I don't like to ask. I stay in touch with everyone by phone. I keep as busy as I can. I clean, although the house is far too large for me. I walk when it is warm and dry down to the port and to the shops and take a taxi back. I keep plants in the yard in pots and on the windowsills. I mostly eat out of a can or frozen meals or packet soups.
This afternoon I thought I'd fill my time by making bread. My old wrists ache with tugging at the dough of what, I think, will have to be my final loaves. I tore a strip off for good luck, kissed it, put it on the windowsill. I warmed the oven, greased the tins, and put the dough to cook on the highest shelf. Now I'm waiting at the window, with a smudge of flour on my lips and with the smell of baking bread rising through the house, for the yard to fill and darken with the shadows and the wings.
But still we want to risk the walk. The restaurant's reputation is enough to get us out of bed at dawn. We have to be there by midday if we want to get back safely in the light. The five of us, five men, five strangers united by a single appetite.
We take the little taxi to where the boulder track is beaten to a halt by the river, and then we wade into the water and the trees. We're wading too, of course, into the dark side of ourselves, the hungry side that knows no boundaries. The atmosphere is sexual. We're in the brothel's waiting room. The menu's yet to be paraded. We do not speak. We simply wade and hike and climb. We are aroused.
The restaurant is like a thousand restaurants in this part of the world: a wooden lodge with an open veranda, and terraces with smoky views across the canopy towards the coast. There is a dog to greet us and voices from a radio. An off-track motorbike is leaning against a mesh of logs. But none of the twenty tables, with their cane chairs, are as yet occupied. We are, it seems, the only visitors.
Copyright © 2001 Jim Crace
What Our Readers Are Saying
Other books you might like