I am stirring soup as rain beats against the shutters of my restaurant. It is closed, it is two miles up in the Andes and it is where I spend every afternoon with my cook Miriam.
She chops vegetables, I stir soup and we talk without looking up. It suits both of us, she can feign subservience to a gringo and I don’t have to look at her. In this valley that Photoshop forgot, cratered skin and chessboard teeth are far from unusual, this is about as close as I want to get. What sets little Miriam apart from the other locals is her ability to spin tales which last exactly the amount of time it takes to make soup. It makes soup stirring shocking and unpredictable. She tires me out.
She’s about to start, she’s cleaned her nose into the sink, she’s broken at least seven golden rules of food hygiene in the time I’ve been describing her and here she goes.
‘Señor Michael, it was a Bic’
Oblique as ever strange lady.
The correct mix of interest and indifference guarantees me a good story.
‘It is the only proper way to do it’
Has this conversation started without me? Or is she picking up the thread of a conversation we had months ago?
‘Is this about the razor?’
‘Do you use foam?’
I remember now.
‘No of course not Señor Michael it taints them’
She should have been a biochemist.
Maybe I’m learning how to contain her, after last week’s thinly veiled tale of incest and dog fighting at a family Pollada I think I need some self defence.
I’m stirring again, oil separates on the surface of my Nepalese Tomato Soup, God knows why I called it that, maybe there’s some skint idiot halfway up Everest with a ladle full of Peruvian Tomato Soup listening to a story about drunken stabbings from a Sherpa.
Now it’s time to ask Miriam a question.
‘So exactly how does this work then Miriam? I’m not sure I believe you’
So that’s the metaphorical blue touch-paper lit. She’s put her knife down on the pine bar. Here comes some wisdom.
‘I sit in my stool in the yard at home and shave the Guinea Pigs one by one with a Bic, have you ever eaten anything which has left you with a mouthful of hair Señor?’
Oh, she’s ploughing on, it was a rhetorical question, maybe for the best.
‘It’s disgusting, especially after frying’
She’s got a plaster on her thumb, how come I didn’t spot that earlier? It’s my turn, she’s picked the knife up again and is gently cutting her arm hair with it.
‘So let me get this right Miriam’ her subservience has long gone, disdain has replaced it. ‘You have a pile of furry Guinea Pigs on one side of you and a pile of bald Guinea Pigs on the other?’
How I love her feigned incredulity, especially when we are discussing her version of normal. She’s looking at me now with that disdain and incredulity and chessboard teeth, it ain’t pretty.
‘Otherwise’ Señor Michael ‘they would be inedible’
In my view they would have changed from being inedible to being inedible, but we had that conversation a few years ago and that’s one hutch I don’t intend to open again.
‘So what do they taste like?’
‘Like monkey …. but greasier’
And now we have arrived at our story, shaven guinea pigs were the mere chum thrown behind the boat, she has hooked me in to a conversation which gives her a much wider canvas to revel in.
‘Where Miriam, why, what, how?’
‘At my uncle’s in the jungle’
She’s waving at our bright yellow back wall as if I can see the rainforest spreading out in front of us. I can’t, I can just see that the grease filter in the cooker hood needs changing again.
‘The arms are the best bit, very tender Señor’.
Michael Scott is a Poet, Writer and Creative Writing Tutor from Swindon, he co-edits Domestic Cherry magazine and is co-founder of Swindon Festival of Poetry. www.michaelscott.org.uk