This piece was begun at one of this summer’s National Flash Fiction Festival events. In ‘normal’ times the Festival takes place in Bath, over several days in June; this year it was a series of monthly Zoom events. This particular challenge was to write a flash-fiction triptych, with the first section featuring a food you love or hate, the second your middle name, and the third a song you love or hate. ‘Bacalhau’ was chosen as the winning story by judges Karen Jones and Tim Craig, whose comments are below. It will appear in the 2021 Festival Anthology.
Dried salt cod
Antonio orders bacalhau for you both, in an overlit backstreet café with formica tabletops. You think it sounds horrible, but after vinho verde branco and the pottery dish of bacalhau stew; after red wine from the Dão Valley, Brandy Croft and leite crème torrado with its sweet blowtorched shell; after hearing about the mountain village north of Porto where Antonio grew up; after you’ve told him you want to learn Portuguese, to get closer to this country and its people, slurring your words a little, and he says he’ll be your teacher, which excites you both because officially you’re his teacher; after noticing that the whites of his eyes are smoky and smouldering and a little like pickled eggs; you’re ready to concede that bacalhau is food for the gods.
He tells you – not then but later, when you threaten to leave – that although the girl from the village was his first, and remains his betrothed, you’re the one he desires, the prize on the other side of duty and dullness and his family’s expectations. You say it sounds like Jacob and Rachel, and you’re surprised he doesn’t know that story, because you thought all Catholics knew their Bibles, so you explain about the seven years’ servitude and he says he could never wait that long for you, though strictly speaking, neither of you waited any time at all, not even on the night of bacalhau.
He likes playing Spandau Ballet’s True when you get home at two a.m. after late classes and late dinner, you’re swoony-tired but not too tired for that; at first you love its tune and deep lyrics about the soul, until you listen to it sober and notice the bullshit bits about seaside arms and not knowing what the next line was going to be, and when you leave Portugal and Europe for the Arabian Gulf, you talk to a woman who converted to Islam for love of a Bedouin with smoky eyes, and became his Wife Number Two, and says she’s OK with that as long as he always tells her the truth and doesn’t go looking for Wife Number Three, and you must be over Antonio because you laugh aloud to think that in another place, with a different view of sanctity, he could have had his bacalhau and eaten it too.
Judge’s comment: “I like the smoky exotic flavour of the story, the erotic promise, the spicy hint of danger in the (unspecified) teacher/pupil relationship and especially the perfectly cooked ending, which is served with a generous dollop of humour.”
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One thought on “‘Bacalhau’ in National Flash Fiction Festival anthology 2021”
A very interesting triptych, beautifully written. Congratulations!