Pickled onions in the snow

Soon after dawn the first snow crystals meandered to earth in a random, kaleidoscopic  pattern and soon settled on the cold, hard earth.  More followed, and soon the flurries of snow reduced visibility, made driving hazardous and forced householders to abandon their plans for the day.

Drifts built up against buildings, phone lines went down and the temperature plummeted to records for the time of year.  Schools closed and schoolchildren, wrapped in bodywarmers, boots, gloves and hats, played on frozen ponds.

The forecasts predicted further waves, maybe blizzards to follow.  Trains would stop running, commuters would work from home or take unofficial holidays as the entire week was lost for many businesses.

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We had no choice in the matter, being isolated in the picturesque countryside, now a blanket of white as far as the eye could see.  The cottage, glorious in the sunshine, became a prison.  We were cut off by icy roads but thankfully had a good stock of provisions, firewood for the stove and booze to ward off the cold.  My father always told me that the boy scouts were right and that one should always be prepared.

The chickens were still laying from their makeshift shelter in the barn, so I brought her bacon and eggs and fresh-brewed coffee in bed on the morning.  She looked sleepy and unkempt, having huddled to me for warmth all night.  But now she bridled at being seen at less than her best.  Brushing her thick, lush hair aside with an irritable sweep, she then pulled her gown close and sat up to eat the breakfast I had prepared, while I sat on the edge of the bed and watched her.  Somehow that always made her uncomfortable, but I could not resist the pleasure of watching her eat in her dainty, minimal way, a masterpiece in economy of effort.

It was coming on a year since she moved in with me, ostensibly a practical decision to save costs though in some ways it felt like she was still coming to terms with the compromise.  Some women feel right in a couple and can see no other way to live but within a true partnership – the ultimate goal; others are fiercely independent, live how they want to live and don’t take kindly to changing their ways as part of the give and take of a shared household.  She belonged to the latter group, but not in a subversive way.  The relationship suited her in so many ways, made her feel she did not have to be strong all the time, but gave her strength from knowing she could hold me.

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And yet… in another life she might have been a cowgirl or a CIA agent.  To people who did not know her, she could appear tough, ruthless even.  She took no crap from anybody and told them exactly what she thought.  Her passion was for living life the way it suited her, and she gave short shrift to anyone who made excuses.

I sometimes wonder what she saw in me.  After all, it’s not like I was a big-hitter.  I wasn’t worth telephone numbers, and you certainly couldn’t call me a captain of industry, but maybe I was a maverick to her cowgirl – a challenge she could not resist.  If she was strongly opinionated, I was off-centre – I did not fit into any stereotypes or pigeonholes.  She would not admit as such, but I always believed that what attracted her to me was that life would never be predictable or conventional.

To begin with, I had inherited this farm out in the middle of nowhere.  As a city girl she was not used to the rural lifestyle, but then neither was I.  Keeping animals or tilling land was not my thing either, so we set about finding ways to use this land to earn ourselves a living.  Some ideas failed miserably – growing vines from scratch in the home counties was always going to be a tall order.  But others took off, notably the farmhouse jams, marmalades and chutneys.  Not a great living but it was a start.

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In fact, her ideas were what kept me buzzing.  To her it was a small adventure, and she was never the sort to live as a housewife in a suburban semi.  True, she had lived all her life in comparative luxury, her accountant parents had regimented her upbringing to the point where she rebelled in small but distinctive ways.  Not a major song and dance, just a lifestyle choice that did not agree with the professional outlook.  Twenty-odd years later, she made another lifestyle choice to abandon a boyfriend who seemed too rigidly straightjacketed, in order to accept my offer of simple togetherness and a chance to play farms and be free.

But she did not like the cold.  I told her there are places much colder, but that cut little ice.

Joke. Not a good one.

When the snows came down, she took to her bed and stayed there – and I brought her meals and drinks, kept her company and cuddled her for warmth.  She talked someday of selling up and moving somewhere warm, really warm.  I told her she would grow weary of that very quickly, especially the humidity.  No, she said, dry heat – somewhere near a desert so we could soak up the sunshine and do what we wanted to do.

This made me laugh, though she always hated it if I laughed at her.  If she was living a small fantasy with me, another would be required in due course – this time set in a warmer clime.  Would I be able to cling on to this woman who grew bored and needed to move on every so often?  Would I want to?

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The answer was obvious as I stirred the eggs in the pan.  In my inner core she had planted  a contentment that had never previously existed.  No, more than that.  The very thought of her motivated me to trudge through the snow for two miles to buy a jar of pickled onions because she fancied pickled onions and cheese on that day, the one that will live long in my memory.

I got to the shop and stopped at the counter in a moment of clarity.  Had I ever previously gone out on such a madcap venture in impossible conditions because a woman demanded pickled onions, with or without a second thought? No, not once.  I might have performed favours, expecting some in return, but on this occasion it was a selfess act for the single reason that it would please her, if pickled onions from the village shop could ever be described as a mission of mercy.

There were three possibilities: she had gained a svengali-like influence over me in our time together; I was going soft in my old age; or this was love, the sort of love that only truly occurs so rarely that you can remember the feeling for the rest of your days, burned into your heart.

No.  Surely it’s me going soft.  It was not as if she was a model of perfection in any way.  Maybe I thought at the time that inviting her to share my farm was a temporary move until she grew tired of that form of living and I grew up and found a woman who could rule the household with a rod of iron.  Good wife material, as my mother might have said.  That was not her style, which is not to say she is lazy but that her style is haphazard rather than systematic and methodical.

Looking back, none of the women I have dated ever truly looked the sort to want to trudge through the snow for me if I couldn’t be bothered to get up.  Even the ones with supermodel looks were deeply flawed – vain mostly but plenty more flaws.  So instead I found a pixie with attitude – a woman with perverse, unpredictable temperament who had the power to surprise even a bloke who thought he had seen everything.

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Oh, her positive qualities aroused and stimulated me at every level, to be sure.  God knows, we were at it all hours of the day and night and in every possible location when she first moved in.  But sometimes we argued, squabbled like children, then she would flounce off to one part of the house and I to another.  At that point it felt like this experiment in cohabitation would barely last days, let alone weeks, months or years.

Over time we mellowed and a mutual respect took over, grudging at first.  This was my farm, but she still needed her space and I did not own her.  I left her to her own devices and gave her the opportunity to take the initiative when it suited her.  She didn’t shout at me and I didn’t shout at her.  If we disagreed about anything, we would spend an hour or two apart, I would go out into the fields to feed the animals, and eventually she would come out in whatever makeshift clothing fell to hand, cuddle me in silence, and no more would be said of the issue.  No matter how angry she was, she needed affection, needed me to be her rock.

Part of me wanted to love her unconditionally, but yet I was wary of this prickly creature.  I might get spiked at any moment!  Pride comes before a fall, and all that – if I felt this may end up with me getting hurt I would ask her to leave before I got too wounded.  I would clam up and withdraw from the choreography of an organised relationship.  Trouble is, she would have beaten me to that, damn her!

So as I walked back in sub-zero temperatures,  snowflakes descending lazily from the sky, I looked at the pickled onions and wondered whether this arrangement was working or not, for both of us.  Would I always fetch her pickled onions on demand, and what would she do for me?

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Perhaps I had to stand up for my own interests and be more demanding, find the quid pro quos and not let her steamroller me?  She can grow her own onions, pickle them with her own fair hands next autumn, and we can market them alongside the chutneys!

So I arrived back at the house in defiant mood.  The dogs were yelping so I fed them and made a fuss of them.  Unquestioning loyalty – that’s what you got from dogs.  Someone wrote a song about that once.

Coming into the house, all was quiet.  I knew she was in bed.  Fear of the cold was just an excuse – she should put on some clothes and get some exercise – far better way to stay warm!

Even so, I got a plate, cut some cheese and put her favourite crackers and a few of the sodding pickled onions out for her.  I was tempted to leave them on the kitchen table, but eventually I wimped out and carried them up with me to the bedroom.

As I opened the door, there she was, cocooned in the duvet, dozing gently.  As I entered the room she roused and stretched slowly.  She smiled at me, the beaming radiant smile that first attracted me when I met her, friend of a friend.  From that point nothing else had mattered, and now I remembered exactly why she was here sharing my house with me.

I put the tray on her lap and she smiled again.

“Thank you.  That’s perfect.”

“It’s OK,” I replied, perhaps with an undercurrent of formality.

“I thought you must have guessed… that’s why you went all that way.”

Alarm bells began ringing.  Guessed what?  Was she going to walk out on me before I had a chance to give her a piece of my mind?

I grinned sheepishly to cover my embarrassment, but said nothing.

She continued: “I’m not used to this.  I don’t know what you’re supposed to do.”

“Neither do I,” I said.  And it was true – I really didn’t have a clue!

“So how do you feel?”

My mind spun into overdrive.  How did I feel?

“I feel… great!”

“Good.  Because this is not something we’ve discussed or planned.”

“No, this is true.”

Where was this leading?

“And I have no idea how you feel about being, well, you know, a dad.”

If she had hit me over the head with a spade I could not have been more stunned.  Every thought I had had on the way back from the shop melted like the snows in springtime.  I sat on the bed and held her close to me.  I wanted to say something but instead my mouth choked and hot salty tears dripped down on to her shoulder.

It was several minutes before I could release her and say something.  When I looked in her dark eyes it was obvious she had been crying too.

“So this is the beginning of the next great adventure?”

“You’d better believe it, buddy.  Hang on in there.  I need you now.”

So I held her again.  And the pickled onions went uneaten.

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