English, Paper One.

A super-quickie post today as I am on official exam taxi service duty with a fairly frantic schedule and extremely stressed customers. IMG_7548

My Small Girl made my day by handing me, for the first time, a little note of her own composition. Many years ago, I framed a note that Teenage Son gave me. A couple of years later I stuck a note from his little sister into the same frame. The third note followed about six years ago and now, finally, I have the complete set. One of the many reasons I love these notes, in this frame, is that they all have a bonus on the reverse side.

From youngest up:

Small Girl: I love you Mum.
Reverse: Shoes.

The girl is succinct, accurate and cleverly references our shared appreciation of good shoes.

Middle Daughter: Mommy you are the best Mammy in the world.
Reverse: lovely illustration of Mammy and girl in a heart.

A complete sweetheart who knows how to fit a world of love into one perfect sentence.

Teenage Daughter: I love you (with garden scene and bird in the sky).
Reverse: To mama, I had a lovey day. ps there is a pachr (picture) on the back

My kind, appreciative girl who has been artistically inclined from the beginning.

Teenage Son: Opin (open, the note was folded)
Top Sucrt (secret).
Tod Toyday Todoay
I say taic (thank) yoyu for letine (letting) me sleep wit you.
Reverse:Form (from) Markk
I love you Mammy. (accompanied by his habitually armless people)

This boy just came home from English, Paper One. He is, honestly, one of the smartest people I know. I just have to hope his examiner can see what I see.

 

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Does that explain why my nerves are shredded?

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New Girl.

New Girl.

That Tracy Chevalier book, New Boy, did that thing that good books, the best books, sometimes do. It shook one of my boxes until the clasp opened and old aches leaked out.  I didn’t manage to write the review I wanted to write because I was avoiding it. Too busy stuffing it all back in the box and sitting on the lid. The way books work on my mind is still a complete mystery to me but here is a weird thing. I went straight from New Boy to The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney. It’s a free falling, foul mouthed blast of brutal honesty. I’m hitting the final quarter of it and find it has turned a key somewhere. Unleashed me.

Where to start, where to start…

I was a new girl, over and over, a perpetual new girl, a repeat offender. The first time, I was nine. But there is something important here. It’s not being the new girl that’s the thing, it’s being different, and that started before we moved. Do you remember the ocean at the end of my bed? That changed everything, just as much as if it had actually changed the colour of my skin. My mother mourned her lost baby and raged against the wreck of her marriage. Glass after glass crashed against the kitchen wall. My father took the train to Galway to comfort his bereaved mistress. We met him one weekend in Athlone, the halfway mark, and he gave me The Hobbit. That’s all I kept outside the box. But we all were marked. We may as well have been burnt black.

It was as if the kids in the school yard could smell smoke on my clothes. There was something not right about me. Something dangerous. And then my parents embarked on a new beginning.

We left Kildare on the very day Diana married Charles. I stood in front of the portable telly in the kitchen watching a fairytale unfold while men carried the table away, the chair from under me.

And then I was the New Girl. Gentle, kindly Sr. Frances taking me under the wing of her habit, reading a book about Benji the dog while I cried into my folded arms.

It wasn’t awful. I wasn’t bullied. I just moved round the edges like an extra piece of a jigsaw. Cork people speak a different language, by the way, it was Christmas before I understood a whole sentence or could distinguish ‘nyah’ (no) from ‘yah’ (yes). Actually, I still run into trouble with that one.

See, I’m feeling better already.

I liked the order of the place. I liked wearing a uniform, navy pinafore and pink jumper that my mother had made on her knitting machine before we left Kildare. I don’t remember the knitting machine turning up in Cork, now that I think about it. I liked changing into indoor slippers and being the best at Geography. To be fair, the girls were nice. I just couldn’t find a place to fit.

Then, a year later, my mother decided that she wouldn’t sleep with a knife under her pillow any longer and we would leave him. I don’t know why she had a knife under her pillow but they could easily have killed each other then. They were out of their minds, both of them. Shakespeare would have got some good material out of them.

Dublin, then, to share the home of one of her girlfriends and a Dublin city school with BOYS, eighteen boys in the class and only nine girls, including the new girl. Christ, that was a long way from the polished convent floors. They were wild. I sat, mostly, in stunned silence while boys used those cylindrical rubbers that came in plastic tubes to demonstrate the mechanics of intercourse.

The girls, being city girls, had been to stage school and spent yard time perfecting their dance routine to Phil Collins’ You Can’t Hurry Love.  I can only dance when I’m drunk and, at eleven, I was a ways off that yet so I read books. I can’t remember what I read but I can see, in my head, the view over the top of my book and them dancing beyond. There was one manipulative little bitch whose father was in advertising. Anyone remember the ad for Kimberley, Mikado and Coconut Creams with all the kids on a roller coaster? Yeah, she was in the roller coaster. Of course she was. Oh Damned Iago.

After that, my mother determined to reclaim her home in Cork and kicked my father out. Or he left. Who knows? I think he took my younger sister with him.

Old Girl New Girl turns out to be even harder. Then there’s a very fuzzy bit and then my aunt taking me to Dublin late at night and installing me in her local school. I only remember my aunt grilling me on lines of poetry homework. Nobody had checked my homework in years. I don’t think I spoke in that classroom or schoolyard. I didn’t want to go home and then I did.

Back in Cork, they were still nice girls, they really were. There was a really good teacher and at the risk of being repetitive, can I say, on the very off chance that someone reading this can send my love and gratitude to Mrs Leahy, who minded me and taught me how to make a tiered ra-ra skirt, please do.

I made a friend. Someone kind enough to brush the smuts off my clothes and have a laugh. And that’s really all it takes, isn’t it? One person who stays quiet long enough to let you be yourself. Someone who doesn’t set about rattling your boxes but sets their box on top of yours to keep it company. She was great. We had sleepovers and midnight feasts. We watched Remington Steele and played, PLAYED, at being private detectives. We listened to an awful, awful lot of Chris de Burgh. Look, nobody’s perfect. From then on, I was OK. I was able to turn my back on the shit and look outwards. I had two whole years before I moved school again.

I’m posting this now. No pictures or frills. Before the box slams shut.

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Made it to 18.

Sultanabun and son, 1999.

I am the mother of a grown-up child. I am relieved to have made it this far, apprehensive about letting go, nostalgic for the saturated joy of his babyhood and, above all else, bowled over with pride. My son, in my totally biased opinion, is smart, opinionated,witty, kind, interested and interesting. In short, leaving aside a most irritating habit of taking off his shirts without first opening the buttons, a fine young man.

His future belongs to him, his for the taking and his for the making.

But this memory, of a shuttered bedroom on a snowy morning in Padova, is mine.

Sultanabun and son, 1999.
SultanaBun and Son, 1999.

Happy Birthday, Grown-Up Son.

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Heart and Sole.

Coeurs a la Creme and Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

Long, long ago, back in the mists of the last millenium, the restaurant at the Crawford Gallery used to stay open late for dinner and that is where he brought me to celebrate our first St. Valentine’s Day together.

It was a very special place; Myrtle Allen and her daughter Fern were running it at that time. They had the Ballymaloe trick (they invented it, of course) of combining faded grandeur with homeliness so that you felt you belonged. Can you imagine? Two starving, grubby students, scrubbed up and loved up, playing grown-ups and acting posh. I have no idea to this day how he paid the bill. He may have left a portion of his liver behind.

It was magical, everything about that night, from beginning to end. There were masses of candles on the windowsills, reflecting in those long windows, and a harpist strumming away in the corner. As seduction scenes go, he was on to a winner.

We ate Dover Sole, stuffed with salmon and served with champagne sauce. It was, without a shadow of a doubt, the very best dish I had ever eaten and indeed, I can’t think of a thing that has surpassed it. Honest to God, I was in ecstasy.

For dessert we had Coeurs à la Crème, something I have never seen on a menu before or since. They had me at à la Crème. It was sublime.

I was lost.

We had, by that date, broken up more than once. In fact, I believe I had sent him packing no fewer than six, SIX, times! But, he won in the end. Well played, mon amour!

There was no going back from the Coeurs à la Crème.

I was his.

A couple of months later, for my birthday, we went to see the the RSC production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses at Cork Opera House. Oh, it was wonderful. I adored it. The two nights remain associated in my brain, a tangle of memories from a time of golden, libidinous, joyful adventure.

When I sat down to choose a book for my February edition of Cooking the Books on Bookwitty, there was only one possibility. It was beyond my control.

Coeurs a la Creme and Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

I scoured the internet and found the moulds for Coeurs à la Crème here. I referred to my trusted Ballymaloe Cookery Course for Myrtle’s recipe but it was for four servings which seems remarkably silly. I cut it down to two and tweaked it a little, reducing the amount of cream and adding vanilla. I’ve lost count of how many Coeurs à la Crème I’ve eaten in the last month but it has been fun, like playing grown-up and acting posh all over again.

Click here to read my review of Les Liaisons Dangereuses and my slightly risqué recipe for Coeurs à la Crème.

For anyone else who believes that Rickman owns the role of Valmont, here is a precious snippet of the master on stage:

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It’s a bit early to be thinking about Valentines but…

‘I loves him ‘cos he brings me chips.’

That was my line, borrowed from some forgotten joke, when he used to turn up on my doorstep on Thursday evenings after rugby training, hot and hungry, with a steaming parcel of chips in curry sauce.

Quarter of a century later, I love him because he builds me shelves.
And, because he knows exactly the spot to rub on the Voltarol.
Because he brings me coffee every morning without turning on the light.
Because he doesn’t mind digging in the rain so long as we do it together.
Because he knows my tell
and hasn’t told.
Because he believes that I am good.
and tells me that I can.
Because his hands…

I’m saying this now because, if I wait for an occasion, my hormones will have fluctuated and my mood will have nose-dived and I will have forgotten why, WHY?, I love him, though never that I do.

This grey and windy Wednesday morning, when for one precious, terrifying, moment, everyone is OK, we are all happy and healthy and muddling along just grand, planning, plotting and looking forward, I am over-whelmed with reasons why.img_3666

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Introducing Agnes.

notebook. diary. keeping a diary. Agnes.

I was a miserable thirteen-year-old. Is there any other kind? Thirteen is a bewildering age. Too old for minding, too young for freedom and all that news of impending womanhood is hardly a barrel of laughs.

To my rescue came an English teacher whose name, to my shame, has escaped me. She was still a trainee teacher. She had dark, wavy hair and wore clogs and fringed skirts. There were beads and feathers about her person. She was a bona fide hippie. Fabulous.

She scratched new words on the blackboard which we recited like magic spells: metaphor, alliteration and, oh, my absolute favourite, onomatopoeia. She had us write rhyming couplets in the style of Ezra Pound and praised our efforts regardless of their dedication to George Michael or Spandau Ballet.

She instructed us to keep a diary. Write what you feel, she said, and I did. I bought a blue, fake-leather-bound (I thought it was real leather) diary and I wrote. For a girl who spoke little, who found it near impossible to say what she felt, that writing was like putting a tap on my soul. All the angst, sadness, despair, and yes, God damn it, unrequited lust just poured out of me.notebook. diary. keeping a diary. Agnes.

I wrote for years and years and years, long past my teens. Then, I wrote long letters to friends and discovered the thrill of a response. Then, I wrote this blog. Without Miss Hippie-Clogs, I wouldn’t be here writing to you. I wouldn’t have known how to do this. In fact, I believe that without that outlet I wouldn’t be here, full stop. I would have drowned in that rising tide of feelings.

I was delighted, honoured in fact, when the magnificent Sam of Agnesforgirls encouraged me to pass Miss Hippie-Clogs’ message on to a new generation of girls. I expounded the benefits of keeping a diary HERE. I also contributed to THIS list of suggested reading for girls.

Agnesforgirls.com, just Agnes to her friends, is a brilliant new website, launching today, for girls aged from 11 to 18 (or thereabouts). Agnes aims to provide girls with all the information and encouragement they might need to become competent, brave and happy young women. I wish Agnes had been around in my day.

As a mother, I would put my trust in Agnes. I’ve read just about every page of the site and I am convinced that my teenage daughters are safe and well-cared for in Agnes’ hands.

I hope you will take a look at the site and spread the word to any parents or daughters who might appreciate it.

Agnes is on Facebook here and on Instagram here and, lest you have missed the links above, the website is here.

The future is a blank page, my friends.

notebook. diary. keeping a diary. Agnes.

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Gourmet Rhapsody.

Muriel Barbery. Gourmet Rhapsody. toast.

Cardiac insufficiency. A man is dying because he has not heart enough to support his own passions (food, mainly, and possibly wine). This near-heartless man cares not a whisker about final adieus to his long-suffering wife or steadfast mistress. He has no wisdom to impart to his under-valued children. In the space that his heart should have filled there is only an insatiable longing for one particular food, a flavor par excellence, that he cannot quite identify. From his deathbed, Monsieur Arthens explores his culinary memories from appreciation of his grandmother’s gravy to becoming France’s most revered food critic.

In a lifetime of writing about food the gourmet has entirely missed the point. Food should be relished, not picked apart. In dissecting every meal he has let the heart of it escape. By excluding his family he has turned his back on the most essential of all seasonings. In bite-sized  chapters his wife, children, neighbours, employees and protégé each take turns to pour scorn, defend or grieve the dying gourmet. Meanwhile, Monsieur continues his search for a single, elusive taste of…something.

Muriel Barbery. Gourmet Rhapsody. toast.

Muriel Barbery‘s Gourmet Rhapsody is a book to make your mouth water. Every single page exudes an aroma of browning butter, or drips a deeply reduced jus, or is stained with a ring of Burgundian wine. It is a delicious book but, like a balanced cocktail, Gourmet Rhapsody has an Angostura bitter note. It brings to mind the very best of food you have ever eaten while at the same time reminding you that you will most likely never experience that food, in the same place and in the same way, ever again.

Sometimes, most times, when we recall a food it is the whole experience that is stamped upon our hearts. Rice pudding with jam by firelight. Mince pies by fairylight. Sausages on a barbecue in a midsummer garden. Red wine at a long table in the dim cellar of a house in the Pyrenees. Tayto sandwiches on the beach and dripping 99s in the car on the way home. Toast in bed at 2AM in a maternity ward. Toast in bed on a Sunday morning with a good book and a frothy coffee. Toast.

I have long sought to rediscover a certain whiskey-orange sorbet. Husband and I were in Co. Clare on our first holiday together. The climax of our week was a meal in a restaurant called Barr Trá. We ate in the conservatory which had a spectacular view of sunset on Liscannor Bay. I can’t remember a single other thing I ate, I suspect there were mussels and I’m certain there was brandy, but that sorbet has taunted me for two decades.

How could I possibly recreate that moment? I can’t get back the perfect ninety seconds, with my foot wrapped around his calf, that it took to let five or six sunlit spoonfuls dissolve on my tongue. I hope, when I am on my deathbed, that it comes to mind.

Once a year or so, maybe even less, I take a fancy for an egg-in-a-cup. That’s the official name, at least in my head. My Granny used to make this for my breakfast along with bread which was first buttered and then toasted under the grill, most importantly, on the buttered side only. Monsieur Arthens has something to say about buttering bread before you toast it:

‘Why is it that in France we obstinately refrain from buttering our bread until after it has been toasted? The reason the two entities should be subjected together to the flickering flame is that in this intimate moment of burning they attain an unequalled complicity. The butter loses some of its creamy consistency, but nevertheless is not as liquid as when it is melted on its own, in a bain-marie or a saucepan. Likewise, the toast is spared a somewhat dreary dryness, an becomes a moist, warm substance, neither sponge nor bread but something in between, ready to tantalize one’s taste buds with its contemplative delicacy.’

The egg, or two, should be placed in a small pot of cold water and brought to the boil. Simmer for three minutes for a runny yolk. A dear friend gave me a brilliant and fool-proof egg-timer gadget that goes in the pot and changes colour as the egg cooks. You can find one here.

When the time is up, chip the top off the egg with a spoon and scrape the innards into a cup. Add a generous corner off a block of butter and a pinch of salt. Now, use the spoon to whack the egg around the sides of the cup until it has absorbed the butter into itself. You don’t want to liquidise the whole thing, just break it up. The chipping and the scraping and the whacking and the eating are all marvellously satisfying.

I watched my mother make eggs-in-a-cup like this for all my little sisters when they were babies so I can only presume she made them like this for me too. I know that when she handed me the cup to spoon feed a hungry sibling I was as likely as not to eat most of it myself between turns of chugga-chugga-here-comes-the-train. I made eggs-in-a-cup for my own babies and it always made me feel that I was doing my job right.

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Unlike the whiskey-orange sorbet, egg-in-a-cup is a blend of many memories. It doesn’t rely upon an Atlantic sunset, a particular whiskey or the added frisson of young love. I needs only a warm kitchen, an egg, bread, butter and a spoon. The bare essentials.

Muriel Barbery has created a book which defies criticism. How could I tear asunder a meal, I mean book, which has so painstakingly been constructed. This is a book to be savoured, meditated upon and remembered. Like the very best of books, I mean meals, there is a lesson in it. Live. Live and love and eat every bit of it now. Now.

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