A sky-blue day. Fern leaves spike as I wade in. Strands of grasses and stray ears of wheat weave. Nubs of rose-hips bristle on hedges but the flourish of nettles sting my ankles, bunch at my knees. I could make soup. Use Dandelions and even if the blackberries are frizzled after months of sunshine we could eat them. Warm days slouch as we settle in, plant and sow. “Next Spring,” Olly says, “we’ll reap the bounty and eat like kings.”
“Hi.” He sweeps up the road on the rusty bike we found in the hut and draws to a halt, the back mudguard wavering. “Doherty’ll rent part of the field for us to grow veg. For a year at least.”
Would they be there so long? A year or longer?
“And when I was in the phone box, I saw an ad for kitchen work at the hotel. I thought of you.”
“But we’re meant to be self-sufficient.”
“We still can be. But anything you earn’d help towards solar panels.”
“I don’t want to work in a hotel. Not in a kitchen.”
“Six months only. You did before.”
“Waitressing. A summer job I hated.”
“This’d be easier. No hassle dealing with people. Besides we’ll need a bit of money. What if the bike needs tyres?”
“I thought we were going to provide for ourselves?”
“We are. But a bit of help on the way won’t go amiss. A bit of cash’d give us a head-start to buy some essentials.”
“Well, ok. Maybe for few weeks.”
“See what they offer.”
I draw water from the outside tap; a dirty brass pipe. The water is better at the hotel. In pristine bottles, sparkling or still. Whatever a person wants. Olly balances a tin of baked beans on the camping gaz.
“Not too bad.” He tastes the soup. “We could do with an additional stove.”
“Bit of an unnecessary expense,” he says.
The bed is so cold we wear socks. Comical at first, then awkward. Like anklets holding us down. Keeping us for something else.
Olly lies on his front on the floor, when I come in, even though it’s cold in places where we haven’t covered it in rugs or off-cuts of carpet. A cobweb hangs in a corner of the window.
“What are you doing?”
“Stretching the vagus nerve. Sets the body in tune.”
“Is that a yoga thing?”
“No. But good to do. The nerve affects so much of the body. It means wanderer. Would you press on my back?” I lay my fingers down and stroked his spine. Since we’d come he’d been well. He’d coughed less and looked stronger. Fuller. More robust. “Thanks, that’s enough.”
He rises and shakes himself as if to find his body working again. “Have a good day?”
“Height of the season, I guess.”
His face is pale as light, like moth wings. He wraps his arms across his chest, clinging to himself like a person drowning. His wispy fringe falls into his eyes. He’s intent upon getting stronger. His own medication. He’ll get stronger. His blood count’ll improve. He’s scoured medical papers and journals. Only a matter of time. Living in the right element will help.
I collect the saucepans from the far end near the ovens. The pastry chef blitzes a yellow paste in a mixer, swirling stops and he pours in beaten egg, holding back a little.
“Too much can ruin it,” he says.
“What are you making?” “Choux. For eclairs.”
He pipes pastry onto a tray. Little knobs, like breasts. He holds the nozzle and works along until the tray is full.
“How are they so light?”
“Water. Steam holds them. And the butter has to be right. French.”
“Yes,” he smiles.
The hut is dark as evening lengthens, despite the single bulb. Olly has laid a fire in the stove and logs spill on the floor next to it. There’s a sofa, two odd armchairs and a small table.
“That’s not the point,” he says.
“I’d like to be connected.”
“We will in our own way. More meaningfully.” His hair catches the light.
I lie on the bed holding him around the waist, gathering him in. He’s warm and full of sun even if it doesn’t show on his face. The walls curve to become the roof in one continual sweep. Maybe it was a garage. The farmer must have done it up, put in the stove later. It splutters and smokes. I can’t go back to what we had. The city had stifled me as well. But this? Ambling from one day to another. Living under an uncertain roof which leaked in a corner. Outside a breeze whistled and shook the trees. I can walk away. Nothing is permanent. Even his condition fluctuates.
The pastry chef works under an overhang of saucepans. Steely grey. Shimmering. Shadows of cold light. He’s always making something; chocolate leaves. Glace fruit. Icing sugar shapes. When service finishes, calm falls though it never lasts. Always a hum of irritation towards the next sitting. I take a break outside with a fag. I shouldn’t, so I stand at a little distance from the bins and near the delivery room.
“Late shift?” he asks.
“Someone was ill.”
“Glad you stepped in. Easier to work when someone’s clearing up.” He smiles and swipes around to the oven and opens the door. The tray of pastries are steaming sweet and he sets them on a cooling tray. He aims a kind of syringe into their undersides. “There.” He sucks his finger as he finishes.
I should hang around. Learn something so I can cook more than tasteless soups and lumpen bread. He dunks the pastries head first into a bowl of melted chocolate and they rise up tonsured, the sauce slicked down.
“Bit lop-sided so I can’t serve this one.” He offers but I don’t have a plate. He raises the éclair to my mouth, sinks it on my lips. Airy light. Yellow as a cloud. The cream gouges out.
“Delicious.” My mouth is silky wet. He says his name is Neil and pushes back his fringe.
“Hey, chef. Two galettes,” Max the head chef calls and Neil makes for the warming cabinet.
Pans clatter. A tinny echoey quiet. The last of the éclair is full and rich. For months I haven’t tasted anything so rich. The evening is a rush of calls and stacking plates, drying the odd one which came out wet.
China gleams white and shiny. Stacks of cups. Neil stirs a saucepan on the hob. Glossy rust liquid bubbles.
“What are you making? Gravy?”
“Caramelising sugar to make baskets. They’re going to hold soft fruits from the garden.” The sugar bursts and simmers and he turns off the heat. When it’s cooler, he spoons dollops on a baking tray. “Ten minutes should do.” He slips it in the oven.
I collect dirty plates from the serving hatch and when the rush quietens Neil moulds the stiffened sugar over an orange. Its zest spikes the air. He shapes the lattice smoothing it down, leaves it for a couple of minutes and the sugar hardens. An odd bonnet he upends and light falls through the crinkly lace.
He smiles. Sets one down, along with others in a row. Sparkly rust, with flutes and curves.
“Where’d you learn to cook?”
“Lake District. England. Then France. Australia really fired my interest. I was travelling for a year. I met a chef from Dublin who suggested here, so I came.”
Max calls for petits fours and Neil hurries off. A clatter and yells for plating up. Shouts for bouillabaisse and turbot. Lobster Bisque. Salmon roulade.
The grounds are laid with flower beds and a kitchen garden for guests is bordered by a brick wall. I don’t want to go there but when I pass the dining room, I peep in.
We need tea-towels from the linen room upstairs. The corridor is paneled and the walls have prints of the hotel when it was a house. All the doors are the same but one under the stair-case is open. I peer in. A bed takes up the space though a corner has a fitted wardrobe. In an alcove, a table with a slim mirror could be a desk. It is snug. Every bit of space cleverly used.
“What’re you doing?” Neil leans purposefully against a wall.
“Come for tea cloths. And you?”
“Off duty. Staff block.” He motions to a corridor. “Wanna sneak up here and take a look. No one’s around.” He opens a door. The walls climb with lavish leaves and huge fleshy pink petals. A tangle of luscious green and yellowy tones. The rug is zany stripped in emerald and mint. “My favourite.” He heads up the passage, going deeper into the centre of the house where I’ve never been and climbs a stairs.
You forget the house is old until the steps creak. The walls are cool blue with a bed the width of the room, the size of which I’ve never been in before. A little sofa sits under a small chandelier of blue and green glass. Thick sheepskin rugs. An armchair is duck blue. The bay window draped in heavy brocade has a window seat. Gold swags run from a pelmet with cords and I wonder at those who live with this and about their need and how a family could live in the entirety of this space.
“This room has the best view.” He stands in the bay window.
The horizon is full of light. We touch the sky. I had forgotten the sea was out there. Hadn’t realised its intense greeny blue.
“What’ll we do about the mess?”
“There won’t be much. I’ll tell the maid to come in.”
“Won’t she have been in before?”
“Maybe. But they’re nice girls. They won’t mind.” He flicks down the silky eiderdown to piercing white sheets and sits on the edge of the bed. “You can relax here.”
“How much d’you reckon this costs?”
“Three hundred a night? But this is an apartment.” He points to doors either side of a cheval mirror.
“You always look in?”
“Thought you’d be interested.” He sits next to me and smells of vanilla and cardomom. His lips. His eyes light grey. On me. Seeing. Seeing me seeing him. He presses my shoulder gently, drawing me down. We lie as cool as cutlery.