As soon as she hears his key click, the sound of the bolt moving, and the door opening, she wipes her wet hands on her faded flowered apron and walks from the kitchen towards the front of their long narrow house in west London. The glass in the front door rattles against its scratchy wooden frame as he closes it. She meets him in the hallway, just outside of the kitchen, and reads his face. He stands, one hand on his chest, shoulders a bit more slumped than usual. Her silent glances at his face are a daily ritual to check the flush in his cheeks that appear more often these days. He’s having trouble breathing again, she thinks.
“Lord, Aneesh, you need to get some rest.”
His brown and hazel flecked eyes flash quickly to her, an old defense mechanism when he doesn’t want to talk about it, whatever it is that day. Gone are his looks of the old dayswhere youth and vigor burst out of him.
“I’m okay, just a little tired,” his low rasp showing more than just a little tired.
Forty years ago, when they bought the restaurant and then the house, he’d briskly walk the three and a half blocks, back and forth from home to restaurant in less than five minutes. Now each step reveals an unsteady shuffle. He stands, not moving. The space under his ribs tightens and he takes in a slow breath.
Her hands now dry, pushed into a ragged pocket of her apron, she lifts her shoulders, and turns towards the small kitchen.
“I’ll make us some tea.”
Her neck cranes to a high shelf, and she stretches to reach a tin of prized silver tipped white tea. He savors this delicate, light tea, liquoring with notes of pine and honey and a golden coppery infusion. She pinches six generous portions, tossing each into the plain white teapot. She fills the red patchy kettle with water. She turns the gas on high and places the kettle down on the grates waiting for the blue flames to lick the bottom, before she turns away and looks at him again.
Lord, he had been a fine sight when she met him. He was a dresser with a walk of classic ease, and his signature khaki-colored linen suits used to be so crisp. Now his wrinkled pants sling low on non-existent hips, his brown leather belt, already on the tightest notch, still not stopping the downward tug of his pants. He is too skinny to hold them up, and the cuffs of his pants puddle over his scuffed brown wing-tipped shoes. He still insists on a buttoned up shirt, tie and even a jacket on days like this when heat clots the day, creating sidewalks that seemed to undulate and melt. His sweat still clings to his soaked white cotton shirt, making his body almost translucent, as the shirt presses against his long lean back, sticking to his body like bugs to fly paper. The jacket, a dusty tan, rumpled from the heat.
“Lord, Aneesh, you look as though you’ve been run through a cement mixer.”
He knows the jacket hangs limply on his once young body, a body that had stood erect, strong and imposing. He knows his jacket’s lining sags below the edge of the linen and the left pocket is torn at the seam with permanentstains of deep curry yellow dots on the front, but he doesn’t want to be reminded of his day, the heat, and the struggle of just walking. He is relieved when the kettle sputters and whistles, and she turns her back away from him.
He blinks several times as the back of his brown-spotted hand, its raised river of blue veins poking through his thin skin, passes across his forehead. He tries to wipe away the beads of sweat that drip from his still thick black hair and migrate towards his eyes now ringed with grey.
“Your tea is brewing, dear. Come sit down.”
The heat and years have carved his walnut colored wrinkled face like an etching on glass. Still this man had once stood erect, strong and imposing, and he knows she loves him. He could be wilted or he could be strong. He could be young or he could be old, but she’d love him anyway because they had endured so much together.
She waits for him to pull out the wobbly chrome legged chair with its faux black leather seat from under the old table now covered by what once was a crisp white tablecloth. Gingerly, he walks to his chair, places his left hand on the chair back to steady himself, and eases himself to sit, like an old dancer whose body still knows its moves. As she places a chipped mug depicting Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953 before him, she remembers his stories of standing in the rain waiting to catch a glimpse of the young monarch, just his age, at the time.
“Why’d you stay so long? The new owner will tire of your hanging around the restaurant.”
She looks at his trembling hands when he picks up the mug with its faded coronation image, and her eyes move with the mug towards his lips as he gently places them ever so carefully on the rim of the cup. He takes a small sip. He looks beyond her, at the wall, and with a voice of authority, he says,”I’ve got to make sure he keeps up my standards.”
His almost warrior stance sends a white heat through her. She feels as if he were an old cub, and she wants to take care of this old cub until her dying breathe. She puts her own hands squarely on her hips and firmly says,”It’s not your responsibility anymore.”
“Woman, you forget?”
He puts his mug back on the table and continues. “I built that restaurant twenty years ago. It was my child. I worked my bones off to create the dream I held so dear. Not responsible? Hmmmph.”
She reaches across the table and pats his arm.
“I know, dear.”
It’s not just the ambience I worked to create, or the service, he thinks but does not say aloud. It’s the smells that seeped under the door like a genie and pulled me in. It’s the curry that stained my fingers and permanently colored my nails. It was the fresh rampe, turmeric, cayenne, fenugreek, nutmeg and cashews that scented my skin like musk. It was my great-grandmother Mahana Dadi, my grandmother Dadi Nona, and my mother. I saw their honey brown faces, heard their voices and laughter in the warm kitchen of my youth in Sri Lanka as they gathered to chop and stir. I birthed this restaurant, and it’s not just any restaurant. Svada was a homey and authentic Sri Lakan place known for its warm, friendly service. It was the pride of North Avenue, where fellow Sri Lankans would gather to remember.
His eyes mist. He pulls the back of his hands across them, blinks.
It was never just a job or a mere shop. My ancestors and I communed there. It was my refuge, a way to keep my heart and soul stitched in this land of concrete. There is no separating the food from me. When I made complex dishes, they were like the notes from an ancient bowed violin, the Ravanahatha, whose bowl is made from coconut shell covered with goat hair. It’s strings were made of steel and horsehair on the tailpiece and bridge, and it was played with a stringed bow. Mmm, the music was as sweet as my dishes.
As he thinks these words, his eyes close, a smile crosses his lips and he gently sways in his chair, an imaginary melody filling him.
Oh my dear, he thinks, I can still feel the heft of the knife in my hand. I still see the mustard browns, the saffron yellows, the reds. I still hear the seasonings pop in the dry heat and sputter in the hot oil. I still smell the flavor trinity of lime juice, green chilies and fresh curry leaves cooking. Their aroma is addictive to this old man. And I treasure the heavenly scent of cinnamon, cardamom and cloves being ground with the heavy wooden pestle in its bowl, which makes a garam masala like no other.
He inhales deeply at the thought and he curls his lips into a smile.
Ah, the curry. My great-grandmother Mahana Dadi and Dadi Nona and my mother taught me to roast the spices first in the black-crusted cast iron skillet. After they cooled, we’d grind them in the old wooden bowl, until a delicate nuttiness permeated the air.
His eyes become vacant in the remembering. She stands and walks over to his side. She places her hand on his shoulders, hunched from age, and pats him gently. She leans into him and her lips plant a brief kiss on his warm and wrinkled forehead.
“I know, dear.”
He watches as she softly pads around the small kitchen. He looks at her flowered apron strings, tied in a loose bow at the back of her waist, and the way the sash dips and sways with each step. Suddenly her movements became a memory of his grandmother’s apron and it fills and nourishes him. He had watched her and his great-grandmother until he gravitated to their sides. His mind recalls his young boy self—nose barely table height and with a high whiny voice that begged to help. Great-grandmother let him pass the utensils and Nona would let him stir, her hands placed over his at first. His chubby brown fingers held that wooden spoon so fiercely that Nona looked down at him and chided, “Careful child or you’ll get splinters in your hands.” He’d loosen his grip just a little and then he’d scrape the side of the bowl with an engineer’s fervor, and at each turn, she would nod and smile at him.
In the mist of the early morning, he walked with them to the local outdoor market teeming with stalls painted green, white and red. Baskets of fruits, vegetables, and meats seemed lush and full. But his favorite was the spice stall. “A rainbow of marsala spices,” Nona called it. Nona was all business at the market, and would point a long brown finger towards a stall merchant and words fell out of her mouth with a certitude, causing the seller to waste no time in pulling out a square of heavy brown paper, twisting its ends together, so none of the precious dust would be lost.
He was different from other kids from their town of Colombo. They’d run and play in the streets or in the town square and then go home when dusk pushed the blue from the sky. He wasn’t like that. He’d haunt the market place and he dreamt of orange saffron and green coriander seeds, yellow turmeric and mustard colored curry.
Homework done, he’d gather fresh spices grown in their kitchen garden, hold the onions up to the light and peel back the brown tinged paper-like layers until the ridged wax-like portion was revealed. He preferred the small potatoes with the yellow greenish skin. He’d inspect the yellow, red and green peppers for blemishes and feel the weight of the deep purple skinned aubergines in his hands, before he’d squat to wash them in the bowl of water on the veranda.
When old enough, he’d announce in a determined voice, what his contribution to the evening meal would be. He would walk over to the large rectangular palm woven basket that held their knives and carefully pull his favorite long knife with the faded red handle from the pile of short, thin, serrated, and wide blades. He kept his blade sharp. The weighty blade proved its worth, to effortlessly slice and dice. Juices from the lemons and limes oozed before him and he placed the chopped onions, garlic, chilies and thinly sliced coconut meat into tin bowls and hollowed out calabashes, slightly bowed in the center from years of use, that lined the long wooden counter.
He was happiest when he’d open the wide rickety wooden drawer lined with small open bowls of native grown spices that included cinnamon; the dried bark of the laurel tree with its woody sweet scent; cardamom seeds with its sweet, strong intense flavor; saffron strands of dark orange bitter yet spicy flavor; and dried maldive fish, a strong tasting cured tuna from the Maldives locally called umkalakada for its distinctive flavor. Each spice by itself imparts a very unique flavor, but when used together with other spices, the combination and permutation of different ones magically change them all, until they explode with flavor. Each of his senses heightened in that brief moment of pause before creation, like synapses of a cell, pausing before contact. Dishes of intoxicating flavors had poured from him over the years and lingered on his palate. His tongue would search his teeth, the roof of his mouth, for bits of flavor until it swept his lips like a brief kiss.
Both hands around the mug, he peers at the pale liquid and brings the fragrant tea to his lips to finish the brew. He leans back in his chair, hands casually in his lap. She watches his mouth relax before his eyelids droop slowly to a close. She rests her hand against the edge of the table and leans forward to plant a sweet kiss on his forehead before she reaches down, picks up the empty mug and places it in the yellow plastic tub that lines the white porcelain sink. She reaches over the sink for the soap bottle that rests on the window’s salmon colored tile ledge. She gently squeezes the white creamy liquid onto the blue sponge and turns on the water. She washes, dries and places the mug back in the pale yellow painted cupboard next to the stove before she wipes her hands on her faded flowered apron and walks over to her husband of sixty-eight years. She nudges his shoulder before helping him to stand. In his groggy state, he mutters, “I think I should head on down to the restaurant.”
She sighs and simply says, “Yes, dear.”
She guides him up the stairs, watching as he tightly grips the handrail and slowly hoists one foot up and then the other. His breath is labored and he rests gratefully at the landing. He pads to their room and stands languidly by their bedside. She slips off his rumpled khaki jacket from his slumped shoulders while his gnarled fingers struggle to unbutton his shirt. She helps him into bed and pulls the covers over him. He looks up at her with the tenderness of a lifetime together. As she reaches up to turn off the light, he murmurs, “Tomorrow when I’m at the restaurant, I’ll make your favorite chicken curry and coconut aubergines.”
She turns and looks at his sweet, peaceful face and smiles.
“That would be lovely dear,” she whispers, before gently closing the door.
Copyright © Kay Garth Lee