Fiction winner: Susan Bennett for Bittersweet

Susan Bennett’s first job entailed selling large knives, handcuffs, replica pistols and other assorted goodies to complete strangers.  Many years later it occurred to her that those nice strangers may not have been buying those things for joke gifts as they claimed.  Maybe they weren’t even nice.

More recently, her stories have won the New England Thunderbolt Prize, The Sydney Writers’ Room Short Story Competition and the Mallacoota Prize in the E.J. Brady Short Story Competition; others have appeared in the literary journals, Overland and Etchings.  She has also authored a novel, Grace.

Bittersweet

by Susan Bennett

"It started with a margarita," said Matthew.

Tilly swirled the tequila and citrus lake in her glass before taking a heartfelt sip over the crusted rim.  Lime juice and salt collided on her tongue like a summer storm.

"Yes it did," she agreed quietly.

  Her first real margarita and in Mexico no less: she, a cadet journalist; Matthew, the older, bon vivant newspaper editor who had discovered that the girl from Manchester had never tasted a proper margarita or real Mexican food.

Tilly had regarded his appalled reaction with the contempt only someone who has known real hunger can feel for the delicate eating sensibilities of the middle class.  She had thought him laughable. It must have shown.

When he demanded she accompany him on an all expenses trip paid to Mexico to prove his point, Tilly had no hesitation in accepting.  She was green and hard but not stupid. 

Matthew swept her off to Baja promising her life would never been the same.

***

Tilly hadn't even known that there was more than one type of cinnamon, much less that they could be so different to each other.  That was the first thing Matthew had shown her, in a Mexican market piled high with riotously coloured vegetables so fresh that Tilly wondered if they knew they weren't growing anymore.  All around them were huge mounds of chiles, tiny and large, some oblong, some round, others a shape that knew no name.   The market was a chaos of colour: pyramids of deep glossy green, splashes of brick red and flurries of orange; there were shrivelled, dried chiles as black as night, others an unnaturally deep purple that made her think of velvet.

Matthew turned her hand over and solemnly dropped a pale cinnamon quill into her palm.  "Canela," he told her.  "True cinnamon."

She closed her fingers around the quill.  The warmth of her hand coaxed forth a tiny waft of floral scent.

He made a gift to her of a new molcajete – a Mexican mortar and pestle.  In her hotel room Tilly watched while Matthew seasoned the strange three-legged pig-shaped thing by grinding wet handfuls of rice until it came away clean.

He crushed the quill of true cinnamon and held the molcajete up.  Tilly inhaled deeply.  It was nothing like the pungent spicy smell she knew as cinnamon.

"It smells like a bouquet of flowers," she said and Matthew smiled at her.

Tilly recognised the shine in his eyes.  She had seen the very same in the eyes of miners striking for better conditions – at least in the early days before the money ran out and the hunger bit.  It was the look of a zealot.

From that day on, cinnamon quills were her madeleines.  She had never told him that.  Now, Tilly thought that perhaps she should have.

***

The blood that coursed through Tilly's veins came from generations of miners and steel-workers.  Perhaps because it had spent so much time underground, it careened toward the promise of light as surely as if it were breath itself. 

Late the next afternoon, Matthew drove Tilly into the mountains for a cooking lesson.  In a village where fruit, vegetables and fresh herbs were grown in soil so arid it was little more than dust, she saw tomatillo plants graceful as weeping willows fruiting so abundantly that their branches broke under the weight of their progeny, and still they were intent on producing the next generation; new blossoms sprang brightly amid the maturing fruit.

The chilli plants were just as beautiful.  The cayenne peppers had an elegant, almost perfectly symmetrical oblong canopy which swept into a bend like a windsail.  Beneath the canopy, fruit ripening from deep green to fire engine red dangled like jewels.

The whole village was at work preparing a celebration feast.  Smiling cooks working with little more than open fires and tin cans coaxed every favour from the humblest ingredients.  Chiles, dried and fresh, were toasted until the air around them was mad with spice; nuts were roasted, treacly sultanas and raisins fried in glossy lard to release their oils, while tomatoes ripened to bursting were scorched black in hot coals.  The early evening air was a heady layered liqueur of simmering chicken stock, caramelising onions, roasting garlic and spices to sweeten and balance the chilli sauces.

When Tilly, the girl who had only eaten to live, tore off a piece of freshly toasted corn tortilla and dipped it into a sauce that was sweet and sour, nutty and hot, velvety and deeply comforting all at the same time, she saw before her a whole new life, and it was bursting with colour.

***

Tilly became a food writer like no other. She wrote for her own – people who lived in council flats, in tenements: miners, steel-workers, labourers, bus-drivers and process workers – but she wrote with a lover's pen.  The girl who had led a chips-and-eggs existence recalled her Baja epiphany, writing of barely fertile Mexican soil as poor as the people but of food that cried not for the want of rain but with the joy of sunshine.

She wrote of whole villages coming together to cook, where children learned patiently to pat out perfect corn tortillas from the youngest age.

Soon she had her own television show.  In Greece, Italy, France and India she ventured into the poorest villages to learn peasant recipes, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on the ground with women who laboured all day in the fields with a baby on their back then came home to cook the family dinner.  In France, itinerant grape-pickers shared their recipes for chicken Veronique and sumptuous cassoulet with her; in India she created spice rainbows over an open fire with little more than a flimsy aluminium camp pot, folding knife and enamel plate; in Ceylon, she went to work with the tea-pickers, shouldering her own basket, then returning to their huts where the older children proudly were already learning to cook. 

She introduced the working poor to other people like themselves – who wouldn’t recognise a cupcake stand if it bit them, who washed their own dishes, for whom food wasn’t decorative but a real and solid need after a day’s intense labour – and they loved her for it.

People alienated by chefs fussing over edible gold leaf and the cocoa content of couverture chocolate had one of their own to look to, who took the cheap ingredients they could afford and turned them into gold.  Tilly gave them a crack at the good life, and they took it.  Suddenly people who didn't know how to pronounce beef bourguignon simmered tough cuts of meat into succulent, yielding perfection and called it simply, Tilly’s stew.  They abandoned the supermarkets in droves, turned their backs on tetra paks of stock and frozen curries and followed Tilly into farmer's markets.

The nation was seduced.  The working class loved her for being like them while everyone else was fascinated by her budding romance with the editor who had authored her Pygmalion ascent. 

Lost in the past, Tilly regarded the unsigned divorce papers on the bureau before sipping her margarita, deeply grateful for the cognac kick from the triple sec. Bittersweet, the orange liqueur washed over her tongue.

"You're being awfully good about this, Tilly," Matthew said quietly.

"None of us can help whom we love – or whom we don't," she said.

Of course Tilly had known of her editor's reputation when she agreed to the Mexican trip, but it hadn’t put her off.  She was well versed in the art of saying no, forcibly if need be.  Tilly was a girl from nowhere with nowhere to go and nothing to lose.  If Matthew sacked her for knocking him back, then at least she would have had the holiday.

But by the end of the Mexican trip, Matthew hadn't tried anything, and the truth, if Tilly cared to admit it to herself, was that she was disappointed that he hadn't.

When it happened, Tilly made the first move.

In Greece, Matthew introduced Tilly to the simple joys of warmed olives and good olive oil; of fresh fish, of ripe figs with forest honey, of the magic that lemon and oregano worked on lamb, and Tilly, who had only been with boys of her own age, suddenly understood the attraction of an older, more sophisticated man.

Naked they made love in the shade of an ancient olive grove with the salt of the Aegean sea drying on their bodies.  Tilly bit into his shoulder and licked the salt from his skin while he moved above her.

Even then, in the newness of their love, the wind that coursed around them had somehow spoken of tomorrow.  Too soon, the mirror spoke of yesterday.

Through the years she coped with Matthew's dalliances with younger women by telling herself he always came home to her.  Until this time he had grown bored with them eventually.  Tilly had waited patiently for his latest affair to peter out, reasoning that sometimes it takes a long time to say goodbye, and she had been right.  What she had been wrong about was who he would be saying goodbye to.

Sipping her margarita, Tilly held it in her mouth, once more savouring the aromatics from the orange peel, the flavour Matthew had taught her to call bittersweet.

"Tell me, is she very lovely?"

"Oh don't do that to yourself, old girl!"

Old girl.  Tilly closed her eyes.

Matthew had commemorated their Greek trip with the gift of a spoon made of olive wood.  The bottom of the once round spoon was flat now, shaped by countless sojourns over pots and pans.

"It started with a margarita," Matthew said again, a little unsteadily this time.

Tilly regarded him with misty eyes, knowing that by now, his own vision would be blurring.

Bittersweet, the herb the old village women had shown her with the poisonous berries, joking that the botanical name literally translated as a cure for wandering husbands.

"Tilly, darling?  It's ending with a margarita too, isn't it?"

"Yes, darling – I'm afraid it is."

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop