Harriet Walker: Beware the broth of over-attentive guilt


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The perils of modern romance are as numerous as they are entirely inevitable and laceratingly dreadful. I consider myself an observer rather than an active participant right now and I take my role as socio-sexual stenographer very seriously.

When I installed myself on my friend's sofa last weekend at 11am to eat a sort of hungover lunch-breakfast that began with eggs, ended with Haribo and was washed down with cava, her male flatmate was pottering around the kitchen. Defrosting chicken breasts, chopping veg, measuring out stock and wearing an apron. He decanted everything into a slow-cooker and switched it on to mull its contents, before disappearing to the shower.

"He's making his dinner for the week," my friend explained to the all-female congregation. "He's very domestic like that. It's so he has nice things to eat after a day being all high-powered at work."

I was impressed. My fridge usually contains a jar of cornichons, beer, milk for tea and a bowl of congealed pasta sauce in case my flatmate is feeling culinary. The appeal of coming home to an easily reheatable bowl of cosy pottage is huge, but the chasm of efficiency and forward-planning, not to mention soul-deadening apathy that lies at the very heart of my being means I usually rely on peanut butter on toast or a ready meal.

The slow-cooker hummed all morning, as did my friends and I as we glugged bottles and bottles of cheap fizz. At 3pm, the chef came back in, gave the contents a stir and disappeared again.

At 7pm, we were still on the sofa, still fizzing with fizz and a day's worth of putting the world to rights from the recesses of its squashy cushions. The flatmate re-appeared, this time dressed in evening attire – a shirt and chinos, in accordance with the rules of his south-west London tribe – and poked his creation with a wooden spoon.

"Worrisit anyway, Rob?" leered my friend from her armchair. "Some kind of chickeny stew?"

"It's soup, actually," he replied, turning the slow-cooker off and getting ready to leave. "The girl I'm seeing only eats soup when she's hungover. She's having a big night out tonight so I thought I'd take it to her tomorrow. I just need to de-bone it and then whizz it up so it's smooth."

Smooth indeed. Despite the cackling that had erupted from our quarter, this soup-making made me ponder the power of the Big Gesture. I don't think I've ever been the recipient of a Big Gesture. I've always been a little suspicious of them, as if they can't possibly do anything other than make up for a severe personality disorder or guilty secret. And I'd get embarrassed. If somebody made a Big Gesture at me, I'd probably crinkle my nose and laugh at them. The closest I ever came to one was opening to the door to a then-boyfriend who handed me a bunch of carnations before asking me what was for dinner. And he turned out to be a psychopath, so point proved.

But this soup was different – it had a pragmatism that removed all ridicule. It was just Nice. It would be like somebody mending my broken cupboard without me asking them to. He'd even gone out to buy Tupperware to transport it in.

"No one's ever made me soup," I glugged, once the door had banged shut behind the Petrarch of the pressure cooker. Nods of assent from around the table; more swigs. "That is the sweetest thing ever," someone added. Somebody else poured us all another round of fizz.

At midnight, we were still on the sofa, less comfortable than before but invigorated by nearly 12 hours' worth of cork-popping and gossiping. At the clatter of the latch, we made to get up and pretend we had been terribly active in the time the flatmate had been out.

But there was no need for mortification at our fizz-athon and soft-furnishing inertia. For the kitchen cupid had returned with a lady, who – we were given to understand by a series of throat-slitting gestures and behind-the-back eyeballing of the slow-cooker – was not the girl for whom the soup had been made; the girl whose hangover the next day would be mopped up with the broth of inconstancy and over-attentive guilt.

It just goes to show: while you might be able to leave soup on the back-burner, dating these days is more a case of out of the slow-cooker and into the fire.

When I woke up the next morning, I received a text from my friend. "Rob is worried because there's a birth-control pill by the sink in the bathroom. Is it yours or has his new friend forgotten to take it?"

"Not mine," I texted back. "But perhaps he could serve it to her with some artisanal bread."

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