The Hamster Two-Cake Tango, a Frangipane Fetish; and Ice-Block Fingers, One Hundred and Two Per Cent Grey and Blowing Hot Come-Hither and Arctic Don’t-Touch-Me

hamster

Talk about scrabbling around on my hamster-wheel, yesterday was as nuts as a squirrel’s winter stash. I plucked myself from the cosy embrace of my hotel bed down by the sea in Vũng Tàu, and raced the 100km, give or take, back to Sài Gòn, in time to gulp a Caramel Freeze by way of teaching fuel. Then onwards, to two rounds of teenagers, the second of which involved an agenda of multitasking baking: one fine-looking slab of Oreo-pimped Brownies, and one Sunken Chocolate Amaretto Cake, courtesy of the Domestic Goddess, Nigella.

 

This evening, having gotten over the whole biking-induced broken arms and arse issue, I settled on a Frangipane Tart as my bake of choice. This being me, I generally followed James Martin’s recipe, swapping out his ginger and apricots for dried figs and walnuts. Because that’s what I have, and the scrounging up of such ‘foreign’ oddities as apricots and stem ginger in Ho Chi Minh City, while vaguely possible in theory, is just not within the realms of an achievable goal at 10 at night here in Vietnam.

My oven just pinged, and the smell is divine. I’m wondering if this thing needs a red wine syrup to go with. Hmmm.

And now, on with the romantic saga panning out on the slopes of Switzerland. Nearly finished now. On more instalment after this should do it.

Ice-Block Fingers, One Hundred and Two Per Cent Grey and Blowing Hot Come-Hither and Arctic Don’t-Touch-Me

images (74)Caleb paused, stared out past the glass at the darkening mountainside, at the whirling snow. Imogen’s hand clenched in his. ‘Best split up. Two on foot. Two on skis. Cover more ground. What’s the signal like up here? I’ve tried both of them,’ he held up his iPhone in evidence. ‘Nothing.’
‘Usually, fine, apart from a few areas. You are sure they had phones with them?’
Caleb looked to Imogen, out of his depth, helpless.
‘They certainly had them earlier on. Remember? I checked before they shot off.’
Caleb shook his head. Of course he didn’t remember. He’d had only one thing on the brain since… since far too long. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. His ex, Katrina, was going to slaughter him. Ritually. With one of those pearl-handled dessert forks she’d insisted on, the stuck-up, holier-than-thou bitch. She’d never let him forget it. Worse, she might never let him take the kids again. He felt more expensive legal costs and a court injunction coming on. He’d failed in so many ways. Was an abysmal excuse for a father. But this… Katrina would drag him through shitty, eternal hell for this. And for once, she’d be absolutely right.
The worst of it was, this time, he’d actually been trying. Trying to be different. Trying to be the kind of Dad a kid would want. The kind of Dad he would have wanted, rather than the abusive absentee he got. And had become himself.

352700321_1832100‘We’re lost, admit it,’ Tabby threw down her ski poles. ‘You have no idea where we are.’
Lucas turned. Looked down at the poles in the snow, back up at her face. His expression like he blamed her, when it was all his own stupid fault. Not that he’d admit it.
‘You won’t get very far without those, idiot.’
‘We’re not getting very far anyway! Pro’bly going in circles.’ Her voice was shrill. Like a baby. ‘And I’m cold, and tired. I want to go home. I want Imogen! She wouldn’t have –’
‘Wouldn’t have what?’ he snapped. It was like his sister was infecting him. Unsealing the tight lid he’d been keeping on his panic. Panic, fear, he expressed as anger. All of it frothing and spitting out. ‘She doesn’t care about us! She never did! It was all a horrible act to get close to Dad! She’s got what she wanted now. As far as she’s concerned, we can disappear out here.’
‘You’re wrong!’ Tabby shouted.
Anime-boys-drawings-anime-digital-art-fish-original-characters‘Oh yeah? Then why are you crying?’
Tabby swiped at her face, smeared freezing tears across her cheeks with clumsy ski-gloved hands. Her nose was running. ‘Because I’m cold and tired and we’re lost,’ she raged, shouting now. ‘And my stupid brother thinks he’s Hitler or somebody but really he’s just a know-it-all freak who can’t trust anybody because of –’
About to turn away from her, Lucas seized up. Turned to ice. A snowman on some lost Swiss mountainside. Around them, snow was falling through the thick canopy of fir trees.
‘What. What were you going to say.’
Tabby looked up at him through the snow. Her eyes red-rimmed and watery, her little face dead pale under the floppy ears of her hat and her frizz of golden hair. Pleading. For what, he didn’t know.
‘You think just coz Mum and Dad broke up, that means you can never trust anyone ever again.’ Her voice had become a tiny thing, a tiny snail, retreating into the tight protective circle its tiny shell. Brittle. lost_girl_by_l_a_z_l_o_wFragile. And so very, very small.
He was meant to look after her. After Dad went away, that was his job. Always had been, really. As far as he could see. Together or divorced, their parents had always been more interested in their own lives, and in their never-ending, bitter feud of one-upmanship and mutual recrimination, to give much of a toss about him and Tabby.
‘Well, you’re wrong! Imogen does care!’
Imogen was important to Tabby. He felt the wrongness of trying to break that, trample on it, like his feelings had been trampled and stamped on by Mum and Dad.
He stepped forward. Gathered his sister into a hug. She was stiff in his arms, and shivering. ‘Maybe you’re right,’ he relented.

‘So… can we turn our phones on?’ she said, her face mashed into his ski-jacket, little voice muffled further by the puffy lime green and neon fashion statement that he’d noticed – since they’d stopped moving and Tabby had helpfully drawn attention to it – wasn’t keeping him half as warm as the advertising promised.
He fumbled his phone out with ice-block fingers. Bashed the on-switch with his numb thumb. Watched the backlog of missed calls and increasingly frantic messages pile up. Ignored the lot, and cued up Imogen’s number from his contacts: less likely to give him an instant bollocking and grounding for life than his Dad.

download (55)‘Hey! Hey! Stop a minute!’ Imogen shouted over the roar of the snowmobile. ‘My phone’s ringing! I won’t be able to –’ she was thrown forward, into Philip’s broad back, as he hit the brakes, cut the engine. Around them, silence and snow, their breath pluming from their mouths.
‘Lucas? Lucas! Where are you! We’ve, everybody – ‘
She listened, eyes widening and widening. Philippe turned in front of her, listening, scanning her face for clues.
‘Right. Ok, don’t worry. Just stay exactly where you are. We’ll find you. And keep your phone on, ok? Can you do that?’
She ended the call. Said, ‘You know that Rescue Centre? Someone mentioned it before – ’
‘Safety Centre. Yes.’
‘Think they can track a phone signal?’
‘I will call,’ he already had his phone out, was dialling, holding it to his ear. ‘If no, the police will –’ The call connected. He mouthed call the father, then reverted to rapid German, cupping his mouth and the business end of his phone.
‘Caleb. Lucas called. We’re calling this Safety Centre place, see if they can get a trace on the phone.’

norway-sweden-border-snowmobile-winter-cover

‘Right, guys. Inside. Pyjamas.’ Imogen watched their drowsy faces in the rear-view mirror. Both kids had slept most of the dark drive back to the chalet. She glanced at Caleb a fierce, blow-dart look – keep those perfect lips zipped. ‘I want you at your hot chocolate stations in five. Then, bed. No argument. I want sugar plums dancing round those warped little brains of yours before I go any greyer.’
‘You’re not grey!’ Tabby squealed.
‘Ha! You just can’t see in the dark of the car. After tonight, I am totally, one hundred and two per cent grey. Now get!’

one-direction-night-changes-zayn-malik‘That was absolutely not how Christmas Eve was supposed to go,’ Caleb said. Luxuriating in the man-eating depths of the sofa by the fire, nursing a long-delayed heat-proof glass of mulled wine.
‘How the hell would you know, Scroogy-Pants?’ Imogen slugged him with a handy velvet tasselled cushion. ‘When was the last time you did anything but work on the twenty-fourth of December? I bet you can’t even remember.’
‘Not true! I can remember very well, thank you. Two years ago exactly. I got rat-faced when my bloody divorce finally came through. Spent Christmas working, though. Only way to survive the mother of all hangovers.’ He grinned ruefully, with a twist of self-mockery. Briefly considered the glass in his hand. Shrugged, went in for another sip, cinnamon and clove scented steam enveloping the lower half of his face.
‘Oh. Not… not quite what I meant.’ Imogen took a sip of her own wine. Continued to clutch the glass in squirrel paws, almost on a level with her nose. As if for comfort. As if still feeling the chill of the dark mountain in her bones. Quietly added, ‘I’m sorry.’
‘What are you apologising for? Not your bloody fault I got divorced, is it?’
‘No. But. Well.’ She forced herself to meet his eye. He watched her intently, waiting. ‘I didn’t mean to bring up such a painful subject.’
‘By accusing me of being a workaholic? Okaaaaay.’
drink-wine-animated-gif-4She laughed, a nervous titter. ‘Ok, well, we all have our own coping mechanisms, I guess. You gotta do what works for you.’
‘Work works for me. Or…at least, I thought it did. Now I’m not so sure.’
‘Really. I’m shocked. Stunned,’ she quirked half a smile, as if at a private joke, looked at him from under her lashes. Such thick lashes, like the wings of a miniature bird. ‘And why would that be, Mr Scroogy-Pants?’
‘You’ve got to stop calling me that.’
‘Why? It suits you.’
‘Because,’ he growled, setting his wine down on the low glass slab of a coffee table, ‘All this talk of pants is giving me ideas.’ He lunged for her. She shielded herself with the velvet cushion. Slopping a wild soupcon of sticky, warm wine as she jerked back instinctively from the sudden attack. He Who Must Not Be Named a spectre between her and the rest of her life, her own fear a phantom, haunting her.
In that instant, the alarm in her face, the fear, there and then gone, brought him up short. ‘Imogen?’ he asked. Suddenly unsure of himself. anigif_enhanced-23689-1418139956-5Reminding himself that he barely knew her, had no idea what might have brought her here, to a rental house in the Swiss Alps, caring for a stranger’s kids, when most people were locked in a battle of mutual-irritation with their families, consuming a button-popping mountain of turkey, a reservoir of gravy and booze and a few lame Christmas Cracker jokes and crinkly tissue-paper crowns.
Deliberately, Imogen forced her shoulders down. Breathed. In and out. In. And out. Felt her heart banging like a kid let loose on a new drum kit.
‘Sorry. Sorry. Slight overreaction there.’
Caleb sat back, stumped. Looked at her like a puzzle he’s trying to figure, like those damn US tax return forms still waiting for him on the laptop. Reached for his wine again, changed his mind halfway there. Settled his elbows on his knees, let his empty hands flop between them.
Looked at her again, beleaguered. ‘That’s one way of putting it. And I told you. Quit apologising.’
tumblr_n4irhy0j1P1tq9vqoo1_500‘But I’ve pissed you off.’ Almost a whisper.
He ran a hand through his already ski-hat scruffed hair. ‘No-o-o.’ He leaned into the word, stretching it out over three syllables, rising, falling, rising again: forbearance. ‘You’ve confused me. That’s different. I’m not saying I like it; I’d rather understand what’s going on with you, blowing hot come-hither one second and arctic don’t-touch-me the next. But I’m not pissed off.’
She rose. Carefully placed the pillow over the imprint her delectable arse had left on the sofa cushion. Said, ‘Look, I’m sorry. I know you don’t want to hear it, but I am. I just. I just can’t. Sorry.’
0474651a64f72856dcb40e99b378cdb7She hurried from the room, head bent, leaving him sitting there with two glasses of tepid wine and the smouldering remains of a log fire in the grate.
He held his head in his hands, clutching bristling fistfuls of hair.
Really, really not how Christmas Eve was supposed to go.

 

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Mental for Mexican, Bananas for Basil; and Risotto as Universal Solution, What Wonder Woman Can’t Do and a New Brief for Ann Summers

Apologies for the silence. Have been frantically scrabbling round my hamster-wheel like a mental rodent thingy since, trying to keep on top of, well, life, really.

Inspired by Rick Stein’s road trip round Mexico, yesterday evening I went Mexican-as-I-can-can. Wrong tense, wrong culture, what can I say? Mexican eats make me feel that way. Like defying grammar rules and cultural boundaries. Pack of tortillas: check. Stuff to fling at a prawn ceviche and guacamole: lots of tart citrus and green, herby goodness: check. Yum yum.

What’s more, the ceviche dressing, to which I added a fish stock simmered up from the discarded prawn shells, may well make a fine platform for a tomato and pepper soup.

Earlier in the day, I made a VAT of my courgette and basil puree again. So easy, but so delicious, a bit like a light-weight pesto, for anyone like me who freaks at the thought of all that cheese and oil. What you do is, chuck the roughly cut chunks or slices of about 2 good-sized courgettes in a roasting tray, with half an onion, roughly diced, a few bashed cloves of garlic, and a generous confetti of salt, ground cumin, ground coriander, dried oregano and dried basil. Drizzle liberally with oil, and fling in the oven for about thirty-five minutes. When it emerges, dump it in the blender, with 100g plain yogurt and a serious quantity of basil… about 30 grams, or a large cereal bowl full. Blend until about smooth.

Be warned… this makes A LOT. Feel free to halve it, if not suffering from Basil unobtainability issues. I enjoy mine on carrot sticks, but you can do what you like with it… though I wouldn’t recommend trying to bathe anything hot in the stuff, as I imagine the yogurt might curdle.

And now, for this slow-coach romance of mine. At this rate, Imogen and Caleb might finally get it on by Valentine’s Day…

Risotto as Universal Solution, What Wonder Woman Can’t Do and a New Brief for Ann Summers

246711Risotto. She could do a risotto. All that stirring; Tabby, sat idly on her favourite stool at the kitchen table, clearly waiting to be entertained, could help. Risotto: honest, rustic Italian soul food. She seemed to remember a paper package of prosciutto lurking in the depths of the fridge somewhere. Prosciutto and…
She opened the fridge. Rummaged in the veg drawer. Mushrooms. Beautiful chanterelles and porcini. Perfect. Though she’d want some dried too, for depth of flavour… and wine. A good white.
Lucas ambled over from telly. ‘What’s for dinner?’
8ac73ded190e6a3bebd91c3faba833cc-549980bddc935And he complained about an extra shadow. Hey ho. Peter Pan got so desperate when his got away, he tried putting soap into action as glue. She could live with a couple extra. They were good kids. Just… hurting. Though they’d opened up a lot since being here.
Their father though… Caleb. What was she going to do about Caleb?
Or, c’mon you cheap tart. That’s what He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named would call her. Had called her, every time she mentioned a male friend, or dared to let her eyes fall on some random guy in the supermarket or the tube. But this time, he’d be right, wouldn’t he? Because she…
Nope. Not going there. She slammed the cupboard door harder than necessary.
Risotto. No dried mushrooms. Perfect excuse to get the kids and more importantly, herself, out of the house. While their presents were delivered.
‘I was thinking risotto, but we need a few bits and pieces. You guys wanna run into town with me again?’
‘Yessss!’
She’d call Caro later. And Caro’s advice would probably be about as appropriate, as helpful, as a snowman leading a three Michelin star kitchen, but at least she’d be able to laugh about it.

Drg_dioskouri_(3)‘So!’ his kids looked at him like he’d just sprouted a surplus head. Ok, so jolly, matey Dad just wasn’t him. Still. No pain no gain. And given the painful – or was it pained? – look Lucas was giving him, the rewards ought to be superlative. Rewards something along the lines of what had stared at him wide-eyed in his darkened bedrooms. Rewards he had most singularly failed to grasp. Failed to grasp, to fling bodily into the luxurious folds of his unmade bed….‘Have you actually managed to get Imogen on skis yet?’
‘Uh, nooo Dad,’ Tabby answered patiently between bites of risotto. ‘She doesn’t have time.’
‘Hello? She does everything around here? When’s she supposed to have time to go skiing?’ Lucas put in.
‘Tomorrow, actually. How about it?’ he called in the direction of the kitchen.
‘How bout what?’ she asked, coming through to the table.
‘How about you stop embarrassing yourself now Dad?’ Lucas muttered into his risotto.
‘Your Father,’ Imogen informed him, lifting the bottle of white from the table and sploshing some into her glass, ‘Is shameless. Nothing embarrasses him.’
download (53)‘Well, whoopdeedoo for him. How about us though?’ Lucas snatched a glance at the two adults, at his sister. ‘Not all of us get to drink to take away our inhibitions, you know,’ he told his risotto, loading up another forkful of creamy, steaming rice, flecked with buttery mushrooms and herbs. ‘We have inhibitions for a reason. So we don’t do anything unbelievably stupid, Dad.’
‘It’s not stupid. I think it’s a good idea,’ Tabby interrupted her brother through a sticky, half-chewed mouthful.
‘Firstly,’ Imogen said, wedging a corner of her arse on the arm of the empty chair next to Caleb, across from the kids, ‘Don’t speak with your mouth full.’ She took a swig of wine. ‘Secondly,’ she snuck a sideways look at Caleb, ‘If you want to try the wine, just say so. These Europeans are perfectly civilised about kids drinking; in the long run it means they don’t go nuts, binge drinking and chucking up all over Leicester Square.’ Another look at Caleb, checking he wasn’t about to wring her neck with the table linen.
He leaned back in his chair, fingers resting on the base of his own glass. ‘Why not?’ He reached for the bottle, nudged it lazily in the general direction of his son.
‘And lastly,’ Imogen said, before Lucas could partner his raised eyebrows with further scathing commentary, passing him her whole glass, just to keep him quiet, ‘I still haven’t a clue what you lot were talking about. How about what? What’s a good idea?’
giphy (20)‘Dad wants to take us skiing! You too!’ Tabby piped up, taking advantage of her brother’s engagement with Imogen’s wine.
Imogen regarded Caleb from her perch on the chair arm, eyebrow cocked, quizzical. She quite liked this vantage point. Looking down on him for once.
He met her eye. ‘Well?’ then turned promptly to his son, dodging her considering look. ‘Go easy there. This is good stuff. We don’t slug it back like Coke.’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Imogen said, extending her hand for her glass as Lucas glowered at his Dad. Taking it from Lucas’s reluctant, sticky fingers, she turned to Caleb, tipping the glass, the pool of straw-coloured oaked Chardonnay towards him. Said, ‘I’d say that very much depends on your objective.’
giphy (22)It sounded, it felt like a challenge to Caleb. He spent his days, his nights too, meeting, conquering, challenges in his work life. Half of him wanted to let rip. You try getting a foot in the glitzy, overpriced door of Vegas, sweetheart. You try pulling together a team of the best, most volatile chefs from across the bloody planet. You try…
The bluster died an internal death. Truth was, he threw himself headlong into work, made it the be all and end all, to avoid the toughest challenge of all, to avoid emotions, to avoid his kids, to avoid feeling anything at all.
He cleared his throat. Forced himself to stare her down as he lifted his own glass. A smile curled the corners of her mouth.
‘Are we talking about skiing or wine? I’ve lost track,’ he said, before quaffing the remains of his glass.
‘Oh, both,’ she answered lackadaisically, ‘Or maybe neither.’ She slid to her feet, and began to clear the plates.
Risotto, she thought, the answer to everything.
‘Let me help, for once.’ Caleb stood behind her in the kitchen, glass-stems threaded through the fingers of his right hand, his own plate and the vegetable dishes balanced on the flat palm of his left.
Or… not.
She whirled from the sink. ‘It’s nothing. I can – ’
wonder-woman-gal-gadot-with-shield-animated-gif

‘I know you can,’ he stepped towards her. Set the glasses down carefully by the sink, slid the festive dishes under the running tap. Standing close enough that she could feel the heat of him, smell his man-smell. Clean leathery soap and the earthy musk beneath, like the mineral scent released by a spring rain, the essence that was purely him. ‘Your ability to do everything, Wonder Woman, is no longer in doubt.’
‘Well, I definitely can’t fly,’ she argued. ‘Can’t do that magic cleaning trick either. You know, twitch my wand and the place cleans itself.’ She reached for the stack of dirties again.
‘Thank god you left at least one stunt to us mere mortals with credit cards. Leave it. The concierge people will be in tomorrow while we’re out.’
She couldn’t move, not if she’d wanted to. Not to do dishes, not to throw them. Though she might drop a few, if she wasn’t careful. She lowered the dish and sponge carefully back into the sink. Reached to turn off the tap.
The kids, bickering over what movie to watch, sounded remote, as if they’d been air-lifted to some alpine mountain top, many miles’ climb distant.
177735-Beautiful-ButterfliesHer body was a tuning fork, struck against a desk-edge, quivering, singing at a frequency only she could sense. Her heart, her insides, are an agitation of butterflies, a-tremble.
Was he going to – what?? Was he – did she want him to –
He reached. Reached past her, upward. Unhooked a tea-towel. With his other hand, took hers. Dried her hands. So gently.
When was the last time someone had been so gentle, so tender with her?
The sensation of locking eyes, tumblers falling into place, secure. Waking a low yearning, every centimetre of skin on fire, desire sitting like drought between her legs, craving him, his touch. Everywhere. Now.
‘Da-aaad! Lucas –’
They spun like marionettes, like figures on one of those perfectly synced Swiss clocks.
Tabby stood just the other side of the sofa, hair falling round her shoulders, bright Christmas jumper serving to amplify those pink cherub-cheeks, those squirrel-bright eyes.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Dishes!’ Imogen answered promptly. Promptly enough that later Caleb would wonder how she came to be such a deft and natural liar.

 

39949-Snow-Fall-Gif

‘I did warn you!’ Imogen blinked up at him from the drift, snow caught in her lashes, in wisps of her hair, her skis crossed at awkward angles, stuck. And laughing, laughing so hard, she wouldn’t have been able to get up, even without a snow-angel hole trapping her and two inflexible bits of streamlined engineering pinioning her feet.
Caleb squinted down at her through the sharp glare of sun off snow. Bemused. ‘Right. You can’t ski. I thought you just meant,’ he crouched next to her on his skis. ‘That you weren’t an Olympic champion. You know, that you weren’t that good.’
original (3)He felt the gurgle of laughter shake her again as he began to lever the skis from her ski-boots, the first step to getting her on her feet again.
‘Seriously? Where the hell would I have learnt to ski, Mr Credit Cards? London isn’t exactly crowded with handy beginners’ slopes!’
He aligned the skis neatly next to them, on the smoother snow of the piste. Stood. Reached for her gloved hand. Tabby’s spare gloves, he noticed with a shock.
‘I live in London. Sometimes. Less than I’d like these days.’ She gripped his fingers through their clumpy, padded gloves. He hauled.
‘Must be a different Lon-dooaaah –’
She felt her arm nearly yanked from its socket, flew through an arc, landing splat across the front of him, like a cartoon critter hitting a wall. Graceful ballerina, she was not.
184d0dc6d73dde8ec7fb7866bdcf44feShe extricated herself from his arms, confused, feeling a flush of red seep across her face to the tips of her ears. She turned, clunked her booted feet back into the skis and ducked, grateful to have the whole complicated business of jacking into the things to distract her.
He stood watching her, arms crossed, for seconds. Agonising, silent seconds. Then, ‘Here. Let me.’
‘You say that a lot. You don’t have to ask permission to help someone, you know.’
He snapped the clip on her second ski easily. Unfolded to his feet. ‘You’d be surprised. Not everyone wants help. Asking permission can save a punch in the gob and smashed heirloom china.’
He extended his arm for her, feeling a bit Darcy and Mr Bingly. Wrong outfit, obviously, but he seemed to have the whole gallantry thing going on. Holy shit, Caleb Hynes. Wtf are you doing?
As she began to shuffle her skis, leaning on him more than… more than was maybe exactly appropriate for an au pair to a self-made millionaire, but maybe felt just right, she chanced a look up from the inch-worm-with-rigor-mortis action of her feet. ‘Where are the kids?’
‘I told Lucas to meet us at Quattro Bar.’
‘A bar.’ She stopped, forcing him to stop with her. Looked up into his face. The sun bounced off the raybans perched in his hair. ‘The kids are waiting for us at a bar?’
‘Calm down! This is Switzerland. Not Soho on a Friday night. It’s a great place, and nobody’s going to serve them vodka martinis or tequila shots before we get there. Though if they’re in luck, they might run into one of their instructors and cadge a hot chocolate off them. Honestly, I didn’t realise we’d be quite this far behind them.’ He smiled. Squeezed her arm in his own. ‘At this rate, it’ll be Christmas by the time we get there.’
‘To quote one of my favourite movies, ‘I don’t mind if you don’t,’’ she said.
‘Your American accent is execrable.’
thumb_4744_thumbnail_1xHe looked down at her, paused there in the snow. Very few other skiers about now. It was getting late, already the first blush of dusk brushing the snow-decked slopes. He wondered what would happen if he touched her cheek. Probably nothing, not in these bloody gloves. Not exactly erotic, skiwear. Now there was a new brief for Ann Summers. Brief? Briefs? Since when was his mind entirely overrun with sex and innuendo?
‘Then again,’ he added as an afterthought, ‘The voices of most of the real Americans I have to deal with drive me nuts. Still no idea who you’re meant to be though.’
‘Don’t tell me you’ve never seen White Christmas! Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye? Tabby must’ve watched it –’
She stopped talking. Babbling, more like. Space-filler. Very difficult to fill space that wasn’t there, when suddenly a face, two dark eyes and a pair of lips loomed. When those lips breathed against hers, brushed hers, light as snow, as feathers.
He drew back. Searching her face. Still holding her to him.
‘Keep this up, Scroogy-Pants, and we’ll be arriving with the ghost of Christmas yet to come,’ she murmured.
da9a8b3713224092c0f5a013e35172daHe bent his head, kissed her, softly, softly, again. ‘Isn’t that the one that looks like the grim reaper?’
‘The very same.’
‘Best stick with Father Christmas then. I happen to know he’s got a whole secret massage-room full of booty waiting to be delivered.’
‘Maybe we’d better get on with it then.’
‘Maybe we had. Then again…’

 

images (71)Not quite Christmas, but getting there, by the time the contemporary glass and wood structure came into view. Glass and wood, under a ski-jump-tilted roof set upon a raised timber platform. Within, a brushed steel bar, clusters of sheep-skin draped chairs and low, rounded stools in neutral, earthy tones, peopled by couples and small groups of skiers making a start on their festive drinking.
But no Lucas, and no Tabby.
They settled in anyway, ordered spiced gluhwein. Watched the first idle flakes of the night’s forecast snowfall dance down beyond the wide sheet glass. Caleb took her hand. Wanted to take more of her, all of her.
When their waiter returned, two glasses of hot, cinnamon and anise scented wine on his tray, Imogen sat up, reclaimed her hand. Said, ‘Have you had a couple of kids in here? A boy and a girl, 13 and 9.’
Reaching past them to set their glasses on the low table, the man paused, brow lightly furrowed. ‘When would this have been?’
Imogen looked to Caleb. ‘The last couple of hours. I’m sure they’re lurking somewhere about the place causing trouble.’
1000_lost_children_2‘I have not noticed any children,’ the waiter answered in his strangely accented English, with its hints of both German and French. He straightened, tucked his tray under one arm. That troubled kink, slightly off-centre, between his brows. ‘But let me check with the others. You are sure they were coming here?’
‘Absolutely certain.’
Imogen let her head fall into hand. Whispered. ‘God. Why? This is all my fault. We have to find them. Now,’ voice rising, gathering urgency as she spoke.
A thorough search. A huddle of waiters and bar staff. Two children answering to Lucas and Tabby’s description had been in, perhaps an hour and a half ago. Had loitered around the picnic tables set up on the raised decking outside. No one remembered the exact time they vanished. No one noticed them go.
tenor (1)‘We’re closing soon anyway,’ the manager, a short, stocky woman with equally short, no-nonsense hair and a puffy violet barber jacket said. ‘Philippe and Paul, they can help you look, no?’ Their original waiter and one of the barmen, a burley bloke in a green and black lumberjack shirt and faded jeans, nodded. ‘You want us to call the Safety Centre also?’

Anti-Hermit New Year, and The Many Sub-Species of Torture, Shopping Induced Delusions and Phantom Man-Hand Syndrome

 

Lest anyone out there be suffering under the delusion that I stay at home cooking and baking ad infinitum, which I know is surely an easy inference to make based on my babblings here, this evening, my New Year involved:

First, yes, I whipped up a chocolate ganache to fill the macarons for my em trai (little brother, literally, a term of endearment here… I have 5 sisters/half sisters, mostly the latter, but no actual brothers). Then I moved on to finishing off his stocking and wrapping the Singapore-bought goodies with which to stuff it.

And then, ok, it’s true, I decided that it was about time for my apple pie hankering to be met… so I mushed together a sweet short crust pastry, and let that chill out while I dolloped apples, sugar, dried fruit and enough spices to fill a reasonably sized corner of a Moroccan souk (having been to Marrakech, I know whereof I speak, and actually Morocco has a surprising amount in common with Vietnam – or not so surprising, when you consider their similar climates and their shared French Colonial ) together and let the oven work its magic.

So far, so creatively, culinarily inclined hermit.

 

But there followed:

The attempt to break through the heaving traffic to get down to our favourite dance and drink spot in District One.

Failure. An hour spent sitting in… imagine filling a sizeable sardine tin full of motorbikes, and you’d get the picture. Because organisation on any scale just ain’t a strong point out here, I guess.

When traffic finally began to move, we turned our backs firmly on D1 altogether. Sped over the Cầu Sài Gòn (Saigon Bridge), and I mentioned to my em trai that, oh yeah, I think there are a bunch of decent bars over in D2.

Whereupon, we serendipitously found ourselves in a Mexican place, with a fab DJ, a good crowd and most excellent espresso Martinis to boot. More and more, I’m coming to believe that I will get the most gratification where I least expect it. Lesson learned? Quit expecting stuff!

Happy New Year!

For anyone here for the seasonal romance… apologies Caleb and Imogen are taking their time getting it together, but things definitely hot up below…

The Many Sub-Species of Torture, Shopping Induced Delusions and Phantom Man-Hand Syndrome

 

A plush, pink-horned unicorn, with the star-studded butt, that stood almost as tall as Tabby herself. A Quadracopter Drone, complete with embedded camera. A matched pair of Nerf’s latest Super Soaker, the Zombie Strike Deadshot Blaster in eyeball scouring lime green and tangerine. A board game, Spontuneous, that Caleb insisted the kids would reject on grounds of outdated fogey-ism, but Imogen was pretty sure they’d get down and giggly with, given a suitable accompaniment of hot chocolate and macarons. A space-age RipStik ‘G’ Grind Caster Board that Caleb swore looked straight off the set of Back to the Future and secretly hankered for himself (Marty Macfly had been a minor but influential god to him, back in the day, and he insisted he was going to subject Imogen to a Back to the Future binge in revenge for two hours of frog-marched shopping). Two bland looking Echo Dots and a Sphero Ball.

0d61dc6c54914e515aaa59fb1c88daa8--petit-champlain-quebec-city

And those were just the highlights that he could actually remember.
The loot would be hauled up the foothills to the Schloss, wrapped and tree-ready later that evening, contact on delivery to be made direct to Caleb’s phone, so any secretive stashing required (that small pony for Tabby would take some ingenuity in the hiding-department – he was thinking the neglected spa room off the pool area was far game) could be done while Imogen kept nosy-noses well out of the way.
He had to admit… it hadn’t been complete torture. The shopping part, at least. The irony of making an empire, of making serious money, was that he worked so hard, there was rarely the time, energy or inclination to spend it.
quebec-city_2059456cClose proximity to Imogen however, now that was torture, though so far removed from the strain of shopping with his ex, someone probably needed to work out a new classification system for forms of female-inflicted trauma.
The way she caught his sleeve to drag him down the aisles to the barely recognisable sports equipment or the bookstore across the street, with the dancing, wet-your-pants thrill of a teen spotting the latest boy-band idol. The way she brushed up against him in a tight space, seeming completely oblivious to the effect she was having on him. Even the way she teased and provoked him, slapped down his cynicism with the natural ease of Venus Williams parrying anything her opponent could lob at her.
Oh, that was torture all right.
9addf0480143e8d8e354e3112c9fa79b3681d442_hqAnd then, and then, no sooner had the kids flung themselves into the car, than she was drawn into their tight, closed circle of three, in a world of their own. From which he was excluded. They might as well have slammed the pearly gates in his face even as they pulled her in.
It stung. Not just the way Tabby trilled about a falling on the baby slalom, but getting up again, how she finally did it, she really did it. Not only how Imogen got deep into the detail of dinner preferences with them, and did they want to help, and yes, yes, yes, of course they did. Not just being ignored by his own kids, more intimate with an au pair than with their own Dad. Not just the way they were transformed around her, bubbly rather than timid (Tabitha), fresh-faced and engaged rather than sullen (Lucas).
giphy (12)Not just that. But the way, having been in possession of her whole attention, having been almost a smart-cracking double act for two sweet hours, and seeing it diverted, so promptly and utterly to his kids, he realised. She was just doing her job, the job he was paying her to do. She was looking after his kids. And if that meant goose-stepping him up and down the cobbled, light-strung streets of St Moritz, charming him into laying out so the kids could enjoy an honest-to-god Christmas, with a full compliment of bells, whistles and a partridge in a gold-leaf pear tree, that was what she was going to do.
The whole day. The connection, the spark he’d thought… It wasn’t. He’d been deluding himself, that was all.
He slammed out of the car as soon as he’d put the damned SUV in park, and stalked to the house without waiting for the cliquey threesome, without a word.
Looking after him as she helped Tabby down from the car, Imogen frowned. ‘What’s up with your Dad?’
Rounding the back of the car, Lucas said, ‘The usual,’ and trudged toward the chalet, the bright, blue-bird high spirits of a moment ago pricked, deflated, yesterday’s flaccid balloon.

09-3

She settled the kids in front of the widescreen with apres-ski hot chocolate and a plate of cheesecake brownies, and went in search of Sroogey-Pants.
He wasn’t in the mezzanine office.
Weird.
Usually the first thing he did was power up his MacAir, plug his phone in to charge. But the laptop was folded in on itself, untouched, the charger trailing abandoned from the socket, no iPhone in sight.
She tread carefully up the winding stairs towards the Master Bedroom. Lions’ dens and bears hibernating in caves came to mind. Also, nasty signs promising all kinds of nasty legal retribution under the legend, Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted.
The door hung half open on a darkened room.
If this had been He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, she would have left it be, tiptoed around or huddled at the furthest possible extremity of their midget’s shoebox.
She hesitated on the threshold, listening, head bowed.
What the hell was she doing? Was she such a blindly trusting idiot that she still hadn’t learned?

giphy (15)Tentatively, she raised her hand. Tapped the door with her first two knuckles.
No response.
Cautiously, she pushed the door wider. Stepped into the gloom.
‘Caleb?’

man-in-showerCaleb failed to hear the knock. Did not hear her call his name. Scalding water battered his shoulders, his bent neck, swirled round his feet. He wanted to stay there forever.
Finally spun the dial, forced himself out, into the steam-cloaked en suite, grabbed a black towel from the rail. Wrapped it round his waist.
While he’d been frolicking around St Moritz like an air-headed Essex Girl on a shopping spree, while he’d been deluding himself, the work had been piling up.
He stepped out of the shower, head down, headed for the chair where he’d dumped his clothes. And collided with a soft, slender collection of limbs.
‘What the –’ he gripped her upper arms, preventing her from toppling backwards.
‘Aren’t you going to finish that?’ her voice sounded just as unsteady as her insides, which seemed to be doing dolphin-flips through invisible hoops.
She could barely see in the darkened room. Which was just as well. She already wanted the polished hardwood floor to swallow her up.
He let go of her arms. His pulse elevated. Knocking against his sternum like a cross-county skier’s.
‘Fuck,’ he finished, softly.
giphy (16)

‘I dunno…’ she felt a strange absence, where his hands had wrapped around her arms. Almost as if they belonged there. Phantom man-hand syndrome. Was that a thing? ‘That seemed to lack your usual conviction. Not sure whether to take it as an obscenity or a declaration of intent.’
‘What are you even doing in here?’ He was hiding, and he knew it. Had thrown enough money and time at various sub-types of the shrink kingdom to know he was guilty of defending himself with an armoured plating of taciturnity and temper. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt this way. Sick with anticipation, bear cubs gallumping about in his gut. Had it been like this with his ex in the beginning?
‘Looking for Santa Claus. Where you keeping him, Scroogy-Pants?’ Her eye falling to the black towel just about concealing everything between waist and knees, ‘Though less of the pants, it seems.’ Did she really just say that out loud?

Macaron Merriment, Fish Pie Fun and Cradle-Snatching, Expertise in Time-Wasting and the Philosophical Question of the Perfect Botticelli Babe Butt

Success! In another cooking-baking marathon I have produced my first ever Macarons! Thank you, Cupcake Jemma! A bit on the generous side, and I haven’t filled them yet, but that’s down to time constraints, and the fact that ganache bears no horror for this kitchen elfkin.

And because macarons simply weren’t challenging enough, I also have a fish pie waiting to go in the oven. I sort of followed Mary Berry, softening leeks and onions, working up a white sauce but then went off-piste, chucking coriander, cumin and paprika about with reckless abandon, and substituting tuna, smoked salmon and a handful of calimari and clams for her two types of haddock, which I just couldn’t find here in Ho Chi Minh City. While mashing up my potatoes, with further deviations from the (Ex) Queen of the Bake-Off Tent, in the form of skin-on potatoes, which I think I recollect watching your man Jamie do, and parmesan (possible Hairy Biker influence there), I realised that I couldn’t actually remember the last time I ate good, honest mash. Could even have been way back in the Jurassic period, before I went to Uni.

It must be said, they do not mash their potatoes here, nor do they bake them, and the spuds in the markets and supermarket are limited to a single, piddly variety that I couldn’t name if I tried.

While I enjoy my fish pie, the sexual tension á la cuisine continues to escalate in St Moritz.

Cradle-Snatching, Expertise in Time-Wasting and the Philosophical Question of the Perfect Botticelli Babe Butt

6b67a712856293fe3f7db79df3937f34‘What do you say we find a cafe somewhere to wait?’
Imogen had been a bit, well, gobsmacked when, rousing Lucas from the intricacies and eye-ball glazing concentration of zombie-killing, or whatever form of mass slaughter he was up to on his tablet to let him know she was taking Tabby to her rescheduled skating lesson, he’d leapt up, dumped the tablet, and informed her that he was coming too.
Was his Dad that bad? That he’d rather sit around in the SUV waiting for his sister for an hour than be left alone in the same massive Schloss with Caleb for an hour?
Or was it something to do with Tabby’s giggling insistence that her brother liked Imogen?
Nope. Not going there. Cradle-snatching was totally off the menu this Christmas. And for the foreseeable future.

fcf00f7f9ec7b67f7f1deb0c3107ed2a‘Sure,’ he said, as they watched Tabby gallumph up the path to the rink. The soft glow of the old iron-wrought street-lamps caught the blades of her skates, as they swung wildly from their laces over her puffa-jacketed shoulder.
Imogen caught the trademark shrug from the corner of her eye as the put the SUV into gear.
‘Been meaning to ask you about that shrug of yours. Is it a too-cool-for-school thing? Or have you been hanging around some of your Dad’s moody chefs too much?’
‘Eugh. Not on your life.’ He snuck a glance at her in the mirror. Furtive as a… as a… as a rabbit snuffling the air outside its warren. ‘Why? What’s wrong with it?’ Aggression there. Oh, the joys of teenage boys.
‘Nothing, in and of itself. Only your sister doesn’t carry it off with quite the same… panache. Too much fairy-princess in her bloodstream or something.’ She pulled into a parking spot not far from the Confiserie Hanselmann.
Christmas-in-St.-Moritz-Switzerland‘Yeah, well, serves her right for trying to copy every single thing I do, doesn’t it?’ he muttered. ‘I don’t exactly need another shadow, do I? Jeez.’
Imogen killed the engine, tugged the keys from the ignition. Turned in the driving seat to face him. ‘Could be she does it because she doesn’t have anybody else to look up to. That can happen…’ she added carefully, ‘With divorce.’
Damn, but this was hard. Not wanting to touch painful subjects, subjects that needed touching, as a fractured bone needed to be touched, straightened, splinted. Healed.
But who was she kidding? She was no psychologist, and she wouldn’t bet any amount of money that Caleb Hynes, hospitality wunderkind, hadn’t signed his kids up for every kind of expensive therapy there was.
So just leave it alone, you blundering fool.
‘Come on. Dunno about you, but I find serious conversations get easier with an injection of hot, sweet fluid, and this place is supposed to do a fine line in that department.’
She cracked the car door, flooding the cosy cocoon of the SUV with biting Alpine air. ‘Last one there eats yellow snow!’

Toasted-Coconut-Mochas-2263‘Yours is better,’ the boy said, setting his mocha back down on the white tablecloth.
Around them, the chatter and bustle of the busy cafe. They sat at a coveted table by the windows, watching a steady stream of Christmas shoppers flow past on the cobbled street outside, all of them bundled up in thick coats and scarves.
Christmas shopping. Imogen had always cowered from the crazed scramble of London at this time of year. Or, no, not always, she realised. But certainly in the last few years, since commonplace joys had been sucked dry, a drought of everyday happiness. She half wished she had someone to shop for. Someone special.
She looked across the table at Lucas. Left his foray dangling. She aimed a pointed look at the whipped cream moustache on his upper lip. ‘You auditioning for the role of Father Christmas?’
He swiped the cream away with the back of his hand, before she could offer her napkin. Looked down at his lap, embarrassed. Took the napkin without meeting her eye.
‘No thanks.’ Nice, sarcastic delivery. Just in case she’d thought his defences were coming down or anything crazy-ass like that.
‘Not a fan?’
‘What? No. What’s to be a fan of? Some fat make-believe wanker in a gay red suit? I don’t think so.’
‘Shame. Your loss, I guess. Does your sister still believe?’
giphy (9)About to shrug, he caught himself, turned it into a weird twitch, then reached for his mocha to cover himself. ‘If she does,’ he said across the rim, ‘She oughta wake up.’ He sipped. Swallowed. Added, ‘Wake up and grow up.’
‘Growing up is highly overrated. What’s the hurry? Most of us avoid it like the plague these days anyway.’
He put his cup down, grabbed the armrests of his chair like a thrill-seeker facing the 360° loop of a roller-coaster approaching at hair-raising speed. ‘Yeah, but at least you finally get to escape your parents, right?’
‘Not sure we ever truly escape them… not in my experience anyway. Besides, there are worse things in life than parents.’
Like He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, just for example. Like burning kidneys, trips to the hospital as regular as bathroom breaks.
‘Oh, come on. Dad’s on your case all the time! And you’re not even his kid.’
‘No, but I am his employee.’ She grinned, picked up her own glass. ‘And I think I give as good as I get.’
68747470733a2f2f73332e616d617a6f6e6177732e636f6d2f776174747061642d6d656469612d736572766963652f53746f7279496d6167652f317638553169514f63636d5766513d3d2d3432393432303639352e3134636135623732He turned his cup on the table. She waited. The din of the coffee machine, of customers ordering beribboned boxes of patisserie and take away coffees. Round and round went the cup. He didn’t look up, avoiding meeting her eye. Said, ‘Yeah, well, somebody has to.’ He looked up. Finally. Something raw about his face. Raw and sharp. ‘He’s just such an asshole. Makes everyone around him feel like absolute shit. Like that’s supposed to encourage people? I mean…’ he shook his head. Trailed off. Seemed both older and younger than his 13 years somehow, his words, his insight, jarring with the hurt. In his voice, in his face.
She leaned in, her forearms stretched across the table, palms flat on the white cloth. Conspiratorial. If she hadn’t been sure he’d have snatched it away, she would have grabbed his hand. And held it. ‘I am totally working on him. That whole thing about the way to a man’s heart being through his stomach? Some truth to that.’
Not that it had worked with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Not in the long run. Who was she kidding?
MenacingGranularFlyingfox-max-1mb‘Ha.’ The single syllable came out flat. Distinctly lacking in anything approaching humour. ‘Waste of time, trust me.’
‘I am an expert in time-wasting,’ she assured him.
With more confidence than she felt. After all, she’d only had the occasional glimpse of the Scrooge-Meister Caleb. With the exception of bickering and bating that seemed to segue into banter, she’d yet to have a fully fledged adult conversation with the man. A man Lucas had known his whole life. Obviously the divorce had soured the father-son relationship, damage Caleb seemed willing to throw any amount of money at, so long as he didn’t have to interrupt his own life, make any personal, emotional investment in healing the wounds.
Then again, she was impartial, an outsider. No personal attachment, not really. Could help her to see things more clearly, maybe.
‘Tasty time-wasting,’ she added. Trying to tug that grin of his back out of it’s gnarly shell. ‘Speaking of which,’ she prodded her phone to life, ‘We’d better head back to the rink, before your sister turns into a pumpkin.

xvtV6She caught Caleb early morning, a man sorely in need of caffeine, lack of sleep dragging on his eyes. If a racoon had a lovechild with a sloth, she got the picture what the slocoon, the racloth, would look like now. And it wasn’t pretty.
She busied herself with the coffee machine. The noise of the grinder, the swift twists of tamping the shot and screwing the gasket upwards, snapping the button to pull two perfect shots. Her back to him.
‘Espresso? Latte?’ she asked.
‘Flat white.’ Sitting at the island, mercifully free of choux pastry mountains, he scrolled through usual the stampede of emails that had accumulated in his few hours of sprawled, lonely sleep.
Early it may have been. Grumpy dwarf he most definitely was. Except for the dwarf bit, obviously. The bod lurking under his washed out grey T was anything but dwarfish. Not that she noticed, or anything. Noticing the non-dwarf bod of her irascible employer was absolutely don’t go there territory.
31coffeeBut she held the caffeine in her hands, oh yes. This early? As sleep-deprived as grumpy not-dwarf there was looking? Caffeine was power. Now was the time to strike.
‘So you’re a coffee snob as well. Great. One flat white coming up.’ She tumbled milk into the small, stainless steel jug, inserted under the steam wand. Spun the dial, cupping the jug with her hand, to feel for when the milk reached temperature. She raised her voice over the hiss of steam. Added, ‘For a price.’
He looked up from his phone, eyebrows raised. ‘Excuse me? I have a feeling I already paid. For the coffee machine which came with this not inexpensive chalet. For the coffee beans. For the milk. Not to mention your salary.’
She spun the dial again, tapped the jug on the counter to kill any unwanted air bubbles. Let off another blast of steam to clean the steam wand.
Tipped both shots into a polka-dot coffee cup, carefully poured the milk over, watching the white ribbon and mingle through the dark espresso, avoiding any froth.
Finally turned to him, cup in hand. ‘You want this or not?’
‘Alright,’ he sighed. ‘Name your price.’
She set the cup in front of him, the click of china on granite loud in the silent kitchen.
More snow had fallen in the night. The mountains beyond the ship’s prow windows were swathed in white.
c98235a9c5f6f007d07cc00c23c678b4c61c4371_hqShe stood across from him. Waited as he took that first restorative sip. Then, ‘What have you gotten the kids?’ At his bemused look, ‘For Christmas,’ she clarified.
What else could she possibly be talking about at this time of year? Exactly what planet, in what solar system, was this anti-dwarf racoon sloth lovechild living on?
‘Besides the luxury chalet and all the shit I’ve already paid for?’
Whatever Lucas felt about his Dad, she was starting to see where the sardonic tone came from. Apple. Tree. Far. Fall. Doesn’t. From. Rearrange into a well known proverb.
He shrugged. It was the same shrug as his son. ‘Usually just give them cash. They prefer that.’
giphy (11)‘Somehow I doubt that. I think you mean you prefer that, to making an effort to find out exactly what they do want. And then taking it one step further. That’s my condition. Today’s the 23rd. And I am personally going to drag you out of the house, away from your phone, and frog march you around the shops until we find perfect presents for both of them.’
He stared. More exactly, he gave her his finest grumpy Scrooge-Pants Anti-Dwarf evil eye. ‘I seem to remember you telling me that I was paying you to look after two kids, not three. So in the nicest possible way, fuck off.’ The curse tripped out lightly, an ironic lightness, so utterly pleasant, like an offer of tea and cake, it was ice-crystal clear that the joke was no joke.
She leaned her elbows on the granite top. Stared him down, a mathematician frowning over a scrawled page of calculus, puzzling out the solution, the trick, to some brain-ache of a riddle. She let the seconds tick by. Let him squirm. Finally said, ‘Nope,’ the lone syllable every bit as light, as sweet, as any meringue you ever demolished in a single bite. Then turned back to the coffee machine.
Leaving one Scrooge-Pants Anti-Dwarf to gape at her back. At the bare nape of her neck, where her hair was swept up. At her shoulder blades through her clinging red top. And down. To the focus of that all important philosophical question: does my butt look big in this?
Answer? Nope. Perfect. It was the most perfect piece of ass he’d had the privilege to gaze at since the last James Bond flick he managed to catch half of on NetFlix two years ago.
Which meant… philosophically speaking, of course, that he either needed to dunk his head in the snow, or that he really, urgently needed to bury himself under his stink-heap of emails.
She finished making her gingerbread latte. Turned. Sipped. Said, ‘The kids have skiing at 10. We’ll have two hours. Prepare yourself for an Armageddon of Christmas shopping.’
source (2)Did you know your arse is perfect? We’re talking Botticelli Babe perfect here. Were you born that way? Nature or nurture? Your arse is so hot, I could sear shrimp on it. With lime and sweet chilli sauce. He didn’t say. What he said was, ‘That smells phenomenal. Make me one?’ It was the closest he’d come to begging since he walked out of his father’s life and into a job pot-washing and portering at a two star restaurant in a London hotel.
Gingerbread-Latte-684x1024‘And tomorrow,’ she said, ‘You are going to spend the day with your kids. You are not spending Christmas Eve glued to your screen. You are going to take Lucas and Tabby out. You are going to do something fun.’
‘Is that all, Madam Dictator?’
She thought about it. Took another sip, savouring the marriage of spices, coffee and silken steamed milk. ‘For now,’ she allowed.
‘Then make me one of those things, dammit, before I steal yours.’

Nixing Clotted Cream for Cranberries; and What Kids Are For, a Choux Samurai and a Feisty Tipple Tangoing on the Brain

Tonight, Pumpkin Soup, paired with Mary Berry’s Scones as seen on her Country House tour… pimped up with seasonably appropriate cranberries. Putting the Berry in the Merry Christmas Berry Scones. Terrible pun absolutely intended. No clotted cream in these parts, where cheese is exotic, so the whole cream or jam first argument can go jump. These babies are strictly for soup-dipping action. Sacrilege, I’m sure, but we’re not in Cornwall or even Devon anymore, Toto.

I’ve also set aside the zombie angel I’ve been stitching for the top off my tree to throw together a quick appliqué stocking. The aim is to cram it full of the Singapore Shopping Mecca goodies I hauled back, together with a last-minute bake (hmmm…Candy-Cane topped Cheesecake Brownies? A Christmassy Chocolate Bark or Candy Cane Fudge?), for my partner in dance-floor crime. As he’s mentioned a boozy evening plying mixology skills quite recently, I thought I’d pull out all the stops, and indeed the corks, and treat him to eggnog and mulled wine too.

And if that wasn’t enough, the romance scurries on below, where as ever, much action happens kitchenside, in Scroogy-Pants’s holiday chalet.

What Kids Are For, a Choux Samurai and a Feisty Tipple Tangoing on the Brain

 

‘What, exactly, are you doing in here? Apart from making a god-awful racket, that is.’ Caleb stood in the doorway to the hall holding his head with one hand, phone dangling from the other.
‘Exactly, we are thickening a creme patissiere, to fill that small mountain of choux buns,’ she shouted back at him over Bing’s White Christmas crooning without turning her attention from Lucas, busily stirring a sizeable pot on one of the front burners of the six-ring stove. images (60)‘Oh, and Tabby is performing surgery. She’s our in-house choux-surgeon. Don’t distract her. It’s an important job.’
Leaning in over Lucas’s pot, she added, ‘Almost there… can you feel it thickening?’
‘Don’t distract her, she says!’ he released his skull, made a give me strength gesture toward the exposed wood beams overhead.
He hardly spared a flick of the eyes for his daughter, pulled up to the kitchen island on a tall stool, legs curled around the legs, glaring at the golden puff of pastry in one hand, wielding a sharp metal skewer with the other.
‘Shouldn’t you all be out, I don’t know, harassing one of the many extortionate experts I’m paying to teach you absolutely redundant skills?’
‘Right. Off the heat! Now! Do not stop stirring! Work those muscles, you lean, mean whisking machine!’
images (58)This girl could not be serious. This much excitement about… Caleb craned to get a squiz of whatever it was his son was still whisking in a fury of skinny-armed determination.
‘You are teaching my children to make custard.’ His voice flat. ‘That’s what packets, or, if you want to get fancy, cordon bleu chefs are for.’
‘Oh yeah?’ she turned to confront him full-on. ‘You have a lot of pretty weird ideas about what things are for. Tell me. What are kids for? I mean, you didn’t even stop at one! You got yourself two! And it’s not like they’re, y’know something you can just pick up down the mini-mart. What the hell are they for, Mr Vegas-Empire Scroogy-Pants?’
He stared at her across the kitchen. No one talked to Caleb Hynes that way. No one. And especially not some jumped up seasonal employee with no qualifications and tinsel in her hair.
‘You have tinsel in your hair,’ he said. Stumped for anything else.
She squinted at him, quizzical, one hand, clutching a midget bottle of who knew what – essence of reindeer? Concentrate of Snowman? – frozen in mid-air. ‘I’m not sure that answers my question,’ she said, a hint of uncertainty now, beneath the veneer of glittery cheer.
‘And you can? Answer it?’ he stepped forward, into the warm, vanilla scented fug of the kitchen. Let his hand come to rest next to Tabby’s mountain of punctured patisserie. His children were watching at him, with the fixation usually reserved for idiotic movies and the latest mind-numbing games on their consoles and tablets.
‘If you haven’t noticed that I am answering it, right this minute, and every minute since Mr Sharpshooter here’s first snowball hit me, then you really are beyond help.’
tumblr_md66xlikTL1rs349jShe turned back to Lucas. Following her gaze, Caleb saw that his son suddenly looked like he wanted to bury his head in the bowl. Not to lick the sides, as per standard child modus operandi, no. From embarrassment. He’d embarrassed his son. Just as his father had always embarrassed him. Still did.
‘Maybe if you’d take the time to join us,’ she suggested lightly, spilling the contents of the little bottle into Lucas’s bowl, ‘You’d find out.’
His son didn’t look up.
‘Dad’s busy,’ Tabby answered for him. Firmly. He looked down at her, skewer poised to stab yet another of those golden puffs.
‘Not to busy to ask why you are assaulting your pastry with a sharp implement.’ He hooked a free stool closer with his foot, plopped himself down next to her. ‘I usually find that the best way to attack something edible,’ he picked up one of the puffs between finger and thumb, scrutinised it, ‘Is with your teeth.’
Tabby squeaked and lunged for his arm as he went to pop it in his mouth.
‘What?’
‘Not yet Dad! They’re not ready!’
download (45)‘Ha!’ Tabby still hanging off his arm, he shoved the thing in his gob. ‘It’s called taste-testing, my little Choux-Samurai,’ he said through a mouthful of pastry, his tone a great show-off show of patience.
He turned just in time to catch Lucas’s practiced, pre-teen eye-roll.
‘And my verdict is, that stuff better be half-way decent, because choux without filling is like Cinderella’s shoe with no Cinderella.’
‘You are so lame, Dad,’ Lucas said.
‘Not as lame as poor Cinders,’ Caleb tried. ‘Glass shoes? Give me choux any day.’
A long-suffering sigh from Lucas.
A small hand curled round the fabric of his pristine shirt. He looked down, followed the arm on up to his daughter’s face. She tugged him close. Breathed a hot blast of sugary breath in his ear. ‘Don’t pay any attention to him, Dad. He’s mean to everyone.’ She paused. ‘Except Imogen, maybe. He likes her.’
He looked back across the kitchen, to where the favoured lady in question stood patiently holding a piping bag open as Lucas dolloped the cream pat, splat, splat splat, from the pot.
Hatsune.Miku.full.401555He leaned in to his daughter. ‘I can see why. She’s quite a talented lady.’
His daughter looked at him as if he’d just told her that Father Christmas’s elves were green and lived on a strict diet of reindeer poo and used parcel tape. ‘Nooo, silly!’ she whispered. She was spitting in his ear. He resisted the urge to wipe it, resisted the automatic qualms about hygiene, health and safety regs. ‘It’s coz she’s so pretty!’ A slight pause then, dreamily, ‘Like a model. Or a film star.’
Yea gods. Was that the type of woman his bloody wife was setting up for her daughter to idolize?
‘Maybe,’ he whispered to his daughter, ‘Your brother needs to learn that there are more important things than a pretty face.’
‘Try telling that to Prince Charming!’ she giggled, stricken with her own absolute hilariousness.
Well. His own fault for bringing bloody hijacked Disney princesses up in the first place.
‘Right,’ Imogen grabbed attention with both hands and a full piping bag. ‘We’re loaded. Let’s get down to it.’
Watching her hand off the piping bag to his son, guiding his hands as he piped his first puff full to bursting point, Caleb realised it wasn’t just his kids that needed to get over the allure of a pretty face. To say nothing of feminine curves in bloody skinny jeans and slinky, waterfall tops. Someone he knew definitely needed to get over those.
Or failing that, get a leg over them.

 

He heard her sock feet, and, more to the point smelled her approach. No mistaking the spicy, citrus-spiked tang of mulled wine. Caleb tried extremely hard to look like a man absolutely and utterly absorbed in his work. Which was what he was. No question. Absorbed. In work.
‘Hey.’
His head snapped up. Bloody irony. So absorbed in a show of being absorbed, she’d startled him. He banged his funny bone on his desk as he spun around, grabbed his elbow. ‘Fuck!’
tenor‘What are you, trying to one-up Gordon Ramsay in the language department?’ sarcastic, but… something in her face, a puzzlement, suggested that she genuinely wanted to know. ‘Bet there’s lots you could teach those kids… I just hope flaunting a foul mouth isn’t one of them.’
She shuffled closer. Set the tray, with its steaming glass of mulled wine, down on the desk beside him.
‘Who’s flaunting? It’s just that every time I see you, I manage to incur some kind of physical damage.’
‘Don’t be such a baby. You hired me to look after two kids, not three.’
He cocked an eyebrow. ‘Your sympathy is truly overwhelming.’
source (1)‘Oh, I’ve got bags of the stuff. Just not for you.’ She stood there. Made no move to sit down. Her hand resting lightly on the desk. He could have reached out and – ‘But surely mulled wine beats sympathy.’
She turned to go.
He didn’t want her to go. Except that he did. He needed to work. They were behind schedule on the Vegas site, and he had a mountain of CVs to sift through, handpicking his staff.
Except – ‘Aren’t you having any?’
She turned in the doorway. Beyond her, the tiny lights studding the winter garland that ran down the bannister twinkled. Beyond the wide windows of the mezzanine eyrie he’d staked claim to as his office, daylight was pulling back from the snowy peaks of the alps.
‘And be drunk in charge of dangerous explosives? Do you encourage all your staff to drink? Maybe that’s why you swear so much. I’d be pretty volatile too, if all my staff were plastered on the job.’
‘Ah, but however hideous the working hours and the so-called work-life balance in the industry, my staff do all have homes to go to. Where I presume a good many of them drink off the stress. Judging by the hangovers I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing, over the years.’
He couldn’t resist a second longer. The wine. He couldn’t resist the wine. Just to be absolutely clear.
GettyImages-545878915-585082c03df78c491ef4e783He stuffed his nose in the glass, narrowly avoiding pronging his nostril on the decorative cinnamon stick, and inhaled. Star anise, citrus, perhaps a hit of ginger? His first sip was… ambrosial.
She leant in the doorway, regarding him. ‘Up to scratch?’
Setting the glass down with exaggerated care – he had absolutely no intension of sharing his drink with his iPad or mountain of notes – he sank back into his chair. Feeling something unwind, unkink, somewhere. His shoulders, maybe. His chiropractor was always banging on about the tension in his spine.
‘Tell me again why the hell you’re working as an au pair? You’re bloody wasted on childcare. And sit down while you do it. You’re driving me mad, hovering about like a bloody… hovering thing.’

giphy (7)He took another sip of the wine, frowned as he set the glass down. His alcohol tolerance was generally drink-em-under-the-table high. So why did he feel like this, this – another sip, just for confirmation, mind you – this feisty tipple was tangoing on his brain like a bloody tankard of absinthe?
At least he got a laugh out of her, though she distinctly failed to budge from the doorway. ‘My reasons for au pairing are my business. And actually caring for, and about your kids, is never wasted. And, sorry, but yours really do need a hefty dose of tlc.’ She lifted her arm to her eyes, tapped her watch-less wrist. ‘Speaking of which, it’s tlc o’clock. Dinner’s gonna be late. Game stew.’
She turned on her heel and slipped away into the twinkling depths of the house. Leaving him with the wine, and a strange expression on his face. The kind of expression that might have encouraged him to take himself out onto the snowy slopes behind the house and give himself a good clobbering with something heavy – a wok, say, or a fondue pot – if he could have seen it.

Culinary Home-Coming Comforts; Smuggling a Slick Corporate Persona Chalet-Side, the Sadist Who Invented Skinny Jeans and Nasty Witches Hanging Round the Rink

 

How does the song go?

It’s very nice to go trav’ling
To Paris, London and Rome
It’s oh, so nice to go trav’ling
But it’s so much nicer
Yes, it’s so much nicer to come home

It’s very nice to just wander
The camel route to Iraq
It’s oh, so nice to just wander
But it’s so much nicer
Yes, it’s oh so nice to wander back

Although I generally prefer Bing Crosby, I thank you, Frank Sinatra. I have only one thing to add:

It’s very nice to try sampling,
Thai, Korean, and Chinese,
It’s oh so nice to try sampling,
But it’s so much nicer,
Yes it’s so much nicer, cooking what you please.

Not that I’m doing anything so spectacular tonight, just a frittata. Faaaar too wiped out to venture further than roasting up sundry veg, tossing them with a bit of cheese and then chucking a mixture of yogurt and egg over the top, with a final dusting of parmesan and some of these fish sauce-cured dried shrimp you get here for crunch.

The tiredness owing mostly due to the typhoon which I now hold responsible not only for the spectacularly stormy Christmas in Singapore, but also for keeping me up with grumbling thunder through the night, and possibly even for the delay in my plane taking off, over an hour spent sitting on the runway while babies screamed and the kids behind tried to play football (soccer to you Americans out there) with the back of my seat.

But I am home at last, and already contemplating a run to my ‘foreign foods’ second home, to see what bits and bobs I can gather for some more crazy concoctions.

But more of that when my eyelids don’t require professional scaffolding to prop them open.

Extreme knackeredness notwithstanding, here’s the next instalment of my seasonal romance.

Smuggling a Slick Corporate Persona Chalet-Side, the Sadist Who Invented Skinny Jeans and Nasty Witches Hanging Round the Rink

 

A snow-whisked whirl of tobogganing, skiing lessons, skating, and snowmen in the days that followed; picture the montage of icy flakes caught in flying hair, apple cheeks and wide, exhilarated smiles, wobbly ice-skates, and arse-over end ski-tumbles, of pancake and snappy maple-bacon breakfasts, and apres-ski fondue looking down across the glittering mountainscape as the first distant stars prickled the frozen depths of the sky.

giphy (5)Mr Scroogy-Pants, aka Caleb Hynes, aka absentee father of the year, would not feature in the montage, unless you counted a blurred glimpse of a distant figure pacing before the towering windows, his phone superglued to his ear, or a snatched shot of the back of his head bent over his laptop, in a pool of light as he worked into the night, a background ghost, as invisible as Scrooge himself, on his whirlwind tour of Christmas Past, Present, and yet to come.

She cooked. Stuffed ballotine of rabbit, quail roasted on the crown, venison wellington with a deep mushroom duxelle, spiced lamb tagine. She baked. Blood orange creme brulle, mince pies, sugar cookies with the kids, a Christmas pudding, currently soaking in booze, a bit more every day. Sometimes she spun her own twist on the recipes from Scroogy-Pants’ point-by-point meal plans, sometimes she ignored them altogether.
tumblr_odqfzmwe1S1v16pwho4_400He didn’t complain again. More precisely, he made no comment at all. It was like he’d smuggled his slick corporate persona into the chalet in his slim-line wheeled suitcase, a persona with less actual personality than a spoiling banana. There was plenty you could do with brown-speckled bananas: banana bread, smoothies, frozen yogurt, banana and chocolate bars… the possibilities were endless. Scroogy-Pants though… he was your culinary equivalent of iceberg lettuce. Flavourless, sterile and crisp. It looked the part, it was snappy, but you’d have more excitement with a glass of chilled water.
And speaking of chilled water, it was almost time for Tabby’s skating lesson.
Imogen gave the freezer bag of pulverized candy-canes a final pounding with her rolling-pin, trying – though not too hard – to resist visualising a certain Scroogy-Pants’ head. She sprinkled the red and white rubble across the top of a tray of artfully swirled cheesecake brownies, popped the tray in the oven, set the timer, and gave her hands a quick rinse.
Trotted up the stairs, hoping to find Tabby in her room. In a house, pardon, a chalet, this size, she seemed to lose one or other of the kids about five times a day. But Tabby knew she had a lesson this afternoon, so surely…
No joy.

tumblr_odqfzmwe1S1v16pwho1_400The whole reason for hiring a bloody au pair had been so that he could get on with the preparations for the Vegas opening, plus everything else that had stacked up behind that, without distraction. They were at a critical stage in the Vegas venture, on top of the most frantic time of year in the industry. He needed to focus. To have his head screwed on tight. Distraction he did not need. Not from the kids. Certainly not from their damned mother. And above all, not from the au pair who’d only been hired as a solution to the problem in the first place.
The smells dancing from stove and oven. The kids, laughing, rough-housing, a permanent snowball fight of unadulterated joy. The Christmas classics, the jazz, the Nutcracker. The shimmying dance she did between chopping board, stove and oven when she thought no-one was looking. In skinny jeans! Whatever sadist invented skinny jeans, and then put them on sale so that people, girls, bloody women, like her could slip them up over their giraffe limps and hips that he was definitely not thinking about, well. The fool should be taken out and shot.
man-trying-to-concentrateThe Christmas movie marathons on the wide-screen TV, blue light dancing across three rapt faces, sprawled together in a tangle of limbs – limbs he wasn’t obsessing over, he barely noticed them – the Imogen girl every bit as engrossed in the sappy Tinsel Town antics as the kids.
She was everywhere, and there was no escaping her. Hell, this was supposed to be the escape. His mountain retreat, where he could concentrate on business without interruption, definitely without some cute little pixie tiptoeing about, wafting her magic wand and her bloody amazing flavours in all directions.
‘Sorry, Rich, what were you saying?’
He scrolled down through the spreadsheet, trying to catch up with whatever it was his manager at the Vegas site had been droning on about.
Distracted again, light sock-feet padding past his door, once, twice, then back down the stairs.

The little girl was sitting on the tiles by the basement pool, her arms wrapped around her legs, lit by the eerie, flickering marine glow of the submerged pin-lights. No sign of her skates, still in her pyjamas, although it was well past noon.
Not that Imogen was in a position to cast judgment on all-day pyjama-slobbing as a lifestyle choice, given her recent inability to wrap her head around the terrifying prospect of clothes. Clothes meant outside, meant plans, meant a future. She hoped she wasn’t seeing something similar in the nine-year-old Tabby.
‘What are you doing down here?’ she asked softly, settling herself down cross-legged next to Tabitha. Tabby looked at her across her knees, then away again, deliberately, out across the ghostly ripple of the water. ‘It’s peaceful. A bit magic fairy grotto. But I thought you had an appointment with water of the frozen variety.’
download (42)She watched Tabby from the corner of her eye. Was that almost, almost that irrepressible grin sneaking out? If it was, it shrank back down a black hole, sign-posted childhood misery, faster than a mole with a digger. A shrug, definitely nicked off her brother, was the only other response.
‘You could try skating down here. Not too sure how that would work out for you though. Might be a bit on the damp side.’
And there it was again, a flash of that slippery-eel smile, repressed like a fish wife pounding its brains out with a super-size mallet.
‘It couldn’t be any worse,’ Tabby said. The stress on the final word like she wanted to smash it all over the pavement with her shoe, like stamping on a snail, a slimy splat spackled with crunched shell.
‘Shall we find out?’ Imogen sprang to her feet, tucked one arm under the little girl’s bent knees, the other under her undefended armpits, and lifted her, with an ooomph and a wild swing, out towards the water.
Tabby’s shrill squeal resounded off the sleek tiled surfaces, the water and cavernous space playing strange games with the shrieks and gurgling laughter that followed.
Imogen was panting as she set her down, safe and dry. ‘So. Wanna tell me why skating in the pool is a better option than, you know, skating on actual ice?’
That bloody shrug again. Lucas was going to be hearing about it. Later. Right now –
7a2d07dca62beb1ca89af377e0f930d60213d211_hq‘The skating’s fine! I used to love skating, and Mum can’t afford it without Daddy. But those evil megatron girls have ruined it. They stand around watching, and giggling, and I know they’re saying nasty things about me, and I hate it!’
‘Ah,’ said Imogen. ‘I’ve known a few girls like that myself. Tell you what though; they just do it because they are so boring and unimaginative they can’t come up with something better. But,’ she took hold of Tabby’s hand, ‘That doesn’t solve the immediate problem. Your dear Dad has paid for these skating lessons, and I reckon he’ll be a bit miffed if you skip them.’
ice_skating_girl_popular_OWN-530x330She saw Tabby’s face fall. ‘Buuuut… I don’t see why we can’t rearrange a bit. After all, Dad pays top dollar, right? And those nasty little witches can’t hang around the rink all the time, now can they? Can they??’ she realised she really didn’t have a clue what such hoity toity princesses could or couldn’t do. ‘Of course, I should probably be giving you a pep talk about how you should stand up to them and blah blah blah… but this is your holiday. So. I betcha those girls are busy in the evenings, right? So why don’t I call up the rink, talk to your instructor – Sven, isn’t it? And change the time of your lesson?’
It was like watching clouds clear after a thunderstorm. A slow smile split the kid’s face.
‘Of course, now you’ll be free all afternoon… you fancy some baking?’
‘Yes!’
‘Right. Go see if your brother wants to join in while I call these skating geniuses.’
‘He won’t.’
‘Bet he will. Bags I your hot chocolate if I’m right!’
‘No way!’
‘Go and ask him then!’

Christmas Firsts, Singapore-Style; Scroogy-Pants Neuroses, Metaphorical Lava and Festive, Black-Foresty Pressure

A Christmas of firsts:

First time in Singapore, during which I spent three days walking in a shopping wonderland. I mean, bejayzuz! Next to this place, London is a puny village with a corner shop, a pillar box and a pub. The closest I can think of would be L.A…. and that’s about as close as… well, poor little questionably-statused ‘planet’ Pluto is to the Sun. So, not that close at all.

First time celebrating Christmas hair-of-the-dog style, starting the day with a most excellent Bloody Mary. Spicy, a kick of vodka, with that crystalline purity you only get from the good stuff, the rim rolled in rock salt, adorned with a full plumage of appropriate veg. I hadn’t gone looking for booze, not by a long vodka-shot; I was in fact on the trail of coffee yumminess at three reportedly fabulous cafes. Alas, the first two were shuttered up and abandoned by the coffee elves for the holidays, but I lucked out with the third, where they were serving brunch, turkey dinners, and the aforesaid peacock of the Bloody Mary universe. All the better for being so completely unexpected.

It must be said, having lived in London for over 20 years, I’m no stranger to the damp glories of a rained out Christmas. But thunderstorms, complete with ominous thunder and lightning, that too was a first.

Finally, first time hopping on a funfair ride on Christmas Eve. How could I resist those swingy, whirly swing chairs they have set up down by Marina Bay, along with a roller coaster (looked far too tame for me), a rollicking pirate ship, and various other flashing, zooming rides and booths?

One thing has remained the same, however… I’m still beavering away at my fantasy-land fiction. Another installment, should you be inclined. (Go on, incline yourself!) A couple of episodes here… this being seasonal romance, I need to get a wiggle on with writing and posting it.

For any one here to listen to me ramble about stuff you can shove in your gob, this particular fiction does feature same. What can I say? I like writing about food almost as much as cooking, baking and generally playing with it.

Scroogy-Pants Neuroses, Metaphorical Lava and Festive, Black-Foresty Pressure

As he stepped from the shadow of the hulking SUV, the face that met hers was… to die for. And strangely familiar, in that tip-of-your-brain-irritating kind of way. Also, very far from thrilled. Livid might be more accurate, and about the same colour as all those cherries she’d chopped and pitter-pattered into the lush, brandy-laced cream filling of her chocolate roulade. Or a cranberry. She couldn’t decide. Probably a cranberry, considering the whole sourness factor.
‘I thought I hired an au pair, not some bloody hooligan guerrilla!’ he stormed.
Souryuu.Asuka.Langley.full.1341769The little girl had frozen in front of her, little cat ears wilting on top of her hat.
She clapped her hands over the little girl’s ears – the real ones – and shouted right back. ‘And I was pretty sure I was hired by an anally retentive control freak, who knows less than nothing about kids! So at least one of us was right!’
She lowered her hands from the kid’s cold little ears. Offered her one, palm up, and felt the chilled, snow-wet fingers in her own. Added more loudly ‘Sargent Sharp-Shooter! You coming?’ She made a sweeping gesture towards the house. The boy, who’d stopped dead, knee-deep in snow, threw a worried glance at his father, then scrambled after her.

By the time Mr Scrooge-Face had gotten himself indoors, the kids had shed their Michelin Man layers, Imogen had introduced herself, learned their names, Tabitha and Lucas, and sent them off, minus a small camel-load of coats and hats, on a whirlwind of chalet exploration, with promises of salted caramel hot chocolate when they managed to navigate their way back to the fold of the kitchen.
He came into the kitchen doorway just as she was whisking the steaming over the finest flaked chocolate. Swiss, of course.
1424460449234‘What the hell now?’
‘It’s called hot chocolate. And it’s heavenly, actually.’
‘I thought I made it quite clear in my emails that –’
‘That you want to inflict your health-food neuroses on kids you don’t even know at Christmas? Yeah. I got that. Loud and clear.’
‘Now, look here, Miss, Miss…’
‘Yeah, now see, that whole I-can-name-you-so-I-own-you routine doesn’t actually work if you can’t be arsed to bloody remember my name.’
Creamy-Dulce-de-Leche-Hot-ChocolateMilk, cream and chocolate combined, she poured it over the sediment of salted caramel in two Twelve Days of Christmas mugs, topped them off with their own private ski-runs of whipped cream, and another drizzle of caramel, just in case anyone was inclined to feel deprived. ‘Lucas! Tabitha!’ she hollered. Mr Scroogey-Pants started. Tried to hide it, but she saw it all right. ‘Hot chocolate’s a-go-go! Come’n’get it!’
The answering stampede of feet from overhead tugged an unintended grin across her face.
Maybe Caro had been right after all. Maybe this was what she needed. And confronting the louring, and, okay, dead-gorgeous, look of Daddy Scroogey-Pants just before she twirled away from him, towards the open plan living space, she wondered if maybe she wasn’t what these poor damn kids needed, too.
Everything money could buy, clearly. Except a Dad who gave enough of a toss to get to know them.
‘Excuse me, but I haven’t finished!’
‘Wrong!’ she flung over her shoulder, just as the cavalry bounced into the huge living room that was more like some reconfigured medieval hall, with its roaring hearth, pine beams, and wall of windows, leaning out at an angle like a ship’s prow, all set to launch itself into the snowy landscape. ‘You haven’t even nearly started. I can tell.’
The-Retreat-FireplaceShe set the mugs down on the shining wood of the coffee table in front of the fire, fashioned from a single thick slice of some monster’s trunk, and turned back to him, as Lucas and Tabitha threw themselves down on the fluffy rug beside the fire.
‘Lucky for both of us,’ she added, settling her hands on her hips. He’d followed her through the kitchen, was closer than she’d expected. ‘Because what you don’t say can’t hurt anybody.’
‘You seem to be more than a little confused about your position here. I –’
Glancing back at the kids, she saw two pairs of round eyes tracking the back-and-forth like a pro-tennis match.
She stepped forward, shooing Scroogey-Pants in front of her, like another kid.
It was true, what they’d always said, back in her high-end retail days. The kids themselves weren’t the problem. It was the parents that were the problem.
‘If I’m confused,’ she began, lowering her tone as they faced off across the granite-topped kitchen island, ‘It’s because you are confused. I know you’re a big hotshot something-or-other, so you must know the basics of leadership, right? Even if you clearly don’t know sweet bugger-all about being a Dad. But get this. If you send conflicting signals, Mr Hotshot, guess what? People will be confused.’
giphy (4)

She was beginning to wonder if maybe everything she’d bottled up over the years with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (Caro’s orders) was finally exploding out of her, like a dormant volcano when it finally blows. If that was the case, she’d almost pity the guy; she had a hellavalotta metaphorical lava stored up. Almost, but not quite.
‘Confused? If there was anything even slightly confusing in my emails,’ he jabbed his finger at her across the granite. Perfectly kept nails, she noticed. ‘Then the only mistake I’ve made is in overestimating your intelligence, and hiring you at all! I should have known that agency would cock everything up. I –’
‘Your emails, Mr Scrooge, read like a masturbating drill sergeant. And they do conflict. With what you do. Rule number one, actions speak louder than emails! And rule number two, don’t go doing one thing and preaching another!’
‘Who do you think you are, laying down rules for –’
‘I’m your au pair. The person you hired, along with this flipping Crystal Palace here, to make sure your kids have a good time, and are well looked after, without disrupting what I assume is some all important work schedule that you can’t leave alone for two seconds to enjoy Christmas with the kids I’m betting you hardly ever see.’
That seemed to get him for a second. He looked down at his hands, resting on the pristine granite top of the kitchen islands. But no, no such luck. He was just girding himself for the next full frontal attack. ‘Yes,’ he snapped, smacking the granite . ‘Not that it’s any of your business, but I have obligations that don’t just magically disappear just because it happens to be December. And yes, as an au pair to my kids, I expect you to look after them as I would do. Which includes minor issues like discipline and a healthy diet. If you’re not up to such basic – ’
‘At Christmas? They are kids, you freak! Look. I’m all for a healthy diet – kids eat waaay too much crap these days.’
He’d opened his mouth to override her. And slammed it shut again. Like a car boot, she thought regretfully. ‘You do? I mean, they do! You would nog believe the shit their mother lets them –’
640px-A_Boyar_Wedding_Feast_(Konstantin_Makovsky,_1883)_Google_Cultural_InstituteShe held up a stop-sign hand. ‘Why don’t we just not go there. Had my fill of post-divorce recriminations, okay? You’ve got in some amazing ingredients, that I’m thrilled to be working with. With such quality ingredients, the stuff coming out of this kitchen is not gonna be KFC, or Macky Dee’s, right? But I’m not going to turn my back on a long and glorious tradition of festive gluttony just because you want to prove you’re a more responsible parent than your wife. Leave me in charge of the kitchen, and your kids might actually like you by the time you all fly home. Which, I gotta tell you, I’m not so sure about right now, and would definitely not be the case if I let you spend the holiday alternately force-feeding them a Michelin Starred Gwyneth Paltrow diet of lettuce and stuff they couldn’t spell even if they recognised it.’
5508e3dbccecf-goop-diet-lgHe looked at her for a long time. And then past her.
‘How long have you been standing there?’
Two little faces lurked behind her, where the kitchen opened out into the living room. Well, okay, Lucas was almost as tall as she was, but his goggling matched his younger sister’s, made him seem much younger than his wise-guy 13 years.
‘About a Santa Claus mile, I’d guess,’ Imogen cut in. ‘Finished?’
Silence. A mute nod from Tabitha, with Lucas accompanying in the shrug section.
‘I swear to god, Caro! If you met this guy, you’d never call me a Grinch again!’
download (38)‘Takes one to know one, I’d say.’ She was chewing something. Popcorn, by the crunch of it. Probably caramel or some other hideous sticky adulturation, judging from the amount of lip-smacking going on. ‘Anyway, I googled him. Caleb Hynes. He’s kinda famous, a seriously big player in the hospitality industry. Easy on the eyes too. Quite a high rating on a couple of those Top Bachelors to Add to Your Letter to Santa lists. ’ She heard Imogen gearing up to butt in, rode straight over her. ‘You know he’s opening a place in Vegas? Probably what he’s so stressed out about, you know. Play your cards right, maybe he could open a few doors for you – ’
‘The only door that guy is likely to open for me is the back door, when he plants his foot in my arse to kick me out. And I bet you any money I’d have to open the door myself,’ Imogen grumbled, ‘With my head. You haven’t even heard the worst of it yet.’
‘How can it possibly get worse than nailing your uber-wealthy, super-influential employer with a snowball, and then telling him he’s failing as a father? This I must hear.’
‘Dinner. It was great… going smoothly, until… well…’
‘Quit stalling. What did you do?’ Delivered with that singsong nursery-rhyme lilt that said she knew perfectly well it was something hideous.
It had been hideous, more hideous than boshing the guy with a snowball before she’d even introduced herself.
download (39)‘I hit him with a frying pan.’
‘You what?’ Caro sputtered, followed by a wheezy, choking cough. ‘Sorry. Popcorn has bones in it. You hit him with a frying pan?? Are you trying to get your arse fired?’
‘What? No! I was trying to stand up for those poor bloody kids!’
‘Less of the poor. How many kids get to whizz off to the Swiss land of luxury for Christmas?’
‘To be honest, I’m pretty sure they’d have been happier to spend the holiday back home with their Mum.’
‘You’re trying to distract me. Not buying it. Back to the point. Which is: you. Frying pan. Your incredibly rich Mr Scroogy-Pants. Explain.’
Imogen closed her eyes briefly. Stood up from the snuggly double bed, and padded across the polished wood floor to the window nook. It had started snowing again, she could see the flakes falling, thick and fast, past her face reflected, a ghost in the dark of the glass.
‘It wasn’t all my fault. I mean he – ’
‘He what? Twisted your arm and said, gimme a crack with that frying pan, babe, or else! Jesus! I wish you’d started wielding your bloody frying pans a bit earlier – ’
‘That’s just it!’
‘Just what?’
‘It kinda feels like everything I kept pent up all those years is just… bursting out.’
‘Possible…’ Caro mulled. ‘Though you still haven’t told me exactly what happened. I presume he didn’t actually get down on his knees and beg you to wallop him upside the head with the kitchen equipment.’

Imogen flumped down in the window seat, pulling a red and white tasselled throw over herself.

She’d plated up Monseiur Scroogy-Pants Lobster Extravaganza without a hitch, but then dithered over what to serve the kids, the lobster and langoustine or the tomato linguine. Popped the lobster on a pretty serving dish, red and green and gold, with scribbly holly and ivy motifs and carried it, along with the pan of linguine wallowing in its red tomato bath, to the table.
Her executive decision not to decide was shot down by Scroogy-Pants, of course it was.
‘What,’ he’d asked, catching sight of the pan, ‘Is that?’ He could’ve been a fois-gras and escargots purist Parisian snob presented with a sausage roll, from the disdain in his voice, and smeared all over his arrogant face.
‘Tomato linguine. In case they don’t like lobster.’ She’d turned to Lucas, lifting a suggestive plate, tongs and saucy-sauce spoon and pan of linguine at the ready. ‘How bout it? Lobster or tomato sauce?’
The kid had just about got his mouth open when his dad barreled in. ‘They’re trying the lobster. Both of them.’
Lucas’s mouth had clammed shut, Tabby was rigid as a snowman in a snowstorm.
So she’d applied the saucepan judiciously to the back of his head.
‘Oops,’ she’d said. ‘It slipped.’

‘You. Are. Kidding. Me,’ Caro blurted. ‘Oops, it slipped? You actually said that? What did he do?’
‘Um. Let’s just say he wasn’t overjoyed… told me at least I’d gotten a different spot, and was I trying to turn his head into an anthill. But Lucas and Tabby…’ Imogen remembered the suppressed giggles. ‘Well, the looks on their faces… pretty hard to resist. So… I kinda got away with it. He went a bit ballistic again when I brought on the Yule Log, but – ’
holdupsanta_card‘O.M.G. What level of Hell did you say this guy is from? Your Yule Log is, like, worth committing theft, murder and possibly Santa-cide for!’
‘Well, the kids thought so. And get this: Scroogy-Pants crumbled under the Festive, Chocolatey, Black Forest pressure and had some. Miniscule, yeah, like, you would’ve needed a microscope to see the damn thing, but he practically scraped the pattern of the plate in the end.’
Caro whistled. ‘So… what’s the Grinchy-Claus plan for tomorrow then?’
snoopy-charlie-brown-winter-funny‘Tobogganing. The kids are booked in for some ski lessons later on in the week, plus skating for Tabby, but we’re gonna ease into it, y’know?’
‘Just you and the kids? Or will the Arch-Anti-Dad be joining you?’
Imogen snorted. ‘As if. That’s my job. To act in locos parentos while he does everything but actually spend time with his kids.’
‘Hmmm. That sucks a bit. Not for you, but for the kids.’
‘Wow, thanks. So my company sucks now, does it?’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘Yeah. Yeah, I do.’
A pause, silence on the line. Imogen turned back to the window. Watched the snow tumble past.
Caro inhaled. Deep. ‘Speaking of things that suck – ’
‘Do we have to?’
‘I wasn’t sure whether to tell you, but – ’
‘Then maybe you could not?’
‘I really think you oughta know. He-who-must-not-be-named got in touch.’ Then, at the sound of Imogen’s sharp intake of breath: ‘I didn’t say a word, not one word, about where you are. I just thought you should know. Just in case. Forewarned is forearmed and all that.’

harry-potter-he-who-must-not-be-named-headline-newsletter-newspaper-Favim.com-234881
‘So I can do what? Set Scroogy-Pants on him, like a rabid dog?’ her head fell into her hand, as if her neck had collapsed, like the wilted stem of a week-old cut flower.
‘Look, it’s probably nothing. I don’t see how he’d track you down…’
‘But he’s trying. Dammit!’ A solitary tear trickled down her cheek. Nothing compared to the waterworks of the weeks before… but she was… so tired. So tired of this. Of him, and how he made her feel.

Festive Foodie Flurries; and Socking a Snowball to Mr Sharp-Shooter and Mr Anally Retentive Anonymous Spouts Expletives to Rival Jerry Springer

Made a imaginary-snow-flurried attempt to squeeze a season’s worth of baking and cooking before my seasonal jaunt to Singapore commenced on Friday.

On Sunday evening I whipped up a batch of Lecherli – German spice cookies, as well as a Masterchef-inspired courgette and basil puree, then on Monday I gave a mini, savoury pumpkin roulade a whirl (ehem. Pun intended). On Wednesday I did a miso and sweet-cilli twist on Nigella’s devilled eggs, together with some more fabulous spiced-custard in a cup eggnog. I had also intended to get me some mulling action before catching the plane, as it’s been surprisingly chilly of an evening in Ho Chi Minh lately, so concocted and infused my own spiced vanilla syrup, this being the key to the most delectable mulled wine.

While I’m on the theme of yummy boozy things, I also concocted some homemade V8, as I’ve recently had a hankering for a decent Bloody Mary.  Could be the seasonal, Santa-Hat colour, or my body trying to sneak the nutrients in by way of cravings… who knows? Just as well the stuff is pretty easy to make, as I can’t even find basic tomato juice in the shops in these parts.

Since arrival, of course, I have been attempting to quench my festive, boozy needs (ok, and shopping… if not exactly needs, then cravings, it’s true) here in Singapore.

And with alcohol comes inspiration… meaning that the festive chicklit word-count has grown prodigiously since my last post… though I’ll post it in segments. Wouldn’t want anyone else to suffer from festive, mistletoe-strew chicklit overkill. That’s a pleasure I reserve for my evil, elfy self.

Socking a Snowball to Mr Sharp-Shooter and Mr Anally Retentive Anonymous Spouts Expletives to Rival Jerry Springer

giphy

It was the shouts and squeals from outside which had alerted Imogen. She hadn’t even heard the car arrive. She scampered out of her en suite, flushed from the space-age shower, and ransacked her open bag, ok, Caroline’s bag, technically, for an appropriate meet-Mr-Anally-Retentive-Anonymous-Is-My-Middle-Name outfit, that would also stand the test of two kids plus any dinner-prep splash-back. If such an outfit even existed. If it did, it had certainly never been within spitting distance of her wardrobe.
Not having paid too much attention to what she was flinging into her bag in the rush to make her flight, she wouldn’t have been all that surprised to find a small elephant, a corgi or a deflated pool toy in there. What she did find almost made her cry.
Rackham1Caro had clearly been on fine Christmas elf form. Neatly folded over the mad jumble of knickers, stray socks and tangled jumpers that Imogen had flung in there was a pair of stylishly distressed Levis with snowflakes in a lighter denim up the outside leg and a soft, minty mohair jumper with another sequin snowflake embroidered on the chest. She slipped them on, prodded her hopeless wet-rat furball do into a clip, and dashed for the stairs.
The shrieks and squeals should have warned her, really. Take two kids straight off a cooped up flight for Grinch only knew how long, add snow, and what do you get? Anyone who’d ever watched The Snowman, and Imogen used to watch it ritually, year in, year out, singing along to Walking in the Air, until a certain somebody rained (fists) on her party… yes, anyone who’d ever seen it knew that snowballs were always first on any child meets snow agenda.
giphy (1)She opened the door, stepped out onto the stone porch, and took an icy hit to the chest. The head that had clearly been the intended target spun at the sound of Imogen’s oof! A girl, in a pink hat, with cat’s ears bobbing as she straightened up, her mouth and eyes matching O’s of surprise. The nine-year old. Had to be.
The kid ducked again, another missile incoming. Imogen squinted into the glare of the low evening sun striking off the snow, splashing the tumbled roofs of St Moritz in strokes of candyfloss pink, violet, tangerine.
A blur of dark limbs, in front of a large, silver SUV, and another snowball exploded off her shoulder.
‘Right, you!’ She bent, began scooping snow, packing it with instantly chilled fingers. The younger kid, the girl, peeked from behind the open front door. Turning back to the boy, crouched, gathering icy ammo with his bare hands in front of the car, she shouted, ‘You’ve picked the wrong au pair for target practice Mr Sharp-Shooter!’
She lowered her voice. ‘C’mon, kiddo. Two against one. We’ll nail him.’ The girl inched back out on the porch as Imogen pitched a hardball that caught the girl’s brother right where his puffa jacket wasn’t zipped high enough. ‘Ha! Take that!’
snowball_fight_by_star_soulNext to her, the girl was already frantically pushing snow from the porch railing together, handing it off to Imogen. From her pink cheeked, resolute little face, under a mop of blonde corkscew curls, it was clear a wordless decision had been made: this here lady was a trustworthy accomplice, a snowball slinging guardian angel worth having on your side.
So caught up in the sudden exhilaration, pelting snowballs out like a Gatling gun, dodging and darting to stay clear of return fire, exchanging wicked grins and giggles with the nameless cat-eared mop-head, Imogen didn’t even pause to consider the whereabouts of the third member of the party. Presumably the kids hadn’t driven the SUV up here from the airport. Presumably Mr Anally-Retentive Anonymous had to be lurking around somewhere.
But it just didn’t enter the fluff-stuffed space between her ears at all.
Until she pitched a killer, that zinged past the kid’s ear, and struck somebody, standing under the raised boot door. An adult somebody, who let loose a deep, adult kind of shout. Adult, masculine, and really, really not the kind of words you wanted to be hurling left right and centre with impressionable young ears about.
download (34)Swiftly followed by another shout and more expletives than Jerry Springer could shake a stick at, as the bulky figure straightened, cracked their head on the raised boot hatch, and dropped an armful of midget skis on their feet.
His hand went to his sore skull, came away, was duly inspected for any trace of bodily fluid, of the seasonally appropriate red variety.
‘I don’t think you hit it that hard!’ The words just tumbled out. Obviously her mouth was as hyperactive as the rest of her. Probably down to inhaling all those lobstery, choclatey, boozey fumes. She could swear she was packing in the calories just from the luscious smells wafting through the house back there.
‘What the hell is going on?!’

The Christmas Custard Variations and Cheffing Ice-Cream-Sundae-Chalet-Style for Mr Anonymous Fussy-Pants

The last few of days have been devoted to a custard, creme patissiere and croquembouche blitzkrieg, with a slight diversion of the elfykin troops into meringue territory.

Day one, I made a caramel creme patissiere, using a dollop of miso caramel I made before. Then the middle of the night rolled around, and with all the ingredients of eggnog (here’s the recipe I started with) rounded up, and quantities calculated for me, myself and I, as opposed to a party of ravening post-toy-production elves, I decided that that was what I really needed to induce those festive sugar-plum visions. Also, a  use for a bunny mug.

I really don’t know why it’s taken me so bloody long; quite possibly the prospect of drinking eggs put me off. I got mildly obsessed with the stuff way back when I worked at Starbucks as a student; but the eggnog for their eggnog latte came in a tetra-pack, so it wasn’t exactly pirateable, unlike their gingerbread or amaretto latte, for which a purchase of syrup is all that’s required to reproduce. But anyway. The stuff I ended up with – having been shocked, after a day spent making glorified custard (creme pat) to discover that I was basically making custard again, I was more than satisfied to find myself tucking in to a boozy version of that nostalgic Starbucks cup. Whatever the fool recipes say about chilling for a day in advance, it’s rubbish. I live in a tropical country, and enjoyed it warm; why people freezing their Christmassy butts off in actual winter weather would want it cold is beyond me. I’m just wondering if I can’t just substitute it for dinner in the days running up to the big day… after all, it’s got eggs in, right??

Then yesterday I produced a mountain of profiterols, which puffed up nicely in my fiery furnace oven.

But with all those egg whites hanging about in the fridge, I got mildly distracted, and made the hugest batch of meringue ever. My original intention of reproducing Cupcake Jemma’s meringue Christmas trees went slightly skew-wiff owing to lack of correct piping nozzle, though the twirly green kisses went down my Em Trai’s hatch without protest. However, with about a gallon of meringue mixture to use up, I changed tacks, got my hands on some pistachios, grabbed the dried cranberries, and ended up with a version of Nigella’s ‘Forgotten Cookies’, which are, I realized as I folded the chopped nuts and cranberries in, basically mini dacquoise, which I’ve made before.

I am now waiting for the first batch of caramel I need to make this evening to start turning that tell-tale amber which is the signal to start throwing cream, vanilla and salt at it. Only it’s taking foreeeeveeeer. As I need one batch for my students’ profiterol filling tomorrow, and another to stick my own croquembouche bonanza together, I may be here some time.

I really should invest and actual stove-type burner thingy. Caramel in a rice cooker is just not the way forward. I wonder if I might have more success using the oven? Hmmm.

While I wait (and wait, and waaaaiit) however, here’s, the second instalment of my attempt at the Christmas chicklit ski-run. (For anyone here to listen to me gabble on about food, there’s more of that below.)

Ooooh, update! The oven does caramel! It’s especially good because caramel, even more than your standard refusnik non-boiling pot, likes to be ignored. And my mini croquembouche stands! At least until the Chinese decide to blow it up. They like blowing things up, the Chinese. Especially anything that looks like a mountain.

Alternatively, I rather hope someone will eat it for me.

Now back to that twinkly fiction I was on about.

Cheffing Ice-Cream-Sundae-Chalet-Style, for Mr Anonymous Fussy Pants

the-feast-ice-cream-sundaes-04The chalet kitchen was… bliss: an ice cream sundae, knickerbocker glory, with five handcrafted flavours, all the toppings and a boozy cherry and fizzing sparklers on top to a person who’d been doomed to artificial canned vanilla all their pathetic lives.

It reminded her what she’d loved about cooking, back before she’d saddled herself to a certain someone who couldn’t get through a meal without nitpicking. It was when the nitpicking took a more violent turn that she finally, finally packed it in. Though not before the damage had been well and truly done, with bruised kidneys, a pair of broken ribs and a face so mashed there was no way the usual ‘fell down the stairs’ or ‘walked into a door’ excuses would fly.

So she flew instead. Flew the coop. Or limped, more like. Crawled. Took sanctuary. First with Caro, and now, here. He’d never find her here, and there was no way Caro would tell. Imogen hadn’t even let her family in on the details of exactly where she’d be, out of fear a certain Jerk-Off would try to sweet talk them.

cozy-chalet-kitchen-designs-to-get-inspired-11-554x367She docked her iPod, hitting her Christmas Jazz and Blues playlist before investigating the contents of a concierge-serviced double-barrel fridge, consulting her client’s requirements and a couple of saved recipes again. Then she got her mitts on the finest collection of knives she’d seen anywhere outside of cooking programmes on telly, and she was off.

images (38)As she weighed flour for fresh pasta, she had to admit, langoustine ravioli in a lobster bisque seemed a bit… haute cuisine for feeding a couple of kids. As she cracked eggs into a floury volcano crater, and began to work the sticky dough through her fingers, she wondered if she should prepare some sort of alternative, just to be on the safe side. Linguine, perhaps, with a simple tomato sauce. A few shavings off the block of fresh parmesan she’d spotted in the fridge.

Her employer’s emails had been almost frighteningly exact, regarding dietary requirements and menus. Still. It would be less disobeying orders or failing to meet her client’s demands than, than… augmenting those demands. Getting a little creative. Improvising on a theme. Even exceeding expectations, that old roast chestnut from certain luxury retail operations where she’d done her time on the front line. Wouldn’t it? she asked herself, as she popped the pasta in the fridge, and salted the huge pot of roiling water before going in with the shellfish.

Hell, she remembered how tense family dinner times could be.

download (27)A money-no-object Dad showing up with two kids, hiring an au pair over bloody Christmas, just had to be a workaholic divorcee. Lucky for the kids in question, she had first hand experience of that too. Well, the workaholic divorcee part, anyway, if not the rolling in cash, concierge service and lobster bisque ravioli riches bit. Her dad had just abandoned her alone in a strange, echoing apartment, in a strange, unfathomably foreign city, while he headed back to the office. She bet she knew what those kids would want, no, what they would need, a damn sight better than any estranged father would. However much money he had to throw at his two kid-shaped problems.

images (39)Linguine and tomato sauce it was. She could practically make it in her sleep. If they didn’t want it, she’d scarf the lot herself. Kids weren’t the only ones who needed edible comfort to fend off the unfamiliar.

But first, there was a lobster bisque to tackle. Quite apart from the obvious meat-extraction battle, she knew from multiple Masterchef and Great British Menu marathons that it would take a good few hundred hours to achieve the sweet, oceanic depth of flavour her fussy employer would no doubt be expecting. On top of that, there was the vac-pack water bath mystery to crack. The two machines she’s never met before crouched at the end of the granite-counter-top runway in all their steely, sterile glory, just daring her to screw up.

She swiped finely chopped onion, celery and carrot into the butter sizzling at the bottom of a vat the size of her bathtub at home with the back of her knife. Dumped the tray-full of lobster shells she’d already baked off in the oven, plus the gloopy green roe, and finally dropped in a string tied bouquet garni: tarragon, thyme, coriander and bay. Seasoned with a crunchy pinch of sea salt. Then found the pristine spice rack, and tipped in a healthy sprinkling of paprika and dried cumin as well. Just because.

download (28)Wiped her arm across her forehead. Despite the snowy view beyond the wide picture window, it was starting to steam up in here. She popped the cork on a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and took a good whiff. Yeah gods. It was probably sacrilege to chuck it in a pan; a wine like this had to cost an arm and a leg at least. Maybe a couple of cheeks (upper or lower) and a nose as well. She tumbled it in, then set the bottle aside to scrape all the sticky goodness off the bottom of the bathtub-proportioned pot.

Then located a wine glass. Because the wine deserved it, obviously. Also, because she wouldn’t be able to think straight with it teasing her. As to whether she’d be thinking straight after, well, that was a risk she’d just have to take.

Tiramisu-Yule-Log-Christmas-Cake-7-600x900Now. Pudding. Mr Anonymous-Fussy-Pants had indicated fresh fruit, but… What was fun, Christmassy or indulgent about that? Kids liked chocolate. Fact. With the wooded lower slopes of the mountains encroaching on their chalet-sanctuary, she could think of nothing more appropriate than a yule log. Fresh cream filling. She could chop up some of those cherries she’d spotted earlier, for that retro black forest gateau feel. And still meet the fresh fruit requirement.

She began creaming the sugar and butter. The sponge had to be so thin, it’d bake in a flash. She had plenty of time.

Croquembouche Chaos and Christmas in Chick-Lit Land

So, somebody I know went and opened their stupid mouth and said the word… croquembouche. To her students. Why? Why, in the name of Father Christmas and Tinker Bell would some idiot do such a thing? I suspect gluttony for Christmas punishment. Tis the season to be greedy after all, and why should punishment be left out? No points for guessing who the big-mouthed buffoon might be. I blame the Hairy Bikers for planting the idea in my head in the first place.

So it’s back to practicing my slinky choux moves and cunning creme pat manoeuvres. Which I can pretty much get down with. The fact that I’ve lately taken to sugar work and caramel-making, like a plump duck to a simmering vat of lard, should make the whole caramel glue requirement less daunting.

But, you know, choux pastry’s a tad tricky, easy to get wrong. So you prepare yourself carefully, gird yourself about, like a gunslinger twitching his holsters, with premeasured ingredients. You memorize the step by step method, til you can sing it backwards to the tune of Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer. You have your pastry-bag and pre-heated oven at the ready. You leave nothing to chance.

What you really don’t need is your local supermarket slipping rotten eggs into your half-dozen. Seriously. Bad enough that here in Vietnam they staple the eggy bastards into their plastic carton, making egg extraction an ongoing battle of wills: elf vs. egg carton. But this is the second time I’ve stumbled on a stink-bomb. Had to bin my first batch of pastry after cracking a stinking, Satan’s spawn sucker right into my golden choux goodness. Maybe the Evil Chickens are out for revenge.

Have also continued to bedeck my boudoir with twinkly sparkly things, although I have come to the sad realisation that there really isn’t any more room on my tiddly tree, so may be forced to call a halt to ornament production.

Regarding other matters creative, I have a shameful secret. Since my first lonely Christmas in China, this bookworm has been neglecting her usual improving diet of high-brow literature to consume Christmassy, mistletoe-strewn chick-lit for the duration of the festive season. Alas, some of it is just awful: badly written, clichéd, with implausible, cardboard characters and predictable plotlines. I read it anyway. So this year, in the wake of my attempt at Halloween horror, I thought to myself, I wonder if I can do better? But that’s for you to decide. Here’s the first instalment.

Part One: Sexy Moose Touches Down in St Moritz

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Wanted: Holiday Au Pair
Au Pair required for the holiday season. Full time, 20 Dec – 6 Jan. Influential businessman requires discreet and caring Au Pair for 2 children, ages 9 and 13. Duties to include accompanying children on activities and excursions and meal preparation. Fluent English and valid driver’s license essential, skiing/snowboarding experience an advantage. Live-in, all flights and connections paid for. Salary negotiable. Apply through Agency address below.

‘It’s just the thing for you, No-Cash Scroogy-Pants!’

‘Isn’t that a bit of a contradiction in terms?’

‘Nope,’ Caroline shot back. ‘At least Scrooge had an excuse. All that cash made him sour. You’re strapped, and still a complete Grinch-Monster.’ She stabbed her forefinger at the iPad screen again. ‘Go on, apply! I can’t take you moping around in your ratty so-called pyjamas another second. More importantly, nor can your bank balance.’

the_moose_is_loose_shirt_1024x1024‘Oi, what’s with the so-called??’ Imogen said, looking down at her worn long-sleeve moose T and boxers. The hole in the shoulder seam wasn’t that big, and she only had to hike the boxers’ frayed elastic up when she was actually on her feet, which was a position she’d been painstakingly avoiding for the last few weeks. ‘There’s nothing wrong with my pyjamas! Seen me through thick and thin, have these!’

‘Yeah, it shows,’ Caroline snorted. ‘Emphasis on the thin,’ she added, with a pointed glance at Imogen’s chest area, where, it’s true, a little more was on show through the worn fabric than the designer had probably originally intended.

‘It’s a sexy moose. With added nipples. What’s so wrong with that?’

dc96ecc2220885c7b84715f2de058d73Trust Caroline to confront her head-on, Imogen thought. Everyone else had been tiptoeing around her, handling her with the proverbial kid-gloves. There’d been so much kid-glove-action recently, Imogen was starting to worry for the local goat population. Not that London actually hosted its own population of goats, that she’d noticed… then again, maybe that was her fault too.

‘What’s wrong with that? You even have to ask? If you have to ask, sugarbabes, there’s a whole lot more wrong here than a couple of peeping nips.’

Imogen slumped back on the sofa, hugging a patchwork cushion to the offending bits of her and the moose’s anatomy.

‘One,’ Caroline started counting off on her fingers. Bets were off that she’d have worked up a PowerPoint presentation on the theme, if she hadn’t felt that the walking crisis that was her closest friend needed more urgent attention than your average IT solutions allowed. ‘You need money, fast. Anyone that can afford to splurge on flying in holiday help is gonna be paying a decent size packet. Two: you need to get out of the house, and out of those damn pyjamas, somewhere safe. Right?’

Not even Caroline was up to actually putting a name to the unholy terror that had turned Imogen into a paranoid hermit.

‘And three, sorry to be blunt, but you don’t exactly have recent qualifications pouring out your ears, and there really aren’t that many job opportunities flying around this time of year, yes? Reindeer, yes. Jobs, no. So. Give. It. A. Try.’ She scooped her iPad off the coffee table, and plopped it in Imogen’s lap. ‘Like, now. What have you got to lose?’

80655141A question Imogen was still asking herself as the chauffeur who’d collected her at Chambery Airport rolled up outside the chalet in St Moritz where she would be living and working for the next two and a half weeks.

Old stone, wooden timbering, inglenooks and log fires, a spa and jacuzzi and state of the art kitchen with views out over the snow-globe town glittering in one direction, soaring peaks in the other.

She had the sprawling chalet to herself until the evening, when her employer would arrive, though the bombardment of instructions that had pelted in her inbox meant she had plenty to do before she so much as laid eyes on her employer and his mini-me’s, a.

But that was hours away. She’d get the chores out of the way, the dinner wafting its scent through the billion and one rooms, and then, and then… a luxury chalet on this scale merited some serious exploration. Had to make sure everything was up to par for her fussy, hither-to faceless, money-no-object employer, didn’t she?