Last night our friends Gary and Ted came round to the café after closing time to eat linguine and play poker. Just to clarify. The linguine and the sauce was homemade. The poker was much more messy. Gary and Ted shuffle ruthlessly and constantly win. Ted makes Cool Hand Luke look like a pathetic loser.

“Did you know,” I said, “being naked surrounded by a group of people makes you feel good?”

Everybody stopped staring at their cards. If you’re ever looking for a conversation stopper, do try it.

“Honest to God,” I said, “I heard it on the radio earlier whilst I was in the bath.”

There’s been a serious study. It’s been published in (and I’m not making this up) the Journal of Happiness Studies. They’ve come to the conclusion that taking off your clothes around strangers is probably good for you.

“You’re making this baloney up,” said Ted. I could tell by his nonchalant use of the word baloney that he had the makings of a great hand.

“No, honestly,” I said. I made a cross my heart sign with my spoon. “Anyway, if it’s in the Journal of Happiness then it’s got to be true, right?”

I’ve never actually read anything published in that Journal before but I definitely do like the sound of it. The next time I’m having a down day I’m going to look it up and start thumbing through it enthusiastically to see where I’ve been going wrong. Putting clothes on in the morning, by the sounds of it.

“Apparently 850 British people were asked to fill out an online survey,” I said, “and it was found that those who spent more time naked were happier with their bodies.”

I thought this was terrific news. Who cares that the rest of the world is going down the pan. Just strip off and everything will be fine. Shout it from the roofs I say!

“Wow,” said Gary. “Perhaps the next time we come over to play cards everybody should take all their clothes off before the first round.” He paused. I think he was weighing up the pros and cons of how this might affect any winning streak. “Though I do realise this could make it difficult to concentrate if any one of us was holding a Straight Flush in their hand at the time.”

“It’s possible,” said Guido sagely, “that the people who were surveyed were happier with their bodies in the first place so were more likely to spend time naked, and it’s not that being naked made them any more happier.”

I don’t know about you but I had to get Guido to repeat that sentence three times before I understood what the hell he was going about. Maybe it’s just me, but I think he should just stick to linguine.

“Okay,” I said, “it’s fine for you, Mr Einstein with a six-pack. But what about the rest of  us who spend half our lives on The Banana Diet, and the other half sucking everything in.”

Relax. There is light at the end of this tunnel of nudity. Apparently the findings also suggested that seeing other people naked could be even more beneficial than being seen naked yourself. A brief surf of the net, for purely scientific purposes, confirms this is correct.

These guys at The Happiness Institute really know what they’re talking about.

Warm like the sun

“When I was a little kid I used to be terrified of the dark,” said Guido tightly tucked up next to me in our bed last night.

As he is now just short of about seven feet tall this is a very hard concept to get your head round. I suppose he was tiny once upon a time. As I’ve said to his mother Rosa, many many times before, it must’ve been a gynaecological miracle just giving birth to him. After all of those hours of squeezing and panting I think they should’ve erected a commemorative wall plaque at the hospital.

“I’d cry out and my Pappa would come up and turn the lamp on and he’d try to reassure me that everything was really alright.”

“I can imagine Juan bounding upstairs,” I said, “what did he do, pacify you with a dummy dunked in sangria?”

“No, silly,” said Guido. “He’d lay me down and tell me to close my eyes and imagine I was on the hot sand on our favourite beach just outside of Malaga. Then he’s ask me if I could feel the glow from the sun and I’d say yes and he’d pull the blanket up around my neck and switch out the lamp and then everything would seem to be okay again.”

“That’s so sweet,” I said, because it was. “Mental imagery can be such a powerful tool you know. I use it every time I look at myself naked in the mirror. I just pretend I’m Joe Wicks. If you threw in a wok and a high protein stir fry, frankly you’d be hard pushed to tell us apart.”

“Weren’t you afraid of the dark?” he asked.

“Not really no,” I said, “I was far too busy trying to drown out the sound of my mother chasing my father around our house with a frying pan. They spent almost all their brief and deliriously happy marriage trying to kill one another.”

Suddenly outside there was the sound of an ear drum exploding bang. It was loud enough to make Guido leap from bed to look out of the window and drag all of the blankets across our bedroom floor with him.

“What on earth was that?” he said.

“Oh, it was probably just Ethel in the laundrette next door. One of her barrels of hooch explodes from time to time depending on gas content. Either that or it was one of the night buses backfiring. Come back to bed would you?” I said, “and bring the bedclothes with you, its freezing in here.”

It was very cold in London last night.

He climbed back in beside me.

“You feel like an iceberg,” Guido said. So he snuggled up behind me and put his big hairy arms around my waist and nestled his chin on my shoulder. “Is that better?”

“Yeah,” I said. And I made the same, mmmmh…, kind of moan I usually only specially reserve for when I’m eating a slice of his homemade shortbread. It’s crumbly with a chewy chocolate and caramel topping on it. It’s totally orgasmic. I’ll divulge his recipe someday and you’ll all realise exactly what’s been missing from your lives all these years.

“Close your eyes,” Guido said, “and imagine you’re laying on a hot sandy beach in Andalucía. Can you feel the glow?”

I closed my eyes. Let’s just say I could definitely feel something.

Blue Monday

It may have escaped you but, Friday’s date was the thirteenth. To top it all Monday’s going to be what’s statistically the most depressing day of the year. They don’t call it Blue Monday for nothing. So to combat this double whammy, this perfect storm of worldwide malcontent, I decided to put on a happy face.

I got out of bed Friday and looked in the bathroom mirror. I’ve got to tell you it wasn’t a pretty sight. Despite the application of copious amounts of gel I had a tuft of hair which stayed stubbornly standing erect on top of my head like some sort of radio antenna. I smiled my best smile and got dressed. It was grey and wet and miserable outside and, although only about ten paces from our loft to the café backdoor, I still got soaked.

“Hello husband!” I waved cheerily, as I dripped all over the place, “How’s my culinary lover this fine and glorious morning?”

Guido was standing frowning infront of his chopping board with a big carving knife in his hand. He started to ruthlessly stab an aubergine. In my head I heard the violins from the soundtrack of the movie Psycho. Never before had I felt such sympathy for a vegetable. I moved swiftly on and threw open the kitchen door.

“Good morning London!” I yelled at the customers.

Everybody stared at me grumpily. Nobody said anything. Okay, I thought, I’m definitely sensing bad karma. I wanted to reassure them. Today wasn’t that bad, just wait until you get a load of Blue Monday. I sat down in the nearest booth opposite the customer I affectionately call The Lady With Bushy Eyebrows. This is because she does have big eyebrows which are only ever visible from over the top of her newspaper, even when she is simultaneously eating breakfast and sipping coffee. She makes Freda Kahlo looked plucked. I distinctly heard her say the words, oh no, as I sat down.

Guido has two nineteen year old identical twins work for him. One helps out front, the other out back. They both have names but I can never tell which is which so to make it easier for myself I only ever refer to them as, The Twins.

“Lovely to see you Twin!” I said jauntily. He sauntered over warily with a notepad. “I’ll have a slice of toasted happiness and a cup of positivity please!”

He seemed startled by my liberal use of exclamation marks. “Have you just taken a pill?” he asked, curling his top lip. I shook my head still smiling.

“No,” I said, “But to keep this real I’ll have a mug of hot water with a slice of lemon, and a banana please.” I mean, what better day to reboot The Banana Diet? I tapped Freda Kahlo’s newspaper.

“Today’s Friday 13th,” I said flashing my teeth, “traditionally bad luck. Personally I blame The Last Supper.”

Freda raised her big eyebrows, “Yeah,” she said, “Just be careful you don’t get run over by an oncoming bus today,” which I thought was particularly caring of her.

Later in bed Guido told me The Twins had grassed me up and that my happy disposition was scaring the customers.

“If you keep this demeanor up through Blue Monday,” he said, “I’ll have to lock you in a cupboard until Tuesday.”

I think he meant it.

Where’s the beef?

Paul Newman once famously said that the reason he remained faithful to his wife Joanne Woodward was his discerning taste. “Why eat hamburger,” he said, “when you’ve got steak at home?”

There is a point to this story.

All this week I’ve been in Sheffield working for a very demanding client. For the purposes of anonymity, and so I still eventually get my pay check, let’s call her Cybill. Against my better judgement I’d agreed to style everything in Cybill’s home hot pink. Apparently her ex-husband had hated pink. I was happy to help out but the finished look was always going to be like living inside a human sized version of Barbie’s Camper.

“My ex-husband Simon had an expensive love of silk ties,” said Cybill, “he had every design you could possibly think of and some of them were even pink.”

You know sometimes being an interior designer is just like being a shrink.

“And then when I found out he’d cheated on me I calmly took out a pair of scissors from the kitchen drawer and I went up to the bedroom and I chopped up every tie he ever owned into tiny little pieces.” She smiled as she said that. “And then when I found out who he was having the affair with, well, I went straight round to her home and threw a tin of pink emulsion over the roof of her car.

“Really?” I said.

I didn’t know whether to call the Police and report the whacko or just paint faster.

“My ex-husband was not what I’d call a dependable man.” Cybill looked around the room and let out a big sigh. “But pink is such cathartic colour, don’t you agree?”

Fortunately I’d been staying in a hotel nearby where nothing was pink. It was mahogany brown with tired looking purple tones and a weird sticky green stain on the carpet right where you’d put your feet when you stepped out of the bed. There was also a completely useless throw over the mattress which, when I rolled over in the middle of the night, it wrapped me up tight like one of Harry Houdini’s old straightjackets. Depending on how many shades of pink my day had been, I’d sit in the hotel bar before dinner. I’d have a warm Diet Coke and, to alleviate thoughts of psychotic Cybill, flick through a tattered visitors’ guide of the Yorkshire Dales. Then l’d drink four large glasses of dry white wine in quick succession, one right after the other.

On Thursday night I called Guido on my mobile. I’d never been so pleased to hear his voice. Apparently the heating in the loft had broken down again and he was in bed still wearing all of his clothes plus a balaclava on his head.

One of the things I love about Guido is his dependability. If there was ever a gas explosion in the café you’d find him standing upright once the dust settled still pickling a plum.

“What’d you have for dinner?” he asked.

“A hamburger,” I said.

“Well.” he said “when you get back here I’ll knock up a steak au poivre for you as a treat.”

I switched out the lamp and lay in bed thinking about pink bedrooms and Paul Newman. Trust me. I couldn’t wait to get home.

Just a second

I’m sorry to have to admit to this but at eleven thirty this morning Guido and I were still in bed with the duvet pulled up over our heads. The bedroom roller blind was pulled down. And when I say, the bedroom roller blind was pulled down, what I really mean is that it was hanging at the kind of precarious and twisted angle that only a drunk man like me could have possibly achieved. I vaguely remembered having an awfully involved argument with the cords attached to it seconds before I dived head first onto our bed. I also seem to recall a noisy bong! pow! zing! sound as I hit the mattress springs. I found that highly amusing at the time but at eleven thirty this morning I can guarantee you I wasn’t laughing. In fact I wasn’t doing anything much at all. It seemed like a gargantuan effort just to simply open one eye.

I knew I was still alive because I could feel a throbbing sensation (only not in a good way) across the bridge of my nose. I sat up and felt all over my head. Thankfully it was where I had left it the day before, i.e. still attached to my body.

“Oh God,” I croaked pathetically. “I’ve yet to meet anybody who’s ever jumped up out of bed in the morning after a night on the town who’s said – Gee I really wish I’d had another drink last night, wouldn’t that be a terrific idea.”

I closed my left eye again but even in the semi mid morning light I could tell Guido was worryingly upright in a perky sort of way. Let’s call it a sixth sense of mine. Fortunately I was relieved I couldn’t smell any trace of mayo.

“Did you know that tomorrow night,” Guido said, “the ten-second countdown to New Year 2017 is actually going take 11 seconds?”

“Do what?” I said blinking back into focus.

I’m sure you’ll agree this sounded like the start of a completely riveting conversation but if I’m honest all I was thinking about was when my husband might get up and cook me some breakfast. I thought tentatively about whether to have hot buttered wholemeal toast or a griddled muffin and if my eggs should be scrambled or fried over easy, just how I like them.

“A leap second is to be inserted into the world’s time standard and, technically,” he explained, “midnight tomorrow will actually happen twice.”

There was a long pause.

“Okay, decision made, I’ll have them scrambled on wholemeal,” I said decisively.

There was another long pause for obvious reasons.

“Leap seconds happen because the Earth’s turn is slowing.” Guido ploughed on regardless of my breakfast order. “Every year astronomers work out how much we have slowed and if necessary whether they need to insert one.”

So there you have it folks. Tomorrow when you’ re toasting in 2017 just think of me and Guido sitting here up in the loft at midnight London time with a bottle of Moet and Chandon and his stop watch.

If it’s one thing I’ve learnt it’s that every second of this precious life of ours counts, even if it is only long enough to pop a cork. So wherever you are, remember to use yours wisely.

Have a Happy New Year everybody.

The cafe is now closed

Thursday the café closed at one o’clock in the morning when the last of the Christmas party revellers finally packed up and staggered out into the street. For the final thirty minutes of opening time there was a group of about twenty-five customers, including Guido because I can distinctly remember hearing his voice wafting through the floorboards, give a rousing rendition of, I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts. I’m guessing a lot of alcohol had been consumed.

Guido arrived upstairs in the loft about an hour later and fell into bed next to me with a half drunk bottle of Monopole Champagne and two lukewarm turkey legs. I wasn’t complaining.

The café always closes over Christmas and New Year because all of the commuters stay home and the locals are way too busy at this time of year having a nervous breakdown trying to figure out how to switch their own ovens on. I have to tell you it’s actually nice to, for at least just a couple of weeks, live the kind of life that I assume normal people do. I’m guessing that doesn’t involve the constant roar of an industrial sized cappuccino machine frothing hot milk all day long, and listening to Guido’s daily analysis of that particular day’s most bizarre sandwich filing request.

“I’m warning you, ” said Guido, “it looks like an atomic bomb has been detonated downstairs.”

“Oh we can clean up in the morning,” I said as I nibbled a leg and drank straight from the big bottle.

I didn’t care about the mess because this year our Christmas had just got even better.

My mother, Cruella, has hooked up with a rich young Sheik in a Belgravia hotel for the next five days and Guido’s parents, Rosa and Juan, despite being three suitcase busting limits over their baggage allowance, were last seen boarding an aircraft at London City airport bound for Andalucía. Frankly I’m surprised the plane managed lift off. So now it’s just the two of us left here alone in Bermondsey.

“Perhaps we could just stay in bed for the entire time like John Lennon and Yoko Ono did when they had their protest at the Hilton Hotel in Amsterdam,” I said.

I silently imagined what Guido and I could get up to between the sheets to help promote world peace. I’m pleased to report that initial thoughts were extremely appealing and no it didn’t involve a salami sausage.

“Yeah, we could just lay here and contemplate our lives as we know them,” said Guido. He always strangely gets a bit like Albert Einstein when he’s drunk. “Or were you planning on suggesting something more energetic?”

I told him I was definitely open to all offers but I’d have to pace myself if it involved mince meat.

I chewed on the last of the turkey. We sipped the remainder of the Champagne between us and then Guido switched out the lamp. I could hear strange gurgling noises emanating from the darkness. I wasn’t sure if it was me or Guido or if our loft’s highly delicate but temperamental plumbing system was about to spring a leak as a surprise Christmas present.

Then I closed my eyes and crossed my fingers and I did what I always do. I hoped for the best.

Have a wonderful Christmas.

Risotto, with love

Guido told me there is something very relaxing and therapeutic about stirring round a risotto but it’s only now I think I may have got the point of it. Last night in our kitchen he initially tried to draw the analogy that cooking Italian Arborio rice is the equivalent of culinary transcendental meditation. Only rather than completely emptying your mind and having a eureka moment you get to transform a handful of simple ingredients into a quick and satisfying supper. Now that’s what I’d call enlightenment.

“Why do all of your recipes start with melting a very large slice of unsalted butter?” I asked Guido.

“Because,” he said, “everything tastes better that way.”

“Okay, but should I stir anti-clockwise or clockwise?”

I asked that awkwardly holding a wooden spoon and staring hopefully into the bottom of the pan. Guido looked at me strangely. I suppose it must have been a bit like being the driver of a bus who suddenly asks the passengers if any of them know which is the brake pedal. When I cook, everybody around me needs nerves of steel.

“It really doesn’t matter as long as you’re consistently rotating,” he told me with a reassuring pat on the back.

Consistently rotating? I nodded enthusiastically. I tried to look like I knew what he was talking about so I slowly ran a finger down the opened page of his battered and stain splashed recipe notebook. I could see words like chopping, frying and simmering but there was definitely nothing in there about rotating. I sucked the end of the spoon.

“That means stirring, you big dummy,” said Guido.

What can I tell you? That particular part turned out to be the easiest. Despite being under watchful instruction it was when Guido started telling me what else to throw into the pot that I started having nagging doubts about my cooking ability.

“Relax. Why don’t you just think about this in another way. Pretend you aren’t cooking. Imagine you’re making love with the ingredients,” said Guido in a way that only he could. This is the same guy who once seduced me with a zucchini.

I thought about Tuesday night when we’d both last had sex and, whilst there was definitely butter involved, I couldn’t remember Guido sticking an onion anywhere.

Go with the flow, I thought. I closed my eyes and started to rotate whilst thinking as lasciviously as I could about anything hot and steamy. Something started to work.

Passionately chop one onion. Caress 2 tablespoons of olive oil and a thick seductive slice of unsalted butter until hot. Add the chopped onion and fry tantalisingly until light golden (about 7 minutes). Add a pack of voluptuous lardons. Fry until crisp. Add 300g of joyous risotto rice and spurt in 1 litre of hot vegetable or chicken stock. Rotate in an anti-clock wise or clock wise direction (whichever floats your boat people) for 5 minutes then reduce heat and simmer covered for about 15-20 minutes until the rice is lovingly tender and you are hot under the collar. Drop in 100g of frozen peas for added excitement with a pinch of salt and pepper. Simmer for 3 minutes – if you can hang out that long. Serve romantically in warm bowls with a sprinkle of parmesan cheese.

Honestly, I’d say this risotto was actually better than making out.