My friend Caroline wrote this, the other day. It’s an essay about how she will peak at sixty-one, and I think she’s right: that is exactly when Caroline will be at her best. I have long suspected that everyone has an age at which they are at their best. Some unfortunate people are at their best as children, and spend their whole lives resentful over having grown up. Some are best at the age they are right now, and it is entirely joyous to know those people right then. And some of us- me- will be best old, matured, like cheese, or port. I will be at my best at about eighty-six, I think. I come from a long line of long-lived women, all beautiful and marvellous (and much mourned): I will be eighty-six.
I will be eighty-six, and I will live alone in an enormous house full of books.
I will be eighty-six; I will be Elizabeth Brown.
I will be eighty-six, and my assistant will come every morning to my enormous house on the stroke of nine, and she will make my breakfast, and sort my post, and draw my bath.
I will drink black coffee and smoke in my bath (and my bath will be scented with three drops of flawless perfume I will have made for me, by widows in Montparnasse), and I will read my post, and decide who to answer. There will be post for me every day: letters and books and pressed flowers. I will keep all my post in a tall red Wellington, sorted according to my fondness for the author.
I will eat small, exquisite meals. Three oysters. Thin slivers of buttered toast. Broth in a white bowl of such fine porcelain that the light can be seen through it. A perfectly boiled egg, with three fingers of asparagus, done to a turn. I will say “done to a turn”, and delicately purse my eighty-six year old lips in satisfaction.
I will have tea sent from Ceylon, and I will call it Ceylon: I will refer people to maps three hundred years out of date. I will ask young visitors whether they have ever travelled in the Orient. I will each year take the Orient Express, where I will commit murder, if I feel like it: nobody will ever find out. I will be eighty-six. Nobody will suspect me of anything, and if they did they wouldn’t say.
I will feed visitors on seedy-cake and Madeira and press impossibly rare first editions of The Borrowers on bewildered children. I will give things away with an extravagant generosity that I will attribute, laughingly, to knowing (witch-like) that soon I will die. I will still have twenty years in me at eighty-six, and I’ll know it, but I won’t tell them that. My visitors will believe I am a witch. I will begin to believe I am a witch.
Like my great-grandmothers I will have marbles in a tin, and when you hold them up to the light (like my broth-bowl) you will see through them, green, blue, tiny oceans. Among the marbles will be a glass eye, and they will ask me whose? and I will smile enigmatically.
I will be enigmatic, but in a nice way.
I will talk to people who aren’t there. I will talk to them so convincingly that the people who hear me talking aloud in empty rooms will wonder whether there is something they are missing (there will be). I will be surrounded by ghosts of all kinds.
I will know everyone, and everyone will wonder if they really know me. Can anyone say they know the real Bell? they will say to each other. They will agree that no, nobody can. I will think this is very funny. I will laugh a lot, when I’m eighty-six.
There will be an unauthorised biography of me: it will speculate about my parents, my lovers, my inescapable and many talents. It will be scurrilous in all the right ways, and I will be secretly delighted. My old friends and I will pore over it gleefully, and when the film is made we will be baffled and amused by the young actresses playing us, who don’t know how much better life is, now we are eighty-six. We will watch the film of our lives incessantly, my old friends and I.
I will play card-games and drink sherry. I will wear lipstick that will never smudge. I will wear powder. I will no longer eat much meat, but sometimes the yen for beef carpaccio, so immaculately sliced, will overtake me, and I will have it, just for myself, in my dining room with the high ceilings and the table laid just for one. The carpaccio will match my lipstick.
I will live by the sea: I will be comforted by it. I will walk each day with my assistant to the fishmonger’s, where I will choose my oysters, a judicious portion of clams, a neat fillet of sea-bass that I will poach in gently-spiced milk. I will no longer eat scallops, but I will eat scallop roe, fleshy pink corals on crisp cold toast.
I will have old friends to supper, just the two of us: we will make the assistant pull up the tall leather armchairs to the fire. The assistant will light the fire, and leave. Like Caroline, I will not have a social relationship with my assistant. Caroline and I will talk about everyone we have ever known. We will harbour secret bitternesses for years, and corresponding secret and long-lasting affections: we will miss you. We will miss men, but we will have known this was coming for many years. We will be prepared. We will have prepared our old age in advance. Shored up against disaster, we will have books and a fire, personal assistants and exquisite scent. I will keep chickens, and for breakfast every morning in a fine porcelain cup I will have a buttered egg, the yolk spilling goldenly onto my elderly chin, and I will pat it away with a pure white linen napkin that, used once, will go straight to the laundry.
I will have truffles.
I will be extravagant, when I am eighty-six, and I will walk to the fishmonger’s, every day, rain or shine, and everything will be exactly as I like it. When I am eighty-six, I will please nobody but myself.
Time is not important. Slow, methodical, just as long as you like: the stock will take a few hours.
Serves one, of course.
One chicken carcass (stripped bare, by an assistant with dexterous fingers, and left in the roasting dish)
One large white onion
A handful of leek-trimmings, or one leek
Two teaspoons of a kind of white truffle oil (when I am eighty-six, I will have proper truffle oil; at twenty-two I have a very nice bottle of olive oil flavoured with white truffle I bought in Rome)
One teaspoon of flaky sea-salt
Four teaspoons of black peppercorns
A handful of frozen peas
Four stems of Sweetstem (or Tenderstem) broccoli
Half a lemon
(This will make plenty of stock, but that will keep well in the freezer.)
A sharp knife; chopping board; a steamer (or a colander propped over a wok, a la Nigel Slater); a kettle; a big pot; a saucepan; a brand new J-Cloth (or muslin).
You begin making this soup- a broth, really, but the word is tired- a lady I know said it reminded her of primavera soup, so primavera it is- in the same sort of way you approach making any kind of stock. Only much simpler: only the chicken carcass, and the leek trimmings, and the white onion, and some black pepper. There is a kind of sweetness to this stock that you don’t get with the ordinary, busy sort. Boil a kettle, and tip the boiling water into the roasting tin, moving a spoon about to scrape the oil and scraps from the roasting tray. Let it sit for a moment or two, while you reach down the big pot, and set it on the hob. Take your leek trimmings (or slice and clean your solo leek), and put them in the big pot. Take your onion: quarter it, leaving the skin on. Put that in, too.
Grind a little black pepper. Add that as well.
Stir the chicken-y water in the roasting tin, and tip it in to the big pot. Take the chicken carcass, carefully, and put that in. Light the hob (a slow small fire, please), set the big pot over it, and leave it. Leave it for hours- three or four, maybe, as many as five. Taste, every now and again. Have long conversations on the phone with your oldest friend. Write a letter. Sit, and watch the crocuses in the square. There’s no hurry. No hurry at all. Time is different (now you’re eighty-six).
When your stock has come to a reasonable simmer (sweet, tender, golden), turn the heat off. Find a very clean (brand new) J-cloth- or a muslin, but they are harder to come by- and stretch it over the empty saucepan. If you are a little shaky, you might ask the assistant to help here. An extra pair of hands is always useful. Let the stock cool.
Measure out one large mug of stock, and strain through the J-cloth: translucent, gold, with puddles of richly-scented fat rising to the surface. It’s a very beautiful thing.
Grind two teaspoons of black peppercorns with a pestle and mortar, meditatively. You want a very fine powder for this. Add the pepper to the strained stock, with a teaspoon of salt, and bring very slowly back to simmer.
Then, very carefully, add a very scanty teaspoon of white truffle oil. White truffle is such a strange and wonderful thing. I like it now, but it will be my favourite thing when I am eighty-six. Earthy, rich, fine, and if you are not careful, overwhelming: when you are eighty-six, you will know exactly how much truffle to add. Let simmer.
Set the kettle to boil, and slice (along the diagonal) four spears of Sweetstem broccoli (I am not precisely sure what Sweetstem is, but that is what I used. When I am eighty-six, I shall know none of this matters). The broccoli will steam, and the peas will boil. This is when a steamer comes in handy, because you can do them together quite simply, like neighbours: peas downstairs, broccoli upstairs.
Fill the pan of the steamer with boiling water; add peas. Stack the upstairs part of the steamer with broccoli; add lid. Three minutes for the peas, and remove with a slotted spoon to a clean bowl. Five minutes for the broccoli, and add to the clean bowl. Toss the peas and broccoli together, and squeeze over (lightly, lightly) half a lemon. Stir again. A second teaspoon of white truffle oil. Stir again. A good pinch of sea-salt. This is a beautiful thing to do with green vegetables, and it is tempting to just eat them by themselves. But your eighty-six year old self knows better: take two enormous spoons of your vegetables, and decant into a little bowl.
Stir your broth again, making sure no skin has formed, perhaps adding a bit more ground black pepper. The pepper should be very present, when you taste it. A little sparky, a little kick. Nothing too daring, but certainly there: a twinkle in your eighty-six year old eye, maybe. It should be bubbling (a very little bit), and you will take the broth, and pour it straight over your peas and your broccoli.
Serve immediately, solitary. Breathe in sweet and musky steam. Silverware on china. The very simplest, the very purest. You will be old, one day, and you will drink this (like life) right down to the very last drop.