A Twilight Encounter

Coming home tonight, I walked up the cul de sac to my house, and was stopped by two of my neighbours. They had Faces on. You know, there’s that certain face which means bad or sad news is about to be given, and they’re not sure how you’re going to take it. A certain British sorry-to-bother-you coupled with a ‘we’re not enjoying this either but we have to’ frown.

“I don’t know if you knew them, but the people at Number 5…?”

There followed a certain amount of pointing at houses, as we all tried to remember which one was actually number 5. (Our house numbers are rather illogical, and two of them are back to front. It goes 26, 28, 27, 29. Those two burned down decades ago and the numbers got put back on the wrong houses.)

“No, I don’t think I knew them, what’s happened?”

“She died! Dropped dead just like that.”

A card was proffered, and a pen waved.

“We’re doing a collection.”

Of course we are. Because that’s what we do. Neighbours that we don’t know, have never spoken to, but you give.

You give, stood underneath a glowering sky tinged with pre-storm orange, pregnant bellied clouds heavy with rain pressing down, as the light fades and sad, closed in faces look at you.

You give, because it’s the right thing to do.

You give, as the warm lights flick on around the close, normal life happening right before your eyes when in one house time has stopped and will not carry on the same way again, even though all around them it moves at the same speed.

You give, because one day it might be you and yours being collected for and these people have known of you for nearly 20 years. Enough to nod, and smile, and take parcels in. Enough to swap ‘Morning! when it’s sunny, or “Weather, eh?” when it’s frost edged and bitter breezed. Enough to exchange rolling eyes when Him With All The Vans parks Her With The Dropped Kerb in again.

We give. Because we do.

Evening sky

 

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A double edged Sabatier

Knowing how to cook and really utterly loving the act of cooking can be a bit of a double edged sword for me.

Cooking isn’t just about feeding people, though that is a large part of it, as I do adore making people replete and happy. The very act of taking raw ingredients and throwing them together, making something whole out of the component parts, being able to do that and make dish after dish after dish, is pure glorious magic to me and the more I do it, the more I want to do it.

The problem comes when my brain is just too full of ideas and options, and I get overloaded. I am under no illusion as to how very lucky I am – so SO ridiculously fortunate – to have the confidence and the funds, for once, to attempt most things. I’m not really phased by many things, unless I’m trying to cook and there is someone in the kitchen with me, then it all goes a bit Tense and Pointed. You can watch from outside, but anyone hovering irritates me intensely.

Cooking is a huge part of my life, it’s my way of relaxing, but I could never, ever be a chef on the pass. Cooking to order under a time pressure is not enjoyable to me at all. I’d hate it. I would far rather batch cook masses of things that I enjoy, foods that I know are delicious, then dole them out to people like a dinner lady without the overalls and budget cuts. (Autocorrect wanted that to say badger. Nobody needs that.)

When I watch a show like Jamie Oliver’s 15 minute meals, or his new 5 ingredients thing, or Anna Olsen’s Fresh – which I adore by the way – or my beloved Nigel,  I know I can cook them all, and I want to cook them all. Going shopping without a list the day after watching is a very bad idea because Hind Brain isn’t listening to Time Contraints Practical Brain, and she buys all the things. This is how I ended up with a whole cauliflower, prawns, fresh tofu and baking potatoes all on one night. Thank goodness I have a big freezer now and excess tupperware.

Eventually the cauliflower got cooked with the guidance of Nisha Katona’s The Spice Tree. Spiced and dry fried, then topped with her Himalayan Cheese on Toast mixture, and baked.

That book is hands down the best companion for Indian cooking for a newcomer that I’ve read. Ok, so I’m not a newcomer but oh my, she explains the how, what and why of spices, in a way that makes perfect sense, and also in a way that makes it easy for you to get all the flavour without all the panic. Try her Himalayan Cheese on Toast. Get addicted, and then curse me for telling you about it but love me for the joy it brings.

So I had spicy cauliflower cheese leftovers. But I also had prawns ready defrosted in the fridge. Hmm. I could have made Prawn Malai, says Brain, but I had no fresh ginger or coconut milk. I did have tins of coconut condensed milk, but even for me that’s a step too far, as it would drown the delicate prawn taste. [Mentally adds fresh ginger and coconut milk to shopping list.]

Brain suggested I could have attempted a variation on Malai, or I could cook up Nisha Katona’s Aunt’s prawns with peas (recipe in The Spice Tree). Or there was that Tamarind Prawn recipe in Sabrina Ghayour’s Sirocco, it yelled, or prawn cakes, remember you made them that time and they were delicious? Oh but then there’s simple garlic roast prawns with added lemon, or olive oil braised with…with…so much input that my brain was twirling around and around, pirouetting with  sheer joy of ingredients.

I did manage to choose something to cook in the end, honest.

Recipe ideas sleet into my brain unbidden. A walk to the shops becomes a lesson is restraint. A trek around a market is almost overwhelming; ideas hitting me left right and centre. I’m constrained at least by not being able to carry too much on a previously broken wrist, or I’d take home so much. (One small definition of torture was a trip to Madrid’s food markets with a fellow foodie friend. Oh calamity, we had NO KITCHEN to use. Eventually we made a vow to go self catering next time because that was just too much for the both of us. We had to console ourselves with an awful lot of tapas.)

I have come to realise that I am not unusual in this cooking addiction, and it’s actually quite a hard thing to realise,  in a way, when for most of your life you have been the only one you knew of who would go into the kitchen, cook for an entire weekend, making things for the sheer joy of Relaxing and Making, only to give it away at work on the Monday. My colleagues welcome it, especially when I took in a whole (minus one portion) Christmas pork belly porchetta with chestnut and orange. Recipe here

Roast

I’ll be very honest and say that it is a jolt when you realise there’s nothing special about you. When you regularly read and are part of the Food World on Instagram and Twitter, you find there’s hundreds out there, just like me, many of them better, far more experienced, far more accomplished and talented. I’m just another daft lass who takes photos of her constant cooking, and makes people hungry with them. I’m more than happy to keep on doing it, too.

I’ll never be world class famous, or make serious spondoolies from a cookbook. I’d partially like that success, who wouldn’t? But there’s that 80/90% of me says that’s way too much effort, and my day job/life saps pretty much all the mental and physical energy I have. I’m so very lucky that I still have the wherewithall to cook two different dinners at the end of each and every day, on occasion at two or three different houses.

I suppose I could throw off the day job, go work in the food industry in some capacity and maybe get this out of my system, but I am and always have been risk averse. It even says so in my Pensions paperwork. I doubt that will change. My day job is one big transferable skill, and I like and need the security it provides. I’m rather very addicted to that regular pay cheque at the end of each month, as it pretty much enables my cookbook/cooking habit. I honestly couldn’t afford to give it up, not at the moment.

So I shall continue. Reading my cookbooks, treating them and the accompanying TV shows (if there is one) a bit like going to see old friends for a catch up, seeing what’s going on in their houses, inhaling a little of the scent from their kitchens; that background red/brown/green tint to the air that anyone’s house gets when they cook a lot, or have a cupboard full of spices.

It’s a patina that gets laid down over the yhears, and it’s very hard to get rid of. Not that I want to, but I have become immune to the smell of my own kitchen I think. Unless I’ve cooked with fenugreek or garlic. Then I can smell it, for days, and it makes me smile and think of the people I love who use it.

Khoresh e Ghormeh SabziMy spice boxes

 

National Poetry Day

For National Poetry Day.

I would like to add that the Stuff is mostly not of my making, except the cookbooks, but I still live with it. Please read this in a broad old Berkshire accent. (Pam is not from the West Country, as people often think. She is from Berkshire. And wonderful.)

Heaps of Stuff

How I wish that I was tidy
How I wish that I was neat
How I wish I was methodical
Like others down our street.
I tried to stem the rising tide
I tried to hold it back
But I have been the victim
Of a heap of stuff attack.

Yes, heaps of stuff come creeping,
They clutter up the hall.
And heaps of stuff are softly
Climbing halfway up the wall.
At each end of the staircase
Is a giant heap, a stack;
One to carry up the stairs
And one to carry back.

In a heap of stuff invasion
They settle everywhere –
They grovel on the lino
They tower on the chair.
You’re searching for a jacket,
“Is it in here?” you shout,
And, opening the cupboard door,
A heap of stuff falls out.

But heaps are many-faceted
And heaps are multi-faced
And what a heap is made of
Will depend on where it’s placed.
Now if it’s in the passage
It is mostly boots and shoes
And if it’s on the sofa
It is magazines and news.

If it’s in the shed
It’s broken propagating frames
And if it’s in the bathroom
Well, it’s best to say no names,
And if it’s in the bedroom –
Your own and not the guest’s –
The heap of stuff is mostly made
Of socks and shirts and vests.

For a heap is indestructible,
It’s something you can’t fight.
If you split it up by day
It joins back up at night.
So cunningly positioned
as from room to room you trek,
Increasing all the chances
That you trip and break your neck.

But step into my parlour
Now I’ve forced the door ajar;
I’ll excavate an easy chair –
Just cling there where you are.
And together we’ll survey it
Till our eyes they feast enough
On the tidiest home in England
Underneath the heaps of stuff.

~ Pam Ayres.

Pam Ayres

Of wifely things

Following the recent furore over the “Ooh, a guy said that he loved and cherished his fat wife! He’s a dude! Give him cookies!” and the cries of “Yeah, you’re supposed to, that’s what normal people DO, so why get extra special kudos for it? Plus there’s some backhanded compliments in there man.” here is some writing.

[EDIT] Writing by me, with no backhanded compliments!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Some days I find myself idly watching you, comfortably revelling in the knowledge that we’re together, that you are someone who chooses to be with me. Our ups and downs through the years are just natural hills and valleys, to be traversed together, not battled with separately. 

I admire your quick hands, deft and sure whatever task it is you’re doing, and allow myself an indulgent smile because those same hands that can defeat heavy work tasks or plant out delicate seedlings, can also communicate such soothing human affection. The days I’m tired, and simply worn down by the world and the things in it, you hold me, put you arms around me and  the world…stops when the warmth of your palms and fingertips rest on my back.

The contour of your hip as you hold a child on it still enthralls me, so I’m sorry if I am tardy in taking the wriggling beast off you on occasion. Our children, our shared laughing, crying, tantruming responsibility, hide and burrow into your soft, ample curves, hugged into giggling submission whilst trying to wriggle out at the same time. I doubt they’ll ever grow out of loving your embrace, no matter how big and tall they grow, or how far they range away from us. 

That moment at the end of the day when we finally collapse into bed, each last small voice slowing and dropping into dreamland, is the time I think I look forward to the most. It’s that moment of “At last, we can rest.” as we fold wearily into each other and just lay there, silent for a while, the swell of your belly pressing into the small of my back, a rounded arm looped over my waist, warm skin melding briefly into one being, heartbeats aligning as we relish the comfort of “Aahh…bed.” for a few minutes, until we start to talk, going over the moments of the day in the peaceful brown-hued darkness.

You’re my sanity, my home port, the place and person I can’t wait to run to, and see each day. Most times I want to get home first so I can have dinner on the go for you, and have the joy of seeing your face when you walk in and smell your favourite dish bubbling away. I think we race each other. 

The years we’ve been together have passed in a flash, it seems, and yet the times we’ve shared stretch back over decades. You complete me, we complete US, and I love you now as always. My best friend, my strength, and I yours, I hope. 

My partner in all things, my love, my wife.

rings

And so it goes…

The month of July has been one I’d probably – mostly – forget. Firstly because of my husband being very poorly indeed, and then…my turn.

If you do  not want to read about breasts and needles, leave now.

A year ago I had some odd happenings with my left breast. It had decided to leak. Seeing as I have never had, and never wish to have children, lactation was not and is not desirable. Cue GP visit, who just said keep an eye and see how things go. She wasn’t unduly worried but it just kept on happening. Badly some days, others days barely noticeable. No pain, just…leaking.

Then a few weeks ago, the fluid turned black. Let me tell you, when you see black liquid welling out of your own nipple, your inner calm makes a run for it.

Then it just ran clear again. After my momentary panic, I went right back to the nurse, who sent me for a breast scan.

The breast scan turned out to be two mammograms, one of which was so painful I cried, then an ultrasound, then a needle biopsy which GODSDAMNIT do not have that without a local anaesthetic. My pain threshold is good, but yeesh. By the way, doctors who do those biopsies, OFFER A LOCAL AS A MATTER OF COURSE BEFORE YOU SHOVE A NEEDLE IN. The needle went in right at the bottom of the areola, and felt like it was about an inch wide. I am well aware it was not.

That was actually one of the most lonely experiences I have had. Lying twisted at an awkward angle in a hospital room – a very cold hospital room – with all things medical going on around me, the ultrasound probe being pushed into already painful bits of me, being spoken about, not TO…all the fears I’d buried came to the surface and leaked out of my eyes. Finally I managed to ask the Dr what she was DOING, and begged please tell me what you are doing, don’t just treat me like a piece of meat lying here.

Anyhoo, after an hour of that, it was back to the consultant who said I’d been brave but still didn’t give me a sticker.  He says he thinks I’ve probably got nothing to worry about, as there seems to be a tiny cyst in the milk duct that’s causing problems, nothing more sinister, and to come back next week.

I fell over this weekend a bit, I admit. I thought the pain would dissipate, but it hung around, occasionally making me want to take my breast off and put it in a box wrapped in cotton wool, bubble wrap and kindness.

Finally today the pain has subsided.

For goodness sake, how can ONE NEEDLE cause so much hurt? I grant you, the muscle aches from the two mammograms probably didn’t help, but sheesh.

I’m hoping they don’t decide to do another one ‘just to check’ when I go back on Friday.
The main problem with this mammogram wasn’t the two ‘side on’ ones, that are usual. It was the ‘front on’ one. Because they had to try and see all the nipple, the ducts and the tissue behind the nipple, basically your boob goes front on into a mangle. That mangle then get sat on by an elephant. Or at least that’s what it feels like.

I’m one of the ‘lucky’ ones who still has firm boobs at the age of 47. I say lucky…but breast density means the darned things DO NOT FLATTEN no matter how much pressure the plates exert, so there was lots of twisting and manipulation of the breast to get it to be in the right position. Oddly, it didn’t want to stay put, so had to be forced.

I’m mortified that I actually cried out when she applied the plates for the third time. Stoicism failed utterly. The last thing I wanted to do was scare the others in the waiting room but it just…came out.

Still, at least I can cross my arms again now without wincing. It’s vitally important to have these things done, I know that, but I cannot help but think that if men had to have these done as routine, there would be a far better way of doing them invented very, very fast.

No doubt I’ll get a letter in the post any day now saying I’m due for a smear test…

As I was sat in the waiting room, looking around at my fellow women, all either mid treatment, or waiting for treatment, or waiting for diagnosis, it struck me that from around the age of 10 onwards, women are routinely subjected to invasions of their body. We have routine smears, routine mammograms, then we have the ones that aren’t routine, investigations, proddings, pokings and we have to do them all WITHOUT EVEN ADEQUATE ACCESS TO THINGS AS SIMPLE AS DECENT POCKETS.

I felt at one with my ladies in that room. There was a kind of resigned camaraderie there. An undercurrent of fear, yes, but also one of teeth gritted “Let’s bloody well get on with it then.”, and a willingness to share support and commiserate with others going through the same toe-curling procedures.

It’s not an experience I want to have again, really, but it’s one I’m glad I’ve had, if that makes sense.

http://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/clinical-breast-exam

Breast Exam

In the turn of a minute…

At the beginning of July I spent a week with my Mum in Cyprus. I had nothing to do apart from read, sit in the sun, swim and eat nice food. That was it. I was already worn out from a hectic run up to my time off, and needed to switch my brain out of work mode, and turn that dial mainly to ‘OFF’. I mostly managed it.

On my last night there I got an email from Beloved Husband, saying that he was in hospital. The reasons are not for here, but my brain was switched, then, firmly to ‘ON’ again.

Contacting the cab firm that was collecting me at the airport, and changing the destination to Hospital. Calling my boss to let him know that probably I wasn’t actually going to make it into work on the Tuesday. Letting various people know what was occurring. That done, I fell into bed, ready to get going the next day. I wasn’t in Cyprus any more, my head was in a hospital in London.

Of course the flight was delayed. That was more or less a given! But I chatted in gentle tones to the lass next to me, letting her talk about her mum who has passed away just before her holiday, and needed to let it out somewhere. It’s easier to bare your grieving soul to someone you don’t know, who has no connection, as you don’t have to worry about them getting upset, too.

From the airport it was hotfoot to the hospital. The taxi driver knew I was worried, and put his foot down.

Beloved was fully compos mentis, but very tired, very hungry and thirsty having been nil by mouth since the Sunday afternoon, and it was now the evening of Monday the 10th. After some badgering he was allowed ice cubes on the Tuesday – it was ridiculously hot in the ward – and started some small amounts of food on the Wednesday. I nearly swung for the guy in the bed opposite who ordered in fish and chips, and ate them in a ward where everyone was nil by mouth.

Eventually, on the 20th, after various Procedures, he was allowed home. To say I was delighted was an understatement, but then the fun began. An infection set in on the evening of the 24th, so Tuesday morning we got antibiotics from the hospital. By the Tuesday evening his temperature was rising by the half hour. It got all the way to 38.3C and we were prepping to go to A&E. Bags packed, we checked it again – I think I was getting a little obsessive at this point – and it had dropped. A lot. All the way to 36C.

He chose to stay home – and who wouldn’t? A&E is as far from restful as you can get.

Wednesday 26th and Thursday 27th were days full of pain for him, alternately running with sweat and shivering with an inner cold that wouldn’t shift, that rattled his teeth in his skull. I have never felt as hopeless and helpless, watching him go through this, just waiting for the double dose antibiotics to kick in, checking temperature on the hour, making sure he ate something, watching him while he slept just in case of…whatever my brain decided it was going to worry about that that moment. Anything outside my immediate life was on hold. Nothing mattered more to me than being by his side.

Friday things seemed to lessen slightly, and the weekend was spent with him in bed, resting as much as he could. The shivers/sweats had eased, but the pain was stabbing him and doubling him over with alarming regularity.

Finally things got better. As it stands, he is still not well, and might not be for a while, but he can feels ok enough to be left on his own.  We have more medical things coming up, but for now…he’s ok. I feel secure enough at the moment to come in to work, to go away for a weekend with my best friend, just to relax and recharge a bit – but make no mistake, there is nothing that I wouldn’t do for this man. Since I laid eyes on him in January of 1992 I’ve loved him more each day. If a doctor came to me and said the only way to save him would be for me to give up an organ, then without query I’d do it. I would, quite literally, lay down my life for him. People might not be able to see why, but they are not me, and I don’t need anyone’s approval or understanding for how I feel about this tall, straight talking, honourable, quiet man.

Tex

 

Borough, my Borough

I’m sure you’re all sick of it by now, but this is my space, and so here it is.

Saturday night, I was pootling about at home, trying to do some writing but actually spodding on the internet. You know, how we all do. Suddenly I see a Tweet about London Bridge, and because I spent a lot of my time there, I followed it up.

What became apparent from the hashtags filled me with horror.

There was the usual gamut of thoughts;

Maybe it’s just a run of the mill accident…Maybe it’s people larking about on a Saturday night. White van men, eh?

Oh. Let’s hope nobody’s badly hurt, maybe they missed everyone? Maybe everyone got out of the way?

Oh no…no…not agai – and now it’s spreading…the Market, it’s full of people…dear god no…who do I know who might be there? What if TwoShuks at Ted’s Veg or Graham at The Turkish Deli are on a late clean up shift? What about the teams at Pulia, Roast, Black and Blue – what – how on earth can I find anything out?!

The answer was to stay glued to Twitter. There was nothing I could do but follow the Met Police feed because newspapers are alarmist at best and tend to quote each other as sources.

As the night went on, my heart sank. Pockets of lightness happened when my friends checked in on FB, one by one. Do not underestimate how important that is. Just because YOU might know that you are safe, and miles away, your friends on the other side of the screen do not. Just check in. My friends across the pond know that I go to Borough a lot, they had no way of knowing if I’d gone there for a late night event or not, so in I checked.

Eventually I went to bed, knowing that those who had checked in or tweeted or sent me a text were safe, and that I’d just have to wait.

At 12.34am I got a text from my husband, who was away for the weekend. I knew he was ok, and hadn’t popped into town for a steak dinner or something. I went to bed, dreading the news.

Sunday was spent pointedly not looking at the internet. I needed my head to get itself together. It didn’t really, not until late afternoon. I felt listless, groundless, like being in 1000 places all at the same time whilst standing stone still.

This is MY city, MY home, MY patch, MY alleyways and cobbled streets and hidden walkways. My respite, my joy, the place that I go to unwind, to seek out new things, to talk to the people I have got to know over the years, to share recipes and food ideas, swap stories, talk politics, eat fried breakfasts fit for a king, try samples, buy lots of brilliant things from the myriad of sellers.

It’s where I go in the very early morning, to watch it wake up. To see the bread and coffee stalls uncover, the restaurants and cafés open their sleepy-eyed shutters. The fish and meat stalls washing out the remains of yesterday’s trading, ready to start all over again.

My favourite grocer’s stalls laying out the fruits and vegetables in ever more intricate piles, rainbow hued and gleaming tomatoes, onions, aubergines and lemons, ranks of tall heads of celery, forests of celeriac with the full set of leaves still on, the olive drab and thistle purple of artichokes, and the papery white or vibrant green of garlic old or young. It makes my heart long for a stove, a pan and some olive oil, right there in the middle of it all, so I can cook with the fabulous produce.

There’s the early morning banter by the fish and meat stalls, the same as you get in Smithfield, or New Covent Garden; people who have worked together for years, all being a part of the whirling, turning buzzing whole. I feel completely at home there, and totally safe.

I can sit at Maria’s on a dark, cold morning, long before I need to be in work, fortified with a proper cup of builder’s tea and a sausage sandwich that defies all others, watching everything emerge and unfurl around me, listening to her cockney accent punctuated by machine gun Italian. I watch the cook arrive at the Turkish deli, knowing that she is going to make amazing baklava, the softest dolma, the most garlicky sweet carrot dip, surrounded by the green, briney tang of olives and the dusky waft of Turkish coffee.

One morning down by the river, three homeless men serenaded me because they were so happy to be in the sunshine, and just to be with friends. The rasta Big Issue seller (Chris, by The Shard) talks to me of his family, his daughters, his hopes, and his philosophy. After Westminster, he held my hand, told me not to be afraid, and to be strong and hold my head up.

It’s all I can do. It’s all we can do.

We might be a nation that recoils from eye contact on the tube, or actively runs the other way when we see someone we know (no we don’t know why we do that either, we just do) but we will hold fast, and we WILL help when it’s right there and we WILL save our pint of beer even whilst being pursued by asshats of the highest order, and we WILL be back the next day and pay our bloody bill, and we WILL make jokes and invoke the god of sarcasm and understatement because we are British. Everyone on this island is. Regardless of colour, creed, religion – British is what we are.

You cross that border line, you stand in a long, long queue, patiently? British.

Eventually that eye contact is made, the small talk happens “Bloody trains, eh?” “Is this queue ever going to move?” “Look at him pushing in, tsk.”

and damnit humans are bloody alright, really.

Until the next time we’re in a crowded train carriage.

Keith

From https://www.instagram.com/p/BU_McxZg7_2/? Two Shuks, Ted’s Veg.