Artichoke Hearts by Tanya Vavilova
Tanya Vavilova is an emerging writer preoccupied with liminal spaces and outsider perspectives—by life on the margins. She was recently shortlisted for Overland‘s Neilma Sidney, Overland‘s Fair Australia, Alan Marshall and Katharine Susannah Prichard awards, and commended for the Newcastle, Lane Cove, Stuart Hadow and Feast Festival prizes. ‘Artichoke Hearts’ is the winner of the Wollongong Writers Festival Short Story Prize in 2018. Her debut collection of essays We are Speaking in Code is forthcoming from Brio in 2020.
Felix gets off at her usual stop, taps off and takes the stairs two at a time. The sky is the same indigo as her jeans, clouds looking ready to burst.
She crosses the road where the IGA logo glows red and white. The building looks freshly painted, the glass doors Windexed to a perfect sheen.
A woman exits the bottle shop clutching a brown paper bag. Her gaze lingers on Felix. And then she collects herself and strides down the street, a man in a cap following her at a distance of two feet.
Felix takes this all in, before walking through the glass doors of the supermarket.
She heads straight for the canned and pickled goods—the marinated peppers, the jars of olives, artichokes in oil—except they’re gone. Moved someplace else. She picks up a packet of spaghetti from the shelf, puts it down.
It takes three loops to locate the canned goods in aisle 6.
As Felix presents the jar of artichokes to the cashier, the woman smiles at her, but doesn’t say anything.
‘Thank you,’ Felix says.
The woman says nothing.
Snatching the jar, Felix strides through the glass doors.
It’s about to rain. The sky crackles like bacon on a pan. Felix has been a vegetarian for twelve years.
Across the road, the park is small and grim. Felix walks past the empty swings, past the monkey bars, choosing a bench under the fig tree. This is what happens, she thinks, when you tell a customer to lump it: you end up on a park bench in the middle of the day.
No one else is about, even the birds have gone someplace else.
She unscrews the lid of the jar. Her artichokes come all the way from Italy. She’s never been overseas, it doesn’t matter.
She dips her fingers in the marinade, plucks one artichoke, chews it carefully. The marinade drips down her chin. The hearts are slippery, hard to get a purchase on. She plucks another then another and another.
The woman from the bottle shop crosses the road without looking. Her red coat and Doc Martens belong in this city. Her brown paper bag is gone. The man in the cap, too.
The woman cuts across the park, negotiates the bulging tree roots. She pushes her fringe out of her eyes.
The first drops of rain are lazy, languorous.
Felix looks up at the clouds.
And then the woman in the red coat is standing beside her.
‘Can I sit here?’ she asks.
‘If you want.’
Felix considers the jar of artichokes, then the woman’s slender fingers, microbes, disease. ‘Would you like an artichoke?’ she asks.
The stranger dips her fingers in the oil and comes up with an olive.
Felix is surprised, but says, ‘I guess they’re processed in the same factory.’
They pass the jar back and forth. Once or twice their hands brush. Felix feels a tiny jolt each time, ignores it. No one says a word.
A raindrop catches on the woman’s eyelash, refracts the light.
As the rain gets heavier, Felix pushes her hood over her head, but neither woman moves.
‘What happened to the bottle?’
‘I saw you come out of the bottle shop. You bought some wine?’
The woman shakes her head. ‘That wasn’t me.’
‘And the man, what happened to the man?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
The woman hugs herself to keep warm.
It rains harder, the drops beating against the tin trashcan. If Felix closes her eyes, she could be back home in Geraldton. Instead, she’s here, in this shallow, mean city. Jobless, friendless, restless.
The rain puddles in their laps.
‘You should have the last one,’ the woman says.
‘Have it,’ the woman insists, a hand on Felix’s knee. ‘It’s yours.’
The last heart is sweet and juicy.
And then the woman in the red coat is gathering up her things. ‘Thanks for the artichokes,’ she says. ‘I better be going, but maybe see you tomorrow.’
Felix considers those words. She holds the empty jar and watches the woman disappear into the trees. She thinks of running a hot shower. Turning the heater on. Wrapping herself in blankets. She tucks the jar in her satchel and stands up.
On her way home, she passes the fruit shop and the pub with the go-go dancers. A woman in a yellow raincoat pushes open the door, looks at the sky.
When Felix reaches her block of flats, she sees someone has left the entrance open.
She takes two flights up, patting her pockets for the keys. The stubborn door opens with a groan, lets out a gust of stale air.
Felix strips off her wet clothes, and turns the rusty taps in the shower. Wishes she had a bath.
Her jeans sprawl on the tiles like another pair of legs.
She adds her empty artichoke jar to the stash under the sink. They look nice there, like old friends. The saved marinade is the real treat—for a special occasion.
Felix stands under the showerhead and watches the tiny room fill up with steam.
The next day, Felix wakes refreshed. Wonders if she’s made a new friend.
It’s another chilly, drizzly day. Coat and scarf weather. Gloves and beanie.
She buys another jar of artichokes from the smiling but silent cashier. Hopes for a magic olive, like a four-leaf clover. For luck, good fortune.
When she arrives at the park, the woman in the red coat is already there.
‘Hey,’ the woman says, patting the bench.
‘Hey. I’m Felix by the way.’
Felix sits down, puts the jar of artichokes between them. The park is theirs again. No one else is about.
‘Thanks,’ Hannah says, reaching for the jar. ‘I bought some chips. You eat chips?’
They have a feast.
A grey butcherbird watches them from the fig tree.
Felix wonders if the woman is jobless, but it doesn’t seem right to ask. And then she notices the manicured nails: turquoise.
The only sound is the light rain and the crunch of chips. They are crinkle-cut, chicken. Felix vaguely wonders if she should be eating them—are they vegetarian?—but it doesn’t matter, not really, because she has a friend.
When she looks up, Hannah is studying her profile.
‘You have a nice nose,’ she says.
Felix is shy.
‘I wish a had a nice nose like yours.’
Hannah squeezes her knee.
‘What I wouldn’t give for a nose like that.’
They watch the butcherbird impale a lizard on a stick.
‘That’s nature for you,’ Felix says before plucking another artichoke.
‘Shame there’s no olive today.’
‘Yeah, I was hoping—
A man zig-zags across the park.
It’s the man in the cap.
Felix’s insides spin like a washing machine.
‘Hannah,’ the man booms. ‘Are you coming home?’ He opens a broad, black umbrella, holds it out.
‘Yeah,’ she says, then to Felix, quietly: ‘Another time.’
Felix hopes she means the same time tomorrow. ‘See you,’ she calls, but they are already gone.
The butcherbird looks down from her branch.
The next day Felix waits in the park, but Hannah doesn’t show up.
The day after, Felix stays in bed reading comics.
On Thursday, the stars align, and Hannah and Felix sit under the dome of the kids’ slippery slide. The rain batters the hard red and yellow plastic.
‘I missed you the other day,’ Hannah says.
Their legs are touching in the cramped space. Pink bubble gum is stuck to the sole of Hannah’s Doc Marten.
They pass the jar of artichokes back and forth.
‘They come from Italy,’ one of them says.
‘Like tomatoes and pasta.’
Hannah touches Felix’s face.
‘You’ve got a little fleck of artichoke there,’ she says, gently brushing it off.
Felix turns pink.
Hannah’s nails are gold today, like the artichokes.
‘There you go, all gone.’
The artichokes are salty, acidic. Texture like paper. They could be eating raffia.
‘$2.99 a jar,’ Felix says, aloud.
Two myna birds play on the swings, like kids.
‘I like your red coat.’
Hannah grins. ‘Ta. It’s a Lisa Ho original, from Vinnies.’
Felix touches the fabric, catches her reflection in the round, metallic buttons.
‘It’s gorgeous,’ she says.
Hannah’s lips are lilac, chapped. She smiles.
The wind changes direction, the rain coming sideways.
Water slaps their cheeks.
They keep eating.
Eventually, Hannah says, ‘Dave will be wondering where I am.’
And then she slides feet-first through the blue tunnel, waves and is gone.
They meet up the following day, too. Felix brings artichokes, Hannah a bottle of Sprite. They talk a little, laugh, the fizzy drink makes them burp. And they make a plan.
On the seventh day, Felix drags a shopping buggy to the park. It rattles like a gift.
Hannah waves her over to the fig tree. They share red wine in a silver bladder.
Later they bump along the road with the buggy. And then they’re standing in front of a peeling door.
Felix follows her friend up the stairs.
Their gumboots quack on the lino.
‘Dave’s out,’ Hannah says.
She jiggles the deadbolt. ‘So this is me,’ she says, gesturing to the combined kitchen-dining-living.
‘Yeah, it’s alright.’
Both women are shivering from the cold and wet. They’d sat in the park for hours, until some kids with sticks came along.
Hannah thinks for a moment, says, ‘should I run us a bath then?’
Felix looks at her shoes. ‘Go on, then.’
‘There are some towels in that closet.’ Hannah points behind her.
The closet is mint green, double doors.
‘It’s lovely,’ Felix says.
As Hannah’s getting the bath ready, Felix wanders in with the towels. ‘Wish I had a bath.’
‘This afternoon, you do.’ Hannah glances behind her. ‘You want to get the buggy?’
Felix wheels it from the front room, down the tiny passage between kitchen and bathroom. She takes the empty jars out lovingly one by one, and lines them up around the bathtub.
‘So why do you save the marinade from the artichokes?’ Hannah asks.
‘I just always have.’
The room starts to fill up with steam.
Felix has been waiting for this moment a long, long time.
The two women kneel in front of the tub and unscrew one jar at a time, pouring the marinade in. Flecks of garlic, chilli, green float in the steaming water.
A petal of artichoke escapes from a jar.
They strip their clothes off, and Hannah tests the water with a toe. ‘Nice and hot,’ she declares, before stepping over the lip.
Felix hugs her chest, slipping in opposite.
‘You’re shy, huh?’ Hannah says. She is taller than Felix and her apricot-breasts sit above the watermark.
Hannah lights a coconut candle, resting it on the edge of the tub. The flame dances and spits. The room smells like a spa and a pickling factory.
‘Is marinade flammable?’ Hannah says.
They laugh at that. How funny if their skin caught fire, then the room caught fire then the flat then the block then the street.
Hannah throws her head back and washes it in the marinade. Her forearms are covered in tiny scars.
‘Come here,’ she says. ‘Let me wash your hair.’
Felix turns clumsily around in the bath. Her back to Hannah, she looks out the window that faces the grey street.
The rain spits at the leaded glass.
As Hanna massages her scalp, Felix feels herself loosen, sink further into the water. Both women smell of vinegar.
Afterwards, Felix half-leans out of the tub, picks something off the floor.
‘Shall we crack one open?’ she asks, holding up a fresh jar.
They chew the artichokes, saying little. Felix rinses her arm in the water. And then their knees bump in the tub, and they giggle. A little water spills over the lip.
Hannah drops a rubber duck in the water, and they watch it navigate the sludge. Felix remembers being bathed with her baby sister, the two of them squealing and splashing, driving their mother wild.
Hannah tops up the hot water. They eat some more artichokes.
Felix works up the courage to ask about Dave.
‘He’s my soulmate,’ Hannah says.
The yellow duck nods in agreement.
Felix remembers the first day they met. ‘Why did you lie about coming out of the bottle shop with Dave?’ she asks.
‘I didn’t want him to get in the way’—she cups the water in her hands, letting it cascade—‘of all of this.’
Felix does not ask any more questions.
They chew quietly, passing the jar between them. And then Hannah dips her hand in the jar, and ‘—an olive!’
‘You found the four-leaf clover!’
They hold it up to the flickering globe, marvel at this message from the gods. This green olive in a jar of artichokes.
‘We should split it,’ Hannah says. ‘I know, come here,’ she says, pulling Felix towards
her. ‘Let’s bite into it at the same time so the good luck can’t escape, you know?’
Felix doesn’t know. ‘Okay,’ she says, bravely.
Hannah positions the olive in Felix’s mouth then leans forward, bites down on her half, their lips and noses touching.
Felix blushes, tingles.
A diamond beetle flies in through the window. Blue-black magic.
At this signal, Hannah nods, and the women tear the olive in half with their teeth.
They are giddy with luck.
The beetle crawls along the soggy bathmat.
Felix wishes she had a whole jar of olives so they could do that again and again and again. She’s never had a friend like Hannah.
When the sky turns red and orange, they decide to get out of the tub but it’s hard to get a purchase on the slippery porcelain. They sink back into the artichoke juice, shrieking, laughing, then they try to stand again, grab onto each other’s arms, sink back, stand, sink, stand, sink, laugh, giggle and grope, until the water cools, and Felix pulls the plug.