10 November, 2009

adventures of a solo nature

We're sitting back, hands folded over stomachs more than satisfied with John's first proper dinner since his return from Ireland. Cream of mushroom soup with homemade chicken stock, grilled salmon with steamed rice, roasted carrots and coriander, and steamed artichokes with the best vinaigrette: mustard, a tiny hint of mayo, chilli oil and lemon juice. We are surfeited.

John's back! I warned Avery that his flight would get in too late for her to stay up to welcome him, so she had just gone to bed when we heard that most unusual of sounds in darkest Hammersmith: an idling taxi! I simply knew it was him. Threw up the window (one of my mother's favorite expressions) and stuck my head out and there he was, shades of his many hundreds of returns from business trips, hauling suitcase and briefcase from the dark innards of the cab, looking up joyously to see me. "I'm HOME!"

Well, just look at these two photographs. The Honorable Desmond Guinness, host of one of the Georgian Society's evenings during John's Irish adventure, at his country pile. First in 1963, the year of John's birth, and the second, this past year, these photos were taken. How the brilliance of genetics shines through, over 45 years! The blue glow of his aristocratic eyes undimmed, the intellectual generosity as intense as ever. What a family, forming the Georgian Society to save all these buildings John loves so dearly. He had a marvellous, unusual, noteworthy time with all his fellow devotees of Georgian architecture. The first of many such adventures, we hope!

We are so glad to be reunited. How were we ever so accustomed to his many absences, more frequent than his times at home? But of course we could get used to it all over again, if he found the right job and was happy doing it. Avery and I survived quite well, if missing the smoothly oiled machine that is two parents on duty! Heaven forbid, we had to take public transport all over the place, as I absolutely refuse to drive our lovely Cinquecento until I have a proper driving license. As many of you know, I have an unfortunate history of a massive and nearly fatal traffic accident almost 20 years ago, and it was but a miracle that I wasn't thrown in jail THAT time. I really can't revisit it. So without John, Avery and I jumped on more buses and tubes than we normally do, and walked in many rainstorms to achieve our goals. Fair enough, we got where we needed to go.

The only true adventure in our time alone was Monday evening, when I had double-booked Avery's skating lesson and my own volunteer time at a school event, at precisely the same time. I racked my brains for a likely mother to whom I could say, "Wouldn't your daughter love to accompany Avery to her skating lesson, on the theory that two little girls alone are safer than one?" My imagination failed.

So I posed it to the girl herself. "Would you rather skip your skating lesson, or get to it yourself, and back home, in a taxi?" She considered this and then decided she was more than equal to the task. "Don't worry, Mommy! I'll be fine. Who would dare to kidnap me? It'd be like Clue." She assumed a dramatic stance with her skate bag. "Mr Cabman, in a black taxi... with a SKATE BLADE."

So I put her, my heart in my mouth, into a taxi, in a driving rainstorm, pitch dark. I stuck my head in the window as the driver let it down. I made severe eye contact with him, gave him the address. "No worries, love," he said cheerfully, so I smiled grimly, handed Avery in, repeated all the instructions about payment, tip, her skating ticket, paying her instructor, where to get the return cab, the address of the school... I was utterly exhausted as I slammed the door to, and walked to school, making an emergency phone call to my friend Annie as I went. "I think I'm having a panic attack..." Annie was, as one expects from such an experienced mother, calm. "It had to happen, she'll be home safe and sound, she can call me if she needs me." Right. All true.

I staggered into the school, wet and upset. There is a great British statement from WWII, "Keep Calm and Carry On." Of course. There is also, now in the 21st century, a follow-on slogan appearing on coffee mugs and computer mouse pads. "Now Panic and Freak Out." I decided on a sort of midway ground, and hung up my coat, greeted the catering manager, the High Mistress, the administration liaison, and promptly confided in everyone. "She's on her first taxi ride alone..." Loads of hand-holding and confidences in turn. Everyone understands.

Well, needless to say, two hours later, having pushed wine and snacks and wisdom on the new parents who were there for their parent-teacher conferences, I looked up to see Avery walking in, safe and sound. No Panic and Freak Out needed! She dropped her skate bag, her homework bag. "She's here!" several mothers shouted in muted tones. "As you see," Avery inclined her head, quietly confident, as befits the one in our relationship who has no clear memories of childbirth and so can be quite cavalier.

Well done. Well done on your independence, Avery! And do you know what the child said? "Well done, you, Mommy, I think it was harder for you." Sigh.

The only thing a mother can do on such an occasion is fill her oven at 5 p.m with the following, and know she'll walk into a fragrant home three hours later, with dinner on the table in a thrice.

Upside-Down Slow-Roast Chicken
(serves 4 with soup leftovers)

1 large chicken, spatchcocked
3 tbsps butter
1 large white onion, quartered
5 cloves garlic, peeled
3 tbsps olive oil
sea salt and pepper

In a large baking dish lined with foil, place the chicken, rubbed all over with the butter, breast DOWN. Trust me, the breast will not dry out, even if the finished product is less than elegant-looking. Spatchcocking means, of course, simply removing the backbone and flattening the chicken.

Scatter the onion and garlic all round, then sprinkle everything with olive oil and salt and pepper.

Place in a slow oven, 120C, 240F. You should also place in the same oven a foil-wrapped package of small whole beets, or parsnips, or butternut squash. Anything of a root vegetable nature will take to this method of cooking.

Come home three hours later to... dinner. I promise.


You will enter the house, your heart (my heart) still beating slightly too fast from whatever trauma has kept you from home during those lovely hours of 5-8. Your head will lift, your nose sniff like a cat's, your child will say something like, "Aren't you clever to have dinner cooking while we were out!" You will cut some French bread and put out some butter. The chicken will fall apart when you try to turn it over, but be sure to snag some of the crispy, salty skin from the carcass before you begin to take the chicken apart. Eat that skin WITHOUT APOLOGY, as my best writer friend Laurie Colwin would say. You did all the work: you deserve it.

Well, strictly speaking, no one did much work this time. But just for general principles, you eat that skin.

Once you've plucked enough chicken from the bones to serve you as dinner, drizzle it all with the cooking juices and tuck in. On the side you'll have whatever lovely roasted vegetables you stuck in the oven. And when you're finished, throw everything leftover into a large stockpot, cover it all with water, and simmer it for soup.

Well, dear readers, the rain pounds comfortingly outside my London bedroom window. I am not wet. This afternoon I was wet, taking Avery and her friend over the Hammersmith Bridge to their "Drake" rehearsals. Then I was wet again, food shopping in the High Street, and wet again as I walked home from the bus stop. But now? I am dry and cozy, my family is home safely from parts distant and parts just new and scary. I can relax.


Foxi Rosie said...

What a deliciously handsome man... and well done Avery and well done John and most of all... well done Kristen for dropping the reins and letting her run...

Kristen In London said...

I know it, Rosie, a difficult milestone, but one we knew was coming, one you've leapt over yourself and with a gorgeous grownup daughter to tell the tale... thank you.

And ISN'T Mr Guinness JUST the most charming man! Whatever age!

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

You are a BRAVE mama. After reading that story, I think I need the comfort of a roast chicken dinner. I'm glad your tale had a happy ending :-)

Kristen In London said...

Thanks, Plane Ride; I feel so embarrassed at how seriously I took it all, when so many of her friends are much more independent, but it's happening slowly in our house...

Bee said...

I agree: the cook should always have a bit of chicken skin . . .

But the main thing I have to say is that I am so glad that you posted those divine pictures of Desmond Guinness! Coincidentally, I've just finished a biography of his mother, Diana Mosley, which led me to read another biography of the Mitford sisters and a more recent book of the sisters' collected letters.

Kristen In London said...

I have the most outrageous crush on Mr Guinness, from afar, both old and young. What distinction, what a life. On my bedside table I have the "Ladies of Alderley," a gift from my husband last Christmas, by Nancy Mitford... I loved the letter collection. Sighs...

Bee said...

I've just been reading about Decca (Jessica Mitford), and apparently, Desmond was the only one of Diana's boys that she liked.

I'm going to visit Swinbrook soon. I've been to Burford loads of times, and never thought to go there!

Kristen In London said...

OK, Bee, do you know who else I love reading? Diana Cooper. Her memoirs are something FABULOUS to contemplate. And her son, John Norwich, has written some memorable... memoirs! I love these somewhat obscure (to non-English people) figures of culture here...