By: Blonde Two
As she picked at the chicken carcass, Jean considered the possibility that nobody else she knew would choose to make soup on a summer holiday. She blamed the Rayburn; it stood firmly at the centre of the cottage, as though the hardware of the cottage, its walls, ceilings and floors, had been put there as an afterthought. All omnipotent, the Rayburn decided the ambient temperature, the times at which they could shower and how long they would have to wait for a cup of tea.
She had discovered a Rayburn recipe book in the drawer; but soup, in Jean’s opinion, didn’t come from recipe books. It came from a childhood kitchen; from reading, perched on top of another Rayburn, her bottom protected by a hefty Yellow Pages; from half watching her mother chop and add whatever she could find in the larder. Soup came from the threaded grey armchair and her mother’s thin red dressing gown; it came from coal orders of tonnes of French Nuts and a fiery pan of ash being carried out down the back steps.
Later in life, Jean had understood the origins of soup better. With her own insistence that she stay at home with the three children; survival had been on Paul’s printing wage. Soup, she discovered, wasn’t created for its warm tastiness; it was created to feed the maximum number of people whilst spending the minimum amount of money. Potatoes, that staple of childhood soups, became a substitute for bank statements; if the potato bank was empty, life was reduced to onion soup, which apparently only the French could make taste delicious.
Jean lifted the cast iron casserole onto the Rayburn and stirred; the stock was thin and white, the pieces of chicken that she had sorted from the sloppy carcass floated dejectedly round. Even the make of pan had been dictated by the metal demi-god; she could imagine it refusing to provide adequate heat in its rejection of cheaper imitations. The water on the bottom of the pan spattered, trapped and unable to escape. Common sense suggested that it wasn’t the right day for soup. She imagined that the Cairngorms in June were rarely this mild; the Rayburn obviously didn’t think that they could be, the rooms were over-warm despite the open windows and doors. Paul had gone for a bike ride that had looked challenging enough on the map to require sustenance upon return. This was the official reason for the soup but Jean knew that in reality, Paul would prefer a sandwich and wouldn’t expect her to prepare lunch; the Rayburn was in charge and the Rayburn had demanded soup.
As in days past, the ingredients for the soup were limited; not today by finances but by the isolation of their holiday cottage. The steep gravel track and the ford made the six miles to the nearest Coop seem like an afternoon’s trek. Jean couldn’t help feeling that this arrangement too, had been designed by the Rayburn; supplies from Tesco or Sainsburys would not fit in with his (she hesitated now to call it ‘it’) sense of what was right. The Rayburn demanded food that had been foraged from the land or at least locally sourced; this had represented a challenge as Paul had clearly been impatient to get out of the shop. Jean wondered if he would have appreciated her Rayburn based reasoning; he had taken longer than her to get used to waiting for a cup of tea and had never enjoyed being too warm.
The chopping board was thin and modern, the knife not sharp. Jean angled her body around so that the Rayburn wouldn’t notice; she felt that a wooden block and a cleaver would have been his weapons of choice. The skin of the onion slipped as she hacked at it; Jean found herself wondering vaguely whether the hot plate of a Rayburn had ever been used to cauterise a wound. She looked across the valley towards the only other visible dwelling; she doubted a Rayburn had been allowed to stand sway over there. It obviously wasn’t a holiday home like Upper Folds. Only pine trees, a painted bench and a charming woodshed were allowed in the holiday garden; across the valley, there were two buildings, surround by what looked like piles of wood and tarpaulin covered machinery of an unknown usage. Jean had only seen one person over there; a man, it would seem, with a sheep dog. Once in a while, he drive his blue Landrover down the track and then later back up again; the only other hint of his inhabitation was the generator that created his electricity. The electricity at Upper Folds was solar and wind powered; but Jean felt that the Rayburn disapproved of its use, as though using another form of power was a denial of his place at the centre of the universe. There were four orange gas bottles lined up outside the cottage; false of course, the owner could pretend, but Jean knew that the Rayburn was in charge, and would run or not, as it chose and with or without gas.
She slid the onions carefully into the casserole and started on the potatoes. In normal life, new potatoes were never used for soup; new potatoes were classy and designed for greater things. Soup potatoes were generally spongy, growth ridden items; rejected for other meals and on the verge of either being planted or composted. The choice had been easy though; she had bought new and baking from the Coop, and she had known that the Rayburn would have rebelled at the chopping of a baked potato that had been bred to sit, all day, in heated oven splendour and be marvelled over upon the return from a day out. She cut the potatoes very small, not trusting the Rayburn to cook them; immediately, as if to chastise her for her doubting, a few tiny bubbles started to rise from the stock.
After adding salt and pepper, Jean stood stirring for longer than was necessary; the Rayburn demanded this but also allowed her to look out of the window. Landrover Man had come out of his cottage with Brown Dog, they were walking down their track. If she had been in a novel, the new and lonely arrival in an unknown land; Landrover Man and Brown Dog would almost certainly be heading her way. They would be angry; perhaps at the route she had chosen up Corryhabbie hill the previous day, or maybe because she had moved the garden bench to face his house. There would be a heated discussion in which Jean, looking naturally beautiful despite her forty seven years, her lack of make-up and her slept on hair, would round angrily on Landrover Man. Novel Jean would not burst into unseemly tears in her anger, neither would her skin blotch; instead she would have fiery eyes that melted Landrover Man’s dark and icy heart. He would mention that he could smell soup, she would calm down and invite him inside to taste it. The novel would then be left to explain the next couple of hours, in terms that avoided anything even vaguely approaching the difficulties of sex with someone who was not a husband of twenty-five years. The Rayburn, even in the novel, would emerge omnipotent once again for without warmth and soup, sex would almost certainly have not occurred.
Landrover Man and Brown Dog disappeared down the track. Jean gave the soup one more stir and put the lid on. Like a disapproving liege, the Rayburn had rejected her ministrations, she and her roaming thoughts were no longer wanted; Novel Jean, it would appear, was disapproved of. She went to the shelf to get her Kindle, but the Rayburn recipe book called her hand instead. She picked it up, went over to the enormous sofa and sat down to find a casserole recipe. Casseroles were for better days than soups, they were for fun and visitors and bottles of red wine. A casserole recipe sorted, she sat back and waited. The Rayburn had been right, she decided. Both soup and sex were much better kept in the realms of reality; and almost certainly were better after years of practice.