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.

Have you ever been on a diet?

I know, ridiculous, of course you have…

I mean, even if it isn’t for weight loss, sometimes there are things you can’t eat or other things you are compelled to eat.  So we all know the feeling of having to avoid certain foods, and eat others we don’t like, because it’s good for us.

Remember that feeling of reluctance you might have for, say, liver or kale or smoked eel (the last is my personal hate) and forget for a second the melting desire you have for Reblochon, or hollandaise sauce, or boiled eggs with buttery soldiers.

And then go to a Japanese restaurant.  Wield your chopsticks there for a second, and hold that thought.

Now I’m British.  Despite being raised on ground gristle (or perhaps because of it) I like Japanese food now and again.  I even love it and look forward to it, dream of it on occasion.  But essentially I’m a Brit, raised on the notion of having everything I like – meat, two veg, maybe a bit of salad – arranged together on the same dish.  I’m a one plate, main meal kind of woman.

When it comes to love, I have the same model.  I’m a one-man, get more or less everything from a single relationship woman.  I want a partner; a husband; the love of my life.  Someone who’s funny, supportive, solid, exciting and helpful – a meat and potatoes man; rare fillet steak with a dollop of zingy horseradish, maybe a serving of rich bĂ©arnaise with potatoes dauphinoise or parmentier and a sensible, good-for-you green vegetable.  A man who can put up shelves, help with my taxes, discuss the Congolese Civil War, soothe my worries, rub my back and bang me senseless more than twice a week.  A person whose personality will compliment mine, and who will be my one and only.  In short – like the old Barry White song – ‘my everything’.

Yeah, but it’s a lot easier to buy a microwave dinner than it is to get true love on a plate.  I can cook up the perfect meal whenever, and chose whatever I fancy, but I can’t find that single, do-it-all-for-me man.  The one I had let me think I was funny by laughing at my jokes and so I didn’t realize he was about as humorous as a Tory Conference.  Nor could he do anything remotely ‘handy’, and the banging was more of a whimper.  Nevertheless he could explain the failure of the Euro, massage my cares, my shoulders and my ego and carry heavy luggage.  He was as close to a balanced relationship diet as I’ve ever had and though, of course, I longed, occasionally for mustard and sauce, apparently so did he.  Eventually he forked off to be the main course in someone else’s life, leaving me plateless.

And the table of conjugal feasts has since remained resoundingly bare.

So now I’m back in the Japanese restaurant. The lovely Jorlando on my left and Vee, oh she who must be obeyed, opposite, and we’ve ordered the set lunch.  Jorlando is young, tweedy, handsome (I think if I may so say without sounding like I’m about to shop at the Toyboy Warehouse which, I would not consider -even for the equivalent of a McDonald's – very, very fast).  He’s smart.  He’s funny.  He’s bearded.  He’s ginger.  He’s Posh.  He got his first suit aged 13 for school at Aquascutum, where apparently “Sir didn’t have very much room in the seat”.  He is, you see, called Sir.  He has a best friend called Inigo (who of course does not come from Souf’ Landan and wear his trousers round the cusp of his arse, nor does Jorlando, whose ‘twill slacks’ are firmly belted two inches under his arms).

The meal arrives.  It’s in a little lacquered box.  With compartments.  None seems significantly larger than any of the others.  In one there are two breaded prawns with little feathery tails poking poignantly out at the end – pigs in blankets, Japanese style.  In another there’s a cloud of shredded white radish bearing two slabs of tuna, painful like a bruise, and another two of fleshy salmon.  In a smaller one there are five slivers of what I think at first are lemon slices, but on closer inspection are half moons of pickled turnip.  There’s a slightly larger rectangle with four different kinds of sushi, each on an oval of rice, and one wide mouth stuffed with salmon which the bowing waitress tells us is an Arctic roll, though confusingly, it’s hot.  And delicious.  Another tiny tray holds three pieces of chicken teriyaki, yet another has two cucumber maki rolls, and the last in the north-west corner has a slice of orange, melon, apple and a single little, rather squashed, raspberry.

We are poised, chopsticks at the ready – the rounded slippery Japanese ones harder to manage than their Chinese take-away wooden sisters.  The waitress also brings us some pickled ginger and a dollop of wasabi, and a bowl of miso soup. 

We sip, we slurp, we dip and dab, a mouthful of radish here, a slice of raw fish, then a nibble of prawn, a bit of chicken, more radish, a maki roll, a wincing shudder after a particularly strong hit of wasabi, a swallow of soothing broth.  And listening to Jorlando talk wittily about the art world, and Vee’s sharp and pointed retorts which make me laugh out loud, it occurs to me that maybe I have the wrong model for relationships.  Maybe I should be less British about it.

Maybe instead of one man who’s all that; later in life when all the best men are either dead or married to someone else; you have compromise and compartmentalize.  And substitue and borrow.  So the one who bangs in nails may not be the one who bangs you.  And the one who makes you laugh may be the guy, old enough to be your son in tweed who sits opposite you at the office, or indeed, the girl who dispenses advice with sternness.  The soother of worries and listener to problems might also be the person who also explains the intricacies of the Arab Spring who four years sprung himself from your marriage but remains your friend, or it might be a woman you pay £50 an hour to be professionally sympathetic, or even the man you pay £50 an hour who also cuts your hair.  And is gay. 

At this stage in life when I can’t find just one man who can satisfy my relationship hunger, I need to forget the whole idea of having love on a plate and have it neatly set out in a Bento Box instead.  A little bit of sex, a little bit of friendship, a little bit of companionship.

But then there’s that sad, forlorn, crushed little raspberry sitting there on top of the fruit slices - this dear thrill seekers is the pay-off, the Japanese money shot - that and a mint by the cash register - and tr as I might its just doesn't flood me with hope, excitement or delight.

And so there I am muttering smoked eel to myself.  I’m back to pushing cabbage round my plate because it’s good for me, but I still can’t be totally convinced that it’s gorgeous even if it is cavolo nero with garlic and pancetta, and choosing the salad instead of the fries with the omelette in Ciao Bella when I’d rather have the spag in a bag but I say non grazie because I'm dieting and avoiding carbs.  I'm fully aware that I ought to want to eat my five a day but frankly, oh god, I still want a packet of hobnobs.  Yeah, I know, I know – the Bento Box makes perfect relationship sense.  I should be delighted with my companionable old slipper friend, banging boyfriend and my empathetic ex; my office-mate repartee and friendly handyman, but…

Ach, I still yearn for that Sunday roast, with all the trimmings.  Heck I’d even settle for the Marks & Spencer main course and vegetable, £10 and a full dinner for two; the one thing I'm not. 

Thursday, 9 August 2012

At work we three kick ass.

Vee, vicar's daughter - teeny, feisty, not really the touchy-feely type, and sometimes brusque enough to make even me look cosy, and Em -  a Kiwi who doesn't take any prisoners so don't be fooled by that hair-twirly thing she does and the little-girl leg entwining.  Then me.  Mme Whiplash. Depending on the day.

I run the office, Em runs the editorial department and is generally the acknowledged power behind the throne, Vee runs me,  as well as rights, digital and probably the Home Office.  And we're in Covent Garden.  Drinking cocktails in a New Zealand restaurant.

They have mojitos, I have a vodka and slimline tonic - because I'm back in the Dukan Gulag and trying to remain within the spirit - as it were - if not the letter of the law.

We have a table outside.  I nipped into it the second the people already there got up to leave, much to the dismay of the girl from Britain & Ireland's Next Top Model (and yes, I am sad to actually know that) who stood up a second after me and sort of 'Ahh' ed.  Like a false start, though it was more of a late start, because I got in there first.  Olympic Table Vaulting Gold goes to Mme Whiplash...

I'm settling everyone's bags and coats around me as I race for victory while Vee has gone to get fags and Em is at the bar - it's a team sport...

I'm extremely pleased with myself.  We can eat supper here - it's the first warm night in weeks. Then BNTM girl says: 'excuse me, but you know the reason I was sitting here on this bench (three yards away from the table) was because I was waiting for that table...'

'I'm sorry, but we were also sitting on the bench (one yard away from the table - I mean, tactics, girlie, tactics) and I didn't know you were waiting, you didn't mention it, and there wasn't, like, a line or anything...'  No I didn't say, like, and act black, and in your face, with the head wobbling finger waggling thing going on, but it was implied.  Instead I smiled, apologetically and ignored her sulking. You snooze you loose - time and tables wait for no man, etc. etc. etc.

'And you're not really sorry are you?'  She added, accusingly.

What could I say?  'No, not at all,' I replied.  And shrugged.  She didn't know who she was up against. After the day, week, months we've had at work, we three are like a tag team of the very pissed off.  No way she was getting this table with her pouty little dummy spit.  No wonder she was in the bottom two this week.

Another round of drinks.  A cosmo, a sparkle, and a vodka martini, straight up with a twist - so cold, please, that it takes the enamel of my teeth...  We're all there with our little martini glasses in various pastel shades - pink, yellow, and mine clear, which I realise as I sip it, is actually exactly what I had the first time round but without the slimline tonic.  Even closer to the spirit of Dukan.

Michael arrives.  He might own the restaurant.  He might manage the restaurant.  He might be partners in the restaurant.  I'm not sure.  I'm not sure I feel my lips.  I'm sure he was taller.  More recognisable the last time I saw him.   We have pedrone peppers, drenched in salt.  We decide on some wine, and some 'small dishes'.  Restaurants are so clever, tempting you with 'small dishes' for prices that seem, if not reasonable, at least not frightening, and then they leave you to drink, letting you get drunker before they arrive with them so that you're on the second bottle of wine before the scallops arrive and you find that 'small' means microscopic and numbers one each, and the duck is arranged on a saucer, and the salad is in a soup bowl, and the squid is in a ramekin...  Delicious though.

'Fairly Dukan...' Vee says since, even though both the prawns and squid are battered wearing ice crystals with more salt than Salar di Uyuni and the duck is melting with fat, and there's creme fraiche with the scallops which I'm now spooning into my mouth like it's dessert, there is, undoubtably and indisputably, protein on the table.

We've put the Company fully to rights by the time we're on the peanut butter parfait (oh drop dead Dukan) when I mention a book I've been reading that's set in New Zealand and very evocative.

'I wonder why we don't all just live there - it sounds so beautiful...' I say, swooning on about the birds and the scenery and the landscape.

'It is amazing, stunning and empty - you just can't believe how beautiful it is,' said Em and Vee agrees as I continue to gush about horses and surfing beaches and rainforests and mountains - she who fears horses, hates to swim out of her depth, and couldn't trek if her life depended on it...

'But it's provincial,' says Em.

'Yes, it's like a 1957 country fair,' agrees Vee.

'No theatre to speak off,'  adds Em who hasn't been to the theatre as long as I've known her, and whose weekends seem to revolve around sitting in a beach hut in Whitstable with her two kids and no TV, like something out of Enid Blyton.

'Food and wine's good though, mind you it's not London..,'  says Vee, my fellow Dukaner who gets through most of the week on cottage cheese and wafer-thin, probably mechanicall recovered, pressed ham from Waitrose essentials range.

'And there's no culture,' Em says.

'Absolutely no culture,' echoes Vee, who - I remind you had a drink called a sparkle - and had been regaling us with tales of her forthcoming weekend on the lam in Spain with her gay hairdresser - about whom I know one fact - that he's also  been on Dukan for a month and lost a stone.

Britain's Next Top Sulky model has been looking at her phone for the last twenty minutes, jabbing it with an angry finger, as we leave.  Vee goes to that well known intellectual haven Colliers Wood where she admits the next day, she had another can of lager with the last fag, before she turned in, while I went home underneath the Westway on the No 7 to suburbia, too drunk to even read my text messages.  Em went North and can't remember actually getting home.

Yep.  God forbid that we ever lived somewhere without any culture.

Publishing is one of the few industries left where being drunk at work is still tolerated.  Even if it's first thing in the morning, as in, not yet sobered up from the night before.

I mean, I knew I felt terrible when I woke up clinging to the side of the bed at 3am with only the vaguest memory of getting into it.  There was the usual trail of shame, clothes scattered from the door to the bed in which, thankfully, I was at least alone.  I did have to check though.

I got out of bed gingerly, showered, dressed, at least partially, in reverse - swaying downstairs in my smalls, or Bridget Jones' larges, picking up a clean dress from the cupboard I use as a wardrobe, retrieving my cardigan from the bannister, my handbag from the stairwell, and my flip-flops at the door, and walked to the tube, slightly listing to the right and navigated my way to the tube, as though struggling against a strong wind in a small dinghy.

I then breathed my way to Holborn where I shuddered at the thought of coffee, tentatively tried and recoiled from the notion of a bacon sandwich, and let myself in to the blessedly quiet office, where I sat  in a hunched position, at my desk, until my boss arrived an hour later and found me there, glassy eyed, unmoving, staring at my in-box. 

He brought me water and a fist full of codeine.

An hour later my colleague arrived, rolled into the office, swooned into the chair beside me, and got the same treatment.

I'm fairly sure the CEO of most businesses doesn't administer hangover drugs to his staff as part of the morning ritual...

Another hour passed and the Macho Chairman of our parent company arrived.

Now I quite like the Chairman of our parent company.  He's a fan of my book.  Read it on a long haul flight and sings my praises to all who'll listen, and he's kind of cute in that craggy, lean, walks-with-a-swagger bushman way that's appealing to we gals, romantically weaned on characters from - what I've since learned is a whole genre called 'Farm Romance' featuring strong, manly, cowboys in the Australian Outback who don't say much, but can throw you over their shoulder and carry you to the waterhole on the back of their horse when your ballet career is tragically cut short after you're kicked by a kangaroo whilst saving a child from a dingo...  or whatever.

So I would have preened, squeezed my cleavage, etc, had I been able to sit fully upright, but as it was, I just dwindled further into my chair.  He gave me his twinkly smile, corks on his hat bobbing, leather chaps slapping against each other on the muscled thighs, and strode up to my desk and, not seeming to notice that I was still, effectively (or rather ineffectively) drunk - I mean do I look this bad the rest of the time?  I do usually brush my hair most days...

'Well,'  He began.  As I said, not the greatest conversationalist these bushmen.

I'm thinking, typical, typical, this will be the day he asks me to lunch...  but no  'Have you ever been to the Olympia Beer Festival?'  He asked.

Obviously the lederhosen I usually wear on Monday's had given him a false impression.

I shook my head weakly.  In fact I didn't shake my head as it made the room spin.  I just imagined shaking my head.

'Oh it's fabulous, he went on,' and then continued to outline, in detail the many different beers he'd tried on the previous evening.  

I groaned.

Big Giant Head Editor popped out of his office and joined us at that moment, being able to hear the word 'beer' from as far as five hundred yards away.  He isn't against a few sherbets after work himself.

The two then sang jingles from Double Diamond adverts of the 1960s. 

Music!A Double Diamond works wonders,
Works wonders, works wonders,
A Double Diamond works wonders,
So drink one today!Music!
[Tune: “There’s a hole in my bucket”] 

No.  NO.  They don't do this in Farm Romance.  Definitely no singing...

'Then we went on for a curry,' Chairman said, and we drank lots of red wine...  

'A shame for the curry, and the red wine,' opined Big Giant Head Editor .

The two had a two-minutes silence for the red wine.

'Remember that wine tasting we went to in Sydney?'  He added and they began a fond reminiscence of the various grapes they'd tasted, culminating in the $1000 bottle that was uncorked as a finale...

I groaned again.

'Speaking of which,' said the Chairman, as he turned to me with another of his bushman twinkles. 'I wouldn't mind a glass of water...'


'see - that's bushmen for you,' said my partner-in-codeine colleague when I recounted this later...

it's all  -my aren’t you interesting and gosh what a wonderful writer you are - then before you know it they’re scratching their nuts in front of the telly in a string wife-beater, telling you to pass them another tinny...

too true, Sheila, too true...

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

I went on a blind date yesterday.

With a girl.

And I made a great impression.

We had sushi and while I was popping an edamame bean it shot down the front of my dress and nestled nicely in my cleavage, luckily inside the frock.  I don't think she noticed, so I just ignored it.

Found it later when I was disrobing...

And no, I didn't eat it.