Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Betwixtmas

I’m sure I’m not the person who came up with this term but I can’t remember who did. Whoever they were, full genius marks to them as this is the perfect word to describe this period between the tired damp fag end of this year and the bright shiny start of next. 

Ordinarily, I’d be spending it clearing out cupboards, catching up with friends and family, taking long walks and generally filling my hours with activity. This year, recuperation means I can’t. I’m forbidden to lift anything heavier than a quarter full kettle, banned from all housework and under orders not to get cocky about the speed of recovery. 

Truth be told, this chafes a little bit, until I stretch too far and then the wound site chafes even more than my forced inactivity, and then I give in and have a doze on the sofa. 

Christmas dinner was a triumph, cooked by N - his first ever time of doing so. Yes, it was 2 hours late and we forgot the crackers, but there was no rush. These are the long slow days of not very much at all this year. I'm rarely properly up before 10 and he, with his infinite capacity for sleeping in, can get a good 12 hours before he wakes. 

It made me weep the morning after I'd come home when he appeared at the spare bedroom door (where I'm sleeping currently for maximum comfort) just as I was trying to struggle upright. He'd set his alarm so he could be ready with a cup of tea for me. That is consideration. 

Yesterday we had snow, as did many places. There is still something magical about this white stuff whirling down and covering everything, making it clean and bright. The cats were perplexed by their first encounter with it, although Mabel did decide to enjoy it after her initial jump back in surprise. Today, when more fell, she leapt into the air, batting it with her paws and generally acting like I wish I could have done. 



A friend of ours with a recent negative Covid test came over for a game of Trivial Pursuit, some damson gin and a lot of cheese. It brought a lovely dose of new energy and conversation to the house. Her present to me this year was a handmade apron with a fab print and a Granny Weatherwax hat on the pocket. It may have been the residual anaesthetic, but I was incredibly touched and a little weepy with it. GW is a heroine of mine and the most perfectly realised female character ever written by a man. That she'd remembered that and got it worked into a handmade gift was a truly generous thing. 

Apart from getting weepy over an infinite number of things (Mabel giving me a headbutt, Thor bringing me a gift of wool from my stash, N tweaking my toes as he walks past, the end of Ghosts, episodes of The Repair Shop), what have I been doing with myself?

Reading, making plans for next year, filling notebooks with these plans, making a sourdough starter, watching Christmas films. Chair yoga. Writing. Playing games. 

When I was little, this betwixtmas time would have been spent in much the same way (minus the yoga and sourdough, plus arguing with my sister), with the excitement of New Years Eve growing every day. For NYE was when we were sent off to stay with my maternal grandparents. We'd arrive in the afternoon so we had time for the usual rituals: visiting the tiny graveyard, playing Poohsticks from the bridge over the stream, exploring the small church that we never tired of, feeding the ducks in the farm pond across the road from their house. 

Dinner would be early and we'd be allowed to stay up, trying small nips of things from the leatherette-clad bar in the corner of their living room - advocaat is my Proustian madeleine - watching Clive James being incredibly erudite and witty as the clocks chimed 12 and we chomped a supper of biscuits and cheese. 

The next day would be our second Christmas as they were always elsewhere for the official one. Our parents would arrive, heroically hiding hangovers, a huge joint of beef would be roasted and there would be presents, crackers, squabbling and people trying to politely refuse the homemade wine my Grandad devoted hours to making but that always tasted like vinegar at best. 

I was lucky with my childhood Christmasses and the hardest lesson with growing up is that these can never come again. Both grandparents are dead, to begin with, second Christmas is a distant memory and besides, the wench is middle aged. This does not make me sad or melancholy though: this year, as I turn these memories over, I am just grateful for all the ones I've had and all the ones I hopefully have to come. 

All things considered, I'm having a pretty good end to a year that's been a test for all of us. There was no right or wrong way of passing this test - it is enough to have endured it. I'm impatient for recovery, for the new year, for change, as are so many, but I'll step carefully over 2020, rather than my usual full headlong pelt forwards. And I'll raise a glass to all of it. 

Thursday, December 17, 2020

My Week in ... Taste

Gosh this week is a bit frantic. I'm wrapping up last minute jobs at work, wrapping up presents in the evenings and managing to get virtual catch-ups with friends and family in the spare moments. Last night I woke at 3.30am with a jump: I'd been dreaming I'd forgotten about my op until 2 hours after the time it was scheduled. Not happy that my waking anxiety should invade my sleep!

Anyway, onto my week in seven flavours. Only a little more abstemious than I thought it might be, what with the New Regime and all. 

Cashew nuts! All part of the new food regime. Having been strictly an only-peanuts girl, I found them weird at first but now I even like them more than the former. Roasted and salted, of course. Whaddaya think I am, some kind of penitent?

Smoked salmon. I don't buy a lot of it before you go thinking I'm posh or summat. But this time of year is my own personal "salmon season" (me and everyone else in Britain) and I'm thoroughly enjoying the unbeatable taste of smoked salmon folded into gently scrambled free range eggs, the yolks so orange they look like little suns on my plate. 

Coffee. Real coffee. Working from home means I get to make myself a cafetiere of the stuff every morning, so I'm not missing out on the coffee shop right next to my workplace. It's not quite the same, but it's close enough. 

Coriander. Or cilantro if you're American. I love this herb but you have to go carefully with it unless you want a mouthful of something that tastes like antiseptic. This week, I've had it in soup, courgette fritters and in a giant cous-cous (the only cous-cous worth the water used in preparing it) salad. 

Damson gin. Self explanatory surely?

Damson Jelly. I've been adding spoonfuls of this to gravies for the past couple of weeks and it adds a blast of sour fruity goodness to cut through the fat and heavy saltiness of gravy. Amazing. Try it now if you haven't already. 

Rice cakes. Don't. I know. I've actually written the words "rice cakes" on my blog. I'm so ashamed. But not bloated, so there. When the need for a crunchy food that isn't toast (see previous post) or a nut (see above) overwhelms, I "butter" one up and add some humous or goats cheese. No, it is not at all as good as a piece of toast with cheese or jam on it. How could it be? This breaking of old (bad) habits is tough on the tastebuds sometimes, folks. 

Zombie peanuts! Ho ho ho 





Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Cloud Rambling


A week into my own personal lockdown and I haven’t yet cracked and run amok through the house screaming “will I never see OUTSIDE again?” Which is a bonus.  

As a person who is mostly introverted and who enjoys copious amounts of quiet time on her own, I was always going to be suited to this. I can happily wile away whole days inside, making bits of nonsense, reading, writing, watching, baking (not so much any more - more on that story later), pondering the garden or paint colours for inside, staring into space...

At the weekend I put together a Christmas wreath made from pom-poms and lights. It’s extremely cheerful, extremely gaudy and makes me happy every time I look at it (although I’m kind of wishing I’d cleaned the windows before I hung it). It also meant I could claim my day’s work done and spend the rest of it reading the paper. 

Behold! The Wreath of Gaudiness! 

We’ve played scrabble, watched films, cooked, played with the cats. I’ve bottled my damson gin, jarred my damson jelly and labelled the runner bean chutney for N to deliver while I’m in hospital. 

Last night we watched Batman: the Dark Knight because I am nothing if not behind on my superhero film watching. 3 thoughts have stayed with me: 

1. Bale’s Batman makes me laugh every time he speaks. His voice is so ridiculous! I can’t hear him without imagining him having to break off mid stirring speech to cough and choke. I don’t find him convincing (however he was excellent as Dick Cheney in Vice).

2. Heath Ledger could have been given more airtime. He was astonishing as the Joker and leaving him dangling at the end was a waste.

3. This film does not pass the Bechdel test. Poor Maggie Gyllenhaal portraying the only rounded, fully inhabited female character and she gets killed off? You, Christopher Nolan, did a disservice there, regardless of plot. 

In fact, her character's death made me almost as cross as the Black Widow's did in Avengers: Endgame. Yeah, great, just bring the most interesting character to a stop, why don't you. Leave us with the anodyne Captain America, sure. You didn't just miss a MASSIVE trick there at all. 

Ahem. 

Back to the matter in hand: lockdown. 

There's no doubt that I've been bolstered in mood by a walk my friend and I took the day before I had to sequester away like some medieval nun in a hermitage. We parked up on the side of the Malverns, by Holywell (appropriate, no?), in the mist and murky gloom, and walked up. And up. And up. Admiring the way the muted daylight brought out the russets of the beech leaves, the reds of the berries and the silver of the birches in stark contrast. There was colour everywhere we looked, despite the lack of light. 

And then. Oh friends, then we broke above the cloud into...glorious sunshine! The snaking, ridged spine of the hills leading across the landscape to the almost-touchable Iron Age hill fort was picked out by a sharp light that made the whistling wind feel less bitter. Over to our right, Herefordshire countryside laid itself out, shaking off the damp and glowing greenly. 

To our left, the cloud brushed up against the side of the hills, forming a white carpet so thick and solid looking that we felt we could walk on it. Occasionally bits would be blown up and over the path, momentarily blurring the edges and making me think of moorland mists, the Hound of the Baskervilles and other appropriately Gothic things. 


hill fort in the distance, cloud sneaking over the top of 
the hill to see what was on the other side. 

An hour later, when my thighs gave a wobble at the longest walk I've done in the past 18 months, we headed back down in search of soup, cake and a bookshop. Once I got home, I sat myself down and read HotB, from under a blanket while the mist curled itself against the windows. It was perfect, post-walk, misty day reading. 

And baking? I did promise more on that, didn't I? In truth, I've hesitated to write about this because there is nothing more boring than hearing about other people's diets, but as it's the basis for a big shift in my life, I'm going to. 

Some years ago, I gave up dairy (apart from eggs) in a desperate attempt to bring my eczema under control. And for a time, it worked. Until it didn't and the eczema crept into my scalp, developed on my knees and generally made life itchy and miserable. That alone was enough to make me consider the next step, but when coupled with some other minor, but irritating, health problems, I figured the time had come to bite the (dairy-free) bullet, not to mention my credit card, and book to to see a nutritional therapist. 

I'd not had much luck with doctors, you see. 

Many hours of research later and I finally found a non-woo therapist. And by non-woo, I mean someone who didn't think kale was the answer to everything, who didn't think that fasting would cure my ills or that I should replace my meals with smoothies, who didn't suggest crystals as anything other than something nice to look at, or that I should engage with dream therapy. I wanted someone with a solid grounding in science and a healthy understanding of human nature as well as nutrition. 

Luckily, I found her. Unluckily, the first thing she suggested I quit was gluten. 

Oh bread! Toast in the mornings, sandwiches at lunch, garlic bread with dinner! Naans with curry! Muffins with eggs! Pasta morning noon and night! Cakes, biscuits and other tasty goodnesses! Goodbye to you all, my lifelong delicious friends! Yes, I have been that dramatic; ain't I a peach to live with? In my defence, it is a big step for me: I come from a solid family who's answer to a bad day was crumpets, my favourite part of a roast dinner when growing up was a slice of bread smothered in gravy and my Dad had a second breakfast of lemon curd sandwiches when he was working (he was a landscape gardener, so definitely burned it off throughout the day). 

I could go into the many reasons why this is a recommended first step, but I won't because I don't want to bore you all. Suffice to say, I am no longer eating peanut butter on toast for breakfast and my energy levels have rocketed. Heartburn has disappeared. Bloating is a distant memory. The eczema? It takes 4-6 weeks for the skin to replace itself, so the jury is still out but I feel so much better. Possibly mainly because I'm taking control. And that's got to be worth it. 

I'm still having proper stuffing on Christmas Day though. 

This is likely to be my last lengthy post pre-Christmas. My op is next Tuesday and I imagine I won't be up to anything like this, let alone coherent enough to write it. Thank you all for popping by my tiny corner of the internet, commenting or just reading and moving on. I wish you all a wonderful Christmas and a very merry new year as we say goodbye to this sod of a year. 


I've not been told I have to give up the damson gin, so I'm not. 
The warning is necessary. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

My Week in...Sounds

Laura Marling on the car stereo. Oh, but she just keeps getting better! I've been listening to her albums in sequence and you can chart her growth and ability throughout the tracks. Just wonderful, thoughtful, unpretentious music. 

My parents laughing over a distanced dinner as we saw each other for the last time this year. 

The sound of my work key turning in the lock for the last time this year. 

The ding-dong of the doorbell as the blessed delivery man brought unto me my replacement phone. See also the happiest of noises the phone makes when I turn it on and end my unplanned digital detox. 

The pingpingping of said phone, reactivated with my sim, bringing up a host of notifications. WhatsApp, in particular, was on fire the week I was without, as our quiz group made arrangements for our festive Murder Mystery evening. 

The sound of the knife cutting through fresh stems of coriander as I make myself a soup for home-based lunches this week, accompanied by the release of that lovely fresh smell. 

The little "stamp" of Mabel's feet on the grass outside as she tries to catch something invisible amongst the blades. She rears up like an arctic fox and then STAMP go her tiny front paws. At least 5 times a night, without fail. And without fail it makes me laugh. 


My grumpy Matroyshka are reluctant to concede to the festive
spirit but they have allowed a string of tiny lights along their section
of the bookcase...

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

November at the Allotment

It's weird writing about my last 4 weeks at the allotment because, as from today, I won't be up there until mid-January, February if I'm really unlucky. And as for actually being fit enough to achieve anything, well. Let's just say that chair yoga can only do so much for your digging muscles. 

But enough bleak imaginings of the future state of things. I did actually manage to achieve quite a bit in autumn. N treated me to a "swoe" after my allotment neighbour watched me hacking away with my old hoe for 10 minutes before handing me his swoe, saying "please try this, its just painful to watch you". Never underestimate the power of poor hacking when it comes to getting plot pals to lend you effective tools. 

Anyway, can I just say that the swoe is my very very very favourite new tool to play with? A stainless steel, double-edged blade that you slide forward under the weeds, pull back and hey presto, weeds 0: you 100. I LOVE it and it repaid my love by making short work of many weeds, especially in the fruit cage area. 

Which was just in time for the grand erecting of the cage. Accompanied by many a rude word as N wrestled to get the poles in the Y-joiners (Y join? Because this big mallet says so). When I went up the next day to attach the mesh, it was still standing. Thank god, because I can just imagine the furious words that would have been spoken if it hadn't been. 


And there had been plenty enough of that when we were trying to level the ground for the cage to sit on armed with 2 shovels and a spirit level designed more for the hanging of pictures than the levelling of topsoil. As you can see above, I now have a heap of soil I was planning to shift back into the cage to tamp down and plant the raspberries in. Sadly, rain and work have stopped play. It ain't happening now. But I have learned that most things are recoverable or catch-up-able with at some point, so I'm making myself Not Worry about it. 

Besides, it's so wet up on the plot, all I'd end up with is some sad raspberries, a piece of ground that looks like the Somme and an extra 6 inches in height from the mud stuck to the bottom of my boots. Let it go, Collett, let it go. 


Behind the cage you can see the formerly grassy knoll which I'd spent some time clearing and then reinforcing along the path edge in October. The plan is to terrace them eventually but not for a while yet. Rhubarb has arrived and been planted in one of the beds I grew the courgettes in earlier this year. I will not be wanting quite so many in 2021, so the 'barb can have the space instead. 

November was also the month of the Great 'Gras Bed Experiment. As I've already said, somewhere on this blog, I'd spotted asparagus ferns in this space (a great big long bed, practically the width of the plot, about 2/3rds  of the way down) but the whole area was so choked with weeds and grass, I couldn't be sure. Nothing to be done but to put down some membrane and wait. 

It was down for about 8 weeks in total, and the last week of November saw me lifting the cover and starting to fork the earth over. It shifted easily but I soon started uncovering some rather disturbing looking growths, like long brown wizened fingers coming up from under the earth. 


Freaked out yet? I was, slightly, until the penny dropped. Yes, these were asparagus roots! A quick google confirmed it. And the fact that you're not supposed to disturb them. Bugger. I quickly covered the back over and moved delicately over the rest of the bed, managing to clear the dead weeds from the surface of about half of it. Keep your fingers crossed for 'gras please. 

Remarkably, some of the wild flower and anemone seeds I'd planted were still throwing out flowers right up to the end of November. It's extraordinary how mild it's been - there is even the occasional bee, looking bewildered and even more bumbling than usual. 



And that's me done there for the year. I'm trying not to fret about having to leave the plot for so long and, no doubt, after the op, I'll be too busy recovering to worry about it. But I shall miss this place, nonetheless. It has given me such pleasure and solace over lockdown. A place to breathe properly, to get some peace and space. It'll still be there, waiting for me, when I can get to it though. Bindweed and all. 

Friday, December 4, 2020

All I Want for Christmas?

 A decision of the utmost kind was made last week as we decided not to go for a tree this year. Part of me hates this but part of me is also glad. Mabel has grown to the length of a roadside atlas but she still, judging by the way she tries to sit on my chest in the morning, thinks she is tiny and palm-sized. Knowing her nature, there is no way she'd resist getting up inside a tree. And knowing Christmas trees, there is no way it would still be upright every morning.  

It felt like a level of stress we could do without this year. 

So instead, I treated myself to some tiny lights strung on copper wire to decorate the bookshelves. This weekend, I may hang some baubles from curtain rails, as well as some more lights. Candles are dotted around and, thanks to the judicious use of museum wax, they can't be knocked over by small, curious  and not at all malevolent paws. 

I shall miss hanging up the dinosaur though. And my Nan's weird 50s polar bear. And continuing the tradition of buying one new ornament a year, started 22 years ago when my son was only 6 months old. But I figure the world will not stop just because I don't buy a novelty glittery sloth clutching a piece of holly. 

Last year, we had our lovely stripy Loki to keep us company. The way he would fall asleep on the tender part of your leg, gradually allowing his full weight (and he was a hefty boy) to turn your limb numb was a real sign of affection. Or cold. It was hard to tell which. 

Sadly he went to the great sandbox in the sky just as lockdown #1 bit. Now we have Mabel, who is slender and slight and altogether too flighty for sitting on knees for longer than 2 minutes. She has the attention span of a butterfly and the ears of a bat. I have already purchased her Christmas toy of a pudding on a string with a bell and some feathers. She has no idea what time of year it is but she knows that this pudding must SUBMIT to her will and claws. 

I am feeling rather smug and ahead of myself though: last night I wrote all my Christmas cards, today I shall post them, I've delegated all remaining present buying to N as I've finished getting what I need from the shops (my side of the family is all done *smug level increasing*). I even found time to buy myself a stack of secondhand books, but then, the world could be burning and I'd still find time to nip into a bookshop. 

The cats are currently out of their tiny minds with joy as I'm making pompoms for a door wreath (oh yes, the whimsy is strong in this one). For every 2 I make for the door, I make one for them to bat around and tear apart with all the ferocity of a lion attacking a wildebeest on the Serengeti. 

 
N reminded me yesterday, with the gift of flowers, that we are now exactly 18 months into living here. A time that has both flown by and stretched out to eclipse all other time. I can remember we lived separately and in different places, it just feels like another lifetime ago. 

Partly this is down to my own ill health. Beset by a number of ailments that doctors either scratched their heads over or snorted and told me to stop being dramatic, it has not been the easiest of 18 months. BUT. I am from sturdy Lancashire stock: lying around bemoaning my fate is Not Allowed and would probably make the assorted Doris's and Gladys's in my genealogy spin so hard in their graves, buildings would topple. So I am looking for answers and cures where I can providing no one uses the phrases "clean eating", "crystal therapy" or "this tea tasting like manure will really detox your liver". 

So today I see a nutritional therapist and on the 22nd I go into hospital to have a part of me removed that's responsible for some of the problems. Merry Christmas! 

This obviously means self-isolating for 2 weeks (from next Tuesday) and then not being fit enough for the usual round of families etc. Do you know what? I am completely happy with this. My op is at a small private hospital 10 minutes away (it was that or the choice of 2 huge public hospitals 40 minutes away), which means N can get to wave through the window on a daily basis - although I suspect I'll be booted out by Christmas Day - and then, oh then!, I get to REST. 

Oh yes friends, REST. Properly, staying in bed, no-lifting-heavier-than-a-kettle, no gallivanting, REST. After the 1st 2 weeks, Covid situation allowing, I can welcome visitors to my bedside with an air of regal suffering. I shall be gracious in my acceptance of gifts and good wishes with an air of benevolent, plucky elegance. 

Plus I shall off my face on some massive painkillers, so you know, it's all good.


 

Thursday, December 3, 2020

My week in ... Smell

December has landed with a squelch today with the rain falling steadily since the early hours and showing no sign of letting up. I made my final dash for some Christmas shopping during my lunchbreak and came back with an additional pile of books to see me through to January. Possibly even February, who knows.

It does mean that a corner of my bedroom now smells like an old bookshop, which frankly, if it was sold in a cologne, I'd buy.

And with that so-neat-you-nearly-didn't-see-it segue, here is my week of smells...

 A booze-laden Christmas cake, made by my Mum. Covered with a decent coating of marzipan and a layer of icing so thick, it makes your gums tingle. The smell of the fruit, the brandy and the almonds is almost too good to resist (in fact, it hasn't been resisted...)

Scented candles from my son's new start up. I'm burning Mocha in the bedroom, Toffee Apple in the bathroom and Roast Pumpkin in the living room. They smell amazing all the way down to the bottom. 

New pyjamas, freshly washed and folded away with bits of lavender between them. I go for surgery on the 22nd December and want decent, cosy pyjamas to while away my January from the bed as I recover. 

Mabel's fur after she'd been out on a cold and frosty morning. I am slightly obsessed. 

Leaf mould, moss and turned earth at the allotment. I'm in full on rush mode as I try to get everything done before I have to self-isolate. 

That wonderful fresh fruit and veg smell from a nearby farmshop. I love it there and this was probably my last visit before I have to self-isolate. It smells so much better than supermarkets with their pumped in "fresh" bread smell. 

Basil, chopped and scattered into the tomato sauce on my homemade pizza. A blast of summer to the nose. 

The Shed Makes An Appearance

Saturday was a very momentous (can something be "very momentous"? Surely the "momentous" cancels out the "very"...