Esther – earlier
The table was large but even so, on this Friday evening, with the number of people squeezed around it and the half empty plates and dishes that littered it, it seemed not nearly large enough.
Ruth, Esther’s sister-in-law, brandished a piece of golden baklava on her fork and as she held forth loudly about her school for girls but Esther noticed only the drip of syrup, slowly snaking its way down the handle, her voice blurring into the general noise of the room.
At the head of the table sat her mother-in-law, Farha, in her black silk shawl, embellished with bright, embroidered flowers, keeping off a chill which none of the rest of them felt. She had made the baklava, rolling out the filo until translucent, chopping the nuts, and later, pouring over the rose-flavoured syrup, anticipating the way that it would ooze through the nuts into her mouth as she bit into the crisp pastry. Always a lover of sweets and a lover of cooking, she had turned to confectionery when it was clear that her husband’s business acumen was lacking, and sold Arabic sweets like baklava, samaboosas, date babas and pistachio malfouf, through a local bakery to help support her family.
Nine children: Esther marvelled, half admiring, half horrified. Her two were difficult enough. The Baby, who was sleeping on her lap, was not so bad. His sticky warm cuddle gave her a feeling of maternal purpose and everyone cooed over his dimples, though in truth, at two years old, he wasn’t really a baby anymore. Her daughter, though only four years old, was so strong willed, she frequently found herself screaming while the girl, known as Rani (meaning queen, though her real name was Farha, after her grandmother) and pretty as a porcelain doll, continued to pout in obstinacy, her total lack of contrition incensing Esther still further. Just this evening, Esther had tried to coax Rani into her new black, patent leather pumps, shoes that she had loved in the shop but now absolutely refused to wear. Esther had threatened to make her walk to Farha’s Sabbath meal bare foot, a threat that held no fear for Rani at all, not least because she knew her mother would never risk the shame of displaying her barefooted child in front of her husband’s family. In the end she had had to bribe her with sweets, Rani’s sweet tooth the only chink in her formidable armour.
Across the table, next to his sister Moselle, Abe toyed with his baklava, seemingly eating it one nut at a time. Somehow, everything he did seemed to annoy Esther these days. When had she become so angry, she wondered? Perhaps it had always been part of her: her relationship with her own mother had been so incendiary that she’d had to move in with her grandmother in order to stop the relationship from becoming violent. She smiled to herself, remembering the sly amusement she’d gained from speaking French with her grandmother in front of her mother, knowing very well that her mother would be internally screaming with frustration at not being able to understand their conversation.
Her sister-in-law, Bekah asked Esther to pass the malfouf and Esther felt a twinge of pity as she did so, knowing from her own sister, Sally, that Bekah’s husband was finding comfort in slimmer arms elsewhere. This generation was lucky, she knew, in being able to choose their husbands and wives for themselves but looking around the table, she wondered really whether they’d made much of a success of this. There was Farha, who travelled to Kolkata from Basra, by sea and rail, aged fifteen, with only an elderly widow as her chaperone, to marry a man she’d never met, who was more than three times her age! And yet, in spite of Saleh’s age and his deficiency as a businessman, their marriage had been a happy one. Esther’s eyes widened involuntarily as she remembered again that Abe had been conceived when his father was in his eighties… Seeing her sitting at the head of the table, surrounded happily by many of her children and their families, Esther envied her – not just her happiness in marriage, but in her ability to be satisfied with her life as wife, mother and grandmother. The same could not be said of her own mother, mind you. She had left for Burma with a promising young husband, who had turned out to be nothing but a hustler and a womaniser and though they had five surviving children, it was only fear of shame that kept her mother, Hannah, from divorce.
Thinking about her mother made Esther miss her family suddenly. It’s not that she didn’t see them all the time, but Abe’s family were more religiously observant, more serious, whereas Friday meals with her own family tended to end in her sister Belle’s husband getting the guitar out, joined by her brother, Elwin, on drums, and dancing and laughing and laughing with her sisters, Belle so beautiful and kind and Sally with the smile that radiated from her eyes. They were silly together, giddy sometimes, and Esther temporarily forgot her dissatisfaction with them. Seeing Rani through her sisters’ eyes, she warmed to her too. She really was a beautiful child and clever with it and seeing her laugh with Sally, she couldn’t stay angry.
The Baby stirred in her lap and as he nuzzled her chest she bent to kiss the top of his head, damp as it was with sweat. She looked over at Abe again and her irritation passed when his eyes met hers with a quiet smile. Farha didn’t approve of smoking during meals, but now that most had finished, Abe lit a Dunhill for her and passed it across the table, sensing her craving. She blew the smoke upwards, watching it dissipate and wondered how long they would have to stay. The girl was becoming restless, tugging at Esther’s dress and though Esther pushed her off and told her sternly to sit quietly, she also sympathised. Again, anticipating her desires, Abe pushed back his chair and made their excuses to his mother – The Baby… a tiring week at work… – and Esther’s heart surged with gratitude towards her handsome husband. She stubbed out her cigarette and gently lifted The Baby to her shoulder as she stood to leave. Kisses all round and then, the formalities over, she stepped into the evening air, which though warm, felt cool and refreshing after the stifling dining room.
‘Thank you,’ she murmured to Abe as they walked down the street to their grey Morris Oxford. Abe opened the door for her and leaned in to kiss her cheek before she bent to lie The Baby on the back seat. She smelled the whiskey on his breath but tonight it didn’t bother her.
‘Would you like to call in at Belle’s?’ he said as she flicked the hem of Rani’s dress into the car and shut the door. ‘Not tonight,’ she answered, sliding into the passenger seat. ‘Let’s go home.’