Change is in the air. Condensation on the bedroom window this morning. A chill as I got out of the shower which left me shivering. Outside, the leaves are starting to curl, tipping over into brown, and the flowers I haven’t bothered to deadhead in my late-summer laziness tell me that summer is more or less over. Change and decay in all around I see. And over the garden fence, next door’s Building Project of Doom is beginning, so, for the foreseeable future it will be mud and machinery in all around I see.
The youngest is back in uniform and I’ll soon be back in my winter one – tunic dress, black tights and boots. My tan will flake off inside the tights, however much I moisturise, and I’ll buy something new for the new season which will be exactly the same as something I already own, just in a different colour. Meet the new dress, same as the old dress. Variations on a theme rather than actual change.
And yet this year I do have to face actual change, not just the seasonal switching of routines. One daughter is off to uni; the other to art college and, though still living at home for a year, will be out more than in, I suspect, readying herself for leaving. The recurring patterns of the past 18 years are about to be disrupted, and I am bracing myself.
A postcard drops through the letter box, which on closer inspection proves to be a mailout from a life coach. “What do you most want to change today?” it asks me, tactlessly. “On a scale of 0-10, how important is it for you to achieve change?” and, “What other areas of your life do you want to change?”
“Oh, life coach,” I think, “you’ve come to the wrong house. I’m not your ideal client. Honestly? I don’t want anything to change. I’m a happy creature of habit who is now being dragged, kicking and screaming, into a new stage of life. And on a scale of 0-10 I’m a full 11 for everything staying the same forever, please.”
Sadly, that is not an option, and so, looking for positives in order to avoid gloom, I decide to focus not on the empty nest, but on the emptier dinner table, realising that here is a change I can get behind.
“Dear life coach, I’m not being facetious but, now you mention it, there is one small area of my life I want to change, and it’s the repetitive family meals I cook, week in, week out. Here we go again: if it’s Tuesday it must be Thai curry.”
No recipe required, I could cook these meals blindfold, or pissed – except I don’t get the chance to do that, because on weekday nights I sit, booze-free, clutching a fizzy water tragically posing as a gin and tonic, with its fooling-no-one slice of lime.
Cooking is fun when you can be the Galloping Gourmet, glugging red wine and stirring a goulash, but cooking for a family is more like international diplomacy than MasterChef’s flamboyant experimentation suggests.
It’s all about trying to please everybody. Or at least somebody, some of the time. There are individual dietary restrictions because of health issues or allergies. A temporary vegetarian. The intermittent avoidance of carbohydrates by certain members. And fussy eaters. Being able to say your kids “eat anything” is a badge of honour for the middle-class parent, but it’s a matter of luck, not skill. The fussiest one in my household has an acute sense of smell and taste (like Nigel Slater, who has written about being a fussy child), so I’m assuming she’s just more discerning and will turn out to be a sommelier or a chef.
But now, with fewer differing tastes to cater for, I am attempting a change in my cooking repertoire. I’ve scoured the recipe books that dustily line the kitchen shelf and made a list of salads I like the look of. Interesting new vegetable dishes. There are Post-it notes stuck in the Ottolenghi and lots of pages turned down at the corner. The youngest, who is still stuck at home with us, won’t know what’s hit him. Luckily, as he’s well aware, I’m a happy creature of habit, and within a week I’ll be back to shepherd’s pie. Change is fine, but you don’t want too much of it all at once.
This article appears in the 14 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation