Lost. Found. Recovered.

Some of you may recall that I recently had a bit of a run-in with one of my neighbours. Welcome to the second instalment…


About ten days or so ago I decided to order a copy of this picture as a large canvas print.

Beach Post
Beach Post on Pebbles Beach, Carlisle Bay, Barbados

It was meant to be for my fab hubby to remind him of our perfect Caribbean holiday, which seems so very, very long ago now. We’re having a bit of a tough time right now, what with dodgy finances and (the FAB Hubby’s) heart surgery and a distinct lack of purpose in life, coupled with an increasing feeling of having been tossed onto the scrapheap of sentience. I don’t want to impose my life complaints on everyone, but these circumstances are not helping my increasingly severe depression and most days I spend staring at my computer screen, trying to find any kind of motivation to get something achieved.

I have occasional spurts when I try to ‘pull myself together’ like a pair of curtains, but these rarely result in much tangible success, although I do keep on trying.

So actually gathering  enough *oomph* to select and order this picture was a major happening for me. I was so pleased with myself for achieving something.The picture is particularly sentimental for us as it is of Pebbles Beach, in Carlisle Bay, Barbados, where I learned to swim as a small child. Taking Mark there was one of the first things we did when we got into the hire car – the satnav wasn’t working, but I managed to guide him to the place without too much of a detour, largely based on forty-year-old memories and a keen sense of direction. To be fair, the island is only 14 miles by 21 so it’s pretty easy to navigate around, but I was still chuffed to have found it so easily.

Standing on the exquisite white sand in the most brilliant sunshine, I was suddenly eight years old once more, in my tiger swim-suit (long story !), whiling away my days, collecting precious shells and rolling in the surf on Pebbles Beach. The Aquatic Club bar – ‘Pebble Beach Inn’ as it was known then – also had a swimming pool although it’s gone now, having been redeveloped in the intervening years. Patrick (my bestest of boy-friends) and I spent day after day either in the sea or the pool, only being dragged out to eat or drink something then back in the water we went, like a pair of water babies. It’s a strange misnomer, because there isn’t a single pebble on Pebble Beach – and there never has been as far as I can recall, so it was shells that we collected on the rare occasions that we emerged from the water.

Showing my husband of thirty-six years this precious memory meant that finally we could share it together and this of course called for a stroll along the length of the beach. I snapped the picture from the top of the steps, then he helped me jump down the steps and being a rather rotund shape these days, I tippled forward and he, being the gallant knight that he is, staggered forward to help me, so that I would be spared the indignity of rolling into a ball on the hot sand. He’d been taking his specs off and replacing them with his new sunglasses – another, whole different story –  so this process was interrupted during the rockin’ and rollin’ around in the sand.

Fast forward for about an hour as we stroll the entire length of this gorgeous beach and begin our return journey. By now, the heat has gone from the day and the sun is beginning to set -the light is fading exquisitely albeit rapidly, as it does in the Caribbean, being so much closer to the equator and all that. I’m happily snapping away with my new camera at the scenery, the sand, the water, the sky, everything in fact. I turn to take a snap of the FAB Hubby; he’s looking puzzled and just ever-so-slightly panicky.

Why’s he fumbling in his shirt pocket?‘ I ask myself. Then I ask him the same question of course, to which his terrified face blurts out ‘I’ve lost my specs!’.

Now, I should probably explain here that FAB H is virtually blind without his specs. Modern technology has reduced the thickness of the glass these days to something that resembles one of those convex coffee-table paper-weights that people have favoured pressed flowers encased in, as keepsakes or whatever. Jam jars are a thing of the past. Well, mostly anyway. The thing is, he genuinely cannot see a thing without them. So this was a BIG deal.

The entire holiday was on the verge of ruin, for without his eyes, how would he see everything? How would we manage?  Plus, the damned things had just cost an arm and a couple of legs to ensure he had them in time for the holiday. Usually he has photo-chromic lenses which means he doesn’t need separate sunglasses, so there was considerable cursing of the incompetent optician’s assistant whose fault it was that we were now having to negotiate our holiday of a lifetime, minus the ability to actually see anything, since the actual reading glasses had taken themselves off for a little holiday of their own.

It’s quite a long beach it turns out.

We retraced our steps, trying to remain positive, in spite of the increasingly fading light, turning every grain of sand over with our hands and feet, checking to see where they may have been washed into the sea, for, of course, just to complicate matters a little further, the tide was coming in. Fast.

We’d almost given up as we arrived back at the steps to clamber back into the car.

And then I saw them, quietly, even contemplatively, watching the sunset  sitting squarely in the sand, exactly where he’d knocked them out of his pocket when he chivalrously came to my aid earlier.

Lost. And then found again. Just like the beach was.


Now, let’s get back to the present shall we… stop all this lazing around on tropical beaches!

So, I’d ordered this picture to remind him of our wonderful holiday and perhaps to help motivate us both into better frames of mind. I got a great deal and ordered it in a large size – my pictures are meant to be viewed in large formats. This one was about 60cm x 80cm. That’s about 2 feet by about 2 feet 8 inches for those who don’t do decimals.

Thrilled I was.

When I received the email saying it would arrive on Tuesday, I was still feeling thrilled.

On Tuesday I went out of the house for the first time in about … well forever… to go help some friends hang an exhibition in Scarborough hospital. I almost asked my other neighbour to keep an eye out, but she was busy with her three children, so I left it, thinking ‘We’ll be back in good time, it’ll be fine.

Famous last thoughts. ‘It’ll be fine.‘ HAH!

Upon returning home the neighbour and her offspring were still in their garden so I asked about the parcel and she told me our other neighbour, the chap from downstairs, the evil one who made me clean his drains out recently, he was the one who’d taken it in. I sent my son round to go pick it up, but there was some confusion about my apparently ambiguous instruction and the long and short of it was that no-one went to get the parcel that evening. I fretted and worried and got antsy and my *long-suffering men*  ignored my slightly manic state and pressed on with the heavy responsibility of watching TV (or rather, snoring in front of the telly) and raising hell in some imaginary computer game world. Ahem.

Fast forward again to the next morning, when, as usual we were woken by the sound of the recycling truck and staff collecting the recycling waste. Thinking nothing more than ‘Did you put the bins out?’ I turned over and went back to sleep, whilst the FABH got up and pottered about downstairs for a while.

When I rose,  Cleopatra-like, from my slumber a little later on, my first thought was about the picture so I asked if FABH had yet retrieved it and he agreed to put some trousers on and go to collect it. It’s best to not ask about the trousers – just let that one go for now, OK? 

He returned, empty handed, reporting that our (despicable) neighbour had no knowledge of any parcel whatsoever.

I was distraught.

I was beside myself with tormented thoughts.

It wasn’t adding up.

How could he not have known about the parcel? What could have happened to it? Where did the UPS chap leave it?  Did anyone see what he did with it?  These and many more questions began encircling my tiny brain Liz birdies– like the little cartoon birds that used to fly round Sylvester or Tweety Pie’s head when they crashed into something.

I fretted a little more. I envisaged every and any possible scenario regarding my parcel’s fate. Each  a more grisly fate than the last.

The FABH of course remained implacable in the face of potential chaos. He phoned the delivery company (UPS) and we had a delightful conversation with a lovely lady called Sarah, who assured me that the records showed that the parcel had been left in a porch around the back. I explained that this property isn’t what it seems and that ‘around the back‘ are two separate, distinct apartments. She sympathised and suggested that the delivery man might call me himself to explain where he left the parcel. We thought this was an excellent idea and readily agreed.

Then we waited.

Only, I’m not really very good at waiting.

The ants in my pants told me to do it.

I went downstairs and around the back and knocked smartly on my (beastly) neighbour’s door. He was on the phone and clearly, visibly, ignoring me. I could see him through his window. Eventually he gesticulated for me to let myself in, which I did. I asked him about the parcel and he flatly denied all knowledge of it.I described it in detail and he shook his head and threw up his hands, asking me what I wanted to DO about it?

I asked for permission to check his outbuildings- an aluminium shed and another, smaller, store-box, but it wasn’t there. I was even more puzzled now and asked him what I was supposed to think when I’d been told that the delivery man had left it in his domain, but it seemed to have simply vanished. As he sagely nodded his head and attempted to stand up to encourage me to leave, he slumped, in a drunken stupor, to the floor. After helping him to the nearby sofa, I took my cue and left. Clearly, I wasn’t getting anywhere there.

Upon my return, the delivery driver, Carl, rang and we discussed the situation with him. He suggested that usually in these cases, the ‘thief’ makes the mistake of putting the packaging into the rubbish bin, to which the FABH calmly stated that it’s unlikely he’d find any rubbish in the bin as today was collection day… and then we both looked at each other in horror as the realisation of what might have happened set in.

With tears (of anger, frustration, utter disbelief and the ultimate pain of loss) rolling down my face, we thanked Carl for agreeing to pop by the next day to check on the location of the parcel and then all we could do was sit and wait. Again.

I am really rubbish at waiting – we’ve already established this – so around six-ish, I went to call on our other (Polish) neighbour to see if perhaps Carl had been mistaken and left it in his kitchen instead. He hadn’t. And it turned out that our Polish friend had actually seen my parcel in the other neighbour’s kitchen.

What can you do when faced with such evidence? Clearly, I live next to an unstable and apparently vindictive man who thinks nothing of stealing our mail. I considered going to the police, as well as our mutual landlord, but persuaded myself these options seemed drastic. I even emailed the council in the hopes that someone might have spotted the brand-newness of my parcel and put it aside perhaps… to no avail of course. I didn’t sleep a wink and when Carl arrived the next day having taken a good look around the neighbour’s property, he agreed that the only thing to do was set everything in motion to replace the picture. He promised to drop the necessary paperwork off early next week and then he left.

Imagine how delighted I was yesterday morning then when Carl arrived with my replacement parcel! He confided that the paperwork hadn’t been required since, upon ‘further investigation’ (I know not what that entailed), my dastardly neighbour had admitted that he’d taken the parcel in and then put it straight into the recycling collection. Part of me still mourns for that lost picture, but at least now it’s sitting where it’s meant to be – above the sofa across the room from the FABH, so he can be re-inspired each time he looks at it.

Lost. Stolen. Recovered. Or at least replaced.

It’s a picture with a story to tell…

Thanks for reading again!







Thornton-Le-Dale’s hidden magic

Aren’t dogs fabulous? Pet-sitting for Dad for a couple of days this week, I’ve been motivated to get out and about for longer walks each day. When Candy, Dad’s seven-year-old Staffie, returned home on Wednesday, we we left without an obvious reason for going out to walk other than the joy of simply doing that. For many years my lower back pain has been worsening, to the point of forcing me to retire from the job I loved so much for so long – teaching. I had practically come to an almost total standstill, finding myself longing for the days when walking was not only a useful method of transport, but actually fun too. I have been just about able to take some very gentle, albeit rather brief strolls until very recently.

Thanks to the pain management clinic at York Hospital, I have learned to better understand my pain and through a variety of strategies I’ve been able to improve my activity levels significantly, to the point of being able to walk for increasingly longer periods, pain-free. Last week I managed to do a complete circuit, down the back lane and around to the front of our house, a distance of about a half-mile or so, with little difficulty; this week I’ve extended that to walk about double that. Twice a day. So really it’s quadrupled the amount of walking I find I am able to manage. Yay, go me!

So, now that we are dog-gone once more, how could we maintain this daily walking schedule? What motivation did we need?

The answer is simple – I just wanted to be out there, walking. BECAUSE I CAN! It’s no great mystery – walking is, for me at least, one of the most enjoyable forms of exercise I can get.

So, the real question was, ‘Where?’. Living as we do, in the Vale of Pickering, where walking is a generally relaxing and fulfilling pastime, surrounded by nature so beautiful and refreshing, choosing which part of the area to go for a walk is the difficult part. There are so many places to go. I’m going to have to draw up a list!

My FAB Hubby, Mark, suggested a short jaunt around the picturesque village of Thornton-le-dale and I didn’t need much persuasion – we frequently drive through the village on our way up to the Moors, which is by far my most favourite place on this Earth. I’ll write a piece about the Hole of Horcum one day, when I find enough adjectives to gush effectively enough about its divine serenity. But that’s another story.

I wonder if the diagonal harvesting is more efficient?
I wonder if the diagonal harvesting is more efficient?

A fairly short drive of about fifteen minutes from here, through the vale to the tiny village of Allerston and on to the infamous A170 which leads along the top edge of the Vale of Pickering to the picture-box-pretty village of Thornton-le-dale. If you keep on the 170 for a few more miles after Pickering, you would come to the magnificent White Horse at Sutton Bank, where the Vale of  York reaches the town of Thirsk stretching out for miles, leading you deep into Herriot Country, also known as The Yorkshire Dales. World famous beauty, right on our doorstep!

At this time of year the farmers create a patchwork of yellow, as the golden crops are safely gathered in with massive machinery. It is quite a sight and I was particularly taken with this intriguing pattern across a field that spans a considerable gradient, away up on the hills. I wondered if the diagonal lines had proven more efficient than the usual method of travelling up and down, parallel to the hedges.

Arriving into Thornton Dale, as the more modern name of this village is being accepted, you can feel the ancient history that permeates the air. It seems that the first settlers here were Neolithic, with evidence of burial grounds just up the hill through Ellerburn Wood onto Pexton Moor dating from 300BC. The Angles are most likely to have given the village its name as the dense forest of Dalby nearby probably held thorny bushes.

Lady Lumley's Almshouses have stood here since the late Seventeenth century
Lady Lumley’s Almshouses have stood here since the late Seventeenth century

The village is simply filled with gorgeousness. Following the sparkling brook by the main road, we found a parking spot immediately, right by the village cross and eagerly embarked to investigate a place that I had only stopped in a couple of times before. The Lady Lumley Almshouses are currently undergoing refurbishment, which was a little disappointing, but I will go back later to photograph them – it’ll give me another reason to return!

Magical water flows swiftly, only a few inches deep, right through the centre of the village.
Magical water flows swiftly, only a few inches deep, right through the centre of the village.

The clearest water, presumably coming down from the Moors, flows through the centre of the village, casting a magical spell over visitors immediately. It feels like a physical embodiment of Chi – the life-force of the village. I made a secret wish and felt a peaceful sense of calm simply watching the fast-flowing water as it danced vivaciously towards the little bridge.

Bridges over the brook are numerous in Thornton Dale
Bridges over the brook are numerous in Thornton Dale
The bridge to Lavender's Tea Shoppe
The bridge to Lavender’s Tea Shoppe

A short stroll shows where the stream  was divided, presumably by the Victorians, to provide power to the houses that face onto the village green. Some of these have been amalgamated into a charming tea-shoppe planted with an abundance of lavender. Each of these houses has a small stone bridge to provide access over the water.

More bridges lead to the homes and businesses from the road – wildflowers complete the picture of serenity.

Aubretia thrives by the brook
Aubretia thrives by the brook
I orbed it, of course!
I orbed it, of course!
The Old Post Office has a sentry on guard
The Old Post Office has a sentry on guard

I was saddened though to find that the village post-office has closed since my last visit. I had been charmed by the Post Master there, an elderly man, who knew everybody in the village personally  and who took great pride in treating this knowledge with honour and respect. It’s a terrible shame that we allow these traditions to die out. All that’s left now is the pillar box as it stands on guard duty at the edge of the stream.

With a sense of adventure, we traversed the first bridge. The scent of woody growth and clear, fresh water pervaded and we were instantly treated to the bucolic scene of a small weir, with ducks happily negotiating their naps or foraging for food within. The light here became even more entrancing than before, as it dappled the water through the tiny gaps in the leaves.

The light dappled over the water mesmerizingly
The light dappled over the water mesmerizingly

And then, the grandest surprise of them all presented itself! I had never suspected that there was a beautiful pond, complete with wildfowl of various kinds and a  well-worn path around as well as benches at strategic points.

The Pond presented itself as a secret revealed
The Pond presented itself as a secret revealed

How could I not have known this was here? As ducks, drakes, coots and moorhens quacked and chuckled, the exquisite surroundings seemed to take on a life of their own – I felt almost as if I were looking through a Pensieve: given a unique, Dumbedorian opportunity to view Paradise.

The white duck swam serenely by...
The white duck swam serenely by…

Ducks and other wildfowl clucking and nattering to each other, to me, to anyone who was listening; young children with their mothers, mid-day joggers, teenagers and older couples dotted around The Pond, all drawing life-affirming sustenance from simply being there.

Picnicking in the sunshine by the pond
Picnicking in the sunshine by the pond
An elderly couple enjoy an ice-cream across the pond
An elderly couple enjoy an ice-cream across the pond

I was utterly bewitched.

The duckling was separated from his mother
The duckling was separated from his mother

A tiny duckling had lost its mother.

The duckling spotted his mother and just went for it...
Splash! In he goes!
Splash! In he goes!
The duckling spotted his mother and just went for it…

He peeped and piped on a lofty note, increasing his alarm as the moments passed – his dive into the water when he spotted his parent was euphoric and a delight to witness.

The Hole in the Wall
The Hole in the Wall

Through the hole in the wall a modern car-park was secreted – I determined that I would have to bring my children and grandchildren here and this convenience made it even more accessible.

Age before Beauty!
Age before Beauty!

Growing against the wall are ancient roses and other flora – I came upon these lovely examples that immediately made e think of the old adage ‘age before beauty’ – so that’s what I called this picture.

The Morning Glory basked in the sunshine
The Morning Glory basked in the sunshine

Whilst the Morning Glory flowers drank in the sunshine, we decided to head back towards the car. I needed longer, but since Time waits for no man, reluctantly I had to draw away.

Tome waits for no man...
Time waits for no man…
So, of course I orbed this too!
So, of course I orbed this too!
Brambles Antiques marketing ploy - an elderly delivery cycle
Brambles Antiques marketing ploy – an elderly delivery cycle

The antique shop on the corner by the crossroad holds a plethora of delights to be explored another day; the bakery’s fine produce provided a delicious lunch and trinkets of sublime synchronicity bade us a fond farewell.

My daughter and her daughter's names called out to us...
My daughter and her daughter’s names called out to us…

We will definitely be back!

As always, thanks for reading!





Festive Fire

Ah, it’s approaching that time of year, which where I come from is called ‘Stir-it-in Sunday’. That, for those who think I’m developing delusions of being a lexicographer (go look it up!), is a day, usually in late October, when people traditionally make their rich fruit cakes or ‘Christmas cakes’. The theory is that you make them on the last Sunday in October so that all of the ingredients have time to develop deeper flavour in the weeks leading up to the big day. As the cake is being made, each member of the family should stir in their special wish before the mixture is placed into the cake tin ready for baking. Then you wrap the cooked cake in foil or baking paper to keep it from going stale and then place this, reverently, into an air-tight tin.

Some people (as my FAB hubby’s grandma used to do) like to uncover the cake once a week and add copious amounts of alcohol – brandy, dark rum, aged whisky or sherry depending of the favoured tipple – to keep everything properly moist inside the cake. The liquid plumps out the dried fruit and makes for a really good, very rich fruit cake to be enjoyed as part of the festive celebrations. Yummity, yum, yum YUM! Ahem.

Mint Spies - clearly a code word for something ...
Mint Spies – clearly a code word for something …

Of course, one can take these things a little too far.

I’m sure you wouldn’t, would you?

And you can be doubly sure that I wouldn’t.


Do that.

Because, you know that I’m, like, a kitchen goddess, right?

My mint spies are, simply, to die for!

What’s that? You’ve never heard of ‘Mint Spies’? WOW! Have YOU got a lot to learn about being a kitchen goddess!

Oh, alright, I will reveal the secret code word’s meaning.

When I taught seven-year-old children at Quarry Bay School in Hong Kong, I had a very high percentage of Chinese children in my class. For them, English was often not just their second language, but frequently their third or even fourth language that they were having to learn. And yes, these kids were SEVEN years old! It never failed to amaze me that such young children could cope so expertly with the vagaries of learning three or four different languages simultaneously. And cope they did – brilliantly. Most of the time. Until they met me.

I love word play.

‘NO!’ I hear you shout in disbelief!

It’s true! Almost nothing delights me more than a silly pun or play on words. Almost. I mean, c’mon, some of those cat videos on YouTube are just hilarious! And that one of the ducklings that get blown over in the freak gust of wind… well, THAT makes me giggle more than a good pun, of course. I’m only human for goodness sakes!

But I digress. Again.

I had a little boy in my class – let’s call him ‘Alan’. My FAB hubby loves the name Alan. He wanted to call all of our children Alan. Even the girls. It’s a bit of a standing joke now in the family – he’s progressed to thinking of a feminine version of the name, ‘Alana’ – and each time a new grandchild has come along he’s referred to them as either Alan or Alana for most of the time.

But, once again, I’m off track.

What is WITH me today?

ANYHOO… Alan, little boy in my class, who speaks, what, seven different languages – one for each year of his life so far. I kid you not – he spoke Cantonese (of course!) and Mandarin because his father was Hong Kong born of Mainland parents, as well as Japanese and Korean because his mother held dual nationality; then he also spoke Indonesian and Tagalog thanks to having grown up with domestic helpers from Jakarta and the Philippines. And he’s been getting to grips with English since he arrived at our school some eighteen months before.  So, my hat is not only off, but sweeping the floor as I bow to his superior lexical diversity.

It’s approaching the end of the first term in my class and he’s sort of aware that I say things that he finds a bit, well, odd. I make silly jokes all the time, which confuses him. He knows I’m not mocking him and he too has learned to love the silly word play – he revels in it in fact, because to him all words are just damned silly. So the fact that his teacher thinks they’re worth playing around with is a delight to him. And the end of term means a big Christmas party, woo hoo!! We go through a long list of party foods that people like to bring and I’m organising who’s going to bring what as their contribution. Alan hasn’t volunteered anything yet and when I ask him if perhaps he could get him mum/helper to make some mince pies he’s puzzled.

‘Mint spies?’ he asks tentatively, trying to match up in his mind’s eye how pale green coloured James Bond’s might somehow relate to a food that he’s being tasked with bringing to the Christmas party. ‘What is ‘mint spies’, please, Mrs G?’.

Ah! Mint Spies = minced pies. See, I told you it was easy as pie. Ahem.
Ah! Mint Spies = minced pies. See, I told you it was easy as pie. Ahem.

So, since then, we’ve always referred to the delicious confection of sweetened mixed fruit and seasonal spices wrapped inside delicate short-crust pastry as ‘Mint Spies’. I mean, who the hell wouldn’t?

So… now, where were we?

Ah, yes, I am a kitchen goddess. I remember. Vaguely.

Such a goddess in the kitchen that I actually make my own mincemeat too. None of that overly sugary, cloying confection that you buy in the supermarket for me and mine, no siree! When it comes to Stir-it-in Sunday, I not only make the Christmas cake, but I also pot up about half a dozen jars of home-made Lizzie’s Special Mincemeat too.

I haven’t always done this – just in the past seven or eight years – because, I must confess, before that I hadn’t actually realised that it was POSSIBLE to actually make it yourself. I’d always bought my mincement at the supermarket, ready made, like it was born that way (à la Gaga) in jars with labels stating increasingly adventurous ingredients. Initially, it was just your normal Robinsons’ mincemeat – no fuss, no frills, no fancy stuff here, thank you very much. That did the trick for many years and had done the trick for many years before I’d ever started making them, because that’s how my mother made mince pies too. Before we went to Hong Kong in ’92, I’d started trying Sainsbury’s special mincemeat, with added whisky or better still, Drambuie and noticed improved flavour each time.

Then of course in Hong Kong, I could only get Robinsons’ mincemeat in the NAAFI which used to stand on the corner of Queensway, before the Handover. For five years that’s what we had each festive season. And then after the Handover in ’97, when the big supermarkets (Park’n’Shop and Wellcome) started stocking more Western produce, we were able to get such odd delicacies with our everyday shopping. I never once, in all that time, considered that it would be  possible to actually make it myself, which with hindsight was remarkably slow of me.

It was only upon my return to the UK in 2005 that it suddenly occurred to me mincemeat could be made by ordinary people, it wasn’t a naturally occurring product and that was I could put whatever fruit, spices and alcohol I liked into my mincemeat. What a revelation!

So, what with my own recipe for the filling and my lovely short-crust pastry (which I learned to make as a teenager – it’s always great, because the secret is to keep everything extremely cold, fats remain in the fridge until the last possible moment, I even chill the flour and use water from the fridge too as well as making sure I’ve got VERY cold hands), my mint spies are truly a work of art.

You can only imagine how good the Christmas cake has to be then.

Christmas cakes are the most special of celebration fare. For me, they symbolise sharing the whole Spirit of Christmas more than anything else. The planning and preparation of this fruit cake are almost more important than the cutting and eating part, although I think that’s the bit I like most of course!

I have this ritual, where I make a list of the ingredients I need and then go shopping for them. When I get home, I put all the ingredients out on the worktop and then I get out all the equipment I need. And there’s a wHole lot of stuff needed – huge bowl, medium bowl and at least three small bowls, so that I feel like I’m in Momma Bear’s kitchen awaiting the  untimely entrance of the golden-haired wild-child hoodlum, named ‘Goldie’.

Once everything is ready, I get the alcohol out.

Well, a glass of wine at this stage can’t hurt now, can it?

What’s that you say… but it’s only ten in the morning? No worries mate! (as my Aussie friends assure me) The alcohol is for the CAKE, not for me. Well, not all of it anyway!

Now, I’m going to take you back in time. We need a big-assed time machine here, like a TARDIS or that fantastic Time Machine that the boys in The Big Bang Theory managed to win in an online auction. Or the Doc Emmet Brown’s De Lorean from ‘Back to the Future’  or, and this is my particular favourite of course, Hermione’s ‘Time Turner’ necklace from ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’. I bought my daughter one of those because she, like her mother, is obsessed with all things magical from the world of Harry Potter. Are you ready? Let’s set the dial for late October, Stir-it-in-Sunday if you will, 1993.

Various modes of time travel are required here...
Various modes of time travel are required here…

Do-do-do-do. Da-dah-da-dah!

Wiggly-wobbly, everything’s wibbly-woggly!

It sounds like someone’s playing the record backwards again…

I’m melting! I’m melting! (No, sorry, that’s a different movie… my bad!)

And BUMP! Here we are back in nineteen-ninety-three.

More precisely, we’re in the tiny kitchen of our twelve-hundred square foot flat on Robinson Road. Hong Kong apartments generally have kitchens that are unsuitable for cooking in, there’s just a couple of hob-rings for using sauce pans or, more likely frying pans/woks on and there’s no oven at all. Often, there’s precious little room for a fridge and food storage space is a joke. This is why there are so many great eating places in Hong Kong – or maybe the small, inappropriate kitchens are a result of there being such a variety of restaurants… it’s a chicken and egg thing I suppose! In any case, making such a culinary curiosity like a Christmas cake is going to be challenging in this Hong Kong kitchen.

We’d lived here now for about fourteen months and of course, when we moved in we purchased new kitchen equipment. Everything had to be new because the only things we brought with us from Blighty was the dining room table & chairs, our double bed and my study desk. And a few clothes of course. We’d sold absolutely everything else we owned so that we could afford to make that actual move.

So the oven in the tiny kitchen was not that old. I’d decided to get one of those new-fangled microwave/convection combined ovens largely to save space as it was at a premium. It had been good value and satisfied the requirements to cook food perfectly and we were generally pleased with it.

My domestic helper at the time had a habit of piling newspapers on top of the microwave – I had admonished her several times, but she kept doing it and frankly, I had given up moving them all the time because, well, I probably had bigger fish to fry. She also had mentioned to me a week or two earlier that the oven had developed a habit of switching from one mode to another, somewhat unpredictably. She said she’d been microwaving some frozen vegetables and it had started convection-cooking them instead. She swore she had not touched the controls, but I took her words with the proverbial pinch of salt because she had hitherto frequently made some rather far-fetched claims to cover her incompetence. I paid it no heed whatsoever.

So, it is Stir-it-in-Sunday and my FAB hubby is in another country (I can’t remember where- he was always galavanting off around the region *fixing* Amex’s computers or business models somewhere or another). Daughter Number Two is relaxing in Baguio Villas, Pok Fu Lam with her classmates after a sleepover at her friend’s house there. There’s just me, Daughter Number One and the two cats, Snuggles and Purr, having a nice lazy Sunday and making the Christmas cake.

Everything is properly prepared, all the fruit has been well and truly steeped in alcohol overnight and the cake has been stirred in, mixed up and placed into the convection oven to bake at a low temperature for about three hours. Washing up completed, I turn to Donna and say ‘Fancy a quick trip to Pacific Place? We can get some shopping done and then go to MacD’s for lunch’.

She is naturally delighted with my suggestion and having checked the cake, off we go.

Pacific Place was THE new shopping mall then. Bright, shiny, brand-spanking new, this cathedral of consumerism was where we spent a lot of spare time. For a start it was remarkably, uncannily clean and tidy all the time. I swear little robots emerged from behind secret compartments in the marble walls to swiftly remove any evidence of littering or strange smells, the place was so sterile you could perform open-heart surgery on the floor if you were so inclined. Fortunately, I never was.

We did our shopping and ate our trusty fast food in about an hour and then jumped into a taxi to return home well within the time-frame that my cake should have needed to be cooked.

As we entered the lift from the lobby, I turned to my daughter and declared ‘Phew! Who would be burning cheese on toast on a Sunday afternoon eh?’ because there was a frightfully unpleasant smell that I thought I had accurately described, coming from somewhere above us. Now, our flat was only on the first floor so the lift-ride didn’t take very long and when the lift doors opened, it was clear that the smell was in fact coming from our apartment.

We turned left out of the lift and squeaked in horror as we realised that there were smoke tendrils wisping out from under the door and from around the door casing. Grabbing my keys from my bag I started to open the door, hands fumbling furiously to work the alien lock. Finally, the door sprang open and a sight I shall never forget in a million years met my eyes: the short hallway was filled from the ceiling to within a foot of the floor with thick, acrid black smoke. The whole apartment was entirely filled with smoke.

‘Grab the cats!’ I shouted at Donna, as I raced into the smoke, trying to locate the trapped animals. ‘Then, get them out of here!’ I added as I disappeared into the kitchen where I could see the flames licking the oven door frantically.

‘Damn her!’ I exclaimed as I realised that the oven was on fire and this fire was being fuelled by the idly placed newspapers on top of the oven. There were blue sparks feeding the frenzy inside the oven and I have no idea what presence of mind possessed me at this moment, but I managed to turn the electricity supply off and pull the plug out of the socket on the wall, before turning on my heels and fleeing from the scene.

Donna had hold of Purr and had run with him into the lobby. I saw Snuggles crawling on his belly towards the fresh air and scooped him up as I dashed out of the door too. I slammed it shut behind me, mindful of the need to keep the smoke contained – this outer door was three inches thick and made of solid hardwood, it would likely withstand the heat for long enough to save us from the fire that would otherwise have engulfed us.

We banged on the only neighbour’s door and fell into their flat, blubbering about fire and needing the emergency services. At this point I realised that I had left my keys on the dining room table, where I had thrown them on the way to the kitchen. The firemen had to break the door down in order to get in and finally douse the remains of the fire. It cost me three thousand dollars to replace!

It had been a very sobering time. Fortunately and rather miraculously, apart from a ruined cake, cake tin and oven, everything else was undamaged. Both animals were checked over by the vet who declared they had no lasting injuries, although they, like the two of us, would have sore throats for a few days, from excessive smoke inhalation.

It turned out that the oven had flicked over from the setting I had put it onto, convection at 150 degrees for three hours, to microwaving on full power, probably shortly after we had left the flat an hour before. Bearing in mind that I was cooking the cake in a metal cake tin (as you do!) and that these elements do not function well with microwaves, it’s a wonder that the whole building wasn’t alight let alone the minimal damage that we got away with!

My Christmas cake and its excessive alcohol content has been a standing joke within the family for the past twenty years now. It took me a couple of years to pluck up the courage to make another one, but I’m glad to say that having learned some important lessons, my Christmas cake is back to being a guaranteed part of our preparations for celebrating the end of another year and the togetherness of my wonderful family.

I’m off shopping next week for supplies… somebody put the fire brigade at Def Con Four please…

First days

A much over used phrase, some might say
A much over used phrase, some might say

It’s often overused this phrase, frequently under inappropriate circumstances, but today it is totally right, the most befitting sentiment. For today our youngest child had his first day at sixth form college.

He’s elected to go to a new place, one where he can begin his chosen career. He wants to be an actor. That’s a ridiculous thing to say because he hasn’t chosen to be an actor, he just IS one. He’s had comic timing down to an art form since he was a foetus – truly, I mean who wouldn’t take their hat off to a small human who bounced into a family with two teenage sisters without blinking an eye? He’s always been the centre of attention so that box was ticked from day one as well.

If it’s at all possible, Toby could make a drama out of a piece of wet lettuce – and believe me when I tell you he’s done it all.

His was a mammoth thirty four hour labour, ending in an emergency C-section and costing an arm and a leg at the Matilda Hotel as the maternity hospital on Victoria Peak is known locally.

He almost lost a toe when a thread in his onesie nearly cut the circulation off at two weeks of age.

His febrile convulsions as a toddler caused unprecedented maniacal alarm the day before our first scheduled trip to the UK from Hong Kong. Other kids get ear infections and they cry a bit; Toby’s temperature spiked so fast, Usain Bolt couldn’t have caught up with it. And he kept repeating this act, just to keep us all on our toes.

He fell over in the playground at the age of two and sliced his head on a post so that he looked like he’d been acting in a slasher movie – copious amounts of blood everywhere was incredibly alarming for all to see.  That one was six stitches.

Let's keep him well padded!
Let’s keep him well padded!

Plus, he could not be kept off a hockey or rugby pitch from the earliest age… when he decided to follow in my footsteps and become a hockey goalie, we heaved a sigh of relief because at least this meant there was a layer of padding and a substantial, hard helmet between him and …. well, everything else in fact!. He’s been on first name terms with every local hospital since he first took a breath and I cannot tell you how many times I’ve thought he was just not going to make it to his next birthday, so accident prone was he as a small child.

Other people have appendicitis. Not Toby. Last April he became deathly ill and after two days of agony we carted him off to the hospital where they eventually operated on him, still unsure at the start of the operation whether or not it was appendicitis. It was in fact peritonitis as his appendix had blown itself to smithereens. Which is horrible enough under normal circumstances, but Toby had yet another trick up his sleeve – a game of hide and seek with internal organs is generally not the best of ideas. His appendix scar isn’t like everyone else’s –  tucked neatly just off the left hip, about two inches in length, but lies instead from belly button to pubic bone as that was where the amazing consultant managed to finally locate the remains of his appendix.

He wasn’t quite done with the medical dramas – just before embarking on important mock exams earlier this year he managed to wrench his ankle ligaments so badly (playing hockey of course) that he couldn’t get to school for six more weeks – that he passed his exams in June is more miracle than one family has any right to even hope for, so his crop of nine good GCSE’s is testament to his intelligence and (to quote Professor McGonagall) ‘sheer dumb luck!’

So, launching into his sixth form experience, studying acting and film studies at York College is entirely the right thing for him to pursue. He’s had sixteen and a half years of training for it. I couldn’t be more sure of it, or proud of him. Go Toby!

First day at Kindy back in 2000
First day at Kindy back in 2000