The Things That You Will Keep


Posted by in July's Magazine

I’m looking for a photograph of my younger self, standing in the wreckage of a tiny commercial kitchen after a particularly hectic lunchtime service. In the photo it looked like someone hastossed a live grenade into the room. Indeed it looked like the thrower had deliberately aimed for the top of my head.

30 minutes after the picture was taken the kitchen would be spotless. But if people came to pass on compliments or complaints, for it was an open kitchen, this is how I liked them to see it. After the metaphorical wall had been scaled and we’d made it down the other side… The winding down before the whole delirious process screeched back into gear.

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The photograph was taken by a wonderful old Lithuanian/Pole called Val and in what proves to be a wonderful result for you (trust me) I can’t bloody well find it. The ‘milder’ one above was taken before service.

However it did get me to thinking about Val. He supplied me with a bewildering array of Polish produce long before such stuff was on tap here. Kassler ham, wieskja sausage, pork stuffed cabbage leaves (golabki), his own mustard and, bewilderingly, merguez sausages which hail from North Africa but, no matter, they were brilliant.

Everything was pickled, stuffed, broiled and forced into sausage skins in his ‘garage’ in Fife. He took me out there once and to my surprise it actually was his garage there, right in the middle, was his van. Vague smells of oil and petrol were overwhelmed by the glorious, pungent smells coming from the roiling vat, smoker and oven. It was a wondrous sight to behold; it felt like a genuine glimpse of how things were done in the old country before the Second World War: Or, depending on your viewpoint, a very ingenious serial killer’s lair.

If Health & Safety had ever cottoned on to his inventive use of the property they would have thrown the book at him. No, in fact, make that the entire stock of the British Library.

When Val was happy he was Polish, when he was tearfully sentimental and terribly sad he was Lithuanian. If he delivered at the end of my shift, I knew what the routine would be we would sit in the empty restaurant and he would sit in silence for a while then, as if by magic, he would produce a bottle of vodka and sit sipping from it in silence for a time. Then he would ask me to get two glasses and basically fill them. I didn’t then and don’t now, drink spirits, but that was not an option here. The vodka was brutal, indeed probably brewed in that selfsame bootleg meat shack, his garage.

Now would come the longest silence, Val’s eyes would become rheumy, his stare decades longer than mine, his face etched with despair, a sort of morbidity of the soul would engulf him, finally, with more vodka, the tears would come. And then we would talk…or rather he would talk.

Of forest secrets on the Eastern Front, of being forced to wear a German uniform and dig graves in the woods. “Meester, Meester” – now he was Lithuanian – “the things I did in the war my heart should have died of shame or poison.” Then he would unravel his great bear frame, sleeve his bottle of hooch, crush my fingers with his slab handshake and be gone. I would not have uttered a word throughout.

He’s dead and gone now, his lovely rustic recipes with him and, too, those other secrets. They wake you in your sleep, the things that you will keep.

Picture: Taken by Val written on back:”best chef this side of the Atlantic”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One response to “The Things That You Will Keep”

  1. Colin says:

    Beautiful piece of writing, Bill. A bittersweet pleasure to look through that window back into the past (your past). I still recall with great fondness your stint at the King's Wark when I was a cheroot-smoking whippersnapper drinking his money away by the old Miller Lager tap, knocking them back at the Butcher's Table. And I even recall you proselytizing for the Merguez back then. Heady days.

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