6 Apr 2011

Time: before and after.

Then

Christmas 1961: a glimpse of  'the skirt'
in the opening of my coat.
It must have been wintertime because I am wearing the skirt: a pleated tartan with white vertical and horizontal stripes that buttons at the waist; no zip, just a placket of the same fabric that tucks flat behind the short gap in the side-seam. I also remember it being dark, but that attribute might have been added by my imagination in view of the subterfuge to come. I dislike this skirt so much I have hatched a plan: if I snip a small hole in it with my mother’s manicure scissors and she notices the damage, damage that might easily have been caused by catching it on a fence or a prickly bush, she will declare it un-wearable.

I am about four, have yet to start school, so have not thought this plan through very thoroughly. 1) My mother would be able to darn a small hole. And, more significantly, 2) I am totally unaware of how pleats work, and how bunching a few of them together and snipping horizontally results in large gaping hole when they fall loose and fan out, a hole that could not be mistaken for anything but a wilful act of destruction.

In that moment I experience, without being able to articulate it, what time means: how one moment moves into another, how the future is constructed of what we do in the present. How it is possible to long for the past. I ache with the wish to go back to the moment before I closed the scissors around the thick cloth, before I even picked them up from my mother’s dressing-table. To a time before I knew I could feel like this.

Now

Not long before they all come home, before they re-fill the house with chatter and laughter. Not long before the cork pops from a chilled bottle of wine, a beer is opened, toys spill across the wooden floor. Before the chicken is pulled from the oven and set to rest, before potatoes are tipped into sizzling oil. But for now the house is quiet; the kids’ bright paintings on the kitchen wall, the oven light and the fluffed up flesh of par-boiled potatoes the only hints of what soon will be.

The kitchen, quiet and waiting.
I am at my niece’s house, while she’s out for the day, preparing a late Sunday lunch for her family, my sister and her husband, Mam and Dad. I’ve hit the slow time: all the vegetables prepared and par-cooked, the chicken on its last half-hour, the gravy and stuffing made. The house feels so quiet I notice my own breathing.

I used to fill silence. For years, when I was alone in a house, I’d have to put the television or radio on. I needed the company of activity and sound to distract me, to prevent me from looking inwards and not liking the silence I found there: silence that felt closer to emptiness than peace. I think that started to change when I began writing at the age of 30 and felt fulfilled in a way I never had before. It sounds simplistic, and perhaps a little melodramatic, but I remember it as my first real passion: something that was a part of me but which existed separately from me as well, something that acted as a bridge between me and the exterior world, a world that now seemed ripe with opportunities and possibilities. I wonder sometimes about writers who say they have always written, who were assembling home-made books and cobbling together novels before their teens. Did that sense of belonging to something, of something belonging to them, at such a young age, make life seem less intimidating, more negotiable? Or did those gifts bring their own insecurities? And I wonder too if some kind of self-fulfilment, a commitment to something outside of ourselves, is something we all need to feel truly contented?

The back door opens. My sister comes in with a bottle of champagne. Her cheek is cool when I kiss it. Her husband shakes out the Sunday paper. With the slam of a car-door on the drive, my niece and her husband are back with two flushed and excited kids.  And all that matters now is this moment, how they press themselves against me smelling of ice-cream and grass and afternoon sun.

My Best Roast Potatoes

It was an American friend, back in 1988, who told me about adding dried oregano to roast potatoes and I’ve used it ever since. 

And while I grew up with roast potatoes cooked in the fat of whatever joint was being served at dinner, and have also tried goose fat and duck fat, as per the recommendation of nearly every celebrity chef, I still prefer them roasted in olive oil.

And my potatoes of preference are King Edwards, though a Maris Piper runs a close second.

Peel and half, or quarter, your potatoes, depending on the size. Rinse well to get rid of the starch and bring to the boil in salted water. Simmer over a medium heat for between 3 and 5 minutes. As someone who has ended up with mashed potatoes for lunch, instead of the planned roast, I know how important it is to time this. The tip of a sharp knife should just be able to pierce the flesh.

Drain well. No, drain them really well. Put them back into the dry saucepan, put on the lid and give them a little bang about to fluff up the outsides then leave them uncovered in the saucepan or a dish. You can do this in advance and it’s what gives you a lovely crispiness.

Fluffed and ready to roast.

Heat the oven to 200°.

Coat the bottom of a roasting tin with a thin layer of olive oil and put it at the top of the oven for 5 minutes, or until the oil sizzles when you dip the edge of a potato into it.

Add your fluffy potatoes to the very hot oil, stirring them around and over to make sure they’re all well coated. Sprinkle with dried oregano and dried minced garlic and return to the oven for about 40 to 50 minutes.

Crunchy.
Fluffy.
Delicious.

And hot.

Cut one open to let it cool.
Savour the anticipation of the moment.


Hungry Writing Prompts

1. Write about a plan you made as a child.
2. Write about a wish that can’t possibly come true.
3. Write about an empty house.
4. Write about belonging to someone or something.
5. Write a list of everything than can bring contentment.