Not a New Year’s Resolution

I don’t have much will power.  By way of illustration, I have yet to sort out my wardrobe, having vowed to do it by Christmas.  2013.  So, New Year’s resolutions are pretty much an invitation from me to me, saying ‘Dear Oonagh, Please be a massive failure.  All the best, Oonagh’ and nobody wants that, least of all the people who would have to listen to me moan about it for the rest of the year.  I do, however, want to make some kind of effort just to have something to boast about on Facebook and there’s so much scope for that; I could virtually do anything even half decent and it would herald a better me; it’s one of the beauties of maintaining consistently low standards.  This is why I have decided to avoid New Year’s resolutions completely and do twelve ‘New Month resolutions’ for 2016.  Surely even I can maintain a change for one month.

 

Many people are doing ‘dry January’, which involves swearing off alcohol for a month, but I don’t drink the stuff as I’m enough of an idiot without exacerbating factors, and others are doing ‘Veganuary’, which – as you may have guessed if you have the deductive skills of anything more sentient than Donald Trump’s hair – is living a vegan lifestyle for the month of January.  The meaner among you may suppose that this involves marching up and down outside butchers’ shops, carrying protest placards, wearing hemp and shouting “I’m a vegan!”, but it really just means living a cruelty-free lifestyle by not eating or drinking any animal derivatives.  This is also not an option for me; not because I crave the blood of chickens or have an insatiable desire to attend ‘club your own lamb’ parties, but because I’m already vegan.  What I have decided to try and do throughout January is to eat no food that contains added sugar.

 

If you have ever seen my Twitter account, you may be reasonably convinced that I live on Hobnobs, chocolate, cake and tea, because they’re all a bit of a running theme.  You may also be convinced that I have ‘The Bumper Book of Cracker Jokes’ and I’m just tweeting them all for a bet; neither of these things are true.  I do eat Hobnobs – which fall into the ‘accidentally vegan food’ category – and I also eat chocolate and cake and I drink A LOT of tea, I mean in ‘the Guinness Book of Records people are on the phone for you’ kind of amounts, but the chocolate and cake are rare treats, partly because I need to find the vegan versions but also because I don’t have much money for treats.  I’ve spent it all on tea, hemp clothes and The Bumper Book of Cracker Jokes.  Given that I’m not the cake fiend I seem, it should be pretty easy to give up sugar for a month, right?  Right?  WRONG!

 

Apparently, there’s a rule that says all food apart from salad and tripe must contain sugar, and I have my suspicions about tripe.  There’s sugar in my ‘healthy’ cereal.  It’s in most of the bread in the supermarket.  It’s in my delicious vegan pesto (that I add to far too many things, if I’m honest).  It’s even in salt and vinegar crisps!!  So, sugar-free January may prove somewhat trickier than I’d presumed.  It took me over an hour to find bread that was both vegan and sugar free, which is why there are eight loaves in my freezer and another on the worktop.  I won’t inflict a Venn diagram on you, but if I were to do one of food that is vegan and sugar free, it would have a similar amount of items in the centre as a Venn diagram of ‘Things said by the Kardashian family’ and ‘Things that broadly make sense’.  It’s looking as though I may spend January eating fruit, veg, porridge and nine loaves of bread – oh, and ready-salted crisps.  I’m beginning to wish I’d opted for ‘New Week’s resolutions’!

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Cat

“Look!  Quick!  Look now!  It’s doing it now!”

She turned to see what her husband was shouting about, drying her hands on a tea-towel.

“What?” she looked at the mess in the living room.  “What’s doing what?”

“That bloody cat!  It’s watching me again.  It wants to do something to me!”

“She’s just looking at you.  She probably wants some food.”

“Well it’s going to be disappointed then, isn’t it!”  He picked up a newspaper and brandished it in the direction of the motionless cat, laughing as it jumped from the arm of the chair and scrambled to hide under it instead.

He shot his wife a challenging look, daring her to criticise or to comfort the scared animal.  She turned back to the sink, shaking her head as she heard him stomp up the stairs.  It wouldn’t have killed him to take the some of the pile of ironing upstairs to put away; even if he just left it on the bed.

As she reached up to put the dishes away in the cupboard, she could see the cat, now curled up in a lazy ball on the back of the couch, her tail draped across her nose like a separate entity.  Walking into the room, she sighed and began to clear away the papers and empty cans that charted the progress of her husband’s day.  Wiping up the numerous spills that adorned the floor and surfaces, she could hear the noise of the Xbox upstairs.

Eventually, she was happy with the state of the room and shouted up the stairs “Tea?”

“Yeah.  And biscuits!” came the reply, followed by a burst of gunfire and curses as he dropped a life in his game.

“I’ll look.” She muttered.

While the kettle boiled, she searched through the cupboard but drew a blank; as she closed the door, the cat appeared on the worktop and she stroked its ear, enjoying the sensation of a loving being nudging against her hand for greater contact.

“You’re lovely aren’t you?” she murmured as the cat purred more and more loudly.  “Let’s find you something nice.”

She rummaged through the fridge and found a slice of ham to toss into the cat’s bowl, then watched as it finished it off in seconds.

“Where’s that tea?”

She jumped.  She had been so engrossed by the cat’s company that she hadn’t heard him come down.

“You feed that fat moggy more than you feed me.  Where are the biscuits?”

“You’ve eaten them all.”

“Just bring me some toast then!” he said as he headed back upstairs.  “With jam.”

As she watched the television alone, later, she stroked the head of the cat as it snuggled on her lap.  The film was an old one she could remember watching with her sisters and parents many years earlier, when she had still been happy.  There were some jumpy moments, but she felt safe as she exchanged warmth with the ball of fur on her knee.  “You wouldn’t treat me like dirt, would you?  No, you wouldn’t!” she crooned, as the rhythmic stroking stripped the layers of tension from her day.

During the night, she felt the bed bounce as her husband came back from the bathroom, yet he seemed to be asleep in seconds, while she lay awake for hours, listening to him snore, with the stink of his sweat pervading the room.  It was almost morning before she managed to doze off, so when the alarm rang, she felt as though she hadn’t slept, and her first thought was “I hate my life.”

As her husband slept on, she washed, dressed and headed for the bus-stop, carrying her uniform in a bag.  At the hospital, she slipped into the changing room and dragged on her work clothes, before heading for the kitchen, where she spent the day preparing food, washing dishes, cleaning the surfaces.  It was almost like being at home, except here she wasn’t expected to fetch and carry for him as well.  Her feet throbbed by lunchtime, but she barely had time to sit and wolf down her lunch before she was back on them again.

On the bus home, she rested her head against the window and the drone of the engine filtered through her skull, soothing her until she drifted into a deep sleep.  She woke with a jolt, hearing the hiss of brakes.  In a panic, she looked out of the window and, realising she had missed her stop by quite a distance, she leapt from the seat and hurried to the front of the bus to the exit.  It was raining.

“Oh God, Oh God, he’ll go mad!”

She hurried as fast as she could through the wet streets, but it seemed as though every road had gained extra traffic, specifically to stop her from reaching the house, so when she finally did … she was really late, soaked through and panting.

“What the hell are you playing at?” he roared as she pushed open the door?

“I’ve been sitting here starving and you’ve been gallivanting about for hours!  Where were you?”

“I missed my stop …” she began, but he cut her off with a slap.

“You missed nothing, you lying bitch!  It’s a bus.  It’s not rocket science!”

With stinging eyes and a sore throat, she stayed in the kitchen until his food was ready, leaving briefly just to carry in his tea.  She looked down as the cat rubbed against the side of her leg and looked up with bright, sympathetic eyes.  She knew.  She always knew.

Throughout the next hours, she didn’t once look at him, afraid that he might find some reason to start on her again and thankful that he seemed distracted by the football and his evening beers.  Eventually, without saying a word, he went upstairs to spend the last couple of hours playing his game from the comfort of their bed.  She waited until she could hear his sleeping rasps before heading after him.  As she left the living room, she stooped to where the black cat lay on her blanket and whispered “It’s time!’

In the morning, she stepped nimbly over her husband’s crumpled body at the foot of the stairs.  She picked up the phone, dialled 999 and said “Ambulance.  My husband’s had an accident.  I think he must have tripped on the stairs.  I think he’s dead.”  At her feet, the cat leant against her, flicking her tail and purring.

Down by the river

The bench felt cold against his back; his thin jacket serving little purpose beyond modesty.  In the bag at his feet there was a rug: threadbare, damp, filthy.  When the weather grew colder, he would wear it as a coat, but for now it was just his bed, coming out after dark, if he could find somewhere safe enough to close his eyes.

He watched the river spread its arms to touch both towns with rippling fingers, joining and separating in one bold sweep.  He’d loved the river for as long as he could remember; all his important moments seemed connected to it, somehow.  As a tiny boy, he’d come here with his mum and his sister so often that it felt as though this had been their real home.  If there was any money, they’d all go on the ferry and rush straight up the stairs to the top deck, hoping to find a seat where they could see the important sights as the ferry followed its timeless course, and eat the sandwiches and the inevitable bananas that their mum would have packed.  They seldom stayed in the hard-won seats once the food was finished, preferring to play among the benches and ropes, rushing in and out of the warm, inner area, tripping over bags and prams belonging to the nesh passengers who’d claimed a comfy seat out of the wind, sticking their heads through the holes to look at the foamy water below.

When there was no money, they’d walk along the prom, standing on the rails to see into the grey depths, with their mother’s concerned warnings bouncing straight off them.  One time, he’d climbed through the gap to see better and his mum’s shrieks had scattered the hopeful gull clan that had thronged behind them.  All he’d seen, for the pain of the slap that waited, was the green slime, climbing the bricks and chains and some rubbish, floating on the top of the water.

As he’d reached his teens, he’d started to come down to the Pier Head with his friends, staying on the bus until it reached the terminus, then hanging around in front of Mann Island, shouting at girls, laughing when they shouted back, terrified in case they came over.  The inspectors and drivers from the MPTE would sometimes tell them to clear off, but not in such polite terms and they’d move ten yards if they could be bothered or argue the toss, if they couldn’t.

He’d met his wife down here.  She’d worked at the insurance company that was in the main building: the one with the birds.  He’d been working at a local paper, further up into town and coming down to eat his lunch by the river and he’d spotted her.  She’d made the mistake of throwing a crust to try to get rid of them and now the greedy birds wouldn’t leave her alone, so she kept flapping her coat at them and saying “Shoo!”  They’d back off a few feet for a minute, then pour back in like treacle or like teenage boys sent packing by the bus drivers.  He’d laughed and she’d looked up and seen him.  He felt bad, but then she’d laughed too and that was that; he was hooked!

Although he hadn’t spoken to her that day, he’d placed himself nearer to where she had been sitting so that when she’d turned up the next day, he was close enough to ask “No pet seagulls today?” and from then on, they’d had their food together there every work day for the next year and a half, going to the pictures and to see local bands at weekends.  They married on a Saturday afternoon at her church and had their reception in a pub close enough to the river to hear and smell it.  They’d been happy for eighteen years.  When she’d died at the age of forty-two, he’d taken her ashes to the river and scattered them in the dead of night, barely stopping himself from following her into the hypnotic ink.

Slowly, at first, and then more and more quickly, his routines had fallen apart.  Without her, he didn’t care about work or talking to people or leaving the house and it didn’t take long for the knock at the door.  No work, no rent money, no home.  Family members tried to talk him into staying with them, as he shrank before their eyes; a youngish man, ageing like an apple before their eyes, drinking to keep the memories at bay.  Falling.

Trouble followed him like a predator, ripping the last pieces of his life to shreds.  Arrests, fights, hospital wards.  And always, the only peace he could ever find was at the river.  Until today, as he clung to the cold comfort of the Mersey, he heard a laugh that had been absent for years and he turned his head to look for his wife.  She wasn’t there.  There was just a group of office workers, protecting their food from the gulls.  She would never be there again, but he understood in that moment how much it would hurt her to see him so beaten.  He pulled himself to his feet and looked at the crowd around his feet.  He flapped his hands … “Shoo!” 

Birthday madness and the aisle of many cheeses

I had to go to the supermarket – the kids had gone and eaten the food again – and I decided to get some cheese to go with our spaghetti dinner.  When you want a particular cheese, you really notice how many there are on offer, ranging from the absolutely inedible ‘plastic’ cheeses specifically designed to adorn burgers to rustically packaged Camembert that shows up with almost clockwork regularity on Come Dine With Me, accompanied by crusty bread they have bunged in the oven and pretended to bake.  There were about 20 different types of Cheddar alone and I found it mildly intimidating, to be honest.  And then there was the Quark.  Before today, I thought that was just something I’d heard Brian Cox wittering about – the trendy physicist, rather than the versatile actor – or even an avaricious character from Star Trek.  But now I know that it’s also pretend cheese.

There’s a back story to this cheese hunt.  Recently, our household has been experiencing ‘birthday fortnight’; it’s like Wimbledon fortnight, in as much as it happens every summer, is ridiculously expensive and invariably ends in sweaty exhaustion.  Sadly, there are no generous sponsors, no trophies and it isn’t narrated by John McEnroe, but on the plus side, I don’t have to entertain any members of the royal family or maintain a pristine lawn and it isn’t narrated by John McEnroe.

It isn’t really a fortnight, to be honest – it’s very nearly three weeks – but the structure is this: my birthday happens first and is ‘celebrated’ in an understated way with shop-bought cake and the possibility of takeaway food so I don’t have to cook.  When I don’t cook, that’s a treat for everyone.  Ten days later, it’s my daughter’s birthday and this is taken seriously.

There are birthday traditions in this house:

  • I make a cake, based on something they like at the moment and the design is a surprise, which involves me making the cake two days before the birthday so I can decorate it the following day.  This also means that once the decorating starts, the birthday child has to be kept out of the kitchen, which is an extra gift to them because it absolves them of tea-making duties.
  • I make a card, based on something they like at the moment and featuring the birthday person somehow in the design.  The acquisition of photo-editing software made this much easier than when I used to do it using scissors and paint.  This also remains a secret from the birthday person, so they aren’t allowed within sight of my laptop screen.
  • I make a poster, featuring them doing something odd-looking and with a ‘humorous’ caption.  This goes on the living-room wall for them to see when they get up in the morning.
  • I draw and write on a couple of balloons and hang them near the bed of the person in question once they’ve gone to sleep.

They seem to like these traditions.  The youngest, who has just turned 13, certainly does, although the others may be humouring me on the last one.

So, as I said, it goes: my birthday, ten days later – elder daughter’s birthday.  Three days after that is my father-in-law’s birthday, for which I don’t have to do anything except buy the present and the card, then wrap the present and tell my husband what we bought, so he won’t look surprised when it’s unwrapped.  Since it’s almost always some DVDs, he’s unlikely to look surprised, but better safe than sorry.  Four days after that, so one week after my elder daughter’s birthday, it’s my elder son’s birthday AND my younger daughter’s birthday.  They are not twins.  There is, in fact, 11 years between them and they were both born on a Monday.  I’m considering hiring them out as proof that astrology is nonsense, since they’re very different people apart from the dry sarcasm that my children all, inexplicably, share.

You may have realised by now that the birthday traditions, as outlined above, become quite complicated when two of your offspring share a birthday, but are 11 years apart and don’t like the same things.  I start making their cards and posters early so that the two days I spend, entirely in the kitchen, making and decorating cakes are not fraught with the added stress of knowing I have those jobs hanging over me as well.

But that’s not all.  Two days after the double birthday is my father’s birthday.  This year, he turned 90, which is quite special, so I made him a cake and a card.  I didn’t sneak into his house and hang balloons by his bed, because I don’t think killing him with a heart attack is the ideal way to start his 90th birthday.

So … back to the cheese.  I decided to make a cheese board, which isn’t a group of people who sit around making decisions about cheese as you might suppose, but a small selection of cheeses, arranged on a board – or a fancy tray that came with a garden candle – and accompanied by some crackers.  Amongst these cheeses was a garlic roulade, which absolutely nobody wanted to eat, so I ended up sticking it in the pasta and it tasted quite nice.  So that’s why I ended up in the supermarket, looking for cheese for the pasta.  Which reminds me of the final birthday tradition – living on leftovers.

Toast

Sometimes I find I crave a piece of bread

Yet tempted not am I by pallid slice.

I feel I’d rather make some toast instead

To add some warmth and crunch would be so nice.

 

But what to spread upon this humble feast?

That will enhance, not seek to hide, the taste!

A smear of butter at the very least

To leave it unadorned would be a waste.

 

But if such bread I use as has full grain

I may not wish to mar the sweetest seed!

To add a flavour would bestow no gain

Perhaps this toast would have all I could need!

 

So common sense suggests the thing to do

Is not to make one piece of toast, but two!

 

This is a sonnet about toast for That Poetry Bloke who taught me the meaning of a ‘volta’ then reminded me when I forgot!

A poem to Nigel Slater

Nigel, I think I love you.  You’re just the perfect man.

The way you know what herbs to pick,

The way you handle a pan.

Your programmes make me hungry

Even when I’ve eaten.

Your food’s so tasty looking,

Presentation can’t be beaten.

You use the freshest items,

That you’ve grown and then selected.

Your recipes are works of art,

That you’ve made and then perfected.

Your little tips and hints are great

It almost gives me hope,

Yet when I try to cook the stuff it tastes like granny’s soap.

So I sit here with my weetabix

And a cup of lukewarm tea.

And I wish that you would come round here

And make some food for me.

I don’t need home-made ice-cream,

With caramelized fruit,

I’d just love a cooked breakfast

That didn’t taste like ‘boot’.

So Nigel, can you visit?

And cook me up a treat?

Oh, just one thing, before you come,

I don’t eat fish or meat.

Thanks, Nigel!