The Lemon Table, by Julian Barnes is a collection of eleven sweet and acerbic stories centered around the theme of life leading up to death. Barnes so vividly portrays each character, whose circumstances as they reach the ends of their lives are as varied as their responses, that you will recognize yourself or a family member within the pages.
“The Appetite” was at first my least favorite story, but it has stayed with me. I hear the voice of Viv’s husband who was once so tender as to declare, “Viv, I want to have a long affair with you, after we’re married.” Now at the end of their marriage, senility has made him prone to vial and vulgar outbursts but there are still occasional spots of brilliance where the name of a place might bring back a memory told with words that paint a picture. More and more though, Viv must be content with a simplistic banter that holds a meaning all its own. Each repeated word, an echo of his former self.
Cup,” he repeats. By which he means he doesn’t like the way Americans give measures in cups, any fool knows how the size of a cup can vary. He’s always been like that, very precise. If he was cooking and a recipe said “Take two or three spoonfuls of something, ” he’d get ratty because he’d want to know if two was right or three was right, they can’t both be right, can they, Viv, one must be better than the other, it’s logical.”
Viv continues with what has now become their evening ritual. She waits till his eyebrows lift, signalling approval as she calls out dinner options from the cookbook. Oxtail Soup perhaps or maybe tonight it’s Steak and Kidney Pie. Steak and Kidney Pie. And so she reads the recipe aloud.
“Or,” he repeats disapprovingly.
“Three tablespoons butter or beef fat.”
“Or,” he says louder.
“Seasoned flour. Two cups brown stock.”
“One cup dry red wine or beer.”
“Cup,” he repeats. “Or,” he repeats. Then he smiles.
And for a moment I’ll be happy.
As stated earlier, it is easy to find bits of ourselves in the characters Barnes puts forth. I relate to a moment in “The Appetite” when Viv reflects on the irony of her current situation:
From the start he had the better memory, that’s the joke of it. I used to think that I’d be able to rely on him, on him remembering; in the future, I mean. Now I look at the pictures of some weekend break in the Cotswolds twenty years ago and think, where did we stay, what’s that church or abbey, why did I photograph this forsythia hedge?”
Partners remember and notice different things. He makes sense of the map while I can’t take my eyes off the people. He remembers the name of the churches while I remember how they felt. When you’ve been together for just so long, you let go of having to know or concern yourself with the things that don’t interest you when you know someone else is tracking them. It’s not that you can’t, you just don’t.
When I first went back to living on my own, I quickly discovered and took pleasure in the fact that I could handily install light fixtures, assemble furniture, and put up my own blinds and curtain rods. Guys have these things called tools, I realized. Once you learn how to use them, its takes all the mystery away. And the funny thing is, the tools were always there.
Still, that pride in one’s independence is no doubt sweeter when there is someone to share it with. So when I turn to the recipe book to make something of the apples stored from my fall harvest for tomorrow’s book group discussion of The Lemon Table, I smile every time I see the word “cup” or think of a substitution to follow an “or.” Perhaps on a difficult day, Viv adds a “heaping cup” for good measure. On good days, it is enough just to be familiar. In recipes and in life, it is nice to have options. And in the end, precision is vastly overated.