Niamh Riordan

Her own hum-drum song (2022)

The knife is not as sharp as it used to be and her eyes are soon streaming as the blade breaks open cell after cell, and then a spurt of juice spits into one eye so she has to turn away and swear through clenched teeth. Into oil, then, stirred so that the slices gleam and gently fizz, and then stir, and wait, and eventually they will almost melt into the golden slick and she’ll feel herself relax slightly because dinner has been started.

Alfredo comes into the kitchen in search of a drink or something. “Onions are lilies”, she thinks she hears him say, “did you know?”

She thinks she can picture an onion flower, a globe bobbing in the breeze, and lettuce is in the daisy family, she knows that. A moment longer and the slices will start to brown at the edges, so push on: a smush of garlic, stir till fragrant and no longer raw, then the creak and click of a can opening as she yanks on the ring pull and she squashes tomatoes between her fingers as she’s learnt to do and washes her pulpy red hands under the cold tap.

“Snake!” shouts Alfredo from the next room, but she ignores him, although she chooses a packet of linguine, little tongues (not human, possibly reptilian?) from the cupboard, which may be related.

The shadowy form of a snake is coiling, I think, directly above my eyebrows
I bend my spine down, raise my ass up and shimmy

snake like, myself
and then monkey like, up on tippy toes
I leap: a hurtling, enthralling feeling
only to find that there is no snake
and that I have tricked myself.
Never mind. I can retreat back into the dark behind my closed eyelids
knowing that I have disappeared

To a lettuce, then, as red splatters rise gently up the sides of the pan. Leaves are torn into the bowl of the spinner, then doused under the cold tap and spun with a whir from her childhood when this was her job and she loved the way the spinner span in a wild ratting whirl across the counter if you gave it enough momentum and then let go. Schum schum schum, tip out the water and spin again. “Nothing worse than wet lettuce,” her mum would say, she who was the child of not-a-cook, a child of wet lettuce in sandwiches, bread turned pappy and inedible. Lettuce named for its latex, the milky juice exuding from cut stems which induces sleep, pain relief, mild euphoria.

Alfredo climbs up onto the counter to take a look at whatever it is that’s making the noise, and rests a foot on the windowsill, turning to say “and salad: from salt”, it sounds like.
Mustard, oil, vinegar, salt into a jar with a grind of pepper, shake furiously to emulsify, and a lick of salt from her finger.

Sometimes I lick the ground to taste its saltiness
I’ll try anything and sometimes I’ll taste your skin
which smells of sweat and food,
also salty, as it turns out.

She tosses the salad with her hands because that way you can feel the dressing coating the leaves as it should: salted herbs. Alfredo seems to have conked out right there on the floor. A slow stream of bubbles is beginning to rise in the big pot now. She has to look away until they begin to churn the surface. “A watched pot never boils” was one of those phrases she thought her dad had invented, another was: ‘variety is the spice of life’. Ah, one eye is open.

The fistful of pasta tips into the rolling boil, well salted, and stir here for fear of an abortive stuck mass. Taste the sauce and it is simple and good but needs more salt, plus she should have added chilli. She’ll crumble one in now from the jar above the stove. She’ll continue to smell that combination of chilli and garlic on her hands later on, transportive, it really is though, a jolt back to “dinner’s on, petal”: her dad in his striped apron talking away to the cat, the feeling that they had spent the day whilst she was at school planning what to cook.

There are smells that you’ll never understand
But I think you’d like the way, if you tune in,
That a scent becomes a shape
so clear and solid in the air
That all you have to do is confidently follow its path
Which sometimes leads you to

the cold full stop of a concrete floor
Or straight upwards, too high for you to fly
But sometimes leads to a prize,
something so good
that it takes your breath away

Tea towels onto the handles and tip away from yourself for god’s sake, this is no time to be scalded and alone, aside from Alfredo who is helpfully snoozing on the tiles beneath her feet and making a sort of happy grumble. The poet William Cowper actually wrote ‘variety’s the very spice of life’, and he also wrote a poem about his cat getting shut in a drawer, unnoticed and un-missed, to almost starve, which for some reason she had to read at school. The poem ends with a pursed-lip warning against believing that those around us ‘must move and act’ for us alone (or, that drawers are left ajar solely for the convenience of cats), but isn’t this how children can feel (should feel) in certain moments of being cared for? Isn’t it one of the hardest childhood illusions to have to lose?

She tips the pot and a hot breath of steam billows into her face and fogs the kitchen window, and she’s suddenly very hungry and nowadays “dinner’s on” is undeniably her own responsibility. Reserve the starchy water in order to create a sauce glossy enough to coat each strand, and coat her chin too because only Alfredo will be here to witness the speed at which this tangle of food will disappear down her throat.

There is bliss in the hunt
as it overrides you
as you know with every corner of yourself
just how to play it,
that the thing you dream of is so close:
that crunch and snap and explosion
as smaller bodies slip into your own.

Shit. “Shit and onions” Dad would have said, which always brought up the image of the bolognese sauce served at school which was brown and glossy and near textureless, and, somehow related, he also used to say “I look like death warmed up.” But shit, her wrists have failed and steamy wet noodles are slipping uncontrollably not into the colander but into the bottom of sink, which is far from clean she has to admit, can she eat this now? She could, because no one has seen the mishap, unless her neighbour across the yard has happened to peek through their curtains and down into her lit-up kitchen, but she can see perhaps a grainy smear of coffee grounds coating one strand, and is that a milk-sogged flake of cereal from her breakfast attached to another?

Oh, she can’t eat this.

Alfredo is immediately up and nuzzling her calf because he can see the future, and he hops onto a chair where, oh what the hell, she serves him the bowl of pasta, little tongues, and sauce too whilst she sits across from him to eat salad with her fingers until the bowl is empty and then she picks it up to her face and licks the oily mess right up, and at this point she feels sleep rushing towards her in such a way that she is powerless to resist the stretching and then curling of her limbs, folding herself almost into a figure of eight right there on the dining room floor whilst Alfredo cleans both of their bowls with his tongue.
“But bliss is also the gift of something
laid down before without you even asking”
she swears she hears him mutter as he begins to lick the oil off her chin.

I wonder if you realise how satisfying it is to vibrate with your own happiness
A full body rumbling,
you should try it.

About this work

Her own hum-drum song is a short story about cooking dinner.

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