An impromptu day off

Sometimes you need a break. We all feel it: when the daily grind has spread you to a thin layer of nothing, dust, a substance without resilience, and the only thing you can do is to concede. The extra day in bed, a day with or without plans, a day for yourself, stolen. It is a gift, something our ancestors toiling in the fields or factories probably only dreamed of (and yet their dreams were doubtless bright and their stolen gifts to themselves as treasured). You are woken by birds singing the dawn; a sky washed over with thin clouds, high and distant. It is a blessing: a day of bright promise; everything is sharp and contrasting, light and shadow, and you can feel the strength of the sun in the gaps where the curtains don’t quite meet the windowsill. Despite your commitment, the solemn promise to treat this as a day of rest, there is nothing to do but rise, though the clock reads 07:30 and it is not much later than you would rise on a work day. But rise you do. It is somehow better because it feels voluntary.

Coffee: that most excellent drug. You like it strong, sharp with a little sugar to take the barest edge of the bitterness off. This morning, with nowhere to go and no pressure to do anything, it is more pleasure than necessity. You savour it, bringing the mug close to your nose and letting the vapours flood you. Holding it there, like an offering. A sacrifice to this stolen day.

The morning news flows by; you pay little attention to it. Its function is to bring noise, a background burbling of chatter that seems less urgent than it can on other days. You realise it is possible to ignore the petty arguments, the politicians jeering and jabbing at each other, the gossip dressed up in clothes of false importance. You begin to think about the day. A walk to the bookshop, possibly. Gardening, such as you do it. Hours of uninterrupted reading. Yet it is the desire to walk that seizes you: a consequence, perhaps, of the inviting brightness of the day not yet grown uncomfortably warm. A trip to the shops. You tidy your purse, clearing out all the old receipts, unlogged. You could log them, you could use the time to tidy your finances and finish all those administrative jobs you’ve been avoiding, but that’s not what today is for. You pile the receipts away for another day. Put on your shoes and a cardigan you will soon discover you do not need. You walk out into the sunshine.

Because the walk is impromptu, because the day is a gift, you are in no hurry. For the first time in ages you see what is around you. The stretches of grass with their constellations of daisy and buttercup, the odd poppy towering like a red giant above the rest. The scent of dewed grass and warm tarmac rising like a mist. The pied wagtail hovering over something, a juicy treat, then moving on as you approach to hover someplace else a little further away. The sparrows, thin brown curious creatures, hopping, their eyes like jet baubles searching for a morsel. Their strange clockwork motion makes you smile. Yellow irises flowering in the clogged waterway. The man walking his dog, chatting to it as he goes along unconcerned about how he appears. And you walk, a joyous spring in your step. You are going to buy fruit, salad, eggs. The day requires it.

Fruit, salad, eggs. What is it about these sudden summer days that turns our thoughts to healthy, spare foods? It must be something to do with the heat contrasting the innate moisture of the food. Yet it is their flavour that you crave. The wholesomeness. Orange juice. Grapes. Tomatoes warmed on the windowsill. Cold slices of cheese. Peppermint iced tea. You return home and make a breakfast of crusty bread, ham, tomatoes and cheese. A cup of oolong tea, subtly floral. You eat leisurely, sitting with the windows open listening to the breeze rustling the trees and the sweet chirping of the birds, the occasional machine-gun rattle of a magpie. Cars passing by, now and then. The tumble drier whirring somewhere behind the door in a corner of the house you don’t need to think about today. Time is not pressing. Masonry bees hover above the window frame, coming and going and coming back again. They’re not interested in you. The scratching of birds’ feet on the fence by the window. All those little noises, you don’t normally hear.

In time you will move. In time you will lift the book and begin reading. But for the moment, in this stolen time, you are content. It is enough to be, here, by the window listening to the world busily passing by.

Making Dinner

A meal. It is more than just food. There is the purpose: sustenance, nutrition, the hollow need for fuel. And yet it is much more than that. There is creativity, pleasure. There is the gift. A meal is a gift we give to those around us. Like any gift, it merits effort. There is risk, of course; the usual vulnerabilities. How much of yourself you put into it, the extent of exposure, reveals something about your relationship with the eater. Is it a relationship of hope? Is it adventurous, explorative? Is it convenient; do you put in the minimal effort? Is it just food? Are you afraid; do you avoid criticism, play safe? Dare you risk the flair of something new or untried? Are you willing to fail, to disappoint?

Beginning with love, it starts with the recipe. A template, a formula of sorts. A recipe in your mind, learned through trial or experience. A recipe on the page. It doesn’t matter which. It is an idea. You gather your ingredients, lay out your vegetables, your meat (if you choose), your sauces, your flavourings. You gather your tools – the heavy pans you bought when you cooked more, cared more, in the days when meals were more than just a necessity, a habit. This is one of those days. It is important to get it right.

You take your vegetables in order of need. The sharp knife from the knife block. An onion, finely chopped. Once you begin flow inevitably follows; the familiar motion of hand and knife, the bite as it slices, the tap as the knife hits the board. You sense the music in the rhythm of repetition, the familiarity of the task. Your hands have done this before; you can trust them. Your mind can wander; the body is occupied, tied, momentarily to a place. There is the mysterious pleasure of chopping mushrooms (for who doesn’t love chopping mushrooms: their waxen quality, the slight resistance as the knife sinks in, the smooth cut. Repeat. Even my kids, avoiders of labour, will hover when there are mushrooms to be cut). Light under the pan. A slug of oil, unmeasured, the bottle tipped and held for just long enough. One by one the ingredients stack up. This is a creative task, built step by step with care and a dash of flair. A slop of this, a pinch of that. This is what makes it personal. You bring a spoonful of smoky sauce to your lips, blow, taste.

Time passes, but it is good time. You feel the strength in your arm, a certainty of movement. The warmth of the sauce rises, scent spills out into the room. The pot is a-bubble. Sauce thickens, over time. You could leave and risk burning, but it is better to be here. The mind is free to muse. There is nothing more pressing that this.

You stand tall, stirring, feeling the coolness flow from the stone beneath your feet, rising through your body, making you stand straighter, your shoulders held back, relaxed. Here, in this moment, you are in command.

And then it is done. The food flows from the pan to plate. Family gathers: this is what it is about. The silverware shines, water gleams in clean glasses. There is laughter, talk. The food is good, as you knew it would be.