Saturday, 1 June 2013

May 31st - Fitting pieces of sky and the Rendezvous Cafe

Dear Nigel,

A couple of years ago I happened to go into a tiny shop in Grasmere in the Lake District to find myself surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of boxes of jigsaws. I was amazed to find that people are still inflicting these objects of torture on their nearest and dearest and those already in enough pain in hospital wards. My Dad always accompanied Holidays and Christmases with a table containing a swathe of unfinished sky and some other object (- a boat, thatched cottage, buxom wench in mop cap and lupins etc.....who on earth commissions such naff paintings?). These unfinished jigsaws were the bane of my life as a child - untidy, unfinished, completely pointless and irritatingly controlling. Especially the sky.

Today I fitted a bit more sky into the picture. Today I finished a bit of unfinished.

All my life we had been visiting my Grandparents by the sea for our holidays; coming from a tiny village in the Lake District to the seaside town of Whitley Bay, near the mouth of the Tyne. And every time we would walk over the causeway to St. Mary's island and the lighthouse to fish in the rock pools.
'One day I'll take you up the lighthouse, just you and me,'my Grandpa would say, patting my hand. He'd been there many times over the years with my mum and her brother and sister but during my childhood it remained resolutely closed...always just one day... And then one day in my late teens it opened up again for folk to visit. But by then, of course, he was too old to climb the winding spiral staircase to the top. And then, of course, he died. So we never went, my Grandpa and me.

Time went by, as it does, and the promise always hung there in the day...And so today, more than twenty five years later, I took Will, Sophie and Molly and my mum for a trip down the coast and a climb up the lighthouse to look out over the Northumbrian coastline and down towards the white dome of the Spanish city in the distance; and fitted yet one more piece of sky into the jigsaw that is my life.

A bit of a nostalgia trip coming back here after so many years. I also wanted to see if the Rendezvous Cafe was still there on the promenade where we had queued so many, many times over the years, to buy slippy, silky 'venetian' ice creams in sugar cones with chocolate flakes if we'd been good. And a ride on a braided donkey or the swing boats on the sand.

Built in the 1930's when my Grandparents were moving into their newly built home up the road, I remembered it from my 60's/70's childhood, still a beacon of shiny Formica and chrome with huge arched metal-framed windows. I wanted to see if it still existed, and if it did, whether the fact that it had remained so untouched for so long, might mean that it had resisted the 'improvements' that were the fate of most such coffee bars. It was pleasingly retro before retro was invented and I loved it even then.

I was not disappointed. And the beautiful acrylic paintings by Emma Holliday and a poem by the late Julia Darling showed I was not alone in appreciating the 'tacky' (in the best sense of the word) Formica world. A chance to gaze over the pink and yellow chequered  promenade at the rolling waves from a mug of frothy coffee whilst the winds seeped through the single-glazed metal frames and large letters spelling 'ICES' on the outside wall drew people to the arched windows down one side. The acrylics seemed just the right medium to capture the brash and vibrant retro environment, still drawing the crowds, yet comfortingly not over-restored. Forward thinking, perhaps, or just a true sense of style.

So what have you been up to whilst we have been away for a half-term break? Work, work, work, it seems:
'I spend pretty much the whole day writing and recipe testing. There is no particular place reserved for this, and today I am holed up in the basement at the kitchen table...As the evening draws in, I put a match to the lanterns in the fireplace and write by their flickering amber light.' And for supper? 'a treat to eat something made by someone else' (for a change) - a simple sandwich of sourdough bread piled with fried mushrooms and grated cheese which James 'cooks in a shallow pan, the crusts turning crisp and deep gold, the cheese between oozing and peeping at the edges...A perfect thing.' There is a time, a stillness, a paring back of life when the simplest thing is the perfect thing. It arrives on a small wooden board and sliced into six fingers.

I saw the photograph of your cupboard of bowls the other day which you had rearranged, probably for the umpteenth time, to help you clear your mind for writing. You would understand the messiness of jigsaws, I feel.When I come home and the place is in disorder I can't begin to think once more until I have tidied up and made space for my mind to just be. There is a jangling with clutter, like nails scraped down a wall, that unnerves me and will not let me rest. I will come and sit by your flickering amber light and listen to the silence of your thoughts instead.

I turn the page of your diary to June and there exploding from the front of the page is a geisha of a peony unfurling its deep pink silk gown against the dark green leaves. Mine are still  like the heads of knitting needles jutting from balls of rampant wool. I wonder if a few days sun will be enough to bring things on enough or whether it will just be an apology for a summer this year.

I catch you in the act of preparing cupcakes - something you have sworn blind to avoid at all cost. But no, there is a twist - not sugar frosting and heart-shaped confetti for you, but 'Cheese, ham and apple muffins' (page 222) to make a little piece of sublime cheese go a long way. The cheese in question is 'a small lump of Anne Wigmore's Spenwood, a firm ewe's milk cheese...It has something of an aged pecorino about it.' It is matched with some ham 'from the sort of well-cared-for pig that probably had a Christian name.' The muffins will need eating on the same day but I don't foresee that being much of a problem in this house. Used to knocking out cheese scones by the dozen, I haven't often had my muffin tins out of the cupboard. The sweet muffins are often larger than either I or the little ones want to eat, and a cake that won't keep a couple of days seems too much faff. But savoury is a different matter. You choose to eat these still warm from the oven with the scent of baked cheese wafting through the kitchen. Who could refuse?



  1. Martha I love your letters to Nigel. The pondering and thoughtfulness is such a pleasure to read.

    Curled up in bed on a rainy morning on the Australian coast - the letter is a comfort and hope for the summer to come.

    And i can't help but think of my pop, who died this last year. I think i'll go and do a few things he talked to me about. It's a nice way of being together even if it's a memory.

  2. Hi Jen,

    I think it's a lovely thing for you to do, to help the healing process but also to show you how good your life is that he was once in it and left footprints on your life that make you the person that you have become.

    Take care,

    Martha x