Oops! She is dozing off to The Buddha in the Attic when she remembers she has left the fruit in the car. How annoying! They were supposed to eat it for lunch and it has either been left on the parcel shelf or, worse, tipped all over the front seat. It’s such a mess: the apricots have stained the fabric, the peel has come off the peaches, the gooseberries have burst and the strawberries are crushed. And the sticky juice all over the place is just the icing on the cake!
Right, time to sort out this farce. Purée or jam? No, she thinks again about the dessert everyone always raves about, the tutti frutti crumble.
She takes the butter out of the fridge to soften, which won’t take long in this heat. Everyone in the house is having a nap: the only ones busying themselves are the cicadas and her, the vision of a mother hard at work. She doesn’t mind, she loves cooking.
Time to sort out the fruit and clean up. Orange, milky white, red – her hands are covered in a mixed fruit juice that she can’t help but lick off. To hell with it. How is she going to break this to the children? They love rummaging in amongst the fruits, peeling them and removing the pips; then putting their hands in the soft, wet substance, getting them all sticky and gooey. It’s always a bit gross at first, but it’s never long before everyone’s enjoying themselves. The colander is full of colourful and fragrant fruit. She trembles with joy every time she sucks her fingers so that the juice doesn’t run down her wrist. To give it a taste, she dips the spoon into the pan and transfers it to the mouth of whoever is lurking around. She blows on it and, there we go, tasting done.
She looks for a large oven dish and imagines a restaurant where you can eat everything with your fingers, the simple pleasure of taking the food between your hands, of sucking and inhaling. No, that would be too organic for a restaurant.
In this rented house in the lush green countryside of south-western France, she finds a long rectangular dish made of porcelain. Oh, a dead spider. She butters the dish and spreads out the washed fruit, some of it chopped into quarters and some into small pieces. A thick layer of fruit, with all the colours well distributed.
In a salad bowl with an olive leaf design (ah the imagination of these holiday property owners!), she rubs the flour, diced butter and sugar with her hands, careful not to add too much sugar as the fruits are already covered in it. In-between her fingers the ingredients turn into a sand-like mixture; she makes sure there’s not a single drop of water. She patiently continues rubbing, with the ingredients taking on a sensuality in the heat. Once the crumble is nice and yellow, she sprinkles it over the fruit and evens out the topping, then hey presto, 30 to 40 minutes in the oven. She curses these bloody ovens which never have the same settings!
Washing up, sofa. She opens The Blue Lotus. It’s funny how these rental properties reveal things about the families who live there and a bit about each of us at the same time. You always find an object, a book or a utensil that remind you of a memory, usually the exact counterpart of what you might find in another part of France. These houses are like the missing pieces of a French jigsaw puzzle, even if sometimes the things you find there are really quite ugly. She remembers a house where they had stayed in Auvergne which was an absolute nightmare; nothing was right. A kitchen in a state of disrepair, where many of the utensils were bent out of shape and some didn’t even work, plus it only had a microwave for a cooker. She remembers the living room with its horrible brown furniture and the crucifixes hanging above the beds. It shows that we can listen to anyone in the world but we can’t all share the same tastes or opinions, even if we wanted to. Their only happy memory from that trip was the nice walks they went on.
Lying on the cushions, she recognises lots of things, gets a sense of some of the practices and habits that she has adopted herself or that she has seen at her own parents’ house; she can picture evenings in front of the TV and drinks with her friends while the kids would be running riot. Too many accumulated objects here but she recognises that yes, there are little pieces of herself within these four walls.
Tintin, it’s been a while. No doubt her teenagers still flick through it, but not with her. A small tug on her heart, something she doesn’t want to articulate, childhood slipping away. Fewer hugs, pairs of shoes that need changing at a rate of knots, bodies changing on an almost daily basis. Mornings without milk to heat up; evenings without homework to check or stories to read half sprawled out on the bed. And the birthday cakes, the holidays to organise, the arguments in bedrooms, the tears to wipe away, the video games with friends, the feeling of regret after getting annoyed when she shouldn’t have, the bad times and the lies. It all boils down to nothing, it will all be swallowed up by time. In a few years they’ll fly the nest. The same boys who came from her womb, the centre of her she-wolf affections; her boys are destined to leave her, to walk away. Daily life will have to readjust when they go. Days and nights spent together then just the odd weekend, how’s that going to be possible? A dark shadow. Inexorable like the horizon. How is she going to fill these new days? She knows everything there is to say about having raised her children, of having seen them grow up and gain their independence: she is proud of it, too. But right now, when it’s siesta time in the early afternoon heat, her heart breaks a little. Where will her next journey take her? It looks a bit hazy. Will this be their coming-of-age summer, the last of their childhood?
A sugary smell wafts from the oven. The juice rises to the surface, the crust is golden; she puts the dish on the table. She won’t prepare any Chantilly cream, just some sour crème fraîche. No scoops of ice cream, it’s too sugary, but she already knows there’s no way around it – she’ll pretend to be firm, but she’ll give in to her taste buds.
She sits down on the deck chair and reopens her book. She can’t focus, Tintin’s face is in the way of Julie Otsuka’s words.