A little while ago I entered the Bristol Prize with my short story Umami. The long list was published on the 18th and, well, as expected, I wasn't on it. Anyway, the story was another of the Watershed Writers Block challenges and had to be linked to a still from the film Blade Runner (below). You can read my report of the other (superb) submissions here.
The final story was the result of a fortuitous twitter conversation with Nicki (@cardiffbites). I had the basis of the story itself but lacked the single concept from which to hang it. I knew what I wanted but wasn't able to come up with it or define it. And then I tweeted about eating marmite and peanut better on toast and Nicki immediately came back with one word... umami. And the story had its core.
He swept the bowl away with a quick movement, the rag in his following hand wiping the bar with a graceful efficiency. He didn’t glance after the two men who were leaving, their forms hunched into the perpetual rain.
Hunters, both. He recognised the type, years on the streets of the city imbuing in him an instinctive recognition of the feral nature of its inhabitants. Hunters, tinged with hints of officialdom but sunk so far into the mire they had become stained and worn and broken, each in a different way.
There had been a weariness about the first, a fractured endlessness to his exhaustion matched by the ingrained cynicism of the second. Wary of each other, a grudging respect edged with contempt.
He finally glanced up after them then, watching their forms fade into the mist and the rain, the neon lights lending an indiscriminate sheen to their drenched silhouettes.
He was not a hunter.
He had been once, a hunter of sorts. He had spent years perfecting his techniques, acquiring a sensitivity of tongue and nose that could tease flavour and influence from his every sip and taste. He wandered, first aimlessly, then with purpose, learning more and more, moving from experience to science to experience to artistry. He had learnt that ingredients were important, that they lay behind everything a noodle maker could do.
He was, on the rare occasion that he admitted to himself, more of an artist than a mere noodle maker. A ramen man, as the street kids had once nicknamed him, the singsong nature of the label pleasing him despite the jeering tones in which it had been delivered.
The name had stuck. And, in a way, it was fitting.
His noodles were fresh, cooked quickly and with skill in flash and flurry of artistry, each bowl soaked in broths that had been cooking for years. He looked down at the three pots bubbling gently away behind the counter. They were not overly large, and each contained a set of flavours and aromas unique and eternal, each measured and nudged into place with a delicate addition of ingredients, his nose and tongue guiding him to the right proportions.
They were his secret, these pots with their contents, older than many of those who hustled and bustled and wandered the streets, many of whom would sit regularly at the bar, momentarily quiet amongst the hubbub of the street as they ate, their heads bowed.
His tasted the broth from the first of the three pots, his fingers flicking through herbs and spices and bundles of unidentifiable leaves, plucking and pinching a small amount of each, each dropped into the pot with practised ease. Long experience had taught him what was needed, the days of patient waiting for each ingredient to add its whole before re-tasting long gone. He knew what each needed to keep its flavour, and so his tongue and nose and fingers danced from flavour to flavour, adjusting each from memory. Each flavoured the noodles and ingredients, each unique to him and to each bowl.
These were the second of his secrets, these herbs and spices, the kombu, a form of kelp and other more esoteric ingredients. Most he bartered for irregularly, others grown with unrelenting patience in his own home, nurtured to freshness by his own hand. In all the years there had only been two instances of short supply, yet he had coped, substituting and playing, maintaining the approximation of each flavour as needed. He smiled then, from pleasure and memory, the hint of each occasion flowing down through the years, buried in the eternal bubble of each pot.
He had come here, out of the darkness and the rain, eight years before, huddled into his coat, his cart behind him. There had been a ramen man here before, an old man, whose eyes and tongue and nose had begun to fail him, and he had gladly given up this small ancient noodle bar for the money that had been paid to him.
As ever there had been the three eternal pots of dashi behind the bar. The yasai vegetable broth had been insipid, lacking in depth and freshness, and he had worked hard to make it delicate and light and yet still retain an element of strength. A tricky balance, with vegetables. And still, even after all these years, his weakness.
The ichiban dashi or dashijiru, the fish broth, had been exquisite, for all that fish was so rare in these parts. The old man had been a true artist, and it had taken a long time to rise and match that level of delicacy and richness. That he had done so held no small measure of pride for him, and each time he tasted it he felt a flush of pleasure and warmth.
The third, the niku or meat dashi had been terrible, lacking anything of flavour, of strength. It had lacked umami, that indefinable quality of meatiness, and he had started again, building anew, layering and blending and creating, nudged by his own talent and desire and the secret of his ingredients. It had been five years before the balance had been there, the depth, the umami finally bursting forth cohesively. It would be, yet, years before the true wonder of that flavour reached its peak.
This was his speciality, his calling. Umami. It had taken years to find the right ingredients, the right flavours, the perfect base, a mix of the scientific and the artistry. Years of hunting, searching, experimenting, until he had found the perfect combinations.
It was late, or early, and the rain was unceasing, rivers of street-tainted water rushing past, the now rare passerby steeping gingerly through the torrent. He turned the light low, stirring each of the pots, maintaining each at a low bubble as he did so, and checked the rain bottles, their complex weave of filters and spore-killers leaving the water drinkable, if bland.
He opened the small fridge that sat hidden beneath the bar top, selecting and removing with an almost reverential air a small cube of meat, no larger than his fist. He placed it on the chopping board, gently sharpening his cleaver, until experience told him that it could be sharpened no further. He sliced thin slivers, the blade cutting almost translucent wafers from the meat, like the very finest of parchments. It would melt quickly this way, the curing of the meat, to his own recipe, lending that final edge to the flavour.
A figure slid into the seat opposite him, pulling back its hood to reveal a girl of indeterminate age, her face hard and worn, lending years to her. She had been, he thought, pretty once, before the street had claimed her.
“Ramen man.” Her voice was low and soft. There was a hint about it, of sophistication, of learning and culture far away from here. Was she slumming it, he wondered, or had she been a runaway, falling and filtering down to the street, stripped of illusions and realities, until she was left with this? There was the hint of the familiar about her, and yet there was always that, the countless faces on the street becoming a blur, transitory, only made fast for the brief moments they sat at his bar.
He remembered then. She had sat twice before, quiet, wordless, at this hour. She had indicated her choice each time, and they had been the ichiban ramen, then the yasai. She had eaten slowly, quietly, glancing up from the darkness of her hood at him as she paid, before drifting back into the darkness and the rain.
“Miss.” He bowed then, a slight nod of the head, a bend at the hips, as befitted a customer.
She glanced down then, a moment of wariness flickering across her face, and then looked at him, and then the menu.
“Miss?” He asked this time, framing his query with the slightest of gestures towards the menu.
“Nustrianiku ramen.” She spoke softly.
He frowned slightly then, feeling unease at this exchange. He nodded, then swept the wafers of meat into one hand, sprinkling them into the dashi with pleasure, watching them swirl and dissipate and dissolve. He waited a moment, then scooped two ladles into another smaller pot, swirling in a handful of noodles, letting the two simmer gently for a minute. He deftly sliced more meat, the flesh of a plump farmed rat, or nustria, not yet cooked, adding it, some greens and spices to the whole, stirring with quick movements.
He cocked his head toward her, eyes glued to the pot.
“I come for my father. I come looking for him. For news of him.” He frowned properly then, glancing at her.
“Nine years ago, you served at my father’s estate, before he disappeared…”.
A thrill then, of nerves and exhilaration and recognition.
“Miss,” he said now, more formally, bowing deeply, “I cannot help you. He was kind to me, and I remember you, a child, so young, so quiet. Your father was ill, was he not?”
She nodded then, something within her breaking, and she bowed her head, weariness and grief evident.
“Perhaps, Miss, you will find him one day. One day soon. But I cannot help you. I only make dashi, and ramen.” He soothed now, removing the pot from the flame, the noodles, the dashi and the meats and greens poured with delicacy into a large warmed ramen bowl.
He remembered her father well. A large man, fading and dying slowly before his eyes. Crushed by disease, withered slowly over immeasurable time, made ill as a thousand chemicals and bacteria attacked and corrupted his flesh, rendering him… unique. Rendering him… perfect.
He turned then, sliding it in front of her, bowing as he did so.
“For you, Miss, with my sorrow.”
She nodded, pulled the bowl towards her, and started to eat, quietly. He smiled then, watching her eat.
It had taken him years to find the right ingredients. Science and experience and artistry. Years.