Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Columbia Road Market - just walking through it makes you feel like you've won something and received a room full of bouquets.  I dropped hints, but left clutching only the Mexican candlestick I bought.  No flowers.

Monday, 15 October 2012

On the way home on Friday I got quite a few looks from men - one in the street, another in the tube, another in the supermarket.  Hey, I must look hot today, I thought as I swaggered home - and this before my visit to the hairdresser.  And then at home I looked in the mirror.  My leopard print jumper was straining at the buttons and was showing a rather vivid gap between button two and button three, revealing a large expanse of uplifted breast.

I've put on a bit of weight.
What sinister thing is this - a teddy bear slumped inside a plastic bag?
Actually it's a hot water bottle - one of those you put inside the microwave - which unfortunately molts like a cat.  I've hurt my back, again, and it's currently nestling against my chair, and me - hopefully banishing the pain...



Monday, 8 October 2012

New cookery book arrived at the weekend - Jerusalem by Ottolenghi.

Not something I'd normally run for, rather usually I'd run away from, but it's a fantastically beautiful book, and full of gorgeous recipes that embrace the region's Arab cuisine.  I went off to Mecca in Westfield on Friday after work, sat  at the Tapas bar and ordered a glass of wine and some pequino peppers, opened the book and gasped at recipe after recipe. Forget your fifty shades of grey, this is the only sort of porn I want to read in public.

So after Killing Them Softly (argh - brains and blood and five minutes of rhetoric at the end which didn't justify the sub-Tarantinoesque violence, albeit with good acting), I went home and roasted cauliflower with hazelnuts and pomegranate, and sweet potatoes with a balsamic reduction, figs and goats cheese, mopped up with the stuffed bread left over from the baby shower tea on Wednesday.

Saturday morning - a walk down Portobello Road where I bought the funny egg plate for a couple of quid and which I'll never use, except in my fantasies, when I'll fill it with home made easter eggs (my one attempt at making chocolate eggs resulted in me licking the chocolate out of the mould after it refused to release) for my phantom grandchildren - or at least, I hope they're phantom - take note kids, I'm not quite ready.  Well actually, more to the point - you're not ready.

Chelsea v Norwich on Saturday, followed by the Perks of Being a Wallflower - loved it, loved it, love, love, loved it.  Walked home, a bit teary, for leftovers and a bottle of the corner shop's finest red wine for £5.99 - dessert the purple ones out of a tin of Roses.  Swanky, or what?

 Sunday morning breakfast a slice of the stuffed bread, toasted, with a poached egg on top and basil hollandaise, followed by a day in the garden, and the basil harvest, picked, washed, pureed with olive oil and frozen for future pesto - a little taste of summer, though saved a few flowers to keep the wonderful smell floating around.
Downton Abbey and a bowl of home made made pesto...  Perfect - if only there had been any purple Roses left, but now we're down to the cream centres.  

Friday, 28 September 2012

more freaking green tomatoes aka heartburn

Oh I do like a man in a cowboy hat, even if it's pink.  

Last night was Madge's dinner for lovely Tweedy who recently left us at Pedantic to pursue a new life in the Art World - with capitals.  I miss him.  Not just because he might read this, but because I do really miss him.  His desk has already been pillaged.  Someone took his monitor, another person grabbed his keyboard.  Richard had his Well Man pills and Brett (pictured) took his extra-strong peppermints and his hairspray - not that he needs it.  Now the desk sits there, empty and forlorn.

I remember the first day he came to Pedantic.  I was not predisposed to like him.  Posh Boy with a posh boy's name, and a posh address, recommended to us in copperplate, by a hand-delivered letter from an equally posh agent.  He survived the rigors of Mr T's interview process - the equivalent of being pinned against a wall while being savaged by a faux-friendly terrier - and arrived to sit at the desk of hell in reception, the prey of every motor-cycle courier, tattooed delivery man from Eastern Europe and Souf' Londoner called Shane.  After a week of listening to the phone ring I gently prompted him that he might need, eventually, to answer it.  'I feel nervous picking it up.' He replied, sheepishly. Oh god, I sympathised.  On my first day here, in an open office, surrounded by twenty people equally indisposed to like me, I had to apply my broad Scottish accent to 'erm, Pedantic Press, can I help you?' and then flail around pressing buttons ineptly, cutting them off, announcing them to others, more highly regarded than I who didn't deign to answer their own phones but had me, the minion, to do it for them.  I had expected Tweedy to be over-confident and over-entitled, and there he was, cowering - a founder member of the Slight Social Anxiety Club, of which I was the president.  

And now he's packed up his wingtips and Zegna suit and gone off to do something posh with pictures.
The place won't be the same without him and Madge has gathered some of us to say goodbye.  I have house envy.  She comes to mine and says it's bigger than hers - it isn't.  However, her house sooo white.  Pristine.  So finished.  Not for Madge the scruffy Ikea laminate flooring with more chips than a Happy Meal, or the acne-scarred walls painted in hysterical colours.  Her walls are as smooth as Anton du Beke.  She has high ceilings with mouldings, and pictures everywhere.  Her husband, she tells us, was up a ladder painting a ceiling last night.  Sigh.  And he barbecued the lamb.  And the cowboy hat is actually his.  I really, really want a man who paints ceilings and understands the value of a cowboy hat, even if his is more suited for one of the Village People.  He's from New Zealand, of course, where men are men, and don't say much.  The hat, therefore, is something of a surprise.  But he says he also has a buckle.  And he's tall.  Oh my.

I fell of the Dukan wagon with a thump and am now being dragged through the gravel, my arms flailing, screaming, with a hangover the size of Kent, and the calorie intake to match.  Prosecco, wine, fig tart, rice, breadsticks, crisps, more crisps, red-velvet layer cake, rocky road squares, cocktail sausages and baguette.  

Even the cat is disgusted with me.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

On the plane my ears cupped in squabbling French with Julie Delpy being Marion for two days in New York.  It’s not a great film but I watched three on the way out, and I’ve seen all the others I might want to in the cinema, so it’s this or Superheroes. 

My eyes keep flickering away from the screen to the couple in the seat in front of me – she, a tired blonde of uncertain age and many sparkling diamonds on her fingers but no wedding ring – he a sweet-faced Sikh wearing a black turban and a fur rug of facial hair that begins under the arch of his bushy eyebrows and disappears into the blue of his polo shirt leaving only the clear mask of his eyes, and wearing a broad band of gold on his wedding finger.  The two have been holding hands in a desperate way since the plane took off – not a particularly easy feat since we’re each in our own cradles, separated from our neighbour by a high wall, like Israel from the West Bank.  And yet, they managed, the plough of her two rings glinting in the cabin, the single solitaire shining like the north star. 

Now he is perched on her footstool, she on the chair, their arms and fingers entwined, staring into each other's eyes, smiling, occasionally kissing, as if bedazzled, as if hypnotised, as if – frankly - mad.  I get it.  I mean, I’ve done this.  I’ve sat in a restaurant and heard the couple at the next table remark that we were ‘so in love’ but we’ve been up in the air now for three hours and they are still entranced.  I want to throw a bucket of water over them.  Don’t they need a rest?  Like half-time or something.

And obviously, whomsoever he’s married to, it isn’t her.  His dark gold band and the numerous coloured threads tied around his hirsute wrist tie him devoutly to another Sikh wife somewhere, waiting for him at home with possibly a few Sikh babies, and not to the dirty blonde who left her prettiness in the nineties and retained only the exhausted shadow of it in her tanned face.  I’m not sure whether both her diamond rings are from the same relationship, or perhaps remnants of two different relationships, but neither are from him.  And yet, now they’re in love, newly so.

Well it happens.  That happened to me once too.

Maybe I’m envious.  Well, no maybe about it.  I am envious, until about half way through the film, and then I just get irritated by their googly-eyed fascination with each other, and fluttery-eyed kisses that I can’t help watching, though it’s the last thing I want to do.  Marion who claims to be fat like me (but isn’t), on screen, just isn’t cutting it.

Unlike Julie-Delpy Marion, I had three days in New York not two.  Three days of bright blue skies and shimmering sky-scrapers; of serious jewellery, some of it seriously dubious, and even more serious parties.  From Sikh Love and public display of affection to a private display of wealth in one weekend.  Give me the wealth any day.

Friday found me leaving my friend's beautiful townhouse, striding down Fifth Avenue on my way to meet Jamie at Ca Va on W43rd Street.  I wore my little black, day to evening dress, pumps as the American’s call flats, and which  in Scotland would mean farts, a clunking new necklace by an architectural artist in steel and brass that was given to me as an early birthday/Christmas present, lipstick, dark glasses, and a distinct sway to my hips.  Crossing the street at 61st a short squat guy in chinos, white shirt and cream jacket told me I looked good, as he passed in the opposite direction, and waiting for the walk sign on 54th, a man in a white van called out ‘wow, sister.’  He was Hispanic.  Thank god for the Latinos…  They do that here in a way they never do in Britain.  It’s not the building site wolf whistle, but more a mark of affirmation. Or this is how I receive it.  Not that I just look ‘obvious’.

I suppose one is not supposed to be flattered by positive objectification from members of the opposite sex, but I don’t care.  It made me feel good as I visited my own particular stations of the cross – Sur La Table, Anthropology, Urban Outfitters, Williams Sonoma, then Crate and Barrel, Moma gift store, Anne Taylor, and eventually arriving at the hotel early.

Unfortunately I’d got the day wrong and was a whole three days early.  I had arranged this date for Monday – today – when I was always going to be on a plane.  Jamie hurried along anyway from her nearby office in her unstructured expensive, not so easy peasy Japaneasy clothes, and we had a thirty minute catch up – not much after three years but better than nothing.

And then I went to the Century Club to meet Beth Gutcheon, one of our authors.  The Century Club is like a grown up Arts Club – bigger, grander, finer, less eccentric, much more sober, but with lots of art which, later, I was told contained some fine examples of the Hudson Valley School.  I did not know this.  I think if pressed I would have thought the Hudson Valley School was a series of novels about a Junior High in California...

There was a hushed, reverent atmosphere which beat to the imagined ticking of an old clock of the sort that has to be ceremonially wound every day with an ornate key and which probably chimes the hour a decade or two later than in it should.  There was a quaint menu from which the choice had to be written on a chitty by the member, and carried off by the server to be fulfilled – in our case by Abdul (a name that would have made my husband screech with outrage since it’s a bit like shortening McGilvary to Mc or O’Donnel to O – Abd al, the son of what, who?  Though presumably the server himself applied the abbreviation for ease of use).

We had an equally quaint lunch – Coronation Chicken by another name, with the addition of cranberries, served in a hollowed out pineapple, very 1970, followed by tiny macaroons, similarly of the old school – no cream filling here or fancy flavours, but just simple, delicious chewy macaroons of the sort my mother used to make, somewhat less expertly.  I had two.  Beth one.  We both sipped diet coke.  It was very genteel and I was very nervous all the way through it, as though there by false pretences – imposter syndrome hobbling me, reality washing over me in waves as I was reminded of my own nonentity.  This was underlined when Beth asked me what I did at Atlantic Books and seemed, perhaps only to me, to be imperceptibly disappointed when she realised I was just the office drudge, and not a glamorous editor (of which there are none anyway) or an important commissioning chieftain (whom, she had in any case, already met the previous week) or well connected to anything except perhaps the chair on which my overly-large for New York bottom was bolted.  She hid it well but I’m sure she would have preferred me to be the niece of someone or the wife of someone or better still the author of something. Me too – especially the last.

Beth was slim, beautiful, frail, incredibly poised, very gracious, like one of the characters from her book, and looked a little like the old lady in the Babar books, though not old - ageless – maybe it was just the patrician, straightness of her back, the regal nod of her head, the impeccable manners, the careful speech.  She was like royalty - before being royal meant exposing your breasts in the tabloids.  I felt like Shrek.

I was sure she hated every minute of it, regretting the impulse to invite me, but nevertheless she committed to the part and saw me out in the heels I’d slipped into on the way here, in order not to arrive in the equivalent of house slippers.  I liked her and felt there was real frankness behind her grace, but I was in a club to which I’d never belong, in more ways than one, and I perhaps wasn’t going to pass the initiation test of cautious conversation.

I said goodbye and did the New York stride to the Public Library which is step step lunge stop (to remove heel from crevace in pavement or sidewalk as they say here, step step, lunge, stop, step, forward jolt followed by shuddering halt – when you didn’t feel the drag of the crack quick enough and have too much momentum to stop.  It was a relief to see Alex sitting on the steps – our traditional meeting place after all these years.  I sat.  I swapped shoes.  He told me I looked fantastic.  I believed him.

(Shmoogling couple who until now were seated, he between her legs, she with hers wrapped round his waist) have been separated by the seat belt sign OH JOY but continue to clasp hands like they’re recently shipwrecked from the Titanic.  Damn – lights off again, and now she’s in his chair, positions reversed but with a duvet over their knees.  Doesn’t bear thinking about, and yet, one does. 

Everyone is eating around me now.  I’m having chicken with ‘truffled’ potatoes – ie one potato and no visible or discernible truffle.  A glass of red wine sits on my right hand but I’m not sure I’m drinking it yet.  Is the holiday over, officially, or not?

People are in their little pods, pillows behind them, all covered in white duvets like grubs, reclining Roman style with the tray too far away from them, so that the food has to take flight from plate to mouth.  Screen on the left, earphones feeding them sound.  The ultimate slobby tv dinner.

I drank the wine.  Peppery rioja)

So Alex.  My once upon a time love, who is happily married and living the sort of Woody Allen life to which I aspire to in my dreams.  He and his wife live in alge (almost gentrified) Harlem, commute to Haverford three nights a week with their two cats in carrying cases, and eat out all the time in restaurants they’ve seen reviewed in the New York Times.  They meet friends, (imagine, having friends), ‘catch’ movies in ‘theatres’ and don’t drink, don’t eat fat, or carbs, and exercise religiously.  Well, okay – I don’t envy the exercise – but how did it happen that the man I chose instead of Alex, went off with another New Yorker leaving me to suburban penury, and Alex – who was destined for fusty Greek academia, Euro crisis and pension loss, ended up with my life?  I feel so envious.  Though, we’d never have lasted this long.  His wife and I are as different as it’s possible to be – skim milk to chilli chocolate cake – me being the cake served up to an aesthete on a diet.  He'd have killed me by the second year.

(The waiter just told me that for dessert he had cheesecake or something that to him ‘looks like spotted dick’ which made me giggle like I’m in a Carry On film…  He said it straight, but he’s as camp as a Boy Scout Toggle.

I declined.  In favour of cheese and more wine.  Yes reader I drank.)

Alex and I walked back up to E78th, passing by Kusme Tea shop where I marvelled over the three hundred different flavours, ignored Bloomingdales, dallied again in Crate and Barrel (I love that store even though the only thing I bought were jumbo ice cube trays), then we drank fizzy water in a pavement café before parting.  Every time I touched his arm he sprang away from me like I was radioactive, but he told me I looked fantastic.  It’s not that we are in the habit of canoodling like unseparated Siamese twins, but this meeting was legal – the wife having approved it as opposed to previous years, when she has called every five minutes until he returned dutifully home.  I think because I’m a fat underachiever she no longer feels threatened, though she looks like a Lesbian, but not one of the lipstick sort that you might secretly fantasise about being seduced by, more the sort who doesn’t shave, has grown sideburns and disapproves of your lack of political rigour and fondness for frills.

We parted at five and I readied myself for the next part of the evening.  A private view of jewels that had been made out of Kalashnikovs, melted down and studded with diamonds, shown in the hollowed out building site of a store on 5th Avenue, in which one walked as though it had been laid with land mines because the floor was uneven, filled with potholes and badly lit – exactly like the sidewalk but with fairy lights.

I confess I came over unusually puritanical.  I mean, really, why?  You get the Kalashnikovs, melt them down to base metal – steel, I think which probably isn’t base, but the provenance is since I was told they are real guns from real wars that have actually killed people, and you ‘regenerate them’ by setting them with ‘freedom’ stones and selling them to the fabulously wealthy as decoration?  Nobody I know (all two people) who are that wealthy would be seen dead wearing things which had made other people dead, diamonds or no diamonds – even if the diamonds had been washed up on the shore of a magic beach and harvested by unicorns. Maybe they should be bought by arms dealers, the very people who profited by them in the first place.  I hasten to add, my friends, are not such people.

But we admired and sipped champagne, and someone, erroneously as it turned out, congratulated me on my newly gifted necklace saying they ‘loved’ the designer who wasn’t the one who actually designed the necklace.  And then we felt our way out tapping with our shoes, blinked in the streetlights of 5th Avenue and went home to dinner and bed.  Oh lordy.  I love being an economic tourist.  It’s all so dazzlingly fun and different.

Next day was THE BIG DAY.  I wandered back downtown to gape at the fools in Eataly who cluster round counters to eat plates of antipasto STANDING UP.  Why?  Again, double why?  Isn’t the whole notion of Italian food the ceremony, the presentation, the drawn out pleasure of sitting DOWN to a lovely meal and taking your time over the tit-bits of salami and cheese, with perhaps an aperativo?  I know cab drivers and gondoliers dash up to the bar in a café and have an espresso, or a swift grappa, and maybe even eat something as they chat to the waiter, but to pack yourself into the crowded, noisy, clamouring warehouse that is Eataly and jam yourself up against a railway counter and eat hugely expensive food for FUN?  What's that about?  Posing?  You can sit down too, but the atmosphere is sort of Italian Hell before the apocalypse removes you of the ability to eat, and so you’re stuffing yourself fast, and talking, talking, loudly and importantly.  I HATED it.  Give me the the little one in the basement of I think COIN in Trieste (or no – maybe it was Milan) any day…I shall not return.

Then I went down to Fish’s Eddy for quirky dishes - couldn't find the famous Figures from the Torah mugs, sigh, and into ABC where I sighed again and shied from the prices.  I always feel like I’m starring in my very own movie when I’m in New York, but it’s obviously a movie I can’t really afford to see.  Who pays $60 for a ceramic hand of Fatima that’s three inches long?  Not, I.

I had to be home by four to get my hair and make-up done.  Poor little not rich girl, freeloading off her fabulous friends.  In the chair having the make-up artist – and he’d have to be an artist to do anything with me – qlueing false eyelashes on to my stubbies, and brushing my eyebrows for longer than most people do their teeth in order to get them even. Oh the peasant me with my open pores and unplucked brows.  The shame of it.

Then Luiz, the most beautiful man in the world, inside and out, did my hair.  He put it up and when I looked at myself in the mirror, gasp – there was a moment when I thought – shoot – who am I and what have you done with my ugly sister.  It was really a Cinderella story – though still wearing rags (the ‘vintage’ dress) but with this new gorgeous me, all even skin tones, fluttery dark eyes and an elegant platinum chignon. 


I don’t think I have ever felt that I looked nicer, even on my wedding day when I was a skinny 25 year old redhead.

If I could have frozen time then, I would have.  Albeit that none of my nearest and dearest were there to admire me.  Let’s face it.  That’s a small club anyway.  I’m not even sure it exists.

I swung into the party in my purple opera coat, also ‘vintage’ the entire outfit costing less than $100 fancying I looked a million of them.  ‘You look ravishing,’ said Jerry.  And Socrates.  And Greg.  And Luis.  And Bruce.  And Tim, with an added darling.  All these men who attested to my ravishability and yet they’re all gay and wouldn’t ravish me if there was a frost and all the cocks in Manhattan froze and fell off.  But nevertheless I felt lovely, even though with every step I took and swing of the magnificent plus sized hips I heard a drum and cymbal crash like I was Gypsy Rose Lee about to look over her shoulder with a saucy wink, and peel a glove off – boom, chic a boom, chic a boom, chic a boom. 

Until I walked out of the terrace and saw The Jeweller and the Jeweller’s Wife arrive, and a man acing the Cary Grant/Don Draper look in his white dinner jacket (but isn’t it after labour day?  Should you still wear white?) turned to Jeweller’s wife and said something out of the corner of his mouth. 

‘Was that about me?’  I asked, as he excused himself hurriedly and went of in search of his wife who had been tanned and feathered in champagne ostrich plumes for the evening.  Jeweller’s wife said that it was just that she had been worried about being under-dressed.  The woman is so beautiful she could wear a sack and smile and there wouldn’t be a man in the place who wouldn’t think she was the dictionary definition of elegance, but for the rest of the evening I kept wondering – what did he say?  If someone is looking for reassurance that they aren’t under-dressed and a can-can dancer in black Crimplene, Mae Wests across the floor towards you, what do you say that you don’t want to repeat?  I mean, it can’t be good.  Can it?  Is that a gun in your pocket and have you shot yourself in the foot with it?

The bubbles went flat in my pink champagne.  It was like the magic spell wore off, and instead of feeling fabulous I was just fat and faintly ridiculous, not up to scratch amongst the glitteringly wealthy and their even more glittering wives.

This was only underlined when, after dinner had passed and I was dancing with my host, following his lead with the concentration of a rock-climber just one crampon away from falling into a crevasse, I twirled off the floor and sat down next to the Style Queen who told me I was unzipped.  What?  Unzipped, how?  Because the zip on the back of my dress had unpeeled like a banana to reveal my nude strapless bra, tights that came up to my armpits, and the fat-girls underwear – rib high Spanx that were the hidden architecture supporting my facade, supposedly smoothing out all my fat into streamlined latex curves.  Behind the seams.  Oh, holy fuck.  Drizella bursting out of her budget frock.  Kill.  Me.  Now.

He zipped me up, tutting that someone ‘had replaced the metal zip with a plastic one’ – had they?  Or was the vintage dress, not really a vintage dress and just an old, cheap dress with a cheap plastic zip in it whose teeth, unlike mine, refused to properly grit?  By the time I walked across the floor to the bar it had burst again, this time in the middle, gaping like a gurning clown mouth.  I rushed for my Uncle Fester opera coat, and just as the fourth band of the evening struck up a bit of Motown, ran down the steps of the Museum of the City of New York, my legs peeping out of their slashed to the knee black dress, like Morticia-rella rushing to her carriage, or in this case the waiting limo, to be whisked home before she turned back into a pumpkin.  Alas too late – a pumpkin, a big fat beige one, I had well and truly shown myself to be – to one hundred members of New York society.  And not a handsome ruddy prince amongst them.

At home, I wrestled rather drunkenly with a can of Pellegrino for five minutes before realising there was a foil cover on top, then stood in front of the mirror and picked the pins out of my hair, one by one, wiped the make up away, peeled the false eyelashes off, and prized myself out of the Spanx that are a lot less fun than they sound.

Much like parties, my dears, much like parties...

Friday, 21 September 2012

while I'm away...

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

...anyway the ex-husband came round to see the kids.

And there were no kids - just me.  For five hours.  Five long hours during which I realise that I have nothing much to say to him after we've listed what we've been doing like the social diary of divorce...  How did I ever chatter to him so easily and how did I ever think he 'got' me, when actually all he did was nod in the right places, my words skimming off him like Teflon?

Doesn't matter.  What's done is done.  He brought me a nice present from Lebanon, and I cooked him dinner.  Home made pesto but with the weird addition of chick peas instead of nuts as I had anticipated cooking for the whole family and one of them is allergic to nuts.  That one was off listening to Che Guevara's daughter speak at the House of Commons.  The younger was off breaking up with her boyfriend for the second time.  The boy, like all men I think, likes to do the death-by-a-thousand-cuts break up, in as much as 'we're just on a break' 'it's not forever' 'don't wait for me but...'  and so now they're not together but 'friends'.  Yeah.  Friends.  I'd like to slap his damn 'friends' face till his head spins for causing even as much as a frown to pass over my little girl's brow.

So instead of the big family dinner - two kids, cousin, father, me, cat - it was just the ex.  Even the cat disobliged by preferring to torment a small mouse in the garden which ran over my foot when I tried to separate the two.  In the dark, it was not pleasant.

I served him with a lovely bright green bowl of pesto - worthy of Da Maria in Genoa, and a salad of pea-shoots, the one yellow sunburst tomato that ripened on the vine, beetroot, softened goats cheese and warmed honey drizzled over some 60p a pop from Mecanico, figs.  It looked like a work of art.  I even gave him the duck breasts I hadn't cooked and the goats cheese to take home.  I hope they choke his girlfriend.

I mean, we too are 'friends' but I'm not a fricking saint.

I tried not to think of the first time we had pesto - in Alassio on our honeymoon.

I'm sure he didn't.

If there was a prize for competitive under-eating, I'd win it.  Honestly, in my long life as a woman with appetite, I don't think I've gone for so long, eating so little.  I could do a Bridget Jones food diary and it would read for yesterday:
half a tub of no-fat cottage cheese
five wafer thin slices of parma ham
two cups of coffee
one cup of tea
one cup of skimmed milk cocoa with candarel
four pickled beetroot
several tastes of home made pesto for a meal I cooked for someone else

I mean - how can you eat any less than this?
Am I not doing the 500 calorie starvation diet?
And so why are the scales to fricking unresponsive?

It's torture.  I watch them inch down in quarter of a pound increments, slower than continents, so that in a week of these semi hunger strike rations, I have lost maybe a pound and a half.  And the 'ho dress still make me looks like Mae West in a frontier saloon.  And since I had an argument with a bottle of bleach, and lost, the hair isn't helping.  I don't know how I'm supposed to turn myself into a New York slim society matron in two days.  Corsetry will only take me so far.

It's depressing.  What happened to slim(mer) me?  Where did all the extra pounds -  all 11 and a quarter of them - come from?  I mean, I know where they've gone - I'm sitting on them.  I made the mistake of going to Marks & Spencer yesterday to buy tights and while there caught sight of myself in a full length mirror - short little dumpy woman with a round stomach, an arse you could put a vase on, and bottle blonde hair.  This is not going to translate well to the Upper East Side in time for the party of the year on Saturday night at the Museum of the City of New York.  I suppose I can comfort myself with the knowledge that my host and her family will both be wearing couture and even if I turned into Sarah Jessica Parker overnight (god, I hope not - she looks rough.  Thin, but rough)  nobody is going to notice me.  There will be a momentary head-to-toe from the gay style consultant who will say something like 'working it darling' with an arch twitch of his eyebrow, but then, probably, behind my back say 'Jeez, has she looked in the mirror?  She looks like a drag queen...'  And he'd be right.

I'm fat.

And worse, fat and not resigned to it.

The other gay uncles, though, will say I look 'wonderful' darling, and the older one, who used to be straight, will mean it because - bless him  - he's old school and still thinks glamour comes from 1950.  That's why I love him.

So I shouldn't stress about the vintage Biba dress being stretchy man-made fibre and there being so much elastine going on underneath the dress that I'm hot - literally - with static electricity and might start a fire if someone happens to have a can of petrol on them.  And I shouldn't stress that Luiz, also gay and one of New York's top stylists, as well as being the most beautiful man I've ever seen in my life, will think my hair colour trashy, because he'll smile, and dance with me when the band strikes up.  And I'll just be that 'British' woman - the odd one who looks a bit like a 'ho.

Put it on my gravestone.

Except I'm not exactly wasting away.

Monday, 17 September 2012

The Green Tomato Saga continues and concludes.  This Sunday I cleaned my room which means I looked through my jewellery and thought - ‘surely I used to have more earrings than this?’ or ‘what happened to that ring from [insert rather posh gallery here – back in the days when I could afford such things]?’  and then when youngest was out on a fag break, having a quick squizz at possible places where, had she taken them, I might find them – you know, rolled under the bed, chucked in a bowl with three clips and a used cotton bud, at the bottom of a pencil jar.  I didn’t find anything, and so did the only thing I could.  Mentally kissed them goodbye, shrugged, and thought – ah well, who cares?  I assembled what I could find, cleaned my silver bangles, realised I have more dark glasses than any woman reasonably should, vacuumed the carpet, carried all my clothes into the little boxroom I use as a wardrobe, dropped them in a pile the size of the Matterhorn for a later sift and sort, and changed the sheets.  Bedroom -  cleaned.  Box room – not so much.

I then turned my attention to the garden.  The apple tree had yielded its crop, much of it to the ground, where the ants, mice and squirrels were enjoying the harvest.  The rest was sitting on the kitchen table like it had been styled for Country Living – the orchards edition, awaiting the pot.  In it went in two huge batches – one for pie filling and ice cream making, and the other for membrillo.  This year I decided to make basil apple membrillo but after the pot had spat at me for an hour and the damn stuff still wasn’t jelling – it takes two or three - I gave up.  I’ll freeze it for now and perhaps resume it later, with the clothes sifting...  Next, with the last of the green tomatoes and the fountains of basil, I made green tomato pasta sauce and – I have to say myself since nobody else tasted it – it is delicious, frozen into its neat little boxes:  Green Tomato Sauce, Apple Pie Filling, Apple and Mint Syrup, Apple and Grenadine Granita and Apple Ginger and Basil ice cream - I now survey the freezer with the satisfaction of a pioneer woman looking at her root cellar.  I couldn’t have been happier if I’d bought that orange Prada bag at last week’s antique textile fair.  I mean, I don’t need another handbag that one of my kids will purloin.  There’s just something so emotionally pleasing about cooking something you’ve grown yourself and putting it ‘up’ to enjoy later.  Well, there is as long as it’s a now and again hobby and not a chore you have to do in order not to starve.

The next task is to pick all the herbs and dry them with massive amounts of Basil puree.  But first it’s New York, and the ‘Brazilian Carnival’ birthday party for which I bought an amazing Morticia Adams vintage dress which, when I modeled it for the youngest, drew the comment:  ‘ohmygod, you look like a ho’.  I couldn’t get it off fast enough and am now looking for an alternative.  ‘But I meant it in a good way,’ she said when she realised I wasn’t going to wear it.

Is there a good way to look like a whore, I wonder?

After the party, I'll report back.  Leaving as a virgin, upper class (certainly not a whore when I fly, darling) on Thursday...

In the meantime, the v. last picture of tomatoes.  Thank god I don't have to get through a harsh winter on the Prairie on this meagre crop...  Though it was a v. large basket

Friday, 14 September 2012

Photographs from a Failed Gardener

the one single Yellow Brandywine
Tomato that ripened

One of only three Green Zebras

But the Blue Spice Basil flourished

and yet, I still don't know how
you can grow ruddy olives in a
North Kensington Garden
and fail to get ripe tomatoes?

Cupboard Love
nothing to do with anything but it's cute

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

So let’s talk tomatoes

Six different ruddy varieties:  green zebra, green finger, pink lady, black pineapple, yellow brandywine, and bog-standard plum – all coaxed from seed to sprouting plant – except for the plum which were given to me by my some time to be father-in-law.  I’ve been tending them like babies all summer, trussing them in the greenhouse (especially bought for the purpose of tomato propagation) and placing others in choice spots around the garden where the sun can bathe them (when it deigns to shine), and the rain can feed them, when it bursts – as it has had a tendency to do – from the heavens.  
And this is what they look like:

I can’t tell one from the other, except for the stunted green fingers which I didn’t like the sound of from the beginning.  No chance of them ripening now this late in the season.  I feel chutney coming on.

Life is full of disappointments, but the fact that the only ones that ripened are the plum tomatoes, and that they taste like economy Tesco's - ie 95 percent water, is one of them.
I promised myself I would never post photographs of my cat.
I lied.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Every time I see France in my stats I wonder - is it you?
September 11th.  Someone mentioned it today in the office and until then I hadn't actually noticed the day, or remembered the significance.  Eleven years ago.  It's our 'Kennedy' moment, though I am old enough - vaguely - to remember Kennedy's assassination.  More ingrained in my memory is my 'Churchill' moment since it was the one time I remember my father slapping me after I complained about not being able to do something which had been cancelled because of his funeral.  Nobody slapped me in 1963.

Eleven years ago everything was different.  My children were all still in school, the youngest 9, my eldest 17, head girl at her poncy private school and about to enter her final year there. I was a restaurant critic for the Financial Times.

One thing, however, was the same.  I was fat.  I'd just come back from Weight Watchers.

I was fretting about an email I'd seen on my husband's computer in which he had arranged to have 'a drink' with a 'friend' in a London hotel.  The etiquette of snooping.  How do you confront someone about something you are not supposed to have seen?  You don't.  You just seethe quietly, and worry, and fight alternating panic and sorrow like you're standing in a tennis court having balls shot at you by one of those automatic machines, swatting one emotion out of the way in time to deter the next.

The scales were not kind to me when I weighed in, but they were harder even on my friend Maria and we came back clutching our little ration books ready to embrace the rosary of calorie counting.  I dropped her off and walked into the house.  It was a beautiful day.  Sun was streaming through our rarely washed sitting room windows, which gave the room a wonderful golden glow of diffused light.  My husband met me at the door.

Did you hear?  He asked.

Hear what?  I wondered, my first thought turning guiltily - me the guilty one - to his forthcoming assignation that evening at 5pm.

The World Trade Centre.  Someone has flown a plane into it.

The TV was his witness and tuned to the footage of, what we did not then know was only the first, plane going in to the tower, over and over again.

Oh my God, was it us?  Please say it wasn't us!  I'll never forgive you if it was us?  I gasped, rushing to the sofa where I crumpled like one of the imminently collapsing towers.

Al-Qaeda, he said instantly.  The Palestinians couldn't manage anything as carefully planned as this.  It has to be Bin Laden.

There was an instant wash of relief that the kids wouldn't be vilified, the phone wouldn't be tapped, the shame wouldn't taint us, followed by horror as the second plane hit.

Everything after that is a communal experience.  I think most of us watched the towers fall, over and over and over and over and over again as if, by chance, just once they might wobble and remain erect.  And we all waited like the empty hospitals for the survivors who didn't come.  And some of the shame settled on our shoulders anyway since we had Arab surnames.  Palestinian or Saudi was a nuance lost in the Spot a Man of Middle Eastern Appearance witch-hunt that only subsided somewhat after Asians blew up the trains a year later, and turned attention back to a minority many had long been waiting for a reason to target.

Funny that the first thing I remember though is the house.  The sunlight.  The welcome of walking into a warm, bright, home - and my husband meeting me at the door as he had done a hundred, a thousand, times.  The nostalgia for that moment, when everything was still intact and I was still the mother of four kids who would come home in the evening with muddy football kid, and overflowing schoolbags, and lunch boxes; who would change into their pyjamas and sit with us on the sofa and eat cereal at the wrong time.  It's like a huge tsunami of pleasure.

It was only when I probed further that I remembered the woman at the hotel bar that my husband was going to meet and buy, with his customary generosity, several expensive cocktails, and - well who knows what else.  I'll never know.  The one good thing about the twin towers coming down is that he didn't go.  He cancelled.  I presume.

But not before I needled him in the car later that day and he smacked me in the face.  It was the one and only time - and provoked as it was by my unspoken knowledge and his unspoken guilt, it stung all the harder.

I think I preferred the Kennedy assassination, all things considered.

Friday, 7 September 2012

This time last week I was zooming up the M3, my car loaded with festival must-haves and picnic must-haves and beach must-haves, as well as weekend-in-cosy-hotel must haves, but - damn it, also realised must-have-forgot my phone.  Suddenly, I felt naked.  No link with the ever-chattering, ever-clamouring, eaver-eager not to get in touch with me, outside world.  Just me, ten-thousand or so strangers in funny headgear and not enough clothes, Bf and an empty space in the palm of my hand.  No buttons to press, to tweets to tweet, no pictures to post on facebook of me wearing my son's kaffiyah, my Christmas 'festival' socks, my daughter's wellies from when she was 11, and my other son's boy shorts from when he was 13.  Some would say this was a blessing.  But I was like a junkie without my fix, a smoker missing that ever present packet of fags cupped in the hand, an alcoholic without the drink.  Though I did manage a few of those.  Drinks, I mean.  Deffo no fags.

So we stood in mud  - Wellies  √
We stood in rain - Waterproof Coat √
We sat on mud - Waterproof Blanket √
We sat on chairs in mud - Folding Chairs √
We stood in the beating sun - Hats and Sunglasses and Sunscreen √
We read (okay some of us read and other stood inside tents that smelled of death and cattle) - Books √
We availed ourselves of the 'facilities' - Wetwipes, Antiseptic handwash √
We walked - Stout trainers √
We swam - Bikini √
We picnic-ed - Picnic rucksack complete with chopping board and salt shaker √
We huddled in car from cold - Large faux fur rug √

We also listened to some great music, a list of bands that went into double figures, many of whom we'd already seen in London on many and diverse occasions all gathered together in tents like a big Festival mixed tape of all your favourites.  We listened to Patti Smith.  We ate a great deal of healthy flatulent vegetarian food.  We subsequently did a lot of walking.  Apart.

We stayed in a chocolate box pub, in a chocolate box village, and took a chocolate box stroll across Constable fields with clumps of dear White Galloway calves that I know, due to their lack of udders, have only one fate and it isn't a life of a stud, poor things, and watched the swallows swoop and dive with a sunset backdrop that makes you stop and stare and gasp upwards at the pink and violet strata.  Then we returned to our soft, downy duvet where after a steamy shower and drank big glasses of red wine in bed, careful not to spill any on the sheets, and slept the sleep of the just-back from the festival mud.

I don't really understand, though, why it is that sleeping in a tent for a few days (the strange lives of others) and listening to music, standing up, with a beer in your hand from 11am onwards necessitates a special wardrobe of tutus, and voile head-dresses trimmed with fake flowers, and teeny short- shorts or large 50s style frocks of the sort that obese women wear on sea-side posters - and those are just the men.  We were very staid.  Bf bought a new hat.  I held my breath when he stuck a big, tatty stetson on his head.  OMG, I sighed, when I could eventually get enough air in to expel the words.  If only you had a tartan shirt.  And a BIG belt.  With a buckle.

I'd look like a cowboy, he said.

Oh, but I do like a cowboy, I replied woosily.

So do I, piped up a guy, wearing a tutu, holding a pint of beer in his hand, with a flat cap sprouting Indian feathers.

Damn him, that was the end of the hat and all my cowboy fantasies - corralled..

He bought a little Castro cap instead.  Quite fetching.  I'm getting him the matching khaki fatigues this weekend.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Heart stones found on the bank beside the beach in Sandwich Bay

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

My weekend.

Lunch for 15 of my closest colleagues in Ciao Bella where I resisted the pizza and the fragrant spag in a bag which has to be the best in London for the price and had instead a dreary omelette with broccoli and then about four glasses of wine.  Drunk.  Staggered home whilst trying to look sober, happily anticipating pleasure of the weekend, when I espied, frolicking towards me the outstretched, hand-holding, squat figure of ex-husband and girlfriend, both grinning with the sort of pleasure I used to feel whilst doing the same thing like they were auditioning for the Sound of Music and had just crested a Swiss Alp.  I didn't know I had any pain left to feel, but there it is again - fresher than ever.  When is it done?  Surely you get to saturation point somewhere?  Even though they resembled a pair of Americans on shore leave from a cut price Caribbean cruise - she in a yellow t-shirt, and mid thigh shorts, plain and vaguely retarded looking (the glasses, I think), it spatchcocked me on to skewers, wide open, all the better to rip my guts out.  Oh God.  Quickly examine the newly refurbished Notting Hill Gate branch of McDonalds (darn it I was past Jamie's Recipease, waste of space, overpriced, overstaffed, understocked big shop full of nothing - bring back WH Smith's please) as though I had just landed from space and never seen a Happy Meal before.  Almost past it when ex bounds up to me with puppy-pleased smile on face, saying hello.

Hello?  I mean, fuck me, but Hello?  The last time I saw the girlfriend I told her it was a pity she didn't have any coffee in her cup because I'd always planned on throwing it at her (I had, it was well rehearsed in my mind, but of course, I'd never do that, I just liked the thought of it), so now I'm going to stop and exchange social niceties?  

'I saw you, I was ignoring you deliberately and pretending not to see you,'  I said, without turning my head away from the delights of McDonalds, and without breaking my stride.  He fell back, presumably to recommence skipping, and I walked on into Butlers Homeware where I stopped, momentarily, just to catch my breath, decided I had more homeware than I needed, and went home to be worn by it.

And I was.  I am.  The builders have been and gone and left everything with a fine film of sawdust.  So I cleaned, and cleaned, and cleaned, still slightly inebriated, though the sight of ex and Mrs ex in their loved up little bubble which my existence will never burst still stung.  Not as much as the bleach.


I decided to do a real re-organisation job.  I emptied cupboard after cupboard.  I retrieved lost pans from down the back of drawers, and matched lids with containers.  I stacked tupperware according to size.  I relocated cake tins to new homes and counted cup cake trays.  I put all the appliances in one place with the never ever used ones to the dark, black recesses, and almost unused ones - (ie once in last two years)  to the front.  I put my large collection of jam jars in the newly named jam jar cupboard and then sat in the red chair where I usually cry and thought - what the fuck am I doing?  Who had fricking jam jar collections?  What am I saving them for?  I don't know how to make jam.  Why do I have a knife sharpener that the ex mother in law bought me (did she not think I was sharp enough?) and a cake tin shaped like a beehive?  Oh, okay - two cake tins shaped like a beehive (one was a gift)?  Why do I have ten different casseroles and three tureens? Why am I polishing the brash tray that used to belong to lovely ex-mother in law and now seems to be mine?  Why am I the custodian of ex's family memories?  All this stuff collected for this old life where I was the one skipping through Notting Hill Gate hand-in-hand, then returning to make cakes shaped like beehives and serving microwave chinese food in a tureen...  And why the hell am I standing here spraying it all with Ammonia Kitchen Cleaner and replacing it in cupboards nobody really opens?  Why is my pantry a still life, nicer looking than any of the displays in Recipease?  Why am I sounding like the opening credits on that old American program Soap?

I am cleaning up after a life I don't have any more, I thought sadly.  Actually it was worse than sad. 

But then I realised, I do still have that life, it's just that it's only mine - not ours, and that's okay.  I like the beehive cake tin.  I like the casseroles.  The life may be singular but that doesn't mean it has no value.  Sniff.  Sniff.  

Youngest came downstairs and flounced up to the fridge.  Opened it.  Closed it.  Implication:  You are a terrible mother, there is no food in the fridge, I hate you.

'Do you think you might give me a hand?' I asked brightly.  

'Oh Fuck Off,'  she said and disappeared upstairs.

Wait for it.


Bedroom door closes.

I guess that's a no then.

This life - all mine.


Saturday morning.  Bf asleep.  Cat asleep.  Son asleep.  Daughter asleep.  Me awake - cleaning.


Saturday afternoon.  Chelsea v Newcastle.  I'm wearing new frock with visible bra, just visible.  BF does not notice.  I realise that in the last month every single text Bf has sent me contains news about football.  Results of other matches that I care about as much about as I do the contents of my drains.  There is one word of endearment.  In a month.  No wonder he doesn't notice the bra.

He chats all through the match.  I could be a block of wood.  Gary on the other side presses his big thigh into mine and then lowers his Mr Punch head and whispers: 'you don't need me to keep you warm today?'  More's the pity Gary, more's the pity.  Bf on the other side is biting his lip, his nails, his cheek and keeping up a running commentary.

We win. 

Over the post-match curry I realise that we talk about football for the entire meal.  Is it bad that I'm actually engaged with this?  Since I learned the offside rule, I think I'm bloody Gary Linekar without the penchant, apparently, for young girls.  I talk tactics, and players, and can even compare performances to previous matches.

It seems I have found love.  It just has goalposts.


Sunday morning.  Bf asleep.  Cat asleep.  Son asleep.  Daughter asleep.  Boy on sofa who told me his name is Mike, not asleep any more since I inadvertently woke him.  Me awake - cooking.

I'm in the sparkling kitchen grilling aubergines and making a fragrantly delicious mushroom soup that I'm not going to eat but my kids, Carnivalling today, shall.  At 10 we're on our way with picnic to station to take a train to Walmer from where we walk to Sandwich along a coastline of unvarying flatness, emptiness, three or four steeply undulating dunes of pebbles away from an equally flat, empty sea.  Quite lovely, if apocalyptic.  Where are all the people?  Surely not all at the Notting Hill Carnival?  We trudge.  There's a lot of trudging.  I'm tired.   Bf points out things on the horizon I can't see.  Eventually at Sandwich Bay we meet humanity.  It has driven from its home to park its car by the edge of the pebbles where it assembles a cordon of windbreaks around the car, into which it sets two deck chairs and a table, where it sits, facing the car - usually with the door open - and eats sandwiches.  Why bother coming out?  The flat, calm, unruffled sea is ignored.  It's an unnecessary backdrop.  

Much like me, I think.


Monday morning.  Bf asleep.  Cat asleep.  Son asleep.  Daughter asleep.  Mike still on sofa. Other daughter asleep.  Other daughter's boyfriend asleep.  Me awake.  Feeling pukey.  Surely not the omelette I had (again) yesterday since the feeling predates this.  Surely not the prosecco that I bought in M&S in St Pancras which Bf served me in a half-pint glass in the bath?  Surely not the sex scenes that I have to google in order to write article for Woman and Home by end of today.  Maybe, I'm thinking, as Jessica Lange tells Jack Nicolson to 'come on, huh' while snarling at him from the edge of that kitchen table - since there's about as much chance of that happening to me as there is of me discovering I have wings.  Especially since if I cleared off all the bread and the pans and the fricking knife, I'd be the one picking it all back up again and washing the floor.  

I google.  I write.  I show Bf the scene from The Secretary but his only response is to claim a headache.  He then disappears downstairs to the loo, comes back half an hour and The English Patient later just as Kirstin is languishing in the bath, and announces he's sick.  He gets into bed and goes to sleep.  Comatose until....


Tuesday morning.  When he's still asleep.   Cat asleep.  Son asleep.  Daughter asleep.  Mike no longer on the sofa. Daughter and boyfriend returned to Oxford.  Me awake, as I have been most of the night as I don't feel well myself.  I step over the cat, have a shower, put on some trousers that are too tight for me - despite not eating anything yesterday and walking 7 miles the day before, I haven't lost an ounce.

I come to work.  It's 7.45.  I'm the only person in the office.  

The milk is off.

walking from Walmer to Sandwich - miles and miles and miles of rocky dunes and not another soul anywhere...  until.  Well, we'll leave it there.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Women in the office comparing their 'kitchen' scars - mine a two inch burn across the inside of my arm, though I've previously sliced my finger open with knives and once, memorably, even my foot, and the side of my thumb with a mandolin.

As we shared scars and blisters and burns and bruises from dropped pans, I remembered wistfully the days of sex injuries when the only burn came from a nylon carpet...

Herne Bay station after a 7 mile walk in 31o of sun, across the cliffs with a brief stop to swim in our pants and eat delicious baguettes with home-made mushroom pate, ripe peaches and Margaret's rum soaked chocolate brownies...

This weekend Sandwich to Walmer, two castles, some sand, possibly a pub lunch, preceded by return of Chelsea...

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

I am in love.

My builder has longer hair than me, and his carpenter has bigger breasts.  He also has a small goatee, a sprout of hair on his chin that makes him look like the Billy Goat Gruff.  He wears cut offs and a regulation plaid shirt, with cuffs rolled up to expose forearms like the ropes on a suspension bridge.  In two days he and his fellow Poles have ripped up my kitchen floor, removed a rotting cupboard and replaced it with sound wood and shiny Ikea laminate that no longer springs ominously when you stand on it.  He's screwed all the doors back on all the cupboards, sanded the worktops and on Saturday will bring someone else along to cut the granite and place it round the sink.  The burlier of the two companions, the one with the D cup, is broad and fleshy, with skin the colour of alabaster, and a broad belly.  I've had the chance to admire it as he strips out of his overalls, down to his pants in the kitchen, and then dons his street clothes.  I don't really like big men, but this one is incredibly hulking, reassuringly solid, sweet-faced and capable.  He could pick you up like a twig.  And he can use a drill.

I go home and admire their workmanship wishing I could find something else for them to do, or more accurately, something else I could afford for them to do, just so I could keep them, captive with their toolboxes and sawhorses and power tools; and I'm not talking euphemisms.  This isn't workmen porn, it's just workmen.  After decades with a man who thought the ability to turn an Allen Key made him 'handy' I actually long for someone who knows how to lay a floor rather than me.  Preferably both.  It's viscerally thrilling that ability to just 'do' stuff, heavy stuff, physical stuff, clever stuff with pipes and wires and wood and nails, and to transform something dilapidated and broken into sleek, shiny, sorted and fixed.

Sod intellectuals and 'good sense of humour and a love of the theatre'.  Forget and Toyboywarehouse  - what about  You could go on a date, make them dinner, offer them a drink and get your sink boxed in, all at the same time.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Office summer party - quesadilla tower on planet lonely...
(not lonely for the day due to rent-a-crowd colleagues)
one person grimaced at the tacos when told
they were made with quorn and recoiled with horror,  another 
who said they found quorn was 'nasty'.
It wasn't.
The amazing ring of stuffed bread...
Lonely girl went out to a party.


Now, as you know, if you've read other parts of this blog, I come from a symmetrical world - a world of pairs:  Knife and fork; salt and pepper; right and left; Bill and Ben.  Well maybe not Bill and Ben - more the Woodentops, but you get my drift.

My life was a Janet and John book.  Mummy in the kitchen, wearing an apron, taking a tray of buns out of the oven, saying "holy fuck this thing's hot," and daddy in the garden, smoking his pipe, mowing lawn. waxing car, little girl with ribbons, little boy in short trousers, dog, cat, rabbit.  Err - well no rabbit. We did have rabbits, twice, but the first was eaten by next door's cat and the second we gave away on Loot to a man we suspect may have cooked him because the grumpy little bugger bit - the rabbit, not the man.  A lesson the children learned well.

None of the rest was true either.  Except the swearing.  Mummy never wore an apron, sometimes not even clothes, and was responsible for all gardening, household maintenance, drilling, unblocking, stripping (of walls and when stripping walls) as well as Ikea - both driving there and assembling shoddy furniture.  Daddy couldn't drive, didn't know how the VCR, washing machine, or answer-phone worked, read the papers, listened to the news, and sat in his study.  Working.  All my kids want to grow up just like him.  All the kids have grown up just like him.

Instead of two kids, Janet and John, one of each, I had four, two of each, and the only one to ribbons in their long, flowing locks is the elder boy, while the person in short shorts is a teenage girl, the tips of her buttock cheeks showing underneath the hem like the reflection of a twin setting suns on an alien planet.  We never had a dog, and the cat is a recent import.

Nevertheless, nevertheless, these are minor details.  Things were paired.  Boys in one room - girls in another.  Boys in caps.  Girls in boaters.  Mummy slaving underneath the bonnet of the car doing an oil change.  Daddy moisturising his hands.

Entertaining was similarly paired.  Mummy cooked.  Daddy hid in the kitchen and washed up so he didn't have to talk to anyone, and assembled round the table there were more pairs:  Couples.

Couples know other Couples.  Couples invite other Couples.  Couples have other Couples as friends.  The Single, well the single are troublesome.  What do you do with them?  If it's a woman you can't do much, because they sit there, dangling on the edge of the table, odding up the numbers and leaving a spare chair, an uneven placement, screwing with the boy/girl arrangement and possibly with your husband...  Because of course they are, necessarily, determinedly after one's legally bound to you bloke, because his hands are oh-so-soft and his encyclopedic knowledge of the Guardian Comment pages is hugely aphrodisiac.  If it's a man, then it's easier because you can invite one of the single women, of whom there are many in the wild roaming in herds around galleries, garden centres and sculpture parks, winsomely outside the captivity of coupledom, comforting themselves with cream teas and big handbags.  This is rarely necessary, however, because usually he will bring one, often twenty years his junior.

I like men.  I like women too.  So I like couples.  But now I'm single, couples no longer like me.

And so I turn up to a party.  In Mayfair.  Up a bunch of stairs, above a bar, (I'd like to say battling, but sadly at my age it sort of parts effortlessly) through a veritable sea of men, tens of them, twenties of them, in suits - loose men with loosened ties - I mean they don't call pubs watering holes for nothing.  In the private dining room, however, it's a different story.  This is where all the single women go when they're not at Art Galleries, garden centres, etc, in a clump of big jewelry and bosoms, and the room is full of them.

It's recently single, Guardian soulmates success story, now-coupled-up Betty's 50th birthday party - but because she's been running with the herd for a while now - longer even than me, she's got a great bunch of friends.  All female.  Or Gay.  Or both.  The tattoos are often the discriminating factor.  For the women anyway.  As far as I can see there are two heterosexual men - one is with a blonde, the other is with a Bentley.  It happens I am sandwiched between both.   I know the Bentley - he's a lovely, warm guy, previously the lover of one of my kids' schoolfriend's mother.  Keep up, keep up, it's what we call networking in my part of London.  The other is comically (or would be if he weren't about as funny as a root canal) Teutonic, complete with 'ello 'ello invading army accent though he informed me hoitily: ' I hav been here in London already tventy years now' - though his syntax is still firmly in the Gymnasium.  He has been recently prised from the arms of his ex-wife by his current lover though the two have been romantically involved for some time.  (The single, what did I tell you?)  She is thin.

The rest of us, including the women who genuinely love women and don't just say they do before they bitch about them, are - well, curvy.  Plump even.  Chubby.  Fat.  Of course we are.  We've thrown in the towel.  It doesn't go round us all the way anyway.

Thin woman tells me she's seen my article but she 'doesn't believe a word of it, of course.' she warbles. I look at her levelly.  Why not?  Am I to take this as a compliment, that because I'm so popular as well as being at a party with her, that I couldn't be lonely?

'Well you should, because sometimes I am.'  I say matter-of-factly.  I hate this.  I hate this banter, having to pretend, having to laugh it off, as though it were all just a lark, a joke, a ruse to make £600 quid from the Guardian because, yeah, I need the money that much I'd bare my sensitivities.  She blinks like it will make me and my social ineptness disappear.  'But don't you think it's just because of email?'  She says earnestly;  'That we all expect instant answers to messages, that we've due to expect being in constant communication, that people feel lonely when they don't hear back immediately?'

So, that's why!  Eureka...  Nobody answers my emails the second I send them - this is the reason for my existential angst.  Now I know.  This woman isn't a neuroscientist for nuffink.  She's got to the heart of the problem.

As a scientist, I expect she's never bored or lonely - she's probably stimulated and fulfilled by her work - it surely can't be by Helmut, no matter what cliched assumptions would could make about the size of his well endowed research grant. The only possible other reason for being with such a dullard would be loneliness.  I suddenly liked them both a lot better.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

I went on another blind date with another woman.

I wish I was gay.


During the ‘Misery Years’ my friend Wilma and I lived in a series of grim Oxford bedsits.  The first was the spare back bedroom of a neurotic divorcee in Blackbird Leys. It had barely separated twin divans, just enough space between these and the walls to walk round in single file, and pink nylon sheets that she changed for us once a week.  She monitored our bedtimes, our friends, and our use of both the shower and the washing machine.  It was like having another, fussier mother with an obsession for rotas. As a special concession she let us use the dining room as our private sitting room as long as every Sunday we ate lunch together.  We took turns each at preparing the lunch. Hers, without any flair or deviation, every other week, was chicken cooked in Campbell’s condensed chicken soup, served with rice, a dish of which she was unjustifiably proud. Memory, mercifully, escapes me about our offerings.  Aged 17, our culinary repertoire revolved around beans on toast with cheese melted on top as a gourmet twist, and Swan Vesta curries.

We were extremely thin.

Eventually we left the quasi-home comforts of our slippery, pastel-pink bedroom and moved into a shared house on the Cowley Road. Here we lived with Dave, a trainee merchant banker with Coutts who had the hygiene, and, poor chap, the skin of a warthog, and Mike, a handsome, floppy-haired, posh boy doing Estate Management at the Polytechnic (long before it asserted itself as Oxford Brookes University) in preparation for inheriting the family pile in Suffolk.  Mike had a braying, blonde girlfriend called Imogen.  Dave didn’t.

The flat was conveniently situated above an ‘offie’ and boasted a roof terrace, or at least aforementioned off licence’s roof coated with asphalt which smelled of tar when warmed by England’s three days of summer, and strung with low hanging cables which offered the twin dangers of garrotting with electrocution to the unwitting sunbather.  Here our cooking reached new lows.  Chicken in Condensed soup became a staple when we were really pushing the boat out – and sometimes  - tinned soggy pastry over a layer of gravy and gristle;  Corned beef hash, hash being the operative word; and finally, mince four ways .  These would be; boiled, straight up with onions, Bisto and carrots, mash on the side – the Scottish classic – mince and tatties.  The same again but with mash on top turned it into Shepherd’s pie. A dollop of tomato puree and the exotic addition of garlic made it Spaghetti Bolognese with a bad Italian accent, or – for a little walk down Mexico way - with a teaspoon of chilli powder it was Chilli con Carne.  I’d like to say we also added kidney beans, but to two teenagers from the clogged up fat-ridden heart of Scotland, beans really did mean Heinz.  Autheniticity was as foreign a concept to us as soap was to Dave.

Eventually, I moved to a mansion in North Oxford with my boyfriend, who didn’t like onions or garlic, thereby removing two of the major food groups from my rota of recipes leaving me with only Oxo cubes.  The house was phenomenal – with a lawn that went on as far as Woodstock and not one, but two kitchens in which the quasi landlady – Issy, whose parents had rented this amazing place for her while she finished secretarial college, prepared massive Sunday feasts for friends with names like Tamsin and Piers who arrived in sports cars or daddy’s borrowed Bentley.  That was, officially, the first time I saw a broad bean in its natural casing and realised that they didn’t spring fully forth slathered in tomato sauce once liberated by can opener, and that there really were, at the very least, 57 different varieties.  It was also the first time I came across the rich.  Of the two, beans were the easier to swallow.

Okay, I know, I’m making it sound like I grew up in a wasteland.  Green grocers did exist in Scotland and, in deference to their name, they did sell the occasional bit of greenery.  Cabbages were big, literally and figuratively.  Sprouts were wizened and gnobbly, like the harvested testicles from a herd of small Martians.  Lettuces, which enjoyed a whole month of popularity between mid July and mid August when the entire population of Scotland took it in turns to go and shiver in a caravan somewhere near a polar sea, were limper than a Larry Grayson handshake, and peas.  I think.  I’m not sure I ever saw them in a shop.  However, my father, who was a keen gardener, did string and stake these out in regimented lines like Christians on the cross after a Roman purge, but I only ever remember eating them marrowfatted up from a tin. Greengrocers also did a nice line in turnips but those were orange, and swedes which weren’t.  As I grew more adventurous with my cooking, on a visit home I decided to introduce my mother to the delights of Ways with Mince No 3 – spag bog.  My mother’s previous knowledge of all things pasta had also been misinformed by Heinz so the notion of boiling noodles in the manner usually reserved for meat, was a huge novelty. 

Where other parts of the country ‘shopped’, we Scots ‘did the messages’ so ‘going for a message’ did not mean riding romantically cross-country with a wax-sealed missive strapped to your chest in a leather sack, but your father sending you to the corner shop for a pint of milk and 10 Embassy Regal  (nobody cared about selling cigarettes to children, indeed packs were broken up into ‘singles’ so that the under age could afford them).  So in preparation for my equivalent of Babette’s Feast, my mother donned her astrakhan coat, set her Fair Isle beret at a jaunty angle, hooked her message bag over her arm like a Matador’s cape and we set forth for the high street.

Picture rain.  Picture low lying cloud the colour of tumble-dryer fluff.  Picture a slick black ribbon of tarmac running through the middle of nowhere separated by dashed white tear lines,  a handful of metal-shuttered lock-ups on either side,; a grass triangle with a small redbrick building in the middle that, on closer inspection, appears to be public toilets and you’ve conjured up the picture postcard of unlovely Fallowhill that the newsagent had been selling since 1957.  The postcard though was hand-tinted in old-lady mauve, rouge pink and eye-shadow blue, while the real-life vista was unrelentingly gray.  And there wasn’t much of a hill either, more of a gentle incline.

Lottie’s, where we went for three pounds of onion and a green pepper was, unfortunately, right next door to the hairdresser’s where the eponymous owner – Pauline - was often to be found idling near the door, fag in one hand, Daily Record in the other.   I was afraid of Pauline and her steel comb which had mercilessly raked my skull leaving no tangle, of which there were many, untagged.  For Gala Days and weddings had torturously set my unruly hair in rollers before cooking me for half an hour under a hood-dryer while my mother talked about me in the third person, loudly, over the roar of the hot air.  ‘Too skinny, too picky, too curly, too cheeky, too lanky,’ she’d say, counting off my shortcomings to rosary to the nodding priest Pauline, her pitiless confessor.   The memory of the time I’d been pilloried in front of five stern-faced matrons, all with identical perms, after I’d unwisely trimmed my own fringe with nail scissors still made my ears burn with shame.  Then I had been ten and tall and gawky with an assymetrical cow’s lick and hair that stuck out like the rays of the sun in a kid's drawing.  Now it was 1976 and I was no less thin but a great deal taller, helped by the fashion for platform shoes, and the proud owner of a bad feather which the mist humidified into a froth of frizz that danced in the wind like a sea anenome in a strong current.  My fringe flicked up like a tick against the right answer to a very big question.  There was no way I wanted to subject myself to the scrutiny of Pauline who still back-combed for Britain and brandished a can of hairspray as though it was pepper spray and the client a man with a knife huddling in a dark alley.

Lottie wasn’t much better with her insistence on treating me like a boy through much of my childhood.

‘A vot?’  she asked after the onions had been tipped, dirt and all, from the scales straight into my mother’s shopping bag.  Lottie still retained her German accent despite several decades in the central Lowlands that, during the war, had included a spell in an internment camp in Fife, something that made her pronouncements sound harsher than they were meant, turning a statement such as ‘fine day’ into an indignant accusation.

‘A green pepper,’  I repeated, less confident now than my original, look at me I’ve lived in England for a year and I’m now an international gourmet, self. Anyone would have thought I’d asked for a pair of satin dance shoes.

‘Ach, son, ve dinnae ‘ave any pepper.  Try the Co-op,’ she snapped, screwing up her perpetually cross chipmunk face, as creased as a cabbage,with something akin to pity for a person, so divorced from the real life that they didn’t know that you couldnae buy pepper in a greengrocers.   And I hadn’t missed the ‘son’ bit either.  I mean, really, with hair half-way down my bag, breasts padded out by the wonder of Playtex and more jewellery than an Indian bride, what did she think – that I was Fallowhill’s first cross dresser?

My mother bought five pounds of compensatory potatoes, and we crossed the street to the Co-op, recently rehoused from a small shop with a counter behind which a person fetched and carried the items you reeled off from a list.  Its new incarnation was in an ugly seventies concrete box, the kind you use to detain suspected terrorists in Guantamano Bay, with aisles wide enough to dance an Eightsome Reel, and a row of tills, all empty, but for the one womaned by Cissie McLusky, a girl I’d gone to school with.  She looked exactly like her mother, the comparison easy to make since Mrs McLusky senior was on the fag-counter behind her with an identical hair-do, a Pauline special, similar ovoid, dark-framed glasses, and a twin set.  Cissie’s was heather blue, her mother’s salmon pink.  Of the two, the mother looked the younger.

We exchanged pleasantries.

‘Aye Mari,’ Aye Mrs McGee.’

‘Aye Jean,’  This called across the shop floor from Mrs McLusky to my mother.

‘Aye Doreen, Aye Cissie.’ 

‘Aye Charlie,’  To the man on the meat counter. 

‘Aye Jean,’

Each ‘aye’ was accompanied by sort of head nod that usually accompanies a wink, but there was no winking.  It was like they had been a vote and everyone was in agreement.

‘Been away Mari?’ asked Cissie as she rang up my purchases, looking each one over as she moved them out of the wire basket into my mother’s shopper:  A pound of mince, a tin of tomatoes, a jar of Schwartz garlic powder (accompanied by a sniff), a packet of spaghetti, and finally – the holy grail – a box of dried Green Pepper flakes.’

I’d also wanted Basil – which even I still thought only came in a jar from the Herb & Spice aisle in the supermarket, but I knew my limitations and didn’t even bother to ask.’  The only Basil anyone had ever heard of in Fallowhill owned a hotel in Torquay.

I told Cissie I was now living in Oxford as I peeled a Toytown Scottish fiver out of my wallet which it was almost impossible to convince anyone in England was perfectly legal currency.

‘Is that right?  Thought Ah hadnae seen you for a while.’  I’m not sure she knew or cared where Oxford was, especially if living there encouraged the use of such outlandish ingredients.  To be frank, I was surprised they even stocked garlic in Fallowhill when the condiment of choice was salt, salt with brown sauce, or salt with malt vinegar., and even the newly opened Chinese take-away ‘Aye, Taiwan Hoose, can a help you?’ regularly asked their customers ‘do ye want chips wi that?’

Back home in the temple to Formica that was my mother’s kitchen, I fried the onion (in dripping – Olive Oil was to be warmed for sore ears), fried the mince, added the tinned tomatoes,(are ye sure ye dinnae want a wee bit of Bisto?) garlic powder and a string of tomato puree, sprinkled in the dried green pepper (without bothering to rehydrate them) and presented the modified mince to my parents on a coil of slightly too soft spaghetti.  Two thousand kilometers away there was a collective sharp gasp of horror right down to the heel of the Italian boot;around the G-Plan dining table of Bide-a-While, at 29 Sheep House Brae (again, more of a slope), there was similar dismay.

Reader.  I knew no better. 

Neither did my parents but nevertheless they remained unimpressed.  After they’d drowned it in salt, chased the noodles round the plate with a knife and fork in dogged silence, until the plate was mercifully empty, followed by the sigh, less of satisfaction, than of relief.

Coffee was served.

Mugs.  My mother’s emblazoned with the name of a proprietary cough medicine – a  freebie from a parmaceutical rep at the chemist where she worked; my father’s celebrating the 10th Anniversary of a local builders’ merchants, mellifluously called Scobie Bros and locally knows as ‘scabbies’, and me with smoked glass pyrex.  The coffee, a level teaspoon of Co-op instant, sweetened with Saccharine and accompanied by a plate of Kit-Kats, Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers, and Gypsy Creams.

And then in the first of what was to be an oft repeated ritual whenever I cooked for my parents over the next twenty five years, my mother snapped open the two metal teeth of her handbag, rummaged around, and produced the Scottish equivalent of after-dinner mints; a packet of Rennies.

This happened even after I could make and bottle my own tomato sauce from dad’s greenhouse offerings; even when I made my own pasta with real, home-grown basil embossed into the dough which was then hung over the clothes horse to dry; and even when I layered it up with a proper ragu made with red wine and cubes of correctly pronounced pancetta, alternated this with balsamella, and topped it with pecorino.  It happened if I made an omelette, a stew, a birthday cake or a round of cheese and toast.  Whether it was an offering from Delia, Marcella Hazan, Claudia Rodin or Colman Andrews,  everything was covered in salt and the second the fork went down, the Rennie’s were passed round the table with resigned acceptance.

The message was clear.  Anything from a chip pan cooked in lard that contained 80 percent animal fat; anything with margarine, processed cheese, or made by Mars; anything that came shrink-wrapped in plastic with a polystyrene bum, or that could be transferred from supermarket to deep freeze – that was all fine.  But my food?  Well, that was indigestible…

My father and mother both died in the nineties.  After they retired, they transplanted themselves from Scotland to England and subjected themselves to weekly lunches in the London house where I’ve lived, first with my husband and four children, and now alone, for the last 26 years.  Now I flick through Peter Gordon or Jamie and wonder what to cook for my vegetarian boyfriend who would, quite frankly, eat a sock if it contained no animal protein, was coated in breadcrumbs and served with chilli sauce.  I make far too much food, unable to come to grips with portion control for only two people. I fill the fridge with the snap-lock tupperware which won't fit into the already over-flowing freezer, and then I look at the many empty chairs round the many empty tables in the many, mostly empty, rooms in my house and feel a deep, sharp, sad pang of nostalgia for all the people who used to fill them.

And I miss the Rennies.