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Table Manners by Em Starr

I hate it when the Grandparents visit and the house is reeking of bleach and overcooked corned beef, and Mum is panicking about the state of the white sauce so she sends me outside to play handball, but I can’t finish the game because they arrive early. 

And how the Grandfather corners that cranky old Camry into our driveway, grinding second gear to first, scraping metal on metal, with his face pressed too close to the mosquito-smeared windscreen. How he bleeds black oil onto the new pavers. Rolls to a stop over my ball. And when I beg my Mum not to let them in, she tells me it’s rude to say such things to my elders, and laughs apologetically as they loom on our doorstep with sagging faces and downturned mouths.

And I hate how the Grandfather always smells of mothballs and dirty handkerchiefs. How the Grandmother stoops to stain my cheeks with spoiled lipstick that discolours her dentures in veiny threads of red.  And when I say, “I don’t want to kiss her,” Mum tells me it isn’t polite to refuse affection from a puckering grandparent—not manners—so I cop the kisses and smile like a good boy. Eyes hollow and glazed, I comply. And when the Grandmother starts to assess the house and poke at things, and cluck, and clean, and judge, Mum’s eyes turn glazed and hollow too.

And I hate the way I have to eat soup without slurping when the Grandparents are here.  How I have to keep my elbows off the table and use the right spoon, because they like something called table manners. How we have to say grace before and after dinner, even though Mum says God is for suckers when the Grandparents aren’t around. How I have to eat the trifle that the Grandmother slaps in the centre of the table, pushing Mum’s dry meat and white sauce offering aside—like she didn’t spend all day trying to get it just right—and clucking over the uncleared bowls.

“You’ve never been good at this sort of thing have you, dear?” she scoffs, and I hate how Mum doesn’t argue. Just smiles and serves the dessert with her best silver, hoping it’s aptly polished. Says, “it’s not good manners to talk with your mouth full,” when I try to tell her the custard is burned. That everything is burned.

And how she looks at me—pleads with me—when the Grandfather tells me I have to finish every last skerrick of the trifle, because I’ve been using a table spoon instead of a dessert spoon, and all I can taste is burned egg with jelly and sponge cake. And still I have to smile.

Because manners.

And I hate how Mum is crying as she clears the plates. 

How she doesn’t see the Grandparents rising, on account of the tears. 

How she doesn’t notice them cracking and bending, and reaching across the table with twisted hands.

How I can’t warn her, because I still have food in my mouth.

I hate when the Grandparents visit, and creep around at night. The sound of their scuttling, like insects across the splintered beams—tarsal claws scratching at the ceiling above my bed, so that I can’t sleep. 

And how they tap-tap-tap at my bedroom door, stinking of mothballs and black oil and rotting silverside with white sauce that’s far too lumpy. 

“Let us in,” they say, and I don’t want to open the door—not after what they did to my mother (what the hell did they do to your eyes, Mum?)—but it’s bad manners to disobey your elders so I force a smile, glazed and hollow and oh-so-polite, and prepare to greet them.

About the author
Em Starr is an Aussie horror writer, living in Melbourne on Boon Wurrung land. 2023 is shaping up to be an exciting year for this emerging author. Her short stories have won and been placed in several literary contests, and she has been a guest speaker at Fisher College, Boston, where her work appears on the spring syllabus. Get to know Em at