The man waits with tender anticipation; his palms face down on the table. He wears a faint smile at the thought of what is to come but also at how things have come to be, the days, the years, turning everything mellow like a softening fruit.
A smell wafts in from the kitchen, interrupting his thought process. Its aroma is rich and glutinous yet it stirs his gut only modestly. This is not because it is unappealing, but because of its steady presence; a dish that has punctuated many occasions of his life like a shot of his favourite liqueur.
Voices echo out on the landing, then the front door opens and a whirlwind of bare limbs and smiling faces rushes into the hallway. The melee discard their belongings on the floor, fanning themselves against the heat and uttering gentle commands to the children hanging off their hips or clinging like ivy to their thighs.
Then they float down both sides of the table to land kisses on his cheeks. He receives them like marks of approval, a sign that he has accomplished what was required of him; as a father, a mentor and a protector.
They tell him of the trials and trivia of their day, while the children peer timidly round the table leg, murmuring for mummy to shift their attention back again. He smiles at both of these of things and takes a long drink from the glass of red wine that has been keeping him company until now. The alcohol floods his bloodstream and he feels his sense of contentment amplify.
More people arrive; husbands and cousins. They come to him with a handshake or a squeeze of the shoulder and congratulate him on his accumulated years. He avoids their eyes and politely deflects the reminder with a ‘thank you’, not wanting to be drawn inwards.
In a timely fashion, the food arrives to gasps of delight. Elbows bump and hands criss-cross one another to reach for platters of oily vegetables and glistening meats. He relishes in this ceremony, knowing that the goodness of the food is being shared amongst all who are dear to him, as it should, and always has been.
He holds this thought as the flavours, rich and comforting, sink into his belly and he savours the satisfaction as much on everyone else’s behalf as for himself.
A toast is made to his wife, the cook, and he hurriedly lifts his glass to cover up for his absent-mindedness. Her soft, green eyes dart about the table in a panic and he loves her then; always the observer, but so rarely the observed. He loves his daughters too, their sweet faces, buoyant with the promise of youth and the beginnings of family. He’s been good to them, he thinks. He’s provided. And now they are blossoming.
He tops up his glass and almost drains it again. Then he grins, forgetting what made him smile. Does it matter?
The conversation drifts around him now, detached and incoherent. Words are directed his way, but he scarcely engages in their meaning. He drinks again and the room becomes a little brighter.
Dessert arrives, and the guests tuck in just as enthusiastically as before. The dish is offered to him but he waves it away, frowning as though it is an absurd suggestion.
What cause really is there for all this celebration, he wonders, when age only brings about weariness and the inevitability of lost dreams? He looks around the table for recognition of this fact, but they are too cheerful, caught up in merriment or at least pretending to be.
The table rears up, it’s marks and callouses like reminders of the paths he’s taken and the ones that were cut short. From the depths, emerge woes he thought he had forgotten, while harsh words his father once said to him suddenly carry extraordinary weight.
He doesn’t know how long he has been sitting there until his wife speaks quietly into his ear. The guests are leaving now and he senses their vivacity funneling out of the door. He tries to say goodbye but it comes out like jumbled words uttered during sleep.
Then, he is left as he began, with only a glass to keep him company while the threads of his thoughts whirl about, too fractured and imperceptible to recall. Like the steady voice of his wife, bed becomes the only rational thing left in his head and he drags himself from the kitchen.