It is lockdown level 5 and we are not permitted to leave the house except for essentials. Even my daily walk along the beach shore is forbidden. We are marooned on an island with each other, in this home. I can feel myself retreating into another Winter depression. My writing has all but dissipated altogether as I find myself day in and day out void of motivation for anything beyond the perfunctory day to day tasks. Like dishes. Or brushing my teeth. Showering some days and staying in my pyjamas all day on others, hair greasy and unwashed.
Pierre is much stronger than I, waking early each day to check in on his shares and the stock market before tending to his garden for most of the morning. Instead, I sit, lacklustre and bedridden, glued to Netflix. By nightfall I usually remain focussed on the telly, but without any enthusiasm, while Pierre plays online chess. We are becoming ever more estranged from each other and I don’t care for the person I am becoming. Today, I decide will be different.
As I sip on my morning coffee, I watch him potter in the garden, this garden that feeds us. He is all sinew and muscle. A body that intrinsically knows hard work. Once he is finished with the garden he will move on to the home renovations. Busy. Always busy, while I wallow and feel myself daily slipping away. From myself and from us. And I take another sip of my coffee.
I remember the night we first kissed, when he let me a little into his world, fire lit, cosied up on the sofa, flipping through his photos of his travels and I marvelled at his attention to beauty, this something deep down inside of this otherwise brutish German man. I think on nights of Winter fires lit and reading Love is a Hound from Hell and playing chess into the wee hours. Together. Can we find our way back? Can I pull myself towards myself, as they say? I hope so, as I sip again on my coffee and take heart that a gesture will be enough. Tonight I have taken dinner upon myself and I want to make something that will delight him. Endear me to him, to break bread and help us find each other again. There will be no Netflix today, I solemnly make a binding promise to myself.
Today I will make some palegg, Polish for anything you can put on a slice of bread. And I will bake my first loaf of bread. An Icelandic rye bread that seems easy enough, for my Pierre loves his rye bread and though not of German origins perhaps it will taste all the same a little bit like the home of his birth.
First things first, once my coffee is done, time to shower. I need to visit the fishmongers for fresh mackerel for tonight. The garden will suffice for the rest of the meal’s palegg. For me, meals have always been an act of love, a language that we both have both spoken, so very fluently most of the time, but one that we have lost as we have grown apart. Something we used to do together or to spoil each other. Now simply another dull and mandatory routine. But today, and this evening, will be different. Of that I have to make sure.
Back home, I pick gooseberries and slice them in half and add them to a bowl of thinly sliced red onions. Next come the mustard seeds and the peppercorns and the white wine vinegar and malt vinegar with a teaspoon of salt. The longer the pickle has to rest in the fridge, the better. My Pierre is a great fan of a good pickle and I thought of him instantly when I read this recipe. With him, I hope a good pickle is as good as a love letter.
I unwrap the fish from the fishmongers, the filleted and deboned mackerel, for my Pierre is a lover of all things from the ocean, and a skilled fisherman himself. I set a smaller bowl into a larger bowl filled with ice and carefully remove the skin from the fish fillets, cutting them into small diced cubes and into the chilled bowl they go. Dicing radishes from the garden into thin discs, I add them to the cubed fish along with two tablespoons of chopped dill and some seasoning. I stir lightly with a fork, just enough to combine all the elements, ready to be served on a chilled plate for dinner later with the pickled gooseberries.
My first baked bread is the final order of the day. So far, Pierre has been in the garage sanding a door, and all but oblivious to me. Perhaps the wafting aromas of baking bread will rouse him from his toils.
I combine the dry elements, with four and a half cups of rye flour, with two teaspoons of salt and a tablespoon of baking powder with a teaspoon of baking soda. After this, I separately mix two cups of buttermilk with half a cup of honey and another half a cup of molasses. In the end, I stir the wet mixture in with the dry ingredients until a dough is formed. A maiden voyage, I will have to leave the rest up to fate as the baking tin goes into the oven at low heat to bake for the next two hours.
I go to the bathroom and spritz some Chanel No.5 on my wrists and neck and in my hair, a gift from Pierre on our anniversary. I hope he will notice. I paint a layer of Maybelline on my lashes and smear a coat of ruby lipstick on my mouth. There. I don my favourite velvet wraparound dress and I adorn my neck with a heart pendant he gave me for my birthday the year before. In beautiful hues of green flecked with amber, it brings out the amber in my own brown eyes. Again, I secretly wish longingly to myself that he will notice. That I have made the effort. Ruefully, I realise the dress clings to me tighter than it ever has before. I have gained weight during lockdown but there is nothing to be done about it right now. For right now, it is the best I can do.
The sun is beginning to set when Pierre emerges from the depths of the workshop he has made of the garage. He heads straight for the shower, taking no notice of me or the baking bread. But there is still time. He gets like this. Orderly. Busy busy. Before he unwinds with a cold beer at the end of the day.
I place two candles on the dining room table and take out the nicer plates and the silverware that hasn’t been used since lockdown began. I snip some clivias from the garden and place them in a blue vase at the centre of the table. There, that looks cheerier. Again, I reassure myself that tonight there will be no Netflix. No online chess. We will dine together. Unencumbered by our bad habits.
He returns from the shower and it strikes me with tender affection that his blonde locks are thinning some, no longer the mop of thick curls they used to be. We are both of us aging. And such is life. He cracks a cold one from the fridge and collapses into an armchair, in nothing but a pair of weathered Levi jeans, reinvigorated from the hot shower. How many times have I patched up his jeans, reluctant as he is to ever buy new clothes, stating in his German way that his clothes serve him just fine. It gladdens my heart, with a deep reassurance, that I still love this man.
Without saying anything, I too crack a cold one from the fridge and take my seat in the armchair alongside his. He likes this time to be quiet. After a long day. Until he is ready. So I sip on my beer, quietly and roll myself a cigarette. The aromas of freshly baked bread finally stir him. He gets up to check the oven.
“Baking something?” he comments over the kitchen counter.
“Mmm, Icelandic rye bread, a recipe I found online,” I try to sound nonchalant.
“Smells good.” The man I love is always short and simple and to the point. But I can feel the warmth of a task well done welling up inside of me. I want to make him happy, and this realisation is a small good thing in these strange times.
“You going somewhere?” He’s noticed that for once, since lockdown began, I’m not in jeans and an old sweater, or my pyjamas.
“Nowhere to go. Just felt like a change.” Again, I try to sound as nonchalant as I can muster, but I am hopeful that he is paying attention at the very least.
“Another beer?” I ask as I make my way to the fridge.
“Sure.” And again we resume our silence.
I wait until we are on our third beer before interrupting his downtime ritual after a long day.
“I’ve prepared something different for dinner. Can we sit at the dining table? And perhaps chess and some Bukowski later, round the fire?”
“Sure.” He is a hard man to love sometimes. This man of monosyllables. But he is a good man, and for that, in other ways, he is easier to love than I like to admit at times.
The sun has set and Pierre gets going on building a roaring fire that will see us in for the night. I delight in the sounds as it crackles and pops and begins to warm the house. My Winter blues are interrupted by the comfort of its radiant heat. I feel more alive than I have felt in a very long time. And bolder. Ready to initiate.
“Mind if we break out the good wine for tonight?” I call out from the kitchen, going over our collection of bottles.
“Sure,” he calls back, still tending to the fire.
I haul out my silver ice bucket, an antique relic from my grandmother, and set it up on the dining room table with an uncorked bottle of pinot grigio. With two of our best wineglasses. I set down two plates and make a spread of the mackerel and the gooseberry pickle and the rye bread on a wooden board with a knife and button warmed to room temperature.
Fire seen to until it needs stoking later, Pierre takes up a seat at the table and tucks in voraciously.
“Mmmm. Good.” Again I take what I can get but I watch on gleefully as he wolfs down one morsel after the next. Though he is a man of few words, he speaks loudly in action. And I know that this meal has fortified him. And us. As breaking bread always does, an almost sacrosanct alchemy that brings us together.
Later, we sit by the sofa, playing chess. He always wins. But he likes to win. And so it means little to me to lose. And the fire burns. And a spark is kindled. We are no longer marooned in solitude but together, on this island in this otherworldly pandemic, together again. And I am pleased I baked bread today.