A short story about Edith who can’t remember how to make an omelette. She may be losing her mind slowly or just rediscovering the joy of using the F word. There’s a little language, be warned if that’s offensive.
The omelette is gone.
“The fucking bastard!”
The well-loved chef’s pan is thrown into the sink, a foaming hiss of steam rising up and across the window.
Edith stands head down, tea towel over her shoulder with her hands pushing her frustration into the bench.
She checks and double-checks. Gas burner off. Off. Oven off. Off. Didn’t use the oven, she thinks, but just check again.
There is a small mound of flat-leaf parsley on the board. She opens the fridge and puts it slowly back into the packet. The indignity of herbs from a packet, she thinks. Slams the fridge door for emphasis to her thoughts.
Fucking bastard omelette.
Edith shakes her head slightly and purses her lips, running her tongue between her teeth and upper lip.
‘Is that a new habit or something I have always done?’ she wonders, reaching for the tea cup with some half-tepid green infusion. ‘Good for my health, those fucking nutters. If they weren’t my own children, I’d never drink this shit,’ the internal dialogue continues.
Her thumb catches on the lip of the cup as she picks it up. She likes to get a decent grip on it these days and because her mother is nowhere near, there can be no complaints about ladylike behavior.
“You’re 62, for fuck’s sake, Edith. You can hold the cup anyway you like!”
That was out loud, she realized. “Well done, love. Probably gave the neighbours a thrill with that one.”
That’s what the vague pricking sensation in her thumb was. The pain, if you could call it that (which Edith wouldn’t) from a tiny scratch on the tip of her thumb made by the bright, white edge of where the cup has chipped. She holds it closer to her face and sees a faint smudge of red.
Smash, crack, splatter.
Edith laughs out loud and keeps laughing. She has thrown the tea cup against the wall and now the shards sit on the floor in a kind of halo, while the green tea drips in long strands across the counter and down the cupboard door.
‘Would you look at the legs on that,’ Edith smirks (internally, of course). A quick calculation (she is fairly certain none of the kids will be back until the weekend) tells Edith she has at least two nights to clean it up because she is almost 100% confident it’s only Wednesday.
She walks to the fridge and looks at the lists pinned there.
Yes, definitely Wednesday. Thursday’s deadline is fast approaching.
On the next list, Edith looks at the fourth item listed and makes a single stroke next to it. She’ll try the omelette again tomorrow, she decides, but only twice – because it’s an omelette and if it’s still gone tomorrow, well, then damn it all to hell.
On the third list, the first five items are already crossed off. Edith has been making good progress here, but the sixth has proved problematic. Still, a Wednesday night at 6pm should be perfectly reasonable to walk up and get a table, she surmises with confidence.
She moves through the kitchen with a kind of graceful efficiency you would expect from someone who accomplishes an omelette with ease; the apron off and hung in the nook beside the pantry. Tea towel back over the oven rail and a decisive ‘Whack!’ as the cookbook closes.
She picks up her cellphone and calls the cab company from speed dial. “Yes, thanks. Just one from 23 Macintosh. Ready now.” Click.
You must be efficient wherever possible. Don’t waste words and risk getting caught in a conversation or train of thought that isn’t precisely about the current task.
Edith’s inner monologue is full of these little commandments. Of course, there is a wryness to her thinking, because if she followed half her own advice half as well as she ought, then she probably would’ve already crossed this restaurant out weeks ago.
She makes her quick revision of tasks as she prepares to leave the house; first handbag, then checking the list inside it. Keys, phone, purse, notebook, lipstick. Ok. Next the bathroom; taps off. Off. She sees the light of the bedside lamp as she moves down the hall and into the kitchen. Oven and elements all off. Off. Fridge closed. Ok.
A brief pause at the hallway mirror to reapply her lipstick.
‘Really? This I can do with my eyes closed or basically in the dark, but I can’t make an omelette without burning the pan?I’
She hears the cab pull up and triumphantly emerges from the front door before the horn toots. Edith is secretly pleased with her efficiency in the last hour. There is a burnt pan in the sink and the remnants of a tea cup on the kitchen floor but she has managed to escape the house in the blink of an eye and feels much closer to achieving Thursday’s goal already.
“Table for one, ma’am?”
“Yes, thank you. By the window, if you can. I’ll have mineral water to begin, also. Not tap. Ok?”
“Of course. Follow me.”
Pleasant, but not overly endearing, Edith thinks. The seat by the window looks lovely, a nice view of the rest of the small suburban bistro, yes – this will do. A decent slice of the kitchen is visible but nothing is too theatrical in the fit-out. Pleasant, but not too pretentious.
She picks up the cutlery, getting used to the feel of it in her hands. It’s weighty and well-balanced. There is some relief in this, as last week a fork had unexpectedly slipped from her grasp and left streaks of marinara sauce all over her pale pink blouse.
Edith used to relish these nights, inviting friends and dragging them around the city to every new and favourite haunt. They used to simply decide on the night which restaurant on the list they would choose. Her husband used to refer to it as ‘The List’. It was, for a long time, the only list.
Now Edith has a list for nearly everything. A list in the handbag to make sure she’s never without what she needs. A list beside the telephone in the hallway of names, numbers and when to call. Edith believes that list is going a step too far. So far she hasn’t missed a single appointment or even needed to use the list, but the kids are always going on about things like that.
Focus. It’s simply a matter of maintaining focus. Which is why she takes a cab now, instead of driving. Easier to stay focused on the task. A single restaurant or location. Simple.
“Oh yes, hello.” Edith is a little startled but finds herself talking to the pleasant maître d again.
Just typical to lose track of myself while I’m thinking about focus. Dammit. Also, funny. Keep your sense of humor at all times.
“Have you had a chance to review the menu? Perhaps I could tell you about the specials?”
“Yes, that would be fine.”
He smiles gently.
Ahh, that’s it. He’s not quite figured out if I am happy or sad to be dining alone. Not sure what to say so he’s keeping it bland. It’s ok, we’ll manage.
“Excellent. Well, we have the scallops in fresh today with a cauliflower cream with a orange, pomegranate dressing and pickled radish to start. And we have a beef daub on offer, made with a cheek, and really, it’s very good. It comes with the potato dauphine and beans, very traditional.”
“I see. I’ll have the prawn ravioli to start and the scallop. The daub sounds good. So yes, I’ll have one of those. And some wine – just a single glass, with the main course. A Burgundy, if you have it?”
“Of course. Would you like to choose..”
“No, I’m sure you can make a suitable match. I’m very happy to leave it to you.”
“..well, ok then.” He smiles again, the gracious host.
Edith has been eating alone since her husband left, early last year. Choosing the wine feels exhausting. She’s getting used to it again. It’s the sort of thing she did frivolously when she was younger. It was always exciting to eat some place in a new city or just some place new in the same old city she lived in every day. But then, at a certain age it seemed less graceful and certainly less efficient to eat alone. You can only get through so many tastes and dishes, and no reviewer wants to visit a place three times to get a sense of the chef.
Of course, when she was starting out, that was almost exactly the opposite of what Edith did. She would order always from the menu, never the specials. Always choose her own wine. Always some witty conversation with the front of house staff. Not so much now. Now, a single three course meal will be enough to make her mind up about whichever young chef is behind the pass.
Well, she thinks, two starters is hardly excessive, right? Not that it matters. Can’t remember if it started before Brian left or after, but I can eat what I like these days and it melts away. Harder to keep my pants up than his. Bastard.
First, or was it second? Anyway, my damn memory, Brian and now the fucking bastard omelette. Just gone. Perhaps a few other things along the way, but that’s the crux of it, isn’t it?
Edith realizes she has been chuckling out loud.
Great, now they all think I’m a raving lunatic too. But I’m not, am I? No. Everything is perfectly fine, actually. I have lists, I stay focused. I am doing alright. After all, I’ve even got my confidence back. Look at me, eating alone. Right, lady. Assume the posture, back straight and a slight smile. Hands gently resting on the table. Don’t let the smile hit your eyes, yes, that’s it. Mysterious, graceful. Don’t think about the tea cup or the omelette any more. Nobody feels sorry for you, they’re just curious.
Edith begins to let her eyes roam the room. This is not breaking the commandment of focus, instead it is her focus. There is a young couple she imagines on a first or second date. Their conversation is still a little stilted from time to time. It is easy to imagine the young woman is not sure of the man in front of her.
In a lovely parallelism, she notices an older couple at the table opposite. Then balks internally as she realizes that it’s actually a couple about the same age she is. Dammit. Squinting slightly, she wonders if it’s actually Paul and Rachel, who had that son Dave, who went to school with her Lachlan. It’s just a little too far to really see for certain. People age so differently anyway. It’s probably nothing. Stay focused.
Slowly Edith makes her way around the room, noticing each party and noticing especially those that notice her. The maître d has been remarkably attentive all night, a lovely touch.
The courses pass from first into third, until finally Edith takes out her notebook and the pen which is easier to grasp. Damn Holly for being right about that, if not the green tea.
Notes fly furiously into the notebook, little wee sketches. A little exclamation here and there. The scallop was lovely, Chef was right to make it a special but if Edith isn’t turning into cauliflower cream one of these days she’ll be surprised. The ravioli was indulgent (three underlines), a code for butter and cream. The daub was delicious and the cheek was a very good idea. Everything else was a little bland about it though. Edith had reached to the salt dish twice for the beans.
Just like that, the meal is done and disappeared. Edith asks the lovely maître d to order the cab and settles that she will leave a suitable tip.
As she settles the bill, she asks “Are you open for breakfast ever? More specifically, I mean to ask, does your chef make an omelette?”
“Ah, yes. Yes, we open for breakfast in the weekends. From 8am on Saturday and Sunday. And the omelette is quite good.”
“Excellent. I got my first kitchen job making omelettes. Dozens in a day. Short order cook, that’s where I started. Maybe I’ll come back. Thank you again. Good night.”
Edith checks her watch while sitting in the back seat of the cab. It’s stopped at 3.22. She’s forgotten to wind it but who knows for how many days. Instead she reaches into her handbag for her phone. There is a text message from Sarah, the editor.
‘Copy due by 9am. Will you be on time?’
8.53pm seems like a suitable time to get home for a Wednesday. I can get that copy done in time. Perfectly acceptable to work late whether I’m 62 or not. Oh dear, am I 62? Or is it 63 now? What was that last birthday card from Holly and Lachlan? Oh shit, shit, shit.
“Are you ok?” the cab driver interjects.
“What? Oh, I’m sorry. Was that out loud? I’m so sorry.” Edith blushes slightly, feeling her cheeks and ears reddening. It’s one thing to be caught out when throwing a tea cup or swearing at a burned omelette but it’s worse when you’re frustrated with yourself about losing track of things like your own age.
“It’s ok, as long as you’re alright. My mrs always chooses the lowest one, if it helps. She’s been 48 for five years, I reckon.”
“I’m not sure it helps, but thanks all the same.”
“Alright then love. No harm meant.”
Edith is standing in the kitchen, observing the burnt pan and smashed tea cup. There was a time when this would have seemed an ideal opportunity to procrastinate against a deadline, but those times have passed.
They went sometime ago and now Edith is just tired. Lists are exhausting and spending so much time trying to remember to remember is even worse. She knows the window is short to get the copy done and there’s no time to feel sorry for herself right now.
Tomorrow, when she sweeps up the porcelain, scrubs the pan and mops the floor, will be the perfect time to wonder how the omelette slipped out of her grasp to begin with or how many more dishes on her list will be scratched out next month.
Perhaps it is the sign they were looking for with the last scan, that this is more than just forgetting the odd thing here and there and occasionally leaving a pot on the stove. It’s like my wrist had just forgotten how to hold the spoon. Does it get worse than losing your mind?
Edith had jollied everyone along in the beginning, convincing them that dementia was just her brain taking a lovely little holiday every so often. So much so that she would barely notice and then one day, they could slip her off into care and she’d be none the wiser.
It was just taking so much longer than she had expected and surprisingly, Edith was fighting it harder than she thought she would. She’d had so desperately wanted to be graceful about it and slip away quietly. But people made it so easy to fight. She’d said to Sarah, there was no point a chef writing restaurant reviews anymore, when the chef can’t remember how to cook.
Nonsense, Sarah had said, you still know what good taste is. And then there were the puzzle games, the mind teasers, the physiotherapists. The green tea from the kids. Even Brian had tried eating salmon for dinner each week, despite hating it.
Ha! Scramble Brian and you get brain. Both my problems summed up.
Edith flicked on the table lamp, opened her laptop and reached for the notebook out of her bag. There was no pretending that these five hundred words would make or break that young chef’s career but now, it was the summation of hers. All those years in the kitchen, all those years eating and writing. All those years dining alone, then with friends and now alone again; Edith and the food, Edith and the kitchen. Edith, one old chef and these new, younger, still inspired and unbroken ones.
There are more restaurant reviewers and bloggers in this city now than restaurants, thought Edith. I’m glad I’m not cooking for them.
Less than half of those know how to really cook or what it’s like in a kitchen. Less than half of those can actually write. At least I have that. I’m witty enough for now and I’m never writing about cauliflower cream again. I’ll stop when I’m no longer witty. There’s a boundary I can live with. Right. Now here’s my thirty years and your ten, kiddo. Let’s see what we can tell people about your food.
From: Sarah Smith (Editor).
To: Edith Bradbury
Date: Thursday 7 March
Subject: How’s the omelette?
Thanks for the copy. Late night was it? Great copy, I’ve sent it to sub. Sending someone in for photos. Don’t forget your expenses this month. You know what I mean. That’s not a joke about the.. thing.
What I really want to know is how the omelette challenge is going? How many have you crossed off the list? I’ve been thinking about doing a feature and wondered if one of our seniors here might interview you.
It’s the list thing, Edi. Got me really fascinated about how you’re trying to keep track of things and I’m wondering if we shouldn’t just out you now – woohoo, big reveal, our chef’s critic all these years has been…. Edi Bradbury! Then swoop into the inner world of your diagnosis.
What do you think? I just think you’ve been so funny and smart about the whole thing and you’ve really got the strategy down so far. Hope you’re not offended, but I had to ask. I know you said you were just going to let your brain go on holiday but you’ve got so much left to give. Imagine how this might help people. Let me know what you think.
Much love – don’t forget next week’s copy is due by Wednesday instead. Short week.
Edith measures the weeks in omelettes. If it comes together in the morning, soft but holding together and sliding gently onto the plate, she knows it will be a good day. Some weeks measure six omelettes, some only three. She hasn’t told the kids about this system yet; they’ve stopped taking notice of the list on the fridge. She’s in the clear for now, so she’s started a new list. Public outbursts and sweary emails. She can’t decide if there should be more or less of them, though. Like many new ideas that come along now, Edith is happy enough with the concept of a thing rather than the specific numbers. Somewhere, in a slightly fuzzy thought, she knows eventually the numbers will tell a story about what happens next. But at least for now they are her ideas about how to measure things and not someone else’s. So fuck words and omelettes it is.
From: Edith Bradbury
To: Sarah Smith (Editor).
Date: Wednesday 13th March
Copy attached and on time for this week’s deadline. Getting a reminder at the beginning of the month about this month’s expenses may be slightly over the top. I’ll get them done, but remind me again next week. I’ve put it on a list (see below).
In response to your other request; sorry about the delay. Wish I could say I’d forgotten you asked it, but I hadn’t.
In short, FUCK OFF.
If you want some dizzying witticisms about living with the knowledge that you’re slowly going completely insane and losing every sense of what is normal in the world in slow-motion, I’ve created a list.
- You swear a lot more. You swear all the time and sometimes it happens out loud when you’re not meaning too. People stare. It frightens the children, including your own.
- You sometimes lose track of when you’re talking to yourself out loud or just having a thought.
- The lists are pointless. They’re the things I’ll likely never forget or just insufferable burdens that make me walk around the house three times before I’m comfortable to leave the house.
- Everyone worries about you all the time, so much so that you start to feel as incompetent as people worry you are.
- Some days you want to put up a fight and make the effort (and those are most of my days) but actually, then the kids think you’re having a good day and get their hopes up. Frankly it’s exhausting. We all know I’m too young to die in my sleep without a miracle and so I will have to lose my mind slowly. It’s terrifying.
- Some days you don’t want to fight at all. You wish you could slide into oblivion in the land of happy memories you do have so that you don’t have to watch the sad faces of your children, or your friends, or waiters in the restaurant who don’t even know why you’re just so damn tired that you can’t order a glass of wine for yourself.
- Actually, waiters can be your best friend because you don’t have to try and remember anything but to tip them and they don’t know I’m not meant to be drinking.
- It’s lonely. For everyone. Me, the kids. My friends. Everyone. And don’t get me started on worrying about what will happen with the lists don’t work.
- As for the omelettes. I’ve eaten them every fucking day for a week. With goats cheese, tomato, with bacon and brie and those damn microgreens which I wish they’d stop selling at supermarkets. The omelette went on a little holiday in my brain somewhere and came straight back as soon as I remembered what my wrist is meant to do to get that lovely soft texture and perfect pillowy fold.
Feel free to ask me again next month.
I may be less inspired by the omelette diet or even better for you, I may have forgotten you asked the first time by then. Right now, I cannot imagine sharing how truly lonely this journey is with anyone. I’d rather eat out alone for the rest of my life. At least then, there’s still mystery about it.
With efficiency and focus,
*Edith has dementia, diagnosed relatively early. She is losing not just memories but abilities while trying to decide whether to resist or accept the changes happening to her. While Edith is a fictional character, I’ve learned much about dementia and related diseases through my step-father’s illness.