Thursday 30 April 2009

Afternoon tea

or Something Else You Can Do With Rhubarb. Jayne-who-got-my-job is coming round after work, so that I can discreetly check if she is being driven as demented by the job as I was before I retired. As she is the slimmest person I know, I felt that fresh whipped cream would be just fine with these little rhubarb and ginger cupcakes. Of course, I won't have any......

Stop fussing, mother!

Well, apart from a large shaved patch (grey stripy skin!) and a tiny incision, you wouldn't know that Millie had been in surgery. Up early yesterday, and very puzzled by the lack of breakfast, she was utterly silent on the way to the vet, where I abandoned her and crept away feeling like a - well, a heartless cat-abandoner. Home later that day, she shot out of the cat carrier at the speed of light, and threw herself into her litterbox - obviously one of those over-genteel young ladies who couldn't possibly use any old loo - then onto her dinner. And she's been full of beans since. "Keep her in for 10 days" said the nurse. Ha! Fat chance. She's out in the back yard now, chasing flies.

Interestingly, Lottie had a lovely day without her, and scampered, played, trilled and flirted; when Millie arrived home, Lottie ignored her completely. Hmmm, maybe the mutual devotion isn't so mutual any more....

Today was Lottie's turn: she went in the car like the perfect passenger, through slow heavy traffic, to the vet, where she was microchipped with the hugest needle ever, without flinching. Either I had prepared her well, or had wasted a lot of time and energy worrying neurotically about how traumatised she would be - you'd think I was a novice cat owner. She's not as fragile as she looks, evidently.

Tuesday 28 April 2009

A night of hell

is coming my way, and it's started already. Millie hasn't been given anything to eat since mid-evening, in preparation for her operation tomorrow. If she were a toddler, she'd be lying on the floor screaming and drumming her heels; as she is a half-grown cat with an evil owner who is cruelly starving her, she is throwing herself round the house, on mantels and cupboards, up and down the worktop where the cat dishes usually sit, and making it clear that the evil owner isn't going to get much sleep tonight. Lottie and Kevin may survive the night without their small-hours snacks, as they have had a surreptitious supper while Millie was locked in the sitting room, and couldn't see them, but Millie knows...oh yes, she knows.....

This can only get worse, I suspect. Roll on, morning.

Monday 27 April 2009

Precautionary measures

On Wednesday morning, bright and early, Millie is going to the vet for her lady-operation and a microchip. I think this adventurous and high-spirited little cat is going to need both. Something tells me that she will find the car journey interesting, although being in a travel box might go against the grain, and there will probably be loud protest-squeaking about deprivation of liberty.

And on Thursday morning, Lottie, who, surprisingly, has already been spayed, will also go to the vet, but only to be microchipped. Because she arrived covered in her own poo when the fostercarer brought her to me, and is still quite timid about anything beyond the front door, I am anxious that she isn't traumatised by her car journey to the extent that she reacts in the same way again - after all, she has long hair, and I have a sensitive stomach at that time in the morning. So we are having practice sessions - being shut in the travel box (interesting), then in the car (puzzling), then being driven round the block (alarming, then interesting) and so far, she has taken it all in her stride. I am becoming confident that we will arrive at the vet's fragrant and relaxed.

Next challenge: the non-lockable cat flap. I don't want it to be replaced by a magnet-controlled one, as half the cats round here wander at will through each other's supposedly-secure cat flaps, or a locking one, because Kevin would never understand, and would spend hours scratching in vain to get out. I know this because he can spend hours scratching in vain to get into the bathroom if I don't give in and open the door.

There is a new bedtime ritual: constructing a bizarre arrangement to keep Millie in at night and thieving neighbourhood moggies out. It consists of a short plank placed against the cat flap, covered by a large plastic tray to deter probing, prising kitten paws, followed by a large mop-bucket of water (hard for a kitten to overturn). Kevin enjoys the opportunity to drink from the bucket, and forgets that he was trying to get out.

I know that I am heading at a fast trot down the road to Crazy Cat Lady land.

the old trouper

still going... but very slowly... mostly asleep, always friendly and pleased to be noticed, still interested in food, but most definitely not doing very much at all. He's so bony and stiff it's hard to cuddle him, but he does love to be settled on a lap, with a folded rug beneath him for stability, to purr and doze.

I look at him, and wonder daily at his staying power. He'll be 20 in September. Dear old chap.

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Friday 24 April 2009

Allotment, wossat then?

The derelict allotment, June 2004
- what it looked like when I first took it over

I should have realised that not everyone would be familiar with the term 'allotment' and how it differs from 'garden' or 'yard'. So for those of you who are interested (Susan!) here's a link that should explain all.

In my case, the allotment is only about 5 minutes' walk downhill from my house, and a lot longer than that on the way back if you're carrying leeks and potatoes up the rather steep slope. It's one of about 16 plots, some divided in two, and is beautifully situated beside the little river Ouseburn that separates it from Jesmond Dene. It's surrounded by a fence and huge trees, and feels quite remote from the city centre only 20 minutes' walk away. The site doesn't have piped water, as many other sites do, and very dry summers have us struggling up and down the riverbank filling buckets to top up our numerous barrels; finding little fish in your barrel is not unknown. Vandalism and high winds have disposed of most of our fencing and gates, and the greenhouses and sheds are somewhat eccentric in design, but the general ramshackle look of the whole site is reassuring to those of us incapable of producing manicured and tidy gardens.

We are a mixed bunch on the site; there are the old timers, long-retired men, great gardeners with weed-free beds filled with orderly rows of good old-fashioned basics, and who talk tough about rabbit snares and rat poison, but are really bluffing. There are couples who like regimented flowers and mulched paths, builder types who construct sheds and sitting-out areas from proper salvaged building materials, arty types who grow dye-producing plants and have a blithe and carefree approach to weeding, and some people who are entirely invisible and constantly at risk of getting A Letter warning them that they will lose their plot if they don't do some work on it. A Letter usually produces a flurry of activity for about a week, and the neglected plot relapses into its life of bramble and dandelion abandon. There are rules: at least two-thirds of each plot should be under cultivation; dogs should be tied up. I ignore both, and no one complains. The dog has her friends down there, and likes to visit.

And then there's us, Sandra and I, sporadic enthusiasts, muddling along, full of good ideas, sometimes trying our hand at something a bit different (it's soya beans this year) and fighting a losing battle with couch grass and creeping buttercup. I took the plot
almost 5 years ago after my mother died, when I suddenly had spare time after work, and I found it therapeutic to be down there on a warm windless evening, creating something from what was really a neglected and overgrown rubbish site. After a year or so, and much pressure being placed on the City Council's Allotments Officer, the mounds of rubbish and derelict shacks were removed - by digger and three lorries, which gives you some idea of just how dreadful this plot had become - I was joined by neighbour Sandra, who knew nothing at all about gardening, but liked the physical labouring; since then, her knowledge and confidence have grown apace, and she also has useful and strapping great sons who can sometimes be bribed to fetch water or shovel the manure which appears at the site gate without warning from a local stable.

We pay an annual rent - now that I have retired, mine is the princely sum of £27.25. We dream of piped water, at least in theory - a friend of mine reports from another site that exorbitant water rates and greedy use of the standpipe by some plot holders has resulted in all-out warfare and (oh, scandalous!) poison pen letters being pinned to sheds. But really, we like it the way it is, homely, a bit scruffy, friendly and generous, full of birds and butterflies, nettles and weeds, everyone knowing each other by first name, and we don't care very much if it stays that way and escapes the creeping gentrification of allotments elsewhere in the city.

Thursday 23 April 2009

Earth Day(s)

So, how many of us have filthy fingernails and aching backs from bending, digging, and grubbing about in the soil? Oh, lots of us, apparently. And are we all ready for the growing season, seed trays overflowing with new growth, and the weeds eradicated from the beautiful orderly vegetable beds? Oh. I'd hoped that maybe I wouldn't be the only one definitely unready.

But I'm getting there, as Sandra always says about any endless chore, despite some moments of sheer despair when mountainear showed us the tranquil orderliness of her vegetable garden. My allotment looks nothing like that - in fact, it looks more like a blasted wasteland with ramshackle sheds and nettles. But in reality we have been slaving away, determined not to have another disastrous year - deep-rooted weeds are being carefully removed, beds slowly and painfully
prepared, and seed trays gradually planted, if not yet producing seedlings. Carrots were sown yesterday, in the lurid blue plastic drums visible from the moon, and the new strawberry bed netted - too late for a couple of fresh new plants, that got seriously grazed by The Rabbit. We only ever see one solitary rabbit on the allotment at any one time, and he/she is always referred to as "the rabbit" - but I bet there are dozens of 'em, and that only one, the big beefy one that looks like it would take you on if challenged to a fight, is employed as a decoy.

A little cat has been spotted, carrying a large kitten across the site to the riverbank; a cat with a red collar, leaving me anxious about its past, its grieving owner, and its future, in an area where the site adjoining our allotments is filled with pigeon owners who have a brutal attitude towards cats. The squirrels are rising to every security challenge, and wrecking most of the feeders; they will eat most things left for the birds, it seems, although even they are a bit picky about dessicated coconut.

The leaking pond has been partly filled in to create a bog garden of the tiniest dimensions - we do like to give our minor projects grand, pretentious titles - and a small rigid pond inserted into the remaining space. A large frog lay at the bottom of the old pond, and it hopped obligingly into the new one before we had even finished settling it into place; a good omen, we thought. We city folk can get awfully excited about frogs and squirrels and rabbits - sorry: The Rabbit - and we consult Eddie the Poisoner's bird book whenever we spot something unfamiliar on the feeders.

It's therapy, really, rather than gardening; we do mind when things don't grow, or are devoured by slugs, and we are often discouraged by our many mistakes, but the planning, the physical labour, and the intense pleasure of being in a tranquil spot entirely shielded from the city, does more good to body and soul than anything I know. Filthy fingernails? No problem.

Tuesday 21 April 2009


Oy, you Kevin, get up! That's my toy-hiding box!

Best bed in the house

Armchairs, cushions, beds, laundry baskets - nothing, thinks Kevin, is as comfy as an Amazon box and a bit of brown paper.

Monday 20 April 2009


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Sunday 19 April 2009

It wasn't the elves

It was me. I was the one who got up at 2 a.m., having woken up from a measly couple of hours sleep, doing the obligatory tossing and turning for a while and finding only weird or dreary stuff on the radio, and eventually giving up and going downstairs. I was the one who made a cup of tea, and in response to some mad impulse, put on my purple rubber gloves, resisting a pinny - although I have worn a pinny over a dressing gown before - and emptied out the large chaotic grocery cupboard that has sat uneasily on my conscience for weeks. I wiped it all out, rinsed and dried it, and actually sorted all those tins, jams, chutneys, lentils, pasta, and seaweed. Seaweed! Obviously bought once when I was attempting to revitalise my approach to food, or health, or both. Revolting. There were lots of bags with only a tablespoon of rice left in each, and several encrusted jars containing a mere teaspoonful of crystallised honey. I also found 4 packets of cornflour. Why 4? Search me. After an hour, the dog came downstairs with a bewildered look, but the cats had more sense than to wreck their regime of 20 hours a day of sleeping, and stayed put in the folds of the duvet.

I left the numerous opened bags of pulses on the counter until morning when I could sort out what was past its 'best by' date. Then I went into the sitting room and, ignoring the pleading eyes of the dog, read for a while till the urge to go back to bed came over me. This morning, despite the pleasing orderliness of my cupboard, I was ashamed to find that the 'best by' dates seemed on average to be mostly around 2007, although there was something which dated from 1997. Some of those chickpeas would need to be boiled for a year to become half-tender, so they all got thrown out, in a guilty and furtive fashion, as I have never found a good use for a fossilised chickpea. But I shall apply myself to finding a good use for a large quantity of cornflour. Suggestions on a postcard, please.

And now it's only 9 o'clock in the evening, and I feel more than ready for bed. Very taxing, spring cleaning in the wee small hours;
next time I might go back to the tried and tested system of raiding the fridge and watching all-night tv instead of cupboard archaeology.

Saturday 18 April 2009

Political animal

Now what was it about this Labour MP and her resignation that was of such interest to Millie?

And why have I got the tv on in the afternoon?

Two mysteries. One of us needs to get a life.
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Friday 17 April 2009

Grump grump grump

Awake at 5 this morning, thanks to the yowling and trampling of a persistent old cat wanting breakfast, followed by a wild kitten wanting to play, followed by a fluffy purrer walking on my chest, wanting to say hello - now that I was awake anyway - and so it went on, for rather a long time, till I gave in and got up, disgruntled and underslept, with a growing headache.

And I had been dreaming (no, don't glaze over like that, I'm not going to tell you in that level of minute detail so favoured by people who insist on telling you everything about their dreams) that I was at work, and wondering why, now that I was retired, I kept going back in, every day.... So I got up in a pretty awful mood, which isn't very common for me, and I haven't been able to shake it off. Or maybe they are all being extra annoying - the dog is scuttling about, nails clicking on the floor in a nerve-rattling way, trying to hide a little kitten toy she has stolen, the kitten is flying round the house at high speed, scattering the hall rug, clattering in and out of the cat flap, paws thundering up and down the stairs. There was nothing interesting for breakfast, and I grated a bit of the cheese wrapper into my omelette without noticing.

have cleaned the cat trays, while Lottie queued patiently - oh how she loves using a clean cat tray! - and walked the dog, hunched against the cold wind. Picking up after her (thankfully, she's a small dog), I was spotted by Dave the window cleaner, who commented, "Eee, your life's all glamour!"

So to glamourise it even further, I'm abandoning them all for a bit. I'm off to the supermarket, and you know how annoying people in there can be. I may be some time.

Thursday 16 April 2009

Delight twice - and shame

R brought me some lovely tulips yesterday. They started off as yellow, but are now turning gently to orange. The paper they came in became Millie's Best Plaything for the day.

The pleasure of R's visit was marred by a call from B, wondering where I was - I should have been meeting her at the Biscuit Factory for coffee. Both arrangements were clearly marked on the calendar - unfortunately, on two separate calendars, one upstairs and one in the kitchen. I am so mortified.......

Tuesday 14 April 2009

Surprise surprise: cupcake incompetence

So when my friend S told me that she might treat herself to birthday cake this Saturday, not having done so for aeons (S is the most disciplined dieter on this planet) I had a Bright Idea. Why not surprise her with a delivery of birthday cupcakes from a smart little cupcake place in her home town of Toronto? Remember that word: surprise.

Googling such a service was easy; choosing one with glorious cupcakes in wonderful flavours was also easy. Ordering was the first hurdle in the progress of the Bright Idea. I emailed the firm to ask if they used Paypal. No they didn't, but they would accept Visa from the UK. Right, I'd go ahead. A nice little surprise....

The order form gave options; I chose a gift box of six cupcakes - well, sabotaging a diet of such superhuman endeavour needs to be subtle and restrained - and duly filled in the 'amount' box with the number 6. There was nowhere on the screen to pay, but I assumed that we would move on through the usual checkout/payment process. Wrong... a page came up confirming that I had ordered six gift boxes - and worse, that I would be charged $144 for the privilege. Someone would ring me for my payment. Oops. There were limitations to this internet ordering lark.

I emailed the firm, and admitted my stupidity. I was assured that my order would be amended at once, and that if I emailed or rang with my debit card number, I could pay for one gift box. Not being a
complete 100% ninny, I elected to ring rather than send my unsecured card details out into the interweb ether, paid for my order, specifying a bias towards chocolate cupcakes, and a card to go in the box to let S know who had surprised her, and the process was duly completed.

Except that it wasn't. A very short time later, S emailed me, forwarding the confirmation email that she (instead of me)
had just received - for six gift boxes, for which she would be charged $144. In her understated way, she only wrote: "Is this for real?"

By 11.30 p.m. BST and several emails later, to S and to the rather unapologetic shop, it may or may not have been sorted out; too early to say, really. I will scan my bank statement carefully; S will tell me if she receives six or a deluge of cupcakes, and I will never yield to another Bright Idea that involves surprise. I went off to bed as hyper as if I had overindulged on sugary birthday treats. Those cupcakes had better be good; they cost me half a night's sleep.

Sunday 12 April 2009

It's definitely sprung

These pictures, taken today, are for you, Lovely Son, stuck in rainy grey London, and all you Canadians who seem to be having endless winter. Cherry blossom, almond blossom, magnolia, and hot sunshine. Your turn soon, just stay hopeful.
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Saturday 11 April 2009


The first picking of the season: now made into Rhubarb Crumble Ice Cream (courtesy of Delia). Entailed a bit of advance preparation (making up crumble, baking the rhubarb) and not my usual method, also included a rather shocking amount of sugar. I thought it unusual, even slightly weird when I tasted the mixture (well, licked the paddle, if truth be told); I didn't like the crunchy bits of crumble, and was pleased that I'd improvised with some crystallised ginger, finely chopped, with some of its syrup, which intensified and balanced the taste. But today, now that it's properly frozen, it's not bad at all. Just as well, as it used only a tiny fraction of the rhubarb yet to come.
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Wednesday 8 April 2009

Day trippers: Part 8

And why not? Because it was time to plod wearily down into the bowels of Waverley Station, our feet throbbing, say goodbye, and clamber into our respective trains to go home again. A grand day out.
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Day trippers: Part 7

We didn't go on board the Royal Yacht Brittania, moored at Ocean Terminal. We didn't climb the Scott Monument. (Note: scary squeeze at the top of the ever-narrowing staircase!) We didn't go shopping. We didn't wander in Princes Street Gardens or go up to the Castle.
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Day trippers: Part 6

And after a slow bus ride, with many delays due to the everlasting work on the forthcoming tramway, to the old docks at Leith, now redeveloped and transformed.
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Day trippers: Part 5

Off to the Botanic Gardens for lunch and a brisk walk in a rather wild wind.
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Day trippers: Part 4

Past the Stockbridge Colonies, 11 parallel rows of housing. In some, the upstairs and downstairs flats have their front entrances on opposite sides of the rows to each other, so that the upstairs neighbour's address is actually the street behind.
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Day trippers: Part 3

And up through these elegant archways, into bustling Stockbridge.
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