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Bite Me

A short story by Mariam Kadhim
8 May 2020
Posted in Fiction

By Mariam Kadhim

Mariam earned an MLitt in Modern Languages & Cultures from the University of Glasgow, where she now works today. She keeps a poetry blog at www.muchness.site


Hot, too hot.

Haydar and I have only just stepped into the dining room and already I feel like a vegetable in a pot of steam. I’m imagining myself as a slender, young bean – un haricot vert – trapped above boiling water that’s punching its way to me, trying to wither my tender, raw flesh and turn me into a soft, limp thing. I don’t think I’ve ever felt cold at Layla’s. Her stove never gets a rest; she’s perpetually making something to eat. The position of la cuisine has something to do with it, too. How does that English saying go? ‘If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’? In this house? Impossible! It’s the intersection, the very belly through which you have to pass. To evade it would mean to not enter at all. A tempting thought, but Haydar brings me here every week and I don’t object.

Wrapped in a loose abbaya, Layla, the gatekeeper, seems unaffected by the beguiling heat. It’s the first time I’ve seen her wearing this. Bright red; my least favourite colour. Brash, loud, hot. A colour that screams. I contemplate its scarlet folds which amplify her dark, mahogany features. I’ve never thought of her as particularly beautiful, but I must admit she has a certain aura today – like fire: dangerous but captivating. Moments ago, at the door, I was so bewitched by the figure flowing towards me that I can’t even remember saying bonsoir or handing her the frangipane cake, but the bag is no longer in my hands, so I must have.

We’re the last ones here. Haydar’s brothers, Samir and Farouk, are sitting in wait around the table, placid and harmonious. When we enter, they raise their eyebrows in a pleasant way. Samir’s fresh-faced wife Naima must be in the kitchen, stirring a pot with that faraway expression of hers. Sweet, modest Naima. I wonder if she ever loses her temper at Layla who, at this moment, is looking me over brazenly as I take off my coat, as if she’s examining the teeth of a dog she’s about to buy. Before my bum has even met the cushion, she starts sharpening her knife to cut me up…

…her tongue-shaped knife, that is.

“Angéline, look at all those holes! The beasties have been chewing at your blouse! Remind me to give you moth killer strips after dinner to hang in your wardrobe! Hahahuhwaaagghh!”

That laugh. It sounds like two seagulls fighting over a dead fish on a tin roof.

Can’t she at least have the courtesy to wait until I’m sitting comfortably? Hah! Of course not, she’s the unmerciful queen. I suppose I should just be pleased that she’s not assigned me the jerry-built piano stool like she normally does. “Désolée mon coco,” she’ll say, “there aren’t enough seats and you have the smallest bum of us all!”. Désolée, my bum.

I’ve sat down now, sidled up beside Haydar who takes my defence, as usual.

“Mum, ssshhh, you know very well it’s lace, c’est dentelle maman.

Of course she knows that Haydar, but she needs something to serve as the appetiser to this evening’s attack, doesn’t she? What you should be asking is why she wasn’t more creative. My black, silk-collared, Isabel Marant? Really Layla? Poor shot ma poule, poor shot.

I’m on the verge of saying something about Chantilly lace that would enchant her: the way it coquettishly reveals yet demurely conceals, the way threads loop and twist, daintily, intricately, to create elegant motifs. That might make her see her misdemeanour in scoffing at such craftsmanship. Too late; she’s clicked her sandals to return to the kitchen, the residue of her titters ringing in the empty hallway. In this house, all sounds hang in the air.

 

Illustration by Annabel Wright for The Glasgow Papers

 

From the kitchen, she begins to hum something before singing out:

Pour elle, c’est dentelle

Pour nous, c’est des trous!

Haydar turns to me, his tense eyes filled with affection. Under the table I can feel his hand gently squeezing my thigh. Don’t mind her, it implies. Reelaaax, I want to say, I’m used to your mum’s wisecracks by now.

“If it’s any consolation,” he says, “she’s forever wagging her tongue at Naima, too.”

If I was drinking something, I would have spat it out.

“Hah! No she’s not, she adores her. If I ever hear her utter a bad word about Naima, I’ll eat her oven gloves.”

Totally blithe to our exchange, Farouk and Samir are talking to each other in Arabic. Well, Farouk is the one talking. I catch one word only: barhah. Yesterday. Meanwhile, Samir keeps stretching his hand across the table towards a bowl of nuts beside my elbow, prising the teasing, salty shells of pistachios apart to extract the tiny purple and green kernels within. I want to copy him, but a glance down at my nails discourages me.

Oh nooo!” Layla’s cry stretches across the corridor. “I forgot to take the stones out, missus Angéline won’t be pleased.”

Beside me, Haydar lets out a sound halfway between a sigh and actual words.

“Reelaaax, it’s fine, I’ve learnt to cope with her blows. It’s character building. Look at me.” I stick my chin up proudly, “I’m a tough nut. Didn’t used to be. But since I married you habeebi, I think I’ve grown an extra layer of skin”. The corners of Haydar’s lips begin to curl upwards. He’s smiling, and I know it’s because I’ve just used a word he taught me recently: habeebi. Sweetheart.

Dentelle. Dent. We have a saying in French, how does that go again? Ah yes, when somebody holds a grudge against another, we say they have a tooth – un dent – against them. I imagine the inside of Layla’s mouth, choc-full and brimming with dents with my name on them.

Almost as if it was orchestrated, we all fall silent around the table, each of us filling in the silence with our own random thoughts. I think about whether Layla will ever like me. Why is she so attached to the belief that I’m fussy and difficult to please? What amount of effort will turn her into a friend?

I turn my ear to the sounds emitting from the kitchen. I can hear lids being lifted, trays sliding out of the oven, porcelain hitting hard surfaces, the rustle of aluminium and the spatter of hot oil. A mélange of chidings she’s sprayed at me over the year begin to enter my mind. Tonight has given me something to add: pour elle cest dentelle, pour nous cest des trous! Damn, it’s stuck in my head. It is quite catchy.

Dentelle. Dent. We have a saying in French, how does that go again? Ah yes, when somebody holds a grudge against another, we say they have a tooth – un dent – against them. I imagine the inside of Layla’s mouth, choc-full and brimming with dents with my name on them.

“Haydooor! Faroooki!” she hollers. A picture of a Bolivian red howler monkey in an abbayah enters my imagination.

“- boys, some help to bring the food through!”

Haydar clambers to his feet and exits the room, followed by Farouk, gliding behind him like a slinking panther. That leaves me at the table with Samir. He throws me a sheepish smile and rumbles: “I’m getting quite hungry now”. His voice is as faint as the echo of a harp. “Me too, Sami.” He’s never one to strike up conversations for the sake of it, yet there is a powerful, pacifying quality to his presence. Haydar says he’s timid, but I think Samir has a quiet confidence and a wizened look that suggests he’s more sure of himself than the others. Back slightly slumped, he rests his attention on his sibha, thumbing, one by one, delightful little ivory beads on a necklace.

And it’s true – I am quite hungry. Come to think of it, I’m starving. It was a busy day at the House and I’ve had just two double espressos: one before the auction and the other in Pâtisserie Vasseur, after queueing for the cake I brought. A deluge of odours, marvellously sweet, warm and woody, clean and earthy cascade from the kitchen, like whirling waves of smoke seeping into a forest town following a bush fire. For some strange reason, the atmosphere no longer feels stifling, rather, it touches me lovingly, wrapping me up in a velvety warmth. I ponder the array of dishes soon to fill up the table. I hope there’s my favourite: fattoush; a salad that crunches and crackles. The thought makes me realise how fearsome my appetite really is. I notice I’m grinding my teeth and need to focus on something else. A bamboo bowl cradling bergamot lemons sits in the middle of the table. They’re round, deep orange-yellow, with pronounced nipples. The stems and leaves are still attached as if, moments ago, they fell from an invisible tree towering overhead. The daughter of the sweet lime and the bitter orange, the bergamot is a difficult treasure to find and I’m surprised to see them now, in such abundance. Then again, it’s citrus season, and Layla probably sniffed out their narrow window in the marketplace like a predator.

Here she is, la reine rouge herself, carrying the tajine pot, the vessel of life, to deliver the final, fatal blow. Dead meat. She has orange-tinged blood on her hands. Hah! Turmeric stains on her fingers, but it still amuses me to imagine.

Haydar is back, brandishing a bowl the size of a satellite dish. Halved hemispheres of tomatoes, glossy green parsley and paper-thin cuts of radish, revealing a plum flare, are piled so high I wonder how they’ve not yet collapsed. I can just make out a sprinkle of garnet-tinted sumac on the pinnacle. Happy times: that means it’s fattoush. He’s followed by little Naima, looking even littler under a platter of dill-threaded rice. Mmm, bagilla. My taste buds tingle at the sight of the plump, green broad beans. Allez, la suivant! What’s next? What are these going to lie side by side with? I notice I’m leaning forward, my ribs crushing into the table’s edge, my neck craning towards the door. Samir, too, has uncurled himself in his stool and seems to be quivering with delight. We exchange a devilish glance. Let’s face it, this is why were here, it implies.

In comes Farouk, a terracotta oval dish in each hand. Hand-rolled kufta. Pomegranate-studded baba ghanouj. They enter in ordered procession, like waiters, or accomplices in the ruler’s cannibalistic plan: fattening me up so she can eat me up and be rid of me forever. Ah, the mental games I play… they make me smile and shudder at the same time.

And here she is, la reine rouge herself, carrying the tajine pot, the vessel of life, to deliver the final, fatal blow. Dead meat. She has orange-tinged blood on her hands. Hah! Turmeric stains on her fingers, but it still amuses me to imagine. I look down at my neat and clean hands which have done nothing today but caress statues, pieces of antique silver, leather books and the occasional piece of Elizabethan furniture.

As she approaches the table, I pretend to have x-ray vision. Through the pot’s conical lid, I can see plump cushions of lamb wed with glistening prunes, dried apricot discs, sweet almonds, vibrant green zaytoun and thick, coarsely cut rinds of bergamot lemon. The pot lands on the table with a clean clonk. She pretends to wipe sweat from her brow and exhales deeply, jubilantly, directing the spell of breath towards me.

“Don’t tell me that Angéline is too prétentieuse to eat with the hands god gave her? Doth our lady require silverware?”. Bite me, Layla.

“I could have helped,” I offer. My voice sounds uncharacteristically feeble, as if affected by some kind of incantation.

“Oh no Angéline, pas du tout, I noticed your manicure and knew you probably wouldn’t want to risk ruining your nails.”

Well, I can’t accuse her of being wrong.

“But you could fetch the khoubz in the kitchen, thank you.”

Haydar leans his lips towards me and whispers: “she means bread”. A little irritated, I nod as I push myself up from the chair. After all this time, I know what khoubz is.

A tea towel, peppered with scorch marks wraps up a stack of bread sitting on the countertop. During my first dinner here, I made the grievous mistake of asking where the forks where. “Don’t tell me that Angéline is too prétentieuse to eat with the hands god gave her? Doth our lady require silverware?”. Bite me, Layla. Yes, I like the finer side of life, but I can also appreciate the pleasure of licking meat juices, hot and salty, from my fingertips. I was just a little new to the bread as cutlery concept, is all.

On my way out of the kitchen, I notice a bag lying on the tiled floor embossed with the words Pâtisserie Vasseur in swirly, crimson script. The seal is still intact. So this is what she decides to do with the frangipane cake – the marvellous galette des rois – that I brought? Woefully ignore it? Right enough, it’s just a frivolous tradition: a cake eaten at Epiphany. Whoever gets the slice containing the bean or trinket that the pâtissier has baked into it gets to be the ‘ruler’ for the day and wear a gilded paper crown. Looking down at the bag now, I feel like I’ve been kicked. I imagine my face on a ball, bouncing down the street. Layla, you’re like the loto; try as I might, I will probably never win you over.

Haydar’s call brings me back, “habeebti, where are you?”

I take a couple of deep breaths to calm myself down and steer back to the dining-room. Every step that brings me closer to the feast lifts my spirits. I can even sense a small smile coming over my face. When I get to the doorway, all the tension in my temples is melted by the plumes of heady aromas emanating from the table.

“Angéline, come sit!

I regain my seat, in between Haydar and Layla.

“Yallah!”, Samir cries boisterously, “let’s eat!”

Never were there wiser words spoken, Sami.

As we circulate the bread mechanically around the dinner table, our eyes begin to dart across the leviathan of food before us, chewing with our pupils, deciding where to start. Samir is the first to put something on his plate, pouncing gleefully upon the lamb tajine.

After some initial bites, serenity and calm settles over the table. Silent intervals interweave with noisy ones. I don’t remember what words we exchange exactly, but I remember laughing. Feeling restored. Ripping rough hunks of bread. The saccharine taste of pomegranate. Naima’s glimmering smile. Beside me, someone spooning fattoush onto my plate. Passing across the baba ghanouj. The aroma of smoked aubergine puréed into silky oblivion…

As I eat my last forkfuls, I think about the galette lying undisturbed in the box. Maybe I should just serve it. So what if Layla has wilfully chosen to ignore my gift? Why deprive the others of an age-old tradition and buttery goodness? “La galette des rois!”, they might say, “good thing one of us remembered to bring one!”. Then again, Layla might think my gesture rude and out of place. No, better forget about it. This isn’t my territory.

The evening slides on and we’ve moved into the living-room. I find myself sitting beside Farouk whilst he and Haydar are playing cards. Samir and Naima are watching a dubbed Turkish soap on television, and Layla is filtering in and out. As the cards are being dealt for a second game, I let go of the committee of indecision within me and decide to slice up the cake. Defiantly, I pad to the kitchen, where I catch Layla, bent over, looking inquisitively in the Pâtisserie Vasseur bag. She straightens up and looks directly at me.

“Angéline, did you bring this?” she says evenly, staring me down.

My heart beats out a hollow thump.

“Oh. Um. Yes.”

My skin smarts with the sense of Layla’s eyes boring in on me.

“You see, I thought that, seeing… given that tonight’s dinner falls on…you know… we should celebrate…eat cake.”

Several seconds pass without a word exchanged between us. I prepare myself for the worst.

“How sweet of you. I can’t believe…”, she lowers her voice, “It was yesterday, how on earth did you know?”

I don’t know what she’s on about and why she’s speaking so quietly. Are her eyes glistening?

“I can’t believe you knew…I never remind people. Believe it or not, I hate this occasion, always have. I tend to keep it hush but thank you habeebti. Merci beaucoup.

I feel a lump in my chest. I could say something, but I don’t know what.

“– let’s not serve it. I don’t want the boys to remember, or worse yet feel guilty for not remembering – god forbid they burst into Joyeux Anniversaire! Though tell you what, let’s you and I eat a piece now”, she says, winking. Our little secret, it implies.

A little too zealously, she pulls a knife out of the drawer and cuts two crumbly slices from the galette, sliding one of them onto a porcelain plate that she hands to me with a grin that’s either good or bad, I can’t tell. I take the plate wordlessly without looking at it.

As I watch her holding her slice in her palm and bringing it to her parted lips, I remain stoically silent. She sinks her teeth into the almond-filled pastry and bites down. In that moment comes the sound of a fatal CRACK. It hangs in the air before receding ever so slowly into still quietness. Before I realise what has happened, Layla covers her mouth with her hand before lowering it. Bright red blood runs from the corner of her lips. Unmoving, I’m enchanted by the sight.

We both look down at her open, leathery palm where there is a bean-sized stone and a piece of bloody, broken tooth. The blood mixes with her orange-tinged hands, giving them an even stranger, vermilion pigment. I raise my eyes and meet hers. There is no contempt in her gaze, no trace of good or bad. It isn’t kind, yet it isn’t unkind. It is what it is, and she is just that.