Grace has not had 12 people at her table for a long time; hers isn’t the kind of family who share regular Sunday meals. But it isn’t every day you turn 70. As Grace prepares the feast, she reflects on her life, her marriage, and her friendships. When the three generations come together, simmering tensions from the past threaten to boil over. The one thing that no one can talk about is the one thing that no one can forget. Grace’s Table is a moving and often funny novel about the power of memory and the family rituals that define us.
|Publisher:||University of Queensland Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Sally Piper is a writer whose work has been published in the anthology One Book Many Brisbanes, and in numerous writing journals, literary magazines, and the Weekend Australian. Grace’s Table was short-listed in the 2011 Queensland Premiers Literary Award’s emerging Queensland author category.
Read an Excerpt
By Sally Piper
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2014 Sally Piper
All rights reserved.
Grace hooked her nail under the sticky tape and pulled back the gift paper. Inside was a boxed polished-steel knife block holding six different knives.
'Knives,' Grace declared.
'Do you like them?' Susan sounded young again, eager for approval.
'They're very ... modern.' Grace looked kindly at her daughter, then gripped the handle of one and slid it from its slot. The new steel glinted from tip to haft and made Grace think of surgeons and torturers, and the cold impersonal touch of both. The knives' obvious sharpness also made her think of her father, but in a kinder way.
Grace's Pa had been a man with penchants for bitter mints, tool care and wheezing. Asthma had saved him from enlistment, though he cussed it for doing so long after the troops had returned home. Mother rolled her eyes at his cussing and muttered, Ignorant fool or Tell that to Widow Parkes, like she knew something he didn't. He never challenged her. Instead, he'd take another bitter mint from the jar on the small round table beside his chair and suck on it in quiet contemplation of what he might have missed.
He was a tall, barrel-chested man. And despite his rickety breath, Grace remembered the firmness of his muscles when she'd swing, like a pendulum, from his strongman arms as a child. To her, they felt like rocks beneath his skin and she believed him to be as hardy as anybody's father. As a young girl she put his laboured breathing down to nothing more than difference, not ill health, though towards the end of his life she was less naïve and knew the two to be inseparable.
At the end of a day he'd come into the house in his dusty home-sewn shirt and trousers, at odds with the clean regime of their home. He'd position his boots compliantly side by side at the back door, tongues lolled to one side like a dog's, shoelaces undone and at the ready, as though a quick escape might be required at any moment. What he looked to escape from, or to, Grace could only guess, but she figured it related to territory. Where the house smelt of Sunlight soap and wax polish, the kitchen of vanilla essence, stewed fruit or simmering stews, Pa smelt of farm and sweat. The scent of one was always in conflict with the other.
'Go clean yourself up, Frank,' Mother would admonish.
Even after coming back in from the cement tub in the washhouse with his hair damped down and his skin smelling of soap, he'd stand around like a visitor who'd inconveniently dropped by at meal time. His lounge and kitchen chairs were his only sanctuaries. Mother eventually left them dusty and flat-cushioned, either despairing of keeping them clean and plump, or as an indictment of his failure to fit in with her meticulous hygiene.
The sheds and barn were where Pa felt at home. Grace, often seeking escape too from her demanding mother, would hunt him out at one building or another. She'd scrape mud from the deep tread of the Ferguson tractor tyres with a stick while he lubricated parts that moved with thick brown grease, or sharpened the blades of things that cut – cut grass, cut cows' horns, cut wood. He was a man who took great care with his tools and machinery, showing them a loving touch Mother lacked.
'Look after your things well, Gracie, and they'll last you forever,' he said once, as he ran a chisel across a whetstone in careful circular motions, periodically spitting onto the stone's surface.
'But the wooden handle's already broken so it hasn't lasted forever.' Grace felt smug in catching out the usually uncatchable.
'It's not the handle that does the cutting,' Pa said. 'And besides, that's easy fixed.'
'But the cutting part will wear away one day too and you can't fix that.'
'Won't happen in my lifetime, so it will have lasted me forever.'
'That's not a real forever.'
'Real enough to my thinking.' Pa spat with perfect aim onto the grey stone and worked the chisel blade through the white froth.
Grace had never used a whetstone on her own knives. She preferred the sharpening steel Des had brought home from the shop. She'd swipe her knives along the cylinder, switching the blade from one side to the other in a criss-cross fashion. It was a satisfying motion, efficient and controlled. Her favourite knife, a butcher's knife, which had also come from Des's work, wasn't unlike her father's old chisel. It too had a wooden handle and blackened steel blade. She'd recall Pa's story about things lasting forever whenever she sharpened it. Pa would be proud of this knife of hers. The blade, once wide, had worn down to be narrow and concave in the middle from years of being run up and down the sharpening steel. It fitted nicely over the curve of a tomato or the hard skin of a Queensland Blue and could still cut through either as if they were butter. She expected the blade to see her out, just as Pa's chisel had indeed seen him out. Grace often wondered where those tools were now. Joe took care of them after Pa died but with Joe gone as well, Grace supposed they'd reached the end of anybody's measure of forever.
'And here, this goes with them.' Now Susan passed Grace a second, smaller gift.
Grace opened it, revealing a flat object with two wheels sitting side by side. The modern knife sharpener.
'I hope you like them. They were expensive.'
Grace ran a knife through the sharpener. It dragged loudly across the coarse wheels, grinding metal on stone in a way that made her teeth hurt. She was inclined to spit on the thing just as Pa had spat on his whetstone. She tested the knife's edge with her finger.
'Very nice,' she said inadequately.
'They're all the go. Watch any of the cooking channels and you'll see this brand of knife on the bench in the background.'
'Is that right? Looks like I'm set to be quite the celebrity chef.'
'You'll be able to get rid of that other old thing now. It looks about ready to snap in half as it is.'
Pa would be disappointed with the measure of forever these days.
Grace slid the knife back into its slot. 'At least we'll be well-fixed for slicing and dicing today,' she said. 'We'll have to be careful when the little ones arrive though. Don't want any mishaps.'
Where Pa kept all things sharp at a safe height from inquisitive hands, her husband Des had considered small nicks here and there to be all part of a learned life.
One long ago Saturday, Grace had come in from the clothes line to find Des giving each of their three children a lesson in handling the largest of his butchering knives. It was a weighty thing with a long blade and timber haft worn smooth through use. He'd brought it home from the shop to sharpen. Peter was having first go – as the eldest, he usually did. Grace watched as he worked the knife backward and forward through the thick fatty layer of a large piece of beef rump. Susan, standing on the opposite side of Des to Peter, looked on. Claire, little more than three at the time, stood beside Susan on a chair that had been pushed up to the bench.
'That's it, son,' Des said, 'sure and steady. Show her who's boss.'
'My turn,' Susan said to Peter, as his slice fell away flat onto the chopping board. She held out her palm like a surgeon to Des, to receive the knife.
Claire jiggled up and down on her chubby legs and said, 'My turn, Daddy.'
'You can have a go after Susie, Claire.'
'Claire,' Grace said, 'you come with Mummy. You can learn to use the knife when you're a bit bigger.'
'Stop molly-coddling the kid,' Des said. 'How's she supposed to learn?'
Claire looked at Grace, triumphant, before turning back on excited, jiggling legs, to watch Susan make her incision.
The knife looked enormous in Susan's hands so Grace couldn't imagine how Claire would handle it.
'That's it. Keep it the same thickness as best you can. That's lookin' good, love.'
As Susan got close to completing her slice, Claire, sensing her turn was near, jiggled about more and more.
'Stop bumping,' Susan snapped at her.
What had been a small bump quickly became a large one as Claire's foot slipped off the side of the chair with her jiggling and she toppled onto Susan's shoulder. The movement pushed the knife off at an angle and into the hand Susan was using to hold the meat steady. The cut wasn't serious, Grace could see at once, but Susan howled, 'Stupid girl!' at Claire and gripped her hand to her chest as though the finger had been severed.
'You're a careless one,' Des said, lifting Claire roughly from the chair and plonking her on the ground. 'No turn for you.'
Claire burst into tears and ran to Grace, putting both arms around her legs.
Susan took a hanky from her pocket and wrapped it around her finger.
Des picked up the knife and handed it to Susan again. 'C'mon, love, back on your bike. Your sister's out of the way now. She needs to grow up a bit before she can have a go.'
'And you've only just realised that?' Grace asked him, feeling two small arms tighten around her legs.
Des, knife still in hand, reeled round to face Grace. He pointed it at her, said, 'Not another word outta you, d'you hear?'
'Hate you, Daddy,' Claire cried, then buried her face in Grace's thigh.
Now Grace looked at Susan's grown-up finger where the knife had made its mark all those years before but she knew there was no defining line left there. The cut had healed without trace. In fact, she doubted her daughter would even recall the incident.
But Grace did, and other incidents, equally careless, equally threatening.
Abruptly, Grace slid the new knife block to the back of the bench.
Just as brusquely, Susan opened a drawer and took an apron from inside, keeping her back turned while she neatly tied the strings in a bow behind her. When she faced her mother again, businesslike, she was ready for work.
Grace said, 'Why don't you start with the sauces.'
The ground between Grace and her daughter could be uneven. Grace supposed it was no different from the terrain she'd traversed with her own mother, sometimes steep and treacherous, at others flat, easy plains. Bev had tried to make sense of it for her once; old friends often brought logic to otherwise illogical situations. At the time she hadn't succeeded.
'Maybe it's not so much the difficulty of the climb you should be thinking about,' Bev said, 'as how you catch your breath along the way.'
Grace had just made some reference to how scaling Everest would be easier than understanding the workings of an adolescent mind, Susan's mind.
She must have looked confused, because Bev added, 'Do you pause now and then till you can breathe easy again? Or do you push on refusing to admit you're not as fit or able for the climb as you'd hoped, or asking yourself, even, if it's a climb you should be making in the first place?'
Grace, in no mood for wise counsel at the time – Bev's or anybody's – said, 'But that doesn't answer why she cut it up like that.'
Susan had taken a photograph of Claire from her album – one that captured her sister drawing, her brow typically folded in concentration – and got to it with a pair of scissors. She left the circle of Claire's face intact and a thin halo of her long hair. Reduced in this way it was an unflattering image. With all context cut away – the hand holding a pencil, the pencil pressed to paper – Claire looked defiant and sullen, not earnest. Grace had been livid, as much by Susan's destruction of the photograph as its inaccurate portrayal of her youngest child.
'It's mine. I'll do what I want with it,' Susan snapped, when Grace challenged her about it.
Some time later, Grace had found the circle of Claire's face stuck to a page in an exercise book. The book fell out from under Susan's pillow when Grace was changing her linen. Beneath it in thick, black print, were the words, NOT MY FAULT! written five or six times like a chant. Claire's look of defiance seemed enhanced by those words.
Grace didn't tell Bev she'd found the photograph of Claire in Susan's book. But seeing it helped her understand what Bev had meant. And she decided her friend was right: there were some climbs she had been neither fit nor able to make.CHAPTER 2
'Where's the flour?' Susan asked, rummaging through the shelves of Grace's pantry cupboard.
'Second shelf down. The container on the left.' Grace looked over her shoulder. 'Not that one. The one with the blue lid. The red's self-raising flour.'
'You've always had this colour system for anything in a packet – which is most of it!'
Susan came over to where Grace was preparing the lamb, looked over her shoulder.
'Should be big enough,' she said. 'Are you going to do anything special with it?'
'Yes. I thought I'd flavour it with some herbs.'
In small doses her daughter was good company, but for longer stretches Grace felt she was like a bird of prey, a secretary bird perhaps, all long legs and imperious plumage.
Susan watched Grace cook in a way that unnerved her. It wasn't just the presentation of Grace's food she eyed – beans cut on the diagonal when Susan preferred them left whole – but there were her low-fat long-life quips too. A raised eyebrow from her daughter had the power to make Grace shake fewer grains of sugar into the cream she might be whipping. Perched on a kitchen stool observing, Susan reminded Grace of how Matron had watched her do some nursing task years before. Sometimes her hands had trembled from the close scrutiny and she'd struggle to guide a needle into an ampoule to draw up a drug or to grip the tail of a suture. But where Matron's scrutiny had been to prevent mistakes, Susan's was to let Grace know that she was being observed.
'Isn't he meant to have one of the little pink pills in the morning as well?' Susan had asked, only fifteen or sixteen years old at the time.
By then Grace had taken to administering Des's medications for him – and there were many. She'd put them into an old ceramic pin dish and leave them and a glass of water on the table beside his cutlery, ready for him to have with his meals. He'd often lift the small bowl to his mouth and take them, unchecked, all in one.
Des poked through the coloured tablets with his index finger, looked from Susan to Grace.
Grace stopped filling the milk jug and studied her daughter's face. Those miss-nothing eyes looked back at her.
'The pink one can be varied,' she said finally, and returned her attention to filling the jug.
'You reckon she's tryin' to diddle me, Susie?'
'Just checking,' Susan said, 'in case she'd forgotten it.'
'I think I should know what I'm doing,' Grace said, putting the milk jug on the table.
Susan took it up, started pouring milk over her cereal. 'I suppose you should.'
But what did Susan, or any observer, see really, when they studied the actions of another? Grace wondered. Did she think she was witnessing the truth of her mother's life when she watched her, or was it her own version of it?
Grace inspected the leg of lamb she'd bought two days earlier. It was paler than the ones Mother had prepared. And though she hoped this one would be tender, she doubted the flavour would stack up as well. Mother had a deft hand for making the ordinary sublime.
It was through food that Mother's love was given voice, and just as well because in other ways it was mute. Grace marvelled at how something warm or sweet could speak like this. How a mouth stuffed with soft, freshly-baked scone, sweet jam and cream could take hurt into the stomach and lose it there. It proved to her that food, so taken for granted by some, was a powerful thing.
But Grace had learnt a trick or two over the years to bring out the best flavours. Susan might raise an eyebrow at the salt she used to achieve it, although it was a lot less now Des wasn't around.
Grace cut slits in the roasting joint until the knife's tip hit against bone; miniature pockets she planned to fill with garlic and fresh rosemary. Mother wouldn't have made such a fuss. She'd have grabbed it by the knuckle without ceremony, dropped it in her old blackened baking dish and slid it into the oven of the wood stove on the way out the door to church. It was the pinch of nutmeg and pat of butter she added to the julienned carrots later, the tiny thyme leaves she scattered across the roasted potatoes before serving, that showed Grace her mother cared.
Excerpted from Grace's Table by Sally Piper. Copyright © 2014 Sally Piper. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
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