Bone Broth

8th April 2024
Blog
11 min read
Edited
18th April 2024

Read the winning entry of our Short Story Competition 2024

Bone Broth

My new housemate’s name was Iris. 

“Like the flower, not the eye,” she’d said over WhatsApp. Her eyes were a pale blue when she stood in my hallway. Condensation dripped down the window frames. Droplets inside the panes refracted slats of light. Iris flicked her gaze to the mould that freckled the architraves. The tip of her tongue poked out between two crooked teeth. 

“You told me there was a kitchen,” she said, as though I’d lied, and this square metre of hardwood floor was all I had. 

Iris was a chef. I liked that. The only meal I’d mastered was beans on toast. Two thick slices of bread folded in half and grilled, butter and a sprinkle of cheese melting in between. I never poured all the beans on at once. The bread became too soggy. I used to leave half the tin simmering on the stove. It felt like two meals in one. Now, it cost too much to leave the hob on, so the beans came out the wrong side of tepid, the clotted yet watery consistency of supermarket ketchup. 

I made it clear the room was temporary. It was like cuffing season, but for the bills. A half-formed desire to split the cost of electricity, pop the washing machine on more than once a week. Scrolling through Facebook groups for anyone wanting to sub-let, I’d felt tinged with the same bitter edge of desperation: not to pass the colder months alone. I told myself it wouldn’t be for long. When expenses came down, she’d leave no trace, and the landlord would be none the wiser. 

The kitchen was the colour of a shipwreck – a horseshoe of navy cabinets and oak laminate worktops. Oranges wilted in a bowl on the side. I’d tried to grow basil on the windowsill above the sink, but I’d soon forgotten to water it. The leaves drooped, not quite alive but lacking the conviction to die. 

Iris set down her suitcase. She tugged her sleeves. Her white shirt was rolled to the elbows, as though at any minute dough might require kneading. 

“This’ll do,” she said. When I looked at her, I thought she would too.  


***

Iris kept her door shut that first week. We rarely crossed paths. Our shifts didn’t align, and when she was in, she glided through the house like liquid, never occupying space. I’d deep cleaned the spare room for her arrival. I unscrewed the legs from the IKEA desk and lined an old mattress over it as a makeshift bedframe. If Iris noticed the four cylinders stacked in the corner, their screws crusted to the carpet like old pennies, she didn’t say. 

I came in from my two-p.m. finish after six. Iris was peeling carrots, curls mounting in the glass bowl beside her. A white crockpot simmered on the hob. It smelled brothy, vaguely meaty, like the smell of soup when you were sick as a child. 

The news on the TV mounted to the wall told me to pick up extra shifts to combat costs. I flicked it off. 

“Want some?” she asked, without turning. Her dark brown hair faded to copper at her waist, like she’d washed the colour from the ends. 

The offer felt like friendship, and the least I could do was try. “Sure. Just need to shower,” I said. She nodded, carried on scraping peels into the bowl. 

After, I threw my scrubs in the wicker wash basket and found her door ajar. I toed it open. The bed was unmade, and a brown crocheted blanket snaked to the floor. She’d laid utensils along the floor like a surgical trolley: can opener, ladle, a potato press, two wooden spoons and a whisk. I backed away when a pan lid banged. 

Iris had set the table. She was in my seat, but it felt petty to ask her to move. I took the one opposite and stared down at the bowl. 

Pockets of oil floated to the surface of the soup like bubble wrap. It was the same shade as a patient’s urine when I’d discharged him that morning. A pale, almost milky yellow. Carrot pebbles bobbed at the top. I scooped away from myself, less for polite soup etiquette than to put distance between myself and the liquid. 

It wasn’t so bad. The first mouthful slipped down, then another, and another. It was almost flavourless, like the aftertaste of a meal eaten hours ago. It tasted like the memory of food. 

Iris slurped, cheeks taut. I tried to smile. Between spoonfuls, she told me she’d worked at the same country club since finishing secondary school. Fourteen years. It made her three or four years older than me, into her early thirties. 

She started as a pot washer, a waitress, then a bartender. They made her a supervisor after a few years, but it was functions she wanted. She found a way – making a gesture like snapping an invisible wishbone – as cover for the toastmaster while the regular recovered from an operation. She didn’t like it much. Red wasn’t her colour. 

Six months later, the role of sous chef came up. She never looked back. 

“He had this revolutionary approach,” Iris said. “Never wasted.” Her tongue curled around the word. “It saw him through 2008. It’ll see me through this.” She gestured to our empty bowls, hers near licked clean. 

***

I came home one evening with deli chicken drumsticks and a bag of potato wedges, each sealed with a yellow sticker. Iris was washing dishes. My plate was on the side, from the sandwich I’d eaten at four a.m. in the strange, half-light space between two night shifts, when hours lost all meaning. 

I bit into the chicken, dipped wedges into BBQ sauce. Juice dribbled down my wrist. I felt her stare as I ate, but whenever I turned, she seemed fixed on the sink. Her fingers darted from my plate to her face and back in swift, practiced movements. I realised I’d left the crusts. 

When I left the kitchen, a quick goodnight, I lingered in the doorway. Iris plucked out every bone I’d scraped into the bin with tongs. She placed them in the crockpot, which had become a permanent fixture on the hob. She rummaged back through the binbag. I watched her suck the brown packaging dry. 

Days passed, then weeks. An MP announced that meals could be made with 30p. Iris does it for less. She started to root through the recycling more than the fridge. The jingle of tin cans bouncing against each other became an alarm, ringing on cue each day at six a.m. I found her rifling through containers and plastic wrap to retrieve slices of stale bread and the root of an onion. She boiled bones to collagenic jellies, blitzed rinds and pulps into smoothies. The kitchen smelled like canned meat and cabbage. 

She trawled the building, the large wheelie bins in the basement. I didn’t ask. She offered each evening, but I refused everything she made. Broccoli stem pancakes drizzled in olive oil. Peels baked into crisps and served with moulding salsa. Swirls of thick aubergine purée around a takeaway hodgepodge of chow mein and sticky pork. Chorizo slices rolled around shrivelled lettuce. 

The meals grew small. I didn’t know if I was worried or testing her commitment, but I found myself leaving food out to tempt her. Leftover curries. Egg mayo sandwiches sliced in triangles. I placed pasta salads on the side, Iris scrawled on post-it notes, but I returned to them unopened. 

Iris’ face was shrunken, gaunt. Her arms were thin ribbons. “It’s part of the craft,” she said.    

***

She began to cook in the dark. Too expensive. I felt her shadow flicking lights off after I turned them on – my cost-effective echo. The TV parroted the daily cost of appliances left on standby. She unplugged the lamps, the microwave, then the fridge. 

I told her it wasn’t healthy. 

She ran out of food. I caught her bleeding onto a tea towel pressed to her mouth, had lacerated her tongue licking chocolate spread from my knife. She pulled breadcrumbs from the tray beneath the toaster and tossed them with globules of bacon fat slivered from the grill panel. Iris called it branola and laughed, her gums cherry-red. 

I was walking to the flat after an afternoon shift when I spotted her in the alley beside the Chinese restaurant a block from the bus stop. The air was tangy and crisp. A sheen of frost coated the pavements. The first streetlamps flickered alight. Beneath them, Iris was a jaundiced yellow. 

Her mouth was parted, eyes closed. She tilted her body towards the basement kitchen windows. Fumes from fried meat and flambés plumed skyward like breaths of cold air. She masticated the smoke in lungfuls. Her throat bobbed as she swallowed ravenous gulps. 

I grabbed her shoulder. The long sleeve clung to her bones like a second skin. 

“What are you doing?” 

“Eating is an experience,” Iris answered, like she was reciting a textbook, “that begins with the nose.” Her cheeks with hollow. 

 I hooked an arm round her waist and pulled her upright. There was enough space to slot my hand between her ribs. I shook my head. “It doesn’t end with the nose.” 

***

The next night I cycled home, shopping bag slung over one shoulder. I stood outside the flat in the empty courtyard. A faint breeze tussled the laurel bushes. 

 I took each item from my bag and stacked them on the low wall opposite the entrance. A tin of beans. A sourdough loaf. One stick of proper butter, not margarine – now the cost an hour’s wages. 

I held the beans first, rolled the can over in my palm. I bashed it against the corner of the wall. The top lipped, the side like an inverted ribcage. I punctured the bread bag, wrapped half in clingfilm – I couldn’t throw it away – and tore scraps off like parts had moulded. I carved a lump from the butter and watched it slide into the gutter. I sucked my finger. 

Inside, the kitchen was shadowed but warm. Damp gathered like mist in the corners. I could make out Iris by the hob, her bone broth brewing in the crockpot. 

I raised the binbag I’d stashed the food in. “Look what I’d found.”

I wasn’t sure she’d buy it, but Iris took it from me and emptied the contents. The tin clanged against the worktop and gained another dint. 

Iris put the beans on to simmer. I smeared butter on the bread so thick it was like a second crust. I showed her how I folded the toast, left a smattering of beans in the pan.

“Like two meals in one,” I said.

 We looked at each other across the table. She raised a single forkful to her lips, chewed. Colour lit her cheeks. She took one bite, then another. We kept eye contact. I watched her swallow every morsel, mouthful by mouthful. She stabbed and sliced and scraped each bean. Juice lingered on her chin. My bread grew soggy, but eating beside her, it felt like a feast. The room swelled, still and sated. We licked our plates clean. 
 

Writing stage

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