Exclusive Look Inside: Black Widow

Domestic Goddess

Smooth jazz crackled out of the radio on the kitchen windowsill, and Nannie hummed right along with it. Funny to think that just a few years back that kind of music was the province of rebels and teens, when now you could hear it with the turn of a knob. The late afternoon sunlight was still filtering through the trees outside, and though there was sure to be a chill on the air come morning, Nannie was warm in here beside the open door of her warming oven.

There is a fine art to making pie crust that escapes most home cooks, but Nannie had the knack—hard won through years in the kitchen. She’d cut the shortening with flour and salt until it looked like little peas, then she’d snatch in the jug of water that she’d left cooling out in the shadows on the porch and add it all in one go. Her hands moved on their own, without much need for her intervention, just as her lips pursed and whistled along to the music on the radio.

If her mind had been here, in this moment, then maybe she would have been happy. It was as close to idyllic as any moment of her life so far and much better than most of them. If she could turn her thoughts away from the things that might have been—the things that she longed for so desperately—then maybe she could have settled for this moment as her happiest.

The shock of cold on her fingertips brought her back to the moment at hand with a start. When she looked down, there was a fork in one hand, working away at the crust, and her other hand had gone wandering off across the countertop and brushed against the jug from outside. She giggled at her own silliness, then picked up the little cork-stoppered bottle of vinegar to add just a dash, like mother had taught her.

She should have been happy here, in this kitchen, in this house. Her husband heading home from work to eat his dinner across the table from her. Her days filled with the gentle labours of the completely comfortable. The callouses on her hands from years of hard graft had faded. The aches in her joints on cold mornings were soothed by the warmth of this home that she had made. She should have been happy. Why wasn’t she happy?

She fumbled the cork, and vinegar spread across the countertop, filling the whole kitchen with its acrid reek. She snatched up a dishcloth and did her best to mop it up, but she could feel tears pricking at the corners of her eyes. Why wasn’t she happy? She had everything that she had ever wanted. She had the husband and the home; she had love in her life. Why wasn’t she happy? A sob bubbled up her throat, but she caught it before it escaped and turned it into another giggle. ‘Silly me.’

No point crying over spilt vinegar, was there? Just another little inconvenience. Hardly worth losing control over. The vinegar hadn’t made it far before she righted the bottle and cleaned up. And with a vinegar-soaked cloth, she might as well give the windows a clean when the pie goes into the oven. They didn’t need it—sunlight was streaming in—but it was making the best of a bad situation, and that is what Nannie had always been taught to do.

Nannie’s hands went back to work on the pie, and she turned inwards again, dreaming of Paris, dreaming of flowers and dancing. Romance had always been her drug of choice, ever since she had been little, and it didn’t hurt anybody for her to have a little day-dream. If the man in her dreams didn’t look and act exactly like her husband, it wasn’t going to hurt anyone. That was the wonderful thing about dreams—you could imagine yourself doing just about anything without ever having to deal with the consequences. You didn’t have to think about where you were going to sleep the next day when you’d thrown away your whole life and found yourself cast out into the street. You didn’t have to look folk in the eye, knowing that they knew exactly what you had done.

If Nannie could have lived in her dreams, then she would have. What a beautiful life that would be. Breakfast in bed, lunch in some fancy restaurant, carriage rides through the park, bouquets of roses waiting for her behind every closed door, and a single sweet kiss on the lips, just like in the black and white movies that she’d loved ever since the first moment she’d laid eyes on them. True romance. That was what her dreams were made of. There was no sweat dripping in her eyes, there was no grunting or snoring or odious smells, there was just that perfect kiss and then the fade to black.

The fade to black never came. That was the trouble with real life. She had found her husband, he had romanced her, she had melted in his arms and now… nothing. She couldn’t just stay melted forever. Life kept on trudging on and wearing her down, and in retrospect, that one perfect moment never quite seemed perfect. She had no shortage of love in her life, but none of it was true. None of it was pure. There was always some ulterior motive, some sordid secret just waiting to be outed. Men were flawed creatures, she understood that—lord, did she understand that—but was it too much to ask for just one of them to truly love her?

She knew love was real, otherwise, how could they have written all those books and songs about it? More than that, though, she knew it was real the same way that she knew there was a sky up above her even when her eyes were closed. Love was a fundamental truth of the universe.

The pie crust was lain out under a clean dishcloth to settle, and her attention was finally turned back to the task at hand. She had a little wicker basket full of apples from the garden, far too sour to eat raw, but sharp and firm, just right for cooking. Her knife danced smoothly through the pale flesh, chopping them into wafer-thin slices that she’d lay across the base and over the top, for texture as much as flavour. A quick dusting of sugar and spice and they were ready.

The prunes were last. Rich and sweet once they were stewed—an old family recipe that her mother and in-laws had all enjoyed, even on their deathbeds. It took more sugar than Nannie would ever admit to get them tasting just right, to be in balance with the apples, but it wasn’t like she was going to be eating any of the pie anyway. Her sweet tooth ran in the direction of books and magazines rather than puddings.

Once the prunes were stewing away, Nannie turned her attention to the window panes. She knew that she could be a bit lax when it came to household chores. When her black mood set in it got more and more difficult to find the energy to see to nonsense like scrubbing floors and dusting shelves. Some days it felt like a battle just to get out of bed at all, and her darling husband, the light of her life, would chastise her like she was a spoiled child unwilling to do her share of the chores, even though her share in this house seemed to be every single one of them, while he went slinking off to who knows where with giggling girls half his age. Shameless. He must have thought she was a fool. He must have thought to himself, ‘That Nannie is so lost in her daydreams that she won’t even notice if I run around on her.’

She had noticed. She noticed everything. She was a dutiful and attentive wife, even when the weight of this miserable life and this horrible little house was pressing down on her like she was pinned in a vice. She knew everything that went on in his life, and he knew not a damned thing about hers, which was exactly the way she liked it.

When he came stomping in, making demands, tossing out her magazines like they were trash instead of treasures, that was when the dark moods came on the strongest. When he left her alone, ran around with teenagers and only slouched in to eat the food that she worked tirelessly to put on his table, it was easier to make believe that everything was going to be okay, that their life together was the true romance of her dreams and not a hollow sham built on a bedrock of lies.

No matter how hard she worked at the windows, she still couldn’t see through them clearly. Sunlight should have been streaming right in, but the harder that she tried to see it, the more distant it became. The more that she tried to make it right, the streakier and more opaque the glass became.

Something was burning. The scent of it snapped her out of her furious scrubbing, and she tossed the sour cloth aside into the sink with a grumble. The prunes would be sticking. She stirred at the pot furiously, scraping the wooden spoon across the bottom and hoping that she hadn’t wasted a whole tin of prunes on a ruined mess. She stirred and stirred until she was certain that the caramelised fruit was mixed all the way through. She then took a tentative taste. The pie was going to be all right. There was a gristly edge to it that she could taste—a hint that it was burnt and spoiled—but she could pour on more sugar and spice and it would all fade away. Inattention had done that. Something that should have been perfect had almost been spoiled completely just because the one person in the world who was supposed to tend to it had been too busy chasing off after other things. Things that didn’t really matter. She could cover it all up, though. She was so very good at covering it all up.

She pulled open the cupboard and let her hands go back to doing things for themselves. Sugar would fix everything. A little more sweetness in their life was exactly what was required. She sprinkled in the white powder and watched with a sigh as it dissolved into the prunes. Just a little more sweetness was all that they needed to make everything come out right.

She set the container of rat poison down beside the sugar packet, then awareness came back to her again, and she giggled at her silliness. She’d forgotten to add the sugar, too. It wouldn’t do for that almond flavour to be too bitter. If it was, her husband might not eat enough of the pie. Just one bite wouldn’t do. He had to love it so much that he never wanted it to end. He had to guzzle up that pie like it was his last meal on Earth.

Once she was certain of her measurements, Nannie transferred the prunes into the crust and topped it all off with the remaining apple slices and pastry. Once she was satisfied with its perfection, she slipped the pie into the oven and closed the door on it.

Until that moment, the kitchen had remained warm, but now the chill of the evening intruded. That room was the heart of the house, and the heat from her kitchen emanated out to fill the whole space, but with the pie consigned to the oven, there was no longer an excuse to keep on lingering there. Nannie washed off her dishes, threw out the ruined dish-rag and carefully put everything back into its appointed place.

With a sigh, she turned off the radio and headed out into the cold. She wanted the whole house perfect before her husband got home. After all, they’d be getting a mess of visitors soon, and she wouldn’t want to shame herself.

Black Widow will be live on Amazon on 8th May 2019

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