He says “I’m glad we’re doing this,” and he takes out the knife. It thunks heavily against the wood of the chopping board. I watch him slice onions and wait for my eyes to prick.
I tell him, “I’m happy to hear that. So am I.”
“Did you find the building alright?”
“Oh, yeah. Eventually.” I give a little laugh.
Graham chops onions.
I straighten my back. The stool I am sitting on squeaks underneath me. I press my hands into my lap and wish I’d worn something better, something other than jeans. The kitchen, all alabaster and ebony, gleams its teeth at the overhead lights. I’ve been trying to look around, but every time my gaze starts to travel I think I can feel his eyes on me. They are not on me. He is chopping onions.
“Do you have any hobbies?” I ask.
He tilts his head and regards me. “Do you?”
“I like to paint. I’m not any good, but I like the process.” I wait for him to say something, then ask “How are you at drawing?”
“I don’t draw.”
“What about music? I could never sing, but your grandfather could.”
Graham shakes his head.
I keep thinking about this; how she named him Graham. I can’t for the life of me imagine why.
“I like gardening,” I say. “I grow my own herbs.”
“Quaint,” he says.
That word. Quaint. I can’t believe he’s said it. I replay it in my mind, that perfect snap of consonants, wondering why he’d thought it would fit the conversation.
“So what do you do with your time?” I say this carefully, all curiosity.
He tells me, “I work. Occasionally I read.”
I lean forward slightly. “What do you read?”
“Articles, mostly. If they interest me.”
Graham hums. It’s this cool, deliberate sound. “Last week there was a piece on thermodynamics.”
I sit back and nod.
He slides the onions into a pan. They sizzle and sparkle amongst jewels of olive oil. “Another ten minutes,” Graham tells me.
He takes me to sit at the dining table while he dishes up our meals. The table runner is ivory and centred with porcelain. There are plates and silverware arranged before every seat. When I pull back a chair, I hear the legs scrape against the tiled floor.
While I’m alone, listening to him moving bowls across the counter, I look around for photographs. There’s a cabinet by the hallway, but it only has a lamp. I think about what Beth looked like twenty-seven years ago and try to imagine her features next to Graham’s. I wish and I wish that she had just told me.
Graham brings out platters of steaming vegetables and something that looks like pasta. He lays the dishes on the table runner so the china doesn’t score the wood. We use oversized glass spoons to serve our food. I focus on chewing with my mouth closed as our forks scritch against the bottom of our plates.
He says, “What is it you do?”
I realise only now that he hasn’t asked me this before. “I’m a social service manager.”
“Do you enjoy engineering?”
He looks at me. His head cocks very slightly. “I do.”
“That’s good,” I say. I can think of nothing else. We make our way through our meals and I begin to imagine what he must think of me. The thought comes that I should have shaved, and then I remember I did. This morning. Standing in front of the mirror thinking about my button-ups. I’m wearing the blue one and I should have worn white. I should have a jacket. He’d stood at the doorway and looked at my shoulders and I should have had something to put on the coat rack. I wish I’d brought wine instead of flowers – an unfurling arrangement of dahlias he’d left on the kitchen bench.
I think of something. “Do you follow sport?”
“I never cared to.” He doesn’t glance up when he says it.
I start thinking that he had more to say at the beginning of the night. I remember the way Beth used to turn off – how conversations could lose her interest like flavour bleeding from chewing gum – and she would let her responses become stripped.
Suddenly I’m panicking.
“Have you lived in this neighbourhood long?”
“About four years.”
“And before then? Were you with your mum?”
He gives me this look. “I was in a dorm.”
Graham finishes his food and lays his fork across his plate.
“Where did you go to uni?”
“It’s a good school.”
“Mum must have been proud.”
“How long were you there?”
“That’s a long time.”
Graham doesn’t respond to this.
When he rises to clear the table I stand as well. He tells me to sit back down, but I insist. We carry the plates and the platters into the kitchen. I want to help with the dishes but he does not entertain this idea. Then he looks at me, and releases this little breath. I remember that little breath. It’s time to leave.
I try to think of him as a child – this man showing me through his flat – how he must have envisioned the father his mother said nothing about. I think of Beth describing me, all these years later.
“Thank you for the flowers,” he says to me.
Suddenly we’re at the door. “Of course.” Then it occurs to me. “Do you know how to put them in water?”
He moves his head. “Do I know how to put flowers in water?”
“Well, I just remember that your mother was terrible at it.” I hear myself say this. “I don’t mean terrible. I just… I can show you.”
Then I’m walking back to his kitchen.
His eyes are on my back. I feel him following behind.
I round the marble island and take the flowers. I ask him for a vase, and he reaches into a high cupboard and removes a venetian. I fill it halfway with water then take scissors from his drawer and snip the ends off the stalks.
“So they can drink,” I tell him.
Graham only watches.
I slip the flowers into the vase, carefully, one by one. I set it on the counter. “They’re dahlias,” I tell him, because I think he might not know.
He doesn’t look at me.
I say, “We should do this again sometime.”
His eyes slide to the wall. “Sure.”
Grace is a Brisbane-based writer studying Creative Writing at QUT. She is currently part of the ScratchThat team, and is working on a young adult novel set in the Gold Coast hinterlands. Her work tends to skip haphazardly across genres.