Cuffer Prize 2011 honourable mention
By Annette Conway
Nan cups the flour in her hand, sifts it into the bowl, creating a white cloud in the still air.
She adds a little more, shifts the bowl to gauge the amount, adds a little more. The yeast that has been brewing in a bath of warm water in the chipped yellow bowl is added gently and stirred until a fleshy ball of dough emerges.
She places the bowl on top of the stove and covers it with a cup towel. Within an hour the dough pushes the towel upwards as if there is some great swollen beast straining to get out.
I watch in a combination of fascination and envy as she punches down the mound and then sets to the task of kneading. Her hands, spattered with brown age spots, squeeze and pull the dough, tucking in each end like the sheets at the bottom of a bed as she works it over and over until the feel is to her liking.
The tendons in her forearms contract and ripple under her skin. Her brows knit together in concentration until she feels the consistency she desires. She splits the ball into three equal parts and places them side by side in bread pans that are older than me. They are set to rise again. Once ready, she makes the sign of the cross over the top of each pan and then they disappear into the oven.
I look out The Narrows and see a bank of fog hanging off the cliffs, blurring the horizon so that I cannot tell where the ocean ends and the sky begins.
"Here he comes, now, here he comes," Pop says, the smell of barley and hops thick on his words. "The big man about town." His arms, thick as longers, are crossed on top of his protruding belly, the buttons of his flannel shirt straining, the white of his undershirt peeking out.
Pop doesn't rise to greet Darren. He just flicks another cover off the top of the Black Horse. A swirl of mist curls out of the neck of the bottle. He tips it to his lips.
Nan wipes her hands on the front of her apron, leaving handprint dustings like you see at a crime scene. She hugs Darren, her squat body pressed against his like the dough in the tin pans. The edges of her leak out over the side.
"My God, it's some good to see you. You're looking wonderful, just wonderful. Pull up a chair now, I gets you a bite to eat."
She waddles over to the stove and scrapes some butter into the frying pan. She sets the burner on high. Nan lifts the fresh cod she sent me to buy this morning from Taylor's out of a bowl. She lays the fillets on some paper towels and pats them dry; the silver white skin glistens. She hums as she dips the fillets in flour, then egg, then flour again with a sprinkle of salt and pepper on top. She sets them into the pan and a spray of melted butter showers the stovetop.
Darren gives me a clout on the shoulder. I grin up at him.
"How's it going, my buddy."
My cousin Darren, freshly home from Fort McMurray. Four years working on heavy equipment, fours years away from this island.
"You should see the size of the wheels on the trucks I'm driving, Seamus. Bigger than this house, b'y."
I watch a trawler cut through the maggoty brown waters of the harbour. The ripples cutting out behind it reminds me of the first time I went trouting. I rode across the barrens on Pop's shoulders, 10 years ago, when I was just a small boy and Pop a strong man. Me, Pop and Darren going trouting at Pop's secret spot.
Darren threaded the worm on the hook for me and cast it in the pond. The bobber struck the water and circles floated towards the shore. I got a bite on the first cast and reeled it in as they cheered. The trout flipped and shuddered as I flicked it onto the ground. Its gills flared furiously, searching for air, and I watched it struggle. Pop's giant hand closed around it, gripping tightly as it thrashed and wiggled, and then he smashed its head against a rock until it lay still. I couldn't tear my eyes from the gelatinous slime that coated the stone, the sudden stillness of that fish.
"It's suffering like that, my son. You can't just leave it there," he said gently. He cast my line out again and tossed the fish in our bucket.
The cod sizzles on the pan as Nan flips it over, another spatter of butter sprays upward. Pop's beer is finished and he is looking out the kitchen window, his fingers tapping lightly on the formica table. His eyes are pink rimmed and watery and there is a slight shudder to his left hand. He sighs deeply, the breath squeezing out of his lips like a dropped accordion, but he says nothing.
"This is delicious, Nan," Darren says, stuffing a piece of fish in his mouth. "B'y, you just can't beat fresh fish."
"Don't suppose you got anything like that upalong, did ye?" Pop finally speaks. "Bet all your big Alberta money couldn't buy fish like ye gets at home, could it?"
Darren says nothing as he eats the cod. His eyes are half-closed and dreamy as if he'd been drinking too much.
"I got a nice piece of land down in Torbay, Pop," Darren says. "Me and Angela are going to build a spot down by the ocean."
There is no answer from Pop; he's looking out at the harbour from his perch at the kitchen window. The lines around his eyes have drawn them tight, as if he is squinting against the sun, though it's foggy outside.
"Hey Pop, didn't you hear? Darren's moving around the bay," I say, taking a bite of the cod Nan has set before me.
"I suppose you won't be fit to look at now with your big Mac money," he says and snorts at his own joke. His tone carries a note of despair borne of regret and guilt. "Gonna build a big old house, I suppose." His breath is hard and sharp.
The smell of the bread seeps out of the oven. I can picture the butter melting over the top of it. I can taste it warm and sticky in my mouth.
"Yes, Pop. We made enough money so we hardly needs a mortgage." Darren scrapes his place clean and leans back in the chair.
Pop wheezes and reaches down by the side of the table and picks up the plastic mask attached to the small canister beside him. Nan helps secure the elastic around the back of his head. His breath punctuates the silence until the hiss of the machine takes over.
Pop looks back out the window. "I wouldn't mind a bit of that bread," he says to no one in particular, the words muffled inside the plastic, his nostrils flaring and straining against the world.
Annette Conway was born in St. John's. After studying law in Windsor, Ont., she returned to St. John's, where she now practises. She lives in Torbay with her partner, their two children and three dogs.