Ham, Egg, Chips and Bingo

I haven’t eaten ham since 1981 or thereabouts, but I ate a bit today. After all, I am a vegetarian.

Only a small bit but… And I must say it was worth it for the chips. The chips were super. And there was no vegetarian option. I decided to continue being a vegetarian whenever possible but, on such outings, for the sake of getting on with people and not-being-a-pain-in-the-arse (which I have been, all my life) not to make a fuss.

Who should I apologise to?

I am still a bit weird, having been ill for a week. Double, simultaneous ill, in fact. Only yesterday did I begin to feel that I was moving at maybe ninety-five percent normal speed, which gave me the confidence to venture out of the house and wobble down the road to the bus stop, there to meet a lady called Jenny and someone else who was giving us a lift. My first meeting of the Over Fifties Club.

Apparently there is also an Over Sixties Club. This confused me as I couldn’t see anyone at the Over Fifties Club under seventy. Are they bitter rivals, I wondered? Like those two gangs in West Side Story? Does the Over Sixties poach members from the Over Fifties, or do the Over Fifties all also belong to the Over Sixties?

As you can tell, I’m still not quite back to normal. One of my illnesses was a kind of super-cough/bronchitis or possibly asthma thing. This has meant being unable to breathe and lie down at the same time, which in turn has meant a week of nights alternating between a moggie-infested bed upstairs and a very uncomfortable sofa downstairs, propping myself up with various arrangements of pillow and cushions and trying to sleep sitting up. I have not had much sleep and last night I don’t remember getting any sleep.

So I was not in the best mental shape to be sitting in a vast, chilly seafront pub, looking out through the frosted glass patterns at distorted images of passing cars and learning to play Bingo.

My fellow Over Fifties did not at first believe that I had never played Bingo. They played Bingo regularly, all over the place, and had their own plastic bags full of special fat pens, which are not called pens but dabbers. I said I would pass on the Bingo-book-buying this time, but watch what someone else did.

So I sat next to Jenny as she explained Bingo to me, whilst I was wishing I had worn a tee shirt under my posh top. But I couldn’t hear her over the noise of the Bingo man experimenting with his sound system. However, there was to be no escape. She did one game then I found the dabber thing plonked next to me. I was going to have to “dab” alternate sheets in her books. Rats! Again she tried to explain to me the difference between a Line and a House, and what a Bit On The Side is (apart from the obvious) and what that last sheet is for.

After a few minutes of me hunting wildly around the sheet for the numbers as the man with the mike rattled them off, someone said “Does the lady realise the numbers are arranged in columns of ten?” I hadn’t, though it was in the process of dawning on me. Knowing that made things much easier.

Then they believed I had never played Bingo before.

And then I came home and discovered Amazon had delivered two 300l bags of cat litter to the Lady with the Illegal Scotsman in my absence, so I had to go and get the wheelbarrow. She took one look at me wheezing and coughing palely over the laden wheelbarrow and offered to push it for me, but I couldn’t let her because she is older than me.

Then, too stuffed with illicit ham, egg and chips (and cheesecake) to need to eat anything more, I made myself some coffee and sat through the entire, extremely long speech of the Catalan Prime Minister, hoping to discover that he had been brave and declared independence from those brutal Spaniards. He had. Yay! Or had he? No one afterwards seemed to know. Damp squib or what?

Then I sat and hand-sewed a patch on the leg of my jeans. You know those jeans with the arty kind of fraying? I always wanted some and eventually, at an unsuitable age, I got a pair. Unfortunately, after they had been through the washing-machine numerous times the elegant fraying began to turn into falling-apartness. And then my big toe started getting caught in the falling-apartness every time I put the jeans on, which tore it even worse. I am wondering whether those ripped-right-across the knee jeans are not so much ultra-cool as the result of endless big-toe-catching.

I was going to do it on the sewing machine. I had to remove the white thread bobbin and wind specially a denim blue bobbin. Bobbin-winding is not easy on my sewing machine. Bobbins have a tendency to go ape for no reason. Either the cotton frantically winds itself around the metal stem that holds the bobbin in place, or the bobbin sourly turns itself into a nasty thick bobbin at the top and nasty measly bobbin at the bottom. I have been know to throw bobbins across the room.

Shows you how little sleep I have had, then. I completed this rigmarole, went to put the jean leg under the sewing machine needle and realised I couldn’t – not without unpicking whole jean leg – because a jean leg is a tube.

From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: Curried Nut Roast

1/2 lb (pound) hazel or Brazil or walnuts, finely chopped

1/2 lb fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped

1 medium-sized green pepper, deseeded and finely chopped

3 oz wholewheat breadcrumbs

2 medium-size onion, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon dried mixed herbs or 2 teaspoons fresh mixed herbs

1 tablespoon mild curry powder (or a heaped teaspoon of hot Madras curry powder)

1 egg, beaten

Cooking oil

Salt and freshly-milled black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to gas mark 7, 425ºF (220ºC)

One 7 Inch square cake tin, greased

Begin by gently frying the onion and chopped pepper in a little oil until they’re softened – about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix the nuts and breadcrumbs together in a large bowl, adding the garlic, herbs and curry powder. Then stir in the onion, pepper and tomatoes, mix very thoroughly and season. Now add the beaten egg to bind the mixture together. Finally, pack the mixture into the prepared tin and bake for 3–40 minutes until golden.

This can be served hot with spiced pilau rice, yoghurt, mango chutney, or a fresh tomato sauce. It’s also very good served cold with a salad.

Enjoy 🙂

A Dutchman, a Quiche and One White Eyebrow

Ex was not an easy chap to get along with, which was why, after twenty-two years or so, I had to leave him. I loved him then and suppose I still do – in an eccentric-older-brother sort of way – although now he is getting on in years and lives with another lady (search: My Replacement). He has developed one bristly white eyebrow at which, on the increasingly rare occasions that I see him, I cannot help staring. It reminds me of Thunderbird puppets.

He is still handsome. He kept the albums but I can still recall a photo of him, in his thirties, sitting against a Yorkshire farm gate, tanned, cotton shirt unbuttoned, reading a map. We were on holiday. He had no idea at all that he was handsome, and that was one reason that I loved him. Downside: he had no real idea what I looked like. He could paint a steam engine down to the last gleaming, mirror-surfaced detail – correct livery for the year, right number of bands on the funnel and everything (that’s so important to a steam buff). He could capture stark winter trees, stormy skies and sunny meadows but he didn’t do faces – couldn’t draw me, or human figures in general.

Now, where was I going with this? Forgive me, it’s nearly midnight and I’m propped up in bed, be-shawled and scribbling, blanketed in cats and trying to convince myself the headache is getting better. Oh yes, the Dutchman and his infernal Quiche.

Wim and his partner, another Dutch gentleman whose name I never knew – red-haired, he was – came to our village and opened a delicatessen in the High Street in what had been – what had it been? – the sort of antique shop that hardly ever has any customers and only opens on Leap Year Day. It was a good delicatessen, if rather exotic for our remote English village at that time.

Ex worked from home and was in charge of the cooking – well, in charge of everything – and was relentless in his adherence to custom and routine. Every day (every single day) we had boiled potatoes, spring greens and a Third Item. He adapted to my becoming a vegetarian, owing to having moved next door to a field of fluffy lambs, by substituting a meaty Third Item with a small vegetarian quiche, in my case or, as he preferred to call it, Flan. The only place you could get this Quiche, aka Flan, was the delicatessen run by Wim and his friend.

Now, Ex was surprisingly good with gay men, mostly, I suspect, because they did not include women. And he did, surprisingly again – for a person who ran like a clockwork toy, Ex was constantly surprising me – succeed in pronouncing Wim as ‘Vim’, which was how Wim pronounced it, and making no mention of the sink scouring powder of the same name. However, he would not say Quiche and Wim/Vim would not say Flan.

I wasn’t allowed to shop, but for some reason I always seemed to have to accompany Ex on food shopping expeditions, trailing submissively in his wake like one of those indoctrinated cult members; I always felt I should be wearing dusty sandals, a white robe made from a sheet, and my hair dishevelled around my shoulders. So whenever we went to the deli to buy my vegetarian Quiche aka Flan, the conversation would go something like this:

Wim/Vim (with a faint, continental curl of the lip):  What can I get you today, sir?

Ex:  One of your small vegetarian Flans, please.

Wim/Vim:  Quiche!

Ex:  Yes, Flan.

Wim/Vim:  Quiche!!

Ex: As I said, Flan.

Had Wim/Vim been married to Ex for twenty-two years he would have realised that there was no point at all in disputing with him about anything at all, let alone Quiche. At two or three in the morning, after many repetitious hours of disputation, you would have turned into a gibbering, screeching wreck. Ex, on the other hand, would be loftily calm and if anything even more convinced of his absolute correctness in this and all things. Wim/Vim could have ‘sobbed and cursed and kicked the stairs’ till the cows came home but he would never have got Ex to concede that a Flan could be a Quiche.

The deli closed long ago. Poor little Wim/Vim – I do hope that he and his gingery consort are now enjoying a prosperous and well-deserved retirement amid the windmills and tulip fields and have managed to forget all about Quiche.

Or Flan.

Crinkle-cut chips and other mishaps

It wasn’t till many years later that I began to understand how much I must have irritated my mother-in-law. She only bore with me, I suspect, because I had been the one to take her gifted, gruff, eccentric son off her hands. He was twenty-eight when I met him and nearly thirty by the time we married. At that point I still believed he was a catch but she must have felt he was approaching some sort of sell-by date.

All the same, whenever we arrived on her doorstep, though punctual and expected, we would be greeted with a disappointed and slightly huffy “Oh – it’s you.” The conversation tended to be punctuated with south-ist exclamations like “Damn southerners – all swank”. Not looking at me, of course.

There were a number of misdemeanours – firstly, the crinkle-cut chips. My parents in law moved a lot and every house they moved to was better than any other house they had ever inhabited, the neighbours more upper-crust and highly-educated… for six months or so at least, till the magic wore off and the bitching-over-the-garden-fence started.

MIL, extolling the virtues of the latest neighbourhood, informed me that it even had an Asda that sold crinkle-cut chips. To which my innocent reply was: What’s an Asda? I was guessing some kind of machine or kitchen gadget.

And I failed twice over, in never having heard of crinkle-cut chips. My mother, when she wanted to make chips, sliced up some potatoes and fried them in the chip pan. It had never occurred to me that you could get them ready sliced in packets. To this day I can’t see why a chip with wavy sides would taste any different to, or contain any more nourishment than, a chip with plain sides.

On my first visit to… one of their houses, the one with the rabbit… On the way down I sat on an ice lolly some kid had left on the train seat and didn’t realise till I stood up: yellow bell-bottoms, pink ice lolly, soggy bottom; not exactly a cool entrance. And then I got locked in the loo and had to call out of the window for help – trying to call quietly and politely I recall – and be rescued, which involved a great deal of laughter at my expense and the pushing of a little key under the door.

Then there was the coffee. MIL’s coffee and tea were exactly alike – whitey-brown, transparent, a slight fizz on the top and lacking in any kind of taste. Came the fateful day when I plumped for the wrong one and thanked her for coffee which turned out to be tea. Why did I even have to mention coffee or tea? Why couldn’t I have just nodded when she handed me the mug of brown fizzy whatever-it-was?

I was young for my age, naïve and socially unskilled. His family – the female side of it at least – were exactly the opposite: non-stop communicators. Truth to tell I couldn’t understand most of what MIL was saying most of the time, especially when she speeded up. It was that Liverpool accent she pretended she didn’t have – so fast – a torrent of words. Even if I succeeded in sussing out one of her sentences I was unlikely to cotton on to the underlying significance. Hence the Asda/crinkle-cut chips debacle. I was supposed to be impressed but had deliberately failed to be.

The worst thing was the announcement that we were eating Ex’s little sister’s pet rabbit for Sunday lunch. This was before Ex and I were married – at which point we were just staying at each other’s parents’ houses on alternate weekends. I’ve been a vegetarian for many years now, but I wasn’t in those far off days.

There were these slices tough dark meat, with some splotches of gravy scattered about it, and half way through the meal Ex’s father announced that this was in fact little sister’s bunny-rabbit. I think this was aimed at little sister rather than me – to toughen her up, make her face food facts – maybe as an exercise of masculine or paternal power – I don’t know. It was cruel – to rabbit and child. She was thirteen, I was nineteen. She stopped eating and started crying; I put down my knife and fork and sat blank-faced and speechless wanting to spit out the current mouthful. Ex, an animal-lover for all his faults, was angry too. It didn’t seem to have occurred to either parent that more than one person would be upset.

I could go on: the great Christmas debate between MIL and a visiting Liverpool Auntie about the presence (or not) of dog-dirt on the pavements outside; the seven year silent Cold War that began in mid-sentence as we walked in

“… and yes, you Stole my Goldfish…”