Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The big picture

And breathe. We are getting into our summer groove. Breakfast happens around two hours later than on a school day, we take things at our own pace and gradually there are more and more beautiful moments, the kind that I had hoped for when I had a baby in my belly. Every year I dread the summer holidays; every year it comes good.

Daughter asks if I will lie with her in bed one evening, the room lit by fairy lights, a girl fragrant, warm and soft after her bath. We spend the next ten minutes taking turns inflating our cheeks and letting the other squeeze the air out. I pass her her book and she happily immerses herself in it. A minute or two later she looks over at me and says "Isn't this lovely?". And it is; she is quite right.

All sitting round the kitchen table, colouring, cutting, glueing, making. And a new version of a scene that has been played many times at that table: boy draws and draws, gets cross that something is not as good as the vision he had in his head, and roars from frustration, starts again. After the third roar, I suggest that if it's making him really cross, maybe it might be good to have a break and do something else. The new ending: "No Mum, I'm persevering". Ten minutes later he interrupts my cooking to show me the final version, the one he's pleased with.

Playing in the woods, gathering leaves, sticks, finding treasure: bones, pieces of china, a piece of rock sparkling with crystals. Going home, stripping off muddy clothes, gulping down drinks, a big washing up bowl full of soapy water for cleaning feet in and also for scrubbing the treasure until it's glistening.

And in the spare time, I finally manage to succeed. I send an email to apologise that the quilt will be another week, that there are so many loose ends of threads to sew in and that time is so short. That evening I check it all over and am surprised to see they are almost all done; the quilt is so huge that it hasn't been possible to view the whole thing as I'm going along. A reminder to look at the big picture more often.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

The sexiest bowl of food

I knew I'd got used to solitude a bit too much. But just how much I'd got used to it has been a bit of a shock. The children have been finished with school for just over a week, which might not sound long to you, or to husband, who doesn't quite get why I look a bit haggard by the time he gets home after 7 each night. But I have a son who just has to make a noise of some sort from the moment he wakes up until the time his eyes roll up into his head at bedtime. It might be an imitation of a motorbike or a plane, a fact about an anaconda, a bad joke, a complaint about his sister, or it could be the noise of a foot kicking a chair, or a burp, or a lot of huffing and grunting if he's in a bad mood (which he often is if the sister has anything to do with it). So I find myself craving silence. Or craving just some loud music coming from my iPod to bring me back to life with no other interruptions. Ah, it just occurs to me why one of my favourite playlists is one I concocted last summer entitled "3rd September"; I must start a new one.

And the time all gets sucked up into nothing. I assumed the quilt would be done, but no, still tying up ends and sewing them in every evening. Pictures will be there soon. Next week?

I did a little stupid something recently. Something so stupid, so embarrassingly inappropriate that I can't tell you about it. But it was really stupid. You know how sometimes you can convince yourself things will be better if you utter things out loud, rather than bottling them up, when actually they would probably have gone away if you'd just kept your mouth shut? Well it's one of those things. Please don't ask me, because I won't ever tell you. But it's the sort of thing that, when I manage to uncurl my toes, makes me think of chocolate and comfort food.

So now I finally have some silence now the children have gone to bed and husband has gone out to try out his new bike. It's actually not quite silent, as there is the whirring of the oven fan, but the smell more than makes up for it. I'm making something I discovered recently, quite the sexiest foodstuff I've eaten for a long time. Many years ago I had some raspberry chocolates from a shop called Wittamer in Brussels and they were very very memorable. This isn't far off from that memory, and tonight I'm hoping that, still warm, cuddled up in a bowl in a gooey embrace with some Haagen Dazs salted caramel ice cream, I might have hit the pinnacle of chocolate and raspberry lusciousness. This is the first time I've ever given you a recipe that I haven't altered in any way. Thanks to BBC Good Food website.

Chocolate and Raspberry Brownies

100g dark chocolate, broken up
50g milk chocolate, broken up
125g salted butter
200g soft light brown sugar
2 large eggs
70g plain flour
25g cocoa
100g raspberries

Before I start, let me tell you two things that sadden me about this... the eggs that I've used are from our chicken share. We had 25 chickens but on two separate occasions, despite electric fences, a fox came and did the dirty with them, and as of yesterday there is only one left, and a miserable broody one at that. So I'm feeling sad about using up the eggs from those lovely chickens and sad about the prospect of buying supermarket eggs for a while until they get replaced. Ditto with the cocoa, which came from our lovely holiday in Rome; once it's gone that's another holiday to be consigned to memories only. Big sigh.

Anyway here's the recipe: Preheat the oven to 180 degrees or gas mark 4. Put the chocolate, butter and sugar in a pan and heat the mixture until it's melted, stirring every so often. Take off the heat and stir in the eggs one at a time, thinking sad thoughts about the chickens. Stir in the flour and cocoa (hey I did alter the recipe, which said to sieve them, but life is way too short for sieving anything). Stir in half the raspberries, smushing them up a bit, and pour the mixture into a tin lined with baking parchment. My tin is 26 x 20cm. Then arrange the rest of the raspberries over the top and bake for 30 minutes. Cool and then cut into squares. Or cut into squares when it's still at blood temperature and envelope in some melting salted caramel ice cream...

Thursday, 16 July 2015

The New Year's Eve Chrysalis

I think I've written before about the way that since the children have been at school, this time of year always feels like New Year's Eve. I loathe the real New Year's Eve with all its maudlin contemplation of passing time, getting older and "What have you achieved this year?" self-questioning, and so, if ever possible, I try and avoid it and stay at home, going to bed at the usual time in an attempt to pretend it's not happening; but at this time of year, at the end of the academic year, I really can't put my head in the sand. Sorry to those people who complain that I sound too miserable in my blog posts (spoiler: keep reading, it does get a lot better), but I can't deny it: it is a moment to feel a certain sadness for time lost. Moving on from people close to my heart, missed opportunities, bungled chances. Was it Sisyphus who every day pushed the big rock up to the top of the mountain, only for it to roll down again?

This year it's a trying one. The children have become little frayed knots full of exhaustion, frustration and upset. Both indignant that their sibling is still breathing and, worse, seemingly getting a better deal than themselves, and then distraught that the sibling doesn't want to play with them. We all need a holiday so badly. It seems unlikely that we can all spend the next four weeks together without some spontaneous combustion, before I can find myself floating once more in the sea in my favourite part of Brittany, dreaming of langoustines and pastries so buttery that grease drips down your chin as you are eating.

And there's no denying that there have been some really testing times recently. Waiting in all day for a new king-sized mattress, only for it to arrive at the very end of the timeslot and the two burly men refuse to take it up the stairs because their insurance won't cover it. Imagine over 20 minutes of heaving, pushing, pulling, sweating and panting to get something around a foot too big for the gap it has to squeeze through into your bedroom. A very birth-like experience. I hear Ikea will exchange it if there are any issues with it within the first 90 days, but I fear the only way it is leaving this house now is if it gets hacked to pieces by a woman enraged during the summer holidays.

A hangover on a hot day, only eclipsed by husband's hangover and bad temper, plus a deadline to take some pictures to an open exhibition for handing-in day. Two children moaning all the way there. The realisation that I'd misread the instructions and got the wrong fixings on the back of one of the pictures so it couldn't be accepted. And ultimately the other one wasn't selected either. This art lark is such a damned rollercoaster.

And then the high: ta daa! I've just been accepted at the University of Bristol for my MA in Translation! How lovely. It's easy to believe that I have lost a lot of my brain power, with two children and a husband all talking at me about different things at the same time, and never being able to complete my train of thought, so it's really very heartwarming indeed to be validated in this way: if I could get myself together enough to do two test translations (one of which is in a language I really haven't spoken for 20 years) and an 1500-word essay with references as part of my application, and then get through, it's as close to biological proof as I'll ever get that I still have my marbles.

So this New Year's Eve might well be about moving on from some of the old and then out of my chrysalis to reveal a brand new me. I am trying to tie up the loose ends and finish a few other things off before term ends so I can start afresh in September. Which brings me nicely on to the quilt I've been making for someone (literally tying up loose ends and sewing them in). I had hoped to finish this, well, several months ago but things have got in the way. Then I had hoped to finish it before the end of term this Friday but the last metre of backing fabric was stuck in the midst of a German postal strike until last Wednesday. I've done my darndest but I think it will be next week now. I will take some photos when it's completely finished but for now here are some details... This is an enormous, glorious technicolor quilt built from love and it has babys' clothes, 1950's pinnies (apparently worn with chagrin by someone who hadn't been allowed to go to university - I can feel the pain; it is so good to have chopped those up for something better), old pillowcases, cross-stitched napkins, well-worn charity shop blouses, sarongs harking back to distant worldwide sojourns, jam pot covers, circles and spots galore... take a peek!

Thursday, 2 July 2015


A hard few days. Terrible overbearing heat and humidity making the easiest tasks feel like mountains and sweat dripping off my nose as I return up the hill from the school run. Then a day of showers, eternal dusk and goosepimples (or goosebumps, is it a regional term? The ridicule I get from my family for calling them pimples rather than bumps is never ending). 

The frustration of wanting to finish the most beautiful eye-popping quilt before the end of the school term (11 working days, yikes) but having to wait for the post to bring the final metre of backing fabric all the way from Germany. Yes, pictures will follow soon but for now I am keeping it under wraps.

The anticipation to hear whether I'm going to be let in to Bristol University for my MA or whether I accept my offer from Portsmouth. The impatience of wanting so badly to start the course and get my brain into action but having to wait until September. 

The eternal ironing pile, turning into a permanent fixture in the corner of the living room, reminding me of my failure to ever be a decent housewife. 

The broken friendship that I am powerless to mend, the unfathomable origin of the first cracks, a black cloud overshadowing nearly every school run, forcing two highly intelligent adults with a lot in common to resort to childishly pretending the other one doesn't exist. God I would so like to solve that one.

Every so often it helps to ignore it all, go back into myself and shout "Knickers!" to it all. Or "Pants!" - I'm not sure which is most effective. Today I did just that. Daughter has been asking for some time when I would be making up the kit she got me for my birthday and today was the day. There is nothing so life-affirming as the acquisition of a new skill. I've never wrestled with elastic before. My day always always ALWAYS feels better when I've made something.

Would you like to see my knickers?