Category Archives: London People

Wednesday Weed – Brussels Sprout

Brussels sprouts (Brassica oleracea)

Dear Readers, firstly I would like to say thank you to everyone who has left comments on the blog and on Facebook following my mother’s death last week. I have read every single one, and they have given me such comfort. I will be responding to you individually as soon as I have enough mental bandwidth to do justice to your kindness. In the meantime, please be assured that you have made such a difference to me. It’s made me realise that I’m not alone, and that so many of you have already been where I am today, and are alongside me as I walk this path.

Now, some of you may have read Joan Didion’s book ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’, in which she describes her emotional journey following the sudden death of her husband. She recounts how she keeps his shoes because ‘he’ll need them when he comes back’. The rational  part of her knows that he’s never coming back, but she still can’t throw the shoes away. I had my own version of this when I found Mum’s hairbrush with some of her long, silver hair still in it. I found myself thinking ‘maybe someone could clone Mum from the DNA in her hair’. I know that this is completely ridiculous, but the thought was there. And I have the hairbrush, just in case.

More helpful is what happened to me earlier this morning. I was getting ready to go out for breakfast, and I was telling my husband that I probably wouldn’t do a blog this week because, after all, my mother had just died, and everyone would understand. And then I heard Mum’s voice in my head, as clearly as if she was standing next to me.

‘Don’t you dare not do the blog! Tell them about the Brussels sprouts’.

And so, Dear Readers, here is my take on that most divisive of vegetables the Brussels sprout, courtesy of my mother.

Every Christmas we would have Brussels sprouts with our turkey. I quite liked those sulphurous, squidgy little crucifers, and Dad positively loved them. They were usually a little watery and yellow, and I maintained that this was because Mum insisted on making a cross in the bottom of each one which allowed the cooking water to penetrate right into the heart of the vegetable. I, with my new-fangled modern ways, declared that this wasn’t necessary but somehow, even when I hosted Christmas in my own house, Mum managed to get hold of the Brussels and a sharp knife and the rest was history.

In fact last year, when we had Christmas in Dorset because Mum and Dad were getting over a chest infection and were too sick to travel, the only thing that Mum had the energy to do was to sabotage the Brussels sprouts. By this point I was only too happy to let Mum have her way.

When we eat sprouts, we’re actually eating the buds of the plant. I was too late to get a picture of the Brussels sprouts on the stem that were being sold at Tony’s Continental in East Finchley (the best greengrocer in London in my humble opinion), but here are some so that you get the idea. The plant is, of course, a member of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae) which accounts for those hints of sulphur if the plant is overcooked. It probably originally came from the Mediterranean area, and forerunners of our sprouts may well have been  grown in ancient Rome. The plant was known in northern Europe from about the 5th century onwards, and was said to have been grown in Belgium from about the 13th century, hence the name.

Photo One by By Emmanuel.revah - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47586931

Brussels sprouts ready for harvest (Photo One)

Each stalk can bear a harvest of up to 3lbs of sprouts, which can be picked all at the same time, or over a period of weeks. The sprouts are normally ready for harvesting between 90 and 180 days after planting, and are considered sweetest after a frost. They are a traditional winter vegetable in the UK, though I would be willing to bet that a lot of people have them with their Christmas dinner and at no other time. Personally, my winter crucifer of choice would be a fine green cabbage, but that is an absolute no-no in my household.

There are some new varieties of Brussels sprout about, including a rather neat looking red and green flouncy variety that cropped up in Waitrose last year, and red Brussel sprouts have been around for a while . The red ones are a hybrid between red cabbage and the traditional Brussels sprout. Just as I find it hard to keep up with the ever-burgeoning selection of citrus varieties that appear in the greengrocers, so I am overwhelmed with Brassicas. I just get my head around kale when cavalo nero appears, and now there is micro-kale. I am not always sure that too much choice is a good thing.

Photo Two from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/foodanddrinknews/8065212/Red-Brussels-sprouts-to-be-sold-at-supermarkets.html

Red Brussel sprouts (Photo Two)

Most of the Brussels sprouts eaten in the UK will be home grown, with the ones in Tonys coming from Lincolnshire. Sprouts need temperatures no higher than 75 degrees and are also fairly thirsty plants, so the climate in East Anglia is ideal.  In the US, the area around Monterey Bay, with its year-round coolish climate and coastal fog,  is a big area for growing sprouts, although up to 85% of them will be for the frozen food market. I’ve never eaten frozen sprouts, my great fear being that upon defrosting they would turn into mush, but surely all those American consumers can’t be wrong.

Like all members of the cabbage family, Brussels sprouts are very good for you, packed full of vitamins and minerals and that all important fibre. But if you are on Warfarin or some other blood-thinning drug, beware: sprouts are high in Vitamin K, and a Scottish man was hospitalised following excessive consumption of the vegetable at Christmas. Apparently eating Brussels sprouts means that the Warfarin is cleared through the body more quickly, and therefore does not create the desired anticoagulation effect. And here’s me thinking that the main danger from a Brussels sprout was stepping on a raw one and being catapulted into the Christmas tree.

Of course, the Brussels sprout lends itself to all sorts of other shenanigans not related to its health-giving  properties. In August 2014 adventurer Stuart Kettell pushed a Brussels sprout all the way to the top of Mount Snowdon with his nose to raise money for MacMillan Cancer Support. He needed 22 sprouts, it took him four days, and he lost all the skin on his knees. He managed to raise £5000. He had previously practiced by pushing a Brussels sprout around his garden, and purposely chose large sprouts so that they wouldn’t get stuck in any crevices. Well done that man! He had previously raised money by walking every street in Coventry on stilts, and by running in a giant hamster wheel.

Then there is Linus Urbanec from Sweden who holds the world Brussels sprout consumption record, eating 31 sprouts in a minute in November 2008. I assume that they were cooked.

And on the subject of cooking, there are so many recipes for Brussels sprouts that it is difficult to choose just a few. The rumour is that roasting sprouts avoids the sulphur flavour that results from boiling or steaming, and you can also shred them and stir-fry them. One of my favourite dishes is bubble and squeak, which uses left over mashed potato and left over sprouts. But I don’t think they should ever be turned into desserts, or smoothies for that matter. I am reminded of the time that I used swede in a cake recipe, and the whole thing was so revolting that even I couldn’t eat it. For those who are keen on such things, however, there are some Brussels sprout smoothie recipes here. And good luck.

I note that the ever-innovative Heston Blumenthal made a ‘Brussels sprout’ dessert for Waitrose last year, but, quel suprise, it contained no actual sprouts, only green profiteroles filled with lime creme patissiere. Hah.

Photo Three from https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/heston-blumenthal-launches-next-big-11654201

Heston Blumentha’s ‘Brussels sprout’ dessert (Photo Three)

In ancient folklore, Brussels sprouts were said to have sprung from bitter tears, although it is also said that eating sprouts before a riotous evening will help to ward off drunkenness. It seems to me that a combination of sprouts and beer would be apt to produce both bitter tears and all manner of personal explosions, but there you go. If you can’t let rip at Christmas, then when can you?

And finally, in my journey through the world of sprouts I have found the delightful ‘Sprouts are Cool‘ website. And for your delectation, here is a poem by Suzie S, which sums the whole sprouts dichotomy in a few sentences.

Brussel Sprouts Poetry

O, Brussels sprout sae green and round,

Ye sit upon ma plate,
So innocently mystifying,
The cause o’ much debate.

Some say ye taste like camel droppings,
While others think you great,
I’m sure your sitting there a wonderin’,
Whit’s goin’ tae be your fate.

So let me tell you o’ so quick,
As nervously you wait,
That I find you e’er so loathsome,
So you definitely won’t be ate.

-Suzie S.

Mum was always so supportive of my writing. For years I would write 1000 words and send it to her, and she would read it, and then read it out loud to my Dad (who often fell asleep but there you go). She would foist my magazine articles onto anyone  who stood still long enough, whether they wanted to read them or not. She always believed that I was meant to be a writer, and would chide me if I stopped producing for any reason. And here she is, still doing it although she’s no longer here. She wanted me to be the best version of myself that I could possibly be, and so I guess I’d better get back to my notebooks and laptop and get composing. I wouldn’t want to disappoint her, even now.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Emmanuel.revah – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47586931

Photo Two from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/foodanddrinknews/8065212/Red-Brussels-sprouts-to-be-sold-at-supermarkets.html

Photo Three from https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/heston-blumenthal-launches-next-big-11654201

The Passing

Dear Readers, you have been with me through the whole of the journey of the past few years, with all its ups and downs, and I have so appreciated your thoughts and support. So today, I wanted to share with you the last few days of my mother’s life. I realise that many people are finding this time of year difficult enough already, so please don’t feel obliged to read this if you think it might make things worse.

I got the call to go back to the Nursing Home on Monday. When I arrived it was clear that Mum’s breathing had changed – there was a distinct rattling sound with every breath, and it seemed as if it was shallower and faster than it had been previously. Mum seemed to be totally absorbed in the process of dying, and unaware of what was going on, but I tried to remember that she could probably still hear at least some of what was going on, and could still feel. We all spent a lot of time holding her hand and talking to her. My brother and I took it in turns to be there – there is no way of knowing how long this stage will last, and Mum was a tough, determined woman.

After a couple of hours, I went to speak to the staff nurse.

‘This may sound cold-blooded’, I said, ‘but I want to know what the practicalities are, and what needs to happen once Mum has passed’.

So it was explained to me exactly what would happen in the next few hours and days. One thing that the Staff Nurse said triggered something in me.

‘You need to think about how you want her to be dressed when she leaves’, she said.

Mum was always a splendid dresser. She loved bright colours and it was a running joke that her socks had to match her outfit. I went back to the room and rooted through her clothes, but Dad has been packing and unpacking their clothes and it was difficult to see what was clean and what what wasn’t. And so I found a nightdress that didn’t look too bad, but felt very uneasy about it.

I went back to my Bed and Breakfast, and lay on the bed. It occurred to me that there was no way that I could let Mum be buried in a tatty nightdress. It was pouring with rain outside, the raindrops bouncing off the window. I made a decision, and phoned a taxi.

I went back to Milborne and collected the clothes that Mum had been wearing for her 60th Wedding Anniversary Party. She described the event as ‘the best evening of her life’. I folded the lacy top, the waterfall jacket, the pale blue trousers. Then I jumped into the cab and headed back.

I told the Staff Nurse that I’d got the clothes and that I had another request.

‘I’d like to help to wash and dress her after she’s passed’, I said.

‘That’s very unusual’, said the Staff Nurse, ‘ but of course you can be involved, I’ll write it down on her notes. But if, when it happens, you don’t feel up to it, that’s fine too’.

I had no idea that I was going to make the request until I made it, but this was a lesson for me – this is a time to go with your instincts. Do not override them. Do not delay, and do not second-guess yourself. Only you know what you and your loved one needs at this time, and it will be different for everybody.

I went back in to sit with Mum. I held her hand, and noticed that it was starting to feel cold. I kissed her on her forehead and told her that I was back. And then, she took a breath, and there was a pause before she took another one. I was watching the fluttering of the pulse in her neck. She took another breath.

‘Dad, hold her hand’, I said.

And we waited for a breath that never came. The pulse at her neck slowed. It was like watching a feather gently drift down and come to rest.

Oh the peace in that moment, after the breath has stilled.

‘Should we call the nurse?’ said Dad.

‘No, ‘ I said, ‘Not yet’.

It was good to just take that time to sit with Mum, to feel her presence still with us but ebbing. I opened a window so that she could fly if she wanted to. She hadn’t been able to take more than a few steps for months, but I had a clear, clear picture of her flying free.

Eventually, we told the nurse, and she stood and watched Mum for a few moments. My father was distraught, but his dementia has become much worse, and although he knew he loved the person that had just passed, I am not sure if he knew exactly who she was. My brother took Dad to a quiet room downstairs, and I watched as the nurses examined Mum to ascertain if she had passed.

‘Sorry, Sybil, if the stethoscope is cold’, said one.

‘Sorry, Sybil, I’m just going to shine a light in your eyes’, said the other.

And death was pronounced at 08.50 on Tuesday 18th December 2018.

Two carers came in , and together we worked to wash her and to dress her in the clothes that I had only picked up a few hours before. Mum was still beautiful, in spite of, or maybe because of, her suffering. We talked to her the whole time, explaining what we were doing, apologising in case it was uncomfortable. In death my mother had achieved a kind of gravitas and authority. She commanded respect, and that was what we gave her. I found that I was a little in awe of her for all she had achieved, and all she had been through.

The funeral company came to take Mum to the funeral home. Because Mum and Dad shared a room, it wasn’t possible to leave it till the following day. The nurses and carers lined up to watch in silence, heads bowed as Mum passed. How hard it must be for them, who get to know the people that they look after so intimately, and yet see them pass, inevitably, through those doors and into a hearse.

Mum had always been terrified that she and Dad would end up in separate homes, or that Dad would die first and she’d be left alone. And yet, they were together to the end. She passed out of this life peacefully, without pain, and surrounded by her family. I hope that we all may be so lucky.

Back at home I realised that I still have Mum’s hairbrush, with some long strands of silver hair still in it. It seems like only five minutes ago that I was brushing her hair for the party, and now I had just finished brushing it on her deathbed. We might know rationally that someone is going to die, but It will take me a long time to realise that I will never see that little figure toddling out to the kitchen with her zimmer frame to make me a cup of tea again.

Mum 2012

Barnwood, East Finchley

Dear Readers, there is a little patch of green and gold wildness in Tarling Road, just off Oak Lane in East Finchley.  For many years it has been locked up behind a chain mesh fence and allowed to go its own way, with brambles bursting into berry and the leaves of sycamore yellowing and falling. But this is all about to change. This secret place is going to be managed as a space for the whole of the local community, from fungi and plants and birds to people.

I met Leo Smith, a member of Grange Big Local and one of the people behind the site’s resurrection. Leo has form when it comes to wildlife gardening. Look at this wonderful hedge that he planted 9 years ago.

The site used to form part of the grounds of the Old Barn Community Centre, (hence the name  ‘Barnwood’) but when the community centre fell into disuse, the little wood was left neglected and unloved. For many years Leo and other local people  have seen the potential of this tiny site, and have wanted to make it a place that people could visit. The first stage has already begun – paths have emerged through the bramble thickets, each one curved so that you can’t see what’s around the next corner.

Each twist  reveals something something new in this overgrown but enigmatic site.

In the very middle of the wood an open space has been cleared. This is where Leo envisages that events will take place. Maybe people will carve wood into benches, or make bug hotels, or put up bird and bat boxes. Maybe they will sit and tell stories, or share their memories. Maybe children will learn about the wildlife and plants that surround them. There is so much possibility here.

Maybe people will harvest the blackberries, or even get to the cobnuts before the squirrels.

There are other plans, but the important thing is balance. There might be a rain garden, or a wildflower meadow, to increase the biodiversity of the site. Some trees are in a dangerous condition, and may need to be cut down, but others will be planted in their place. People will be able to walk straight from the spanking new (and currently empty) community centre into Barnwood.

The new (empty) community centre

It’s possible to underestimate the importance of tiny wild places such as Barnwood. But in a city, every resting place and food stop for birds and insects is important. As I have a cup of tea with Leo after the visit, we discuss all the birds that we’ve seen in East Finchley, and watch as the goldfinches and chaffinches visit Leo’s feeders. A patch of trees and shrubs might not account for much on its own, but when you see how it forms a corridor with other green places in the area, you start to appreciate how animals can survive even in the built-up environment of the city.  And the plan will make the site even more attractive to birds and invertebrates. Every half-acre counts, whether it’s a garden or a park or a place like Barnwood.

On Sunday 25th November, from 1-3 pm, there will be a community bulb planting event at Barnwood. Native snowdrops will be planted, as part of the Holocaust memorial, and as a symbol of new beginnings, hope, purity and consolation, alongside native bluebells and snake’s head fritillaries. All are most welcome.

 

 

 

Bugwoman’s Fourth Annual Report – Part Two

August 2017

Dear Readers, one of my most popular posts from last year was created during a deluge. ‘Twenty-six Ways of Looking at a Rainy Day’ was so much fun to write. The main challenge was keeping the camera from getting water-logged during the downpour…

It hasn’t been a particularly ‘foxy’ year, unlike 2016 when I was spending a lot of time with the foxes in the cemetery, but I did spot this little darling, sleeping under the whitebeam in the garden.

And I also spotted some common carder bees buzz-pollinating in the garden, a first!

September 2017

The month started a visit to the new gardens around Kings Cross station, for an assessment of how helpful they were to wildlife. The answer was that it’s early days, but the signs are very hopeful. Sparrows, vanishingly rare in central London, have already moved in, and there was an active wasps’ nest. I shall have to visit again soon to see how things are shaping up.

The month continued with my friend A bringing me a Knotgrass caterpillar for me to identify. What a fine creature! It has now pupated, and is back in A’s garden, with a barricade of twigs for protection. One day, no doubt, it will emerge and fly away, probably when no one is looking.

A theme throughout last year was my Mum and Dad’s 60th Wedding Anniversary party. At times it was all very stressful, and it was good to go for a walk around their village, Milborne St Andrew, and to reconnect. There’s always something wonderful to spot, and slowing down to actually see things is a very fine way of gaining perspective.

The party was held on 21st September. Mum said it was the best evening she’d ever had, so every bit of hassle about table-settings and whether or not to have a photographer was worth it.

Mum, Dad, my brother John and I at the cake cutting….

October

A few days after the party, we had the heart-breaking news that one of the people who had attended, someone who had battled for years with depression, had killed themselves. It was so hard, especially after the event had been such a good one. I wrote this piece in the days afterwards, and believe every word.

I also took a visit to Dundee. I worked as a carer in a night-shelter for homeless people in the city when I was in my twenties, and wondered how things were going. The shelter is about to be converted into luxury flats, the pub where we used to drink is now a college, and there’s a new branch of the Victoria and Albert Museum going up on the quayside, but there are still people asking for change on the streets. Everything changes, everything stays the same.

The sign above the door of the old Dundee Cyrenians night shelter

The garden was visited by an amazing visitor in October: a female emperor dragonfly, trying to find a spot to lay her eggs.

And some birds in the garden had a narrow escape when we had another visit from the sparrowhawk…

November 2017

November saw me back in Milborne St Andrew, following Mum and Dad’s spectacular double fall down the front doorstep. Fortunately neither of them were seriously damaged (though after spending two and a half hours waiting for an ambulance while laying on the front lawn Mum was a little less sanguine than usual). But once in hospital, they were delighted to be placed in adjacent beds, and even more delighted to be sent home after a couple of hours. Suffice it to say that my visit the next day was well-timed. But I did manage to get out for a walk, and finally got photos of a buzzard, and my first ever meadow pipit.

We even managed to make the Christmas cake. By the time we ate it, Dad had fed it with so much brandy that I’m glad I wasn’t driving.

Once home, I went for a walk in East Finchley Cemetery, where I found a strawberry tree, some greenfinches, a handsome jay, and this lovely gravestone. How I would love to find out a bit more about Muriel….

I also had a few thoughts about the use of fruit trees as street trees: there is a crab apple on our street which causes all kinds of mess, but which does attract such exotic creatures as this one.

What are you looking at?

I finished off the month with some thoughts about the passing of time, which seems to be have been a theme last year. With so many people that I love in their eighties and nineties, and with my own seventh decade approaching, I suppose that it’s inevitable that mortality should be on my mind, along with other existential thoughts, such as ‘what’s it all about’? ‘How do we live a good life, and what is a good life anyway?’ All this was prompted by watching a band of sunlight move across the garden in the space of a few minutes. I had a similar sensation last week as I watched the moon rise with Mum, and we both realised that you can actually see it moving,  and wondered why we’d never noticed before.

December 2017

December saw Mum and Dad struck down with a chest infection, and so I headed West again. It was a stressful time: the carer who normally looks after Mum and Dad was struck down by her own health emergency, and so I had to negotiate to try to get Mum and Dad to accept a carer who came from an agency, rather than someone that they already knew. I found it unbearable to think of them struggling on, sick, without someone to help them, and so I took myself off to the frozen fields for a walk and a think. Oh, the light on those December days. It felt like a blessing.

Then we had a spot of snow, the first that’s fallen and stayed for about five years.

Pied wagtail

And then it was Christmas, on the County Roads...

and in Dorset. We hadn’t expected to be in Dorset (Mum and Dad usually visit us in London) but they were both still too sick from their chest infections to travel. This didn’t reduce their appetite fortunately, and ridiculous quantities of the aforementioned Christmas cake were eaten, along with chocolates, roast potatoes, stuffing, brussel sprouts. Just as well we were able to get out for a walk.

It’s a pig!

January 2018

So, now we’re nearly back to the present day. January saw me exploring Hampstead Village, and falling in love with an angel.

It saw the very welcome arrival of a song thrush in the garden (still here as I write in February), and the continued presence of a single pied wagtail, who has been here since November. We are all hoping that he or she soon has some company.

And I took a bus ride down to Tate Modern, and a tube ride back.

So, readers, that’s the end of the review of the past year. Thank you for all your input  – I read every single comment, and love the community that we’ve built together. Don’t forget that if you’re on Facebook, you can find me here. I look forward to ‘meeting’ with you all in the year to come. And during the next few weeks, you will find that Bugwoman has been on a very exotic adventure, and has been living up to her name, for once. Stay tuned…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas on the County Roads

Dear Readers, it’s fair to say that Christmas has broken out all over the County Roads here in East Finchley, so, on a particularly damp and misty morning I went out for a walk to see what was going on. I am going to be away from home for Christmas for the first time since I moved here in 2010, and it feels a little strange: I haven’t put up the Christmas tree, the pink velvet reindeers are still in the box in the eaves, and several Father Christmases will be feeling very irritable if I don’t fish them out soon. But, somehow, I feel a need to let go of expectation and to simplify this year, and to that end I thought I’d enjoy what everyone else was doing rather than feel as if I had to do it myself.

The door wreathes, for example, are particularly splendid this year, and very varied. As with the Christmas trees, there are those who favour natural materials, and those who have an artificial one that lasts for many seasons.

  And then there are the decorations. I am very taken with the little glass creatures in the photo directly below.

But as I walked around, I quickly became aware that although much of nature is quiescent at this time of year, there is still a surprising amount going on. After all the snow I was surprised to see fresh spiders’ webs, bejewelled with mist.

And what is more festive than a shrub full of fruit?

The cotoneaster below was a mass of berries

The black fruits of ivy promise some respite for the thrushes if the weather turns cold again.

And I shall need a hand with this one, gardening friends. The fruit reminds me very much of spindle   but the leaves are different. Maybe it’s from the same family.

A relative of the spindle?

There is a strange beauty to the decay of plants. For example, I think I prefer the browning heads of the hydrangeas to the blooms in their fresher, more pristine state.

And in the insect-damaged leaves of mahonia and holly there is a flame of colour that the perfect ones lack. It reminds me that the beauty of a face that has been through trouble is often more profound than the picture-perfect features of someone who has not yet been tested by life.

And who should pop up when I was walking down Bedford Road but Bailey, the King of the Cats? He didn’t want to stop for a chat, but headed off down the road at a brisk trot, yowling all the way. He is a most determined puss cat.

To my surprise, some things are in flower, like the pink camellia and the clematis below. Although there are less blooms about at this time of year, the ones that there are seem all the more precious.

But what lifted my heart most today was not one of the more obvious things, but a tiny seedling. A few months ago, I captured a green oasis at the bottom of a wall along from Kentucky Fried Chicken. There were approximately ten species growing there, all ‘weeds’ to be sure, but tiny spiders were making their homes between the leaves, and there was even a caterpillar.

Then came the paving improvements, and, whilst the new paving slabs are delightfully even, there is not a blade of grass to be seen.

Until today.

I love that the natural world never gives up. Where there is a teaspoonful of soil, and a spot of rain, some plant will put down roots and throw up flowers. it gives me such hope to see that whatever we do, nature can circumvent us.

So, by the time this is published I’ll be heading off to Dorset for Christmas with Mum and Dad. It will be a different kind of celebration, but none the worst for that, and I’m actually rather looking forward to it. At least the parents will be snug and warm in their own home, and won’t have to worry about braving the Christmas traffic, or coping with the air quality in London. I wish all of you a peaceful and happy holiday, and hope that 2018 brings you everything that you long for most.

 

 

 

 

Bailey, King of the Cats

img_9221Dear Readers, as I have mentioned before, this is not a cat blog. However, I feel that this week I have to pay obeisance to a particular feline who was so much part of welcoming us when we first came to East Finchley, and who still pays us an occasional visit today. His name, as we eventually discovered, is Bailey, and he is the undisputed King of the local cats.

img_9207Back in 2010, when we were first looking for somewhere to live in East Finchley, my husband was walking along the pavement on his way home from work when he was knocked down by a speeding cyclist. My husband hit his head on the kerb and was rushed to hospital with a massive gash on his temple, and a short-term memory of approximately two minutes. When I rushed to A&E to see him, the conversation went something like this:

Nurse walks into the room.

My husband shakes her hand, and introduces himself. Hearing her Australian accent, he asks ‘Are you from Sydney?’

‘No’, says the nurse, ‘Melbourne’.

She walks out of the room and comes back thirty seconds later.

My husband shakes her hand, and introduces himself. Hearing her Australian accent, he asks ‘Are you from Sydney?’

‘No’, says the nurse, ‘Melbourne’.

Repeat ad infinitum.

My husband did remember that I was someone important to him, but not exactly who I was. On the other hand, he did remember the names of the two cats that I owned when I first met him. I shall leave you to ruminate on his priorities.

img_9208

Anyway, this is a long-winded way of saying that when I finally saw the house that was to be our home, my husband was at home recovering, and I took my friend J with me (as she is always up for ‘neb’ as my northern friends say). We were standing on the patio and listening to see if the noise from the North Circular Road was too loud to tolerate when a white apparition jumped over the fence, yowling, and threw himself on his back to have his belly scratched. Yes, this was our welcome to the neighbourhood.

img_9226Once we had moved into our house, the mysterious fluffy visitor continued to pay us regular visits. In the morning, he was immaculately groomed. By the afternoon, he was usually covered in twigs and dead leaves. Whenever he arrived, he would walk in, plonk himself down in the most convenient chair, and go to sleep. It was rather comforting, having him there while I worked away at my computer. Who was he, and where did he belong? His visits got longer and longer, and eventually we checked the tag on his collar. His name was Bailey, and he lived about ten houses up the road. If we carried him home he would jump out of our arms on his doorstep, but he seemed unable to work out where his house was if his paws were on the pavement. We were, in effect, his personal taxi service.

img_9224

On one supposedly Bailey-less occasion, I was working in the office when I heard Bailey’s owner  H berating him from the front garden.

‘Bailey!’ she said, ‘Come down from there and stop making a show of yourself’.

And then came a familiar howl.

I went downstairs to find Bailey balanced on the top of the eight-foot high doorway that leads to my back-garden, his face wrinkled in distress. He appeared to be unable to get himself down. His cries were pathetic.

Two youngsters from the local school passed by, and looked at him with worried expressions.

‘It’s Bailey’,  they chorused, for the cat is a local celebrity.  ‘Is he stuck?’.

‘No he blooming isn’t’, said H, ‘He’s just being dramatic’.

But fuss or not, he wasn’t moving. My husband arrived home from work to find me tottering on a dining-room chair and trying to retrieve an enormous fuzzy animal from the top of a rickety fence. Being six-feet two inches tall, he was able to remedy the situation quickly and efficiently, and so it was that Bailey was returned home.

img_9223The thing about Bailey is that he thinks he’s human. When he strolls through the garden, the birds and squirrels look up briefly and then carry on, because it’s clear that there’s as much chance of him chasing them as there is of me prowling through the hawthorn on all fours. He gets intensely frustrated when people don’t understand what he wants. All this sitting in the sink, for example, was meant to inform me that he wanted to drink from the tap. Of course.

Bailey isn’t allowed to come indoors at our house any more, because as you might remember we now have a very shy little cat who is completely freaked out by the presence of others of her species. But Bailey has taken to disappearing from his house for days on end, so when he turned up at our house on Sunday we felt we had to take him in until H got home. We confined him to the kitchen, where he sat in the sink glowering, as if the kitchen was his (rather inadequate) fiefdom. It was just like the old days. And when H and her daughter arrived to carry him home, it was as if his servants had arrived with a sedan chair and a fine plump cushion, as befitted his aristocratic status.

Where have you been?

Where have you been?

It is clear that we never really own a cat. They have their own views of how the world should be, and nothing we do will ever change them. It is also clear that every cat is an individual, with his own preferences and habits, foibles and tastes. Every cat has personality, but some personalities, and some cats, are much bigger than others. As Samuel Pepys said of his own cat: ‘He is a very fine cat indeed’.

All blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute/link back to the blog, thank you!

At Conker Time

img_7954As I walked through St Pancras and Islington Cemetery earlier this week, I came across the shed leaves of a horse chestnut tree, and a windfall of conkers. Some were new and mahogany-coated. Others had been crushed by cars, revealing their white, mealy interior. Some were still partly wrapped in their spiky green coats, and looked like half-open eyes. And as I photographed them, I suddenly remembered Auntie Mary.

Auntie Mary wasn’t a ‘real’ auntie at all: she was my maternal grandmother’s sister, whatever title that bestows. And yet we knew her better than we knew some of our official aunties. I can easily bring to mind her toothless grin, her thin dark hair held back by a hairgrip, her National Health glasses, the way she shambled around, shoulders hunched.

It was said that when she was a child, a boy had picked Mary up and swung her around while she screamed with delight, until suddenly his grip slipped and everything fell silent. Mary struck her head on the kerb, and was never the same again. These days, we would say that she had Learning Disabilities. When she was growing up, it was whispered that she was Simple.

img_7961And simple she was, in many ways. Mary never learned to count or to read or write. Her chief role was as wheelchair-pusher for my great-grandmother, who was crippled with polio. And yet, it would be a mistake to say that Mary didn’t understand what was going on.  When she was sent out to the corner shop to buy cigarettes, she remembered exactly what coins she had handed over, and what she got back. There was many an occasion when Mary was cheated, and my nan marched her back to the shop to say exactly what had happened. Faced with such evidence, most shopkeepers confessed to a mistake and returned the money. It was a trick that they didn’t try twice.

Mary was a generous soul with the little that she had. She loved the tiny chocolate-covered toffees that you could buy at the newsagents. Unfortunately, so did our mongrel dog, Sally. Sally would sit beside Mary and gaze up at her. Mary would resist for a few minutes, but then relent.

‘Alright!’ she would say, ‘But just one’.

And she would take out the paper bag that she had folded and folded until it was tight shut, and unfold it, and take out a single toffee the size of a bean, and give it to Sally, who would chomp it down in a tenth of a second. Mary would screw up the bag again and put it back in her pocket, but the dog was unrelenting. Mary would heave a huge sigh and take out the bag again.

‘This is the Last One’ she would say. But it never was.

Mum maintains that the dog had more of the sweets than Mary ever did.

img_7958Mary lived with Great Gran and Nan and Mum for years, but there came a point where it was all too much. Nan couldn’t look after a huge woman in a wheelchair and her own disabled sister any more. Great Gran went into one home, and Mary into another.

As was Mary’s way, she just got on with it. The home was in a mansion in Chigwell with rolling lawns and huge horse chestnut trees. We would go to visit, and play Banker with Mary. This easiest of card games involves breaking the pack into piles and betting on which pile will have the highest card. It’s pure luck, and Mary loved it, as did my brother and I – I was eight, and my brother was six, and so we were all pretty much at the same level. Mary’s glee when she won was infectious, and somehow she always won, probably because she wouldn’t let us stop until she had.

img_7964Mary was never loud or badly behaved, but the same could not be said of the other inhabitants, who were sometimes in the last stages of dementia. The screaming and the erratic behaviour of some of the ladies frightened my brother and I, and when it all got too much Dad would take us outside. In my memory it was always a damp autumn afternoon, and we would rustle about under the horse chestnut looking for conkers. The glint of the polished nuts shining amongst the fallen leaves, the faint smell of bonfires, our shrieks of excitement as we found yet another conker – these are the things that I associate with those last days, with the white mansion behind us and the lawn falling away. We would collect a whole shopping  bag full of conkers and bear them away. Strangely, I can’t recall playing conkers more than once or twice – it always seemed like a violent and dangerous game, in spite of Dad’s enthusiasm. I do remember sticking pins into the chestnuts and turning them into little temporary animals, before they were all tidied away in time for Christmas.

img_7967Mary went into hospital for a cataract operation one day. Something went wrong, and she died, never coming round from the anaesthetic. Apparently there was something wrong with Mary’s heart that had never been diagnosed. The staff at the hospital, and at the care home, were griefstricken.

What is a life worth, I wonder? It seems to me that the hole that is left in the web when someone dies is a bigger indicator of someone’s value than any money accrued or status acquired. Mary’s simple soul had drawn people and animals towards her like a magnet. She never created a great work of art or became a person of power and prestige, but she lived her life with joy, and never knowingly did harm to a living soul. The world would be a better place if we all lived so gently.

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