I’d asked my friend B. if he liked corn chowder. Living in one room, and sharing a kitchen, I had to think of a lunch that would fit on my small work table. “How about a bowl of steamy corn chowder, with bread and cheese?” I’d texted. Then added, “Unless there is a heatwave.”
A heatwave? With the winter cold and icy winds that have been making a mockery of May in London, this year?
“What kind of wine goes with corn chowder?” asked B.
“Don’t know,” I replied, “but I already have a bottle of Chianti, so don’t worry.”
It is with a mix of incredulity and hope that I leave the house without my jacket. This Sunday lives up to its name. After months of grey, the sudden brightness stings my eyes. On my way to the shops, I question the suitability of corn chowder on what looks like a summer’s day. No. It won’t last. It’s just another tease. The sun caresses my neck and shoulders, which have been stiff and painful for months and feel like they will now continue to be stiff and painful for ever. The warmth seeps through my skin and slowly trickles into my muscles. I don’t dare relax and give in to it. I am not going to allow myself to be lulled into a false sense of security. I don’t trust the cold not to pounce on me around the next corner.
I sing to myself while I chop the vegetables. Since I moved to this house, I’ve taken to singing in the kitchen. Today, I finally realise it’s because I have always listened to Radio 3 or 4 while cooking, but here is no radio in this kitchen.
I’d love to get you on a slow boat to China,
All to myself, alone.
I’ve always liked that song.
I open a tin of sweetcorn and empty it into the pan, and watch the milk start to bubble. I worry the chowder will taste too bland. I reach out for the bottle of cayenne pepper, and shake vigorously. Then I pull the cheeses out of the fridge, and lay them out on a plate.
My mobile beeps. “On my way. What can I bring?”
“Good conversation,” I reply.
Get you and keep you in my arms evermore.
I pull open both sash windows in my room. It’s the first time I’ve done that, since moving here. I lean out as far as I can, the palms of my hands firmly pressed against the windowsill. I search the branches of the oak tree right outside but can’t see the squirrel that I often see vandalising the leaf buds. Somewhere above me, the slightly rheumatic caw of a crow. There is something reassuring in its gravelly sound. Something honest. I lift my head towards the sun, and let its warmth stroke my face. Perhaps I could trust it, after all.
My friend B. arrives. He tosses his hat on top of my row of dictionaries. I knew he would not come empty-handed. Not on his first visit here. He holds out a loaf of crusty, fragrant pain rustique. Bread – for good luck in my new home. Now that’s what I call perfect.
In the white ceramic bowls, the chowder looks colourful, with yellow kernels of corn, and bits of red pepper and green courgettes shining like little gems through the milky soup. I worry I might have overdone it with the cayenne, but B. assures me it’s not too spicy. I hope he is not being polite. I really should learn to cook properly, and not constantly improvise. At least not with cayenne pepper. I spread a generous slice of Dolcelatte on a slice of bread. B. reaches out for the Gruyère and shaves off thin, narrow strips. I pour us more wine.
I tell B. I have finished reading Moby Dick. I’m afraid I skimmed through several chapters in the middle of the book. I couldn’t get myself interested in the technicalities of whaling. I loved the character portrayal, though. I have resolved to read more 19th Century literature. Lately, I noticed increasing difficulty focusing on the language and mind frame and I am scared of losing that ability. B. needs to read more French literature. I tell him about the brilliant translation masterclass I attended, yesterday.
Outside the window, the oak tree leaves rustle in a sudden gust of wind. B. examines the books on the top shelf. I have stacked up there all the ones I have yet to read. He cocks his head to examine the spines. “I’ve never read Christopher Isherwood,” he says.
After a few spoonfuls of Tiramisù, we go into the kitchen to make Turkish coffee. Several years ago, one of my students gave me a beautifully-crafted, copper-coated pot, with a smooth wooden handle. We watch and wait for the edges of the coffee to curl up into small waves of simmering froth.
I ask B. which CD I should play.
He hesitates. “What would go well with this weather?”
“Madrigals?” I ask.
He narrows his eyes and thinks.
“Lute? And perhaps a counter-tenor?”
He starts to nod.
Sitting by window, we sip the coffee and watch the oak tree branches sway. The leaves are glistening in the sunlight. We sit in comfortable silence for a moment. A counter-tenor is singing a wistful Tudor air through the CD player by my bed. “They’re doing To Kill a Mockingbird at Regent’s Park,” says B.
I can’t imagine a show that intimate, in a park.
We continue a brief conversation of half-sentences. Certain things, you don’t need to spell out. Not when you’ve been friends for fourteen years.
The sun moves away from the oak tree, to warm up the opposite side of the street. Left in the shade, the wind grows chilly. We close the sash windows. B. stands up to leave. “Are you going to do some work, this evening?”
“I have to write my blog,” I say. “I have no idea what to write, though.”
B. puts on his hat. “Have you ever written about corn chowder?” He asks, a twinkle in his eye.