Emily’s having a bad day. A very bad day. The kids are playing up, the dinner’s gone wrong and her husband, Roger, just doesn’t realise how much she needs a break. Can a mysterious visitor make her feel better?
I shout at the foot of the stairs for about the fifth time in the last hour. ‘Go to sleep darlings.’
‘Go to bloody sleep,’ I say more quietly, walking away, along the hall and into the kitchen. ‘You little buggers.’ I shut the door behind me – a voice swearing merrily away inside my head. My voice.
It’s nearly 9pm, according to the clock in the hall, and I haven’t started cooking supper, and my children, who actually aren’t that little, who indeed are seemingly getting bigger and louder every day, are still wide awake, thumping about upstairs.
And their father Roger, who’s also getting larger every day, will be back any
minute: tired and very hungry, the poor overworked, overweight fat cat. Actually, I’m not entirely sure you could really call him a fat cat. Though the children do, probably mishearing me calling him something much ruder.
He’s a partner of a large-ish firm of chartered accountants. He’s spent today visiting various regional offices, as he does every Friday. Seems to take him forever. With the distances he has to cover, with the Friday evening traffic. Yet, to give him credit, he rarely gets cross. He has the patience of a saint. Is wonderfully humoured, too. He won’t complain about the food not being ready, or the kitchen being in a state. Or the kids still being awake. Because Roger doesn’t complain much either. That’s somehow become my job. My speciality.
OK, I work only 22 hours a week; in admin, at the university. It’s a good job, secure in this climate, and I’m lucky to be able to do it part-time. But the real work has to be the childcare. As great as Roger is with the kids, he’s just not about enough.
Then perhaps it’s me. Perhaps I’m not quite flexible enough, giving enough, maternal enough to rear a six- and eight-year-old. These thoughts cross my mind often. But is anyone, all the time?
Already there’s under half a bottle of wine left – some sort of Sauvignon Blanc, from Majestic, where all the our wine comes from. I pour myself another large glass, take a long sip, swallow, sigh. ‘Right, come on Emily, pull yourself together, start cooking.’ Where’s Jamie? The Naked Chef? There might once have been a time when I thought Jamie Oliver was a bit of all right, a blast of laddish good fun in a small, stuffy world, though I can’t say I’d like to see him naked now. He’s not as fat as Roger, of course, but does seem to have bulked out recently. And he can’t be that old. Younger than me at least. Then, who isn’t? Even the prime minister is younger than me – by six whole months.
I look about our kitchen, over the granite tops, the little breakfast bar, the pine table from Habitat, the dresser (an heirloom of Roger’s) and even, standing on tip toes, the top of the fridge freezer. Panic rising. The Naked Chef is definitely not on the shelf with the other cookery books, I know, because I got it out earlier, planning what I’d cook tonight – I can’t do things on the spur of the moment – before I went to the supermarket. A fancy pasta dish with wild mushrooms – a proper treat for a tired and famished Roger. Except the supermarket was out of pappardelle and they didn’t have any wild mushrooms either.
So it’s going to be brown cup mushrooms and all the other ingredients – parsley in there, I can remember, and lemon – with spaghetti, if I can find the recipe. Not that Roger will know any different. He’s always appreciative of my food, as long as there’s enough; thinks, like most of my family and friends, that I’m a pretty good cook.
I do like to make an effort, especially at the weekends. And when we have friends over. But the reality is I’m a useless cook. No intuitiveness. Can’t do anything unless I follow a recipe to the T. With all the right ingredients.
And I can’t see The Naked Chef anywhere – part of me thinking, that’s a relief. What a sight that would be. I try to smile, feeling my whole jaw ache with the effort. But I’m beginning to panic. Once my mind’s settled on a particular recipe, I can’t possibly change tack and think of anything else. One of the biggest problems is deciding what to cook in the first place. Where is this blasted book?
‘Oh hell,’ I sigh out loud. Of course. Jemima’s bedroom. It’s in Jemima’s bedroom, somewhere in the dark, on the floor, among a mountain of toys and school uniform. I’m suddenly certain that’s where I left it the last time I had to go upstairs to tell the kids to settle down. I rush across the kitchen, fling open the door, run straight into Roger.
‘Steady on darling,’ he says – but with warmth in his voice. ‘I know you’re pleased to see to me, but you could have hurt yourself.’
Not much chance of that, seeing as Roger’s so plump. It’s like running into a giant cushion. Or perhaps more accurately a sack of potatoes. I can just see where that expression comes from.
‘You all right?’ he says.
‘Fine.’ I barely glance up before walking round him and hurrying along the hall and up the stairs, two at a time. ‘I left something in one of the kids’ rooms,’ I say over my shoulder, out of breath.
‘Mummy,’ Jemima says, sitting up, the moment I try to creep into her room, ‘I’m thirsty. I need some more milk.’
‘OK, OK.’ I can’t see The Naked Chef in here anywhere. I can’t see anything in here. I step back over to the door and turn on the light. Well, she is wide awake now.
Jemima smiles sweetly. Her pale, freckled face beaming in the light, her ginger hair glowing almost orange, as the energy-saving bulb gains full strength. ‘What are you doing Mummy?’
Moments like this, of course, make you realise it’s all worth it. ‘Looking for something,’ I say, turning over clothes, toys. Her room’s a mess. Normally it’s pristine, but she had a friend over after school, it being a Friday, and we never got round to tidying it up.
The Naked Chef is not in here, I decide, exiting the room and flicking off the light.
‘What about my milk?’ I hear Jemima say, as I’m halfway across the landing.
‘Give me a minute,’ I say. She’s nearly seven. And twice as demanding as her brother.
There’s Alfie’s room to be searched next. Then I suppose my and Roger’s bedroom. Our en-suite. The family bathroom. The Naked Chef could be anywhere.
‘What have you been doing?’ says Roger, not unpleasantly, as I enter the kitchen, clutching the stained and battered cookbook. ‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘I couldn’t find it.’
I hold up the tome. Smile weakly. ‘What we’re having for supper. I had it all planned. And then I lost the bloody book.’ I put the book down, pour myself another glass of white wine, noticing that Roger’s opened himself a bottle of red. Roger drinks only red and I drink only white.
‘Lost the plot more like,’ he says, laughing. Quickly adding, moving towards me: ‘Only joking sweetheart.’
He puts his hands on my shoulders as I try to pull away, then give in and face him – his large, shiny cheeks and little blue grey eyes, a boyish fringe of dark brown hair covering half his sweaty forehead. I’m glad he’s not bald. Large, bald men are certainly not my cup of tea.
‘Tough day?’ he says. ‘Kids playing up?’
‘No, the children have been all right, mostly,’ I say. ‘Jemima had a play date.’ I pause. ‘It’s me, really. I just feel a bit tired. And old. And useless.’
I release myself from my husband’s eager, clammy grasp, and move over
to the counter by the cooker. ‘No you’re not,’ he says, smiling. ‘Don’t ever say
that. You’re brilliant and lovely.’
He’s still smiling. ‘You are, you know.’
I step further back. Not believing him, of course, but saying, ‘Well, I’m glad at least someone thinks so.’
‘Is that Jemima I can hear?’ asks Roger.
‘Oh yes – she wanted some more milk. See, see how useless I am.’
‘I’ll take it up,’ says Roger.
‘Great, and then she’ll get all excited at seeing you and never go to sleep.’ But actually, I’d like Roger to do it. My limbs feel very heavy, and I feel a bit faint.
Roger’s already got his head in the fridge, is pulling out the milk, looking for a cup, Jemima’s favourite, which, I remember, is already in the dishwasher. He finds another he obviously thinks will do, pours much too much milk in it and disappears, saying, ‘I won’t be a moment’.
‘Roger,’ I call after him, ‘don’t make a fuss over Alfie as well, please. He seems to have finally calmed down.’
The kitchen’s suddenly cold, draughty. It’s always cold and draughty, even in the summer, not that summers seem to exist in this part of the world. I wrap my arms around myself tight, look over at the cooker, the fridge, the food cupboard, the door through to the utility room, then across to the other door, the door to the hall, which Roger has left ajar. He’ll be ages. He’s always ages, whatever he does. And I mean, whatever.
Unlike, of course, Jamie Oliver. I pick up the cookbook, searching for the page, thinking, actually, that would probably drive me even more nuts. Someone rushing around all the time, getting things done at a relentlessly frenetic pace, while endlessly chatting away, cracking jokes and making those risqué asides. I don’t know how lucky I am with slow, large Roger and my two beautiful children – except it doesn’t always feel like that.
Modern living. Is this what it’s all about? Never a moment to relax, to take stock. I don’t even want to think about the emails I need to send. The household correspondence waiting to be done. The distant friends and relatives I’ve failed to attend to. I locate my wine glass, take a long sip, just as Roger walks back into the kitchen. He thinks I drink too much, which is rich coming from him. Though, truth be known, I think I drink too much – on Fridays. ‘Jemima asleep?’ I say.
‘Actually, nearly,’ he says. He replenishes his glass, as I start retrieving the various pans and utensils I’ll need, plus the food, the raw materials, including of course the wrong sort of mushrooms and the wrong sort of pasta. What have I been doing for the last few moments? Why haven’t I already got the cooking under way? It’s like, even though I’m rushed off my feet, have a thousand and one things to do, I still seem capable of just standing there, gawping into space.
In a way, the more I have to do, the more incapable of doing anything I become. I think I need to go on a time-management course. Or have a holiday. A holiday?
A mini-break would be more than enough – sans kids. Is that shocking to admit?
‘Bit of a mess up there, Emily. Jemima’s bedroom looks like a bomb’s hit it,’
‘I know,’ I say, filling the large saucepan with water, surprised Roger’s having a go – it’s not like him. ‘As I said, she had a play-date, with Natalie,’ I say, ‘and then Natalie’s mother hung around for ages picking her up. By the time they left there wasn’t time to tidy it all up, and get them into bed. You know what Natalie’s mum’s like. I think that’s why I’m so exhausted. That woman never stops talking. I thought she was going to be here all night.’
Peeling garlic, I continue, ‘Shame we can’t choose our children’s friends.’ I move on to chopping the mushrooms. ‘How was your day?’
‘OK,’ he says. ‘Same as every Friday. A lot of meetings. A lot of driving.’
‘Wouldn’t it be great,’ I say, ‘if we could just get away for a few days. Without the kids. Just us.’
‘Yes, I reckon it would,’ Roger says. ‘Skiing, that’s what I fancy. Fresh air. Exercise.’
I burst out laughing. ‘Skiing?’ I can’t see Roger on skis. He’s never mentioned a wish to go skiing before. ‘You’ve got to be joking. Besides, bit expensive, isn’t it? Plus you hate the cold, and mulled wine. And if we went skiing, wouldn’t we want to take the children along too? They’d love it, if it wasn’t too cold. And then think how much it would cost.’
‘OK,’ he says. ‘How about one of those cooking courses. You know, you get to stay in a nice hotel, and the chef gives you lessons on how to cook various things. Then you eat all this lovely food.’
Roger’s moved over to the food cupboard. Looks inside. ‘Any olives?’ he says. ‘I really am very hungry.’
I can’t see to continue chopping safely, so grope, bleary-eyed, for my wine glass. ‘Roger,’ I finally say, ‘if we get away for a few days, the last thing I want to do is any cooking. I want other people to cook for me, then wait on me and tidy up after me.’ The idea of spending holiday time in a professional kitchen with someone doing a bad impersonation – even a good impersonation – of Jamie Oliver is really more than I could take. What if they modelled themselves on Gordon Ramsay? Some break that would be.
‘Oh, yes, I see what you mean,’ he says. ‘You’re right, it wouldn’t be much of a break for you, I suppose. But some people like cooking. And I certainly like eating.’
I’m not sure whether I’m more angry than hurt. Does he know me at all? I still can’t see properly, and wipe my eyes on my sleeve. Roger’s normally a bit more thoughtful. OK, we don’t get away often, hardly ever in fact – which is probably the problem. But he could at least be considerate. He’s not quite being himself tonight. Or maybe, I’m not. There’s still something in my eye.
‘How about,’ he says, his mouth full of olives, ‘a couple of nights in London? We could go to a West End show. You could do some shopping.’
Someone’s thumping around upstairs. Alfie probably. Or both of them. Jemima restored to full energy following her shot of calcium. Alfie suddenly bored with the idea of bedtime. It’s the weekend, the weekend, I can hear him thinking – despite the fact he’s not quite nine. But nine nowadays is what 15 used to be – so they say.
‘Are the sales still on?’ says Roger. ‘We could do Oxford Street, Regent Street. Pick up some bargains. Get some things for the kids also. They always need clothes.’
What the hell am I meant to do next? Onions are now frying, along with a little garlic. But there are the mushrooms of course, a bunch of parsley. Seasoning to add at some point. The water’s already boiling for the pasta. Cooking, I suppose doesn’t always take forever, if you know what you are doing. If you know what order things go in. However, there’s no way I’m going on a cooking course for a holiday. I’d rather spend the rest of my life eating takeaways. The kids would certainly rather that – ‘McDonald’s, McDonald’s,’ comes the chant from the back of the car after school everyday.
‘Roger,’ I say, turning away from the cooking and the worktop, ‘why don’t we go away on one of those Sudoku breaks, where you all sit around solving problems. You and your mathematical brain would love that surely.’
‘Sounds too much like work to me,’ says Roger.
‘But you want me to spend holidaytime shopping?’
‘I thought you liked shopping?’ he says, now looking, I have to say, a little sheepish.
‘Shopping frankly is work to me.’ I stare at him. I love him of course, deeply. But sometimes, a lot more recently come to think of it, he can be so frustrating. There’s still thumping around upstairs. He can deal with it, however hungry and tired he might be. ‘Do you really want to go away with me?’ I say. Something’s definitely not clicking normally between us tonight. ‘What do you mean?’ he says. ‘That’s the whole point. That’s why I suggested it.’
‘You didn’t. I did. I suggested it.’
‘Well, I was going to,’ he says. ‘I’ll see what’s going on upstairs.’
And there he goes, walking quickly – for him – out of the kitchen.
Alone in here once more, I’m suddenly overwhelmed by the idea that maybe Roger doesn’t want to go away with me. At least he doesn’t want simply to spend some time with me, just me, in a quiet hotel, but wants to engage us, to distract us with a cooking course, or a West End show, or shopping.
Shopping, for God’s sake.
Something is not right, and my suggesting going on a break, of getting away for a few days, seems to be bringing things to a head. I put down the wooden spoon. I step back from the cooker, the worktop, once more. And wipe my hands on the front of the apron. Sighing to myself, another dreadful thought comes to me.
Please, please don’t tell me, Roger’s about to leave me and the kids. I wouldn’t blame him, frankly. There was a time, lots of time, when that would have seemed highly improbable, if not impossible – like Roger going skiing. Or Roger actually cooking. We got on. We were busy. Very busy, with the children and our jobs. We were fulfilled too, surely – so it seems now. Financially we were OK. We live in a nice part of the country. Have a very pleasant house. Two cars. And of course two kids.
Is this why I’m so stressed, why my cooking and child-rearing has gone to pot? All these undercurrents swirling around, for weeks, for months – suddenly thinking about it. Roger planning his departure? Roger having made up his mind and gathering his strength.
‘Go on,’ I say, even though Roger’s still upstairs, well out of earshot, ‘put me out of my misery. Not that I don’t deserve it. Just bugger off. And take the kids with you.’
When did I start talking aloud to myself?
I look at my watch. Walk out into the hall. Peer at the clock. The watch and the clock tell the same time, pretty much. And it’s late. Very late. Considering we haven’t yet had supper. Where the hell is Roger?
The hall suddenly seems filled with a huge, dreadful silence.
He went to check on the kids, I don’t know how long ago.
‘Roger?’ I call at the foot of the stairs. ‘Roger?’
There is no sound.
I quickly climb the stairs. Not just the hall lights are on, but the kids’ bedroom lights too – their doors wide open.
I don’t understand and I do. ‘Roger?’ I call again. ‘Alfie? Jemima?’ I rush from Alfie’s room to Jemima’s. Stand in the middle of the landing, gasping for breath.
They are not there. And Roger’s nowhere either. Our bedroom door is wide open, that light on also. What the hell have I been doing? I’m still in my apron, my hands sticky with garlic and olive oil. But I’m not sure I exactly finished the cooking. I wouldn’t have known how. I rush back to the children’s bedrooms, running from one to the other. I check their cupboards and drawers. Clothes could be missing. But it’s hard to tell. I’m useless at ordering their things, at making sure what they do have works and fits.
Out on the landing and venturing into mine and Roger’s bedroom again, I realise that Roger was right to suggest we might want to go on a cooking holiday. Or to London, for shopping and the theatre. I can’t cook and I can’t shop. And he was only trying to help, to help us, to help me make everything work for the family.
Now he’s gone, with the kids. Of course. I don’t deserve Roger and my children don’t deserve me. Oh, what the hell have I done? How have I let it happen? They’ve run off, on a dark Friday might. This can’t really be happening. Surely?
Weak, wobbly, breathless, I find myself collapsing on our bed, face down – the pillow soaking up my tears, muffling my uncontrolled sobs.
‘Emily?’ I feel someone gently tapping me on the arm. The voice is familiar. Very familiar.
‘Time for your first lesson,’ he says. ‘Come on, hurry up.’
I roll onto my side, I think. Open my eyes. ‘But you haven’t got any clothes on,’
‘Well, I am the Naked Chef,’ Jamie says, laughing.
‘Where are my kids?’
‘Don’t worry about them. Roger’s got them, safe and sound.’
He reaches for my hand. I can feel his touch – I’m sure I can.
‘Come on,’ he says. That cheeky grin on his face. ‘I’ll teach you how to make a proper pappardelle with wild mushrooms.’
Exclusive story by Henry Sutton.