The new pan
By J. Robert Douglas
Receiving something new always has the same reaction. Presents, either birthday or Christmas, even if I am simply getting an order from something I bought over the internet or on mail order I feel the twinge of excitement and wonder of what it is, when in most cases I paid for it and am expecting it to turn up. This time wasn’t like those times though, this one really took me back to when I was young. It was a package from my Aunt, my Mum’s sister, with the same handwriting I recognised every birthday when the big brown box would come to my door. It was always a big brown box; it was part of the tradition. Even if the contents turned out to be a book, or even a cheque, it would be encased in the most grandiose packaging. She once said she had a friend who worked at the local packing factory where she would get the slightly damaged boxes that weren’t good enough for shipping. Where they came from never bothered me, neither did the contents really, it was the anticipation of trying to guess what was inside. It had been a while since I had felt this feeling, a lot of things had happened, a lot of time had passed and all these distractions had meant that my Aunt had missed on her annual routine. Looking at this new arrival in front of me, sat on the dining room table, caused me to think about the time in between, of all the reasons that had caused it to be so long.
When my Dad died it had been hard on us all. My sister by that time was living away, moving from one place to another. It had taken nearly ten days before we were able to relay the news. When she did return home, it was brief, enough time to pay her respects and fill in the gaps before she went back to where she had been the day after the funeral. My brother, just out of University, had still been living at home. Like my sister he had been here and there, using my parents’ house as he base but never really spending enough time there to realise what had been happening. Being the oldest I was the one that did see it coming, the creeping sense that the cancer he had fought off twice before was closer to winning than it had been the previous times. The only other person who truly understood the road we were going down was my Mum.
As with all my childhood experiences, the box was bound the same way. The bottom and sides were taped with a thick grey tape that was near impossible to cut through with any blade, whist the top was secured by a thinner brown tape that could be broken and cut with a pair of scissors. My Aunt was an expert on wrapping presents. In past times, especially when the contents were a lot smaller than the box, I would open it up to find either crushed paper or tiny bits of polystyrene to make up the empty space. This time, however, I was met by the sight of another box. This one bore the design of some kind of appliance company. The second box had been wedge tightly inside the first, not knowing how fragile the contents could be the only sensible way to remove whatever was inside was to again cut through the tape on the top. This time I was met by the sight of polystyrene packaging. Slowly I slipped my hands down the side in the space between the white foam and the box and jimmied out what was inside. The foam creaked in my hands and the excruciating sound reminded me of the same sensation I got when Mr Dunne used to run his fingers down the chalkboard to get our attention at school. As it came free of the box I saw the gleam of something as the light above the table reflected in the silver metal. When it was finally free parts of the foam fell to the floor, complete in their job to protect what was now evidently a saucepan.
A couple of months after the funeral and all of the paperwork and finances had been sorted out it was clear she wasn’t coping. The house had suddenly become too big for her, rattling around inside it she found herself lost in the empty time each day contained. A time before his death she had given up work to look after him and spend more time with him in what she seemed to guess were his last days. She was even more reluctant to go back to work than she was to spend time alone. She said things had moved on in the world, that she wouldn’t understand how to work with other people, to fit in with their timetables and deadlines. Yet, being in that house alone seemed from everyone else’s point of view to be doing her even more damage.
It was impossible to get my sister involved with anything more than tacit decisions. Her focus was now on her life even more than it had been before Dad’s death. I had started to have more contact with her but it was becoming less meaningful, she always had children to bath or a husband to spend quality time with whenever I turned the conversation to more important matters, matters I needed her help with. My brother was even less reliable. Two weeks after the funeral he finally stopped using the house as his base. I couldn’t blame him in some ways, Mum had turned very dependent on everyone and him being in the house more than the rest of us meant he was being suffocated by her constant neediness. Reluctantly I made the move to take her in, at least for a short while.
It was confusing. Why a saucepan? The kitchen was by far my least favourite room in the house; I had even moved the microwave into the dining room for ease. With the freezer in the garage, there weren’t many times in the day that I spent more than a couple of minutes in there. As a kid it had been different but for now there was no reason for me to use a saucepan, let alone be grateful to receive one. In my attempt to understand the specific reason for the gift I looked around it once more for clues. Lifting the lid I found a piece of paper inside with the simple note, “For making soup.”
Within a couple of days I had started to feel what my brother had. I had been used to living alone in my house but now my guest was dominating the time I usually spent by myself relaxing. Probably more as a force of habit, or maybe as a need to be useful, she automatically reverted to her mothering instincts. As I returned from work each day I began to notice the different jobs around the house she had been doing. I had always seen myself as clean but the house started to take on a whole new level of tidiness. My dinner was always already in the oven when I returned, I was starting to feel like my Dad had felt when he used to tell his friends with pride how well trained he had his wife. As the weeks went on it turned into a routine, and the initial suffocation was now contentment that I didn’t have to worry about these little things. And although her company was sometimes not the most thrilling it was nice to have my Mum back.
Her cooking was exquisite, especially the soup. As children we had spent many afternoons in the kitchen with her making a soup for the evening meal, each of us with a different job in the process.
The saucepan remained on the dining room table for days. Each morning and evening I would look at it and the note sat next to it, wondering what I should do with it. There was no way I could return it, or give it away as the next time she visited she would ask to see it, the only option seemed to store it, but I left it where it was on the table.
About a week and a half later something changed. I had been in a local café with friends and one of them had ordered the soup. It was vegetable, just like Mum made with us all. Remembering this time again sparked something in my head. The next time I went to the shops, instead of my usual microwave meals I bought some vegetable and the other ingredients to make the soup. Getting home I added the new saucepan to the pile of washing up and washed it in preparation for using it.
Being an adult, I no longer helped her in the kitchen, but I used to sometimes stop in the doorway and watch her at work. We still had soup every once in a while and she executed the recipe the same way as she had always done. First she would peel the potatoes and carrots, before washing and dicing the leeks and chopping the onion. Next she would place the pan on the heat and drop a knob of butter into it, pausing her actions to watch it slowly melt before piling in the vegetables and sweating them for fifteen minutes. She would then take her time to make the stock and when the time had passed, add it to the now sizzling mash of vegetables. At this point she would go about cleaning down the surface and getting the bread out to warm, every so often returning to the pan to stir it and add just the right amount of seasoning. Watching from the doorway as an adult was as magical was being part of it as a kid. It was always my sister’s job to peel and slice the potatoes and carrots. My brother would stand on a stool at the sink and wash the leeks before passing them onto me to slice. My Mum would then see to the onion, cutting it finely in a way we never could. We would then all four of us take a butter knife and drop into the hot pan one each, all watching, all waiting to pile in the vegetables.
Stepping into the kitchen to cook was hard. The only use it got was for washing up and storing plates and cups. The fridge sat in the corner and contained the few fresh things I ate, milk, cheese etc. The light groaned out of lack of use as I turned it on. It was even rarer on a Saturday that I even entered for the washing up or the fridge.
Living with Mum now was usual, it was everyday and each time I came home, whether after work or on the weekend, I expected to find her there doing something. Things had started to change, she seemed slower, less focussed on things than she had been after settling in but getting on with my life I overlooked the signs.
On that Saturday I had been out the night before at a friend’s house to celebrate a birthday and stayed out. Returning home my eyes were bleary as I pulled into my space outside. Putting my key into the top lock I twisted it and pushed but I was met by the force of the bottom lock still in place. This was unusual as it was always one of Mum’s first chores to put out the rubbish and recycling from the day before in the morning, and by this time it was past ten. Finally clicking both locks open I went it. It was eerie how quiet it was as I passed over the threshold. I placed my bag and coat on the table inside the door and went into the kitchen. The light flicked on easily and filled the darkness of downstairs. At first I didn’t see her, the drip of the cold tape and the burr of the fridge door being open took my attention away from the floor.
With the light on I started to arrange my ingredients on the surface. I placed the vegetables into the different groups my Mum had always done for us. The ones to the peels on the chopping board, those needing rinsing near the sink and the onion by itself, set aside for her to do. Peeling was something I wasn’t used to doing; my sister had done it because my sister was good at it. She could take off the skin of one potato in one go whereas I would hack at it, often taking most of the potato with the skin. I moved onto the carrots and then washed the leeks, removing the dirt from inside the leaves. As I picked the onion up I selected the sharp knife from the block. In doing so I caught my finger. Blood dropped to the floor.
It had been the pool of blood that I was drawn to first. Her arm sprawled backwards and one of her fingers lay in the sticky wetness. She had obviously been there for a few hours, all night they later reckoned, as the immediate colour of red was now a darker copper, lying in contrast to the cream of the cupboards. Her legs looked awkward as she lay there and her head was propped up against the cooker, meaning her back was twisted at an angle to the floor. Her face was the last thing I looked at. Pale and worried around her mouth, her eyes seemed calm as they stared back at me.
I was later told she had had a bloodclot on her brain for a few weeks; it had obviously been jarred by something, more than likely a fall and she had collapsed on the kitchen floor during the night. When I later returned to the house, I noticed the only thing she had needed was the saucepan from the cupboard; the vegetable sat in groups on the side, the onion separate.
I wiped the blood from the floor, pausing, and continued the process. Once the chopping was done I took the new pan from the drainer and placed it on the heat. I mixed the stock and took the butter from the fridge. Slowly I placed four knobs into the pan. I stopped and watched the butter as it melted and swirled around on the new shiny surface. Dropping in the vegetable I considered the note: “For making soup.” For mending time.