The Promised Land
Rosewater, saffron, almonds and milk – the recipe sounded like the Song of Solomon. It sounded exactly what Patrick, with his seductively angst-ridden Catholicism would adore. As Katy only had the milk she would have to go out and buy the dozen other fragrant items the curry required. It would be an offering to Patrick, an offering of love.
She liked shopping for spices. Cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, frankincense and cloves, nutmeg, mint, bay leaves and myrrh, turmeric, garam masala, gold…Spices were the precious stones of the food world. Poor man’s diamonds. The saffron came in a tiny plastic box engraved with gold curlicues like a jewel case. It cost £1.75. Katy liked the idea of a luxury that cost less than two pounds.
The grocery round the corner had everything she needed. Carrying it all to the checkout, she buried her nose in the coriander and mint and sighed over their green scent. The man behind the counter, eyes glued to a Turkish soap opera on the TV in the corner, glanced at her and smiled.
The bell of St Mark’s struck seven as she walked back. The evening was biting cold, freezing fog lifting into the darkness, making the streets both sharper and less distinct. Her hands froze into claws around the handles of the plastic bags.
‘SEX SCANDAL MINISTER DIES’ screamed the crisscrossed caged board outside the newsagent, as Katy passed. Evening Standards were piled up inside the door. She peered at the front page. It was only John Profumo, who was more than ninety and had sinned so many years ago it was crazy to still call him a sex scandal minister. Though she supposed such a silly doll of a woman bringing down the Government never ceased to amaze. From the film Katy had seen, Christine Keeler had been too brainless to be deliberately treacherous.
At the door of her flat, Katy imagined Patrick’s arrival. He would put his hand up her skirt as they climbed the stairs, check if she was wearing stockings, which she was; black stockings he had bought for her, with a red ribbon frill around the top and a seam up the back. He would push his fingers up further, feel the tops of her thighs – the contrast between the sheer nylon and her smooth skin was what he liked. Still further he would push his fingers and tell her in his low lulling voice she was gorgeous. Her heart would roll over the ‘r’.
In the kitchen, she began chopping vegetables. Aubergines, sleek and purple black. Their skin looked hard varnished yet gave softly under her touch. The knife slid through them beautifully. She put them in a colander in the sink, strewn with salt.
Onions, sliced thin enough to see the light through. And mushrooms, the loam wiped off their bloomy skin, their secret enfolded insides revealed as she cut them. No one could underestimate the satisfaction of a very sharp knife.
Chopping was relaxing. No thought, just action. Patrick liked the way she worked, liked the confidence in her hands.
“You work properly,” he had said as he watched her slicing tomatoes for a fried breakfast one morning a few months before.
His hands were confident too. Though he was slight, a skinny wretch, his hands were strong. When he slid them around her waist and held her hips, turned her like a puppet, moved her in time to whatever they were dancing to, she felt safe. When he cupped her face in his hands, she felt soothed.
That had been one of many fried breakfasts they’d eaten together.
“I love a good fry,” he grinned, rubbing his hands together in glee, before demolishing a huge plateful of bacon and eggs in a greasy spoon the morning after they first met. Despite twenty years in London, twenty years of gastronomic exotica, Patrick still had working class Irish taste in food at heart. He always picked the cucumber out of his kebabs.
The other week he had cooked her bacon, eggs and sausages on the hotplate in his studio. They had slept the night there on cushions used by the models; cushions she had herself once posed on. The sun woke them through the skylight and it was like camping on a desert island in the middle of an ocean. London was a distant shore, the island was their own private world and nobody else could reach it.
“If the worst comes to the worst I could always move in here,” Patrick mused.
That wouldn’t be the worst, Katy thought.
After breakfast, she knelt on the paint-splashed floorboards beside the fridge, unzipped his trousers and took him in her mouth. The veins on his hip were tender ropes stretched beneath the pale surface of his skin. He arched back and suddenly her mouth rushed with salty slime, the consistency of raw egg white. He collapsed against the sink, giggling like a little boy.
Two different liquids had to be made – the rice liquid and the sweet liquid. The first was a spicy stock made from infusing most of the spices in boiling water. It smelled like a cross between chai and mulled wine – Eastern yet Northern – and looked like Chinese medicine. The second was like Cleopatra’s bathwater – rosewater, saffron, cardamom and milk. Katy splashed rosewater on her skin as she poured it in.
While the liquids mashed, she melted the ghee in a pan. It gave off a fudgy smell. She threw in the onions and a stinging cloud of steam was thrown back in her face. Wine cut through her tears. The kitchen billowed with sweet and savoury heat. Steam frosted the window, blocking out the night. Katy’s cheeks were flushed, her lips bruised with the wine and her hair curled in damp tendrils at her neck. She would be a dewy rose-scented picture when Patrick arrived.
His scent made her swoon. It was a mixture of incense, Chanel Allure Homme, cannabis and smoke combined with the natural musk of his skin. Whenever they were apart she nipped into department stores and doused herself with his perfume from the testers. The orange faced counter girls gave her funny looks but she swanned off with her nose in the air, imagining Patrick wreathed around her with every heady lungful.
Usually she didn’t like cigarettes but she liked them on him. He smoked roll-ups with tobacco pinched from a brown leather wallet. Sometimes, rolling a cigarette, he held the paper up for her to lick, before placing it in his own mouth and sparking a flame. She liked watching his fingers around a cigarette. She liked watching his mouth around one too. His lower lip drooped and the groove in the bow of his upper lip fitted her fingertip perfectly. When he kissed, he closed his eyes and looked as if he were taking Communion. In profile, the corners of his mouth curled up a fraction, as if he was always privately smiling. That small curl, she first noticed it as he worked himself inside her. It made him look absorbed yet tender. That small curl made her stomach drop away. And when he came he was soaked in a sudden sweat, like a blessing.
The onions had melted down and were now edged with caramel, outlined in brown. She added the ginger-garlic paste and the aubergines, sucked to flaccidity by the salt. Cooking was all about softening, melting and tenderising.
His skinniness made her want to feed him up. He didn’t look after himself, would go whole days without eating, whole nights without sleeping. Despite this careless regime his skin was preternaturally unlined, his hair lavish as a teenager – “Yes, the good Lord blessed me when it came to hair”. He was entering middle age but there was a touch of the Dorian Gray about him and she knew exactly what sins he kept in his attic.
“Where did you get these eyelashes from?” she would marvel, pressing her palm over his eye sockets to feel their spidery tickle, and, tracing the curves of his mouth, “…these lips?”
“Oh, I don’t know, probably me mother…”
He showed her pictures from the sixties of his mother, handsome and strong-featured with a nipped-in waist and black bouffant hair. She had grown up on a farm in the far west of Tyrone, one of nine kids; left school at thirteen and become a midwife. “She was clever though, me ma. If she’d come from a different background, she could’ve…you know…” He wafted his cigarette at the whole world of middle class possibilities she could have had, at the whole world he had achieved with his cleverness.
“And what about your dad?”
“Oh, me da, he never went to school much…never really learned to read or write…”
“Well, he can sign his name, just about…read enough to study the form…”
His father was a square-faced, taciturn man, who changed the channels if anything sexual came on TV. His chief pleasures were the horses and his taxi.
“What does he think of your paintings?”
“He doesn’t know about them. He’d be disgusted. He thinks I only paint landscapes.”
Sometimes he would throw it all back in her face, her poetic voyeurism of his iconic world. The weekend before at the edge of a dance floor in Archway, watching two Kosovan boys perform a blatant mating ritual before a pair of mocking London girls, Katy had said, “Sometimes I wish I was from a place like those boys…”
“…where everything was simple…”
“What?” Patrick drew his head back.
“…you know, a place where you could chat someone up without a whole load of irony…”
“Irony. You know: a whole load of complications and pretending. Where you could just say, ‘Yeah, I fancy you. How about it?’…I just wish I was from somewhere simpler…”
“Do you have any idea how patronising you sound?” Each word dropped with deadly slowness.
“Those boys have escaped war and poverty and religious persecution and…” The lips he’d got from his mother curled in disgust. “…I identify with those boys…”
“Oh for God’s sake…”
“…just because they don’t fit into your…you sound like the fucking Guardian Weekend…”
“I do not!” It was just a throwaway comment, an observation, it didn’t mean anything, she wasn’t patronising, she was envious of the boys and their directness. How dare he say that! And so what if she was like the Guardian Weekend? So what?
The argument exploded into the street. Passersby, rolling their eyes, gave them a wide berth. At the corner where they would have ordinarily continued to her flat, he turned in the other direction.
“Where are you going?”
“Home. Tomorrow is the start of Holy Week and I’m going to mass.”
Don’t get sanctimonious on me, you hypocrite, she failed to say, before veering home, barely able to see the way through her tears and fury.
He begged forgiveness the following afternoon via text. Via text she absolved him.
The rice was dealt with next. Fried in ghee, sluiced with spice liquid and boiled until no juice remained. While it boiled she chopped the bales of mint and coriander, her knife biting through them like new-mown grass. A bed of rice was spread on a square dish, layered with a blanket of curry and a sprinkling of mint, coriander and almonds. Her own bed had been fresh-made that afternoon; remembering it, she anointed the sheets with rosewater. They would be white on white. Among the many mental images she held of Patrick, two returned again and again: one, propped against the white wall, his hair falling in his eyes, watching her undress; the other, vanquished against white sheets, his lips parted, his eyelashes casting small jagged shadows and the starved hollow between his cheekbones and jaw, crying out to be licked.
While the curry cooked, she laid the table. A vase of widow irises, black velvet petals like moths’ wings, two votive candles with the Lord’s Prayer printed in Spanish down the side – ‘Padre nuestro, que estas en los cielos, santificado…’ The candles came from a voodoo shop in Brixton. Patrick might think them blasphemous. She feared his unpredictable pious turns. It was still Lent, she suddenly remembered, and she had not given up what she meant to give up. More importantly, neither had he.
St Mark’s struck nine. Where was he? The steam was running in rivulets down the inside of the windowpane and her face reflected in the night sky was hollow-eyed, her cheeks no longer rosy. She examined her chipped nail varnish, wondered if she should she take it off, repaint it. Patrick though, despite being tousle-haired and paint-spattered himself, liked his women well presented.
The first time she visited his studio after work, dressed in her ironic pencil skirt and pearls, he said, “You look posh,” with the same rascally glee as when he said he loved a good fry. Once they were naked she wound the pearls around his neck and as they made love the whiteness of the pearls got confused with his teeth, and contrasted with the near blackness of his eyes in the low light.
So far they had only known each other in winter. The winter had been so cold and she too poor to turn the heating up that the only time she felt warm was in his arms. Cradled by him she felt safe – a false safety, she knew – and she imagined this was how babies felt, held by their mothers.
“I wish I could spend all my time held by you,” she told him.
“No you don’t. You’d get bored, want to get up and do something else eventually.”
She poured another glass of wine and slumped back. The curry was nearly ready but she had spent so long cooking it, inhaled so much of its flavour, she had lost her appetite.
The clock struck the half hour. Punctuality was not Patrick’s strong suit. No doubt he would excuse this as the bohemian’s prerogative: too absorbed in his art to arrive on time. Katy knew he would shuffle in like a naughty child expecting a slap, would duck his head, look up at her, stagily penitent, mumble an apology and, as always, she would forgive him.
Just as she was reaching for her phone, planning a breezy ‘Where are you?!’ text, the screen flashed and a message beeped up. Patrick Murphy Mob.
‘so so sorry darling.cant come round tonite. the missis has booked a table – i forgot its our anniversary.will make it up to you sweetheart I promise. forgive me. xxP’
Katy lit the votive candles, switched off the lights, removed Patrick’s place setting from the table and sat staring into the black window. The reflection of her face was obliterated. Only the two flames could be seen flickering in the cooling air.
Rowena Macdonald’s debut novel, The Threat Level Remains Severe, will be published by Aardvark Bureau in July 2017 but is available to pre-order now. Her debut short story collection, Smoked Meat (Flambard Press) was shortlisted for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize.