‘Sorry about the chicken,’ said Jane. ‘I forgot you didn’t like meat.’
‘It’s not that I don’t like it.’
She shook on another dollop of fruit flavoured red.
‘But I can’t bear to eat it, the way it’s produced. Did you know that thirty or forty thousand broiler chickens are crammed together in a shed?’
The plate hovered in space.
‘They spend their lives squatting on faeces and decomposing dead birds. Each one has a space no bigger than this.’ He drew his finger round the place mat before Jane plonked the plate down on a glob of tikkered chicken.
‘I’ll have a slice of pavlova, Jane,’ said Oliver. ‘Seeing as you went to such trouble over it.’
The meringue broke under the blade. She scraped every last crumb onto his plate and passed it across. ‘You won’t drop it, will you?’
Nor would Simon. ‘Chickens are pumped so full of growth promoters they can hardly move.’ He stabbed his spoon into the not quite thawed base. ‘They can only just find the food and water anyway – the sheds are deliberately gloomy, to stop them being aggressive.’
‘No need for us to be gloomy though, is there, Si?’ Sophie gave him a kick under the table.
The Pinot Noir on its own might have dulled the pain, or, coupled only with the Chardonnay, could have dilated the images from the animal welfare leaflet. But topped with that cheeky little Grenache Rosé, which had made it all the way from the Antipodes, via Hong Kong for a fuel stop, to the local off-licence, setting him back less than a fiver, and his inner turmoil overflowed. ‘Some chickens -’ he slumped forward, elbows spanning the plate of meringue ‘- can’t support their own body weight so they die of starvation.’
‘Mmm, not bad at all,’ said Oliver, turning his spoon to lick the back. ‘Is this one of your mother’s recipes, Jane?’ He dug in again. ‘Jane was over there the other weekend, for her niece’s christening. So she said.’ He gave Sophie a knowing look. ‘She’s always off somewhere.’
‘Oh, right,’ said Sophie. The thing about knowing looks was the looked-at generally didn’t get it. So what was it people asked about babies? Oh, yes, how much they weighed. She scraped the cream from the top of her meringue. The obsession with scales started at birth. She sized up the next spoonful. ‘How old is she?’ Fifty calories, max.
‘Six weeks,’ said Jane. ‘Or –’ she was then. Now she must be – ‘a bit more.’ Who cared, anyway? Thirty thousand, forty thousand, who was counting?
‘Chickens are only six weeks old when they’re slaughtered. They still cheep.’ Simon looked deep into his glass, reflecting a shedful of peeping. ‘Their eyes are still blue.’
‘Well, at least they’re young and tender,’ said Oliver. ‘If we’d gone out to a restaurant, even somewhere upmarket like the Blue Umbrella, we’d no doubt have been chewing on bits of old battery hen.’
‘Whereas, according to Si, we’ve just eaten babies. And you know what -’ Sophie held up a finger while she took another mouthful of wine ‘– we did this play at school. About someone who ate children. At a banquet.’
‘Procne,’ from some part of her brain as yet unsaturated. ‘It’s a legend from Ancient Greece. She killed her son and served him up to her husband. Because he’d done something terrible –’ Jane stopped. What the frig was it? Something way beyond checking her texts. Anyway, ‘ She couldn’t forgive him. When he’d eaten it the gods turned all three of them into birds.’
‘Chickens, I expect,’ said Oliver. ‘But did the story have a happy ending? Were they free range?’ He dabbed his mouth on the serviette. ‘Not that the chicken I had in Athens was anything out of the ordinary. For real flavour, you can’t beat Poulet de Brest. Now there’s a pampered bird, Sophie. Perfect for a mature taste.’
‘I’m not talking about some old Greek fairy tale,’ she said. ‘This woman was a Goth.’
‘Recognisable by the black leather and five kilos of base metal hanging from dubious body parts, no doubt. Like that piece at the filling station on Harcourt Road. You been there, Simon? It’s worth paying 2p a litre more to –’
‘Listen, you Philistine. I’m trying to raise the level of conversation here.’ She leaned towards him and jabbed his chest. ‘This is culture. You know, Shakespeare.’
‘Okay, smartie pants. Tell us about this play.’
‘Well, you can’t expect me to remember every little detail after all this time.’
‘Come off it. It can’t have been more than a couple of years ago.’
‘A couple of thousand, more like. It had emperors and tributes in it. You know, men in skirts.’
Without - Jane peeled her thigh from the chair seat as she shifted position – the tights. She picked up her glass. ‘What was it called?’ Maybe Smartie Pants – though in that dress, it was stark staring obvious from the lack of VPL that Sophie was wearing nothing more than a thong - could come up with that, even if she had lost the plot. And, said the glass, you haven’t?
‘Who cares?’ Sophie shrugged. ‘It’s all history now. I got a B for English Lit, though. So there.’
‘I’m very impressed,’ said Oliver. ‘Have you got any other Bs I should know abou–’
They all looked at Simon.
‘The queen who ate her sons.’ He took another swig of the rosé. Reasonably palatable but it lacked body. ‘A barbarian.’ Not up to Oliver’s standard at all.
‘Absolutely,’ agreed Jane. ‘It’s – inhuman.’
‘Oh, I don’t know.’ Simon swished the last drops round his glass. ‘It’s not just primitive tribes who’ve gone in for cannibalism.’
‘Well, it makes sense,’ said Sophie. ‘You know, if there’s a plane crash and you’re shipwrecked on a desert island. And everyone’s dying of starvation.’
‘Or tipped over the edge by having to wind your own gramophone night after night,’ said Oliver.
‘So tell us, Sophie Marston, your luxury item. Is it to be a step by step guide to Fifty Favourite Anthropophagic Feasts?’ He enunciated each syllable with precision. Which proved, thought Jane, that he was knocking back the grape juice at the same rate as everyone else for once. She watched his seat edge closer to Sophie’s. ‘So who would you sink your teeth into first?’
‘It might as well be Simon, as he’d rather starve than eat anyone else. I’d chop him into little pieces.’
‘I’d see that,’ said Simon, ‘as an act of devotion. Eating a dead loved one so the soul can be reborn in the body of the consumer.’ He upended his glass and the last trickle dribbled down the corner of his lips. ‘And human flesh is supposed to be quite tasty.’
‘They say it’s a bit like chicken.’ Oliver leaned forward with the bottle. ‘Without any welfare issues to stick in your craw.’ Simon held his glass in the general direction of the neck and most of the rosé went in.
‘How can you talk like that!’ said Jane. ‘Innocent people slaughtered to appease a piece of rock.’ Without the sixth commandment in sugar pink letters all the way through.
‘Human sacrifice used to be quite PC,’ said Oliver. ‘They’re the best bits in the Bible, I believe. Like old Abraham and – Abe Junior.’
‘God didn’t let him, though. And don’t forget the missionaries.’
‘Most stories of cannibals were probably just government spin to justify subduing the natives. Making Britain Great.’ Oliver lined up the bottle with the other empties in a spiral along the pattern on the carpet. ‘Then it could drain the colonies with a clear conscience.’ Thank God that was the last of the Australian plonk.
‘But cannibalism wasn’t confined to the British Empire.’ Simon drew his finger across the blue-skies-forever tablemat, joining blobs of spilt rosé into bigger blobs. ‘It happened everywhere. I read about a Chinese officer being boiled and eaten as late as nineteen hundred and something.’
‘I love Chinese,’ said Sophie. ‘I even had it for Christmas dinner last year. Szechuan Duck - my favourite.
‘Hear that, Jane?’ Oliver topped up her glass. ‘If you’d known you could have run to a Chinese, instead.’
Jane took another gulp. ‘Was it a religious ritual?’
‘Not at all. He’d been sent to pacify the inhabitants of a revolting town in the south-east.’
‘Let that be a warning.’ Oliver’s bare arm snaked across the top of Sophie’s chair. ‘Never turn your back on an Essex man.’
Sophie flicked her head, whisking hair across skin. ‘What makes you think I’ll turn my back on any man?’
Across the table, their faces merged and parted as Jane tried to change focus. ‘What’re you doing this Christmas?’
Sophie shrugged. ‘Nothing definite, as yet.’
‘Come here,’ said Oliver. ‘There’ll be more than enough to go round. We’re having a goose.’
‘We’re having what?’
‘Goose. You’ll approve of this, Simon – it’s hand reared.’ All the time looking at Jane. ‘From a local place Jane told me about. They probably give them the last rites before they wring their necks.’ Smiling straight through her. ‘Though I expect Jane could warm you up a nut roast. There’s no limit to what she shoves in the microwave.’
‘Si’s going to his parents. Sherry trifle, paper hats, God Save the Queen and Great Aunt Nellie.’
‘You can still come though,’ said Oliver. ‘Help us pull the wishbone. We’ll make it a threesome.’
‘But we can’t eat my geese.’
‘Hardly yours, Jane. Though one of them’s got my name on it, even if it is costing a small fortune.’ Almost two percent of a month’s salary. Gross. ‘It’ll be worth it, though, when it’s sliced up on the plate.’
‘Oliver – you can’t!’ Tears sprang unbidden. ‘You just can’t!’
‘For God’s sake, Jane, don’t start on one of your crying jags.’ He picked up the remains of the raspberry dessert. ‘Go and stick this in the fridge – ’ he thrust the plate into her hands ‘ - before it completely dissolves to mush.’ His eyes glinted through the tears. ‘Do it.’
She pushed back her chair, forced legs to stand. Waded through the swirling whirlpool carpet, across the stepping stone cracks in the hall, till her limbs gave way at the kitchen doorway. The pavlova glided down on white glazed wing-tips, wheeling and circling in the currents of air, skimming the sparkling lake, till it cut through the frozen surface, spattering her legs with bloodstreaked splinters of ice.