Rebecca Tyrrel: Days Like Those

'Matthew said nothing after finding the potatoes were so undercooked. He didn't need to'
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The Independent Online

I am the one who is chopping onions yet, oddly, Matthew is the one who is crying. He is all of six feet away from me but there are apparently real tears pricking at the corner of his eyes. Perhaps it is not the onions at all, perhaps it is my recent statement to the effect that I am intending to roast potatoes that has made a grown man cry?

In many households the cooking of roast potatoes is, if not an every day event, then certainly a weekly one. In this kitchen, however, it is a rare, meaningful and, it would seem, emotive thing.

Admittedly, Matthew is not someone who can be accused of having an underactive lachrymal gland. Watching Casablanca, during the scene where Victor Laszlo drowns out the Nazis at Rick's Café by leading a rousing chorus of "La Marseillaise", he sobs uncontrollably. He weeps like a lamenting widow at a graveside whenever he hears Peter O'Sullevan's commentary on Red Rum's third Grand National, and on hearing Bette Midler singing "Wind Beneath My Wings" he gives out animal wails between the sobs. But never before have I seen him well up over potatoes.

Once he had wiped his eyes and blown his nose with a piece of kitchen towel he stood up, approached me and whispered, "I cannot tell you how much this means to me". Then he walked backwards towards the door, all the time nervously rubbing at a particular patch of skin at the back of his neck. "But then I don't need to tell you, do I?" he continued, "You know how much it means to me. Oh yes, I think you know." He walked backwards all the way to his shed.

To help you understand this fetching vignette of married life I must rewind to an incident that took place at 9.33pm on 31 December 1991. It was our first New Year's Eve together, and we had been married for only three months. Matthew decided to roast a joint of beef and asked if I would take charge of the potatoes.

I can remember the precise time of the incident because the digital clock on the microwave was in my eye-line. Matthew entered the kitchen at 9.32pm to check on his beef, which was crisping nicely and while he was at it he decided to have a looked at the potatoes, which weren't. This was because I had only just put them in the oven, having misread the snoopy alarm clock in the bedroom, (an embarrassing survivor from my so recent "kooky-single-girl-about-town" existence) where I had been reading Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management. In short I had failed in my potato duties and it was unlikely I was ever going to graduate to the calf's foot jelly that Mrs B recommends so highly for hungry, tired husbands.

Matthew said nothing after finding the potatoes were quite so uncooked. He didn't need to. The look he gave me was enough. It was a withering, unforgiving look, and it was that look alone that provoked me into throwing a handy bottle of Czech Budweiser beer at him. It caught him right in the middle of his neck as he was leaving the kitchen, hence the nervous rubbing of that very same spot this evening as he backed away from me in fear, out of the kitchen and down the garden path.

My confidence in the kitchen plummeted that evening 15 years ago and has never fully recovered since. I have made occasional attempts at cooking and there have been a few highs, but mostly there have been lows. Once, after being praised by Matthew for an omelette (I am good with eggs) I decided to have a go at a cake. Sadly it was the eggs (that I am so good at) which I forgot to add to the mix and it was a good few months before I attempted anything again. Even the Indian takeaways we resorted to created marital friction after I heated one up, forgetting to remove the sag aloo from its metallic carton. The microwave and Matthew both reacted in much the same way - they sparked, hissed, flared and eventually exploded.

Recently, however, I have been tentatively trying to make a comeback. I am taking it very slowly, trying out one thing at a time. I might roast a chicken one day for instance, and the next I will add puréed swede to my repertoire. If that works out all right, bacon rolls will be attempted, and so on and so on until I am ready to put all the constituent parts together into one meal.

I do fully understand that in the light of my announcement, tonight is a big night for Matthew. For years now he has been saying that he dreams of returning after a long commute down the garden, handing me his umbrella Reggie Perrin-style, pouring himself a large Famous Grouse and sitting down to a traditional roast with all the trimmings.

And we are almost there. When the big moment arrives and the potatoes are out of the oven, I phone the shed and then watch as Matthew makes his way down the path. I am very annoyed that he seems to be wearing the safety helmet that was left behind by a builder and tell him I don't think he is being either encouraging or funny. He then tells me, still rubbing nervously at the back of his neck, that he isn't laughing either and refuses to remove it.

Still, he was forced to agree that the potatoes were perfect. Which is lucky because if they hadn't been, if they had turned out to be overcooked and rock-hard they would, in the absence of a bottle of Czech Budweiser, have made ideal missiles. And a safety helmet completely fails to cover that particularly vulnerable spot at the back of the neck.