The kitchen is neat; fat-bellied copper pots glisten on the hooks, dishes are stacked tidily on a rack, an old-fashioned toaster for refreshing corn tortillas scrubbed of all residue, the meat mincer clean and shiny and amidst them all she, the Queen of lard cakes, the Princess of preserving jars, Doña Flor.
“Chop the onions into very small pieces.”
The white bulb of the onion slippery between her fingers, she cuts it into halves then with swift, expert movements slices them across, chop-chopping loudly into the very tiniest pieces.
“Fry the onion in a hot frying pan sprinkled with oil. Make sure it’s olive oil of the very best quality.”
Smoothing a brush with her finger tips she dips it into Valle de Cholula olive oil and paints the bottom of the pan like a Renaissance Master putting the final touches onto his canvas.
“Fry until golden brown and tender. Remove any dark pieces, they could spoil the taste of your stuffed chillies with their bitter tang.”
There. She brings down the flame and stirs the onion gently with a wooden spoon. She’ll give them three minutes.
She loves cooking and she loves her sparkling kitchen with clay pots of pelargonium, dark green myrtle (wonderful for a relaxing foot bath), liquid-filled stapelia, spiky aloe, each with a little white card, the plant’s name stencilled in black letters.
She scans the kitchen table with silver-rimmed plates full of nachos, bowls of mashed avocado, sour cream sprinkled with fresh coriander, grated cheddar, sliced tomatoes in garlic sauce, a jug of sangria with spicy cloves and lemon crescents floating on top.
The onions sizzle and leap noisily in the pan and she turns off the gas.
“Stir in the sultanas and boiled rice, add a crushed clove of garlic, a pinch of caraways, black pepper and ground chilli. Do not fry. Leave to cool then stuff the peppers, gently pressing with a spoon to avoid air bubbles. Lay the peppers on a tray and put them in the oven for fifteen minutes.”
She sets the oven clock and walks to the dining room to check that everything is in order. The room smells of furniture polish and pot-pourri. She wipes invisible specks of dust from the sideboard over which hang two wide-brimmed mariachi hats with golden tassels. Their first possession -bought in Guadalajara on their honeymoon and dragged back to Chiapas on a crowded bus where babies in wet pants, fat Indian women in black, sweeping skirts and tired-faced old men smiled wise toothless smiles - newlyweds!
The oversized hats were as out of place on the bus as they, young Doña Flor and her husband, in the posh and stuffy Guadalajara hotel with ankle-deep carpets and heated towel racks.
Unlike in other homes, in hers souvenirs never gather dust. She regularly steams the felt hats and cleans the golden tassels with vinegar.
The oven bell chimes, and she makes for the kitchen to take out the peppers. There is barely time to get dressed.
The bathroom mirror reflects an ageing woman who was pretty once. Startlingly pretty, her husband used to say. She still retains some of the girlishness, but her hands are reddened from ajaxing the kitchen furniture and the sinks and roughened by chopping onions and herbs Mexican cooking can’t do without. She is round-hipped and her breasts, like feather cushions, strain the fabric of her dress. Too much corn flour and fat, but eating is one of her pleasures and life is too short to give it up.
She puts on a purple woollen dress and sprays floral scent on her neck and behind the ears. Her husband favours old-fashioned perfume: lavender, lily of the valley, musk. In all he prefers the old ways, the ways of his parents and their parents before that.
The party is to start at eight, but she knows that no-one will break the Mexican habit of showing up at least an hour late. Just like she knows that if one promises to do something tomorrow it might mean a week or a fortnight later, but under no circumstances what it literally means.
In the dining room an orderly stack of records awaits their turn: boleros, paso-dobles, fandangos, Argentine tangos, habaneras. She wouldn’t mind some more modern equipment, CD’s they call them now, but again the old ways of her husband’s prevail.
The first one to arrive is Doña Polina, her next-door neighbour for the last twenty years.
“Don Carlos? Not in yet?” She chirps in a sparrowy voice.
“Still in the shop but he’ll be here soon. After all, it’s not every day one celebrates his thirtieth wedding anniversary.”
“Really, Doña Flor, thirty years! And the two of you still in love just like the day you met.” Polina moves a few scatter cushions and sits down on the couch.
Doña Flor smiles.
“That’s what I say to that old man of mine. Look at them, just look at them... Thirty years, nearly a lifetime, and they still love each other like two turtle doves.”
“Nachos, Doña Polina? With cream or cheese?” Doña Flor spreads her arms in an inviting gesture. “We’ll wait with the chillies for the rest.”
Polina takes a nacho and dips it in the avocado mash. “Bet you’ve made them yourself. Mine are never as crispy.”
“I’ll give you the recipe before you go. My grandmother’s. Please remind me.”
The bell comes alive with a brassy clang and two more women with disturbingly similar looking men enter - dona Clara and dona Sofia with their twin husbands. They exchange swift pecks and the men, morose and serious, sit stiff-backed by the window.
“I was just telling Doña Flor what a wonderful marriage hers is. Born with a silver spoon in her mouth, that’s what I say to that idle husband of mine. With a silver spoon.”
“Sangria?” Doña Flor indicates the jar. “Fresh as a bull’s blood.”
Everyone laughs obediently at the old joke. Sangria, a dose of courage in a glass before a corrida, is a favourite drink of toreros.
They sip their drinks and chat, even the morose twins relax, their brooding mood diluted by the sangria.
“Started without me, have you?” a fat, bald man booms from the threshold.
The twins rise in unison.
“Don Carlos, happy anniversary and many more to come,” Doña Polina twitters. “For you and Doña Flor.”
After nearly a quarter of a century being next door neighbours and having seen each other hundreds of times, they still use the formal terms of Doña and Don, a sign of respect in their friendship.
The fat man looks around satisfied. “Have you been taken care of? Has my flower looked after you?”
“Your flower, what a lovely way to call your wife and after thirty years!” Dona Sofia says, her voice tinted by a hint of regret.
Doña Flor solicitously offers her husband some nachos and sour cream, but he waves her away. “Not now, Flor, not now. But I could do with a drop of sangria.”
They eat just after ten and everybody praises the stuffed chillies. Perfect, not too hot, with the right quantity of sultanas to take away the spicy bite.
Then, one by one, Flor’s husband puts on the records and they dance: jumpy habaneras, sensual paso dobles, gentle boleros.
Don Carlos’s wobbly stomach presses against his wife’s belly as he twirls her in a poor imitation of Gardel, the king of the Argentine tango.
The clock ticks away the evening and it is after midnight that everyone agrees it’s time to go.
“Lovely party,” Doña Polina says as she gathers up the dishes, sangria-stained glasses and ferries them out to the kitchen.
“Yes, it was,” Doña Flor agrees squirting a generous jet of Soft Touch washing-up liquid into the sink.
Doña Polina tilts her head and regards her friend with half-closed eyes. “Tell me, Doña Flor. How do you do it? What’s the secret to keep the old flame blazing? After all, and that’s between us, women, don Carlos, how should I put it...is not so young anymore and...”
“Just between us, women, put it directly. Carlos is fat, bald and loud-mouthed.”
Polina blushes at Flor’s correct guess. “Well, it’s you who’s said it, not me. So, how come you seem so content, so much in love with him?”
Doña Flor is scrubbing the frying pan in the soapy water. She looks at Polina and winks. “Just like in cooking. I use my grandmother’s recipe and add a pinch.”
“A pinch of what?”
After they leave, Doña Flor sprays the room with Alpine room freshner to expel the tobacco smell and the pungent aroma of cooked chillies. She replaces the crocheted tablecloth, plumps up the cushions on the couch and because it is already Tuesday, her pelargonium day, she measures exactly half a cup of water with a soluble aspirin tablet and waters the plants.
In the bedroom her husband is snoring, powerful jets of air escape through his hairy nostrils. The sheets rise on the hill of his stomach and tremble with his breathing. She slips in and pulls the sheets to her side.
She isn’t sleepy yet. A good, eventful day. And Carlos was not grumpy at all. She closes her eyes and on the firmament of her mind dreams float and flutter. The bulky mass of her sleeping husband sails away, leaves the orbit of her make-believe world. She imagines another man asleep at her side. Every night it is someone different. Sometimes it is the King of Charmers, Valentino himself. Other times Errol Flynn with a pencil-line moustache tickles her ear as he kisses her good-night. Or Elvis in his ‘Viva Las Vegas’ days, trim and lean, puts his arm around her and with each embrace she sheds years and wrinkles. Every night she constructs stardust romances listening to the grinding sounds of the doughy mountain lying beside her.
And all it takes is, just like in grandmother’s recipe, a pinch of imagination.