(Author’s Note: The following story is part of a four-part tale called Glasgow Brownstone Blues which I originally posted as notes on Facebook and later via Tumblr and Scribd. The stories are now being posted here in their proper reading order: Melody and Counterpoint, Comfort Zone, Comfort Food, and Sunday over the next few days.)
It’s summer back home in Sydney: pure, golden sunshine streaming from the heavens to warm one’s skin, bronzing it to the wonted colour of creamy caramel. People would be flocking to the beaches, swimming, learning how to surf (or at least use a wakeboard), playing volleyball on the sandy shore. School would be out, kids would be playing outdoors, running through garden sprinklers to cool off, screaming and playing tag till the happy chime of the ice cream truck could be heard.
It’s a far cry from where I am at the moment: cold, snowy, hell-frozen-over-and-then-some Glasgow, Scotland.
It’s 4°C, raining hard, and the cold seeps deep into my bones. This isn’t the sort of early February weather I’m used to and, even then, the June winters back home arenothing compared to the brutal chill of this incredibly old, even ancient city.
The brownstone where I currently live with four other post-grads is in the bustling part of Glasgow known as Merchant City, just a short walk from the Royal Conservatoire where I’m presently enrolled. The walk is more of a run, really, seeing how I don’t want to freeze to death en route so I sprint off as fast as I can soon as classes or rehearsals are over.
Much as I hate living in Glasgow, there’s actually one thing that perks me up no matter how shitty my day has been. As I scramble down the corner just a couple of buildings away from the brownstone, I breathe deeply and catch a whiff of something good cooking nearby. I smile and know that there will be something good – something warming, satisfying, comforting – on the table for dinner tonight.
I skid to a stop in front of the Victorian-era building and head up the steps, taking them two at a time to get to the front door. The other guys usually ring the bell; I don’t. I spied a couple of people in the front room and banged on the wooden part of the door to get their attention. (Malachy’s threatened to split me in half if I ever broke the glass on that door.)
“Don’t you know how to use a bloody doorbell?” Carlisle, our English lawyer-in-residence, snaps as he lets me in.
“Got your attention, yeah?” I say with a cheeky grin as I hang up my coat and scarf. I stamp for a bit on the indoors doormat before yanking off my boots and stuffing them into the rack by the door. “I thought Aïda was here with you, mate.”
“She’s gone back to the kitchen,” Carlisle informs me, jamming his hands into his pockets.
“Doesn’t she have papers to write?” I ask, but I’m already tramping over to where she is.
“She’s done with all of ‘em,” Carlisle shouts at me, but I pay him no mind as I stop in the kitchen doorway, pausing to admire the little goddess who practically resides in there.
“Hey, kid,” she greets me without turning as she stirred a pot on the hob.
“Hi,” I greet her. That’s how she always calls me: kid. She has a right to do so, being five years older than me – and bother the fact that she looks younger than I do. Normally, I don’t take that sort of thing lightly. Any of the guys will tell you that I resent it big time whenever any of them call me kid. But when Aïda does, I don’t mind; then again, her tone isn’t sarcastic or condescending.
“How were rehearsals?” she now asks me, still not turning.
I make a rude sound as I enter the kitchen. “I wish you’d written the script,” I tell her as I open the snacks cupboard for the tin of assorted biscuits. I pop the can open and grab the last of the dark-chocolate-covered gingersnaps. “I’d let you read it, but I think you’d grab one of your knives and go hunt down Savion yourself.” Savion was one of my classmates, an American guy with literary pretensions who took it upon himself to adapt a Neil Gaiman story – Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot – into a play. “He thinks he can pull a Twilight or Vampire Diaries sort of act and throw it onstage.”
Aïda finally turns to face me, the corners of her Cupid’s-bow lips curving into a sympathetic smile.
“That bad?” she asks as she pours each of us a mug of hot chocolate from a smaller pot on the hob.
“And then some,” I sigh in agreement as she places a steaming mug before me. I hold the mug beneath my face and close my eyes as I breathe in its delicious aromas. Over the dark, smoky richness of the chocolate, I could smell the woody sweetness of cinnamon, the burnt orange hint of black cardamom, and the nose-tickling fire ofpeperoncino, those tiny flakes of dried chilli. As I breathed deeply, I could practically feel the stresses of my day seeping out of my weary limbs, my tense shoulders relaxing.
I open my eyes to see Aïda sitting at the table and sipping from her own mug. The kitchen is warm from the heat of the hob and the air is filled with more heavenly scents. I can tell that there is a stew simmering on the hob, that there is a loaf of bread baking in the oven, and there is the promise of something sweet and rich to come after the last lashings of gravy are mopped off our plates with the final crusts in our hands.
I study my housemate in silence. For some odd reason, she reminds me of my poor mum who died untimely a few months ago, the victim of some drunken college kid who opted to careen around town while heavily plastered.
Of course, in the looks department, they’re as different as chalk is from cheese. My mother was a tall, slender blonde with stunningly blue, almost violet eyes – Aussie to the core, though my nana was actually Swedish – who, even as she pushed sixty, still turned people’s heads the same way she did when she was a globetrotting model. Aïda, on the other hand, is Filipino – though she doesn’t sound like she grew up in Manila because her English is perfect and her accent is almost American but not quite; she is short, dark of hair and eye, and curvy – and, because she lost quite a bit of weight since she got here, was now dangerously curvier.
But they share certain traits: warmth, for instance; a weird need – a compulsion, as it was – for feeding and taking care of people. Both had tough exteriors that brooked no lip from anyone, but belied gentle natures and nurturing souls. My mum loved to dance; Aïda used to dance professionally, having been a ballerina back home in Manila. They both spoke softly unless someone managed to piss them off: that got them to roaring at full voice, threatening violence and worse to the poor, unfortunate bastard who riled them.
“Where’s the script?” she asks me.
“Oh, you don’t want to read that drivel,” I assure her, feeling more than a little frightened that I told her about that script.
She narrows her eyes at me, a dangerous sign. I throw my hands up in defeat and go get the damned thing from my knapsack which I dumped rather ungraciously in one of the chairs in the front room. My hands shake as I hand her the script, knowing too well what the consequences will be. She flips through it, muttering under breath, the look on her face growing darker, graver, and even angrier.
“I told you that you wouldn’t like it,” I declare mournfully as she closes the script-book with a loud bang and slams it onto the kitchen table.
“Damn straight I don’t,” she growls, getting up to check on her cooking. “Pretentious bastards who fancy themselves the next Stephanie Meyer or Charlaine Harris are all a slur on the memory of Bram Stoker – and I’ve a mind to run stakes through their hearts just to keep them from writing any more of that dross!”
I stand behind her, resting comforting hands on her shoulders as she rises. She sighs and pats my right hand.
“I could write a better script than that,” she says in grating tones, definitely more than annoyed at my classmate’s deplorable attempt at writing drama.
“I know you can,” I tell her soothingly. It’s true: she’s an amazing writer and a compelling storyteller. “How’d your classes go?”
She smirks at me and points to a pile of neatly stacked papers on one of the counters. I go over to take a look and grin hugely at what I see. Perfect papers with comments written in the margins are what I find; papers marked Excellent with line-of-nine marks.
“How’s your novel coming along?” I ask in almost a whisper, making sure that Carlisle didn’t hear me. This novel was our secret, hers and mine.
“It continues to write itself,” Aïda replies with a slight shrug. But the furrow between her eyebrows tells me otherwise; the darkening circles beneath her eyes even more so. She worries because there is so much to do in the way of writing for her classes and the new column she now writes for the local paper, so much that there is little time for her to add on to the novel without losing sleep.
But she says nothing else as she pulls the finished loaf out of the oven.
“Whole-wheat?” I ask as I carefully put her papers back where I found them.
“Multi-grain,” she replies. “Whole-wheat, a bit of coarse corn flour, oat flour, and rice flour. Should go down a treat with honey butter and the stew.”
I open the lid of the saucepan before she can stop me and I marvel at the sight of duck legs and assorted roots simmering in a dark sauce. I catch a whiff of wine, the smoky touch of bacon, the sweetness of caramelized onion.
“Wow!” I exclaim, carefully setting the lid back on. I turn and see Aïda looking at me in disapproval. “What’s wrong? All I did was look!”
She sighs and her shoulders fall. I put an arm around her shoulders – a rather dangerous move because I couldn’t really gauge her mood at the moment.
“You okay?” I ask and, to my dismay, she shakes her head.
“I just feel out of sorts,” she sighs, rubbing her eyes tiredly. “I haven’t been sleeping properly.” She rests her head on my shoulder, a gesture I find strangely comforting, even endearing. “I’m sorry, Aaron; I just feel so tired.”
“And whose fault is that?” I ask her, trying to sound stern when, really, I was worried.
“Mine,” she admits ruefully. “I just want to get the damned thing finished so I can send it off to a publisher.”
Ah, the proverbial monkey on one’s back: the constant bane of those of us who write or compose songs. You know how some people claim that they write solely for their pleasure? That’s a load of bunk, if you ask me. Every writer, every composer has that deep-seated yearning to be read by the world, to be heard everywhere – to be known to be good at what they do. And for someone like Aïda who has been through so much in life, who has been taunted time and again, who has constantly fought back the onslaught of contempt and under-appreciation by the people around her, the yearning is totally understandable. However, such an ambition shouldn’t be propelled forward by losing sleep and, consequently, losing one’s health.
I steer her to the chair she recently got up from and make her sit back down. I call Carlisle in and, between us, get the table in the adjacent dining room set, the bread sliced and wrapped in a linen napkin from one of the drawers. I pull the pudding out of the oven, switching off both oven and stove in the process. I rummage for a butter knife with which to take the pudding out of its baking tin, but Aïda tells me to leave it alone for a bit, to allow it to cool for a while.
The other guys arrive: skinny Dylan rushes in, shivering from the cold despite the fact that he drives to and from the Conservatoire. Then red-haired Malachy strides in confidently, master of the house, landlord, and de facto big brother.
“Is that a sticky date pud?” he asks Aïda as he enters, grinning like a schoolkid as he makes a bee-line for the tin cooling on a counter. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath as he takes in the honeyed fragrance. I can’t blame him: it does smell good and we all know it’ll taste great.
“It sure is,” Aïda assures him with a wan smile. She rises to her feet and I hand her a large, shallow serving dish for the stewed duck. “You boys wash up,” she admonishes us. “Dinner will be ready in a bit.”
I turn to follow the guys out, but she asks me to stay. She hands me a tasting spoon and gestures toward the steaming hot stew.
“Tell me if it needs adjusting,” she says.
I take a spoonful of gravy from the pot, blow on it a little to cool it, and put it in my mouth. It’s delicious: the wine has simmered down and the onions have all but melted into syrupy sweetness but the flavours have been tempered by tomatoes and thyme, the taste of bacon and the richness of duck fat coats the inside of my mouth with unctuous deliciousness. I think of getting another spoonful, but go against it; I would not be forgiven for my greed and, after Savion’s annoyingly overblown directions at rehearsal, I was not in the mood for another scolding.
“It’s perfect,” I assure Aïda confidently; I smile warmly.
She regards me dubiously for a moment, and then sighs in relief.
“I was worried it wouldn’t be up to snuff,” she confesses, blushing in embarrassment.
I look at her, all pink-cheeked from that sudden shyness and the warmth of the kitchen, and I see something that her dratted ex-boyfriend totally failed to see because he was so enamoured with her dangerous curves and not with the girl who owned them. There is strength in there, hard steel beneath the velvet softness. There is fire there, one banked behind dark brown eyes, the glow dimmed – but not, perhaps, for long.
There was a heart in there, broken and battered, bruised and bleeding – but not so badly hurt that the notion of loving again would be unacceptable.
And there was a promise about her, something about permanence and longevity, something about late nights staying up with crying babies and fitful toddlers, something about gentle hands and warm skin, something about tears shed over both good times and bad, and everything about those promises people make before altars.
But I say nothing and wordlessly carry the dish she has filled over to the dining room. She follows close behind with the bread and the dish of honey butter she mentioned in passing. Malachy ducks out for a moment and returns with a bottle of red wine, one that proves to be robust and hearty, perfect with the tender, flavourful duck that Aïda has prepared for our dinner.
To a man, we sigh rapturously over each mouthful, every one of us grateful for the grace of a good meal after a long day and a great deal of warmth against the bitter chill and rain outside. Plates are mopped clean with gobbets of bread torn excitedly from the still-steaming loaf. I silently raise my glass to mam’zelle Aïda who sits at the opposite end of the table; she smiles and inclines her head to acknowledge the gesture.
She rises and we all scamper up to clear the plates before she brings in dessert. The promised pudding now sits on a china platter, drizzled with buttery caramel sauce. A tub of ice cream appears – vanilla with Cornish clotted cream, always a favourite of the whole gang – and generous scoops are piled over thick slices dotted just as generously with chopped dates and a wealth of nuts. One by one, we boys fall silent, quietly eating our puddings. We are only betrayed by our eager eyes and heaping spoonfuls.
The others make their excuses: Carlisle to write new arguments for a mock-courtroom scenario his class would do tomorrow, Malachy to go over his feasibility study for the nth time this week, and Dylan to pore over a composition that doesn’t seem to swing right no matter what he does with the tune. I linger behind, ostensibly to clear the dessert plates because it’s my night to do the dishes.
But as I rise from my seat, Aïda beats me to the punch and clears up everything. I open my mouth to protest but she smiles and shakes her head. I stay in place, puzzled by this.
When she returns, she places a newly-filled plate before me. I assume for a bit that it’s a second helping of sticky date pudding, but I am surprised when I eat a bite and discover that it’s a rich chocolate brownie – scandalously rich, moist, fudgy, and truly decadent – with some chocolate sauce and ice cream on top.
“Where’s this from?” I exclaim between bites.
“I made it,” Aïda says, grinning. “Kept it under wraps while I was cooking dinner. I guess I wanted to take my stress out earlier, so I whipped up a batch. It’s good, yes?”
“Damned good!” I declared around a chocolaty mouthful. “How come I get a second dessert while everyone else doesn’t?”
“I figured you needed a treat after rehearsing that piece of shit your classmate has the balls to call a play,” she replies candidly. “You deserve it, kid.”
I stare at her in shocked disbelief. “Wait!” I gasp. “What?!”
Aïda laughs that rich, throaty laugh of hers, delighted by my incredulous response. I blink when she leans down, loudly kisses my cheek, and saunters off, humming.
I touch my cheek, somewhat bemused by this surprising turn of events. I blush and I smile, savouring the dessert she set before me, bite after glorious bite.