When they said they were already on the way, I slowed them down by asking them to buy wine from the corner shop. They knew by now that any old bottle would do, that whatever they bought would only ever be the aperitif for something far greater, that my whole life had been leading up to a moment which would reveal itself later as the right moment. The shower I still had to take, the food I still had to cook, all of it would be the sharp downhill before we launched ourselves into the unknown later tonight.
Two stress-filled hours later, all the while smiling sweetly at my guests, I laid down steaming plates of food. In my panic, I had excelled myself. Conversation followed the kind of lines it would if you’d spent a year indoors on your own. Hugs fell in storms. They were, of course, too polite to confirm what we all felt coming. Better to teeter on the edge of hope than be so brazen as to unleash disappointment. I understood where they were coming from. This was Britain after all. And so throughout talk of medical emergencies, stilted attempts at angry politics and the sauce on who had broken up with whom over lockdown, this thing hung in the background like a uniform waiting to clear the plates. They ate fast and had seconds, praising the food to high heaven. I gave myself a mental pat on the back. I had come through. The food-lovers were loving the food.
Dessert plates licked clean, I lit some candles. The moment that was to come was one to be savoured. After they had listed off the six – or was it seven? – trips they had planned throughout the remainder of the year, a silence fell that was not easy to climb out of. I looked my tablemates in the eyes.
“Is it time?”
No one dared answer.
“Is it time?” I repeated.
“I think it’s time,” one said.
“I think it’s time, too.”
I pushed back my chair and got up, Chianti in my bones. Focus, I told myself. You’ve got an important mission ahead of you. Pushing open the door to the cellar, I made my way down into darkness. Some bugger had put the light switch half-way down the stairs, so the first six – or was it seven? – were a complete guess. The light popped on, revealing the cobwebs that clung to it. Here were my beauties, kept dark and cold in row upon row of metal shelving. I could feed an army for a week with this. But I wasn’t about to get in touch with the barracks just yet. Oh no. My beauties wanted savouring, swilling round the mouth, time to let their full flavours take hold. On the wall there hung a chalk board. 1996 read one annotation. 1974 read another. I moved along the rows in the narrow basement, running my fingers through the dust that had assembled on their hard outer shells. The bits of floorboard and dead skin had been waiting for this moment too. I stopped two thirds of the way in, picking one up. “1989 – Heinz Beans. Pairs well with sublime conversation and evening merriment.” I weighed the tin in my hand, rolled it in my palm, carried it back towards the stairs as one would a baby. Emerging into the hall, I heard a sharp inhale of breath. As I walked back into the living room, tin cradled in my hands, the expectation hung in the air like sunlight picking out dust mites. Placing it down, I went to my case for my tools. A sterling silver tin-opener. A pair of white gloves. Four crystal bowls, four engraved spoons, a cut-glass decanter. Carefully, I wiped the tin down with a cloth. I left it standing on the table for a moment for the eyes to linger on.
“1989, ladies and gentlemen, this one has seen it all. Fall of the Berlin Wall. I wasn’t even alive yet.” I stopped to take a mouthful of wine. “You’ll note aromas of being by the sea, snuffed candles and falling in love for the first time.”
Carefully, so as not to damage the label, I pierced the lid, then bent down to breathe in that which had remained sealed for over thirty years. It carried me to far-off places that weren’t even really places. It sparked neurons whose existence I had forgotten about. In this tin lay my route back to myself. Older tins are stiffer than the newer ones, and this one took quite some effort to prize open. At first, all you see is sauce, its bubbles reaching up for the wide open sky. I took a spoon and the surface broke around its edges. This was the moment of truth. The spoon sunk into the obscured beans with ease, the consistency like pushing through wet rice. My hard work in turning the cans had not been in vain. Turn them too little, and the bottom beans become compacted. Turn them too much and they all turn to mush. I had hit the sweet spot. I turned the spoon, careful not to spill a drop of sauce, allowing every bean the time to become acquainted with the outside world again. When they were all recoated, I removed the spoon and poured the tin into the decanter. Sitting back down, I let out a contented sigh.
In an hour, we could eat.
Oliver Cable is a writer and poet based in London, whose writing seeks out the knife-edge of reality, where dreams, metaphor and reality merge. His debut novel, Fresh Air and Empty Streets, was published in 2016. His writing has appeared in Athleta, Devon Life, Maintenant, Corvus Review, Across the Margin and The A3 Review. Twitter: @CableWrites Website: www.olivercable.com