(4 minute read)
by David Lowis
Eric chopped onion, garlic and red pepper and scraped the diced vegetables from the chopping board into a paella pan. The ingredients sizzled as they hit hot oil, sending the aroma of cooked garlic into the air. Jazz music was playing in the open plan living room; he hummed along to an Anita O’Day track.
Soon after they were married, he and Ruth had agreed to share cooking responsibilities. Ruth had always been the more skilled cook, taking control on special occasions and on most weekdays. Eric, whilst still running his accounting practice, had tended to don his apron only at weekends. In recent years, retirement had given him the opportunity to help out with weekday meals too.
He wiped his chopping board and put aside the paper towel, which had turned scarlet from red pepper juices. He appreciated how the dominant red colour of the dish spoke of its Spanish heritage. Eric waited for the vegetables to soften, the smell of cooking onions now mingling with the garlic. All his ingredients were laid out before him on the counter. Being well prepared put him at ease.
As he waited, he found himself tapping his fingers on the counter in time to Pick Yourself Up. Soon after they’d met, the couple discovered they shared a fondness for 1940’s and 50’s vocal jazz. Anita O’Day was a particular favourite. Eric sang along as he poured rice into the pan. He stirred then waited for the grains to turn translucent before he sprinkled in paprika and a pinch of saffron that he’d soaked in warm water. He then poured in a generous glug of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and leaned over the pan to breathe in the wine’s fruity scent.
Turning back to the chopping board, he began cutting green beans into one inch pieces. As he sliced, he glanced up and a bunch of flowers in the window alcove caught his eye. The flowers were a mixture of pink and cream carnations – Ruth’s favourites. Eric fondly recalled the feeling of the warm embrace he’d receive from his wife when he picked up a bunch from the florist and brought them home.
There were greeting cards surrounding the vase. When he thought about it, he couldn’t remember seeing either the cards or the flowers before. What had they been celebrating? Ruth’s birthday? Surely he wouldn’t have forgotten that. He turned to check the date on the kitchen calendar. There was a picture of a springtime woodland scene with the days of the month of May laid out in blocks below. Ruth’s birthday was in October, ruling that out as the cause of celebration. Eric himself had turned seventy-four back in April, but flowers were not something he usually received on his big day. Their anniversary? No, that was in August.
Feeling a little disorientated by his memory lapse, he turned back to the pan to stir the rice. He had a jug of vegetable stock prepared and poured that in before scraping in the green beans. Earlier, he’d cut a salmon fillet into chunks and he added the fish to the pan along with a cup of frozen peas he had to hand. He turned up the heat and stirred. Amber bubbles rose to the surface as the mixture came to a simmer.
Eric smiled, remembering a cooking program he and Ruth had once watched about the making of traditional paella in Valencia. The chef had been cooking in a huge pan over open flames. When asked about the ingredients, he’d become defensive, claiming that if it didn’t contain traditional ingredients, such as chicken and rabbit, then you couldn’t claim it to be paella – it was just ‘rice with things’.
Not caring how anyone might want to label his dish, Eric opened the oven door and slid the pan onto the middle shelf. He set the timer for twenty minutes.
With time to kill, he went into the dining room and took out a white tablecloth from the sideboard. Holding it by the edges, he shook the cloth open before spreading it across the table. He then set two places and lit a candle. He fetched the open bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from the kitchen and poured out two glasses. Then he stood back to admire the table. The straw-coloured wine sparkled in the candlelight. It was a pleasing sight, one that Ruth would surely appreciate.
When he returned to the kitchen, the smell of roasted salmon and spices was beginning to fill the room. The sound of Anita singing I Won’t Dance wafted in. Eric went into the living room, took hold of an imaginary partner and began dancing the quick step.
He thought about how often he and Ruth launched into an impromptu dance whilst they waited for dinner to cook. As he skipped and swirled round the floor, he wondered where she was. The greeting cards and flowers caught his eye again. The sombre appearance of the cards sparked his curiosity and drew him closer.
Leaning over, he inhaled the rich, sweet smell of the flowers as he picked up a card with a picture of a bouquet on the front. Above the picture, the words With Deepest Sympathy were written in flourishing gold lettering. The phrase gave him a jolt. He opened the card.
Thinking of you at this difficult time.
Love, Pam and George.
Eric dropped the card.
He went to the bottom of the staircase and called her name again. Still, no answer.
He climbed the stairs and peered into their bedroom. Empty. He noticed that the blankets were folded back on his side of the bed, but, on Ruth’s side, they remained unruffled. He checked the bathroom and the guest bedroom. Both empty.
He went back downstairs, one heavy step at a time, sat down on the second from bottom step and buried his face in his hands. Snippets came back to him. Black suits. The chapel. The mahogany coffin. The graveside. The reception at The Rose & Crown.
He sat on the step, a heavy cloud descending over him, until a beeping sound suddenly pierced his thoughts. He groaned.
Feeling like he had dumbbells chained to his ankles, he stood up and trudged back into the kitchen. Anita was singing Let’s Begin. He pressed the button to stop the timer alarm and opened the oven door. Slipping on an oven glove, he pulled the sizzling pan from the oven and placed it on top of the stove. The paella continued crackling for a moment as its toasty aroma filled the air.
Pulling off the oven glove, Eric felt empty and alone. After a few moments staring blankly at the paella, he came to a decision. Sliding the oven glove back on, he grabbed a serving spoon from a drawer and carried the pan into the dining room. He dished up two plates before putting the pan and glove aside and sitting down. The condensation on the wine glasses glistened in the candlelight. He picked up his glass, clinked Ruth’s and said, “To us.”
Inside his mind, he could see her, smiling. Then he heard her voice, crystal clear.
“To us,” she said.
Copyright © 2022 – David Lowis. All rights reserved.
About the Author
David Lowis lives in Surrey, England. He writes mainly micro-fiction with the occasional foray into longer pieces when time permits.
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