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The almost inaudible humming of life

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It was a quarter to six on a beautiful late spring afternoon. The house was quiet, though there was an almost inaudible humming of life.

Julie was in the patio, curling on the rocking chair with a book. Smoke was sleeping on a sunny patch on the kitchen floor. The three boys were doing their homework, sitting at one end of the long kitchen table. Maurice came down the stairs, whistling softly some unrecognizable tune and rolling up his shirt’s sleeves.

- Ready? – asked Giovanna with a smile, when he entered the sunlit kitchen.

He pulled his apron over his head, beaming.

- As ready as I’ll ever be! Let’s unravel the mystery of your chicken pie!

Giovanna made a delicious chicken pie and he had been pestering her to teach him to make it.

- You know the kitchen rules by now. First, let’s get everything we need.

She was going to help, but he made her sit.

- I’m going, thank you. Today, you just teach. I’ll do the actual work… - he half closed his eyes in concentration and listed – Pastry first, so that will be the bowl, the wooden spoon, the rolling pin and the… what are we going to use as measure?

- A wine glass will do fine.

He took all the items from the wall cupboards and set them on the table. The he looked at her, silently questioning.

- White wine, olive oil, plain flour and corn flour. – she recited, looking rather amused with the whole thing.

Maurice went to the pantry to bring the ingredients and set them orderly on the table.

- Waiting for your orders, ma’am! – he said, with a playful curtsy.

- One glass of white wine in the bowl. That’s it, let it drain. Now the same glass of olive oil. Let it drain. Always put the wine first so the glass will be wet when you put the oil in, otherwise, the oil will stick to the glass walls. Add a generous pinch of salt and stir with the spoon until it dissolves. You don’t want to find salt when you are eating.

Maurice followed the instructions with a serious face. He liked cooking and this was his first attempt at pastry, he wanted to do it right.

- Time to put your hands in. One handful of corn flour first.

- What’s the corn flour for?

- It makes the pastry extra crunchy and stops it from rising too much. The piecrust must be thin and crispy. Now begin with two, maybe three handfuls of plain flour and mix. Add flour until it makes a ball. Let me see…

He tilted the bowl to show her the progress. Giovanna nodded approvingly.

- That’s good. Now, take it out of the bowl, scrape it all to the last bit and knead in on the stone. Pastry has to be worked.

Maurice turned the bowl over the marble surface of the kitchen table, sprinkled the ball with a little flour and began working it. He looked very intent, his fair eyebrows knitted in deep attention. He was feeling very good kneading the pastry. It was certainly a nice, productive way to spend one’s energy and he could feel the texture gradually changing beneath his hands, as if the pastry was a living thing. Giovanna smiled at his serious, almost angry face.

- Pastry is a wonderful thing to make when one is angry; you can beat it at will. It really gets anger out of you. – she said, and lowering her voice to a hush, she added – When Salvatore died, I took it all on the bread dough. I usually cried all the time through baking, but it did make me feel better afterwards.

She blinked a few times to ward off tears. He noticed, and left the pastry to go hold her, a bit awkwardly because his hands were floury and greasy. The woman let him hug her and rested her face on him for a while, grateful for the warmth and the friendship.

- Maurice, you’re a brick! Thank you… Go back to your pastry now. I’m all right.

He planted a soft kiss on her cheek and returned to the table.

- Add flour, bit by bit, until it no longer feels oily but smooth and supple. It is something you have to feel with your hands. In warm weather, it usually takes more flour…

- I think it is good now… - Maurice said in a very low voice.

- Then cover the bowl with a clean cloth and go put it in the cold pantry. This kind of pastry needs to cool down before rolling. Oh, and put a teaspoon of flour in the glass before keeping the flour tin, you’ll need it.

He did take the pastry away, cleared and cleaned the table, leaving only the olive oil bottle behind, and washed his hands afterwards. Giovanna got up from her chair and approached the table.

- Let’s deal with the filling now. You’ll need the vegetable knife, the meat knife, the cutting board and a pan.

Once more Maurice reached onto the wall cupboards for the required things.

- Fetch one big onion, two cloves of garlic, one large carrot and a piece of smoked sausage, about the length of a hand. One of my hands, mind you, not yours.

While he was going to get the ingredients for the filling, she brought the chicken breast from the cold pantry.

- We are going to use the breast for the pie. I always do, because the breast is dry and tasteless. You know how it’s left every time we roast chicken, and we have to use it for chicken salad later. I’m going to use the rest of this bird to make us some chicken rice in the oven for tomorrow’s lunch.

- I see! So that’s the reason we always have chicken rice the day after the chicken pie. You sly fox!

She winked.

- It’s an economy issue. The ingredients are the same, except for the pastry of course. The difference is in the way you prepare and cook them. If I can cook two meals for seven from one chicken, why shouldn’t I do it?

Smoke approached the table looking hopefully at the chicken breast. He even let out a faint meow, but Giovanna told him off. Maurice laughed, as Smoke curled again, this time on Alec’s chair.

- The nerve of that cat! Put those hands to work if we are to have that pie for dinner. First, you peel and chop the onion and the garlic and fry them in oil, as you do for ragú. Put the fire really low and cover the pan so you can proceed to peeling and dicing the carrot and chopping the sausage.

He did it all with considerable skill. While the covered pan was simmering over a low fire, he cut the chicken breast into small pieces and added them to the rest.

- Hmmm, it smells so good… - Santo closed his notebook. His brothers had already done the same.

- Homework done, you three? – asked their mother.

- Yes, Mamma! – the boy’s chorus was a little out of tune, but sounded very funny.

- Go play outside, then. Ask Julie if she wants to go. Remember dinner is at eight and you have to wash and set the table. Put your school things away first…!

The boys ran to their room to put away their books and things. Soon their voices could be heard in the patio.

- Julie! Want to play football with us?

- Yes, sure, but I’ll have to ask Uncle…

- No need! He said you could! He’s baking a pie with Mamma…

The four kids left running and laughing. In the kitchen, Maurice was learning the little secrets of seasoning the pie filling.

- Get the glass where you put a teaspoon of flour and stir in a bit of water, about half the glass, slowly so the flour won’t make lumps. Now let’s season the filling. A pinch of salt, no more, remember the sausage is rather salty. Two turns on the peppermill, a generous pinch of nutmeg… fetch two marjoram bits from the pot; it’s the one with small round grey green leaves. Wash it; put in the leaves only, the stalks are rather hard. Now taste it.

Maurice took a small teaspoon from the drawer and tasted the filling.

- You’ll have to do it yourself, I’m afraid. Maybe it is because I’ve been so close to the pan all the time, but I cannot really taste anything…

- I know; it happens to me too…

She took another small spoon from the drawer and sampled the mixture.

- It’s very good. Now add the contents of the glass but stir them first for the flour will have gathered at the bottom. Mix it all, quickly…

Instantly, the pie filling became creamy. Giovanna tasted it again and told Maurice to add just the smallest pinch of nutmeg and to finish with a few lemon juice drops and put out the gas.

- Cover it and leave it to cool a bit. Let’s get the pastry and line the tin. Oh, light the oven first.

The pastry was now quite hard.

- Is it normal? – Maurice asked, frowning.

- Yes, that is exactly what it should feel like. If it still felt warm and elastic, it wouldn’t stretch properly. Keep about one third for the lid, and roll the rest as thin and as close to a circle as you can. Put those muscles to good use, will you?

He rolled the pastry. It was quite hard and needed a good deal of physical effort, but stretched beautifully. He lined the pie tin and, following Giovanna’s instructions trimmed the pastry in order to leave just an inch above the edge of the mould. He put in the filling. Then he rolled the other third of the pastry and cut it into a neat circle using one of the big serving dishes as template, to make the lid. Then, he carefully folded the extra inch of pastry he’d left over the lid, pinching it so it would not open.

- Almost done. Now you beat an egg to glaze the pie. There is a brush in the second drawer.

Maurice was whistling his unrecognizable tune again, a sure sign that he was rather happy with his work. He glazed the top of the pie with the egg, cut small slits all around to let the steam escape and put the pie in the oven to bake.

Giovanna was rolling the pastry trimmings into a nice rectangle. She glazed it with the remaining egg and sprinkled grated cheese on top. Then she cut it into small squares and put them in a square tin, to bake after the pie was ready.

- Cheese biscuits – she explained – the kids love them. I always bake some with the pie trimmings.

She looked up at him and smiled.

- You have flour on your cheek. And on your nose. To tell you the truth, you’re covered in flour. You look ready to go into the frying pan!

They cleaned the table and washed the knives and the pan while the pie was baking. At half past seven, the kids arrived running, sweaty and laughing.

- Go shower all of you! – Giovanna ordered – The table his waiting for your services.

The pie was just coming out of the oven, golden and smelling deliciously, when Alec arrived.

- Where does this heavenly smell come from? – he asked.

- Chicken pie for dinner – was Giovanna’s answer. She was preparing a big bowl of salad – Maurice made it from scratch. I only told him what to do…

- Where is he?

- He went upstairs to wash and change. He had flour all over…

The kids were setting the table. Alec ran up the two flights of stairs. Maurice was in their room, buttoning up a clean shirt, his hair wet and rumpled.

- Am I the luckiest man in the world… - Alec said, coming up to him – Not only you’re drop dead gorgeous, but you can cook as well! Not to mention all your other talents…

They kissed passionately and Alec whispered into Maurice’s ear:

- You look so beautiful and smell so good, I’m not even sure I want pie for dinner, you know.

Julie’s voice came from the ground floor.

- Da! Uncle! Everybody’s hungry, do hurry up!

They both laughed.

- Oh, Maurice, do brush your hair… - said Alec looking at him with a mischievous smile – Let’s go down there’s a pie waiting!

As they were going down the last flight of stairs, they looked down. The dinner table on the patio looked like a painting. The big, round and golden brown pie at the centre. On the side, the glass bowl full of colourful salad, red tomatoes, red and white radishes, green lettuce leaves, white and purple spring onions, black olives and the greyish green of dried oregano leaves. On the other side, the bottle of red wine and a big blue jug of lemonade. There was still enough day light, but Giovanna had placed two lit candles on the table. The children were already sitting on their usual places and Giovanna was bringing a big bowl of shiny red strawberries.

- Look here, kids! The first strawberries this year!

Alec let Maurice go one step down, so their heads were at the same level. He held his friend’s hand; their fingers entwined, and kissed him.

- We have such a good life it sometimes scares me a bit…

Maurice returned the kiss, cupping Alec’s face with his free hand. He didn’t see, but Julie was looking up at them, silently smiling.