When we meet Leah, the central figure of Sharon Millar’s short story, “Earl Grey”, she is trying to keep her thoughts well below room temperature. The room she’s in is the sweltering, westward-facing kitchen of a Santa Cruz cocoa estate house on the mend, run by Leah and her comparatively unruffled husband, Henri. Leah isn’t given to a coolness of touch, most times, but it matters more than mildly now that she create a perfect quiche, because Henri’s mother, Sally, is visiting the estate for the first time, to have tea. To Leah’s mind, the formidable Sally, a matriarch of tea parties that manage to be both inventive and exquisite, will be expecting nothing less than perfection, and a cool-handedness that Leah hasn’t previously been able to plate up. According to Henri, all his mother will require boils down to far less than what Leah imagines. As the hour of Sally’s arrival looms closer, and Leah’s quiche takes a less-than-savoury turn for the worse, the question of what the mother in law will receive begins to linger as oppressively as the midafternoon Trinidad sun.
Sharon Millar’s writing is as necessary and brutal as a matador witnessing his first bullfight, which seems an odd analogy given the apparent domesticity of a story like “Earl Grey”. Culinary and cultivating notions infuse the narrative: Leah follows (and detracts) from a quiche recipe primed for the sublime; she savours this science of cooking far less than the pleasure of a fresh cocoa pod, brought to her by Henri as a palliative against his mother’s arrival. These ideas of growth and fruition permeate the text, signalling that the relationships between what can be harvested, and what might be prepared, aren’t always seamless or simpatico. We can engage in food-artistry that turns the stomach, even if it appears from the oven like a master-quiche maker’s dream.
Leah’s relationship with her mother-in-law both embodies and transcends the expectations of well-chronicled bacchanal surrounding two women who pick at the same and separate ribs of a man, tugging for prominence on either side. Millar conducts these palpable and unseen tensions so convincingly that we feel we’ve rather taken the measure of the sublimely awful Sally without having heard her own voice on the page. We feel for Leah, with her earnest, pathetic quiche-wrangling, whether or not we’ve got crotchety husband-or-wife-mothers of our own, lurking in the recesses of our every misstep, judging while offering platitudes that are barely half-baked. Leah’s expectations, projected onto the surface of the pastry that has not yet disappointed her, are clearly defined islands of hurt, bound up with good intentions. In her anticipations for the serene procession of the evening’s events, one reads the dismantling of past attempts at graceful encounters, of the dogged desire to be thought useful, presentable, well-manicured.
“She imagines the quiche, perfectly ﬂuted at the edges, the pastry lightly browned, the bacon, spinach, and tomatoes in layers of green and brown and red. She has become a woman who can make a quiche and this woman has cool hands. She will serve the quiche to her mother-in-law. They will sit on the lawn. Leah will be careful to invite Sally to sit in the garden, not the yard. She will chat amicably about the small joys of the farm, the pleasures of seeing the cocoa move from jewel coloured pod to rich dark chocolate.”
What stings the worst (and therefore, the best) about “Earl Grey” that it’s a short story obliquely about cooking but persistently about failure. As Leah is forced to consider, the burnt edges of our incompatibilities with others will pursue us, even in the places we feel comfortable, even in land that’s our own to claim proudly. Nowhere, and nowhere, are we immune to the smoother, sharper hands of another, telling us all we need to know about ourselves by embodying everything that we ourselves are not. That Millar reigns in this modulated torment in even swathes of unerring exposition is a semaphore to her rich, bruising talent. The story hurts and compels, and we want more. We want to see what lies on the other side of ruined savouries and reanimated cocoa estates, what beats in the hearts of complex, guarded women offering up too much of themselves in the service of wrongsided idols. “Earl Grey” reads briskly, the length, perhaps, of a tightly palmed cup of chai, but if your pulse is attuned to short fiction that navigates delicate terrain searingly, then you will need to read it again, with several cups of tea and many aching wonderments within arm’s reach.
You can read “Earl Grey” by Sharon Millar here. (Draconian Switch, .pdf – allow a minute or two for full issue to load.) Author photograph by Ross Millar.
Story Sundays was created by Fat Books and Thin Women as a way to share appreciation and engage in discussion on the short fiction, which often receives less attention than full-length novels. All stories discussed are available to read free, online. Here’s Fat Books and Thin Women’s Story Sunday archive, and here’s mine.