Lasagne with sardines

Cooking has felt like an uphill struggle for a couple of weeks. Or at least starting to cook has. This is partly down to exhaustion, because I’ve had three days off in six months covering for furloughed colleagues, and the news that many of those colleagues, having now returned to work, are immediately to be made redundant hasn’t lifted my mood much.

Things are changing. I think when we were all first confined to our homes back in March we had the sense that eventually we’d all return to a normality; that the virus was a block placed in the middle of 2020 that we’d all have to find a way around, then resume our lives when it was removed. It isn’t, of course: there is no normal to go back to. Most of us won’t go back to the same office and the same colleagues and the same routines. I’ll go back to a building that used to be full of people I looked forward to seeing five days a week, to one that will now contain a greatly reduced number of them, probably two days a week.

This change all goes on while we’re scattered around greater London, communicating through Zoom, unable to pick up on the extra bits of information you’d get from overhearing things in the kitchen. There is nothing to overhear in my kitchen. If you’d been there last Thursday you might have overheard me saying “Sorry” aloud, involuntarily, while replaying in my head something I said when I was 12 that I wish I could take back, but that’s about it. Change is maybe a bit easier to deal with when you’re in the middle of it, able to interact easily with everyone else at the heart of it and so let it happen gradually, not just seeing them briefly on a screen for a conversation about predetermined subject matter, leaving less room for tangents and nuances.

I’m leaving here soon too, buying a flat about 20 minutes’ walk away, on the other side of the High Road. When you have your offer accepted on a flat, you go within about an hour from someone who is accountable to no one to someone lots of people want a piece of, wanting forms filled in and bank statements sent and previously obscure concepts googled. I just want a room I can sit in. What sort of monster would oblige me to show them my P60 just to demonstrate I’m in a position to pay them back £200,000 over the next 29 years? Any reasonable bank would just cursorily skim-read a few of my tweets, decide I was a decent enough sort and immediately stuff a pillow case full of tenners and bring it round.

So I’ve got a lot on. Weekday meals are pieced together more than planned. Leftovers paired with whatever vegetable is hanging around, maybe hastily blitzed and turned into a slaw with some mayonnaise and vinegar. But one weekend, the day before the thunderstorms finally come to wipe away a week-long heatwave, it occurs to me I’ve never made a lasagne before.

This is, on the face of it, insane. I’ve been cooking for myself for about 15 years now. Everyone’s made a lasagne. Jeremy Vine, Mick Fleetwood, Yaphet Kotto. They’re all at it. You’d think at some point I’d have tripped over and dropped the required ingredients into a hot roasting tin.

I’ve even got lasagne sheets in the cupboard, which I think are the survivors of an attempt at some pasta dish in about 2017 which used lasagne sheets but was not, in and of itself, lasagne. I remember mistiming it and thinking the sheets needed much less time to cook than they did, but what else was involved I couldn’t say. To the extent I’ve noticed they were there since, the prospect they conjured in my head probably felt a complex one. A hundred different pans, a sauce, a bloody cheese roux, the layering, like some vast unwieldy game of death.

One of my primary motivators right now, though, is to use up as much stuff as I can before I move out, ideally leaving only three boxes to pack: one of books I’ll never read, one of old chargers and one of noodles. Lasagne sheets are famously useful, by and large, in lasagnes, and for little else. It’s not like I’m going to re-sole my brogues with them. And frankly I could do with something that takes up some time.

I buy tomatoes, peppers, the same chechil cheese I used on the pizza and a courgette from Club Med, a shop I worry unduly I’ll have to shop at less frequently but with more advance planning when I live 20 minutes further away from it than I do now. This is to be a mainly vegetable affair, with sardines thrown in near the end. I roast the peppers and courgettes first because I want them to char a bit, and add them to the tomato sauce later. I make the roux, remembering what a colossal pain in the arse making a roux is. 

Even small decisions now are coloured by the fact I won’t be living here much longer. I’m happy about it, but nothing feels like you should put it there, because you’re going to have to move it in a few weeks. Frozen food has to be eaten and so the quantities in which it’s purchased carefully considered, as if it’ll be in danger of defrosting and rendered lethal on a five-minute van drive to its new freezer.

I suppose you leave little shadows of yourself wherever you live. The lingering thought in the next occupant’s head of how you arranged the furniture; one they can’t shift or help comparing to how they arrange it. The odd letter through the door from once-relevant correspondents, their use now outlived; the image of you in the new occupant’s head whenever they see one on the doormat. A.F. Rinaldi once lived here. John Creevy. Rory Hunt. Another former resident is the subject of occasional attempted contact from the Bank of Jamaica, I guess through a machine automated to try him every six months or so, firing messages endlessly into the void, with no human capacity to hope for or expect a reply. How did A.F. Rinaldi feel when he or she lived here? Did they make a lasagne and feel pleased when they weren’t sure they’d made enough to do all the layers but it turned out they had? Did they sprinkle the top with chechil from Club Med and then, in a flash of inspiration they felt proud of, have the idea to add some breadcrumbs and olive oil to the surface? Did they ever feel oppressed by the walls and go out for a walk, turning right and ending up on a sunny Tooting Bec Common, full of dads kicking balls to kids and friends cross-legged on the floor, and feel the stifling of another day indoors lift off them as they made their way onto the grass?

A sixth of the lasagne eaten and the other five portioned for leftovers and freezing, I flick cigarette ash out of the window and a rock of it catches in a spider’s web. The spider makes its way over to investigate. It prods at it with its little legs for a few seconds, not sure whether it’s food, then disappears below the window sill out of sight. 

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