Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The kitchen

It’s funny what being ill does to you. A bout of something gastricky and chilly hit last Thursday, and left me shattered and without an appetite for the entire weekend.

No food at all on Friday, as I tried to starve it away, and then little the following two days.

But that’s not to say that the mind didn’t drift to matters culinary. Culinary and nostalgic.

I might not have been hungry, but I still found myself craving something: current buns, well toasted and buttered.

That was a Sunday breakfast when I was growing up.

And as I lay in bed, tired but unsleeping, my mind drifted back to those mornings and to the kitchen in Mossley. For some reason, it’s the only kitchen I remember clearly from any of the houses we lived in: possibly because, although it was not the last home I shared with my parents by some years, it was the longest we spent anywhere.

It was painted a bright yellow. At least I think it was; if memory serves me correctly. Yet it was a stark room in other ways. L-shaped; square, with a narrow bit leading to the back door that was partly filled with an old sideboard, stuffed with various things, from notebooks with family recipes in to a box for keeping money-saving coupons in place. My sister and I had made that, cutting down some used box and then covering it in a montage of food pictures clipped from magazines and coated with sticky-back plastic: these were our Blue Peter days.

A bay window looked out over a strip of grass and beyond to the drive that sloped up steeply from the road to the left and then leveled off to lead to the garage. A garage that was never used for the car, but spent eight years as a storage area for … well, for all the things my family could never quite bring themselves to part with, lest they ‘come in’.

The wooden garage door was a dulled emerald green: I spent many an hour playing football against it, practicing how to use the inside of my foot to control the ball rather than simply toe-poking it; hints learned from watching Bobby Charlton’s skills programmes during school holidays.

One evening, my mother, my sister and I stood at the kitchen window, watching as a mother hedgehog led her young in single file up the drive and behind the shed into our rather unkempt garden.

My father barely did any work in it. Admittedly, he was ill a lot of the time – he battled on with work, but there was no chance that he would do such additional jobs.

I’d weed the drive occasionally and, later, clip the hedge that bounded the drop into next door’s garden. Everything was slopes; drops and rises.

There were a couple each of blackcurrent and gooseberry bushes. I remember my mother as making a decent shortcrust pastry – perhaps because it required more of a pragmatic approach to cooking than one of flair. We’d harvest the berries, and the rhubarb that grew in a corner, and she’d make pies and crumbles.

You came up the drive and turned right along the shortest wall of the house; right again and you were at the door of the old outhouse. Papers were stored there, ready for the scouts to come and collect. I slipped in there a couple of times when my parents couldn't see and furtively ripped out topless pictures from the Saturday 'Football Pink', hiding them away.Oh Gillian Duxbury, I still remember you.

Then back into the kitchen through the door next to the outhouse. Not a kitchen for learning to cook in – although it was the kitchen I first prepared a meal in, one day when I was about 16, when my parents were away for a night (visiting a new prospective parish, I think). It was the first time we’d been left to fend for ourselves. I think my mother had bought something like Bird’s Eye frozen pies. with tinned potatoes and sweetcorn for me to heat for my sister and myself.

When they returned, they gave me a copy of William Horwood’s Duncton Wood (I was obsessed with fantasy at the time), inscribed with a note saying that it was for not burning the house down.

When I come to think of it, that was like so much else: it was so often greeted as an entirely unexpected surprise when I turned out to be able to do something.

The kitchen sink stood in the bay window. I looked over the blank drive as I scraped new potatoes or prepped sprouts or dried the dishes (never washing them).

The oven was to the right and a twin tub washing machine behind on that side: a vast device that lasted decades (with occasional repairs) and had to be hauled out every Monday, helping mark that as an entire day lost to the laundry.

I think of Monday evenings as egg-and-chip nights. Or of re-warmed pork pies from Cakebread, a local baker, served with baked beans.

And Saturday mornings, with banana sandwiches for breakfast, then toasted buns on Sunday and both to the sound of Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart on the radio. Peter, Paul and Mary, The Seekers ...

For all its garish yellow walls, it had something impersonal about it, institutionalised almost. There was nowhere to sit; it was not a room for socialising but for work, for chores.

Time distorts. And memory is elastic.

Some of what I’ve described I’m surer of than other things.

It’s funny what you remember sometimes; what stays with you.

And how, even when you’re not actually hungry, you can crave toasted buns with butter.

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