Friday, 20 January 2012

Novel: Corned Beef Hash

The university had been unable to provide me with any accommodation. They had more students than usual that year, and couldn't even provide places on campus for all their first-year undergraduates. Thirteen of them had been sent out to a hall of residence in Shrovedean, five miles from Helmston and almost ten from the university itself. There were posters up all over campus saying FREE THE SHROVEDEAN 13! So I had to squeeze into the Squirrels with my belongings, most of them inherited from a recently deceased uncle. My sweaters and jackets, so big that my shoulders disappeared when I wore them, were crammed into a small fitted wardrobe whose hangers were draped in polythene. Getting them into and out of their covers was always a problem, but I wasn't sure how Bill and Marjorie would react if I removed the covers altogether and stowed them under the bed in the space already taken up by my shoes, suitcase and those of my books and files (actually shoeboxes filled with index cards) that were not on the dressing table being used for the current chapter of my thesis. I would eat at the dressing table, too, clearing a space for my plate and mug among the piles of books, papers and cards. I have never been so familiar with my own appearance as I was in the months I was living at the Squirrels - it was almost like having a room-mate, especially as the figure in the mirror was not one that I remembered from my previous life. I was growing a beard, and used to study my face while I ate, trying to work out if it was finished - did I look like a bearded man yet, or just a fuzzier version of myself?
     Except at mealtimes, there was no space in my room for anything to do with food. My pans and casseroles, crusted with the baked-on grease of my uncle's twenty years as a widower in Swanage, were piled under a table on the landing, beside a cardboard box filled with crockery and cutlery. I cooked in the dim space, peeling potatoes and chopping onions on the table and making frequent trips to the bathroom to wash up in the handbasin. If there were guests staying in the hotel, they would have to squeeze by me as I cooked, on their way to the rooms on the second floor.
     It was always corned beef hash. Not that it was the only thing I could cook, or even the simplest option, since it involved using two pans, but I could keep cooking to a minimum by making a large one that would last for two days: hot with brown sauce, cold with coleslaw. Sometimes I had cold baked beans, too - I preferred them that way because they didn't have the sludginess of hot ones. Apart from the hash, the only other thing I used my landing space for was preparing hot drinks. There was a kettle for coffee, and I also had a 2lb jar of malt extract I had bought out of curiosity, which I was slowly getting through in the evenings, a dessertspoonful at a time dissolved in hot milk.
     Apart from the doors to my room and the bathroom, there was one other door off the landing, which was at the far end, next to the flight of stairs that led to the second floor. Sometimes the door to this would open and a woman about my own age would come out. Her name was Elaine, she was a nurse, and was the only other long-term guest in the hotel. Apart from these facts I knew nothing at all about her; we only ever met on the landing, and our relationship consisted entirely of compliments, She would tell me my cooking smelled nice, and I would tell her she was looking glamorous tonight. When she was not in uniform she would be sparkling all over, not just her clothes but a sprinkle of glitter on her cheeks, arms and thighs as well. I used to wonder where she was going and who with; like me, she never seemed to bring anyone back.

1 comment:

  1. The newly bearded self as room mate and spoonfuls of malt extract - against the intrigue of the glamourous nurse... perfect.

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