Something I Kind of finished over Christmas. It's a little long for here but whatevs...
My game-winning backhand cross-court replayed itself endlessly in the private imaginings of my mind. It was a perfect shot too. I slide into the ball as my opponent stormed the net in an attempt to pressure and intimidate me, striking the ball well in front, feeling the perfect spin as the ball came off my strings, followed by the perfect "ping" I knew it was an unbeatable shot. It was going to be hard not to want to talk about this all night.
The problem was, I was staying at my Grandparents. It was dinner time. Dinner time at the meal table. The Meal table at my grand parents isn't always the best place to make such announcements. The meal table is not round for conferences or conversations; it's oblong for eating and chewing. It is oblong so that there is a head of the table, Pa. Oblong so someone can sit next to him and next to the door to the kitchen, to get up and down easily and endlessly to serve the meal. It's oblong so eaters and chewers can sit where they are told. The eaters and chewers, my brother and me respectively, have to leave their conversation outside the dining room, together with their noise and exuberance.
Manners! They are the only things that is permitted to bring into the dining room. In fact, it's mandatory to do so. They are the only thing to survive at the oblong table. Everything else dies. The food certainly dies, either on the plate or on the palate. The up and down person, Dede, my Grandma, is not a particularly good cook. Not very good food can survive in a dining room if it is well disguised in lively conversation - or tomato sauce. The former of the disguises never occurs in the dinning room, and as for the tomato sauce, well like I said, we were at the oblong table. Tomato Sauce does not have very good manners. It usually blurts out of its bottle in an unrestrained manner, either coming out in great streams and blobs or not at all no matter how many times you hit the bottle, and more often than not, in the hands of a 14 year old boy, disguises the table cloth rather than the food.
Now and then, tomato sauce slips discretely into the dining room unnoticed. The up and down person tries to give the sauce manners in the kitchen, prearranging it neatly on the plates amongst the food. When it is prearranged it looks quite lifeless really - a deep red, sunken mould shape hardening at the edges. However, its colour does add distinction and contrast to an otherwise pallid and overcooked plate. This is what manners are all about after all.
The oblong table was reserved from precisely six-thirty in the evening. Jigsaws, board games, books and non-dinner plates had better be cleared beforehand and the table set by the eaters and chewers otherwise they may just go without.
When not head of the table, conversation with Pa and Dede was loud, vigorous and often. PA was always forthcoming with stories of growing up in Holland, how he came to Australia and could talk for ages about politics and sports. We would spend hours arguing who our favourite Prime Minister was and why, mine - Bob Hawke, his - Gough Whitlam, the greatest athlete of all time or which Secret society had the most influence over world politics (Skull and Bones or the Masons). The fact that an 80-year-old man, with an intellect that would make Einstein look like a lightweight, would spend time indulging my arguments is testament to his good will and patience. Though, this was when he wasn't the head of the table.
Although the table was reserved, certain words are permitted to quietly pass the lips of the eaters and chewers, (provided there is no food behind those lips and provided those works cannot be constructed as conversation). Things like, "Pass the salt please. Thank you." Certain words also pass the lips of the head of the table that have nothing to do with conversation, like,
"Close your mouth when you're chewing."
"Stop that noise. This table is for eating not talking", or,
"You might as well eat up now because you're going to stay here until you do."
This last statement was usually said to the slow chewer, me, long after the other eaters have said, "Please, may I leave the table?" and have done so. Long after the head of the table has re-read The Age newspaper and perhaps done the crossword, and sometimes, after the unmannered tomato sauce bottle makes its cameo performance.
On some occasions, or to be more honest, most, time frustrates the manners associated with the tomato sauce and permits its entry into the dining room, still blurtingly bottled and labeled. It is a desperate effort to speed up slow consumption.
The disguise of the tomato sauce, awkward though it is, usually enables the slow chewer to down his meat and his potatoes. Peas are not so easily fooled!
Push, push, stab, fiddle.
"Don't play with your food. Eat it!"
"can I get a glass of water please?"
"Not 'can I', May I."
"May I get a glass of water please?"
"Alright. But come straight back. You're not leaving the table 'til you've cleaned your plate."
The slow chewer, now with glass of water clasped in hand beside his plate, pushes and fiddles; selects a pea; raises it on his fork to wince between his lips; places it there as to deny the taste buds; then with a rush, gulps from the glass to wash it out of existence. Five peas remain. The up and down person believes less is faster for me.
The repeat process of those remaining peas is too excruciating and tedious to describe. The short story is, after much pushing and fiddling, wincing and gulping, inhaling and exhaling, it finally ends. In a strange way I have conquered the peas yet still feel defeated.
A faintly foreign language hovers about the reserved table. Only the head of the table and the up and down person speak and understand it but it might be described as pig-dutch-english. It has lots of rolling R's and sounds you clear your throat with. The imagination makes it sound worse and makes you feel paranoid the chatter is about you because it can't comprehend what is being said. Incomprehensible foreign languages always sound angry and abusive.
The head of the table can also say things that aren't even conversation, without using words at all. It is sort of an extreme body language that only he can speak but we all seem to understand which hits you over the head and you know he is silently saying, "Don't reach across the table!"
I replayed my winning shot again in my mind. With each replay it became better, harder, more daring and more impressive. Someone else needed to know about this. Such a feat should not remain silent until after dinner. People needed to know, and I was sure the needed to know now, at the reserved table. The only thing stopping my blurting it out to my brother and Pa was the food in my mouth, which had to be chewed and swallowed first.
Right at my swallowing moment, milliseconds before my great tennis feats would be know to the world, a surprising yet familiar force snatched at my wrist, swiftly raising it high, then smashing my elbow down on the edge of the oblong table - where it had been resting and shouldn't have. The head of the table blurts out,
"Elerbochkha vrrrohmm der tarple!"
This was always funny when it happened to someone else’s elbow. As it was mine, I withered and whined and tried to hide my watering eyes from my brother.
While waiting for the pain to dissipate, I replayed my backhand once again. It somehow seemed less glorious, less heroic, less victorious than before. In fact, I'm not even sure if it was this backhand that won me the match or a double fault from my opponent. It's probably best I don't tell everyone just yet. I'll just take another mouthful and keep chewing.