I wake up the next morning, heart pounding, leaping to my feet, my mind racing with everything I have to do ...
And then it stops, like a car screeching to a halt. For a moment I cant move. Then, hesitantly, I sink back into bed, overcome by the most extraordinary feeling.
Its Saturday. I have nothing to do.
No contracts to go over, no e- mails to reply to, no emergency meetings at the office. Nothing.
I try to remember the last time I had nothing to do. But Im not sure I can. It seems like Ive never had nothing to do, ever since I was about seven. I get out of bed, walk to the window, and stare out at the early morning translucent blue sky, trying to get my head around my situation. Its my day off. No one has any hold over me. No one can call me up and demand my presence. This is my own time. My own time.
As I stand there at the window, contemplating this fact, I start to feel an odd feeling inside. Light and giddy, like a helium balloon. I am free. A smile of exhilaration spreads across my face. For the first time ever, I can do whatever I like.
I check the timeand its only 7:15 a.m. The whole day stretches before me like a fresh sheet of paper. What shall I do? Where do I start?
Im already sketching out a timetable for the day in my head. Forget six- minute segments. Forget hurrying. Im going to start measuring time in hours. An hour for wallowing in the bath and getting dressed. An hour for lingering over breakfast. An hour for reading the paper, cover to cover. Im going to have the laziest, most indolent, most enjoyable morning Ive ever had in my adult life.
As I head into the bathroom, I can feel muscles twinging with pain all over my body. They really should market house- cleaning as a workout. I run a deep warm bath and slosh in some of Trishs bath oil, then step into the scented water and lie back happily.
Delicious. Im just going to stay here for hours and hours and hours.
I close my eyes, letting the water lap my shoulders, and time wafts past in great swathes. I think I even fall asleep for a while. I have never spent so long in a bath in my entire life.
At last I open my eyes, reach for a towel, and get out. As Im starting to dry myself off I reach for my watch, just out of curiosity.
I was only fifteen minutes?
How can I have only taken fifteen minutes? I stand, dripping, in indecision for a moment, wondering if I should get back in and do it all again, more slowly.
But no. That would be too weird. It doesnt matter. So I had my bath too quickly. Ill just make sure I take my time properly over breakfast.
At least I have some clothes to put on. Trish took me out last night to a shopping center a few miles away so I could stock up on underwear and shorts and summer dresses. She told me shed leave me to itthen ended up bossing me about and picking everything out for me ... and somehow I ended up with not a single item in black.
I cautiously put on a pink slip dress and a pair of sandals and look at myself. Ive never worn pink before in my life. My entire closet at home is filled with black suits for work and Ive got into the habit of wearing black at the weekends too. It just makes life easy.
But to my amazement I dont look too bad! Apart from the huge streak of bleach in my hair.
As I make my way along the corridor, theres no sound from the Geigers bedroom. I move silently past the door, feeling suddenly awkward. Itll be a bit strange, spending all weekend in their house, with nothing to do. Id better go out later. Get out of their way.
The kitchen is as silent and gleamy as ever, but its starting to feel slightly less intimidating. I know my way around the kettle and the toaster, if nothing else. Ill have toast for breakfast, with orange and ginger marmalade, and a nice cup of coffee. And Ill read the paper from cover to cover. Thatll take me to about eleven oclock and then I can think about what else to do ...
I wonder how the Fallons deal is progressing.
The thought pops into my mind with no warning. I cant help picturing my last scribbled amendments on the draft agreementall my work, left half done. And Kettermans due diligence report. I never finished that.
My grip on the kettle tightens as I remember all the projects Ive left behind. I wonder whos taken over all my unfinished deals. Edward Faulkner, maybe? Hes a year or two younger than me, but pretty sharp. With a wince I imagine him taking the files off my desk, flipping through all my work, introducing himself to the Fallons people. The team could be there right now, finishing up an all- nightersitting around the table, Edward Faulkner in my place ...
Just stop. I mustnt think about it. Ive left Carter Spink. Its nothing to do with me anymore. Im going to relax and enjoy my free time, like any normal person.
Forcing the images out of my mind, I head out into the hall, where I find a copy of the Times on the doormat. I bring it back to the kitchen just as my toast is popping up.
Thisis the life.
I sit by the window, crunching toast, sipping coffee, and leafing through the paper in a leisurely way. At last, after devouring three slices, two cups of coffee, and all the Saturday sections, I stretch my arms in a big yawn and glance at the clock. I dont believe it. Its only seven fifty- six.
What is wrong with me? I was supposed to take hours over breakfast. I was supposed to be sitting there all morning. Not get everything finished in twenty minutes flat.
OK ... never mind. Ill soon get the hang of it.
I put my crockery away in the dishwasher and wipe away my toast crumbs. Then I sit down at the table again and look about. I wonder what to do next.
Abruptly I realize Im tapping the table with my fingernails. I stop myself and survey my hands for a moment. This is ridiculous. Im having my first true day off in about ten years. I should be relaxed. Come on, I can think of something nice to do, surely.
What do people do on days off? My mind scrolls through a series of images from TV. I could make another cup of coffee, but Ive already had two. I could read the paper again, but I have an almost photographic memory. So rereading things I already know is a bit pointless.
My gaze drifts to the garden, where a squirrel is perched on a stone pillar, looking around with bright eyes. Maybe Ill go outside. Enjoy the garden and the wildlife and the early morning dew. Good idea.
Except the trouble with early morning dew is it gets all over your feet. As I pick my way over the damp grass, Im already wishing I hadnt put on open- toed sandals. Or that Id waited till later for my little stroll.
The garden is a lot bigger than Id appreciated. I walk down the lawn toward an ornamental hedge where the land seems to finish, only to realize theres a whole section beyond it, with an orchard at the end and some sort of walled garden to my left.
Its a stunning garden. Even I can see that. The flowers are vivid without being garish; every wall is covered with some beautiful creeper or vine. As I walk toward the orchard I can see little golden pears hanging from the branches of trees. I dont think Ive ever seen an actual pear growing on a tree before in my life. I grew up in a town house with a small paved courtyard containing nothing but a few nondescript shrubs.
I walk through the fruit trees toward a huge, square, brown patch of earth with vegetation growing in serried rows. These must be the vegetables. I prod one of them cautiously with my foot. It could be a cabbage or a lettuce. Or the leaves of something growing underground, maybe.
To be honest, it could be an alien. I have no idea.
I sit down on a mossy wooden bench and look at a nearby bush covered in white flowers. Mm. Pretty.
Now what? What do people do in their gardens?
I feel I should have something to read. Or someone to call. My fingers are itching to move. I look at my watch. Still only eight sixteen. Oh, God.
Come on, I cant give up yet. Ill just sit here for a bit and enjoy the peace. I lean back and watch a little speckled bird pecking the ground nearby for a while.
Then I look at my watch again: eight seventeen.
I cant do this.
I cant do nothing all day. Its going to drive me crazy. Ill have to go and buy another paper from the village shop. If theyve got War and Peace, Ill buy that too. I get up and head briskly back across the lawn when a bleep from my pocket makes me stop still.
Its my mobile. Its received a text. Someones just texted me, early on a Saturday morning. I pull out my mobile, feeling edgy. I havent had any contact with the outside world for two days. Is it from Carter Spink?
I know there are other texts in my phonebut I havent read any of them. I know there are messages in my voice mailbut I havent listened to a single one. I dont want to know.
I finger my mobile, telling myself to put it away. But now my curiosity has been sparked. Someone texted me a few seconds ago. Someone, somewhere, has been holding a mobile phone, punching in a message to me. I have a sudden vision of Guy, in his off- duty chinos and blue shirt. Sitting at his desk, frowning as he texts. Apologizing. Or giving me some news. Some kind of development I couldnt have guessed at yesterday
I cant help it. Despite all, I feel a sudden flicker of hope. As I stand there on the early morning lawn, I can feel my mental self being dragged out of this garden, back toLondon, back to the office. Two whole days have gone on there without me. A lot can happen in forty- eight hours. Things can change for the better.
Or ... become even worse. Theyre suing me. Theyre prosecuting me. Theres some obscure piece of negligence law I dont know about ...
Im gripping my phone more and more tightly. I have to know. Good or bad. I flip open the phone and find the text. Its from a number I dont even recognize.
Who? Who on earth is texting me? Feeling a little sick, I press OK to read. @ Hi Samantha, Nathaniel here.
My relief is so huge, I laugh out loud. Of course! I gave him my mobile number yesterday for his mother. I scroll down to read the rest of the message.
If youre interested, mum could start cooking lessons today, Nat
Cooking lessons. I feel a spark of delight. What a perfect way to fill the day! I press reply and quickly text:
Would love to. Thanks, Sam
I send it with a little smile. This is fun. A minute or two later, the phone bleeps again.
What time? Is 11 too early? Nat
I look at my watch. Eleven oclock is still two and a half hours away. Two and a half hours with nothing to do except avoid Trish and Eddie. I press reply.
Shall we make it 10? Sam
At five to ten Im ready in the hall. Nathaniels mothers house is nearby but apparently tricky to find, so the plan is to meet here and hell walk me over. I check my reflection in the hall mirror and wince. The streak of bleach in my hair is as obvious as ever. Am I
really going out in public like this? I push my hair backward and forward a few times but I cant hide it. Maybe I could walk along with my hand carelessly positioned at my head, as if Im thinking hard. I attempt a few casual, pensive poses in the mirror.
Is your head all right?
I swivel round in shock to see Nathaniel at the open door, wearing a plaid shirt and jeans.
Er ... fine, I say, my hand still glued to my head. I was just ...
Oh, theres no point. I bring my hand down from my hair and Nathaniel regards the streak for a moment.
It looks nice, he says. Like a badger.
A badger? I say, affronted. I dont look like a badger.
Badgers are beautiful creatures, says Nathaniel with a shrug. Id rather look like a badger than a stoat.
Hang on. Since when was my choice between badger and stoat? How did we get onto this subject, anyway?
Perhaps we should go, I say with dignity, then pick up my bag and give one last glance in the mirror.
OK. Maybe I look a little bit like a badger.
The summer air is already warming up outside, and as we walk down the gravel drive I sniff appreciatively. Theres some sort of nice flowery smell that I definitely recognize ...
Honeysuckle and jasmine! I exclaim in sudden recognition. I have the Jo Malone bath oil at home.
Honeysuckle on the wall. Nathaniel points to a tangle of tiny pale- yellow flowers on the old stone wall bordering the drive. Put it in a year ago.
I peer up at the delicate flowers with interest. Thats what real honeysuckle looks like? Theres no jasmine around here, though, he says, curiously. Can you smell it? Er ... I spread my hands vaguely. Maybe not. I dont think Ill mention my Jo Malone bath oil at this point. Or, in fact, at any point.
As we turn out of the drive I realize this is the first time Ive been out of the Geigers grounds since I arrived here apart from the shopping trip with Trish, when we turned in the opposite direction. And anyway, I was too busy scrabbling for her Celine Dion CD to notice my surroundings. Nathaniel has turned left and is striding easily along the road but I cant move. Im gazing at the sight in front of me, my jaw wide open. This village is absolutely stunning.
I had no idea.
I look around, taking in the old, honey- colored stone walls, the rows of ancient cottages with steeply pitched roofs, the little river lined with willow trees. Up ahead is the pub I noticed on the first night, decorated with hanging baskets. I can hear the distant clip- clop of horses hooves. Nothing jars. Everything is soft and mellow and feels like its been here for hundreds of years.
Nathaniel has finally noticed Im pinned to the spot.
Im sorry. I hurry to join him. Its just such a beautiful place!
Its nice. I can hear a note of pride in his voice. Gets too many tourists, but ...
I had no idea! We continue to walk along the street, but I cant stop looking around, wide- eyed. Look at the river! Look at the little church!
I feel like a child discovering a new toy. Ive hardly ever been to the English countryside, I suddenly realize. We always stayed inLondon or went abroad. Ive been toTuscany more times than I can remember, and I once spent six months inNew York when Mum was working there. But Ive never been to the Cotswolds in my life.
We walk over the river on an old arched stone bridge. At the top I stop to look at the ducks and swans.
Its just ... gorgeous. I exhale. Absolutely beautiful.
Didnt you see any of this as you arrived? Nathaniel looks amused. Did you just appear in a bubble?
I think back to that panicked, dazed, desperate journey.
Kind of, I say at last. I didnt really notice where I was going.
We both watch as a pair of swans sail regally under the little bridge. Then I glance at my watch. Its already five past ten.
We should get going, I say with a little start. Your mother will be waiting.
Theres no rush, Nathaniel calls as I hasten down the other side of the bridge. Weve got all day. He lopes down the bridge. Its OK. You can slow down.
I try to match his relaxed pace. But Im not used to this easy rhythm. Im used to striding along crowded pavements, fighting my way, pushing and elbowing.
So, did you grow up here? I ask.
Yup. He swings into a little cobbled lane. I came back when my dad got ill. Then he died and I had to sort things out. Take care of Mum. Its been tough on her. The finances were in a messeverything was in a mess.
Im ... sorry, I say awkwardly. Do you have any other family?
My brother, Jake. He came back for a week. Nathaniel hesitates. He runs his own computer business. Very successful.
Didnt you mind? I say. That he only stayed a week?
Jakes a busy man. He has other priorities.
Nathaniels voice is as easy as ever, but I can detect a thread of ... something. Maybe I wont ask any more about his family.
Well, Id live here, I say with enthusiasm. You do live here, he reminds me. I feel a tweak of surprise. I suppose hes right. Technically, I do.
I try to process this new thought. Ive never lived anywhere exceptLondon before, apart from my three years atCambridge and those six months inNew York when I was eight. Im a city person. Thats who I am. Thats who I ... was.
But already the old me is feeling more distant. When I think back to myself even last week, its as if Im seeing myself through tracing paper. Everything I once prized has been destroyed. Im still feeling sore and bruised. But at the same time ... my rib cage expands widely as I breathe in the country air, and I suddenly feel a wave of optimism. On impulse, I stop by a huge tree and gaze up into the green- laden branches. As I do so, a memory from English A Level suddenly comes into my mind.
Theres a wonderful Walt Whitman poem about an oak tree. I lift a hand and tenderly stroke the cool, rough bark. I saw inLouisiana a live- oak growing. AW alone stood it,
and the moss hung down from the branches. I glance over at Nathaniel, half- expecting him to look impressed. Thats a beech, he says, nodding at the tree. Oh. Right. I dont know any poems about beeches.
Here we are. Nathaniel pushes open an old iron gate and gestures me to go up a stone path toward a little cottage with blue flowered curtains at the windows. Come and meet your cooking teacher.
Nathaniels mother is nothing like I expected. I was picturing some cozy Mrs. Tiggywinkle character with gray hair in a bun and half- moon spectacles. Instead, Im looking at a wiry woman with a vivid, pretty face. Her eyes are bright blue, and her graying hair is in plaits on either side of her face. Shes wearing an apron over jeans, T- shirt, and espadrilles, and is vigorously kneading some kind of dough on the kitchen table.
Mum. Nathaniel grins and pushes me forward into the kitchen. Here she is. This is Samantha. Samanthamy mum. Iris.
Samantha. Welcome. Iris looks up, and I can see her taking me in, head to foot. Just let me finish this.
Nathaniel gestures to me to sit down, and I cautiously take a seat on a wooden chair. The kitchen is at the back of the house and is filled with light and sun. Flowers in earthenware jugs are everywhere. Theres an old- fashioned range and a scrubbed wooden table and a stable door open to the outside. As Im wondering whether I should be making conversation, a chicken wanders in and starts scratching at the ground.
Oh, a chicken! I exclaim before I can stop myself.
Yes, a chicken. I can see Iris looking at me with wry amusement. Never seen a chicken before?
Only in the supermarket chill counter. The chicken comes pecking toward my open- toe- sandaled feet and I quickly tuck them under my chair, trying to look as though I meant to do that anyway.
There. Iris picks up the dough, shapes it efficiently into a round shape on a tray, opens the heavy oven door, and pops it in. She washes her floury hands at the sink, then turns to face me.
So. You want to learn how to cook. Her tone is friendly but businesslike. I sense this is a woman who doesnt waste words.
Yes. I smile. Please.
Cordon Bleu fancy stuff, chimes in Nathaniel, whos leaning against the range.
And how much cooking have you done before? Iris dries her hands on a red- checked towel. Nathaniel said none. That cant be right. She folds the towel and smiles at me for the first time. What can you make? What are your basics?
Her intent blue gaze is making me feel a little nervous. I rack my brains, trying to think of something I can make.
Well ... I can ... I can make ... um ... toast, I say. Toast would be my basic.
Toast? She looks taken aback. Just toast?
And crumpets, I add quickly. Tea cakes ... anything that goes in a toaster, really.
But what about cooking? She drapes the towel over a steel bar on the range and looks at me more carefully. What about ... an omelet? Surely you can cook an omelet.
I swallow. Not really.
Iriss expression is so incredulous I feel my cheeks flame. I never really did home economics at school, I explain. I never really learned how to make meals.
But your mother, surely ... or your grandmother She breaks off as I shake my head. Anyone?
I bite my lip. Iris exhales sharply as though taking in the situation for the first time.
So you cant cook anything at all. And what have you promised to make for the Geigers?
Trish wanted a weeks worth of menus. So I ... um ... gave her one based on this. Sheepishly, I get the crumpled Maxims menu out of my bag and hand it to her.
Braised lamb and baby onion assemble with a fondant potato and goats cheese crust, accompanied by cardamom spinach puree, she reads out, in tones of disbelief.
I hear a snort and look up to see Nathaniel in fits of laughter.
It was all I had! I exclaim defensively. What was I going to say, fish fingers and chips?
Assemble is just flannel. Iris is still perusing the sheet. Thats souped- up shepherds pie. We can teach you that. And the braised trout with almonds is straightforward enough ... She runs her finger further down the page, then at last looks up, frowning. I can teach you these dishes, Samantha. But it isnt going to be easy. If youve really never cooked before. She glances at Nathaniel. Im really not sure ...
I feel a flicker of alarm. Please dont say shes going to back out.
Im a quick learner. I lean forward. And Ill work hard. I really, really want to do this.
Please. I need this.
All right, says Iris at last. Lets get you cooking.
She reaches into a cupboard for a set of weighing scales, and I take the opportunity to reach into my bag for a pad of paper and a pen.
Whats that for? She raises her chin toward the paper.
So I can take notes, I explain. I write down the date and Cooking lesson no. 1, underline it, then stand at the ready. Iris is slowly shaking her head.
Samantha, cooking isnt about writing down. Its about tasting. Feeling. Touching. Smelling.
Right. I nod.
I must remember that. I quickly uncap my pen and scribble down Cooking all about tasting, smelling, feeling, etc. I cap my pen again, only to see Iris regarding me with incredulity.
Tasting, she says, removing my pen and paper from my hands. Not writing. You need to use your senses. Your instincts.
She lifts the lid off a pot gently steaming on the cooker and dips a spoon into it. Taste this.
Gingerly I take the spoon in my mouth. Gravy, I say at once. Delicious! I add politely. Iris shakes her head.
Dont tell me what you think it is. Tell me what you can taste.
This is a trick question, surely.
I can taste ... gravy.
Her expression doesnt change. Shes waiting for something else.
Er ... meat? I hazard.
My mind is blank. I cant think of anything else. I mean, its gravy. What else can you say about gravy?
Taste it again. Iris is relentless. You need to try harder.
My face is growing hot as I struggle for words. I feel like the dumb kid at the back of the class who cant do the two- times table.
Meat ... water ... I try desperately to think what else is in gravy. Flour! I say in sudden inspiration.
You cant taste flour. Theres none in there. Samantha, dont think about identifying the taste. Just tell me what the sensation is. Iris holds the spoon out a third time. Taste it againand this time close your eyes.
Close my eyes?
OK. I take a mouthful and close my eyes obediently.
Now. What can you taste? Iriss voice is in my ear. Concentrate on the flavors. Nothing else.
Eyes shut tight, I block out everything and focus all my attention on my mouth. All Im aware of is the warm salty liquid on my tongue. Salt. Thats one flavor. And sweet ... and ... theres another taste as I swallow it down ...
Its almost like colors appearing. First the bright, obvious ones, and then the gentler ones youd almost miss.
Its salty and meaty ... I say slowly, without opening my eyes. And sweet ... and ... and almost fruity? Like cherries?
I open my eyes, feeling a bit disoriented. There is Iris, smiling. Behind her I suddenly notice Nathaniel, scrutinizing me intently. I feel a tad flustered. Tasting gravy with your eyes closed is a fairly intimate thing to do, it turns out. Im not sure I want anyone watching me.
Iris seems to understand. Nathaniel, she says briskly. Were going to need ingredients for all these dishes. She scribbles a long list and hands it to him. Run down and get these for us, love.
As he leaves the room, she looks at me with kindness. That was much better.
By George, shes got it? I say hopefully, and Iris throws back her head in laughter.
Not yet, sweetie, by a long chalk. Here, get a pinny on. She hands me a red- and- white striped apron and I tie it around my waist, feeling self- conscious.
Its so good of you to help me, I venture. Iris is pulling onions and some orange vegetable I dont recognize out from a bin by the door. Im really grateful.
I like a challenge. She takes a knife from a block on the counter. I get bored. Nathaniel does everything for me. Too much sometimes.
But still. Youd never even met me
I liked the sound of you. Iris draws down a heavy wooden chopping board from a shelf above. Nathaniel told me how you got yourself out of your mess the other night. That took some spirit.
I had to do something, I say ruefully.
And they offered you a pay rise as a result. Wonderful. As she smiles, fine lines appear round her eyes like starbursts. Trish Geiger is a very foolish woman.
I like Trish, I say, feeling a stab of loyalty.
So do I. Iris nods. Shes been very supportive to Nathaniel. But I do sometimes wonder She pauses, her hand resting on an onion.
What? I say tentatively.
Whyshe needs quite so much help. Why the full- time housekeeper? What does she do with her time? She looks genuinely interested.
I dont know, I say truthfully. I havent quite worked it out.
Intriguing. Iris seems lost in thought for a moment. Then she focuses on me again. So youve taken the Geigers in completely.
Yes. I smile. They have no idea who I am.
And who are you? Her question takes me completely by surprise. Is your name really Samantha? Yes! I say in shock.
That was a little blunt, Iris acknowledges. But a girl arrives in the middle of the countryside out of nowhere and takes a job she cant do ... She pauses, clearly choosing her words with care. Nathaniel tells me youve just got out of a bad relationship?
Yes, I mumble, my head bowed, hoping she wont start probing for details. You dont want to talk about it, do you? Not really. No. I dont. As I look up theres a thread of understanding in her eyes.
Thats fine by me. She picks up a knife. Now lets start. Roll up your sleeves, tie back your hair, and wash your hands. Im going to teach you to chop an onion.
We spend all weekend cooking.
I learn to slice an onion finely, turn it the other way, and produce tiny dice. As I first watch Iris wielding her knife I cant imagine doing the same without chopping off a fingerbut after two ruined onions I just about crack it. I learn to chop herbs with a rounded blade. I learn how to rub flour and ground ginger into chunks of meat, then drop them into a spitting hot, cast- iron pan. I learn that pastry has to be made with quick, cold hands, by an open window. I learn the trick of blanching French beans in boiling water before sauteing them in butter.
A week ago I didnt know what blanching even meant.
In between cooking I sit on the back step with Iris. We watch the chickens scratch in the dirt, and sip freshly brewed coffee accompanied by a pumpkin muffin or salty, crumbly cheese sandwiched with lettuce in homemade bread.
Eat and enjoy, Iris says each time, handing me my share. My impulse is to gobble down my foodbut Iris always shakes her head in dismay. Not so fast. Take your time! Taste the food!
As were stirring risotto on Saturday afternoon, Iris puts on a CD of Puccini and tells me how she spent a year inItaly at the age of twenty, learning to cook and speak the language. She tells me how she came home for a holiday, intending to return toItaly after
a month. Shed been offered a cooking job there. But she met Benjamin, Nathaniels fatherand never took the job.
He must have been an extraordinary person for you to do that. I look up from the risotto.
Yes, he was, says Iris, her face softening. He was funny and warm ... and full of life. And kind. Most of all, kind. Then she notices my stationary spoon. Keep stirring!
On Sunday afternoon, under Iriss calm guidance, I make roast chicken with sage and onion stuffing, steamed broccoli, cumin- scented carrots, and roast potatoes. As I heave the huge roasting tin out of the oven, I pause for a moment and let the warm, chicken- scented air rise over me. I have never smelled a more homey smell in my life. The chicken is golden, its crisp, crackly skin speckled with the pepper I ground on earlier, the juices still sizzling in the tin.
Gravy time, Iris calls from the other side of the kitchen. Take the chicken out and put it on the dishand cover it up. We need to keep it warm. Now tilt the roasting tin. Can I you see those globules of fat floating on the surface? You need to spoon those out.
Shes finishing the topping on a plum crumble as she speaks. She dots it with butter and pops it into the oven, then seamlessly reaches for a cloth and wipes down the surface. Ive watched her all day, moving swiftly and precisely around the kitchen, tasting as she goes, fully in control.
Thats right. Shes by my side, watching as I whisk the gravy. Keep going ... itll thicken in a minute ...
I can not believe Im making gravy. Making gravy.
Andlike everything Ive learned to make in this amazing kitchenits working. The ingredients are obeying. The mishmash of chicken juices, stock, and flour is somehow turning into a smooth, fragrant broth.
Very good! says Iris. Now pour it into this nice warm jug ... sieve out any bits ... See how easy that was?
I think youre magic, I say bluntly. Thats why everything works in here. Youre a cooking witch.
A cooking witch! Ha! I like that. Now come on. Pinny off. Time to enjoy what weve made. She takes off her apron and holds out a hand for mine. Nathaniel, have you finished the table?
Nathaniel has been in and out of the kitchen all weekend, and Ive got used to his presence. In fact, Ive been so taken up with cooking Ive barely noticed him. Now hes
laying the wooden table with rush mats, old bone- handled cutlery, and soft checked napkins.
Wine for the cooks, says Iris, producing a bottle from the fridge and uncorking it. She pours me a glass, then gestures to the table. Sit, Samantha. Youve done enough for one weekend. You must be shattered.
Im fine! I say automatically. But as I sink down into the nearest chair, I realize for the first time quite how exhausted I am. And how much my feet hurt. I close my eyes and feel myself relax for the first time that day. My arms and back are aching from all the chopping and mixing. My senses have been bombarded with smells and tastes and new sensations.
Dont fall asleep! Iriss voice jolts me back to the present. This is our reward! Nathaniel love, put Samanthas roast chicken down there. You can carve.
I open my eyes to see Nathaniel carrying over the serving dish bearing the roast chicken, and feel a fresh glow of pride. My first roast chicken. I almost want to take a photo.
Youre not telling me you made this? says Nathaniel.
Ha ha. He knows full well I made it.
Just something I rustled up earlier. I wink at him. As we Cordon Bleu chefs do.
Nathaniel carves the chicken with an expert ease, and Iris dishes out the vegetables. When were all served she sits down and raises her glass.
To you, Samantha. Youve done splendidly.
Thanks. I smile and am about to sip my wine when I realize the other two arent moving.
And to Ben, Iris adds softly.
On Sundays we always remember Dad, Nathaniel explains.
Oh. I hesitate, then raise my glass.
And now. Iris reaches for her knife and fork. The moment of truth. She takes a bite of chicken while I try to hide my nerves.
Very good. She nods at last. Very good indeed. I cant stop beaming. Really? Its ... good?
Iris lifts her glass to me. By George. Shes got roast chicken, at any rate.
I sit in the glow of the evening light, not talking much but eating and listening to Iris and Nathaniel chat. They tell me stories about Eddie and Trish, about when they tried to buy the local church and turn it into a guest cottage, and I cant help laughing. Nathaniel outlines his plans for the Geigers garden and draws a sketch of the avenue of limes he created at Marchant House. When he gets animated he draws more and more quickly, his hand dwarfing the stub of pencil hes using. Iris notices me watching in admiration and points out a watercolor of the village pond, hanging on the wall.
Ben did that. She nods toward Nathaniel. He takes after his father.
The atmosphere is so relaxed and easy, so different from any meal Ive ever had at home. No ones on the phone. No ones rushing to get anywhere else. I could sit here all night.
As the meal is finally drawing to a close I clear my throat. Iris, I just want to say thank you again.
I enjoyed it. Iris takes a forkful of plum crumble. I always did enjoy bossing people about.
But really. Im so grateful. I dont know what I would have done without your help. Is there any way I can repay you?
Dont be ridiculous! Iris takes a sip of wine and dabs her mouth. Next weekend well make lasagne. And gnocchi!
Next weekend? I stare at her. But
You dont think youve finished? Ive only just started on you!
But ... I cant take up all your weekends ...
Im not graduating you yet, she says with a cheerful asperity. So you have no choice. Now, what else do you need help with? Cleaning? Washing?
I feel a twinge of embarrassment. She clearly knows exactly how much of a mess I got myself into the other day.
Im not really sure how to use the washing machine, I admit at last.
Well cover that. She nods. Ill pop up to the house when theyre out and have a look at it.
And I cant sew on buttons.
Buttons ... She reaches for a piece of paper and a pencil, and writes it down, still munching on the crumble. I suppose you cant hem either.
Hemming ... She scribbles it down. What about ironing? She looks up, suddenly alert. You must have had to iron. How did you wriggle out of that one?
Im sending the clothes out to Stacey Nicholson, I confess. In the village. She charges three pounds a shirt.
Stacey Nicholson? Iris puts her pencil down. That flibbertigibbet?
In her ad she said she was an experienced laundress.
Shes fifteen years old! Galvanized, Iris pushes back her chair. Samantha, you are not paying Stacey Nicholson to do your ironing. Youre going to learn how to do it yourself.
But Ive never
Ill teach you. Anyone can iron. She reaches into a little side room, pulls out an old ironing board covered in flowery material, and sets it up, then beckons me over. What do you have to iron?
Mr. Geigers shirts, mainly, I say, nervously joining her at the ironing board.
All right. She plugs in an iron and turns the dial. Hot, for cotton. Wait for the iron to heat up. No point beginning till its at the right temperature. Now, Ill show you the right way to tackle a shirt ...
She rootles, frowning, in a pile of clean laundry in the little room. Shirts ... shirts ... Nathaniel, take off your shirt a moment.
I stiffen. As I glance at Nathaniel I see he has stiffened too.
Mum! He gives an awkward laugh.
Oh, dont be ridiculous, love, says Iris impatiently. You can take off your shirt for a moment. No ones embarrassed. Youre not embarrassed, are you, Samantha?
Um ... My voice is a little grainy for some reason. Urn ... no, of course not.
Now, this is your steam. She presses a button on the iron and a jet of steam shoots into the air. Always check that your steam compartment has water ... Nathaniel! Im waiting!
Through the steam I can see Nathaniel slowly unbuttoning his shirt. I catch a flash of smooth tanned skin and hastily lower my gaze.
Lets not be adolescent about this. So hes taking off his shirt. Its no big deal.
He tosses the shirt to his mother, who catches it deftly. My eyes are studiously fixed downward.
Im not going to look at him.
Start with the collar. Iris is smoothing the shirt out on the ironing board. Now, you dont have to press hard. She guides my hand as the iron glides over the fabric. Keep a smooth touch ...
This is ridiculous. Im an adult, mature woman. I can look at a man with no shirt on without falling to bits. What Ill do is ... take a casual peek. And get this out of my mind.
Now the yoke ... Iris turns the shirt around on the board and I start pressing again. Very good ... onto the cuffs now ...
I lift the shirttail to flip it overand as I do so, accidentally- on- purpose raise my eyes. Sweet Jesus. Im not sure the whole getting- it- out- of- my- mind plan is going to work after all. Samantha? Iris grabs the iron from my hand. Youre scorching the shirt!
Oh! I come to. Sorry. I ... I lost concentration for a moment.
Your cheeks seem very flushed. Iris puts a curious hand to my cheek. Are you all right, sweetie?
Must be the ... um ... steam. I start ironing again, my face like a furnace. Im fine. Thanks.
At last I shake out his ironed shirt, perfectly done with all the creases in the right places.
Very good! says Iris, applauding. After some practice youll be able to do that in four minutes flat.
Looks great. Nathaniel smiles, holding out a hand. Thanks.
Thats OK! I manage in a strangled squawk, and hastily look away again, my heart thumping.
Great. Just great. One glimpse of his body and I have a fullblown crush. I honestly thought I was a bit deeper than that.