Banana to the rescue

I try to sleep sensibly the night before teaching. I almost always fail. There is always some last little bit of reading to do, and before it can be done there is the whole breadth of the internet to explore. On good weeks I annotate the key points from the texts in tidy blue rows marching down the page, marshalled by dashes and dots, and continue with a plan for the seminars. It almost feels like writing out a framework for what should be sitting in my student’s heads when they leave, but built and furnished with their own thoughts. On bad weeks I frame my lesson plan while listening to the lecture immediately before it, sending mental support to my colleague as he projects up to a hundred students on rising tiers of seats, explaining, summarising, indicating where else to read. Some weeks I don’t even have the energy for that.

Last week was not a good week.

The night before a teaching day, so late that only snoring is heard from upstairs, I patter around the kitchen part-assembling my breakfast. Coffee and water go in the little espresso maker – you know the kind, the aluminium one with the crook handle that gets more pitted and scorched with age, and produces steadily better coffee – and it goes on the stove ready for a fire to click into life under it. If there is food that can be lunch, it gets decanted into a box or a bag. I set the measuring jug and my thermos next to the hot water boiler. In the morning, on a good week, I will remember to make the tea in the measuring jug and pour it into the thermos, and so soothe my talking-weary voice during that tricky third seminar.

On a not-good week, I make for the tube station without time for porridge and find the Underground standing still for someone else’s misfortune at another station. On a not-good week, I sit with itchy eyes in a narrow seat, crabbit and overcome with sleepiness. On a not-good week, some students seem to need spoonfeeding while others are already leaping ahead, demanding challenges. The dismal beating silence between contributions expands, and I am too dry-throated and dust-brained and tired to exhort more discussion.

I meet my fellow tutor on our way out. ‘How d’you find it today?’ ‘Ach, kinda grim, but that might be because I’m worried about other stuff’. ‘Aye, mine too. And me too. Money’s kinda tight. I’d say we should go to the pub, but I’m honestly too hard up’

We grin in morbid understanding for a moment and say cheery-despite-it-all goodbyes on our way home to finally eat lunch. (It being a not-good week financially, too, I’m also too hard up to buy a canteen meal). He heads out the door, then comes back in. ‘I’ll stand you a half. Come on’.

Across the road from the pub, there is a pound-a-bowl stand outside a shop. I count out the coins in my wallet. ‘I’m going to get some bananas or I’ll fucking well keel over’. Twenty, twenty, twenty, ten ten ten, five five. Just enough for seven jolly-coloured fruit, and four pence left to me. I hand him one and peel one for myself and we eat them so fast we barely break our stride through the pub door as we throw the skins in the bin outside.

Published in: on January 30, 2012 at 1:09 am  Comments (1)  

Skeggy in December

I didn’t really know about Skegness. Do you? I just thought of it as the place where the grim people in the Adrian Mole books go on holiday, in caravans. Like Blackpool but without a pleasure beach or a pier. Somewhere in England, where all the towns are crowded together tight and it’s hard to pick them apart from each other.

Skegness has lights, everywhere, and primary-coloured plastic signs which say FUN and GAMBLING, but using different words. Sometimes a word will do for both of these things, like AMUSEMENTS. I was staying in the Butlins with two friends, and the AMUSEMENTS we derived from out stay there were equally split between pleasure in each other’s company, bemusement at being in a Butlins and genuine enjoyment of the possibilities for old-fashioned relaxation and enjoyment. It is pointless and cruel to be ironic about Butlins. It is what it is: a joy factory, an extremely effective machine for wringing pound coins out of the pockets of parents and a place of healthy indulgence. Or not very healthy, if you eat the food. We self-catered, and took turns cooking. Cheap and simple accommodation is one thing: cheap and unpleasant food is inimical to enjoyment. In the main enclosure there was a hot dog stand that did not smell of hot dogs. It had lavish colour pictures and a simple but nicely printed menu, but the smell around it was the same whiff of all the buildings: chlorine and a whisper of mildew from the crevices of the big-top style roof. I mistrust a hot dog stand that does not smell of hot dogs, especially since, canonically, the best thing about hot dogs is the smell.

Skegness’s beach is bigger than the whole town. It is bigger than your eyes. You can look in any direction and out of the corner of each eye there is just more beach. It is so big, and so brown, and so empty, that I think they built a town full of lights and arcades and fish and chips and low brick buildings with small grubby windows just so there could be a sense of huddling together, to make up for the vastness of the beach. The sand is clean and a moderate English tan, with little brown baby scallop shells sprinkled along it, and a wind farm on an opposite bank, all turbines at slightly different angles so that some catch the wind and spin while others rest. On the December weekend I was there, there were other walkers on the promenade every half hour or so. One man had three pretty spaniels who sat and watched me intently as I approached, while he leaned against the railing and looked out to sea. There were two teenagers on bikes, and a little flock of oystercatchers. I wrote a haiku about the bigness and sparseness and sent it to a man who likes silence, I thought it might go

Waves sigh onto sand
Horizon divides blue from blue
On my mind, your eyes.

But I substituted the soppy last line and wrote instead.

Waves sigh onto sand
Horizon divides blue from blue
One seagull, and me.

I thought my demonstrated affinity for aloneness might bring us together.

The promenade in December is full of things that aren’t there. There are signs warning not to stop in a turning circle for a train that is, presumably, packed up in a shed. There is an empty trailer claiming to host a show called Skeggy’s Got Talent, but whose microphones are silent. There are lots of fish and chip places and bars that claim to do karaoke, but they are almost all closed. There is one bar, quite far up the beach, which has a fake brown creosoted ship with a lady figurehead and a Union Jack flying from it, sitting almost on the sand. You can sit in the fake ship while you drink. The flag looked cheery, but no-one was sitting outside in the wind, drinking.

When I have been walking for two miles or more, I almost always want a cup of tea and a srupag. Chapel St Leonards is the kind of place where someone will sell you a nice cup of tea and a srupag (although they will not call it that) and probably call you ‘ducks’, I thought. And they did. In a bakery, two women with bleached-might-be-grey-underneath hair and snap-on coveralls sold me a nice cup of tea and a mince pie. This wasn’t a too-rich, too-soft supermarket mince pie, either. This was a no-fooling homemade pie that was mostly a cloudy, bland burst of homemade pastry and a thin slice of sweet mincemeat between. It was just the right size to go with a mug of tea. I sat down in a row of three tables along the wall opposite the counter. A little trompe-l’oiel cabinet opened its doors onto a mirror, and next to it a set of shelves held fancy goods for sale: toiletry sets, and novelty cruets: lighthouses, beach huts, boats.

Three holidaymakers on my left ate fluffy round baps folded over very flat bacon. At the next table over, three elderly women passed the afternoon. They wore smart coats in pastel colours, and two little dogs sat under their chairs. Their conversation stretched out to include the ladies working in the bakery as they passed by the table. A young man came through the door and the nearest lady stood up and hugged him. She stayed standing, like she wanted to hug him again. He dabbed at his eyes.

‘It’s just…’ he said. ‘It’s just…I don’t know’. His voice had a stone wall in it, like the words he needed were at the bottom of a stream and to get them out he would have to dive in and be soaked in grief. ‘I’m going over to the hospital tomorrow and. I don’t know. It’ll just…’ and he tailed off. The lady hugged him round his middle again like someone who wants to deliver all the love they can by using their whole surface area, pressed against someeone who is hurting too hard to feel it. The young man left and the old women sighed. The woman from behind the counter came over and set down an old, clean square margarine box on their table. It had small bits of something in. What do they get from the bakery that non-regulars don’t get? I thought, not quite awful enough to be jealous. ‘You’ve had some bad news, then’ she said quietly.

‘The baby’s not going to survive’ said one of the women.
‘Oh. Oh, how awful’ said another and they sat for a minute. I finished my tea and they talked on, quietly. ‘That baby were doomed from six weeks into the pregnancy’ said one, dark and quiet.

I got up to go on out back to the beach, with sympathetic solemnity on my face. I wondered what the young man was to the baby who wouldn’t survive, and I sent some love back after him like the lady’s hug, that was more about her doing what she could than him feeling anything. And I looked in the square margarine box on their table. It was dog biscuits. Just biscuits for the dogs.

Published in: on January 27, 2012 at 12:54 am  Leave a Comment  

First Meals of Dead Romance

I have never had trouble remembering the first meal that I ate with a lover, until now.  Usually, I would daydream about it and plan each flavour to please them.  The nerves of the day of that first date would go into a mental tickover of purchasing, timing, expertise needed and results hoped for.  

I would not cook always to dazzle, but certainly to impress.  Like the little black dress that draws attention to the woman wearing it by its well-cut unobtrusiveness, the first meal of a courtship should linger at the edges of the memory.  Dinner should be well-executed enough to speak of your competence and flair – to sing of it, even – but it should neither take all the attention away from the spark between the two of you nor be so large and heavy that you have no appetite for anything more. 

For one long-haired academic, twitching always with thinking-energy, not overly concerned with the subtleties of palate but appreciative of a solid meal, I put together home-made hamburgers.  He had called almost by accident asking for a couch to stay on in my city, post-seminar, that same evening.  In the open air of the eastbound platforms at Whitechapel, I assented down the phone and looked at myself, smart-clad from a meeting I’d been attending.  Dinner would need to be thrown together, form a decent backdrop to a promising evening.  When I got home I rolled up the sleeves of my chic little cardigan and, earrings bobbing and glass of wine at hand, conjured up the burgers.  Like my mother used to do when we were children, I squeezed ground beef through my fingers and added finely chopped onion and as many fresh herbs as the mix would bear.  The squat, fat patties went on some tinfoil under the grill and I sliced tomato, red onion and avocado.  ‘I don’t think I’ve ever had home-made hamburgers before’ said my friend, in his handsome little Cambridge accent.  The first bottle of wine accompanied the burgers – just as badly, but enjoyably, as my friend and I accompanied each other, as it turned out.  The second bottle came with no such excuse, but was only opened to loosen the words from our mouths.


For one girl, smooth-haired and round-nosed, I purloined the expensive smoked scallops my flatmates had bought for Christmas before they went off to visit family.  They were almost out of date anyway, I reasoned.  The pumpkin and chorizo soup I followed them with was less impressive: I choose to remember, instead, the way she slipped each translucent, sea-perfumed slice of muscle into her mouth, chasing it with a sip of single malt.  I remember also the way she sat on my bed as I stood, a little blustering and overwhelmed, and how she spread her skirt out enough for me to see two black stripes of stocking top, two touchable sweeps of thigh and, dead centre, knickers in so cheery and bright a pattern, I couldn’t be intimidated.  Dumbstruck, yes, but not intimidated.  Later, we propped ourselves up on my old pink eiderdown, drinking sloe gin from little brandy snifters and fancying ourselves 1920s heroines of some silent film. 


One man took me to Rules.  He requested the table which would give me the fullest view of their mural of Margaret Thatcher.  I rewarded this only with a raised eyebrow.  He had grouse, I had pigeon.  The vegetable sides came as purees, served in tiny silver salvers.  At his flat, we discovered in a fit of giggles that my maroon evening dress blended perfectly into the colour of his bedsheets, so it looked as though my torso were camouflaged with only my head and shoulders emerging.


For one man, I cooked lamb chops in a mushroom broth on my sad, solid-state cooker ring for four hours until the meat fell off the bones and he fell into my bed.  But that is a less good story than the second meal I made for him: determined to outdo myself, determined to give us a meal worth talking about, I raided the grand Victorian cemetery near my house for nettles.  It was spring, about this time three years ago, and the nettle tops were sweet and tender with a sting that was easily massaged away (rather like me, in fact!  If you plunge me into boiling water for a minute, I lose all my harshness.)  Cashews from the food co-op, pecorino brought by a friend visiting from Rome and a great long slurp of olive oil, then half a patient hour at the blender, and I had nettle pesto fit to feed a king.  I steamed some chicken thighs and arrayed them over lovely, peely-skinned Jersey new potatoes, and dolloped my pesto on top in pale green stripes.  ‘This meal is made from the phosphates of dead people’ I told him, rather ghoulishly.  Maybe I will make him nettle pesto again this year.  It’s our third not-our-anniversary as loving, injoke-getting, favour-doing, beer-sharing exes.   


Yet the one man I cannot remember cooking for is the one who liked food most, and with whom I spoke most about food.  I cannot recall what it was I made for him, at first.  I can tell you that last night we ate steamed salmon fillets,  crushed potatoes and leeks made interesting with caramelised onions, sunflower seeds, cream cheese and white wine.  I can tell you that we went upstairs with a bottle of wine and had an affectionate, sensible discussion of how much easier it would be to just be friends.  I can tell you that we parted smiling, with plans to go eat crispy duck sometime soon, and I walked him to the bus stop and watched his bus out of sight.  But from round the corner, so he wouldn’t notice me doing so.

Published in: on January 24, 2012 at 12:45 am  Leave a Comment