Saturday, 30 August 2014

Turkey club

It was raining outside, which was how you could tell, at a glance, that it was a British Bank Holiday.  The weather is traditional, as are the predictions of the weather, complaining about the weather, and dragging the children off to do whatever you’d planned to do if it turned out nice after all.  I have many memories, as a child, of sitting on a grey, wet beach in the drizzle, wondering if the tide would sneak in while it was foggy and cut us off from the land, stranding us to drown slowly in a grey gloom better suited to making foreign films.  I could almost have forgiven my parents if that had happened, as at least my death might have been recorded by a passing Italian with a penchant for large-breasted actresses and a depressive streak a mile wide.
“Who are you reviewing today?”  The voice shocked me from my reverie and I stopped looking out of the window and looked around the office instead.  The office had been empty, a fact I’d been counting on when I’d fled the house and come in earlier in the morning.  The Blonde had her mother over, who is also, technically a Blonde (though not one I’ve dated), and the conversation had been threatening to get on the subject of weddings, grandchildren and other things I’d rather not discuss without a decent bottle of whiskey and a non-disclosure agreement signed by all parties.
“There’s a new place,” I muttered, spotting my Editor leaning against the doorway.  I can only assume that she was attempting to look louche, but she looked like a constipated actress from a 60s Public Information Film.  “For a change they’re not run by a celebrity chef or theming the food to a culture that went extinct two hundred years ago, or localising themselves to an area of Europe so small that it can’t actually sustain agriculture forcing the local cuisine to be large rock-based.  They’re describing themselves as ‘Comfort Food’, which makes a nice change.”
“I was hoping you might do Contemporary British next,” said my Editor, lounging a little more artistically.  I wondered for a moment if she’d ever done any of those Health & Safety videos about being sexually harassed in the workplace, and then rejected the idea as ridiculous.  “I’ve been talking with the Futures committee–“
“The what?”
“The Futures committee, they’re new.”  Well, I could have told her that, since I’d never heard of them before.  I raised an eyebrow to indicate she should continue.  “They’re kind of like a think-tank, they’ve been tasked with looking to the future and predicting what the public will want to read about in two months to a year’s time.  I was talking to them, and they think British Contemporary is going to be a real thing.”
Thing?” I said with heavy emphasis.  “Oh well, if it’s going to be a thing….”
“Don’t be snooty,” she said.  “You’re always just following trends, going to what’s just opened.  Why not broaden your remit a little and go to places that aren’t even open yet?”
“Because I’d go hungry?” I said.  “Because my readers want to go to these places, or not go and tell their friends that I’ve derided it to the point that they wouldn’t be seen dead there.  They don’t want to not go to places and then tell their friends that it’s the next big thing.  Where’s the fun in that?”
“Yes, but you could tr–“
No I can’t!  You’ve reprimanded me and cut my expenses budget for going to places that weren’t open yet!”
“You were claiming to go to places that didn’t exist.”
“They did exist!  They were just so execrable that they’d closed down by the time you got the fact-checkers to look over the receipts!”
“Fine,” she sighed, looking a little careworn.  I thought that maybe she looked like Marlene Dietrich as Dietrich did yesterday.  “Just make sure that it’s on my desk by Wednesday.”
The Turkey Club’s headline item on the menu was a “reconsidered and deconstructed Turkey Club sandwich, served with parsnip and swede fries and a choice of ketchups”.  I ordered it, noting that much of the rest of the menu was carb-heavy and probably did constitute comfort food.  It was still pouring with rain outside, and the idea of spending the evening inside stuffing myself with dumplings, pasta, sandwiches and red wine was strongly appealing.  So much so that I was actually looking forward to the food when it arrived.
“Excuse me?” I asked almost the second the waiter’s hand had let go on the plate.  He looked at me, and I swear I saw the glitter of a tear in his eye.  “This isn’t a club sandwich.”
There were slices of toasted white bread wrapped around chunks of turkey that had been dipped in some kind of gravy to try and keep them moist; there was lettuce and tomato, and that was it.
“Where’s the middle slice of bread?  The bacon?  The egg?” I asked, aware that I sounded slightly hectoring, but unable to stop myself.  A club sandwich is an easy recipe, it’s just the execution that’s hard.  I noted at this point that rather than skewering the quarters that the sandwich was cut into, the chef had opted to staple them together instead.
“The classic club sandwich,” said the waiter in a tone of recital, “does in fact not have a third slice of bread.  The owners have gone back to the original recipe.”
“That’s as maybe,” I said.  “People expect three slices these days, and it doesn’t say on the menu that you’re skimping on the bread.  And where is the bacon?  Or the egg?”
“Egg’s not classical either,” said the waiter.  There was a hint of apology in his voice, but he seemed to be avoiding the most important question.
“Where’s the bacon?”
“The turkey gravy has been made with rendered bacon fat,” he said, now holding his hands up in front of him as though to ward me off.  “The idea of bacon is present all the way through the sandwich!”

I ate it anyway.  It was a passably good sandwich as it went, but it wasn’t a club sandwich as anyone would understand it today, and calling it such showed a strong lack of understanding of marketing realities from the chef.  I wrote that down when I thought it to make sure it got into the review.  The chips were uninteresting, but then I find swede terminally dull even when the Americans try and make it more interesting by calling it rutabaga.  All in all I was quite disappointed and had to console myself by ordering six desserts, each with an individual pot of creme anglaise and calling it custard whenever the waiter was in earshot.  That almost cheered me up.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

A room of one's own

Though Mabel Fate had looked thunderous when Stella asked where her room was to be a room had been found and, looking around herself now, Stella had to admit that it was quite nicely furnished.  Which, she thought, it should be considering that Mabel had decided to charge her rent for it.
“If you’re a paying guest,” she’d said, “then there are proprieties that you should observe, and being a well-brought-up and college-educated girl I am sure you know all about such things.  They would have been taught in the same classes where you were told to write letters in this modern age, and probably taught to curtsey and patronise.  But if I allowed you to stay here as a family member you would probably feel compelled to interfere in the lives of the people around you, and since my family are successful I have no desire to have you meddle.”
“Where are my cousins, Great-Grandmama?” Stella had asked, her tone as sweet as honey and as dangerous as a agitated wasp.  “I was most certainly hoping to meet them all at last!”
Mabel Fate had looked at her for several seconds before answering, and then the answer sounded guarded, as though perhaps the news imparted was being carefully edited before delivery.  “Seb is home for three days,” she said.  “He will arrive at the station within the hour and I have sent Rupert to collect him in the Bugatti.  The Rolls is a little ostentatious, and the Bentley is being polished.  Seb is currently appearing at the Old Vic and his career as an actor, while not perhaps of Hollywood proportions is better than you might expect from a typical twenty-year-old.  Rupert is now returned from university with a basic degree in agriculture, a special project in the application of organic fertilisers to ancient soils, and a Masters degree is animal midwifery and husbandry.  He wishes to take over the running of the farm, and his father is thoroughly delighted by the idea.  Dolphin–“
“Dolphin?” said Stella, aware that she was interrupting but still unable to believe that she had a cousin called Dolphin.  Mabel seemed too sensible for that.
“The priest that year was regrettably hard-of-hearing,” sighed Mabel.  “Dolphin is overweight and underintelligent and I would despair of the child except that when I allowed her to attend the Debutantes Ball, against my better judgement, she came away with three proposals of marriage and some rather personal body jewellery that I instructed her to return by post rather than in person.  It seems that much of the landed gentry round here believe that a woman who looks like livestock is likely to be good with it.  I have endeavoured to teach the poor child to write poetry several times, but it seems like I have raised a farmer’s wife and that’s to be the end of it.”
“I have written poetry,” said Stella.
“I don’t doubt it.  Benny you have met already, and I discern in your letter a belief that he might be your maternal grandfather.  I should tell you now that I find that unlikely, but only because I believe he is your maternal grand-uncle.  You are clearly a child of the Wooden Post, and I will do everything I can to help you learn that sooner rather than later.”
“Is there an inheritance that goes with that?”
“Splinters, my dear child.  Splinters.”
That had ended that conversation, and now Stella looked around the room that she was paying to stay in.  The bed was solid with a firm but yielding mattress, and when she pulled back the sheets she discovered memory foam.  The pillows were feather but appeared new and soft, and the blankets were embroidered with homilies.  Or rather she had assumed they were homilies until she tried reading them.
The most dangerous word is bathtime.
Young devils may carry your knickers away.
Humility and Indigestion are often confused.
She pondered the last one for a minute or so before deciding that while it might be true, it was scarcely helpful.
There was a bedside table with two drawers and she wasn’t entirely surprised to find a Gideon’s Bible in the top one.  She was slightly more surprised to find it bulging with bookmarks, and when she opened to one at random it seemed like a full third of the page had been underlined with pencil or highlighted in a soft lemon ink.  She put the book away and closed the drawer with haste and crossed to the window.  It looked out over a nice green field with a wooden shed at one end and she immediately felt closer to the land.  This was surely what the countryside was all about.  Perhaps she might have a nice time here after all!
There was a robust tap at her door, in fact it was almost a thundering rather than a tap, so she leaned against the windowsill and faced the door, and called out in a light and cheerful voice, “Come in!”  The door opened and a middle-aged woman in a peach tracksuit that matched her lipstick stood in the doorway.  She held out a piece of paper, and when Stella approached to take it she saw that it was a printout of an email.

“Your parents are dead, miss,” said the woman flatly.  “Both of ‘em.”

Tuesday, 26 August 2014


Droplets was the name given to the farm; burned into a large wooden shingle that hung on the wall at the entrance to the farmyard. The farmyard itself was set at the edge of a cliff so that anyone incautious enough to step out of the farmhouse's back door would have a single stone step on which to regret their decision, and then a fall over over eight hundred feet to a sandy beach below. When he was drunk, which was most mornings as he would wake at three and drink to forget his nightmares, John Clarke the principal farmhand would mutter that the name of the farm was a prediction: that it would take only droplets of rain to push it over the edge itself. As it was raining heavily when Stella arrived at Droplets, and continued to rain for most of the days she was there, she disbelieved him the moment he put this suggestion forth.
She arrived clinging to the back of a produce truck whose driver had stopped to help when her car had broken down in a runnel by the side of a narrow country road. He had offered to let her sit in the truck itself, but the front seat was occupied by two growling alsatians, and the truck body was refrigerated, so she'd bitten down hard on her collection of journalistic swearwords and clung on as tenaciously as old ivy. The journey had been cold and wet and her fingers were blue and claw-hooked when she arrived, but she still surveyed the farmyard with the eyes of someone who thought they were a Jane Austen heroine.
She was quite dismayed to see that the farmyard, though inevitably muddy in places, was well-swept and tidy; rope neatly coiled on hooks, bales of straw stacked carefully against walls and under shelter, and an old but serviceable flat-bed truck parked up near the house. As she sighed, unable to think of anything to improve, the front door opened and old Benedict came out to greet her.
He greeted the produce truck, the cataracts in his eyes being so bad that everything was seen as though in thick fog, and when corrected of his misapprehension he smiled and hugged the produce man. Stella sighed again and walked inside, leaving the man who was probably her maternal grandfather to his misty confusion.
"I saw something nasty in the water closet," said a small, lugubrious child as she walked past it. She paused, wondering if she should be able to determine its sex, but the swaddled clothing and its extreme youth made it impossible for her to guess.
"I saw something nasty in the linen cupboard," said a young girl, dressed a maid, walking past.
"I saw something nasty clinging to the back of the produce truck," said the produce man, who'd come in behind her leading Benedict by the hand, and Stella whirled around, spraying water droplets everywhere, to berate him.
“If I’d wanted to be soaked in my own kitchen I should have bought a dog,” said a cool voice behind her before she could open her mouth, and so she turned again.  This time she turned more slowly so that her wet hair slapped lightly against her face and the water droplets simply hazed a little in front of her face.  The speaker was an elderly woman, tall and well-dressed.  She stood with impressive mien, suggesting that she fully ruled all she surveyed, and her face had a certain smoothness to it that Stella understood to mean that she was much older than she actually looked, but had taken care to conceal it.
“You have four dogs, Great-grandmama,” said the lugubrious child, walking now in the opposite direction and carrying a pie in a china dish.
“Hush child,” said the woman, not taking her eyes off Stella.  “None of my dogs would come into the kitchen and shake themselves free of water from their coats.  They are too well-trained for that.”
“She said she were comin’ ‘ere,” said the produce man, and Stella considered turning yet again to face him, but then worried that she might seem like a whirling dervish.  She’d never seen such a thing, but she’d written four articles on the topic for Sunday supplements and had received a modest amount of appreciative letters that she’d been able to feed to the Editor for the Letters Page over a period of weeks.  “So I let her come along.  I’d no idea that she would be so ill-mannered, Ms. Fate.”
Ms. Fate!  The woman who faced her, whose eyes seemed to be trying to dig into her face and tunnel through her skull to inspect her brain must be Mabel Fate, head of the clan at Droplets Farm!
“No blame attaches,” said Mabel sounding eerily like the I Ching.  “I’m sure she seduced you with her London ways.”
“A seduction!” roared Benedict, his voice too loud even for the large kitchen.  It echoes from the walls and bounced off the rafters and threatened to rattle the glass in the windows.  “Now there’s a thing!”
“Indoor voice, please, Benny,” said Mabel.  She spared him a glance, freeing Stella momentarily from her icy gaze, and Benedict subsided, his own near-blind eyes casting to the floor.  “Now child, what brings you to Droplets?”
“I sent a letter,” said Stella.  She was trying to sound calm, collected and defiant, but she was worrying the whole time that she sounded petulant.  “And I received one in return, filled with mysterious references to sexual liaisons and the promises of rights owing to me if I came here.  So naturally I came at once.  I sent another letter ahead of me, surely you’ve received it?”
“And what is wrong with email anyway?” said Mabel, her words as smooth as new ice on water.  “Or a phone-call perhaps?  Heavens, I think there’s even still a fax machine in the hall if you’d tried that.  The number is on the Droplets Farm website.  But either way, I dictated the letter you received myself, and I am certain that what I said was: ‘that if you came here, I’d see you bang to rights’.  I imagine in your London hurry you were reading it while rushing through the Underground and managed not only to misread the words but to misunderstand those that percolated through.  You are, after all, the Wooden Post’s child, and I am expecting little more than a stump.”
Stella’s mouth gaped like a stunned goldfish, and after a short pause she collected herself and closed it up again.  She was sure that the letter was different, and she’d only written out of deference to the fact that these cousins, however remote, lived on a farm!  Of course they couldn’t be expected to be modern and moving with the times.  And Mabel Fate, legendary dowager, had to be eighty by now, and presumably was scared of televisions, hairdryers and microwaves.  Email was unthinkable to a woman like her, surely?
“I was hoping to visit for a while,” she said, aware that it sounded mean and wheedling.
“You were hoping to interfere in family life,” said Mabel, as firm as Stella was indecisive.  “It will not happen.  I have no desire to incubate adders in the womb.”
“I wanted to ask about that!” said Stella, latching on to something where she felt she might have an edge.  “Your name is Mabel Fate, yet the family here are all called Arkstabber.  Why is that?”
“There have always been Arkstabbers at Droplets Farm!” said Benedict suddenly, cutting Mabel off before she could speak.  “Always!”
“In fact,” said Mabel in the tones of one who has had to explain this more times already than she felt was necessary, “this a New Farm built in the 60s when the government was worrying about too few people living off the land.  Before that it was a crematorium, and before that it was the site of two kilns.  This explains the local deforestation that made this viable as farmland, and allowed the crematorium to take advantage of the kilns and repurpose them as ovens.  We have further repurposed them as small, inadequate granaries, but we they’re apparently listed buildings so we have to do with them what we can without materially affecting them in any way.  Since no Arkstabber has been cremated, let alone worked in a crematorium, and kilning is simply not something Arkstabbers do, there has in fact been Arkstabbers at Droplets for only the last 50 years or so.  Benny.”
The old man dropped his gaze back to the floor again and looked a mere shadow of himself.
“As for you, young lady,” she continued, “You may call me Great-grandmama only.”
“That’s a bit of a mouthful,” said Stella, endeavouring to protest.  Her voice was still weak and reedy in the large kitchen.  Only Mabel seemed to have the trick of using the acoustics to add body to her words and reverb to her speeches.

“Then perhaps it will encourage you to think through the rest of what you’re saying before you say it.”