I had my first shiatsu session the other day (along the same lines as acupuncture but using physical pressure instead of needles), and the man told me I had ’empty legs’. I had empty legs and empty feet, particularly my arches. This is nothing new – when I was a drama school student, the teachers’ main beef with me was that I had ‘dead legs and frozen eyes’. Someone else was described as having ‘no back’. It’s something to do with parts of our bodies being absent to us. The answer these days is to swim more, but I have not ventured into the English Channel since November and certainly don’t intend to now, with the huge brown swell, the sudden big lurching tide that would vanish me in a second. All I do is look at it from the balcony; a passenger on a boat that never docks.
But I know what he means about swimming. In LA I swam every day in an open-air pool. The area was fringed with merry red Bougainvillea, insubstantial as paper and smelling of nothing. My wet footsteps evaporated behind me making me handily invisible. It was all man-made and relatively new; units instead of flats, everything built for the purpose, everything clean. At first glance there is nowhere to hide, no nooks or crannies so you are exposed to the neighbours wanting to chat/complain about the perfect temperature of the water, the ‘chill’ in the air when there is none, the only thing fluttering being the leaf of a book or a butterfly. It feels an empty landscape.
Until you take yourself off; behind the tennis court is a narrow pathway where there is a pendulous lemon tree; Eureka lemons that are thick and pock-marked and heavy in the hand and need a hoe to get a purchase. Sprouting like mad hair is wild fennel and the smell is strong and medicinal and follows you to the orange trees, their diseased leaves and strongly floral blossoms heady like some kind of deathly elixir. A wild peach tree stands anonymously with blossoms like any other and tough herbs lead the way round the complex. Yards from the pool is this alchemy of smell coming up from the dust.
For me the pull to this landscape is stronger, particularly now that I know about our own Meyer lemon tree and its rash of blossom and the ‘eight or nine’ hummingbirds that visit it every day. And Joe is there doing the B&B in my stead, greeting the guests, not making the lemon shortbread or jam or ironing the sheets (‘I’m not going to do it like you’), but feeding the stray cat and getting rave reviews and being lovely as only he can be. Here in England there is rhubarb and snowdrops and long cold doused days and the obscene trickle of rainwater as it finds the nape of the neck. Bay trees stand to attention outside glossy eateries but it rarely occurs to me to take a leaf and scrunch it up, and smell its warm spiky clove-ness.
Occasionally it feels like fun; the new roomy Circle Line and the hoards of children on half term holiday on the tubes and the buses up in London (‘hold on to the yellow, Imogen!’). A small boy in a bike helmet traces his F Words To Work On next to me with his finger: frightened, fallow, fall, fat. And suddenly I feel bereft that there’ll be no Imogen in LA, none of these terribly English moments. So I make myself think of the sun, like a huge melting pat of butter in the sky. The blue will be the most unEnglish blue. The herbs will be virulent, wild and prolific and the air will smell of them. I’ll stride out, lunge into water and then feel it evaporate on my skin. I’ll have my own bowl of lemons, the car, the pool, that constant sun again (always the same), a brilliant dry cleaner, empty streets. Hopefully no more empty legs.
The B&B lemon shortbread began life as Jane Grigson’s shortbread knobs in her Fruit Book though I have doctored them with lemon zest and almonds. They are incredibly simple to make: melt 175g unsalted butter over a medium heat and add the finely grated zest of two lemons. Allow this to infuse and cool. Then add to the butter 200g of plain flour, 25g of ground almonds, 125g of sugar and a pinch of sea salt (all mixed together beforehand in a bowl). Make a sandy paste and then roll the mixture into little teaspoon-sized balls which you then press slightly to flatten. Bake on trays with parchment paper at 150C/300F for about 25 minutes. They’re done when they’re golden brown. Sometimes I drop a couple of torn bay leaves into the melted butter to infuse – is this wrong? I don’t know but I like the smell and fish them out before adding the flour.