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Take a can of luncheon meat, slice thickly and spread with French mustard.Fry until lightly browned.Heat one can baked beans,add a grated onion and dash of Worcestershire sauce. Arrange luncheon meat slices artfully around edge of a heat-proof dish and pile bean mixture into center. Sprinkle with grated cheese and grill until bubbling.
It's an easy dish, Stella. Even you can manage this one. Regards, Dad
Robert is seventeen minutes late. This doesn't count as properly late. Seventeen minutes can be lost while you're hunting for car keys or swill down the plug hole while you're reading the paper on the loo. It's easy to forget, for seventeen minutes, that a friend is making you lunch.
This meal with Robert, it's nothing serious. It's a light lunch. He's been coming to me for flute lessons for two years, since before the birth of his twins and his breakup withVerity. He's drunk my coffee, my wine, flicked through my CDs and once blurted out, "I don't think of you just as my teacher."
"Don't you?" I asked.
His brown eyes were steady and sad-looking. "I can talk to you,Stella,'he added,as if he'd had to muster courage to say this.
"Come over," I said,'next Saturday. I'll make us some lunch. We could go for a walk, head down to the beach...."
"Are you sure? Don't want to put you to any—" 'You're not," I said, and hugged him as he left. He kissed me lightly on the cheek.
The smile was still hovering on my face when I glimpsed my distorted reflection in the kettle. It lingered there, an excited child's smile, even as I tried to swipe it away with the back of my hand. I couldn't remember the last time I'd invited anyone to anything.
I turn off the heat and scrape the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. I've made wild mushroom risotto. I prowled around Roots and Fruits after work on Friday and bought fancy mushroom varieties:porcini,shitake,oyster.They looked like curls of flesh in their brown paper bags, and smelled of damp forests. I also made chicken stock, some of which is left in the jug, and has a stagnant dishwater look about it.
With risotto, timing is crucial. Already it's the wrong side of gloopy.You could imagine it setting inside your stomach, clutching your vital organs, requiring an abdominal operation to remove it. I taste it, and it's still passable, although perhaps too pungently cheesy.
Does Robert like risotto? I know he's a regular consumer of take-aways—the menu's taped to a kitchen cupboard—and drives a dented Fiat Panda with two oily-looking child seats jammed into the back. I know this vehicle is marred with spittled milk, gnawed plastic toys and two-handled baby cups flung down and forgotten, their contents yellowing under the seats. He prefers having lessons here now. He said,'I like your place, Stella. It's peaceful. Calm. It does me good, just being here."
I know all these details about Robert. But I don't know his feelings about Parmesan.
Through my kitchen window fine rain has darkened the descending tumble of slate roofs. The proud, red brick houses look as if they've been dropped randomly, then clamored to grab their share of sea view.Wedged between them,more than a mile away, is my skinny sliver of sea.
Robert is twenty-nine minutes late. He's not hunting for car keys or even snared up in Saturday traffic. Gluey rice has attached itself to the roof of my mouth. I push it off with my tongue, but my mouth still feels as if it needs cleaning with a high-pressure hose. The risotto looks like something you'd pour on to a garden path to stop weeds sprouting through.
In the bathroom I inspect my face, which looks hot and damp from hanging over the bubbling pan. I blot myself with a flannel. My fingers stink of Parmesan. I squirt on lime-scented liquid soap—Healing Garden, it's called—and scrub with the nailbrush, but the Parmesan smell won't go away.
My hair, which I blow-dried in a carefree manner, slumps dolefully around my face.I fluff it forward,which makes it look too bushy. I examine my teeth, baring them like a fierce dog. A small breeze sneaks in through the bathroom window, wafting the white gauze blind.It's a cool September afternoon and the sky is pale gray, as flat as a bedsheet.
I check the street from the living-room window.A removal van struggles up the hill and judders to a halt in front of next door's house. On its side is a slogan: Movers & Shakers.There's a picture of two men in dungarees, holding a sofa above their heads as if it's virtually weightless—a sofa-shaped cloud.The drawn men look infinitely capable.You'd trust them to move your entire life, even your precious things.They'd treat your possessions with respect.
A short man with a brick-shaped body springs out of the van and marches along next door's path. He hammers the door and steps back to peer at the upstairs windows. He bangs again, then shouts, "Hello?" into the sky, to the weaving seagulls.
A second man clambers out of the van.'What's going on?" he yells. "Aren't they answering, or what?" He's wearing a green-and-white football top—Plymouth Argyle—and looks vaguely malnourished.Neither of them resembles the men on the side of the van.'Try the back," he instructs the other man.
"Where's the back?" 'Round the back, where d'you expect?"
I'm itching to go out and direct these men into the alley that leads to the overgrown path at the bottom of our back gardens. I want to quiz them—find out who my new neighbors might be. My mind conjures a pleasing image of an amiable young couple, both of whom—inspired by my playing,which drifts through our adjoining wall—block book me for indefinite weekly flute lessons.
The brick-shaped man is leaning against the van, smoking furiously.He directs his gaze into my living-room window and narrows his eyes. I shuffle together an unwieldy pile of flute solos and duets that I'm sorting for next week's private lessons. Dad's handwritten recipe lies beside its ripped envelope on the table.Years ago,when I'd just left home and he'd started to send them—perhaps fearing, rather belatedly, that I might be incapable of looking after myself—I noticed he always used the same kind of crinkly paper.The tiny type at the bottom of each sheet read Finest Onionskin. I imagined raw onions being churned up in some gigantic blender, spread thinly onto wire racks and dried in a low heat.I nibbled the corner of a recipe— Baked Gammon with Tangy Marmalade Sauce—to see if it tasted oniony. It was just paper, lightly smoked by Dad's Café Crème cigars.
I tap out Robert's number.Hello,we're not here right now,please leave your name, number and time of calling.... It sounds like someone at work who leads teams,which is what Robert does (I've never quite figured out what his teams actually do).And he's still we, even though Verity and the kids moved out just before Christmas. Robert joked, "She timed it to get out of buying me a present." He was laughing, but his whole body looked crushed. He hasn't been a we for nine months. I bang down the phone without leaving a message, then fold the recipe over and over until it's a tiny square, as thin as a fingernail.
"Thanks, Dad," I murmur.
My father is Frankie Moon, frontman of 1970s show Frankie's Favorites and inventor of whizzy implements such as the Nine-Nozzle Piper: an enormous syringe-like gadget that you could imagine being useful if you ever needed to tranquilize a buffalo.They're so long ago, the TV years, that sometimes I wonder if I've remembered it all wrong, and that Dad was something more ordinary, like a plumber, or worked for the council. It hardly seems possible that a broderie anglaise bra with tiny pink rosebuds stitched between the cups was posted through our letterbox, accompanied by a fan letter scrawled in splodgy green ink.'Beware the green pen," Dad would say, when stuff like that happened.'Bloody loonies and crazies." I knew,though,that he relished the attention.His cheeks would puff up, and turn slightly pink, as if they'd been inflated with my bicycle pump.
Robert is forty-eight minutes late, which counts as so late he's not coming.Anything could have happened—some child-related emergency. Aren't toddlers always falling over and damaging themselves? I've seen Robert in town,clutching the twins'reins,the boys tangling themselves up like wild puppies. That's it: Verity called him in a panic.They're at A&E with one of the boys dripping blood onto the waiting-area floor. Of course he's forgotten about our lunch.Anyone would, if their screaming child was having his forehead repaired. They wouldn't be thinking, Stella cooked a whole blasted chicken on Saturday so she could boil up the carcass for stock. I must abandon my injured son for a wild-mushroom risotto.
I pour the remains of the stock down the sink, and scrape the solidified rice into the kitchen bin, where it lands with a disappointed plop.
"Sorry to disturb you," says the man in the Plymouth top, hovering uncomfortably on my front step.His jaw is smattered with coarse hairs that have sprung, black and defiant, from milky skin.
"That's okay," I say. "Seen anyone next door, love? We're doing a removal.
Woman's not shown up.We've got all her gear in that van." He exhales noisily through the gap between his front teeth.
"Sorry, I didn't even know there were new tenants. The house has been empty for ages."
He glances up at threatening clouds.'Christ, we'll just have to unload it into her garden. Haven't got time to hang about. We've another job at four."
"But it's raining," I protest. "You can't leave everything outside." It's the light, steady kind of rain that doesn't feel like much, but has a sly way of drenching you.
"Not my problem, love.That's what you get in this game— having to deal with that sort."
I frown at him.'What sort?" 'Imbeciles," he declares, strutting back to the van where his accomplice is hauling a battered brown armchair, its over-stuffed arms looking like mottled sausage rolls, onto the pavement.
Someone's things are out there, being drizzled on: more armchairs—one deep purple, another the sickly beige of an ill person's face—and a standard lamp with a faded pink shade, edged with a thick strip of Dalmatian fur.Rolled-up rugs have been propped up against the house. A white Christmas tree has been bound tightly with rope to stop its branches escaping.
There are boxes and boxes of what look like books. Later, when I peer out again, one's been knocked over.They're not books but records,spilled from their sleeves onto the small square of pink gravel in front of the house.Mrs Lawrence,the previous tenant,had the gravel laid so it wouldn't need weeding,but dock leaves and dandelions still forced their way through.
To stop myself spying on the removal men, I pick up the phone to call Robert again,then decide there's no point.He'll still be at A&E having his little boy's head fixed. In the kitchen I pile fancy mushrooms between slices of bread. They're so bouncy and light, it's like eating a foam sandwich.
A trace of sunlight struggles through the clouds. Rainbow weather. Mum used to say that rainbows were magical:'If you see one," she'd say,'it means something wonderful is about to happen." We'd spotted one the day my brother Charlie won cinema tickets in the South Devon Echo's kids' quiz. Dad was away filming—he never came to the cinema with us anyway— so Mum took us to see The Railway Children at the Royale.
I'd put on my best pinafore with the huge purple flowers and picked a clashing buttercup-yellow shirt to wear underneath. Going out with Mum felt special—almost birthday-special. In the plush foyer of the Royale, I noticed a man staring at her.He was surrounded by braying children demanding Butterkist popcorn and sweet cigarettes from the kiosk. Despite the mayhem around him, his gaze was firmly fixed upon Mum's pale brown bare legs. It was as if all of those kids had just melted away.
Mum didn't really look like a mum, I thought then. She looked like a long-limbed drawing from a Simplicity dress pattern;slender and tall,with surprised-looking eyes and a veil of shoulder-length honey-colored hair. I clutched her hand, feeling the smoothness of her manicured nails, as she led Charlie and me into the dark.
The film was at least five years old. Charlie hadn't wanted to come. His school friends were obsessed with Star Wars—all the boys fancied Princess Leia—but Charlie hadn't wanted to see that movie, either. Charlie wasn't like most ten-year-olds; he preferred documentaries about real things,like the eerie fish that lurked at the bottoms of oceans.'This film's for girls," he hissed as we took our seats.'It's all kissing and love."He screwed up his face as if love smelled of bad things—aging meat, perhaps, or blocked drains.
"Shush," Mum murmured back, "Stella and I have always wanted to see it."
Charlie chomped morosely on his popcorn with his chin thrust out. I wanted to say,'You won the tickets—would you cheer up, for God's sake, and stop spoiling this?" But the film had started. It wasn't a kissing movie at all.
Toward the end of the film, I glimpsed Charlie's face. He was a year and a half older than me—old enough not to be scared of Dad's vexed stares and fraying temper—but still cried when the Railway Children's father came back from prison. The train pulled into the station, and steam billowed and cleared on the platform,and there he was,their lovely dad,and my big brother's cheeks glistening wet. I was so horrified, I couldn't look at him.