Spitting out the Bones by Jane Downing
Jane Downing has had poetry and prose published around Australia and overseas, including in Griffith Review, The Big Issue, Southerly, Island, Overland, Westerly, Canberra Times, Cordite, and Best Australian Poems (2004 & 2015). A collection of her poetry, ‘When Figs Fly,’ was published by Close-Up Books in 2019. She can be found at janedowning.wordpress.com
Spitting Out the Bones
The interior of the restaurant in the small town south of Bordeaux was warmly lit. Ainslee had not met Rees and Pru Hardwick outside of their son’s storytelling but she instantly recognised the couple being shown to a table inside. The progress of the two across the restaurant was framed by first one and then the next broad window. Ainslee paused on the cobbled street to watch them and Finbar turned to urge her to hurry.
She should have known there’d be problems when Finbar told her they’d have to dress for dinner.
‘Really? I was planning to go naked,’ she’d joked.
His face had told her all she needed to know about the seriousness of his meaning. She’d already been made to understand how incredibly generous his parents were being to include her in the invitation to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary. In the south of France. When her parents celebrated twenty-five years of marriage, they did it in the backyard surrounded by family, friends and barbeque fumes, not on the other side of the world. So Ainslee did count herself very lucky indeed to be in Europe. She and Finbar were tacking a few weeks of travel on the back of the trip, a smattering of capitals and fine art. She knew showing enthusiasm wasn’t cool so she’d kept it under wraps like a Christo coastline. She was pleased with herself about that comparison: her first taste of the effects of French sophistication.
Predictably, because when men dress for dinner the instructions are black and white, Finbar and his father were mirror images of each other in well-fitted suits and discreet black ties buttoning up starched shirts. The older Hardwick, seen through the restaurant window, was carrying his age well, with some help from a supporting cummerbund. Less predictably, Ainslee found her boyfriend’s mother a shock. Pru Hardwick was wearing the same shade of grey – called charcoal with poetic license on the label – as the dress Ainslee was wearing under her coat. The same fitted Mad Man style dress. Damn the advice of women’s fashion magazines.
‘It’s not the exact same,’ Finbar laughed. But there were enough similarities for him to have noticed when she handed in her coat at the vestiaire. ‘You’re going to fit right in,’ he added sarcastically.
She’d piled her hair up, equating this with adult elegance. Finbar moved towards the tables and Ainslee pulled out an elastic tie, two combs and five pins and played cheap Santa, depositing the hairdressing aids at the foot of a potted pine tree. She shook her hair free. It’d look like a bird’s nest, which had all the advantages of not being a bit like his mother’s style.
She also prepared a smile which was wilting by the time they too had gained the specially booked table in the far corner of the restaurant. The carpet was so thick she felt herself sinking with every step. The depth if the carpet pile muted all sounds. The ensemble on the back wall played pianissimo, the maître d’ glided ahead of them as if on wheels.
And then the rush was on them. The older Hardwicks were up and Finbar was embraced and bear-hugged and he turned to pull her into the circle and there was all the awkwardness of an introduction when all parties know they’ve been talked about, but do not know to what extent, and by which details.
Ainslee knew about the money, the generations of successive accumulation through business interests, whatever that meant; the advent of paid parking lots had been spoken of, as someone had to be on the side being paid. She knew about Rees Hardwick’s private school, the name of which she’d vaguely recognised, of the class he was in with a former Attorney General. She knew he paid a fortune for hair plugs and had a line of PAs who were invariably swipe-rights, and that he barracked for Richmond, or at least one of the clubs with an animal as its mascot. She knew Pru Hardwick was a keen gardener and had three employed at peak times on their block and had a Daphne of particular temperamentality which was the bane of her life.
As she offered her hand to shake, she wondered what the parents had heard about her. Mr Hardwick looked her directly in the eye, implying he knew things even Finbar didn’t know to divulge. Or maybe that was her projected fear. No one mentioned her spot-the-difference charcoal grey dress. Politeness maybe, or because by then Rees Hardwick was in full flood with his own concerns.
Champagne was opened by a waiter at her side in the traditional way, the air escaping around the released cork with the sigh of a contented woman.
‘Son, a good trip?’ the father asked after he’d detailed his own.
‘Did I tell you Ainslee is vegan?’ Finbar said as a reply.
All eyes turned on her. So that’s something you couldn’t have told them earlier? When discussing a big silver anniversary dinner in the south of France? Thank you very much. Ainslee reached for her champagne.
Pru Hardwick spoke for the first time, with some of Ainslee’s feeling of ire in her voice. ‘No Finbar, you didn’t tell us.’
‘They can rustle up something our dinner eats,’ Rees Hardwick said loudly, waving his hand in the direction of the discreet wait-staff.
Ainslee didn’t look at Finbar. She gulped down too much champagne in one go then realised she should have waited for a toast, then didn’t care and downed the rest of the glass.
‘Thank you for answering one question for me,’ his father congratulated Finbar once the dietary requirement was conveyed with exaggerated eye-rolling. ‘That old one about whether vegans fuck meat eaters. Sleeping with the enemy.’
Mrs Hardwick slapped her husband’s arm. ‘Behave,’ she hissed.
Ainslee realised this was not the first bottle of champagne for the night. She pretended not to notice the atmosphere and reminded herself of the dangers of first impressions. Finbar wouldn’t have got a look in, with that name for starters, and the plum accent. They were probably sweet gracious people when they weren’t celebrating. In the south of France. Her own mum was indiscretion’s first cousin when she had a few Moscato in, and hadn’t Ainslee and her friends made the same jokes about the products of other animals and blow jobs? Besides, the champagne flute was miraculously full again and they had a train to Barcelona booked for the next afternoon and they had food to concentrate on in the meantime.
‘I am sorry you’ll miss this unique experience,’ Pru assured her with great sincerity. Ainslee looked for traces of Finbar in her dragged and plucked and redrawn features. No, there was nothing off the distaff side. She wondered if the Botox was an anniversary present. The lips smiled. ‘Is this a health thing?’ the woman asked. ‘I’ve heard it is an excellent diet for keeping weight down.’
Ainslee eyed Pru across the rim of her glass, wondering where her cheekbones were under the layers of makeup. Ainslee could have been polite. ‘Yes, it is a health thing,’ she answered. But she wasn’t. Polite. ‘I don’t eat animals – for their health and wellbeing.’
‘Well at least this one has spirit,’ the older male Hardwick boomed.
Ainslee blushed. She felt a stab of complicity, because she agreed with him entirely. Finbar’s last girlfriend had been a mouse: posh like him, quiet like him. Then she registered the preface to his father’s observation. At least. She suddenly wondered, belatedly, was she Finbar’s bit of rough?
Finbar’s shoe touched hers under the table. Maybe she’d passed a test with this faint whiff of approval from his father. She slipped off her right shoe and rubbed her foot up his calf. He kept his eyes on his father and she gasped silently to herself: I really am in France, the land of Proust and Colette, of castles and cathedrals, of cafes and Existentialists. And cabbages and kings. All the things she’d fantasized about when she was bickering with her sister in the shared bedroom of the family’s ex-govie house, their mother’s sewing machine going like the clappers in the nook beside the kitchen. And now she was here.
She glazed away from the conversation as she took in more of her immediate surroundings. She figured Rees Hardwick was deliberately describing the killing of animals in detail for her benefit and she was pretty sure she didn’t owe him her ears. The restaurant was full, each table like the candle-lit interior of a Dutch painting. She noted how young she and Finbar were amongst this crowd.
Before she could take in details, she couldn’t help tuning back in on the word ‘illegal,’ which Finbar’s mother echoed for effect, clearly having had twenty-five years of practise being her husband’s cheer squad.
‘This is a very special night,’ Mr Hardwick murmured more softly than any of his previous announcements. He touched the side of his nose, an international gesture of collusion. ‘I’ve paid an arm and a leg.’
Which was a lot less than the birds were paying. Ainslee put the echoes of his lecture together: the little songbirds that were soon to be served were illegally caught in nets as they migrated to Africa. Ainslee was no longer surprised by the techniques of animal farming, but that was the easy bit to hear and she was listening now. There was a hush all around them, all stray sounds absorbed by the carpet and their intense concentration.
‘The ortolan feeds at night and it’s an easy matter to trick the birds into thinking they live in perpetual nighttime. They’re kept in dark boxes, nothing barbaric like the Romans who stabbed their eyes out. There they gorge 24/7. Right little porkers, gobbling down the grain until they’re obese.’
The word was an insult on his tongue.
Ainslee kept up a protective commentary inside her head. Oh the French, oh là là, she told herself. Don’t be shocked, she told herself. It’s another culture. She’d get a salad for sure, they’d try to sneak in a blue cheese dressing but she’d be gracious while not eating it. Instagram reassured her constantly, when in Rome – you could do whatever you wanted these days.
‘Ingenious these people,’ Rees Hardwick approved.
Her host was clearly enjoying himself. Ainslee imagined boyhood dinners with only-child Finbar hanging on every word. The poor little bugger. She rubbed her foot higher up his calf, contemplated resting it on his lap, but realised for all his father’s self-absorption, he had an eagle eye.
‘They’ve figured out the best way to kill our ortolan dinner. Drown the birds in Armagnac. Death and marinate in one go.’
Ainslee blanched just as the restaurant’s volume was turned up high. Clapping started near the door to the kitchens and rose in a wave across the tables. The smell and the sizzle arrived at once. A trolley for each table, manoeuvred by a chef in a double-breasted white jacket and a high white hat. Upon each the obese little birds rested on a bed of flames. No more than a mouthful of flesh and bones taking the central role in the performance art of flambé.
Blue flames lay as foundation for the mesmerizing shots of red and orange. Ainslee tore her eyes from the blubbery songbirds in the midst of the fire, from their staring eyes, and she watched the Hardwick family continue to watch them cook in brandies and oils. Was it greed in their eyes? Was she reading too much between the lines, pivoting on the hard word ‘illegal’ and the soft word ‘songbird’? Finbar was almost certainly hungry from jetlag and journeys. Hunger and greed are related, though not twins. She wanted to see only hunger.
But she wasn’t to see much more.
She had a friend who grew up in a cult. She still heard Wendy’s astonishment when she realised anew that the rituals she’d taken for granted as a child could make her new friends laugh.
Ainslee laughed as the group on the next table each placed a large white serviette over their heads. Then their chef condescended to explain how this operation served to contain the aromas and flavours of the ortolan and thus optimised the dining experience. He bowed before he pushed his empty trolley back to the kitchens.
Pru Hardwick was giggling rather than laughing. ‘They say the serviette protects you from God’s eyes,’ she added. Then she went under.
Her husband made a great display about placing and straightening his God proof fence.
Ainslee caught Finbar’s eye. The omnipotence of God was the great mystery here. If only she’d known a thin layer of starched linen could arrest His gaze. She said all this in lover’s morse code, a wide-eyed goggle followed quickly by three blinks.
Sighs and groans emanated from under the tent city of gourmands around them. Ainslee followed Finbar’s look downwards to the dead songbird on his plate. It was a bloated yellowy blimp with stunted wing nubs and blank eyes.
‘Beak and all?’ he whispered.
The crunching around them answered yes. They’d watched her neighbour’s cat eat a mouse together. Even it had left the head.
‘You’re not…’ Ainslee gasped.
But he was. He shrugged. ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do.’ His face disappeared and his disembodied hands passed the ortolan unto the maw that lay beneath.
There was no-one left for Ainslee to roll her eyes at. If they could only see themselves. Her dad would cack himself. She could hear him in the rough voice she’d become embarrassed by once she got to university. Bunch of cultured twats, he called people like this. Looking like dicks under starched serve-you-rights.
Finbar gurgled beside her. The bird was to be eaten in just one mouthful. She imagined his tongue reaching the skull of the bird. She knew the weight of it in her own mouth: heavy and firm. The bone would shatter under the weight, collapse into creamy brain. The ribs would splinter around the organs, the nutty heart bursting, the punctured lungs released gulps of Armagnac. One mouthful, to be eaten in one go. A crowd masticating alone, shielded from God’s eyes. Chewing and sucking. Not one of them would notice if she got up and left. She could take her pretentious mistake of a dress and her spurt of ‘spirit’ and her retreating footsteps would be muted by the carpet and eclipsed by the introspective sensual pleasures the patrons had paid a fortune for.
A tintinnabulation of bell-like noises sounded around the restaurant as she pushed her chair back. Tiny chimes as the larger indigestible bones landed on pure white plates.
She was simultaneously inside Finbar’s mouth being sucked and gnawed and outside on the cobbles again looking in on the velvet curtains and brass lamps and depth of history and saturation of high culture. She might condemn but she saw that she was the one who didn’t fit the world. For the length of a bird’s song she was a class traitor and longed for such an incontrovertible sense of belonging.
But birdsongs, she realised, don’t last long even when they’re not cut short by nets and torture.