It was two years since they had ended. She’d had a fling with a man at the gym and although Michael had never known, it had changed things between them. She’d allowed herself to grow distant; puzzled, he’d drawn away in response, and they’d parted at the turning of the year. Michael had been polite and civilised about it, as she would have expected. A neat row of boxes. Money left for bills. A quiet shedding of the five years they’d spent as a couple with no recriminations or noise.
The affair had petered out not long after Michael had gone, and two years on, she was lonely. When she heard through friends that Michael was still single, she began to wonder whether she could win him back. They had so much in common, after all. Similar tastes in books and films, a love for travel. And, of course, fine food.
Food. It had been their pornography. She had been the actor, he the audience, and as she’d served steaming, aromatic rice into bowls, or spooned a wine jus over just-cooked partridge, or poured a sweet coulis around a mound of home-churned vanilla ice, or offered up any of the thousand dishes she’d created for him over the years, he had panted with all the anticipation of climax and release. She’d laid out their meals slowly, voluptuously, drawing out the pleasure until the saliva gleamed on his lips.
They’d realised this tendency, this symbiotic epicureanism, after the first time she’d cooked for him. That evening, Italian-themed, so steeped in meaning: the pepper grinder, one willing part twisting against the other until it scattered its spicy seed over their cannelloni al forno; the shy blush of chilled rosato; the trace of blood on Michael’s lips as he devoured rare fillet steak, Gorgonzola-sauced; a frothy spume of zabaglione melting sweet on their tongues. Afterwards, they’d sipped expresso and enjoyed the meal for a second time, with words, marinading each dish into their memories.
The dinner had been far more pleasurable than the limp sex afterwards, and that had become the flawed pattern of their years together. She wondered now if the inequity of it all had made her vulnerable to finding gratification elsewhere; whether, subliminally, she’d yearned to receive pleasure as well as give it every time she whisked and whipped, creamed and basted, and spread her wares before him.
It was easy to make contact and easy to regrow their acquaintance.
It was easy to make contact and easy to regrow their acquaintance. A preliminary nibble at the edges of his social media profiles. A comment left: light, fleeting, a taster to test his response. A private message – how was he? Had he been to the new Thai? A discussion, an exchange of recommendations. A phone call that lasted into the night. And finally, an invitation. Come for supper, nothing formal, old times’ sake; she had been on a course run by a Michelin chef … The bait dangled, spinning like caramel or the fat rotation of a roast. He bit. He would be delighted. He would bring the wine. The trap was set, honeyed and sticky.
She drew up her plans. Memory, she knew, was fragmentary, a mental smorgasbord of colour, sensation, music, scent – and taste: elements strong enough to flip someone back in time with nothing more than a half-forgotten tune, a hint of perfume, a glance of flavour across the papillae of the tongue. She would create a menu of nostalgia: a regression through their five years, picking courses to remind him of this holiday, that perfect meal, right back to their first Italian-themed dinner. And so, for dessert, she would concoct zabaglione at the table on her little portable hob, whipping up his anticipation as the mixture thickened, teasing him with its delicate unpredictability. And perhaps, as the warm liquor of the dessert slid down his throat, he would remember what they’d had, and come back.
‘What about the sex?’ her friend had asked, as she’d confided her idea over a latte and biscotti. ‘That never worked, as I remember.’
There were ways around that, she’d replied. Men were available, if one knew where to look. That had been her mistake, last time round: to think she had no option but a table d’hȏte, a set menu of only Michael, whereas if she were discrete, she could supplement the arrangement with an almost infinite number of dishes chosen à la carte.
The dinner date was set for mid-January.
The dinner date was set for mid-January. He’d eaten out on Christmas Day, he told her in a phone call, a restaurant so select he’d had to book months ahead to get a table. It had been a disappointment: a fashionable roll call of foam and velouté, confit and terrine, truffled eggs and chutneys and ironic combinations. All the buzz words but no real sting, he’d said. Nothing that had made him sit erect in his chair and exclaim ‘ah!’ as he had when she’d cooked for him. Everything a little too clever, too arty, a feast for the eyes with no heft for the stomach. Nothing that hit him in the viscera he’d said; that had brought him to anything near the spasm of desire that her arts and wiles had excited. She’d smiled at that, and described a couple of her new, experimental dishes. He would be salivating before she opened her door.
Their meeting was awkward, at first. A kiss on each cheek where she’d expected only one, so that their faces clashed as she moved away. The night outside was cold with a mid-winter smoky damp that had clung to his hair, his coat, and made his nose run even after she’d taken his outer clothes and put them to dry. The chill had blanched his cheeks; he looked older, greyer, the lines to his mouth more defined. She felt a flurry of doubt – but the wine carrier he gave to her held sophisticated treasures: fine Chablis, a Veuve Clicquot Brut, subtle, expensive Barolo and a Black Muscat, slight in its half-bottle. This was why, she thought. Not for his body, with its timid muscles and soft underbelly, not even for his mind, for all his intellectual interest. It was for the fusion of tastes that they shared, the unabashed, brazen hedonism that had seen them once lick a pudding plate together, outside in, their tongues meeting at the centre, chocolate crumbed and slick with cream.
Gin broke the ice; the first course followed: small dishes, tapas-style, to remind him of Seville, their last holiday: Iberico ham, espinacas con garbanozos, snails. She began the reminiscing: did he remember the little café near the cathedral, the place with white tablecloths where they’d eavesdropped on the restrained British row between the couple beside them? Biting volleys of pent-up bile belied by the clipped, measured voices? He did? And did he remember how he’d clasped her hand and looked at her in gratitude that they, at least, were nothing like this couple, even though they both knew their relationship was stalling?
‘How did we lose ourselves,’ she asked, ‘when we had such respect for each other?’
He shook his head. He didn’t know, now. Couldn’t see why they’d started to draw apart. But these small bites of remembered sunshine: the dry saltiness of the jamón, the Moorish nod of the espinacas, the snail shells steaming in their wine and garlic broth – these, he said, made him wonder at their foolishness at letting the thing between them slide away, when they’d had such days of sun and flavour.
‘Such sun, such flavour, you’re so very right,’ she said, and refilled his glass with champagne.
For the fish course, she made bouillabaisse and served it up in a white porcelain tureen with raised lions’ heads at the sides and a sinuously curved lid. He sat back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head. The slight grey tinge to his skin she’d noticed when he’d entered was giving way to a ruddier flush. He looked a little younger; her pulse quickened. She raised the lid of the tureen and allowed the flavoured steam to rise for a few seconds before lowering the ladle into the depths of the rich textured soup. Fennel, saffron, a hint of orange, and overlaying it all, the anticipation of fleshy prawns, flaking cod, pliant yielding mussels.
He inhaled and said, ‘That restaurant in Le Lavandou, by the beach, what was it called?’
‘Les Pȇcheurs de Perles, like the opera – and you sang a few bars to me until that waiter gave you a look – ’
‘And you started to laugh – ’
‘And we were so full after the bouillabaisse that we could barely manage the entrée.’
‘I remember,’ he said, ‘we’d eaten too much of the bread – we couldn’t bear the thought of wasting a drop of that soup.’
‘We were so happy that night,’ she said, and ladled the fragrant mix into bowls, ‘but we threw away what we had. Why were we so careless?’
He gazed at her. His eyes shone. ‘It’s hard to remember, now. It’s not as if there was ever anyone else – I wouldn’t be here now if there had been. I could never have forgiven that.’
She turned away and reached for the ice bucket. ‘Shall we open the Chablis?’
He ate with little grunts of appreciation, like a piglet truffling amongst fallen leaves.
He ate with little grunts of appreciation, like a piglet truffling amongst fallen leaves. She’d forgotten how carnal he could be when he feasted, how each swallow was like a pulse of pleasure. How each lick of a spoon, each suck and nibble, was smeared with lust. She’d liked it when they’d first met, had viewed it as a compliment when she’d cooked for him, but she’d come to see something almost masterbatory in his gratification, as if he were sealed in a bubble of taste and smell and flavour that excluded her, made her little more than a purveyor of erotica. She frowned. There had been a coda to that meal at Les Pȇcheurs. The food and wine had whetted her appetite for other pleasures, other stimuli, and when they’d got back to the hotel, she’d tried – and once again, had been disappointed.
But then, she thought, they had so much else they could share. They were growing older – that other side of their relationship – any relationship – would fade naturally with the years, but this? This would stay, as long as she could cook, and he had the ability to enjoy the feast – and there could always be side dishes, if she felt the need.
The entrée brought them back to England, to their first New Year together in a country house hotel near Oxford. She’d made jugged hare, bold gamey meat slow cooked with robust claret, juniper, bay, the hare’s drained blood added in at the last minute to enrich the sauce. Michael’s eating had slowed as his hunger ebbed, and she watched him savour each mouthful, chewing until the juice released from the meat fibres and filled his mouth, showing at the corners of his lips until he licked every last drop of it away.
She replenished the wine in the broad bottomed glasses, ruby, smooth, dark. He was becoming tipsy, she could see that, and gave an inward smile; felt a blossoming of excitement at the success of her venture. He undid his trouser button, sat back, expansive, taking a break. She poured more wine, he drank, the memories flowed from him: that hotel, golden stone gleaming against the snow; the window seat where they’d twined together and read the papers. She was drinking freely too, her heart rate accelerating, the words tumbling from her to acknowledge his. Yes! Yes, that bed! And, oh! The antique bath tub, the caress of white towels! The wine warmed as she cradled the glass in her hands. She drank deep, finished the bottle, fetched another she’d left warming by the stove.
He raised an eyebrow as she brought in the table hob, said, ‘Crȇpes Suzettes?’
She shook her head. ‘Our trip down the years wouldn’t be right without going back to the start. The zabaglione, the first time I cooked for you. Do you remember?’
His body shuddered; she watched his cheeks blaze, watched beads of sweat bloom above his lip, and her gaze flicked involuntarily to the crotch of his trousers. He’d pushed his chair back after he’d finished the jugged hare, was sitting in a half-sprawl, legs apart, arms lying limp at his sides.
‘Of course I remember,’ he said. ‘I watched your face as you ran your tongue over that Savoiardi biscuit and knew I’d fallen in love. Could we go back, do you think? Start again? Could we?’
She said nothing as she set up the hob, but her mouth twitched in satisfaction. She would make space in the wardrobe after she’d cleaned up tomorrow; she’d shift some of her toiletries, set up the bedroom the way he liked it. She brought out the Muscat; exhilaration took hold of her, she downed one glass, then another. These glasses were too small, she thought, to contain the joy of this wine. Dessert wine had always been her favourite, a prelude to the sweet stickiness of bed.
She whisked together yolks and sugar, added Marsala. She held his gaze, making her every movement slow, drawing out the pleasure. He groaned. She smiled. The mixture thickened, silkily creamy, decadent with alcohol, made, she told him, with lascivious delight.
The Muscat was making her light-headed, although her fingers were still deft on the whisk. Memories muddled, curdled, split, and the words escaped her before she could filter them: ‘Do you remember that time I made zabaglione by the bed and we ate it naked, shared the spoon. The year the river flooded, four years ago?’
He hauled his body upright in the chair. He had paled beneath the flush on his cheeks; his face had become a palette of livid red and white, lips suddenly bloodless, eyes shot with pink.
She stared at him. ‘What? What did I say?’
‘I was away when the river flooded, couldn’t get home.’
She closed her eyes, but images remained: Michael’s stricken face; her former lover’s open mouth glistening with zabaglione.
‘Who was it? That man you were always mentioning? The one at the gym?’
The words caught in her throat, denials died hopelessly before they could be born.
He said, ‘I had my suspicions at the time, but you were so – dedicated – when you cooked for me I overcame them and trusted you. I never thought you’d – ’
‘Dine away from home?’ She wished the words away, but they hung, as real as if they were written in the heavy, congealing air.
He stood up, walked to his overcoat and scarf.
She said, ‘Don’t go, it was nothing, meant nothing compared to all those years we had together … ’
He opened the door, and went out into the darkness. She stood, the hand holding the whisk held high in exhortation – or farewell. The raw night air crept inside like a shadow from the future; behind her, the zabaglione spoiled untended on the hob.