Making Friends When You Really Only Want Fish Stew
Dispatch from Edinburgh, Scotland
Eddie’s opens at 8am, and I’m still not dressed, still trying desperately to make a decent cup of coffee with Tesco Americano instant and a packet of skim Scottish milk. Edinburgh is dark from daylight savings time, and drizzly from tradition. It’s perfectly dismal, and I know I’m not the only half-naked woman in the city, staring into the murk and planning Cullen Skink for dinner. Cullen Skink — a creamy leek and fish stew — and homemade soda bread generously buttered, and maybe a few shots of Jura single-malt. But Eddie’s fish market opens at 8, and if I don’t get there soon, all the smoked haddock will be gone, and my Skink will have to wait until the weekend.
The coffee comes out weak and bitter at the same time — a result I never understand— but I sugar it up and gulp it down. The kitchen is unforgivably clean; we do not talk to each other but we will scrub happily, side by side. There are five of us in this gorgeous old Victorian house— all women, all writers who’ve run away from home, to sleep alone on rainy nights, to finish our novels or start our memoirs, to scare ourselves to death.
We have not become friends yet, these women and I. We cook in our own pots and buy our own eggs. We smile in the hallway, we knock politely, we say No worries! when we collide.
The two youngest — 30-somethings hailing from Argentina and Italy — have snapped themselves together like life-sized Legos. They don’t appear to enjoy each other much, but they haven’t yet learned to be alone.
The other two — Margot and Jen — are deep into their 40s. These two circle each other warily. They sometimes ignore each other in French, but they can’t ever seem to say what they mean in English. I am often their referee, sometimes their emotional interpreter. “I believe Jen would prefer the aubergines,” I’ll interject into an icy discussion of the Thai leftovers in the community fridge.
Or “Do let Margot have a fire, she’s got a bit of a chill, hasn’t she?” when Jen is fanning herself, affecting heatstroke in November.
Just call me Kay the Lion Tamer.
These women, who are not yet my friends, sit with me in the great room downstairs, almost every day for the last four weeks. We write together — we’ve contractually committed to this togetherness as part of our writing programme, even though we each have desks and wifi in our lovely, individual suites. We distribute our work round the table, pour ourselves tea or whisky, watch the rain run down the glass.
I give them my stories, newly hatched, raw and quivering. They drop their traumatic tales on my plate, still too hot to consume. The stories talk to each other, console each other, clasp each other’s hands. We are silent.
Aren’t you lonely? is the most common question asked by my friends and family back home, but few can understand the answer.
I am not.
I am, in fact, entirely too happy with my own company — and so, too, I think, are Jen and Margot. We share a writer’s delight for solitude, which impedes our ability (and desire) to share our real lives.
Jen’s story today is about riding an open jeep through a desert, with grim results. She leans back in her chair and closes her eyes, as if watching us read it is too painful. Margot’s piece details a woman lost in her own pain and anguish. I offer up a humorous essay about a love affair gone wrong, which gets a smile, at least, from the Lego twins. Are the stories fact or fiction? We each make extensive notes on our own copies.
Our writing coach arrives, and as usual, reminds us to put our stories in the middle of the table, where they can’t fall off.
I find my galoshes in the front hall closet, and take up someone’s umbrella from the hook. The bus stop is right in front, just past the iron gate and the untended garden. It will drop me two blocks from Eddie’s, and I’ll walk the rest of the way in the mizzle. I’ll fill my canvas tote with smoked haddock and sushi-grade salmon and perhaps a few king prawns for tomorrow’s pasta, and quickly come back home. It’s a perfect day for cooking up stew and warming up friends.
Scotland reaches some deep place in me I’ve yet to identify. I long to be here when I’m not, and when I’m here, I am loath to leave. I’ve learned to let my syllables soften and fall off the end of my words. I tell tourists to cross the road, and mind the gap. I say EH-din-bruh instead of EE-din-burg. I say Brilliant! when I mean That’s great! and I’m drinking more tea because the coffee is shit.
And did I mention? I’ve also learned to make Cullen Skink from scratch. I’ve invited everyone into the kitchen tonight to help me chop and stir. We’re having it for dinner, with homemade soda bread, generously buttered. And maybe a few shots of Jura single-malt, just to be safe.
I’m on my #GapYear at 60, and coming soon to a country near you. Click here to get updates, cool pics and funny stories. I won’t ask you for bail money, I promise.
Why I’m Taking My Gap Year at 60
After a lifetime of living other people’s stories, I’m finally choosing my own
Recipes for Cullen Skink and Soda Bread
Cullen Skink, Serves 6
I large onion, chopped
3 leeks, cleaned and sliced
3–4 potatoes, peeled and chopped in cubes
600 ml of water vegetable or fish stock
3 large fillets of cold-smoked haddock, chopped in cubes
1 bay leaf
2 tbsps chopped parsley
Salt and pepper
Sauté the onion and leek, season with salt and pepper.
Add the potato bay leaf and stock or water.
Bring to the boil then turn heat down and simmer for half an hour.
Add the smoked haddock and parsley, simmer for 5 mins.
Take off the heat, add cream, taste and season with salt and pepper.
Garnish with chopped parsley and serve with bread.
Soda Bread or Wheaten Loaf, 12 slices
300g wholewheat flour
100g plain flour
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tbsps caster (superfine, but not powdered) sugar (optional)
300ml buttermilk or soured milk (add lemon juice or vinegar to fresh milk to sour it)
1 tbsps rolled oats
Heat the oven to 200c
Stir together flours, salt and bicarb, rub in the butter then sugar if using.
Gradually stir in the soured milk, form into a ball.
Place onto a floured surface knead a little into a nice ball shape.
Cut a cross on the top (to let the fairies out!), brush with the last of the soured milk and dust with oats.
Bake for 30mins until golden brown and a wooden skewer comes out clean.
Serve with butter