Eau de vie

Many years ago, my husband and I went to a party given by the painter Bridget Riley, who works with stripes or sometimes checks, sometimes in black and white but often in vibrant colours. We had been invited because in those days I was the Arts Editor of a glossy magazine, Harpers & Queen. I was just coming up to my thirtieth birthday. Not that I worried about being thirty: I was too busy. I loved my job, which covered all the arts except cooking (though I sometimes wrote cookery articles) and had a beautiful daughter aged two with brilliant sea-blue eyes just like her father’s.

I should make it clear at this point that I’m not the motherly type. As a child, I appalled my own mother by giving a particularly large, elaborately dressed doll, a Christmas present from my grandmother, to our puppy. Dolls seemed so pointless: you couldn’t do anything with them. And, as I later found out, I couldn’t do anything with babies either. Soon after my daughter was born, I gave up the impossible task of trying to bathe her and engaged a nanny, after which everyone was happier. Both my children commented on my lack of maternal qualities, in particular that I wasn’t cuddly and never sang to them (I can’t even sing ‘God Save the Queen’, our national anthem, in tune). Please don’t misunderstand me: none of this means that I didn’t dote on them. From conception on, or to be more accurate, from the time when I knew that they were there, they were the most amazing and wonderful things that had ever happened to me — as they remain. But they happened to me. I didn’t take the Pill, which at that time was still very new and slightly suspect.

The party was in late November at the artist’s studio, near the Tower of London and perhaps a mile or a mile and a half from where we then lived, in Islington. I’ve forgotten whether we had a good time and what we drank, but remember very clearly leaving to face a Siberian wind and air thick with snowflakes. It was very late: we tried to find a taxi but in vain, and ended up walking all the way home. It was uphill and we walked fast, if only for warmth: the wind penetrated our shoulders under our coats and attacked our noses and fingers.

By the time we reached home, my brain was paralysed as well as my hands and the suggestion (I think it was my husband’s) that we might take a few swigs from a bottle of brandy that we happened to have in our drinks cabinet seemed entirely sensible. (If ‘drinks cabinet’ sounds dated to British ears now, remember that this was 1970. I’m looking at it as I write: it’s a wooden box on wheels, remarkably simple and elegant, designed by the restaurateur and businessman Terence Conran, who started his career as a furniture designer. I wish he’d go back to designing and produce more pieces like it.)

We finished the bottle of brandy and one of us said, ‘Let’s have another baby!’ It seemed a good idea at the time, but when I woke in the morning with the sort of headache that one might expect, I changed my mind. Given my ineptitude as a mother, it seemed stupid. It would mean moving to a larger house, which we couldn’t afford. A new baby might make our daughter jealous… The nanny might leave… At any rate, I decided, now was not the moment. Perhaps, possibly, some time in the future — after all, there was plenty of time — but definitely not now.

My birthday came and went. We didn’t celebrate it on the appropriate date because there were so many Christmas parties, nor did we try to compete with the party scene on New Year’s Eve; instead, we sent out invitations for a combined birthday and New Year party for a week or so later. I took time off work to cook and made a daube of beef, an enormous traditional English game pie, spinach tart, onion tart, a chicken-liver pâté generously laced with brandy, cheese straws, ice-cream, and oat biscuits to go with the cheese, which included unpasteurized Stilton (the last dairy to give in to the pressure to pasteurize held out for another twenty years).

I’ve often thought since that it is more fun preparing for a party, with an image in one’s mind of all the dishes perfectly presented, than the imperfect actuality, with the pudding which overflows in the oven, the lost corkscrew, the guest who spills red wine on her dress — or, worse, on someone else’s — or the taxi which doesn’t turn up to take the last guests home.

The time for the guests to arrive approached, too quickly as always. I set the daube to heat very gently on the hob, turned on the oven for the cheese straws, took the pâté out of the refrigerator, and hurried upstairs to change, leaving my husband to answer the door should anyone arrive before I was ready.

The doorbell rang several times and I started downstairs at a run. As I went, the smell of the chicken-liver pâté rose to greet me. The pit of my stomach hit the roof of my mouth, the floor and ceiling changed places, and I turned tail and fled back upstairs. I spent the night in the bathroom. Only on two other occasions had I ever felt so awful. The first was after eating too many coconut candies when I had measles. The second was caused by the smell of a red-cabbage casserole cooked by my godmother just before I discovered that I was pregnant with my daughter.

And so it was again. I went to the doctor the next morning. It seemed unbelievable after only one night. The brandy was truly l’eau de vie. Of course, as I’ve already said, it was the best thing that could have happened to me — even though I took the utmost care to avoid it thereafter.

As this is the truth, not fiction, I can’t end by saying that we toasted the birth with brandy. I had the baby at home, at six in the morning. The midwife was Irish and arrived with a wonderfully crusty loaf of Irish bacon bread, which we accompanied in the only way that seemed suitable, with a bottle of very potent Irish whiskey.

Sarah Freeman is a London-based writer and journalist

First published in the magazine Slowfood (no. 17).

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