Short Fiction – Table Manners

Alison gave the exclusive restaurant’s private dining room a final once over. Everything had to be perfect this evening. She adjusted the forks at two place settings on her family’s side of the table, stopping to refold a napkin at the spot where her father would be seated.

The room was as elegant as she could want. A long cherry-stained table with cream-coloured velvet seats filled the centre of the space. Three walls of the room were exposed brick, with the fourth being glass that allowed the diners to view the restaurant’s extensive wine cellar. The menu was mostly local ingredients prepared with classic French and Italian techniques, but without the piety of those nose-to-table places that told diners the name of the chicken they’d be eating. It had taken weeks to narrow down their choice to something that would suit everyone, and even now Alison feared that someone in her party this evening would have something to complain about.

She smoothed the skirt of her silk dress, admiring the sapphire colour, knowing that it made her eyes look even more blue. “I hope everyone can find the place,” she said, turning to Percy, her fiance, who was sorting the selection of wines arranged on a sideboard for their meal.

He sniffed as he replaced a bottle and turned to her. “It will be fine, Ali. Don’t get so stressed. There’s enough wine here to make your parents and my parents the best of friends.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” she replied, admiring his stoicism. “Or that there’s enough wine to make everyone come to blows.”

“Now why do you say that, darling? They’re not so different, really. I bet they’ll get along like a house on fire.”

Percy’s posh, authoritarian British accent made everything seem safe and under control. It was the first thing she had been attracted to when they met, along with his fine jaw-line and dark hair. It felt solid and dependable, just as Percy had turned out to be.

But this time Alison was not so sure he was right. While Percy’s family were upper class Londoners, not landed gentry but definitely well-to-do, they were liberal and open-minded. Alison’s own family, while she loved them and shared most of their ideals, were also well off, but from the conservative American south. They wouldn’t exactly see eye-to-eye on, well, probably anything, and Alison was anxious that the first meeting of their families was a success. They were to be in-laws, after all.

“I hope you’re right, Percy,” she said as her betrothed embraced her from behind. “I just want everyone to get along.”

Percy bent down to kiss Alison on the head; at five foot two, she was nearly a full foot shorter than him. He quickly pecked the top of her long blonde hair, and spun her around to face him. “You’re getting worked up over nothing, Ali. Your family is in Atlanta, mine is in London. We’re going to be living here in Boston. They never have to see each other again after the wedding.”

A noise in the passageway announced the arrival of Alison’s family, as a maitre d’ showed them into the private dining room. Ken and Trudy Emerson, followed by their adult son Ken Jr., his wife Marcy, and their 10-year-old granddaughter Ashley, entered the room, all blonde hair and shining teeth.

“This place is something, isn’t it?” asked Ken as he grabbed his daughter and lifted her off the ground. “We’d have been just as happy at Applebee’s you know!”

“Oh, Daddy!” Alison blushed with embarrassment. Her father owned one of the largest off-trail vehicle dealerships in Georgia. He could certainly afford to eat at higher-end places, but he liked to play the ‘just folks’ card because he believed it made him seem more down to earth.

A further commotion preceded Percy’s family, as his father, mother and younger sister were shown into the room.

Ken Emerson was first out of the gate, not bothering to wait for his daughter or her fiance to offer introductions. “Well you must be the Saint John Smiths! I’m Ken Emerson!” he bellowed, offering a hearty handshake to all three. An expression of disdain crept across the face of Harry St. John-Smythe as Ken’s meaty hand grabbed his. “Harry Sin Jin Smyyythe,” he replied slowly, pronouncing his name phonetically in order to make sure Ken understood.

“Sinjin! Well. that’s something. How do you spell that?”

Eleanor St. John-Smythe stepped in, offering her hand. “How do you do, Mr. Emerson, I’m Eleanor. It’s such a pleasure to meet Alison’s family. And Alison! Hello dear! Our name is spelled almost exactly as you pronounced it, just a long y in Smythe. Harry is being pedantic.” Eleanor approached her future daughter-in-law with a warm smile on her face.

Coats having been whisked away, Percy suggested they all take a seat and continue introductions from the table while the first wine was being poured. Along his side of the table, he introduced himself, his parents Harry and Eleanor, and his younger sister, Tash. From the head of the table, Alison did the same with her parents Ken and Trudy, her older brother Ken Jr. his wife Marcy, and her niece Ashley, who was to be the flower girl at the upcoming wedding.

Small talk was made through the first wine and the amuse bouche; the various trips from London and Atlanta to reach Alison and Percy in Boston, recaps of the how the pair had met at Harvard law school; brief personal details such as what they all did for a living. They mostly knew all of this about one another already but reiterating the facts while meeting their new family members face to face required some bragging and shared experiences and common ground.

The servers brought in the first course, placing plates of duck pate with cherry preserves in front of each guest before retreating. Amid exclamations of how good it looked, the St. John-Smythe side of the table all reached out for knife and fork, then looked up en masse to see the Emerson side of the table holding hands, their heads bowed. Alison reached across the corner of the table for Percy’s hand. He looked at her small elegant hand, resting palm-up on the gleaming cherry wood tabletop, then to the top of her bowed head, incredulous. He had never known her to say grace. Ever.

Alison gestured her hand silently, but with some vehemence, and Percy realized that he must reach out for it. At the same time, he poked his mother in the ribs ever so gently, and she picked up the thread, taking his hand and Harry’s hand at the same time. From near the end of the table, 15-year-old Tash could be heard to say, “Dad… ewwww…” but then she too fell silent as Marcy grasped her hand from the other side.

“Holy Father, we thank you for the food we are about to receive,” Ken Emerson began. “We thank you for bringing together our two families at this table, for new friends, and for the love you have blessed upon Alison and Percy.”

The St. John-Smythes collectively mumbled a half-hearted “amen”. But Ken was not done.

“We thank you for the farmers, fishers, and hunters who grew or caught this food. We thank you for the people who worked so hard to bring it to our table, for the chefs and servers and everyone who helped to prepare it. We are humbled by the bounty before us, and are grateful to you, oh heavenly father, for the bounty you have provided for us. Amen.”

The Emerson side of the table replied “Amen” while their soon-to-be new in-laws waiting to see if they could finally start their meal.

Napkins were adjusted in laps and the meal began. On the Emerson side of the table, each diner picked up their fork with their left hand and then passed it to their right hand. Left hands remained in laps unless a knife was needed, then the fork was passed back to the left hand, the food cut, the knife set down and the fork passed back to the right hand for the food’s trip to the mouth. The family moved almost as if in tandem, gestures simple and precise as they sat with perfect posture, the row of them shining and blonde, their shared features clearly marking them as a family.

On the British side of the table, the St. John-Smythes ate in the traditional British style, holding the forks in their left hands and the knives in their right, piling the food onto the back of the tines. They too sat with perfect posture, their backs not actually touching the backs of the chairs. Only Tash slumped as she ate.

“Why do you all do that zig zag thing?” she asked with a tone of indifference. Answer or not, Tash didn’t really care, she just wanted to finish her meal and be free of the obligation of being there, but it surely was odd how the Americans kept switching cutlery from hand to hand.

Her mother shushed her. “Tash, don’t be rude. American table manners are different from British ones. Surely you’ve seen Americans eating on television or in movies.”

Tash rolled her eyes, and slumped further in her chair. “Yes Mother, I have. I’m just asking why. I’m making conversation. I’m trying to learn.”

Trudy smiled across the table at Tash and then at Eleanor, a big bright gleaming grin that caused the soft crepey skin around her eyes to crinkle up and make her look a decade older than she was. “Well, Tash — is that short for Natasha? — we do it this way so that the dominant hand holds the utensil that’s being used. So you’re less likely to spill something. So it’s easier to cut things. Then your empty hand, when you move your fork back to your dominant hand to bring the food to your mouth, that hand rests in your lap. It’s meant to slow things down, to give you time to chew and swallow. Some Americans do a hybrid of the two styles and keep the fork in their left hand and set their right hand in their lap when the knife is not in use, but most people have been brought up to switch back and forth.”

Tash flipped her long dark hair over her shoulder, clearly bored. “But you waste so much time moving everything back and forth. And you all look like a chorus line.”

“That’s enough Tash,” Harry said in a low voice. “We discussed this attitude of yours already.”

Trudy, who genuinely believed in giving everyone a chance, pointed out in her bright cheerful voice that Marcy, who was seated at the end of the table to the left of Tash, was using her left hand and doing everything the rest of the family did only in the opposite direction.

Marcy, not in the habit of conversing with anyone at dinner, so often did her husband and in-laws dominate the conversation, looked up at the mention of her name and waved her fork gently with her left hand. “Southpaw,” she said to Tash before turning and gesturing to her already posture-perfect daughter to sit up straight.

“Besides,” interjected Ken Jr, as Marcy emitted a quiet sigh, “You Brits do that thing where you hold your forks backwards and pile all of your food onto the back. You mush the meat and potatoes and peas all together and try and get it into your mouths before it all spills down your front. Why do you do that?”

Harry pointed a forkful of food at Ken Jr, and replied, “because we can,” before popping it all into his mouth.

“Well you’ve got to admit,” Ken Sr. said in a voice so authoritative that Alison knew they were all in for a long lecture based on ‘what Dad believes’, “you’ve got to admit that it looks damned awkward and slovenly.”

“Poppy, don’t say the D-word!” Ashley piped up.

“I owe you a quarter for your swear jar, Kitten, you remind me when we get home,” Ken said to his granddaughter.

“What do you mean Ken?” Eleanor asked, bemused. Sure, Tash had started this discussion, but they were venturing into the area of insults now.

“Well, y’all pick up that fork and knife and never set the things down. It’s all elbows and cutlery flying. Y’all look like you think someone is gonna steal the food off your plates. It’s all very primitive, given how high and mighty it’s actually meant to be.”

Eleanor gestured to the fork and knife sitting against the edges of her plate, “I set my cutlery down some time ago.”

“But you’re done,” Ken Jr. said. “While you were eating, you kept both pieces in your hands.”

“Can we change the subject, please?” Percy, distressed, asked from the end of the table. He saw that Alison was almost in tears and wanted to do anything he could to keep her from becoming more upset.

The servers entered the room to clear the plates. The conversation, to Percy and Alison’s great relief, turned to the topic of the upcoming wedding.

Fresh wine was poured, and the main course was brought in. The roast pork was the specialty of the house and the chef and his staff paraded around the table displaying a fat sucking pig to the guests. The skin was brown and shiny and the smell that filled the room caused many happy sounds of anticipation.

The servers followed with an array of vegetables and side dishes, placed around the table for the guests to serve themselves. The pig was returned to the table, slices arranged attractively on a large platter.

As they filled their plates, Tash leaned over to Marcy and whispered, “Do we have to say grace again?” Marcy shook her head. “Just at the beginning. You’re good to go.”

Everyone was quiet as they concentrated on their food. For a few moments, the only sound to be heard was that of knives and forks against plates. At the same time Percy and Alison each looked up and across the table at their respective in-laws.

Percy looked to Alison at the head of the table and along the Emerson side to her mother, father, niece, and brother, all passing their forks from hand to hand, perfectly synchronized. He had never noticed how Alison ate before. Hands collectively dropped to laps, jaws and rows of perfectly white teeth masticated pieces of the succulent pork, all to the same beat. A row of blonde heads shone under the pot lights in the ceiling. In his distraction, Percy misjudged the structural integrity of the food piled on the back of his fork and some of it plopped onto the front of his shirt.

Ken smirked from across the table, attempting to silence a snort of delighted contempt as Trudy kicked him under the table.

Alison looked up at Percy as the gravy dripped down his shirt and he made exasperated noises as he pulled the napkin off his lap and reached for his water glass. The entire Emerson clan stopped to watch him, aghast, frozen in mid-movement of forks directed to mouths.

Alison bowed her head to concentrate on her plate. In the hundreds of times that she and Percy had shared a meal, how had she never noticed that he ate in this manner? So much piling and shovelling of food. The constant movement, fork and knife held in such a crude way, the hands never settling. And this was how the rich people ate. Alison shuddered at the thought of how less-educated Britons must behave at mealtimes. She looked along the table at the St. John-Smythes, all absorbed in their food, raising their heads only to direct skeptical looks at her own family’s table manners. She watched Marcy, at the foot of the table, stuck on the end because of her left-handedness, but precisely mirroring the movements of the Emersons beside her. She then looked to Tash, who somehow managed to master the ‘feed me now’ posture of her parents while still slouching in that rebellious teenage manner.

A pall hung over the room as the empty plates were removed. They hadn’t discussed politics or religion, no one had put up any arguments about the wedding plans, but it was clear that the two families would never, could never, be friends.

Both Percy and Alison had come to the same conclusion. There was no way they could each sit across the table from the other for every meal for the rest of their lives and watch the other person eat in their current manner. Percy knew he would be annoyed by the constant zig-zagging of cutlery, the weird and mildly creepy dropping of the free hand into the lap where it sat like a dead fish. It was something he could never unsee. Alison knew she would only ever be able to sit across from Percy and think of starving Dickensian orphans devouring a meal like ravenous animals lest it be taken away before they’d had their fill.

As the dessert was served, the couple glanced up at each other. Their eyes met and a look passed between them. Both knew that the wedding was off. This would be the last meal they ate together.