Moving from the kitchen to the dining room was when Joan felt most comfortable. A transition between two spaces, she had stopped, stood within the frame of the door, and waited for someone to trail past. Laden with food, they would force Joan to excuse herself and move with an apology for being so in-the-way.
Joan would settle for feeling in the way. For the moment she felt in the way of herself, fingers desperately resisting the urge to bawl up the cuff of her sleeves and fumble with her worry.
She was outside the room, or at least between the rooms, between dining room and kitchen. She did not know where each room occupied the world. She didn’t understand what was being cooked in the kitchen, by whom and how, or what was being said by those who waited for their meal.
Despite being large, but not at an industrial level for the mass of people, the kitchen provided no shortage of dishes to be worked on by those who didn’t view their work as anything of the sort. The production was made up of cartoonish colours; roast garlic veg, cracked pepper carrots, sweet potato fries, a deep cauldron filled with onion, mushroom and tomato, bread, salads, pastas, the browning tender meats of most farm animals, chickpeas sitting in a golden dark stew and spice filling every sense she could discern. There were grilled peppers, red and yellow, laid in a clear glass dish, potatoes mashed, fried and aloo’ed, pork pulled, and a hurried bustle as ever more was made. Despite Joan standing for an age in the doorway, with no-one passing by, the food was still transported from fridge, oven, pot, pan, rice-cooker, steamer, mixer, salad bowl and spilling over trays carried with no sense that she was an obstruction.
The clank of metal ladle on iron saucepan, slam of oven door fitting into place and gentle downbeat snare of rhythmic conversation met the laughter coming from the rooms Joan stood between, one with a table that should groan with culinary load. The table didn’t groan. It stood firm and solid and sat around it were people happily waiting for the rest to join in the feast.
“We must eat,” the woman with red hair said.
Joan didn’t move. They were waiting for her. Everyone was sitting. Everyone was waiting for her.
No-one needed to get past her, the kitchen somehow empty. Maybe that was part of the reason it called to her. There was no impetus to move. There was no simple, casual cause on perception, no emptiness as drive or even salivating longing. It was as though a choice was necessary for her to eat and she had absconded with the possibility of fulfilment. Needs were not required.
The people all sat around the table. There were free chairs, and choice of place for Joan to take her spot. She considered choosing a seat. Should she be near the roast beef, a full meat, gently pink throughout with blood that would satisfy a raw animal desire bridled by a modern oven. Should she sit by the bread, a basic staple that she knew would surely delight when combined with the many trays of creamy, yellow butter littered around the table. Or should she stand as though moving was a conspiracy. She was hungry, she decided.
She considered that all her thought went to sitting by a food and not a person. Her stomach rolled. It didn’t matter.
She didn’t choose to sit. To welcome herself to a welcome.
Instead she considered her setting. The woman who brought her to this place. Who, when Joan was battling with a stone in her sliver of black shoe, leaning arm against the wall and with knee bent to pluck her faux leather flat from her foot, she shared with Joan a gentle understanding that this was another small pain in a life made up of minor changes filling to an uncertain path through it all. Joan remembered holding unsteady against the wall. Nearly dropping her shoe and nearly planting her foot on the water puddled ground as she felt her balance go. That was when the woman seemed most severe. There was a change to her face as if to say, “You see. That is what you are. You are a ripple when instead you need to be an upset.” Joan heard those words in her mind, not as words but somehow thought as strong as words spoken with the clarifying tone of a bell. She didn’t know how there could be words forming a complete idea, brought as though in conversation when the woman had only given her a look. And then the woman started talking about how Joan’s work could wait, indulging Joan’s own worries about her 9am meeting with the boss as though circumstance colluded to provide her with the escape she longed for. She told Joan she could come into her home and sit down for a cup of tea.
As Joan drank the tea she began to feel tired of the thoughts revealing themselves to her, something the women recognised, admitting tiredness herself, and so was shown to a bed that afforded a rest so easy it was as though Joan had never slept before. Now this woman was gone, maybe still asleep herself, and Joan felt herself the expanse that would fill this woman’s absence.
She worried at her surety. The fullness of her stead that she could so easily fill a life that somehow existed outside of life, in this place where everything was on hold. The hold on her mind that was this place came to fruition in that moment and Joan knew this place was free of consequence. Actions had no result here. At least while the woman who welcomed her here was gone. She had given this playground to Joan and Joan was free to take from it what she desired.
Joan walked to the table.
Now free of need. Joan felt free of fear. Not that fear was either wanted or unwanted. It wasn’t that she was or wasn’t acting on a considered fear before or would or wouldn’t again. She knew that fear was not reality. And so she sat and broke the bread and asked, knowing well they would hear her now, “Where is the woman who welcomed us all here?”
The people at the table hushed. Forks were gently placed back onto plates, with the ceramic crack of metal on crockery sounding louder than the tide of conversation that came before.
“We don’t want to wake her, not now” the black man with grey hair said. “She’s asleep. So eat, and talk, and fill yourself but don’t think to trouble her or ask where she is. Not now, yet, anyway.”
Joan looked down at the bread in her hand, soft and airy with a crust that snapped and was ripe for tearing but no longer felt hungry, she decided. She looked up again at all the faces now turned from her and arms held close, barely stretching hands to plates and tipping at their food. No-one looked at her. No-one looked at anyone else as they very strongly looked at her but not.
Knowing she needed food even if she felt no hunger Joan gently asked for the woman next to her to pass the beef, and then potatoes, and then carrots, and then the wine.
Someone stood and walked to a bookshelf, turning on a CD player that played cool and atmospheric beats. The quiet returned from silence. Soon the talk returned as well.