I’m happy to say I’ve recently made a new friend, in spite of us all being in lockdown. You could say our shared love of nature brought us together.
One day in February I hear there’s a black swan on the lake, so I give myself the afternoon off and walk down to the nature reserve. I find the gorgeous creature bobbing on the water and posing like an A-list celeb. Unfortunately, its fans don’t bother to look where they’re going, so I soon find myself backing into a hedge. This is not a new experience for me. Since social distancing began last year, I’ve spent a lot of time in hedges. Usually I have them all to myself.
Not this time.
I trip on the rough ground and stumble into the foliage. Someone shouts ‘Jeepers!’, then there’s a loud bump. I look around to see where the noise is coming from.
At knee level, a head is poking out of the hedge, glaring at me with big dark eyes. The shingled black hair is peppered with silver, but the face is smooth and unlined. In beautifully modulated tones, it says, ‘Why did you knock me off my flowerpot?’
‘I didn’t know you were there!’
Like a tortoise into its shell, the head withdraws into the laurels. I part the flexible branches and peer between shiny leaves. On the other side is a communal garden attached to a smart block of flats. Under my nose, a large empty plant pot lies up-ended on the grass. Now I can see that the head belongs to a tall thin woman who is picking herself up and dusting herself down. She’s wearing jeans, trainers and a stylish poncho, and an expensive pair of binoculars dangles from her neck. In spite of her undignified position, she has an air of elegance.
‘Are you hurt?’ I ask her.
‘I’ll survive. Who are you?’
‘My name’s Lovage. What’s yours?’
‘Meliora. Mel for short. Why are you creeping around in hedges?’
‘Why are you standing on flowerpots?’
‘I was trying to watch the black swan without getting Covid. Encouraging people to get out and enjoy nature is all very well, but the parks are getting to be like Piccadilly Circus. How are we supposed to socially distance?’
‘I find the best way is to jump into the nearest hedge.’
Fortunately, Mel sees the funny side and gracefully accepts my apology. Then, because at the moment everyone is desperate for human interaction, no matter how random, we enjoy a long chat through the laurels. I learn that she has recently retired, lives by herself and is exploring new hobbies such as birdwatching. This explains the binoculars. I tell her about my one-woman gardening business and that I volunteer at the community centre. She offers to keep me posted about the black swan. I promise to send her details of local clubs she can join ‘when this is all over’. We exchange contact details.
A few days later I introduce Mel on Zoom to Bub, my friend from the community centre. Cynicism is Bub’s default setting, so I’m relieved when she immediately takes a liking to Mel – or rather, to her location.
‘Them flats is gorgeous! Have you got a view over the lake?’
I suspect that, being a career house cleaner, Bub is hoping for some new business from Mel’s neighbours, ‘after this sodding pandemic’.
We soon realise that Mel is not as socially isolated as she makes out. She’s always signing up for stuff on Facebook, and it isn’t long before she invites Bub and me to join a Zoom session with one of her virtual friends: ‘Azara is going to demonstrate how to prepare an Indian dish. What fun, eh?’
Bub wrinkles her nose as only she can. ‘I’m not one for peeling grapes.’
‘What about you, Lovey?’
‘I’ve sworn never to cook anything with more than four ingredients.’ I’m not even lying. I have the taste buds of a mollusc, so exotic herbs and spices are wasted on me.
‘Oh, come on! You’ll enjoy it! When the food’s ready, we’re going to have a virtual dinner party. Think of how nice it will be to eat together! I haven’t sat down to a meal with another human being for almost a year. Azara says that as it’s our first time, we can just watch – although there’s usually a small fee for tuition.’
I’m relieved to hear this, because one person’s small fee is another’s weekly food bill. In the end, Bub and I agree to watch the session, simply because we’re both bored out of our brains. These days, we look forward to any event involving people with whom we don’t share a bathroom.
On the appointed evening, each in our own homes, Bub and I hit the link. The session is already underway, and Mel is waving to us from the gallery. The mumsy participants look nice. Their kitchens look even nicer. Bub and I gape at the overflowing wine racks, gleaming food processors and co-ordinated sink accessories on display. The well-groomed husbands and children are probably also nice. They are all being shooed out and told dinner will be late.
Azara turns out to be a tiny woman sporting an enormous diamond nose stud. Over a pretty floral shirt with rolled-up sleeves, she wears a chef’s hat and a striped apron, both of which are far too big for her. In front of her everything she needs for the demonstration is laid out neatly on a worktop. When Mel introduces Bub and me, I ask Azara how she is. Since the pandemic, we enquire about people’s health more often than we used to – although I’m not sure we care more about the answers.
‘I’ve had a home-schooling headache for two days, thank you for asking. Have we all rolled our pakora dough into a sausage shape, wrapped it in cling-film and put it in the fridge to rest? I hope so, because it’s almost time to prepare our chickpea curry.’
A worried looking woman is blinking from her yellow frame. ‘I’m afraid I’m a little behind. I’m still kneading my dough. It’s rather wet.’
Unimpressed, Azara shakes her head. ‘Jane, the correct method was in the prep instructions I emailed to everyone. Hurry and wrap it up.’
Jane looks despairingly at the shapeless globule in front of her. ‘Okay, here goes the cling-film! Umm, I’ve got webbed fingers.’
Then a brisk type in a business suit highlights herself. ‘I’m well ahead. I chopped the onions in my last Zoom meeting.’
‘Well done, Maeve! Lucy, please be careful with that wine or you’ll spoil your curry.’
Lucy tops up her glass. ‘Don’t pee on my bonfire! It’s my fortieth birthday and I’ve been partying since two-thirty!’
When Maeve and Jane also pour themselves big glasses of wine in celebration of Lucy’s fortieth, our instructor’s nose stud quivers with apprehension.
‘Azara, how can we blend our tomatoes? I’ve got such big beefy ones.’ It’s Jane again, now with blobs of dough on her chin and in her hair.
‘Use a food processor.’
‘But my food processor isn’t made up, and anyway it makes a horrible noise. Will it be all right if I use tinned tomatoes?’
‘Of course! In fact, that’s what I suggested. Haven’t you read the prep, Jane?’
Jane’s bottom lip quivers, but backup is on the way. A hand icon is waving from Maeve’s frame. ‘Actually, Azara, you didn’t specify the type of tomatoes. I know because I read the prep twice and highlighted the key points. Just saying!’
With a large glass of wine in one hand and a tin-opener in the other, Lucy is looking confused. ‘I meant to buy tinned tomatoes, but I’ve picked up fruit salad by mistake. Is it okay to substitute?’
Azara can see she has a fight on her hands, but she isn’t about to give up. Pushing her cap back out of her eyes, she snarls, ‘Mute yourselves, so I can speak without interruption!’
There’s a moment of silence which has an underlying hint of rebellion, before red muted-mike icons pop up. Mel mimes zipping her lips. Bub and I have been mute all along. (That’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.)
After fifteen minutes of fast talking and faster mixing and stirring, Azara relents and allows the mikes to be switched on again. ‘Your onions must be translucent! Ladies, let me see your onions!’
We all avert our eyes from Lucy, who is pulling her jumper off over her head. Nobody wants to see her onions.
Jane is soon in trouble again. ‘What are you doing with that turmeric? You were supposed to add it with the ginger and chilli!’
This time, Maeve cannot come to Jane’s rescue, because she’s taking a business call.
In a tone of voice that suggests her expectations for the session are getting lower by the second, Azara asks if everyone has remembered to buy cumin. She looks relieved when Maeve waves a spice jar with the hand that isn’t holding a phone to her ear. Jane and Lucy shake their heads and her face falls again.
‘Okay. If you have no cumin, you may use asafoetida.’
Reading Bub’s mute lips, I recognise her favourite swear word and, from the expressions on the faces of the others, it’s obvious they wouldn’t recognise asafoetida if it bit their ankles. Which, for all I know, it might. Doesn’t Azara understand the level of culinary incompetence she’s dealing with? The poor woman must be losing the plot.
Then to make matters worse, Lucy un-mutes herself, spilling wine down her front in the process, and says, ‘Even on my birthday, nobody’s cumin anywhere near my ass!’ before dissolving into uncontrollable giggles.
Azara mutes Lucy. I didn’t even know you could do that. I’m impressed to find there’s fight in our instructor yet. Everyone sits up straight and pays attention. Even Maeve ends her call.
‘Now, you must release the odours! That is very important.’
Maeve sniffs the air like a bloodhound. Jane looks bewildered. Lucy licks her kitchen table.
‘Are your odours floating free?’
The participants nod like crazy.
‘Then you may un-mute yourselves!’
The first to speak is Maeve, who has been flicking through a highlighted hard copy of the prep instructions. ‘Sorry, Azara, I think I missed a few steps while I was on that call with my boss. What did you want us to do with the chilli?’
I hope our instructor will tell Maeve exactly where to put her chilli, but I’m disappointed. Azara summons up a smile and soldiers on.
‘Everything depends on how you roll out the dough. It will balloon up, okay? Now, are you all ready to roll?
Everyone is desperate to share their rolling experience.
‘Mine’s sticking a bit,’ says Jane. ‘But it’s not terrible.’
Maeve is back on track: ‘I put mine on parchment paper, so it didn’t stick at all.’
Lucy is peering into a pan. ‘What am I going to do with all this fruit salad?’
Azara doesn’t miss a beat. ‘Simmer it on low, Lucy. Are you ready to fry the pakoras?’
‘Mine isn’t quite round. Does it matter?’
‘Don’t worry, Jane, just pop it in the oil and watch the magic happen!’
From what I can see, it would take every wand in Hogwarts to make magic happen here.
‘Take a small wok and lower the pakora into the hot oil. Then press it to see if it will pop up.’
At this point, all hell breaks loose.
‘When I flipped it, it stopped popping!’
‘It’s gone bubbly!’
‘Mine’s puffed up!’
Lucy’s pan appears to be on fire.
Jane is still lagging behind. ‘Shall I take my tomatoes off the heat? They’re starting to get steamy.’
At last, there’s a panicky few minutes while all three participants assemble their creations. From where I’m sitting, they look more like sculptures than food. Lucy holds up a handful of something amorphous and says, ‘Mine looks like a case of bubonic plague!’
‘Mine looks like potato rosti with bubonic plague!’ This may be a factually accurate description of the dish Jane’s displaying.
Maeve is in despair over her squashed pakora and flattened chickpeas. ‘But I read the prep so carefully! Azara, you shouldn’t have told me to press it!’
‘It will still taste good,’ says Azara diplomatically. She must be hoping for lucrative re-bookings. ‘You’ve all done very well!’
Suddenly, the gallery frames fill up with family members. Shapeless food is slapped on plates, photographs are taken and family huddles form around kitchen islands. Only Mel, Bub and I are left to watch Azara clearing up.
‘I don’t know how you put up with it,’ I tell Azara.
‘They’re all regulars. And they were just letting off steam. It can’t be much fun for Lucy, having to celebrate her fortieth birthday when all the restaurants and clubs have been closed down. As for Maeve, because she’s working from home, her boss expects her to be available at all hours.’
‘Jane should have read the prep!’
‘It was very naughty of you to tell your students to substitute asafoetida. I don’t know much about Indian cooking, but I know that stuff stinks!’
‘They were behaving so badly, I couldn’t resist winding them up.’ Azara laughs so hard her nose stud jiggles. ‘I do hope they all go out and buy some!’
Mel is looking disappointed. ‘I’m sorry we’re not having virtual dinner together. I was really looking forward to that!’
‘So was I,’ says Azara. ‘But remember, their families are as bored as the rest of us. Teasing Mum about her cooking class cock-up is probably the most fun they’ve had since Eat Out To Help Out.’
Bub un-mutes herself. ‘Never mind! The three of us can have a socially distanced cheese sandwich and a bag of crisps together while we help Azara wash her pots. Virtually, of course!’
Loarn has self-published the first ten stories from ‘Up the Community Centre’ as a novella, ‘The Thank You Sweets’, available on Amazon. Her next adventure in self-publishing will be her first crime novel, ‘Accounting for Loss’. Loarn blogs about new books and her self-publishing journey on her website, www.patersonloarn.co.uk She has Level 2 BSL skills, and her day job is supporting hearing-impaired university students. Loarn is also a conservation volunteer.
Home Cooking is a brand new episode of ‘Up the Community Centre’