Monday, 28 February 2011

Roast Pineapple

Sunday 27th February

Day 312

‘Come for supper and Scrabble,’ says my friend.

‘I’ll bring pud,’ I say.

‘Something easy,’ she says. ‘Don’t cook anything’.

I decide that roasting a pineapple doesn’t count as cooking. I look at some recipes on the internet for inspiration - vanilla and ginger seem to be common theme in all of them. This is my version.

Scrape out the black sticky streak of seeds from a split vanilla pod and add them to a thick slice of butter melting in a pan. Slice a finger length of fresh ginger root into slivers as fine as needles and drop them in, together with long glugs of maple syrup, clear honey and Madiera wine. Simmer for several minutes and then pour over the waiting pineapple slices, arranged in a shallow dish. Bake in a high oven for nearly an hour or until the black speckled juices have turned amber gold and glazed the pineapple half moons with a glossy sheen.

To stretch my pineapple pud which rather diminished in size in the oven, I take along a wedge of seville orange almond cake and a tub of vanilla honey yogurt left over from supper with my dear sisters last night.

When we are stuffed full of fluffed cheese souffle and succulent roast veggies - as well as the caramelised pineapple - we lay out a scrabble board and tussle with vocabulary. And the thorny question of what to put down when your hand holds only vowels.

No Huskies

Saturday 26th February

Day 311

We are walking and talking in the woods under the veil of a blue and white sky. Sun warm, but air icy when we pass in the shade of the huge pine trees. A green notice put up by the Forestry Commission says,

“Huskies are exercised here.”

When I tell my husband that they are sledge dogs from Greenland he remembers straight away. When he explains to me the workings of our pensions I feel in a fog. I can’t believe there will be enough money in our future for his care - proper care. I’ve heard it can cost as much as £44,000 a year to look after someone in a nursing home.

My husband says it may not be like that but there will always be enough anyway. He holds me while I cry into his chest. Then we walk back on along the stoney path, not talking, keeping an eye out for huskies.

Guns and Roses

Friday 25th February

Day 310

I’ve been seeing how my mind is like a boat on a roiling river - my thoughts its cargo. When I’m being a heavy gun boat all war breaks out and judgement bullets fly thick and fast, killing first and ricocheting back to me - everyone wounded.

But when I fling out handfuls of clear white rose petals, only cheeks are brushed by their softness and the load on my boat is infinitely lighter.

Every moment I see how I can choose to share a kalashnikov or a rose. And how much sweeter is the perfume of love.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Late Tulips

Thursday 24th February

Day 309

The unexpected gift of the sun, warm on my neck, pulled me into the garden this afternoon. I planted tulips in terracotta pots seared by the frost. Two varieties - one called "Little Red Riding Hood"and the other "Elite" - yellow and orange striped. They were the last two bags at the garden centre. It’s not the bulb planting season now so I’m out of step - should have done it last November.

Maybe they’ll come up anyway, and blaze away on their tall stems - grow against the odds - late bloomers, defiant fire brands.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Strangers on a Train

Wednesday 23rd February

Day 308

It’s half term. The train to Salisbury is packed with young families in wet coats and dripping umbrellas. Four little fingers creep over the top of the seat in front of me followed by two big blue eyes and a fringe of feathery gold hair. I smile at her and she ducks away.

Tamsin, the lady’s reading,’ says her mother from between the two seats.

I smile at her too, meaning I don’t mind a game of peek-a- boo with her daughter. But Tamsin doesn’t reappear and they get off at Sherbourne.

Coming home later after an exquisitely cooked lunch with a dear friend at the Fisherton Mill Cafe, the carriage is jangling with children’s voices. In the seat behind me a small curly red-haired boy is crying. He won’t sit on his grandmother’s lap or hold his grandfather’s hand and pulls away into the corridor. A woman opposite tries a game of peek-a-boo with him, half covering her face with a newspaper. But he’s inconsolable, his misery palpable.

Tiny lives brushing mine for a moment - strangers on a train.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

How was your day?

Tuesday 22nd February

Day 307

Scatter pale shards of fresh ginger and slivers of pearly garlic all over a whole pink trout.

Make a pungent sauce with more garlic, ginger and chopped red chilli, salty with dark soy sauce and sweet with Japanese rice wine.

Lay the trout on thin slices of fennel and bake in scrunched up greaseproof paper till the skin turns speckled brown and the aroma of the Far East heats up the kitchen.

Eat with bright spring cabbage and the sauce poured over.

Remember to leave room for some spiced talk about ‘How was your day?’ listening with an unknotted heart.

Rumi's Words

Monday 21st February

Day 306

Today I have a version of writer’s block - Blog Block. Lost for words, can’t find a clear route to my heart. So instead I will post the words of the incomparable Rumi - sent to me by a dear friend. I think he is a great heart opener.

Seek the wisdom

that will untie

your knot.

Seek the path

that demands

your whole being.

Another one -

You are the truth

from foot to brow.

Now what else would you like to know?

Peace Risotto

Sunday 20th February

Day 305

We are making risotto - my nearly Italian niece and I. It’s soothing to be in the brightness of the kitchen with my husband and glasses of pink Prosecco after our journey home in the dark womb of the car sloshing with tears (mine) and sympathy(hers). Earlier even though I tried to be cheerful, everyone knew I was grumpy while we walked through mud rutted fields, and too close to the edge of crumbling red cliffs. My crossness always seeps out like lemon curd from a squashed cake. Sharing it with my sweet niece - her witness - means I can dip below it and taste the sticky layers of grief round my heart.

In the kitchen my husband peels a whole bulb garlic that he grew last summer. The small white cloves scatter on the plate - like pearls - says my niece. And we remember the hundred days of her blog while we take it in turns to stir the risotto in the pan - a bumpy sea speckled with the green of leeks and courgettes.

It’s ready now,’ says my niece, sprinkling in parsley and parmesan shavings. ‘In fact it’s perfect.’

‘How do you know?’

Because it’s "come un’onda" - like a wave. My Italian friend taught me this.’

And as she swirls the wooden spoon through the creamy slick, for a second, it holds its shape exactly like a wave. And tastes like peace.

Pisa Cake

Saturday 19th February

Day 304

The birthday cake - the carrot and courgette one - looks like a squat leaning tower of Pisa - four alternate tiers of lime green and sunset orange sponge smeared together with layers of gloopy lemon curd and glistening white cream cheese. Leaning - because when I was scooping out the last of the icing on the top layer, hovering the heavy glass bowl over the centre, it slid out of my hand and caught the edge of the cake. It compressed the layers, squidging out the filling which dribbled down the sides in a crumb coated mess. Nothing to be done except cobble it back together with more icing and scatter the top with fine shreds of lime and satsuma zest.

In the light of the candle flames it doesn’t look too lop-sided. And no-one says it tastes of vegetables - it even receives accolades.

PS The Cake is Nigella's - Flora's Famous Courgette Cake. The carrot version is mine - just replace the courgettes with grated carrot and it goes from green to amber - just like that.

Friday, 18 February 2011


Friday 18th February

Day 303

Briefly - because I’ve run out of steam tonight......

Rain falling on my sloping attic roof - muffled heavy drops on the tiles.

This morning I have the use of a courtesy car while mine is passing its MOT - like driving a shoe box - I feel small and square inside it.

Two birthday cakes wrapped in foil on the kitchen counter waiting for their cream cheese icing tomorrow - one green flecked with grated courgettes and the other tender orange with carrots - sweet vegetable cakes.

My husband says he knows someone with TC. He means TB. He asks me what it is.

Beginning to feel round and fat again - my slow winter self - heavy as a pear drop squeezed in tight jeans.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Fragments of Flame

Thursday 17th February

Day 302

A month and two days ago my cousin died. He didn’t want a funeral, so today my father, my brother and my sister - representing our wider family - celebrated his life in the best way we could.

We drove to the coast and walked down to the beach. We stood in a row, where the pebbles meet the river, and where the river joins the sea and the salty sky in an urgent fast flow. We threw in handfuls of dried rose petals, the colours of blood and coral, tinged with last summer’s memories. The current took some, and others drifted back to the shore resting on the surface of the water, crisp fragments of flame.

The sea gulls swooped and cried above us while we remembered him - how he touched our lives. How glad I am that he came to join us. We left the beach with smooth Budleigh pebbles in our pockets and headed for Sidmouth garden centre for his wake, where we tucked into soup and baked potatoes and raised cups of hot chocolate in his honour.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Coming Home

Wednesday 16th February

Day 300 and 301

We have been away for two days in a far country - in the glamour and drama of London’s theatre land. When I open the front door the hot sweet scent of hyacinths and oriental lillies greets us. Our pussy cat pads down the stairs to say hello. The house feels cold and empty. I feel discombobulated and buzzy as if Charing Cross Road and the clapping of an audience are still humming in my veins.

Tonight I cook up three Indian curries for tomorrow’s supper - soupy coconut lentil dhal, a mild korma, chunky with potatoes, artichokes and tomatoes, a dark relish of fried aubergines and mushrooms peppered with a dollop of tomatillo chutney. So now the house is fragrant with garam masala and ginger - bringing me home to myself.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Japanese Valentine

Monday 14th February

Day 299

Apart from us the restaurant is empty at noon. There is a tall elegant vase of long stemmed red roses on the bar. The red paper napkins on our table are folded into the shape of hearts - the Japanese talent for origami. We order pots of green tea and jasmine tea while we wait for our dear companions. And reminisce about some of our Valentine’s days strung out through the years like beads dropping from a necklace - not all were hearts and flowers though.

Our long platters of tiny sushi rolls, tempura and dark dipping sauces are delicious, delicate works of art - full of umami. Almost too pretty to eat. Within half an hour of finishing our meal I think I’m hungry but decide it must be all in my mind. Like romance.

Now the bath is growing cold and my sweet man is calling me to bed.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Kitchen Rhythm

Sunday 13th February

Day 298

We leave my father eating his supper on his lap. A bowl of pumpkin soup, a soft brown roll spread with his favorite blue cheese - St Augur. They must have done something to it to make it the consistency of thick cream. And for afters, a banana flapjack - a new version of my recipe - using up very ripe bananas. He’s happy tonight because he came second in our game of scrabble - only six points behind my husband who he considers the king of the board.

Driving home in the the splattering rain, which hasn’t stopped all day, we discuss what to have for supper.

A takeaway?’ he says.

‘Let’s just see what we can find in the fridge,’ I say, even though I don’t much feel like cooking.

We do it together. He peels the potatoes, the sprouts and fat garlic cloves and I soften a leek, a red onion and two carrots in olive oil and stock. While the potatoes turn brown and crisp in the oven, he turns up the volume and we dance to the wild world of Queen and Freddie Mercury, our bare feet drumming the kitchen floor.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Risking It

Saturday 12th February

Day 297

It’s a beautiful morning. We plan to spend the day gardening and doing Saturday chores. But the warmth of the sun pouring into the bedroom makes me want to bunk off. I long for the sea.

Let’s go to the Old Mill Bakery for breakfast,’ I say.

I know my husband will agree and he does.

Our journey is forty five minutes and we park in sight of the waves and families with barefoot children playing in the sand. We get out of the car in silence. I leave my camera on the back seat. I don’t want to record this day after all. Our scratchy, biting argument hangs between us like skeins of wool, muffling the cries of the circling gulls.

Breakfast, reading the newspapers, stretches into brunch with a second cup of coffee and a huge piece of granary toast smeared with runny raspberry jam, which I regret. We walk out along the high slab of the Cobb. The sea is wild with frothing waves. Every now and again one curls in and smashes against the windward wall, throwing gallons of white spray over the top, leaving the stones slippery black. And a few brave walkers soaked and laughing.

‘Let’s go the very end,’ I say.

Are you sure you want to?

Yes, why not?’

I didn’t think you’d risk it,’ he says.

I watch the wave coming and turn my back. But it catches me, icy water drops seep through my hair, into my skull, filling the hood of my jacket. My husband faces into the ocean, and the spray hits his chest, his face, smearing his glasses. We laugh and shake ourselves like wet dogs. And so finally I let the salt wind snatch away the festering bitterness in my mouth.

We stop at the bakery on the way back and buy creamy wobbly lemon tarts for tea.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Spring Sneezed

Friday 11th February

Day 296

Spring sneezed on us this morning while we walked in the park. A brief warm blast of sunshine, birds singing forgotten lyrics, sky the colour of eggshells, dangling yellow catkins and a featherbed of mauve crocuses in the muddy grass. By lunchtime heavy chrome clouds screened the sun and we put our coats back on.

But I know spring will be back, for certain, if we wait long enough. Like it came today for the Egyptians in Tahira Square, who have been waiting - and dying- for thirty years for theirs.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Night Dancing

Thursday 10th February

Day 295

A dear friend sent me this poem by Rumi which I love. Reminding me to be grateful for it all.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still treat each guest honourably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

Today a meanness of mine is to criticise my husband for making a cup of coffee when he comes home at 5 pm. Much too late for caffine. I watch him pour it out of the cafetiere in a dark brown stream, loving the aroma.

I say, making him wrong, ‘Even when you know you won’t be able to sleep tonight? ( ie you’ll keep me awake).

We’ll see,’ he says.

I see how much I want to be right about this. Want his insomnia even. I wonder what new delight I’d let in if I gave up the righteousness visitor. Who is in danger of becoming a paying lodger. More smiles I think. And maybe some night dancing in the kitchen with other honoured guests.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Five For Breakfast

Wednesday 9th February

Day 294

8.30 am - a new jar of marmalade glistening on the table, waiting to be opened.

Four round candles flickering in their glass star holders.

Four crescent croissants crisping in the oven, their hot pastry aroma enticing us to breakfast.

Steam rising from four china cups, frothy coffee for my nephew, sweet tea for his wife, Earl Grey for my husband, vanilla Roibosh for me.

It looks like we are a circle of four, but there is another here - a tiny beating heart sharing our morning. His mother says his feet could be nearly two inches long by now. She can feel him kicking and flicking, growing and dreaming inside her. He is already welcome. There will always be a place for him at our table.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Black Bear

Tuesday 8th February

Day 293

These are treacle days - a dark stickiness, gummy as molasses, has found it’s way to the soles of my feet so that every step I take, every thought I have, is dragging. Even driving the car, taking the rubbish out, picking up the phone, deciding what to wear. I think in another life I was a black bear, so this month I would be in the shelter of a dry leaf cave, in such a deep sleep you’d hardly know I was still breathing. Definitely not heaving my way around the aisles at Sainsbury’s.

This morning I clean my father’s room. I change his sheets. I notice how much more stuff you need when you are very old. A grab handle attached to the side of the bed to help him get out. Lots of cushions wedged under the mattress, and blocks under the legs to raise it up higher than his head. To keep his ankles from swelling. To keep his heart beating while he sleeps.

My husband is on a train to London at lunchtime so I forage in the fridge and heat up a bowl of left overs - creamy mashed potato and curly cabbage - a sort of bubble and squeak with scrambled eggs on top. It’s probably the big mug of hot chocolate afterwards that makes me want to retreat to my duvet cave and hibernate till March when the daffodils are in flower.

Just Tired

Monday 7th February

Day 292

We are in Axminster, having supper with my husband’s aunty and his cousin who is on a flying visit from Armenia. I’m drinking too much wine to mask my bone tiredness.. We’ve just told his cousin about my husband's brain thing. Clearing the dirty plates in the kitchen he asks me,

‘How has he taken it? Is he philosophical? Angry? Scared?’

‘He’s depressed,’ I say.

‘And pissed off,’ says my husband, coming in with the bowl of watercress salad.

Someone once told me that depression is suppressed anger. And being this tired could be all those poisonous thoughts, leaking into my bones and bleaching out the marrow. Luckily, on other days, I know it's all in my head.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

What Are You A Voice For?

Sunday 6th February

Day 291

Snowdrops in someone’s front garden, two nodding clumps, stop us in our tracks. My first sighting this year. We are walking to the park with dear friends and their little dog. Walking off the brunch we have just eaten, sitting around our table, still sprinkled with tiny gold stars from last night.

Earlier this morning I made cornmeal muffins to lay the ghost of the last batch which were dry and crumbly. These were moist - a different recipe - savoury and sweet, studded with chunks of white Cheshire cheese and red pepper and onion. They were good companions to scrambled eggs, crisp saute potatoes and a sloppy relish of mushroom, tomato and spinach. And gallons of Earl Grey tea. But sadly no room for croissant and marmalade.

As we walk and talk, I tell my friend about a recent phone conversation with my niece, my writer niece, who inspired me to start this blog. Ten months ago. My friend asks me,

‘What are you a voice for in your writing?’

I’m wondering about it - in my writing but also in my life. Which may be the same thing. My heart on the page.

Precious Seeds

Saturday 5th February

Day 290

A high wind rackets around the garden this morning. While my husband tackles the green jungle of cuttings in the middle of the lawn, I don rubber gloves and scrub the kitchen skirting boards with Jif and and an old toothbrush. Dear friends are coming to supper. I’m adhering to an ancient Chinese proverb along the lines of -

‘If you want a clean house, invite guests’.

Much spring cleaning and cooking later, they arrive at our front door, laden with a bounty of gifts, including iced Champagne and a packet of rare Rhodochiton seeds to share. Rhodichiton is a glorious climber dripping with purple bell shaped flowers in the summer. We linger on at the table, long after our we finish our plates of upside down pear tart and Seville orange ice cream, talking and talking. Watering the precious seeds of our lives while the candles burn low.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Blow Dry

Friday 4th February

Day 289

I don’t want to use the car unless I have to. No war on, but ‘Is your journey really necessary?’ seems a good question now in the light of new budgeting. So I walk into town and feel rain brooding in the wind. It bruises my face, tears at the buttons of my coat and gusts up dead leaves and litter, thrusting them against my legs. It’s a relief to arrive in the scented stillness of the hairdresser’s. Leaning my head back into the basin, I close my eyes and as the young girl behind me streams hot water through my hair, I feel the jangling tension slowly subsiding inside my body.

I find myself chattering to my hairdresser, thinking of things to say, when I’d rather be quiet. I ask her not to cut too much off.

When I open the front door I’m greeted by the smell of this morning’s cooking - fried onions and sweet peppers. I run upstairs to say hello to my husband. He swivels round in his office chair and looks at my haircut.

‘You don’t look any different, ‘ he says. It’s a good job he doesn’t know what it cost then.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Thursday's Moments

Thursday 3rd February

Day 288

Finding the first purple sprouting broccoli in the farmers’ market this morning - pert leaves springy as jumping beans.

Coffee in a cafe, exchanging memories of 1966 with a dear friend, leaving our African homes for a different life in the coolness of the northern hemisphere.

Lunch with my husband - stretching the left over mushroom risotto with Calvo Nero cabbage, parmesan shavings and peas - a pale creamy sea swirled with weed.

Flicking through a new cookery book - Jamie’s Thirty Minute Meals - while I test and test again my Seville orange marmalade, seething on the stove, trying to capture setting point on the icy saucer .It eludes me for a long ninety minutes.

Standing on the stairs, holding my husband’s misery at arm’s length with briskness and suggestions. Wishing his fear didn’t remind me of mine, a barb in my heart. Wishing I could be kinder - to him and to me.

Tonight the healing company of a circle of dear friends, the haunting notes of sitar and clear Indian voice. And afterwards when the music stops, squidgey chocolate fudge cake and laughing together in smaller circles.

Shapeshifter Sister

Wednesday 2nd February

Day 287

My sister is here to de-clutter me. To help me sift through bulging hanging files, the toppling mountain of my in-tray and the jumbles in my drawers. To throw away the things I keep because I can’t decide what to do with them, which take up space not only in my cupboards but in my mind. Of course I could tackle these tasks myself - and sometimes I do - but something beautiful happens when my sister brings her gift of order and clarity - her gentle wise-womanness - to my chaos. She applies William Morris’s secret of - ‘Love it, use it or get rid of it’. And holds the black bin liner open for me.

So I always feel better after her visit: shape-shifted.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Marmalade Joy

Tuesday 1st February

Day 286

Last night, over bowls of wild mushroom risotto, my wise and dear nephew reminded me to find a joyful moment in every day.

Early this morning, while he scraped the bottom of a jar of strawberry jam for his toast, I began my annual marmalade journey. It felt more like a pilgrimage - my companions twelve bitter oranges from sun baked Andalucia, two kilos of soft brown sugar from the islands of spice and human ordeals. And alongside them, memories of my aunty, her husband and her son who all died in recent marmalade winters, the snow still on the ground.

I love the alchemical steps - scooping out and sieving the gloopy, pip-studded flesh from the halved orange shells which I simmered for three hours yesterday, stacking and slicing them into long uneven strips, and stirring it all - gloop and peel - into the boiling cauldron of sugary amber liquid on the stove. Then a sweet sharp aroma pervades the kitchen like a siren spell. Witchlike, I hover with an icy cold saucer, dip my teaspoon through the steam, and snatch up samples, drops of dark coppery gold cooling on white china, waiting for that magical setting point, the crinkle on the surface of the skin.

Then it’s ready. I pour chunky ladlefuls into waiting hot glass jars - mostly recycled Bon Maman - protected with a jam collar so it doesn’t matter how clumsy I am - no drips down the sides. Each one sealed with the kiss of a waxed paper disc, and the stamp of a red checked lid. Ten pots of joy to share.

Long Grass

Monday 31st January

Day 285

I push open the door very gently in case my father is still asleep in his chair.

I’ve just woken up,’ he says.

‘How are you?’ I ask.

Well, I’m dogged by that things-left-undone feeling,’ he says.

He’s fretting about a long form he thinks he has to fill in to apply for a Blue Badge. So that we can park in the disability space when we take him to the hospital. He’s forgotten that my sister has already completed the form. But I recognise that feeling - guilt, procrastination, more guilt. I reassure him there is plenty of time.

But you know me,’ he says,’ I don’t like to let the grass grow under my feet.’

Which is why, among other things, he has many book titles to his name, and another with his editor. I notice how I'm still wandering through the long grasses of my own meadow.