Soup and Bread
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For Vonnie, dinnertime means Mum complaining that she's picky, and school means PE (ugh!) and bullies - but she's learned to ignore them.
But now Mum's threatening to make soup and bread for every meal - forever - and Frank, the new kid, is picking fights, and Vonnie can't ignore them.
But she can't do anything... right? She's just a kid.
From: Soup and Bread, by Nonen Titi
Chapter 1: Too Much Cake
It’s easy to find Grace’s house when Dad turns into their street at two o’clock on Saturday afternoon. There are fairy lights on in the tree in their front garden and there’s music playing behind the fence. Holding the present, I open the door before the car has completely stopped and jump out. I promise Dad I’ll have fun and to call him to pick me up when the party is over. I feel for Mum’s phone in one of the deep pockets of my new skirt and straighten the matching top before ringing the bell.
Grace’s mum answers the door holding her toddler and says, “I’m glad you could make it.” I put my present for Grace, a make-your-own-cards craft set, on the dining table with all the other gifts and follow her into the kitchen. On the counter there’s a two-layered pink and white cake with twelve candles on it. “It all looks really pretty,” I tell Grace’s mum.
“Thank you,” she says. “The girls are outside.” She puts the baby in the playpen before opening the garden door for me. A few steps away, a long table is set with coloured plates and folded napkins and the row of lanterns on a string above it are swaying to the music. It all looks wonderful.
I recognize the girls from my class and a few from Saturday gym. Grace is at the end of the table, so I hop off the back step to join them, but Becky sees me before I reach them. She whispers something to Grace and points at my feet and they all look around. That’s when I notice that they’re wearing evening dresses and high heels and they’re giggling at my little girl clothes.
My cheeks get hot and my chest tight. I’d like to tell them I didn’t know what to wear, but the noise of the music drowns out my thoughts and all I manage to get out is “Happy birthday.”
“Yeah, whatever,” Grace says. “As long as you know that my mum made me invite you, but no one else wants you here.”
She turns to her friends and they all laugh together – but I just stand there and my legs feel wobbly and I can’t breathe.
It’s only when my fingers start to hurt because I was squeezing them so hard that I finally get my legs moving. I turn to try and get out of there, but suddenly Grace’s mum is right in front of me, and she’s carrying the cake. The candles twinkle through my tears and I move aside, to try to dodge it, but my foot slips and I fall on the grass. Everybody gasps and then sighs with relief and I know they only worried about the cake.
Grace’s grandmother tries to help me up, but I jerk away and do it myself, because… because I just don’t want to be there anymore.
“Don’t worry about your blouse; the stain will come out,” she says. “Come sit down with us and have some cake.”
But I don’t feel like cake. I feel like screaming and like crying all at once. “I just need the bathroom,” I whisper.
She tells me where it is, but when I finally get away, I don’t go to the bathroom. As I hear them singing “Happy Birthday”, I go to the dining room where the presents are because I feel like stepping on all of them… Only if I do that, they’ll come after me at school.
Instead I grab my present and run into the kitchen to look for something – poison – to put into the lemonade jug on the counter. The only thing I see is a jar that says “epsom salts” on it. They’re on the last bit of the song now, so I open the jar and dump most of it into the lemonade and sprinkle the rest onto the snack platter. Serves them right!
Grace’s baby brother is babbling in the playpen. I glance out the window, but nobody’s coming, so I reach into the pen and pinch him with my nails until he starts squealing and I run away, outside. The moment I’m free I can breathe again and I can feel tears running down my face, but I keep running until I’m sure nobody from that house can see me anymore.
I hate them! I hate all of them. All the way home I keep thinking about it, about what they said and that I should have known this would happen. I should have taken the candles and set fire to their house instead of running away. In my chest there’s a burning, heavy pain that makes me want to scream, but it gets a bit lighter when I imagine the flames on their nice dresses and the skin peeling off their faces… What should I tell Rinah? She’s lucky she wasn’t invited. How can I go to school tomorrow if they’re all going to laugh at me? I just want to be home.
But when I get to my house, I don’t go inside, because parties are never this short. I sit against the fence and try to stop crying without rubbing my eyes or they’ll turn red. I bury the present in one of Mum’s thick bushes. Only when it starts getting dark and I’m really cold do I go in.
“Why didn’t you call me?” Dad asks. “I’d have picked you up.”
“I got dropped off,” I tell him and sit down at the kitchen table for dinner, even though I’m not hungry.
“Did you have good time?” Mum asks.
“And here I was expecting you’d tell us all about it,” Dad says.
I shrug. I don’t feel like talking.
“Too much cake, I suppose,” Mum says and they finally stop asking.
AN ADULT HURTING AN ADULT IS ASSAULT
AN ADULT HURTING A CHILD IS ABUSE
A CHILD HURTING AN ADULT IS DELINQUENCY
A CHILD HURTING A CHILD IS NO BIG DEAL:
“KIDS WILL BE KIDS”
Chapter 2: Spoilt
“Vonnie is spoilt,” Mum says when Rinah’s mother brings me home after I stayed for dinner on Sunday night.
Only, I didn’t eat any of her dinner.
“She didn’t even give it one little try,” Mrs Timisela says about the yellow rice with red and green vegetables that I’ve never had before.
That’s when Mum tells her I’m spoilt. Mum always says that about me. And the worst thing is that Mum’s the one who spoilt me. That’s what Mum says, anyhow.
Laura’s spoilt too, of course. Mum did that as well. And to top it all off, Dad is spoilt too, but Mum didn’t do that; he came that way from Grandma’s home.
Mum can’t say how it started. “When Vonnie was a toddler, she used to eat everything – unlike Laura, who only wanted those mushy foods from a jar. Vonnie would eat all her vegetables,” she tells Rinah’s mother, who’s leaning against the front door but says she doesn’t want to come in because she has to “get the kids to bed”.
I sit down on the bench in the hall to take off my shoes. Mum was in her “really healthy” phase when I was one and Laura was four. Everything had to be wholemeal and raw vegetables. That’s what Dad told us.
“But it made no difference; now she’s just as spoilt as Laura,” Mum says.
Dad comes out of the kitchen and pats my head before joining them. “It isn’t that bad,” he says. “They’re good girls. We never have to ask them twice to help with something, they share and they even put some of their pocket money into the Salvation Army collection yesterday.”
But Mum insists we’re spoilt when it comes to food. Dad used to be just like us. He used to eat nothing but mince, tatties and canned peas when they were first married, but she doesn’t say that to Rinah’s mum. And Dad has “improved” since then. Now he even eats nasi goreng with sambal, like Rinah’s parents.
Rinah’s dad is from Indonesia. Her mum isn’t, but she cooks the food. Rinah looks like her dad on the outside, but she has no accent and she only likes Western food. But her mum is really strict and Rinah always has to empty her plate or she won’t get dessert and no treats the next day, and that’s a shame because Rinah’s mum makes yummy desserts. I saw them sitting ready in their fridge: tall glasses with blackcurrant syrup at the bottom, then yellow custard and white yogurt, and on top a slice of orange and a wafer for decoration. It looked SO yummy…but I didn’t get it either, because I didn’t eat the rice.
Mum thinks desserts give us extra proteins and she read somewhere that most adults who are overweight were forced to finish their dinner when they were kids, but Mrs Timisela doesn’t believe in substituting meals. She says she won’t spoil her kids with biscuits and muesli bars. She says the only way to appreciate food is to go without.
Then she says, “Goodbye Yvonne,” and leaves.
“I’m tired of cooking,” Mum says on Monday evening, looking over the edge of her steamed-up glasses when putting our plates on the kitchen table. “I’m tired of making three different meals every night because Vonnie only eats macaroni cheese and Laura wants nothing but baked beans.”
And since Dad doesn’t like pasta or beans, she has to make him rice or tatties every day with plenty of meat. Dad doesn’t believe a meal is complete without meat in it, but Laura and me don’t like meat – except sausages and burgers. Mum doesn’t care about meat either, but she thinks a meal should always have vegetables for their vitamins and minerals, because she worries about our health.
So Dad gets his vitamins from the fruit-and-yoghurt drink Mum mixes in the blender for him and from eating salads at work. Laura and me don’t like the sour drinks or salad, so Mum squeezes oranges for us in the morning. Laura sometimes ‘forgets’ to drink hers when she’s in a hurry to catch the bus. I always drink mine, but only after Mum has put it through the sieve so there are no pulp thingies in it. And today she’s made a big platter of strawberries with cream for all of us, because it’s “the only food nobody pulls up their noses at”.
“But all the goodness is lost with the amount of sugar you pour on top of it,” she says to me.
Mum has complained about how much sugar I eat ever since our school had a Health Awareness Week last month. The little kids, like Rinah’s sister Sitha, made food pictures and brought their toothbrushes to school, but we had to do a math project. First we had to record everything we ate and drank for the whole week and how much exercise we did, and calculate how many calories we’d eaten and how many we had exercised away. Then we had to compare and everybody had eaten more than they exercised, so the school complained to the parents about kids eating too many sugars and processed foods, which is why some children can’t sit still or concentrate and others are “controversial”.
So now Mum feels guilty again and that’s why she’s complaining about how much sugar I put on my strawberries.
“And you’re all drinking way too many soft drinks; I’m tired of getting them.”
She always complains about that too, but she still buys a new bottle in the supermarket every day.
“Lunches are a disaster,” Mum says on Tuesday morning when the toast burns because she’s trying to fix lunchboxes at the same time. “No variety. I’m sick of the sight of them.”
She closes Laura’s box with a bang.
Laura always has ham on slices of white bread – “dough balls”, Mum calls them. I also have dough balls, but mine have peanut butter, and I like white rolls with nothing on them.
And today breakfast is a disaster too, because there’s no more bread for new toast, so Mum says to get some cereal instead, but then there isn’t enough milk for all of us and Dad’s coffee, so Mum says to just grab a muesli bar and a handful of biscuits and she’ll buy more when she goes shopping.
“You know, Mum,” Laura says, splitting the roll of biscuits in half and cutting each of us some cheese from the block, “if you’d agree to get a microwave you wouldn’t have anymore dishes and no more need to complain about cooking. We’d each make our own.”
“Then we’d never have a family meal anymore and all you’d eat would be processed junk.”
“Well, it’s either nutritious meals together or no dishes and no stress. You can’t have it both ways, Mum.”
Laura uses her napkin to wipe her glasses clean and then wraps her cheese in it. “I’ll eat it on the way,” she says and shouts goodbye to Dad, who’s standing watching the news in the living room.
I quickly stuff the cheese in my mouth and the biscuits into my bag and run upstairs to brush my teeth.
Like always, Mum hands me my lunchbox when I’m putting my shoes on in the hall and she waits at the door until I reach the path that leads to Rinah’s house so we can wave. From her house, me and Rinah walk together, following Main Street all the way to the round-about, where we turn into High Road and through the school gate onto the path that leads to the playground.
On the way I tell Rinah about the breakfast disaster and she tells me she tripped on the stairs when sneaking down for some milk in the middle of the night because she was hungry and couldn’t sleep.
We share all our mother troubles every day, just like we share my muesli bar and peanut butter dough balls and her banana for lunch. When it rains, we eat in class, but today it’s dry, so we take our lunches out of their boxes the moment the bell goes and run to the benches in front of the teachers’ room to share our food there.
Mum makes me four slices of bread now that I’m in Year Six because she thinks I need more energy, but she doesn’t know I asked for them so Rinah won’t be hungry at school. Rinah doesn’t get peanut butter anymore ever since the school told all the parents that the allergic boy in Year One will die if he touches peanut butter. But Mum says she won’t let me go hungry for a child I never even see, so she just warned me to wash my hands after lunch and to pack the leftovers back into the box so nothing can happen. But we never have leftover peanut butter, only Rinah’s sourdough with cheese and that’s not dangerous in the bin.
At the end of recess we go to the canteen and buy potato chips with our snack money and, just in case Rinah doesn’t like her dinner, we go to my house after school to have cookies and ice cream while we watch Animal Planet.
“I’m fed up,” Mum says at dinnertime and pulls away my plate, where my macaroni people on the edge have just been covered with a cheese avalanche. “You play with your food when it’s nice and warm and then you won’t eat it when it’s gone cold. I’ve had it, Yvonne, I’m not making you any more macaroni. You can have milk and cereal for all your meals from now on.”
I shrug to say I don’t care. She tried to make us eat cereal every day once before when she had “a phase”, but then she worried about the vitamins and started making extra fruit salads until it was easier to just cook macaroni, beans and tatties again.
“You never eat, yet you’re full of energy, which means you must be burning sugar,” she complains.
“I didn’t have any sugar.”
“Well, I think we should cut down on after-school snacks. Especially now you’ve given up on Saturday gym as well.”
“I didn’t give up, but it’s no fun without Rinah.”
“So why did Rinah give up? I thought she was really good at gym.”
“She just didn’t want to go anymore,” I tell her.
“Maybe you should try and find another sport you both like.”
But there isn’t any sport I can think of that I’d want to try.
Dad puts down his fork and pushes his empty plate away. “That was nice,” he says. “But could we have something other than tatties tomorrow? If I eat any more of those I’m going to turn into a couch potato.”
He pulls a face, but Mum doesn’t think it’s funny. “I asked you this morning what you wanted and you said you didn’t know!”
“I can’t think about dinner at breakfast time,” Dad says.
“Neither can I, but I have to do the shopping. I’m not doing it anymore. And I won’t do any more dishes.”
Mum slams the plates back down onto the table and drops the tea towel down beside it. Then she leaves to sit in the living room with the TV on, so Dad has to clear the table and do the dishes, and he makes coffee at the same time. “She’s pouting,” he says to us. “She needs a rest. She hates cooking.”
“At least she doesn’t go into that ‘poor kids are starving’ routine,” Laura says, drying off the dishes so I can put them in the cupboard. “I can cope with pouting.”
“And with complaining,” I agree and all three of us have a secret giggle about that.
Mum always pouts and complains about food. For everything else she’s a really fun mum to have, but when it comes to food she’s complained for as long as I remember. It’s like a theme song.