Finger Buffet by Rebecca Lloyd
Reviewed by Brinda S Narayan
According to the author, Walter Mosley, ‘A good short story crosses the borders of our nations and our prejudices and our beliefs. A good short story asks a question that can’t be answered in simple terms. And even if we come up with some understanding, years later, while glancing out of a window, the story still has the potential to return, to alter right there in our mind and change everything.’
Rebecca’s Lloyd’s achingly beautiful story, Finger Buffet, evokes the dark forces that fracture the East End in London, creating rifts between the young and old, between the violent street gangs and its more peaceable inhabitants, between the foreigners and the ‘old-timers’. Its narrator Arthur Runel, increasingly disoriented inside a place that once operated by ‘rules’, starts clinging to the cacophony of birds he once despised. Any sound, however raucous or unmusical, that reminds him of the older times is welcome. After all, both he and Alice can no longer comprehend the destruction and mutilation that has started stalking their neighbourhood.
Arthur always expects the forces to get to them as well. He almost seems to invite a direct confrontation, to face them and maybe overpower them even. But it enters their household in a form that discomfits even the tough Arthur. After all, it’s Alice who sees a beaten-up form on the road, a body whose face is gashed, and whose hand no longer has fingers. Lloyd slips in Alice’s encounter with the dead boy like it’s just another everyday happening. To emphasize perhaps that this has become a neighbourhood where murders are now banal. On the surface, nothing seems to have changed, but of course, for the Runels, everything has shifted. Alice Runel’s memories of that traumatizing encounter start slipping into conversations, with more and more gory details emerging over time.
The narrator Arthur himself had a violent past, one that he deliberately misremembers. As his sharp wife, Alice, whose hold on reality seems stronger than Arthur’s, points out, Arthur was once the East End hard man, someone who bashed up a gentle piano player’s fingers with a mallet. As Lloyd dispassionately shows us, the violence in the neighbourhood is not new. It has merely changed form. And it will change again, when the Bangladeshi gangs start confronting the incoming Somalis. Maybe, it does seem to be getting worse, more frequent, more vicious or perhaps, it was always this bad, since the present always carries greater menace than the past.
While charting the forces that are changing the neighbourhood, Lloyd also sensitively portrays the subtle ways in which a long-married couple both shape and reshape each other. For instance, while Arthur prefers to dwell on a hallucinatory glorious past when ‘things were black and white,’ an undeceived Alice points out: ‘You make them sound glorious when they weren’t.’ But she also indulges her husband’s delusions, both about himself and others. He asks her to make him finger food for his meeting with the street boys, where he plans to show off his weight-lifting medals from his glory days and also teach them the ‘rules’. She cooks him the finger buffet though she already seems to intuit that the eventual meeting between the street boys and Arthur will not grant him the payoffs he expects.
In her afterword, the author Lloyd remarks that she draws her stories from real-life incidents. With Finger Buffet, one can see how Lloyd’s portrayal of the forces that produce street violence and the manner in which they can ripple into surrounding households is in some senses, a more truthful account of the world we inhabit, than mere newspaper reports. Through Lloyd’s finely-crafted, complex characters, we confront our own ambivalent and often hypocritical responses to such cultural rifts and ongoing frictions that mark many global cities.
Reviewer Brinda S. Narayan's story @ The Shanghai Tea House appeared in Out of Print June 2013.