He doesnt have a girlfriend.
I managed to get that information out of Trish on Sunday night, under the guise of asking about all the neighbors. There was some girl inGloucester, apparentlybut that was all over months ago. The way is clear. I just need a strategy.
As I shower and get dressed the next morning, Im totally fixated by thoughts of Nathaniel. Im aware Ive reverted to the behavior of a fourteen- year- old, that next Ill be doodling Samantha loves Nathaniel with a love heart dotting the i. But I dont care. Its not as though being a mature, levelheaded professional was working out so great for me.
I brush my hair, looking out at the misty green fields, and feel inexplicably lighthearted. I have no reason to feel this way. On paper, everything is still catastrophic. My fast- track career is over. My family has no idea where I am. Im earning a fraction of what I used to, for a job that involves picking up other peoples dirty underwear off the floor.
And yet I find myself humming as I straighten my bed.
My life has changed, and Im changing with it. Its as if the old conventional monochrome Samantha has faded away into a paper doll. Ive thrown her into the water and shes melting away to nothing. And in her place is a new me. A me with possibilities.
Ive never gone after a man before. But then, until yesterday Id never basted a chicken before. If I can do that, I can ask a man out, surely? The old Samantha would have sat back and waited to be approached. Well, not the new Samantha. Ive seen the dating shows on TV; I know the rules. Its all about looks and body language and flirty conversation.
I walk over to the mirror and, for the first time since Ive arrived here, examine my appearance with an honest, unflinching eye.
At once I regret it. Ignorance was better.
For a start, how can anyone look good in a blue nylon overall? I reach for a belt, fasten it around my middle, and hitch up my overall till the skirt is about three inches shorter, like we used to at school.
Hi, I say to my reflection, and casually toss back my hair. Hi, Nathaniel. Hi, Nat.
All I need now is lots of black eyeliner badly applied, and Ill be back to my fourteen- year- old self in every single way.
I reach for my makeup bag and spend about ten minutes alternately applying and removing makeup, until Ive got something that looks natural and subtle, yet defined. Or else like Ive wasted ten minutes. I have no idea.
Now to the body language. I wrinkle up my forehead, trying to remember the rules from TV. If a woman is attracted to a man, her pupils will dilate. Also, she will unconsciously lean forward, laugh at his jokes, and expose her wrists and palms.
Experimentally I lean toward my reflection, holding out my hands as I do so. I look like Jesus. I try adding a flirty laugh. Ha ha ha! I exclaim aloud. You just crack me up! Now I look like a cheerful Jesus. Im really not sure this is adding to my chances.
I head downstairs and draw back the curtains, letting in the bright morning sunshine. Im picking up the post from the doormat when the doorbell rings. A guy in uniform, holding a clipboard, is standing outside, a van behind him in the drive. Delivery from Professional Chefs Equipment Direct, he says. Where shall I put the boxes?
Oh, right, I say apprehensively. In the kitchen, please. Thanks.
Professional Chefs Equipment. I guess that would be for me, the Professional Chef.
Whats that van, Samantha? calls Trish, tottering down the stairs in a dressing gown and high- heeled mules. Is it flowers?
Its the cookery equipment you ordered for me! Somehow I summon up an enthusiastic front.
Oh, good! Trish is delighted. Now youll be able to stun us with your cooking! Its roasted sea bream with julienned vegetables tonight, isnt it?
Er ... yes! I gulp. I suppose it is.
Mind your backs!
We both jump aside as two deliverymen troop past with boxes stacked high in their arms. I follow them into the kitchen and watch the growing pile in disbelief.
Now, we bought you everything, says Trish, as though reading my mind. Go on! Open them! Im sure you cant wait!
I fetch a knife and start unpacking the first box, while Trish slits the plastic on another. Out of the profusion of foam peanuts and bubble wrap, I lift a gleaming stainless- steel ... something. What on earth is this? I glance quickly at the label on the side of the box. Savarin Mold.
A ... savarin mold! I exclaim. How marvelous. Just what I ... wanted. We only got eight of those, says Trish, with concern. Is that enough? Er ... I look at it helplessly. That should be plenty.
Now, the saucepans. Trish has ripped open a box of shiny aluminum pans and holds out one to me expectantly. We were told these were the very best quality. Would you agree? As a trained chef?
Lets just have a look, I say, trying to sound professional. I heft the saucepan appraisingly, then study the bottom and, for good measure, ping the surface with my fingernail.
Yes, thats a nice- quality pan, I say at last. You chose well.
Oh, good! Trish beams, delving into another box. And look at this! She scatters foam to reveal a weird- shaped gadget with a wooden handle. Ive never even seen one of these! What is it, Samantha?
Yikes. Whats that? It looks like a cross between a sieve, a grater, and a whisk. I glance quickly at the box for clues, but the label has been torn off.
What is it? says Trish again.
This is used for a highly specialized cooking technique, I say at last. Highly specialized.
What do you do with it? Show me! She thrusts the handle at me.
Well. I take the thing from her. Its a kind of ... whisking ... circular motion ... keep the wrist light ... I beat the air briskly a few times. Kind of like that. Its difficult to show properly without the ... um ... truffles.
So whats it called? says Trish, agog.
Ive always known it as a ... truffle beater, I say at last. But it could have some ... other name as well. Why dont I make you a cup of coffee? I add quickly. And Ill unpack everything else later.
I switch on the kettle, reach for the coffeepot, and glance out the window. Nathaniel is striding across the lawn.
Oh, God. Full crush alert. Full, one hundred percent, old- fashioned adolescent crush.
I can not take my eyes off him. The sunlight is catching the ends of his tawny hair and hes wearing ancient, faded jeans. As I watch, he picks up some huge sack of something, swings it round easily, and throws it onto something that might be a compost heap.
My mind is suddenly filled with a fantasy of him picking me up in exactly the same way. Swinging me round easily in his big strong arms. I mean, I cant be that much heavier than a sack of potatoes
So, how was your weekend off, Samantha? Trish breaks my thoughts. We barely saw you! Did you go into town?
I went to Nathaniels house, I reply without thinking.
Nathaniel? Trish sounds astonished. The gardener? Why?
Immediately I realize my huge mistake. I cant exactly say, To have cooking lessons. I try to fabricate an instant, convincing reason.
Just ... to say hello, really, I say at last, aware that I sound tongue- tied. And also that my cheeks are turning pink.
Trishs face suddenly snaps in comprehension and her eyes open very wide.
Oh, I see, she says. How adorable!
No! I say quickly. Its not ... Honestly
Dont worry! Trish cuts me off emphatically. I wont say a word. I am discretion itself. She puts a finger to her lips. You can rely on me.
Before I can say anything else she picks up her coffee and heads out of the kitchen. I sit down amid all the kitchen stuff and packaging and fiddle with the truffle beater.
That was awkward. But I suppose it doesnt really matter. As long as she doesnt say
anything inappropriate to Nathaniel.
Then I realize Im being stupid. Of course shell say something inappropriate to Nathaniel. Shell make some oh- so- subtle innuendo, and then who knows what hell think. This could be really embarrassing. This could ruin everything.
I must go and make the situation quite clear to him. That Trish misunderstood me, and I do not have a crush on him.
While, obviously, making it clear that I do.
I force myself to wait until Ive done breakfast for Trish and Eddie, tidied the new kitchen equipment away, mixed up some olive oil and lemon zest, and put tonights sea bream fillets into it, just as Iris taught me.
Then I hitch up my uniform a bit more, add some more eyeliner for luck, and head out into the garden, holding a basket I found in the larder. If Trish wants to know what Im doing, Im gathering herbs for cooking.
I find Nathaniel in the orchard behind the old wall, standing on a ladder, tying some rope round a tree. As I make my way toward him Im ridiculously nervous. My mouth feels dryand did my legs just wobble?
God, youd think Id have some poise. Youd think being a lawyer for seven years would have prepared me a bit better. Ignoring my jitters as best I can, I walk up to the ladder, toss back my hair, and wave up to him, trying not to squint in the sun.
Hi! Hi. Nathaniel smiles back. Hows it going? Fine, thanks! Much better. No disasters yet ...
Theres a pause. I suddenly realize Im gazing a little too hard at his hands as they tighten the rope. I was just after some ... rosemary. I gesture to my basket. If you have any?
Sure. Ill cut you some. He jumps down off the ladder and we walk along the path toward the herb garden.
Its totally silent, down here away from the house, apart from the odd buzzing insect and the crunch of gravel on the path. I try to think of something light and easy to say, but my brain is blank.
Its ... hot, I manage at last.
Uh- huh. Nathaniel nods, and steps up easily over the stone wall into the herb garden. I try to follow him with a light springing step and catch my foot on the wall. Ow. Fuck.
All right? Nathaniel turns.
Fine! Even though my foot is throbbing with agony. Wow. This is amazing! I look around the garden in genuine admiration. Its laid out in a hexagonal shape, with little paths between the sections. Tiny dark green hedges act as borders, and topiary spheres mark the corners. Lavender stems are gently waving in old stone planters, interspersed with tubs of some tiny white flower that smells of honey.
Did you do all this? I peer at a bed of plants that I think might be oregano. Its absolutely stunning!
Thanks. Im pleased with it. Nathaniel sounds offhand but I can tell hes gratified. Anyway. Your rosemary.
He pulls out a pair of secateurs from an old leather holster- type thing and starts clipping at a dark green, spiky bush.
OK. I have to say what Ive come to say.
So ... um ... its really weird, I begin as lightly as I can, fingering the scented leaves of some bushy plant. But Trish seems to have got the wrong idea about us! She seems to think were ... you know.
Ah. He nods, his face averted.
Which is obviously ... ridiculous! I add.
Mm- hmm. He clips some more rosemary sprigs and holds them up. This enough for you?
Mm- hmm? Thats it? Thats all he has to say on the subject?
Actually, Id like some more, I say, and he turns back to the bush. So ... isnt it ridiculous? I add, trying to prod him into a proper answer.
Well, of course. At last Nathaniel looks at me properly. You wont be wanting to get into anything for a while. Not so soon after a bad relationship.
I look at him blankly. What on earth Oh, yes. My bad relationship. Right, I say after a pause. Yes, that.
Why did I go along with the bad relationship story? What was I thinking?
Heres your rosemary. Nathaniel puts a fragrant bundle into my arms. Anything else?
Um ... yes! I say quickly. Could I have some mint?
I watch as he moves carefully over the rows of herbs to where mint is growing in large stone containers.
Actually ... I force myself to sound careless. Actually, the relationship wasnt that bad. In fact, I think Ive pretty much got over it.
Nathaniel looks up, shading his eyes against the sun. Youve got over a seven- year relationship in a week?
Now that he puts it like that, it does sound a bit implausible. I cast around quickly in my mind.
I have great reserves of resilience, I say at last. Im like ... rubber.
Rubber, he echoes, his expression unreadable.
Was rubber a bad choice of word? No. Come on, rubber is sexy.
Nathaniel adds the mint to the rosemary in my arms. Mum said ... He pauses awkwardly.
What? I say, a little breathless. Theyve been talking about me?
Mum wondered if youd been ... badly treated. He shifts his gaze away. Youre so tense and twitchy.
Im not tense and twitchy! I retort at once.
Well, maybe that was a little tense and twitchy.
Im naturally twitchy, I explain. But I wasnt badly treated or anything like that. I was just ... I always felt ... trapped.
The word comes out to my own surprise. I have a flash of my life at Carter Spink. Constantly at the beck and call of senior partners. Practically living at the office some weeks. Taking piles of work home with me. Answering e- mails at every hour. Maybe I
did feel a little bit trapped.
But Im fine now. I shake back my hair. Ready to move on ... and start a new relationship ... or something more casual ... whatever.
I gaze up at him, trying as hard as I can to dilate my pupils and casually lifting my hand to my ear for good measure. Theres a still, tense silence, broken only by the buzzing of insects.
You probably shouldnt rush into anything new, Nathaniel says. He moves away without meeting my eye and starts examining the leaves on a shrub.
Theres a stiffness in his back. I feel a rush of blood to my face. Hes letting me down lightly. He doesnt want to go out with me.
Aargh. This is hideous. Here I am, with my hitched- up skirt and eyeliner, employing all the body language I know, basically just offering myself to him. And hes trying to let me know hes not interested.
Im mortified. I have to get away from here. From him.
Youre right, I say, flustered. Its ... far too soon to think about anything like that. In fact, it would be a terrible idea. Im just going to focus on my new job. Cooking and ... and ... so forth. I must get on. Thanks for the herbs.
Anytime, says Nathaniel.
Yes. Well. Ill see you.
Clasping the bundle more tightly, I turn on my heel, step over the wall, managing not to bash my foot this time, and stride back along the gravel path up to the house.
I am beyond embarrassed. So much for a whole new Samantha. That is the last time I ever go after a man, ever. My original strategy of waiting politely,
being ignored, and then being passed over for someone else was a million times better.
Anyway. I dont care. Its for the best, really. Because I do have to concentrate on my work. As soon as I get back to the house I set up the ironing board, plug in the iron, turn on the radio, and make a nice strong cup of coffee. This is going to be my focus from now on. Getting my tasks for the day done. Not some ridiculous crush on the gardener. Im being paid to do a job here and Im going to do it.
By midmorning Ive ironed ten shirts, put a load of laundry on, and hoovered the conservatory. By lunchtime, Ive dusted and hoovered all the downstairs rooms and polished all the mirrors with vinegar. By teatime, Ive put on another load of laundry,
shredded my vegetables in the food processor, measured out the wild rice to be steamed, and carefully prepared four filo pastry cases for my tartes de fruits, as Iris taught me.
By seven oclock Ive thrown away one lot of burned filo cases, baked another four, topped them with strawberries, and finished with heated- up apricot jam. Ive pan- fried the vegetable shreds in olive oil and garlic till theyre soft. Ive blanched my French beans. Ive put the sea bream in the oven. Ive also taken more than a few sips of vermouth meant for the coulis, but thats neither here nor there.
My face is bright red and my heart is beating fast and Im moving round the kitchen in a kind of speeded- up reality but I kind of feel OK. In fact, I almost feel exhilarated. Here I am, actually cooking a meal all on my ownand Im just about on top of it! Apart from the mushroom fiasco. But theyre safely in the bin.
Ive laid the dining table with the Minton china and put candles in the silver candlesticks. Ive got a bottle of Prosecco waiting in the fridge and heated plates waiting in the oven, and Ive even put Irishs CD of Enrique Iglesias love songs in the player. I feel like Im throwing my first dinner party.
With a pleasant flutter in my stomach, I smooth down my apron and push open the kitchen door. Mrs. Geiger? Mr. Geiger?
What I need is a big gong.
Mrs. Geiger? I try again.
Theres absolutely no reply. I would have thought theyd be hovering around the kitchen by now. I fetch a glass and a fork and tinkle one loudly in the other.
Nothing. Where are they? I investigate the rooms on the ground floor, but theyre all empty. Cautiously, I advance
up the stairs.
Maybe theyre having a Joy of Sex moment. Should I retreat?
Er ... Mrs. Geiger? I call hesitantly. Dinners served.
I can hear voices from the end of the corridor, as I take a few more steps forward. Mrs. Geiger?
Suddenly the bedroom door is violently flung open. Whats money for? comes Trishs shrill voice. Just tell me that! I dont need to tell you what moneys for! Eddie is yelling back. Never have!
If you understood anything
I understand! Eddie sounds apoplectic. Dont tell me I dont understand!
Ooooookay. So probably not a Joy of Sex moment. I start backing away silently on tiptoe but its too late.
What about Portugal? Trish shrieks. Do you remember that? She strides out of the room in a whirlwind of pink and stops short as she sees me.
Um ... dinners ready, I mumble, my eyes fixed on the carpet. Madam.
If you mention bloody Portugal one more bloody time Eddie comes marching out of the room.
Eddie! Trish cuts him off savagely, then gives a tiny nod toward me. Pas devant.
What? says Eddie, scowling.
Pas devant! Les ... les ... She wheels her hands, as though trying to conjure the missing word.
Domestiques? I offer awkwardly. Trish shoots me a flinty look, then draws herself up with dignity. I shall be in my
Its my bloody room too! says Eddie furiously, but the door has already banged shut.
Erm ... Ive made dinner ... I venture, but Eddie stalks to the stairs, ignoring me.
I feel a swell of dismay. If the sea bream isnt eaten soon itll get all shriveled.
Mrs. Geiger? I knock on her door. Im just worried the dinner will spoil
So what? comes back her muffled voice. Im not in the mood for eating.
I stare at the door in disbelief. Ive spent all bloody day cooking dinner for them. Its all ready. The candles are lit, the plates are in the oven. They cant just not eat it.
You have to eat! I cry out, and Eddie stops, halfway down the stairs. The bedroom door opens, and Trish looks out in astonishment.
What? she says.
OK. Play this one carefully.
Everyone has to eat, I improvise. Its a human need. So why not discuss your differences over a meal? Or put them on hold! Have a glass of wine and relax and agree not to mention ... er ... Portugal.
As I say the word, I can feel their hackles rising.
Im not the one who mentioned it, growls Eddie. I thought the subject was closed.
I only mentioned it because you were so insensitive. Trish brushes a sudden tear from her eye. How do you think I feel, being your ... trophy wife?
I must not laugh.
Trish. To my astonishment, Eddie is hurrying up the stairs. Dont you ever say that. He grips her shoulders and looks her fiercely in the eye. Weve always been a partnership. You know that. Ever since Sydenham.
FirstPortugal, now Sydenham. One day I have to sit Trish down with a bottle of wine and coax her entire life history out of her.
I know, whispers Trish.
Shes gazing up at Eddie as though no one else exists, and I suddenly feel a little pang. They really are in love. I can see the antagonism slowly melting away in their eyes. Its like witnessing a chemical reaction in a test tube.
Lets go and eat, says Eddie finally. Samantha was right. We should have a nice meal together. Sit down and talk it over.
Thank God for that. The sea bream will still be just about OK ... I only need to put the sauce in a jug.
All right, lets. Trish sniffs. Samantha, well be out to dinner tonight.
My smile freezes on my face.
Dont worry about cooking for us, puts in Eddie, giving me a jovial pat. You can have a night off!
What? But ... Ive cooked! I say quickly. Its done!
Oh. Well ... never mind. Trish makes a vague dismissive gesture with her hand. Eat it yourself.
No. No. They can not do this to me.
But its all ready for you downstairs! Roasted fish ... and julienned vegetables ...
Where shall we go? says Trish to Eddie, not listening to a word. Shall we try and get in at The Mill House?
As I stand there in stupefaction, she disappears into the bedroom, followed by Eddie. The door closes and Im left on the landing.
My dinner partys ruined.
When theyve roared out of the drive in Eddies Porsche, I go into the dining room and slowly clear everything up. I put away the crystal glasses and fold up the napkins and blow out the candles. Then I head back into the kitchen and look for a moment at all my dishes, set out ready for action. My sauce, bubbling away on the hob. My carved lemon- slice garnishes. I was so proud of everything.
Well, theres nothing I can do about it.
My sea bream are looking pretty sorry for themselves, but I slip one onto a plate anyway and pour myself a glass of wine. I sit at the table, cut myself a piece, and raise it to my mouth. Then I put my knife and fork down without even tasting it. Im not hungry.
A whole wasted afternoon. And tomorrow Ive got to do it all over again. The thought makes me feel like sinking my head down onto my arms and never looking up again.
What am I doing here?
I mean, really. What am I doing? Why am I not walking out right now and getting on a train back toLondon?
As Im slumped there I become aware of a faint tapping at the open door, and I look up to see Nathaniel leaning in the door frame, holding his rucksack. Remembering this mornings encounter, I feel a flash of embarrassment. Without quite meaning to, I swivel my chair away slightly and fold my arms.
Hi, I say, with a tiny If- you- think- Im- interested- in- you- youre- much -mistaken shrug. I thought Id come and see if you needed any help. His eyes travel around the kitchen,
at the dishes of untouched food. What happened?
They didnt eat it. They went out to dinner.
Nathaniel stares at me for a moment, then shakes his head. After you spent all day cooking for them?
Its their food. Their house. They can do what they like.
Im trying to sound careless and matter- of- fact. But the disappointment remains heavy inside me. Nathaniel puts down his rucksack and inspects the sea bream. Looks good.
It looks like congealed, overcooked fish, I correct him. My favorite. He grins, but Im not in the mood for his good humor. Have some, then. I gesture at the dish. No one else is going to eat it.
Well, then. Shame to waste it. He helps himself to everything, piling his plate ludicrously high, then pours himself a glass of wine and sits down opposite me at the table.
To you. Nathaniel raises his glass. Congratulations.
Seriously, Samantha. He waits patiently until I drag my eyes up from the floor. Whether they ate it or not, this is a real achievement. I mean, bloody hell. Remember the last dinner you cooked in this kitchen?
I give a reluctant smile. The lamb of doom, you mean.
The chickpeas. Ill never forget those. He takes a bite of fish. This is good, by the way.
An image comes to me of those tiny blackened bullets; myself running around in a frenzy; the meringue dripping on the floor ... and in spite of everything I want to giggle. Ive already learned so much since then.
Well, of course, Id have been OK that night, I say nonchalantly. If you hadnt insisted on helping me. I had it all under control till you got in my way.
Nathaniel puts his fork down, still munching, his blue eyes crinkled up with something amusement, maybe. I can feel the telltale heat rising in my cheeks, and as I glance downward I notice that my hands are resting on the table, palms up.
AndIm leaning forward, I realize in sudden horror. My pupils are probably half a mile wide too. My body language could not be any clearer if I wrote I fancy you in felt- tip on my forehead.
I hastily remove my hands to my lap, sit up straight, and adopt a stony expression. I havent got over this mornings mortification. In fact, I might take the opportunity to regain my equilibrium.
So I begin, just as Nathaniel starts speaking too.
Go on. He takes another bite of fish. After you.
Well. I clear my throat. After our ... conversation this morning. I was just going to say that youre quite right about relationships. Obviously Im not ready for anything new yet. Or even interested. At all.
There. At least Ive salvaged my dignity a little.
What were you going to say? I ask, pouring more wine into his glass.
I was going to ask you out, says Nathaniel, and I nearly flood the table with wine.
The body language worked?
But not to worry. He takes a gulp of wine. I understand.
Backtrack. I need to backtrack, very, very quickly. Yet subtly, so he doesnt actually notice Im backtracking.
Oh, bugger it, Ill just be inconsistent. Im a woman, Im allowed to be. Nathaniel, I force myself to say calmly. Id love to go out with you. Good. He looks unperturbed. Hows Friday night? Perfect.
As I grin back, I suddenly realize Im hungry. I pull my plate of sea bream toward me, pick up my knife and fork, and begin to eat.