Saturday 30 August 2008

And here she is Tante Mimi, full name Marie Albertine, with her parents, Arthur and Rachel, her brother Cyril, and the baby, Mathilde (Teddy), who would become my mother.
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Friday 29 August 2008

Lost and found

Today I was busy emptying the little storage cubby on the side of the old Singer, hoping for more of the steel bobbins that pre-date the modern nasty plastic ones, and found instead a battered little leather purse, unseen and unused for many years. Inside were two rings, one of which was this, set with an old-fashioned sapphire and tiny diamond chips.

My Tante Mimi had given me this ring when I was about 11, and I lost it about 20 years ago, with long-lasting feelings of regret and guilt to follow. It had been her engagement ring after the war, when she had fallen in love with a Canadian stationed in Ghent, although she had given in to her serious misgivings (and the implacable opposition of her mother, my formidable Bonma) after she began to think about the change in lifestyle and culture she would have embarked upon after marriage.

He lived in an area of Canada where the distance between neighbours was measured in telegraph poles, in themselves huge distances apart, and her nearest neighbour would have been at least 7 telegraph poles away. A weekly train to the nearest city was the only opportunity to shop; for a city-bred girl with an interest in frocks and hats, this was too much, and the engagement was amicably ended, with Tante Mimi keeping the ring as a bittersweet memory.

She later went on to marry my Uncle Jerome, a widower, bringing up his three boys, and maintaining her closeness to my mother. We were intensely fond of Tante Mimi, who was jolly, good-natured and somewhat stout. She wore tailored corsetry, and hugging her was like embracing a well-upholstered sofa. I am so delighted to have found her ring, and even though it no longer fits as it did, and has to move one finger down, I shall wear it in fond recollection of the lovely, characterful and deeply affectionate aunt who gave it to a young niece all those years ago.

Goodness, that old sewing machine is packed with memories indeed...
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Thursday 28 August 2008

Modern technology and nostalgia

I have fought and lost many battles with the tension setting on this old Singer, and today decided that I should move with the times and buy a new sewing machine. After years of undertaking little more than running repairs on the Lovely Son's jeans and chainsaw trousers, both very dull projects, but well within the capabilities of the old cast iron workhorse (the machine, not me), I felt that as a retired person I might at last have time to learn to make more interesting things, though I remain vague on the detail of exactly what or why. Or indeed for whom, but friends, beware - Christmas is coming, and we all know how lovely a home made gift is, especially if home made by someone who can't sew in a straight line....

So this morning I girded my loins for a trip into town, and sought advice at John Lewis about sewing machines suitable for someone just emerging from the Dark Ages. I had in mind that I might get the second-to-cheapest model (yes, I did some online research first, so I knew what feed dogs and free arms were, and hoped that I might not look a complete blithering idiot as I thriftily spent my gift vouchers) but the enthusiastic saleswoman on the sewing machine counter had other ideas, and after a long time talking and demonstrating, she had me convinced that this swishy Janome model would be just right for me. It all looked so easy! Buttonholes, zig-zag, fancy stitches, blind hems, all within my grasp! Etsy, here I come, I thought, give or take a year or two.

Then I had to get it home, not difficult with Sandra and her little nephew and his buggy to hand, but en route, serious doubts began to gather at the back of my mind. Why had I spent so much on what might be another dust-gatherer in the attic? Did I really need a sewing machine at all, now that I had mastered iron-on hemming tape?

So I left it in its box in the hall and ignored it for several hours while I did some therapeutic sorting and wiping (plaster dust takes months to eradicate!) of books and papers, and had a quiet armchair doze with the cat. Then Sandra, not a devotee of delayed gratification, called to see how I was getting on with the new machine, and together we unpacked it and had a little play with it.

And, astonishingly, it is ridiculously simple to use, and the instructions are veritable child's play, a balm to the soul after yesterday's underfloor heating debacle. It even threads its own needle, fancy that. And it purrs. And it has lights. And it sews in a straight line without me having to try. And, best of all, I made a buttonhole all by myself, a real, working buttonhole! All that remains is to think of things to make with it, but blogland is full of charming examples with tutorials, and maybe my friends won't have to cringe as they open their Christmas presents from me.

And what of the old Singer?
It is crammed with childhood memories. Originally hand-operated until my mother converted it to pedal-power, it travelled with us round our Army-life world, and made so many of our childhood clothes, including my wonderful First Communion dress - oh, the grief of being able to wear that marvellous confection, made from a French pattern, only once! - and doll's dresses made from the remnants. And it made fabulous gowns for the Regimental ball, back in the Fifties, when skirts were full and taffeta was the most glamorous stuff I had ever seen. The machine now sits forlornly in its battered wooden case, which smells as potently as it ever did, throwing me back fifty years; if it wasn't so stubborn about its tension adjustment, I would be sadder than I am to see it go. I think there is a charity somewhere local that welcomes these old machines, reconditioning and re-converting them to be used by hand in areas of the developing world, and I hope that it could be used in this way. If not, it might have to go back into the loft for a while till I am ready to let it go; meantime, Janome DC3050 and I have a relationship to build and buttonholes to make.
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Wednesday 27 August 2008

Electric and intellectual!

Programming my new underfloor heating is proving to be a challenge. Something akin to University Challenge when the teams are all scientists, i.e. when we lesser mortals struggle to understand even the starter questions, let alone have even the faintest chance of getting any of the answers right.

It did not bode well from the start. The manual (54 pages packed densely with information, apparently translated from Klingon) opened by thanking me for choosing this heating, which it scarily described as "the new intellectual heating control system". Can you see already where this is going?

The Lovely Son, who doesn't remember that his mother was, for most of his life so far, the only person in his family who could a) read instructions, and b) follow them successfully, and who considers me a first rate dimwit, was co-opted to have a go at setting the programmable controls, after I had conceded defeat. He set to with confidence and a cheerful, optimistic attitude. I was relegated to reading aloud from the manual, although he forged ahead of me at first, leaving me at fig. 14 when he was at fig. 21 and getting testy when I failed to keep up. I noticed that he didn't actually listen to anything I was reading, but, as a bloke, why would he? Eventually, after a couple of hitches, and much button-pressing, he pronounced the job done, and we retired, smug in the knowledge that the bathroom floor would be toasty warm at our chosen times.

But it didn't quite work out like that. The bathroom floor does indeed become toasty warm, but at times of its own choosing, times that bear no resemblance to the settings we so laboriously programmed, and certainly not at that chilly point of a winter morning when stepping out of the shower is to be dreaded. Somewhere along the line, our combined intellects failed to come up to scratch; maybe it was phrases like "several common parameters are valid for all thermostat's operating modes can be set (sic) via item Settings and Limitation of the main Menu" or the fact that 'hot' was termed 'comfort' and 'cold' was termed 'economy' that did for us, or maybe it was just that the manual was genuinely impenetrable, but I noted that the Lovely Son did not volunteer to try again. Nor did I ask him, as I couldn't bear the thought of puzzling over all those strangely-worded instructions again.

The manual's back cover carries a helpline number. Tomorrow I shall call it and ask for help, confessing meekly that I am no intellectual match for my floor.

Monday 25 August 2008

First aid

The Lovely Son is here, staying for two nights before going off to work in Cannes setting up stuff for a party on a millionaire's yacht. Sadly, he is one of the crew of an events company, not a guest, but still....

He told me a story of how he found a body lying flat out on the pavement one night, and after judging that it was a drunk man, and not a corpse, but failing to elicit any meaningful sign of life, he called an ambulance. He followed advice to place the man in the recovery position, and waited for the paramedics. Not a flicker of movement from the man. A small crowd of outside smokers from the nearby pub gathered to enjoy keeping him company and to offer much unsolicited advice and opinion, with the LS discouraging them from continuously prodding or moving the man from the recovery position.

The paramedics arrived, did much the same things as the crowd, all to no avail, until something rather painful and deliberate was done to the man's earlobe, whereupon he sat bolt upright and picked an argument with one of the crowd, angrily shouting "Why you wake me up!!" and the Lovely Son sloped off home, pondering the pros and cons of good citizenship.

Sunday 24 August 2008

Noisy Ninja

Neighbours got in a flap yesterday while I was out having Sunday lunch with Maggie; Harry was spotted out in the back lane - on the high back yard walls, to be precise - calling loudly, and no one was able to catch him or lure him down. Messages were left on my mobile, lying useless on the kitchen table, and on my answerphone. Harry has never been known to go out of his own yard without me, and, having a certain Billy Bunteresque build that doesn't lend itself to leaping in any direction, he has certainly never got over a very high wall whilst living here.

But when I arrived home, unaware of all the fuss, there he was, in the house, perky and pleased to see me; investigation suggests that he had got up onto the shed, and from there onto the wall, to roam unhindered, frightening the local populace who believe that he is on his deathbed and read all sorts of doom-laden portents into this sudden noisy appearance. I know he yowls loudly when we are out, but for anyone who doesn't know this, his mournful tone can be distinctly alarming. Sensibly, he made his way back home again after his adventure.

I can only think that the unexpected result of all that weight loss is a rediscovered ability to jump. But cats have secret lives, and for all I know, Harry's former portliness could well have been the result of midnight raids into other houses, and his leaping skills could have been kept well-hidden from spoilsport humans.

Melodrama of this type is not unknown in my house. Many years ago, we had a large lurcher who once got out of an upstairs window onto the bay window, terrifying passers-by by quivering (as lurchers tend to do, of course, being held together with piano wire) on the very edge, as if about to jump 20 feet into the street. A small crowd of elderly ladies had formed, anxiety fluttering, and the fire brigade was almost called, but we came home in time to haul the dog in and apologise for his imposition of half an hour of local terror. Kevin too, once a great acrobat, would often walk over bay windows and front door lintels, on one occasion getting stuck in an apple tree a long way down the street, and attempting to call the fire brigade himself with piercing cries.

So, let's hear it for the house tradition - yow, yow YOW!

Friday 22 August 2008

Up and down

What I haven't written about is the strange life I am leading caring for Harry in the midst of all the builders' work and mess; how I have longed for a few quiet days so that I could really attend to him and gain a better awareness of the state he is in and what he needs. At this point the cliche of 'an emotional rollercoaster' is an apt description of my feelings, while a gentler journey altogether seems to be Harry's lot.

Now that we have had a few tranquil days together, I can see that he spends a lot of time sleeping soundly, waking up to eat very small amounts of liquidised food, to march about checking out any new work, and to accompany me into the back lane with his usual inquisitiveness. Occasionally he heads off down the street with some determination, letting himself in to any open door to visit and explore, and has to be retrieved before he settles down on a stranger's sofa. He has to be groomed by me every day, as licking himself is clearly an uncomfortable business, and seems to enjoy this very much, welcoming the warm washcloth and the brush. He is tolerant of the syringe of liquid painkiller twice a day, though less so of the vile-tasting antibiotic twice a week, and has stopped running away after his breakfast in the knowledge that a pursuing Fury will descend with a syringe of medication.

But he is fading; his weight has decreased dramatically, his active periods are brief, and the tumour is growing. The vet says another two months; I find that hard to believe, given his rapid decline, but cats are amazing creatures, holding on to life with such tenacity, and so long as the good or fair-to-middling days continue to significantly outnumber the poor, the big decision will remain deferred. The vet's advice to maintain a record on the calendar was sensible, as a bad day can send me into spiralling despair and a conviction that tomorrow will be Harry's last, but so far, there have been only three such days, all followed by perkiness and keen interest in what's going on around him. Harry has a very strong and quirky personality, and has been immensely companionable and affectionate towards 'his' humans, and this continues to shine through.

So we soldier on, realistic but unhurried, as his life gets smaller and my acceptance of imminent loss gradually grows. And Kevin? Well, he ticks along, equable and dozy, eating, sleeping, demanding attention with the volume-control turned up to eardrum-shattering level, a sweet, deaf old chap who looks as though he could go on like this for ever. But, but....

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Tuesday 19 August 2008

If, when I was sixteen

...someone had said to me that I would become a middle-aged woman capable of looking adoringly at a new sink and tap, I would have thrown myself into the river, shrieking "Death, take me now!"

But I did become that middle-aged woman, and really wouldn't be sixteen again for all the world.
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Sunday 17 August 2008

Alan called

Tonight I received a panicky phone call from J, who is staying in my friend's house while she is away on holiday. J has very little English, and relies heavily on sweeping arm movements and lively sound effects to make himself understood - not the best combination when using a phone in a very noisy place. "Alan call!" he said, sounding agitated. "Who is Alan?" I asked, struggling to understand why he should be ringing me from what sounded like an amusement arcade, and why he was making such a portentous announcement.

"Alan call!" he repeated, excitedly, adding a sound which clearly conveyed his increasing stress and, possibly, mental breakdown; none the wiser, but picking up his obvious distress, I asked where he was, and was he all right, then realised that the noise in the background was the house alarm. Of course: Alan call, alarm ringing.

Now my friend has never used this old alarm in the year that she has lived in the house, and for all I know, doesn't even have the code for it, but I tried her mobile anyway - to no avail, as she is larking about in deepest Devon, and has to drive to the next town to get a signal. So off I went to soothe the housesitter and the cat, and possibly prevent neighbours from calling the police, then to wait for the fairly standard 20 minutes before the alarm switched itself off. 20 minutes is about as long as one can last before wanting to scream and throw bricks at someone - I know this because Bacteria Gardens has a long history of alarms going off in the small hours, and 20 minutes is just right for being woken so thoroughly that you can't sleep again for three hours and have to think that house-sale plan through yet again, in close, fulminating detail.

Except it didn't go off, and I texted Charlotte asking her to ask her Handsome Young Policeman if he knew how to disable a rogue alarm. Well, you'd think they'd teach them that in police school, wouldn't you? But he didn't; Charlotte advocated a hammer. After 50 minutes of aural agony, during which time the neighbours in my friend's rather snooty street didn't bat an eyelid, not even the really crabby one next door, I rang Lesley, she of the wheelie-bin arsonist tendencies, and asked her if she knew what to do. This was a long shot, as Lesley is having one of Those Days - she tried to return my stepladders today and found herself halfway along the street carrying her own ironing board - but lo! she did! Old and decrepit alarms are included in her rich and colourful archive of near-disaster experiences. J followed her advice, took the control panel apart, pulled out some gizmo attaching leads to the back up battery, and the ghastly racket stopped at once. We wept with joy and gratitude. Next time Alan calls, I shall be out, and he can leave a message.

Friday 15 August 2008

Coming along nicely

Transforming the cupboard under the stairs; from squalor to streamlining. Not quite finished yet though.

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Tuesday 12 August 2008

Hurrah! Interim celebration

Update in brief:
  • Meter cupboard constructed, despite much technical awkwardness; coincidentally, meter reader came today and admired, said he wished they were all like that; other cupboards later today
  • Bathroom paint drying, fiddly cupboard-round-old-chimney constructed, shower screen going in now; having second thoughts about the bitter chocolate wall which looked so good with whitish tiles, not quite right with the new ones, but hey, there's time to think about that one
  • Council came and took away all the rubble bags before I could phone in and have the pick up service which would have had to be paid for. Thank you, Neighbourhood Response Team: I'll remember you at Christmas
  • Him Next Door and his family have gone away for a week so I can stop feeling jumpy and guilty every time there's a noisy machine in use (and it also means no smoky barbecues making my house smell of whatever weird stuff they use to start them)
  • Cats, dog and I still grey with plaster dust, but Margery and I will go through the house like white tornadoes tomorrow, the dog can go to Posh Pups (uh-huh, that's the name....) for a bath and haircut, and the cats can have a little wipe over with a warm wet washcloth, which regresses them immediately, as they turn into little kittens, holding their faces up to be licked.
  • Photos soon!

Sunday 10 August 2008

Friday 8 August 2008

Something else

I won't go on about plaster dust, my chesty cough, bathroom progress or the delightfully dinky little heated towel rail that fits nicely in the small space behind the door (my bathroom was created by combining a WC the size of a shoe box with a bathroom that might just have held a pair of large boots, so there's not a big area to be fanciful with). Instead I shall pay tribute to the kind thoughtfulness of friends and neighbours, who have encouraged, calmed and plied me with tea, turned their bathrooms and washing machines over to me, gone shopping for me, and, in Roger's case, presented me with a box of soft earplugs, saying that he had heard my pain..... I have the loveliest neighbours, mostly (Him Next Door excepted, and the loud students, of course) and when I get clean and hygienic again, I shall make them all a celebratory cake or three.

And so to bed now, with my grubby cats and dog in attendance; the bathroom should be finished tomorrow, and the cupboard marathon should start instead. The Farrow and Ball paint sample (Monkey Puzzle for those of you like this sort of thing) that I stupidly thought, ignoring the clue in the name, was the darkest graphite, turns out to be a rather surprising dark bottle green (I know this already because Annie couldn't help herself; she came to visit and view, and before we knew it, she was painting a test patch on the back kitchen wall and voicing determined opinions) so it's back to the drawing board or, rather, the large drawerful of paint charts for me. This is the fun part to come.

Thursday 7 August 2008


For those of you who knew this all along, I have to admit that of course it looks better today. Ivory grouting between the tiles has put an end to their surprising cardboard-box effect, and the smart matt tiles that I so liked on the display are becoming more apparent here in my bathroom. The toilet has been reinstalled, and the bath is in situ, albeit unusable as yet, but creating hope where yesterday there was despair and self-recrimination.

Mr Certificate the Electrician came for the day - again. More Radio 2, but at least I know many of the words of the songs played there, and can blithely give my age away humming along. The electrics are now installed, entailing some considerable interference with wallpaper and plaster. Putting in new bathroom spotlights that met the stringent latest regulations meant going into the eaves above and drilling holes in the loft flooring, parting the insulation beneath, and making holes in the bathroom ceiling. Now the bits of the lights which, because they are so safe are larger than their old unsuitable predecessors, protrude into the loft and have to be covered by ceramic plant pots or similar - presumably so that ninnies who creep about in cramped loft spaces don't skin their knees on expensive fire-, water- and bomb-proof recessed spotlights. When I moved into this house, I declared that I would never go into the eaves, and apart from once having no option but to position a basin beneath a leaking roof, I have kept my word. Nasty dirty places, full of the Lovely Son's teenage possessions and unloved household goods that he couldn't quite transport to London, and, somewhere, a camera lens that rolled away and could not be found ever again.

The electrician works at glacial speed, and is super-thorough in an OCD sort of way; he has to come back tomorrow to inspect and test his own handiwork and issue me with the required certificate. I think I will frame it, and hang it beside my (very likely) bankruptcy notice.

Wednesday 6 August 2008

Getting the horrors

That was the honeymoon, and it's over. Today has been all noise and destruction, with holes appearing in walls and floors, carpets pulled back, architrave prised off, and high-pitched machinery going full blast. The electrician who issues the necessary certificate that approves all the work in kitchen and bathroom ("special zones", apparently) has wired, earthed, drilled through to outdoors, and added even more ugly plastic boxes to the collection of many-cabled gubbinses in what will become the meter cupboard.

The bathroom tiles are almost all in place, and although I know they don't look their best with spacers, no grout, no shiny new trappings surrounding them, and no fluffy white towels, I am finding them hard to love. Suzy, returning from Wales, and before even seeing them in situ, said "Well, I wasn't going to say anything at the time, but..." - at which point I stopped her from saying it at this time instead, although she did make three attempts.

Another early night is called for, I suspect, and maybe all will look better tomorrow. And if it doesn't, I will just have to lump it.

Tuesday 5 August 2008

Yes it is!

It's the toilet. The only one in the house (one day, one day....).

It's on the landing for the night.

The bathroom floor is covered with wet screed covering the new underfloor heating, so the toilet is first in the queue for the bathroom tomorrow morning.

Gaze on this picture and have pity on me.
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Monday 4 August 2008

Neighbours, noise and nerves

The trouble with waking up at 2.15 a.m. only dozing off again at 4 to be woken for good by a cat being sick in his usual dramatic way (there's a lot of being sick round here just now; the disruption is getting to them all), then having to get out of bed at 6.30, is that it doesn't leave you very robust to face the coming day.

Cheerful and Smiley arrived refreshed after their Sunday off, which was spent, I'm told, sleeping, walking in Jesmond Dene, and watching action-packed DVDs all evening, and set to with a vengeance. Two radios went on, one upstairs, one down, set to Galaxy Radio, which seems to have a stock of no more than 15 dreadful songs with soul-destroying babble and adverts in between, and there were continuous screeching, grinding, banging, drilling and sawing sounds for the entire day. And they aren't so shy as they were, those boys; I even heard them singing today, and they actually accepted a chocolate biscuit mid-morning, although they shudder at the thought of tea.

Attempts were made to leave the really noisy stuff like the tile cutter till after 8 a.m. in consideration of the neighbours, after snide and nasty remarks were made by one of them the other day, revealing barely-disguised fascist tendencies in all their ugliness under a veneer of "jesting" (his word). The neighbours on the other side, whose house butts up against the rooms being worked on, are away on holiday, so there is only one side to worry about - not that I had actually worried till the remarks were made, as this particular man is astonishingly loud, volatile and attention-seeking, to a degree that elicits a flinch response from other people when he approaches, and his children have to be equally loud simply to be heard over him. Clearly his sensitivity to noise increases greatly when there are foreign workers involved, and there is an immediate assumption of their illegality.

I shall say no more, as I resolved when I started blogging that I wouldn't be really unpleasant about anyone, but believe me, it is tempting today. The Boys, paragons of politeness and good humour, grouted and measured up and restrained themselves from getting the big noisy things out for an hour, for which I was hugely thankful too, and then they made up for lost time, big style. I know, I know, renovation means noise and mess...but my nerves are in tatters, and if I were to hear one of those tracks with the strange metallic voice-distortion effect just one more time today, I could easily indulge in a homicidal
frenzy, perhaps with a tile cutter.

So I'm off to the spa annexe (i.e. Suzy's house) for a shower now, and try not to think about tomorrow. The team and I will sit in silence for a bit and try to gather our thoughts and our collective sanity, and we shall all have an early night, hopefully vomit-free. Today's mantra is It Will Be Wonderful When It's Finished (thank you Shelagh).

And the progress? Amazing. Filthy house, plaster-laden hair and fur, animals throwing up and going off their food, and an owner whose nerves jangle audibly, but from what I can see so far, it really
Will Be Wonderful When It's Finished.

Sunday 3 August 2008


You thought I was exaggerating, didn't you.

I won't show the back door with the cat flap, as it's too shocking. But if you have a cat flap, go and look closely at it right now. Is it clean? Thought not.
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Saturday 2 August 2008

pułapki śmierć

The Boys have ripped out both rooms, one of which has its tiling setting nicely overnight as I type, but all the materials have now been delivered, and there simply isn't enough spare space to store it. So yards (metres) of architrave and other timber lie along the first floor landing, the hall is full of tiles and grouting, and the bathroom fixtures sit in a forlorn and oddly squalid row, upside down and looking out of place, which of course they are. The new cupboards and doors are in Sandra's garage till called for, and the remaining space is filled with the cupboard contents of the emptied rooms - and why any woman needs a large box of shoe polishing kit or dozens of not-quite-finished shower gels and shampoos is beyond me. Mountainear's Granny Thomas would have a field day in this house, with all its grubby secrets exposed and covered in a light layer of plaster dust.

The three small steps down to the bathroom are filled with cables, a radio, and various odds and ends. The Boys are large and strapping, and can take all three steps in one stride, but I have to pick my way gingerly down them far too many times a day, fearing for my life - stairs covered in dust sheets are hazardous enough. I thought I should test my translator site, so I did, and posted a little note on the steps which read "pułapki śmierć". Death trap. This made The Boys laugh, and the steps were promptly cleared. That leaves me with my permanent pułapki śmierć, doddery old Kevin, who specialises in lying on the stairs as a ginger trip hazard.

Suzy is away this week, leaving me her cat to feed and full use of her immaculate bathroom, which I now think of as the spa annexe; I was a bit horrified to see that I made black footprints in her shower when I stepped into it this morning. These would have gone entirely unnoticed in my own house just now.

Roger is back from Vienna, and harvesting large amounts of rhubarb from his allotment. He called yesterday to ask for some powdered ginger and went off with what I gave him. Today he emailed me to say that it had been an interesting addition to the rhubarb, especially as it turned out to be cinnamon. I suppose we should be surprised that I could locate anything at all in the kitchen at present, and he should be grateful that it wasn't tile grout.

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