The Food Chain
a short story by Penny Feeny
About the Author
Penny Feeny has studied and worked in Cambridge (UK), London, and Rome. She now lives in Liverpool with her husband and five children. She has freelanced as a copywriter, editor, and broadcaster but far prefers writing fiction. Her stories have been produced on BBC Radio 4 and published widely in British literary magazines and anthologies, including Mslexia, Staple, World Wide Writers, Arc’s Northern Stories Eight, and Tindal Street’s Her Majesty. Her stories have also been published online with Atlantic Unbound and Carve, among others.
Her first novel, That Summer in Ischia, was Amazon UK’s best selling title in the summer of 2011.
When one of the sequins began to crawl across her bodice, Livi realized it was a beetle. Delicately she picked it off and sent it scuttling over the floorboards. The black sequined dress was a favorite; she loved the way it snaked and shimmered over her hips and flowed into a glistening pool. A fleet of evening gowns, an exuberance of satin and velvet, of Lurex sheaths and beaded boleros, swung on rails that ran the length of the attic, waiting to be inhabited. Livi would try them on in turn before the long cheval mirror, knowing that without her care they’d be speckled with dust and mould, nibbled by mice or moth grubs.
Other girls her age paraded their collection of Barbies: Ballerina Barbie, Disco Barbie, Hollywood Barbie, but Livi had no need for dolls. If she could be absolutely certain the house was empty, that there were no guests lurking on the stairs or emerging suddenly from bedrooms, she could pace the long landing in a shower of chiffon and lace and pose at the end window overlooking the terrace, queen of her palace.
“Livi,” came her mother’s voice, rising impatiently up the stairwell. “I need you to help me with the beds.”
“I didn’t think anyone was coming.”
Of course Livi knew that dressing up in fancy frocks and pretending to be lady of the manor was only a fantasy, but during the past few months — the Foot-and-Mouth months — when the corridors were hers to stalk, it had sometimes seemed enticingly real.
“I’m expecting Mr. Sinclair,” said Anna briskly. “When has he ever missed a race meeting? And if he brings the usual crowd, we’ll be rushed off our feet.”
They had not been rushed off their feet for some time. At first the phone had shrilled with cancellations. Now, like the bedrooms, the bar, and the power showers, it remained mostly silent. Livi knew her parents didn’t enjoy having the hotel to themselves as much as she did. They didn’t seem to mind running around, cooking and cleaning, and waiting on other people like servants. They actually welcomed the prospect of Mr. Sinclair.
Behind her towering stack of bed linen, Anna was a smudge of greying roots in need of henna. “You can do the singles,” she said. “I’ll do the doubles.”
“Do I have to?” Making beds was a chore. The bottom sheet had to lie flat with no creases; the top sheet had to be folded down evenly with its scalloped edge showing to match the pillowcases.
Anna ignored Livi. She had already explained why they had let the chambermaids go. “When you’ve finished you can go out and get some flowers. Sweet peas if you can find enough. And there should be some early asters.”
Livi chose the long way round to the flower garden, avoiding what she now thought of as Mr. Sinclair’s seat. Although it faced the sundial and had pretty tendrils of summer jasmine twirling all around it, as far as she was concerned, it was forever tainted. Just passing within yards of it made her flush with shame.
The sweet peas were past their best, their petals creased and battered by the late summer weather. She’d get some fronds from the asparagus bed to mix in with them. The handyman, Josh, was there already, trying to look as though he were lifting potatoes but in actuality just leaning on his fork, smoking a cigarette. Smoking was banned indoors.
Josh’s wife had been one of the chambermaids let go. But since she was expecting twins at any minute, Livi doubted very much that she’d be able to bend over to do the hospital corners properly. Josh winked when he saw Livi; he didn’t bother hiding his cigarettes from her.
“Very glam,” he said.
She blushed and hitched up the glittery skirt. “Is he really coming?” she asked.
“Who? Mr. Sinclair? They seem to think so. Seem to think the fatted calf’s in order. Hope they’re right.”
“I don’t like him.”
“Don’t have to like him, pet. Just be grateful he’ll shut the bank manager up.”
“He always gets my name wrong.”
The very first time he came to stay, when she was six or seven, he’d surprised her by the beech hedge. She’d been building a shelter for ladybirds out of twigs and pebbles — not that they ever stayed in it — and a big shiny shoe had hovered, pretending to grind it flat. Livi screamed. Huge hands clutched under her armpits and lifted her up until her face looked into his. She could see bristles on his cheeks and tiny red threads at the side of his nose.
“And who have we here?”
“I’m Livia. Put me down.”
“There’s no ‘O.’ Please put me down.”
“I shall call you Olly,” said Mr. Sinclair.
And it seemed as if every visit thereafter, two or three times a year for race meetings and staff bonding exercises, he would seek her out. “Getting to be a big girl now, Olly,” was his regular greeting.
Josh gently brushed earth off the potatoes, inspecting them for slug damage. Anna forbade insecticides; theirs was an entirely organic garden. Josh sometimes found this trying. Barricades of sharp sand and crushed eggshells guarded the leaf crops; caterpillars were swiftly flicked off the calabrese; netting covered the peas. The hotel didn’t serve organic food simply so that it could charge more, as some of the locals seemed to think, but because Anna had for a brief period in her former life converted to Buddhism. She was still a vegetarian, still a champion of other life forms and opposed to the exploitation of animals. Every haunch of beef or succulent loin of pork or lamb, cooked by her husband, Tony, with the utmost care and devotion to detail, had naturally been reared to have a peaceful, productive, and additive-free life.
Livi followed Josh out of the pale sunshine and into the pantry where the meat hooks and stone slabs had been replaced by powerful modern refrigerators that hummed quietly and sweated beads of condensation. The kitchen was empty, all of its gleaming surfaces were wiped down and waiting for the day they could come into use again — the day that scents of roasted spices would float on billows of heat, and Tony would sculpt towers of leeks and parsnips or weave nests of spinach and courgette onto vast white plates.
She took down a tray of slender vases and filled them with water, sliding the stems of the sweet peas down their narrow necks. She could hear her parents’ voices in the hallway. They seemed to be arguing about Mr. Sinclair.
“He made the booking last time he was here,” said Anna. “He always comes. I mean, usually we’re turning people away because he wants the run of the place.”
“He hasn’t phoned to confirm.”
“He never does. He just turns up. Once he phoned to cancel, do you remember? He had business in Japan or something.”
Tony sighed. “Have it your own way.” Livi heard him go into the kitchen and start sharpening a knife, the clash of steel on the blade. “I’ll make a start, but I’m not cooking for an empty dining room.”
Through most of the spring and summer, the tables had waited under their white shrouds like ghosts. Ranks of wineglasses had caught the evening sun and thrown rainbows around the rag-rolled walls, but few had been filled. Anna had hated the silence; she was used to having a rush of people around. Tony didn’t care for socializing. His concern was to create the perfect combination of flavors, to match his ingredients so sublimely that no one who tasted the result could imagine a better alternative.
“Write a cookery book,” Anna had urged. “I’m sure we can stir up some interest.”
“You and your contacts,” Tony said.
Livi had forgotten she was still wearing the cocktail dress. On her way upstairs to the bedrooms with her tray of flowers, she caught her foot in the hem. The vases somersaulted over the banisters and landed in a spray of water and shattered glass.
“For goodness sake!” wailed her mother. “How can you be so careless?” Furiously, Anna swept shards and splinters into the dustpan, while Livi hovered guiltily in her sequins. “And why can’t you wear your own bloody clothes? I might need to auction those or something.”
In the nearby market towns they used to hold auctions of livestock, of cows and sheep and pigs when the farmers still had animals to sell. Livi had never heard of an auction of dresses, though she knew some of them had cost a great deal of money. Anna had worn them in her singing days, when she performed on stage and television, before her voice cracked and faded. She never sang now, rarely played her old recordings. The other children at school tipped their heads in query when Livi recounted Anna’s story; it was a long time ago and their own, much younger, mothers had grown up to different tunes.
Occasionally guests would recognize Anna, even ask for her autograph. Sometimes they would blurt out — “Oh, I thought you were dead” — and then giggle in embarrassment. Livi hated to hear that, but Anna was always gracious, as if she’d got used to people thinking she’d died. After all, thought Livi, if you’d been a Buddhist you believed in reincarnation anyway, so being the owner of a country house hotel was just a different stage of reincarnation, like being a frog or a monkey.
“Go and change,” ordered Anna. “And then go and pick some runner beans. And try not to break anything else. There’ll be at least a dozen for dinner.”
Across two of the beanpoles stretched a spider’s web. Livi tried never to disturb spiders’ webs even if, like this one, a fly was trapped in its sticky thread. It was all perfectly natural, all part of the food chain, unlike the trucks full of rotting sheep carcasses that rolled through the village on their way to the pyres. The smell of burning flesh and the heavy stew of smoke that hung in the air would put any diners — not just the vegetarians — off their food.
Mr. Sinclair usually arrived with a cluster of drunken noisy companions. They fizzed and overflowed in the lobby like uncorked champagne. Whatever arrangements Anna had made for the rooms were always completely reorganized. Mr. Sinclair would swivel her computer monitor towards him and send the mouse skidding across the screen while his colleagues watched laughing. He’d made his money from computers; a lot of money. He was a popular guest because he spent so much on drink. Anna forgave the way his party all called for rare steaks, and Tony managed to ignore the neglect of his beautifully prepared vegetables. What mattered was the mark-up at the bar: the more bottles of ancient golden whisky and tawny port consumed, the better for the bank.
Sometimes Josh would mix himself cocktails from the small quantities left in these bottles, and Livi would find him staggering in the corner of the kitchen garden, peeing on the compost heap. She wouldn’t have dreamt of betraying him to her parents. Besides, along with worms, urine was good for compost. “You can get away with anything,” he told her once, “if you’re rich enough.”
Livi would have liked to have confided in Josh about Mr. Sinclair. Only Mr. Sinclair had said, in that frighteningly smarmy way of his: “Now Olly, this is just between you and me.”
Even now, tangling with the heart-shaped leaves of the runner beans, she could smell his sour breath on her face. She could feel his awful slimy tongue in her ear and hear him say: “Are you ticklish, Olly?” And bellow with laughter while his fat finger climbed the inside of her leg. “Are you ticklish Olly?”
It was her fault for wearing one of Anna’s dresses, the lovely dove grey silk with the slinky silver straps. She should have been wearing her dungarees with a wide, tight belt – but it had been such a hot day, and the dress was so cool and floaty, and there’d been nobody about. Or so she had thought until Mr. Sinclair came up behind her and pulled her onto his lap. She didn’t want to think about it, the way his hands slid beneath the silk, and he jigged her up and down, pretending she was on horseback.
“D’you ride Olly?” he asked, bumping her uncomfortably. “Don’t all little girls canter around the countryside in these parts?”
“Bet you enjoy it, eh? That nice warm throbbing between your thighs.”
In the violence of his bouncing one of her sandals fell off and landed on the gravel path with a clatter. He was gripping her upper arm so tightly she yelled.
“Hush, little Olly. You’ll frighten the horses.”
“But you’re hurting me.”
For days afterward there was bruising where his thumb had squeezed. Anna and Tony were too busy to notice; Livi told Josh she’d trapped her arm in the outhouse door.
Suddenly Mr. Sinclair let go. Rapidly she leapt off his lap and ran, lopsided in only one sandal. He caught up with her by the cold frame, panting heavily, his stomach wobbling. “Don’t run away from me, Olly. Your pretty face is the reason I come here. Not your old man’s cooking, that’s for sure. Hey…” He’d seen her fury, her eyes spitting hatred “Only joking! Look, I had a win today. A good one. Here’s a tenner.”
Livi kept her hands resolutely behind her back. He took out another note and tucked the two of them down the front of her dress, deep down so that his knuckles grazed her nipple. “Buy yourself something nice,” he said. “This is your very own money now, Olly. This is just between you and me.”
She’d hidden the dirty notes under a flowerpot in the shed. She didn’t want to spend them, but she knew it wouldn’t be right to let the slugs get them and leave a series of neatly munched holes in the Queen’s face either.
Her basket filled, she carried it indoors and heaved it onto the kitchen table.
Tony didn’t turn round. Now that Josh was the only help they could afford, he had to peel his own potatoes: a mound of white boulders piling up in the colander, shavings of muddy skins tossed into a bucket.
“Am I done now?” she asked.
He might have nodded, but his head was halted mid-jerk as the phone rang; the knife stuck out of his hand as if he were slicing the air. Livi edged toward the hallway to listen.
“Mr. Sinclair? It’s good to hear from you. How are you?”
A red admiral had somehow found its way into the kitchen through the open door and was beating its wings against the window. Normally, Livi would have rescued it; would have cupped it gently in her hands and set it free to pursue the scent of fallen pears. Let it find it’s own way out, she thought.
Anna’s words had melted to a murmur. There was a long silence before she replaced the receiver.
Tony threw down his knife with a clatter, stalked across the kitchen and gripped the doorframe as though he were propping it up: as though the walls would collapse if his arms weren’t straining to keep them in their place. Livi peered through the triangle made by the crook of his elbow and watched her mother swing round.
“He’s not coming,” she said.
Livi felt the world explode with relief. No need to bury herself in the attic or in the furthest corner of the orchard. It didn’t even matter about the poor broken flowers. And perhaps next weekend there would be some nicer guests. Before the farmers started burning the animals and leaving bowls of disinfectant in every driveway, there used to be young couples who went for walks in matching raincoats and praised the elegance of Tony’s menus. Perhaps they would start to come again.
“It seems he’s had,” Anna paused; her voice was thin and bitter, “cash flow problems. He’s lost a big contract. He’s had to write off some bad debts. He’s having to tighten his belt.”
Tony whipped off his apron and kicked it disgustedly into a heap, although he was usually meticulous about hanging everything up. Even his parade of shining stainless steel cooking utensils faced the same direction. He was the same height as Anna. They stood stiffly shoulder to shoulder like cardboard cut-outs. He reached for the phone.
“Plan B,” he said. “I’m ringing the estate agent.”
“I’ll sell my wardrobe.”
“Livi’s wrecked your wardrobe. Anyway, nobody’s buying ephemera.”
Quietly Livi slipped back outside, her elation subdued by the accusation that she had damaged her mother’s dresses. She’d always been so careful. She’d even tried to mend the little moth holes and rents that appeared from time to time in the flimsier fabrics. Her needlework was a bit clumsy but from a distance you couldn’t tell, and Anna hadn’t spotted a thing.
In the shed, she felt under the rows of flowerpots; eventually her fingers closed over the two notes, still intact, still dry, and no longer smelling of Mr. Sinclair’s aftershave. Twenty pounds was a lot of money, she knew, and it was going to be awkward explaining where it came from. What would they do if she told them the truth, if she said, “Mr. Sinclair gave it to me after he bumped me up and down on his knee and was rude about Dad’s cooking?” Perhaps she could tell them he gave it to her because he’d had a win on a horse called Olly. They certainly wouldn’t believe she’d found it accidentally.
Still undecided, she realized she was walking up the path that led past Mr. Sinclair’s seat, the one she always avoided. She was about to turn when she saw Josh sitting on it. His legs were stretched out in front of him, his wellington boots huge and motionless as if they belonged to a dead man, and a little curl of smoke rose up beside him. He wasn’t bothering to hide his cigarette; he wasn’t even bothering to smoke it. The plug of ash grew longer and whiter between his yellow fingers. As Livi came crunching towards him, it shuddered and fell into a heap on the wooden bench.
She sat down and smiled at him, but Josh didn’t even look at her.
She put a hand on his arm. “Are you all right?”
“Bastard,” he muttered.
“It’s okay,” she beamed. “He’s not coming.”
Josh made an effort to turn his head, covered her hand with his own. “Looks like goodbye, Livi.”
“What d’you mean?”
“If he don’t pay them, they don’t pay me, know what I’m saying? Got to find another job.”
“Oh.” She couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t been doing the garden, fixing the lights or the plumbing, stacking deliveries. “They won’t be able to manage without you.”
“True enough. God only knows how me and the missus will manage either. Have to give up the fags I s’pose.” He flicked his burnt-out stub onto the gravel.
Livi uncurled her clenched fist; the ten-pound notes lay crushed in her palm. “Will you take these?”
He stared at her, rather oddly, she thought. “I don’t want your money, Livi.”
“It isn’t really mine,” she insisted. “I found it in the potting shed.”
He seemed to hesitate for a long time. Around them drifted the cooing of wood pigeons; high above, a buzzard circled in the still air waiting to swoop.
“You could use it for the twins when they come.”
He gave a slow smile. “You’re a good kid,” he said. “Ain’t nobody’s fault this, ain’t nothing we can do about it. Expect I’ll find some odd jobs.” He stuffed the twenty pounds into his pocket and stood up. “Best get the tools cleaned now.”
Livi turned to go back indoors. The house looked so beautiful in the late afternoon sun — like a golden palace — yet, in some way she didn’t understand, everything had been spoiled. A snail, its antennae quivering, inched across the path in front of her; in a bout of anger and revulsion, she stamped it to a pulp.
“The Food Chain” Copyright ©2003 by Penny Feeny.
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles. Educators who wish to print or photocopy in part or whole this story for classroom use, or publishers who wish to include this story in an anthology should email the author.