24 April, 2009

of friends and family

Well, it's a sadly typical London day: gray, cold rain, windy and disconsolate. Everyone back to frowning after a week of solid sun. The British have an endless capacity to discuss the climactic conditions of the day, and the sharp contrast between yesterday's glorious blue skies and today's downpour gave the usual observations an extra layer of poignancy. "What a chill wind,' said the ladies in my haircut shop this morning. "And after all that SUN!" Then followed the stiff upper lip brigade, saying that actually this was proper weather for April, and they certainly did NOT want to use up whatever summer weather might be coming to us in June, in April. As if it works that way.

In point of actual fact, it's undeniably more cheerful to be sunned upon than to be made slightly wet over and over throughout the day. I spent the better part of the morning becoming A More Beautiful Me, with the longest session under hairdryer and fancy brush ministrations you can imagine. I didn't have the heart to tell my beauty lady that it was all so much pointless devotion. Within ten minutes of leaving the shop, I was all curly again, so annoying.

Much better to think about the weekend. Friday was the famed Lost Property luncheon at which I was to be officially put in charge for the first time. I got up bright and early in the morning to search through my closet for something that would cleverly combine a mild sort of authority with springlike good cheer, as if such a garment would have appeared there without my knowing it. Not to mention that I don't really DO springlike and cheery, as far as clothing goes. Much happier in a black turtleneck, 365 days of the year. But I was finally suitably if not inspiringly attired, and sitting at my computer to compose my remarks on taking the reins of London's coolest school volunteer group (not that there are official rankings for these things... actually probably there are). I typed the words, "Thank you, Mary, for your years of service to Lost Property and to the school," and as they stared at me from the screen I thought "Holy s**t, I don't have a gift for her!" I shrieked this to John, across the partner desk from me, and he said, understandingly, "You're screwed." Precisely.

So I did what I always do when faced with my incompetence and panic. I called Annie. "Right, I'm coming straight over and we're putting together a parcel of joke presents from Lost Property." I raced out to the local florist and found a gorgeous little plant in a gorgeous little bag, and when I got back Annie was there with a sheaf of abandoned homework (a staple item in Lost Property), a broken mobile phone and glory of glories, a pair (clean) of her son Fred's Y-fronts. I myself gathered up one lone sock (not hard to do in Avery's room of unparalleled mess), an empty sunglasses case, and my crowning contribution, Avery's plastic lacrosse mouthguard. We took pity on Mary and left the mouthguard in its case, although I may say that the grossest item ever appeared in LP last week: a mouthguard with a post-it attached to it saying laconically, "Found in W6." "Oh, my God," Annie said. "That's just the postcode. That means someone picked this thing up from a random pavement somewhere in this postcode, and gave it to US." Eeww.

So we wrapped everything in festive paper, threw a bottle of bubbly in the bag with the plant, and were on our way in Annie's tiny little vintage orange Mini. The luncheon went off without a hitch at Mary's gorgeous house, food all piled up in the incomparable conservatory, overhung with real, fruit-bearing grape vines. There was Annie's gorgeous chicken with watercress, orange segments and pumpkin seeds in soy, and my favorite buffet chicken dish, whose ingredients sound disgusting but it is actually a winner with any group, or even just a family dinner. For a large buffet, you can count on a breast fillet per two people. Trust me, it's delicious. And inexpensive, and simple, and you can travel with it uncooked and slip it into your friend's hot Aga, should she have one.

Lillian Hellman's Baked Chicken
(serves 12)

6 chicken breast fillets
1 cup Hellman's mayonnaise (now, you get the name of the dish, which we serve with Dashiell Hammett spinach)
1 cup grated pecorino or parmesan cheese
juice of 1 lemon
zest of 1 lemon
2 tsps garlic powder or granules (not garlic salt, the cheese is already salty enough)
plenty of fresh ground black pepper
2 cups fresh homemade breadcrumbs (the commercial crumbs are too fine)

Mix all the ingredients but the chicken in a shallow bowl. Place a plate filled with breadcrumbs next to the bowl, and have a large baking dish next to the plate of crumbs.

Smear the chicken breasts liberally with the mayonnaise mixture, then roll in breadcrumbs until thoroughly coated. Lay in the baking dish (they can be quite crowded, don't worry).

Bake in a very hot oven, around 220C, 450F, or the hottest part of your Aga, for 30 minutes or until nice and crisp and golden brown. Remove to a cutting board and cut each fillet into five slices. Arrange on a platter and garnish with some nice watercress that you've pinched from your friend's salad (thank you Annie!).


This went down a treat, every morsel eaten up. And I managed to make my remarks without embarrassing myself, and to present Mary with her gifts, which made everyone laugh. Trust Annie to have such an inspiration: even better than a proper gift of an engraved paperweight or special pen. It turns out that if you have a brilliant friend, being incompetent and forgetful is actually a good thing. Annie's last-minute panic gift will kill something I'd think of in advance, any time. My excellent partner in crime.

All the volunteer rotas were duly filled in, all the ladies gossiped and laughed in the amazing sunshine, and I got away in time to join John at the pub by school, where he was entertaining my dear, darling Aunt Mary Wayne and Uncle Kenny from Kentucky! They are beloved fixtures from my childhood: my aunt with a boisterous, joyful laugh that carries across a pub garden and, along with her tight hug, makes me feel about 12 again: loved and cherished and still a child, not the head of Lost Property with a 12-year-old of my own. And my uncle: looking so like my mother, beautiful youthful skin, a total zest for life, new experiences, always a twinkle in his eye, a bit like a young Santa Claus, in the off season.

We sat and laughed and laughed and laughed. Over what, I don't even remember, but it's what life is always like with those two. How lucky we were, when I was a little girl, to go to their house for Thanksgiving every year (my parents always got lost, always at the same junction getting off the highway, bickering over "is it this one or the next one?" every single year). My aunt can never have enough dogs and cats (although they are catless now, they reported: not for long, I bet), she's a doting and doted-upon grandmother to her five grandchildren, and my uncle is one of the world's authorities on all things Civil War (on the OTHER side, mind you), and also Abraham Lincoln. I don't think I'm making up that there was a musket hanging over their fireplace, when I was little.

It was wonderful, just for a day, to shake off the adult identity that's rightfully mine these days, and become again the petted little "Kristen Bear" I was in their presence for all those years. Sometimes I feel that a curtain went down in sort of 1987, when I moved away from Indiana, never really to return, and there is a melancholy dislocation between that person and the Real Me. I suppose it's the feeling we all have about the past receding ever farther into the distance, but the clarity of leaving, like cutting off a piece of string, seems more acute when I'm with someone from the old days.

Bless their hearts (something my aunt says all the time), they actually wanted to go to the ice rink to see Avery skate. My God, that's family love. So off we went in a taxi, to Avery's delight (her parents being normally too cheap to catch a cab), and they watched with every appearance of caring, which is remarkable. Then it was off in the Tube to our house. I looked at them standing up, straphanging, chatting together as the train swayed on its way to Hammersmith, and wished for a moment that I had never left home, that I could still see them, have them be part of Avery's life. "Aren't they delightful people?" Avery whispered to me, to my intense happiness. They are, truly.

Home for another batch of Lillian Hellman's chicken (easy peasy to make ahead of time and have my brilliant husband put in the oven for me when we were on our way home), plus potatoes dauphinoise and sauteed peppers. They brought out presents from Kentucky: a real Churchill Downs horseshoe, still dirty, and a photograph of the iconic mare and foal from the green, green fields near where they live, for Avery. A Kentucky Derby cookbook for me! And a box of Bourbon Balls for John (he and Uncle Kenny shared a very mature laugh over that). A tour of the house, a quick phone call to my dear cousin Amy, their daughter, and one of my best childhood companions. Then they were off again, to tour London the next day, Amsterdam the next, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, you name it. After ten days they'll go home via Paris, in, I'm sure, a state of complete exhaustion. Thank you for taking the time to spend the day with us, you two. We miss you already.

We had dinner in the garden! "I hope you know all your fellow travellers are having soggy fish and chips somewhere, and you're eating in a real English garden!" I pointed out, and it really is a pleasant place to be. The next night found us out there once again, with the pierrade stone keeping us warm, entertaining Avery's friend Jamie, who spent the time after dinner indulging her new hobby: photography! I think this is my favorite photograph EVER of Avery and me, and she took many more. It just looks the way we are, which is the great achievement of a sensitive photographer, I think. Of course it helps that Jamie loves us, and we her. This just IS Avery, when I look at it. Thanks, Jamie.

Yesterday I did something completely silly, but to my credit, I was not alone. My friend Jo came in from Oxford to go with me to haunt the red carpet at the Baftas! The British Academy of Film and Television Arts, to the uninitiated, sort of the British Emmys, with some film thrown in. Across the river at the Royal Festival Hall, under a flawless blue sky, with the London Marathon runners still straggling to the finish line on the other side. We met up and vied for a good spot (not having bought a ticket, we were the hoi polloi and being shoved all over the place). Finally Jo spotted a tiny little space right next to the photographers' pool (Jamie's future haunt, perhaps?) and we squeezed in. And then the stars appeared. We were there ostensibly to see Richard Armitage, and there he was, tall and handsome, in his tuxedoed glory, but in fact it was great fun to see all the "Spooks" cast, Gregg Wallace, the judge of "Masterchef," the dreaded Alan Sugar of "The Apprentice" and countless sort of daytime television bad-fashion-sense princesses. Great fun. We got great pictures, but honestly I think John will divorce me if I post one of them here. Enough is enough. He already thought Jo and I were out of our tiny little minds even to go. We did look at each other at one point during the long, long wait for the red carpet ceremony to begin, and I said, "We really have crossed some kind of line."

But it was an adventure! And something we don't ever really need to do again. And one of those things you'd feel a complete idiot doing alone, so thank you, Jo, for hanging out with me. Home together for dinner and to watch the awards on the telly, while John dragged Avery away to watch "Top Gear" on their own.

Well, the rain has stopped, too late in the day for the clear sky to be of any use to anyone. I must go produce my salmon dinner, no eating out in the garden tonight, I fear. After all, it IS April, and I should be storing up my weather points for June...

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