A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Photo Credit: Christian Guthier
It was the mountain of plump, shiny gooseberries which first caught my eye. Piled in an old-fashioned wicker basket, each had veins so delicate, they might have been painted on by hand. Then I noticed him, sitting in the shade, bent over his task. Methodically, he topped and tailed the glossy fruit: slice, slice, then dropped them into a huge stainless steel tub at his side—plink. He was dressed in chef’s whites, but his head was bare, his hair no more than a few wispy strands of grey.
I had spent the first part of the morning exploring the walled vegetable garden, where eager beans climbed wigwams to the sky and plump marrows lazed on the soil. The garden was well-tended: patches of damp earth and a faint peaty smell told me the crops had been watered early in the day. The sweet peas had been well-picked, as is necessary, to encourage fresh growth. I wondered who was the lucky recipient of the scented blooms.
By now, the sun was high. The imposing orange-brick walls refused entry to any hint of breeze. My hip was troubling me; I was in need of a sit-down. Where better than the tearoom? At National Trust properties, they are a reliable choice for quality baking and tea served in a proper pot.
With my handbag slung inelegantly across my body and awkward walking stick hooked over my arm, I managed to carry my tray outside to the patio. I saw first the fruit, then its keeper. From the speed he was working, I hoped the gooseberries weren’t needed for today’s lunch.
‘They’re keeping you busy this morning,’ I said to him as I shuffled by. I never used to start conversations with strangers, but recently I’ve found entire days can pass without me speaking to anyone.
The chef lifted his head and looked in my general direction, but not straight at me. His face was round and weather-beaten. ‘It’s all I’m good for, these days.’
There was precious little shade on the patio and I couldn’t face the indignity of grappling with one of the furled umbrellas. A small round table next to him was vacant.
‘I’m going to sit here in the shade, if you don’t mind.’ I leaned my stick against the wall of the building before lowering myself carefully towards a little wooden chair. My joints shrieked and I had to allow gravity to take me the last couple of inches. Fortunately, the chair held. One of these days, it wouldn’t.
‘You help yourself, my dear.’ He reached for a cloth to wipe his fingers. It was lying on the table almost next to his hand, but it took him a couple of pats to find it.
I looked more closely, nodding to myself as I understood. He was almost blind.
I poured a careful splash of milk into my cup, then added the tea. ‘It’s going to be another scorcher.’
‘It is,’ he agreed.’I don’t know who’s going to want a hot pudding on a day like this, but there you have it.’
‘Are they going in a pie, then?’ I sipped my tea gratefully.
‘Crumble. So I’m told.’ Slice, slice, plink. ‘I don’t decide the menu, not any more.’
Again, he looked in my direction and I saw his cloudy eyes. Cataracts, almost certainly.
‘But you used to decide what to cook?’
‘I’ve worked here since before the house was given over to the National Trust,’ he said. ‘Before the family ran into problems, couldn’t pay the inheritance tax. It was a different place, back then.’
I had the luxury of being able to observe, without him knowing I was staring. I guessed he was in his seventies. Apart from his eyes, he seemed to be in good health.
‘Oh yes, I’ve cooked for the rich and famous,’ he continued. ‘Made lunch for Elizabeth Taylor, once. Trout, it was. Trout with almonds.’ He stared off into the distance for a few moments before resuming his work. His fingers were still nimble, just slow.
‘But now you can’t cook, because of your eyes?’
‘That’s right, lass. A blind chef isn’t much use to anyone.’
I liked being called lass. That hadn’t happened in a long time. ‘Have you had your cataracts looked at?’
‘Oh, no. Nobody’s taking a paring knife to my eyeballs.’ He sniffed. ‘I don’t trust hospitals. Too many folk die in those places.’
I laughed. ‘I don’t think they do.’
‘My mother died, for starters. Having me.’
‘I’m sorry.’ I coughed awkwardly.
He shrugged. ‘My father never forgave me.’
‘It was hardly your fault.’
‘No. But he never came to terms with it. He couldn’t talk about her, drunk or sober. I spent the next forty years trying to apologise for being born.’
‘Then what happened?’
I said nothing, but drank my tea and listened to the steady rhythm of his work. The plink of falling gooseberries had changed to a plunk: he must have filled up the bottom layer of the tub.
‘Then, there was Billy Morse,’ he continued. ‘The boys at school—they either ignored me, or poked fun at me. Being ignored was preferable, obviously. I got by just fine with no friends: found a corner of the playground and kept my head down. But one day, out of the blue, Billy Morse shared his lunch. There was never much food around at my house, you see. I had to find it myself, or go hungry.’
That made sense, with no mother and a father gone to pieces.
‘Yes, Billy scuffed up to me in his short trousers, sat down and offered me half his ham sandwich.’ Slice, slice, plunk. ‘We were friends for life.’
I poured extra hot water into the pot and hassled the bag with my teaspoon.
‘Last winter, they took Billy into hospital for his prostate. Routine, they said. Just a couple of days, they said.’
I murmured, so he would know I was listening.
‘You won’t get me near those places now.’ He stopped slicing for several seconds.
‘I’m sorry about your mother and your friend,’ I said, ‘But I can tell you, hospitals aren’t as dangerous as all that.’
‘Hmmph. What are you then, a doctor?’
‘No, a nurse,’ I said, a little crisply. ‘Retired, I mean.’
‘And I suppose you worked with eyes.’
I hadn’t started off in paediatrics. That was the most popular ward, and I wasn’t pretty or funny or persuasive, like the other new nurses. So they sent me to oncology. There, I witnessed white pain and dark suffering that twisted my stomach and sent me running to the toilet to retch. After the first year, I learned to see without remembering, to touch without feeling, my emotions for the patients as starched as my uniform.
My thirty-seventh birthday turned into thirty-eight and then thirty-nine, and Fred and I still hadn’t had a child. The gap in our family threatened to swallow me. I went to the hospital administrators and told them that unless they transferred me to paediatrics, I would leave the profession and train as a teacher. Within three months, they moved me to a children’s ward and that’s where I stayed for the next two decades. I might not be a mother, but I shaped the lives of thousands of children.
‘I saw hundreds of operations,’ I told my gooseberry friend. ‘I know what I’m talking about.’
‘And how many of them died?’
‘Not many.’ I paused. ‘Well, not many who weren’t going to die in any case.’
He chuckled. ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’
‘I just came from the walled garden.’ I changed the topic. ‘Beautiful looking vegetables.’
He nodded. ‘Yes, it’s a fine plot. A grand kitchen garden. I used to stroll down there in the early evening and eye up what might be ready for the following day. In summer, this estate was darn near self-sufficient.’
I thought of the pitiful tomato plants in the back garden of my house, the home Fred and I had bought when we were first married. My vegetable bed was growing more weeds than food this year. Darned hip. I had waited stubbornly until it was unbearable, before seeking help. Foolish mistake.
‘What’s your favorite dish to cook?’ I asked him. ‘If you could, I mean.’
‘Ah, that’s easy.’ He smiled. ‘Game pie.’
‘From scratch. Rabbit, venison, pheasant. Carrots, potatoes, pastry, everything from scratch. I’d prepare the game myself. No short-cuts.’
‘I don’t often see that on menus, these days.’
‘No, folks are too squeamish to make it—or too lazy, I don’t know which. But I bake a wonderful game pie. Of course, you have to plan ahead.’
‘And it’s not really a dish for a day like today.’ My patch of shade was shrinking and I shuffled my chair back a fraction.
‘No, no, it’s an autumn dish, winter, even. October, November, when the nights are getting chilly and there’s mist in the air. November’s best.’
He had paused in his work, his head lifted, as if he were looking out across the estate, to where the deer were grazing peacefully.
‘You know,’ I waited a few moments and then said carefully, ‘I need a hip replacement and there’s a six-month waiting list. My vegetable plot will be a jungle when I eventually get back to it.’
‘I’m sorry to hear it,’ he said.
‘The wait’s much shorter, for cataracts.’ I hoped I was right about this. ‘You’d see your GP, who’d send you to a specialist, and then they’d probably do it in day surgery. You’d be in and out in less time than it’s taking you to humiliate those gooseberries.’
‘You’re a cheeky lass.’ He gave a chuckle.
I had finished my tea and gathered my things together. I found my stick, then hoisted myself up, using the edge of the wobbly table for support.
‘Who knows, you might be making game pie this autumn,’ I said.
‘I might, I might.’
‘Well, I’ll look for it on the menu, then. In November.’
As I walked away, I tried to read his expression. But with his eyes so foggy, there were no clues, just the gentle nodding of his head in time with his work.
Slice, slice, plunk.
British by birth, Pauline Wiles moved to California eight years ago and, apart from a yearning for afternoon tea and historic homes, has never looked back. Her work has been published by House of Fifty, Open Exchange and Alfie Dog Fiction. Pauline’s debut novel, Saving Saffron Sweeting, was published in spring 2013. Email: paulinewiles[at]gmail.com