22 Jul Making Soup
I couldn’t find a single leek. Had to buy a pack of three. She’ll never use the other two. She no longer cooks. Nor eats much.
The single onion was easier. You can still buy them loose in the supermarket. The carrot, too. A nice, chunky firm one that I pared slightly and chopped into small even squares. Lovingly executed.
I was in no hurry. The day stretched out in front of us as all days must do for her now. Housebound. Individual days stretching out but collectively rushing by with hardly a mark to distinguish one from another.
Diced the onion, sliced the leek, added a clove of garlic chopped into the tiniest pieces I could manage with the knives at hand – a tired collection of wooden-handled ones that I remember from my mother’s kitchen when I lived at home in the 1960s.
Found the biggest pan she has at the back of the cupboard under the worktop beside the sink. Sautéed everything together in oil and a little butter. Normally I’d add a smattering of crushed chillies to give the soup an edge but the spice rack offered none, only some mixed herbs, three separate and partly-used jars of ground cinnamon and, intriguingly given my aunt’s plain cooking, a jar of turmeric well past its Best Before date. Weighed out 6 ounces of red lentils on the scale I found on top of the fridge, a scale of a similar vintage to the knives, thus one on which ounces are much more manageable than grams. Tossed them in. Measured one and a half pints of vegetable stock.
The recipe came from my mother through her mother. My grandmother would have asked the butcher for a ham bone and boiled it for an hour or more to make that flavoursome, pungent stock that I remember. Crushed chillies would never have featured; in this respect, I was being true to her memory.
Her younger daughter, my aunt, called from the sitting room where she spends her days watching the trees and complaining that the blackbirds edge out the smaller birds on the feeder that hangs from one of the branches: “That smells lovely”. The soup started to bubble and simmer. After 45 minutes I add a can of chopped tomatoes, a third-generation adaptation of the original recipe. Salt and pepper to taste. Another 15 minutes simmering and the soup is ready.
My aunt’s appetite, however, is not. Not yet. Eating has become a form of essential maintenance, something she knows she must do. The joy of food, and she loved her food once upon a time, is a receding memory. Occasionally something will take her fancy. She will “take a notion of” something or other. Milky Way bars recently. Lentil soup, I’m hoping, in the next few days. I decant the cooled soup into containers, the smallest I can find in her stash of Tupperware and saved margarine tubs. Finding lids that fit takes several trips to the storage cupboard in the hall. Never mind. I’m still in no hurry.
By 5pm, the soup gets its first outing, chasing down the foul medication that she takes to offset the effects of another medication that offsets the effects of the thing that ails and gradually diminishes her.
The woman, though, the woman inside is undiminished. We spend three days blethering. We speak of things that have been hard in life; things that still are. We laugh together. She is easy to gently tease. She never takes herself too seriously. We reminisce about days further south from here on the Ayrshire coast when I played on the beach with my cousins out in front of the wooden house where they stayed each summer. Days of egg sandwiches and fizzy drinks made with Creamola Foam. Days when I still called her Aunt.
Now she’s Isabel. And she’s calm and settled into the time the has left. Such composure in one so ill disarms me when I take my leave a day or two later and struggle to maintain my own.