Purveyor of Bollocks to the Crowned Heads of Europe
Tuesday, 17 January 2017
The Spotted Dick
Alerted by a familiar screeching sound and a dart of movement in the corner of his eye, the abbot rises from his desk and goes to the window, where he sees swifts skimming the edge of the carp lake for mud.
His eyes narrow with resentment and he makes a mental note to instruct one of the brothers to take up a long pole and destroy the nests as they are built in the eaves of the cloisters, as he has done for the last eight years. In the long run, he believes it to be less messy than cleaning up all the white shit from the cobbles if they are allowed to breed in the shelter of the monastery walls, as they had been for the previous seven hundred.
With brief knock on the door, the abbot's secretary simultaneously enters the room and places a sheaf of papers on his desk. The abbot sighs to himself and returns to his chair.
He feels uneasy in this monk's presence and dislikes the morning briefings with him intensely. The brother came from Newark Priory, an establishment renowned for its laxity, financial incompetence and - as rumour had it - debauchery.
As his secretary moves close to him, the abbot catches the now familiar whiff of some sort of perfume or aftershave. It is distinctly feminine in nature and makes his close proximity even more uncomfortable as he leans over his shoulder to point out various details of the documents.
Today, there are two unavoidable listings on the calendar that require the abbot's presence - the banquet and the opening of the lead coffin.
For some weeks, archeologists have been working in the crypt with trowels and brushes, and have discovered an intact and well-preserved coffin belonging - as the inscription relates - to one of the original abbots of the monastery. In a great show of publicity, the lead coffin is to be opened later that morning in the presence of local and national press.
In the evening, a banquet is to be held to celebrate the signing of an agreement between the owner of the nearby country house and the abbey, which plans to convert the house into a conference centre with a top-class restaurant attached. The guests to the banquet will include a French-born T.V. celebrity chef, who is to be the head of the restaurant. The abbot is not at all confident that the two cooks of the abbey's refectory are up to the job of providing the sort of five-star meal that the chef has come to expect on his visits.
Preparations for the feast have begun in the kitchen since early morning, and the two cooks are busy stitching herbs into the bellies of fish which had been pulled from the pond the day before. They have reluctantly taken on the taciturn lad as a pot-cleaner, because two of the regular lay-workers have fallen mysteriously ill. As they work, they constantly bicker with each other, like an old married couple.
They are still arguing about what is to be made for a pudding, when one asks the other where the chopped onion is. One insists that it was agreed that the other chop the onions and says that they are needed at this very moment if the meal is to be prepared according to schedule.
The lad has not said a word since he arrived in the morning, but - to the cooks' incredulity - suggests that he chop the onions while the cooks continue with their tasks. They both look at each other with a conspiritorial wink, then one wipes his hands on his apron, places a board next to the unpeeled onions on the table and puts a large and sharp knife into the hand of the lad. They both stop what they are doing, confident that he will take ten minutes to deal with one onion, probably cutting himself badly in the process, then stand over him to watch and - ultimately - humiliate him. They did not want this boy in their kitchen and would be glad of a reason to send him home.
In two deft movements, the boy removes the peel of a large onion, then cuts it into two pieces. He pins each half to the board with his right hand, then - using his fingernails as a guide - flicks the blade up and down in movements so rapid that they are difficult to follow with the eye. In five seconds the onion is finely and uniformly chopped into small pieces and he reaches for another as the cooks look on in astonishment.
They know that the boy has all his meals cooked for him by his mother, and they wonder how this left-handed lad with seemingly autistic tendencies who had only just left school had learned kitchen skills which are normally only seen in the best restaurants.
They go back to their work, and in a very short while the lad is standing over a great heap of chopped onion and asking them what they would like him to do next. One of them jokingly says that he could make the dessert if he wants, and he takes them seriously and goes to the pantry for ingredients.
They ignore him as he quietly mixes various things at a worktop, then one of them notices him add a large quantity of chopped suet to a basin, and asks him what he is preparing. The lad says it is to be a Spotted Dick. They laugh and return to the main courses.
A little later, the lad stops what he is doing and goes over to one cook to point out a better way of preparing the goose which he is working on. The cook stifles his anger at the kid's presumption and ostentatiously asks for his advice about a better way. The lad gives it and returns to the Spotted Dick.