The Pepper Grinder
For her birthday, George’s wife had received a pepper grinder. It was a large object, certainly. ‘Unreasonably large’ according to George, who had spent the last week in a private fervour — muttering under his breath as he washed up, simmering with intensity as he hoovered, gurning inwardly as his anger rippled between head and neck before being gulped into his stomach and funnelled into the plush carpet pile. As ever, the source of his rage was unclear. Even before the pepper grinder incident, his six-year-old son Casper would draw stick-thin pictures of him with a grey scribble above his head. He’d learned to tiptoe past him as he sat staring dead-eyed into the newspaper every evening. He’d turned it into an espionage game — George as a slumbering guard and Casper as an insurgent spy — a two litre bottle of diet lemonade as his mission objective. Occasionally, his wife would allow a trembling hand to rest upon his lap as he drove. George tolerated this, no more and no less, and their car journeys took place in a stiffly-rehearsed silence.
The pepper grinder itself stood at around ten inches high and was the sort of gift you might find in the Home section of TK Maxx. Smooth, wooden, contoured, monolithic. Few would ever purchase such an item for themselves, yet for a certain cross-section of people it represented a flattering gift. A tasteful gift. A gift that loosens the joints of dinner-party conversation and speaks to the cosmopolitan aspirations of the owner. George’s wife moved her lips as a single painted nail followed the blurb on the back of the cardboard box in which it came. “A unique grinding experience,” she said, half to herself, half to George, her hands becoming accustomed to its surprising weight, her eyes gliding up and down its cumbersome length. “The ultimate accessory in refined and luxurious kitchenalia,” she whispered, and with each word she fell deeper in lust, the syllables dripping from her mouth and pooling beneath her as she bathed in the glow of her new possession. From his island on the opposite side of the living-room, George compacted a fist-sized ball of wrapping paper between his little hands.
George’s wife cupped the grinder in both hands and carried it over to the table with a prim smile. “You’ll think I’ve put too much sherry in the trifle if I tell you this George, but honestly — and I mean it this time — I really am quite taken with this whole thing. I mean, I’ve always had this feeling that we’ve never been as attentive to detail as we might’ve been — I’m talking about us both as a couple here, not just you.” She stopped to plump a row of cushions before continuing, “It’s the simple things really, but I’ve always felt you’re defined by what you overlook as much as what you include. Take toilet roll for instance, have you noticed the triple-ply at Diane’s house? It’s quilted, George, and in all three bathrooms as well. I mean, who in the world ever thinks about toilet roll?” She laughed as she climbed the stairs, “But this is precisely my point, the devil is in the details, after all.”
As her footsteps receded, George exhaled. He picked up his car keys and considered driving out to the nearest retail park. He could leave a note. He could say he’d gone to look at timber to finish the cat-house he’d started in vain last spring, though of course that would only renew his commitment to the failed project. He scanned the garden through the French double-doors, looking out into the drizzle and beyond the mangled heap of wood that had earned him the nickname of ‘Half-job Harry.’
“I’m going out,” he called from the foot of the stairs.
“In this weather? Where on earth to?”
“To mow the lawn.”
“Well,” came the reply as she folded the bed-linen, “I’m happy you’re making yourself useful at least. Just don’t make a half-job of it will you?”
That evening, after the lawn had been thoroughly dealt with and he’d driven to the out-of-town tip to dispose of the grass cuttings, the couple sat down to dinner and had their view of each other obscured by the newest addition to the family. It stood squarely in the middle of the table, and its usage became a ritualised pre-cursor to every evening meal. They would take turns grinding it, and George would smile dimly across the table, aware of the minimum obligations required to prevent an altercation. Casper wasn’t old enough to need seasoning, but his mother would pretend to sprinkle it liberally over his pasta pesto, smiling at the immaculate theatre of it all.
Before long, the minutiae of the grinder took on an intimate familiarity. George would stare at the remnants of the ‘Reduced to Clear’ price tag that he’d been unable to pick off. He would study the way the light glinted from the small circular dial that controlled the pepper’s coarseness. He examined the shape of the bevelled wood, imagining the tools and processes in which he himself would make it, should the reason ever arise. But no, George resolved. Even if he inherited a fortune, even if the lottery made him a millionaire tomorrow, even if he struck upon oil in his own back-garden, a man of his integrity would never, ever value a pepper grinder at fourteen pounds and ninety nine pence.
Weeks passed, but George’s obsession remained undimmed. When his wife was at work, he would get his tape measure and compare the dimensions of the grinder to the specifications on the box. He would search eBay and find similar items, growling under his breath. He adjusted the dials and sprinkled grains of differing coarseness on individual pieces of kitchen paper that he’d lined up in advance. Sometimes, he would hide it out of sight altogether, making sure it was back in its rightful place before his wife came home. One evening, as his wife bent over his shoulder to straighten his knife and fork, he wetted his lips and decided to confront the issue head-on.
“Darling,” he said, feeling the muscles in his back tightening.
“Darling,” he repeated.
His wife turned around, wiping her fringe away as it fell across her flushed, heart-shaped face. “What is it George? And why haven’t you laid the kitchenalia properly?”
“It’s about the -” he reached to the centre of the table, accidentally knocking the hand-held games console of his son’s hand as he did so.
“Dad!” Casper screeched impulsively, “You idiot, I’d nearly completed that level!”
“Shut up,” George seethed, silencing the clattering device with the palm of his hand. “And don’t you dare tell your mum I said that.” Casper watched in horror as the green power LED flicked to a dormant red. His tiny lungs began to spasm and teardrops pin-pricked in his eyes. He steadied himself and took the deepest breath he could before his Dad jumped across the table and forced the dead console back into his hands.
“Look, nothing’s wrong with it — look, Daddy can play it too now, come on, let’s play togeth-
“No,” his son slammed on the brakes, his wild eyes burrowing into his father’s. “You ruined it,” his plump little face grew crimson with anger and he shook as he repeated himself, “You ruined the best part.”
“What’s ruined?” George’s wife appeared from behind them both. She had muted her Simply Red CD and now the air was thick with silence.
“What is it? Casper? George? Either of you?”
George rose to his feet, and cleared his throat.
“It’s nothing. Well, it’s not exactly nothing. But it’s something I should have said a long time ago, only there never seemed the right time.” He twisted a corner of napkin between his thumb and forefinger, considering his phrasing carefully.
“And now - seeing as we’re all gathered here together - I think we all need to have a little conver-”
“Are you quite finished?”
“Finished? I’m not even star-”
“This is not how a civilised family behaves at mealtimes.” His wife said, waving a slatted spoon at both of them. “Do you think Diane and Jeremy have bun-fights at the dining table? Hm? Just think, if there were a video-recorder taping all of this, how’d you think they’d react? Are we commoners now? Is that what we are?”
George stole away from his wife’s gaze and in one swift movement grasped the pepper grinder and held it aloft like a sceptre.
“This should have come as a pair,” he announced.
His wife’s eyes narrowed to regard George with a mixture of curiosity and pity. Casper put both his hands over his mouth and stifled a giggle.
“I’ve been thinking about it and… and I really feel like this should have come as a pair.” He rose to his feet and hovered next to his wife, resting a single hand on the middle of her back as he spoke. She twitched as he lowered his mouth towards her ear.
“Did you…” he said, “Did you… get a gift receipt?”
“I don’t want to hear this George,” she replied, spooning roast potatoes from the baking tray into the ceramic serving bowl. “You know my sister is hardly the sort to remember a gift-receipt.” George nodded and removed his rimless glasses, raking a hand through his speckled, thinning hair. He tapped the arm of his glasses on the table as his wife spooned around him.
“It’s just that — these things really need to come in pairs,” he continued. “I mean a pepper grinder without a matching salt grinder, I can hardly imagine gifting your sister a solitary squash shoe, or, you know, one half of a pair of ornate vases.”
“What?” said Casper.
“What?” said George’s wife.
“Well, it becomes not really a gift in that sense, more of an obligation for a future purchase — don’t you think?”
“Are you being serious? You have a son who’s clearly upset about something or other and all you can do is berate your wife about a salt grinder?”
“Well, lack of salt grinder,” George corrected.
She scowled and pulled herself a chair. Meanwhile, Casper had scurried away and was jabbing his console with an impudent finger, sliding coloured beads across a screen and intermittently releasing spurts of laughter from the other room.
“I like it!” he shouted, dribbling and hysterical, “I mean it mum, I like pepper now!”
“You see?” said George’s wife. “We all like pepper. And I meant to buy some pink Himalayan peppercorns in time for Jeremy and Diane’s visit next week. You’ll be a dear and get them won’t you?”
“Yes dear,” said George.
“Good,” replied his wife. “Now, there’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about. It’s about that lawn. When exactly were you planning to finish mowing it?”