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 Such an inane, ridiculous word, so outdated it is heading into the realms of ancient history.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.

The End

© Annika Perry

29 thoughts on “CHILIES IN MY HANDBAG

  1. A brilliant read. I was pulled in right away and was immediately on Roberta’s side. Very emotional from start to finish, and I am so glad that she stood up for herself in the end!

    1. Thank you so much for ŷour lovely comment. 😀 I’m glad you were rooting for Roberta. The ending in my head originally was far different from the one I wrote – she wasn’t having it and directed the story her way!

  2. Marion

    Such a nice story. I loved reading it and a good ending also. Good for Roberta! Keep on writing Annika. You are a great writer. Kram

    1. Thank you so much Marion for your lovely comment and I’m so happy you liked it. Quite a long one for you to translate – i’m sorry! I am keeping writing..don’t worry! Kram till Er båda and always a joy to hear from you.

  3. Anonymous

    Great story Annika. He certainly got his come uppance. And I love the thread of chillies all the way through and then brought to a satisfying conclusion. I could taste them!.Have you entered this for a competition? If not I think you should.


    1. Thank you Mike, I do hope you couldn’t taste them! Rather spicy I’d imagine! I have entered this for one competition but having seen the winner in that one realised it was not right for that market. You have given me a nudge though and there are a couple of competitions I have been reading about that finish end November so will check those out.

    1. Thank you so much Marje and so glad you liked it. When I started the story I had in mind a sad sorrowful end but Roberta wasn’t having that! I love your last comment! Ha, ha! Good one! 😀

    1. Jacqui, it is sad isn’t it? So many years living under the control of her bully husband. I feel that her son Anthony was badly damaged too although he might not be aware of it. I imagine mother and son are later happily re-united! That’s just my positive optimistic nature shining through – in fact they might never talk again…we’ll never know…

  4. Very compelling story Annika. You are an artist with bringing all the visual aspects to life. I could even feel the burning of the crushed chilies. Brilliant! Please write more soon.

    1. Thank you and I am touched with being called an ‘artist’, never really thought of it like that. I believe in brining all the senses into a story, and in this case I have experienced the burning pain of crushed chilies – especially after rubbing my eyes whilst cutting them – not advisable!!

    1. Absolutely, you so wish she’d had a bit of backbone earlier to leave but I think people can find themselves ‘trapped’ in situations like this for a variety of reasons. She was going to have to get him in the end, one way or another!

  5. Mirja

    You really have me drawn in from the first sentence. I am almost breathless and hoping that
    Roberta (Bertie !) will stand up for herself and walk. Phew, my deep breath of relief.
    The loneliness and sadness. The close bonds with her little son and then the tearing apart.
    I cry for them. But you did it; you helped Roberta telling her domineering husband in such a strong way. Not a word! 🙂 and yet, so much said.

    Thank you for sharing this treat.

    1. I am so happy you were drawn into the story – as was I when writing it and not really knowing where it was going. It is a strange but amazing feeling when certain stories like this one almost seem to write themselves, pulling inspiration from all around. I still feel sorry for her and Anthony but hope in the future their loving relationship will be restored. Thank you so much for your warm and considered comment.

  6. Peter R

    A very powerful story, and a good counterpoint to the “I’m the man of the house” and “boarding school will make a man of him” arguments. The ending wasn’t what I was expecting, which made it even punchier. Just don’t do it with an Armani bag.

    1. There are a lot of themes tackled in this story and I am happy that Roberta in the end found the strength to stand up for herself; as a reader I imagine you’re on the side-lines cheering her on. Great that the end was unexpected – that’s what I liked to hear!😄 Actually chilies in any handbags are far from ideal ever!!

    1. Ah, thank you so much Diana, I was hoping you’d like it. This is one of the favourites in my family and even my son enjoys re-reading it! The idea came to me after finding some chilies in my handbag two days after buying them in a local shop in Sweden. By then rather soft and squidgy, I just thought what a wonderfully odd moment and wanted to use it a story.

      1. It’s a great story! I love how those little things that happen to us are incorporated into our imaginations. For me, it’s often visual. I’ll see ghosts in the mountain fog and all of a sudden, the fog in my book is infused with sentience. Ahhh. The joys of writing 🙂

        1. That’s the the magic and joy of writing I agree. I love your idea of the fog infused with sentience, very intriguing. I never find standing in a queue boring (well, apart from at airports) as the conversations around are so varied and interesting and sometimes lend a great line or two to a story. Just listening to the cadence of different dialects can be rewarding in itself.

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