Savour the Moment – The Asian Writer Short Story Prize 2018 Runner Up

Ever since the email went out at the end of November, food was all anyone could talk about.

From: Culture Comms

Subject: Important Staff Event – International ‘Bring a Dish’ Lunch Day!

Date: 30 November 2017 at 10:00:54 GMT

To: allstaff@mb.com

On the 12th December @ noon, please bring in an international dish to share. Let’s celebrate the diversity of our teams and look forward to a future together! ;)

More information to follow. #mbstaffevents ;) ;)

For the first time in almost three years, the imposing offices of Milwood Brown were filled with excitement – leaving me wondering what all the hubbub was about.

Colleagues gathered at the lonely water cooler at break times to exchange kitchen tales along with conventional pleasantries. They marvelled at their respective preparations of culinary delights over lunch, trading tried and tested cooking tips whilst nibbling on their cold, dry sandwiches of egg and cress. In between servings of stodgy pie and bland mash potato heaped onto sterile plates,  they took it in turns to paint pictures of food of the most delectable kind. Show-off chefs talked of their log-grilled lobsters in scarlet shells dripping in garlic butter and thyme. Crispy aromatic ducks in bleeding sauces of minty orange. Fancy spaghetti swirled around cold pyramids of calvisius caviar, blistered with cherry tomatoes.  Yet, despite an increase in takings at the tuck-shop, stomachs remained in a perpetual state of hunger. Mouths watered for food seen with the mind’s eye, but which remained tantalisingly out of reach. My own mouth remained as dry as a thirsty land.

I kept my head down. Got on with my work.

Culture Comms devoted an entire morning to printing pink posters promoting the special event. Eventually, they buckled under the pressure; announced they’d offer a prize to the employee who cooked up the best dish. Heaven knows why it grew into something quite so competitive.

When the morning of the great cook-in arrived, I woke up at 5 am in my dingy flat in Archway to begin preparing a suitable contribution.

I didn’t put much thought into it.

I just wanted to turn up with something a bit decent – to show the others I was a team player, too. ‘Participation’ was particularly important in the post-Brexit climate. They’d already let ten people go. I didn’t want them to think I was always this sullen; forever standing on the sidelines, never the first to raise a supportive hand. I badly needed to keep this job if there was ever any hope that, one day, I’d break free from its chains.

There I was bleary-eyed, in my small, square kitchen.  Affronted by having to get up at this godforsaken hour, I cobbled together anything I could find in my fridge of convenient things. A bit of chicken, still fresh (thankfully). An onion. Tomatoes (a bit bruised but okay, still). Wilted coriander. Accompanied by the classical trio of smashed ginger, garlic, green chilli – revived by a blanket of blended Indian powder spices from my masala box of last-minute tricks. The brew didn’t turn out half as bad as I imagined it would.

As my chicken curry simmered slowly on the cooker, I wiped my brow with an oil soiled tea towel and gulped down a glass of chilled coke.

6 am. By now, I’d lost my appetite for breakfast.

The office that morning smelt like a stale curry house. Clearly, lots of curries on offer. Whilst each contributing pair of hands laid out their multi-shaped vessels in crooked rows at the appointed hour of presentation, my dish seemed to be attracting quite a bit of attention. I put it down to a sense of displaced satisfaction. I seriously doubted whether my colleagues could discern the difference between a good and a bad chicken curry.

When the clock struck twelve, crowds rushed down the winding spiral staircase grabbing plates and crockery, ready for international feasting.

‘Mmm…looks delicious.’

Malcolm from Pensions made a beeline for the front, waiting for his plate to be served up. No sooner did the curry touch down, did it find its way into the dark of his mouth.

‘You should seriously consider bottling this and selling it at Tesco,’ he says, his puffy round face turning to face mine.

I find his unrestrained display of appreciation and the subsequent series of curious glances slightly strange. I’d regarded my offering to resemble a brown gloopy mess of the inedible, and therefore, ‘best to avoid’ kind.

I catch Melody’s shapely silhouette from the corner of my eye. Much to my dread, she saunters over.

‘Bina! There you are!’ She breaks into a smile, then retracts it, aghast. ‘But what is this? Has the cook lost her own appetite?’ She looks down at my plate and shakes her head. Her eyes scan the room as if to pose her question to an imaginary corporate congregation.

The scent of her wild rose perfume unfurls around me. I feel her delicate hand press down firmly upon my shoulder as I skim my fork through stray strands of sad cabbage from Eubin Kim’s glistening offering of cold carrot and kimchi, strewn across my plate.

‘This is such a great idea don’t you think?’

Melody is fishing for compliments. She stares at me with wild hungry eyes. A brow raises itself expertly.

‘A team that eats together performs so much better,’ she affirms. Her scarlet lips stretch wide and morph into a lopsided grin. She throws back her permed head of auburn curls and marvels at her own ingenuity for having cooked up the event’s very idea. I silently ponder from which management book she might be quoting this time. But then I find myself nodding emphatically in agreement.

The slow ticking clock promises refuge in the passage of time. I begin to wonder when this all might be over. Surely, with mid-month reporting looming, we’d need to return to our desks in thirty minutes?

Now, Malcolm’s pink shirt is only a fraction darker than his skin. The heat of my curry makes his cheeks flush. He chomps on a tender breast and mops  up the sauce with the hardened edge of a warm slice of pitta bread.

‘Must have taken you ages to prepare all this.’

Seasoned with quiet satisfaction, his voice is steady and considered. His warm belly now full. I smile awkwardly at its protruding roundness and stare down at my clumsy feet. For some reason, they won’t keep still; shifting the weight of my body from left to right.

‘So impressive,’ he murmurs.  ‘Your efforts have not gone unnoticed.’

He winks.

My stomach turns.

I notice a drop of turmeric oil has stained his shirt.

‘It’s nothing,’ I reply, humbled. ‘My mother taught me well.’

Mother.

Now there’s a word I haven’t said in a while.

To my right, I sense the arrival of a distant shadow, emerging into the light. Ashok from Bonds appears and takes up a place beside me, plate balanced in hand. His thick windswept hair flops over his ears and forehead giving him an air of having just walked in from the beach.

‘Curry’s going down a treat. Must be getting in some practice.’ The ember warmth of his smile and the ruggedness of his voice leaves me blushing.

Must be time to clear up.

He moves over to the table and lifts the lid of the pan, taking in a slow sniff.

‘You’ve easily passed the test,’ he laughs, replacing the top. Then he whispers something in my ear.

‘I’d happily eat this, every day.’

He looks at me intensely just then. My breaths become short and shallow.

Malcolm scoops up the last sliver of meat from his plate, then licks his fingers.

In an attempt to break up the moment, I instinctively move to the table to keep myself busy and pick  up the empty pan to transport it to the kitchen for washing. But with Ashok standing so close, I feel nervous. My hands no longer feel like they’re mine.

The pan slips through my fingers and crashes  to the floor. Like a bumbling fool, I don’t know where to look or turn.  The remains of my curry splatter across my ankles and seeps into the grout of the red tiled floor. I immediately grab a pile of napkins and kneel down to mop up the mess. My face burns with embarrassment. Somewhere in the depths of my mind, I can hear a voice telling me what a careless idiot I am. How no good will ever become of me.

I was not always this way. Blunderous. Indistinct. Judgmental. Nor so secretly scathing of those whose only intention it is to ‘connect’. But there’s only so many times one can bear the burden of self-doubt. Eventually, it gnaws at the skin. Bites deeply into the flesh. Prizes out a piece of your core where all the goodness lies.

That’s when I see her – my mother, rising from the ashes from when her body burned long ago. And my mind drifts back … as it so often does.

#

I never liked chicken curry, anyway. And I’ve never been able to eat it since.

One day, mother spent two hours in our small, damp kitchen cooking the dead bird. I recall the stench of her brown broth bubbling atop the flames of the blue gas fire; hear the scraping sound her spoon made as she stirred it around the steel pan, lifting and turning piles of flesh.

‘Pay attention!’ she snapped as she slammed her small fist onto the counter. Her large golden earrings jangled as she turned to face me with her piercing eyes. I noticed how the Indian kohl around the rims had bled into her bags and the delicate creases of her crow’s feet with the rising heat of her cooking. She was only forty. But today, she appeared much older.

‘Soon, you’ll need to follow my every recipe if we’re to one day marry you off to a good family.’

Mother held a fresh bunch of fragrant coriander in her left hand and began slicing it expertly with a small knife in her right. I watched as green leaves rained down into the sauce, floating slowly like wooden boats in a skin of oil. I felt a lump form in my throat as it dawned on me I’d probably done something wrong again – to set her off once more.

‘The sooner you go, the better it is.’

I was twelve at the time; acutely aware of how my body was developing, the way boys began to change their behaviour around me. I began noticing the way other girls approached me with curiosity and caution.

Mother warned me I should avert my eyes during conversations with people I didn’t know; how no good would come from my drawing too much attention to myself.

‘Stop playing with your hair like that,’ she growled with indignation. ‘It annoys me.’

Our kitchen was small – too small for the both of us. She grew restless and irritable observing the mess she’d made in preparing our meal. Though no one could deny she was a good cook, Mother was – by her own admission, scatty and indecisive; never quite sure which item of cutlery to use for any given dish. It meant I had to do three times as much washing up than would otherwise be necessary.

‘Do something useful, will you?’ she muttered, just as I turned to the kitchen sink to pick up a sponge.

‘Take the chicken into the living room and call your brothers down for dinner.’

I remembered how the pan was heavy and hot; how my hands trembled with anxiety. I remembered thinking it was too heavy for me. I knew I wouldn’t be able to lift it without causing some sort of commotion. Perhaps it was me; doubting myself all the time. Or perhaps the pan really was too full, I don’t know. Maybe it was the fact that my mother had left her slippers outside the kitchen door causing me to lose my balance on the way to the dining room. I was thinking about how they’d felt only the day before, as she slapped them on the back of my head so hard it made my ears ring. To this day, I still don’t know how it all happened. All I do remember is what happened next.

It spilt everywhere, just everywhere.

Two skinny legs, a short neck, wings on either side; coriander scattered across the carpet, steam rising like holy smoke.

Father was due home any minute.

The twins had been complaining of hunger since returning from their after-school rugby practice.

Tabby our cat approached the mess surreptitiously; ready to pounce should this brown oddity turn out to be her dinner. She sniffed the carpet, licking her lips. Then left in search of something better.

As I stood frozen with fear, yellow turmeric seeped deeper and deeper into the cream coloured carpet. My mother rushed into the room upon hearing the splash and vibration of the pan as it fell to the floor.

‘Stupid child!’ she screamed, covering her mouth in horror. ‘Can you do nothing right?’

I felt my mother’s hand slap the side of my face hard, her diamond ring slicing my skin. I could feel my cheek stinging as blood trickled down my face.

‘Just one thing I ask you to do – one thing! And still you can’t do it right!’

The twins stomped into the living room with heavy feet, stomachs growling.

‘What the fuck’s happened, here? Is that the curry Maa made?’ Akshay folded his thick, hairy arms disapprovingly, his nostrils flaring with rage as he bent to inspect the mess.

‘You’re really gonna get it now,’ said Raj in his low smoky voice.

Akshay made the first move, grabbing a fist full of my hair – then shoving my head into the dining table neatly laid out for dinner. A glass of water spilled. Plates crashed into one another as the table’s mahogany edge slammed into my stomach. Mother conveniently stormed out of the room in her bare feet to find a dustpan and bucket to scoop up the mess. Raj stepped forward, grabbing me from behind as I still lay sprawled out on the table, defenceless. He grabbed my buttocks and pinched them slowly until I screamed.

If the doorbell hadn’t rung just then, I can only imagine what might have become of me that night.

Father had returned home early from work.

‘Hello, Princess,’ he said, entering the living room like a warm summer breeze.

I ran into his arms sobbing, shaking, unable to see or speak as I buried my head in his chest.

‘Oh my goodness. So many tears! What in the world is the matter with you?’ He held my head in his hands and slowly wiped away the blood with the swipe of his thumb.

‘Such a beautiful face, yet so much sorrow.’

Mother rushed into the room just then; her eyes darting around the pattered walls she hated, fearing the neighbours might have heard something.

‘It’s nothing,’ she said, calmly. ‘She’s just shaken because she spilt tonight’s dinner. Such a careless girl, she is. But no matter. I’m clearing it up. As usual.’

The twins retreated into a corner as my father dropped his briefcase onto our worn velvet sofa and sat down, pulling me onto his lap.

Later, when the carpet was scrubbed clean and the table re-arranged – and after we all sat down together as a normal family eating our fish n’ chips in silence, we learnt they’d let him go. But you’d never have guessed that from the way he entered the house – just as he always did, with a beaming smile and loving embrace.

Of course, outsiders would never have known that something was wrong with the picture of our perfect family. It was I who was always the first to notice the mould appear along the cracks in the walls of our hallway. Yet another thing my mother couldn’t stand.

The silence at the dinner table drew to an end as my father prepared to stand. Mother glanced at his plate as if to notice it for the first time.

‘Why are you not eating?’ She looked at him with disappointment, wanting more than just his answer. He motioned for her to clear away the dishes.

‘It really doesn’t matter, does it?’ he replied, folding his napkin. ‘I’m not sure I feel like eating, anyway.’

#

I’m suddenly aware I’m still crouched on the floor. A crowd gathers around to inspect the mess I’ve made as if the entertainment afforded by their earlier culinary inspections and tastings were not enough. I bite my lip. I dare not look up. I just see shoes. A pair of sensible office heels, scuffed suede boots, brown leather loafers.

‘Here. Let me help you with that.’

Ashok crouches down beside me, close. I notice his hands for the first time, gently brushing against mine as they pick up peppercorns scattered across the floor. He steals a glance at my hands, too; naked and worn.

‘Don’t worry about the mess,’ sings Melody’s voice from atop.

‘We’re about to reveal the winner of the ‘bring-a-dish’ competition. Leave that for the kitchen staff to clear up.’

The crowd quickly follows her into the next room leaving Ashok and me alone.

‘I can clear this up if you like. You made such an effort with your curry. You should at least hear if you’ve won.’ He looks at me with his tender eyes and I feel something inside me melt. I notice his lips too; fleshy and full.

Melody pops her head through the door as Ashok and I try to prolong our moment together. My napkin’s soaked through and leaves oily smears all over the floor.

‘Come on, Bina!’ Melody’s impatient voice echoes inside the empty canteen. In the distance, we hear plates crash into the sink. ‘Just leave that for now. You won’t want to miss this announcement. Trust me.’

Ashok and I stand up.

‘Thanks,’ I say.

‘Don’t mention it,’ he replies.

We wipe our fingers with the lemon scented wet wipes someone’s left on the corner of the table and make our way to the room next door.

Sunlight streams through a crooked window. Faces turn to greet me. Colleagues. Friends. Fellow comrades. They all see me as if for the first time. And I see them too – not as a company collective, but as individuals. Each with their own story to tell. Every dish of theirs a unique flavour of their lives.

Dora. Daniel. Surendra. Elliot. Hannah. Eubin. Even Melody. Malcolm.

I indulge in the exquisite variety of the people around me; in the growing appeal of the lone man standing beside me. And then, for the first time in a long time, I begin to savour the moment.

 

Nilesha Chauvet is a British Indian writer from London. She has previously published several non-fiction articles and is currently writing her third novel with the Faber Academy as well as a collection of short stories. She holds a B.A (Hons) and M.A in Philosophy & Theology from Oxford University and enjoys a successful career as an Advertising Executive at a top London Agency. Nilesha is happily married and lives with her husband and two children.