‘Do you fancy a coffee?’ I say to the new girl with the big brown eyes when she opens the door of the bed-sit opposite mine. I’ve seen her a couple of times at work and there’s something both intimidating and inviting about her: the way she looks at you and holds your gaze without blinking, the same way some babies do. This morning we said ‘hi’ when we met outside the laundry room on the ground floor of Langham House. I think she could be my friend.
She looks straight at me. ‘I’m pregnant,’ she says. The rims of her eyes are about to overflow with tears.
No-one has ever been so suddenly and bluntly open with me before, and about something so personal too. And it feels like a gift, something precious I've been given. I don’t even remember thinking about what I will say next.
‘Do you need to borrow some money?’
‘Yes,’ she says, ‘and I’ll pay you back at the end of the month, I promise.’
And she does.
After an introduction like that perhaps it’s not surprising that Alison always seemed rather exotic to me: a little dangerous, unpredictable. South Wales and Romford were hardly universes apart, and we were almost the same age, but she seemed to be so much surer of herself than I was, as if she’d already decided to live life according to her own rules regardless of what anyone else was doing or what they said.
She always made up her eyes with the same dark smoky shadow and kohl. She bought a double duvet for her single bed so there was more to wrap around her and it never slipped off. If she woke up with a hangover she’d take a bottle of tonic water spiked with vodka into work to delay the full whack of it until the end of the day. And she changed all of her underwear everyday. Not just her knickers, but her bra too, which at the time struck me as particularly extravagant!
We decided to cook our first meal together on the day she moved across the hall to share my bed-sit: chicken portions baked in Homepride Red Wine Cook-in Sauce with roast potatoes.
‘But how can we make roast potatoes?’ I wanted to know. At home in Wales, roast potatoes came with a roast dinner. If we weren’t roasting a joint of meat or a chicken where would we get the fat to cook the potatoes?
‘With cooking oil,’ she said, ‘in a pan, in the oven,’ as if I had landed from another universe.
|21st Birthday Menu, 3rd June 1979|
We both worked for the Midland Bank Trust Corporation in Jersey. I'd arrived in April 1978, Alison at the beginning of 1979, the year of my 21st birthday. I had a party at the Bistro Borsalino in St. Helier with a menu that included Moules Marinieres, Coquille St. Jacques and grilled lobster, a menu I couldn’t have dreamt of a year earlier, but fourteen months later, on an island with so many good restaurants bursting with French cuisine, it had become pretty standard fare to me.
At the edge of one photograph, taken at the table, there’s a glimpse of Alison’s mother. I’d forgotten her parents were visiting that week and I’d invited them to my party, although they didn’t come back to our bed-sit later that night where the party continued at length in an expectedly drunken fashion.
Why didn’t I see it coming? Perhaps I did and chose to ignore it. After all I was 22 and totally absorbed in my own romantic escapades. We’d already started to spend less time together because of boyfriends, and then she had another abortion and not long after that she split up with the man she'd been seeing for over a year. She was also getting into trouble at the bank because of an 'attitude' and for taking too much time off sick. When she was threatened with dismissal, she resigned and moved out of the subsidised bank accommodation. I remember feeling impatient towards her because everyone else seemed to be in the wrong; she was always the victim. But I still wasn’t prepared for her call one Sunday morning to come and pick her up at A&E because they wouldn’t let her leave unaccompanied. The duty nurse told me she'd arrived the night before saying she'd overdosed on painkillers but when they pumped her stomach there was nothing there. A week later she committed herself to the mental health ward and agreed to a course of electric shock therapy.
Alison and I once cooked a whole meal from Robert Carrier recipes in the weekly magazines I collected at the end of the 1970s – starter, main course and dessert – after which she complained that she’d never sieved so many things in the course of one day. Carrier wasn’t user friendly, or at least not user friendly enough for two girls in a bed-sit preparing everything on a counter-top Baby Belling Cooker with two rings. The Pommes Dauphinoise were one of the easier dishes we cooked, and the one that was appreciated most by the two guys we were cooking for.
Don’t use too deep a dish or they’ll take forever to cook. A big shallow dish that’ll take 3 layers is a good idea. Cook for about 90 minutes in a medium oven until soft and bubbling and golden on top. Cover the top with foil if it gets too brown.
(p.s. the bit missing from the middle of the recipe where the paper tore awkwardly? It’s: until the potatoes are soft but still have a little bite.)
Hungry Writing Prompts
Hungry Writing Prompts
- Write a list of things that feel exotic to you.
- Write about a telephone call that surprises or shocks.
- Write about feeling angry.