- 2016 winner's and adult shortlist entries
- Mr Win's Restaurant - Caroline Sutherland - WINNER
- The Hotchiwitchi Cake - Judy Leigh - 2nd Prize
- Chapatti and Chai - Jane Bheemah (Crediton Courier Winner)
- Young Adult Winner - Jung Woo Bae for Dropped Sunset on Emerald Pastures
- Young Adult - Second Prize - Nell Hodgson for Cheese
- The Banquet Saboteurs - Andrew Adam
- Special Meal - John Kirkaldy
- The Hunger of Kopka, The Stranger and Mother Bear - Alison Metoudi
- Growing Places - Jo Ripley
Free spirits fly out of the fruit when it is cut. Cut them quickly and they bounce into the air as coloured balls of energy. I peel away their tough skins, ease away their stones and pips and lay their naked flesh before me. Evening service preparation is nearly done and I take pleasure in the time left. The silent space. The pale, green softness of avocado, the ripe mango torn from its stone and sweet strawberries. These and more I respectfully prepare for the palates of the men and women who come to dine in Mr Win’s fish restaurant at The Waterfront.
My wife and child are at home. I picture Jihoo’s dark hair against the white cotton pillowcase. One eyebrow, one nostril, the right half of his lips already sunk from this world. All that is left of him is his small half head. My wife sits, her feet bare, at the other end of the bed reading from a book of Korean fairy tales she found in the market.
‘Look, look my mother read these to me when I was a child,’ she says clutching the book to her chest the day she found them. My mother also told stories, of singing stones and owls who knew too much. Consolation for children and mothers, especially those far from home, it seems.
Her cool fingers turn the pages and secretly trace the black and white illustration of a scaled dragon, wings outstretched high in the sky. A snow peak of a dark mountain far below. Her voice never falters as she reads, she does not want to share the privacy of this image, the tangle of memories that flood and overflow as a single homesick tear. For a short while it is all hers. A pleasure of memories she does not share yet with her child.
I know her so well that when, at last, I arrive home at three in the morning she will turn her satin slipped body to me and whisper sleepily, ‘I saw a dragon today,’. And I will shower, comb my black hair smooth, scrape under my nails, slip in beside her and place my hand on her smooth, naked buttock, for comfort, before falling asleep.
The Matre’d is beside me waiting for my knife to pause.
‘They would like to speak to you,’ he says.
My sous-chefs, the sauce chef and wash-up boy look up from their stations. ‘They’ are Singapore’s Golden Couple. He is the first Singaporean to have won at Monaco, his blood is high octane fuel and his fortune is millions of dollars multiplied by the golden hairs on his head. His girlfriend’s last film was with Sean Connery. They are aspirational, inspirational people.
I signal to my sous-chef to take my place, place my knife beside the cut of salmon and bow to its spirit. It acknowledges my departure and continues to float gracefully back and forth through the air. This is an exception, I am strictly back-of-house, I do not parade among the diners at the end of their meal basking in their appreciation. I leave that to Mr Win. He is the owner, he takes the plaudits: I am simply the chef. I am paid to work here, I do it to the best of my ability, that is all.
She turns her head towards me as I enter the dining room. Her cobalt eyes absorb my black and white check bandana and small shoes in a glance. My feet pad across a shimmer of carpet that flows to her and her alone. ‘The fish. I must choose one,’ her pale hand silks through the air towards the ceiling high fish tank. The choice is figurative as these fish are only for the pleasure of our customers eyes.
It is usually the men who chose the fish. Since they were boys their fathers have described the taste and texture of everything from the sweet, white flakes of flower crabs to the firm, mouth filling Humphead Wrasse. The season to be eaten, line-netting, free fishing and hand diving. The fruits and vegetables to accompany them. The sauces that enhance the sweetness of flesh or bitterness of skin.
They never take them fishing though. The salt brine of endless waves lapping against a harbour wall, the rotting seaweed, the hungry scream of seagulls, the slime of dead fish, the rise and fall of the tide is a mystery to them.
The fish, in the fish tank, are as jewels on the women’s hands. They glitter emerald green, sapphire blue and ruby among the venomous onyx, lionfish.
Her sun-kissed companion is fully absorbed in the wine list. He remembers nothing his father taught him, he was interested in cars not fish when he was a boy, but this lack of knowledge, of authority, must not be allowed to show.
‘She wishes to choose for herself. What can I do?’
His dark eyes lock on mine. They say – the modern woman must be allowed to appear independent but I will be the fall guy if she chooses wrong.
‘May I suggest the Arbutos. In season right now. From the Silver River in Quandong.
He looks relieved.
She is happy but still her thoughts are with the fish, not with him and between them the soft space expands imperceptibly. He leans back in his chair and the connecting energy pulls thin.
The Silver River Arbutos comes gladly with me. She is as elegant as an air dancer at the Palladium Theatre. I place her on a bed of wishu rice embedded with pomegranate seeds, her skin has deepened to a glowing ember that cracks allowing the saffron yellow flakes to hint at their appearance below. Soft papaya and tiger striped star fruit decorate the honey-salt sauce.
Through the glass door I see the men in their white shirts loosen their coloured ties. The women in their little, black dresses, flash their wrists like mating signals. Our diners are the living, breathing coral of our world. Gliding, the waitresses move gently between them as to be hardly noticed. All in black they appear and disappear as needed.
The sommelier, with key and corkscrew paces from his wine cellar to the dining room cradling bottles of liquid dreams. His pink waistcoat is in contrast to his serious manner. He fills the crystal glasses of my couple with champagne as their silver spoons scoop the creamy, orange roe from barbed sea urchins. Sliding the heavy, green bottle into the ice cooler he backs away.
All night he will match a diner with their perfect wine. He examines their shoes. Are they conventional, comfortable, old-money shoes or experimental, ankle-enhancing, stylish? He examines their clothes, their hair and their hands. He has an exquisite sense of smell; the mothballs, the tobacco and shoe polish. People are so comfortable with their own smell they do not hid it as easily as they think with dabs of perfume or sprays of scent. He knows who arranged roses in a bowl that morning, who kissed their child goodnight before coming here and who washed their hair in rainwater. Standing close to them drawing their personalities deep into his nostrils has taken him a lifetime to perfect.
The earthy types have ordered shitake mushrooms, root vegetables and slow river fish and those of the air are craving pigeon breast, lapwing brain and soufflés. Those that are hidden are seeking something to be found in oysters or chocolate bombs.
I observe my couple are finishing their amuse bouche. Sweet beetroot, as crisp as a flake of pink sea salt, swept against the fiery heat of creamed horseradish flushes their cheeks and thaws their coolness. I have prepared the densely fleshed tuna for him. Sensually strong and overpowering, combined with hints of peppery arugula and undertones of meat juice. It lingers in his mouth as he swallows and in his mind as he wonders at the combinations of smoke and fire within the world. Each morsel reminds him of the giant tuna crashing through vast seas, the dangers escaped, the years and years of purpose. The tuna’s existence, every part of it is here on this plate. He pauses and considers his own life.
He gazes at his companion who is lost in her own world of white water, thundering over black rocks, of endless networks of rivers and streams and the uplifting of pure springs and crystalline drops of water in sunlight, and they smile. The tuna and Arbutos cavort in the air over the table, between my couple. They are playful and excited, and brush against each other in a way that lingers and exposes them. Their bodies glide together and apart and together again. They twist and tumble and I see her arch her back accentuating every glistening molecule. He catches himself, steadies himself, becomes one with the moment, allows the air to pass around him. Then as my couple finish their meal, accept that there is no more to be gleaned from their plates and lay their forks aside, the spirits crash together. The ocean Levantine and the river spirit come together as one. Joyously they dissolve, mingled heat, a shiver of delight and they are gone.
My couple lean closer now, he slips his hand over hers and the strings of energy are tightening and glowing. His heart is pumping stronger and her skin tingles. They allow the bitter lemon sorbet to slide down their throats cooling and easing the passion that is rising. Each pip filled strawberry stains the inside of their mouths. It is agony this lingering. My strawberry spirits dance with glee, the naughtiness at keeping this couple waiting. The woman pushes her bowl away and there is a moment of horror among my tiny spirits. To be created for this moment of life giving energy is the epitome of their existence. They will not be ignored. They fight for her attention, bouncing and kicking in front of her eyes, until reluctantly she picks them up between her fingers and places them between her lips. The pink tip of her tongue flicking with pleasure as she finishes the bowl.
They step out into the warm night. He has placed a feather white wrap around her shoulders. I watch them from the opposite pavement as I make my way home. Neon signs and car lights rainbow the ink-soaked water of the harbour. Pausing at the gilded front door that swirls with curved, blue sea serpents, the paparazzi flare their cameras and my couple draw nearer, acknowledging each other. The woman lifts her arm and waves into the movement of seething darkness below. Another camera flashes and she is lit up like the moon. All anyone can do is gaze in wonder at her glorious beauty. A girl cries out in ecstasy and our small world is suffused in a joy that flings out its happiness like coloured confetti and all there are laughing, touching each others arms, hugging. An outpouring of emotion spreads; a contagion that in old age is a memory and remembered warmth.
I shower and run my fingers through my hair. Switching off the light I am in darkness, standing in our bedroom. Naked, my warmth evaporates into the night air. Between my hands an energy hums, bringing my palms together it dissipates into my body. I thank the spirits for the life forces they have allowed me to share. Then I slip between the soft sheets, place my hand on my wife’s firm buttock and sigh with pleasure as she turns sleepily towards me.
I will make a cake shaped like a hotchiwitchi. I will make it with eggs and flour and real butter, bake it until it is light sponge. I’ll cut it in half, smother it in cream and use upright chocolate buttons for the spikes and a shiny cherry for the nose. Then I will give it to my child and tell him about his real family. But perhaps I won’t tell him about his great grandmother and what happened so many years ago.
Jonno has just started school and he doesn’t know the word hotchiwitchi. When I was his age, I said it in the classroom when the teacher showed a picture; it was story time and I pointed and said ‘a hotchiwitchi’ and everybody laughed. Not real belly laughter like a family at meal times around a simmering stew pot, but nasty laughter, icicle laughter that comes in fragments and is meant to hurt you. Like spikes. A hotchiwitchi’s spikes.
I told my mother about the class and the picture and she turned her face away and said I mustn’t use the old language in front of those people: such words were from the old times, when grandma used to bake a hotchiwitchi for dinner in clay on an open fire. I asked what it tasted like and she thought about it and said ‘just like chicken- but sweeter.’ I didn’t dare tell Dad. He had already warned me about gadjos and how he’d never been to school himself because it was wrong to mix with these people: he said they were not pure and it was not a good idea to trust one or spend too much time with one.
I married a gadjo when I was twenty two and now Mike and I live together in this small house and we have Jonno. He is six today and he has dark curls and a smile with a gap between his front teeth. I will give him the hotchiwitchi cake and he will say ‘Look, a hedgehog, Mummy,’ and I will laugh and tell him that I used to call it a hotchiwitchi when I was his age, that hotchiwitchi is our secret word for hedgehog now, and I will tell him that I was born in a wagon and my Dad was working outside making the waltzers go faster and my mother pushed me out into the world and called me Nadia after my grandmother. I will not tell him any more about her, about the things that happened. Not yet. Maybe when he is thirteen and then I can take him to Poland and show him all the places and we can talk about it. Grandma said there was no grass there. I think of her often, especially when I see new grass peeking through the earth in the springtime.
I can picture Jonno when he comes back from school, his face shiny from the winter winds, and he notices the cake on a plate, the chocolate spines, a cherry nose. He will laugh and his hands will come together. His world is the world of wild animals, dragons and dinosaurs, magic and mystery. I will keep it that way for as long as I can. He will eat a slice of cake and the cream will be sticky smears on his face and he will be happy and his birthday will be as light as the sponge.
When I was six, my father found a job working with his hands and we were moved into a council house on a new estate, all six of us: me, my three brothers, and my parents. I was wide eyed with hope. But it was not a happy time for us, in this house of cold concrete and plaster, doors which closed with a slam in the wind and radiators on the wall which made the dial on the meter whirl. My father said he took us there to make my mother happy, but none of the neighbours wanted to be her friend and she spent most days alone, looking out through the windows, her hands clasped together. My father became quiet: he spent the evenings drinking beer and whittling a stick to a point with a knife and muttering to himself in a language I did not understand. My eldest brother left us to join the army as soon as he could; my youngest brother was angry and he brought trouble home. It was not a time of good memories.
I hug a bowl to my belly and I beat hard at eggs and butter and they froth together; the flour is sifted light as whispers. I whisk in sugar, sweet as mother’s kisses, and the cake is soon rising in the oven. I lean my face against the glass and watch, then I close my eyes and let the warmth press into my cheek. The smell is heavy as honey and it makes me sigh out loud.
Time passes and the cake is cooled, cut, balanced upright and decorated. The hotchiwitchi cake is on the plate, creamy, with chocolate spikes pointing upwards and a shiny cherry nose. Flour dust clings to my hair and the grains leave a smudge on my cheek. I push the tip of my finger into the empty bowl, lifting a smear of the cream to my lips. It tastes pure and thick, flabbily delicious.
My grandmother never tasted cream. My mother was her second child. Her first child died. I think of Jonno and I cannot bear to remember. This is why I make him cake and we laugh and roll on the floor and I pinch his soft cheeks and tell him he is the most precious darling child in the world. He is mine and I will keep him safe. ‘Safe from what, Mummy? From the monsters?’
My grandmother’s first child was called Guido. He was not safe from the monsters. My mother never knew him. She told me his story once, when I was a teenager, then she would not mention his name again. It is unlikely that my grandmother ever made Guido a hotchiwitchi cake. It is unlikely that he ever ate cake at all.
In ten minutes, Jonno will be home and now I wash the dirty dishes in running water, as my mother always did. The water is too hot; it burns my skin and I enjoy the sensation of being warmed too much. I look again at the hotchiwitchi cake; its nose is gleaming and one of the spikes has slipped forwards, like a winking eye. I gently push it back. Chocolate melts and sticks to my finger and I can’t help it: I put it in my mouth and taste the sudden burst of sweetness. Life does not always taste this sweet.
Guido was a little boy with dark curly hair and he had a gap between his front teeth when he smiled. He and my grandmother were taken away on a day where snow was banked high against the trees and the heavy boots made sludgy footprints. They were led to a place where the train lines stopped in front of high iron gates, and they were told that there was a new rule about crime prevention which meant that they had to stay there for a long time. My grandmother, once so straight and proud, was now pronounced dirty, shabby and strange. She lived with many other family members and they were guarded by men in tall towers and hidden away behind barbed wire fences. At first, a man in a white coat came to see them each day. He smiled and gave Guido sweets and small toys. He told the children to call him Uncle. He took Guido away and injected in his eyes to see if their colour would change. Grandmother used to hold her child close to her at night as he cried out, blinded by the pain, the poison and the heavy stitches. She could not save him from the monsters. His screams were so loud she tried to steal medicine to keep him alive. Then she tried to steal medicine which would stop him being alive. Days later, they took him away to an oven but it was not an oven that had ever baked a cake.
My grandmother never saw Guido again. She wanted to die herself that winter. The snows cleared in the spring and the skies were blue again, but no grass ever grew in that place. My grandmother said if grass had grown there, she would have eaten it.
Years later, my mother was born and, later still, they came to this country and hoped for new beginnings. My mother taught me a little of the old ways; her hard hands could heal and there was magic in the tips of her fingers, although I saw it drain away as she pressed her palms against the glass windows and stared out at the sprawling council estate where no-one would speak to her.
I hear the door rattle and a voice calls my name: it is Mike. He has collected Jonno from school and now I glance up and see my child wriggling on his father’s shoulders, eager to be set down: he has seen the cake. Jonno’s curls bounce and he throws back his head and I smile at his gap toothed grin as he slides to the floor.
‘A cake, Mummy, for my birthday. Look. Look. It’s a- it’s a-’
‘It’s a hedgehog,’ Mike tells him, and there is a clattering of plates and the cake is sliced and shared.
‘I have got his nose, Mummy- look- he has a red nose. Can I eat it?’
I nod. I watch them eating cake, mouths stuck fast with cream and chocolate, eyes bright. Jonno wants a second piece and his little fingers dig into the sponge and he tears a fistful for himself and pushes it into his mouth.
‘I like hedgehog cake best in the world, Mummy. Can we have a hedgehog cake every day?’
I smile but my thoughts are elsewhere. I am five again and I say the wrong word to the teacher and the children throw their heads back and laugh their daggers at me. Hotchiwitchi. The old words. The old ways. The sense of my difference holds me by the heart, tells me who I am, and it pulls me away, but I tug back, into the room, closer to my child. It is his time now, a new time, and I will make myself forget what I am, what I used to be, for him. It is not what I want, but it is what I do, and I feel the tearing sense of loss. It is the loss of my grandmother and of Guido, of my mother and my father and my three brothers. It is the loss of who I was, who I am, and what I have to be instead, for my child. It is the loss which comes with change, and the sorrow of what it has cost. I close my eyes, but the pictures do not fade. A feeling of guilt grips at my throat and it seems like yet another betrayal.
My hand is on his shoulder and I give him a wide smile and wipe a crumb from his mouth with my finger. ‘You can have hedgehog cake whenever you like, Jonno. You are six now.’
A tantalising aroma of spices wafted across the busy street. Arjun inhaled, footsteps faltering as he drew level with the restaurant. It would be so easy to grab a quick bite, ignore the meal waiting for him back at the flat. But, with a wedding to save for, this wasn’t the best time to treat himself. On the other hand, he would only be buying for one and the food wasn’t that expensive. He could always tell Rachel he’d missed his usual train and had been too hungry to wait. Another bonus; the place wouldn’t be busy yet, it was too early in the evening. His stomach rumbled in anticipation. The ‘Jayanti’ was renowned for its curries. A nice, hot chicken vindaloo with pilau rice and Indian pickles would go down a treat on this chilly day. He pictured himself ordering a vegetable side dish, like sag aloo to go with it – perhaps with naan bread. Fleetingly, Arjun closed his eyes, imagining himself back home in a country where the sun shone most days and the pace of life was gentler.
The moment of temptation passed. Head bent against the gusting wind, he battled on down the grey, rain washed pavement towards the train station. Huddled in his jacket, Arjun grimaced, thinking how dismal England was in weather like this. It was July, though you would never guess. Everywhere he looked he saw shades of grey – road, rooftops, buildings and sky. It was like someone had stolen the artist’s palette at a crucial moment in the painting and this was the only hue available. Much as he thrived on the hustle and bustle of London, sometimes he yearned for the warm, vibrant colours of the East. Glancing at his mobile to check the time, he wondered idly what his mother would be doing now? Sri Lanka was in a different time zone, of course. But, supposing it wasn’t, he knew she would be stirring a simmering pot of something tasty over a small stove, ready for the family’s evening meal. Then, once his father arrived, they would all sit and eat together. Meals were a family affair.
Rachel would be waiting for him back at the flat tonight. Well, that was if his train wasn’t late. If it was then she’d be gone, leaving him a scribbled note with instructions on where to find her latest culinary concoction. Arjun’s brow furrowed. She had started going out alone on Thursday evenings, sometimes drinking. It had become a regular thing and, if honest, it worried him. Mainly because he wasn’t sure where she went and she was always in a hurry, with a light of anticipation in her eyes. He had tried asking her once, although he hadn’t been sure how ready he felt for the answer. But she had neatly side stepped the question, fobbed him off with a kiss. Stepping onto the platform, he regretted his decision to walk past the ‘Jayanti.’ In all probability, another bland version of a stew was all he had to look forward to. The bonus was that in his fiancée’s absence he’d be at liberty to add as much chilli sauce as he liked to give it some flavour.
The train was delayed by nearly an hour. As expected, Rachel was long gone. Unfortunately, she had left the saucepan containing his supper on a low heat. He suspected the meal wouldn’t have been too bad if she hadn’t done that. Indeed, it had probably started off as one of her better efforts. Now, though, much of it was a congealed mess. Scraping the remains of a lamb casserole from his plate, Arjun sighed, reaching for a can of mulligatawny soup. At least there was a fresh loaf in the bin.
The promise of a dull evening lay ahead. Bored, Arjun turned his attention to the television and flicked through the channels. Nothing appealed; he tossed the remote control aside in disgust. Unable to concentrate on a film, the plethora of cookery programmes only served to irritate. He drummed his fingers on the arm of the sofa, aware he really ought to open his laptop and knuckle down to some work. As a Ph.D. student there was work aplenty to do. However, it had been a tiring day and he was in the mood for relaxation. He pictured Rachel’s smiling face, framed by a fall of glorious red hair and wished she was lying beside him on the sofa. The quality of the night’s viewing wouldn’t factor into the equation then. Heat coursed through his veins. In all probability the television would not even be switched on. He’d have something far more interesting to hold his attention. Oh, he was grateful that Rachel didn’t mind being the main bread winner for a while and he certainly didn’t begrudge her an evening out. But over the last few months it seemed they’d spent hardly any quality time together. Reaching for a packet of the chocolate coated ginger biscuits they both liked, Arjun frowned. The flat was a money pit, of course. Perhaps they needed to look at moving to a cheaper area – near a few cut price cafes!
A call to his uncle was overdue and would occupy an hour or so. Arjun reached for the ‘phone; it would be good to chat. He could catch up with all the family news and gossip – and ask, politely of course, if his rather gormless cousin had found himself a bride yet. For purely selfish reasons, Arjun very much hoped he had. Leeds based, these were his only relatives in the UK. It was important to keep in touch. His mouth watered at the thought of all the traditional wedding food that would be on offer, once Sanjeev did manage to snare some unsuspecting female. Then he let the receiver drop, remembering that any conversation with his uncle and aunt was preceded by the demand for a full run down of what he’d just eaten. Tonight he didn’t feel up to fielding that issue. He could hear his aunt’s voice now, as she warmed to the subject – warning him about the risks of marrying a ‘gori girl.’
“Yes, she’s pretty, I grant you. But dancing blue eyes won’t feed a family, beta.”
With a grimace, Arjun pulled out his laptop and logged on, forcing himself to concentrate on the screen. If science was your subject it was hard slog all the way, not like the classics lot, who could wing it a bit. The hours ticked by, still with no sign of Rachel. He took a swallow of coffee. This was his third mug; any more caffeine and he’d be too wired to sleep. At least, with her dire warning of diabetes, Rachel had weaned him off the four spoons of sugar he used to stir into his drinks. Now he just took his coffee hot, strong and black. His hand closed over his mobile as he debated calling her. But he’d done that last week and only succeeded in making her angry. He winced at the memory. She’d accused him of having trust issues; it was their biggest quarrel yet. These days they were both too weary for a fight.
Rubbing tired eyes, his mind drifted back to his college days in Sri Lanka. The days when his mother would peep in periodically to check on how his homework was going – and sneak in tasty titbits to sustain him while he poured over his books. Now, the sole member of his family who had secured a place to study overseas, he felt the hefty weight of expectation. The initial euphoria of going abroad had worn off long ago, leaving only the knowledge that his parents were counting on him to succeed. Sometimes he felt guilty that he’d been the one given a chance denied to others. As his weary brain struggled to make sense of the text in front of him, Arjun heard his father’s gruff message of farewell at the airport,
“God has given you a golden opportunity. Study hard and do the family proud, beta.”
His mother, Arjun recalled, had been more preoccupied by the airport authority’s refusal to allow him to take her lovingly prepared jars of pickles and spices. She had assured his uncle, who was meeting him at Heathrow, that she’d be sending them. It pained her to renege on a promise. She feared her brother-in-law would not understand. The rules had not been as strict when his chacha first flew to England; people had been allowed to carry all manner of things in their luggage. Then the moment to part had been on them and she’d realised nothing mattered save that she was losing her favourite son. He had boarded the Boeing 747 yearning for adventure, with her wails ringing in his ears – only to fly thousands of miles to land in a cold country where the sky was leaden and the food was bland.
However, there had been plenty of happy times, Arjun acknowledged that. Meeting Rachel ranked top of them, of course. It had been a rainy summer then, he recalled. He could see her now, neat in her nurse’s uniform, approaching as he sat in the waiting bay of the local A&E department. Immediately the day had taken an upswing. Her smile had been like a burst of sunshine, making him temporarily forget the pain of a gash in need of suturing.
After the deed was done he’d felt quite faint and had to take a few deep breaths to steady himself. He’d never been great with blood, particularly his own. Cradling a bandaged hand, he’d been sitting on a hard seat ready for a friend to pick him up when he’d seen her again – walking towards him with the offer of a cup of tea. She’d flashed her trademark smile, their eyes met and that had been that. Arjun had hardly noticed the tea was lukewarm. This first encounter was the beginning of something sweet like honey. They had gone on a date the very next night and been together ever since; thankfully for Arjun, with no more accidents requiring urgent trips to A&E. All that was three years ago. These days, on the rare occasions their schedules coincided, he waited for her outside the hospital, away from the action. Catching her hand as they walked away always made him happy. He liked it that she was his. He had to admit that Rachel was very different from the girls back home, though.
The sound of a key in the lock made Arjun’s head snap up. He noted that this was the latest she had come home on a Thursday. Her red hair had worked itself loose from the neat plait it started off in and her cheeks had a guilty flush. As she leaned in to brush his lips with a kiss he caught a whiff of alcohol on her breath. He frowned; that must mean she had Friday off. Rachel never drank if she was on duty the next day. Brushing her away he stood, wondering who had put the sparkle in her sapphire blue eyes – because it certainly wasn’t him. Leaving her to wander through to the kitchen, he shut down his laptop and prepared for bed, uttering barely a word. Tonight he would let things go. But he wouldn’t be made a fool of. The weekend lay ahead; he vowed to challenge her then. Maybe they were just too different to make a go of things. Certainly Rachel’s parents thought so, just like his uncle and aunt. Oh, they were too polite to voice their objections openly; but probe the surface and the reservations were there. That’s why his visits to Devon always felt so uncomfortable.
Lying wakeful on the lumpy mattress, Arjun listened to his fiancée opening and closing cupboards and drawers. Hearing the chink of cutlery, he wondered what she could be doing. Rachel never spent time she didn’t need to in the kitchen. Then he remembered she’d been carrying a large bag, one he hadn’t seen before. But was she packing or unpacking it – and to what purpose? A shiver ran down his spine. Maybe she had grown bored with their life together. Maybe one day soon he would come back from university, or his part-time job to find her gone. If he looked hard enough he’d find a brief note somewhere, with an engagement ring on top – because that would be the way she’d do things. He could feel the emptiness, like the soul of the place was missing. Picturing the scenario, he felt a chill in the room. This must be how endings were, sharp and brittle like glass.
Rolling over, he feigned sleep as her footsteps sounded on the wooden flooring. Soon he could smell her perfume, sweet like mandarin, as she pulled back the duvet. The bed dipped as she slid in, her murmured goodnight going unanswered. Nestling beside him, her breathing slowed and deepened. But the pearly light of dawn was on the horizon before Arjun managed to drop off – and in less than two hours he had to be up again, a full schedule ahead.
The day dragged. Glad when it was late afternoon, Arjun tried to feign interest in his last lecture – though sipping an ice cool beer somewhere would have been nicer. The final hour seemed endless. Perhaps because it was Friday his brain was sluggish, nothing seemed to compute; bad news for a student approaching the finishing line. Hoping this was only a temporary blip, he glanced at his mobile as a text came through. The sender was Rachel; scanning her message his focus was razor edged.
“Come home for chapatti and chai.”
It was a phrase they’d coined. A loose translation for tea and cake – although chapatti was actually bread. Their code for ‘let’s talk.’ All else abandoned, Arjun set off for the station at a jog. Though the truculent sun had decided to shine, his blood ran cold.
Never had the commute taken so long, but it afforded him thinking time. This was it, then – an official parting of the ways. Rachel must have decided to tell him face to face. Arjun stared sightlessly ahead, mentally preparing himself, rehearsing what to say. She was his lodestar. Yet, strangely for an erudite man, the words refused to come. Jumping off the train, he skidded to a halt by a flower stall as a better idea came. Hard as it would be to let her go, if they were finished he wanted to celebrate the time they’d spent together. Paying for a large bunch of her favourite, sweet smelling freesias, his pace quickened.
Pushing open the front door, his nostrils were assailed by the heady aroma of spices. He sniffed, testing the air like a hound. Yes, the scent was definitely coming from the kitchen. It was a little early, but Rachel must have pre-ordered an Indian take-away. Strange; she usually opted for Chinese or Thai. Moving further into the flat he saw that their small table was laid, complete with cloth and candles; something they rarely bothered with unless it was a special occasion. Puzzled, he called out to announce his arrival. Rachel emerged, cheeks flushed, looking hot, tendrils of red hair framing her face. There was a definite air of nervousness about her. Arjun tried to say that it was all right, he understood. But, snatching the flowers, she waived him away for a quick shower to remove the travel dust before they ate.
Though not the situation he’d been prepared for, it was easier to comply than resist. Arjun washed and changed in record time, then sat cautiously at the table as Rachel instructed. There were new place mats, he noticed and the cutlery gleamed. He watched as she brought out plate after steaming plate of exotic food. There was fragrant chicken biriyani, a curry sauce and tender, fried okra. With a final flourish, she produced a dish of spicy mixed vegetables. Setting it down triumphantly in front of him, he saw that she was smiling again, waiting for something. A reaction was expected, only he wasn’t sure quite what. He opened his mouth, then shut it again, anxious not to say the wrong thing. The air was heavy with anticipation. Then all at once it hit him; this was no take-away meal – it was home cooked! Startled, he glanced around. Had his fiancée smuggled in a chef? Visibly more relaxed, Rachel was laughing now, kissing away his protestations.
“I’ve been taking an Indian cookery course. I wanted to surprise you. That’s what I’ve been doing on Thursday evenings.”
Arjun listened, incredulous, as she described the lengths she’d gone to in order not to be found out until proficient enough to cook for him. Including drinking a glass of wine after a tasting session, to disguise any lingering smell of spice on her breath. A bubble of happiness rose within him as he wished he’d bought champagne instead of flowers. There was a bottle of red on the table, a deep and full bodied, but surely the occasion demanded something more. Then he paused, recalling the mention of Rachel’s need to talk. Maybe the surprises were not over yet. Watching her bite her lip, his apprehension grew.
“Yes, well, I want to talk about our marriage.”
She stopped and Arjun waited through the roar of silence. Then the words spilled out like a tumbling brook,
“Let’s do it now, not wait like we planned. A small ceremony, just us and a few close friends. We don’t need all the razzmatazz. Do you know what day it is, Arjun? It’s the anniversary of the very first time I saw you in A&E.”
The food forgotten, Arjun leapt up to wrap her in his arms. Burying his face in her auburn tresses, he knew he had things all wrong. July in England really was the most delightful month.
The boy’s hunger woke him; this time he couldn’t ignore it.
The fervent red glow of dusk engulfed the surroundings. There was something about the man who had just materialized at the edge of his peripheral vision. It wasn’t just the ridiculous amount of bags that he constantly juggled in his bare, muscular arms or even the food which those bags contained that fascinated the boy…
It was the way the man moved.
His lithe, gliding movements reminded the boy of his hero, Houssine Kharja. But the instant this occurred to him, the man’s actions changed. The boy’s eyes widened as he took a step past the porch of his home – the man had begun to hop. First on the right leg, for five paces, then on the left. Was he mad?
The boy followed the man who skipped faster and faster down the narrow alleyway. Strange, the boy thought as he broke into a run trying to keep up. He could still smell the lively aromas of Ras El Hanout, and feel the cool wind blowing through the narrow, desolate streets, but somehow, he felt as if this were a dream.
He chased the man down the alley, who was now drawing grapevines with his feet, until the man lost his balance and food exploded forth from his bags like incendiary fireworks. On the dirt-covered ground lay a mound of yellow rice, sprinkled with figs, bits of beef, carrots, red and green chilli, and a chaotic mixture of brightly coloured spices. It was a strange amalgamation, but still enough to lure the boy, who desperately rushed towards it. As he got near, however, the man held up his hand almost spontaneously, gesturing him to stay away.
“Stop!” He exclaimed, “This is just…Perfect!”
Laughter began to dance its way from the bottom of the man’s feet up to his belly, rumble through his chest and leap from his mouth like a tumbler. It reverberated, bouncing off the brown walls of the alleyway in an unseen vortex of pure amusement. His white teeth shone brightly, adjacent to his ebony skin.
“Perfect, I tell you, perfect!”
The boy stood there gazing at this man, unable to comprehend his eccentric behaviour.
“This,” the man continued, “is magnificent. Yes, I shall name it…‘Dropped sunset on emerald pastures’!”
The man kneeled and scrutinized the dishevelled lump of food, absorbing every detail with astute, amber eyes which were illuminating with wonder.
“It’s a mess. Why are you so excited?” The boy asked.
“Excited? My boy, I am thrilled! This is not a mess – this is a work of art!”
“How is it art when you didn’t make it?”
The man replied with unexpected sobriety,
“Randomness is a part of nature. It is like falling in love. It is very beautiful…”
The man sighed, and lifting his head up to the faintly glowing sky, closed his eyes and fell silent. The boy could not move or speak; there was something enticing about this man that kept the boy rooted, unable to walk away.
Then the man, lifting the bags onto his shoulders, walked ahead. The boy’s stomach urged him to follow; he knew food could still fall from the exposed bag pointed towards him.
He stalked like a silhouette, waiting for a serendipitous moment for food to drop.
To the boy’s disappointment however, no food escaped, but he now realized that he had reached an old yet ornate restaurant.
The boy stopped, standing stunned as he read the name:
Cracked pepper roasted on charcoal brazier
-on a Thursday morning in July-
He shook his head with disbelief; surely no sane man would name the restaurant this?
“It’s beautiful isn’t it?” the man said, “I thought of it myself.”
The boy let out a sharp gasp. He had waited more than he had planned.
“It’s very long.” the boy said hurriedly, desperately trying to plot an escape inside his mind.
The man grinned broadly, “And you, my small friend, are very, very skinny. Don’t they feed you at home?”
By this, the boy’s thought of retreating diminished, and he looked down wearily as he shuffled his feet on the cobbled stone.
“Come inside. Let’s fatten you up.”
“Fatten me up?”
“I’m not going to eat you boy. Sit. Yes right there…”
Surely this was a joke? This man, who he had met today, would give him food? But the boy watched, with a sense of surrealism, as the man entered the restaurant with bags of food.
It was not long before the man came out of the restaurant, holding two steaming plates.
“And here it is, the dinner special: ‘Dropped sunset on emerald pastures’!”
The dish appeared similar to the pile of food the boy had seen on the ground, but on the pale plate, the food appeared appetizing and even aesthetic.
“Eat my boy. But eat slowly! You must savour the taste – converse with your palate!”
The sharp spiciness of chilli mixed with the richness of the meat, along with the sour figs and sweet carrots, created a symphony inside the boy’s mouth. The music was harmonious; every taste was like an interlocking musical chord. Meanwhile, multitudes of spices were dancing the Salsa on his palate, igniting his mouth with sudden bursts of flavour and excitement.
Such excitement created a spark in his mind, and grabbing some of the food inside a bag the man had left outside, tossed them into the air, watching them stack into a muddled tower of demolished food.
“What are you doing?” the man said, rising from his seat. His serene expression had shifted to a hostile frown.
The boy panicked, expecting the man to reprimand him for what he had done. But the man only laughed, saying,
“You, my boy, are just like me.”
This time, the boy’s laughter danced with the man’s, weaving around each other, drifting through the now luminous sky.
Echoes of a child’s joy and a man’s delight rippled softly throughout the tranquil night.
The cheese smelt good. It stank of well, cheese. It was brie and it smelt delicious. The trill of the bell cut through my thoughts and I wrapped it back in it’s foil. I began to walk to my next class when I noticed Nicholas, better known as Nick or The Demon. He was the school bully and I was about to turn around and go the long way to maths when he called out:
“Geek Boy!! Food addict!!” He smirked. I looked down at my tummy. I felt tears prick the back of my eyes. The li?le, red, unforgiving hands prodded and poked, forcing out tears. “Geek Boy!!” He taunted. Nick smoothed back his gel-‐ridden hair. He stroked his protruding cheekbones. “Food addict! What do you have to say for yourself?” Laura his girlfriend, the hotest girl in the school and the kindest, came out from behind me. I stared at her in surprise.
“Nicholas, you know he is diabetic!” She ﬁxed him with her chocolatey eyes. Her curly hair whipped about her, riding on the wind. The colour was odd against it’s background. Coﬀee swirled with milk against a strong mint tea colour. I felt odd. I mean Laura, the prettiest girl in the school, behind me, of all people. I glanced at her. She smiled.
“Nicholas go to science, we have chemistry next.” Laura touched my elbow. When Nick sauntered over and kissed her, I felt the sudden urge to punch him. “Let’s go and see Sue, hey Paul?” I nodded. Nick turned around and ran towards me. He kicked me in the shins. I lunged away from arms and legs. Limbs ﬂew everywhere. I ducked a punch. Protectively, I curled into a ball and much to my annoyance, I heard laughing. Looking up , I noticed Nicholas was mocking me. Like an agile cat, Laura pounced into the middle. I got up, ready for more. She wiped gel from The Demon’s hair and sloshed it in his face.
Satisﬁed with him imobilised, she swung her bag oﬀ her bag to retrieve her water. She splashed the cool, shocking water over my face and had us sat down in minutes. She told Nick to go to science. He refused and she snarled like an alpha female in a wolf pack. In moments, he was gone.
“Sorry.” She said. “I didn’t mean to get you wet, I just needed to get you two away from eachother.”
“Where did you learn that?” I asked.
“Well with four brothers and two sisters let’s say I know a bit about ﬁghts.” I gasped in suprise. “Now let’s get you to Sue.” She put a ﬁnger to my lip and drew it away. “Nice nose bleed and split lip young man.” Just then I realised my nose was hurting and my lip tasted salty. I fely sick and dizzy. Suddenly the ﬂoor came up to meet me. In felt the impact on my chest, knees and skull. I didn’t move. My head was painful. I don’t know how but I managed to get to my feet and Laura took me to see Sue the receptionist.
“What’s wrong Paul?” My head was swimming a marathon. Life swirled before me. My head was pounding, not a sharp sound like a hammer, a dull constant squeeze. All I wanted was to sleep for an eternal serenity but voices surrounded me. “Paul?”
“You look pale Paul, do you have something to eat?” Yes I did, my cheese.
“This is serious Paul.” The honeyed, worried tone of Laura ﬂooded my brain. Shaking it away, I reached into my bag and brought out the brie. The cheese smelt good. It stank of well, cheese. It was brie and it smelt delicious. It had started my problems and now it will end them. Food started my problem and eventually it would end me. Sound enveloped me, but one question stood out.
“Who did this to you Paul?”
If you are ever in central France and fancy a memorable dinner – something really good and in unforgettable surroundings – ask about Les Caves Gourmands. But only if you are a diner with a sense of adventure.
From a car park on a plateau in the Massif Central, you descend steep iron steps fixed in the side of a cliff. They lead into a labyrinth of prehistoric chambers carved out of ancient limestone. The underground streams that created them have long since vanished, leaving the air dry and still. The temperature does not waver by more than half a degree.
Ten thousand years ago the caves were the home of a Stone Age tribe who enjoyed a mixed meat diet. When they were explored in modern times, the bones of bison, elk and mammoths littered the floors. There were also a few human femurs.
Today the caves resound to a different kind of feasting. The floors have been levelled, the tunnels widened and the chambers have been transformed into an elegant restaurant. The main cavern is a breathtaking sight. Concealed lighting has banished all but the darkest recesses in the lower half, leaving a soaring darkness overhead.
The lights outline the cavern’s amazing limestone formations in detail, catching the brilliant ivory, scarlet and turquoise colours of the mineral salts. Their complex shapes keep ones imagination busy. Here a set of massive organ pipes soar heavenwards; here they turn into a petrified waterfall. Here are buttresses, arches and lattices reminiscent of a Persian mosque. In one corner a leviathan rears up from the ocean floor and rests its head on a multi-layered wedding cake. From the vault of the chamber, a giant death mask of Napoleon Bonaparte (they say) broods over the scene. And wherever the lamps cast their glow, nature adds a delightful touch; pretty little green ferns flourish in the crevices.
Elsewhere in the restaurant everything is decidedly non-prehistoric. The facilities include a foyer, a cocktail lounge, washrooms, kitchens and staff quarters. The kitchens are at the end of a broad tunnel and have a separate access to the outside. Delicious aromas from the ovens mingle with the musk of ancient limestone.
The genius behind this creation is my employer, Monsieur Jean-Luc du Clos. He overcame huge opposition to open the caves and only succeeded because they had no wall paintings and had been badly damaged by smugglers and wine merchants in previous generations. Moreover, Monsieur du Clos is formidable activist. He opened his first restaurant at twenty-one and won his first Michelin star at thirty. Five years later he won a second star but a third eluded him.
That is not the whole story, because to many Frenchmen Jean-Luc is a hero, a patriot. He is Charles de Gaulle, Joan of Arc and the Three Musketeers rolled into one. A passionate defender of French cuisine, he detests anything imported or artificial like processed food, preservatives and additives. He sniffs out these abominations like a truffle hound.
Most of the staff have been with him for years, and for good reason. He is the reverse of all you expect in a master chef. He is kind and drinks very little. He never swears or throws a tantrum and does not permit the sous-chefs to do so. As his maître d’hôtel for twenty years, I thoroughly approve his refusal to serve dinner after ten o’clock. Late night dining is not good for a customer’s digestion or a waiter’s feet.
The story I shall now relate happened many years ago, before Les Caves became truly famous. It was undoubtedly their unique ambience that appealed to Dominic Marchant, a young television producer who was out to make his mark. He breezed in one morning to discuss an idea with Jean-Luc. I served them coffee and cognac and (like a good lieutenant) hovered within earshot.
“Monsieur du Clos, it has never been attempted on television. It will be a radical new departure! And in such a magnificent setting!” The young man bubbled with excitement as he produced plans and drawings. His idea was to re-enact inside the banqueting cavern a 17th century banquet modelled on Les Grands Couverts, the dinner feasts of Louis XIV.
“The studio will spare no expense. You can recreate the greatest dishes of France’s golden age. We will film all the preparations in advance and the programme will go live with the serving and the eating. And, most important, the courses will be followed by … an analysis.” He spoke reverentially.
I could see that the boss was interested but not persuaded. He stared at the plans as if they were a kettle of fish and he was deciding if they would make a decent bouillabaisse. Then he said, “Monsieur Marchant, I don’t know what you mean by analysis, but our standards at Les Caves Gourmands are the highest in the profession. They are not to be judged by dabblers and dilettantes who have never earned a living in a kitchen.”
Bravo, I thought! Anything can go wrong with a live television broadcast, especially if it employs enthusiastic amateurs. Jean-Luc was not going to cast his pearls before swine. But Marchant had an answer.
“Monsieur, you are right! At Louis XIV’s banquets the guests were chosen with as much care as the dishes. Invitations were only given to the aristocracy and to connoisseurs of his munificence. We will follow Le Roi Soleil. The banquet will be for experts and gourmands only. Let us say twenty-four of them? That will be our safeguard.”
“And no studio audience! I want no playing to a crowd. On this, too, I insist!”
Marchant put a good face on it. “Of course, since that is your wish, Monsieur du Clos. Everything will be done with the utmost professionalism.” He rubbed his hands as if the dishes were already cooked and set before him. “This banquet will be a visual feast as well as a gastronomic delight. It will be an education in haute cuisine; it will make you famous throughout France!” Clearly he thought it would not do him any harm either.
But Jean-Luc had another condition in mind. “Monsieur Marchant, when Louis XIV gave a banquet, he paid the bill, did he not? I intend to do the same; I shall fund the entire banquet. None of the experts will be paid, not one! I don’t want hacks. If a man will not participate out of love of France’s glorious traditions, I don’t need him here.”
Marchant was flustered. No payment? The legal department would not like that! What about compensation for the restaurant’s lost business? And bonuses for the staff? And there were insurance policies to consider. But his plea sounded weak. “Monsieur du Clos, outside broadcasts are all about money. It’s what keeps the accountants in business!”
“Not this time. There will be no fees or there will be no banquet. Those are my terms!”
After negotiation, Marchant’s employers agreed and a contract was signed. Six months of research and rehearsals then began. A typical Grand Couvert contained twenty or thirty dishes and Jean-Luc had to find attractive ones that could be recreated accurately.
When the day for the filming arrived, all started well. The central hall was beautifully prepared with a banqueting table laid with the finest glass and silver. The camera team filmed the sous-chefs at work in the kitchen while Jean-Luc did a voice-over, describing the origins and preparation of each dish. He was a natural commentator and the producer was delighted. The takes would introduce the programme before it went live that evening.
At six o’clock I took my place in the foyer. As the maître d’hôtel it was my job to greet the twenty-four guests and take them to the lounge. There we would give them cocktails before passing them to the make-up people. The anchorman, a cocky little Parisian in a bow tie, would go over the evening’s programme and explain the technical aspects.
Everything was going according to plan, but something was wrong. From the moment they walked in, these guests were not what we expected. They were sloppily dressed, they stared gormlessly at their surroundings and they muttered together like a bunch of conspirators. I took a tray of drinks from a waiter and glided discreetly among them, using my trained ear.
What I learned appalled me. Dominic Marchant’s vaunted restaurateurs appeared to be second rate bistro operators. They spoke with Parisian accents and knew each other professionally.
“Hey Michel, what’s all this Roi Soleil crap?”
“Search me! I backed a horse called that once.”
“ It’s bloody dark in here! How does anyone know what they’re eating?”
“Who cares? It’s all a gimmick for rich pseuds and imbeciles!”
Some of these geniuses had brought with them their so-called chefs, swarthy foreigners with frayed jeans and unintelligible French. They were drinking everything they could lay hands on. Clearly the bistro bunch would have little to contribute to an analysis.
It got worse. Marchant had promised us four or five distinguished food critics to lend gravitas to the evening. What we got was a couple of freelance travel journalists and a staffer from L’Humanité who was praying for a disaster. “There’d better be a cock-up in the kitchens or I’m screwed. There’s nothing for my editor in this lot.”
And then there were the TV celebrities whom Marchant had promised, household names who were known to be bons viveurs. They turned out to be a bunch of aging hippies, an obscure rock band from Marseilles. They had already been at another party and had picked up some female Goths. When they emerged from the cloakrooms a pall of marijuana came with them.
I spotted Dominic Marchant lurking behind a stalagmite and grabbed him by the arm. “What the hell have you done?” I hissed. “Who are these dreadful people? They are impostors, nothing like the experts you promised!”
“Let go! They were the best I could get.” He struggled but I held him fast. “Don’t blame me, it’s your boss’ fault! He insisted on that wretched no-fee clause. I warned him a dozen times.”
I wrenched his arm until he told the rest. He had drawn up a list of genuine connoisseurs, but they turned down his formal invitation which contained neither perks nor payment. They thought the event was a publicity stunt and nobody enlightened them. Marchant was occupied with production problems, and after his initial effort he put the guest list in the hands of a casting department. The latter, not realising what was at stake, had phoned around and come up with this bunch of dead beats.
As I debated whether to strangle Marchant on the spot, his assistant called out, “Mesdames, messieurs, your attention please! In just one hour the programme begins. The maitre d’hôtel will show you to your places.” Marchant wriggled from my grasp.
With my head in a whirl, I led the guests into the cavern where the banqueting table sparkled under the lights. They took their seats and the technicians began their tests. The assistant producer introduced a warm-up artist whose job was to relax everyone until the show started. The poor man was never going to win.
As I patrolled the table, things were building to a climax. By now the bistro people were well boozed and they were talking animatedly to the musicians and the Goths, who were equally high on dope. From the conversation I could tell they were all philistines and boors. They knew nothing of France’s glorious gastronomic tradition, of Louis XIV’s banquets, of modern culinary art or of Jean-Luc’s extraordinary success in satisfying the senses of touch, taste, sight and smell. Their comments chilled my blood.
“This place is a load of crap. It’s for pompous rich bastards!”
“I agree. Let’s all shove off during the entrée. That’ll show ‘em!”
“Yeah, they can’t do a thing about it. We signed nothing.”
“Why wait? Why not go now? Stuff the hors d’oeuvres!”
The table shook with their laughter, in which the reporters joined enthusiastically. A walk-out on live TV, now that was a headline! They silenced the warm-up artist and goaded one of the bistro owners to his feet. I could hardly believe my ears when the idiot announced, “Friends, this dump is like a dungeon! I’ve just rented a beach house for a month. Who wants to come and party at my place?”
Not to be outdone, the lead guitarist also stood. “He’s right. It’s a dump – let’s split! I’ve got a brand new Ferrari outside. Which of you chicks wants a ride?”
Now the anchor man, the producer and his assistants were gathering around, frantically protesting that no one could leave. But the scoundrels merely laughed. “You didn’t give us a contract, messieurs, and it’s no charity event!”
The drummer beat a rap with a spoon on the table. “Hey, I got married yesterday, and my new missus says I should be in bed by now!” He pushed back his chair and hitched up his trousers. One of the Goths developed claustrophobia and another screamed that she had been bitten by a vampire. The party had become a self-destructing shambles.
The TV people blustered and begged, but they could not stop the exodus of guests demanding their coats. Soon only the journalists were left at the table, scribbling furiously in their note books. Marchant slumped in a chair with his head in his hands. “We’re on in forty five minutes. The network will kill me!”
Merde! I stared in disgust at the retreating traitors, struck by a new thought. Was this a conspiracy hatched in Paris? Jean-Luc had no lack of jealous rivals. I hurried to the kitchen. He was in his office putting on a clean tunic and humming happily to himself. “Bernard old friend, things are going great! The scallops with oyster liquor are delicious and I believe the Canard sauvage cromesquis à la Villeroy is the finest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve left the sous-chefs in charge. Let’s go and meet our distinguished guests. This is best night of my life!”
I made him sit down before I delivered the bombshell, including my belief that it was a concerted move to ruin his business. He stared at me in disbelief. “All of them, Bernard? Are they all our assassins?”
“Boss, they’re a load of phonies who are high as kites and full of spite. They have only one recipe and it’s to cook your goose. The TV people can’t do a thing and Marchant is falling apart. You have to take charge!”
Jean-Luc’s face hardened. He stood and buttoned his tunic. Then he put on his tall chef’s hat and marched into the cavern like a headmaster confronting a class of rebellious teenagers. The television people shrank back, expecting a terrific outburst. But I knew him better than that.
“So your experts left early, Monsieur Marchant?” The irony was as heavy as a lead coffin. “Too bad, it’s their loss. My staff have prepared a splendid feast and someone is going to enjoy it. Perhaps you can suggest an alternative clientele?”
“In forty minutes?” he wailed miserably.
“Your technicians look as though they could use a good meal. Can’t you spare any of them?” But only two could be released and Jean-Luc turned to me. “Bernard, take the minibus and go into town. The people of Monteville know fine food, even if they can’t afford our prices. Go to the old folk’s home, then to the youth hostel, then the bus station and the night shelter. Go to the taverns if need be! Tell ‘em there’s a slap-up dinner at Les Caves and it’s free. Don’t take no for an answer!”
And so it was that an astonished group of pensioners, youngsters, drifters and travellers found themselves guests at Les Caves Gourmands. They arrived like kids on a school treat and took their seats at the table minutes before the cameras were due to roll.
Even the journalists who had expected to report a media disaster agreed the banquet was a success, though they made the guests not the chefs the stars of the show. They described in melodramatic terms how the yokels enjoyed epicurean riches beyond the dreams of gluttony. On the other hand, they saw Jean-Luc’s action in opening his banquet to the poor as an object lesson to capitalist restaurateurs and greedy gormandizing clients.
The guests were of course unaware of such matters. They applauded one magnificent Bourbon dish after another; they drank Jean-Luc’s health repeatedly in fine champagne and called for the chefs to take bow after bow. Long after the last chocolate truffle had been eaten, the caverns rang with the sounds of clinking glasses and appreciative belches.
The television ratings and critical reviews were spectacular and the evening was a personal triumph for Jean-Luc. In fact one might say that on that night, in a Stone Age cavern of all places, the first TV celebrity chef was launched. And next year he received the ultimate accolade, his third Michelin star.
‘So what do you want for your Special Meal?’: asked the Warder.
‘Special Meal’, I asked, ‘what’s that?’
‘On your appointed day this Wednesday, you get to choose what you have to eat’: he explained. ‘It’s known in the US prison service as the Special Meal.’
‘A kind of the condemned man ate a hearty breakfast thing’: I said. He looked blank, the Warders on Death Row in Texas are not renown for humour or an appreciation of literary allusions.
‘Listen, buddy’, he replied, ‘you can have anything you want, provided the kitchen can make it, so no fancy stuff. Most people have a lot of fries. Big Macs are not allowed. The women tend not to want anything. One guy ordered a huge last meal: a plate of two chicken-fried steaks with gravy and sliced onions, a triple-patty cheeseburger, a cheese omelette with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, jalapenos, a bowl of fried okra with ketchup, a pound of barbecued meat with half of a loaf of white bread, a portion of three fajitas, a meat-lover’s pizza (topped with pepperoni, ham, beef, bacon and sausage), a pint of Blue Bell, a serving of ice cream, a slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts, and a serving of three root beers’.
‘Jeez, that must have made him sick’: I commented.
‘No way, the jerk didn’t eat any of it. He kind of lost his appetite.’
‘Any chance of a smoke or a drink?: I asked
‘No way, Health and Safety regulations’: the warders don’t do irony either.
The decision reminded me of all those philosophy discussions in first year university. You know the stuff: free will versus determinism? In theory, I could order anything but in practice, I suspect the catering range of the Adam B. Polunksy Unit (Death Row, as it is affectionately known, based at West Livington, Texas) is not that great. What kind of guy wants a death row named after him; even by Texan standards, it is bizarre? They might be able at a pinch do Mexican but forget Indian or Chinese. Then, there was personal choice, I can eat most things but forget figs, beetroot or custard. There is also context: how hungry will I really be on my last day on earth?
It is often remarked upon that the similarities between prisons and boarding school are great. It is twenty five years since I last graced that establishment on the east coast but I still can guess what they are having for lunch every day (and I am not just talking fish on Friday). The Medes and the Persians were into more flexibility, when it came to school menu planning. The same predictable menu is also firmly in place here. On Wednesday, the day of my Special Meal, the other inmates of Death Row will be having: very watery celery soup, steak and kidney pie and two veg, and vanilla ice cream.
‘Well’, said the Warder next day, clutching a pen in a grip that showed he did not take notes very often, ‘what are you having for your Special Meal?’
‘I want a cheese sandwich’: I replied.
‘The Chef is going to be kind of disappointed. People will think that we were not offering a full menu. Do you realise’, he continued, ‘that these choices are given a lot of publicity, state wide and internationally? He has had a small book made with some of his most famous Special Dish recipes.’
‘What did he call it – Last Supper?’
‘There’s no need for that kind of blasphemy.’
‘I want a special sandwich – brown bread one side, white the other, the crusts cut off and a smear of pickle and onion.’
‘Do you want somebody to sit with you while you have the Special Meal? I have on a number of occasions offered my services.’
‘No, I think that would give me indigestion.’
I need to interject some personal bits here. I am innocent. Yeah, I know, nearly everybody in prison says that, but truly, I am. There’s a guy, a few cells away, who has killed at least eleven people, some in front of witnesses, who says he is innocent. He says a bad angel, who looked like him, did the killing. There was an awful fuss a few days back, when he tried to hang himself in some sheets.
As you might have guessed from the reference to free will and determinism a while back, I am something of a philosopher; in fact, I used to teach it, first at some Ivy League university and now down here in Texas. We came here a few years ago when my marriage to Martha began to go wrong: a new start we said. Instead, it got worse. We argued on everything from whether we should have children as to who should take out the trash.
At that moment my train of thought was interrupted by the Warder. It’s my Saturday meal (mashed potato and sausage). They are so afraid that we might do away with ourselves that the plastic knife is that blunt; it is a job to cut the potato. ‘Congratulations’, he says, ‘but you are famous.’
‘How come?’: I ask.
‘Your Special Meal, it’s been all over the papers and even got mentions on radio and TV. We are even getting foreign enquiries. The Prison Governor has even been asked why brown and white bread combined? They are interested too that you are some kinda of philosopher.’
‘It’s a childhood thing’, I explain, ‘one day we ran out of brown bread at home and so they finished the sandwich with a bit of white as well.’
‘Chef (“how can the main cook on Death Row get called that”?) says that he has had several offers from local bakeries to bake a special loaf. He also wants to know what kind of cheese you would like.’ Facing eternity and wondering what type of cheese to eat is the kind of thing that Nietzsche would enjoy. (He did not become Hitler’s favourite philosopher for nothing.) ‘I think a really strong Cheddar, preferably a Canadian Saltwater one. Any offers on the pickle and onion?’
‘Not as yet.’
Anyway, as I was saying about this innocence bit. On the night in question, Martha and I reached an all time low. It wasn’t that we disliked each other: we hated each other big time. She had been having an affair with this Logical Positivist, Eric, in my Department. Of all the blind allies that Philosophy has taken that is the worst. You know those debates: when you are out of the room is the table still there? Not only is the debate fatuous but they are not even convinced if you install a camera or some equally stupid check. Some followers will even go as far as questioning that when you are there: how do you know for certain that it is a table? I left the house at about 8pm and drove out to get seriously out of my skull drunk.
Sorry to keep interrupting but one of the things about Death Row is that they won’t leave you alone for a minute. The Warder came in again with Sunday’s main meal (beef, potatoes and gravy). Call me old fashioned but I feel that gravy should be able to move about a bit; by the time it gets all the way from the cook house, you could virtually walk on it. He is beginning to really irritate me. He seems to be six feet five in all directions with a hair cut done by a blow torch, it is that flat. (Texas is a weird place; you actually see men walking around with spurs on. I don’t think that the state ever recovered from Dallas.) He could also teach the original Job’s Comforter a thing or two about lack of empathy.
‘There’s a couple of demonstrators outside the Governor’s house; one lot shouting for you and the other wanting you to die. About even in numbers, I guess, but the Texas Coalition for the Abolition of the Death Penalty have louder lungs.’: he informs me. The Governor, a George W. Bush (big things are predicted for him), turned down my appeal; so he won’t be getting my vote, that’s for sure. ‘Here’s your mail’, he hands me a pile of letters and cards. Of course, they have been through them to check that there is nothing that is likely to help me escape!
I will say one thing about being on Death Row: it boosts your sex appeal. In the seven years that I have been here, I have three proposals of marriage; umpteen fan letters and a few women claiming that they are doing something best left to the imagination when looking at my picture. There are lots of letters from friends and former students. ‘A good luck with your execution’ card must be the ultimate oxymoron.
I was explaining why I think that I am innocent. I got to Pete’s Bar on 49th Street about 8.30. It’s the kind of place that hasn’t really coped with the fact that the 50s are over and Ike is no longer President. I eat a meal of steak (rare), grits and a Caesar salad. I drain enough Scotch to empty several lochs. And here’s the weak part of my story, I remember vaguely leaving the bar at about 11.30 and the next thing I remember is being very roughly shaken in my car by a cop about 2.30 in the morning. I have racked my brains every day since in an effort to recall what happened but I can remember nothing. Not a thing.
Martha’s story, however, is crystal clear and fits the facts. She has told it umpteen times: first to the police and then in various trials and appeals ever since. She is in bed with the Logical Positivist, when I turn up very drunk. A violent argument rages and I grab a gun from beside the bed and shoot Eric dead. (She doesn’t add anything as to whether he debates about whether he is alive or not before dying.) Almost immediately Eric’s irate wife, Enid, turns up also to confront the lovers. A violent argument ensues and in the struggle, she is also shot by me. I am found outside in my car by the Police, covered in blood, with the pistol in my hand. Upstairs are two dead bodies and a hysterical Martha.
After Monday lunch time (fish cake, broccoli and roast potato), the Governor turns up. He is so big that he makes the Warder look like a midget. He fills the 5.6 metre square cell almost completely (that’s 60 square feet, if you are into old style measurements). In a voice that is a complete monotony, he announces the programme for Wednesday. After the Special Meal, I will taken in a three van convoy to the Byrd Unit, Huntsville. (Who Mr, Mrs, Miss or Ms Byrd was history does not immediately relate.) I will be bound by leg irons and belly chains. ‘I should warn you, in case, you are hoping to escape.’ Executions take place in Texas in the early evening. ‘How long will the lethal injection take?: I ask. ‘About seven to eight minutes’: I am told. ‘But you will fell no pain, only minor discomfort when the needle is injected’: he reassures me. ‘So that’s OK’, I feel like saying but, as I have already remarked: they don’t do irony around here.
He explains that I am allowed five friends or relatives to attend, plus my spiritual comforter. On Death Row, I have been visited by every known religion, including the local rabbi, anxious to take me through the Old Testament. As somebody who has run the ‘Is God Dead?’ seminar for a number of years, I feel that I must refuse on principle. The victim’s relatives and friends are allowed five witnesses (six if it has been a multiple killing; two bodies does not apparently qualify). If there is excess demand, these are drawn by lot. (Before you ask: the two sides are separated. It could be awkward.) I wonder if Martha will turn up and, if so, which side she would choose. My bet, she will chicken out; we are still technically married. For a moment I think about inviting Professor Clarkson, the Head of the Philosophy Department, but I don’t think he would appreciate the request. One of his staff on Death Row and another murdered is the kind of publicity no department needs. Five media witnesses are allowed (five seems to be an important thing in all of this). The Associate Press Agency has a permanent invitation. Apparently, the same guy always turns up: he has seen over 300 executions. I suppose it is better than covering local weddings. The local paper, the Huntsville Item, covers all executions in Texas, no matter where the murders have taken place. Officialdom will be there in force. So I won’t be lonely.
I keep turning over in my what happened that night. What I think took place is that Enid came to the house to confront her errant husband. A fight broke out between the three of them. Martha, the only one, who knows where the pistol is, pulls out the gun. It is grabbed by Enid, who shoots her husband. More fighting takes place and Martha shoots Enid. Outside the window she sees my car with me slumped inside. She puts the pistol in my hand and smears me with blood from the two bodies. She then calls the cops. It is only a guess but I am sure that I did not do it. I am squeamish (I was a vegetarian in my teens but missed bacon sandwiches too much). I have never fired a gun in my life. I only own a gun because in Texas everybody does; you are thought of as weird if you don’t have one. My main problem, as several prosecution attorneys have pointed out over the years, is that I have no adequate explanation as to why I am found sitting outside my house with a gun with blood all over the place and no excuse as to how I got there. Matters are not helped by the fact that I told nearly everybody in the bar that night that I would like to murder my wife.
So, it is now Tuesday night, my last night. I have eaten my last regular meal (spaghetti bolognaise). A philosopher should be able to cope with this better than most. The situation is pregnant with possibilities but, to be honest, time hangs heavy. Three degrees and a couple of books do not help at all. At school we used to number the jokes at meals because we had told them too often and were bored. It saved time in the telling. We used to play ridiculous games. I remember one where we used to invent awful dishes out of various clashing ingredients. I won one term with kippers and hot chocolate sauce.
What should my last words be (apparently they are always reported, like the Special Meal)? ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’ (I think therefore, I am) on Descartes lines? ‘Martha, you’re a total lying bitch?’ All I can really think of is the painting by David of the Death of Socrates; the philosopher is about to take hemlock and points to heaven. At his feet, sits the distraught Plato and around the bed stand a posse of grieving disciples. I can’t see any of my post grad students wanting to make it here.
Next morning, the Warder enters in a rather a subdued mood. He pushes watery celery soup, steak and kidney pie and two veg, followed by vanilla ice cream, in front of me. ‘What happened to the Special Meal?’: I ask.
‘There’s been a hitch’, he says, ‘some dude got in touch with the Justice Department yesterday.’ He says he can remember meeting you coming out of the bar sometime after eleven. You went back to his motel and drank a whole lot more and did some coke. You passed out in the early hours and, as he was leaving for Wisconsin next day; he took your driver’s licence out of your pocket (and twenty dollars, apparently) and drove you home. He left you parked outside of your house. He confirms that you were out for the count. You were unable to do anything.’
‘Why has it taken so long for him to come forward?’
‘He only heard about it yesterday when the local media around Wisconsin ran stories about the Special Meal and the strange sandwich. Apparently, you and he made one before you passed out. He remembers you telling him the story about its origin.’
‘So I can go free?’: I ask.
‘Not so fast, buddy. The police are investigating further. They will, however, be questioning your wife in the light of these developments. You are going to be here a little while longer; maybe forever, if this guy’s story does not stand up. It is only a stay of execution. Look on the bright side; Thursday is the best day of the week: steak for the main course.
‘What happened to the Special Meal. Who ate the sandwich?’
‘Chef, he says it was delicious.’
God speaks, “Vermilion magma, searing fires, liquid gold, deep inside the womb of the earth, writhe, fall and split apart in chaos. Rise out of darkness to create the shape of new worlds! Stand timeless and record ancient history in the light of self-knowledge.”
It is the third winter in a small lakeside log cabin atop the trees, on the side of the Suntar Khayata mountain range. In Eastern Siberia, in 13th century Russia, food is scarce.
A blind stonemason grasps a chunk of glistening cuneiform granite with one hand. His axe is raised. The surface of the granite bears some strange raised markings that have the appearance of an unknown language. The blind stonemason feels and follows the linear contours of the markings, with his bony fingers. He senses that the markings on the stone seem to bear a message. Axe in one hand, he takes a piece of charcoal out of the hearth, and starts to trace the stone’s markings onto the cabin wall. Suddenly there is a quaking movement, and the log walls shudder for a brief moment. The stonemason stumbles backwards and slips. The axe jumps out of his hand. He hears the clean sound of metal against stone. The axe has cleaved the stone in two.
The stonemason hobbles away from the split granite. He peers through a small gap in the door, then opens the door a little. He hides just inside the doorway. His head leans against the rough texture of the wooden door frame – listening. Cold winds cut and moan across the isolated lake side. Frozen Larch trees shake and whisper of a coming storm. The stonemason puts his woollen kolpak on his head and pulls a tattered shuba around his threadbare tunic. He climbs down the ladder from his simple tree-house while clutching onto the two pieces of granite. There is an uncanny silence, apart from the sound of his slow stepping through the deep snow. He checks that his tools are where he left them. He shrugs and claps his hands together. There seems to be no immediate danger of a storm, and so he proceeds to take his pitcher and chisel in hand. The stonemason begins to shape the glistening granite with the sharp point of his chisel while muttering softly to himself about his good fortune.
An old bear appears from the frozen forest and lumbers steadily towards the stonemason. The old bear snorts and sniffs the air, sending bursts of half-frozen vapour through her nostrils. “Give me fish for my belly, for I have hungry offspring and must keep up my strength. Or else I will tear down your house!” says the bear.
“Dear mother bear.” The stonemason is face-to-face with the old bear. “Do not be angry. I am poor and hungry and have nothing to feed you with. All I have is this stone which I dug from the mountain with my bleeding hands. Let me shape it into a casket. I swear that it will buy enough fish to feed the two of us, along with a whole sleuth of bears.”
“I will return at first light and eat with you. Or you will feel the icy chill of death.”
The blind stonemason grimaces and nods. He swiftly grips his tools, knowing that his life depends on it. All day he grapples with the intricacies of the stone’s markings. By twilight he has made the princeliest of caskets fit for a palace. He wraps up the ornate casket in oilskin, takes his wooden staff and sets off for the trading port, a considerable distance away.
There is a loud call from across the hardened waters of the lake. The call repeats itself as a shrill echo across the frozen places. There follows the heavy thumping sound of running dogs on wet ice, going at a furious pace.
“You there, halt!”
The stonemason puts down his staff. He is poised and waiting.
“Kopka. And you?”
The stranger brings his sled to an abrupt halt and dismounts. “I have slain a number of beasts, and need rest and cover, as I am weary from travel.”
“Apologies. I did not know that I am speaking to a messenger of the Khan – his yam.”
The stranger stares at Kopka and spits to one side. His hunched dark form when set against the vast whitened lakeside is somehow smaller than the noisy din of his approach. “I pledge to share the kill from a bear hunt, if I can rest at your lodgings tonight.”
Kopka is transformed and leaps with excitement, almost forgetting that he carries his precious casket. “Praise be to all the saints.” The bear is surely no more, so he thinks. “Welcome stranger. We can travel to the port on the morrow, and do our business later. But for now we will eat well and rest as long as we may.”
“Not so,” replies the stranger. He looks to the side, and grips Kopka’s arm. “I am no yam. I have escaped slavery from the whoring sons of Genghis Khan. They roam the steppes on horseback.” He spits. “I will skin the bear hides here.” He loosens his grip. “I mean to cross the frozen sea at Okhotsk and do some trade. And on my return from the Silk Road, if you help speed my work this night, I will pay you back in fur skin and meat.” Kopka although weakened from starvation, nods in agreement because the stranger has defeated the bear, or so he thinks, and promises a meal and reward.
During the night after their work is complete, the stranger boasts of providing a banquet for them both, with the price his furs will fetch. Before dividing the meat from his hunt, the stranger offers Kopka some strong mead to drink. Kopka drinks happily. But in his malnourished state, Kopka faints and falls into a slumber almost immediately. The stranger gathers together all the animal skins and meat into a bundle. He notices the precious casket next to where Kopka lies, and as he sneaks off, he snatches it away.
At first light Kopka discovers the treachery, and searches frantically in the snow for his casket. Kopka sobs as he sinks to his knees and cries out in prayer. “Oh most high God of the wild places, and the mountains and deepest places of the earth to the height of the whole of the starry universe. I am but a blind fool, alone in the wilderness. Have mercy.” Out of the morning mists the old bear appears.
“Have you fish for my belly?”
“What?” Kopka wails.
“We had an agreement.”
Kopka’s voice breaks as he speaks. “I thought.” He sobs trembling. “I thought you were slain by the stranger. Alas! You will certainly be very angry now, because I have nothing to give.” Kopka tears at his tunic. “The stranger robbed me and no doubt you will destroy me now and my house.” He covers his face with his hands and speaks through his fingers. “But if you slay me, you and your cubs will still have no fish! I ache for some comfort and food myself, but will gladly sell my kolpak and shuba, to help provide some fish.”
“The stranger who stole from you, also robbed me of my four cubs, which I alone nursed through the bitterness of the third winter.” The old bear stamps hard into the snow. She snorts. “Still, I found the coward! And now he fills my belly. Here is the casket he stole”. She takes the casket fully wrapped in oilskin, and lays it gently at Kopka’s feet. “I return it because I too know hunger, loss and loneliness.”
This is the first tale of the inscribed casket. The mystery of its markings will not be revealed until the mountains become valleys on the last day. There is no food known, no knowledge or treasure, nor is there any meaning that can satisfy the barren of heart.
“What on earth are you doing, Alice?” Bob was astonished to find his wife outside the Supermarket wearing homemade sandwich boards, proclaiming “Nine Meals from Anarchy”. Holding a clipboard, Alice was inviting the public to sign up to “feeding our town in the future” but most walked past, secure in the knowledge that they would soon return with heavily-laden shopping trolleys.
Bob looked uncomfortable. He loved his wife, her commitment and concern, although her enthusiastic response to things often embarrassed him. In this instance, as Manager of the Supermarket outside of which she was demonstrating, he saw that it was going to be a great deal more awkward for him to support her from the side-lines.
“Love, could you stop and we’ll talk later?” People were streaming past, looking askance at Alice’s sandwich boards. One woman recognised Bob as the Manager but not Alice as being his wife. She smiled at him, “I don’t think she’s been in your store.” Bob smiled politely back, not knowing what to say, not wanting to embarrass a customer but equally not wishing to denigrate Alice. A young couple stopped, giving the thumbs-up to the sandwich boards. “She’s right.” The man turned to Bob. “You’re the Manager aren’t you? We need people like this to help us see the writing on the wall – climate change, problems about water and other stuff”. They moved on, picking up a basket to fill with as many carbon-light items as they could find from his shelves.
“Don’t worry,” Alice said, “I’ve got to leave for work.” Bob looked relieved, wondering how often she intended to be outside his place of work.
She wriggled out of her sandwich boards and marched off home with them tucked under her arm. Before leaving for the Hospice where she worked as the Volunteer Coordinator, she collected two rosemary plants, a packet of parsley seeds, a trowel and a bottle of water. Recently her twenty-minute walk to work had been an absorbing exercise in locating likely, as well as not so likely, growing places. She had noted the obvious spots but also a surprising number of spaces tucked away in small, derelict corners, neglected patches of flattened earth. Then there were the swathes of grass areas with their ball-playing forbidding notices that, throughout summer, had nothing the mowers near them. Alice could see nothing useful or aesthetic in them.
At a corner of a side street by the main road, under the gaze of a famous athlete advertising an energy drink on a billboard, she weeded a patch of soil squeezed between the edge of the pavement and the wall. Alice poured water into two holes and tapped the bottom of the pots releasing the rosemary plants that she tucked firmly into the soil. Their savoury smell made her feel quite hungry. She washed her hands with the remainder of the water, collected up the weeds and pots and headed on to work. The parsley seeds would have to wait. Her first planting! She felt absurdly proud of the little plants and how, instantly, they brightened up the otherwise nondescript space.
Home was an end of terrace house and the space between street and front door had been thoroughly colonised with pots, buckets, window-boxes and grow bags. Hanging baskets framed the front door and any run-off water dripped directly onto lettuce seedlings below. Alice had always enjoyed growing things and as a child had had possession of her own small garden patch. She had learnt early of the thrill of anticipation, the disappointment of failure, the satisfaction of the harvest and had developed a sensory memory of the seasons. Bob teased her, saying that with their discount at the Supermarket they could have good-quality vegetables for no effort and without being over faced with the inevitable glut of runner beans and courgettes.
But then Alice had stumbled out of her comfortable assumptions about their life, her, Bob and more especially the children, after casually flicking through a journal when at the Dentist. She forever associated the sense of unease as she read the article about Climate Change, Peak Water and Food Security with the apprehension that she always experienced before dental appointments. She assumed that it had been grossly exaggerated as the writer sought to draw attention to the article or to suit the prejudices of the journal’s readership, although its tone was not extreme. Of course it was not all new to her. She had read the odd article, heard the radio, seen the TV about the concerns of a growing population, shrinking world resources, climate change, biodiversity loss – a list that left her feeling squeezed out. But the politicians and commentators appeared far more worried other things and when they did refer to these seemingly overarching problems, they never seemed to express the same urgency, so she reasoned that it couldn’t be that bad.
Alice could not, however, get the article out of her head and, when home, went straight to her computer. She was so absorbed that she never heard the door and shrieked at hearing her daughter’s voice in her ear. “Mummy, I’m hungry. When’s tea? Can I eat now and go out with Emma. I won’t be late. What’s for tea? Mummy, what’s wrong with your face?” Elly paused and Alice gave a lop-sided smile. “The dentist.” Hell, she had completely forgotten to shop and Bob would be back too late to bring anything for Elly. Ironic that here she was worrying about the planet’s ability to feed the world while ignoring today’s family tea. Tinned tomatoes, herbs, pasta, cheese. Within a very short time Elly was scooping it up, flicking tomato spots across the table as pasta escaped her fork and then she was out and Alice was back behind the computer feeling uncharacteristically pessimistic.
By the time Bob got home from a late evening shift, while their other daughter had phoned to say that she was having tea with a friend, Alice was still absorbed in her research, searching for a course of action. She worked very differently from him and he knew better than to try and distract her. While he responded slowly and methodically, her impulsive commitment to things over the years had been a source both of irritation and respect for him. So he let her be that evening. The children returned and all three were tucked up in bed several hours before Alice, having found the idea she sought, shut down the computer. Bob stirred, rolled over and put his arm round her as she crept into bed. “OK?” he mumbled and she gave him a quick kiss and curled up enjoying the warmth of his body as he folded himself round her.
Alice was impatient for the morning’s work to be over and return to the websites that had inspired her with descriptions of practical activities and successful projects. She wanted to start planning but, unlike the previous day, she would first see to the immediate needs of feeding her family and, as she often did, diverted via Bob’s store en route home. Walking to work that morning, her mind had been focussed on what she had learnt during her night-time web trawl but as she walked back, she looked out with a new purpose. In place of the uninspiring uniformity of the bedding plants lining the central reservation of the urban carriageway, she imagined plants that would attract bees and butterflies. There could be no food crops there, sitting, as they would be, within belching distance of exhaust fumes. She reckoned that there was definite potential for the supermarket car park. She would get Bob on to that.
After a quick shop, Alice headed home. He had seen her arrive and was looking forward to her head appearing round his door and was mildly disappointed on realising that she had left. This time Alice ignored the computer until all domestic admin was sorted but the afternoon, like so many, seemed to contract and, despite homework being unfinished, it was the children’s bedtimes and she was too tired to do other than sit with Bob and watch TV.
In the days after, as she started to plant around the town, Alice had encountered no objection. Perhaps, she thought, no one had noticed. The next step was to colonise the obvious public spaces – the flowerbeds with the ubiquitous bedding plants or scentless roses with yards of bare earth between them. She knew that she was limited in any plans without official support so, taking the plunge one day, she picked up the phone.
“Press 1 for Waste and Recycling. 2 for Amenities and Open Spaces. 3 for Planning. 4 for Transport. 5 for Council Tax. 6 for…”
Alice put the receiver down. Open spaces? Damn, she had not paid attention. She re-dialled but stopped mid-way. How was she going to put her proposal over the phone?
Instead she wrote to the Council and, while at it, to her Supermarket Manager, outlining her proposal, giving a brief synopsis of the motivation and inviting them to look at websites illustrating successful examples in other towns, ending with a request for a meeting.
“Thank you my dear for your correspondence,” Bob said. “When would you like to schedule a meeting? I suggest not over breakfast – always a bit chaotic”.
“Bob, you know I had to. I don’t imagine it’s just your decision even if you like to think so.”
“Good heavens no.” He mimicked self-righteous indignation. “We, Madam, work collaboratively with the community – that is, with our….”
“Stop. Seriously. Who do I – we talk to. You’ve got a lot of space”.
“And we sell a lot of food”
“This isn’t going to threaten that. Anyway, even Supermarkets are going to have make changes one day. You can show how enlightened you are.” Alice’s voice was not without a touch of sarcasm.
“Well, no more demos outside my store if we cooperate”.
Alice smiled. “Fine – didn’t enjoy it and nobody signed up!”
“Why did you go on about bees?” Alice asked Bob a week later. “Because we’d decided we’d focus mainly on growing for bees,” he answered. “Yes, but that didn’t mean you banging on about them. There are moths and butterflies too!”
Plants for bees, mainly bees, Bob still thought and he reckoned that it would be a real plus for the Store’s image. The plight of bees had caught the public imagination and he knew from the shelves how several companies were encouraging their customers to support them. Well, he could be bee friendly he decided, pleasing both his wife and many customers and of course the bees. “We don’t want to lose parking spaces”, his colleague said but they had looked down from their meeting room and agreed it was a bit of a tarmac desert and could do with “some light relief”. “Thanks.” Alice’s voice was ambiguous, a blend of sarcasm and relief.
The first official public site was created and photographs of plants swarming with bees appeared in the Supermarket alongside happy chickens and mouth-watering meals. Large half-barrels were placed in the car park and two wooden flowerbeds near the main entrance. June from the Deli section offered to help with the wider town project and Nick and Clare, volunteers at the Hospice, also joined. They were developing projects for those left in an emotional vacuum after death, for whom the Hospice had become an important source of solace and stability and who needed a stepping-stone to support them across the first bewildering space. One new group was showing early signs of success, meeting regularly to cook together. Some of the older men could do no more than boil an egg but had always enjoyed home cooking until now and the group served as both practical workshop and a homely reminder of the comfort of food. Many of these men had a wealth of gardening experience and were enthusiastic about including the Hospice in Alice’s town project. They swarmed over the small garden, keen to seize the season, squabbling like a flock of starlings over what to grow where, where to compost what and how to grow. Although the how was more or less ordained: no chemicals. They would also make window boxes for salad crops, have tubs by the front entrance and they would propose planting apple trees as a buffer from the main road.
One of her friends, Clare, worked at the Council. Alice had stalled after sending her letter, imagining the difficulty in attempting to describe her ideas and encountering hurdles about liability and food safety that would stop them in their tracks. But without Council support they were limited. Clare took it in hand, knew the officers to invite and the meeting was a relaxed affair that surprised Alice. With the exception of one Martin who remained puzzled and unconvinced. “We’ve got allotments. Granted there’s a waiting list. Why would someone grow vegetables in flower beds where anyone can pick them?”
“If it was beet leaf, it would just grow back,” June commented quietly.
Clare presented their case well; how they wanted to show the potential to grow food in so many unexpected places. “It’s about giving an example – of how a community could grow a substantial amount of its own food.”
So now Alice always carried her mobile DIY growing kit. She and Julie, roaming the town, had found a round earth bed that was just that – earth, mostly compacted by the many feet shortcutting across it. It was an uninspiring spot by a small shopping precinct – a Take-Away, Hair Salon, Electrical shop, Newsagent and others boarded up. Alice, June and Nick met there on a blustery Sunday morning in early May, the chill wind blowing litter and last year’s leaves in mini-whirlpools. A small trickle of people passed. Although most of them ignored their activity, some commented. “Not worth the effort. It’ll get trodden over” one man said but his companion disagreed. “It’d be nice to have something growing here. It looks depressing. Worth a try.” They hoped that two small blackcurrant bushes donated by a friend would survive and they avoided planting along the obvious central cut through. Optimistically, they planted lettuce seedlings.
Alice detoured that way a few days later. Some lettuces lay partially crushed but more had survived and the alternating green and red of the ‘cut and come again’ saladbowl was a cheerful sight. She had brought rosemary plants that grew easily from cuttings and clumps of marjoram that had to be split to stop it submerging their garden path at home. There were more people around and, although they mostly ignored her, she was self-conscious, noticing a young guy by the shops watching her, his shoulders hunched against the wind. Uncomfortable, she worked fast, glancing sideways at him. Perhaps she should acknowledge him but she felt foolish, wanting only to be finished and leave. As she stood up he walked over.
“What’s it for?” he asked. “It’s a shit idea to put stuff here.” Alice said without thinking, “Well, there’s shit where we dug the currant bushes in”. “What you talking about?” “It’s some cow muck. It feeds the soil.” She answered.
He looked doubtful. “Are you joking me? Why would you put shit to grow stuff?” “Only from certain animals – not meat eating ones.” She was not going to get into the complication about composting human manure.
A car pulled up and the driver leaned out. “Hey Kyle. You coming?” He walked straight over the bed but kept to the central path and wedged himself into the full car. As the car drove off fast, he gave a slight nod back at Alice.
Kyle was there again and approached when she was transplanting courgette plants to fill the remaining space. He did not recognise her description of a courgette. “Wait,” she said. “If you see them through to picking time, there’ll be lots and you can try them”, an idea that puzzled him, that it would be ok to pick some just like that. With diffidence, he gradually took over supervision of the bed and looked forward to going there. He liked the smell from the currant bushes when he brushed past them and Alice offered to show him some broad bean plants, which she said also had their own distinctive smell. He did not know what beans were when they were broad and not baked. He was never chatty. Unlike his mates who were sometimes there, competing with each other to be heard, good-humouredly mocking Kyle as he worked. One night they returned from a night out, stumbling through the flowerbed, snapping and crushing plants underfoot. Kyle woke with a headache and the sensation of his tongue being stuck to the roof of his mouth but feeling worse still as he imagined the damage done to the plants. His fears were largely unrealised. Some bunches of unripe currants lay crushed and two small branches were partially snapped. A courgette plant had taken a direct hit but the others still sported their exotic flowers and the outlying lettuces stood triumphant. He tidied up and decided to ask if they could try making it more secure. He felt suddenly cheerful. He would still get to try a courgette and thought that perhaps he would ask about helping with other growing areas.
“What’s this for?” Bob took the glass offered by Alice when he returned one evening. “A toast to the first produce!” She grinned and held up some broad beans and lettuce. “Celebrity vegetables – photo in the paper next week!”
“So can we eat them?” Bob asked. “No, course not, they’ll be for your chap at Poolfields Precinct? Lucky for us I brought back plenty of Supermarket produce!”
They raised their glasses.
Nurture Your Writing Life by competition winner Caroline Sutherland
Caroline Sutherland (l) being presented with her winner’s certificate by judge Dr Sally Flint (r)
Thank you for running the competition: great title, lots of scope for writers and it’s very enjoyable to have a fun competition.
The second Crediton Short Story Competition was on the topic of: