I close my eyes and I am in the dark downstairs room again. I can see three of tonight’s guests, Mr Wedge and Mr Rawlings and his son Ryan, at the opposite side of the round lacquer table. They are stock still, puzzled and hypnotised by the slowly rotating dishes between us. There are so many, but the party has stripped them of pork, chicken and beef and the remaining offerings are aromatic rice and a different rice with tiny, intensely-flavoured slivers of fish and bowls of heaped vegetables.
‘Where’s the meat, Richard?’ asks Mr Wedge, laying down his knife and fork. He is bewildered and a little line appears between his brows so that I pity him. ‘We can’t eat rice on its own, you know.’
Richard is smiling.
Mr Wedge owns a fleet of juggernauts painted with gaudy highland landscapes in which he transports Scottish beef south. (The villagers eat a lot of beef, most of it so rare it is bellowing.) One of them calls at Black’s on Wednesdays, blocking Main Street and superimposing purple mountains and clever-looking highland cattle on our sombre village centre. (The local cows are slow and lumbering.)
Mr Wedge is large and shiny and capable and hairless, like his juggernauts. He is an important guest tonight because Richard is buying into a catering business. I think he likes the idea of a tangible enterprise after so long renting out office space and selling security. How can anyone sell security? The purpose of tonight’s party, I imagine, is to consolidate supply lines. And of course to generate that social energy which is as much Richard’s medium as a vermin-infested lane is Bailey’s.
I lay down my knife with a clatter and survey the trays of glistening skinned chicken, anointed for the oven, and the vast wedge of ham. My head feels hot and I close my eyes, leaning against the table for support. Mrs Dilkes is beside me at once, smiling, offering me a chair and a glass of water, everything forgiven. She believes I am to have another baby and when I protest she smiles and clucks at me:
‘You rest, my dear. I’ll finish everything off here.’
So I rest. And happily the doorbell chimes and she bustles out, wiping her bloody hands on her apron, and I can wander into the conservatory where I stare at my reflection in the dark window, forgetting where I am. I imagine giving birth to another boy like our sons James and Christopher, another stocky toddler with white-blond hair and Richard’s expressions, who will push more toy tractors around the beds of neon-flowering shrubs and clutter the floors with plastic objects in garish primary colours.
Through the window I catch a movement in the shadow of the trees. Perhaps it is the ghost of the poor labourer, repeating his final trudge in from the cold fields. I can see his face pushing against the dark window, his eyes looking through me, infinitely sad. Then the doors bang and Mrs Dilkes returns, blowing and gently moaning, heaving a large cardboard box filled with bottles of champagne. She does not expect me to help, because of my condition.
I look round the door at the kitchen clock and feel the familiar lurch. It is time to collect our children.
Dogs Delight is now available on Kindle at