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Thursday, 23 June 2011

Love is like a butterfly


I spent a good part of Tuesday afternoon cleaning the communal rubbish area. It was a far from salubrious task. The split rubbish bags, which had become sodden with rain water had to be drained and placed into new bin liners and heaped up on the lawn to be collected the following day by the Council’s contractors. The heavy bins had to be drained of the fetid and foul smelling contents lurking at the bottom and then washed out. I placed the recycling in the special containers as opposed to around it. Such is the glamorous fun-filled private life of the Brimstone Butterfly.

During my stint as a manual labourer I struck up a conversation with a new neighbour and ended up inviting her around for supper. I had defrosted a Gresham duck as the Filmmaker had originally planned to come around for lunch on Monday but had taken ill. The little indie film we had made a few months ago is doing rather well and has appeared at a number of art house venues abroad and in the UK. Sadly we missed the opportunity to go along to a viewing in the UK as the screening date was brought forward at the last moment. The duck I proposed serving my neighbour was not the star of our film. That had been a lone duck breast fillet, which I had covered in honey and fresh rosemary and fried after filming was complete. The late Elizabeth Taylor demanded diamonds from off her film producers. I demand duck meat. My recipe of yesterday called for the duck to be roasted for almost 2 hours before being smeared in a mixture of 1 tablespoon Seville orange marmalade and 2 tablespoons of Cointreau for a further 15 minutes. I then made gravy from the strained cooking juices and a stock I had made the previous day from the giblets. I served the duck with watercress and boiled new potatoes. I was relieved when my neighbour arrived on my doorstep clutching a bottle of Pinot Grigio as it had occurred to me that she might be averse to all alcohol.

I can’t say I was too keen on how the duck had turned out. I should not have added corn flour to the gravy to thicken it and the duck itself was a tad too fatty for my tastes. I have had far greater success in the past with Barbary Duck. I remember once serving a roast Barbary Duck Morello cherries. At the end of the meal the guests literally tore the carcass to pieces to get at the remaining flesh. It was both flattering and somewhat alarming. Still, my neighbour seemed to enjoy her duck and asked if she could take some home with her.

The puddings were a great success. I offered her a choice of either my Chocolate and Vanilla semifreddo I had made using a recipe by Angela Harnett or my baked apricot cheesecake, immortalised by the Filmmaker. She chose to sample both and asked me if I would make a semi freddo for her young sons when they next came over for a visit.  As the semifreddo contains generous tablespoons of Cointreau (my motto for any recipe calling for alcohol is to double the quantity specified) I was suitably impressed that she considers their young palates mature enough to appreciate the relatively sophisticated taste of the frozen dessert.

Between courses I gave her a copy of my Guardian newspaper article to read and then played back the segment of the live BBC Radio 4 podcast I had taken part in. (35 minutes in). It gave her an added frisson to be in the precise location of the calamity as she read the article and then listened to the studio recording. I had never had the chance to talk to her about the arson attack before so it all came as a shock to her and she gasped at certain points in the telling of the story.     

The more we talked the more it seemed we had a great deal in common, eerily so when we discovered we both suffered from the same medical condition. Like me, she has a great love of history and to my surprise was extremely well versed in 20th century Finnish history. Most non-Finns I encounter have very little knowledge of Finland let alone its turbulent past. My neighbour and I are also both enduring a very turbulent present. I seem to be engaged in a number of battles of attrition with little prospect of emerging victorious. My neighbour is more sanguine. In many ways her troubles overshadow mine but her fierce love for her children gives her the resilience to soldier on.      

On a more frivolous level we enjoy vintage clothes. She particularly admired my 1950s Miami playsuit with the hieroglyphic print and boned bodice. I said if it fitted it she could keep it as a present. She insists on paying for it so I said I would find the receipt. It is beautiful but my embonpoint is somewhat too generous for me to be able to fit into it. She also admired my 1920s black and white silk shawl and 19th century wedding kimono. These have already been earmarked as bequests in my will. My silk and brocade steel boned corsets made my neighbour determined to buy her own. But it was my collection of vintage hats that provided the greatest surprise. As I raised the lid of my large Victorian hat box a lemon coloured butterfly flew out. We were both momentarily stunned. The lemon colour made me fancy for an instant that a real brimstone butterfly had found its way in to the Brimstone Butterfly’s London mansion. Then it struck me that the butterfly was more likely to have been a Cabbage White than a Brimstone Butterfly. They both come from the same Pieridae butterfly family leading to the momentary confusion. After I had let the butterfly out the window we returned to the millinery. My neighbour declared that she just did not suit hats. She soon changed her mind once she had tried on a few of mine. I was impressed that she immediately thought of Anne Boleyn when she tried on my 1950s bumper style hat.

My neighbour was also much taken with my framed photograph on a side table of the Cad of Kensington Gardens. She thought him extremely handsome and added that he looked a bit of a rogue. Both sentiments were indubitably true. She wondered why I still kept his portrait on display. Now that I am no longer the Marquise de Merteuil to his Vicomte de Valmont, I can appreciate his masculine beauty for its own sake, even though he was far from being “a joy forever.”  Continuing the theme of the John Keats’ poem: 

“Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o'er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits”.

It would take a veritable Pantheon of handsome men to lift the pall from my dark spirits at present.  It seems my neighbour has been asked by friends how she could bear to return to Wimbledon, the scene of so much personal heartbreak for her. They fail to realise that it is also the scene of some extremely joyous memories for her too.  Thus, it is with the photograph. Despite how it ended, the memory of that  tumultuous time will remain with the Brimstone Butterfly until she takes her final flight to oblivion.