Saturday, 31 July 2010

Honeysuckle Truth

Saturday July 31st

Day 101

My mother would have been ninety today.

I feel invigorated cutting back the tangle of dead wood in the honeysuckle at the bottom of the garden and pruning the straggly bush overhanging the brick path. Bringing light and space to dark corners - like slashing the veil on a lie - allowing new growth.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Friday July 30th

Day 100

We arrive late at the private view - I was soaking my sore toes in a washing-up bowl of hot salt water.

The speeches are over - the school hall is humming with artists. We meander along rows of framed paintings - two hundred and thirty six of them. Each one a person’s idea of crested waves, drooping poppies, a mountain in India, a woman holding a child in a hat, a street in the rain, snowy moorland. A kind of courage on display.

As we walk with our catalogues and free glass of wine, we are offered trays of mini sausage rolls, tinned pineapple and cheddar cheese chunks skewered on cocktail sticks, celery boats laden with cream cheese, egg mayonnaise sandwiches of crustless white bread. Made with generous hands.

Our friend who invited us whispers that one of her paintings only took her five seconds - it was her palette of bright swirled colours before she wiped it clean - full of movement and light. I liked it best of all.

When we let ourselves back into the evening house it smells of cake and blackcurrant jam. My art offerings of this day - the hundredth day of my blog.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Thursday July 29th

Day 99

The second courgette cake is a light, airy textured sponge. The grated speckles shine in its depths like shards of green glass. I think it looks pretty but possibly tasteless. So I slice it in half and swirl the top and middle with whipped cream cheese sweetened with icing sugar and sharpened with lime juice. A fine dusting of lime zest sits on the top - inviting, coquettish.

The first courgette cake which I made for the ruby celebration was dark and dense with muscovado sugar, dates and walnuts and long golden sultanas bought in the market in Uzes on the last afternoon of our holiday in France.

You wouldn’t know that the only thing these two concoctions have in common is courgette which really tastes of nothing in a cake. But makes you want to eat a slice anyway. Not a sticky crumb left of either tonight - just some happy friends.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Wednesday July 28th

Day 98

I’m early for the appointment and wander round the empty rooms of my parents’ house, sun pouring in through curtainless windows. The unfamiliar colours of the walls - powder blue, raspberry pink, pale aubergine - painted by the tenant - make it harder to remember them here - in wingback chairs, shelves full of books, beetroot boiling on the stove.

I open the big glass door onto the garden from the room which was my mother’s bedroom, and step down onto the gravel. The honeysuckle on the trellis has roamed over the shed roof and waves tendrils in the air as if looking for a foothold. I remember choosing it with my mother when it was a small plant and knew where it was heading.

I’m sweeping cigarette buts from in front of the garage when the viewing couple arrive.He has an anxious squashed up face. She is wearing shorts and a cotton blouse and doesn’t say her name when I introduce myself. They walk into each room in silence, peering, opening echoey cupboards.

“It’s not as bad as I thought it would be,” he says. “ Is there a service contract for the boiler?”

I don’t think they will buy it.

When they leave I cut four long stemmed, candy pink roses from the bush in the back garden. I imagine my mother breathing in their perfume, her nose buried in the petals. I lay them on the seat beside me while I drive home, but they soften and wilt in the heat of the windscreen, releasing their pale whispering scent into the car.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Tuesday July 27th

Day 97

We are back on line,” my husband says in the car, as he drives me to the foot-man-with- the-needles at 8.15 this morning.

I’m comforted. For three days I couldn’t post my blog - I felt the wobble in my daily link with ‘What’s Cooking?’, like a shiver in my gut. I could break it so easily with my always doubts.

Now my big toes are capped with white gauze bandages - giant silk worm cocoons. I don’t venture outside and pad round the house like a penguin. Then I make a nest on the sofa with a long to-do list of sitting-down jobs. My toes throb inside their soft protective hats.

We feast on small globe artichokes for lunch - three each. They open like spikey sage- green water lilies in the deep saucepan.

I can’t believe I grew these,” says my husband as we pull off the leaves, one by one,

dipping the sweet bud base into mayonnaise, pungent with garlic so fresh and juicy that I can’t believe he grew that either.

We remember the artichoke lunch we had in France last month with our writing friends - sitting round a huge table on a hot mountain terrace, pulling and dipping our leaves, getting closer and closer to the delicate centre with its closed sea anemone lid - the last hairy layer on the journey its heart.

Monday July 26th

Day 96

Today in that after-the-party-is-over feeling, I pack away slabs of lemon polenta cake in the freezer and shake lavender biscuit crumbs from the tin.

A dear friend and I sit in a shady tea garden with tall glasses of raspberry and mango smoothie on the table between us and exchange the recent missing months of our lives and loves.

I cut up a pineapple for my father, sitting opposite him with the chopping board on my lap so we can still talk. The juice dribbles onto my jeans and makes a damp patch on the carpet.

At home I toss potatoes and carrots in olive oil and flakey salt and put then in the oven to roast.

The pussy cat turns away from his food bowl and looks at me as if I intend to poison him with his usually favourite tuna.

My husband lays out a mosaic of papers on the office carpet, searching for accounting errors to satisfy the taxman.

And all this time I try not to think about the anaesthetic needles which the podiatrist will stick in my toes tomorrow.

Sunday July 25th

Day 95

At lunch, nine of us - our weekend family core - sit under the sun umbrella on the terrace, like bumble bees purring over the oregano flowers, we bend heads to plates of fresh baked salmon,left over knobbly new potatoes and long lettuce leaves.

My brother-in-law says,

“At this time, on this day, forty years ago, we had been married for half an hour.”

In the black and white photos in their wedding album you wouldn’ t know that her shoes were red and matched his shirt. You don’t need colour to see the love in their smiles. But I think it is the colour of rubies.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Day 94

Saturday 24th July

Sometimes five minutes isn’t long enough to capture a whole marvellous day on a page - or even one moment - and I promised my husband I’d come to bed. I know the seagulls will wake me at dawn - so maybe the words which won’t come now, will surface in the morning.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Friday July 23rd

Day 93

I don’t want to throw away the pastry off cuts from my rolled out quiche bases.

I don’t want to make them into jam turnovers which is what my mother did with her left overs - golden half moons, oozing dark sweet bubbles - sticking to the baking tray like concrete blood.

Instead I make a raggedy edged tart in a sponge cake tin. I scatter the squidged together base with green onion tops, cut in rounds like leeks, beat up two eggs with the remains of a tub of natural yogurt, add a few grinds of black pepper and gratings of Cheddar and the oven does its magic.

It sits on the table between us. My husband has a second slice. The uneven pastry edge, waving above the rim, niggles at me - cooked but unfinished.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Thursday July 22nd

Day 92

A dear friend read this on a tea-bag tag and emailed it to me -

‘To learn - read;

to know - write;

to master - teach.’

It makes me so happy to think of all those books waiting on shelves for me to read, all those word stories I"m going to write, all those recipes to try out. And then to pass it all on. How the sharing of it is everything - like a cup of tea with a friend.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Wednesday July 21st

Day 91

Four cakes are sitting on cooling racks on the dining room table. One square, two round and a loaf - like parcels of happiness to be unwrapped on Saturday.

All afternoon the kitchen has pumped out rich warm scents of orange and chocolate, almond and lemon, filling the whole house with comfort.

Tonight, opening the back door to shoo out a bee, I am assailed by a perfume - dripping, tropical - that replaces the air. The luminous yellow and white flowers of the honeysuckle, which I hardly notice in the day, are tumbling over the fence, radiating their scent into the dark garden.

A line in Mary Oliver’s poem, Roses, Late Summer, comes to me,

the last roses have opened their factories of sweetness

and are giving it back to the world.

I hope I will remember to keep breathing in this summer - before it’s suddenly over.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Tuesday 20th July

Day 90

I pour a boiling hot stream of sugar syrup into the three egg yolks at the bottom of the bowl. While I whisk them, I think about my sister and my niece and my nephew - on their first day in Zambia, arriving at Chipembe School for Girls. On the phone my father said,

“I hope they’ll be alright - half my family in Africa.”

I didn’t say ‘not quite half’, but I know what he means - those precious three.

After four minutes with the egg beater, the watery yellow liquid in my bowl has grown into a thick ivory cloud, ready for cream and vanilla and swirls of sharp blackcurrant puree. I’m making two of these parfaits - one for when they get home.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Monday July 19th

Day 89

I’ve never chopped dried lavender flowers before. They bounce under my knife and some shoot to the floor. The stain on the board is purple and fragrant - smeared essential oil of drawer sachets. I need two tablespoonfuls for the shortbread. Biscuits for a special occasion - on Saturday my sister will have been married for forty years. I think she might have been a lavender picker in another lifetime - a keeper of wisdom and wild herbs.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Sunday July 18th

Day 89

Feeling scratchy from our lunchtime talking, laced with dissonance, I suggest the sea.

Arriving there in burning sunshine, the wind is slapping the waves into churlish sandy foam, snatching holiday hats and beach umbrellas, rolling them along the pebbles.

We turn inland, and follow a path lined with sheltering pine trees.The field of green-gold wheat rising up a long slope is a delicious surprise. I want to run into it’s depths and gather up the prickly, summer stalks in my arms. I capture it in my camera instead - a tethered sea waving to a crystal blue sky where a faint, nearly whole moon rests low on the horizon. Waiting for the harvest.

Holding hands, we stop under a wild cherry tree, every branch weighed down with ripe burnished berries. I sample one of the fallers on the grass. It’s not nearly as sour as I expected.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Saturday July 17th

Day 88

On our way to Dartmoor we stop at a delicatessen in a small town and buy a bag of fresh cheese straws. They have a reputation for being the best in Devon. In fact there is a hand-written sign stuck in the basket where they are piled up, which says they are “Better than Sex.”

I put my hand in the grease spotted bag as soon as we are out of the shop - and bite into the high baked, cheese-melted, crisp and chewy stick. My mouth burns with disappointment. Too much cayenne.

I’m glad I packed a picnic - two plastic boxes, a trio of salads inside - grated bright purple beetroot and carrot in a fresh orange dressing, sliced yellow courgettes and sweet hard peas, an egg and tuna couscous with olives and parsley. And another box of cos lettuce hearts and cherry tomatoes. All seasoned just to my taste.

Perfect fuel for our hike up to Bellever Tor.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Friday July 16th

Day 87

Yesterday was the hundredth day since my sweet writing niece started her blog - ‘100 di Questi Giorni’ - looking for the poetry in the ordinary, always finding something to celebrate on non-birthdays. Which she has done - most beautifully, one day at a time.

Gently, she prodded me to start my own writing journey. I’m so happy that she, like me, can’t stop at a hundred.

This afternoon feeling grumpy and hungry - missing the solace of cooking - I didn’t want to stop and listen to the song of a bird - loud bubbling notes cascading somewhere through the canopy of trees above us - while we walked along a red muddy path. But my husband said,

“Look, there he is.”

At first I couldn’t spot him it was so dark in the shade of the undergrowth. Then he flashed onto a low branch, a tiny wren with his signature upright stick of a tail, still singing his heart out. I said,

“How can something so small make such a loud noise?

I imagine it’s his special talent.

Tonight I will cook a hot green vegetable soup bright with peas and courgettes, garlic and spinach - to mark the end of our cold juicing journey. Something to celebrate - as special as the wren’s song.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Thursday July 15th

Day 86

Early morning, walking through puddles in the park, we are delighted by six baby ducklings feeding on the grass at the edge of the lake. They are palmfuls of yellow and brown fluff, their tiny wings like truncated thumbs. One of them, bolder than the rest, waddles towards us. We stay very still. His siblings follow at a safe distance. When I crouch down they all scatter back to their mother. She stands sentinel nearby not at all alarmed by our presence - calm, watchful, proud of her brood.

She reminds me of the mothers and fathers flooding the streets of our university town in their smart jackets and summer dresses - a son or a daughter between them in a long black gown, the hood trimmed with purple or white. Graduation day. And of course I remember mine, thirty five years ago, on a windy July day in another city, making my parents happy.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Wednesday July 14th

Day 85

While the rain slashes the flower borders in our English garden I write a letter to Obert Kayaya and his wife Rhoda. They live in the village of Chippapa in Zambia. Many years ago my father, who also lived there for a while, told me Obert’s story. Since a child he was lame in one leg and thought he would never marry. Then he met a woman who loved him. I was touched and sent her my satiny white wedding dress as they had no money for one. They sent back smiling photos, standing outside their house in the village. The dress was too long and trailed in the red dust. She looked radiant.

They named their first son after my husband and their daughter after me. We spent some days with them one cool August, eleven years ago when Patty was only a baby.

Next week my eldest sister will return to Zambia and to Chippapa - an ambassador for my father, with her daughter and my nephew, carrying gifts for the children. And so this African link, unbroken since my grandfather’s time, continues. Like a chain of clapping hands, echoing across the sea. Twalumba. Thank you. Thank you.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Tuesday July 13th

Day 84

Summer has gone on sabbatical. I put the heating on, briefly, to dry damp clothes. And to take the chill from round my heart.

I’m not hungry on this cleansing juicing journey, being awash with icy rivers of pale gold and green juices, zinging with vitamins. Just empty - at a loss with no onions to fry, no salmon to grill, no rice to boil. No scent of tomatoes and garlic roasting in the oven, wafting up the stairs like will-o’-the wisp, enticing me to supper.

Then I think how easy it is to be happy - cooking or not cooking - if I flick the switch in my heart which makes them both the same. It’s just me choosing one as better than the other and getting stuck there - like a hornet beating its wings against a window open to the sky.

Now it’s nearly time to juice a beautiful pineapple.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Monday July 12th

Day 83

Pineapples and apples stream through my day - spurting from the juicer in a pale frothy fountain. Blended with avocado and spinach and poured over ice cubes they turn creamy dayglo green. With carrots and beetroot they become muddied - but taste as clean and fresh as a mountain top in spring.

However slowly we sip our cool extracted nectar, sitting at the table with a candle and a vase of lavender, we can’t make supper last more than ten minutes.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Sunday July 11th

Day 82

I stick fragrant stalks of lavender into the flower holder at the base of my mother’s grave - several stems into each hole to make a purple speckled circle. I fill the container with water from the tap next to the skip where all the dead bouquets get thrown. I trim the grass and dandelions that have flowed over the concrete slab with kitchen scissors. She liked neat edges. I don’t think she’d mind that we only visit occasionally.

On my way back to the car I pass two grey haired men tending the flowers on a grave. One of them says,

“We does our best for them don’t we?”

“Yes, we do,” I say.

The other man says something but his speech is distorted and childlike and I don’t understand. He grins at me. His black and red belt buckle spells Elvis.

When I arrive at my father’s he’s sitting at his big polished round table, writing.

“I couldn’t sleep this afternoon,” he says. “So I said to myself, ‘get up, man, and do something’. So I ate a peach and started my diary.”

He reads to me the piece he wrote about visiting the graveyard yesterday. It makes me cry. This is how he’s doing his best without her.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Saturday July 10th

Day 81

Walking into the hot oven of our house, the pussy cat who has been alone since early this morning, comes to greet us. I fling open windows and doors and drink in the brightness of the garden against a darkening sultry sky.

All day in my glowing silk dress and low heels, I find myself dislocated among people I know but don’t know. And some I love. Stranded at a round white-clothed table, smiling, listening - remembering who I am inside.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Friday July 9th

Day 80

The lavender bushes at the allotment are wide waving fans of such deep rich purple they look as if they’ve been sprayed with paint.

Lavender and my mother are forever entwined in my mind. At her funeral we carried bunches of it tied with mauve ribbon - and sweet peas, and roses from my sister’s garden.

It was tonight two years ago that we got the phone call from the home.

“ Come now, and bring your father.”

He stayed as long as he could. My sister took him back when it was late.

I laid my head on the edge of her pillow. And listened to her breathing, crackly in her chest. Louder than the hiss of the air mattress rising up under her. Much later, just before dawn she opened her eyes, looked up and frowned a little. Closed her eyes again and breathed out. For the last time.

For a little while, before the carer came in, it was just me and my mother. The bed still hissing in the quietness of her not breathing. I felt the lucky one, wrapped in wonder.

Then I phoned my family.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Thursday July 8th

Day 79

My husband is picking blackcurrants at the allotment. I want to be there too, foraging in the prickly bushes for warm fat berries. I can taste their strong sharp sweetness, like sherbert, and remember a recipe I pulled out of a magazine last summer. A parfait - a vanillary, egg yolk and cream mixture, semi frozen and then swirled through with trickles of deep purple blackcurrant puree. Maybe this time I’ll serve it with shortbread biscuits on the side. If I can find it again.

For now I can only dream about recipes as, like the pussy cat, I need to stretch out on the sofa and let my irritated back muscles ripple into softness.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Wednesday July 7th

Day 78

Gentle soothing fingers massage deep into the muscles of my low back.

“They are irritated an inflamed,” he says - the wise man who knows how muscles and the mind are bound together like connective tissue.

It’s hard to speak it out - this buried angry fire - easier to let my back take the strain. Just for now though - until I can let kindness creep in and put the fire out. Soon, soon.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Tuesday 6th July

Day 78

I ring my husband from M&S lingerie department.

“Will you buy me lunch?”

“Of course.” He loves eating out.

I ring him back just as he’s leaving the house.

“ It’s got really cold - will you bring me a cardigan?”

“Which one?”

“In the wardrobe there are two on the same hanger. Bring the navy one, light navy - almost grey - lightweight, thin. Not the other one - the blue one.”

Ten minutes later he walks towards me through the crowds, carrying my cardigan.

“It’s the wrong one,” I say.

“But you said the light one.”

“The lightweight one, I said. This is royal blue not navy.”

I think about how many varieties of blue there are and how easy it is to assume the colour in my head, and the name of it, matches the one you see.

After a little while I start to enjoy our lunch.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Monday 5th July

Day 77

Leaning against the sink, my husband tells me one of our allotment neighbours died on Saturday. She had a heart attack. She was 65. She had grey plaits and a weather beaten face and her fingers were always in the earth.

The first time I stopped to talk to her she offered me some potatoes and gave me advice about how you know when they are ready to dig up. I gave her a lettuce, she told me rhubarb is good with ginger, I said try it with elderflower. I think she knew everything there is to know about growing things.

The last time I passed her plot, a few days ago, she was bent over, tending to the soil. I didn’t call out hello. Now I wish I had. I still can’t believe she won’t be there tomorrow when we go to water the tomatoes. I don’t even know her name. Just how kind she was.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Sunday 4th July

Day 76

I wake with a longing for the sea.

To wash away last night’s film - The Holocaust nightmare in ‘Shindler’s List’ - still splintering my mind.

To avoid the red wave of strawberries and currants overflowing in the fridge, crying out to me -

“Do something with me now- before I turn into mush.’

We walk high up on the cliffs at Budleigh the sound of the waves muffled by banks of unfurling bracken fronds and dense purple ling. The path is lined with blackberry brambles covered with sprays of white flowers and tiny hard fruits. Branches of holly trees scratch our arms, clusters of shiny green berries hiding between their leaves.

In the middle of this windy summer day I taste autumn dankness and Christmas coldness.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Saturday July 3rd

Day 75

Serena Williams says, holding up the gold shield for the 4th time,

“It was my dream to win Wimbledon. Anyone can make their dreams come true - if you work hard and stick at it.”

I like her faith in us.

They say if you practise anything - playing an oboe, high diving, drawing, forgiving - for a thousand hours - or is days? - you will get better at it, no question. I think you have to be hungry for it too.

My plans to write this morning come unstuck. Hanging out washing before breakfast, I notice the buddleia branches

throwing shade on the spinner. Once the secateurs are sealed in my hand I find myself swallowed up in our garden - which, like Topsy, grew and grew while we were away. I prune and weed and water and tie up.

Suddenly it’s lunchtime and no ink on the page. But it’s not too late - I’m sticking at this writing thing - one word after another - even if my dream sometimes wavers like a mirage in the desert.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Friday July 2nd

Day 74

“Now sit down,” my father says, “and tell me all about it. From the beginning.”

So I do. Fo nearly the whole visit. I talk while he listens, his feet up on the chair, his grey eyes fixed bright on my face. I tell him about the nightingale and the bamboo and the silk worms.

He prompts me -

“Do you feel you learnt anything on your writing course?

Did you meet interesting people?”

Yes, yes I say. The more he listens the more I talk. Today I bring my world to him and he takes it with both hands, the way I have seen the Africans in Chipapa village take an offering. As if it was precious.

When he leaves to go downstairs and have supper with the other residents, I slice the prickly skin from a pineapple and chop it into chunks so he can have it later - instead of cake. I wish I’d written him a little note too and said,

“Thank you for the gift of my life.”

I can tell him tomorrow.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Thursday 1st July

Day 73

My fingers smell of grassy green freshness. I’ve been cracking open the pods of broad beans, delving into their fleecy white nests and prising out their cargo. This treasure is now lying at the bottom of a saucepan, covered in water - a clutch of small, flat, nearly heart shaped pebbles in a stream. Our very first picking.

I could blanch them first - a quick dunking in boiling water - and then slip off their pale grey jackets to reveal their earthy emerald greenness inside. But I’m not sure I can wait and anyway tonight I want the chewy texture of their skins, however crinkly loose they look on the outside - soaking up the garlic and olive oil.

I’m a bit focused on saggy skin at the moment - mine - as I’m searching for a dress to buy for a special occasion in my husband’s family. They are mostly made of material that makes you sweat . Or flouncy and summery and short sleeved. So I’m hunting for something with cool long sleeves as I don’t want to appear like a wrinkly broad bean. Although what matters is that inside I still feel as bright as emeralds.