Flash Fiction: Colcannon and Curry

Another Cracked Pots short; I should come up with a better name for that ‘verse since apparently I’m writing a sequel.  This one is spoilery so people who are in the midst of the draft should not read it.  (I am peering at you, yes, you know who you are.)

This challenge was “To Write About Food” in honor of Bourdain and I got to thinking about cultural interactions and food as a result, so I wound up here.  Which is useful because it’s in the interstitial space between the books, like the previous one, and I did sort of need to figure out where Margaret was before I picked up with In The Seed.

 

***

Tiny Fog spirits, perhaps no more than the size of a mouse, scurried this way and that and occasionally darted up into the air, as if they suddenly remembered that they were not bound by materiality and might fly if they liked.  Margaret watched them for some time, because it was far easier than approaching the rooming house.

Eventually, though, several of them merged into a tiny figure, no taller than her knee, which glared up at her with a disapproval that was obvious even without her goggles on.  She sighed, and took off the spectacles so she could no longer see the apparition, and tucked them away, then approached the door and knocked on it tentatively.

She was about to knock again when it creaked open, and a scowling face became half-visible around the edge.  “What?”

“Um,” said Margaret, feeling suddenly and painfully self-conscious.  “I believe some of your guests are expecting me?  Simon and Jaya Vaidya?”

The face grew, if anything, even more unpleasant.  “What’s a nice girl want to see the likes of them for?”

“…we had dinner plans,” she replied, faintly.

The landlady stared at her for a very long time, and then grunted and opened the door so she could come in.  “Mind the wet.”

Margaret carefully tapped the slush off her boots at the door and waited politely to be directed.  The woman shook her head in disbelief, but gave her curt direction that brought her to where she could tap lightly on the relevant door.  It was a much shorter wait before it opened.

“Shyamal,” she said, feeling a little catch in her voice as she looked up into his eyes.  She had been thinking of his gentle brown hands and his earnest soft voice so much that she had neglected to think of other things, like the way he smiled, or other diverting facts about his face.

“Please excuse us,” he murmured, and let her in.

The room was not as tiny as she had feared it might be.  Jaya’s crutches were tucked up under her chair to keep them out of the way, and Margaret had the instant impression that she rarely moved when she was at home.  The few furnishings had been arranged to give clear and easy lines to move, but she could not imagine there was space for the usual graceful motions of her regular stride here.

“Margaret,” said Jaya, with more reserve than Margaret remembered.

“Jaya,” she replied, and sat where seemed appropriate.  “I… thank you both for letting me come visit.”

Jaya’s eyebrows went up, and her lips pursed slightly.  “Doctor Simon,” she said, “wished to inspect you after your recent condition.”

Margaret blinked, and then ventured a smile, and offered Shyamal the spectacles.  “As you wish, Doctor Simon,” she said.  He smiled at her, and she felt her stomach flutter.  To hide it, she said, “What is it I smell?”

“Colcannon,” said Jaya, with a sharp-edged curtness that made her brother wince slightly.

“That’s an… Islands dish, isn’t it?”

Simon peered at her through the spectacles.  “We learned it from Ben’s mother,” he said.

Margaret closed her eyes, breathed slowly for a moment.  “I knew his mother was an Islander.  Like Mr. Conally.”  Perhaps that approach would pass the test.

Jaya laughed, and Margaret dared to look at her curiously.  “Oh,” she said, “‘Mr. Conally.’  Just a funny thing to call Johnny.”

“It is his name,” said Margaret, with a hint of the prim that only made Jaya laugh more.  “I imagined that the Islander connection might be how they knew each other.”

“They’re cousins, I believe,” said Simon.  “Though I’m not sure if that’s just how they explain it.”  He handed her back the spectacles with a, “Thank you for indulging me.”

“I’m glad to,” Margaret replied, realizing to her horror that she was blushing.  “His mother was an Islander and his father was a doctor.  Our kind of doctor, not your kind.”

Shyamal slipped past her and inspected the pot that was sitting to keep warm on the woodstove.  “It is a matter of cream or butter and vegetables, colcannon,” he murmured.  “Not… so far from what we used to have.”

Margaret opened her mouth, her thoughts going to the Gurkani food that Mr. Talton had served her, the creamy sauces, the layers of spices, the heat, and the tea that Shyamal had taught her to make, rich with cinnamon.  Then she closed it again, with a glance at Jaya, who had tensed, slightly, as if she was anticipating a blow.  “I can see that,” she said instead.  She bought cinnamon and peppercorns, cloves and other spices when shopping for Mrs. Blair’s kitchen, and she knew how dear they were.

Jaya tilted her head, and without looking at her brother said, “You are familiar with our food?”

“I have had… a few things,” Margaret murmured, trying to feel her way out of what was feeling increasingly like a trap.  “Not just the things you made for Grace, but… Mr. Talton served me some… different things.  He was a child in Gurkan.”

“How’d you like them?” Jaya pressed.

Shyamal looked at his sister a little anxiously, like he wished to make an escape, but the tiny room had no kitchen, and even if it had, it would be all a part of the same space.

Margaret took several careful breaths.  “I can see why he went to the trouble of having them prepared,” she said.  “They are… quite flavorful.  Interesting.  I would have to get used to them, I will admit, the pepper….”

Jaya snorted, and looked up at her brother, who gave her a look of such helplessness that she relented.  Once she settled back in her chair, he dished out generous bowls of the colcannon, and sat down on a crate that had been drawn over to serve as another seat.

“I did want to apologize,” Margaret said, which had Jaya leaning forward again.

“You were unwell,” said Shyamal gently.  “Though it appears your subtle bodies have returned to resembling a condition of health.”

“That’s not… I mean, yes, it…”  Margaret made a small noise of frustration.  “Yes, I wasn’t quite myself, but that doesn’t mean I did things right about you and Mr. Whitten.”

Jaya stifled a comment, and looked at her brother with a dogged fierceness that Margaret suspected would explode into more commentary if he did not respond in a manner she approved.

He looked down, and gestured for her to eat while he gathered his thoughts, and so they ate in silence for several minutes.  “I was told you were… jealous.  Not merely… having your sensibilities offended by our closeness.”

Jaya snorted again, this time derisively.

“I… was.”  She swallowed.  “Am.”

“I see.”  It sounded more like a doctor considering a diagnosis than anything else, and Margaret fought down a surge of irritation which she suspected Jaya, at least, had spotted.

“And it’s not fair.”  The words burst out of her, and Shyamal startled, and Jaya’s expression darkened.  “You should have cinnamon and pepper and whatever else goes into those dishes,” she continued, which made Jaya blink.  Saffron, she thought, a little wildly, perhaps the yellow in that sauce had come from saffron.  “They’re yours by right, aren’t they?  And you could tell me what they’re good for, which humour and substance each one treats, but hardly anyone here cares that you know that, and that’s not fair either.  You should have them.”  Mr. Talton had them whenever he wanted, in his grand house with the garden.

Shyamal said, carefully, “Ben and Grace have given us spices.”

“And you cook your food for them, but you have Islander food here,” she returned.

“The rooming house kitchen… they do not like strong smells,” he said, his voice a bit unsteady, like he was wholly uncertain what to do with her.

“The landlady has said,” added Jaya, in a clipped tone that made quite entirely clear she had her own suspicions about the reasons.

Shyamal gave her a pleading look, and she lifted her chin and met his gaze for only a moment before he looked away again.  “Jaya is certain she does not like us.  Because we are Gurkani.”

“And you… want to believe better of her,” Margaret murmured, and she thought of the woman’s sharpness at the door, and looked over at Jaya.

It was, perhaps, the first moment of true sympathy they had shared, that instant where it was clear to each of them that the other was thinking the same thing about Doctor Simon and his gentleness. Jaya gave her a thin, tight, and faintly aggrieved smile, and Margaret smiled back, a bit tentative.

Margaret drew in a breath, and let it out.  “It’s not fair,” she repeated, and continued, “that you can’t be a doctor here, that you can’t have your food when you want it.  All of these things are not fair.”  She paused.  “And even while I feel that, I feel… it’s not fair that Mr. Whitten has a wife he adores, his family, but he doesn’t listen to Grace like he ought, and he listens to you, and….”

“And you do not understand how he and I can be as we are, or even what… that is,” he said, looking into the depths of his colcannon.

“I don’t,” she said, and it came out harder and blunter than she meant it to, and he winced, and she wished for all the world she could take it back.  She tried to soften it with, “I’m sorry.  I… I’m sorry.”

He smiled at her, a gentle, injured smile that made her close her eyes and look away.  “It is not an easy thing,” he murmured.

“But I should be able to figure it out.  Put the pieces together.  Understand it.”

“The heart is not amenable to logic,” he said.  “Not that Ben believes me either when I say it.”

She tried to smile, but it wobbled too much.

Jaya said, with an odd gentleness, “Eat your colcannon.”

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