An extract from At the Table, the debut novel from Claire Powell, published by Fleet on 31 March 2022
By five o clock it’s raining so heavily some of the software developers have actually removed their headphones and skulked over to the windows to gawk.
‘Good luck,’ someone says as Nicole heads out the door wielding her truncheon of an umbrella.
She is only a little bit tipsy. The nice kind. A light, pleasant feeling. She hails a black cab on Piccadilly, and when she gives the driver the address, he repeats the name of the road back to her and says, ‘I know it well, my dear. I know it well.’
The flat, a one-bed Victorian conversion in Camberwell, has been in the family for years. Before her father’s construction business took off, the Maguires led an itinerant life, moving between a succession of homes in various SE postcodes – Deptford, Lee, Grove Park – Gerry refurbishing each place before selling it on, a small-scale property developer, eventually making it to the suburban mecca of Bromley. Why he kept hold of the Camberwell flat Nicole doesn’t know. For years he let it to private tenants, then at some time in the late nineties his brother Kenny moved in. Nicole’s memories of the flat are almost all of collecting Kenny with her father on Christmas morning, bringing him back to forty-two Eastbrook Road, their house in Bromley. It was always freezing in the flat – the bathroom window permanently wedged open, Kenny walking around in a fleece and beanie. Though a painter/decorator by trade, he didn’t care much about making the place look nice, or at least not the version of nice Nicole’s mother subscribed to. The flat was cluttered with furniture he’d received second-hand or found dumped in the street, an assortment of Oxfam bric-a-brac he referred to as antiques. After a trip to Thailand, he’d been Buddhist for a while, had hung tie-dye sarongs for curtains, burned woody incense in the bathroom. That Christmas he bought a Bonsai tree for her parents but realised on the car ride over that it was already dead.
The rain has eased off a little now. She texts her father to tell him she’s close. When they pull in to the kerb, the front door is already open, and he’s standing there waiting, a tall figure in black-rimmed glasses, dressed in a pair of shorts and white T-shirt, a little tight across his paunch.
‘That was quick,’ he says, as she hurries up the front path, her shoulders hunched to the rain.
On his feet are a pair of stiff white towelling slippers that look as though they’ve come from a hotel. He leads her upstairs, muttering something about a delivery – he was expecting a delivery, but it’s yet to arrive. The hallway has a musky stink of dogs, and there’s a coating of short hair all over the blue speckled carpet. Nicole hears the murmur of a TV, what sounds like applause. At first, she thinks it’s an anti-social neighbour, but then – as they climb up to the third floor – she realises the sound is coming from Gerry’s flat. He holds open the door, waves her through.
‘Ta da,’ he says. ‘Not so bad, is it?’
‘Uh huh . . .’
He hasn’t mentioned anything about doing it up, but she can tell immediately that it’s changed. Bright white walls, porridge-coloured carpet, the bland air of a quick refurb. She steps inside and waits, her posture upright, both hands on the strap of her bag, momentarily unsure what to do with herself.
‘Shall I take off my shoes, or . . . ?’
Gerry looks down at her feet, says, ‘Nah, you’re okay.’ Then: ‘Actually they are a bit pointy, aren’t they? Christ, how do you walk in those?’
She is happy to shrink out of the heels, to become small again, though she still can’t relax. Gerry says he’ll hang up her coat, but as she tries to shrug it off the label gets caught on her hair and for a brief moment they struggle – Nicole’s hand on the back of her head, Gerry tugging at her collar.
‘Gotcha,’ he says, when it finally comes free.
She keeps hold of her bag and while Gerry takes her coat somewhere, she looks into the living room. There isn’t much in there – a grey two-seater sofa, the fire hazard label still attached. The TV she recognises from her parents’ house: a mammoth Samsung mounted on the wall, currently beaming the garish colours of a quiz show. She finds the remote on the arm of the sofa, lowers the volume. Her father is in the kitchen now. She hears the rustle of bags, the sound of cupboards being opened and closed.
‘Merlot okay?’ he calls.
‘Yeah,’ she says. ‘Fine, whatever.’
When she opens the drawer of the console table, positioned beneath the TV, she is surprised to feel her heartbeat quicken, as if her body knows something that she doesn’t. But there is only a pile of old DVDs, a Manchester United annual, an RAC card and a wad of twenty-pound notes. She peers briefly into the bathroom – toilet, sink, white tub with plastic shower curtain (he could actually do with some incense). There is a tiny utility cupboard next to it, crammed with paint pots, ladder, ironing board, iron. An unsettlingly cheerful Henry hoover. When she pokes her head around the door of the bedroom, her throat aches. It is so different from the bedroom in her parents’ house, her parents’ bedroom. That room, though clearly her mother’s doing, is all French-style, faux-vintage furniture. Matching lamps, framed photographs, embroidered cushions. Walls covered in silver-coloured paper that has a watery effect, like sunshine on the bottom of a swimming pool. This room, in contrast, is cold, austere – just a double bed, fitted wardrobe, a black bedside table with two drawers. There’s a glasses case on the bedside table with a biro and a folded-up copy of the Racing Post, but he doesn’t even have a lamp. Taking it all in, Nicole tries to resist the urge to sob. She has to stand there for a few seconds with her eyes closed, her lips clamped together, squeezing the straps of her handbag. Then she closes the door quietly, walks back through the living room and into the kitchen.
‘Well?’ Gerry says.
She clears her throat before she speaks. ‘You’ve redecorated.’
‘Just a bit.’
‘No, you’ve done a good job.’ She places her bag on the floor, leans against the doorframe, her thumb to her teeth, chewing her peeling cuticle. ‘It’s fine. Better than I remembered it. As a temporary measure, obviously.’
Gerry looks at her then, his thick grey eyebrows raised. She thinks he is about to say something, but instead he nods at the glass of wine on the counter, says, ‘Help yourself. Careful of the carpet.’
‘Thanks,’ Nicole says. ‘I wanted to bring you a bottle, but I didn’t have time at lunch, and then it was raining and . . .’ She picks up the glass of wine and as she leans her back against the kitchen counter, she notices the two white bowls laid out on top of the small Formica table – one filled with crisps, the other with peanuts. It surprises her, this gesture. It seems such a domestic thing to do, so like her mother.
‘We won’t sit at the table,’ Gerry says, following her gaze. ‘Unless you want to?’
‘No. Sofa’s fine.’
She turns around, opens one of the white laminate cupboards, then she closes it, opens what appears to be another laminate cupboard but turns out to be the fridge.
‘What are you after?’ Gerry says. ‘I’ve put stuff out.’
‘Nothing. Just checking.’
‘I don’t know. That you’re capable of looking after yourself?’
‘Ach!’ Gerry says. ‘And?’
His fridge, as it happens, has more food in it than Nicole’s. Two ready meals, a carton of tomato soup, a box of eggs and three kinds of cheese. There is a drawer of canned lager and an entire shelf of condiments – mustard, mayonnaise, hollandaise, mint sauce.
‘Do you know how to cook?’ she says.
‘Course I know how to cook. I’m sixty-two years old.’
‘Well, what do you eat?’
‘Whatever I feel like. Tonight, I’ve either got a shepherd’s pie thing in the fridge there, or, if you’re staying for dinner, I thought we could try the Indian down the road.’
‘I’m easy,’ she says, closing the fridge. ‘I’ll eat whatever.’
Gerry finds a takeaway menu and they discuss what to share. Nicole says she can order online, but he insists on phoning the restaurant, paying himself. When he places their order, he quotes the numbers from the menu rather than stating the dishes. (‘We’ll have one thirty-two please. Yep, thirty-two. Two fifty-fives.’) Nicole wanders into the living room, her glass of wine in one hand, the bowl of salted peanuts in the other. They sit at either side of the sofa and watch TV while they wait. Gerry asks about her work, and Nicole tells him about a client she likes who’s just announced he’s emigrating to the US, and about a possible change to her pension policy, and about her hopes for another pay rise. It actually feels almost normal, sitting on the sofa, talking like this. Whenever she used to go home for dinner she always sat with Gerry in the living room while they waited for Linda to cook.
‘I saw Jamie a few weeks ago,’ she says. ‘He came and met me for lunch. It was nice. Lucy was down with her parents, so that made a change. Have you seen him?’
‘Aye, he popped by a couple of days ago. They both did. Brought me that wee plant over there.’
Gerry nods to a plant in the corner of the room – a depressed-looking thing, a lone white lily poking upwards, the dark leaves drooping over the edge of the pot like a hula skirt.
‘Looks kind of dead to me,’ Nicole says.
‘Hmm. I wondered that.’
‘Have you watered it?’
‘Nope. Suppose I should.’ Gerry heaves himself up off the sofa with a groan.
‘You don’t have to do it now,’ Nicole says, but he is already making his way to the kitchen. She looks over at the plant. She isn’t sure what she feels about it. On the one hand, she is glad her brother thought to bring a gift – the flat could do with some life. On the other hand – what the hell was he thinking? A housewarming gift? As though everything is super fucking cushty.
She hasn’t spoken to him since their lunch in Soho. He annoyed her that day, and she felt annoyed for getting annoyed, had to keep reminding herself that Jamie had done nothing wrong. He tried his best to seem as though he was dealing with it all, taking it in his stride (his line about ‘supporting them whatever’ made her want to vomit), but she could sense his worry, his nervous attempts to change the subject. If Nicole were a better big sister, she would’ve taken him in her arms as soon as she arrived, told him that she knew how he felt, that she felt it too. Instead, she’d grown increasingly irritated in his company, and had returned to the office feeling a knot of rage she eventually took out on the printer when it inexplicably demanded more cyan ink.
‘You should get in touch with your mother, you know,’ Gerry calls from the kitchen. He reappears, shuffling across the room in his slippers. He carries a red mug emblazoned with the Manchester United crest in one hand, the bottle of wine in the other. ‘Go and see her,’ he says. ‘Or give her a call.’
‘I know,’ Nicole says. ‘I will.’ She puts her thumb to her teeth. ‘Why? What has she said?’
‘Nothing . . .’
‘Because I’ve been busy, that’s all. None of you seem to realise how stressful my job is.’
‘Course we do,’ Gerry says, emptying the water into the plant pot.
‘You do. Mum’s on another planet. I’m serious. You don’t know how hard it is talking to her, Dad. She doesn’t get it. She’s never worked.’
‘Your mother works.’
‘Okay, fine, she’s got a job,’ Nicole says reluctantly. Her mother works as a part-time administrator at a solicitor’s firm in Bromley. ‘But what is it, like two days a week? It’s not like she’s ever had a career.’
‘That’s because she’s been a mother to you two.’
‘Exactly. That’s exactly my point. She thinks I should be doing what she did. She thinks I should be married with children already. She wishes I’d married Oliver Martin, for Christ sake.’
‘Well . . .’ Gerry says. He is still looking at the plant, his head cocked to one side as if expecting the leaves to rise up dramatically. ‘We all wish you’d married Oliver Martin.’
‘I’m not kidding,’ he says. He returns to the sofa, lowers himself down, placing the empty mug on the floor and picking up his wine glass. ‘He was a good lad, Oliver. West Ham fan though, right? We’ll forgive him that. Had a good job if I remember.’
Nicole offers him her glass so he can top her up. ‘A gardener?’ she frowns.
‘Ach, he was a landscape gardener, was he not? Rory Walsh knew him. Whatever happened to him?’
‘To Rory Walsh?’
‘Oh. I don’t know.’ Nicole looks into her wine. ‘Nothing happened, it just ended. Things end.’
He doesn’t say anything to that. After a minute he starts patting down the sofa cushion. ‘Where’s the remote? Have you turned this down?’
‘It’s too loud.’
‘It’s not too loud for me, missy.’
The doorbell buzzes. Gerry rushes downstairs to fetch the takeaway while Nicole locates plates and cutlery in the kitchen. They serve themselves in there, spooning curry and rice out of the foil cartons, piling naan bread and onion bhajis on top, then they return to the living room to eat it on their laps, a roll of paper towels between them. They start watching a film – a moody Jim Carrey crime thriller – but around halfway through, even with the volume turned up, Nicole nods off. An advert wakes her. Gerry is also asleep, his chin dropped, lightly snoring. She prods his shoulder.
‘What happened?’ he says, momentarily startled.
She carries their plates and cutlery back through to the kitchen, rinses them off and stacks them in the tiny dishwasher. Gerry deposits the leftover containers into the brown paper bag they came in, then he stuffs the bag into the bin (he doesn’t seem to recycle), wipes down the table. He yawns while he does it, which makes Nicole yawn, and then her father yawns again, this contagious back and forth as though they’re in conversation. Her mouth feels dry and claggy. She downs a glass of tepid tap water at the sink, then orders an Uber to take her home. Her father accompanies her down to the door, muttering again about the delivery. She kisses his cheek, which feels surprisingly cold, tells him she’ll call again soon. When she closes the door of the cab, she sees that he’s still in the doorway – T-shirt, shorts and slippers – though he seems to be looking above the car at a window opposite, perhaps, or maybe the moon. She tries to duck her head, to find what he’s looking at, but the cab pulls away and he turns back inside. Nicole feels a stab of sadness, imagining her father heading back upstairs, getting undressed in that drab, lonely bedroom. She asks for the radio to be turned on. The driver presses a button, and Rihanna’s voice fills the car. Nicole sits curled towards the window, one leg crossed over the other. She gets out her phone, checks her email. She thinks of opening her mother’s message, typing out a reply. She thinks of doing this, yet what she actually does is open WhatsApp. She scrolls through old messages, and though she doesn’t consciously look for Oliver’s name, when she gets to it – a thread of messages between them sent on Christmas Day 2016 – she stops and clicks on it. Beneath his name is the word ‘online’. That he is online, wherever he may be, makes the muscles in her stomach contract. Then the word ‘online’ disappears. She re-reads their last messages, which she thought nothing of at the time. He wished her and her family a happy Christmas, they both joked about how much they’d eaten. The word ‘online’ reappears. Without really thinking about it (can it still be unconscious?) she types:
A tiny uptick appears next to the word. Then two. It’s only a matter of seconds – three or four at most – then the ticks turn blue. There is nothing for a moment; she feels a twinge of regret. And then – beneath his name, the word: typing . . . He replies:
She writes quickly now, as if they are actually in conversation, as if he is in the cab too, sitting beside her or in the passenger seat up front.
How are you?
Again, the word typing . . . Then the word disappears. Then he’s typing again. Then he stops. Finally, a message comes through:
Not bad! You?
A memory comes back to her, some trick of the mind: the two of them standing in her parents’ garden. It was right at the start of their relationship, before things got intense and then comfortable and then boring. Before the pregnancy and the miscarriage and the involuntary cringe she felt whenever he touched her. It was her mother’s fiftieth birthday party. Nicole had dated a number of men in her twenties, but nothing was ever good enough or long enough to warrant meeting the parents. She’d been seeing Oliver for only a matter of months, but she’d invited him to the party, and he’d come. It was a big deal – meeting all of them like that. The Maguire clan. Not just her parents and her brother, but her grandparents over from Enniskillen, her Auntie Michelle, other relatives and friends. Oliver somehow made it seem effortless. There he was, casually dressed in T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, a can of beer in his hand, his eyes squinting because he refused to wear sunglasses. He shook hands, kissed cheeks, made people laugh. In the garden they stood side by side, chatting with Jamie, her parents, and then – for what seemed a disproportionately long time – with her parents’ neighbours who wanted to describe in detail a holiday they’d once taken to Goa. The whole time she felt his hand on the base of her back – a light touch, but there all the same – her centre of everything. All day, she couldn’t stop smiling. She writes:
She adds an emoji of a face. Not a sad face, but a face with a straight line for a mouth – stony, unimpressed. She looks up, out of the car window. It’s stopped raining now, but everything’s shiny, the streetlights swimming past. She has no idea where she is, whether they’re still in south London or have crossed the river. Another message comes through:
Sorry to hear
She watches the word typing, waits for him to ask her what’s wrong. She’s not even sure if she’ll tell him what’s wrong (could she explain it in a WhatsApp message?). But she is aware that she wants to be asked. She wants, quite badly, to be asked. After what feels like a long time sitting with the phone in her lap, her fingernail to her scalp, watching the word typing appear and disappear, she receives another message:
Hope things get better soon x
She waits a moment. Another moment. Is that it? she thinks. And then, as if in answer to her question, the word online vanishes beneath his name, and Oliver’s presence disappears from the car, leaving only Nicole and the driver, a cool stream of London night blowing in through his cracked-open window.