New 44 Scotland Street Chapter 59: Bacon recipes

James settled quickly into the new routine that Elspeth and Matthew had planned for him. Each week, two mornings and one evening would be spent helping to look after the boys. To this would be added one Saturday a month and the occasional Sunday, if circumstances required it.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

For these duties he would receive three hundred pounds a week, along with his accommodation – he would remain in the attic bedroom that he so liked – and his board. This was considerably more than the going rate for the hours involved, but Matthew and Elspeth were generous employers. Matthew had always taken the view that there was something fundamentally wrong in the way in which society increased its rewards as people became older. That, he thought was precisely the wrong way round: people should start off being paid more when they were young and their salaries should gradually tail off with the years. That was only right, he thought, because young people could do more with money than older people: they had fewer of the things that we need in this life, whereas older people had acquired far more. They had mortgages to pay and children to feed and clothe, while such claims on a person’s pocket diminished as the years went by.

James said, “You’re paying me too much, Matthew.”

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That was a protest that is rarely heard – anywhere and in any circumstances, but James was unusual, as were Matthew and Elspeth. The protest was met with surprised silence, and then laughter. Nothing more was said.

The rest of James’s working time was allocated to Big Lou’s coffee bar, where James had quickly made himself indispensable. Big Lou had been sceptical at first – “Do I need anybody?” she asked Matthew. “I can do all the things that need doing myself. I can make the bacon rolls …”

Matthew had been tactful. The bacon rolls were the problem – not in their essence, as they were as delicious as bacon rolls can be expected to be, but in their singularity, as they were the only thing on the menu. He wanted to say to her, “We live in an age of choice, Lou”, but he held back. Big Lou was sensitive to criticism, and he sensed that consumer choice was not a priority for her. Nor was any attempt to broaden the customer base: “We get the people who want to come here, Matthew,” she had said to him. “We don’t get the people who don’t want to come. They go elsewhere, you see – to the places they want to go to.”

Bacon proved to be the route by which culinary transformation could be achieved.

“I see you have lots of bacon, Lou,” James observed, as he surveyed the contents of the fridge in the coffee bar’s small kitchen.

“Aye,” said Lou. “We serve bacon rolls, you see, James. That’s why we have bacon.”

“I like a bacon roll,” said James, planning to continue with, “But there are other …”

Big Lou cut him short. “So do the customers. That’s why we serve them.”

The following morning, James was prepared.

“You know that bacon,” he began.

“Aye, bacon,” said Lou. “What of it?”

“A very versatile ingredient,” James said.

Big Lou thought for moment. Then she observed, “Versatile? I suppose it is. You can have it crisp or not-so-crisp. I suppose that’s versatile.”

James laughed. “You could say that,” he said. “But there’s more to bacon than meets the eye, Lou.”

James had brought a book with him, and he now showed it to Big Lou. “See this, Lou?” he began. The Little Bacon Cookbook.”

Big Lou glanced at the book, the cover of which showed bacon rashers sizzling in a saucepan. “You don’t need a book to teach you how to cook bacon,” she said.

James smiled. “But you do need a book to teach you how to cook Bacon-Wrapped Sweet Potato with Avocado Wedges. Or Creamy Bacon Scalloped Potatoes. Or even Cinnamon Spiced Bacon Monkey Bread.”

As he uttered the names of these exotic baconian constructions, James turned the pages to reveal pictures of the dishes in question. Big Lou glanced at the monkey bread, and hesitated. The sweet tooth, so firmly planted in the Scottish mouth, made its presence felt, and she took the book from James and studied the recipe for the sticky confection.

James pressed ahead. “We could start with one or two beacon-related things, Lou. Not too much. Just enough to give the menu some variety.”

Big Lou handed the book back. “You’ll cook?”

“With pleasure.”

“I suppose it can’t do any harm.”

The case was made, and accepted, although James was careful not to make this seem a victory. “You won’t regret having had the idea, Lou,” he said.

But Arbroath was not so easily flattered. “It was your idea, not mine,” said Big Lou.

“Of course,” said James hurriedly.

It was at this point that Matthew came in for his regular morning coffee. After Big Lou had prepared this for him, he beckoned James over to his table.

“Everything going all right?” he asked.

James nodded. “Fine. And I’m enjoying it. But there’s something worrying me, Matthew.”

Matthew waited.

“My uncle,” said James. “We have to do something, Matthew. I had an email from him yesterday. Would you like to read it?”

He handed Matthew his phone, and Matthew read the message displayed. Seamus, I just thought I’d let you know I’m all right. Uncle.”

Matthew frowned. “Odd,” he said. “You told me he never called you Seamus. And then …”

“And then why would he send a message to say that he was all right? Who sends that sort of thing – unless they’re not all right?”

“We must do something,” said James. “We have to. We can’t let things go on like this.”

They had been absorbed in the message and had not noticed a figure approaching their table. Now the figure was upon them. It was Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori de Montagna, and she was carrying a small tray with a cup of coffee and a bacon roll on it.

“Don’t let me interrupt,” she said, and then sat down. “Can’t let what go on like this?” she asked. “Not that I’d wish to pry.”

There was silence, and then Matthew introduced James to the nun. She looked at the young man inquisitively.

“I’m worried about my uncle,” said James.

Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna reached for her cup of coffee. “Worry is like a monster,” she said, “that devours its children. We worry about that which we worry about, and then we worry about the fact that we worry. So does our poor world heave and buckle under an ever-increasing burden of worry.”

Matthew scratched his head. “Or whatever,” he muttered.

“We must do something,” said James.

“Doing something is often just the right thing to do,” said Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna. “Do nothing, and you’ll find that the nothing you do becomes the background for the things that you should do – were you to do something rather than nothing. Nothing becomes something – and something becomes nothing. I have seen that happen so many times before.”

She sighed, and Matthew sighed too. James pursed his lips.

“I want to go round there tonight,” he said. “I want to go round and help get him out.”

“We must indeed help one another,” said Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna. “None of us is a peninsula.”

Matthew grinned. “Island,” he said.

“That too,” said Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna.

“When all is said and Donne,” said Matthew, who wondered whether to explain the allusion, but decided not to. James belonged to a generation for whom such things must seem remote echoes of an ancient culture; and Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna had Petrarch and Dante to contend with.

But James surprised him. “That’s Clare enough,” he said, and fixed Matthew with a look that said, Don’t condescend, Matthew.

“Very amusing,” said Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna.