A Tale of the Curious Cookbook
Robbie MacIntyre manages a small post office in the old Station House on the outskirts of sleepy Barton Hartshourn northwest of London. He’s stunned when the owner, Maggie, a close friend, bequeaths him not only the post office, but also Station House.
The rest of her estate is left to an American writer, Jason Young, and when he moves to the village, Robbie is thrown by the attraction he has for the man who has more of a claim on the Station House than he does.
Then there is a box that holds several rare first editions and a cookbook. Only when the secrets of the ingredients in a particular recipe are finally revealed does everything begin to make sense, and a love cut short seventy years earlier is finally discovered.
Excerpt: (As on the Dreamspinner website)
“AT LEAST you tried, Robbie.” Doris patted my hand gently in her usual reassuring way. I didn’t need reassurance. I needed the damn cake to bloody work. I mean, how difficult could it be to not fuck up something when I had the recipe sitting in front of me?
I poked what was left of the applesauce cake with a fork. The mess let out an audible “bleurgh” as it collapsed in on itself around the massive hole that had somehow appeared during the cooking of it.
“I followed the recipe.” And I had followed it, to the letter. Every single cup of flour and tablespoon of butter, every teaspoon of nutmeg, and I’d even performed algebra to work out what two-thirds of a cup was compared to a whole cup. Doris patted my hand again and nodded in her most reassuring fashion.
“Maggie made this cake for nearly ninety years. You’re not supposed to be able to get it right the first time.”
My chest tightened in grief, which twisted in and around my heart. Maggie Simmons had been the reason I’d stayed in this village. When all my friends had left for the city or even the next town over, I was the one who had come home with a degree in art and no idea what to do with it, then stayed. Three years of study and a first in my degree and I was lost. Maggie had cornered me by the phone box one Monday morning, talking at me about her cairn terrier who had curled in and out of my legs as Maggie spoke, the leather of the lead wrapping around my legs. I can remember that day so clearly as the single moment when my life changed:
“I’ve bought the old station house,” she’d explained, and I must have said something very polite in return. I was always polite, and I liked Maggie. After all, not only was she a fixture in Burton Hartshorn, she was also an indomitable force of nature and had a mean throwing arm. If I was honest, she’d scared me just a little bit. I remember getting rotten fruit thrown at me with pinpoint accuracy when she caught me and two friends trying to steal apples from her small orchard. The phantom ache of an apple to the face had me pressing my fingers on my cheekbone and wincing inwardly.
“I’m building a library,” she added.
“Where?” Surely not here in Burton Hartshorn, population three hundred and off the beaten track? Why would we need a library when we could just as well get over to Buckingham to use the library there? I remembered the excitement of the library trip out with my dad in his shiny Ford Mondeo. Libraries are big sprawling rows of shelves of every conceivable book possible; they’re not tiny places in the back end of nowhere.
“Not really a library,” she confided to me on that summer’s day. “We could move the post office there when Silvia retires at Christmas, and there would be tables, with tea and coffee from a small counter, and a reading area with big comfy sofas. We could run a book-swap program and maybe advertise with the local school.” I recall the wistful expression on her face. Even then, ten years back, she was old. Well, as old as any person in their seventies and eighties appears to someone fresh out of university.
“Sounds lovely.” I felt then that I was damning her with faint praise, and maybe I was. What she proposed did sound lovely. I was never happier than with my nose in a book, tea next to me, and maybe a couple of chocolate chip cookies on a plate. Add in rain against the window and I was in heaven. Of course a boyfriend next to me, with his head in my lap, would be the icing on the cake. Abruptly whatever Maggie was saying to me mixed in with a recent break up of a university romance.
“Well, I wanted to talk to you,” she continued and punctuated each word with a tug on her dog’s leash until the tangling around my legs was enough so I would never be able to move. “You’re back now, and I need someone to run this place. Not much money, mind you, but there’s rooms on the top floor, and you could do what you wanted with them.”
“Pardon me?” I asked, stupefied.
“I like your mother,” she said, slightly impatient. “She said to me you were rootless, and that building something around books and history and family would be an excellent idea. She suggested a small gallery area for your paintings, which I think is a lovely idea.”
I wish I could have concentrated on the good parts in that sentence, but at the time all I could think was that I was angry my mum thought I was rootless. Just because I was lying longer in bed in the mornings and was becoming obsessed with daytime TV didn’t mean I was rootless. Just because I wasn’t painting at the moment didn’t mean I couldn’t if I wanted to. Right?
With a final tug of the leash, I was free from the leather confines, but I didn’t move. Maggie was teasing me about a job. She had to be. I glanced around me to see if anyone was watching. My gaze caught on the beautiful old station house. L-shaped, it sat close to the deep cutting where the Great Central Main Line used to run steam trains from London to Manchester. Mothballed in the sixties, the station house had fallen into disrepair until a brewery tried to turn it into a pub. How in the hell they thought they would have anything in the way of clientele given the Red Lion was at the other end of the village, I don’t know. It didn’t last long, and for the last ten years or so, the station house had been a rental property with a high turnover.
“It’s a beautiful place.” Maggie sounded wistful.
The thatched roof needed fixing, the white windows lacked new paint, and the dark blue door was three different shades in peeled-off layers. And the garden was wild. Not just wild with weeds, but with a glorious display of autumn greens and golds that never failed to make me stop and look. Not that I am into flowers so much, but the whole effect, with the thatch and the small leaded windows and the general air of neglect, somehow captured my imagination.
“So, I inherited money and I bought it. You should know that. It’s mine, permanent, some small place that you could make a home.” She spoke so carefully and stared right at me with determination in her expression.
“You want me to run the post office?” Real life caught up with my wild imaginings in which I single-handedly restored the former station house into exactly what Maggie wanted. Large oaks shaded the garden to the rear, and ivy spread from the main house to a small seventies extension with roof lights. I imagined tearing back enough of the ivy to expose the beautiful original brickwork of the unique station house.
“Not just the post office,” she continued. “Stamps, parcels and post, and a small shop stocking the essentials. Like tea bags, milk, mustard, and marmite.”
I didn’t flinch at the strange combination of what Maggie thought were essentials. Although I did hate it when I ran out and my toast remained bereft of marmite. “Mustard. Marmite. Okay.”
“And the café,” she added. “With a small library, good books, and lots of romances. Maybe some DVDs. When could you start?”
I stood there for the longest time and even crouched down to pet the small dog just to give myself time to think. No one knew how much money Maggie had, but she clearly had enough to think of buying the old house that had once been the station on this old line. She wasn’t reclusive with money out of sight, but she wasn’t flashy either, and no one knew a lot about her. She was the very solid and focused backbone of this village while somehow remaining private. Her own cottage, the aptly named Apple Tree Cottage with its fruit orchard, was right at the center of village life just opposite the duck pond and the village green. The cottage itself dated back three hundred years, and when I was young, rumors said that Maggie was the same age.
“I have an interview at the hospital in patient records. Tomorrow.” I needed her to realize I had options.
She nodded. “Good, good. Not your thing, though, is it?”
Me? Stuck in an office with computers? No, it wasn’t my thing, but it was good money and there was a staff canteen with discounts. Rent to my mum, fuel in my car, enough money to buy beer and art supplies, and I would be happy. Apart from sacrificing eight hours a day, five days a week to the evil day job, that was.
What prompted me to agree I didn’t know. But the endless stretch of long summer days with no idea of what I wanted to do lay before me, and I didn’t really want to take the admin job. I wanted time to paint and live and do something special.
“No,” I answered then. “I can start now.” The small addition made her smile, and just making this decision was the best thing I’d ever done.
That was then, and now, nearly ten years had passed in which I had been the person in this special place. Pulling back ivy to reveal history was the easy part. Stocking, maintenance work, fundraising, those had been the difficult bits. And every Thursday morning, Maggie would come with her friends, all of whom she had known forever, and they would sit and talk and drink tea, and swap books, and make everything right in my world.
My art was good—I’d even sold some of the pieces and made enough to save some money after buying myself a car. What I was saving for, I don’t know. Probably that same nebulous future I had always been searching for.
Then last month happened. When the end came, it was sudden. Maggie didn’t come to her Thursday tea and cake meet-up, but she’d visited on Friday, told me point-blank her time was up, and that at ninety-one, she’d done her bit. After all, she’d left the station house and bequeathed it in some kind of weird estate contract for the future, and that legacy was just as important as her children.
I’d listened to her talk, and every word had knotted inside my heart in an impossible ball of grief, and that was exactly how it had remained. The day we laid Maggie Simmons to rest had been bright and sunny. The four weeks since had been the strangest of my life. I didn’t have a boyfriend at that moment. In fact, if I was really honest with myself, I hadn’t had a real boyfriend in over a year. The last of them, Josh, short, blond, and devious, had been the one who put me off men for the longest time. His ability to fuck up everything had left me wary and tired of the scene, of nights out, of drinking and dancing and being on view. I just wanted peace, I wanted my village in the Buckinghamshire countryside, and I wanted to lick my wounds and find Mr. Right.
“Are you okay?” Mrs. Patterson asked gently. I snapped back to the here and now and refocused my gaze on the cake. Applesauce cake was one of Maggie’s most requested bakes in the small café. Alongside an ancient whistling kettle and beautiful mismatched china cups and saucers, the cake was like part of Maggie and the shop. The cake was moist, flecks of apple and a vein of cinnamon in each bite—always perfect. She’d scrawled down a recipe for me from memory, but clearly something must’ve been wrong with it.
“I just wanted to do something nice.” This was the first Thursday since the funeral that everyone had met up again. Five instead of six now, there had been some tears and laughter over remembered times. This was the way that Maggie would want to be honored by the five women who called themselves friends.
“And we love you for that,” Mrs. Patterson said. “Maggie would have laughed,” she added with a cheeky wink. Mrs. Patterson was definitely one for the whole flirting business. One or two of the knots inside me unraveled gently, and I relaxed the breath that had caught in my chest. They were here talking about Maggie, remembering her, and even though my attempt at doing the same had failed miserably, it didn’t matter. Somehow during the making of a damn apple cake, I had crossed over from grief to acceptance for the loss of the woman I looked on as fondly as my own grandmother.
“Yes.” I poked at it again, and it deflated even further. “She would have.”
When they left it was nearly five, and I cleared up and washed the crockery and cutlery. Each piece of china had its place in the small kitchen, and only when everything was put away did I actually relax. I probably needed to get out of the house for the evening. Make my way over to Northampton maybe, meet up with Tim or Jack, friends from uni, or even Anna from the village, who had been my partner in crime when we were young kids with the freedom of every day after school to be filled with fun.
I tipped away the water remaining in the kettle and placed it back on the stove. Somehow I misjudged it and the edge of it clanked on the iron of the hob, the vibration of the clash traveling up my arm.
“Fuck it,” I snapped, because that is what a person did when inanimate objects screwed around with them. No one asked what was wrong, no one would. “Sad fucking bastard, talking to yourself,” I muttered.
Then with conviction that this evening would improve with beer and friends, I climbed up to my large open bedroom with its views over acres of green fields. I was going out, and I was going to celebrate Maggie’s life my way: by getting completely pissed and talking crap with anyone who would listen.
By the time I’d showered, had exchanged numerous texts with Jack about which pub was better, and had decided what to wear, it was nearly seven. Wallet and keys found, I locked up the station house and crossed to my car, noting that some bastard of a bird had seen fit to christen the polished silver doors.
“Story of my life.”