bergsten, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Off Grid by Deirdre Shanahan


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 was offered three days a week and Olly said take them, while the job is there. A train in the distance rumples my heart. We’ve travelled a long way in the last few months; a cramped top flat in Cork, a caravan in Doolin, and part of an old house on the outskirts; to arrive further north than I’d expected to have our own place. Or a place we could call our own; a green corrugated ex-army hut a farmer lets us have for free. Olly said we’d stepped out from a city that was tired after the night before. But the branches hang low and I wonder what we’ve left behind.
At night his breath rises in little gasps. The summer is too hot to talk in. Tongue thick with heat. The air is still with only the call of a creature creeping in the grass; a cat or a fox sloping by the hedge or a squirrel robbing a tree of its fruits.
The short cut through fields leads to the old hotel, tight and compact with twenty- three bedrooms. I rinse the serving dishes and fill the dish-washers after breakfast; egg cups, bowls, side plates, cups, jugs. More awkward crockery than later in the day, but less mess. Smears of cereal, gunked up porridge, half a slice of sour dough. Knives poke up. I can fill the machine with my eyes shut but taking out’s tricky. I check for cleanliness and stack plates ready for the chefs. I lay cutlery in trays so they rest like sleepers. My shifts are mostly early though they can be anytime. There are saucepans of copper, steel, non-stick. Serving dishes of every size. The French head chef has tricks in his hands. Can turn plain white fish into an exotic stew. He raises a spoon of clams and mussels to my lips and the lemongrass and turmeric aromas take hold.

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.

I find a spare sandwich in the fridge. Slide glasses to hang upside down in the dishwasher. Orders are called. Max follows them through. There is a sous chef and one for pastry. If it’s desserts, his work is done. Although there’s always a chef needing a hand. Duck legs wait for orange jus. Pork for dressing. Or fish to douse in lemon butter sauce. Each chef precise. Intent. Against calls of “service” or “Where’s the mains?” I get lost in the cross-fire.
I hadn’t thought I could do this but the countryside suits Olly: either the pleasure of our industry or the way we live, alleviates his condition. He told me his blood was disordered the first time we met. Or maybe the second. He’d say he liked the way I crashed through life and he couldn’t. His white blood cells multiply too much so he gets tired. Not often. Sometimes in the afternoon. He has a porcelain complexion and his body at night is taut silk. No shadows. Like illimitable, white Italianate marble on days of the most intense heat. He said there was a twitch and flicker of pain in his bones. Acute myelogenous. He spelt out the syllables and I wondered was that to scare me but I know it was down to the exactitude with which he did most things. “So there’s no confusion,” he said.
The pastry chef is rangy and doesn’t wear a hat. He leans over the counter to decorate meringues, touching the tips with a delicate puff of cream.

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.”

“Secret ingredients.”

“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.

“Wifi’d help.”

“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.

Hollyhocks flourish in the sandy soil, pinky cups of petals towering. Olly buys seeds and old plant pots in town. The evenings are long and dusky. He shops weekly, returning with two bulging bags balancing on the handle-bars. We have the calm amongst fields. One small place to belong to. The Americans built the hut during the war when they were stationed up the road. After they left, Doherty used it for machinery and tractors and later it wasn’t used at all except for dumping stuff, he said.

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 air is thin with the buzz of insects like distant traffic. Olly wants to read about planting. We roll apart at night on the hard metal bed. In silence I pull into myself to warm. I could go on, or leave? And then what? Back to the outskirts of a city and picking up some low-grade job in a bar or café while I work out the rest of my life? In the morning as temperatures slope to autumn, I leave for work with time to spare.

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.

Deirdre Shanahan’s first novel,  Caravan of the Lost and Left Behind, was published by the independent award winning, Bluemoose Books in 2019 and a collection of stories was published by Splice in 2020, including one in The Best of British Short Stories. She has been a finalist in the London Writers Award from Spread the Word and won the Wasafiri International Fiction Award. She was awarded a bursary from Arts Council England to have time to write and most recently an award from The Society of Authors to undertake research for a novel. Off Grid was recently shortlisted for The Berlin Reader Prize.

2 November 2022