Infatuation

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From the very beginning, for me, there had been a glamour about Eadmund: the strange married life, the affair, the way he looked after us but kept apart.  With each Christmas that rolled around I found myself looking forward to him being around more and the ‘thank you for working so hard’ hugs.  I used to hang around in the hopes of catching a quick conversation with him and make excuses to deliver him a message and then hang back to watch as he got on with work.

To his credit, he didn’t find me stalker-ish, creepy and downright weird.  He just waited and wondered if I would start a conversation.  He knew that I was fascinated by him and drawn to him and luckily he also realised I was harmless.

I didn’t admit any of this to anyone of course.  It was a bit teenage and embarrassing to be so in thrall to someone.  To outward appearances, it would also seem an absurd match.

He was 17 years older than me, the owner of his own business, had grown up in China as an expatriate, was married and had three children.

I had only ever been in a relationship with my one boyfriend, was in my first job, had grown up in a little town in the north west of England and although we’d got engaged before Jack applied to the Royal Antarctic Survey, we’d kind of let that slip and acknowledged we weren’t really engaged anymore.

Eadmund had a passionate interest in preserving the artisan cheeses of the UK that had almost become extinct in the 1980s and had studied Food Chemistry so he knew about that alchemical process whereby milk becomes what is practically an infinite variety of cheeses.

I was learning the cheesemonger’s craft but to me the world of cheesemaking was a great mystery that … had something to do with rennet.  I wanted to help further the shop’s mission but would I ever have had the courage to start something like that myself?

What on earth did we have in common?

And yet, the touches of his personality I felt around the company, sense of humour, affection for fellow workers and desire and ability to create a happy environment, follow a path where we tried to do the right thing by each other, were things I felt too. Could it possibly be that we had things in common?  That if he got to know me, we would be friends, perhaps even more?

I realise as I’m typing this quite how Fatal Attraction it sounds.  That’s why it became my secret.  Obviously I couldn’t tell Jack I had an unhealthy fascination for a man who most certainly wasn’t him.  I couldn’t tell my friends and flatmates.  They would think I’d lost my mind.

I couldn’t admit it to my work colleagues either. They were the ones who had told me all the gossip.  From the tone in which they relayed the information, I didn’t feel they approved.

‘He hugs you a lot these days,’ Felicity warned me one day, ‘You should watch yourself around him.’

‘I know his reputation,’ I replied but finding it deliciously thrilling that I might need to watch myself, ‘I’ll be on my guard.’

To them, my line was that I wasn’t interested.  To myself, my line was that I wasn’t interested.  I had a boyfriend.  We’d been together for years.  We now lived together on our own like a proper grown up relationship in a flat we’d bought.  I couldn’t admit to myself that it was all a lie.  Besides, although there were more frequent hugs these days, and it felt like a bit more than a normal working relationship, I could hardly say he’d made a move on me.

When I look back on it now, it was as though I was sleepwalking.  I relinquished control of my actions.  Part of the reason I wouldn’t tell anyone was because I knew they would try and talk me out of it.  I also just knew I had to follow where this was going to lead.  It was as if I had no other choice.

The closest I got to a confidante was Isla.  We became good buddies, sharing many a bottle of red, chatting about work gossip and to be honest chatting quite a lot about him.  It gave me an outlet for all the thoughts and wonderings in my head to find out more about him and understand how his mind worked a little better.  It was also great to have a good friend at work.

Christmas

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In the cheese retail world, Christmas is a big deal.

‘We will take more money in the week before Christmas’ Eadmund told the assembled new mongers as part of a special Christmas training session, ‘Than in the whole of July and August put together.’

We’d be asked to work longer hours and more shifts than usual and we would be depended on.  We were to look after ourselves and be on time because with the extra pressure it would be easy to get ill.

What were we about to go through?

‘Christmas is fun too though,’ I was told, ‘People who normally work in the office like Eadmund and Catherine and Jacob are on the shop all the time which makes it a bit of a party atmosphere.’

‘We have a competition about who can sell the most sides of smoked salmon.  Oh yes, we sell smoked salmon and it is the best smoked salmon you will ever have in your life.’

It actually is, incidentally.

Turns out they weren’t exaggerating.  It was as full on, intense, exhausting and exhilarating as they said.  I had never seen so many people queuing up just to buy cheese.  In the rain even.  They waited from twenty minutes to half an hour and the queue stretched all the way past the clothes shop next door and further down the street.  They clothes shop even had to put out an A board to remind our queue to leave their doorway accessible for their own customers.

It was a baptism of fire but addictively enjoyable too.

After waiting patiently for half an hour, we had to give our customers the very best service of our lives; be more welcoming, friendly and helpful than ever.  In the pursuit of being ever better, it generated energy.  There were eight of us packed behind the tiny counter – you couldn’t afford to be shy as arms, legs and torsos jostled past you on all sides.  It was like a complicated dance to keep out of each other’s way but somehow it worked.

It was also my first experience of working with Eadmund.  He was positive, joking, encouraging.  He made everyone up their game.  We worked non-stop and he made it fun.  He created systems where we were too tired and busy to know how to make order out of chaos.  He looked out for us, making each person take 5 minutes for a coffee and a sit down when we looked like we were flagging or getting stressed out.  At the end of the week, he bought everyone champagne because we’d smashed sales targets.  In the tactile atmosphere, with so many people squeezed into a small space, he gave bear hugs that seemed entirely natural, lifted your exhausted spirits and made you feel like trying even harder.  And most importantly he said a heartfelt, genuine thank you for all our hard work.  I felt valued and important.  I learned so much, I had just packed a lifetime’s experience into one week.

Oh yes, and I won the smoked salmon challenge.  It might have been cheating that I also bought one myself.  My prize?  Another side of salmon.  Get in!

At home, my friends and boyfriend hardly saw me.  It was as if I’d disappeared for a month.  I got in late, ate and slept but otherwise I was at work.  It meant that January was an odd month.  Last thing Christmas Eve I’d headed back to Marple for rest, recovery and roast goose.  After Christmas, I headed back to London, reflecting a little ruefully that a 4 weeks per year holiday allowance is a shock to the system when you’ve been used to school and university holidays.  I was still tired.  I missed the energy and the fun of the pre-Christmas work.  I missed the extra boost and special feeling of having Eadmund and the gang on the shop floor with us.  At home, with little energy and coming down from my Christmas adrenaline high, I had to re-build a relationship with my rather shell-shocked boyfriend who was feeling severely neglected.  It was hard work.

The following Christmas, was even more intense.  By this time, I’d decided to take on a bit of administrative responsibility.  Catherine had left the company.  Eadmund was more present in the business and as ever, life seemed more fun when he was around.  He was around a lot more, in fact, because Erin, the retail manager, had also left and before her replacement, Isla could start work.  Consequently it was left to Eadmund among others to instil in her the ethos of the company: honesty at all times with customers and the mission and vocation to preserve, encourage and develop what was left of Britain’s artisan, farmhouse cheese industry.

As autumn rolled around , I was entrusted with the staff rota.  It was not a natural fit.  Trying to make the Christmas shift patterns requested by the department managers fit to the number of staff available was impossible and I was sinking under the weight of it.  I had already put myself down for so many shifts to fill the gaps that I was working 6 and 7 day weeks and it was only the end of October.  I was spending 12 hours a day on my rota admin days trying my best to make it fit.

Isla, as shop manager, refused to accept my compromises.  It was her first Christmas and the pressure was on her to deliver an organised shop that was well staffed enough to get the sales.

She, Eadmund and I sat down and thrashed it out together.  He and I had worked on it for a day beforehand and where I felt like an abject failure, he was kind and helpful and most importantly, with the benefit of many years’ experience, he knew we’d find a way to compromise.  He managed to find solutions where I hadn’t been able to and supported some of the ones I had found.  He didn’t think I’d been a failure; just that it was a damn difficult job.  I almost wept with relief.

The three of us then worked at it solidly, well into the night.  At about 9pm after 12 hours we hit the single malt whisky Eadmund kept by his desk, a present from a Scottish cheesemonger.  We didn’t hit it hard but just enough to give the evening a slightly warm glow.  Later, we tottered off into the night, not reeling from alcohol but from yet another mind bending 14 hour day with the satisfaction of knowing we’d finally sorted it.

That year I disappeared from my boyfriend for 2 months.

We’re not in Marple anymore, Toto

The canal near the house in which I grew up.  Marple.

The canal near the house in which I grew up. Marple.

‘And do you eat cheese?’ asked the business owner over the phone.  I had summoned up my courage and rung about that job.

‘Oh yes, when the diet allows,’ I replied with more hearty cheeriness than I felt.

‘Oh, do you worry a lot about fat then?’

‘Oh no,’ I bluffed (it had actually been a fairly recent panic of mine as I was eternally convinced I was overweight), ‘Just that you need to eat everything in moderation.’

‘Hmm,’ the female voice over the phone replied, ‘Yes, everything in moderation.’

Sweat was breaking out on my brow – I’d evidently said the wrong thing.  However we fixed a date for an interview and as I’d already got other jobs lined up for interviews that day, I turned up wearing my suit jacket and a pair of trousers that went reasonably well with them.  I felt the full suit was a bit over the top for jobs in retail.  In the weeks that followed, I realised that no one else did that.  Everyone else pitched up in their jeans.  However I think it might have helped my cause because Catherine, a partner in the business, liked me.

‘The shop is the heart of our business,’ she told me, sounding a lot more friendly in person than she had done on the phone over the diet faux pas, ‘but we do have other departments too which gives you scope for more varied work.  We wholesale to shops and restaurants.  I notice from your CV that you’ve studied languages, Jacob there,’ indicating the back of a blond head to the right of us, ‘uses his languages all the time.  He started out working in the shop and now manages our Export Department.  He’s even selling British cheese to the French.’

I made noises of incredulity and indicated that I was impressed.

‘… and I run the business with my partner Eadmund,’ she continued indicating the back of another blond head, this one atop a big tweed coat, khaki trousers and what I would later know to be VeldSchoen but at the time I recognised as classic leather English mens shoes.

Evidently a look on my face indicated that I thought she meant life partner, as well as business partner.  It seemed that sort of family place where a couple might run it together.  I was to be put right however, as she quickly clarified, ‘my business partner that is.’

When I later recounted the story of my interview to Felicity, the wholesale manager who was working with me during my trial month and who also happened to be an incorrigible gossip, she set me straight,

‘That’s because until not that long ago they were partners, not just in business.’

‘But isn’t he married?’

‘Yes and she was married too – to Eadmund’s best friend!’

Her assistant manager, Naomi chimed in,

‘They were together for years without either his wife or her husband knowing then it all came out and it was pretty shocking.  But it’s not long since they split up so that’s why they’re really awkward around each other.’

She went on, ‘He works at home a lot these days, which to be honest isn’t best for the business, but it’s better than the two of them working together and creating a bad atmosphere.  She works in the office but spends a day a week on the shop and he’ll usually come in and use the office from time to time and most likely when she’s working on the shop.’

Crikey, thought I, it’s like something out of a novel.  They had a passionate affair, that’s all finished now and she’s with someone new and they obviously still have feelings for each other or it wouldn’t be so awkward.  How very star crossed and romantic.

Highly charged passion between business partners wasn’t the only exotic aspect of my new job either.  It turned out that quite a few relationships were made and broken over the selling and maturing of cheese.  Michael, the cellarman, in charge of all the cheese maturing, due to a somewhat camp Yorkshire accent had been assumed to be gay until one day Naomi piped up

‘I think Michael might fancy me.’

One day they went on holiday to visit her family and when they came back, they were married.

There was the frightfully English aforementioned Felicity who had at one point had a fling with the shop manager Erin. Since then they used to compete over any of the female chefs that came in to buy cheese in the shop.  Erin had also had a rather charged relationship with the ex-mail order manager, Adrienne which was complicated further by Erin having a psychotically jealous girlfriend and Adrienne a commitment phobic boyfriend whose idea of flexibility in relationships did not extend to his girlfriend having a girlfriend.  It was, it goes without saying, a deadly secret and was also, Adrienne told me later, the best sex of her life to date.

It was a tangle of intermingled lives and unique people. I soaked up every new story, wide-eyed, insatiably curious and fascinated.  I felt like I was in a soap opera only way more cool than that.  A long way from home and yet exactly where I always wanted to be.

emerald-dorothy-and-toto-pl

The next big love in my life

The cheese that started it all.

The cheese that started it all.

‘I don’t want to eat in any of these places.’

Gia and I stared out of the bus windows.  My sister had come down to visit me for a few days and we had been out in London for the day and were looking for a restaurant.  We weren’t much impressed.

‘Oh I know, let’s get off here and go to Carluccio’s for salami.  We can change onto the 38 and then go home and have a picnic.’

We walked up through Covent Garden market, past street entertainers and the throngs of people queueing for the Hard Rock café and northwards past the tube station.  Gia and I have a long standing love for Italy, having holidayed in the same house in the Abruzzo every year since she was born.  As a consequence, Italian cured meats and olives are not only tasty in their own right but are also a nostalgic reminder of sun drenched days, friends who have watched us grow up and treat us as extended family, relaxation and happiness.  We made a beeline for Carluccio’s, selected our cured meat purchases and carried on towards Shaftesbury Avenue.

For some reason at one of the road junctions, we looked up towards Seven Dials and saw the cheese shop.

‘Hey, let’s go there!  It’d be like the shops in Boulogne!’

Part of the cherished family tradition had been that as both our parents taught, they too had long summer holidays and we usually went out to Italy for at least 6 weeks every year.  My Dad taught Italian so for him it was invaluable in keeping in practice.  We needed a car when we were out there and low cost airlines weren’t anything more than a glint in Michael O’Leary’s eye so we drove out, putting the car onto a train at Boulogne and then taking the train on through to Milan where we arrived for breakfast the following morning.  In the hours we had to kill between the time the ferry arrived and the time the train left, we had got into the habit of buying a particularly superior picnic for the train: Camemberts, Chevres, Baguettes, Celeri Remoulade, Carrots Rapees, Tartes aux Fraises and, when we were considered old enough, Normandy Cider.

We had never seen a cheese shop in the UK that looked even remotely like the fromageries of Boulogne.  Cheese in the UK seemed to be kept away from customers, behind glass, vacuum packed in plastic, its personality and character suppressed.  Not in this place.

The door creaked open, we entered the richly cheese scented, cellar cool air.  We had no idea what to buy.  An enormous slate counter stretched in front of us, piled high with every sort of cheese our hearts could desire.  All around the shop walls, shelves were bursting with cloth wrapped huge truckles of what I would later recognise as Cheddar, Cheshire, Lancashire.  We scoured the counter looking for a name we recognised from our French cheese purchasing that we could identify and purchase and we found nothing.

A cheery man of about 6 foot tall with short cropped blonde hair greeted us and tried to get us to try something.  We needed a minute to take the experience in and, being British, we were reluctant to say yes.

‘Go ahead and look,’ the blonde man I would later call Jacob said.  He turned to one of his colleagues.

‘The Wigmore is escaping again.’

A girl in a white chefs jacket and white wellies emerged from behind the counter and picked up a wooden board with the offending Wigmore cheese.  It was liquid and was heading off the board and onto the floor.  It looked great.

She brought it back behind the counter and noticing that we were following its progress with our eyes, Jacob offered us a taste.  It was vegetal, cauliflower-like even, savoury and cheese in liquid form.

‘It’s a bit over the top to be honest,’ he said, ‘I prefer it when it’s not gone quite that far.’

We loved it.  We bought a whole quarter of a pound.

I now look back on that purchase with a modicum of embarrassment.  We bought three very small pieces of cheese.  I paid for them with a cheque, which I now know is the most fiddly way to pay imaginable.  These days I rarely buy anything under 500g of cheese – if you’re going to buy cheese, you may as well seriously BUY CHEESE.  I spent under a tenner and I took ages about it too.

If this was in any way frustrating to Jacob (and in retrospect, I suspect it was), he gave absolutely no sign of it whatsoever.  He was helpfulness personified.  Whatever we wanted to taste, we could.  No need to say thank you, it was just what they were there for.  We left with our 3 small pieces of cheese in a little white plastic bag and resolved to return.  We had to bring our Dad in there.  We now realised that we didn’t recognise any of the cheese names because all those very many cheeses were all British or Irish!  Not a French one among them. Remembering my father’s laments over the no longer being able to buy the Tasty Lancashire or unpasteurised Stilton of his childhood, we knew he would enjoy this shop.

The picnic was very satisfying by the way.

My graduation, my parents wedding anniversary, a belated 21st birthday bash for me and an early 18th birthday bash for Gia was held at the end of the year.  As a special treat, we decided to try out the Neal Street Restaurant, Antonio Carluccio’s restaurant at the time.  Since we were in the area, we took my dad to the cheese shop.  It was Saturday, the place was heaving but as he spent a full 45 minutes in there tasting everything and spending a considerable amount of money, we hung around at the doorway so other customers could actually get inside.  We were a group of 6 (including Jack).  That’s all the people the shop could fit on the customer side of the counter.  As it turned out, this meant we had plenty of time to read and re-read the notice in the window that said they were looking for cheese loving staff.

I had graduated by this point and was hoping that inspiration would strike me as to what I wanted to do.  The only thing I did know is that as the child of two teachers, I wasn’t going to follow them into the teaching profession.  My dad was counting the days to his retirement already and sadly he still had several years to go.  I had vaguely voiced the idea of working in a shop just to pay the rent and was hoping that somewhere along the line a blinding revelation would happen and my future career would become clear.

‘Well you could definitely do worse than working here,’ my Mum pointed out.

It was idiosyncratic, characterful, cheery, welcoming, the staff banter indicated that they were all great friends and they were selling some delicious cheeses.  I gave them a call.