The Man From Peru
By Rachel Turner
Some people sneer when they see the servants in Downton Abbey using a ruler to help set out the table. I don’t. I understand how demanding a task it is: all that cutlery to place in order, spotless and shining. Then there’s the glassware. I can picture it glowing in the soft light cast by silver candelabra, with side plates and napkins placed just so. One perfect setting is a triumph; to create a dozen, identical... that’s my dream. One day I’ll set a table for a banquet with soup spoons, salad forks, fish knives, dinner knives, dessert spoons and the rest. Until then I’ll keep practising at my own small table. There’s room for just four settings, and I only have the cutlery for a three-course meal, but that’s enough of a challenge for now.
* * *
It happened on my sixth birthday. I’d been excited for days, ever since Mother told me that my father would be home. He’d gone away when I was small, and there were no photos, so I’d only a hazy memory of a wide smile and the feel of his bristles when he picked me up and rubbed his chin against my cheek. Chin pie, he’d call it, and tickle me until we were both helpless with laughter. Then he was gone. Mother told me he was an explorer in darkest Peru, where Paddington came from. For a long time I used to imagine him talking to the bears and paddling a dugout canoe, but there were no post offices in the jungle so we didn’t get any letters or phone calls. Soon life without him seemed normal.
Aunty Muriel had been round earlier in the day but she wouldn’t come to tea, even though she lived next door. She said she’d too many things to do. I knew she’d been crying because her eyes were red, and I’d heard her arguing with Mother in the other room, but I was six and what I didn’t understand was easily dismissed, especially as in just a few hours I’d see my father again.
When the bell rang I was so excited I almost fell in my impatience to reach the door. I opened it on a stranger: shorter and thinner than my father with a beard and long untidy hair. Then he smiled and it was Dad who swept me up in a big hug, set me back on the hall carpet and produced a package wrapped in shiny paper from the pocket of his duffle coat, just like the one Paddington wears. I remember thinking he must have bought it in Peru.
His smile faded when Mum joined us. I expected that she’d get a big hug too but they just stared at each other until he broke the silence.
“Aye, they do in three years.”
“She looks well. So do you.”
“Don’t start that.”
He shook his head and stared at her with a look that meant nothing to me. I grabbed his hand.
“Are you home now? Where’s all your luggage? Is it still in Peru?”
He looked at me, puzzled, then at Mum. She shrugged.
“I had to tell her something.”
She laughed but she didn’t sound happy.
“Look, love, me and your dad need to talk for a few minutes.” She disengaged my hand from his. “You go in the kitchen and lay the table for me, will you. We won’t be long then you can have your tea.”
“It’s toad in the hole!” I told him. “Then jelly and ice-cream and cake. I helped make the cake. It’s sponge and it’s got Smarties on top and six candles!”
He winked. “That sounds great. Now you do what your mum asks and we’ll be with you in a minute.”
Mum took him into the living room and I went into the kitchen. She’d already put the tablecloth on so I went to the drawer and picked out three knives, three forks, three spoons and the special knife Mum used for cutting cake when we had visitors. Next, I went to the other drawer and found the mats with bird pictures on and put them in front of each chair. I’d put out the three knives, on the right of the mat like Mum had shown me, when the yelling started, then there was a scream that stopped right in the middle.
I tiptoed to the living room and peeked around the door. Mummy was on the floor and there was blood and Daddy had a knife and he was crying. Then Uncle Peter came rushing in and hit Daddy with his cricket bat and Aunty Muriel picked me up and took me back to the kitchen. I wanted to finish setting out all the cutlery but she wouldn’t let go of me, even when the police and the ambulance people came in. I don’t remember much after that but I know I never got to eat any of my Smartie cake.
* * *
Today’s my twenty-sixth birthday. Muriel and Peter will be here and Dr Robertson will let me have plastic knives and forks instead of rubber ones. Today, just like every other day, I’ll set out my cutlery as perfectly as I can and maybe, if I can do it just right, Mother will be here too.