HAND MADE PRODUCTS FOR YOUR HOME
H V COOMBS
Friday January 15
I heard about the first murder while I was making meringues.
Meringues, so simple, yet so fiddly. They are like a metaphor for leading a good life. On the face of it so easy, yet the potential for disaster is huge. So, there I was in the kitchen, the gigantic Hobart mixer was running, fitted with a balloon whisk attachment. I had separated five egg whites and put them in the large stainless steel mixing bowl with a hundred and sixty grams of icing sugar. Sugar gives a meringue both body and weight. Body and weight. Always crucial, for both people and solidified foam dishes.
There was a pounding on the kitchen door. As insistent as the noise of the mixer, but not as comforting. It wasn’t a polite announcement of someone’s presence, it was an angry statement of intent. I slowed the mixer down, and it quietened itself from a deafening rattle to a comforting whir, then I went to open the door. I think I knew who it was before I even touched the handle.
‘Do come in, DI Slattery,’ I said politely.
The inspector entered with his usual air of haughty disdain. In the short time, only about a week, that I had known him, I had learned that the DI had what is charitably known as a forceful personality. It was typical Slattery that, instead of politely ringing or knocking on the front door, he had let himself into the
kitchen yard and used the kitchen one, off limits to the general public. But that’s Slattery for you, given to making statements as well as taking them down. His cold, angry eyes were aggressively trying to find any excuse to arrest me, or at least that’s the impression he gave. I could be wrong. It was certainly the look that he usually wore. Maybe deep down Slattery warmly empathised with me. Somehow I doubted it.
‘Busy, Ben?’ his tone sarcastic.
I shrugged. ‘As you see,’ I turned up the machine, watching the white mixture whirl around until stiff peaks formed. If you overbeat meringues they can weep syrup, creating an unpleasant, sticky soggy mess. In short, a disaster.
No one likes a mess.
I turned the machine off and moved the bowl to a work-surface.
DI Slattery looked at me.
‘Have you been out this morning?’ he asked. I considered the question as I sifted icing sugar and some cornflour into the mix. I think I knew that he wasn’t checking on how my running regime was going.
‘Did you know that undissolved sugar can lead to grittiness and weeping in a meringue?’ was my reply. I started folding the white powder into the very white egg mix. It’s why I was using icing sugar, rather than caster.
He gave me the kind of look which made me thankful for modern policing. Slattery, six feet two and although carrying a fair bit of surplus flesh, was a powerfully built man. Now in his forties and with nearly three decades in the force, he could doubtless remember more robust CID interrogation methods than polite conversation.
I had the feeling nothing would have pleased him more than a return to the good old days of police questioning.
‘In answer to your earlier question, no I haven’t,’ I said. ‘Why?’
‘Because,’ he said, ‘Dave Whitfield’s dead.’ He smiled his mirthless smile at me. 'Do you know anything about it, Ben? You don’t seem very surprised.’
‘No.’ I peered into the meringue mix. No, I wasn’t surprised. Peaks were beginning to form.
‘And where exactly were you this morning?’ asked Slattery.
My mind went back to when I had first met Slattery and Whitfield.
It didn’t have to travel very far.
Thursday January 7
I had first met Slattery one week earlier: the day I had my very low-key opening. I’d bought the restaurant and officially exchanged on the thirty-first of December. I guess that I wanted my new venture, which was essentially my new life, to begin on a New Year. It felt right, and there is always that optimistic sensation that everyone has at the beginning of January: this will be my year! This is my time. I was no exception. Or in my case, this will be a year of no regrets, of positivity, of expunging the past.
I’d been in the village, Hampden Green in the Chiltern Hills, a week. Just one week. It felt an awful lot longer. In the past few days, I had brought in painters and decorators to give a more contemporary feel to the restaurant than the chintz and cream décor favoured by the former owner. I had not expected my first customers at the Old Forge Café to be two uniformed policemen and a Detective Inspector. It most certainly wasn’t the demographic that I had in mind when I bought the place.
And, as omens go, inauspicious. The arrival of policemen on my doorstep brought back aspects of my past I had hoped to put behind me.
The café had previously been owned by a Mrs Cope, an archetypal fluffy-white-haired lady in her late sixties who smelled of face-powder and rosewater and had
eyes like a cobra. I had looked over the books and the operating costs. The Old Forge Café turned a reasonable profit but I could see big room for improvement. It also fitted all the personal criteria that I was looking for: location, accommodation and tranquillity. Additionally, it had a very well-equipped kitchen with a state-of-the-art oven and gas range.
For the poet TS Eliot, April might have been the cruellest month; for the hospitality industry that’s not the case. It’s the beginning of the year. I had officially opened the place on a Friday in January, the hardest month to make money in catering. Everyone’s broke after Christmas, everyone’s depressed, and the weather’s usually awful. It’s not weather for going out. Out here in the South Bucks countryside was no exception. Mind you, my staff bills were low, I didn’t have any.
It didn’t take me long to realise that Mrs Cope not only had the eyes of a snake, but the morals of one. Buy in haste, repent at leisure. The kitchen equipment, now I came to actually use it, instead of being hurried around by an estate agent, was in a terrible state. For example, the door fell off one of the fridges on about the third use and I had to wedge it shut with a sack of potatoes. A lot of the restaurant furniture was quite literally falling apart and the less said about the structure of the building, the better. The painters and decorators had had a field day pointing out more and more horrors revealed by their work.
But despite these setbacks, I was happy. Start off small and grow with the business, that was my short-term plan. I figured that as profits grew I could rebuild the place around me. I wasn’t even too concerned about the potential lack of customers – it’s always a problem in January.
I put together a simple menu with a few clever touches. It was a café menu; I had no liquor licence. Things had to be made from low-cost ingredients so I could make a decent profit margin as I couldn’t get away with high prices and there was no buffer of profit on alcoholic drinks.
Not being too busy suited me. I felt that I would rather take a low footfall and turnover on the chin and work through the bad times of January and February, growing organically, than start out when things traditionally went well. Battling adversity, well, I was kind of used to that. And it was undeniably pleasant to wake up in the flat above the restaurant and savour the silence.
For the last two years I had been living in noisy central London kitchens, eighteen-hour days, cramming as much experience as I could in with kids who were twenty years my junior. It was a steep learning curve. My one-bedroomed flat in Kentish Town had been equally noisy. And prior to that, my rock-bottom, my time spent banged up at Her Majesty’s pleasure, had been far from relaxed.
I also didn’t mind the fact that I had hardly any personal effects in the flat that came with the restaurant. Not now that Mrs Cope’s stuff had gone. It wasn’t just the furniture that she had removed. She had taken not only the lampshades, but the lightbulbs too. That seemed a bit excessive, but, I reflected, Mrs Cope was a thoroughly vindictive woman.
Still, I was enjoying the space. Just as well since I had so much of it. Uncluttered by things I couldn’t afford, I pretended I was enjoying the minimalist life. Who needs tables and chairs and a sideboard? Who needs a bed and a chest of drawers? Who needs a wardrobe, I wasn’t going to Narnia.
I led the police into the restaurant area, gave them a table, asked them what they wanted to drink – two cappuccinos for the PCs and a double espresso for the DI – and busied myself behind the counter.
The two uniforms were festooned like paramilitary Christmas trees with the tools of their trade, batons, Tasers, radios, other bits and bobs of equipment. They clashed horribly with the chintzy furniture of the restaurant which I couldn’t yet afford to replace.
I brought them their coffees. They looked me over in a markedly hostile way. Perhaps they missed Mrs Cope. Perhaps it was because I wasn’t from round here. Or maybe they just didn’t like my face.
Outside the windows of the tearooms the village of Hampden Green carried on its peaceful, unremarkable existence. The winter rain beat down unceasingly.
Through the glass I could see: the green itself (or the common as it was sometimes called); the children’s play area; the fitness/arts studio; twenty or so houses and the village pond. There was also a pub, the Three Bells, a rough kind of place with a pool table. It was one of two pubs in the village. Houses of various shapes and sizes fronted on to the green. The road bent around to the left out of sight, leading to the King’s Head, the other village pub.
The two pubs were indicative of the social divide of the place: BMWs and Mercedes at the King’s Head, pick-up trucks and vans at the Three Bells.
In short, a typical Chilterns village. But carrying on the good old country traditions of surly hostility to incomers.
‘What brings you gentlemen to Hampden Green?’ I asked. The uniforms glanced expectantly at the DI, their spokesman. He had a tough, good-humoured face, slightly battered and quite tanned. He also had a powerful physique under his suit, running slightly to middle-aged fat, and a very obvious ‘don’t mess with me’ attitude. He looked hard as nails.
He stood up and pointed out of the window.
‘You see that house, the one with the blue door?’
I could, and I did. I nodded.
‘That’s my place.’
It was said more in the tone of a warning than anything else. That’s my house, this is my turf, this is my patch. Like a dog cocking its leg, the DI was marking his territory. He looked at me in an intimidating way to underline the message. Satisfied, he carried on.
‘I’m DI Michael Slattery, by the way. Now, I am here to investigate a burglary that occurred down at Andy Simmonds’ place last night. Do you know Andy?’
‘No,’ I said.
‘Well, he’s a pig farmer and butcher and he has a farm shop where he sells his meat. Last night someone forced the lock on his walk-in fridge and nicked about two grands’ worth of sausages. I’m investigating the crime.’
Blimey, I thought. What did he expect to find here? If I was the sausage thief, how would I get rid of them? A menu composed of nothing but sausage dishes? January is sausage month?
May I recommend our special: sausage parfait with a chipolata garnish?
‘A DI?’ I said, quite senior for this sort of thing. I would have thought he would have had more important things to do than look into the sausage robbery and why did he need two uniforms?
‘Slow day at the office?’ I asked.
I’d like to say he looked at me with friendliness bordering on compassion. Instead it was a look in which dislike mingled with suspicion and more than a pinch of sarcasm. I felt that somehow I was failing to connect with DI Slattery.
I went back to my sausage musings. Mrs Cope would have shifted the sausage. That sounds like a dreadful double entendre, but what I meant was, bangers and mash, sausage casserole, sausage sandwiches, sausage and onion gravy. Or continental bockwurst mit kartoffeln salat. Homemade sausage rolls … I suddenly thought, my God, why am I mocking her? All of that sounds good, maybe not the casserole. I made a mental note.
‘Investigate sausage possibilities.’
But that was for later, right now I had the police to deal with. I waited for Slattery and his not so merry men to break the silence.
Outside the windows of the tearooms the village of Hampden Green carried on its peaceful, unremarkable existence. It continued to rain.
I looked at the trio of cops. Three pairs of eyes stared back at me with naked suspicion. I stopped looking at them and looked out of the bow-fronted window behind them instead. A kind of horrible silence ensued. Periodically one of the uniforms’ radios would squawk into life. He would ignore it.
Through the glass I could see most of the village. The rain poured down.
Slattery was the first to move. He stood up and pointed at the common.
‘Well, let’s just say that this is very much my patch—’ his gesture encompassed the whole village ‘—and I’m a tidy man and I like to keep things clean. Now, you’re new around here,’ he said, with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, ‘so I would like to officially extend the hand of welcome, but if anyone should swing by offering prime pork goods at knockdown prices I’d be upset if you failed to inform me.’ He looked menacingly at me, so did his colleagues. ‘In fact, I’d be very upset.’
This was nothing to do with a break in. This was DI Slattery showing me who was boss, who ran Hampden Green. Satisfied with himself, he took his wallet out and handed me his card.
‘I’ll see you around,’ he said, as he stood up to leave
It was a threat rather than a promise.
I wondered what I’d done to upset him.
I guess I wasn’t local.