Saturday, December 26, 2009

Delicious meals in austerity Britain

I have always been thin. It was a worry to my family. Especially my Auntie Maud.
"He needs building up", she told my mother.
My mother only smiled wistfully.
"Do you give him any dripping?" Auntie Maud went on.
"He loves it", said Mum. "He's always putting it on a slab of bread".

This was true. It was caviar to me. The small pudding basin of dripping kept in the larder was under constant attack. I used to make a hole in the off white surface and burrow with a knife down into the depths to reach the meaty bits at the bottom. The layer of brown jelly was the prize. With chunks of bread cut with the bread saw, I spread the brownish white concoction on thickly. I then liberally sprinkled it with both salt and pepper and returned to the old chicken shed at the top of the garden which was my hidey house. Only there with the floor still covered with fowl droppings and the sun beating on a tar felt roof, could my gourmet meal be truly savoured.

I was a dab hand in the kitchen. My brother was useless. To be sure, I didn't do much more than open a tin or two and light the gas, but I never starved. My brother didn't starve either, he had another tactic. He would visit his friends when the hunger pangs came on. He would just hang around until the family he had invaded would be obliged to feed him. He was a bit like a cuckoo in this respect, only he relied on the existing chick to stick around to lead him to the table.

Meanwhile back in our kitchen, I would be boiling an egg, prior to heating a tin of spaghetti and burning a slice of toast. Timing never came easily with me. This meal was 'Birds Nest'. The toast, liberally buttered, would be covered with spaghetti and the hard boiled egg placed on top. I needed to be alone when I cooked this, for if my brother was around he would scoff one or more of the component parts. He was a cuckoo at home too!

On Sunday mornings, with all the family at home, we had a late breakfast of fried bacon and egg, with tomato and the finest, thickest and greasiest fried bread ever. I can imagine and smell it now. The crisp outside was uniformly brown, and oozed hot bacon fat.

Delicious!

After the meal was served, the cuckoo and I would each have our beaks open waiting for Mum to toss us the rind as she cleaned up. This would be stripped of its fat first, gulped down and the hard rind nibbled at leisure later. I don't know where my brother ate his but I took mine to the chicken shed.

Three or four hours later, the Sunday roast was on the table. My Dad was very good about this. He only stayed at the pub for a couple of beers. My school friends fathers never used to return home until after Two o'clock, when the landlords threw them out. They took no part in the preparation of the meal, but ate it mechanically and then retired to bed to sleep off the effects of five or six pints of bitter. My Father on the other hand would have the most important job of carving the joint. To this day I still consider this, the essential part of the Sunday meal's preparation. The laying of the table was entrusted to us boys. That usually meant just me. The cuckoo was already eating at Tommy Radford's house two streets away. Mother did all the minor jobs of peeling vegetables, preparing the meat and turning it in the oven, boiling the vegetables soggy with ample sprinklings of salt, putting bi-carb in the cabbage to make it green, and making suet pudding and custard.

She would confidently say, "Your Father will be back soon, and then we can dish up."
And he was. He had that most important job to do. I dreamed of the day when I could do it too. He used to sharpen the knife on the doorstep, which developed a concave depression through continued use.

But I didn't get any fatter. Or did I? Well it didn't show then. Forty years later after eating sensible low fat meals, with plenty of fruit and vegetables has done me no good whatsoever. Those early days of a liberal fat intake has given me a high cholesterol reading regardless of the drugs prescribed to combat it.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The day I dared

"Jim Norris! I would never have believed it."
Neither did I, here I was 12,000 miles from home, in a restaurant in England and somebody was calling my name. I turned and a broadly smiling face greeted me. Quickly I did a spot check. Who was he? He was clean shaven, had grey hair, was shorter than me and carried a bit of weight.
"Why! Hello there," I responded weakly. My brain was in a whirl. Who was he?
I returned his beaming smile, would anything about him give me a clue?
"You don't remember me, do you?" he said, still smiling and with good humour.
"Graham." I quickly interjected. "Well I never." At least something was coming back. I had been to school with him forty years ago. Who recognises old school chums? Well he did! Now what was his surname?
"Did you ever meet my wife Helen?" Then all in the same breath he went on. "Of course you did, you were both in the same form, weren't you?"
In my confusion at trying to recognise the stranger, I had completely ignored his partner at the table. I turned to her. Helen. Helen Ritchie. Oh yes! I knew Helen.

She smiled up at me and we shook hands shyly.
"Hello Helen, isn't this just amazing. Here am I just visiting England for a few weeks, and we meet each other after all this time."
Graham clearly was very pleased with the whole affair. He fetched a chair so that I could sit at their table. He ordered another glass for me to share their wine. He prattled on about the inane and inconsequential. Yes, I remembered Graham now. He was both a laugh and a bore at school. I had quickly grown away from him and his gang of cronies.
But Helen.....

Now at this point I must say how ashamed I feel about my relationship with Helen.
Graham was right, we were in the same class at school, but it wasn't until we were in sixth form that we really took any notice of each other. As sixth formers were supposed to be more responsible, so in our periods free from rostered classes, we were allowed to study in the library and even play tennis. We did both of these. During such times we talked about everything under the sun. She went to ballet classes, loved opera and classical music, and had the most beautiful eyes I had ever seen. On the tennis court we always seemed to play against each other in doubles and it was then I noticed what shapely tanned legs she had. In the library when we were together we talked about politics, music, art and our futures.

I remember she wrote out the English translations of some of the famous opera arias just for me. We were like brother and sister. It must have been when we were talking about the opera La Boheme, and the duet of Rudolfo and Mimi and her problem of frozen hands that we got around to talking about our own hands.

And I dared to touch her hands. Her fingers were slender, with neatly cut nails and her palms were soft and warm. Not like Mimi's! I had never before been in such an intimate situation and its importance was completely lost upon me.

Later like a fool I asked Helen if she could help me. My roving eye had fallen on the voluptuous Rebecca Simpson and could think of no way to attract her attention, so I asked Helen intercede for me. She did so, and before long had arranged a meeting for Rebecca and me.

I can remember quite clearly the evening she told me. As usual I had walked Helen to her bus stop. Arrangements made, I thanked her. As she looked so sad I asked if she was O.K. The smallest of tears formed in her eyes and she said she loved me herself. Only she didn't say it in English, she said it in Italian, the language of opera. I didn't speak the language but clearly understood the amore part. I was helpless and hopeless in this situation. I was still thinking of my future meeting with Rebecca. When her bus came in she gave me a quick peck on the cheek, a squeeze of the hand and left me for ever. We hardly ever spoke or did things together after that.

Now forty years later here she was, married to Graham! Well he seems to have done well for himself. While we exchanged pleasantries I looked a them both. I am lying of course I spent most of my time looking at Helen. Yes, of course she had changed, but she was still Helen. She was just as attractive. A little plumper perhaps, touches of grey in her hair, crinkled lines at the corners of her still beautiful eyes, but none of these detracted from the classic shape of her face with the high cheek bones, the unblemished skin, and her hands..... No! They had not changed either.
A mobile phone rang, it was Graham's. The reception wasn't good so he excused himself and went out into the street to answer it.

Helen and I were alone together. It was then that she did the most extraordinary thing. She reached out for my hand, took it and with exquisite tenderness touched each finger. I was looking at her face as she did this and she looked back up at me.

"Nothing has changed," she whispered, "It's just like yesterday."
With that same sad look of so many years ago she gently let go of my hand.
"You had better go now. I'll tell him you had an appointment to keep."
So once again she slipped out of my life. This time I didn't even get a kiss on the cheek. But it was in the way she had touched my hand I knew that we had had a very special sort of love.
I left without either of us saying another word.

Monday, December 14, 2009

When Angela was brave

"Are you set to go Jenny?" Angela called to her three year old. Jenny appeared in the hall with her dolls pram. She was ready as usual to go out for their walk. With Jack fast asleep in his pram they left the house by the front door shortly after Ten o'clock.
Although Angela tried to change the route, Jenny usually dictated the ultimate destination, which was the childrens playground on the corner of Cypress Avenue. Sometimes Angela would try to get there by a more round about route but Jenny knew if they were walking away from the playground.
"This is not the way Mummy."
"It's just round the corner dear." Jenny looked up at her mother doubtfully and conceded this time.
Mrs. Maxwell came out to her gate and remarked how beautiful the children looked. Angela prided herself on the way she dressed her little ones and felt it was her due, when complimented.
"Jenny had her dress given her by her Nanna, didn't you?"
Jenny nodded shyly and Mrs. Maxwell smiled down at her. She then turned and headed back to her door saying "Its a fine day."
They reached the park. Jenny headed for the swings. Angela started her swinging and pushed Jenny's dolls pram back to stand next to Jack's larger one. Angela sat on the bench seat under the wattle tree and relaxed. She could see both of her babies at the same time and felt with the warmth of the sun, a deeper, warmer, more satisfying feeling of contentment and pride, at being able to produce two such perfect children. Jenny, she could hear was singing the nursery rhyme Polly Flinders but had got the words mixed up with Ring-a-ring o roses. She smiled to herself and noticed at the same time out of the corner of her eye that there was someone running towards the playground. She turned and saw two teenager boys approaching. When they reached the fence, one jumped clear over it, while the other scrambled over. She stood up concerned lest they frighten Jenny who was some distance away from her. The two youths were now whooping and skylarking on the equipment. They reached Jenny first. One mounted the other swing and the other got behind Jenny and pushed her hard. Angela heard her cry out in alarm and started running over to her. They danced away from the swings and raced past Angela.
"Whats-a-matter lady, scared?" The last word drawn out with horrifying intent.
Angela looked right into the face of the youth. His pale spotty complexion, crew cut hair and vicious sneer on his face sent a shudder of fear through her.
"Leave my children alone."
"Huh. Where's the other one then?" They scampered off toward the prams. Angela screamed.
"Don't you dare touch him!"
Its made no difference. They took a pram each and with careless abandon and intent tore around the park with Angela chasing after them, whilst Jenny sat wailing on the ground. The youth with the dolls pram at one point lifted the whole contraption up and turned Jenny's doll out on to the grass. Angela was so terrified and anxious at this point she thought that it was Jack that had been pitched out. She rushed up to the tiny heap of clothes and searched though them for her baby before she realised her mistake.
Luckily the torment was soon over and they left the playground almost as quickly as they had arrived. Jack was unharmed and although awake was unconcerned by the events. Angela gathered the children and the bits and pieces together. Still sobbing she and Jenny hugged each other for comfort.
"Let's go home now darling."
It was only then, when she started to push the pram that she saw that her handbag was missing. She looked around frantically for it but it had definitely gone.
"Those damned boys have stolen it."
Jenny looked up in surprise at her mother. Her sobbing stopped. Mummy hardly ever got cross. Just to help she said:
"Those damned boys."
Despite the seriousness of the situation Angela laughed and squeezed Jenny's hand.
"How are we going to get back in the house without a key? Daddy is going to think me such a fool."
The little family group got back to their street. Angela tried both of her neighbours but neither one was there. She had to go further up the road to Mr. Lawrence's house before she could find anyone at home.
The elderly white haired man came to the door.
"Well hello my dear...."
Angela cut him off. "I'm sorry Mr. Lawrence could I use your phone. I have just had my handbag stolen and they've taken my keys as well."
The old man took several seconds to take it all in.
"Oh. Oh. Yes. Come on in. Do you know the number?" He started fussing around with the directories.
"It's all right. I shall phone the police first."
She dialled the emergency number. Waited, then when answered, had to explain which service she required.
"Police."
She was asked to hold on. Again the wait. She looked around. Jack was getting restless in the pram. Jenny was clinging to her thin dress.
"I've been robbed.....In the street.....Well at the Sarah Patterson playground on Acacia Avenue.....They took my handbag.....Two youths..... No, I'm at a neighbours now.....
Well, money, keys, credit cards and personal things..... No, I can't get in but I'll phone my husband next."
She agreed to return home and wait for a patrol car to arrive.
"Could I make another quick call, Mr. Lawrence?"
Mr. Lawrence nodded his head. His worried look probably meant that all this was becoming too much for him to cope with. Jack was crying now and Jenny pulled insistently at her clothes.
"I want to go home Mummy."
"Let me talk to Daddy first darling." There was no answer. Mr. Lawrence looked pained. His morning procedure was being severely disrupted. She gave Jenny a cuddle then cooed at Jack who refused to be pacified.
"I'll try Frank again." she apologised.
Still no answer. Where was he?
"I'll have to go. I'm meeting the police at my place."
Mr. Lawrence looked relieved.
"Could you ring my husband again. Please ask him to come home straight away."
The old man nodded in agreement, took Frank's number and ushered them out onto the street.
She wheeled the family home. Jenny valiantly pushed her doll's pram despite the uphill climb. Sensing her mothers distress she said not a word.
Angela felt relieved to get back home but frustrated because she couldn't get into the house. Jack needed a change of nappies so she took them both around to the side of the house under the patio. She deftly changed Jack's disposable nappy and rinsed her hands under the garden tap. She sat down on a patio chair in the dappled sunlight and rocked Jack back to sleep again. Soon he was quietened. Angela relaxed and hoped that Frank would come home soon. Then she remembered that the police were due to arrive and glanced now repeatedly towards the front garden. All was quiet. She started making lists in her head of all the things she needed to do as soon as she could get indoors. She had to ring the Bank, then there was the store and credit card numbers. There was her driving licence. She knew there must be more.
"Oh. Frank please come home" she murmured.
Jenny went off to talk to the gnomes in the front garden.
"There's someone at our front door, Mummy."
"I'm coming."
Angela walked around to the front door. She expected to see a police patrol car in the road, but it wasn't there. Neither were there any policemen on her doorstep. The front door was open.
"Daddy must be home" she breathed with a sigh of relief.
"No, it's not Daddy."
Angela froze. Until this very moment she hadn't dreamt that the hooligans would use her own keys to break into the house. Without a seconds thought, she told Jenny to go back to look after Jack in his pram. With a fury that she could not explain, she went in through the open door. She picked up the walking stick with a brass birds head handle that was standing in the chinese pot, with the umbrellas by the front door.
Quietly she listened at the Lounge Room door. She could hear them talking.
"Quick. There's no time to fiddle with it."
"Pull it out from the bloody plug."
"Go and see if there's anything in the bedroom while I check the Kitchen for cash."
As one of the youths came out the door to the Hall, Angela swung the walking stick and hit the boy across the throat. He made a strange 'thuk' 'thukking' noise as he dropped the video, fell to his knees and clutched at his neck. His face was drained of all colour and he had difficulty breathing. He lay on the floor twitching.
"You haven't dropped it, you pillock!" shouted the other boy from the Kitchen.
Angela was waiting for him as he emerged from the kitchen with a fist of small notes in one hand and the other putting the loose change from her earthenware spice jar in his pocket.
"You bastards, how dare you do this to me and my kids."
The spotty lad's mouth fell open. As quick as a flash he turned to go back out through the Kitchen. Surprising herself Angela darted after him and struck at his back with the stick. The birds beak caught him in the middle of his back and stuck there. The stick was wrenched from Angela's hand as he fled. He reached the back door but couldn't open it because of the deadlock. She looked frantically around for another weapon. All she could find was a copper bottomed saucepan. She stood over the crumpled figure by the door as he desperately tried to reach the walking stick stuck in his back and get away from her. The saucepan was lifted high in case he made a move against her.
Suddenly she felt an hand on her shoulder and the saucepan taken from her grasp. She thought that the other boy had come after her. She struggled and slipped away, only to see a policeman holding the saucepan that he had wrested from her.
"Thank God you've come."
"Perhaps you could explain what's going on, Madam, while my colleague calls an ambulance."
Angela could see the second police officer kneeling by the boy with the injured throat. He was calling base asking for assistance. "I must see to my children."
"Not just yet, Madam."
"Don't you try to tell me what I can or cannot do with my own children." Angela hurried back out to the Hall past the figures by the Lounge door and went out to get to Jenny and Jack.
"Would you please stop, Madam." The policeman insisted as he followed her out. Angela ignored him and went to the children.
"Is everything all right now Mummy?
"Yes, darling." She lifted up her daughter to hug her.
A vehicle drew up at the curb, Angela turned and hoped it would be Frank. It wasn't. It was the meter reader. He smiled at her.
"It's a fine Day!"
Angela nodded. Yes, perhaps it was now.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The weird old woman

I was scared. Barely eight years old and the most junior of the gang. My heart beat faster and my palms were sweaty. It was my turn to run up the path to the witch's house and bang on the door. The others goaded me on.

"Go on, Billy. Go an' give the knocker a whack."

"Give the old witch a fright, Bill."

They were nudging and pushing me, especially my brother, Ted, who took particular delight in teasing me. I carefully crept through the gate, and scampered up to the front door. I lifted the knocker and let it fall. Then I ran for my life back out to the street. All the others had disappeared from view. Some had run off. The braver ones including Ted, were hidden just out of sight. Nothing happened. Luckily she must have been out or didn't hear. At least I'd done it. Next time it would be Johnny Brooker's turn.

The street gang had been tormenting old May Cobbett for years. She was a recluse. Which to small boys meant she was weird, a witch. It didn't help that the house she lived in was tall and dark and overhung with trees. It was old Victorian villa, with a slate roof and elaborate chimney stacks. An eerie brick house covered in ivy, it grew right up to the eaves and invaded the gutters. The trees in the garden were pine and holly and yew, all dark and shadowy. It was was a sombre fearful place. Rank grass grew over everything leaving the narrowest of paths to the front door. We rarely saw her, but when we did it confirmed our wildest suspicions. She was a short, skinny old woman with her back bent over. She only wore old fashioned dark clothes and frequently had a scarf tied around her head. She said little to anyone. Those adults that did bid her a good morning, got little more than a grunt in return.

All the back gardens in our street led down to a meadow which was also our playground. We boys spent a lot of our time there and in the copse beyond. In Summer, we would climb trees and look out for imaginary enemy ships or tanks approaching. In autumn, we would collect horse chestnuts and take part in the battle of the conkers. In winter, the woods became quiet, sad places with bare trees and the ground, damp underfoot. The wind would cut through thin jumpers, smart the face and bring reluctant tears to boy's eyes.

It was through this meadow, that in Summertime, we were able to get to the Cobbett garden from the back. There was only a three wire fence on rotting timber posts that was no barrier to us ruffians. That was the easy part. At the bottom of the garden was a dense clump of tall stinging nettles. Past the nettles the garden itself opened up into a wonderland of new scents and sights. We were transformed by our imagination to be early explorers, discovering new territory in darkest African jungles. The pines that were so menacing, seen from the front of the house, became a marvellous sylvan glen, with a deep carpet of needles. It was an exquisite sensation, as we walked with silence underfoot and the whisper of the breeze in the branches overhead. Closer to the house a rose arbour had gone wild. The roses had crept, year after year, further away from its original stake and had flowed with waves of white floribunda blooms all around the garden. The air was full of the scents of summer. The sounds of insects humming and garden birds singing made me feel that we had violated something very precious.

We had.

Hidden in that garden I saw a movement at the back of the house. The others retreated quickly, backing out of that strange garden, returning to our the familiar territory of copse and meadow. They were unwilling to confront the witch. I alone was left, mesmerised by the sight of old May Cobbett. She had come out of the house. She wore a flowery apron and sat on an old painted rocking chair by the back door. As she rocked she cast a few crumbs from her lap in a sweeping movement in front of her. Not far from her, picking and pecking on the ground were chaffinches and bluetits, a Robin would dart in now and then, and holding his ground would look right up at her, with his head cocked. When the crumbs were gone, she called out. "That's all my lovelies." and the birds fluttered away into the bushes. The Robin alone remained close by, first on a post, then to the gutter, than back to the post again. Then to my amazement the old lady began to sing. Her voice was thin and shrill. She tunelessly voiced an old nursery rhyme.

"We'll o'er the water and o'er the sea,
We'll o'er the water to Charlie,
Come weal come woe, well gather and go,
And live or die with Charlie."

As I crouched there listening, I felt ashamed. This woman who fed the birds and sang to herself was not a witch at all. She got up from her chair and went indoors. I left that garden too, never to tease May Cobbett again, in fact she died the following winter.

Years later I took my fiancee, Glenda, to show her off to my Gran who lived only a street away from our old house. Gran gave us a cup of tea and a slice of cake. I talked about the old times and when our family lived close by. I mentioned old May Cobbett; I even told her about seeing her in the garden.

"Well I never," said Gran. "Poor old May, she got so bitter and twisted, she never had a good word to say to anyone."

"Was she always like that, Gran?"

"Oh. Goodness me no. She was such a pretty little thing. We both went to Fisher Street School."

"Well, what happened."

"It's all account of the war." Gran went on. "She was barely seventeen when she was courted by young Charlie Knott. He had just joined up. She was so proud to have a boyfriend in uniform." Gran looked across to Glenda and smiled.
"He went to the front of course...and he never came back to her."

Glenda by this time had tears in her eyes. She squeezed my hand.

"Oh. Gran that's terrible. So that's why she turned so weird then?"

"Well you could say that," said Gran. "But what really made her upset, was that he did come back, but not to her. She just couldn't accept that, not after waiting for him all those years."

My mind went back to that summer day in my childhood. I had seen her in an unguarded moment. She had shown me that she was human too. In her misery she had turned to the creatures that she could trust, who would do her no harm. And she sang for her lost love.