Kitchen Chronicles is a weekly series by Barbara Sibbald, a novelist and award-winning journalist and long-time contributor to Ottawa Magazine. Visit Kitchen Chronicles every Sunday for a new instalment — and a tested recipe.
Snow swirls and surrounds Fiona as she slips into the house, slamming the door against the wanton wind.
— Luc? she calls, stamping her boots. Luc?
He pops up the basement stairs, like a gopher out of its hole.
— Fee! How was the opera? Was it Tin Flute?
— Magic Flute. The theatrics offstage were more interesting than onstage, she says.
— Here let me take your coat, honey. It’s punishing out there. Want a cup of tea? I just made it. And I made chocolate drops*.
— Please. But just one cookie. A small one. The performance was beautiful, she says as he fills her cup, but it’s probably the silliest opera ever written. The plot makes no sense, unless you try to cipher it from a Masonic perspective. And then you’d have to be part of that club, which of course I’m not. So really, it’s nonsense to me. But if you just take it at face value — a sort of fairy tale with too many metaphors — and don’t count on all the loose ends to be tied up neatly….
— What do you expect from something written in the eighteenth century, says Luc.
— Now don’t you go slagging Mozart, she says playfully.
— So, what was the offstage drama? asks Luc.
— Oh, I digress. Opera does that to me. I start telling these long convoluted stories. I can’t imagine why! So, Donna and I were sitting in the first balcony, over to the left of the stage. We were into the second Act and Papageno, this hedonistic, rather simple, bird-like man, has given up all hope of winning the woman he loves, the equally odd Papagena. He’s contemplating hanging himself and then someone from the audience cries out: “Don’t!” It’s coming from one of the balconies to the right of the stage. I think it’s a one-off from some overly theatrical opera-goer, or even a child — there were lots of kids there, The Magic Flute is a holiday favourite — then we hear: “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!” coming from the same direction. Amazingly, on stage, Papageno didn’t miss a beat. He has the noose around his neck and is about to jump, and then there’s this big commotion in one of the boxes. In the half-light from the stage you can see this woman — she’s wearing a skirt. She’s dangling from one of the boxes. Two men, at least I think they were men, have ahold of her arms.
— What level?
— Second balcony. Enough to do serious damage. So these people in the box below grab her feet and the guys above lower her down to their box. Then there’s a bit of a scuffle and she leaves with someone — an usher I suppose. Meanwhile Papageno is belting out: “Papagena! Papagena! Papagena!”
— What was going on? Luc asks.
— Drugs, mental illness. I felt so sorry for Donna because of her husband.
— Her husband?
— You know, Jon? I’ve told you about him. He suffers from depression. He was diagnosed nearly two years ago and it’s been hell for her. A year ago he tried to commit suicide.
— Hanging. Same as the opera. She found him. Ever since, Jon’s been in and out of the psychiatric hospital. They can’t seem to find meds that works.
— Did she say something, at the opera?
— Not a word. Nothing. But I knew she was thinking that could be Jon. And she knew I was thinking the same thing. I tried to bring it up afterward, when we were having a coffee at the café, but she didn’t want to talk about it. She was so pale.
They are both silent for a minute. Losing someone to suicide, thinks Luc, what could be worse than that? You’d always think there was something you could have done. Some way you might have prevented it.
And Fiona wonders for the hundredth time about her brother Neil, wonders if he’s depressed. He doesn’t seem to have much of a social life; he just works continuously. And living in the basement at Mom’s — living with Mom, period — can’t be good.
— Do you think Neil might have some problem? she asks Luc. Depression?
— Are you kidding? Your brother’s one of the funniest people I know.
— Until he crashes. Then you can’t get a word out of him. And I know he’s lost clients because he’s missed deadlines.
— He told you that?
— Yeah, when we talked the other week, Fiona says. But I just thought he meant he was too busy to meet the deadlines. Now, I don’t know. Maybe there’s more to it.
— Well, it’s odd that he’s still living at home. At thirty-four.
— Yeah, I know. He tried to move out once, but he only lasted six months; said he couldn’t stand his own cooking. That may be true. Lots of guys his age still live at home, so maybe that’s not a sign of anything. Something that is odd though is the fact that he’s never had a steady sort of girlfriend. He’s a good-looking guy and fun — most of the time. I’ve always wondered about that. If I tease him — well, you’ve heard him. He just throws out some self-deprecating comment about how he’s too messed up or something.
— Maybe he is. Maybe you should talk to him. He hasn’t got a psychiatrist has he?
— No. And Dr. Farr, his family doc, must be retired by now. I doubt if Neil has anyone.
— Well, you could talk to him when they come next week.
— If he’ll talk.
— You have to try, Fee. If you feel like there’s something’s wrong, you do have to try. Trust your instincts.
She nods, then nibbles on her cookie.
*Mom’s cocoa peanut butter drops
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup powdered cocoa
½ cup milk
¼ cup butter
3 cups quick-cooking oats
2 teaspoons vanilla
½ cup peanut butter
- Mix sugar and cocoa in a medium saucepan. Add milk and butter and blend.
- Over medium-high heat, bring to the boiling point, stirring continuously. Reduce heat to low and keep stirring while it simmers for 2 minutes (time it carefully).
- Turn heat off. Stir in oats, peanut butter and vanilla. Mix well.
- Drop by tablespoon full on to waxed paper. Let cool.
Thanks to Jean Sibbald for this recipe.