Fiction Month-The Exchange [part 2]

Check last Sunday’s post for Part 1…

I ask Ava if she has any photos of Lucy and I am rewarded by her feverish, relieved smile as she replaces Matthew’s guilt-inducing image with that of her student daughter.

Plates of beer battered cod with potato wedges and mushy peas are delivered to a neighbouring table, momentarily distracting me with the waft of delicious, hot grease. It is what I would choose if I were lunching.

We three have less in common these days; now that our children have grown. Once, as young mothers meeting at the school gate, starved of adult company, we could never see enough of each other. When I look at them now I think how age is most cruel to the once beautiful; Beverley no longer the willowy, well healed style guru, Ava’s slender, elfin appeal grown brittle as a dried twig. Beverley didn’t understand Rob, she’d explained when justifying her adultery to me. He’d needed someone to talk to, someone to console him when things went wrong with the business. If I’d considered that she’d undertaken the consolation with a little too much enthusiasm I’d kept the thought to myself. In any case, Beverley was too embroiled in her own dalliance with Mr Smirnoff to care or even to notice what her husband did.

All that remains of the hot chocolate is a circle of glossy, brown sludge in the bottom of the mug, a last scraping I might attempt to access with the long spoon if I were on my own. Ava still has half a cup of cold, black coffee, impressive as ever in her ability to make a coffee last for the duration. She is reaching into one of the bags to bring out two small parcels wrapped in co-ordinating Christmas paper from Marks with matching gift tags. Not for her the ironed out, salvaged wrapping from last year or three-for-a-pound from Savers. I wonder why it is we’ve continued with this ritual.

We have exchanged gifts every Christmas since we met, the first few years’ offerings being humble, home-made items, sewn or baked or grown, rather than the competitive quandary the exchange has now become.

Beverley presents her own gifts. They will have been purchased from a craft stall or a tiny, beach front gallery; a driftwood photo frame, shell jewellery or a hand-thrown pot. They are wrapped with that artful carelessness she retains, as though she has scoured the beach for cast off paper and string. Ava plucks her package from the table and turns it in her red-tipped fingers, exclaiming how interesting it looks. I assume from the shape that she has the pot this year. Sensing their expectation I withdraw the two, identical parcels from my bag.

Infrequent as they have become, I have grown weary of these meetings; weary of these two self absorbed women and their confessional outbursts, the inconsequential chatter and the shadowy events that lie under each rendezvous like bubbling volcanic pools. I have extracted what I needed from them only as recompense for my services over the years as confidante, counsellor, shoulder-to-cry-on and keeper of secrets. Now I am ready to move on.

Ava thinks the parcels look the same. They look like books. Is it a novel? Do they have the same gift? I nod. The same book?  Yes. Is the author someone they’ve heard of? I’m still nodding. When she tells me she hopes it ends happily because she can’t bear sad endings I say she will have to wait and see. Bev has shown little interest and has stowed her holiday reading away in the leather appliqué satchel she brought and stood up. I’m guessing she is anticipating her first, warming, reassuring slug of liquor of the day as if she were going to meet her own secret lover.

Ava straightens and tuts, rearranging the silk scarf around her neck, smoothing her blond, highlighted hair. I wait for her to say she must look a sight but she gathers her bags and reels off a list of appointments she has before picking Matthew up from nursery; travel agent, chiropodist, the returns counter at Burberry. She wants to know where I’m parked because we can walk together and I know she is anxious to find out if I think Bev suspects anything. I could tell her that Beverley wouldn’t notice if a bomb exploded here in the café but I surprise her, instead by deciding to stay here, in my seat, alone at the table.

Then they are gone; the farewells said; the promises to meet again soon and the air kissing are all done. I don’t need to consult the menu before returning to the counter, since the seductive, lingering aroma of cod and chips is pulling at my senses and cannot be ignored. I am happy to sit alone now while I wait for my lunch, and contemplate a future which exists without Ava and Beverley but with a significant upturn in my fortunes, now that the royalties for ‘The Exchange’ are flowing in such a satisfying way and my account is inflated by a substantial advance for the second novel. Is it a sequel? No. I have said everything I want to say about those two parasites. They can edit their own future. I’m still working on mine.

Fiction Month 4-The Exchange [part 1]

The Exchange

            I am first. I am always first; always too early. I don’t mind. Getting here before the others gives me an opportunity to peruse the cakes and pastries at my leisure without the pressure of pretending disinterest. By the time they turn up I’ll have chosen; even, perhaps have consumed something. I’m leaning in favour of the ‘special’, a slice of Christmas cake, a rich, aromatic slab speckled with fruit and topped with a glistening, tooth tingling band of white icing and a dark green fondant holly leaf.

On the other hand, if I buy it now I may not have finished devouring it by the time one, or both of them appear, which would present an unseemly image. I should wait. I exert a seldom utilised self control, and having made a mental note of my preferred option I go straight to a table-the only remaining table, which is next to the toilets.

There are diners who are perfectly at home eating alone, able to consume an entire meal in solitude without appearing uncomfortable. They pull out a phone or a tablet with what seems like an endless deluge of emails, texts or photos, or they have some absorbing task to complete. I could take out my phone, but then I’d have to feign interest in the one text I’ve received today, from ‘Store 21’, alerting me to their ten percent off day, a snippet of information I have already viewed and which is unlikely to sustain my interest for the unspecified period I must wait. I fall, instead to studying the menu and have read it all through twice and memorised it before I spot Beverley weaving her way through the tables towards me.

While her sunglasses are incongruous on a winter’s day in the gloom of this dark corner of the café by the lavatories, she is dressed in her customary way, in flowing layers and expensive fabrics. She is a tall, statuesque woman and can get away with this look in a way that the shorter and dumpier of us cannot.

I rise to greet her and we embrace gingerly, like wary politicians before she discards her tweed cape and sinks down on to the seat. She is forcing a wan smile, which may indicate tiredness or something more sinister. When she tells me that Ava will be late I can only smile. Ava is late in the same way that I am early-by default. Not wanting to share too much before she arrives we talk of the weather, the traffic, how busy the shops are. I know my eyes are straying towards the menu as my stomach growls in an impatient demand for the cake, although Beverley is occupied in checking her phone to see if Ava has called again.

Then she is coming in, bumping tables and customers with assorted bags, turning this way and that as she scans the café for us. For a few moments I observe Ava, taking in her discomfort, her small, breathless panic as she stares over the heads of the assembled diners until at last I relent and offer a wave.

She bustles up, all puffing and blustering excuses. ‘What a busy life I lead’, she seems to say, though the bulging bags of her purchases tell a different tale. She is so sorry to have kept us waiting and only wants a black coffee. She places a solicitous, manicured hand on Beverley’s arm and inquires if she’s alright because she looks tired. I volunteer to order, more a ploy to ensure the capture of the Christmas cake than a magnanimous gesture, returning to the table to find them already engaged in showing each other photos on their phones. In the competition of life’s successes Beverley has scored the giant prize of acquiring a grandchild.

They turn to me-a diplomatic nod of interest in my unglamorous existence. Has George retired yet? Is Jacob working now? Still living at home? Such a shame.

The order arrives; black coffee for Ava, cappuccino for Beverley, hot chocolate and the cake for me. There is a slight pause as we all regard the cake, before I lever off the first, sweet, rich forkful.

Ava is asking Beverley how Rob’s business is going now, since he had to reorganise and lay off staff. Bev removes her sunglasses and rubs her eyes, bloodshot and dark ringed. The business is ‘ticking over’. They’ve begun looking for a smaller property in a less expensive area, seeking to down-size, to release capital. She speaks to Ava, avoiding my gaze. I am allowing a chip of hard, sugary icing to melt on my tongue, recalling how I visited for coffee one morning and found her in the kitchen, working her way through the contents of a vodka bottle with a determination that had eclipsed her memory the invitation. The failure of the business is not the sole reason for needing to release capital.

She straightens, takes a sip of the creamy cappuccino. In an abrupt change of subject she questions Ava about Matthew. Does Ava have any recent pictures? Ava reddens as she fumbles with her phone, then hands it across the table. Bev studies the photo of Matthew for what seems like a screen bite as Ava glances at me, eyes wide in her frightened face. Matthew is only two, an ‘afterthought’ as Ava describes him. Holding out the phone, Beverley frowns at the tiny sparrow of a woman opposite her and declares she cannot see anything of Steven in Matthew and I’m thinking, no, because there is nothing of Steven in Matthew-a fact that Ava confessed to me prior to his birth when faced with the dilemma of whether to tell her husband he was not the father. I lick my finger to sweep the remaining crumbs from the plate, wondering how three years can have passed since Ava blurted the tale of her sordid affair out to me in a moment of tearful desperation. What should she do? Should she tell Rob he could be the father of her baby? I’d advised her to leave well alone-after all he might not be the father. Who would know? She was frantic, sobbing. The child might resemble her friend’s husband; and of course, now he is older, he does.

To be continued-Part 2, the conclusion in next week’s post…

A Restaurant Digest

Once upon a time in a previous life I dreamed of luxuries. These luxuries included such things as unaccompanied expeditions to shoe shops and/or clothes shops, attending the cinema and the theatre, stopping for coffee in cafés, having holidays, spending nights in hotels, visiting salons and, above all, eating out. [This was a life in which any journey must be prepared for by making sandwiches to eat in a lay-by].

In subsequent lives of course I have done all of these luxurious things. The clothes shopping is commonplace as is the coffee stopping. A salon visit is a regular part of life. Hotel stays are occasionally taken.

Despite all this, dining in a good restaurant remains the Holy Grail of luxuries to me.

I’ve posted my feelings about the fare in fast food chains before [Muckdonalds and Yucky Fried Chicken]. Macdonalds does at the least provide free internet and their coffee is acceptable, but their dining experience has to be one of the most impoverished and unsatisfying that exists.

Restaurant meals are about more than the food. Plastic trays with pouches of nasty, salty, fatty little chip sticks and polystyrene boxes containing polystyrene buns sandwiching rubbery, chewy little circles of something grey and burger-ish, the remains of which are to be taken by the consumer and dumped in a bin themselves; to view this activity in a place designed for ‘eating’ presents a vision of Hell. And yet Macdonalds is crammed with customers every day-in Gothenburg, where we stopped to get internet and a coffee, the place was thrusting with hordes of punters of every nationality-those who prefer this ghastly encounter to eating a sandwich on a park bench.

Some of the most enjoyable meals you can have are in modest, unknown, unadvertised cafes, cooked by untrained heros of the culinary world; like the meals we’ve eaten in Portugal, where you are plied with gorgeous nibbly things like olives and dips to sustain you while you peruse the menu and then a big box of fish is brought to the table for you to select your fancy. It will be simply cooked and presented with home-made chips, a salad and some bread.

Or a beach café in Thailand which serves up Tempura vegetables as a starter and the freshest, most appetising vegetables and seafood you can imagine, besides producing an addictive mango smoothie from nothing more than mango and ice.

So don’t serve me anything in a poly-box, or on a shovel, or on a dirty piece of wood or in a tangle of barbed wire [all of these methods of serving meals are being used as I write-including pork loin chops in a urinal]. Give me a plain, clean china plate and simple, beautifully cooked food served in a friendly, un-smarmy, unobtrusive way. OK?

The Tour of a Touring Store Cupboard

To venture into a supermarket in a foreign country is not the tedious flog round that doing Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Morrison’s is at home in the UK [or Walmart, Intermarché, Netto or Dia for citizens whose countries sport those stores]. It is more an exploration of unknown territory and requires a little bravado, some imagination and a leap of faith.

I suppose every nation must have store cupboard items without which life would become sad. Do the Germans take sauerkraut wherever they travel? Must the Spanish transport a large, cured ham with them? Perhaps the French stow away a stash of truffles? Who knows? I can only let you into the secrets of the travelling British; the food and drink necessities without which we would feel impoverished:

  • Of course! We are British! Decent tea is impossible to buy abroad. I’m sorry, European neighbours-but ‘Liptons’ does NOT cut it. We take a huge supply of strong, ‘Yorkshire’ tea bags; 2 cups every morning=bliss! We drink it with a little milk. No other nation understands this.
  • Tomato ketchup. It is relatively easy to get this in most countries-but I like to be sure. A bacon butty is a camp-site morning staple.
  • English mustard-hot and strong. Great for sandwiches or cooking. Foreign mustards can be good but are not the same as English.
  • Mixed herbs. They are versatile. You can’t take every individual herb in a camper-van. There are space constraints, likewise-
  • Curry powder
  • Tomato puree
  • Garlic paste
  • Stock cubes. I take beef Oxo, chicken Oxo and vegetable cubes, plus Bisto and flour.
  • A variety of tins, including tomatoes, peas, lentils, sweet corn. These must be replenished during trips although substitutes often become necessary.

Armed with these items we must then plunge into the mysterious world of whichever grocery store has us at their mercy. Meat or fish is required, plus vegetables-fresh if possible. In Scandinavia we are able to recognise some of the meat by various methods but not the names. ‘Skingke’ sounds like some kind of primeval eel-shaped fish, but turns out to be ham. Pork looks familiar, as does chicken. A pack of beef is easily identified by being roughly the price of a small car and also called ‘biff’. There is chicken [‘kykling’] but since we don’t transport a chest freezer around with us for bulk buys it isn’t an option. We can purchase two pork chops from the meat counter. Hooray! Pork it is then.

I’ve gained a new respect for fresh, British fruit and vegetables now I’ve seen the price of cabbage or lettuce in Scandinavia. We are cautious, reigning in our usual gung-ho approach to greengrocery buying and becoming selective. We’ve seen enough burgers, pizzas and hot dogs during the last three weeks in Northern Europe to supply the fast food joints of Disneyland for several years.

Trolling Through Norway

I can’t recall the last time I visited a European country for the first time. [I say ‘European’ advisedly, owing to the fact that ‘Europe’ has come to mean a variety of things in these times; but here I’m using the word in the old, traditional sense-that of the collection of countries immediately surrounding our own, squidgy little UK.]

I have not ventured much into Scandinavia, except four or so years ago to Denmark, so this expedition to Norway is a new departure. I love to see new places. I want to know what grows, what people do, what their homes are like, what they like to eat and how they fill their leisure time. Here are some conclusions I’ve made about Norway so far:

  • The country consists almost entirely of rock, water and trees-with a bit of farmland and a few cities thrown in.
  • Owing to these constituents it is an obscenely beautiful place-that is for fans of snow-capped mountains, vast lakes, cascading waterfalls and gushing rivers. If your preference is for deserts, shopping arcades and uniform rows of parasol-clad beaches I suggest it is not for you. Go to Dubai instead.
  • The weather is a little capricious. It is capable of warm sunshine although this cannot be guaranteed. You might say the changing weather patterns are part of its charm.
  • In order to get anywhere by road you have to accept that tunnels and ferries are a huge part of the deal. There are nearly 1000 road tunnels and more than 100 ferry crossings plus numerous bridges. Some of the tunnels are spectacular in themselves, housing junctions and in one we encountered a fully-blown roundabout, all lit up in blue like a spaceship.
  • Pizza and hot dogs are ubiquitous and popular offerings getting an enthusiastic take-up by travellers and locals alike. This was told to me before departure by my friend Anne-Marit and she was not wrong! We have not ventured into any restaurants due to my next observation, that…
  • Food prices, while not as expensive as we had feared are dear, as is alcohol. Norwegians are bound by strict rules regarding booze. Fresh food items such as vegetables and meat cost the most but staples like bread are not so prohibitive.
  • Living roofs are everywhere-green swards peppered with wild flowers covering every building from barns to homes to bus shelters to public toilets to mail boxes-often entire communities sporting them-everywhere as are…
  • Trolls-probably too many, to be honest-

What else? There is a good deal of graffiti in the cities-but very little in the way of advertising hoardings-nothing along the roadsides or in fields. Most homes are constructed in wood [of course] and many are self-builds. There is a glorious profusion of wild flowers which includes lupins [at least-now in summer!] and the clover, in particular is enormous. Everyone speaks fluent English –and all are pleasant and welcoming! What’s not to love?

Spanish Nights and Gourmet Delights

We are sitting outside at a restaurant table in Caceres, central Spain. It is 9.30pm. The balmy evening sky is a clear cobalt blue and I pause in my perusal of the incomprehensible menu to zoom my camera lens up to the summit of a church steeple where two storks have mounted guard over their mountainous nest. It is a pleasing shot-mostly silhouette. At any rate-I am pleased.

Meandering up from Portugal through central Spain has become an unexpected pleasure and explains why this kind of travel is such a joy. You happen across places you’ve barely, or never heard of and yet they may be tourist magnets [underlining your ignorance] or simply unpretentious, lovely and little known.

Caceres is evidently well known, judging by the thronging masses clogging up the centre on this Tuesday evening, although it is Holy Week-only the most important week of the world in the entire Christian world, which explains the crowds waiting outside the cathedral, lining the roads and blocking our access to any likely-looking restaurants. From the grand cathedral doors some elaborately got-up figures have emerged. They are dressed in white habits with purple capes and some sport alarming pointy headgear a la Klu-Klux-Klan. One is trudging along with a black timber cross slung over his shoulder, for all the world as if he is off to complete some roofing work.

We perform some lengthy manoeuvres in order to access the square offering up most of the restaurants which takes up enough time for Husband to become vociferously grumpy, such are his hunger pangs. He has expressed a desire for steak and nothing else will do.

Having accomplished the mission and found a table by virtue of being only two rather than a family of eight we enter a period of confusion involving several waiters until someone is found who can explain the list of delights. The attention of a Spanish diner at the neighbouring table is captured. My schoolgirl Spanish fails beyond ‘carne’. Earlier I’d thought myself accomplished when asking ‘Hay aseos aqui?’ in the tourist office but my understanding of the rapid stream that issued as reply let me down. Fortunately the toilets were next door.

We finish our starters-enormous plates of salad-and some small plates are brought, plus steak knives-we are evidently to get a shared dish. A large area of table is cleared. A waiter emerges bearing aloft a platter the size of a tray which spits and sizzles like a cornered alley cat then lowers into the cleared space something that may be the pieces of half a cow. Full of salad we stare speechless at the mountain of sputtering ribs before dissolving into semi-hysterical laughter, which is vastly entertaining for the neighbouring Spaniard.

We do our best, struggling through as much as we can before admitting defeat. Would we like desert? Er…

When I ask Husband why they are taking so long with the bill he tells me they are in the kitchen chewing on the returned ribs. He mimes this, using his hands, prompting a loud explosion of laughter from me and causing the Spaniard’s face to crease into mirth despite having no knowledge of the cause. I mop my tears with the napkin, we pay up and leave, only to discover we’ve missed the last bus back. Ho hum.

Out Damn Sugar! Out I Say!

Sugar is the new evil. What a revelation! Every day there is a press article revealing some new disease, some new side-effect or some new and sinister ill that sugar has wrought. Yet who in the world could not, by now, know that sugar is not good for you, makes you fat, rots your teeth, gives you diabetes etc?

Just as everyone is aware that burgers, chips and pizza should be consumed in moderation, so we know it is the same for sugary products. Strangely, though, knowing these things is not enough. You have to care that sugar and fat are unhealthy to do anything about them, too.

Eradicating sugary and fatty foods from your life is tedious beyond belief. You have to watch others consuming slabs of cake, portions of chips, ice creams or creamy desserts whilst sipping black coffees or nibbling on a lettuce leaf. You have to sustain this regime for what seems years. You may not ever slip from a religious observance of ‘no sugar, no fat’.

It is never enough to undertake vast amounts of exercise; to run miles each day, leap around aerobically, swim, dance and lift weights. Sugar will still be bad. It will, at best, rot your teeth.

As a child I was not denied sugar, neither was I obese, although during my teens I did have so many teeth filled [with lethal amalgam consisting of, amongst other substances, mercury] I was like a walking barometer and you could almost tell when a storm was coming by staring into my open mouth. The fillings were not a result of decay. No, they were the outcome of a rush of enthusiasm by my national health dentist who was, at that time, paid handsomely for each filling he could complete, regardless of need. That this is now needing to be expensively addressed has been described in a previous post.

My mother’s problem with her very young children was not how to keep them on the straight and narrow of dietary goodness. It was how to feed us enough of anything. We were like a small clutch of baby birds reaching our beaks to the sky and squawking, ‘feed us!’

My father grew a lot of vegetables in our sprawling garden. There were hens at the end of it, obligingly providing eggs; [unlucky ones, on occasions would also provide the Sunday roast]. The odds and ends of discarded fruit from my uncle’s market greengrocer stall provided us with treats, although we were never allowed to consume a banana without an accompanying slice of bread and butter. We were always given a ‘pudding’-usually something carb-laden such as rice pudding [we fought over the toffee-like skin that clung to the sides of the dish], suet apple pudding or jam roly-poly. These starch fests were to fill us up. We were not chubby children.

So what went wrong? I can only guess at the answer, but I’d say affluence is the culprit, along with too many options, but you can’t turn the clock back, nor would you want to; so it’s back to coffee and lettuce leaves…