“Charles! What are you doing?” Gordon said.
“Hmph? Nothing!” Charles said, hiding the jar behind his back. “Absolutely nothing. I thought you had gone for a walk? Off you go, go on, a young fellow like you needs his exercise.”
“You’re eating something,” Gordon said accusingly. “What is it? Oh, this is nice, I must say. Every time my mum sends me something you eat some “to be polite”, Archie eats some “to redistribute wealth”, Minka eats some “to further Polish freedom” and Josh just eats some! And now you have something and you’re not sharing it!”
“All right, all right,” Charles grumbled. “Really, Gordon, must you whinge like a spoilt child? It’s a jar of truffles I was sent from St. Sebastian’s and I wasn’t eating them. Yet. I was just smelling them.” He held out the jar. “Don’t tell anyone I have this, and by anyone, I mean Archie. Go on, have a sniff. It’ll be wasted on you.”
Gordon sniffed cautiously and frowned. “It smells odd,” he said.
“I told you. But I have hopes of persuading Mrs Best to use them in a recipe that might bring at least a little epicurean cheer to this desolate, barbaric place.”
“It’s hardly a wasteland, is it?” Gordon said. “We’re in Buckinghamshire!”
“Precisely,” Charles said with a genteel shudder.
“Look, what sort of food are you going to ask Mrs Best to make, anyway?” Gordon said.
“Ah,” Charles said with a slowly expanding smile. “Something rich and sophisticated, something that will entice and entangle the senses. Something French. Chapon en Farce Légèrement Fumée et Truffée, Pommes Fondantes aux Marrons, Jus Mijoté au Madère, in fact.”
“What?” Gordon said in confusion.
“Chicken with smoked mushroom stuffing, boiled spuds and chestnuts, with gravy with a splash of plonk in it,” Archie said, quietly shutting the door behind him.
“Archie!” Gordon said in surprise. “Have you been taking lessons in sneaking from Minka?”
“No,” Archie said. “I just like to eavesdrop in the hopes of catching Charles saying something treasonous I can report.” He held his hand out. “Let’s see it, Gordon.” He seized the jar of truffles and waved it disapprovingly at Charles. “These are the enemy of the proletariat, Charles. The Tsar liked them, you know. I’m not surprised to find you with some of them in your bourgeois possession.”
“Give them back! My truffles were not the cause of your favourite revolution, they’re the honest result of honest labour by French peasants, so you should be in favour of them.”
“Oh, aye? And how did you get your hands on French truffles, then, Charles? The truffle-exporting industry’s been a bit slow since the middle of 1940, wouldn’t you say?”
“They’ve been in the kitchens of St Seb’s since before the war - now give them back, I need them!”
“No,” Archie said with a grin. “Maybe I’ll have them on toast. Why do you need them?”
“That’s none of your business,” Charles spluttered. “And since when do you speak French?”
“I don’t,” Archie said. “But I did meet an old friend on my way here, and she said you’d promised her a taste of home. And then she translated it for me.”
“You met Marie-Anne?” Charles said. “Well, back off, you coal-mining number cruncher, the Bletchley girls are good enough for you.”
“Charming,” Archie said, and screwed the lid firmly back on the jar. “Here’s your smelly mushrooms back.” He tossed the jar over and Charles caught it neatly in a move that showed he had, once upon a time, been an avid cricketer. “They’re dug out of the ground by pigs, you know, Gordon,” he said. “And then stuck in jars and eaten by pigs, too.”
“You want to entangle and entice Marie-Anne’s senses?” Gordon squeaked. “Charles, no! We’ll all be dropped into occupied France again!”
“It wasn’t actually France, Gordon,” Charles said. “Besides, I’m sure she wishes to apologise for leaving us with no parachutes and only a monkey at the plane’s controls.”
“You call Minka a monkey?” Minka said, standing up from the table that had, to all appearances, been empty till that moment.
“Gah!” everyone shrieked.
“No!” Charles said quickly. “No, I meant the elder Featherstonehaugh-Marshall fool, of course. How Neville ever qualified as a pilot, I simply don’t know.”
“Good,” Minka said. “Minka is good at flying planes. Minka is good at everything. Now, you wish to eat French food, Charles? Why? You have date with -” Minka’s expression resembled one of the colder days in a Krakow winter. “- member of French resistance? Oh, look at me, I take break from fighting Nazis to eat dinner with man who likes German poetry too much!”
“This should be good,” Archie said, and sat comfortably.
“Well, I - that is - Marie-Anne is a very pretty girl, and -”
“Pah! You think perky beret and matching revolver hidden in lacy garters is pretty?”
“For true beauty, Slavic womanhood cannot be surpassed!”
“Yes, that’s true, Charles,” Gordon said hurriedly. “I mean, look at Minka, just, look at her -” he finished in a dreamy voice.
“Yes. Observe Minka. I do not eat fancy-pantsy French chicken. I eat healthy Polish food! Polish food makes hair shiny, gives strong grip to hands. Also, Minka’s legs are better than any French resistance fighter’s legs, see?” Minka put one foot on the table, giving them all a panoramic view of her legs.
“Unnngggg,” Gordon said. “I think I need to lie down for a while.”
“No, you’ll just go blind,” Archie said. “Gordon - Gordon? Are you listening?” He lightly slapped Gordon’s cheek until some sort of sense came back into his face.
“You Englishmen have no taste,” Minka said. “Pah! You think you will succeed with Marie-Anne, Charles? With French food cooked by Englishwoman? You are crazy. Minka will save you.”
“I’d really rather you didn’t,” Charles said.
“Is no problem, Minka have nothing else to do. You have jar of mushrooms, yes?”
“I wouldn’t call truffles mushrooms -”
“Polish food use many mushrooms. Minka will cook. Polish food is food of romance. One mouthful of flaczki and silly-billy French girl will be yours. I will also cook exotic foreign food, šiupinys. Is Lithuanian.”
“What’s flaczki, Minka?” Archie asked happily.
“Ooh, tripe,” Archie said, elbowing Charles in the ribs. “Lucky you, eh? I like tripe, me.”
“That must be why you talk so much of it,” Charles said.
“And what’s šiupinys, Minka?” Archie said, ignoring him.
“Is nose of pig. Also stewed. No woman can resist!”
“Minka - thank you for the offer,” Charles said in horror, “but I think can manage by myself.”
“No, Minka will manage your love life. I am very romantic person. One time, I give handsome Nazi perfect red rose. Then I shoot in head.” She held out her hand. “Give Minka jar of mushrooms.”
“Well, I -”
“Aren’t you supposed to be eating a romantic dinner with Marie-Anne?” Archie said as Charles glumly stared into a pint of Victory ale that evening.
“Yes,” Charles said. “I was, but she took one look at the blood soup, tripe and onions and exotic pig snout stew, cried, But where is the capon that I was promised? and stormed off. I couldn’t blame her, really.”
“Tripe and onions? That’s good Geordie food, that is,” Archie said.
“You go and eat it, then,” Charles snapped. “Although I should warn you, Minka’s not in a very good mood about having her national cuisine insulted. I believe she said something about the insertion of her cooking into diners’ bodies via unusual entrances. It was approximately at that point that I ran.”
“Good point,” Archie said, turning pale at the thought of Minka’s ire. “Maybe I’m not really hungry after all. Here, where’s Mrs Best? I’m going to need another drink in a few minutes.”
“She said she just had to pop off for a little while,” Charles said. “Drink slowly, Archie, and relish the rare peaceful moments where she isn’t attempting to assail our virtue.”
“Another very good point,” Archie said. “That’s twice I’ve agreed with you, Charles. The ale mustn’t be as watered down as usual.”
“English men,” Minka said, helping herself to more flaczki, ”are very stupid.”
“Mais, oui,” Marie-Anne said, passing her the fondant potatoes with chestnuts. “You should have seen Charles’ face! Oh, he was like, how you say, a spoilt child. But now, the plan has worked, and we have a good dinner and no stupid men to destroy it. Thank you for cooking also the French dishes, Mrs Best.”
“My pleasure, dear. The thing about men,” Mrs Best said, “is you just have to know how to control them.”
“With sophistication and vague promises,” Marie-Anne said.
“Pah! With threats and heavy weapons,” Minka snorted, offering the šiupinys in a manner that suggested everyone else should refuse.
“You continentals,” Mrs Best said fondly. “I prefer the straightforward English way.”
“Make them desperate and extract promises while they are begging?” Marie-Anne said.
“I’ve never actually been able to wait long enough for them to get desperate,” Mrs Best said. “I was thinking more of the extract promises while they’re still grinning afterwards, myself.” She nodded approvingly at the pork-and-truffle stuffed chicken. “That’s how I’ve got a few chickens promised for next week, too. Oh, that butcher, he does like being persuaded.”
“The French resistance is good at such persuasion,” Minka said in an unconvincing French accent. “Oh, look at me, my Nazi-fighting skirt, it barely covers my bottom!”
“It is important not to let standards slip just because there is a war,” Marie-Anne said. “You know this in the Polish resistance, do you not? Oh, look at me, I cannot get lipstick so I smear my mouth with human blood!”
“Girls, girls,” Mrs Best said. “No fighting at the dinner table. Now let’s have a nice glass of this bottle of wine Charles so kindly had hidden in his room, and toast the fact that we have the men where we want them. Next door.” She poured them each a glass and smiled as they raised them.
“À votre santé,” Marie-Anne said. “And to the freedom of France and Poland!”
“Minka is very gracious, will happily reply to pathetic French toast,” Minka said. “Na zdrowie, to the freedom of Poland and France!”
“Cheers,” Mrs Best said. “And may no one’s wives ever find out.”