Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Let them Eat Cake.

A couple of days ago my third child was six. Like any mother worth her salt, I wanted her birthday to be perfect. She’d requested a chocolate cake covered in strawberries and raspberries. No big deal I thought and so, the day before the big day I curled my feet under me on the sofa, a pen and notebook on one half of my commodious lap, Nigella’s How to be a Domestic Goddess on the other.
Now I can’t make a Victoria sponge to save my life, so something a little more off key is the gateau de jour. On page 172, I found an inspirational Nutella cake. It sounded extremely good, if a little sophisticated, requiring as it did a couple of tablespoons of Frangelico, a hazelnut liqueur. In fairness to Nigella she does stress that it is not imperative to race out and buy the liqueur, but as I have previously drank it and know how truly moreish it is, I thought it would be a marvellous idea to put a little dribble in the cake whilst we grownups could toast the birthday girl with the remainder.
And so began my day of making an atrocious carbon footprint the size of India in an attempt to make a little six year old ecstatic but who, would have been just as happy with a shop bought fudge cake covered in raspberries and sticky sweets.
The day started well, in that a friend who runs a cafe took me for an outing to a ‘cash and carry’* in Plymouth. Well, I’d never seen the likes before and whilst she dashed hither and thither not pausing for breath, I loitered around the detergents in 7th heaven. Humongous 10 kilo boxes of Bold and Daz rubbed shoulders with great, big plastic containers of softener, which in turn were next to industrial amounts of toilet cleaner and bleach. Then, on other shelves and to my intense delight, I found a ten inch tall, plastic tub of mixed dried herbs and a bottle of gravy browning so big that my kids will still be using it when I have departed this earth for good. There were bouillons of all manner, ketchup bottles to last until next year, enough English mustard to set fire to a small town and vast jars of every type of curry sauce this side of Mumbai. I can’t believe we pay through the nose at a regular supermarket for piddly sized amounts when at a cash and carry the items are half the price yet, you get double or triple the amount. It’s really worth opening a shop or cafe just to get membership.
Eventually my friend dragged me away whilst I was still yearning for the Wrigley's chewing gum dispenser and box of Walkers’ Sensations crisps. All I’d bought apart from the herbs and browning was the requisite raspberries and strawberries.
My friend, who was in a hurry to open her cafe for lunch, quickly dropped me off at Aldi’s to buy the Frangelico, which, I’d discovered a few months ago, is four quid cheaper there than at Waitrose. So with liqueur and soft fruits at my disposal I picked up the Red-Head from school and went about making the cake. On referring to my list however, I realised that my shopping was not complete and that I still needed a huge jar of Nutella – the one I’d found in the cupboard was old and full of butter where hapless children has carelessly buttered toast then shoved the knife into the chocolate spread. I also needed 100g of ground hazelnuts. “Oh this won’t do at all”, I groaned.
“We need to go back out aden mummy?” asked the Red-Head.
“Fraid so”, I replied, picking up my bag and car keys, “Let’s go”. In Somerfield and the Co-op they were terribly negative about my acquiring ground hazelnuts, “Never seen them my lover. Not even at Christmas time”. Bother. The only thing for it was to drive out to Trerulefoot roundabout, where in Kernow Mill lurks a Julian Graves – the dried fruit and nut specialist extraordinaire. Much to my dismay even they didn’t have the nuts, at least not in ground form.
“Sorry, we don’t sell them ground. You could of course buy them whole and blitz them in a food processor”. It seemed I had no alternative but I still complained.
“But Nigella says they must be ground, what if the food processor isn’t up to the job?” The saleswoman looked at me blankly as one would when face to face with a madwoman.
“I’m sure it’ll be just grand”, she said guardedly.
I drove home again quite agitated. This whole cake and its ingredients had taken almost a day and several miles to procure and I hadn’t even started cooking the bloody thing yet.
Finally we arrived home and on opening page 172 again read the method, where, much to my embarrassment, Nigella’s advice was thus, ‘I use hazelnuts bought ready-ground, but ones you grind yourself in the processor will provide more nutty moistness’. What a twit I am, an opinion no doubt also held by the staff of Julian Graves.
Twenty minutes later and the cake was in the oven; forty minutes later and it was out and cooling. I went to retrieve the birthday girl from school where on arriving home we made a ganache topping and then decorated the cake with the fruits. She was thrilled. “It’s exactly how I dreamt it mummy. Thankyou”. The Red-Head had been watching us avidly but because her mouth was blissfully wrapped around a chocolate covered spatula I didn’t really give her a second thought. It was only later when I went back to the kitchen that I found her little red chair leaning against the kitchen counter. She, it goes without saying was no-where to be seen, nor, unsurprisingly was the ring of beautifully sliced and arranged strawberries that had once adorned a birthday cake. Boy did I holler that kid’s name.

* - like Costco but without the diamonds, oh and you must own a business to be a member.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Let me entertain you..

Last Monday I was so thrilled to have a bit of time to myself after the Christmas hols that I danced a little jig in the kitchen. This was swiftly followed by a cup of tea and Grazia on the sofa. It was bliss.
One week on and I am bored out of my tiny mind. My mother would have tutted and reminded me of all the housework that needs doing but, since when has loading the washing machine, bleaching the toilets and spraying Mr Sheen around ever been considered fulfilling?
Instead I have wandered around complaining to anyone prepared to listen and to be honest, three year olds couldn’t care less, how thoroughly cheesed off I am. Of course the apocalyptic weather doesn’t help my sombre mood. Day after day of incessant rain and dark skies does little to lift one’s spirits and, as all my friends are out earning a crust and being dynamic, I have been left to find ways in which to entertain myself.
Well, don’t leave me in charge of an entertainments committee as my diverting little jaunts have been a little peculiar. Firstly, I went to Truro for a CT scan of my head. You’d think that appointment clerks would have the most basic of geography within their grasp but apparently not given that I, who lives about four miles away from Derriford hospital was given an appointment in Treliske, over an hour away? Well, I thought it would be just over an hour, but I left here at 7am for an 8.25 appointment and arrived, stressed and heart beating wildly at 9.10. Yes, I confess I did use my mobile phone whilst in the car but, as I was stationary for over forty minutes then hurtling towards certain death I was not. I needed to contact the hospital though to inform them that I was frantically attempting to get to them and would they please keep my appointment for me. I couldn’t imagine anything worse at that moment than, having rearranged everyone else’s schedules so that they could look after my children, to find the whole thing cancelled. Extraordinarily I was not met with the usual bored, haughty voice informing me, “I am sorry Mrs Band, there is nothing I can do. You should have been prepared for traffic and made arrangements accordingly. You will have to go back on the waiting list”. Although who I could have asked to help me with my various kids before 7am I know not. As it was, the lady on the end of the phone could not have been kinder or more reassuring.
“Don’t worry Mrs Band. The traffic in Truro is notoriously bad and you’ve had such a long way to come. Just you drive carefully and I’ll let the CT unit know you will be here soon”. I was so relieved and yet amazed that ‘hospital’ staff should be so kind. Isn’t that a terrible thing? But in the past all I have met is glassy eyed admin staff stuck behind a computer screen, who can barely bring themselves to communicate with anything more verbose than, “Please take a seat until your name is called”, and God forbid that a slight anomaly has occurred, then their repertoire extends to an obdurate, “I am sorry I cannot discuss anything with you. The consultant is not available”, or the ever popular, “We don’t seem to have your notes”.
They positively welcomed me at Treliske. Firstly two elderly volunteers smilingly gave me directions, then the admin staff, who could see how flustered I was, suggested, kindly, that I get myself a coffee before I had my scan. Very soon after, the medical staff called me and were charming. I was a little disarmed by their sense of humour and warmth but if this is how they operate in Cornwall then it really was worth the trip.
A few days later with the beds stripped and the wash on, I was bored rigid again. As I wandered to get the Red-Head from nursery I saw a banner on some railings in the town. ‘Give Blood’ it insisted. I had nothing else to do that afternoon, there’d be other adults there I reasoned and I’ve never been one to resist a free cup of tea and one of those triumvirate packets of custard creams.
So, the Red-Head and I made our way to the Council Chambers. I have donated blood before but not very successfully; for some reason my blood is in no rush to leave my body, now this would be excellent in a road traffic accident but it is rubbish for donation as the Blood service need to have it bagged within so many minutes. So, when they saw me enter you could almost hear a collective sigh. We went through the usual preamble of intimate questions on sexual practices, which I am so very pleased to report that I had nothing to do with. When my great aunt Bessie gave blood did they have to explain to her what these ‘practices’ were, or given her nice hat and Welsh Baptist views did the nurses just assume that she was a straight up and down sorta gal?
Eventually, satisfied that I was not anaemic nor a sexual deviant they lay me down on the bed. This is the best bit, a lie down in the middle of the afternoon. The Red-Head had crayons and I had a needle put in my arm and whilst those around me gushed into a plastic bag, my bloody blood, dripped. It was very frustrating. Once again this could all have been in vain, until a nurse of the old school got hold of my arm, adjusted it and lo and behold, I too gushed with the best of them.It’s an odd way to fill my time, I’ll give you that, but with an appointment with the neurosurgeon, soon to be followed by the skin testing clinic, my diary is filling up fast.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Just call me chicken.

In order to not only come across as a nicer person but also to improve my complexion, my New Year’s resolution was a simple one: to smile more. Smiles are free and generally speaking, when someone throws one in my direction, I find that it improves my day immeasurably.
So far it has been the hardest resolution I’ve ever attempted. Giving up fags* was a piece of cake by comparison, although it has to be said that I have yet to give up pieces of cake. Things started badly when, on Sunday and, as a family we visited Eden, or as I like to call it, Armageddonland. Visually spectacular it may be but by God they don’t half drive home that old adage, “The world is coming to an end”. There is only so much recycling evangelism one can stomach before wanting to scream, “Oh bring on Mickey Mouse”. Now there’s a theme park. I left depressed, thinking of all the packaging we had thrown away over Christmas. If there is environmental Karma, then boy was I going to get it.
A couple of days later I woke with renewed zeal and drove to my local supermarket, smiling at everyone I saw and saying ‘Good Morning’ brightly. The elderly folk were quite disarmed by my jollity yet responded positively and one gentleman actually doffed his cap in my direction, I doubt he gets much opportunity for cap doffing these days.
I walked across to the fresh meat counter. Having watched Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s earnest attempts to get us, the great British public to buy our meat responsibly, I was determined to take on board his message to think of the life lived by the chicken. Being a large family with huge appetites we need a stonker of a chicken to feed us but the choice awaiting me was very limited – just a paltry selection of poultry legs.
An employee was stacking the shelves. I put on my best smile and asked if there was a chance the store could sell whole free range birds,
“No me ‘ansome. There’s no call for them. We’ll have a hard job selling these”, she said pointing her Bic at the portions.
“That’s such a pity”, I answered still smiling, “It’s just that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is heading a national campaign to change our eating habits”.
“Is’zee an MP?”, she looked bewildered.
“No, he’s on TV”. I decided to keep it simple.
“What Channel?” she queried.
“Four”, I replied.
“That’ll be why then”, she said, as if being on Channel 4 explained everything.
“We’ve got some corn fed ones”, she added brightly pointing at some yellow fleshed fowls.
“It wouldn’t make any difference if they were caviar fed”, I answered dispiritedly, “It still wouldn’t mean that the chickens had been running and clucking around in the fresh air.”
“Can’t help you then love”, she said, dismissing me.
I wandered over to the fruit and veg, my smile having slipped minutes before. I’d not only been listening to Hugh but to Jeremy Vine** too who had reminded me that there was a chance of living 14 years extra if I didn’t smoke or drink and if I exercised regularly and ate lots of fruit and vegetables. As the old joke goes, with all those sanctions in place I wouldn’t really live 14 years more, it would just feel like it.
Well joking aside, I thought it best to heed the advice of Jeremy Vine and his experts and buy fruits rich in vitamins and antioxidants. In other words ‘super foods’ such as blueberries and raspberries. I looked at the packaging which were big plastic pots inlaid with bubble wrap and containing a handful of fruits. Then, I looked to see where they were grown: the raspberries were from Morocco and the blueberries from Chile. My heart sank. So, to stop myself from getting cancer I had to purchase food from far flung reaches of the globe which had then been air freighted to this country - oh the guilt. My heart was heavy with the responsibility of trying to eat well and yet shop ethically because there was a greater risk of cancer for everyone, not only to me, due to the pollution of the planes that had carried my fruits to this country let alone the lorries that had delivered them to my store, let alone the carbon emissions from the plastic pot as they sat for the next 2 million years resolutely refusing to biodegrade. I was truly miserable.
“Cheer up love”, said a chap and he leant over my shoulder and, without so much as a thought for green house gases; he threw a plastic carton of strawberries into his wire basket, “It may never happen”.
“It’s too late”, I replied, “It already has”.
I paid for my goods and returned to my car. Another car had parked very tightly next to mine and it was very tricky getting into the driver’s side. I gently opened the door and literally squeeze myself in by squishing my tummy flat and not breathing.
There was a man in the car that was parked next to mine. Instead of repositioning his car, his window went down.
“Oi, you’ve just hit my car with your door”, he glared at me. I was astonished and looked at his car.
“Actually, I didn’t”, I replied, “I gently leant it against your door handle. This is a very tight squeeze”.
“Well you should have parked straight then you fat, f*cking bitch". I was speechless. How could that level of aggression been generated in such a short space of time? No wonder people get stabbed in road rage incidents. I didn’t feel like stabbing him though, I just felt humiliated and stupid and even more of an idiot when stupid, unsolicited tears fell down my face. It made me want rewrite an old proverb, ‘Smile and the world thinks you’re bonkers; cry and you cry alone feeling fat, foolish and thoroughly fed up’.

Glossary for American readers - * I haven't given up homosexuals. 'Fags' are cigarettes in this country. I wouldn't want to alienate any gays who like my blog.

** - Jeremy Vine presents a light, debating type programme on BBC Radio 2. It's like Dr Phil on the radio.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008


My three year old is without a doubt a delinquent. I am at my wits’ end given that nothing makes the slightest difference to her behaviour. No warnings or threats work; she just walks on by, tossing her red hair behind her defiantly.
I am not proud to admit that I have administered the occasional smack to her bottom but I’ve even given up on corporal punishment. For one thing she has such a tiny little bum that it makes me feel awful and for another, she cares not a jot.
Over Christmas we had some friends staying who smoke. His cigarettes were in the kitchen up on the window sill. The kitchen was pitch black as he, his wife, Hubby and I were in the sitting room. The eldest children were in their rooms doing whatever it is teenagers do, whilst my youngest were purportedly in bed, asleep.
An hour after we thought they were out for the count, the five year old appeared in the doorway, clutching a fistful of tobacco. “Look what my sister has done again”, she said, in a bored voice, rolling her eyes.
I jumped up and at great speed ran up the stairs and sure enough a whole packet of B&H were scrunched up and scattered under her bed.
Picking up the worst as best I could, I ran down to retrieve the Dyson and sucked up the remaining mess. What I couldn’t understand is why she would go into a cold dark kitchen, climb a stool, find the fags, run upstairs with them and then tear them apart. It’s not as if she knew they were there. What induced her to go there in the first place?
Our guest was a little more magnanimous, “Hey, it could have been worse”, he laughed, “She could have lit them!”
And so it goes on. Every night there is no getting her to sleep before ten thirty even though her elder sister is lying in the bed next to her, desperate for sleep and yet every night she does something catastrophic.
A couple of nights ago a piercing scream emanated from their room and once again Hubby and I careered up the stairs. The five year old was in bed clutching a nasty burn on the inside of her wrist.
“Oh my God!”, I exclaimed, “How did you do that?”
“She”, she wailed, pointing at the Red-Head, “opened up the lamp and I tried to stop her but I put my wrist on the bulb and it was very hot”.
The lamp in question was a children’s night light, a sealed unit that takes a Philips screwdriver and three screws to undo. The Red-Head had undone it without the use of any ironmongery and now her big sister was scarred for life.
“What were you thinking?” I demanded of her, simultaneously gripping the five year olds arm and holding it under very cold running water. True to form she just shrugged her shoulders, whilst her poor sister screamed.
The following day I visited the chemist and asked the pharmacist if he knew of any soothing ointment I could administer. He duly showed me an appropriate tube and on my return I applied liberally as advised. Hubby placed gauze over the top and put everything away in a drawer.
Later that evening, I walked into their playroom to find one of their little red chairs plastered in yellow cream; a tube lay next to the chair – empty, squired of its contents. “What is this doing here?” I roared, looking for the culprit.
The Red-Head looked me in the eye, “The fair (she can’t say the chuh sound yet) was red like her arm”, she pointed at her sister, “I make it better”.
“For heaven’s sake! How many times must I tell you not to play with things that are not yours?”
“But mummy” added her big sister, “She always does. That’s why Daddy’s wine is in the bath”.
“What?”, I heard Hubby holler, before sprinting upstairs.
The language that came out of the bathroom has no place on this page but suffice it to say, it was of fairly profane naval vocabulary. I ran up to see what had happened.
A Dartington glass, Admirals decanter (I have big ambitions for Hubby) that I bought him for Christmas and filled with the finest old tawny was on its side in the bath, the stopper has yet to be located, the port having long since been poured down the plughole.
“Get up here at once!” Hubby bellowed down the stairs. Under normal circumstances, most normal children would meekly appear, quaking in their boots as their parent ripped them off a block or two. Not so the abnormal Red-Head.
She pirouetted in, her arms above her head a la Darcy Bussell and politely enquired, “What’s the matter daddy? Why daddy fross (see Chuh sound, ditto cuh sound)?”
Daddy was out in orbit at this point, “Cross? You are asking me why I am cross, when my best present in wallowing in the bath, empty? The thirty quid’s worth of port imbibing the freaking fish in the Tamar?”
“Take it easy darling”, I advised. Alarming veins were popping out all over his forehead.
“Daddy”, she said, exasperated as though he didn’t know, “My Matey bubble baff is all don. I liked your red bubble baff. Not very bubbly though”.
“What?”, he said, falling into the nearest Lloyd Loom, “Bubble bath?”
It was at this point, as I tried my best to stifle a giggle that Hubby ran downstairs, picked up the car keys and drove off.
“Daddy is don like the bubble baff”, remarked the Red-Head matter of factly.
As a matter of fact Hubby wasn’t gone long, only long enough to locate a good bottle of red wine.“I’m telling you Alice”, he said, pulling out the cork, “Thank God I’m going back to work. Otherwise it would be a case of one of us has to go”.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008


We made it but only just by jove. On the morning of Christmas Eve, as we awoke, Hubby leapt out of bed with gymnastic zeal and scampered down the stairs. The boiler was playing up as it tends to do on frosty mornings, belching the fumes back down the flue and into our hall way. The condensation it produces runs in fast rivulets all down our coats, shoes, utility area, windows and kitchen. I’ve oft thought it somewhat dodgy but Hubby has in the past mopped said walls and windows and opened a few doors. This winter however, fed up with being placated I went out and bought carbon monoxide indicators.
I didn’t get a chance to look at them on that morning though as my two youngest girls got out of bed then immediately fell onto the landing carpet vomiting. Alarm bells rang immediately in my mind and, having administered to them as best I could; I ran downstairs to find the CO indicators had turned a very threatening, black.
“Oh. My. God”, I wailed.
“What is it?” asked Hubby, convinced the girls had both woken with a bug. I tried to point out that it would be some amazing feat of synchronicity to time puking simultaneously but he was resolute. It was only the beating of my chest and the repeating wail of “They could have died” that made him look at the CO indicators and finally believe me.
The twelve year old woke next and she too went the way of the others. Handing her a bucket and opening her window wide, I didn’t know what to do for the best. The front and back doors were wide open as were the windows, it was freezing but we had to let fresh air in. Hubby took the youngest, albeit green in the gills, for a little stroll. By the time they returned, their little cheeks were pink again and they were ravenous.
I had never been happier to make bowls of Weetabix and left them chomping before checking on my son. He was still in the sack, oblivious to the drama and commotion and was a little put out to find me in his bedroom, checking that he was breathing before opening his curtains and flinging open the window wide.
“M-um, what the hell are you doing? It’s bloody freezing”.
“Less of the hell and bloody if you please. Are you giddy? Do you feel nauseous, sick, headache, feverish?”
“No, just blood- I mean blinking freezing”, he said, clutching his duvet to his scrawny chest.
“You should wear pyjamas”, I advised.
“Mum, where once real men didn’t eat quiche, now they don’t wear pyjamas.”
“Well, if there was an incident in the middle of the night you’d be the foolish one out on the pavement with all your”, and I indicated with a flapping hand towards his nether regions, “Accoutrements dangling everywhere”.
He pulled the pillow over his head, “Oh mum, puh-lease”.
“Sorry, I forgot it was completely out of bounds for a mother to bring up her son’s genitals in polite conversation, but as we’ve all just missed death by approximately fifteen minutes and, had we had to have run out onto the street for air, then at least your father and mother would have had their modesty appropriately furnished. Now get up, make your bed, tell me how you feel and then you can start to peel the sprouts”.
I returned downstairs to find Hubby with his head in his hands.
“What’s wrong now?”, I enquired. The girls were playing dressing up and seemed absolutely fine.
“Alice, I’ve been online, should we need a new boiler, we’ll have to sell one of the cars. Boilers cost thousands”.
I’d been dreading this day. To spend thousands on the house is one thing, especially if it requires oodles of fabulous fabric, a new sofa and a fitted kitchen. But a boiler? It must be one of the unsexiest yet essential pieces of equipment one could ever buy.
“But I thought it was the flue that was the issue”, I replied, “There is over twelve foot of aluminium tubing on the outside of the house. For some reason this problem with the condensation and fumes only happens when it is freezing. Perhaps someone will suggest a solution?”
“Well whom I’ll be bugg..”, but he desisted swearing as at that moment a five year old in a princess dress danced into the kitchen.
“Dad, I’m getting a Rapunzel wig and satin ballet shoes for Christmas”.
“Darling, I don’t think Santa will be able to get a Rapunzel wig ”, said Hubby kindly, “They are very hard to come by in Lapland”.
She looked at him as though he was a sad git and said, “Dad. You’ve got to believe”, stressing with great, dramatic effect the second syllable, before twirling away again.
I rubbed his shoulders in a ‘come on old chap’ sorta way, before handing him a list as long as his arm of jobs to do. Sprout peeling was not among them as at that moment our son, bleary eyed and wearing a dressing gown that only just covered the aforementioned crown jewels ambled in.
“Wassup?”, he yawned before diving into the bread bin.
“Before you help yourself to the bacon”, I warned him “let me tell you now, that it is for adorning the turkey ”.
And after that it all became a bit of a blur. The day was spent prepping veg and mulling wine, collecting the turkey then stuffing it and generally ticking things off my list. It goes without saying that the children woke early on Christmas Day and tore at their stockings before piling into what Santa had left downstairs. As one gift was opened, my five year old daughter adjusted a four foot long, blonde, Rapunzel wig before triumphantly turning to her father saying with great disdain , “You see? You’ve just got to believe.."