We stared at each other across the dining table.
Her dear face impossible to read, inscrutable; those hazel eyes that have so often melted my heart suddenly opaque and hooded like a poker player.
I could read no emotion from her expression. This was a side of the woman I have shared my life with for nearly thirty five years that I have never seen before. It chilled my very soul.
In her elegant hand a shining soup spoon held over a steaming bowl, beside which a side plate was heaped with fresh home-made bread. A homely, domestic and wholesome picture, yet now dripping with menace like a wig pulled from a urinal.
I also held a spoon; I too had a bowl in front of me, like hers untouched.
Every evening we sit at our lovely old dining table, opposite one another sharing food, companionship and conversation. It is the fulcrum of our day, a time of ‘catching up’ enjoying this special time together as friends and lovers.
No matter how frenetic the previous hours, no matter how filled with people or problems, this is our time to share the one meal of the day we can, just us.
But not now, not this meal.
It was as if we were contestants in some ghastly cookery programme based on the culinary history of the Borgia’s. A sort of Renaissance Roulette featuring recipes that cleared the way for inheritance opportunities.
Here we were in a mute contest, spoons poised, like rival food tasters at a ‘spot the assassin’ banquet.
Just how this pretty pass came about I will now explain.
It’s the old cause and effect principal. The ’cause’ was a surfeit of beetroot that had built up over the weeks via the ‘veg box’ scheme we have brought into.
Fresh veg delivered weekly is a great idea and mostly works really well. Carrots, spuds, onions, and other seasonal root vegetables along with fine cabbage and leeks make their regular appearance and are much appreciated by us both.
However occasionally there are things that do not appeal to the palate of yours truly or to the culinary requirements of my good lady. Not many, we eat most things between us, me cabbage and spuds, Isobel the exotics such as the vile broccoli and chard.
Now the common beetroot is a strange beast, not much can be done with it in my opinion save give it a bloody good pickling. ‘Too big to stick up the cat’s arse too small for football’ my old uncle Bob used to say and he was a true ‘man of the soil’ and knew his way around the kitchen garden as well as he did the cooks drawers.
So when I suggested she might embark upon pickling a pile of the things I thought I was being most helpful and adding to the culinary quality of our life, besides I really like pickled beetroot. Who in their right minds doesn’t?
I might just as well have suggested that she make haggis from first principals or use the airing-cupboard to dry frog’s legs.
No, it had to be something else, we couldn’t just chuck em, or give the bloody things away, that would be a ‘waste’ and ‘herself’ turns her face like flint to ‘waste’ so there would have to be another solution.
And then I recalled a memorable meal I had eaten many years ago courtesy of a lady of Russian extraction who called herself ‘Countess’ something or the other and lived in genteel squalor in an old cottage just outside Castle Hedingham where I was a copper. She was regarded by all the village kids as a witch and thus avoided and or taunted depending on the season. Mostly she was left alone, which is just what she wanted. One day however, about Halloween time she had a bit of bother from a gang of kids and a window got broken. I was called and cycling up caught the little bastards red handed. Needless to say justice was immediate and swift, a cuff around the ears for those in easy reach and a visit to a couple of parents which resulted in the window pane being replaced along with a bit of remedial work on the frames as well. No paperwork, no charges of vandalism and no trouble from that day on. As far as I and the culprit’s parents were concerned, a job well done.
Well that was that I thought until I got another phone call from the old dear who somewhat imperiously I thought invited me to call on such and such a night to dine with her. Never one to miss an experience I agreed and turned up at the allotted hour. It wasn’t, quite, Miss Havisham’s dining room, but it wasn’t too far removed from it. I was sat at a small antique dining table in a room full of old photographs, books, strange ephemera, cobwebs and dust. From a huge silver tureen she served a thick soup which was deep velvet red in colour and with a taste of earthy heaven. It was fantastic. Along with the soup came ice cold vodka and the story of her life and fortunes that was full of romance and adventure.
For the life of me I can’t remember her name but I do remember the soup, it was borscht, the red soup of Russia, the colour she said of ‘blood on the snow’
She called me ‘her Cossack’ and served me a soup made from history and beetroot. So, I remembered that meal and suggested we turn the pile of beetroots into soup.
As far as I was concerned that was my bit done, my next part in the proceedings would be to stick the old snout in a bowl of it and relish the occasion.
So come supper time, strange smells emanating from the kitchen and a huge pot on the stove that filled the air with steam smelling of earth and spices, but mostly of earth.
Her dear face was grim as she ladled a dark red glutinous mixture into two bowls and brought them to the table.
Once there she anointed them with a huge dollop of sour cream and on that a smaller spoonful of horseradish.
Placed before me was a Hammer Horror Film in a bowl, featuring something just dead, or not. It smelt like an old gout bandage. I said nothing.
I said nothing because once many years ago, a hostess I knew somewhat intimately, was passing a large jug of custard to her guests and was enquiring of their requirements, I in a merry quip, said ‘one lump or two’ and had the jug emptied over my head. Long ago and in another life, but one learns.
So I said nothing.
Isobel is a great cook. She really is as many will testify and as does my waistline. Even when pressed for time or ingredients she will rise to the occasion and rustle up a feast, for two or twenty, she has done it all.
But not now and she knew it.
She would however, not say it.
‘Have you tasted it’ said I in a merry voice without a hint of the dismay I felt.
‘Not without the cream and horseradish’ she said.
‘Oh’ said I …. ‘and’
‘Taste it’ she commanded and waited for me to do so.
Like a penguin on an ice flow just knowing a fucking great Orca was lurking thereabouts I sat stock still and waited.
‘After you’ I said reaching for a piece of lovely fresh sour-dough bread.
An impasse had been reached worse than any ‘Ikea’ moment.
Time passed so slowly as the ‘soup’ congealed.
But dear reader, love perseveres and we have been together through so much in our lives.
After all the borscht was my idea I take full responsibility for it and dear old Vaz across the road really does an amazing curry which I was more than happy to pay for.
And of course we still had the vodka on ice – which was nice …