He was gazing fixedly out the kitchen window. Movement? Perhaps? The sheeting rain came down on the small patch of garden in which he had spent the summer digging, planting, digging, planting, raking. He never seemed to get the small patch of ground to look any better. It looked the same as it had done the very first day he and mother had moved in. Perhaps, he admitted to himself, it looked even worse. Huge drops of rain fell like stones out of the sky; beating up the earth and washing out of the gutters with the strength of a fire hose. The wetness of winter poured out of the black-eyed sky, flooding his garden and washing out the annuals, which he had planted just two months before, by the roots. And yet, he stood quite calm against all of winter’s cruelty. Instead he was staring, almost choking, with the realization that there was movement in the garden. ‘Movement! A dog, perhaps?’ The prospect that something might be happening in his garden frightened him, but in the thrill of the moment he conquered the fear. ‘Good god!’ Action would have to be taken.
But his eyes had often played tricks on him. He blinked. The rain cleared for a moment and his moist bulging eyes adjusted. He took his glasses out of their leather case, but by then he knew what he was looking at. He was staring at the bag of leaves he had raked in the autumn. It must have washed into the middle of the garden from where it had been lying up against the fence.
‘Julian!’ mother cried with a hint of alarm. ‘Have you seen the gutters?’
His mother always stood in the lounge this time of year watching the gutters; she had very little else to do. Julian sighed and again took up the idle vigil, which he shared with his mother; expecting nothing, but hoping for something.
In actual fact he was standing and whisking all the while. This was the fourteenth batch of eggs he had whisked since 6 a.m. this morning. The fourteen identical blue bowls stood in a line down the fake granite black plastic counter opposite to where the oven stood. The oven had been standing there, in the middle of the kitchen, since the deliverymen had delivered it nine months ago. It was there because it had no plug. Julian had been angry when he saw them delivering it without a plug but had said nothing. Not wanting to seem like a fool, he had looked for the instruction manual after they had left. After finding only a sign saying ‘do not affix plug’ on the side of the oven he had left it there, in the middle of the kitchen. One of these days he would find out what one was to do with an oven without a plug. His wrist was beginning to hurt. ‘If only the oven worked,’ he thought to himself, ‘I could finally find out how to make meringues.’ This was, after all, the reason for buying the oven.
‘Julian! What are you doing in there?’
‘Cooking mother, you know I cook on Saturdays!’
‘I honestly don’t know what you do in there all day. Have you seen the gutters?’
‘Mother, please, I’ve asked you not to disturb me while I’m cooking.’
Julian hated being disturbed during this time of the day. It seemed to upset his rhythm. Fourteen bowls was about all he could manage anyway, but it was annoying to be disturbed. He sat on the kitchen chair and watched the rain and the bag of leaves in the middle of the lawn. He got angry again. Another fourteen bowls of egg mixture ruined, another fourteen bowls to wash up, another Saturday without meringues, another Saturday with mother insisting that he was doing nothing.
‘I’m going to the shop,’ he finally said and walked out of the house. The rain was pouring down heavier than ever. He felt like scowling at the clouds and shaking his fist at them, but he was frightened by what that action might evoke. He walked to the small charity shop, down the road from where he lived. He often went there to get away from the house, and from his failure to achieve any of the results he so desired his cooking to amount to. It was a dark hateful place inside the shop, full of the static electricity of polyester based clothes. The smell of old egg and baked beans lay rotting and malignant between the seams and collars of all that hung on the racks.
He looked at the shelves of books on the one side of the shop. There was a cooking section. He often perused these. They were mainly books about how to cook curries – he hated curries. It was either that, or books about French or Italian food. He hated them even more than he did curries, if that was possible. And then, suddenly, there it was, a thin book hardly distinguishable between the large coffee-table books and the broken black paperbacks. It had staples to bind it and it had no name on the spine, but as Julian pulled it from the shelf the name was revealed: ‘Cake Microwave Cooking’. He pulled it from the shelf with excitement rising up in his throat. Could this be it? The answer. He almost closed his eyes; allowing hope to last for just that moment more. To his disappointment he found that they were recipes for cakes. He glanced through them. They were no good to him, one had to melt butter and mix in flower. It seemed too difficult – it was hopeless. That’s why he liked the idea of meringues, they were simple to make and nice to eat. ‘Damn these bloody books. What use are they?’ He thought. ‘Fuck the whole lot of them. Rotten stinking paper things. Fuck the whole filthy goddamn lot of them. Fuck the whole goddamn publishing industry and the bastard company that doesn’t affix plugs to their ovens.” He could have spat if it wasn’t for something that held him back. And then he realised that he was looking at the very page, the thing that he had waited for, for so long.
He was empowered, and he felt the empowerment rise to his face. He grinned the grin of one who is victorious. Microwave Meringues. There you had it. And the good news was that they sold microwaves with plugs affixed to them – or so he thought. Okay, it would mean having to buy a microwave, but that could be done. Perhaps not today, because he would first have to ask mother if he could buy one, but it could be done. And then the thought gripped him. ‘Perhaps they didn’t have plugs affixed to them.’ The thought was too horrible to contemplate. He simply blocked it out.
He looked at the price of the book; £1,20. He put his hand in his pocket. ‘Shit.’ He had forgotten to bring his wallet. ‘Damn!’ There were a few coins in his jacket pocket. He pulled them out £1,12 in all. ‘Damn it!’ How could he have been such a fool? He began to sweat. He was furious with himself. If he put this book back on the shelf somebody would buy it in his absence. ‘Christ.’ What was he to do? He looked at the woman behind the counter. She was a mean furtive looking woman with the face of a weasel. There was no point asking her for a discount. She was not the kind of woman to open into negotiations with. What could he do? He hated humanity. Somebody would buy his book and nobody would help him. And all of this, in a charity shop; how hopelessly ironic.
He slipped the book under his coat. It was the only solution. The woman was looking at him now. He was beginning to sweat even more. He walked to the door. ‘Excuse me!’ the woman said. Julian didn’t stop to listen he grabbed the door handle and let fly. He was out of the shop, stumbling over the small step, out onto the road. Freedom! He was too quick to hear the woman say that all paperback cooking books were on sale for 50p each. He was running hard, gripping the book under his jacket. The rain was still pouring. He made it to the little park near his house. There was nobody in the park. He was breathing hard. He took the book from under his jacket. A figure appeared down the pathway. He tore the page out, with the meringue recipe on it, and threw the book in the dustbin. He half covered it with a Macdonald’s Styrofoam box and ran. He shoved the page into his pocket. He was breathing hard and running as fast as he could through the rain. He thought back to how he had covered the book in the dustbin. It wasn’t properly covered and he hadn’t wiped his fingerprints from it. What a hopeless fool he had been. He thought of running back. ‘Never revisit the scene of the crime,’ he thought to himself.
When he got home he ran to his room. He took the recipe out of his pocket and read it. He punched the air and shook his fist at his reflection in the mirror. Wait, wait he had to think. He had done all the wrong things. He had to start thinking like a criminal. ‘Don’t panic. Don’t panic. What would happen to mother if he was caught? To hell with her.’ Things had gone too far, the microwave was more important.’ He picked up his wallet. He would go down to Argos immediately. ‘Damn mother’s eyes,’ he was not to be denied. If he wanted a microwave he would bloody well buy a microwave and let the seeds grow where they fell.
Julian walked out the door and ignored his mother’s demand to know where he was going. The most important thing was that the microwave had a plug attached to it when he bought it. He had no idea how to fix a plug to a wire. A hopeless feeling over took him for a moment. What would happen if it did not have a plug? He couldn’t think like that. ‘Think positive for Christ sake.’ Somebody had told him that years before and it was the mantra that he had always repeated to himself when he was under pressure. He felt better. ‘That’s right Julian! Think positive.’ He didn’t really know what it meant but he felt better after having said it a couple of times.
When he got to the Argos, a few tube stops away from his house, he was confused by the shop’s system and he didn’t understand how to buy anything. It wasn’t like a normal shop. He and mother had bought something here last year. He couldn’t remember how to do it. Mother always knew these things. He felt panicked he didn’t know what to do. He wanted to walk out. Some people were looking at him. Perhaps they knew what he had done. ‘Jesus I have to get out of here,’ was the thought pulsing through his mind. Just then a spotty teenager in a bright lime green shirt came up to him and asked him if he needed any help.
‘Microwave,’ he stumbled out
‘I want a microwave.’
‘Have you looked at the catalogue?’ There’re loads of choices in there.’
‘I don’t know.’ He was hopelessly confused. He had the strange feeling that he was somehow suddenly going to start crying.
‘Mate just go and have a look in the catalogue. There’re are loads of them in there.’
The teenage boy pointed in the direction of a whole lot of tables where people were standing, paging through catalogues. This sight suddenly gave him confidence; if they could all do it so could he. None of them, presumably, had stolen a meringue recipe from a charity shop.
He went over and looked through the catalogue. It contained everything a man could want; beaters, kettles, book shelves, toolkits. And then there they were. He was gripped with emotions that he quite possibly he had never felt before. There were so many choices. He stared blankly at all of them, not understanding any of the features. He felt sick. He almost started sobbing. What was he to do? He simply did not understand what was in front of him. How could he possibly buy something he didn’t understand? He gripped the machine in front of him and typed in one of the catalogue numbers. The first model he typed in was available. It was all coming back to him. He saw the ordering slips in front of him and wrote down the catalogue number of the oven on it and then headed for the bank of tills. He slapped down the paper on the counter and put down his credit card. The transaction went through. He waited for his number to be called. It took about half an hour for the box to appear – half an hour of pensive deliberation. ‘Please God let there be a plug on the end of the wire.’ He sat in the pose of devotion for that half hour.
But he eventually walked out of the shop with the box under his arm. He was too scared to look inside. He hailed a taxi and went straight home. Once he was inside he ignored his mother’s plea to find out where he had been. He rushed to the kitchen to find out the answer. He placed the box on the counter and tore it open in one movement. And there the answer lay. One affixed and moulded pug lay dangling at the end of the wire. He let out a scream of delight. He almost knew the recipe by heart, having read it several times in the taxi on the way back from Argos. With haste he washed the fourteen bowls and began the arduous task of beating the eggs. Every bowl beaten was a blow on the door of emancipation.
‘The Fourteen Bowls’ was written in 2002