Saturday, 29 August 2015

A Child's Summer in Wales

Dear Nigel,

Summer came and went with the swallow. Blink and you missed it.  But we were lucky enough to catch its tail end in a campsite dropping off the end of the Llyn Peninsula in Wales. It is a magical spot we have been to for several years running now, set on a small farm overlooking Bardsey Island with nothing between you and the feint outlines of Ireland but a wide expanse of sea.

On a good day there is sky, and the sea is the colour of blue lace agate with its threads of greys and whites tacking over the surface like a tailor's dummy. The sea and sky meld and fold into one another in a seamless crease. On a bad day the mists are low and I am sitting there outside my tent in the early morning whiteness with my mug of hot tea waiting for the mist to rise. Then a sudden burst of hot sun on damp tent causes rising steam and an uncomfortable rainforest fug prevails that irks until it too finally disperses and the day can begin.

Most of the time the days are hottish and long (albeit with windbreaks on the beach) and the kids spend their time in wetsuits in the sea trying to adopt all the spare children they can lay their hands on. I am reading cheap trashy novels of the type my mum would definitely not approve of and unwinding to the pace of life which only a tent can command. Every little thing takes so long in a tent; you are constantly in a kind of slow meditative motion, like Tai Chi, froing between the camp cooker with its whistling kettle which takes about a week to boil, and the moving of drying towels and snakes and ladders and small piles of sand that threaten to invade your sleeping bag.

It is not for the feint-hearted, or anyone probably with any degree of sense, but it is extremely cheap if you make it so. Invariably we don't, as the next sea fret of an evening sends us down to the chip shop in Abadaron for piping hot crisp-battered haddock and chunky golden chips - always best eaten by the sea. Sophie and I share a haddock.

Molly, my ragamuffin daughter, is in her element running barefoot the whole time in cotton dresses with her long toffee-coloured hair unbrushed and flaring out behind her. She is a wild child, unkempt and smiling with shiny eyes and a forceful nature. I try and tame this wild child of mine with platted hair and white socks but she will have none of it. And in tentland she is free to be herself.

We make barbecues on long, calm evenings outside the tent. The sun has set and the sea is in sepia. The flames from the barbecue die down enough not to burn the lamb chops and burgers the kids prefer, with just enough over to toast marshmallows on skewers over the white embers. I have remembered a very  helpful idea of Annie Bell's and am also equipped with Tunnock's teacakes. These do not have that caramelised surface that real marshmallows in their gloop are famed for, but they have other interesting properties worth investigating, I think.

Gently piercing the surface chocolate and marshmallow, you anchor your spear in the biscuit base. The good thing about this is that the teacake can be rotated evenly over the heat without threatening to drip off the stick. Once there are tiny bubbles on the chocolate surface it is ready. The chocolate doesn't seem to move, and biting in the mallow is soft and unctuous. Only camp food can do this for you. When else would you be seen cramming your mouth with molten mallow and chocolate and still feel faintly virtuous, as if the cold air insisted that you needed an influx of calories to drive out the damp?

Round the campfire we tell stories of fairies and selkies (the seal people). Molly is animated in her telling, her eyes bright as the flames light up her face. Of all my seven children it is the last, my baby child, who has the gift to carry a story and the passion to make it burn and live.

I am reminded of another story telling session of my own childhood years. Not the romantic headland setting of this night but an ordinary little front room in an ordinary little 1930's house. My grandpa is sitting in his powder blue wing armchair and we children are perching on its uncomfortable arms. There is a three bar fire in the corner with orange glowing strips which stand out against the dark. We sit and listen intently to his lilting gentle voice recounting, perhaps the same tale yet again, of pixies, ghosts and Scottish glens, the scent of highly polished wood drifting over from the grand piano and the street lights trying to push in through the outlined edges of the heavy curtains. I feel safe inside.

A few days later there is an opportunity to go to a real Story Telling session set in a Roundhouse a few miles away. The buildings are based on ancient designs, set into the earth with straw and clay walls, and thatched with reed. There is a huge copper fire pit burning brightly in the middle and candles on sticks jammed into the earth between the stone slabs light up the outline of the Story Teller as he stands to begin his tale. An expectant hush descends on the gathering as the Story teller picks up his Welsh Harp and plays us into his magical world. His broad grin and smiling eyes scan the room taking us all into his world. He has fine lines carved into his face and tightly packed curls which bounce light from the fire. He carries us with him on his journey into the night. And all is silent and intent.

My two are mesmerised, their ears hanging on his every word as he recounts his tale. Molly is particularly taken by the Welsh Harp and, at the interval he lets her sit and play. I am surprised and intrigued to see that instead of taking a finger and drawing it across the strings, she has sat beside him watching intently. Plucking the stings with the thumb  and fourth fingers of each hand she starts to play a fairly tuneful melody from out of nowhere.She is as spellbound, I think, as I am and back home at the tent next day she decides she will make her own Welsh Harp. As you do. So we set to with a biscuit tin and elastic bands from the local post office and a wooden spoon to thread them on to make the acute angle for a range of different notes. She is pleased with our attempt, thank goodness, and demands that we go back to the next session so that she can join in and play.

The next session has a guest Story teller even bigger and bolder than the last. Eric the Brave with his mop of silver hair and sawn out cheekbones has giants to slay and a history of stories of the Llyn to tell. There are perhaps a hundred people gathered round the fire pit tonight, crammed into the alcoves around the edge, huddled on benches and on cushions on the floor.

My two are sleepy as the evening wanes and the tales drift around their heads like the swirls of smoke from the fire. Every now and then a swallow swoops down, wheeling in the smoke, rising with the heat, and roosts back down in the apex of the round thatched wheel above our heads. It is cosy and we have brought cushions and blankets of our own with us. The cushions are old, made from a long discarded worn out blanket from my own childhood, torn up and refashioned as cushions with blanket stitch edges. Time stands still. Past, future. All is still in the telling. Whirls of smoke take the fragments of story out into the ether. This is the skill of the Story Teller. It is one of those perfect evenings.

Martha

Thursday, 6 August 2015

The Secret Garden revisited

Dear Nigel,

Summer is raging on apace and Autumn weather beckons, it seems. And yet the Holidays have hardly begun for us. The garden has taken over once more and I have given it free rein to design itself this year. Flower begets flower in a passing parade of heady blooms peeping out from a tangle of weeds in the border. Over by the path there is a heavy crop of blackcurrants glimpsed through an undergrowth of dense green foliage. They should have been picked some time ago and yet I let them go, promising myself 'manyana', as always.

I return from town to find Kevin's cockerel and his harem have invaded our space. He takes one look in my direction, and, like a sulky teenager, does just what he always intended - swaggering over with his hands in his pockets and starts to eat the polished black fruit. I shoo him away and one of his giggling entourage makes a dash for the tiny cottage window (thinking it the entrance to a hen coup, no doubt), banging her head again and again against the glass to try and gain entry. Remind me please to source my eggs from responsible chickens with a higher IQ next time - no doubt the yolks will be darker and richer in iron than from this daft bird.

The other reminder, as if I needed one, that Summer is rocketing by at startling speed and leaving me in its wake, comes with a visit from a confident young surveyor. Having assessed the height of the stream and its likelihood of flooding (very unlikely on this gradient), he then turns his attention to my overgrown garden. In particular, the vegetable patch seems to catch his eye. Here, to be fair, it is more jungle than veg. at the moment, and I am a little embarrassed in its defence. There are, however, if you were to look really carefully, lines of carefully planted spinach, rhubarb chard and rocket, but these have bolted now and wave around at waist height looking slightly unseemly.

The surveyor informs me that I am harbouring a dangerous criminal in my midst and severe measures will have to be taken so that I can comply with whatever needs complying with. I frown. I am a little perplexed. I am the harbourer of Japanese knot weed, he claims, looking at the bolted rhubarb chard, and it will need the most potent chemicals to eradicate it ( and which will no doubt undermine my personal organic certification). Hmmm....

I look carefully at his Japanese knot weed which I have lovingly planted, seed by seed, from a packet of Unwins' finest; watered, grown, and tipped into endless stir fries and eaten; and smile back at him. Bless, he is only trying to justify his pay rise.

So, in a bid to prevent the thought police from hounding us out of the district on grounds of letting down the 'best kept village in bloom', or whatever, we start to attack the worst offenders. Will makes short work of the grass, mowing down weeds when the fancy takes him, and I collect in the soft fruit. Apart from the black, red and white currents there are bowls of Gooseberries for freezing. I like to save these for the very end of summer when a soft, tart bowl of whipped fool reminds me of 'Summer's lease', as we sit out, perhaps for the last time that year, and savour all that Summer has to offer.

There are pinkie, hairy gooseberries too - edible ones my mum calls 'the gardener's perk'. But these are fewer and far between. I eat them in passing every time I go up or down along the path. One is enough. Bursting with gelatinous seeds, like an English passion fruit in texture, it is a momentary treat.

They are still collecting in the last of the hay. The little old red tractors are out in force amongst their big green brothers, bringing in the smaller brick-shaped bales from the smaller fields, which horsey people find more convenient to carry. There is a constant to-ing and fro-ing to the barn beside me of these sweet golden parcels. I love the smell of this fresh hay before it is properly dried and make sure I always inhale when passing.

It has been an odd year this one, so far, for me. Much of it has been spent in a great deal of pain, wishing the days away and watching the clock for the release that the next lot of painkillers will bring me. Waiting in a queue for operations has taught me patience and to draw back. That my pain - however severe I feel it to be - is no more important that another person's pain. We are all so used to going out and getting things for ourselves - putting ourselves first at the expense of others without a second thought. And yet it surprised me that I would feel more in tune with others at the very point I should have wanted to put myself first, because of its severity. We should never lose the ability to surprise ourselves.

But it is done and dusted anyway now and life has returned to this old bird - lately turned fifty, and enjoying every minute of it. The garden is a metaphor for a life left to renew and replenish itself at will. Manicured lawns and mixed borders are all very well when life is in control and, like a newly spring cleaned kitchen, a small bit of effort here and there will keep things up to scratch and ticking over. But we all, from time to time, need to let the grass grow between our feet and feel the surge of nature which allows both growth and change and brings us back to ourselves once more, renewed.

Hoping that your Summer has been a more productive one,

Martha




Sunday, 15 March 2015

A guest at my table - Saffron

I saw Saffron as I left the Supermarket last week. She was helping her daughter load up groceries at the till, wearing shiny wellies and a tea cosy on her head, even though it was bone dry outside. I thought perhaps she was trying to ward off radon gases coming through the soles of her shoes or something. It was always something with Saffron.

So, I'm preparing lots of small dishes tonight; lots of raw, organic vegetables and a dip which she probably won't touch on the grounds that the organic,free range eggs might have come from a farm where 'live stock' was kept, destined for a short life and murdered.

I'd always assumed lentil-crushing extremists like Saffron had disappeared with the '70s. Even the happy hippies I know are quite happy to swallow their own principles when a few toxic air miles will take them away from their jobs to somewhere hot for a couple of weeks. But I think Saffron's principles stem largely from an almost OCD compulsion with cleanliness. The first time I met her, at a slightly run-down toddler group housed in an old church hall and run by a very lovely (and extremely unlikely) old man and his wife, she was discussing cows milk and how it was full of pus and hormones with another young mum. I was doing the rounds, offering her a cup of tea - with milk - from the no doubt tannin and limescale-coated old tea urn. It was not an auspicious start.

We met again because we are both of that generation of mothers who appear to have two families. I often think of mine this way because it suits the way I think now. And, that I have changed so much since I had my first baby nearly thirty years ago. We are not the same people, that young mum and I.

Saffron's older daughter was friends with one of my older sons, Tom. Often, Skyla would slope into our home with her floppy hair and dark-rimmed eyes; and she and Tom would reappear again at dinner time looking starved. And well she might be. Skyla loved nothing more than something out of a packet (rare) or a simple spaghetti bolognese. Her mum made something green which wasn't quite soup and wasn't quite stew. It sounded very healthy, though, and full of iron.

I have been making more juices myself, lately, in a bid to try and get well quicker. My current favourite is Red pepper, carrot and apple. I think Saffron will like this, anyway. I make it usually late afternoon when I'm starting to flag and it perks me up within minutes. The diet of pain killers and anti-biotics I'm on is making me constantly tired. But this helps.

Saffron is Canadian. Her accent is light and almost anglicised. She has dark, tightly-curled hair and that kind of pale white skin that is akin to the underbelly of a fish, I always think (though I'm sure there must be a more prosaic way of putting it. 'Shall I compare thee to the underbelly of a fish' is probably not what we're looking for here). She has small fine features and an almost impish prettiness.

Her family are diverse and scattered and don't seem to have the close, unspoken ties that mine do. Mine rarely claim to be each other's best friend but often seem to link up or meet with some end in mind - even if the motive is just to 'borrow' something from one another. I find it disconcerting to meet these scattered individuals of Saffron's who seem not to know what each other are doing, or even where they might be living. It bothers me.

Saffron is working in a health food shop. She makes soup for the cafe. I hope it isn't the green stuff that Skyla moans about. She tells me her father is very ill in Canada and she wants to go back to see him before he dies, even though they've been estranged for many years. She's started thinking about her roots, about the things she's losing. But she doesn't seem to notice the other things around her that are slipping out of her grasp. Skyla looks to me as if she's been taking something she shouldn't. Her eyes are hooded and sort of fixed. I worry about her. She's changing schools but the reasons seem all wrong somehow. It's as if Saffron is caught in the detail and she's missing the bigger picture. We've all been there at times; I know I have.

So tonight's dinner has an ulterior motive: I want to try and make her see the cards she's holding in her hand before they're blown away. Sometimes things are so very fragile. Perhaps there are many other things which I don't know about going on, but for Skyla's sake I have to try. Teenage angst is hard-enough when you live in a loving, secure environment.

I'm making a simple crumble for pudding. I need something heavy and weighty to count against all the raw stuff. The topping is mainly oats and the stewed apple beneath is as comforting as it gets. I taste a spoonful (...well, essential if you need to know how tart the apples are) and a couple more - obviously with a clean spoon - it is allowed. I've often thought that if you put your heart and soul into your cooking, to relay a message you can't say openly, that somehow it should get through and the answer would simply come back to you. 'Yes.' Don't you think?


Friday, 23 January 2015

V is for Velvet landscapes and Venn diagram logic

Dear Nigel,

I am cooking your 'Courgettes with Bacon Gemolata' (pg 95) for my guest tonight. I have some bacon which has been sitting in the fridge since Christmas which I feel needs using up. No doubt the supermarket would have chucked it long ago, but this one came with the turkey from Stanedge Grange Farm and it still looks and smells OK to me. I have left bacon to hang around too long in the past and I know the difference in smell - a far better pointer than some arbitrary date stamped on a plastic packet. Luckily for me this is one of those easy suppers where all the ingredients are things I seem to have to hand, and it's quick, simple, and cheap to boot.

The snow comes and goes as it pleases. The landscape stays gloriously white, but the roads are dependant on the local farmers and their tractors fitted with snow ploughs; and, further afield, the council gritters with their flashing yellow lights. On our lane, the snow compacts itself and is good for sledging. The three cottages that use it all have four-wheel drive so it stays white. I take my snow shovel and clear a path to the woodshed and up the steep drive so that the postman doesn't complain. I bring a wheelbarrow of salt from the pile that the council leave at the end of the road, to help with the steepest part.

When I see that heavy snow is due again this evening, I take the opportunity to get to the shops and stock up. I meet so many of my neighbours on my rounds - even though it is fifteen miles away from home - all with the same thought in mind. When you have the sort of weather we do round here it feels good to be stocked up, with enough diesel in the car and wood for the fire to be able to batten down the hatches and not feel obliged to be anywhere in particular.

It's all an attitude of mind, of course. If you come here and you feel trapped because you can't get out (as one of my sons did at Christmas) then you will never be happy. If you accept what IS, then you can simply relax and appreciate it for its specialness - and enjoy the unique silence that echoes all around you in the whiteness. It makes you realise how little in life is so important that it cannot be cancelled, changed or rearranged in some way. When there is no one to be angry with, you simply learn to be creative and think more widely around a problem than you might.

The children, of course, love it because they get to have a day off school. And there are snowmen to be built, sledges to be dragged up the meadow and snowballs to aim. The radiators are covered in mounds of soggy hats and gloves and the dog gets to have her bed brought into a warmer room by the wood burner. Outside, the birds are clamouring for their breakfast again, and getting through the sack of bird seed I bought at a rate of knots. Some days a couple of pheasants clear up under the bird table; on other days a magpie or two chases the others away, or a squirrel chances his luck. The snowman standing next to them all has a sweet potato for a nose and is sliding sideways as the sun rises once more.

The breadcrumbs in this recipe seem to be drinking up a lot of butter and I am a little unsure at first. But in hindsight I find that I am right to follow your advice to 'add more butter if the crumbs prove thirsty'. The taste tells all. The best bit of this dish by far for me are the buttery golden crumbs with their gentle hint of lemon, which offset the saltiness of the bacon nicely. It is substantial, yet light. In this post-Christmas daze when I have only just dared to take a peek at the damage on the bathroom scales, (whilst still polishing off all manner of Christmas leftovers of one sort or another), I can only say that this dish won't leave you feeling bloated. We ate it on its own, without any accompaniments, and it was good - very good, actually.

Tom seems to have been awarded a scholarship at University. It's very typical of him that he forget that he'd even applied for it, or that it had been awarded. To celebrate he seems to have dyed his hair blue and been made an Ambassador for the University. I say 'Microsoft will soon put an end to that': (they seem to have been back and forward to his course half a dozen times or more already, head-hunting). He is doing Computer Programming - one of the few courses I imagine where there seem to be more jobs than Graduates, apparently. His older siblings meanwhile didn't seem to find it quite as easy.

He also seems to have joined the 'Tea drinking Society' - whatever that's a front for - and spent a great deal of time on the phone today complaining about not having the right baking tins for all these cakes he seems to be making. His flatmates and he were complaining about how much 'batterie de cuisine' a student kitchen seems to need. (In my experience with his older brothers, two pans, a wooden spoon and a tin opener seemed to do the job.)  At the same time I am leafing through a kitchen catalogue wondering why some of these gadgets even exist and who might conceivably buy them. The ONLY good thing about having such a tiny kitchen, I find, is that it makes you consider each and every item and demand of each that they justify their place in existence. It has sharpened my awareness and ability to declutter. I look at each bag-load winging its way to the charity shop and say to myself, 'there's another cubic foot of space in which to breathe'. And in those terms it's easy.

It was lovely to hear from you again and to wish you a Happy New Year. Sometimes when the darkness draws in early and everyone seems to be suffering from some residue of SAD (or lack of sunlight), it feels hard to look for the hope of the year ahead. I find it as I go out into the garden again, in between snowfalls. Strong young stems of rhubarb are pushing up against the frost: a true triumph of hope over experience - and that's what we all need.

Martha

Thursday, 8 January 2015

A guest at my table - George

It is always difficult moving house to a new area: You feel yourself floundering as you try to find your bearings and make sense of your surroundings and your place in it. Having moved house many times over the years I am used to this sense of rootlessness and the necessary time it takes to feel 'at home' once more. But it is never easy.

We moved house one bright warm sunny day in May, leaving home, friends and community in a small town on the edge of the Cotswolds and headed South West to rent a little house in a village by the sea in Cornwall; leaving our not-very-nice-looking house, within travelling distance of England's silicone valley, to sell itself.

It was the right decision. The sun was smiling on the Cornish hedges and never had I seen so may wild flowers clustered together in such variety, as if a whole army of florists had been at work the night before to garland the hedgerows for our arrival. The pure sea air, the rarity of seeing a car around the headland and the blinding sun against the blue no doubt fuelled their growth.But I was still in awe.

With a baby, a toddler and another not quite old-enough for school, it was a blessing to be able to go down to the beach each day and play in the rock pools. Looking over the bay towards the island with its stunning white lighthouse, I felt as if it was the very first thing I saw when my feet touched down on Cornish soil. And the purity and brilliance of it has never left me.

At that time of slippy, slidey, feeling around for a place to be, we made friends with a gentle giant of a man called George, who, for reasons different to mine, also found himself cast adrift on the tide.

He was a farmer who had come from 'up country' many years before to work a farm several miles away inland. His children were much older than mine and, as we talked, they were happy to take them off to look for toads in the boggy land beside the fields.They seemed settled and accepting of the changes in a way that children often do far quicker than the adults around them.

George's wife had left him and he had been forced to leave his farm and come and live in this tiny tucked-away cottage on the kink of a windy road set against a blanket of golden fields. Everything ripens earlier in Cornwall, it seems....and finishes sooner.

As he told his story, his back against the smouldering hearth and passing a hand through his thick black curly hair, he was still smiling that gentle, almost 'simple' smile over his round ruddy cheeks. But George himself was no simpleton. He understood and accepted more than I would have thought possible. He, himself, was a devout Christian; but as I listened I wanted to get angry on his behalf. He accepted everything - the deceit, the betrayal, the destruction of his family. The only thing he struggled with was the loss of his family farm, which had had to be sold and split two ways. He made his living looking after someone else's cows these days; his own animals long gone. And still he smiled; even as the tears rolled down from the crinkles of his eyes as he remembered taking his animals to auction  somewhere over near Truro.

Ours was a special kind of friendship which owed much to a mutual feeling of being somewhat lost at sea and in need of a compass. Perhaps, he would say, he had his bearings in nightly instalments from above. I was less sure what was in store for us but only trusted that it somehow felt right - like coming home. Having grown up in small villages and now finally cut the ties that bound us to our town life, I felt I could finally breathe again. And breathe I did the pure oxygenated air, and the night-time sky without its orange extending haze obscuring all but the most persistent of stars.

In time George made a new life for himself; bought a house in town, married his lodger and had a new twinkle to his eye - little Georgina. His lodger, who had seemed the most unlikely to be his type, with her fierce haircut and nose stud, turned out to be an earth  mother and morphed, and they took to managing the transfer of wholesale vegetables from local farmers to farm shops and grocers in the area.

Somewhere in all of this we lost touch, as some friendships do along the way, so it is good to know that he is coming to supper tonight to catch up with the multiple of episodes that have happened in both our lives since then; and on reports of his enigmatic godson.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

U is for Unforeseen circumstances and the Unnecessary madness of Christmas

Dear Nigel,

The Christmas preparations are well under way all around me and I've discovered that it it is the very worst time of year to decide to be ill. Not only do you have little choice but to carry on regardless, but appointments bank up at the hospital and 'a month isn't a long time to wait', apparently. The huge machine of ritual that is Christmas chugs on, and all around you the expectations of friends and family seek to hem you in. I never understood why anyone would want to be away from all their loved ones and holiday in the sun at Christmas, but this year me and my sore jaw would happily take a vegetarian chicken leg and go and sit and watch the Northern Lights (somewhere much colder than here).

For the little ones, of course, it is totally magical and no one should take that away from them. Watching their faces all lit up as the Steam train pulled in to take them to see Santa the other day was wonderful. I suppose for each of us there is a memory in our distant past - probably of something very small indeed - that rekindles itself every time we see that look of pure wonder on a small child's face. There are so few times in any lifetime when we experience something so perfect.

The school Nativity play goes past without a hitch. Molly, a decidedly unpregnant-looking Mary, decides that baby Annabel - dressed in a pink babygro, like all good french baby boys - was going to be Jesus, whatever...

Sophie is dressed as a Star, along with little Alfie (one of the younger ones in Reception, who has Downs Syndrome). All the children have learnt 'We wish you a Merry Christmas' in Makaton and it is lovely to see Alfie joining in with the others with the sign language- very much a part of our little family school. The children say that 'Alfie just hasn't grown out of being a toddler' and accept him for who he is, unconditionally. At their age they are so accepting of difference wherever they find it. If only it would stay that way.

The dinner I am making tonight is 'Aromatic Pork with Cucumber' (page 347). It is a lightening-quick dinner on the plate and tastes wonderful, and my guest thinks so too. Sometimes, especially at this time of year, when I'm busy cooking other things for Christmas, the last thing I want to do is spend ages cooking dinner as well. I'm busy filling up the freezer, with all seven of my children due home in the next couple of days (and Chris's Brazilian girlfriend Beatriz, too). I prefer to sit back with a glass of wine and enjoy spending time with my family at this time of year rather than slaving away in the kitchen. They all have much more important parties to go to for New Year so our time together is short and sweet.

The emails advertising this and that come in thick and fast as the great day looms. Gentle reminders to stash in piles of fluffy white towels and individual candle bowls for 'all those individual guest bathrooms' leave me laughing on the floor. In our house there'll be a long queue for the one bathroom and much banging on the door methinks. James is already planning to get up a rota.

I think my ideal would be to hire some large place in the country that would take all the family who care to spend Christmas with us - all under one roof, in a certain amount of comfort. It occurred to me that there must be a good number of suitable homes available for 'a house swap' at this time of year, what with all the Royals going up to Balmoral and everything. Perhaps someone should suggest it to Kate.

The tree in the corner appears to have a drink problem again this year. Last year we narrowed it down to the dog, this year it seems the cat is taking a liking to pine-infused liqueur. It just keeps me busy down on my front trying to fill it up again.

The village newsletter is delivered by Melanie on her rounds. It covers five tiny villages in this little area of the Peak District, including ours. I leaf through and note that Annie the vicar is doing a candlelit carol service on Monday evening at one of our neighbouring villages. I don't often go to church these days, but there is something rather awe-inspiring about a small candlelit church in the middle of winter, that beckons. The girls love singing carols (and more-importantly can read the words now) so I'm thinking that this would be an ideal time to go and remember the other side of Christmas, too often forgotten in the wrapping and unwrapping of presents and over-indulgence at the table.

It's a time for remembrance too. I'm still tippling back a thimble full of the sloe gin my brother made several years ago now and raising a toast to him. And this year I have three people close to me who will be having a harder Christmas than most to remember. I do what little I can to show that people do care and remember their pain. We can all do that for someone around us - light a tiny candle at the end of the tunnel to guide them home again.

Martha



Saturday, 15 November 2014

A guest at my table - Danny Boy

The last time I saw Danny was about seven or eight years ago, or more. That's what happens when you have a baby; suddenly everyone you'd been seeing week in week out for years on end suddenly become invisible in your life as you get pulled in another direction. Even good friends are cast along the wayside and stop listening to your empty promises to meet up.

So when you do finally get your life back together you find that things have changed. What seems at first a most familiar landscape has pockets of history that you've completely missed.

Danny and Amy were regulars at the pub. A young couple in their twenties who seemed to have the golden ticket in their hands. Some couples are just gorgeous - good looking, good jobs, plenty of money, everything going for them and their whole lives mapped out. Amy, certainly, had a plan. She was used to making an entrance each week so that she could show off her new designer handbag, the shoes, the outfit. She glowed, and Danny stood beside her glowing in her wake.

A wedding seemed in the offing; the talk between them centred on possible farmhouses they might buy (-not your average first time buyers' house for Amy). They posed with other lovely young couples, laughing, smiling, looking round for approval. Or perhaps that was only Amy. But Danny had bought into her dreams as well.

The other week I thought I saw the back of him ambling away from the bar. He seemed to be rather drunk and was leaning to one side as he walked. His clothes were a mess and there was mud in his hair. It wasn't till he came back the other way that I realised that he wasn't drunk, or if so, only slightly. His whole left arm was missing and he was overcompensating for the loss of weight on one side as he walked towards me, as if he was still getting used to things.

Amy had disappeared, it seemed, and had since married a farmer in the next valley. All his bricks had come tumbling down at once - job, home, girlfriend - the whole mapped out future was torn to shreds. He was still coming to terms with this. Some things had slid, but that was temporary. But the pain on such a young face was evident. Still barely into his thirties, I thought, and yet he carried the weight of the world on one shoulder, hardened to his predicament and to the intense sympathy of others.

It had been a farm machinery accident which tore the whole limb. Whether it was his own fault or not was hard to say. Some said he had been drinking. It mattered not. And he didn't want to hear yet more sympathy for something that he couldn't change. He wanted me not to notice and to talk about the changes at the pub (none), the likelihood of snow and the planning application that everyone was in uproar about. His eyes begged only for that. I understood what he was saying.

'Why don't you come to supper?' I heard myself say,'We won't talk about ANYTHING,'

I was surprised, really, when he agreed. Our conversations had been almost superficial up to now, I thought. But Danny was desperate to gain some kind of normality into his life again and he didn't know really where to start. They'd kept him on at the farm but he could only really help out. He knew they were doing him a favour and he had swallowed his pride. What choice did he have? The regulars were still the same crowd and it was here he felt most at home. As the evening mellowed out and people seemed to forget he could become himself once more. His crowd of friends had altered. The shiny people seemed to have moved on elsewhere. He seemed far older than his years.

I watched him as I sat talking to a friend. He was still a very good looking lad; almost throwing himself into pointless conversation with a renowned pub bore just to keep himself going. I wondered what such a tragedy really does to a person, deep down. How hard is it to keep clinging on, to rise above a wave of depression that could so easily drag you under if you let it. Is it better to go looking for a possible future or to simply hold on to a fragile present. I didn't know that I would be able to help him answer that. We each surf that wave at times, and each behave differently. It's so easy to stand on the outside looking in and judge another's pain without having the remotest idea how the cycle of feelings, thoughts and behaviour really affect another person.

Danny had built a wall in front of himself and he needed this wall to make him strong and stop him falling apart. We talked about his brother's family and his sister's new boyfriend; his Dad's minor heart operation and the beleaguered cricket team's bad year. He was desperate to keep things light and I had no intention of treading on sore ground. I still wondered what we'd find to talk about. I wasn't used to this level of very casual conversation. It seemed pointless to me, somehow, and yet Danny was desperate for that level of pointlessness. Like an orange with a tightly-bound skin, there seemed no way to get into this man's inner world.

I was at a loss to know what to do. I hoped that a good meal would do the trick. Food has that way of unlocking the most complex of doors. To share food, to sit alongside another and eat separately in unison, is bonding. We are the same, you and I - we both eat. You can trust me because we have eaten together. The wall you have built can remain but if you let me scale it's huge height we might between us find some kind of answer to that question that you are unable to articulate. I was prepared to give it a go, should the opportunity arise.

As I take the dish out of the oven I see his brother's car draw up outside. Part of me automatically thinks to invite him in as well as it is quite a distance for him to travel, but I know Danny would not appreciate this. I rarely find myself so unsure of how to be. I need to take my lead from him and remember that he is actually only a handful of years older that my eldest son. He has lived a lot in the last few years.