VI. Alex’s message wasn’t the only one that set his mind and heartbeat racing. After brooding about it all Sunday, he had another one on Monday morning: “Alex please indicate whether this is still the correct number, you received my message and Friday dinner would be an option for you?” “Yes, number is correct, got message, need to check a few things at office to see if Friday possible” he answered, trying to play for time. “Of course. Please get back to me latest on Thursday morning so I can shop and prepare with best ingredients” came as response, buying him three days. He had trouble forming any opinion regarding this invitation. Why was she doing that? They were no longer colleagues, and he doubted she was that interested in the further development at FuturePowers given her much bigger and more important new employer. Sure she seemed to honestly like to cook and bake and he obviously liked to eat, currently more than ever but was that a reason to offer to cook him dinner? Something as personal as have him over in her own home? He also wasn’t certain if he wanted her to do something that personal for him was it more than another opportunity of embarrassing himself further in her regal presence. On the other hand, a home-made dinner from someone with her culinary talents wasn’t to be disregarded lightly and it probably was no more than a friendly gesture. He’d think about it until Thursday. After his Monday lunch break, his personal email inbox contained another big surprise: Gilles Lebosquet from EDF’s strategy task force reminded him of their meeting in Rennes and asked whether he might be interested in working on establishing at new EDF subsidiary to better develop decentralized power generation and smaller scale grids. On arriving home, there was a bombshell in the shape of a letter from his grandmother in his mailbox, making him shudder. Zoe had surely tattled and the whole family was in uproar. Yet he had been surprised that so far neither his mother nor Melina had tried to upbraid him any more than usual. Grandma Elli short for Eleftheria, supposedly meaning freedom in Greek- mostly talked to him on the phone, wasn’t into emails, so her writing a conventional letter was a statement. It was handwritten with the funny beta, delta and lambda she still used after so many years. “I don’t ever want you to doubt that we love you no matter what. I’ve always been very proud of you, what a smart, hard-working and kind man you are. If you decide to go down a road that is against the mainstream, it’s your life and your decision. Even if I don’t agree with your path, you will always have my unconditional support. You’re my only grandson it would be the cruelest punishment to have to spend the rest of my life without seeing you regularly. Please come home for Easter.” This made him swallow very hard several times to get a grip on his emotions, a mix of guilt and gratitude tearing at him. Over the next few days he wrote and re-wrote a letter to her, thanking her and trying to explain at least of bit of what was driving him. Ignoring her Easter question, he bought her the English translation of a very good French guidebook of mainland Greece and repeated his once stated offer to go visit with her. On Wednesday afternoon everybody was in a meeting with a potential Spanish partner, so he had time on his hands to revisit Gilles Lebosquet’s email and on a spur of a moment writing him how interested he was in the project of a new decentralized EDF subsidiary and that it would be a pleasure to be kept up to date on the project. Joining Hannah for a Democrats Abroad meeting in the early evening, he decided he would decline Alex’s crazy invitation who knew if she hadn’t invited some other posh people who would look down their noses on his fat non-refined self. Their meeting was rather boring checking all logistic details for the upcoming annual European conference. Afterwards he wanted to join the other guys for a burger dinner, but Hannah held him back: “Max texted Carolina is doing very poorly. Her fever is up and she hasn’t slept all day could you maybe please come with me and try to help?” she looked up at him imploringly. “Don’t know whether I’m any good as an actual nurse but I can give it a try,” feeling obliged by Hannah’s tired and worried expression. Baby and Max both looked terrible as they arrived; she was purple in the face from screaming and he was an exhausted mess, as she had vomited on him. Picking Carolina up from out of her crib, she was startled into quiet for a few seconds before continuing to wail. “Okay, no magic touch from Uncle Alex,” he sighed, walking up and down cradling her, noticing how hot the poor thing was. Having written to his grandmother brought back the memory of a similar situation he had experienced as a little boy with baby Zoe. “Hannah, can you wet 2 handkerchiefs with very cold water plus a cold wet washcloth?” “Of course - just a minute.” As he got them, he tied the handkerchiefs around her little wrists and pressed the cool washcloth into the back and on the sides of her neck, indeed making her crying quieter. “Maybe also some plain cool, not cold water in her bottle?” “She hasn’t been drinking at all,” Max seemed doubtful, but did so nonetheless. “I’ll try. Also put a large linen pillow case into the freezer, please.” Over time he got her to calm down on the cool pillow case he draped over his belly, with the help of the wet wash cloth to drink a little water, dribbling some of her medicine in her mouth as Hannah gave it to him. It took over three hours though for her to fall asleep fast enough to put her to bed; before that she’d start crying anytime Max lifted her up from his belly. “And who said he wasn’t a hyper qualified nurse? You have a new career option there .” Hannah hugged him gratefully. “Can I at least fix you some dinner?” “I just remembered what my grandmother did with my little sister. Also I doubt all babies have as crazy preferences as your little one seems to,” he yawned, recoiling a bit at her allusion to his ‘career’. “Sorry Hannah, I’m wiped. More tired than hungry I’ll be heading to my own bed ” as it was past midnight. Worn out, he overslept and was woken the next morning by his phone trilling with a new message: “Am standing in front of excellent looking roast beef cut. Shall I buy it?” His stomach was achingly empty and he was half nauseous with hunger, so he truthfully answered: “Am starving, very much looking forward to it.” Since he was so late, he had to skip breakfast, even took a cab to the office to be on time, not give anybody the chance to complain about his work ethic. So it was not until after a big lunch not in the cafeteria, but at the small Indonesian family eatery around the corner to do full justice to their good lunch buffet did he realize that he had actually committed to dinner with Alex tomorrow night. Starting a 24 hour agonizing marathon of how to get out of the commitment again and since that was impossible save for the end of the world, of what to bring along as gift and how to avoid any further embarrassment. The anti-embarrassment deities were not on his side. After he was quite pleased with himself for buying a magnum bottle of brut imperial champagne imperial had to be fitting for a countess during his Friday lunch break, on returning to the office, he sat down at his desk to hear his chair disintegrate under him with a loud crack. The spider foot broke into three pieces and luckily he had taken off the narrow armrests months ago, so he managed to steady himself on his desk and stand back up unscathed but mortified. Not that this was really a surprise ever since the necessity had arisen to remove the armrests to have enough room for his bulk, he had been anticipating this situation. Occasionally he had wondered whether he should ask for a new sturdier chair, but had always shied away from it to evade the inevitable weight discussion. Now he had no choice, because trying to mend the damage and continue using the chair at his weight, maybe falling, could be downright dangerous with potentially even worse consequences than more humiliation. It was just today he needed to feel like his most competent self, not like the fattest loser. Before leaving, he went down to Eric, the unassuming IT administrator who also sometimes took care of other office supply questions. “Ummm, Eric sorry to bother, would you also be in charge of things like furniture orders?” “Yeah, I can do that. What’s your problem your chair broke?” Although the question came matter of fact-ly with an understanding grin, his cheeks flushed with shame until his face was about to disintegrate. “That was a tough chair. They officially only go to 110 kilograms I’ve been waiting for it to crash for a while. Every time I see you, this one here is bigger,” giving his belly a backhanded pat. “Yeah . Well .. what can you offer?” he did not know what to say in such an undignified situation, although he sensed Eric was not being judgmental. “This is the catalogue from our office supplier here are the heavy duty chairs. You need one over 150 kilograms?” letting him nod in resignation. “This one here should be good; I saw it when I had to find a new one for Polly.” “Polly? But she’s tiny!” Right now he assumed that he amounted to a good three Pollys. “Yeah but she’s reckless with chairs. She scoots around across the office on them all day, wears out the wheels. You’re more like the gentle elephant with your chair. Here’s the voucher, this is the address of the shop go pick it out today, then it’ll be here on Monday and nobody will notice.” It was raining heavily as he got off bus 90 in Wassenaar-Eikenhorst where Alex lived in a very leafy, quiet dead end street bordering on the woods and fields with their ditches and small canals. Trudging along, the only thought looping through his mind was that this was the worst idea he had ever had. If he hadn’t been so famished yesterday morning, he would never have fallen for the texted roast beef fata morgana. His visit to their office supplier had been okay, but not exactly a confidence booster. The competent elderly sales woman had been very considerate but the measuring and testing with the decision to give him a chair 2 grades stronger than Eric had chosen did not exactly make him feel better. While showering and changing at home he watched the weekly Dutch language learning news show which among others featured a report on the King and Queen opening a new exhibition at the Delft ceramic museum with a period music concert. A camera drive across the audience clearly showed Alex sitting in the second row in a blue dress, with an attentive look. Great so this would be Mr. Too-fat-for-any-normal-chair visiting the sophisticated Lady of the royal court. He was breathing heavily as he reached the address she had given, his feet and ankles were wet, the belt buckle was digging painfully into his soft underbelly and he felt as low as can be as he rang the bell of the pretty, white cottage style house. “Oh you should’ve called I would’ve picked you up from the bus in this awful rain! You poor thing walked the whole long stretch from the bus stop!” Alex took his umbrella, and once more cheek kissed him in greeting, firmly pressing against his fat ones. “Come in I hope this is comfy enough to make up for the dreadful weather.” Entering the living room, he acknowledged his own folly he hadn’t really developed an image in his head of what her home might look like. Only vague slightly paranoid notions of a cold intimidating castle, a skewed mix of Dracula’s dungeon and Barbie’s villa had lurked in his mind; both total nonsense. This was a nice, normal, tastefully cozy mix of a few obviously valuable antiques, some modern designer pieces and common sense stuff like IKEA book selves, combing glass, leather, lighter woods and shades of dove color. “I lit a fire in this wet cold,” she motioned him to a broad easy chair which looked reassuringly sturdy next to the fireplace and pushed a little table full of hors d’oeuvres and a champagne bottle next to it. “Also I already had this champagne on ice. So we can save your great bottle for our hopefully next dinner, okay? Great choice I love Moet&Chandon’s Pinot Noir Brut Imperial.” “This is perfect fire and everything. Just what I need thank you. It smells delicious, by the way,” and he meant it, smiling up at her in relief. She also looked reassuringly normal, in a jeans mini-skirt with ballerina flats bringing out her great legs, a long, low cut flowing top in other shades of blue and her hair gathered up with a simple grip. “I hope it will also taste that way. Please excuse my being in a casual cooking outfit but I thought content was more important than form in this case.” “Don’t forget I’m an engineer, styling is mostly lost on me,” he grinned to try to keep the mood light and took off his tie slipping it into his coat pocket. “Knowing your baking I have true faith in the content, alone judging by those wonderful smells.” “That comes as a surprise you’re willing to trust me?” she teased, uncomfortably reminding him of his trusting stupidity regarding his work contract. “So far you only know my baking.” “Well but anybody who bakes so well can also cook ” “Not necessarily. My sister-in-law for instance is a most gifted baker, especially of very elaborate gateaux better than I am admittedly. Yet her cooking is bland, uninspired and often goes wrong.” “Now you tell me .,” watching her pour the champagne and then clink glasses. “Here’s to a tasty meal and hopefully more to come,” giving him a wink. “Rest assured though, I wouldn’t have invited you if I wasn’t sure that I’m able to cook a dinner worthy of your appetite.” He sighed and reddened. “Yeah . I have too much appetite for my own good .” “I think I’ve stated this at least once before I firmly believe a big appetite is an asset in a man. Nothing is worse than a diet and body obsessed guy. That’s a shocking, almost anti-natural trend,” her voice sounded firm and convinced. “You would definitely not have been invited to a home cooked dinner here if you were some calorie counting beanpole.” A fleeting look in her eyes calmed him a bit; she really didn’t look like she was making fun of him. “Umm thank you I guess .” “It’s high time we finally start taking care of your appetite though . These are the hors d’oeuvres: stuffed pointed pepper, rosemary ham rolls on potato rösti, mini grilled vegetable kebabs with a yoghurt dip, salmon and trout picks and . save these for last please home - baked cheese puffs,” which indeed looked funny as they seemed to be wearing something that looked like a crown. “Wow I’m overwhelmed . if these are only the hors d’oeuvres .” as she handed him a plate with two of each on it, taking one for herself. To get her to talk more and while he enjoyed the treats, he asked: “How was your concert last weekend?” A bright smile probably for remembering the detail, not knowing how recently he had been reminded of it thanked him along with a lively description of the new exhibition, the music, Delft as such. Only omitting that it was an inauguration by their majesties. “These appetizers are excellent if they’re any indication as to the rest of your meal, I fear I will run of out superlatives pretty soon,” he bit into the cheese puff, the rolled up piece of decorative paper popping out. It looked like a menu. “Why thank you but don’t praise the content until you’ve fully tasted it. As you can see as menu I chose something wintery a Riesling cream of herbs soup, a winter salad with prawn skewer, Polenta parmesan patties with mushrooms Italian style, a backed filet Wellington with 3 winter vegetables and a small surprise mix for dessert. Is that okay?” “Sounds mouth-watering. I especially appreciate you’re having a hearty Italian style first course ,” he remembered his dinners in France. As tasty as the dainty fish courses had always been, they’d often been very light and not gratifyingly filling in the winter. Alex grinned. “That’s what I thought. I have three brothers at home I know men deep down prefer soul food to light nouvelle cuisine fish chi-chi. So shall we move to the table?” Her chairs were sturdy wooden constructions leather upholstered so he settled on the one she motioned to him, quickly re-buttoning his sports coat over the flesh globe in his lap. The first spoonful of soup was a wave of divine flavor, creamy wine with herbs and crisp croutons, he let out a blissful moan: “This this is the best soup I’ve ever eaten. Seriously. If I ever have to drown, please drown me in it.” “Maybe I need to start looking for a pot that’s big enough for that it won’t be so easy,” she smirked refilling his plate. The salad with the prawns and the polenta patties were also marvelous and he took seconds of everything, feeling the tonic of food warmth dissolve his unease. This was nothing but a fabulous dinner with a very kind hostess, as she gestured to take his coat seeing he was getting too warm from eating. For an instant this made a flash of embarrassment return, but his coat didn’t conceal much of his 4XL size, so why worry about the little he had left to lose? “Some more salsifies?” “A very small spoonful I’m getting really full. Thank you for introducing me to them though. They’re wonderful with a filet and a possible new favorite - how did you say - winter vegetable.” “I love them too my great-aunt always made them with this lemon sauce. It’s good they’re getting more popular again. But I must say I’m almost a little disappointed you only took thirds of the soup ,” she winked at him. “Even I have my limits, believe it or not. What is the dessert surprise?” Having reached his well-filled dinner contentment level, he was honestly enjoying himself, the conversation flowing easily about food, places visited in the US and Europe, and his rekindled interest in photography.