“Put your arms around me like a circle round the sun,” she said. This was the Chutney Woman from whom I’d just bought two pints of soup. Oxtail. “Don’t boil the soup,” she said, as she always says, and it was then it occurred to me that the arms and the circle and sun were most likely from a song she was just singing to herself, rather than an invitation to me directly.
I am fond of the Chutney Woman, very much so am I, and I am generally most fond of condiments, but I am particularly partial to pickles, which was also the name of the dog who found the stolen World Cup trophy in 1966. Abandoned in a bush it was, South London. His owner, Dave Corbet, got a nice five thousand for a reward. Lot of money back then. Never did catch the robber, but police noted at the time (it was nicked from Central Hall in Westminster, London where it was on display before the competition) that “a suspicious-looking man was seen in the building at the time of the theft. He is described as being in his early 30s, of average height with thin lips, greased black hair and a possible scar on his face.”
The bandit in question might well be dead by now, leaving a great unsolved mystery unconfessed to also. Pickles will most certainly be long dead, even accounting for the longevity displayed by mongrels like him. Of course, I’m presuming he was a boy dog. I could never call a bitch Pickles, too fond of pickles. Too many happy memories at my grandmother’s sleeve, her in a faded flowery apron, smelling of that old blue toilet disinfectant and pickling vinegar. Sour happy afternoons.
Wonderful woman, she lived the life acidic. She didn’t trust washing-up liquid. Felt that while it got the plates clean, it also left a sheen of invisible chemicals to eat your food off. Same way with her paring and pickling knives. She would wash them in plain water and then rub their blades with a soft cloth almost wet with lemon. “Mind them boy,” she’d always say, as though busy with the liturgy, “my knives cut twice.” And it’s true that the idea of the lemony sting that awaited you if you slipped with them made me wary to the point of timid chopping, unlike my older sister who was a fierce slicer and cutter and peeler of things. Still is. My mother, a different kind of woman altogether, would whisper as she worked at the pastry dough, my sister beside her and me supplanted, little girls come made complete, yet little fish are seldom sweet. I was the little fish. I knew. The snotty boy born late and inconveniently, and she would hum me far away, until I was swimming alone in a stream of silent bitter water.
She made her own chutney my gran. We all buy it mostly these days. I get mine here in America from the shop Chutney Woman works in. She might also be called Hummus Woman, as she makes that from scratch for them too, but I could never be a Hummus Man, nor would I take a Hummus Woman to be my bride, but chutney brings the idea of love and passion very easily to my heart and loins. Loin of pork with apple sauce, a child adrift, long lost of course.
In the end I went to an island off the coast of West Africa, and turned a russet red after a few lost weeks. I sat late at night at an outdoor café beside a black sand beach. I still smoked back then and I could never now go back because how could I sit, sockless, late in the evening, a tumbler of brandy beside me, and not pull at a desperate cigarette? I had been arguing, being an arse more than likely, when the mostly silent tired waiter brought me out a small oval plate with eight maybe ten bocarones, all fresh and skinned and waiting for me. Can’t stand anchovies which is kind of what bocarones are before they’re ruined, but bocarones are light and lemony and the sweetest of little fish, their bones hardly crunching. I ate them all, just one after another, like a mechanical thing finding pleasure. I raised a glass to my mother and finally, in the untethering moment, set her free from me.