The Lunch

by Olivia Dunn | April 10, 2023

Based on Monet’s ‘The Lunch’, set in his garden at Argenteuil

Jean’s cheeks flushed red. The tower he had been building had come tumbling down, felled by the swift gale of his pudgy hand batting a bee away. The pollen in the air made his nose run, dripping onto the smart new sailor-suit Maman had insisted he wear. For Papa, she had said, and so he had given in.

It was far too hot for it, especially at the lunch table. Amongst the slump of midday heat and grown-up conversation, Jean felt stifled, as if trapped in bed under a heavy blanket which he could not kick off. The laughter seemed to curdle, smiles melting into glasses. Only the tinkling of cutlery reassured him because if they were still eating, it meant that nobody had left.

And so, though he did wriggle, he really didn’t mean to knock into Elisabeth. She squealed, and Maman spilled her wine. Papa only frowned before continuing to chew solemnly on the bread before him. He remained unperturbed whilst the two women frantically dabbed at their dresses and rushed inside to change. Jean thought it a shame that Maman hadn’t let the crimson blots bloom; it would have added something new to her white summer’s best.

“You’ve lost your hat,” Papa murmured to no one in particular.

He had stayed only to finish his meal. Now he brushed the crumbs off his lap and sauntered off, fading into the garden’s foliage. Jean, who had been sitting in silence, looked around and timidly knocked on his head. He was relieved to find his straw hat sitting sturdily. It wouldn’t do to annoy Maman any more today, and missing hats were prone to do just that⁠ – something which he was sure Papa knew.

Finding himself in fresh solitude, Jean swung his legs and picked impatiently at a peach, drawing out its stone only to lob it deep into a far-off flowerbed. He whistled, rubbed his eyes, and snuck a taste of wine. Its bold flavour surprised him – not at all the sweet sipping he had expected. He smacked his purple lips together and clambered down from his seat, eager to settle into some pose of innocence.

Jean began to stack matchstick logs one on top of the other. Wary of his clammy hands, he moved them with caution, bit by bit. In the cool of the shade, his movements slowed to barely more than a breeze. The hum of insects and the whisper of leaves found harmony with his steady breath, lips parted in concentration. Even when the voices of Maman and Elisabeth fractured the garden’s peace, Jean did not bother to look up. Reluctant to be disturbed, he willed their chatter to waft away. Only with a little grin did he acknowledge Maman, who kissed him lightly as she grabbed her boater from the branches of the overhanging tree. Away from the table, she seemed lighter, more at ease. In the quivering air, she could have been floating.

The swish of skirts dissolved into muffling green. And still Jean sat, enraptured by his work of construction. He stacked steadily, unwavering in his precision, until the buzz of an errant fly came too close. Wood clattered onto the unyielding paving-stone. His trance was broken. Wiping his streaming nose onto his sleeve, Jean glared at the table still laden with food.

All this fuss for a lunch which no one actually seemed to have wanted. Now the spoils of the feast looked unreal, a mirage of over-ripened fruit and sticky syrup. Flies hung heavy in the afternoon haze, perfumes cloying in the stagnant air. Staling bread on a rumpled tablecloth. Shades of pink melting into bruised browns; drips of orange congealed in the sun. ∎

Words by Olivia Dunn. Art by Louis Rush.