And so the coronavirus continues.
The two-weekly challenges have proved to be a hit with the group’s members. So much so, a new page has been started to make reading the entries easier.
Two-weekly Challenge: week 4
Start a story in the middle of the action. Do not be tempted to go back to tell how the situation began. This is all about SHOW not TELL.
Congratulations to Margaret Smith on winning this week’s challenge with her piece “Trust”. You can read her work here……….
My toe tests the area for a safer position. There must be something, a niche or a ledge? Any relief for my frantic fingers, as they clutch to hold my body from falling. Where’s the drain pipe? Gutters lead to corners don’t they? Where did I begin my slide from the roof? My trigger finger rigid in its position shoots pain through my hand. My arms are pulling out of their sockets. Dare I take one arm away for a second? Tiles rain down from the roof punishing my stupidity. It can only be seconds before I fall. Panic dances through me as I imagine what is to come.
Help Help. My fingers loosen.
Bricks blur before my eyes as I pass the landing window, the lounge ones and the ground accelerates towards me. Crunch something warm and squidgy underneath me groans and shudders. I feel it move to disentangle itself. My legs entwined with two strange ones hurt and I can feel fiery scrapes down my shins from the bricks. I lay angled over someone else’s body.
“Hey luv when you’re ready I could do with you getting off me”
He squirms underneath me, wriggling free from my torso. A burly figure towers over, peering at this crumpled heap. A warm liquid oozes underneath which I hope is blood but is more likely to add to my embarrassment.
“Are you ok luv? That was quite a trick you did. Good job I came round to check on the job!”
Winded, trembling and mortified I look up into the face of Danny the roofer. He is the most handsome, smiling and welcome face EVER: my saviour and knight. The rescuer of the moment , caused by my feeble attempts to solve the problem on the roof. I push aside the damning thoughts that he’d left the job half done, leaving me in the lurch! His dubious excuses fell on deaf ears but he is here now.
“Can you get up luv?”
Like a beached whale, I roll over onto my knees and clamber up.
“What the heck were you doing up on the roof, the job isn’t finished is it. What did you hope to do?” He laughs as he helps me into the house and sits me down.
“Cuppa tea is what we need. Mind if I get it? You sit there and get your breath.”
Shaking hands hold the warm tea as I collect my wits. How do I explain my thoughts that led me to be on the roof? I expected to be able to see the holes and broken tiles from the sky light window. Stan the replacement roofer had assured me anyone could see the repair was large and urgent. He would have got the job there and then if his quote hadn’t been so exorbitant. Just because I am a woman I wasn’t going to accept the new sum.
“I can’t thank you enough Danny for what you did. I only meant to look through the sky light, I wriggled out more than I intended.” My words are pathetic. I think he knows the truth. I don’t trust workmen.
Perhaps if the third roofer who looked at the job hadn’t made such a fuss showing me the ridge tiles broken in his hands I might have been less suspicious. I was sure I couldn’t trust him. You hear of cowboy builders taking advantage all the time. I wasn’t going to be his next victim. I would look for myself.
“Danny is it possible you could finish the work? I can trust you.”
My words hang in humility.
“I always intended to missis. My wife’s back now her mum’s recovered. God my kids need a lot of looking after, I’m glad to be back doing my own job.”
I didn’t really believe it was happening. I was hanging from the balcony, holding on for dear life, not even daring to look down. It was like one of those Hollywood films, when I always shut my eyes. Twelve storeys up on a skyscraper, above the canyon that was Fifth Avenue, or Broadway, or one of those New York streets; the yellow cabs, the Chevrolets and Cadillacs like toys way down, down in the abyss. And I was invisible, like a fly on that wall of cement and glass. No one looked up. Their eyes were all focused straight ahead, in their own private worlds in the midst of bustle and traffic.
My arms were throbbing, my knuckles white, and I could feel the sweat dripping down the back of my neck. I felt disorientated, my brain a fog, panic setting in. My breath was coming in strange little sobs. I knew I couldn’t hold on much longer. All I could think was that when they found me I’d be wearing my new dress. It was black, sleeveless, like Audrey Hepburn’s in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Only an hour ago I was in the salon having my makeup done. The colour of my nails was Tropical Embrace. I was going to make a beautiful corpse.
Then I heard a voice from down below. ‘Are you all right, duck? I think you’ve dropped your phone.’
The voice brought me back to my senses and my brain started to function again. My phone! My new phone, top of the range, that took pin-sharp photos, had bounced against the balcony and was lying smashed on the ground.
And I wasn’t in New York – of course I wasn’t. I was here in Nottingham, clinging to my own balcony on the third floor. High enough, but there was grass down below, and the man calling to me was the gardener.
‘Of course I’m not all right! Can’t you do something …?’
Another person joined him, peering upwards and waving inanely. ‘Don’t jump! It’ll all be fine. Nothing’s as bad as you think, it really isn’t!’
What was she talking about? I wasn’t committing suicide, for God’s sake. ‘Look over there,’ I yelled. ‘The kids’ trampoline – can’t you drag it over …?’
I shut my eyes and let go. It seemed everlasting, but it must only have been about a couple of seconds before I crashed down on to the trampoline, twisting my ankle and ripping my lovely dress in the process. I wouldn’t be going on that date this evening after all.
And I certainly wouldn’t be sitting on the edge of my balcony to take a selfie ever again.
TRAPPED IN THE WARDROBE
There I was, at the back of the wardrobe which was where I always went when I wanted to visit Narnia.
However, this time there was no Narnia, just the wooden boards of the back of the wardrobe. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t able to enter Narnia. I pushed at the boards. Nothing. I hammered them with my fist. Again, nothing. I cried out, calling my friends’ names, but no answers came.
My head dropped, my shoulders sagged, and I became very sad. Was the magic gone forever? Was I never to see Narnia or my friends ever again? A tear welled up in my eye.
I turned to exit the wardrobe, and pushed my way through the suits and coats, but as I reached the closed wardrobe doors, it suddenly became very cold, as cold as Narnia at the time of the Snow Queen.
I became excited again, turned around, and went to the back of the wardrobe once more, convinced that I would see the cold snow covered land of Narnia with that lamppost in the middle of the forest glade. But no. There was nothing but the back boards, just like a few moments ago.
Suddenly I became frightened. This didn’t make sense. The extreme cold had now pervaded the whole wardrobe, so much so that I put on one of my mother’s fur coats.
I couldn’t understand this sudden intense cold. What I did realise though, was that the cold was coming in from outside of the wardrobe. That made me very nervous. ‘How could the bedroom get so cold in such a short time?’ I wondered.
I decided that it probably wasn’t a great idea to open the doors. Something was obviously not right. All my instincts, honed by my earlier adventures in Narnia, were now telling me to be very cautious.
I stood by the inside of the wardrobe door and held my breath. I listened intensely. I could sense that there was something in the room, something that shouldn’t be there.
I put my ear to the door.
I could definitely sense danger. No! Not danger. Evil!
I thought I could hear some slow and deliberate quiet breathing, with long pauses between the breaths.
I’d heard about a creature that breathes very slowly before, but could not remember where, or how, I’d learned about this. I racked my brain searching for the answer, but it would not come. Yet I knew it was malevolent, and that feeling kept increasing. There was a foul breath associated with this soft, slow breathing cycle, so soft that I could hardly detect it. It was vile. I wanted to cough, but dare not. Whatever was outside must not realise that I was in the wardrobe, or I was a goner. Of that I was sure!
But I was stuck here and I really didn’t know what to do next. I daren’t move, make a noise of any sort, nor dare I open the wardrobe doors.
I slid slowly down to the floor, the fur coat muffling any sound I might have made. I sat with my back to the side wall of the wardrobe, knees bent up so that the fur coat would cover all of my body but my head, and here I sat thinking that there were many times in Narnia when we had to rack our brains to get out of a predicament like this.
That gave me hope, steadied my nerves, and gave me a quiet determination to win through.
I watched my breath vaporising in the cold air, then settle on the clothes like a sort of morning dew.
It was hypnotising. Or was it? Maybe it was hypothermia setting in? That leads to sleepiness, and I was definitely feeling drowsy.
‘Got to stay awake!’ I told myself, and shook my head. As I did so I knocked my skull against the side of the wardrobe making a banging noise. My heart leapt. I was instantly scared stiff. And rightly so, for I heard whatever was outside, stir, walk towards the door, and sniff. Its stinking breath came though the crack between the doors, vaporised and mingled with mine. Revolting! But not let’s worry about that, because I was expecting the doors to fly open at any moment, but they didn’t. The creature snorted and seemed to settle down on the floor outside, rather like a cat or dog curling up, I imagined.
That made me somewhat more alert. What if?… No, surely not… But… what if?… What if it couldn’t come into the wardrobe? Could that be possible? But what could be stopping it? ‘Think!’ I said to myself. ‘What kind of creature do I know that cannot cross a certain line? A vampire? It would certainly be very wary if there were a cross, silver bullet or a bulb of garlic endangering its existence. But that’s stupid. It can’t be a vampire. What else is frightened of crossing a certain line? A devil at Heaven’s Gate? ‘Oh, I give up! I can’t think of any more!’ I said to myself and found my train of thought taking me nowhere.
Then, suddenly, I remembered a mythical creature that had been mentioned by Jadis, the White Witch in Narnia.
‘What did she call it? A Quig? No that’s not it. A Queern? No that’s not it either. It’s something like that.’ I’m sure it began with the letter ‘Q’; I was positive in fact. I became convinced that I was onto something. If only I could remember what she called it. Then I remembered if it caught you, its bite would send you into fits and make you forget who you are, and what you are doing. Was this the creature outside? A hairless dog with a fearful muzzle, very slow breathing, and which is very skilled at stalking its prey. The only hair on this dog were tufts of course hair on its ears, tail, feet and muzzle. Yet, remarkably, this naked creature lived in extreme cold. However, it would only hunt you if it saw you. Although it sniffed a lot, it had no real sense of smell, so it was necessary for it to see you in order to attack you, and if it did see you, you would certainly be close to suffering those aforementioned unholy fits, as well as visiting the most diabolical parts of hell.
And then I recalled that the only way to get rid of this creature, was to confront it, and shout out its name.
But I couldn’t remember its name!’
I was on the verge of tears. I was sure I was onto something, but I needed that name. I became exhausted, and my head drooped, and I dreamt. I dreamt of this creature. It was exactly as I had described it. Its skin was normally grey and white, but could blend chameleon like with its surroundings, making it very difficult to see.
In my dream Jadis was speaking about the creature and as she did so, she spoke its name! ‘Qiyaba!’ she said, ‘an Inuit monster, skittish, but crafty, clever and evil.’
I awoke with a start.
‘That’s it! Qiyaba! That’s it!’
I was so sure that I was right that I leapt up, and with my eyes closed, I violently pushed open the wardrobe doors, and shouted that name as loudly as I could, “QIYABA’!
There was no response. No sound was returned. The room was still cold, but quiet. But was it empty? I couldn’t smell anything unusual. I couldn’t hear any breathing. I heard no other sound. My confidence grew. I slowly opened my eyes, urgently praying, that whatever had been in the room, was no longer there. I could see nothing! I was elated. I felt reassured, and I burst into uncontrollable tears of relief. It was the release of all that fear and stress.
And then fate stepped in. At that precise moment, I recollected something else that Jadis had told us about the Qiyaba, and that was, if you were looking directly at it, you wouldn’t be able to see it. You could only see it out of the corner of your eye!
Suddenly all my fears and anxieties returned. I was gripped by terror once more. In desperation, I decided to try and use my peripheral vision to confirm that the coast was clear, and so I turned my head slowly to the right, and then to the left, keeping my eyes firmly fixed forward to enable the peripheral vision to come into play, and, to my horror, it was then that I saw it! There it was. The Qiyaba, crouching, glaring at me, and ready to pounce!
I tried to shout out its name once more, but my intense fear had taken away my ability to speak. No sound came from my wide open mouth, not even a scream!
I could see the Qiyaba’s strong, muscular hind legs primed, ready for that forthcoming leap towards me. Its lips were drawn back showing its blue gums, and saliva dripped from its yellow fangs, as, once more, it breathed out that noxious, stinking breath, making me wretch.
Then it inhaled, very slowly, and I realised that this was the precursor to its lunge.
The Qibaya left the ground, and was vaulting towards me, at head height. My eyes bulged. My heart raced. My body stiffened. And my brain went into automatic mode, for I heard myself screech at the top of my voice,
as the creature approached my face.
There followed a terrible, heart wrenching shriek from the creature as it made a U turn in mid air, its body arched like a horseshoe, and it retreated at stupendous speed, letting out a continuous, mournful howl, as if it were heading back to its evil Lord and Master for some hideous unknown punishment.
It grew smaller and smaller as it drew away, and, slowly, it disappeared into a distant mist.
It was then that I fainted.
I don’t know how long I was unconscious, but when I came round the bedroom was warm and cosy, with a small fire burning in the grate, just as it should be.
I got up, took off mother’s fur coat and returned it to the wardrobe, combed my hair and straightened and tidied my clothing, and composed myself, before I went downstairs for my evening meal. It was essential that I looked as normal as possible, because, as you already know, nobody is aware of my visits to Narnia, and anyway, they would say I was just imagining things.
©Bob Reader April 2020
(With apologies to C. S. Lewis.)
The Morning After
He pulled himself up to a sitting position and cradled his throbbing head in his hands. “Oh shit!” he said. He pulled the duvet up over his bare chest and saw it had a floral design. This isn’t my duvet! He thought. He tried to focus on the unfamiliar pattern, but it wouldn’t keep still.
“Good morning Brad” said a female voice. “How are you feeling?”
He rubbed his eyes and struggled to make out the fuzzy female face swimming in front of him. “Bertha?” He said, “Big Bertha? Where am I?”.
“You’re in my bed, darling,” she said. “Welcome back to the world, I’ve already had breakfast, but I’ll go and make some for you.”
“NO! I don’t want food anywhere near me.”
“Not feeling quite right yet sweetheart? Perhaps a little drink would help you get over it.”
“A hair of the dog? No thanks. That dog was a Great Dane. I’m never touching alcohol again.”
“I’ve gathered up your clothes darling. You left them in a trail across the hall and into the bedroom. Couldn’t wait to hop into bed, could you?”
By now, the room had stopped spinning and its contents were coming into focus. Brenda eased her bulk down on the edge of the bed. The bed creaked.
“Why am I in your bed?” he asked. “How did I get here?”
“Don’t pretend you don’t remember Brad.”
Vague images swirled in his brain and began to coalesce. People, food, a waiter.
“We were in a restaurant,” he said.
“Of course we were dearest, the whole gang was there, to celebrate Bob’s birthday. You arrived late and you’d already had a few, judging by your behaviour.”
“Oh yes, I think I remember. Was I very far gone?”
“You seemed exhilarated. You were the life and soul of the party.”
“I was? I didn’t misbehave, did I?”
“Well Bob got a bit upset with you. You sat opposite him and he had to ask you to stop ogling his fiancé.”
“Really? Was I ogling her?
“Your tongue was almost hanging out.”
“Well, she is quite…”
“Then you tried to flick peas down her dress.”
“Oh yes, that cleavage was amazing. Like an alpine ravine.”
“When a pea went down there, you leaned over the table and offered to retrieve it. That was when Bob got really angry and tried to punch you.”
Brad felt his nose for any indication of damage.
“Two of the men held him back and we tried to sit you down on your chair, but you fell on the floor. We left you there and tried to ignore you until you started singing. Then everyone decided enough was enough.”
“I stood up and sang?”
“No sweetheart, you sat on the floor and sang.”
A worrying thought crossed Brad’s mind. “What did I sing?” He asked.
“You started with something sentimental that sounded vaguely like “Where have all the flowers gone?” then started a song about the girls of Rottingdean but Bob and one of the others shut you up and marched you outside.”
“They threw me out!”
“They did darling. They were making terrible threats. I was worried, so I followed to make sure they didn’t harm you. They sat you on the pavement and you looked so sad, I thought you were going to cry. I called a taxi to take you home, but the driver wouldn’t let you into his cab alone. I had to promise to come with you and take full responsibility for you. I was happy to do that, so I gave him my address. When we were nearly here, it was obvious you were about to puke, so the driver refused to take us any further. We got out and found a bench to sit on, so you could recover. We looked up at the stars sparkling high above us and I held you tight to stop you falling off the bench. It was so romantic, and you nibbled my ear and said some lovely things to me.”
“Oh yes, don’t pretend you’ve forgotten. You opened your heart to me.”
“You made me so happy, telling me your true feelings, because I’d felt the same way for ages, but I’d never dared tell you. I didn’t think you were interested. I’d tried to give you signals but you’d never responded.”
“It was wonderful to hear that I was the only girl you ever really wanted.”
“And then you said the words I’d been longing to hear. It made my heart leap darling, so we rushed here as fast as I could drag you.”
“And did I… I mean did we… Well…”
“Oh yes, Big Boy, we did! It probably wasn’t your best ever performance, but I was amazed you could manage it at all in your state. Under the circumstances, you performed magnificently. And now my love, we’re going to enjoy a wonderful future together. We’ll never be parted. I’m so happy, I want to tell all our friends about it.”
“Oh, don’t do that just yet, Bertha. Let’s just keep it as our little secret for now. Actually, on second thoughts you know, I think a little drink might be helpful.”
“I’ve got a bottle of very good brandy. I’ll go and get some for you darling.”
Brad watched her squeeze through the doorway and waddle off down the hall. He sank down and pulled the duvet over his head.
“Oh shit,” he said. “Oh shit, oh shit, OH SHIT!”
Incident on the High Street.
Joan stood with the alarm button tantalisingly close to her hand, but that hand was firmly positioned on the top of her head. Any movement and she, too, would be beaten to the ground like her colleague who had dared to stretch towards their link to the outside world. Now Peter was lying next to her with blood streaming from a gash near his left ear.
“Please, let me try to staunch the wound,” she appealed to the robber, his face distorted by the mask, who was standing over them with a sawn-off shotgun.
He looked at her through the slits and Joan could see the panic in his eyes. This was only a boy pretending to be a hard man. He was out of his depth and desperate which made him emotionally unstable and, therefore, dangerous.
“Get up!” he shouted. “Open that till,” and he indicated to the counter on the other side of the shop.
He watched Joan get up from her knees and he jerked the gun in the direction he wanted her to take.
“Move!” he yelled.
As she hastened to follow his instruction, he turned to the display cases, and, using the butt of his firearm he smashed them one after the other. Fragments of glass bounced in the air catching the harsh sunlight as it streaked in through the display window. He grabbed the jewellery with his free hand. In his rush to grasp what he could there was no distinction between quality and cheap baubles; all were thrown into the open, canvas bag on the floor by his feet.
His attention was now drawn to Joan who had been attempting to open the till but, in her fear, and haste was being too slow for the man’s liking. He jumped over the counter and, grabbing Joan by the arm, he pushed her away and began raiding the till himself. She fell onto the broken glass cutting herself but crawled over towards the now still body of Peter. He lay in an ever-expanding pool of blood.
Joan began to sob for her colleague; a likeable man who had patiently taught her the routines of the small jewellery shop when she had started two years’ ago. She knew he had a wife and two sons at home who would be expecting him to return safely to their house that evening. What a waste of a life.
Joan was so angry that she yelled, “Get out, get out! You’ve got what you wanted. Go!”
To her amazement, the raider grabbed the bag, crunched across the glass and opened the door. As he ran into the road Joan could see that he was surrounded by armed police. She realised then that Peter had managed to press the alarm after all.
Two-weekly Challenge: Week 5
To write about an experience with food
Congratulations to Erica whose piece about her mother’s trifle was selected by Frances as the most evocative piece of writing. Julia’s experience at a Japanese restaurant came second.
My favourite dessert is trifle. Mother would always make a trifle for a special occasion. Every Christmas and birthday, the delicious trifle would sit proudly on a fine lace tablecloth, at the centre of the wooden dining table. The crystal glass trifle bowl lives in my kitchen cupboard. It is seventy years old, still intact, and holds many memories. When I make a trifle, it always makes an appearance.
When I think of my mother’s famous trifle, I can clearly envisage the beautiful layers. Homemade, soft, bouncing, golden jam sponge lines the bowl. Thick, red syrup from the tin of sweet strawberries, with a dash of sherry, is drizzled over the sponge. The sponge is soaked, making it soggy. The strawberries are delicately arranged, covering the total surface. The strawberry jelly is unwrapped and broken into stretched cubes. One silently disappears into a child’s mouth. The jelly is stirred continuously, until it dissolves, then is poured onto the layers, before entering the fridge. A few hours later, a strawberry blancmange is made. No custard, always pink blancmange. When the plump blancmange has set, delicious, white, thick cream is poured over the top of the bowl, then decorated with hundreds and thousands.
The method has never altered, it is always blancmange. Our eldest son occasionally makes a trifle, insisting on pink blancmange. It is quite a challenge to find blancmange in the shops. Thick, wobbly blancmange isn’t as popular as it used to be. The four grandchildren have all tasted the families trifle. As it is spooned into the dishes, they lick their lips, their eyes following every move. It is quickly eaten, some splattered onto the tablecloth, then smudged with a sticky finger. More cold blancmange slips into their mouths, followed by thick cream, leaving circles around their lips. The smell of the succulent strawberries linger. As they scrape their dishes clean, a voice whispers.
“Can we have some more please?”
FISH AND CHIPS
Strips of gold, man made from Maris Piper potatoes, with crispy edges and soft insides, sit in front of me, next to a matching mass of aureate batter bubbles, covering a generous fillet of cod, all freshly taken out of the fryer, and put straight on to the plate sitting in front of me.
I lightly salt these new born chips, and then sprinkle malt vinegar over them, the smell of which, always gets my gastric juices flowing.
A small helping of emerald green, mushy peas, (known as ‘petit pois purée’ down South), sit alongside the fish, and on a side plate there is a slice of soft processed bread, covered in the local farmer’s sunshine butter.
And of course, there’s the must-have cup of tea to round the meal off.
I pick up my knife and fork and as I slice into the fish, the crunch of the fresh batter is like the opening of a great symphony.
My fork is lifted to my mouth, and the smell of the large flakes of cod, in its aromatic batter, complimented by the condiments’ smells, all contribute to my forthcoming pleasure, and the symphonic fireworks of my first mouthful.
A square cut chip with delicately rough edges, and a firm, soft, white interior, is the introduction of the first solo instrument into the opening movement of my symphony of the sea, and is a second successive sensation of pleasure, in my mouth.
‘Eating, music, love, are three of the great pleasures of life’ I say to myself as I swallow the perfectly masticated first mouthful of fish and chip.
A sip of exquisitely brewed tea follows.
My fork then heads for the marrow fat, mushy peas, emerald in colour, countryside green in flavour, and gorgeously gooey in texture.
Another couple of chips is accompanied by a bite out of a slice of the bread and sunshine butter. The butter melts in the warmth of my mouth, and, with the bread and chips already under my palate, creates an unplanned butty, helped by my massaging tongue, and the movement of my mandibles, it becomes a magnificently tasty mouthful, which pleasures me further.
The murmur of the other diners, and the clatter of their cutlery, adds to the atmosphere, and pleasure of our meal. There is something magical in the tacit sharing of a meal in a restaurant, with people one doesn’t know, which somehow enhances one’s own enjoyment of one’s own meal.
Nobody in my party is saying much except, ‘This is gorgeous. Best fish and chip restaurant in town., Fabulous!’, and pleasurable noises like ‘ mmm’ are frequently uttered.
The meal progresses, and the food gradually disappears, magic mouthful by magic mouthful, to eventually reveal empty white plates, and exhausted matching tea cups.
The placing together of my knife and fork on the empty plate, and the final use of my napkin to wipe my lips, are the closing bars of this symphony of satiated appetite, perpetual relish, and unbridled joy, and as I rise from my chair to leave the restaurant, I am thinking that I must come here again, soon!
© Bob Reader April 2020
What a Dish
The steam wafts up to my nose causing my stomach to heave in response. I don’t know what the dessert is but I know it contains warmed milk. The dread envelopes me and I struggle to control the impulse to escape.
A white dish now sits before me on the table alongside seven others for the enjoyment of my fellow companions. Lunch at our school is a time to endure, served and strictly monitored by the Sisters of Mercy. Though I can expect little mercy for my objection to the food served.
The pale sludge shimmers over its surface in the dish. Small maggot like shapes peep through at intervals of differing sizes and shapes vying for my attention through the white milk. I push my spoon gently around to break up the mass but they slide around rearing up as living beings.
Inside I am screaming to be released from this purgatory if only I had a voice. Little attention seemed to be given to the idea of allergies or preferences for these post war years or the children who suffered. The inability to digest milk from birth followed me through the school years. In infant school I was marched out to the front of the assembly hall as an example of bad behaviour, refusing to drink the free milk provided. Now it was followed by senior school dinner problems. I wished not to explain but only to conform.
“Margaret, what are you waiting for? Tapioca pudding is a treat, eat it up dear.” I lift my spoon pushing the slime onto its tip and raise it upwards. Is there anyway to drop it or better still the whole dish. I know there will be a replacement waiting.
It reaches my mouth and slithers past my teeth onto my taste buds. I gag and retch but swallow. It is everything I thought it would be and much more. The texture of the creamy lumps as they wriggle and slither around my mouth disgust and revolt me. The warm milk that is a comfort to many elicits a loathing that will last a lifetime.
A swish of the black penguin like garment of Sister Mary has moved onto the next table to ensure their enjoyment and compliance. Restored a little with a furtive swig of water, I look up and spy my saviour.
Millicent is gulping down spoon after spoon of the sickening substance in quick succession. Seven pairs of eyes are watching her with hope and relief. She loves the loathsome dish.
What’s more she’s willing to eat ours!
Each dish emptied we sidle the next one along and she begins again. We watch for Sister Mary to turn in trepidation. How many can Millie eat before she must freeze and normality resume? Four down and three to go. Please let mine be next, my need is greatest!
The maggots are becoming translucent as they cool, stuck in the thick liquid. They might be improved and less insipid if I could wash the milk away. Or maybe coated with syrup might add to their taste? My musings are interrupted.
“Hurry up girls, lunchtime is nearly over.”
At last my dish has reached Millie who’s looking decidedly bloated and slower. Am I imagining it or does she look the same colour and texture of the pudding? My admiration and gratitude for her knows no bounds, I won’t forget this day.
Millicent is a Star.
A MOST DELIGHTFUL EXPERIENCE
It was New Year’s Eve 1998. The venue was Circular Quay in Sydney Harbour. I was working in Melbourne but our daughters and their partners had travelled over from England and we had tickets for a show at the Opera House. We were staying in Darling Harbour and had caught a ferry boat for the short journey under the majestic bridge and into the impressive harbour. The mood was electric and expectations heightened as we absorbed the atmosphere of the decorated buildings and swarms of people in fancy dress, an exhilarating experience for all the family to enjoy and share for ever.
We had left ample time for a meal in the extensive concourse in the harbour area connected to the Opera House and we were not disappointed. I opted for a starter of Roo and Root. The Ozzies love abbreviating words and phrases and this was their version of Kangaroo and Beetroot. There is far more to Australian cuisine than Vegemite and BBQs and sampling their indigenous specialities was just one of the many pleasures of our stay in this wonderful country. It may appear surprising that Kangaroo is high in protein and low in fat; not strong on taste or smell but high on texture and sensation. Whilst you wouldn’t want to eat it every day it was a classic culinary experience complemented by the refreshingly tangy beetroot which was rich in colour, taste and texture.
Another member of our group sharing the experience was my wife’s eighty two year old mother who had made the twenty four hour journey with our daughters and entertained them with her old fashioned habits and rather unusual and eccentric opinions. She had really enjoyed the food in Australia because it was neither rich nor heavy and this was a special occasion which she wasn’t going to miss.
All the major Australian cities are to be found on the coast so it is little surprise that it majors in a variety of different sea foods with John Dorry and Barramundi being very popular. On this particular occasion Barramindi was on the menu so that was an easy decision. It is mild flavoured but has a white flaky flesh with a substantial fulfilling effect and a wonderful precursor to our date in the Opera House.
A meal and occasion to grace the best tables. Never forgotten.
My Least Favourite Food.
“Would you like some apricots?”
Already, I can feel my stomach heave as I courteously smile and reply in the negative.
Why the response to such a harmless and tasty fruit? My dislike of them goes back to the age of fourteen or fifteen when I was a pupil at a private boarding school.
Overall, school food was not too unpalatable. It certainly was not gourmet, but I did love the fried bread we had at breakfast at the weekends. Especially when the greasy quarters were used to soak up the liquid oozing from the tomatoes which accompanied them. There was no health warning about salt in those days which we sprinkled liberally on everything to bring out intense flavours. It was at this time that I also developed a love for peanut butter and, encouraged by an Indian school friend, masses of pepper to spice up baked beans. I love the tingling sensation that pepper brings to food and the subsequent warmth as you swallow. These are habits I have found difficult to abandon. No wonder I have always had trouble with my weight.
Enough diversions, back to the apricots: lunch time was the main meal and always formal. We would sit ten to a table and, if lucky, would have a prefect at its head. If not so fortunate then a member of staff would oversee our meal. On this occasion it was a particularly strict matron. The main course was inconsequential. Probably some roasted meat with vegetables. Then it was the turn of the pudding. It was never anything sophisticated or complicated. Perhaps a scoop of ice cream, maybe a crumble, or even a slice of sponge accompanied by bright yellow custard. In my memory it was the summer term, so we were likely to have some fruit. In this case, tinned apricots which had been standing in their juices in the kitchens in large, glass bowls ready to be brought to the tables.
Our bowl was brought before our member of staff. She picked up a small ladle and began to allot the ten portions of fruit. Normally, this would be accompanied by chatting and giggles of expectation but that day, we were all quiet. When I received my bowl, I just looked at it for there, in amongst the plump apricots, were black bits. On closer inspection we could see that they were dead ants floating in the syrupy juice. No one picked up their own spoon.
“What’s wrong?” Miss Pemberley asked.
“I can’t eat this,” said one brave pupil. “It’s covered in dead ants!”
“Don’t be so fussy. Think of those starving children in Africa. Just place them to one side and eat the fruit.”
So, we dutifully lifted the little floating creatures onto the rim of our pudding bowls. We were so disgusted that we could not even lighten the mood by playing “Tinker, tailor” with the little bodies.
“Stop worrying. Eat up!” Matron showed us all how to overcome our reluctance by spooning up an apricot and chewing it. We could hear it slurping as it was masticated.
We all followed her example but reluctantly. I can remember exploring the fruit in my mouth with my tongue in case an ant had escaped my diligent initial search and had managed to slip in beyond my lips. I swear the apricots had a taste of death about them and, as they slipped down my throat, I could feel my stomach rebelling, but we managed to close our eyes and persevere.
To this day I have avoided tinned apricots. Just the smell brings that memory flooding back to me, although I suppose, it was protein and today would be considered environmentally correct.
“No, thank you.”
Twelve of us were seated in the restaurant at wooden tables in a U shape, around a large rectangular hotplate. Apart from my daughter and me, the assembled diners were either from Japan or Taiwan. By the time the young Teppanyaki chef arrived our taste buds had already been tantalised with Sake based cocktails, sharp and tangy and faintly fishy Miso soup. He welcomed us warmly with smiles and bows and began his routine, against the background of mainly foreign tongues, sounding at times like chattering birds. I can picture him now, a handsome young Filipino in his late twenties. He was dressed almost entirely in black apart from a slash of red along the collar and running in a narrow line down the front of his shirt. His tall chef’s hat was blocked in two equal layers of red and black.
Nothing could have prepared me for what came next. Knives of different sizes and shapes were suddenly clattering and flying through the air. Yes, chef was a juggler too! I was feet away and transfixed, awed and alarmed all at the same time.
The performance changed within seconds to a soothing artistic display as our young man cracked an egg on to the hotplate. A fried egg, with an orange centre surrounded by white, was transformed within seconds into a daisy like flower as the white of another egg, partly cracked open, was drizzled around into petal shapes. More eggs were added and finally all were chopped into tiny pieces and added to a waiting mound of rice. Garlic and onions were chopped and sliced and, along with peas and something chef called ‘Japanese Ice Cream’ were added to the mix. (Later I discovered the ‘ice cream’ was actually lard!) Ever the joker, chef leaned forwards and out of his hat fell the black pepper and salt condiments which he used to add further piquancy to the dish. Finished? No. the resultant combination was then shaped into a character well known to the Japanese but a mystery to me. Laughs, applause and oohs and aahs all round.
Whilst we tucked into our tasty rice further artistic cheffery followed. Carrots, onions and courgettes were sliced, seasoned, then lightly fried and assembled in tri colour stacks. One onion was layered up in ever decreasing rings, an unrecognisable liquid poured into the top and voila! A smoking Mount Fuji! More applause and smiles.
The culinary adventure continued to unfold, whilst tongue tingling aromas pervaded the air as we nibbled on our flavoursome, crunchy vegetables. Next up the Calamari, but not as it’s usually seen. Palm sized pieces of white rubber like thin sheets immediately shrivelled up on the sizzling hotplate to form the now familiar rings. Lobster, sea scallops and jumbo shrimp were added with gay abandon and completed the seafood menu. They were served to each of us in turn, according to our pre chosen orders. My jumbo shrimps were a delicate pink and deliciously succulent and chewy. Then followed chicken and filet mignon, the latter being seared and cooked to perfection, according to one’s taste. I have never tasted better steak. Juicy and tender, I savoured every mouthful.
As our chef/entertainer bade us farewell to a thunderous applause we were almost replete. Just a dessert to finish. Delicately flavoured green tea cake with rich and creamy green tea ice cream was a fitting end to a most memorable, mouth-watering and mesmerising experience.
A Tale of Two Dishes
“The beauty of a curry”, trilled my aunt who was married to a Merchant Navy captain , ‘Is you can put absolutely anything in,” as she gaily threw in juicy sultanas diced Granny Smiths, and freshly sliced banana. .A tablespoon of curry powder and chopped chicken ; lid on and you’re half an hour away from a 1950’s English curry.
Times change, I’ve travelled and my Indian cooking has changed from the Indian food we made in England 50 or 60 years ago.
I’m going to make a salmon curry. My recipe uses whole spices not powders. Get a nice big pot which is OK for your hob and heat some oil.
First the Jeera or Cumin Seeds and let them sizzle in the oil for a very few minutes; the sweet, earthy, nutty fragrance starts the basis for my dish. Add the onion, chopped up small ; use cooking onions which are strong and bad for the eyes but good and powerful for the tongue. Add a chopped tomato or two and blend with the onion. Cook the mixture slowly and when the onions soften add fresh ginger ,garlic and dried chillies. Now you will start to experience the essence of Punjabi cooking. The unmistakeable flavour of Indian food starts to develop.. Be careful of chillies. The use of chillies is not for the faint hearted but they give the buzz we expect from Indian cooking . Forget about sultanas.
No rush here, cook gently and slowly and gradually add a few cloves, a cinnamon stick and some green cardamoms. Slowly add paprika ; with its vibrant orangey red it makes our mixture look ,as well smell far removed from an English stew and my aunt’s curry. Not that my aunt’s curry wasn’t good and as children we enjoyed it but this is more interesting ; definitely foreign and very enticing cooking.
Now add a little water and continue to stir and add more until your sauce is a good consistency. Now taste it and you will notice you need salt, so add a little. The amount you use is crucial. Abandon all thoughts of banana. When you’re happy with the taste, consistency and colour of your sauce add the salmon cut into chunks. This is where I’ve deviated from Punjabi cooking, of course . The fish won’t take long, about 10 minutes. Now we have a beautiful rich aromatic sauce , a lovely orange red colour, all it needs is chopped fresh green coriander leaves on top and there we ‘ll have a dish worth a photograph ,when at the same time we’ve made everything to go with it. Maybe Rice, naan or chapattis, yogurt and dahl?
I wonder if my aunt would like it?
I first encountered Swedish food before I even reached Sweden. In the 1960’s, North Sea ferries were luxurious and this one, in the most exclusive of its three fine restaurants the Blue Riband, boasted a magnificent smörgåsbord. On my first evening aboard, I couldn’t resist it. In the centre of the room a table, some eight meters long and two metres wide, was piled high with tempting dishes of all descriptions. seafoods, salads, cold meats, hot dishes, fruit, cheeses and delicious desserts. The famous Swedish meatballs were there, as were many varieties of pickled herring. For a set price, you could eat your fill, and return to the table as many times as you wished, to replenish your plate. Never having sampled smörgåsbord before, I made the classic mistake of the novice. The natural tendency is to take too much of the tempting starter dishes, and find your stomach is full long before you get to the main courses. I began with shellfish, which I love. I was drawn to a mountain of pink prawns. I couldn’t resist the crab and lobster. I piled up my plate with crayfish, and loaded a side plate with fresh crisp salad. What better to dine on when you’re at sea than delicious seafood? It was wonderful, but when I returned, plate in hand, and watched others helping themselves to generous portions of pork, beef, and lamb, I decided that all I could manage was a piece of crispbread. I learned from the experience. The secret is to take tiny portions. However, the meal that evening convinced me I was going to enjoy the gastronomic aspect of my time in Sweden and I was not disappointed.
Isn’t it strange how foods, which poor people were once forced to eat because they had nothing better, are often regarded now as delicacies? Tripe and haggis are obvious examples but Sweden boasts one which leaves all others in the shade. I must confess I’ve never been brave enough to try it. It’s said that a Swedish freighter was once stranded for a week in San Francisco harbour, after the American crew walked off and refused to return. They claimed that the chef had served them rotten fish, so pungent that the portholes had steamed up, paint had flaked off the walls, and the ship’s cat had jumped overboard. The dish concerned was surströmming. In the past people had to find ways of preserving food to last them through the long, hard Swedish winters, and even if the food deteriorated, it still had to be eaten, as there was little else. Unusual and ingenious ways of preserving food were devised and have survived. This particular “delicacy” is produced by sealing fillets of Baltic herring into steel cans and leaving them for several months, to ferment and swell. As they do so, the fish give off a gas which expands, putting great pressure on the cans. These bulge into the shape of rugby balls. The best way to open them is underwater, to prevent explosions, which would otherwise shower anyone nearby with the stinking remains of putrid fish, and could cause serious damage to people and property. It’s surprising that no-one has thought of using these vicious devices as terrorist weapons. The fillets are then rolled up in thin bread slices and served. It is a tribute to the courage of the Swedes that affluent people, with plenty of good food available, actually choose to eat it. A few brave souls even do it when they’re sober.