Rogue Mint

Fiction
Maithreyi Nandakumar


Photo Credit: Rowena/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Photo Credit: Rowena/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Mira gripped the tall rails over the Avon Gorge and looked below at the silky waves of silt. A part of her wanted to jump on the wall and have an unhindered view of the landscape around her, with the metallic curves of the Suspension Bridge on the left and the Severn Bridge in the foggy distance on the other side. It was low tide and the shallow water snaked along heading to the Bristol Channel not far from here. She liked feeling that sense of briskness in her body—to feel that she could stretch it, twist it, and bend it any which way. A headstand on the rails—now, that would be fantastic. She was having these visions lately—of herself flying, diving or gliding over the gorge. They were scary but she preferred them to the X-rated ones she used to have of the man who was currently in her bed, sleeping.

Mira let herself into the house, careful not to wake him. Revived and rejuvenated, she was ready to face another day on her feet. She picked up the to-do list that she’d written the night before, secured under a fridge magnet that said the vaguely uplifting words, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” A friend had given it to her when she’d started this business. Five long years later, she was still doing the same thing—preparing sauces and chutneys, clearing up and assembling things to do it all over again day after day. At night, it was paperwork and applying to farmer’s markets and festivals for a stall. Or an uncomfortable sleep squeezed into a friend’s sofa after a long ride along unknown country roads.

Dear Eleanor Roosevelt—I do believe in the beauty of my chutney, Mira muttered as she climbed on top of the stool and fetched another set of jam jars. She kept them stacked in every available shelf in her kitchen. Arranging them with care in the dishwasher for a hot rinse, she went back to check her list. Her task was laid out for her—she knew what she had to do but she needed to see it on paper. She went into the potting shed with a pair of scissors. The place was packed with herbs growing in every possible corner. A jungle, he called it. He had to stumble through the sacks of compost, growbags, and plastic pots to get outside for a smoke.

She remembered when she would spend long snatches of time just inhaling the scent of the different mints she grew—she was transported to her grandmother’s kitchen in Hyderabad on one of her few visits to India. Her tall, temperamental father, the maestro of the veena had met her mother, a Bohemian from Vienna with Italian blood, in England. Unable to control the frequent explosions, they went their separate ways when she was seven. These days, her father lived in France and her mother in Upper Austria. Mira’s global genes clamoured to know their true identity, but she’d learnt to work with what she had, as best she could. No theatricals, no high-octane emotion—just focussing on her business was all that was required, for now. This was ammama’s recipe that she’d modified with a fair amount of success. It was mint that she needed today—bucket-loads of it. For that she had to step out into her garden where it grew wild. She’d had to get rid of the Korean lilac, the camellia, the magnolia, the holly and the ornamental palm to accommodate these herbs, now essential to her livelihood.

“You’re such a philistine—where’s the love for the English garden?” he’d asked, laughing at her. The sun caught the red in his chocolate brown hair, and Mira’s heart beat faster just seeing him in her space. No, she was not a free spirit like him.

“My business plan told me they had to go,” she’d said. Just yesterday, she’d gone around carefully looking for the rogue herbs that stalked her path, imitating the parsley and the mint. They appeared innocent enough but had a nasty taste when mixed with the original. Wicked things—who would’ve thought that plants could be devious?

She hacked at the stalks with her scissors, realising she was still tense despite her morning exercise. She packed it tight, filling the carrier bag she’d tied to her waist till it was full and went back into the kitchen, emptying the leaves onto the worktop. All of a sudden a grizzly face was nuzzling into her neck.

“Ouch, you prickly specimen,” she yelped, automatically leaning back and absorbing his strength, relaxing her tense muscles against his warm bulk, easing her shoulders against his chest.

“You just want a massage,” he said, chuckling, understanding her need and pressing expert fingers where required. She surrendered to the bliss. “Will you wear that pretty dress we bought at the weekend for your stall today?”

She became jumpy again. “Tomorrow, not today—the bottles are just getting done now.” Mira sprang into action. She hated feeling this brittle when he was around.

It was at the spiritual music festival in Fez that she’d first watched the magic of his elegant fingers as they flew over the fingerboard of his guitar, his face rapt in a kind of trance. He’d captured Mira’s heart in a tight clutch of melodious beauty. Seeing her standing transfixed after the crowd had left, he came up to chat. He told her he was sure that it was destiny that had brought them together.

Zohar stopped her brisk fingers shredding the mint and lifted her hand and pressed a kiss to her knuckles. “You’re creating something—don’t ever forget that,” he told her, looking intently into her eyes. Tears sprang at the homage he was paying her and she closed her eyes for a moment and swallowed, smiling brightly, wanting desperately to believe him. She liked him a lot—who was she deceiving, she adored him.

She rushed to get going—pulling the last bunch of leaves from their stalks, dunking them in water, rinsing them of mud and grit and repeating it once more till she was convinced it was clean enough for use. She’d tried to paint at one point in her life. Her mother, the reclusive artist would take a quick look and dismiss it as unworthy of her attention. Mira’s path lay in more mundane areas. She pulled out her round spice box and measured out two types of lentils, red and green chillies, ginger, and finally a pinch of asafoetida. If only they knew how many chillies went into this chutney, she thought. She roasted them on a low heat and added the mint leaves and kept turning them, waiting for the aroma to lift out of the pan. Doing this preserved it longer and removed the raw, green taste of chlorophyll.

She could hear Zohar strumming his guitar—he was warming up, conducting a sub-conscious ritual that took him to far off places in his mind. The music teased and chatted to her from outside the kitchen—she smiled as she carried on her work and at one point had to shout, “Cigarette break—I’m turning on the blender!”

This time Zohar walked past tapping his cigarette against his matchbox, oblivious to her—in a world of his own. She should stop feeling so needy all the time—why would he want to cuddle when she’d kicked him out to the garden? She hoped he was taking her out to dinner as she couldn’t bear the lingering scent of chutney in her house after she was done.

The leaves and the lentils went in to her heavy duty blender along with a big lump of tamarind and she seasoned it with salt, priding herself on getting it just right each time. Adding water, she watched them get blitzed and then as she left the machine on, they ground to a thick deep green paste. Satisfied and relieved at the sight, Mira dipped a teaspoon in to taste the mix. When the distinct bitter taste hit her palate, she screwed her face in agony. The rogue mint had found its way in and she was in trouble. She heard Zohar open the door to the potting shed and step in. He must think I’m a neurotic wreck, she thought, trying hard to compose her wretched feeling.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, taking one look at her face.

“Nothing, it’s all fine,” she said, busying herself with taking pots and pans to the sink to start the washing up. She didn’t see him dip the spoon in to have a taste.

“It could be my cigarette breath—but this tastes a little weird,” he pronounced.

“I know that—dammit,” she said with gritted teeth.

“Hey, what have I done?”

“Nothing—you’ve done nothing.” For some reason this became something else and she was hissing and breathing fire at him. He looked annoyed but persisted in changing her mood.

“I know what you could do—just cook it some more—squeeze some lemon juice, add some brown sugar. Voila—Masterchef prize!”

“You don’t need to tell me how to run my life,” she shouted.

“Run your life—I was rescuing your sauce, pesto, chutney—whatchamacallit,” he said, doing a good job of the English accent.

“Go away—play your music, go to your glamorous overnight gigs and endless jam sessions—just don’t upset me so much.”

“I can pack my guitar and get out, Mira—is that what you really want?” he asked her.

“What I want is some support, some sympathy,” she cried.

“You have it—you don’t have to get all emotional about that.”

“You are bloody clueless—there you go, swan in, say sweet nothings and disappear—do I get a text or phone call? Nothing!”

“Right—this is really not the conversation we should be having now. Your chutney needs to be repaired—I have a meeting in an hour’s time and then I thought we could have dinner together before I left tomorrow.”

“When will you be back?” The words slipped out before she could prevent them. She watched him shrug, which said, who knows?

The bitter chutney went down the toilet and Mira spent the rest of the afternoon making a fresh batch, scrutinising every leaf by rubbing them between her fingers and checking for any un-minty smell. He kept out of her way and brought back a take-away meal. They made love and Mira knew this was the end—it wasn’t her paranoia. She tried to meet his eyes and he didn’t look back, rolling away to go to sleep.

 

Jamie Cullum was raving about someone’s latest album on the radio. The cubed aubergines were roasting in the oven with some crushed chillies. A Sicilian recipe for Pasta Alla Norma—it was named after an opera. The music kept her company as she went in and out of her kitchen and to the garden and back. In her hand was a clutch of fresh oregano. Her ears pricked at the sound of a guitar tuning. Even before it started, she knew it was Zohar. He was playing live in the studio. It was so close and immediate—he could be in the living room. She stood in front of the radio, as the music began to pick up tempo. Closing her eyes, she let it engulf her and felt it seep through deep into her soul. She was happy for his success. In those precious moments, she paid homage to his talent, to what they used to share and made peace with the person she was then. When it finished, she smiled.

She watched the sauce simmer. She’d started to appreciate the smell of the dense oregano again. This batch was going to be perfect.

pencilMaithreyi Nandakumar writes fiction and is a journalist working in print and sound. She has worked for the BBC in radio and television and lives in Bristol. Her short-stories have been published in anthologies (Bristol Tales), broadcast on radio (BBC World Service), online (Over the Red Line) and made the last 16 for BBC Opening Lines 2014. Her completed novel Stirring the Pot is awaiting fame and fortune. Email: mitesn[at]gmail.com