I spent a few weeks mooching around my apartment, hanging out with Rilla during the day, and writing non-stop into the night. I’d left maternity fashion behind, for the moment, and I concentrated on that season’s new looks; without exception, I was my most scathing in every article I submitted, and (rarely, for me) only about half of them were published. Since I’d written about 3x my normal amount, though, I wasn’t overly concerned; and 1 of the articles I wrote, the complete annihilation of a photo shoot with a severely emaciated looking model who was known, in the industry, for her chronic and escalating drug-abuse, actually sparked a few articles in more serious mags than the ones I write for. I got a couple of phone calls (from colleagues, not friends) asking me if I was well, and did I have any other pseudo-expose pieces nearly ready for publication; I blew them off. I’m not really much of a collaborator, when it comes to my work. Or much else, really, thinking about it.
I might’ve stayed like that, actually devoting time to working, avoiding Richard forever or at least for a few months, if not for Rilla. One morning, about 3 weeks after the whole Richard Seduction Debacle, as I was just sitting on the couch, sipping the first of my morning coffees, and watching Rilla kick and squirm in the middle of the floor (on an old, silky-feeling quilt that originally belong to my mother) when, out of nowhere, she kind of pushed and jiggled one arm, and flipped over onto her back.
Hiccupping with surprise, she cocked her head and turned her huge, teal-blue eyes to mine; and after I’d clapped and done a little cheer and generally made her giggle at my silliness, I grabbed my phone, and dialled Richard’s number.
It wasn’t even 8 a.m. yet, but when he answered, I could hear office chatter behind him, and he used his posh phone voice until he realized who I was. Which was about the time I said, by way of greeting, “Rilla’s rolled over, you have to come and see us tonight, I’ll even cook, I’m really sorry I was a douche, you have to come see us,” and I gave him enough time to agree to come over, before hanging up, bundling Rilla into outdoor clothing, and walking to the nearest selection of small, independently-owned food shops. It wasn’t far, and I needed to buy groceries; other than organic baby food, sugar and milk and 5 varieties of coffee (a mixture of instant and beans and pre-ground) there was nothing in the house.
As I walked, I pondered what to cook; Rilla, still enough of a baby to be in a backwards-facing pram, was looking up at me, and I realized (as I often do) that I should probably share my thoughts. Babies are people too, or so the rumours imply.
“Hi, Rilla,” I said, smiling down at her. “Hi, pretty baby. Guess where we’re going?” She didn’t guess, but she was looking at me with some interest, so I carried on. “We’re going to the shops, to buy something nice for Uncle Richard to eat. Mommy’s been eating take-out all week,” I say, as if ordering in gourmet meals from local restaurants at £60 a pop counts as ‘take-out’, “But she has to apologize to Uncle Richard, so she’s gonna cook him something fancy to show that she’s really, really sorry.” I hate that tone that people get when they talk to babies, but I could hear that I was doing it myself, for fuck sake. Still, I suppose you can’t talk to a baby with your normal voice, so I continued in my daft oochie-coochie-coochie-coo tone, as I described all the mains I might cook, and which sides would go best with which mains, and so on and so forth.
As I chattered away to my little captive audience, I got onto the subject of how unlikely it is that I even know how to cook—but I do. I’m not a gourmet, I wouldn’t know a Michelin Star if it supernova’d in my face, but I can cook a lot of meals adequately, and a few meals really well. Probably inevitably, my thoughts eventually turned to the person who taught me how to cook.
“Your grandmamma,” I say to Rilla, wondering if I’ve ever mentioned my mother to her before, “Now, she was a wonderful cook. She must have known hundreds of exotic Middle-Eastern recipes by heart, but as soon as she married your granda, she decided she had to learn to cook proper British food as well.” As I describe it, I can see myself, a girl of no more than 7 or 8, following my mother around the kitchen as she prepared meals from French and English cookbooks, always timed so that we sat down to eat about 15 minutes after Da got home. My mum was always so proud of her efforts; she had been cooking English and French meals since before I was born, but she never lost her enthusiasm for it.
“Beef Wellington,” she would quietly exclaim, beaming, her low voice still just a little too precise, ever so slightly accented, her immaculately manicured hands thrust into thick, brightly patterned oven gloves, as she pulled a golden-pastry-wrapped cylinder of still-pink beef from the Aga.
“Canard à l'Orange,” she would say, her French accent (unlike her English) flawless, the meal prepared in the traditional French way, the beautifully roasted duck still whole, surrounded by a mountain of pearl onions and tiny golden potatoes.
“Steak and Ale Pie,” she would announce, the tiniest frown between her eyes, as she looked at me and weighed up the dangers of underage drinking with the classical chefs’ insistence that the alcohol is usually cooked off, by the time the meal is ready to eat.
And on it went, a different meal every night of the week, and never any repeats within the same month. My mum, as if she had been born into wealth—and maybe she had been, I’ve no idea—planned intricate menus, sent her staff on afternoon shopping trips for the freshest ingredients, sourced local produce with an expert’s eye… and then, after organizing everything in a manner befitting minor nobility, she went into the kitchen and cooked everything herself, her face flushed with heat and exertion, her elegant hands dirtied and blistered from peeling vegetables that had come out of the ground an hour before, her regal face alight with merriment and almost child-like pleasure, as she whipped up dishes calculated to prove to Da that she could feed him better than any English or Irish wife he might have chosen. He always appreciated it, and complimented her food lavishly, for his part.
My favourite meals, though, were the ones that took place when my da was away. My mother would come to take me into the kitchen, later in the day than usual, and say in a girlish whisper, “Your father is away on business tonight; shall we cook Egyptian?” and I would grin up at her, my eyes glowing like backlit emeralds, as I imagined the exotic array of foreign delicacies she might prepare. I was never disappointed.
Lamb Tagine was delicious, the spicy meat contrasting beautifully with the sweetness of the squash and prunes. Chicken Melokhia, an exotic version of plain chicken soup, was an amazing cornucopia of flavours, not least of all for the bowls of vinegar-soaked onions that were served on the side. Hamam Mahshi, pigeons filled with cornmeal and mint and their own giblets, tasted so much better than an ordinary roast chicken, I couldn’t see how she could bear to only cook them 2 or 3 times a year. My mother cooked meals fit for a king, for my da; but for me, she cooked meals fit for a sultan, and I loved every extraordinary mouthful.
One of the things I loved best about ‘cooking Egyptian’ was the fact that Mum knew every step, every recipe, by rote. Never having to check a cookbook or even concentrate all that much meant that she could fill the kitchen with her other great love: showtunes. Every daft song from a musical I know (including those that got me through Rilla’s birth) I learned from my mother’s lips. She would sing along, often an octave below the Broadway or Hollywood stars, swaying seductively as she mixed Ras el Hanout from scratch, from memory, her feet bare, her slender golden anklets jingling like pound coins. I was always fascinated, watching her, listening to her; I always wanted to BE her, when I grew up.
Looking down at Rilla, who’d drifted off to sleep in the face of my silent memories, I began to wonder if she’d ever admire me that much. The wry grin that twisted my mouth was an admittance; probably not, is the answer to that question; but after all, it’s fair. I didn’t grow up to be my mother; and so, no one has a mother like mine, and so, no one deserves the adoration I gave my own mother.
“Even so,” I find myself whispering, looking down at my daughter, “Even so, we’ll do alright, won’t we, baby girl?” and as I wrestle her pram through wooden double-doors, the dinging of the old-fashioned cowbell hung from the handle both alerts the owner that he’s got customers, and wakes Rilla. As I look around the Halal Food Store we’ve somehow entered, I realize that my hazy plans for dinner have just cleared up.
Lamb Tagine it is, then.