Parsley, tomato, blackberry
As is becoming my little Sunday tradition, I have another story to share today. This one was written to a competiton brief: to simply make food the centre-piece of the narrative.
It's a bit of a long one, but I hope you enjoy it.
The root of the problem, I think, is that I grew old and Otto took issue with it. As much as I’m sure he chastised himself, some young, still virile part of him was quietly but definitely repulsed by the purplish watercolour of my thighs, the sag of my stomach – the folds of skin radiating outwards, like water from a cast stone – the slow disappearance of my chin. You see, Otto is constantly in search of things that make him forget that he’s going to die one day. My body no longer does this for him. In fact, I think it now only reminds him of the fact.
I almost can’t blame him for his distaste. I am not particularly pleased with time for how it has treated my body, either. But while I expected age to rob me of collagen and pigment, I did not foresee it stealing my husband.
So now we are two boats, tied loosely to each other in the same harbour. Otto wants to cut the rope; that much has been evident for months. But I am not ready to surrender just yet. Call it the passed-on sensibilities of my pre-war parents, call it naivety, or stubbornness, or pride – but I can’t give up on 40 years of shared history so easily. I can’t let them fall into the water between those two boats as if they never happened at all.
Or, at least, I won’t let them go without cooking a good meal first.
Food, all of the rituals of dinnertime – these are the tools that Otto and I use to communicate with each other when words are too clumsy to do the job. If Otto is sorry for something, he sets the table, rearranging all of our pieces until we make sense again. If he wants to make me feel bad, he will cook. This always achieves its objective, because Otto possesses a peculiar kind of alchemy in the kitchen, whereby he reduces everything to lumpy mush. When I cook, it is a sign that all is well, that we are continuing to coexist peacefully. Tonight, though, I cook to fill the growing gap between us, the gap that tells me he is leaving. Or, that perhaps, he has already left. And so I must try to mend us by feeding us.
Otto comes through the door as I’m chopping parsley. I’ve been pulling their cabbagey little heads from the stems for about five minutes, and the earthy smell is now trapped in the layers of my skin, underneath my fingernails and behind my ears where I’ve tucked my hair. It is as though I am the soil, and the parsley grows atop me. The smell must be strong because Otto comments on it as soon as he presses his lips – warm, but dry – to my forehead.
“Parsley,” he pulls back, wearing a smile as faint as a whiff of perfume. “Well, that almost reminds me of…” he trails off and doesn’t finish his sentence, but he doesn’t need to. I already know what he means. This is what happens when you’ve been married for 40 years. Maybe that’s why we end up so saggy, so heavy – we become weighed down with the knowledge of each other.
Otto was going to say that the smell reminded him of our first garden. We were still novel to each other then, and we discovered new things daily; quirks, details, nuances. He was furiously intelligent and impatient. I wanted to learn the world from him.
The house was near Melrose in the Scottish borders, close to where I’d grown up, and the garden was a simple little square at the back. Nothing special, but it was my artist’s canvas. I grew everything the temperamental Scottish climate would allow; onions, beetroot, cabbage. And parsley, of course. A lot of parsley. It thrived, popping up everywhere uninvited – between the other vegetables, the garden path. Once, we found a sprig of it on the bedsheets. We both laughed at that. We were quick to laugh, then. We were vivid, fertile, only just beginning.
Otto dumps his suitcase and moves into the living room. I know without looking that he will stand, hands on hips, and survey the view from the window of our bungalow, where the hill slopes down to meet a gravel path. He will bite his fingernails, each in turn. And then he will fetch himself a whiskey.
I busy myself with combining the parsley with the cream, watching the two elements collide; the virginal white and that bold, brilliant green. There is resistance at first, but before long the white is overcome. The green is unchanged; a little paler maybe. A little gentler. I add a splash of lemon and stir.
As I wash the scallops to serve alongside the sauce, Otto finishes his whiskey and goes to the bedroom, where he begins to peel the day from his skin.
We rarely see each other fully naked anymore. I suppose that is part of our problem. But I am bold tonight, so I take a few steps backward so that I can see his back as he undresses. He is tanned and lean still, but his body is also slower, slacker. I wonder if that bothers him as much as my sagging skin does, or if he is exempt from his own disgust.
I should concentrate, if I am to get this meal finished at all. I begin chopping onions, garlic and then the beef for the stew. I’m making an old Spanish dish called ternera con tomate that I discovered in Madrid.
After five years of marriage in that Melrose house and its garden overrun with parsley, Otto became restless. His life felt too small for him, he told me. He was meant for more. At the time, I found his innate sense of entitlement impressive – attractive, even. It felt like something that I should have, but didn’t. I could have lived in Melrose forever. But Otto demanded more from life, from both of us.
We chose Madrid, for reasons barely remembered and irrelevant, and the city exploded like a firework in the sleepy night sky of our lives. We rented a boxy flat above a deli and spent two weeks eating, drinking and frittering away our careful savings. When I think of that time now, every memory is seen through a lens of the most vivid scarlet, as red as the tomatoes now bleeding between my fingers. Everything was immediate, vital, urgent – we were violently and unapologetically alive. Life seethed in my veins, almost too hot. I think that’s why I got pregnant. Energy was everywhere. It entered me and created a new life.
I called her Poppy, without even knowing yet that she was a girl (she was). Poppy, like a wild field flower.
Otto never loved me more than he did in Madrid. If anything can remind him of that, it’s this rich stew, meaty and strong, bubbling away like a potion in the pot. I pause, then add in another spark of paprika. It needs to simmer for an hour, during which time it will transform from soup into something velvety and sensual.
Otto emerges from the bedroom wearing his slippers, vest, and tartan pyjamas. He collapses onto the sofa with a sigh. He knows I’m cooking something special tonight; he can see me doing it, but still. I am not surprised that he hasn’t dressed for the occasion. He picks up the newspaper and a chewed pen, and I turn to dessert.
A blackberry clafoutis. I stare at the fat little berries in my hand.
Poppy never made it to us. In the horrible tumult that followed, we left Spain and lived with Otto’s parents for a while. They lived in a draughty old farmhouse in Suffolk, which, under ordinary circumstances, I would have thought was beautiful. But I wanted nothing more than to go home to Melrose, to the grey-green hills and the insistent parsley and the icy, nose-reddening winds of the borders. That’s where I wanted to put my grief, because there seemed to be no place for it in Suffolk. Otto grieved loudly and badly; something significant had finally happened to him, but he didn’t know how to live with it. I remember thinking that he didn’t even know Poppy, not really. He hadn’t felt her strange churning in the night, hadn’t felt the little ripples of life travelling from my stomach and up into my throat and out of my mouth forming squeaks, as I realised she was in there, time and time again. But I couldn’t say any of that. Otto’s parents held him close, tried to smother his pain. They didn’t understand my silence, my mumbling or my vacant eyes. My grief didn’t take the shape they wanted it to, so they pulled back from me, and Otto and I turned away from each other. It’s all a haze, now.
I do remember blackberries, though. The tangled bushes grew defiantly all along the banks of the road leading away from the farmhouse. The arching branches and thorns made the bushes look almost like fairy-tale forests. Juicy purple rewards lay in wait for those brave enough to navigate the tricky thickets of bramble. I’d return home in the just cold dusk, bearing bags of berries, fingers stained with pulp and blood.
The blackberries that I have pressed neatly into the clafoutis are petite, polite and refined in comparison to those fleshy bulbs by the sides of the road. But they’ll serve their purpose. They’ll pay tribute to something long-buried. They’ll remind Otto of what we had, what we lost.
I let my hands fall to my sides, because there is nothing else to do. I am heavy with memory all of a sudden. It is very tiring, all of this holding on. The dinner is prepared. I have reached a conclusion of sorts.
Otto is watching me from the doorway as I place the tart in the fridge to set. We look at each other for the first time since he arrived home. He takes in my dirty apron. My hands are shaking.
“Enough, now,” he whispers.
He looks as tired as I am, and I realise something that perhaps I already knew. It is not the age of my body that Otto can no longer stand. It is the age of us, of the memories and pains and the endless days that bind us. There is no one to blame when the story ends.
I let out a trembling breath. “Enough,” I say, nodding. “Enough.”