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This Vegan Life. 2. Sunday Lunch

September 24, 2014

Once a month they visited Joe’s parents. It was not a long drive, but it did mean that Susie had to forego church on those Sundays. She didn’t mind that, really, apart from missing seeing Hilary, the only other vegan in the congregation. There were some very kind, basically decent, folk at St Elfreda’s, people she got on with and liked a lot, but there were very few who followed any sort of ethical diet, and this perplexed and troubled her a great deal. Hilary had asked her recently if she’d be interested in helping to start up some sort of animal ethics group there, She’d been giving it some serious thought, but it was having the time to commit to it, really. Did she have any? It seemed to her that when you had the energy and the disposable income, you had very little spare time, and when you had the time, you lacked the energy and the finances!

On the motorway they had now got stuck in some traffic. Speed limits had been reduced to 40 mph, but Joe was having trouble even getting up to that; they were almost crawling to a standstill.

“I hope it isn’t an accident” Susie remarked. She had a horror of seeing mangled cars and people lying in the road, terribly injured. It reminded her how fragile life was, how vulnerable they all were.

“Usually it’s never clear what causes these pile ups, ” Joe said. ” Mostly they seem to just right themselves and you don’t find out why it happened at all. Butterfly wing effect or something”.

“Should I give your Mum a call and let her know we’re running a bit late?”

“I wouldn’t worry yet, Suze. See if there’s anything nice on the radio”

Susie reached over and fiddled with the dial, locating Radio 3 playing Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. The reception wasn’t the best, but it would do, she thought. Then, as she listened to the familiar music, frolicking lambs, the hay breath of cows, pigs snuffling and chuntering , and crowing cockerels seemed to enter the car, and, with then, came sadness. The rural idyll, that was what this piece was trying to capture, but it was a myth, wasn’t it? There was no paradise in farming, nothing happy and tranquil in the countryside where, against a backdrop of green pastures, millions of defenceless animals were kept captive and sent to a brutal death -to be served up at Sunday lunch – like the lamb that would most likely be the centrepiece of the table today. She sighed.

“What’s up?” Joe asked, reaching out to lightly caress her arm as he inched the car forward at 5  miles per hour.

“Oh, you know,” she replied on another sigh, “this music, and what it’s about, and the fact that we’re going to your parents and they’ll serve up lamb or pork. Probably they think it’s ok if its free range or grass fed or outdoor reared or something – ethical and all that. I expect they believe all the myths about happy cows and humane slaughter and so on. It depresses me sometimes, the enormous challenge of changing all that.”

Behind them somewhere a horn blared. “Stupid, it’s not like any of us can go anywhere, out of the way, is it?” Joe muttered. Then, considering what Susie had just said, he went on “You know, Mum and Dad don’t really get it, Suze. I expect it feels like rejection to them. Here I am, their boy, who they brought up to the best of their ability, with food they considered healthy and nourishing, and I’ve turned into this person they don’t recognise, this vegan who refuses the meals they lovingly prepare. I see how it must look to them. I try to understand, but it’s hard for me too, don’t think it isn’t. I wish Mum would just see it the way I do but she doesn’t. Not yet anyhow. Maybe she never will.”

“I don’t get how someone can support The Donkey Sanctuary and Battersea Dogs Home and not understand about cows and pigs? She feeds the foxes in the garden too, and takes the twins to feed the ducks and geese on the lake. It just doesn’t make much sense, does it?”

“It’s only once a month for a few hours, though, isn’t it? We can get through it, can’t we? Say a prayer over the poor lamb and survive the occasion, for the sake of family harmony. What else can we do? We have to be kind. Mum and Dad are stuck in the habits of a lifetime – just like most other people. They can’t think any other way yet. I don’t want to fall out with them, Suze.”

“Oh it’s ok.” Susie reassured him, ” I won’t make any tidal waves, I promise – unless Frank starts with one of his stupid remarks about what we’re eating.Then I might.”

Frank was Joe’s brother in law. Susie didn’t like him and couldn’t see what Mandy saw in him, but the twins were adorable. Frank was someone she would never choose, under any other circumstances but family obligation,  to have anything to do with; he was the kind of idiot who made bacon jokes and waved chicken legs in your face at a buffet.

The journey dragged on, but finally they pulled into the gravelled forecourt of the pink washed bungalow where Grace and Bill now lived, in a quiet cul de sac of similar properties.  Mandy and Frank had obviously already arrived – their Toyota Previa was  there, parked next to Bill’s old Vauxhall. This was not the home that Joe and his younger sister had grown up in -their parents had moved here just over three years ago, wanting to be further out in the country and nearer the sea. It was spacious, with a decent sized garden overlooking woodland, and had no stairs to challenge them when they were in their dotage. “We’re here!” Joe called out as they walked round the side onto the terrace at the back, where they found his parents,  with Frank and Mandy  round the garden table, and the girls playing on the climbing frame Bill had put up for them on the lawn. There was a space cleared further back, where he intended to put a trampoline for their fourth birthday.

“Hello!” Grace came towards them, smiling in welcome. “Traffic was bad, was it?”

“Terrible” Susie affirmed, “, and I need the loo – sorry!”

“I expect you’d like a drink, Tea for you, Susie, is it , and a beer for Joe? Dad’s doing the honours”

“Thanks, that would be great” Joe said, sitting down beside Mandy. Susie went into the house to the small room which, amusingly ,had a notice on the door that read “Time Out Space” – something Bill had knocked up from driftwood and other scraps scavenged from skips. It was one of his pastimes, recycling junk into useful or comic objects.

She was grateful to escape to the peace of that little room for a few moments alone. Her need for the lavatory was not so great as her need for some time to centre herself. She drew a few deep breaths  and practised sticking a smile on her face. She would keep her cool, not rise to anything, let it go. Joe was right, you didn’t change people by getting angry at their ignorance and obtuseness. Plus, the twins were only three, they didn’t need bad atmospheres at a family lunch party.

At about two o’clock, Grace called them all to the dining table, and out came the inevitable roasted meat. Yes, it was lamb, but Bill made sure he placed the dish near him and Frank, and the platters of vegetables at Joe’s end of the table. This was considerate, Susie thought, and  the vegetables looked wonderful. Grace was a good cook. Susie tried not to think about that young lamb, full of life and bounce, his life taken so early, just for this. Her heart seemed to shatter into pieces every day now, with all she knew, and everyone’s indifference to it or rejection of it.

“There’s no meat fat in the gravy, dear” Grace was now saying to Joe, ” and I remembered to cook the roast potatoes in vegetable oil. There are some new potatoes too though, if you’d rather.”

“That’s fine, Mum” said Joe, smiling at Susie, and helping them both to vastly larger portions than they ever ate at home, just to please her. He knew how she loved to see him eat heartily of her meals.

” Your Mum made this too” Bill announced, bringing in a small loaf tin and setting it down between Joe and Susie. It was a nut roast.

“Mum! That’s fabulous!” Joe exclaimed. He was genuinely touched, Susie could see that.

” It looks wonderful, “she said. “Where did you find the recipe?”

“It was in a magazine I was reading in the dentist’s waiting room, dear” Grace replied. ” I jotted it all down before they called me. It looks ok, doesn’t it? I’m sure I haven’t any idea what it’s meant to taste like though. Don’t tell me it’s nice if it isn’t, will you?”

“Can I try some of Auntie Sue’s special meat, Nanna?” That was Poppy, of course. Flora was the quieter one.

“You haven’t touched your lamb yet, darling” Grace said. “Let me cut it up smaller for you, shall I?

Poppy pouted. “I want some of Uncle Joe’s meat” she insisted.

“Don’t be rude, Poppy” Mandy admonished. ” Nanna cooked all this lovely food, and you’ve just picked at it. Eat some more vegetables, please”

“Only if I can have some of the special meat!” Poppy said, her voice growing louder and threatening a strop.

“You can stop that right now, or we go home” Frank scolded.  Then, glancing towards Joe and Susie, he added ” If everybody at this table ate normal food like normal people, we wouldn’t be having this little scene, would we? Eat your meat and some more vegetables, Poppy. You too, Flora.”

“Can I have some of the special meat if I eat a bit more lamb first, Nanna? Please? ” Poppy wheedled in her best, get around Nanna voice.

“Of course you may, darling” Grace agreed. ” Just one more mouthful of lamb and some carrots and I’ll cut you a tiny piece of Uncle Joe’s special meat”.

“Me too please!” Flora piped up. She felt safe doing so now – Daddy had stopped looking cross and Nanna was smiling.

Susie and Joe exchanged a grin, and touched toes conspiratorially under the table. That had been VERY interesting! Predictably, of course, the twins didn’t think all that much of the nut roast, but Susie loved them for wanting to try it. If only Frank and Mandy were curious like that. Or Bill and Grace. She would have them all over for lunch at their place some Sundays if she had thought there was the remotest chance of them eating a vegan meal without complaint, but there was no way she was having animal products in her home and cooking anything that wasn’t vegan. Those days were over. She felt sorry she had ever been a part of the cultural barbarism that passed for ‘normal’ in their society. And here were these two little girls being raised in exactly the same way. She wished she could influence them a bit more, but Frank would fly into a rage if she even attempted anything he would see as pushing her beliefs onto his children. She never seemed to get much opportunity to talk to Mandy alone.

“There’s a farmer’s market in the village every Friday now. ” Bill told them all. He hadn’t mopped up his gravy with a slice of bread as he usually did – he’d muttered about it not tasting as rich and flavourful as usual, and Susie knew exactly where that thought had come from – he wanted his meat fat in it, didn’t like that his wife had made a concession to their vegan son like that.” It isn’t all local stuff ” he was saying now, ” people seem to drive in from neighbouring towns, and it’s not all food either, but there’s a really good butcher’s stall – that’s where our meat came from today, and the vegetables are all organic. What did you think of the purple carrots? I couldn’t get much taste out of them, personally. Wouldn’t be able to tell them from the regular orange ones”

“The meat is gorgeous” Frank said. ” Really tender. Mouthwatering. ” He glanced towards Joe and Susie. ” I agree about the carrots, wouldn’t know the difference”

“Mummy, Flora kicked me”

“It was a assident, Mummy!”said Flora.

“She should say sorry then, shouldn’t she, Mummy?”

Mandy sighed. She wasn’t in the mood for this. She’d been up most of the night with Flora having bad dreams, and these Sunday lunches were becoming an ordeal. “Say you’re sorry, Flora, please” she said. ” And Poppy, stop making a fuss over every little thing, I need you both to sit still and quiet for 2 minutes – if you want any dessert. OK?”

” If everyone’s finished I’ll bring in the pudding” Grace announced, getting up and gathering all the plates into a pile.

“I’ll help you, Mum” Joe offered, jumping up to follow her out to the kitchen to fetch bowls, while Grace took a huge bread and butter pudding from the oven.

“Take the custard in will you, dear?” she asked him.

Back at the table, serving out mounds of sweet, steaming pudding, Grace apologised that it wasn’t vegan. “It’s my mother’s recipe” she said. They were told this every time it got served up, so they knew about all the butter and cream and egg in it, and how rich and delicious it was, and that Joe’s Grandma Nell had lived on a small farm and how they’d made their own butter and cream and had eggs from their own hens. Grace gave her grand- daughters their pudding and beamed at them as they tucked into it with enthusiasm. “There’s fruit, Joe, if you like” she said. ” I never know what to make for you. Sorry”

“Fruit is fine, Mum, honestly” Joe said, getting up to fetch the bowl from the sideboard. There were apples, oranges and bananas. He thought with longing of the fruit bowl in their kitchen at home, brimming with all different sorts of fruits in season, and took an apple. Susie declined. She thought the bananas looked over ripe, the apples a bit old and wrinkled and she didn’t like the mess oranges made of your fingers. Besides, she was full.

“You can make bread and butter pudding with plant milks and non dairy spread, Grace” she offered. “It tastes very nice with hazelnut milk. There’s soya custard too, or you can use Birds custard powder and mix it with a plant milk – coconut is my favourite -and you can get a lot of stuff from any supermarket. In the Free From sections”

“I’m sure you’re right, dear, but I don’t expect it tastes quite as good as my Mum’s recipe, for all that. Joe and Mandy used to love it, and now Poppy and Flora do too- don’t you my darlings?” Two blond heads nodded enthusiastically, mouths full of sweet, custardy goo.

What was the use? Susie thought. She didn’t know why she bothered, they weren’t interested, were they? And those dear little girls, so innocent, being fed the products of violence before they were old enough to understand, and by the time they were, it would very likely be too late. They’d be like everyone else – entrenched in the carnist mentality. It was unutterably depressing.

“I’m thinking of getting a few hens” Bill suddenly announced. “It would be nice to have my own fresh eggs. I met a chap in the pub last Friday, said he knows a bloke who breeds layers and can quote me a good price”

” You could rescue some ex batts instead, Dad” Joe suggested. “They’re very cheap – often free”

“No, I want good looking, healthy birds that are going to give me some decent eggs. You don’t know what you’ll get with those poor, scraggy things, do you? Might not even lay. No thanks, son”.

Susie and Joe exchanged a look. Nobody round this table cared tuppence for what went on in the egg industry, did they? They knew nothing about the male chicks  fed alive into industrial macerators, the relentless, endless, over crowded, stinky egg laying hell most hens had to live in, or the early slaughter when they were worn out by it all. And cared even less, it seemed. If Susie brought along a Viva leaflet to show them, they would probably dismiss it as polemics, or ask her not to ram her beliefs down their throats or say something like everyone was entitled to their own opinions and we had to live and let live, didn’t we, and please don’t upset the children.

“Fresh eggs from backyard hens – what’s wrong with that, Joe? ” Frank asked, smirking.

“Don’t start, Frank”  Mandy warned. “Let’s have one family meal where this stuff doesn’t come up. Please!”

” How can it not come up, Mandy, eh? Thanks to your brother and his potty beliefs, it’s always going to come up, isn’t it?  I’m bloody sick of it. Coming to the pub, Bill? I need some air”

” Daddy swore!That’s 5p, Daddy, in the brown jug! ” Poppy squealed, wriggling in delight. She liked it when her father said a naughty word – the money in the jug was for the donkeys.

“Here, little Witch,” Frank said, handing her a 20 pence piece. “Put that in for me when we get home. Then I can swear 3 more times, ok? ” He planted a kiss on both their heads,  waved to the room at large, slung his jacket over one shoulder and strolled off with Bill for the Sunday afternoon pint and some football in the Sow and Thistle. They had stopped asking Joe months ago. They knew he preferred to stay and wash up with Susie. Bill  had once feared his son was gay. Thank God, he’d said to Grace, when Susie had finally come on the scene, but it hadn’t turned out as he’d expected. All this vegan stuff, he didn’t quite know what to make of it all. really he didn’t. In the war, his grandparents had saved food scraps to feed the country’s bacon pigs.

“We’ll just wash up, Mum,and then I think we’ll head off” Joe said, gathering up the dirty crockery. Susie went ahead to fill the sink with hot, soapy water. Fairy liquid, made by Proctor and Gamble, tested on animals, no leaping bunny mark. She’d bought them some Ecover once – they’d refused to use it, said it was too weak and didn’t get the grease off and handed it back to her, with thanks.

“Sorry about all that, ” Joe said. “I know it’s an ordeal for you. Let’s just get this done and go. I’m feeling a bit battered too, today.The hens thing I think, That was a bolt out the blue – didn’t see that coming.”

“Yeah, us two loonies with our potty beliefs, spoiling everyone’s lunch, eh?I know they’re your parents, Joe, but I wish we didn’t have to come.”

“It’s better than it used to be, though – isn’t it? Mum made a nut roast! That’s a first. Some day she might make us a dessert too. She remembered about the animal fat in the gravy too, but I don’t think Dad liked it.”

Susie leaned in to him. ” I know, “she said. “I know. And I love you. I’m so lucky to have you. Poor Hilary, she has to live with a non vegan husband. I really don’t envy her.”

“Have I met Hilary? ” Joe asked. ” I can’t picture her, if so”

“No, but I could invite her round one evening. Shall I? She wants to talk about that animal ethics group I mentioned to you a while back.”

“Yes, do that. It would be nice to meet another local vegan. I’ve begun to think we are the only ones!”

” Thank God for Facebook, eh? It makes the path so much less lonely, don’t you think?”

” Absolutely. You can make a post about today’s lunch – make your friends laugh, get some sympathy and outrage.”

” Let’s go home, Joe” Susie said when she’d dried up the last pot and hung the tea towel over the rail.

“We ought to wait for Dad to get back first, he shouldn’t be long now” Joe said. ” Can you bear it? I’ll make us some tea  – you go and play with the twins for a bit, they love it when you do that”

“Ok, that’s fine” Susie smiled.” I think I can do that – for you” She kissed him lightly and went outside to join Poppy and Flora. “Auntie Sue, look at me” Poppy squealed, racing up the bars to the top of the frame and on the terrace, in the last of the day’s sunshine, Joe brought out a tray with teapot, mugs, milk and sugar, and sat down between his mother and sister.

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