Marmite and Mango Chutney
by Amita Murray
Auntie’s stroke didn’t seem to have any lasting effect, except for a slight droop in her left cheek and the tendency to talk in aphorisms.
“Such is life,” she would say. She would puff out her cheeks like a hoary toad fighting against the march of cynicism. “People only look out for themselves. It has to be said.” In her more positive moments, her favourite was, “You can only grow old if your heart ages.” And then there was the cryptic and all-encompassing, “Young people.”
The last was a flexible one, and could be adapted to many situations. “Black people,” or, “Chinese men,” or “Accountants,” or “Those homeless,” were all versions she used regularly. It was difficult to know where her sayings came from. If they were a product of experience, or if they defied encounters and conversations, and emerged triumphant, despite all evidence to the contrary.
When Auntie’s daughter, my cousin Veronica, announced that she was going to marry Gary, a mixed-race, half-black, half-white “mongrel” – as Auntie labelled him – the after-effects of the stroke became more pronounced than ever.
“The West is full of divorce,” Auntie said, her face drooping to one side, elongating the speck of Marmite that lingered on her cheek after lunch. Marmite and Amed’s Mango Chutney were Auntie’s two favourite foods in the world, and everyday at lunch, she ate two slices of bread, each with a layer first of Marmite, then mango chutney, the kind with bits of sweetened, gloopy mango in it. “He will leave you within two years,” she continued, as if she had performed a risk analysis of the time it would take for a mixed-race accountant to leave a second-generation part-time blogger. “And then where will you be?” As she asked the question, she combed her hair with a thin comb, over and over, slowly, rhythmically, like she was stroking a cat, stopping only to pull out coils of oily hair from the comb and rolling them into a tight and ever-expanding ball that she would hand over to whoever had the bad luck to be sitting next to her when she was done combing.
* * *
Veronica works as a relationship blogger, under the pen-name Dadi Ma (or Grandmother), for a successful e-magazine for the under-forties Londoner, the female professional looking for love, shoes and weight loss on her morning commute. “Love, shoes and weight loss – that’s all they ever want. I’m not very good at this advice stuff, am I? Am I?” Veronica would ask me. “I’m not very good at anything. Why am I so pathetic?” Dadi Ma is supposed to be perennially sixty-five-years-old, her birthday, for no particular reason, on Halloween, and she gives funny and old-fashioned advice to women who write in. She is very popular. Veronica has worked in this role for five years, ever since she was twenty-seven. Ironically, for most of those five years, she was miserably single.
It was a thing with her, this lack of a significant relationship. At the time, it didn’t matter to her that she was a successful writer. As I was crooning my way through the pub circuit on the dodgier outskirts of London, mournful, soft-boiled tunes to go with my cello, that I penned feverishly in the middle of the night, and that no one wanted to buy, Veronica was already working for a lifestyle magazine. She lived in a studio flat near Holborn. While I lived in this six-bedroom gig with Australians and South Africans and Kiwis, and a pet iguana with uncertain antecedents, but knowing eyes and an uncanny ability to be in the Now. No one even had a bedroom to their name, and no one knew with any accuracy how many of us were living there at any given time. If you found a bed to sleep in at night, it was taken as enough. If it was empty of foul-smelling, travelling strangers, it was practically a Christmas present.
Whenever we met up, I was determined not to let Veronica’s lack of relationship become the main topic of conversation. I came with lots to talk about, my shoulders squared and my eyes fierce with resolve. My flatmates. My “voluntary” work as a singer and cellist. My various pointless dates with married men, unavailable men, stupid men. I talked fast and furiously, in a rush to make the silence stop. My words spilled out like people who worked in office jobs, at five o’clock, anxious to get out of the door, paranoid of staying a minute later. But Veronica’s “thing” hung over us. It was the thing That Must Not Be Named. It was the body in the library. It was like nothing else existed. We could never talk of anything else in those days. If I talked of anything else, Veronica sat there looking sad and accusing. It was like her eyes were telling me I was selfish to talk about anything other than her love life, or lack of it. In the end, I would always give in, and ask her how it was going. She would tell me in great detail, great globular words that would rise and rise till they exploded all around me, spilling their hunger for love, so I was drowning in them, flailing like a fly stuck in honey. She would tell me how it was all hopeless. How she was doomed to be one of those women. How she would never find love, and love would never find her. “It must come from not knowing who my father is, you know? You will always have that,” she would say, as if this was my chief fault.
What was wrong with her, she would wail. What was it stopping her from having what everyone else had? But it was not a rhetorical question. She wanted answers from me. When would she meet someone? Could she improve her chances by losing weight, getting a haircut, reading the Hitchhiker books, sitting in the Tate, looking cool and hip? Was it that she came across as too independent, or was she too clingy and needy? “It’ll be alright, there’s nothing wrong with you,” I would say. “You’ll definitely meet someone. Definitely.” I smiled reassuringly, I gave her hugs as she left, I gave her all my optimism, and returned home sapped and dry. Veronica read horoscopes obsessively and took them personally. She read between the lines, she read them over and over for some hint that today would be the day she would meet someone. At times when I was in a relationship, she would hate me. I just knew it. “I could have been a singer,” she would say. “It just never attracted me so much. I need a challenge, you know?”
* * *
When Veronica brings Gary home for lunch for the first time, Auntie sits hunched in her wheelchair, a frown etched on her forehead, a drab brown sari wrapped unresponsively around her. She is usually the master of organizing dinner parties, making sure that she makes her numerous relatives feel culpable if they don’t make an appearance, by saying things like, “People forget their family,” or “You’re so busy all the time, I thought I’ll only have to make an effort, no?” or “I’m too old for you now, is that it?” But today, relatives are conspicuous by their absence. She does not think the occasion demands a dinner party. It ranks somewhere beneath contracting chicken pox in her estimation.
Gary reaches out and touches her hand – a courageous but fool-hardy move. Veronica and I hold our breath. What will Auntie do? More importantly, what will she say? Her hand is unmoving, as if the stroke has wiped out the feeling in her right hand, or she wishes it had. She stares at him for a long time. But Gary stands his ground, and just stares back. She reaches out slowly to the teacup set in front of her on the coffee table. It takes her five minutes to pick it up with a shaking hand that is roughly the look and size of a dehydrated prune. She finally brings it to her lips. The stroke has had no effect on her arms or hands, but this doesn’t stop Auntie from making the most of the situation. But in any case, Gary doesn’t flinch, doesn’t even look away, doesn’t try to rush her or help her.
“What do you see in her?” she says in the end, after she’s taken a slurping sip and let a drop of overcooked Red Label tea trail all the way down her chin.
Veronica and I let out a collective breath. Of all the things she could have said, this is not the worst. Not by far.
“She’s feisty,” Gary says.
Auntie snorts. “I know your kind. Men have their fun, then leave.”
“Not all men,” Gary says.
“Men of your kind,” she says. “You have no family values, you here in the West.”
“We must find a man for Aisha,” Veronica says, intervening, nudging me in the ribs. “Since only an emotionally-stunted married man with six children will do for her, that’s where we should look.”
I turn away, smiling through the stifling rage.
“You be nice to her,” Auntie says to her. “Young people,” she adds, shaking her head. It is not clear who she is speaking to, since she doesn’t approve of any of us this precise minute.
I turn back to see Auntie playing with the ring of her finger, round and round, staring at nothing. My mother left her the ring, with the understanding that Auntie would leave it to me. Gary has moved out of earshot, as has Veronica. They are huddled over a cup of tea, in that intimate way people have. “You mustn’t mind her,” she says to me, as I stare at them. “She didn’t have a father growing up, like you did.”
“I know. I don’t mind,” I say. “Of course I don’t.”
She is staring at me. “You mustn’t. You mustn’t mind. Okay?”
I do, of course I do. I hate Veronica. I hate how I have to make her feel okay about herself. I hate how it’s my job.
Lunch is a scary business, and Veronica and I are barely breathing. Auntie has given Seema (who she persists in calling her servant, though we try to tell her Seema is an employee, a cook even, but not a servant or a maid) instructions to make the biryani as hot and spicy as she possibly can. Seema has outdone herself. There are hard little pepper pods hiding under the chicken like landmines, the rice is boiled in cayenne, and skinny green chillies are chopped up into bits that are precisely the same size as the green beans, so you can’t tell the difference. Gary is sweating within minutes, wiping his upper lip and his forehead. I see a tear escape all the way down his cheek. But he perseveres. In fact, he keeps on serving himself more and says how he’s never eaten biryani half as good. Auntie’s eyes glitter. She mumbles something about how it is surprising that a mixed-race man like Gary can handle Indian chilli. She watches and waits. She is waiting for him to do something stupid. So far, he is managing not to. But it can’t last forever.
“Maybe if you’re so good for her, you can help her get a proper job,” Auntie says to Gary, as she nibbles on a mini Mars bar after lunch. It is her favourite dessert. She uses her index finger – now surprisingly sure and stable – to blot the little crumbs of chocolate that fall on her sari. She blots them, then licks the finger, leaving melted streaks of chocolate on her fingers. She sucks on these as she talks. “What is it with Westerners? Freelance, freelance, we’re going freelance. Going mad is what. Going up Chowringhee Lane.”
“It is a proper job,” I say. “Veronica’s a successful writer. Not like me, singing half-heartedly in pubs that no one goes to.” I don’t know why I feel like I have to say that. It’s hardly as if Veronica’s life needs embellishing. It seems kind of perfect to me. A creative career that pays. A flat. Gary.
“You have a beautiful voice,” Gary says, turning to me.
I am not sure if he is making fun of me. He and Veronica have seen me play at a pub. They were the only two people there that night, except for an ageing gentleman with no teeth and leather elbow patches, who follows me on my ‘tours’ and always kisses my hand afterwards and tells me he loves me. I always thank him. He is about ninety years old.
“If it didn’t sound quite so sad,” I say.
“It has heart,” he says. “It makes you long.”
I am startled. I turn to Auntie, to make a joke, to make the moment disappear. But her eyes are full of something I have never seen in them before as she watches me. Fear. I have always thought she is beyond fear.
* * *
When things broke down with Gary after a year of marriage, Veronica disappeared for a while. She was still in London, we knew that much. But she never appeared at family dos. Or met up with any of our numerous cousins that were spread like linseed all over London. She couldn’t bear to be confronted by what she, of all people, must believe was a colossal failure.
When we meet at Auntie’s funeral, I have not seen her for over a year. Not her, and not Auntie who refused to see me after Veronica disappeared. I try to catch her eye through the service, but she refuses to look at me. She is wearing a black skirt, tights with snowdrops on them, a jacket that is tailored for her. Despite the bad couple of years she’s had, she is as successful as ever, and is now writing for other blogs and magazines. I see her name everywhere. Even when I am not looking for it.
Over lunch, I walk over to her. I stop at the table, laid with Auntie’s favourite food, that no one else likes. “I am sorry, Veronica,” I say.
She shrugs. “It was a matter of time. After the stroke.” She bites into a roulade, then spits it out into a paper napkin. She looks thin. “How’s Gary?” she asks.
“He’s fine,” I say. “He wanted to come, but I thought it would be better if he didn’t.”
“She knew, you know,” Veronica says. “Mummy knew.”
My heart beats painfully. “How do you know?”
“She stopped inviting you to things. Even before it happened with you and Gary. She knew before you knew. She watched you like a hawk.”
It’s hard to hear. But yet the last year I have been free of Veronica and the familiar guilt. I have not had to take care of her. That is something.
The will is read later on. Auntie has left me my mother’s ring. This is not something I expected. I roll it round and round on my finger. I thought she would leave it to Veronica. There is a note with it. “Take care of her,” she says. “She only has you. She didn’t have a father growing up. Family is all we have.”
And I am not free. “It will be alright, Veronica,” I say as I leave. “It really will. Definitely.” I give her a hug.
Amita Murray is a writer, based in London. She has published stories in Brand, Inkspill, Front View and others. She often writes about the comedy and tragedy of clashing personalities and cultures. Short story magazines tell her that her writing is talented – publishing houses regretfully add that it continues to defy a clear market. So her writing life is an on-going see-saw between agony and ecstasy. Her novels Confessions of a Reluctant Embalmer and The Pre-Raphaelite Seamstress are available on Amazon. Get in touch @AmitaMurray and amitamurray.com