‘A Lot on One Plate’ by Moira Garland

flower on windowsill

This afternoon the golden retriever lies on its side, all four legs jutting out from the sagging settee so that Bridget cannot sit down. She stands at her kitchen window, next to the three-day old pile of dirty plates, cups, pans, knives forks. The plate on the top of the stack on the drainer has what she calls deep-blue-swirly patterns on a creamy background, dotted with a few small patches of dried soil, and what might be the remains of a slater.

She looks out at the handkerchief-sized garden fronting her ground floor flat. Through her grey net curtain she peers at local children in small groups passing near her window laughing, shouting, or running. Years ago she’d see the milkman coming for his money on a Tuesday. Yesterday, like so many days, two PCSOs strolled along their heads turning this way and that, their yellow chests like pumped up balloons.

Who would throw away a perfectly good plate and hide it at the base of her privet hedge? And why?

Ryan’s dad is a chef. Well, he was a chef thinks Ryan, but he still likes to practise. 

“I was actually a pâtissier.” Ryan’s dad says, more often than Ryan would like even though Ryan doesn’t live with him. He lives with his mum about half an hour away on the bus. Ryan’s nan lives near her son, Ryan’s dad, and keeps an eye on both of them from her third floor flat which she doesn’t often leave on account of her bad hip. She has 1348 Friends on Facebook.

On this cold Saturday morning Ryan is visiting his dad. His dad is galvanised, showing Ryan how he makes chocolate eclairs. It is nearly dinnertime by the time they are made and ready for Ryan to take to his nan. They are her favourite cakes, keep her healthy. 

“Your nan has always been dainty, Ryan.” 

His dad says this every time Ryan visits. Fourteen year old Ryan now believes that ‘dainty’ meana a woman who fills her recliner and has legs like elephant trunks. This morning ‘dainty’ heralds Ryan’s dad piling chocolate eclairs on a blue and cream plate, wrapped in foil to go to his nan’s. Ryan is hungry so on the way he sits on a backless bench by the playground and eats three of the eclairs. Ryan feels a right prat carefully holding the plate and eclairs. As he passes one of the flats he ditches the plate, stuffs it down between the hedge and the disintegrating fence. A splinter lodges in his middle finger, which is uncomfortable. He easily holds the foil-wrapped package in one hand. Anyone who sees him might think it is drugs. He meets no one. He smells burgers cooking through an open window.

Homes under the Hammer has finished when there’s a knock, knock, knock on the opaque glass of Pauline’s door. Ryan’s on his way with eclairs explained the text so she heaves her weight up with the metal stick the hospital gave her last year while she waits for the operation. Tap, thump, thump to unlock the door. You have to be careful these days who you open the door to says the email from the bobbies. There’s enough light coming through to show the familiar shape of Ryan.

“Don’t take your jacket off, get down the chippy. My usual and whatever you want. She hands over her card. Thirty from the machine, love. And bring me the change.”

Ryan must have slipped out when Pauline dozed off. They’d polished off the fish, chips, peas and butties. With cream oozing out of the squashed eclairs Pauline thought Chris should have wrapped them more carefully, him being a chef and all. Still they tasted good. 

Lodged back in her chair Pauline remembers when she was fourteen already living in this same flat with her mam, her dad long gone. Her mam was dead pleased to get on this new estate, out of the old back-to-backs they’d pulled down. Pauline was looking forward to leaving school the next year. She’d get a job in the cosmetics factory where her mum worked. Pauline wasn’t sure she liked that they called it Soapy Joes, but you could get discounts on things like shampoo if you worked there. Pauline’s best friend Irene started there with her. ‘Course Irene went downhill fast last year. She misses her. She misses laughing at Mrs Brown’s Boys with her, misses holding on to Irene’s arm when they walked to the bus stop and had a cup of tea in the caff near the bus station.

Next to the railway station in the city centre stands the Royal Hotel. The website reads: 

This magnificent Art Deco hotel, built in 1932 and was inspired by the glamour and elegance of high society, rising from the ‘29 crash. It boasted  all en-suite rooms, and a magnificent ballroom where guests could dance the night away to the sound of live jazz bands. 

Its distinctive building is now also fabled for a cuisine catering for a diversity of tastes, open to both guests and visitors alike. 

Pascal believed that a new chef should shake things up a bit. The salamanders were looking decidedly shabby, the sinks were gathering gunge around the plugholes. And he informed the maitre d’ that the crockery and cutlery must have been around when the original hotel was built in the 1800s. They looked at the catalogues together Pascal insisting that ‘modern is what our customers expect for what they pay’. The maitre d’s neatly cut black, short back and sides nodded in agreement. He was a lot less experienced than Pascal.

It wasn’t Chris’s job to pack away all the old crockery but like the rest of the staff he took the opportunity on his short break to dive into the basement where the kitchen boy was sorting and packing and allowing them to take away a portion of the lovely blue and cream plates, bowls, cups and saucers of various sizes. They were mostly in perfect condition. Paperwork was altered. The auctioneers wouldn’t know the difference. 

That was a while before Chris started with his hands shaking. He had known chefs who shouted and cursed of course. But Pascal would put his face right next to yours, and he expected everything to be done ‘yesterday’. “The management’s bottom line,” said Pascal, “is profit. Why else would they be running a hotel?” The day the Black Forest gateau was returned by several irate diners – regulars, insurance company directors – was the last straw. 

On the odd occasion Chris tells his mum or his son a joke he calls it the last cherry

Chris calls his mate Leroy ‘a godsend’ from his working life. Leroy is now the boss at the Caribbean café nearer town. It’s because of Leroy that Chris has the money to bake a few times a month. 

“I’ll come to you every other Saturday,” says Leroy. 

They sit down at the glass-topped coffee table while Chris shows Leroy his accounts – his budget pencilled in on graph paper that Leroy buys him. After a beer or two they go off to the bookies. Leroy makes sure Chris doesn’t go beyond the one pound stake. Today Chris has won £27 odd which goes into the bottom draw of the wardrobe in his bedroom so that he won’t be tempted to splash out all at once.

It’s flippin’ freezing the following Friday. His trainers will have to do. He’s off to the specialist shop in town to buy fondant icing and pastry cream. You can’t get that at the one-stop. By the time he gets home late afternoon his feet are sopping wet and cold. He reckons he can put the electric fire on for half an hour, and stuffs his trainers with unwanted leaflets.

This Saturday’s schedule is for Ryan to come and Chris thinks Ryan might be a pâtissier one day. Then there’s Chris’s mum. He tries to look after her, thinks she’d appreciate a nice plate as well as the éclairs. He’ll get the plate back when he gets over to see her, next week. It depresses him to see her too often, with her hip.

Bridget has given up wondering why there’s a plate in her garden. She’d only gone to put the bin out. The grass was pale and flattened which is how she saw it there, hiding like some sort of criminal. She’d checked, there was no suspicious package full of drugs or cash hidden behind it.

The washing up waits while she turns on the telly and gives the dog a shove so that her own skinny frame can sit right up next to it. 

“Go on,” she urges, “you soft lump, you Molly-coddled.” Bridget has this habit of adding to names, not shortening them. The dog is named after her mum, god rest her soul. 

Too much gore on one film, too many gunfights on the other channel. She turns it off with the remote. There’s notifications on her mobile. She swipes up the lost cat ones, the adverts for support stockings. On Marketplace she scrolls through all the freebies but she has no use for baby clothes. Her friend Louise has lived in Australia for nine years. Louise has posted a picture of her new grandchild who’s speaking to her from the UK on Skype. Behind her is an orange vase.

Molly raises her head when Bridget gets up again, then goes back to sleep. Bridget heads for the kitchen, runs the plate under the tap, gives it a wipe with the sponge, polishes it dry with the tea towel. She lays the plate on a chair. It makes a pleasing backdrop of black leather. “Yes!” she says. Molly opens one eye but she knows the phone does not signal dog biscuits. The image taken by the camera phone, altered with the app, is well worth putting on Facebook. Public setting. My fabulous new plate. Smiley face

Meet the Author

Moira Garland is a prize-winning prose writer and poet whose fiction has been appearing online and in print since 2004 including Strix, Tyto Alba (Comma Press), The Forgotten and the Fantastical #3 (Mothers Milk Press), Cake magazine (Lancaster University), Electrifying Women, TSS, Stories for Homes, Paragraph Planet, and www.commuterlit.com . She took 2nd prize in the 2021 Weaver Words/Frodsham Literature Festival flash fiction competition, and was also a runner-up. Radio Leeds has also broadcast her stories. Her poetry appears in many anthologies and in The North journal. She lives in West Yorkshire. Twitter/Instagram: @moiragauthor