Spectators gathered beneath the multi-coloured bunting flapping overhead for the village’s Annual Chilli Eating Contest. A single long table dominated the green, the judges’ gazebo placed at its centre, pegged into the grass to stop it blowing over like last year. I wished — also like last year — that I was on the other side of the barrier. Instead I joined the contestant line.
“Good luck papa!” my Milo said, smiling from my wife’s arms, innocent of the horrors of the Scoville Scale.
I couldn’t manage a smile.
“Why are you doing this?” My wife said — she wasn’t smiling. “You can’t even stomach a korma.”
“There are some things a man just has to do.”
“You’re an idiot — just back out.”
Merely metres away, Charlie M, Marky B and Josh McGibbon stared at me. The hard-core regulars of the King’s Head poker club. I didn’t dare look them in the eye. Charlie, with arms like steel girders and fists like dustpan lids, cracked his knuckles.
No, I couldn’t back out.
When I inched up the queue, Charlie leant over the barrier.
“You better win,” he said. “Or your money is mine.”
“I have a son, you can’t expect me to pay you fifteen grand…”
“A bet’s a bet. You should have thought about that before you lost. I’ll enjoy telling your wife that your little problem isn’t exactly ‘over’ and isn’t exactly ‘little’.”
No. She mustn’t know. Not after last time, I swore never again. At best, I’d be back on my mother’s sofa, and that was before the arguments and the silent treatment and the grovelling, and at worse — divorce.
“I could win.”
“You?” Charlie laughed. “Mate, I’ve spent every Friday night with you and the boys in that stinking hole of a pub for the best part of eight years. I know you. I saw those fat tears rolling down your cheeks when those peanuts you ate turned out to be wasabi coated. You’ve no chance. I only agreed to this to watch you embarrass yourself. You know it, I know it, that money is mine.”
He was right.
“I’ll scrape it together somehow.” My mind raced between pawning my grandfather’s watch and selling dad’s small collection of Word War Two memorabilia, perhaps that would be worth something. “But please, don’t tell her.”
“Why, she threatened to leave you or something if you went back to the cards?”
My silence said it all. Charlie laughed.
“Maybe I’ll tell her anyway, you know I’ve always had a soft spot for your Lillian.”
The line moved up.
“Don’t make me do this, Charlie,” I called after him as I was ushered along and could only watch his smug smirking face fade into the crowd.
At the gazebo, my hands shook so badly that one of the judges pinned my contestant number to my chest for me. I sat down at the table. They explained the rules. I didn’t hear. Sweat collected on my brow. They placed a paper plate of the world’s hottest peppers in front of me. Red — yellow — green — small — long — curled — round — wrinkled. I wished I wasn’t here. I wished I’d never played poker. I wish I’d never met Charlie M and Mark B and Josh McGibbon. I should have just taken out another loan, sucked up the loss, lost my credit score, my wife, my house — why did eight-pint me think this was a good idea, to wager my debts on the outcome of a competition dedicated to self-inflicted chilli-induced torture?
A claxon sounded. It was followed by cheers and encouragement from the audience. Either side of me the other contestants were stuffing their faces and chewing. Already there were tears, screams and cries for milk. One of the adjudicators approached me; she said something about elimination if I didn’t eat the first chilli. I spotted Milo, he waved at me — then looked disappointed when I didn’t wave back. I didn’t want to imagine his face when I was the first to quit.
That’s when I noticed Charlie, standing behind him, one hand casually on his shoulder and the other casually on my wife… What was he doing? Just talking… And there she was, flicking her hair over her shoulder and laughing… He caught my eye and winked.
Screw it. I hadn’t lost yet.
Folding the plate in half, I poured all the chillies into my mouth at once. I closed my eyes and thought of my wife, my son, punching Charlie in the face. I chewed, cried, chewed. Burning. Inescapable burning, hotter and more intense with each chomp of my jaws. My mouth blistered. My tongue blistered. My throat blistered. Everything, from skin to soul, was on fire.
I left the competition alone in an ambulance — and disqualified. Milo was in tears because daddy was going to hospital, Lillian told me to get a taxi back and that she’d have the sofa bed made up, and Charlie almost pissed himself laughing. Who cares if you were meant to eat them sequentially, he said, brushing aside all demands for payment and declaring me the winner as technically I finished them all first. Just before the ambulance doors closed he invited me back to the King’s Head for another game on Friday. Just one more game. Well, what was the worst that could happen?
Kitt Harris is an ex-English Lit postgrad who in their spare time pens queer humorous poetry and writes about her dog. Winner of the Junior Wells-Next-The-Sea Poetry Competition and commended by Cinnamon Press, they have various works placed and published in competitions and anthologies, including Queer Sci-fi and Scout Media. They live with their partner and pug in Norfolk, UK.