Virgin Mary Chocolates

   

Saturday 13th June

The cat is depressed. To add insult to injury, not only has he has been usurped by a flock of chickens, but he’s also been savagely bitten on the head by his arch-rival, William, the black and white mog from over the fence. 

In my usual style, I decide to let nature take its course and allow the wound to heal naturally, thus avoiding any hefty  vet’s bills. Except the cat’s wounds never heal by themselves, and a week later I take him on the inevitable trip to the surgery where I pay £93 for a course of antibiotics and to be told that he might have fleas. 

I wouldn’t mind if this information was given in the privacy of the consulting room, but no, the vet waits until we are back at reception and comes to announce it in a large stage whisper, allowing the whole of the waiting room to hear. A little bit of me dies of shame.

This weekend it will be a relief to get away from the cat with his mournful look and his fixation with the chickens. It has not yet been established as to whether he is capable of murdering them or not.

  

Tom and I are going to stay at a wonderful B&B near the North Norfolk coast, called The Control Tower http://controltowerstays.com. It is an ex-World War Two RAF air base that the owners have lovingly restored back to its 1940s origins. This is a last birthday present to myself and I’m very excited. 

  
The kids are being picked up by uncle Tim and auntie Ella, and are spending the night at Ella’s parents’ in rural Norfolk (Ella’s mother made a previous  blog appearance under the pseudonym Chinese Gilly in Chicken Noodle Soup). 

Tim’s enthusiasm for having the kids on this maiden night away with them, knows no bounds. Every text I get tells of more planned adventures: treasure hunts and boat trips to secret islands; swimming and afternoon tea; barbecues and board games. This is a man after my own heart. I am almost regretful that I’m missing out on all the fun, and then I remember that I’ll be lounging in a hotel room and the feeling quickly goes. 

Tim and Ella’s arrival to pick up the kids on Saturday morning coincides with that of good-friend-Lynsey and toddler Tommy, who are visiting from Lincolnshire. Lynsey’s visit is preceded by a birthday card in the post addressed to Sara Lund-Collier. 

I shouldn’t need to explain who Sara Lund is, but in case you haven’t been bitten by the Scandi-drama bug, she is the Danish detective from The Killing. In another life, I would also be a detective. It’s been a dream job since my early forays into the likes of The Famous Five, Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes. 

Lynsey arrives with the best present a detective-loving girl could want: a Sara Lund style jumper. Sara is famous for her chunky Scandi knitwear and I’ve been hankering after such a jumper for years. Tom was going to buy me one three years ago, but they aren’t cheap, and he realised that for the same price, he could buy two Ryanair tickets to Copenhagen instead, and see the home of The Killing for real. 

We spent a fun weekend pretending to be as cool as the Danes, and then ruining it by chasing after what looked like Troels Hartmann on a bike, in the hope of getting a photograph with him.

As we exit Norwich for The Control Tower, the rain is lashing down but we are met with a warm welcome at the B&B from Claire and Nigel. We sit in their 1940s style lounge and drink tea and eat cake whilst chatting about the place. One look at their bookshelves and the brilliant trade union poster in the hall and I feel very at home.

  
We are shown to our room and Tom braves the rain to get our bags from the car while I sit in bed with a second cup of tea, eating Booja Booja Champagne Truffles and reading The Greengage Summer. I couldn’t be happier. 

  

  
  
In the evening we go to nearby Walsingham for dinner. The village is famed for its religious shrines in honour of the Virgin Mary and is a major pilgrimage centre. My one and only visit there was twenty three years ago and the place spooked me out. The village was quaint enough but every window was lined with religious icons, or at least that’s how I remember it. I’m intrigued to know what the place is like now; was it just a case of a fourteen year old with an over-active imagination?

   
Nope, I was right. I should have more faith in myself. We park by the Let The Children Live shop (it is not clear what this shop is selling) and walk to The Black Lion Hotel. Everyone we pass is Irish and carrying a candle. 

  
After what can only be described as a superb dinner, we step back out in the drizzly, dark evening. A sea fret has rolled in and as we walk down the deserted high street I squeeze Tom’s arm a little tighter and hum the tune to a horror film. I’m frightening myself more than anyone else. Through the fog I can see the silhouette of someone approaching. It’s a priest. I feel like I’m in the midst of a whodunit. 

We turn a corner and the village opens out into a square. The only light comes from another pub opposite. We watch as two priests exit in a raucous fashion; there is much revelry in a scene that would not look out of place in Father Ted.

   
 The next morning, we are served a delectable vegetarian breakfast (no, I’m not following in Ollie’s footsteps; the B&B is veggie). I start with delicious stewed rhubarb and fresh strawberries, followed by a cooked breakfast. Every one of my freefrom needs is catered for, from almond milk for my tea, to gluten-free cereal and dairy-free spread. It is much appreciated, and with great reluctance that we leave The Control Tower an hour later.

After, we return to Walsingham so I can take some pictures in the daylight. We walk around the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. I still appear to be hanging off Tom. Instead of being filled with a sense of calm, I find it all a bit, well, creepy, verging on sinister (I’m not the only one, a girl on Tripadvisor feels the same). Tom, on the otherhand, is completely at ease. I think his son-of-a-preacher-man roots make him feel at home. 

  As I take photographs, I follow Tom’s lead around the village. At one point I find myself in a bookshop staring at a display of boxed replica saints. What are we doing here? I search for Tom and struggle to drag him out. He worked in a Christian bookshop in his youth; a moment longer and he’d have been quoting the ISBN numbers of all the different Bibles and regaling me with how many leather-bound King James versions he was able to sell on a Saturday. 

  

I hurry him back to the car, but not before he’s purchased a Stay Calm and Drink More Tea, Vicar mug for his dad, and some Virgin Mary chocolates for the kids….

It’s a relief to get back on the open road. We arrive in Diss to pick up the kids. Uncle Tim looks a shadow of his former self. All the enthusiasm he exhibited 24 hours has gone and he looks like he could do with a couple of matchsticks to keep his eyes open. 

In the kitchen Ella is making what I suspect could be her fifth coffee of the day. She leans on the kitchen counter while the kettle boils and lets it slip that Ollie was wandering the house at 4am keen to do some Lego. I worry we may have put them off having children for life. 

In the car on the way home, Daisy cheerfully informs us that Tim had to lie with Ollie for AN HOUR singing him to sleep. I’ll credit Tim with a good voice; I’ve never heard a better rendition of I Know Him So Well, but an hour of singing is enough to break anyone, especially as, if the source is to be believed, Ollie eyes sprung open the moment Tim left the room and it took several more attempts to get him finally to sleep…. (I can’t face verifying the truth of these claims).

So, as a tribute to uncle Tim and auntie Ella (there would’ve been no night away without them), and to end what has been a wonderful birthday week, covering three blog posts, it seems only fitting to give you the words of Elaine Paige:

Wasn’t it good (Oh so good) 

Wasn’t it fine (Oh so fine) 

Isn’t it madness he can’t be mine 

But in the end, he needs a little more than me 

More security (He needs his fantasy and freedom) 

I know him so well 

Ok, only the first two lines apply to me, but who can resist the whole chorus?

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=d_6BTJxCK24

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Death By Chocolate

  

Tuesday 9th June

My birthday comes with many surprises: I find Ollie cleaning the loo for the first time; Daisy asks me for dating advice ‘on behalf of a friend‘; and I recieve a book in the post from my father-in-law. Turns out it’s ‘my’ book. He has complied extracts of this blog and got them published in hardback. I’m gobsmacked and very touched that someone would spend all that time cutting and pasting my ramblings.

From Tom I receive one of my life’s ambitions: my own chickens. Next on the list is my own caravan. Nothing fancy, just a ’70s style thing that we can tow behind the car and go off at the drop of a hat. After that I’d like a small sailing boat to recreate Swallows and Amazons; we only live a stone’s throw from the Norfolk Broads, for goodness’ sake. I’ve tried to get Daisy into the series but she’s more preoccupied with why Ship Mate Susan always has to stay at base camp and cook and clean, and why Peggy is too timid to go on the adventures whilst the boys have all the fun. I, on the otherhand, struggle not to titter at Able Seaman Titty’s name. How did I not find that funny as a child?

Anyway, I am getting ahead of myself. Today is all about the chickens. We are due to pick up the girls at 4.30pm, but first we have the task of getting the hen house (kindly donated by a friend) from the drive to the back garden. It is too wide to get down the side of the house, so Tom dismantles it and we take it though in bits. Daisy is at school so misses an afternoon of scrubbing and painting and reassembling. 

   
  

Predictably, the chicken house is only half reconstructed by the time we go to pick up the chicks from a farm that breeds the unusual combination of hens and alpacas (not together). It is a baptism of fire.

We are greeted by a fifteen or sixteen year old boy who has just returned from a chemistry exam. I want to ask where his parents are, but am relieved I don’t as it turns out that he runs both businesses. 

  
We follow him obediently to a field where he brandishes a big stick and shouts, 

“Get back Zephaniah! Do not come any closer!” This is aimed at an alpaca as tall as him. Zephaniah has been put into quarantine with the chickens because he was biting the other alpacas. The boy’s stick is also needed to keep the aggressive cockerels at bay and to prevent the two Jack Russells from killing any chicks. It’s like walking into the lion’s den. 

  
Once in the field, we all stick to the boy like glue. He is the only one with a stick and the alpaca does not look enamoured to see us. We walk over to the first run. Chicks are racing around inside. The corpse of a chick lies amongst them, continually being trampled over by the others. It looks like it’s been there for a couple of days. 

“Oh dear. That one didn’t make it,” says the boy causally before lobbing it into a nearby bin. I don’t think I’m cut out for country living. If that’d been our house, the chick would’ve been dignified with a full burial and memorial service. 

Catching our four specific hens (four different rare breeds) proves very difficult. The boy has to hand over stick duty to Tom because he can’t do two things at once. At some point in the proceedings, Daisy returns to the car (under the armed protection of Tom, leaving the rest of us vulnerable to attack), and arrives back wearing two of Tom’s high-vis tops. I am unsure whether this is to make her more visible to the poor-sighted alpaca, or because she’s cold and has yet again lost her school cardigan. 

  
We leave an hour later, bewildered and hungry, with a cardboard box of 6-8 week old chickens which we place between the children. 

  

Once at home we have no where to put them; the hen house is less than ready, and we can’t resume construction until we’ve refuelled with a fish and chip supper. 

I temporarily home the girls in the garden Wendy house. I think I’m being clever by laying down newspaper (mess prevention), and I put water and food in bowls for them. By the time we’ve finished dinner though, the Wendy house looks more like the scene of a massacre than a place where children would want to play. The water bowl has been tipped over flooding the place, the newspaper scratched to pieces and there’s chicken poo everywhere, including in their food. Betty’s beady eyes keep appearing at the window. She is my chicken, we’ve chosen one each, and she’s worked out how to jump onto the child’s chair in there and look around for an escape route. 

Finally, at 9pm the hen house is ready for the newcomers. Yes, the children are still up and yes it is a school night. We send them around to call for our neighbour, Jenny. She’s practically family and we don’t  feel she should miss out on such a momentous occasion. We disturb her watching something on telly, but she comes over obligingly and we have tea in the garden and everyone sings Happy Birthday (but not as well as Jenny who’s is in a choir), and Tom brings out this glorious gluten and dairy-free Death by Chocolate cake that he made with his own fair hands (yes, he has earned mega points), and it all seems like a well-deserved end to a pretty hardworking birthday. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Cake-Angels-Amazing-gluten-wheat/dp/0007439296  http://uktv.co.uk/food/recipe/aid/647695    

The next day, Tom, the man who took two years of persuasing re: chicken-ownership, calls three times from work to enquire how ‘the girls’ are getting on. It is like his first day back after paternity leave. 

  

That evening, the kids have their fishfinger sandwich supper in the chicken pen, closely followed by mine and Tom’s evening cup of tea and catch up. The chicken run quickly becomes our communal area for regrouping. Sitting watching the birds peck away or scratch at the earth is surprisingly therapeutic. I find myself sitting in there in the early morning and not making packed lunches or breakfasts or all the things I should be doing.

  

So without further ado I really should be introducing our four new additions to the family, who will no doubt be featuring heavily in the blog (individual photos to follow): 

Pearl: Daisy’s Silver-laced Orpington

Ruby: Ollie’s Rhode Island Red

Betty: My Welsummer

Black Maria: Tom’s Norfolk Grey (original name for the breed, Black Marias, after the German WW1 guns which produced a lot of black smoke. Unsurprisingly, the name didn’t take off and was changed to Norfolk Greys). 

 

Pre-Birthday Victoria Sponge (gluten free)

  

Friday 5th June

While I race around trying to pack three rucksacks for a weekend away in Holt, I ask Ollie repeatedly to PUT. HIS. SHOES. ON. On the tenth time of asking I think we’re getting somewhere (I’ve managed to prise him away from his Lego), but I am mistaken. 

Instead, Elkie Brookes’ voice fills the air at top volume with Pearl’s A Singer (Tom’s karaoke song of choice). I race into the lounge to find that he’s ‘just popped on a record’ as you do at a massively stressful time. It angers him that I won’t let him listen to the end of the track. A fight ensues over who is going to take the needle off the record. All I can think of is that Tom would die if he could see this: both of us with our hands grasping the arm of the record player. I am reminded, not for the first time, of Michael McIntyre’s sketch about attempting to leave the house when you have children: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=uFQfylQ2Jgg

It is the hottest day of the year so far but I don’t have time to change and so set off in jeans. I jog to school, Ollie on scooter, whilst telling him a made up story. He demands one on every journey now. Ollie’s prescriptiveness about the plot-line makes story-telling very taxing on the brain. It can’t just be any old tale. Today he wants one about a hedgehog called Jayden, with a mother called Ruby, who falls down a hole. 

I greet Daisy at the gates with a scooter and a rucksack for the weekend. Her school bag and coat have been abandoned, as instructed, in the cloakroom. 

“Right children! We have a bus to catch and fifteen minutes to get there!” I order. 

The kids do an about-turn and head towards the park. Getting this bus has caused great travel anxiety because: 1) I don’t know if I’ve read the timetable properly and (2) we’re going to be waiting at an unofficial bus stop so it’s in the hands of the driver as to whether s/he feels like stopping or not. 

We power through the park; Daisy and Ollie chatting and scooting in perfect time with each other. The dappled sunlight comes through the trees on either side of them.

“Right! Right! Right!” I call when they reach the exit at the far end of the park. I sound like a police officer on some high speed pursuit.

“I love this!” calls Daisy over her shoulder. “It’s like we’ve run away together and you’re guiding us to safety!” 

I’m touched that Daisy would want to run away with her old ma. We’re now in the housing estate behind the park and I realise I’m just directing us to my friend’s house; I’ve no idea which way Aylsham Rd and the bus stop are from here. 

I startle a young boy in a blazer and ask him the way. As suspected we are heading in the wrong direction. It’s an uphill slog in the heat to the bus stop but we make it with enough time for the children to recoup. 

  

The bus driver is obviously in a good mood because he stops to pick us up, although my anxious flagging down/ lying in the road would’ve made it difficult for him not to. 

It is hot on the bus and the children choose to sit on the back seat of the top deck with a teenager who looks delighted. The driver appears to have a death wish or is eager for the weekend to start because we hurtle along the A140 at top speed and I have to use my arm to brace Ollie and stop him being thrown all over the place. 

  
 It is with much relief that two hours later I find myself basking in the last of the evening sun down by a ford. We are house and dog sitting for the weekend in a beautiful North Norfolk location. On arrival at the house, we collect Poppy the dog and head down the lane. 

  

The children strip off and play in the water. Poppy watches them anxiously and then wades in, collecting rocks from the bottom of the ford in her mouth. 

  

Tom and I sit on the bench. It is idyllic. The sun must be going to my head because I find myself agreeing that we should get a dog like Poppy and move to the country. 

The next day friends come for an early birthday lunch. Helen, of Ferrero Rocher cake fame, makes a wonderful gluten-free Victoria sponge with dairy-free butter cream. It’s the first such butter cream I’ve had and the cake, with raspberries on top, is delicious. http://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/fruit-recipes/vegan-victoria-sponge/#mdVr3tSB6tlzysvg.97

The next day I finish it off on Blakeney quayside; cup of tea in one hand, crabbing line in the other. We have a ritual whenever we come here: I go to the mobile van in the car park and get tea for me and cockles for Tom, while he finds a good crabbing spot. By the time I join them someone will have either thrown the crabbing line, the bucket or themselves into the water. This time it’s the brand-new bucket we bought ten minutes earlier.  

   
 

After an hour of managing vicious crabs (I still bare the scars), and Ollie’s acrophobia (he has to sit two metres away from the edge); I give the kids a challenge: a pound each if they can make it over to the bank on the other side. We wander over to the jetty which slopes into the water; Tom stays behind, too engrossed in crabbing to join us. 

   
 

It is muddy and I have come poorly equipped (no towels or swimming stuff), but money is a great motivator and they overcome their fear of crabs in the water to make it across to the other side.  We climb to the top of a hill and celebrate their success with ice creams over-looking Blakeney. The perfect end to a pre-birthday weekend. 

 

  

   

Asparagus, Spinach and Potato Soup

  

Monday 25th May

I drive away from the north Cambridge services with a tight feeling in my chest. It comes from being separated from my sidekicks after four intense days together. A break is much-needed, (they have been picked up by Pops), but it’s strange not to have Ollie sitting next to me balancing his Martin bear and Squirrel on the hand-brake; or not to hear Daisy’s squeals from the back about being squashed between a laundry basket and a Fortnum & Mason hamper. 

A phone call from Tom comes through on the hands-free. It’s bank holiday Monday but he’s slaving away at the office. 

“Hi! What time are you going to be home? I’ll make sure I’m back for when you get home.”

This throws me into a panic. I have a car-load of what, to the untrained eye, could be construed as junk and I need to ‘lose’ it in the house and garage before Tom gets home. 

“Ummm,” I try to do some wild calculations…ETA + half an hour for bad traffic + half hour to unload the car. “Five o’clock,” I say decisively after a long pause.

“Five o’clock! It’s not going to take you two and a half hours to get from Cambridge.”

I persuade him this ETA is correct with talk of Bank Holiday traffic, and then swiftly change the subject on to dinner: What about steak and chips (his favourite)? Maybe he could pick it up on the way home?

I put my foot down and get back to Norwich in record time. I’d like to lie in a darkened room or a hot bath after a day of high emotion, long driving, and furniture removal, but there’s no time for that. 

Like a mad woman I leap out of the car and tackle the garage, attempting to pull out nine tangled-together bikes to make room for a fold-down table and three boxes full of I can’t remember what. Why does a family of four need nine bikes? I think as I huff and puff, pulling and pushing my way into the garage. 

I get back to the car and am amazed at how much it is possible to cram into one vehicle. The last item out is a wicker chair that someone (my mother?) has painted turquoise. I have no use for this chair but it comes with a fitted cushion in rose-print material made by my grandmother. I am a sucker for any of her handiwork hence its final reprieve from the charity shop. 

I’ve run out of places to hide stuff so I put it in the dining room with a sheet over it. The one thing I have in my favour is that for a very intelligent man, Tom has extremely poor observational skills. Sometimes it’s as if he’s blindfolded himself and wandered into a room.

“Do you know where my coffee grinder is?”

“By the fruit bowl.”

“I can’t see it.”

Then I have to go through and point it out. 

Later that evening we sit at the dining room table eating our steak and chips and enjoying the quiet. I feel uncomfortable about the large sheet-covered mound directly in his eye line, but Tom seems oblivious and chats away instead about what I’m going to do tomorrow with a whole day to myself. 

“Sort out the garage!” I say “I’m going to take everything out and start again. Get rid of a load of stuff.”

He looks at me like I’m mad.

“Don’t you think you should just relax?”

I’m on the verge of admitting that I have a removals van arriving from York with a part-load of furniture and no where to put it, but why ruin a nice evening? 

The next day I wish I had taken Tom’s suggestion of relaxation, but Ish and his van could be here any minute now and I need a space for a cupboard, a chest of drawers and two wooden chairs. 

I spend all afternoon dragging everything out onto the drive. I shut the garden gates but that doesn’t stop every Tom, Dick and Harry passing by from asking me if I’m having a sale.

“No! They’re my possessions!” I feel like shouting, although in hindsight it would’ve saved a few trips to the tip if some things had been taken off my hands.

By 2pm I’m starving but I can’t leave the house because my life is spread out for everyone to see on the drive. The only thing I have is a surplus of asparagus growing in our adopted asparagus bed in the back garden. 

  
I take up the veg box man’s idea of an asparagus, spinach and potato soup. I chop the veg, add some stock and then leave it simmering, nervous that someone might be outside nicking my stuff. 

Ish arrives at 4pm (by which point I’ve had three bowls of soup) and laughs as I appear from the back of the garage.

“Having a sale?” he asks in his broad Leeds accent. I commandeer him into helping me lift the old IKEA drawers x 2 out of the way. 

“I hope I’m not going to get a call from your husband wanting all this furniture returning to York once it’s discovered,” he says with a twinkle in his eye as we lift grandma’s cupboard off the van. He seems to find my predicament most amusing. 

Seven hours after starting, Operation Garage is complete. Everything is tidy and you can get in without becoming entangled in bikes and scooters. 

Twi nights later Tom has to go into the garage to get something out. I hang around nervously waiting for the loud exclamation when he sees that half our garage has been turned into a furniture warehouse. 

He notices nothing. I’m almost annoyed. 

“Err. Hello. Haven’t you noticed anything?”

“Oh it looks really tidy! Well done,” he says as he turns to pull down the door and lock up.

“But what about the furniture?” I say, incredulous. 

He steps back in and peers at the wooden cupboard and the drawers. 

“They’re really nice. What are they doing in the garage? We should have them in the house,” he replies. 

Ingredients

  • onion, 1
  • garlic cloves, 2
  • fresh ginger, 1cm chunk
  • olive oil, 1tbsp
  • asparagus, 120g
  • spinach, 200g
  • medium potatoes, 2
  • vegetable stock

Finely chop the onion, garlic and ginger or use a food processor. Fry them in the olive oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat for five minutes.

Peel and finely chop (or food processor) the potatoes. Add them to the pan with the asparagus which should be cut into 1cm chunks. 

Add the vegetable stock (I’m sorry – I forgot to measure how much I used).

Simmer gently for ten minutes.

Add the spinach. Simmer for another five minutes.

Blend with a hand blender and season. 

Serve up.