Skin Issues, Empire Crumble, Hazardous Hockey Pucks and a Bagel Bonanza; and Gallantry and Biological Forms at the Morgue

Last night I peeled tomatoes for the first time in my erratic life. Generally, my opinion of said activity is, wtf? Why would I waste time doing that? What’s the world got against skin? (Custard is the exception. Skin has no place on custard, creme patissiere, chowder or white sauce.) In this case, the answer can be summed up in one, albeit Spanish, word: gazpacho. Another first.

I popped my tomatoes in the advised boiling water, having cut crosses at the bottom, to ease the flaying process. Then into the blender with said skinless tomatoes and their friends: a peeled cucumber (more peeling, more skin feeling sorry for itself), half a green pepper, spring onions, and some chopped onion and garlic, which I did, contrary to the recipes, soften up for fifteen minutes in a hot oven first, to take the edge off. Then, wazz, wazz, wazz, as the infamous Mr Oliver would say. Not that one wants to be quoting him just now, given the current crumbling state of his empire. Empire crumble, anyone?

I had a helping myself, actually, as I decided to accompany my gazpacho (chilling out in the fridge and stinking it up pleasantly with the fresh scent of cucumber) with the Naked Chef’s savoury sweet potato and parmesan muffins. With my own twist, of course, substituting a pinch of paprika for the chilli, throwing a few walnuts around (and hoping some land in the bowl), and swapping out half the flour for cornmeal.

But I knew there was a reason I never consult He of the Crumbling Culinary Empire with regards to baking… Muffins, be they blueberry,  lemon poppy-seed or pumpkin, should be moist yet light, not a contradiction, given the right recipe, but a calorific miracle. Nowhere in the definition of muffin will you read ‘hockey puck’. The flavour was there, pleasantly savoury with the addition of the parmesan… but… I live in the tropics. Just ain’t much call for hockey pucks out here, oddly enough. And hockey pucks anywhere near the region of your mouth is generally a bad sign; ask any Canadian dentist.


In other cooking news, I have also succeeded in making bagels. Suffice to say, nobody in this country even knows what these beauties are, so if I want them, making them is the way forward. And despite the double-cooking thing, and the yeast thing, the recipe I found was actually pretty easy. And more importantly, totally yummy-chewy bliss. I ate mine with smoked salmon, cream cheese, and a drizzle of lime-cardamom yogurt, taken from Ottolenghi. A recipe that will certainly bear repeating.

As far as fiction goes, here is the next murder mystery instalment.

Gallantry and Biological Forms at the Morgue

images‘I’m sorry, Quentin, but I just had a call from the morgue, and I..’
Any joke I was about to make, a bit late for that kind of thing, died in my throat at the catch in her voice, her whispery tone. I ducked my head almost low enough to graze the volumes spread across my desk with my nose, whispered into my cupped hand ‘Hang about,’ I glanced around surreptitiously. ‘Let me call you back. Two minutes.’ The Rare Books Reading Room at the British Library was definitely not the place to be taking sensitive phone calls. Strictly, I shouldn’t have answered it at all. I scooted out of my seat and hurried out into the echoing, modernist concourse, before the security guards could swoop.
‘Sorry about that,’ I said. I leaned against the cladding of the King’s Tower, the striking glass tower of books rising three levels, housing Mad King George’s extensive collection. ‘At the BL. What’s up with the morgue? Bit late in the day, isn’t it? Are they finally releasing the… er, Nate’s body?’
funeral_by_derriedlThe question brought back the funeral. Odd. Funeral and no body. Of course, I’d not been at the church service. Don’t do churches, me. And of course, I’d forgotten the exact wording the delightful Magda had used when she invited me. It might have been remembrance service, rather than funeral. Hadn’t seemed so important at the time. Not beside the fact that the unfortunate blighter was dead. Not sure it’s important now. Or just the usual petty distraction.
‘No. Well. Yes. Maybe. Hell, I don’t know what the bastards are up to. I… To be honest, I missed half of what they said. But… they want me to… to go over there. So… could you…?’
‘What time? Shall I drop by the house first? I pick you up, but I am carless as I am loveless,’ I was pleased to hear a weakish snort of laughter down the phone, ‘And not entirely sure which condition is the more grievous. That aside, gallantry is my middle name. When and where, m’dear?’

download (1)She really did wear black as if it were the new black. Though out on the porch, under wan winter sun, the wrap-dress seemed more charcoal than black. With a barely there pin stripe. ‘If I were the type,’ I said, as she stepped past me and pulled the door closed with a discreet, moneyed thud, ‘I’d be asking you for coffee, lunch, a drink, round about now. At the very least,’ I punctuated the sentence with a wolf whistle, low and slow.
She looked up from checking her bag: phone, wallet, keys. ‘I suppose I should take that as a compliment?’
‘Do, darling, do.’ I tucked her arm into mine, led the way down to street level.
‘Depending on what this is about, I may take you up on the offer. Whatever type you are.’
‘Which one? Offer, I mean. Not type. Even I haven’t worked that one out yet.’
They seemed to have the suburban street to themselves. Grand, remodeled houses dark, everyone at work, at school. Not the done thing to be seen sauntering about at a loose end in the middle of the day. Hard to believe this quiet, well-mannered enclave was part of my city, the same London that jostled, shoved, and didn’t give a flying fuck who went under the wheels. Unless your name was Nate Braughn, it seemed.
‘Let’s see how dire the morgue is. Take it from there.’
images (2)‘If there’s one thing one can say of a morgue,’ I loved the way her heeled clipped the pavement. Mother Nature and the great god of fashion got it all wrong when they gifted women all the best accessories. ‘It’s that it will most certainly be dire. It’s in the job description. I should know. Spend my bloody life researching the morbid things.’
Plain, clean lines. Glass. What light could be wrung the dismal winter day filtering through the wide window behind a kidney-shaped reception desk in blonde wood. With a blonde receptionist to match. Obviously the fabled walls of drawers, with their slowly decaying sleepers, the steel wheeled gurneys, the scalpels and bone saws and plastic yellow of biological waste were not for public consumption.
Which was where telly, where people like me, stepped in.
‘Hello. I’m Mrs Braughn,’ Harriet stepped up to the desk, the nervous agitation of her phone call earlier firmly quashed under the knife-heels of her skyscraper stilettos. You rang me –’
The girl behind the desk peered up at her. Jaw working on fresh gum. download (2)Doubtless needed a moment’s readjustment, call it decompression, swimming up from the depths of Facebook or whatever the hell she’d been so immersed in on her phone when we entered. She gaped. Snapped out of it. Chewed a bit, as if to reassure herself. Tucked the morsel in her cheek before she spoke. ‘Mrs Braughn, you say? Just let me check –‘ followed by the tippety tap scurry of glossy, well-shaped nails across the keyboard, curved to match the lines of her work-station.
I suppose they were going for a more natural look. Not considering how such biologically derived forms might prickle the subconscious in such a place. Note to self: set design potential?
giphy‘Oh yes. They’re ready to release your husband’s personal effects. I’ll just need to see some form of I.D.’ She blinked up at Harriet again. Face vacant as a robot behind a scrim of foundation she could have done without.
Harriet stared back at her, then ducked her head, drew her wallet from her purse. All quite slimline, sleek. None of this endless rummaging through last year’s receipts and sticks of lip gloss peppered with flecks of toast eaten on the run.
‘This do you?’ she slid a driver’s license onto the desk under the receptionist’s nose, the plastic slightly scuffed, yellowed with age. Not recently renewed then.
‘That’ll do.’ The girl stood. Lanky, trim. In suitably dark colours. Tucked a stray lock of blonde behind one ear. ‘If you want to have a seat, I’ll be right back.’
‘But – ’ Harriet tried.
Too late. The swing doors off to our right smacked shut.


Bangkok, Penguin-Style, Creme Caramel in the Grumpy Dwarf Oven; The Cancerous Beating Heart of Europa, Potty Training for the Egotistically Challenged, and No Chance of a Nifty Badge

In terms of excuses for not blogging my boots off of late (who am I kidding? The last time I wore boots was those silver moonboot UGGs I bought back in Oz, earning the ankle-stigmata of the unbroken-in shoes from tramping round Sydney solidly for 2 weeks. But anyway, back to pathetic excuses), excuses somewhat in line with ‘my pet armadillo ate my tablet’, last weekend was spent in Bangkok, sampling some delightful new cafés and bars.


The Perhaps Rabbit cafe (photos above) was perhaps the most magical, although my cocktail, with a fusion of rum, lychee and coconut at the Octave Rooftop bar was also high in the yum department, and my first ever Cat Café experience, at the Caturday Café, was well worth the effort of finding the place. The cats poking about provided, for me, an extremely restful atmosphere, leaving aside the hyperactive screeches and general gambolling of the pair of Japanese women next to me, and my iced matcha latte was well-judged, in terms of creamy sweetness. Highly recommended.


My primary complaint was that of the three cabbies (taxi drivers, to US folks) I splurged on, none of them seemed to know their around their own city, the worst being the chap who didn’t know where the AIRPORT was, first taking a quite significant diversion to go and check with his friends by shouting across me out the passenger window, and finally relying on me, with my Google Maps, directing him where to go. Which, given that I don’t speak Thai, was achieved by means of a great deal of penguin-dance flapping. Oh, for London cabbies, with THE KNOWLEDGE!


Upon return, yes, some experimental cookery has gone on. Most especially, my first bash at Creme Caramel, having seen Nigel Slater whip up a Middle Eastern version of same in the course his latest series. Having found his recipe, I also consulted the once and only Queen of the Bake Off, Mary Berry. And finally took a middle road, adding miso to my caramel, and tonka bean and matcha to the baked custard (the creme part) itself. I went easy on the tonka bean, not only as large quantities are said to be poisonous, but also because, having hauled the stuff back from Oz in the autumn, this was its first airing, and I don’t have all that much of it. The result, which took considerably longer in my grumpy-dwarf oven than either Berry or Slater suggested, was nevertheless a delicately flavoured delight. Next stop, Creme Brulee, I feel.

For anyone here for the fiction, I thought I might just resume my mystery, from way back before Christmas Chicklit became absolutely necessary. So, we have a dead banker, a less than grieving with-rending-of-garments widow, as seen through the eyes of our gay TV researcher. Picking up where we left off then…

The Cancerous Beating Heart of Europa, Potty Training for the Egotistically Challenged, and No Chance of a Nifty Badge

downloadThe Secretary was the place to start. Better not call her that, though. PA. Personal Assistant. Wouldn’t want to get her sensible knickers in a twist straight off by demeaning her with common old secretary. Though one had to wonder if her knickers might have been in a perpetual state of twistedness, what with playboy Nate for a boss. Either that or untwistable, one of those stern, matriarchal types you pictured holding the fort during the war.
Magda, if I recalled correctly. Magda… Magda Fischer.
Harriet herself gave me my sneaky route into the cancerous beating heart of Europa. A bunch of Nate’s stuff, his personal effects, was still dust-gathering at the office. Perhaps I could act as errand boy? Fetch and carry. Nose about a bit while I was at it. She simply couldn’t face it.
I could see from her face when she suggested it, strained, spooky as a horse broken the old, cruel way, that part was no lie. Clear as day she had some kind of antipathy towards the place, or the people. I wondered if it had anything to do with the brutish advances of a certain grizzly bear. Or was it older, deeper than that? As a management consultant, you’d think she’d be used to dealing with arsey corporate types; not just dealing with them, but cleaning up their acts and messes for them, setting them straight. Potty training for the egotistically challenged.


They’ve got themselves some security at Europa. You might imagine they’d actually got themselves a nifty old-school vault to protect. Though these days of course it’s the data, the flow of information, the systems that really bear defending. Man on the door, anyway, another in the glassy-steel tank of an entry foyer. Then gates before the elevators. Cameras tucked away in ceiling corners, unobtrusive, especially next to the postmodern bling-fest of a chandelier and the abstract splats and splatters screaming money and aspiration from carefully placed swathes of canvas. The cameras pale in significance. Unblinking though they are.


Sign in, get a pass. All par for the course. Though security can play both ways. Paid to be vigilant, the keepers of hours and hours of surveillance, they may well turn out to be a resource worth tapping. Security guards and secretaries: hold the keys to the kingdom. Always get on their good side, if you can.
CThJcI0W4AAFnbjOf course I’d called ahead. You don’t just go popping into places like this, any more than you’d expect to pop into the Buck-House for a quick cuppa and a natter with Her Majesty, plus or minus the corgis. Magda Fischer had been ever bit the unbending battle-axe I’d suspected from our original phone call prior to the funeral. The sympathy angle was not on her personal list of legitimate criteria for entry into The Inner Sanctum, I could tell that straight away. So I was bluff, all business, straight to the point, no fiddle-faddling. For which I was repaid with an appointment the following Tuesday.
innersanctum1Which is today.
Saunter up to the marble reception desk, cock a half-smile at security there, friendly, casual.
‘I have an appointment up at Europa. Any chance of a nifty badge?’
‘Your name, sir?’
‘Hassle. Quentin Hassle.’
A light patter of fingers on the screen of the tablet mounted behind the desk, a frown. ‘I’m sorry sir, but could you tell me who you spoke to? Don’t seem to be on the system.’
‘How odd,’ looking faintly concerned, though not unduly ruffled. Playing a part of course: the type that hangs about in these quarters, the type that assumes a preordained right to be anywhere they damn well please. ‘A Ms Fischer? PA to the late…’
‘Ah. Mr Braughn. That would explain it. If you’ll just bear with me, I’ll give Ms Fischer a buzz.’
More tablet prodding, followed by that irritating electronic bleating, meant to simulate a ringtone. Still, could be worse. Could be Justin Beiber.
‘Ah. Afternoon Ms Fischer. Gotta chap here says he’s got an appointment, one Quentin Hassle.’
896f2525482bd4a28d4fb3c0148b850eNaturally he’s switched the call to channel through his headset; whatever choice words the redoubtable Fischer, keeper of the keys, Jedi Master of the appointment book, has to say is lost to me.
Then: ‘Says she’ll be right down. If you’d just like to have a seat.’ One ham-hock arm swinging in the general direction of the usual hip, modular sofas and blockish padded stools, ‘She won’t be long.’
A personal escort? Or I’m not actually to be allowed anywhere within twenty floors of Europa’s Inner Sanctum? Curiouser and curiouser. On the tail of Hat’s claim they paid to make the big bad police and any nosey members of the Fourth Estate disappear, it rather smacks of a cover up.

Wouldn’t be the first time, in the financial industry. Certainly won’t be the last. Question is, covering up what?

Limes, Luck and Doing Rude Things to Unidentified Yellow Flowers

So, 4am-ish this morning, my neighbourhood rooster clearing its vocal chords in anticipation, and my peach juice runs out. Crisis. Juice being a key component in the current liquid-fuel meets sleep-tonic solution. Vodka and friends. But all the friends had left the party. It was almost panic stations. I rejected thoughts of a swift march down to the 24 hour corner shop out of hand. The corner shop would have entailed:

1) Doing battle with the grill on the ground-floor hairdresser’s above which I live. Currently so stiff, I fear rigor mortis. I am many things, but despite my motorbike habit, macho just ain’t one of them. I may have had arm muscles, once. Last millennium, maybe. So I was not predisposed to head down into the dark, hair-infested cave in the wee small hours and bring my light sabre to bear on said charming piece of ironmongery.


2) Conversation with the very nice security guard outside the Karaoke place opposite the aforesaid corner store. Which you would think would be fine and dandy. Positively cuddly. Except I have to do it in Vietnamese, and the poor chap doesn’t always understand me. I have had a three-way conversation with him and another girl working there, all in Vietnamese, but with the girl in question repeating everything I said back to him. This happens. Often Vietnamese people don’t understand each other, let alone some mental case white girl speaking their language with what my friend tells me is the accent of an ethnic minority. But really. How many opportunities in one day to feel thick as a medieval drawbridge? It was one I could pass up. Vodka friends or no vodka friends.

Enter, limes. Now, bearing in mind the decided lack of macho-ness, I was not about to squeeze straight lime onto my Hà Nội vodka. But I have made lemon syrup for cake. I have made simple syrup for the hell of it. Ergo, panic averted. Bung roughly equal quantities lime juice and sugar on heat. Wait for alchemical things to happen. Add to your vodka. Yum yum.

All the same, reckon I’d better pick up some actual juice tonight.

My dawn fuel-fix is however nothing as compared to the last week or so’s cookery and baking saga. There was the night I got home, whipped up a spinach, basil and yogurt dip, lemon curd and carrot cake in short order. After which I thought I’d feel like a simple, no-effort dinner… but when it came down to it, set the takoyaki pan to smoking and rustled up a warm japanesey salad of charred edamame and seaweed to go with.

Next day, that lemon curd went into the baked lemon cheesecakes masterfully crafted by two of my students. Which I’m reliably informed turned out ok. Which was a relief, as I went marginally off piste, combining 2 recipes, from the BBC and Nadia G of sassy Bitchin Kitchen glory, further augmented by attractive swirls of curd, and a layer of the lovely golden gloop over the base, for added lemony kick.

Following which, orange and cranberry cookies (an adapted family recipe) with the other two Masterchef Monsters. Which they ate half of, straight from the oven. Always a vote of confidence, though their lovely mother must have wondered exactly what we were doing all that time, with so little to show for it.

Both of the above recipes having been selected as a way to celebrate the Vietnamese Lunar New Year with tributes to their culture, without the sticky, imposter-type business of trying to teach Vietnamese kids to cook their own native dishes. As for any of the many, many recipes for Chinese goodies celebrating the holiday, don’t even go there. Someone might punch you. Or run you over. Or something equally grisly.

Ergo. Lemon Cheesecake: round and gold, ergo, good luck. Orange and Cranberry Cookies: yellow (same word as gold, and, incidentally, blonde, in Vietnamese: vàng) and red, and yes, round. Good luck, good fortune. Lucky, lucky, lucky, thrice over.

Then, getting away from the lucky lucky joy joy yellow theme, brownies, for my Em Trai to take back home to his family.


In there somewhere, another bash at curried fish pie, to which, recollecting various korma recipes I perused at some stage, I also added some toasty ground almonds. Yum. Ground almonds make everything better. As the Italians know very well. The curry? Also better and better. Though I do think my clever Brother In Law may have put his giant finger on it when he said that smoked haddock really is the making of a fish pie, curried or otherwise. Alas, not the easiest thing to find in Vietnam. We’re not in Tesco’s anymore, Toto. Undeterred, I have since picked up some dried fish which may well serve as a substitute, and deliver the requisite fishy punch.

There was also a savoury salmon and tomato cheesecake back there a while ago too. No, not a soufflé, and not a quiche either. A cheesecake. With salmon. Which was actually quite tasty, and will bear repeating. Maybe next time I’ll pay enough attention when I’m slinging ingredients around to be able to pass on the recipe.


Tonight, we (that’s a royal we there, no plurals here, unless you count the Beanies. Or the ants. I really prefer not to count the ants. I prefer to slaughter them, by any means, no ritual required.) have options. Will it be egg avocado mayo? Or… drumroll… stuffed courgette flowers in a tempura batter? Whether they are actually courgette flowers, I am unsure. The Vietnamese label seems to suggest they are pumpkin flowers… but this might be misleading, as with those infernal Evil Chickens. As for the stuffing… again, as yet undecided. I do not have ricotta, as suggested by the recipes I found. So… I’ll make something up. No changes there then. Though it’s just occurred to me: whatever they are, the buggers are yellow. Total yellow overload. Talk about a colour-coded diet.

Alcoholic Alchemy, Lunar New Year Mayhem and a More or Less Mexican Muddle Slipping Sideways into Experimentation with Spanish Romesco Sauce


The latest spell of silence I’m blaming on my fab sister and brother-in-law, who ventured all the way out here to Vietnam to see me and explore this corner of East Asia. And explore we did. Not only did I attempt to show them the best of Sài Gòn… sometimes failing, on account of the rate at which things get torn down in a developing country, like that takoyaki place I visited a mere three months ago and is now utterly gone, but we also caught a flight up to Hà Nội, where we managed to get ensnarled in football-related fanaticism, and rented bikes for a drive out to Hạ Long Bay. All in all, fun and boozy times.

For anyone heading up to Hà Nội, may I recommend the Alchemist Bar and Tranquil Books and Coffee, both of them up a dinky little street called Nguyễn Quang Bích, and also the Runam Café on Nhà Thờ, in the shadow of the Cathedral (the street name literally means ‘church’) which does excellent alcoholic coffees, to take the edge of all the tramping around in somewhat soggy conditions.

And now that I’m back, so far from a return to anything that might qualify as normality, Lunar New Year Fever has the city in its grip, as everyone frantically prepares and parties in honour of the biggest festival in the Vietnamese Calendar. The supermarket has become a battleground, traffic is more mental than usual, twinkly happy happy Vietnamese New Year music spills from every café, shopfront and restaurant, and the place is all decked out in the traditional yellow and pink flowers. I shall shortly be making a break for Bangkok, but until then there’s no escaping the nightly một hai ba DÔ! (pronounced YO) of the nightly drunken revels down in the street below my room.


Which I do my best to tune out by focussing on culinary pursuits. Such as a rather good autumnal salad I turned up the other evening, as I began the full frontal attack on the behemoth image file storing about 700 screenshots of recipes. The original dish, which I seem to recall as a riff on Mexican fall flavours, called for frying off your red onions, yams and sweetcorn separately. But why would I do something so laborious, when I could fling the lot in a baking tray and let the oven do the work? The usual substitution game was also in operation, with a spill of dried coriander taking the place of the fresh stuff and paprika rather than chilli, on top of the requisite seasoning and drizzle of oil.

These goodies having made friends and crisped up nicely at 200°C, the only temperature at which anything remotely like magic happens in my oven, I extracted them, and added avocado, toasted walnuts, as opposed to the sunflower seeds suggested in the recipe, and diced apple to their number. Then, feeling that the squeeze of lemon juice invoked by the recipe was a bit on the Spartan side, I tarted things up with a sort of yogurt dressing, muddling lime, fresh coriander, chopped spring onions, sweet chilli sauce and a bit more paprika and dried coriander together in a yogurty bath of goodness, and dolloping liberally over my veggies. Yum yum.

That one will bear revisiting, and possibly tweaking. I feel squash might well have something (jokes, presents, stupid little hats) to bring to the party.


In addition, I have been experimenting with Romesco Sauce. The first batch, of red peppers, tomato, garlic, paprika (and, ok, a dash of cumin and coriander, which simply refuse to be left out) and toasty ground almonds, was a success. With the addition of balsamic vinegar, as suggested by the recipe I found online, I found it keeled over into cloyingly rich territory; enter my best friend, plain yogurt. The latest version, with ground hazelnuts, vinegar kindly but firmly excluded, and yogurt, is the business.

Should anyone be here for the fiction, I will get back to that next post, either with a continuation of the murder mystery I started back before Christmas Chick-Lit claimed my life, or… something else, as yet to be identified.

Flavorsome Fishies Get Saucy; and A Sardine-Free Zone, Santa Delivers to Airport Security and Three for One Offer

Having been underwhelmed by my first fish pie attempt, à la Mary Berry, I finally got around to giving Jamie’s curried version a spin yesterday. Or, a version of his version, with toasted cumin, coriander, mustard seeds and fenugreek, chilli, tumeric, garlic and ginger, replacing the fresh curry leaves with a pinch of the garam masala I toted back from a night market full of caged birds in Mumbai. Sweat those onions. Courgettes aren’t obligatory, but me, I like my veg, so in they went. Shovel in the toasty warm spices, dollop in your tomatoes and coconut milk, and you are well and truly on your way to a saucy pie. Then to the mash, with skins on for texture, and a glob of mustard, drizzling in milk until peak creaminess is attained. I let the lot cool, then, when ready for baking, added cubes of salmon, clams and teeny weeny scallops, all straight from the freezer. Suspect I could have reduced the advised 30 minutes in the oven for tenderer fishies, but all in all, much more flavorsome the second time around.

And finally, I do believe this is the final instalment of the festive chicklit. And before Valentine’s too. Though saying that, perhaps I ought to continue in the romantic vein as said travesty of a holiday creeps up…

A Sardine-Free Zone, Santa Delivers to Airport Security and Three for One Offer

Imogen continues to ignore her phone in the back of the taxi. Or not so much ignore; hard to ignore what you’re not aware of. She stares out the window all the way to the airport, a miserable lump, hating herself. The warm glow of the lights in St Moritz recede, then it’s only snow on snow on mountains under snow, all through a blur of tears.
She has them in check, more or less, as she unfolds from the taxi, waits for the driver to haul her bag from the boot. She pays, wraps her hand round the telescope handle of her cheap case, and turns into the blaring light of the terminal. Not really seeing, not really looking. Just wanting to be away from here. Away from everything. She can think of no destination in the world that would be far enough. No where she would feel safe, easy in her own skin.
She can’t escape herself.
8f92c331eff6fe7ba637e6cf1c0f684c--moroccan-style-nom-nomShe booked a ticket at the same time as the taxi, one of the last to leave tonight, before the brief Christmas lull sets in. It’s easy to find on the departures board. Only three flights before hers, another after.
Chambery Airport is small. It does not host the larger commercial flights, many of the planes making use of its solitary runway are private or charter flights. It’s simply unnecessary to split arrivals and departures on separate levels, as at Heathrow, or LAX or any other large, international airport. Or so the powers that be must have felt when they constructed the place. In practice it’s a relief to find it less chaotic than the day she arrived, choked with people like a grand exercise in sardine-tin-cramming. She simply couldn’t cope with an explosion of humanity, barging every which way, tonight.
It doesn’t take much to find her check-in desk. Which is just as well; Imogen is so distracted, so consumed, by the quagmire of her own personal hell of black worthlessness and desperation, it’s a wonder she can even walk in a straight line.
Which, it turns out, is the problem. Or, one of them. Walking in a straight line with your head down is all very well. Until someone stands directly in your path from A to B.
Hewhomustnotbenameds+face+when+_410abc8b32362397d5580c247936de31Which is exactly where He Who Must Not Be Named is standing.
On a busier day, any day or time but late on Christmas Eve, in fact, he might have missed her in the usual mayhem of too many people and all their skiing and snowboarding clobber. Not tonight. Not on Christmas Eve.
Which would be why Caro’s been frantically trying to get hold of her friend, ever since she learned from her friend’s Mum, tearful, damp even down the phone, that she’d let the Imogen-shaped cat out of the Swiss-shaped bag, under pressure from Craig. Aka He Who Must Not Be Named.
Which is maybe the first thing Imogen does wrong. Not in her life, obviously. Not even just tonight. Because when she bumps straight into Craig, and feels his hands close around her upper arms, hears her name in his mouth, she realises that running out on Caleb, coming here, to the airport, were wrong wrong wrong.
And now she makes it worse. Compounds the mistake. By saying his name back. Like saying it confirms his reality. Or denies it. At least, that’s what he seems to hear. Because he says:
‘Surprised to see me are you?’ with that mean twist of sarcasm and mockery she’s always thought he reserves specially for her. His friends down the pub might tell her different, but she met them so rarely, she couldn’t even tell Mick from Andy, not with a gun to her head. Craig didn’t like the way she looked at them, apparently. As in, with her eyes.
‘Surprised. That’s… that’s one way of putting it.’ She shrinks away from him, or tries to. But he’s not letting go of her arms. If anything, he squeezes tighter. Almost as if he’s wishing he had a hold if her neck, instead. It wouldn’t be the first time. On the arms or the neck.
‘Oh really? You think of a better way, can you, sweetie pie?’
‘Let go of me, Craig.’ She says it as firmly as she can. Trying not to let her desperation seep into her voice. Trying not to cower, like a dog expecting a kicking.
4YUrmoN.gif‘Or what, honey?’ he jerks her towards him, like a bully yanking on a digger some other kid was playing with, is reluctant to give up. Like she’s a thing. And he doesn’t want to share. Craig hates sharing, always has. He was that bully in the sandpit, and he hasn’t changed. He demands total possession. ‘Or what? Your little legal injunction doesn’t apply here, does it, cutie pie?’
‘I think you’ll find it does,’ snarls a voice from behind her. A deep voice. A voice tipped with warning and barely suppressed anger.

Failing to get through to Imogen, Caro finally dug up the number she had for Caleb, left lying around after Imogen’s brief phone interview. Thanking God she was a snoop and that her friend was endlessly trusting. Caleb barely waited for her to finish speaking before he was shrugging back into his jacket, grabbing his keys, and veering out of the drive in a spray if fresh snow. Comprehension dawning. What Imogen was so afraid of.

‘So I suggest you let go of her, now, or you will not like the consequences.’
‘Who is this prick, honey?’ Craig looks past her, to the man with car keys in his hand, snow melting in his hair. ‘And you can go stick your interfering mug up someone else’s arse?’
‘I don’t think so. Might seem strange to a grasping little squit like you, I’m in the habit of defending my employees.’ Caleb takes a step forward. ‘So I’m asking you again to take your hands off her. Before I call security, explain the situation, and have you deported.’
‘I don’t bloody think so,’ Craig growls, yanking Imogen again. Like a terrorist dragging a hostage around. No knife, no gun, at least. This is an airport, after all. But guns and knives have never been Craig’s weapon of choice. He has two fists. They’re all he needs, all he’s ever needed.
G5n5O3That much is clear from Imogen’s face, as he snaps her round, locks his arm around her neck, his face leering at Caleb over her narrow shoulder. Her cheap case falls to the ground with a clatter.
On any other day, all this might pass unnoticed. At least until to late. On any other day, there’d simply be too many people, a great, milling hustle of bodies for security to do their actual job. Which actually turns out to be protecting airline passengers, ensuring their safety. Hard though it might be for anyone who’s been body-searched or had their luggage casually dissected to believe.
‘You gonna call security now, you cowardly prick? Are ya?’
Caleb looks distinctly unimpressed. ‘I don’t have to. You already did.’
Two security guards, returning from a fag break veer toward them from the doors. Another is making his way over from the information desk, where’s he’d been chatting up the girl trawling Facebook behind the counter there. ‘Problem, sir?’ he asks, addressing Caleb.
‘You might want to take this gentleman into custody,’ Caleb says, as leisurely as ordering a second coffee over the papers on a long, dawdling Sunday afternoon. ‘I believe you’ll find there’s a court injunction against him approaching this woman, Miss Imogen Sands. For obvious reasons.’
Craig doesn’t let her go, he hurls her from him like a pin-pulled grenade. Makes a break for the door. Where the other two security guards exchange a grin, and bundle in. A bit of action on a slow Christmas Eve? Santa must’ve come early. They’ve clearly been good boys this year. Good at their jobs, too, as Caleb and Imogen would’ve noted, if they’d been watching.
They’re not. Not remotely.
Spinning forward, lower leg bashing her wounded suitcase, he catches her. Doesn’t let her go.
‘You… you followed me. I…’‘I needed an elf to help set up all that loot around the tree. Ashamed to admit, I’ve never actually played Santa before. And anyway, Miss Sands,’ looking down into her face, her lovely, lovely, tear-streaked face. Trying hard to maintain his stern, big-boss glare, his best warning, Severus Snape tone. Coming across more like a movie Mafia Don, hamming it up. ‘I hired you to do a job. I expect you to complete your contract.’
‘I – I…’ she has no words, no witty repartee, no mocking comeback. Craig has stolen them.
He puts his finger to her lips: ssssshhhhh. Kisses her. Long and deep. As if he would suck the venom out, breathe his own confidence back into her. It seems to work. Because by the time she is able to extract her lips, her tongue – and it does take quite some time – she says, ‘I bet you do that to all the elves.’

giphy (23)

He kisses her again, lightly. Answers,  ‘I can honestly say, you are my first and only elf. And I am not inclined to share you. Ever. With anyone.’

‘Lucas and Tabby?’

‘They don’t count. Didn’t you get the memo about the special offer? It’s a three for one deal.’

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


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.’


‘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.


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?’
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 – ’

‘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.



‘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.


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.


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.
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.

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.
‘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.
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.