- 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