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
Risotto. 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?’
And 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.
‘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.’
‘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?’
‘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.’
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.
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.
Her 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.’
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.
She 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.’
He 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.
He 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…’
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.’
‘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?’
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.
‘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?’