At Breakfast

Post image for At Breakfast


At breakfast they had cornflakes, bacon and eggs, toast and marmalade, another helping of cornflakes (with banana), the rest of the liver sausage, two more bananas, a peach (slightly rotten) and a half-pound bar of fruit and nut chocolate.

They had not eaten for twenty-four hours. Graham, naked but for a faded blue T-shirt which was a good two sizes too small for him, leapt around the kitchen, flinging open cupboard doors and tossing knives into the sink, humming snatches from early Bob Dylan songs and explaining some of the more accessible poems of John Donne.

Literature, he told Margaret, is all about sex, as was borne out even by a lecture-course as conservative as his own.

On the other hand, one could just as well argue that sex is all about literature, which was precisely what Graham was doing in his book, or trying to do, at least, and which he would explain in greater detail once he had managed to get these eggs turned in one piece. Oh, dear. She didn’t mind her eggs broken, did she?

Margaret looked on from the living-room, too happy to laugh. That huge bald head, that rather literary goatee beard (a trifle too neat, perhaps, but still making him look like some strange compound of Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Chekhov), those strong, spatulate fingers and those shapely calves: he was indeed a most attractive man. ‘Calves fit for tragedy,’ as he himself had said, whipping off his underpants and holding them to his heart in mock-grief.

And yet he looked so young, so boyish: something about his movements and the impish glitter of his eyes made her see him in cap and blazer and short trousers, running across a school playing-fields on a damp November afternoon, his socks around his ankles and his pockets full of conkers, cigarette cards, bubble-gum wrappers … Not that she would ever tell him that: for all his joking, Graham had a keen sense of his own dignity.

But it was his mind that she admired so – the quickness of his thinking, the clarity of his expression, and of course his wealth of knowledge: he had a first-rate mind, there was no doubting that.

It made her feel as though her own head were stuffed with rags and petals, a storehouse for a million useless things with nothing to unite them but the accident of their being all in one place. She lacked the power of analysis. Yes, that was it: she could not analyse. Whereas Graham’s mind was like a tool for taking things to bits and putting them back together again. It made his physical clumsiness seem all the more appropriate, somehow. The cupboards slammed and the china rattled and the lid of the waste bin had already got broken, but Margaret didn’t care about any of that. She just looked on. She was perched on the edge of an armchair in the little living-room, wrapped in a somewhat tatty towelling dressing-gown. She felt as wise as her thirty-four years and as young as her new heart. When the dressing- gown fell open she did not automatically cover up her legs but let the breeze from the window play upon them for a while. It was not yet September.

This tiny flat, with its low ceilings and dreadful 1950s furniture: she had grown to loathe it in these last three years.

Ever since her divorce she had been living alone here, putting her watercolours on the wall and decorating the shelves with dried leaves and acorns, hating the lack of light, and the noise from the street below, and the loneliness. She was obsessively tidy, a nest-maker of a very particular and practised kind, but she had never succeeded in making this place into a home. It remained as strange now as it had been when she first moved in. And all those evenings spent listening to classical concerts on the radio, those Sunday afternoons walking up the Royal Crescent on her own: there had been times when she actually wanted to run up to the nearest person in the street, a woman pushing a pram or an old man with a walking-stick, and grab them by the lapels and stare into their face and say: ‘I am so lonely.’

She felt no shame thinking about it now – no shame, and no self-pity.

It was all so far away: the Margaret she could see running through the streets with her coat flapping in the wind and her hair coming unpinned round her ears existed still, but only somewhere very far away. She didn’t matter any more. The Margaret who mattered was the one who was sitting here, the new Margaret who was full of love and silence and who had made up her mind, watching the haze from the frying-pan as it drifted out of the kitchen and turned blue in front of the open window, to buy a kimono for herself. A real one, made of silk, with dragons on the back.

Graham manoeuvred the eggs onto the plates and said: ‘My God, you’re going to love this.’ Fussily he arranged the rashers of bacon around the eggs, shifting them this way and that until he was satisfied with the optical effect. ‘I would like,’ he suddenly began, his hand on his heart, ‘I would like to thank the Egg Marketing Board for all their kind assistance; the Teflon Tufware Organisation for the magnificent way in which they have coated the frying-pan – I need not say that without their contribution it might have been a very sticky business –; the Made in Sheffield people, but for whose unstinting efforts there would have been no spatula …’.

They sat down at the table and set to. Never had eggs tasted better: the meatiness of the whites, the crispness of the golden ruffs around the edge. And the bacon was crisp and they sucked at the rinds and then they sucked at each other’s rinds (which was much more fun, and which nearly upset the teapot), and everything was so good, it tasted so delicious, it was so full of flavour, that it left them feeling hungrier than ever. Like this love, they each reflected to themselves.



Graham brought his typewriter, his manuscript, his books. They decided to convert the bedroom into a study, dismantling the wardrobe so as to be able to put the desk in the window where it would get more light. Graham put his Olivetti on the desk, arranged his manuscript and dictionaries and said: ‘Rooftops. How can I fail to finish my book with all these rooftops?’

Margaret brought in a lamp from the sitting-room and put some dried flowers on the desk. She got out an old kettle so that Graham could make coffee whilst he was working. They debated whether or not to buy him a proper typist’s chair but decided to wait and see how he got on with an ordinary one – they didn’t have that much money to throw around, after all. Perhaps later they could buy one if he found he really needed it. Margaret cleared the shelves to make space for his books: the ones which were too big they piled neatly on the floor.

When all was finished, the ‘writer’s corner’, as they called it, looked splendid: halfway to being a writer’s den, as Graham ironically remarked.

‘And when I don’t know what to write I can always go back to bed to think about it.’ He smiled. It was an enormous relief to him. For the last three months he had had to work in the library, because the room he had rented since his separation was so unsuitable and the one he had at the polytechnic was permanently under siege. ‘Always some student wanting to know what I think about Jean-Paul Sartre,’ as he put it. ‘You’d think they’d be more up to date, wouldn’t you?’ But now at last he had somewhere to work in peace: now he could finish the book he had been trying to get finished for the last two and a half years.

They adopted a routine: term had started, and Margaret had to get up early to go to the primary school where she taught, and so they both decided to get up at seven. This gave them plenty of time for breakfast and got Graham off to a flying start – he worked best in the morning. At seven the alarm would go and they would roll over and hold each other in silence for a few minutes before getting up. Now that they were both happy, they found it easy to get up in the morning; besides, it was a marvellous autumn and one golden morning just followed another. Graham would stand looking at the chestnut tree outside the window whilst Margaret made the bed and put some music on the record-player (she loved Bach, Vivaldi and Handel in the morning – Debussy and Ravel at night).

Then would begin the kitchen-dance, as they called it.

The kitchen-dance had been invented out of necessity and was fast becoming an art-form in its own right. It was necessary because Margaret’s flat had no bathroom: there was a shower in the corner of the kitchen by the fridge, and just the sink to wash at. Side by side they would stand, arms reaching past each other for toothbrushes and towels, Graham shaving and Margaret doing her face in the same mirror. Sometimes they would catch the true age in each other’s face and find it beautiful. And as they stood there they would reach behind them to switch off the kettle, or to turn the toast, or to check that the eggs were not over-boiling. For breakfast they had a lightly-boiled egg each, two slices of toast (Margaret’s more lightly done than Graham’s) and sometimes a bowl of cereal. They always drank tea. On Saturdays they would lie in for an extra hour and then one or other of them would go to the baker’s round the corner and bring back croissants still warm from the oven. On Sundays Margaret would make porridge and Graham would cook eggs and bacon – frying, scrambling or poaching the eggs according to their mood. His fried eggs had improved: he never broke them these days. But whatever he might have done with them, they would have tasted good. Everything was good at breakfast. And after breakfast Margaret would go off to school and Graham would sit down at his desk, Margaret sometimes pausing on the stairs to hear the first clickings of the typewriter before rushing out into the chill, quiet brilliance of the street.


Cereal spilled near bowl on table


Never had Graham known anything like it: he was working like a machine. Page followed page and chapter followed chapter just as he had always dreamed. He began to talk in terms of imaginative rhythm and creative flow. The pages piled up in a clean white stack and his knuckles began to ache from all that typing – something he had never experienced before.

Trying to write a book whilst living with Caroline had been a hopeless task. Her slovenliness, her unpredictability, the impossible emotional demands she made on him – it had all been too much. When he thought of her now, the images he saw disgusted him: the kitchen sink full of mackerel bones and potato peelings; the sitting-room floor covered in spillikins and knitting-patterns torn from magazines; that appalling picture of a Shetland pony which she would not take down from the lavatory. And Caroline crying into the pillow after making love. He had been with her for five full years, and nothing he had said or done had succeeded in making her any happier or more stable.

It was a wonder he had managed to get any work done at all, in fact: preparing his lectures had been hard enough but trying to write a book had been a nightmare, especially towards the end.

He saw himself sitting at the kitchen table at three in the morning, a biro that Caroline had been chewing in his hand and a smell of burnt toast in the air. The kitchen clock ticked sickly and on the worktop there were six varieties of marmalade and jam, all with their tops off. Caroline would be in the bedroom, stuffing herself with toast and not wiping away the grease and crumbs that gathered round her mouth. On her face, a look of utter misery. She was wearing her glasses because she couldn’t be bothered to put in her contact lenses again. Her eyes tiny through the thick glass. Ready to burst into tears at any second. He had no idea how he had managed to stand it for so long. The poverty in which they lived – the way their misery had made paupers of them, grinding out a wretched existence on each other’s worn-out spirits. Whereas now – now he was rich. He had dried cornflowers and a view of the chestnut tree turning and the assurance of seven good, clean mornings every week. He surveyed his desk: the typewriter, the row of dictionaries, the flowers in their vase.

He was entirely happy.

Things became a little less luxurious when term started at the polytechnic. Three mornings a week Graham had to give his first lecture at eleven, and so he had to start waking up at six in order to make sure of his full four hours at the typewriter. Breakfast had to be got over quickly. Before going to bed they would lay out the cups and bowls: they only had cereal for breakfast now, because it was so quick and because Graham was beginning to worry about his weight (he had made no direct mention of this to Margaret).

At six o’clock the alarm went and they would swing out of bed and sit up, rubbing the sleep from their eyes. Graham always used the sink first now, and he had started to let his beard grow across his cheeks so as not to have the bother of shaving at all: it saved so much time in the morning. Margaret breakfasted in her kimono, only getting dressed when Graham had gone off to write. This necessitated laying out her clothes in the living-room the night before, so as not to disturb Graham in the bedroom. It was a tight schedule – Graham liked to be at his desk by six-thirty, because he had to leave for the polytechnic at ten-thirty – but they managed to make it work. There was something quite pleasing in the steady clinking of their spoons against the china, and in the thought that the rest of the street, the rest of the city, was asleep. No silence has quite the quality of early morning silence. And, as they said, they could always find plenty of time for talking in the evenings. There was still so much to talk about.


Close up dark espresso coffee


October came and went; November came. The blackness of the mornings grew blacker, the chill on the walls colder. Margaret slogged her way through to half-term (pressed leaves, pumpkin lanterns, and a lecture by the police on how to cross the roads in fog), and then on through to Christmas (Guy Fawkes, papier-mâché snowmen, the nativity play). She had to take two buses out of town to get to the school, and two buses back at night: by the time she arrived home she would be exhausted. Sometimes, sitting up top with the smokers because there wasn’t any room downstairs, she would think of Graham at his desk and feel a twinge – just a twinge – of resentment. It wasn’t that Graham didn’t do his fair share of the chores or contribute his fair share to their income – far from it, in fact. He was quite scrupulous about ‘pulling his weight in the relationship,’ as he termed it. No, it was just that every day he did his own, creative work and then went off to teach twentieth-century literature for four hours, whilst she spent the greater part of her days teaching eight year-olds how to spell.

Year after year, the seasons following each other on the classroom wall, and nothing to show for it, nothing achieved.

She had her watercolours, but even they weren’t any good, she knew: she had never devoted enough time to them, never taken them seriously enough. And now that Graham was living with her – now that she and Graham were living together, she should say – she found that a lot of her former pleasures seemed impoverished, as if the life had been crushed out of them. The evenings she used to spend curled up with a book were now spent listening to Graham talk about the books she should have read, and why they were so important. The hours of dreaming had gone, and the foggy walks around the town centre, and the feeling of slight daring she used to get from going into a pub on her own, especially if there was a band playing there. And as for what Graham said about the music she listened to – well, her poor Debussy had died the death, and the only consolation was that Ravel (whom she didn’t like as much) had been savaged even further.

He was intellectually intolerant, there was no doubt.

He had that aggressive, competitive spirit, for all the gentleness of his voice and the extreme care with which he chose his words when discoursing on matters intellectual. There were times when she thought that he simply had to have his say, simply had to win, and that literature was just as good a battleground for him as any other. And once, when on an inkling she questioned him, he told her that he still had the prize conker with which he had smashed all corners to smithereens one brilliant autumn many years ago.

Graham found the November mornings difficult: it was cold, he had to wrap himself in scarves and pullovers, and most days it rained. He watched the leaves fall from the chestnut tree, the rain fall on the rooftops. His schedule stared as tight as ever but his imaginative rhythm became shaky inside it: some mornings he would sit at his desk for two hours without being able to write a single word, and there were whole days at a stretch when everything he wrote went so askew that he knew even as he was writing it that it was destined for the waste bin.

He found the attempt to milk words from himself exhausting, and began to question the sincerity of an exercise that was so rigorously disciplined.

Besides, the orderliness of the flat was getting on his nerves – each plate and ashtray in its proper place, the records filed alphabetically and all the old newspapers kept in a neat little pile for a certain purpose which Margaret had never adequately defined. They would have petty squabbles about whose turn it was to empty the waste bin, and how it should be emptied in the first place (squash down the rubbish and tie a knot in the liner bag; make sure that all the rubbish is inside the bag before you tie the knot …).

Graham began to feel a little caged, a little trapped, not just by Margaret but by Bath itself, which was, he concluded, a city of flowerpots, teashops and old ladies, where nothing of any importance could ever happen. He started thinking of moving back to Bristol, where he had lived before. Bristol was so much more honest, somehow, so much more real: he could breathe in Bristol, he could walk down the street without feeling that his shoulders were a size too big. It would be quite easy to commute to the poly every day, and anyway, next term’s lecture-course was going to be lighter. He made no mention of this to Margaret, content to weigh up the pros and cons in his own good time. But he started going out jogging on the mornings when he couldn’t write. It brought a measure of relief. Not that it solved anything; but it made the fact of running round in circles that much more obvious.


Top of cardboard milk or drink carton


They celebrated the arrival of the Christmas holidays with champagne. It was a slightly lopsided celebration, because Margaret’s school term continued almost all the way through to Christmas whilst Graham’s ended ten days beforehand, but still it was worth celebrating. Margaret had at least the sense of being on the downhill run towards the holidays.

They went out together one Saturday morning, window-shopped, bought cakes, and reminisced about the Christmases they had enjoyed as children and hated as adults. This year they had promised themselves a new kind of Christmas, an alternative Christmas with no bloated bellies and no awful TV and just the two of them together. With any luck, said Graham, the book would be finished by Christmas: he had just two more chapters to write and he thought that now term was ended he might be able to blaze his way right through to the end. Margaret squeezed his arm and watched the snowflake melting on his nose. He looked so serious this morning, so young.

As if he still believed in everything he said.

The penultimate chapter went quite well. Despite the cold, Graham stuck to his policy of getting up at six every morning, and he often went back to his desk after lunch. There were even evenings when he worked as well. Breakfast was a meal that existed no longer. Graham just took a bowl of muesli to the desk with him now, making a cup of coffee once he was there. He liked to have his mind as fresh as possible in the morning, so that he could get his first five hundred words down. The first five hundred were always the hardest. After that he got his second wind, as he said. His vocabulary was becoming increasingly cluttered with ugly metaphors drawn from jogging.

And then disaster struck.

A day went by, three days, five days, and Graham could not write. By the time Margaret was on holiday Graham had not written for a week and he was going out of his mind. He was sure that the final chapter would be quite simple once he could get started on it, but he couldn’t get past the middle of the penultimate one.

Something was missing and he was secretly terrified that it had been missing all along – that, even if he could find his way through to the end, the whole thing would need rewriting from the beginning before he could offer it to a publisher.

His behaviour became erratic and unpredictable: he would spend hours at his desk when Margaret needed his help and then moon about the place like a lost sheep whilst she was trying to get something done; or he would say he was going out for a walk and not come back until the small hours, smelling of drink and refusing to answer when Margaret asked him where he had been. Only the look of suffering and weariness on his face kept Margaret from exploding outright: her resentment would build up to a certain pitch and then be cancelled every time by her compassion.

But she lost her patience when Graham started talking about moving out.

He began to mention Bristol – he had got in touch with Caroline again — and he would use it as a threat, bringing out the word (or just the look that went with it) whenever Margaret seemed on the point of criticising him. He felt under a bell jar, he explained: he needed a different kind of life, one less well ordered and predictable. They discussed the idea of his going back to Bristol for a while: he wanted to be closer to Caroline, he said, not actually to live with her again, but just to be in touch with her once more. Perhaps he could rent a flat in Bristol, or just a room for the weekends. It would be good to have a base there as well as here in Bath.

For a while, Margaret was able to talk about these possibilities quite rationally and (she told herself) without bad feelings, but when Graham one day pointed his finger at her and told her, ‘I could be in Bristol,’ she had had enough. ‘Go there,’ she said, and rushed out of the door.

It was first thing in the morning, the twenty-third of December. It was dark, cold, and rainy. Margaret was dressed but she had gone out without even taking a coat: she would get soaked. Well, let her, thought Graham, who knew a piece of emotional blackmail when he saw one (although he acknowledged this example as impressive). He stood in the living-room for several moments, not knowing what to do. He could go out and chase after her, but he was too sickened with the whole situation for words; besides, he would get wet. He switched the radio on, listened to a couple of news items and then, when he realized that he hadn’t taken in a word of them, switched it off. He switched it on again and tried another station: Bach: Double Concerto in D Minor: about halfway through the second movement. It was one of Margaret’s favourite pieces. Again he wondered whether or not to chase out onto the street, but now it seemed too late: she might have gone in either direction and there was no knowing where she’d be now. It occurred to him that he was starving. He decided to have something to eat. He went through into the kitchen, poured himself a bowl of cereal, and then realized that there was no milk: it was a Saturday and the milkman didn’t come till midday on a Saturday.

Irritatedly he slammed the door of the fridge and paced up and down the living-room.

The thought of Margaret’s just having gone like that was starting to trouble him. He wondered where on earth she could be this early on a Saturday morning, running in the rain with no coat on. Running in the rain: he could see the tears in her eyes, the rain on her cheeks, the wet hair clinging to her forehead.

Pausing only to pick up the front door key, he chased out of the flat and crashed down the stairs: out in the street he looked to right and left, wondering which way Margaret might have gone. He decided to go left, towards the centre of town, praying aloud that she hadn’t turned right, in the direction of the station (might she just have jumped on a train? The thought was too awful). He ran over the bridge, turned left past the Abbey, and stopped. Where would she have gone? Even the teashops weren’t open at this hour, only the newsagents and the little corner shops – she’d have nowhere to shelter. He could see her running in the rain, the mud splashing up the back of her tights, her face in tears –

He ran up the street, turned round, backtracked, dived into a tobacconist’s to ask if they had seen her, thought the question futile, chased out again without a word, and ran back home. She might have gone home. Even if she hadn’t, she’d know where to find him if he stayed at home: she could ring, perhaps, and tell him where she was. Terrified at the thought of her coming home and chasing out again because he was not there (if only he had left a note!), he sprinted the last two hundred yards, gasping as he climbed the stairs to the top floor.

Margaret was standing in the living-room, her hair wet and her nose bright red.

She had something in her hand, but Graham could not make out what it was, he could only look in her eyes. Neither of them said anything for several moments. Graham coughed, Margaret sniffed. Then Margaret extended her hand. ‘I went for the milk,’ she said.

First published in Takahe Issue 22, Winter 1995
©Jonathan Steffen, all rights reserved.