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Seda: Voices of Iran

Marsha Mehran (Excerpt from Novel) Rosewater and Soda Bread

Excerpt from Rosewater and Soda Bread

Mehran, Marsha.  Rosewater and Soda Bread (Random House, 2008).

MRS. DERVLA QUIGLEY, perpetual widow of James Ignatius Quigley, was the self-proclaimed arbiter of all that was decent and holy in the coastal village of Ballinacroagh. 

By no sheer accident was her place of inhabitance situated over the Reek Relics shop, a musty amalgamation of crucifixes, laminated prayer cards, bottled holy water, and any paraphernalia pertaining to Saint Patrick. The dark apartment she shared with her spinster sister afforded Dervla a steady view of Main Mall, a crooked, cobbled main street that, despite all her efforts, had been greatly altered in the last year and a half.

There was a time, Dervla bitterly recalled, when a respectable citizen could sit by her bedroom window and not be battered by the smells of strange lands; a day when the only problem confronting decent folk was whether they should take an umbrella on the way out or brave unprotected the cold, pricking rain that plagued the western plains of Ireland eleven out of twelve months.

But then, that was before those three in that cafŽ came along.

Casting her rheumy eyes out onto Main Mall, Dervla settled her gaze on the squat stone building across the street. Its bright red door and purple shutters were closed, but it was nearly half past six in the morning, and as Dervla knew quite well by now, they would soon be opened for another day of business. 
Another day of enduring the licentious smells of strange spices, the heady vapor of dishes that drew regular crowds of gluttons to the cafe’s windows and had prompted The Connaught Telegraph to declare it “County Mayo’s Best Kept Secret,” a title that still eluded Dervla’s caustic sensibilities.

“Divine” and “delicious” were how some had praised the food served behind that crimson door, but she was rather more inclined toward the sobering adjectives “debased” and “detrimental” to describe the goings-on of the Babylon Cafe.

During weekly meetings of Ballinacroagh’s Bible study group, held conveniently downstairs in the religious relics shop, Dervla Quigley was quick to remind her fellow members of the dangers of the Eastern-flavored eatery: “Let’s not forget who was behind Thomas McGuire’s tragic accident,” she would hiss, turning a portentous eye on the assembly of cobwebbed spinsters and whiskery matrons. “Drove the poor man to near ruin,” Dervla would say, referring to the colossal heart attack that had struck Thomas dead for a whole minute in the cafe.

As the proud proprietor of Ballinacroagh’s three smoky pubs, a title that also qualified him as its most successful businessman, Thomas McGuire had kept a tight rein on the village’s thin, and often precarious, economy. A workhorse of boundless stamina, he was rarely seen indulging in the drunken frivolities that passed as craic, or entertainment, in the small country town.

But for the heated caresses of his rotund wife, Cecilia, who enjoyed a nymphomania of epic proportions, Thomas had been a man devoted to the humorless world of stocktaking, profit margins, and the legalized peddling of Ireland’s favorite imbibed brew–thick, luscious stout. There were few who could have guessed, then, the fanciful desires that lurked in the bar owner’s congested heart.

Not even Dervla Quigley, Ballinacroagh’s most scrupulous rumormonger, had gathered that Thomas would have given up ownership of his three pubs, two spirit shops, and the Wilton Inn on Main Mall, for the chance to open his very own neon-faceted, disco-themed nightclub.

Thomas McGuire’s discotheque dream came to light one stormy afternoon, the weekend of the 1986 Patrician Day Dance.

The July festival, commemorating Saint Patrick’s spirited Lenten fast, also marked the fourth month since the Babylon Cafe had opened its bright red door for business. Stealing the awakened appetites of the Wilton Inn’s regular lunch crowd was reason enough for Thomas to unleash his mounting fury, but the fact that the cafe stood on the grounds where he had planned to open his long-awaited mirror-balled nightclub, Polyester Paddy’s, sparked what could only be regarded as a moment of certified insanity: he broke into the Babylon Cafe. There, inside its warm and quiet kitchen, he met his fate.

Bubbling away on the kitchen range, a vast green Aga stove that had lived through four wars (civil or otherwise) and a revolutionary uprising of patriots alike, was a pot of shimmering pomegranate soup. From its open lid escaped a perfume so erotic and tantalizing that, like the bewitching Salome, it revealed false prophets with every veiled motion. The sweet, languid smell of cooking pomegranates clasped itself around Thomas McGuire’s hardened heart and did not let go until it had smothered not only his stale breath but the decades of tyranny the drinks baron had imposed on Ballinacroagh’s unwitting inhabitants.

Though Thomas survived the heart attack, saved at the last minute by the cafe’s owners, he never returned to the run of his alcohol empire. The greater part of the publican’s days was now spent sitting in a lumpy chair; he resurfaced in public during Christmas and Easter Masses, a pale and withered doppelganger of his former self.

Yes, thought Dervla, things had definitely changed since those three foreign women moved into town. 
Just then the red door across the street swung open. Dervla quickly disappeared behind her pastel chintz curtains, only to reemerge peeping a moment later. The oldest of the three, the one who made all the food, had just stepped out onto the damp sidewalk.

Dervla watched, following the dark-haired woman as she knelt to stop the cafe door open. The heavy door would shut easily were it not for the help of a stopper, which the woman was now securing at its corner. The doorstopper was none other than a crenellated iron, the same sort Dervla’s mother had used to wrinkle out her father’s Sunday poplin, heating it up on the turf stove that dominated their front parlor.

Those were the days, recalled the old gossip, when a woman knew her place in the world. No time idling in front of a pot of mash for her mother, no fiddling about with recipes and fancy trimmings, that’s for sure. She had more sensible chores to bother about. Sewing on buttons and picking fieldstones, now that was a woman’s true lot in life.

The woman, Marjan Something-or-Other, stood for a moment observing the iron stopper, then turned to face the Mall. Yawning, she took her time shrugging back her shoulders, shaking them loose with a smile. Her apron, a half-skirt bursting with pink and red roses, was tied loosely around her waist. She undid the bow at the back and retied it tighter, reaching in its deep front pocket for an elastic band. This she used to harness the mass of brown curls that would otherwise have fallen around her face.

Had it not been the modern year of 1987, thought Dervla, she would have sworn she had traveled back forty years in time, to when Estelle Delmonico had stood outside that very shop. Estelle would flash her thick hair and curvy bits on the street six mornings of the week, without a thought to decency or Jim Quigley’s roving eye.

That Italian witch had certainly caused a hullabaloo the year she moved into town, she and that mustachioed husband of hers. Opening up a bakery smack in the middle of Main Mall, peddling coffees and puffy pastries like it was some tinker’s wedding they were catering at. Not a loaf of brown bread or a potato farl to be seen in the entire shop. Imagine such a thing, now!

Dervla shook her head slowly, her tight gray perm anchoring any sudden toss. Her beady eyes followed the Marjan woman as she made her way to the cafe’s window shutters. Standing on the tips of her toes, she unlatched the bolts at either side of the wooden panels. Recently painted a deep plum color, the shutters folded back across the glass like a gentle accordion. As they did, a large bay window, framed by hanging baskets of wispy honeysuckle and Persian jasmine, revealed itself to the morning sun. The flowers in the baskets matched the dewy blossoms planted in two deep barrels directly below the ledge. 
With a sideways tilt of her stooped back, a sloping spine that began in a pouchy, mole-infested neck, and her pointed chin angled just right, Dervla was able to look straight through, all the way to the back of the cafe’s dining room. There, on an elegant mahogany display counter, surrounded by teapots of various shapes and sizes, sat the showpiece of the Babylon Cafe, the machine she’d heard touted as “the greatest invention since the lightbulb.”

Bloody blasphemous, if you asked her, especially considering it had been Father Fergal Mahoney who had made that insidious claim, right in the middle of Saint Barnabas’s noontime Mass. That blasted contraption was the reason so many once-devoted parishioners rushed through their Sunday psalms nowadays, flying down Main Mall to that crimson door of hell with communion wafers still dissolving in their parched mouths. Shameful to the point of senseless, muttered Dervla. There ought to be a law against such behavior.

Suddenly, a soft light flickered inside the restaurant. Dervla watched as the Marjan woman switched on the last of the cafe’s five muted lamps, tapped the large belly of the gleaming machine with a silver spoon (a heathen ritual, no doubt), and positioned the diamond needle of an aging Victrola over an LP record. Cradling a short glass of tea in her palms, she walked back outside just as the sun broke through the cloudy sky.

Born in Tehran, Iran, Marsha Mehran escaped the Revolution with her family. She has since lived in such diverse places as Buenos Aires, The United States, Australia and Ireland.  Her first novel, Pomegranate Soup, was published in 2005, to great acclaim, gaining international bestseller status. It's sequel, Rosewater and Soda Bread, was published in 2008. She is busy at work spinning more tales.


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