Chilies in My Handbag
It’s one of those days – again. A day of forgetfulness in a world that has forgotten me.
Just as I pull up at the house the purple skies of the morning finally erupt. The cascade of rain thunders on my car roof and water gushes down the windscreen. The radio is effectively silenced and with satisfaction I pop the button off. I wasn’t listening anyway.
On the far side of the garden I spot John, our gardener. Rather a grand word for the young chap who comes over once a week to mow and strim. To chop and trim, I think. Rather like a hairdresser, but much cheaper. John’s bouncy brown hair is now plastered unflatteringly on his scalp, streaked to one side, his T-shirt a sodden luminescent white. Polyester.
At last the downpour eases to a thin drizzle and opening the car door the pungent heady fragrance of our lilac trees floats around me; so intense as if the trees themselves are vibrating with life. How I envy them and their strength.
The dark brick mansion looms before me; a mock Tudor monstrosity, its mahogany door more a deterrent than a welcome with the only redeeming feature of a small lead window. Quickly I head indoors, droplets of water gliding smoothly onto the cream woollen carpet in an arc around me.
“I’m home,” I call to the house. Silence greets my hoarse high pitched tones and my ensuing self-conscious laughter is strangled quickly in my throat by the lump. A lump that periodically reaches down and yanks at my stomach, twisting and churning it into spikes of agony.
I double over in pain and with a whimpering moan stagger into the drawing room and pitch deflated onto the floral sofa.
Two hours later and I’m still here with Friday afternoon slipping unnervingly away from me. I look over my shoulder as I feel a nudge and spot my red cashmere coat draped carelessly across the back of the sofa.
“Red,” my friend Charlotte had insisted. “Roberta, you must wear red. Bold colours give you courage.”
Red! Courage! What poppycock, I think as I lean back and give the coat a vigorous shove onto the floor. Even so, I imagine it landing in a graceful and elegant swoop on the oak boards.
“Poppycock!” Such an inane, ridiculous word, so outdated it is heading into the realms of ancient history. Of course, it is George’s favourite expletive. He cannot even swear with passion.
By my right leg I feel the reassuring caress of soft leather – my red Hermes handbag. Subconsciously I bend over and stroke it gently, with a final pat on the side. My surrogate pet.
Fool me, graciously I had accepted it from George last Christmas. Safe, stable George, handsome to boot in those university years. Who knew he’d become such a tyrannical fuddy-duddy.
“I’ve got a job. At the bank,” I’d proudly, naively, declared one day soon after our marriage. “Starting Monday. Let’s celebrate!”
“Let’s not,” my husband had replied in his monotone voice. “You’re not taking the job.”
“What? Why?!” I had asked in shocked disbelief.
“We’re starting a family. You stay, you do as I say.”
Despite my anger I couldn’t hold back a giggle at his unintentional rhyming. Still, it was fait d’accompli.
Somehow, impossibly, I was living in the 21st century but trapped in the 19th. At least then the women weren’t alone, there were others to share their incarceration. With no family, few friends, George knew I dared not broker any resistance.
Here I reside. Bellingwood Manor. George, myself and Hermes. I lift its red leather catch and reach inside for a hankie. The rustle of plastic stirs me to my senses and out I pull two red chilies, neatly wrapped and tied in a little bag. For dinner tonight. I’d forgotten all about them. Ripping open the plastic I roll the glossy, smooth chilies between my fingers.
Anthony loves chilies.
I recall the first time he tried them in my beef curry. His little face scrunched in surprise, eyes glistening and with a squeak of a four-year old he sagely stated, “Hot,” then added in a panic, “water, please!”
Thereafter, many days whilst I was cooking, all I would hear was, “Mummy, what are you making for dinner tonight?” His childish voice lifting in pitch, pleading. “Beef curry with lots of chilies?”
The dish was now legendary; in our house at least. Cooking slowly the flavours permeated throughout the ingredients until finally the beef fell gingerly apart on our plates.
“I want it hotter, Mummy. The hotter the better,” Anthony challenged and together we’d researched them.
“Let’s try those over 300,000 strong,” he’d begged, reading about Scotch Bonnet chilies.
“Perhaps better not,” I’d laughed in mock horror. “Let’s stick to 1,000 strong chipotle ones.”
Snuggled closely on the sofa, the laptop heavy on my thighs, I remained still, not wanting to move Anthony who burrowed closer to me, seeking comfort and warmth.
He was silent for a moment.
“It’s a silly word, isn’t it, Mummy? Chilly? Freezing. But they’re so hot. Burning.” I nodded. Like everyone else, I’d always thought the same. “We can call them hottie instead,” he stated confidently.
At this I involuntarily trembled. Hottie. Hot Tottie. Shivering, I was now the one seeking warmth and love from my son. George had had a few of those. Totties. He’d not even deigned to hide the fact. Nor denied it when I faced him with the accusation. There was just a slight imperious wave of his hand, as if swatting away an annoying mosquito. I have a lot of empathy with those poor insects.
“Hottie? What do you think, Mummy?” Anthony repeated innocently.
I turned to him. “Not the best idea. Though chilies…”
“Come from Chile, everyone knows THAT!” He was now exasperated with me.
“Well, not really, they came from Mexico first but they are really called capsicum and …”
Here Anthony flew out of the sofa and onto the floor, his imaginary sword in front of him, slashing back and forth at the morning’s golden rays, streaking in through the window.
“Caspian! Prince Caspian! No wonder I like chilies, they have the same name as the Prince! Look at me. Prince Caspian saving Narnia. Look, there’s Lucy. Peter.”
I smiled and clapped my hands.
“Go, Prince Caspian. Go!” He battled along, my little prince, unaware he too was the son of a despot, fighting invisible oppression. How I’d wondered then, at that moment, if he would conquer the darkness within our family? Whether light and freedom would be our salvation? Victorious he waved his arms and paraded around the room. His radiant eyes shone into my treacherous ones.
Only seven and we’d sent him away.
“I don’t want to go, I don’t, I don’t!” he cried night after night. Alone, I tried to settle my blond-haired treasure, his piercing blue eyes shimmering with tears at the thought of boarding school.
“Such tantrums,” George brusquely snapped one night. “That won’t last long.”
He was wrong. Throughout that summer Anthony’s questions and pleas were as relentless as the suffocating heat.
“Why? Why do I have to go? What have I done?” Questions for which there were no real answers.
“Nothing, my prince,” I replied quietly, rocking him tightly on my lap, his small skinny arms clinging to my neck. “Mummy and Daddy think this is best for you.”
“Poppycock!” I shout to myself, now seven years later. It was for the best! Who was I fooling and squeezing my hands hard, the chili peppers crack open and ooze soft squishy sap and seeds, which slink around my fingers, onto the palm of my hand.
“Tradition. It’s tradition,” George had ranted. “It’s where I went to school, your grandfather and great-grandfather too. Did me the world of good.”
Really? I thought bitterly, fearing for Anthony and his future. With a punch I wondered how I could have been that weak, that blind?
My iPhone vibrates and from the insides of Hermes screech the excited tones of ‘What Does the Fox Say’. Anthony was raving on about the song on his last visit a few weeks ago. As soon as he’d left, I’d put it immediately on my mobile as a ringtone. My pathetic attempt to be closer to him. I glance down at my phone. It’s a text. From Anthony.
How he’d grown, that last visit. Fourteen, taller than me and the same shoe size as his dad. The two of them had talked and ribbed each other all evening, sharing stories about masters still at the school, sports clubs and past and present memories. Excluded I fell to the wayside.
“Thanks, Mum. This tastes good,” Anthony briefly acknowledged me, his eyes never quite meeting mine. His arms were now muscular and strong but never reached out to touch me and as I moved cautiously towards him for a quick hug his body arched, cowered away.
“Bye Mum,” he’d said and left, chatting amicably to George on their way back down to school. Another tradition. After the first two years of tears, it was declared best I never accompanied them. Yes, I’m sure that was for the best.
It will be different this time. I’m sure it will. I’m cooking Anthony’s favourite dish. Yes, the beef curry. The squashed chilies will still taste spicy and with a spring I get up and head to the kitchen. My phone sings again and this time I hum along.
“What does the fox say?…”
Picking up my phone, I sit down and read.
“Sorry, Mum. Hope it’s okay but going to Mathew’s this weekend instead. Saves you the trouble of cooking – lol!”
So, that’s what the fox says.
It’s dark now and the slam of the front door shudders me awake. George. Without fail, he always flamboyantly opens the front door before sending it shut with a short sharp shot of “BOOM”.
It must be eight. The gloom of the house envelops me and I notice I’m freezing cold. The chill of the evening penetrates through my coat which is wrapped around me as I huddled and slept behind the sofa. Red. Courage. I stretch, my legs numb from the hardness of the floor, knees locked stiff. Slowly I lift my head from my pillow, Hermes. Red. Courage. I trace the perforated ‘H’ lightly with my fingertips, leaving the odd dried chilli seed in my wake on the immaculate taurillion leather. The stinging scent of shrivelled chilies galvanises me into action.
“Roberta. Bertie…Where are you? What’s up?”
At the call of Bertie, his pet name for me, his pet, I unravel my mane of long brown hair and shake my head to loosen the locks.
“Great about the weekend, eh?” Does he never stop? “We’re not troubled with Anthony.”
My hand locates Hermes and standing I see George framed by the hall light, blinking into the dusky room.
Walking up, I take hold of his shoulders and roughly swipe my hands across his tweed Savile Row suit. Shocked he stands stock still and sniffs. Finally, from his blazer pocket I at last get a handkerchief. Perfectly ironed yesterday. Was it only yesterday? With it I wipe away the residual chili sap from my hands before replacing it with aplomb. Without a word I head upstairs. To pack. To stay with Charlotte.
First though, I really do need to buy a new handbag. After all, keeping chilies in ones handbag is far from ideal, even if it is a Hermes.
© Annika Perry