“Why did the checkout lady open up the egg box and stare at our eggs?” my daughter Zoe asked. “What was she looking for?” We had just finished our weekly food shop and were loading the bags into the car.
“She was just checking to make sure there were no bad ones,” I replied, shoving the last of the carrier bags into the boot of the Fiat Punto—a car big enough for our little family of two, but which had a lot to answer for in terms of storage space, especially when you added our dog Max into the mix.
Zoe fingered the hem of her unicorn hoodie. She’d worn it for six days straight and it was starting to show in the splotches and smudges splattered across the front. I made a mental note to peel it off when we got home and put it in the wash.
“But why would there be a bad egg?” she went on, and before I could answer, added, “How can an egg be bad?”
I shut the boot and helped clip her into her booster seat, trying to ignore the plastic wrappers and crumpled paper strewn almost artfully across the floor, the cracker crumbs sprinkled like snowflakes—or ash—across the seat. My ex-husband, Jack, used to vacuum out his car religiously every couple of weeks. In the months since our divorce, that job, like so many others I’d taken for granted, had been buried under a pile of more pressing everyday concerns. Like paying the bills. Working. Walking the dog. And simply trying to stay afloat.
“What about the bad eggs, Mum? What did they do?” my four-year-old prodded me.
I laughed as I put the key in the ignition, pressed down the clutch, and started the car. “It’s not what you think, sweetie. That lady was just looking for cracks. It happens sometimes—an egg gets jostled around and the shell cracks a little. It might just be a tiny crack, but sometimes it’s so big that the shell splits and all the goo comes out. But most eggs are fine. Most eggs are good.”
At that she started humming in her usual contented way—“Baby Shark,” by the sounds of it—a sign, I hoped, she’d shifted her thoughts to other, less troubling things than smashed eggs. Above all, I didn’t want any of my mess to ooze into her world.
* * *
My own mother was neurotic about food going bad and spoiling. Everything that she could put into the fridge, she did, even things that explicitly said “Do not refrigerate.” Peanut butter. Vinegar. Loaves of bread. Cookies. Dried fruit. Potatoes. Tea bags. Red wine. Marshmallows. “You have to make it last” was an often-repeated mantra in our home growing up. “It’s a crime to let good food spoil,” she would say, then throw away half of her sandwich because she wasn’t hungry, or pour an entire mug of undrunk coffee down the sink.
One thing we rarely had in the house was eggs. She was allergic; the very sight of an egg (or so she said) made her throat swell up and her stomach churn. So, unless it was a special occasion and we needed to make a cake, or decorate eggs for Easter, they were banned. And when we did have them in the house, they were a notable exception to the “put it in the fridge” rule, even though the carton clearly advised “Refrigerate after purchase.” When I challenged her on this point, she promptly silenced me by reminding me of her “allergy,” backed up by some flimsy explanation about how the eggs would taint the air in the fridge and spoil all the food for her. As far as I knew, eggs didn’t self-combust, so I didn’t get it. Nevertheless, I swallowed the argument like so many pills that adults feed children under the pretense of knowing what’s best.
So, we’d use two or three from a carton of twelve and the rest were left to fester on the counter until some unknown future date when they’d suddenly disappear, box and all, as if they’d never existed.
Whenever I had the chance to eat eggs, usually at my friend Jenny’s house—she had three hens—I relished the experience. Dippy eggs—the kind with the runny yolk—topped my list of favourite recipes. Once, after a sleepover, Jenny’s mum (who assuredly did not have an egg allergy) collected fresh eggs from the hens, popped them in boiling water for a few minutes, and served us each a warm egg in its own special little cup, with buttered toast cut into neat, small strips. I took the cue from Jenny and watched as she gently cracked the top of the egg, peeled off just enough shell to expose the bald white tip, and lopped off the crest with her spoon. Inside, the yolk puddled like magma, and she dipped a finger of toast into the orangey gloop. I soon followed suit, enjoying every last drip of yolk as if it were some illicit treat, like chocolate bars for breakfast. And in a way, it was.
* * *
Back home, I carried the bags inside, Max, our Border Terrier, bounding to the door to meet us, lathering Zoe with kisses as though she’d risen from the dead. She squealed happily, sitting down cross-legged in the hallway in a futile attempt to cuddle him, while Max wagged his stumpy tail maniacally, repeatedly whacking her in the face, prompting more shrieks. Not for the first time, I said a silent prayer of thanks to a God whose existence I doubted that we were able to keep the dog. Jack had fought hard to claim him as his own, but in the end I won that battle, at least, proving that all the vet bills had been paid with my credit card, as well as the food. Although it had been his idea to get a dog, his interest quickly faded—as it did with most things—after a few weeks. So, I shouldered the responsibility of walking Max daily, even after a long shift at the hospital, and when Zoe could, she tagged along. Her heartbreak at the thought of losing her dog, on top of her house and her father, would have been too much to bear.
As Zoe played, I unpacked the food, trying to be as methodical as I could, though organization had never been a strong point of mine. I still hadn’t gotten my head around the galley-style kitchen in our new house, with its limited cupboard space and scanty drawers already filled to bursting. A two-up, two-down terrace, it was a massive downsize from our—now Jack’s—three-storey townhouse. And while I conceded that Zoe and I didn’t need that much space, I couldn’t help but miss what we’d once had: airy, light-filled rooms; a well-tended back garden with a vegetable patch and fruit trees; and, shallow as it sounded, a big fridge/freezer in which I could comfortably fit a week’s worth of food. Our current unit was half the size, and filling it—never mind taking something out—required Jenga-like precision. Still, I reasoned, tucking the egg box into place on the bottom shelf, then topping it with a perfectly sized punnet of strawberries, this was better than the alternative. Wasn’t it?
* * *
I’d come home from school one day—I must have been around 11—to find the house empty, a hastily scrawled note left in the kitchen for me that read, “Had to take Grandma to the dr’s. Be back by 5. Love, Mum.” Behind the note, nestled in the corner of the counter, lay an almost full egg carton. We’d used three a few weeks previously to make Dad’s birthday cake, and for some reason my mum hadn’t got around to chucking it out just yet.
A sudden craving took hold—for a dippy egg, just like at Jenny’s house. Knowing I still had a good hour until my mother returned, I filled up a pan with water and put it on the hob to boil. From what I could remember, Jenny’s mum hadn’t cooked it for more than a few minutes—too long and it would be hard boiled and you wouldn’t have the telltale drippy yolk. So, as soon as I spied the rolling bubbles, I gently dropped a room-temperature egg in the pan, watching the water intently, as if it were a witch’s brew. Five minutes would do it, I estimated, setting the oven timer. In the meantime, I got a loaf of bread out of the fridge, plucked a cold slice from the top, and put it in the toaster.
My egg done and toast buttered, I sat down at the table to enjoy the banquet before me. A slight nervousness at the prospect of my mum’s untimely entrance added a certain thrill that I wouldn’t have associated with the predictable meat-and-potatoes fare normally served at that same table. Much to my delight, I found that the egg was indeed cooked perfectly, the gloopy consistency of the yoke just right. I dipped my toast into it, lifting it up with a flourish, the yolk dripping into my mouth.
Hmm…? I thought. I wanted it to be delicious, just as I remembered. But a slight sulfuric aftertaste lingered. Still, I finished it and cleaned up so that my mother would never know.
* * *
I’d just finished putting the shopping away when my mobile buzzed with a text from Jack: Can’t have Zoe this wk end. Something’s come up.
Though I shouldn’t have been surprised—it wasn’t the first time he’d done this since the divorce—it came as a blow. What was I going to tell my daughter? Despite his many shortcomings, he had been a decent father to Zoe. Never helped much in terms of the day-to-day drudgery that comes with raising a child, but he’d spend some time after work with her, willingly playing whatever role she’d cast him into in her imaginary world: Man with Broken Leg, Prince Charming, Shop Assistant, Ice Cream Parlour Customer. Sometimes she simply wanted him to be the Daddy, and she’d be the Mummy. In that role he excelled, cooing over whatever baby doll Zoe thrust into his arms and throwing himself into whatever chore she demanded of him. If only he were as good a father in real life. Or as good a husband.
My mind whirred with all the possibilities of the “something” that had come up. More likely “someone,” I thought, and the knowledge stung. Much as I wished to wash myself clean of his residue, I couldn’t, the tide of my mind ebbing and flowing with good memories as well as bad. It was his marriage proposal that was hardest to reconcile with the man he turned out to be. I’d come home after a late shift, in the early hours of the morning, to find a candle burning in the kitchen. Mentally chiding Jack for forgetting to extinguish it before he’d gone to bed, I blew it out, then headed up the stairs to the bathroom to find the bathtub rimmed with burning candles, the bath full of lavender-scented bubbles and Jack sitting inside it with an alluring smile on his face. In one hand he held a glass of champagne, perfectly chilled, which he raised to my lips. With the other he reached out, pulling me towards him. Crazy with lust—and love—I stripped off my clothes, stepped in, and had the most memorable sex of my life. Then, he proposed. Of course, I said yes.
* * *
My mum returned from her errand and never suspected anything was amiss. After the fact, I worried whether the lingering smell of soft-boiled egg would trigger some sort of anaphylactic attack, but I’d opened the windows, and the scent had wafted out for the most part, I hoped. At any rate, she didn’t mention it, and proceeded to shoo me out of the kitchen so she could get dinner started. That evening it was overcooked chicken with potatoes and green beans.
I awoke late that night with terrible stomach cramps, barely making it to the toilet before I threw up violently once, then twice, in quick succession. Sticky with sweat from heaving, I stood up, dizzy, and splashed some water on my face in an attempt to revive myself. At that point, my mum came in, her face creased with worry. “You’d better go lie down,” she said. “I’ll clean this up and bring a bucket to your bed in case it happens again.” I shuffled unsteadily back to my room and lay down, my head pounding and stomach lurching. Minutes later, my mum came in, placing a clammy hand on my forehead. “You feel a little warm,” she said. “Must have been something you ate.”
* * *
“Mummy?” Zoe said, sidling up to me as I stared blankly at the contents of the fridge, wondering what to make for dinner that evening. I still hadn’t told her about the scuppered weekend plans with her father. I’d figure that one out later.
“Yes, honey?” I replied.
“Could we have eggs tonight? The ones we bought at the shop?” Her little face lit up at the prospect.
“Sure, why not?” I said, pleased she’d unwittingly solved my dinner dilemma.
“Could we do it now?” she asked. “And could we watch TV while we eat our dinner? Daddy lets me do that when I’m at his house,” she added, a glint in her eye. It hadn’t taken her long to learn the art of how to play one parent against the other.
I glanced at the clock. 5pm. “Well, it’s a bit early, but if you’re hungry, then I guess so,” I said, smiling. This might, I hoped, help to lessen the sting later.
“Yay!” she cheered, prompting a happy yip from Max, who waited expectantly by her feet. “Can I help?”
“Okay,” I agreed, and carefully removed the egg carton from the fridge.
She opened it slowly, as if it were a treasure chest, her face so close her nose brushed against the box as she peered inside. “Ohhh . . . look at those!” she exclaimed. “So pretty.”
I pulled out a frying pan and a glass jug for mixing, intending to make scrambled eggs—her favourite.
“Okay, why don’t you choose a couple, and I’ll help you crack them?” I instructed.
She eyed them up like a jeweller scrutinizing gemstones to determine which was most valuable, then gingerly plucked one from its place and proclaimed matter of factly, “This is my egg. ”
I showed her how to hold the egg, give it a good solid crack against the rim, and quickly pull the shell apart before it had a chance to ooze onto the countertop.
“I did it!” she squealed, then reached for another one. “And this one is yours, Mummy,” she said, and repeated the process, this time getting a few shards of shell into the mix. She frowned.
“Don't worry, I can fix it,” I said, fishing them out with a teaspoon. “Okay, now we just need to whisk it up, and then we’re ready to cook,” I added, but Zoe already had another egg in her hand.
“This one’s Daddy’s,” she said soberly. “See the teeny tiny crack in it?” Squinting, she pointed to a fracture, faint as a pencil mark. “It’s just a little bit bad. It's not broken though." She shrugged.
Then she whacked it—hard—on the edge, its contents plopping into the jug with the other eggs, ours, the three yolks peering up at us like knowing eyes.