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Excerpt

Hot Stew

Fiona Mozley

April 22, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Fiona Mozley's latest novel, Hot Stew, about wealth and inheritance, gender and power, and the things women must do to survive in an unjust world. Mozley was born in East London and raised in York, in the North of England. She studied history at Cambridge and then lived in Buenos Aires and London, working at a literary agency and at a travel center. Her first novel, Elmet, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017. She lives in Edinburgh.

Bastian Rolls Over in bed. He stretches his arm out to the warm dip in the sheets. There was someone beside him and they have left an indentation like a dimple in a smiling face.

He dreamt of Laura again.

Before he bumped into Glenda in the club he’d not thought of Laura or that short period of his life in a long time. When he and Rebecca got back together, it was as if the memory of Laura was repressed to cope with the absence. Now he finds himself thinking about her all the time, and the memories don’t come in stages but all at once. They shoot through him like an X-ray, revealing that which is tender.

As Bastian wakes, the details fall away like water off a body stepping out of a swimming pool. He remembers the sound of her laughter and the shape of her breasts.

He blinks as bright sunshine streams through a crack in the curtains, and he smells fresh coffee. The curtains are pulled aside and the coffee is on his bedside table and Rebecca is standing above him. Bastian feels guilty for the dreams and half-dreams.

Rebecca looks stressed. Bastian has started to appreciate what a deeply anxious person she is. She worries about everything: about work, whether or not she is working hard enough, whether she is doing well, whether the people at her work like her really or whether they are only pretending to like her. When Bastian probes her on this, she can’t give a reason why they might be pretending, although she did once confess that she pretends to like people all the time when she actually doesn’t, so it is only logical to assume that other people do the same.

He thanks her for the coffee and reaches across to take hold of it, cradling the hot mug between his hands until it is cool enough to sip. He watches her get dressed. Rebecca skips back and forth between the bedroom and the en suite bathroom then the living room to the kitchen. Bastian hears the toaster ping and Rebecca comes through to the bedroom with a piece of buttery toast clasped between her teeth, and she holds it there while standing on one foot and slipping the other into a pair of black tights.

Bastian thinks that tights are strange and he tells Rebecca as much. Then he says, “Isn’t it weird that men and women wear different clothes.”

“Weird how?”

“Just strange. Like, it’s one of those things that you become so used to, you don’t ever think to question it, but then sometimes, for instance, just now watching you put on those tights, you realize it’s kind of bizarre.”

“You could say that about anything,” Rebecca replies. It is sometimes difficult to read her expression and tell whether she finds something humorous or exasperating. On this occasion, he suspects both. “Would you like to wear women’s clothes, Bastian?”

“Not especially. They seem kind of uncomfortable. Especially tights. It’s just that it’s strange that I’m not allowed to. Or, rather, I am allowed to, but it would be perceived as a dramatic statement about my identity when actually, when you think about it, why should anyone care?”

“How radical of you.” This time, she is making fun of him, but he thinks it’s in a friendly way. She goes back to the kitchen and Bastian hears her pour some coffee from the cafetière into her thermos flask and screw on the lid.

Rebecca tries to get to work at 8 a.m. every morning whereas Bastian doesn’t start until nine, so she gets up earlier and has usually left before he’s dressed. She brings him a cup of coffee and he sits in the bed they share for a while as he slowly sips.

“Do you fancy the cinema tonight?” he calls through to the next room.

Rebecca doesn’t answer immediately but pokes her head around the bedroom door and says, “I would love to, but I have to work late again.”

Bastian nods.

“Sorry,” she says. “But you know how busy I am.” “Yeah, no problem.”

She goes to the sitting room to gather her things. Bastian returns to his coffee, looks down into his cup, now almost empty save for a layer of earthy liquid and some stray granules.

Rebecca has been working hard lately. The auction house has a big sale coming up and they have to get everything ready to exhibit the antiques—they have to take high-resolution photographs and write accurate descriptions of the items. If they get anything wrong they could be sued, so they must check and double check every sentence.

Rebecca leaves soon afterwards. She calls out to him from the hall to tell him she’s leaving and to say goodbye, but she doesn’t come through to see him. He thinks about getting up to wave her off but doesn’t. Then he gets out his phone. He considers checking if Milo or Alexander are free, but then he thinks of Glenda.

Bastian and Glenda have seen each other a number of times over the last few months. They were never really friends at uni, only knowing each other a little through Laura, but after bumping into Glenda in the club, Bastian had got back in touch. After exchanging a few messages, and realizing they worked a couple of streets away from each other, they decided to get dinner together one night at a pizza place that had recently opened.

The restaurant had been busy and the waiter grimaced when they said they hadn’t booked, but he managed to squeeze them in at the back.

Early on in the night, Glenda asked Bastian about Rebecca, and he felt himself blush. Glenda looked confused. Bastian tried to say something non-committal to move the conversation on. He told her Rebecca was well and then mentioned that she’d been busy at work, and was having to stay late several evenings a week.

‘Where does she work?’

Bastian told her, and Glenda seemed interested. “Oh yeah, I know someone else who works there. They say the auctions can be really exciting, even though they don’t personally have any stake in it. As in, they’re not the ones doing the buying, and they’re only tangentially doing the selling, but they get really swept up in it all. Like, you’ve just dropped a cool mil on a two-hundred-year-old bookcase. Bam.” She smacked the table with her hand.

“I don’t think Rebecca has much involvement in the auctions. She mainly works with clients to verify what they’ve got. To check if it’s real or fake.”

The pizza arrived, and the waiter fussed a bit with black pepper and Glenda wanted chili oil in addition to jalapeños. The waiter raised his eyebrows but did as she asked. There were a few minutes of silence as they concentrated on their food and then Glenda said, “You two must have been together for quite a while now. Apart from the gap in the middle.”

Bastian finished chewing his mouthful of pizza and swallowed. He placed his knife and fork on his plate and used the paper napkin to wipe his mouth. He needed to achieve a level of composure before having this conversation with Glenda.

“Speaking of the gap in the middle,” she continued, “I was chatting to Laura the other day.”

“Really?” Bastian had tried to sound casual.

“Yeah, you didn’t come up though.” She said this as if he had asked, which he hadn’t.

“I didn’t think I would have come up.”

“You would have done about a year ago, though.” “Really?” This time he couldn’t sound casual. “Oh yeah. She took a bit of time to get over you.”

Glenda looked up from her plate and watched for Bastian’s reaction.

He had no idea how his face looked to her, but he could feel his heartrate quicken, and he became aware that he was blinking more than usual. He hadn’t expected Laura to have taken any time at all to get over him. He had no idea that, on her part, there had been anything to get over. He was only partially, and latterly, aware that his own feelings for her had been strong, and that still wasn’t a fact he felt able to think about for longer than five seconds, let alone articulate. He had always thought of her as almost impervious to any kind of vulnerability.

He thought about confiding in Glenda. He thought about revealing that he had been thinking about her friend a lot. He considered trying to explain to her the various ways in which aspects of Laura had been creeping into his daily routine. When he brushed his teeth he thought about how she had stood next to him and brushed hers. He thought about the peculiar intensity of her expression as she scrubbed. He still owned a white cotton T-shirt she had worn a couple of times, plain except for a small black logo on the right sleeve. He could remember her in it, sitting by his open window on hot afternoons. It hadn’t been a problem before, but since the evening he’d bumped into Glenda, he couldn’t look at it without being reminded of Laura. He had to ball it up and stuff it at the bottom of his wardrobe, as if hiding contraband. In lieu of any explicit statement about the time he spent with her, or the time he’s spent thinking about her since, he had asked Glenda how Laura was doing.

“She’s well. She hates her job though.” “Where does she work?”

“At some kind of charity. They treat her like shit but are constantly going on about how grateful she should be for working in such a friendly environment, and how they’re doing a really good thing by paying her a salary rather than getting her to give her time for free. She wants to leave as soon as she can.”

“What does she want to do?”

“I don’t think she’s fussy. I think in an ideal world she’d be working for some great political campaign with someone amazing she really believes in. But how on earth is she going to find one of those? And, you know, how many people actually get to do a job they like?”

“But isn’t working for a charity a bit like that? I mean, isn’t she already working for a good cause.”

Glenda looked at him as if he’d just vomited.

“Not really,” she explained quietly, as if so embarrassed by what he had just said she didn’t want anyone at the neighboring tables to hear her set him right. “Charity is inherently reactionary, isn’t it? It puts the onus on individuals rather than the collective. It relies on certain individuals having large amounts of disposable income. I think Laura would rather pursue political solutions to the world’s problems rather than charitable ones.”

“Oh right,” Bastian replied. “Are you happy with Rebecca?”

“What?” Bastian began to wonder if Glenda was drunk.

“I was just wondering why you contacted me? I thought maybe you wanted a way of getting back in touch with Laura.”

“No,” he said quickly. “Not at all. I’m really happy with Rebecca. It’s not perfect but what relationship is? We understand each other, Rebecca and I. We have a lot in common.”

“You come from the same background,” said Glenda. “Do we? She’s from Berkshire.”

“No, but, I mean, the same sort of level. Social and economic.” “Oh, right.” He felt his face redden again.

“I always thought you were a lot more interesting than the rest of them, though. I mean, I was still quite surprised when you and Laura had your thing but, like, not as surprised as I would have been if it had been Milo Chelmsford or Alexander Garnick. Are you still in touch with that lot?”

“Sort of. Yeah, a bit. We go for drinks now and then. Why?”

“No reason.” She prodded at her pizza crusts with a serrated knife. “Do you remember that party for Milo’s twenty-first birthday?”

“Yeah, I do. Why? I didn’t know you were there?”

“I was on the catering team.”

“Right,” said Bastian. He didn’t know what else to say.

She smiled weakly, almost sarcastically, without exposing any teeth. Bastian couldn’t quite make out her motives and found her company a little unsettling. She was very direct but managed to deliver her cutting remarks with enough good humor that it was difficult to tell whether or not she was serious. Bastian topped up both their wine glasses and then their water glasses, then returned to his pizza. After a few more glasses of wine they found some topics of conversation that didn’t put Bastian on edge, and they started to have quite a good time.

They had got on better than Bastian was expecting, and ended up seeing each other again, and then quite regularly. He never lies to Rebecca about this, as such. He tells her he has been having a quick drink with “work people” which is tangentially true, but he never elaborates. There is nothing really wrong with going for a drink with Glenda, but for some reason he isn’t sure Rebecca will see it that way. Rebecca has quite a jealous nature and he tells himself that he doesn’t want to cause her any unnecessary anxiety. If he was being more honest with himself, he might have realized that he simply didn’t want to cause himself any unnecessary difficulties. Life with Rebecca was easy and for the most part satisfactory. He thinks about Laura, yes, but he manages to convince himself that this is no different from just thinking about hot women in general, which is obviously something that is natural and normal but not something to be discussed with Rebecca. He is sure Rebecca thinks about hot men too. In fact, he hopes that she does.

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Excerpted from Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley, with the permission of Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2021 by Fiona Mozley.




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