Read an Excerpt
Second Thyme Around
'Well? Are you going to come in? Or just stand in the doorway with your trug, looking picturesque?'
Perdita was almost paralysed with shock and confusion. How could short, plump, amiable and easy-going Enzo have, almost overnight, turned into the tall, black-browed monster she had divorced ten years before? Somehow she got herself across the threshold.
'And take off those bloody gumboots! This is a professional kitchen, not a farmyard!'
Perdita looked down at her feet and noticed that the floor was a lot cleaner than usual. She looked up at her ex-husband. 'No.'
'So you've got bolshi in your old age, have you? You always were difficult.'
'I'm not at all difficult. Where's Enzo?'
'Fucked off to sunny Napoli, I expect. How the hell should I know?'
Perdita suddenly became aware that it wasn't only Enzo that had undergone a hideous transformation. The rest of the kitchen had been affected too. She had an impression of a strange whiteness. The friendly, busy place she had been delivering veg to for five years had metamorphosed into something akin to an operating theatre. The noise and clutter had all gone, as had the cheery hum of Radio One, a Greek chorus to the hubbub of the kitchen. No one was singing, swearing, or clattering pots and pans. In fact no one seemed to be doing anything.
The other two occupants of the kitchen were still justrecognisable, but looked completely different. Instead of a pair of brightly coloured cotton trousers, be-sloganed sweatshirt and a striped apron in one case, and a pair of ripped jeans and grubby T shirt, in the other, the they wore white overalls and chef's trousers. Janey, the young sous-chef, who looked about seventeen, had tried to confine her Pre-Raphaelite hair under a white cap but, like its owner, Perdita suspected, it was desperately trying to escape.
The grease-spattered, doodled-on calendar, marked with everyone's holidays and birthdays, no longer hung by the telephone. In its place was a smart white board and marker pen without so much as a smiley face to relieve its blankness. The large pots of fresh herbs, grown by Perdita, had disappeared from the windowsill. As had the fat string of garlic, brought over from France by someone, the chilli peppers, too hot to use but so cheerful and the 'boob chart', a list of the mistakes made over the week. The person with the most cock-ups - usually Enzo - brought in some lagers to be drunk after service on Saturday night. The disappearance of the boob chart was the ultimate symbol of the end of Enzo's regime: an evil dictator had dethroned him.
Aware that she had become the focus of attention, and that the evil dictator was wearing a very familiar scowl, Perdita decided to pretend everything was as normal. 'Hi, Janey, Greg. How are you?'
Greg and Janey nodded stiffly, but didn't speak. Janey had taken on the appearance of a rabbit in thrall to a stoat. She didn't offer to put the kettle on or make toast, nor did she start rummaging through Perdita's vegetables, exclaiming with delight or horror at what she found. Her eyes were red with weeping, but whether this was because of the pile of finely diced onions on her chopping board, or Enzo's replacement, Perdita couldn't tell.
Greg, the washer-up and general dogsbody, had his long hair tied back in a ponytail under a white cap insteadof a bandanna, and didn't make one of his sexist, racist, politically incorrect jokes, which always made Perdita laugh, in spite of herself.
The whole kitchen seemed under a strange, sinister enchantment - like Narnia under its blanket of snow. It was not hard to find the warlock responsible: Lucas Gillespie.
'You will have gathered,' he addressed his workforce, 'that Perdita and I used to know each other.' He gave her a slanting glance and she stiffened. She didn't want their dirty and tear-stained linen washed in public. 'It was only for a short time, years ago, when we were both very young.'
She relaxed. Lucas didn't want his failed marriage known about either. 'I still am young,' she said.
He shrugged. 'So, what have you got there?'
Perdita looked down at the contents of her trug. 'Your - Enzo's usual order. Mâche, various chicories, some Ragged Jack kale, the usual saladinis, lettuces and some pea plants.'
'Yes. An excellent crop.' Excellent for her, anyhow. It was labour intensive, but she made a lot of money out of it. She rummaged in her basket and broke him off a leaf.
He crunched it up. 'Mmm. Does it stand well?'
'Of course. Everything I sell stands.'
'I suppose that explains the exorbitant prices you charge.' He raised an eyebrow. 'I've been looking at the accounts,' he added.
Perdita was offended. 'My prices may seem high, but I offer very good value. And if you don't want to use me, feel free to stop. I've got plenty of chefs I just can't supply at the moment.' They weren't quite so conveniently situated as Grantly House Hotel, in fact they were too far away to make supplying them profitable, but they did exist.
'And you reckon you can grow anything?'
'Well, I won't grow anything it doesn't pay me to grow. I've got to make a living, after all.'
'What about capsicums?'
She shook her head. 'Too much heat. Too expensive.' Lucas frowned contemplatively. 'Stay here!' he commanded, and strode off towards the cold store.
The moment he was out of the room, she asked in a stage whisper, 'What on earth's happened to Enzo? And how did you get lumbered with him?'
Janey cast a frightened glance in the direction of the cold store. 'Enzo's retired,' she whispered back nervously. 'We're very lucky to have Chef. He's very well thought of.'
Perdita humphed. To her, Enzo was Chef. It wasn't right. 'Chef is dead, long live Chef,' she muttered. 'What do you think of him, Greg?'
Greg shrugged. 'Not laid back like Enzo was.'
This wasn't surprising. Enzo could be, and generally was, described as 'horizontal', he was so relaxed, an unusual and endearing feature in a chef. But not, Perdita's sense of fair play was forced to admit, a characteristic likely to make one hugely successful. Before she could speculate further, Lucas came back into the kitchen.
'Here.' He handed Perdita a small, segmented, tuber, about the size of a prawn. It was dark brown. 'Can you grow these?'
Perdita was a professional. She reckoned to know her veg - the obscurer the better - but she was flummoxed this time. 'Er - what is it?'
'It's a crosnes.'
'I thought that was a disease,' said Perdita.
'It's named after a French town, but you can call it a Chinese artichoke if you like. It's like a dead nettle with roots you can eat. I brought it back from France. If you can grow it, I'll buy every bit you can produce.'
She examined the tuber he put into her hand. 'Well, I'llgive it a go. Have you any idea of what it needs?'
'You're the gardener. But if you're in any doubt, I'll take it back. They're expensive.'
Perdita's fingers closed around it. 'No, no. I'm sure I'll have no trouble. Now, I'll just go and get the rest of your order.'
No one seemed to move while she went back to her van, piled three crates of veg into her arms and came back into the kitchen with them. She took them through to the cold room, and put them away. When she came back Lucas was inspecting some ducklings with signs of distaste, Janey was back to chopping onions, and Greg was pulling trays out of the oven, prior to cleaning it. It was something Perdita hadn't seen before. Which didn't mean that the oven was never cleaned when Enzo was in charge, she told herself, just that she'd never been there when it happened. This happy realisation was banished by Greg's obscene and unwitting exclamation as he lowered himself to the floor and looked inside.
'So,' said Perdita, partly to halt Lucas's progress across the room to see the oven for himself, 'is there anything you want specially for next week?'
'I'll see how good this lot turns out to be first.'
Perdita gave him a snarl disguised as a smile. 'Will you give me a ring?'
He saw through the disguise. 'Yes, but I don't seem to have your mobile number.'
'I don't have a mobile. My home and work number are the same. You can contact me almost any hour of the day or night, though naturally I would prefer it if you stuck to daytime.'
He scowled. 'I can't believe you're running a business without a mobile. Still, if you want to stay in the Dark Ages, don't let me try and stop you.'
'Oh, I won't.'
'And don't let anything bad happen to that crosnes.'
Perdita patted her pocket to check that it was still there. 'Well, if you don't want to order anything now, I'll be off. I've got a van full of baby vegetables for the health farm.'
'Then you'd better go. I'm sure they don't like being kept waiting for supplies any more than I do.'
Perdita ignored this dig. 'I don't suppose Janey could' before she could think of a good reason why she needed help to carry her empty basket out to the van, Lucas saved her the trouble.
'No she couldn't. She's got a lot to do. If she wants to keep her job. Which at the rate she's going, doesn't seem likely.'
Perdita shuddered, and swore to herself that she would get Janey out of that kitchen as soon as she possibly could. Janey reminded her of herself at that age and she would never have survived working for Lucas. Greg, she hoped, was tough enough to look after himself.
She gave Lucas a nod, and her two friends a tentative wave. She felt a traitor leaving them to Lucas's mercy, but she was nervous lest a moment longer in the place would put her under the same glacial enchantment as the others. A roar from behind her as she fled indicated she had left mud on the floor. Her satisfaction was slightly marred by the knowledge that Lucas wouldn't be the one to clear it up, and would probably take his anger out on Janey or Greg.
She clambered into her van in a confusion of emotions, none of them happy. Had Enzo gone willingly? Or had he been pushed out of a job he loved so that horrible Lucas could take his place? And, the biggest question of all, what the hell was Lucas doing as a chef? When they'd been married, he hadn't been able to boil an egg - neither of them had, which had been part of their problem. He had been a thrusting young stockbroker, determined to become a millionaire before he was thirty. What had turned his interest from blue chips to game chips?
She had been a dreamy art student, who just wanted to paint. The ten intervening years had apparently affected Lucas's dreams and ambitions as much as they had her own.
'Well, at least I'm completely over him,' she murmured as she kicked off her Wellington boots so she could drive. She switched on the engine. Over him or not, she was forced to acknowledge that seeing him, with no warning, had been a dreadful shock. She had delivered to Grantly House only three days earlier. Why had nobody warned her that a nuclear winter was about to fall?
She turned the key another couple of times, praying that she wouldn't have to go back into the kitchen to ask for a push. 'Come on, baby,' she crooned. 'Start for Mummy, and I'll buy you a nice new Magic Tree.' Her woollen socks hanging over her toes, she pressed gently on the accelerator, and the van grumbled into life.
'I know you need more than an air freshener, sweetheart,' she went on, 'but I really can't manage without you just at the moment. And do you really want a major operation at your age?'
The van swerved into a puddle in reply.
The health farm, Perdita's second biggest customer, which took pretty much everything and anything she could produce, was reassuringly the same as it had been on her last visit.
'Hello, ducks,' said Ronnie the manager, as she staggered into the kitchen under a pile of plastic crates. 'Got your usual array of slugs and aphids, have you?'
'Now you know you have far more time to clean them than I do,' replied Perdita amiably. 'Besides, I would have thought the guests here would be glad of the extra protein.'
'You know perfectly well we don't starve anybody here, even if they are on de-tox ...'
'Which is why you want my fresh-out-of-the-ground veg, full of vitamins and minerals. Anyway, never mind about that. Have you heard about the new chef at Grantly House? I nearly had a fit when I saw Enzo had gone.'
Ronnie, always glad of a gossip, especially when he had more of it than his gossipee, inclined his head in a knowing way. 'Want a coffee, dear? You look a bit peaky.'
Perdita did feel a little shaky. 'Yes, please. Black, lots of sugar.'
'We'll take it through to the office, so we can talk in peace. That grater's getting on my nerves this morning.' The grater, struggling with a white cabbage, chose that moment to scream in agony, underlining his point.
'So?' demanded Perdita, the moment the door was closed behind them.
'Oh, don't sit on that stool, love, it wobbles,' said Ronnie, taking the swivel chair by the desk, refusing to be hurried.
'No, no, I'll be fine here. Now, do tell ...'
'Hang on. I'll stuff a fag packet under it. I don't know what that chair's doing here. You think they'd give me a decent office. This place would be nothing without me.'
'Oh, Ronnie! Don't keep me in suspense! You're always like this when you've got something really good to tell me.'
'Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry and make 'em wait, we always used to say.'
'OK, OK. Well, the story is that Mr Grantly was in France - you know he's got a place there?'
'Oh, all right,' Ronnie said huffily. 'Just giving you the background. Anyway, he was there and he met this new young chef ...'
'Not that young, surely?' Lucas must be about thirty-five by now. In chef's terms, that was ancient.
'Younger than Enzo, anyway. And Mr Grantly thought he was just the person to get Grantly House a Michelin Star, so he paid off Enzo and got this bloke over.'
'But that's terrible! Kicking Enzo out so - this new chef - can sweep in and take over! We ought to picket Mr Grantly! Boycott his hotel! Get the press involved!' Perdita was outraged as well as mystified. Lucas had been addicted to the speed of City life. What had happened to make him take such a drastic career change?
'I don't suppose you can afford to upset Mr Grantly, dear, seeing as he's one of your main customers,' Ronnie pointed out. 'And by all accounts, Enzo's quite happy about it. He never was quite cut out to be a top-notch chef. He did make some awful blunders.'
As Perdita was responsible for telling Ronnie about some of Enzo's more colourful catastrophes, she couldn't deny it. She blushed, feeling as if she had let Enzo down.
'No need to look like that about it,' Ronnie went on. 'Enzo's delighted.'
'Is he? How do you know?'
'He rang me before he left. Said he'd got a very good golden handshake out of it. And, of course, he's been talking about going back to Italy for years. You know that. He's no spring chicken.'
Perdita did know, but she doubted anyone would actually enjoy being disposed of so quickly.
'He said we must all go out there and stay with him. He's planning to open his own place.'
Perdita took a sip of barely liquid sugar. 'So what's this new one like, then?'
'Well, you've seen him, so you tell me. But by all accounts he's gorgeous. All smouldery and dark.' Ronnie gave Perdita a sideways glance. 'Obviously not your type, then?'
'Well, no. Actually, we sort of know each other. Years ago, in a previous incarnation. He was a stockbroker.' Betterto tell Ronnie what she wanted him to know herself and hope his sixth sense for old scandal wouldn't be aroused. Ronnie could turn the most innocent encounter into something worthy of the Sunday Sport; what he would do with her quasi-elopement was too terrible to contemplate.
'And you didn't get on?'
'No. He was a pig. Um - did Enzo say anything about his wife?'
'No! Lucas Gillespie's. He was married when I knew him.' Which was true.
'Oh? Well, Enzo didn't say anything about whether he was married or not. Apparently he's staying with Mr Grantly until his staff flat is ready, so he's well in there, but I've not heard tell of any wife. What was she like, then?'
Perdita hesitated only a millisecond before abdicating from the role of spouse, giving it instead to the woman for whom she had been abandoned. 'Well, I didn't know her well.' Perdita had met the other woman in her husband's life only once. 'But she was older than me.' That had seemed the ultimate insult - he left her playing with her toys while he went off with the grown-ups. 'And very sophisticated. Dark. Very well groomed.'
'And you didn't like her, either?'
'I didn't know her! But she made me feel very young and naïve. Which I was then.'
'And now you're Ms Sophistication, I suppose.' He sounded sceptical.
'But I'm not naïve!'
'Yes you are. But not to worry, it's part of your charm. So how did you meet the evil Mr Gillespie?'
'Oh, at a party.' Ronnie seemed to want a little more detail. 'I'd only just left school. I hardly knew him at all, really.' This was also true. They had met and married within three months. 'But who I'm worried about is Janey. He'll bully her to bits!'
'If you didn't know him that well, how do you know that?'
'I know Janey. She's young and innocent'
'And pretty. Remind you of anyone?'
'Stop teasing me, Ronnie. This is serious. We must get her out of there! You wouldn't have a job for her here, would you?'
'Perdita, love, I hope you don't mind me being personal ...'
'But you're going to be, anyway.'
'But don't you think you spend too much time worrying about other people, and not enough time worrying about yourself? You should get yourself a nice boyfriend, have some fun.'
Perdita looked at Ronnie as if she had never heard this from him before, when in fact he said it nearly every time they met. But this time, it raised an important question: what would Lucas think when he found out, as he inevitably would, that she hadn't got so much as a sniff of a boyfriend, let alone a husband? He would think, conceited bastard that he was, that she was carrying a torch for him. And if the painted sophisticate he had left her for was still around, well, her pride demanded she have someone sensational to hang on her arm - if only for special occasions.
Ronnie, surprised that Perdita wasn't protesting as usual, followed up his opening. 'You're really a lovely girl, just a little bit unkempt. I mean, look at your clothes.'
For once, Perdita looked. The ancient Fair Isle sweater, which was warm and comfortable and, to her eyes, attractive, had once belonged to Kitty's long-dead husband. It hung halfway down her thighs and the hem was partially unravelled. There was a hole in the arm and the welt of the cuff was nearly separated from the sleeve. There was a panel of mud on the inside of her leg running from where her Wellingtons stopped to above her knees.
'And your hair ...' Ronnie, seeing that for once his words were having an effect, pressed on. 'A good cut and a few highlights would make all the difference - carry you over the hump between light mouse and dark blonde. Why don't you come here for a makeover? You could get staff discount. The girls would love to get their hands on you.'
Perdita shuddered. 'If you've got in mind some wonderful man who'd make it all worthwhile, I might just consider it.'
Ronnie had long been trying to get Perdita to make more of herself, and made one more attempt. 'You won't find a man looking like Orphan Annie. But no,' he went on, defeated, 'I'm afraid I haven't got anyone up my sleeve. Young single men don't come my way much, more's the pity. And it's no good looking among our clientele. We get mostly women, as you know, and enough of them are single to make any man a sitting target.'
'But you do get celebrities, male ones?'
'Occasionally, but ...'
'Tell you what, Ronnie. If you let me know if anyone lovely, male and straight comes in, I'll submit to every torture you think I need to make myself beautiful.'
'Perdita, love,' Ronnie said sharply, 'this wouldn't be anything to do with the new chef at Grantly's, would it?'
'Good Lord no!' Frantically Perdita tried to think of a reason for this volte-face. 'It's just that I'm approaching the big three oh'
Ronnie, who was good at birthdays, frowned. 'Not till next year, surely?'
'Well, yes, but it'll probably take me till next year to get my act together.'
'True,' he agreed brutally. 'Well, if you're that desperate, I suppose you could advertise.'
'No I couldn't!' Just imagine Lucas seeing her lonely hearts advertisement in the local paper! She might as wellapplique a bleeding heart to her sleeve and have done with it.
Ronnie looked hurt. 'Why not? It's all very discreet, you have a box number. There are all sorts of safeguards against perverts. I've met some lovely men through the small ads.'
Perdita bit her lip and sighed ruefully. 'I'm afraid I'm a bit too much of a coward for that. There must be a less scary way to find a man.'
'Perdita, are you sure this sudden change of heart isn't anything to do with this new chef?'
Perdita felt herself blush and knew that Ronnie would have noticed it. 'Only indirectly. Seeing him unexpectedly like that made me look back to how I'd been the last time I'd seen him.' A wreck, but no need to tell Ronnie that. 'I've come on a lot. I'm independent, I've got my own business going, but I haven't got a partner. And I still wear my hair in a scrunchy. I've spent so much time and energy getting my nursery going, I haven't had a date for years. I don't mind ending my life as an old maid, but I want it to be through choice, not because I never had an opportunity for marriage.'
This fairly grown-up-sounding statement seemed to satisfy the eagle-eyed Ronnie. 'You don't get the opportunity because you spend all your spare time looking after Mrs Anson. How is she, by the way?'
'Kitty? Oh, she's fine. Still gardening all day, though I've told her a million times I'll do anything that needs doing.'
'I don't suppose she'd approve of you advertising for a man.'
Perdita frowned. 'I don't know what she'd think, quite honestly; she's completely unpredictable. She would like me to have a boyfriend, though. She's always telling me I ought to have children of my own, and not waste my time treating her like a child. As if I'd dare!'
'She's right, you know, Perdita. That old lady's got a lotof sense.' Ronnie patted her knee paternally, and got up. 'Now, must get on.'
'So must I. Thanks for the coffee and the chat, Ronnie.'
'Any time, love. And let me know if you fancy a makeover. Or even a few make-up hints.'
'I will.' A makeover, much as the idea horrified her, would be worth the agony if it helped her get a man before Lucas could find out that she hadn't already got one.
'And give my best to Mrs A.'
'Of course. See you, Ronnie.'
'See you, love.'
SECOND THYME AROUND Copyright © 2000 by Katie Fforde. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.