Hi lovely readers
How are you all? I’ll keep it short and sweet this week. I’m on a roll with my writing and am keen to get started on part 22 which may well be the penultimate part! Eeek…I never thought that I’d ever get so close to the end. I’m aiming to have finished the first draft by the end of next week. I wonder how I’ll feel writing The End and saying good bye to Maggie, Gordon and everyone else? They feel like part of me and I know them so well. I often lie in bed wondering what Maggie would do, or what would Gordon think!
I took a few days off from writing last week as I had to go into school to help prepare for the new school year. It was lovely to see my work colleagues and the few children from my class that were in. Although the building was the same as befoe, the atmosphere within school was different. I’m used to the hustle and bustle of school with children walking through corridors. PE lessons taking place in the big hall and assemblies happening in our theatre. Schools are usually buzzy places, a hive of activity, but at present they are not. Come September we will have our full cohort of children in, but it won’t be the start of the new school year as we know it. But it is as it is and our main concern is that our children return to a safe, caring and calm environment. For some it will be an anxious time and for others it will be a welcome return to seeing their friends again and getting back to a routine. I will go back with some trepidation, but after over five months of not working I’m looking forward to life with some purpose again, and having a week that is made up of work days and days off.
We ate out for the first time since lockdown last week to celebrate our anniversary. We only went to the local pub but it was great to do something other than be at home. Apart from waitresses wearing face shields and tables spaced out, it really was no different from eating out prior to lockdown. We also drank coffee in a garden centre cafe. That cup of flat white was the best thing that I’ve drunk in ages. Boy, I’ve missed a decent cup of coffee!
So, here it is, part 21. I hope that you enjoy reading it. I must say that I had great fun writing it. I’m in a bit of a quandry though. I still don’t have a title for my book. It’s proving really hard to think of one and to have one that’s not already been used before.
Until next time
Maggie Thornden, Where Are You?
Maggie sat in the recliner chair that she had fetched out of the garden shed. It was a beautiful spring day and perfect for spending a few hours reading her latest book and her favourite magazine. Besides her on the small fold up table was a glass of elderflower spritz and her sunglasses. It was the afternoon and Maggie had finished any chores that she needed to do. Not that there were many now that she was at home seven days a week with plenty of time on her hands again. She still had her course assignments to complete but sometimes it was difficult to feel motivated enough to work on them. Since the Major had died, which of course meant losing her job, she really couldn’t be bothered to get enthusiastic about anything and each day rolled into the next. The new Maggie was rapidly being replaced with the old version. All that was missing was the drab anorak and sensible shoes.
Manor Farm House had been in the Smythe-Robinson’s family for generations and Simon was loathed to sell it, so it had been decided that the house would for now be rented out as a luxury holiday home until the time came that one of their children were willing to make it their home. Sally had agreed to stay on and be the housekeeper and also come and spend a few hours a week cleaning Simon and Lucinda’s home down by the lake. Whilst Maggie was pleased that Sally still had a job, she was disappointed that there was no reason for her to stay on. She missed her days at the house, she missed the Major.
Maggie had met up with her friend a couple of times since the funeral. She had driven over to Sally and Jez’s pretty cottage and the two of them had sat in old deckchairs drinking mugs of tea. The Major had remembered Sally in his will and had bequeathed her a generous sum of money which was going to be used to buy a new van to replace their clapped out one and to start a vegetable box service. Jez had suggested popping bottles of his home brew in the boxes but Sally had reminded him that he’d probably be breaking licensing laws and would have the police or whoever dealt with such things chasing after him. Maggie had mentioned having Sally, Jez and their children over to their house for Sunday lunch one day but no date had been set. Truth be told, Maggie was a bit envious of Sally. Her days were busy and she had a home that was filled with chatter and noise once everyone was home from school and work. Sally complained that it was a constant struggle to keep her home tidy. Maggie on the other hand looked around her quiet, spotless home each day and wondered how many times you could mop clean floors, or vacuum carpets in spare rooms that were rarely ever walked on.
Maggie sighed, took a sip of her drink, slipped on her sunglasses and picked up her book. She had at least four hours to kill until Gordon came home and then what? She would ask him how his day had been. He would moan about inefficiency, poor communication or dodgy technology. He’ll ask her about her day. Well, that would take all of two minutes. He was hardly going to be interested in how she’d bleached the loo or run a duster over the living room was he! The two of them would eat in silence except to ask one another to pass the salt, and then they would watch some mindless television for the rest of the evening.
Life had returned to the same old, same old it had been before she’d jumped on a bus at Land’s End!
Supper that evening was a chicken salad. Maggie had remembered to not put a dressing on it. Gordon was still keeping to his healthy eating regime. She’d looked longingly at the jar of mayonnaise in the fridge but didn’t put it on the table. She’d said that she would support Gordon and not eat anything remotely calorific in front of him. What she ate when he was at work was a different matter. She had hidden her stash of crisps and chocolate under the spare bed and bags of Percy Pigs were behind the rarely used electric steamer at the back of a kitchen cabinet. A low fat yogurt would follow the salad. Oh how she longed for a bowl of salted caramel ice cream!
Once the yogurt pots had been scraped clean, Maggie got up to put the kettle on. Gordon reached up and caught her wrist. “Sit down Mags, I’ve got something to tell you.”
Maggie’s heart missed a beat and her stomach flipped.
Gordon must have seen the look of alarm on her face.
“You’ll like what I’ve got to tell you. Well, I hope that you will.” Relief spread across Maggie’s face and she sat down again. She wondered if this was how it was going to be from now on. Wondering if news was something she really didn’t want to hear. As the saying goes, no news is good news!
“Do you remember the Christmas present that you bought me, the Italian cooking lessons? What with everything that has gone on over the past few months, I’ve forgotten all about it. Then last week I found the vouchers for the lessons under a pile of paperwork, so…and you’ll be impressed by my spontaneity here, and as you well know, that isn’t something that I’m known for…I phoned up the cookery school and discovered that they had a cancellation for this weekend. So, guess what we are doing on Saturday?”
“Making pasta by any chance” asked Maggie.
“And lots more besides. So, il mio amore, you will need to be ready to leave here by 8.30 sharp and apparently according to their information sheet you mustn’t wear shoes with heels and long hair has to be tied back.”
“I think that I can manage both of those. I’ll even remove my non-existent nail polish!” Maggie laughed.
Gordon smiled at his wife. He hated seeing her look so glum. Since her elderly employer had died she had moped about the house. He’d got used to the re-invigorated version of his wife. He wanted the new Maggie back. Maybe this would do the trick.
Perhaps this wasn’t the time to tell her that he had appointments to have a scan and to see his specialist.
The cookery school was in a converted barn in the same grounds as a luxury hotel. The old building reminded Maggie of Home Farm House which for a brief moment made her feel a little sad. They walked up a path boarded with lavender not yet in flower to an oak door that was wide open, beyond was a double height hall where Maggie and Gordon could see people milling around. Some chatting in small groups whilst others stood on their own looking slightly awkward.
They were greeted by an enthusiastic young woman wearing a black apron adorned with a logo of a golden crest and the name of the cookery school.
“Hi, you must be Mr and Mrs Thornden.” she said in an accent that sounded faintly Australian whilst looking at a list. “I know that because you are last on my list of names to be ticked. Welcome to our beginner’s Cucina Italiana course. You are going to have such a fun day. Valentina is the most brilliant tutor and you’re going to learn heaps. Before we take you into the theatre where you will be introduced to Valentina, your tutor for today, do please help yourself to cornetti and coffee. The cornetti were baked in-house and are positively to die for!”
Neither Maggie nor Gordon had a clue what cornetti was. Somehow though they doubted that it had any connection to a well- known brand of ice cream! Discovering that they were in fact the Italian version of croissants, they decided against eating one and poured themselves a coffee from the hot drinks flask and stood sipping it whilst observing their fellow course participants. There were a few other middle aged couples like themselves, a group of older women with sunglasses sitting atop perfectly styled and highlighted hair and holding onto designer handbags. In a corner away from the rest of them stood a young man in his twenties who had his head in a book. The two remaining people were a young couple. The woman stood looking at her mobile phone and wore platform sandals and a very short linen shift dress, whilst the man with her wore cargo shorts, a pink polo shirt and trainers with no socks. He too had sunglasses perched on the top of his head and was speaking to the woman in a very loud and slightly agitated voice.
The young woman who had greeted them at the door, called out to get everyone’s attention. The woman in the platform shoes continued to look at her phone. How rude thought Maggie.
“Good morning everyone, or should that be buongiorno!” The Australian girl said in a not very Italian accent. “Welcome to the Cotswold School of Culinary Arts and to today’s Italian cookery for beginner’s workshop. My name is Kimberly and I organise the courses here. Before I take you through I just need to tell you where the loos are and what to do in the event of a fire. We want you to have a fantastic time, but we need to keep you safe and remind you to take care using sharp equipment and being careful when near a heat source. Please don’t run in the kitchens and use the sink labelled for handwashing. Sorry if that all sounds a bit condescending but the last thing we want is for you to have an accident.”
The man in the pink shirt whispered very loudly to the man next to him so that everyone could hear. “God, it’s like being back at school”
Kimberly either didn’t hear or chose to ignore the man and carried on with her welcome speech.
“You’ll find an apron on the stool. They are for you to keep so don’t forget to take it home. You’ll also find a folder filled with lots of useful information including the recipes for the dishes that you are going to make today, details of the gorgeous hotel we have here and the sister hotel we have in Puglia. Just to let you know that if you book a stay at our hotels you are entitled to a 10% discount if you book within a week of attending one of our cookery courses!”
The man in the pink shirt piped up “When you say Puglia, where in Puglia do you mean, because darling, it covers a bloody big area?”
The smile on Kimberly’s face didn’t falter. “Good question” she glanced at her clipboard “its Hugo isn’t it? Our fabulous hotel is close to the trulli town of Alberobello. Does that answer your question?”
Gordon whispered to Maggie “Bet he hasn’t got the faintest idea what trulli are.”
Maggie made a mental note to look up what they were. Maybe it was a type of pasta.
“Right ladies and gentleman, follow me and I’ll take you into our state of the art cookery demonstration theatre where Valentina is waiting to demonstrate making the first dish of today. I hope that you all have a wonderful time and I will see you at the end of the day.”
With Kimberly leading the way, the group entered a darkened room with high stools arranged in a horseshoe shape in front of a raised long counter with a hob at one end and an angled mirror overhead. Behind the counter were ovens, sinks and huge photographic images of different foods on the wall. The demonstration area was dimly lit and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played quietly from speakers. Everyone found a stool, put on an apron and sat themselves down. The girl with Hugo looked at her phone, scowled, and put it in her oversized bag. Everyone waited in anticipation.
Maggie whispered to Gordon “It’s not just demonstrations is it, because there seems to be nowhere here for us to actually cook!”
Suddenly the demonstration area was flooded with light and the music stopped. A woman bounced onto the stage blowing hugely exaggerated kisses. She reminded Maggie of a middle aged comedienne she once saw at the theatre in Cheltenham. Very loud and all arms!
“Buongiorno, buongiorno a tutti. Come state tutti voi? Qualcuno parla italiano?”
Most of the participants looked puzzled. A few shrugged shoulders.
“Si, io parlo italiano” No guessing who this came from.
“Smart arse” whispered Gordon, none too quietly into Maggie’s ear. “Should have known!”
It was a bit of a shock when the woman on the stage then spoke in a broad brummie accent.
“Well duck, I’m sure that it’ll come very handy in Italy but not today. You’ve just heard pretty much all the Italian that I know apart from Salute for cheers and Aperol Spritz per favour!”
Hugo looked a little peeved as everyone chuckled.
“Right, welcome everyone to today’s cookery course. As you can gather I sound more Dudley than Italian and that’s because I grew up in that neck of the woods but I have an Italian father who owned an Italian restaurant and tons of relatives who live near Bologna and who I still visit whenever I get the chance. I grew up watching my nonna and my father cook and as soon as I left school I went to work in my dad’s restaurant.”
“Would I know his restaurant? My business means that I get to eat quite a lot of business lunches” interrupted Hugo
“I wouldn’t have thought so unless you were in the Dudley area around twenty years ago. The restaurant closed in 2000 when my dad died. Right where was I? To cut a long story short, I decided to teach Italian cooking from my kitchen, write a few books and do the odd session here now and again. So, that’s a bit about me, now let’s get cooking. Any questions… she said looking straight at Hugo… not related to the dish I’m cooking, please ask me later. We need to crack on!”
As if on cue a young man appeared from behind the wall of ovens and food photos carrying a large trayladen with ingredients.
“Let me introduce you to my trusty assistant Leo. OK a tutti, we will start off by making focaccia”
Everyone watched as Valentina demonstrated how to make the dishes that they would be then making themselves after the coffee break. The young man on his own sat and wrote copious notes. Hugo continued to interrupt and his girlfriend, or was it his wife, sat looking bored with the whole thing and periodically got out her phone, glanced at it and then put it away again.
Following the coffee break that was served in the same area as when they arrived. Kimberly showed them into a large room with floor to ceiling windows filling one entire wall. Stainless steel workstations took up most of the space with ingredients laid out on each surface. There was space for four people at each station and they were to work in teams of two, except for the note taking young man who ended up on the table with the four highlighted friends.
It didn’t surprise Gordon for a minute that he and Maggie would end up with Hugo and his girlfriend, wife or whatever she was. He often said that nothing ever went his way. If traffic lights turned red, it was because it was him. Same with queues. The queue he was in would always end up being the slowest.
Hugo introduced himself to Gordon and Maggie and asked what their names were. His companion said nothing and sat on her stool picking at her nails.
“So, this should be a doddle. I mean who has never made focaccia or pasta? And do we really need to be told that vongole are clams. I shouldn’t be on this beginner’s course but my PA cocked up the booking. Didn’t she sweetie?” He said this pointing sideways at the woman next to him, who rolled her eyes to heaven.
The morning was spent making the focaccia, fresh pasta and tiramisu. Gordon followed the instructions by the letter and ended up taking charge. Maggie let him get on with it. This was after all his Christmas present. It was fun however doing something new together even if Gordon got in a bit of a panic over the timing of cooking his wild mushroom ravioli. The two of them worked in harmony unlike Hugo and his companion. It was still unclear what their relationship was. Whatever it was, it was decidedly frosty!
Valentina and Leo wandered from workstation to workstation, checking up on how everyone was doing and helping out where needed. The room was filled with people chattering and the clinking of utensils. Every now and again Valentina would tell everyone to stop and gather round a workstation whilst she demonstrated how to do something. The lone young man took his phone out of his apron pocket and filmed his tutor kneading the dough for the bread.
“Eh Tesoro, do you want me to pose so that you can use it on Instagram?” teased Valentina winking and striking a pose that was slightly suggestive. The poor young chap’s face went scarlet and he put away his phone.
“So you two, have you ever been to Italy?” asked Hugo, but without waiting for an answer he continued by telling them of his numerous trips to Italy, boasting about five star hotels, luxury boat trips from Positano, gourmet meals in Venice, the best seats at La Scala in Milan and shopping on the Via dei Condotti in Rome.
Gordon tried hard not to yawn. “Nothing but the best eh?” Not really our thing is it Maggie. We prefer to stay by the pool at our castello in the Tuscan hills with views over Florence.” He gently kicked Maggie’s foot to stop her from blurting out anything.
Play along with me Maggie.
“Big castle is it then?” asked Hugo
“I suppose it’s not the biggest castle going. Just the ten bedrooms but it does have history dating back to the time of the Borgias.”
Gordon kicked Maggie again who was trying very hard to keep a straight face.
“Rent it out do you? I have clients who might be interested. I have my card here somewhere.” Said Hugo reaching for his back pocket where presumably was his wallet.
“Good grief no. Have riff raff traipsing about prodding at the rare Raphael and Caravaggio masterpieces? I don’t think so! By the way, I think your pasta dough needs a touch more water. It looks a tadge dry!”
Hugo looked down at his crumbling pasta dough “Bollocks!” he exclaimed, poured on more water and ended up with a soggy mess. “Don’t just sit there you dozy cow, go and get Valentina NOW!” he ordered his bored friend who hadn’t actually lifted a finger since they started cooking and had been looking at her phone which now appeared to have a WIFI connection.
The last dish for everyone to complete was the spaghetti alle vongole. Fortunately Valentina had announced that making their own spaghetti was beyond their capabilities and had provided them with the dried variety. When all the dishes were completed they were asked to carry them outside to the long communal table that was beautifully laid ready for lunch. Maggie looked guiltily at the washing up stacked at the end of their workshop. They had been told that it would be taken care of but Maggie didn’t feel it was right to leave poor Leo scrubbing away whilst they all tucked into the food that they’d prepared.
Fortunately for Maggie and Gordon, Hugo and his friend sat with the group of highlighted friends who were pouring themselves glasses of prosecco and nibbling on olives from the small terracotta bowls dotted about the table. They found themselves sat opposite Valentina and the shy young man who looked very uncomfortable. Maggie had to admire him though for coming on his own. It took a lot of courage to do that especially if you are shy. The table was full with the bowls of pasta and baskets of the focaccia alongside plates of tomato and onion salad topped with torn basil.
Valentina clinked her glass with a knife to get everyone’s attention.
“Signore e signori, please tuck into this feast that you have prepared before it gets cold. It all looks bellisimo. Help yourself to vino. Buon appetito!”
“Buon appetito”responded everyone raising a glass to each other before helping themselves to the delicious food in front of them.
“Tell me Valentina” asked Gordon “Do you really not speak Italian?”
She laughed “I’m half Italian. I have family in Italy who speak hardly a word of English so of course I can speak Italian but I like to try and be a bit entertaining especially when people are shocked to hear me speak in a broad brummie accent.”
Maggie smiled at the shy young man who was mopping up the sauce from his bowl of spaghetti vongole with the focaccia. He smiled awkwardly back.
“I have been very impressed with how you’ve been taking notes. You’re a better student than most of us who have been winging it at times. Are you interested in Italian cooking?”
His face flushed pink with embarrassment “I’m going to the summer school in Pisa to learn Italian and will be staying with a family there. I thought that it would be a good idea to know how to cook something Italian for them.”
How exciting, Maggie thought wistfully, to be able to have such wonderful opportunities when you are young and not tied to a mortgage or a young family. How brave was this shy young man to go and live with complete strangers in another country.
“Wow! I do envy you. Why do you want to learn Italian?”
“I’m planning on going to Pisa University to do a Masters in Fine Art. One of the conditions to do the course is that I need to be able to be proficient in Italian. I’ve been studying it at university on top of my degree. I’m fine with reading and writing but I’m not very fluent when it comes to talking. So I figured that living in the country was the best way to improve.”
“Oh gosh, you are a braver person than me. How wonderful to study abroad. Aren’t you nervous?”
He smiled, but this time the awkwardness had gone and for the first time he appeared at ease with himself.
“I’m terrified! But if I don’t do what I really want to do I will be kicking myself for the rest of my life. I have this amazing opportunity and I’d be mad to turn it down just because I’ll be out of my comfort zone. You’ve got to do what you really want to do haven’t you. I know it’s a bit of a cliché but you only live once!”
“You are so right. I really hope that you have the time of your life.”
Maggie sat clutching their goodie bags on the journey home. Inside were the aprons, the information pack, bags of fresh pasta and bottles of olive oil that apparently came from the olives that grew at the hotel in Puglia.
“Well that was fun wasn’t it” said Gordon as they drove along the A46 towards home. “Thanks Maggie, it was a brilliant present, and the best thing was that we got to do something together.” He took his hand off the steering wheel and squeezed her hand. Then in a moment of madness he took his eye off the busy road and swiftly kissed her cheek!”
Maggie laughed as she scolded her husband for his reckless action “Gordon Thornden, what are you playing at. You’ll have us both killed! It was brilliant. Do you know what the best bit was?”
“Discovering that I make a mean focaccia?”
“Nope, although it was pretty good. No, the best was when you put that twerp Hugo in his place. I can’t believe he really thought that we had a castle in Tuscany.”
Gordon laughed “And that we owned priceless Raphael paintings!”
The two of them sat in silence for a moment until Maggie prodded Gordon.
“What on earth are trulli?”
“Haven’t the foggiest!” replied Gordon before pulling into a service station as he was in need of a pee!
Two weeks later Gordon sat in the out-patients waiting area at the hospital. He leafed through an ancient copy of Angling Times magazine to pass time whilst he was waiting to be called. He’s had a scan and blood tests previously and was now here to get the results. It was warm and he loosened his tie with his hand that was trembling slightly. He hadn’t told Maggie about the tests or the appointment with Dr Taylor. She would worry and fret and he couldn’t see the point in her getting stressed needlessly. There was no need to worry unless there was something to worry about, was what his mother used to say.
His name was called and he followed the nurse into the consulting room.
Dr Taylor was sitting at a desk with the computer screen showing a page of words and figures. Claire Fischer sat next to him.
Dr Taylor stood up and shook Gordon’s hand.
“ Gordon, sit yourself down and let’s discuss the results of your tests.”