Author Archives: Z

Lunchtime

Meals on Wheels was not free, though the cost was modest. The recipients were asked to have the money ready, preferably the exact amount. The cost charged by the canteen where it was cooked was subsidised – the WRVS was somewhat unusual in that it was, and I suppose still is, a state-funded voluntary organisation, not a charity and it did not fundraise from the public.

I used to know every back street in Lowestoft by the time I was in my teens. I didn’t know the new housing estates that were built in the ’60s because younger families tended to live there, but the older houses; the Victorian terraces, the council houses and the fishermen’s cottages, I knew them all. My mother became fond of a number of the old people and often used to take them little presents – just a couple of bananas or a pack of sweets, nothing much. At Christmas time, she used to make up a parcel for everyone, usually quite practical things like shaving soap for the men, a bar of chocolate for those who weren’t diabetic, a little food treat, just a few little parcels to open. One old man always used to make her a cup of tea as his house was last on the round. It wasn’t very clean and she drank the tea holding the cup in her left hand, so that her lips touched the side his hadn’t.

There were home helps but they varied a lot in efficiency and by no means everyone had one. Most people did do their best to keep their houses clean and some of them were spotless. Some, unfortunately, were incontinent, especially women. The smell of cats, wee and paraffin stoves would still trigger a memory of a particular house in London Road South and seeing brown paintwork, chenille tablecloths and antimacassars would remind me of many of the houses. I remember Mrs Cockerton, of Edgerton Terrace, who didn’t have electricity laid on and used gas lamps. She had a gas fridge as well as a cooker and seemed perfectly comfortable.

It was just as well that I wasn’t with my mother on the occasion when she walked in the front door (usually, one knocked or rang and went straight in, to save the householder from having to trundle along to answer the door) and found a coffin in the hall, containing the old lady whose lunch she had brought. Another old lady, who lived in dreadful poverty, was taken to hospital. My mother used to take her extra food, bars of soap and so on, because she obviously couldn’t afford even basic living expenses. The local social services asked mummy to pack up her personal possessions because it was not likely the lady would be able to return home. Every drawer and cupboard contained rolled up bank notes and piles of change. She never spent her pension but squirrelled it away and the house contained the best part of £500: many thousands in the equivalent today. Mummy counted it, wrote it all down and told the lady’s daughter when she finally arrived after her mother’s death. “How do I know it’s all there?” demanded the woman.

I’m sure I’ve written before about Bluedith. She lived in a nice house on the seafront, opposite the park called Kensington Gardens. She had a complete fixation on the colour blue and everything in her house was blue, including her budgie in its cage. She wore blue and had blue-tinted spectacles. She seemed perfectly normal and was very charming.

Some of the old people had hardly any visitors and their twice-weekly Meals on Wheels were really important to them, for the social contact as much as the food. There wasn’t really time to linger long, you had to deliver all the meals within a reasonable time and to do the round in the same order each time – it took at least an hour and a half and people had to know about what time to expect you. You’d knock, walk in calling out a cheerful greeting, go to the sitting room or kitchen, ask after the person’s health and listen to their reply (this was important, of course) and say some kind and pleasant words, while dishing out the meal on the plates they had ready. The money was usually lying on the table, you counted it, wrote it in the book and, occasionally stopping to help with a small errand or promising to carry out a service later – posting a letter, for instance, you were out again in a few minutes. At the smellier houses, you took a deep breath before opening the door and tried not to breathe again until you left.

Service with a smile

My mother was a member of the WVS, as it was in those days; later it was upped to the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service; ie WRVS and men were admitted anyway, even if they were only credited as honorary women.

When I was a child, I often went with her to do Meals on Wheels and the Library Round. In the early 1960s, the meals were provided by the canteen at the Fish Market in Lowestoft. You had to have a pass to go there, and the big, flat containers had a layer of, I think, heated charcoal, to keep the tins of food hot while you drove round for a couple of hours to deliver them all.

Lowestoft was split into two delivery rounds: north and south. Each area had two deliveries a week. One was Tuesday and Thursday and I think the other was Wednesday, and Friday. I know that Wednesday was right, anyway. My mother was in charge of the rota and, as there were about 25 houses to deliver to, it made sense to have two people at a time to do the round. She didn’t, usually, she managed alone apart from me – but, looking back, she was very capable of doing the work of two anyway. But it was quite a complicated rota to set up. I’ve done it too, in a much more limited way, in this village. In theory, people are asked to manage their own swap if they’re going on holiday or just can’t manage their day, but they’re actually more likely to shove it back to you at a day’s notice when they suddenly notice they can’t manage it. So my mum and I did a lot of extra cover at short notice.

The meals were very good, actually. They came in tiffin tins, best way of describing them, one for the main course and one for the pudding. There would be meat, potatoes, at least two vegetables and gravy, and the pudding would have custard. It was good – and I do mean good – plain food and I don’t remember any grumbles about the quality.

I knew all the back streets of Lowestoft in those days, though I don’t any more because the new roads have cut through the old ones. I remember some council-built old people’s bungalows near St Margaret’s Church. We delivered to a few people there and their rent included heating, which was centrally controlled and kept at a high temperature. It was not unusual to find all the windows and doors open, because the hardy people of Lowestoft couldn’t cope with the heat that the social services people thought the thermostat should be set at (bad grammar alert there; but who on earth would say ‘ at which the thermostat should be set?).

Lea culpa – that is, it was her own fault

A friend, on her Facebook page, said that her child was crying loudly in the bedroom because a caterpillar had been found in the lettuce, even though the child had made the sandwich and been reminded to wash the lettuce thoroughly.

The child is a bit of a wuss, I’m afraid, though would not care to be told so. I was a timid and shy child, but not squeamish. I am reminded of a time when I was little – I was no more than seven, possibly younger. I don’t know where Wink was, but she wasn’t there. My mother had made me an evening meal and it was just for me. It seems that either fresh vegetables weren’t available or there was no time to prepare them, because she had opened a tin of celery hearts.

I don’t like cooked celery as a vegetable, I never have. Fine as a soup or in a stew or stir fry, also lovely raw. Braised, stewed, boiled, no. I don’t enjoy it. But I was a polite child and ate what was put in front of me. I was forty-nine years and six months and one week old when my mother died and she never knew I disliked cooked celery as a vegetable. I was as polite as that.

This was another matter though. I had this warmed-through celery heart on my plate and, luckily, my mother left the room for some reason so that I was on my own when I cut it in half lengthways. A whole slug was curled up in the middle. Dead, obviously, the poor thing was cooked and canned. It was no one’s fault, it could not have been seen. And was young Z revolted? Well, yes, I was rather. But it was more important to be polite and not to cause an upset. So I fished it out, chucked it into the fire and I remember the sizzle now, as my mother returned.

I ate the celery. I never told anyone. My mother would have been awfully upset, removed the celery, cooked something else when she was going out and didn’t have time – I knew all that and simply spared her. I was as polite as that.

I really wasn’t squeamish, though. A year or two after that, friends of my sister’s came round and I tagged along as they went down the garden to the summer house by the river frontage. They were having some sort of picnic, which included sausages cooked on a camp fire and lemon squash. The sausages weren’t all that successful as I remember: they were quite pink in the middle. I’d heard about tape worms and wondered, rather, but hey. I ate them anyway, as did we all. As I picked up my glass of lemon squash. Susan told me that she’d found a snail’s nest of eggs and had run her fingers through them and then dipped them in my squash.

I didn’t believe her, but I didn’t care anyway. I’d eaten half-raw sausages, eggy squash was far less concerning. A minute later, Susan saw my glass was empty. “Did you drink that?” she asked. I said that I had. She looked impressed. Not being a wuss mattered quite a lot to me, shy as I was. I grinned inwardly.

Z strips down an engine

It was so convenient to go 300 yards or possibly metres to the garage to get the car’s MOT that Tim thought he’d get the brake pads replaced on his car at the same place. We like this garage, there is an air of honesty and capability. It is also very good value, especially if you’re used to going to a BMW garage.

Talking about looking after cars, thinking back in the days when one did one’s own basics reminded me of 1972 when Wink and I took on a Motor Maintenance evening class at the College of Further Education in Lowestoft. We knew the Principal, whose name was Alan Boddy, I remember. Nice man, friend of my parents.

Wink had an Austin A40, a small and fairly basic car and she hadn’t got a lot of spare cash at the time, so thought it would be a good idea to know how to look after it, rather than have to go to a garage every time the spark plugs needed cleaning or the oil had to be changed. In those days, it was entirely feasible to do all the work you felt able to do on a car. I volunteered to go with her, having passed my driving test about 18 months earlier. I drove my mother’s car when she wasn’t using it, but I’ve always been one to plan ahead.

I have no idea of the name of the teacher or any of the men in the class. We were the only females and we reduced the poor guys to a degree of confusion, simply because of our – what, powerful sexuality? Surely not. We were two rather shy young girls, slightly out of our depth. We did learn quite a lot about the internal combustion engine, some of which even remains in my head to this day. Sadly, much of what we learnt is redundant, now that a part is simply removed and replaced rather than repaired, nowadays.

I do remember the lack of ease with which those nice men treated us. At the end of the session, which lasted six months with a Christmas break, the teacher was given a present, which the class had clubbed together for; except that we hadn’t contributed. Embarrassingly, no one had felt able to ask us. It wasn’t deliberate, there was just shyness on every side.

The instructor himself wasn’t immune to the awkwardness. I remember him showing us how to bleed the brakes. He was overcome with embarrassment when he told us about the “bleeding nipple.” He apologised twice, once for each word.

Z eyes July

It’s going to be a relatively busy month – which means only that I’ve more in my diary than I have had since February, after which I cancelled everything before we were locked down anyway. I’ve got a haircut booked, as I said the other day, I’ve had the MOT done on my car, the dental checkup that should have happened at the end of April and was postponed for three months has been confirmed and I’ve got a flurry of online meetings coming up. Most people, apparently, have bookcases as their backdrop. I have a cage with a cat in it.

Having safely got my MOT, I’m going to change my car in the next few weeks. I’ve had it nearly five years and I had to buy it in a hurry. My previous car developed a fault on the way down to visit Tim, when we were barely on the way to becoming “an item” and I left it at a garage in Reading. It turned out that the repair would cost more than the car was worth, so I accepted an offer for scrap and Tim drove me to Norwich, where I bought a second-hand car on the spot. It’s been very good, a 1.6 litre Hyundai automatic, I’d not mind another much the same. I feel that a car is likely to be expensive once it approaches ten years old; this is eight and I’d rather not have any problems. A very good car might be worth keeping longer but this, although it’s been excellent, is bog-standard as cars go, frankly and I would rather not take the chance.

I managed to miss a couple of courgettes which instantly became marrows, dammit. So I picked everything that was worth picking and am in the process of making courgette and apricot chutney, adapted from a recipe in a vegetable cookery book. It’s adapted because the writer credits another cook, who gave her his grandmother’s recipe, which she clearly had not tried out. It gives ingredients but not all the quantities and it omits to mention cutting up the apricots and apple. It also says to put the spices in a muslin bag, which effectively nullifies any flavour from them. But corrected and tweaked, it’s a good recipe and can be used immediately, it doesn’t have to mature though it also keeps well. The mixture is steeping overnight and I’ll make the chutney tomorrow.

I still had the two original marrows, most of them, so I’ve made a soup from the same book, with onion, garlic, marrow, stock, mint, basil and coconut milk. I know, it doesn’t sound that enthralling. But I had all the ingredients and hey, worth a go. We haven’t eaten any yet and we’ll have some for lunch tomorrow. The writer raves about it but, tasting it, it’s more ‘interesting’ than necessarily delicious. We’ll see. If we don’t like it, I’ve wasted half a tin of coconut milk, that’s all.

I let Frostier out yesterday with her three chicks. They had a lovely morning pottering about and later, when it rained, they returned to the coop. I released them again today and it rained again this afternoon. I went down to check and the covering over part of the coop had shifted, so wouldn’t have given any protection, so they were standing disconsolately in the rain. I put a little food in the coop, they hopped in and I covered them over. What good chicks and mother. One of the Fosters has disappeared again, however. She is clearly sitting on eggs, I’m sure she hasn’t been taken. I’ve looked for her without success, though I’m very bad at spotting nests so I’m not surprised. I was stupid ever to let the bantams hatch their eggs, i should have known better. They are so maternal and lose no chance to lay away.

Z is ordinary. But has good hair.

I’m going to bite the mask bullet, darlings. It has become politicised, unfortunately, at least in America, so views seem to have become polarised. I haven’t got a strong view, however. I wouldn’t choose to wear one if it isn’t required but I haven’t the least objection if it is. I suspect that this applies to the majority of people in this country. I have learned, over the years, that I am very ordinary and what I think is what most people think.

So if I need to use public transport or my hairdresser wants me to wear a mask or my doctor does, that’s not any problem. As it happens, none of these apply right now because I’m not using the buses and never do unless I’m in London, which I won’t visit any time soon; I don’t need to visit the doctor and my hairdresser will wear a mask so that I don’t have to. But I visit each of those for choice but not for fun and this is my point.

I have had a couple of questionnaires in the last few weeks from art and music establishments that I pay to be friends of. A question asked was whether I’d be more or less likely to visit if required to wear a face covering? I had to say that I’d be less likely.

As I said, I do not object. I do not think it impinges on my personal liberty and I do not believe I’d suddenly feel faint or be more at risk of cancer (yes, I know someone who does, or says she does). But it would diminish my enjoyment. On Friday, I was driving out to pick up the weekly treat of a takeaway from one of our favourite restaurants and I arrived at the end of the drive at much the same time as a young woman was cycling past it. She looked momentarily alarmed in case I drove out in front of her, I had seen her so smiled to reassure her, she smiled back. I had thought about the matter before, but that cemented it. Facial expression matters so much for communication. I don’t mind wearing a mask so much as I mind being surrounded by expressionless people. If need be, that’s fine; but I’m not doing it voluntarily. So no to theatre, cinema, concerts, shopping except locally in small shops, or anything unnecessary.

I went to church this morning. There weren’t many people there, about a dozen or so in the congregation and a few were missing because they’re shielding and others are of an age to, but chose to come anyway because it really matters to them. What struck me was how gorgeous our uncut hair is. It’s beautiful. I’m including me in that, I love how my hair looks. I used to receive compliments on my haircut, now I get them about my hair. It was a good cut back in February, so hasn’t gone wild, but I love its soft fullness and all the other women’s hair was beautiful too, including those whose colour was growing out. I love the softness of grey, too. I do have an appointment at the hairdresser for later this month, but I’ve said I just want a trim, nothing much. In due course when things aren’t so busy, we can talk about a style, but I’ll enjoy being relaxed for a while longer.

Speaking out of turn

The story I started with yesterday, about a WI speaker whose talk did not go down at all well reminds me of another occasion, some years ago. It was very funny, but not quite as intended.

I’ve been going to a lunch club for many years, which I’ve mentioned before. As I’ve said, I was the youngest there thirty years ago and I still am now and I joined to keep my mum company on the way.

We didn’t normally have speakers, it was purely a social club, except at the pre-Christmas lunch. I can only remember two of those, one because it was so good (one of our number who could do a broad Norfolk accent and told hilarious anecdotes) and one because … well.

She was American, in her forties, an exuberant and friendly lady who had a reputation for giving entertaining talks on her life. One of our number had recommended her, poor woman. I suspect she got a Talking To later. Our Chairman, Marian, was a wonderfully formidable ex-Headmistress of a boarding school in Surrey. She was tiny, under 5 feet tall and slender, but had a commanding presence and personality and very high standards of behaviour.

The American woman, whose name was, I think Barbara, was married to a man in the US Air Force and was stationed over here. They’d lived in many places and she had a tale to tell about all of them. It was quite thin stuff and she laughed rather more than we did, but it was rattling on good-humouredly until she mentioned a visit to Washington DC, with an English girlfriend who was visiting the US for the first time. Barbara was showing her the sights, of course. And they were approaching the White House and decided to cross the road.

You’re not supposed to jaywalk in America, I gather and, if you want to do it, near the White House probably isn’t the most sensible place; and they were stopped by chunky, armed police officers and given a lecture and a warning. And Barbara got the giggles. And then she wet herself, which she cheerfully described in some detail to this roomful of rather proper, retired English ladies, who were mostly around 80 years old and this was twenty years ago. The microclimate around Marian, who was sitting next to Barbara, chilled and froze. Lines deepened around Marian’s mouth. Her reaction was the funniest thing of the whole day. I’m sure Barbara was thanked very politely, but we never had another ‘outside’ speaker again.

The WI speaker I mentioned several weeks ago

Only once do I remember a speaker who dismayed us all. He was some sort of psychotherapist, I suspect not medically qualified at all. He didn’t name anyone, of course, but the salacious soft-porn stories of abuse, sexual hang-ups and so on that he related left us all silenced. We didn’t learn anything useful, just felt dirty. When he was near the suggested end time of his talk, he asked if he should draw to a close or carry on as he had lots more stories? The then President tactfully said that she felt it was time to finish.

Most speakers were good to great. I remember most the ones who got us doing stuff, even if it wasn’t something I really was inclined to do, such as painting or lino cuts. I have no artistic bent, but I can enthuse for an hour, even if I never go back to it. One very pleasant speaker met her match with us, though that had been no one’s intention.

She had been engaged to talk on Public Speaking. And I can’t remember much of what she said, to be truthful, but she ended with an exercise in speaking and asked for volunteers. That was her first mistake. She should have latched on to the women who didn’t want to speak and avoided her eye. But Adèle, Gill, Mandy – confident professionals, two teachers and a midwife, were among those who offered their services, not knowing what she was going to ask of them. She produced a cloth bag, which she said had a number of items in it; she’d ask each woman to take an item and then speak off the cuff for two minutes about it.

30 years ago, even, a lot of people were up for that. Of course, what she wanted was for them to hesitate, get tongue-tied and then she’d be able to explain some good techniques for when we’re out of our depth and feeling shy in front of people. What she got, however, were practised, entertaining raconteurs who could talk on any given subject at the drop of a hat.

Gill came first and she drew out a credit card. She admitted that she didn’t have a credit card herself, but then she told a very funny story about the time a friend’s credit card saved the day. I can’t remember if they sprung a lock with it or used it as a scraper; the story doesn’t matter but the telling of it was the point. Then Adèle had us all rocking with laughter at her tale, which I think was about a battery, Mandy followed on, then Kath – I can’t remember who the last person was, but everyone kept to their time, which is part of the knack too, was funny and/or informative and no one dried. The poor speaker must have been gutted, however smartly she pulled herself together. She acknowledged that those speakers had little to learn from her and just told us what they’d done right.

At that time, I didn’t have the knack, but now I do. I can talk about anything at any time to any number of people. It helps if they don’t know more about it than I do, of course. I used to find it very hard, but several years of doing extempore votes of thanks at Nadfas lectures eliminated all nerves and I worked out my own techniques.

WI refreshments

The first time my mum and I put our names down for food was for the November meeting. That’s the AGM, there is no speaker so, after the boring business is over (including the election of the committee), the chat is the main thing. Of course, we pulled the stops out. We treated it as a cocktail party, if a bit late in the day, and made canapés. We thought we should tempt the palate of those who’d eaten before they came out and, if anyone had yet to dine, they’d be easy prey for a first course.

I can’t remember what we made, that first time, but I do know that we laid all the pieces out on serving dishes at home, rather than putting them in boxes and risking being helped by having them put out with no care for aesthetic harmony. This is neither boast nor apology. We both felt that the beauty of the plateful was part of its appeal. Every little piece had its appropriate garnish, colour schemes were considered and we reserved much of the day for the cooking and preparation. Unsurprisingly, we were asked to do the November food every year from then on.

Everyone’s food was delicious and ours was no better, but I think that we put more emphasis on lightness (no sandwiches, for instance) and savoury food, though there were always some dessert-y things at the end. For instance, tiny brandysnap cups filled with lemon soufflé and little chocolate cups filled with chocolate mousse.

My mother worked hardest. She would make little pastry boats to be filled with fish mousse, whereas I’d slice a cucumber, dry the pieces and top them with the mousse, which would take at least two hours less. The realisation has, very gradually, came upon me that I’m not as lazy as I’ve always said and believed I am. I’m simply – please excuse the capitals, it was a mind-blowing revelation – LAZY COMPARED TO MY MOTHER. THAT DOES NOT MAKE ME LAZY, AS I’VE BELIEVED (she never suggested such a thing) FOR MOST OF MY LIFE. I am, however, more efficient than she was. And I take more care of myself. I may well come back to this at some time, but it’s not a subject for now.

Our cakes weren’t as fabulous as some of the others’ – this was the WI after all and everyone was a great cook – and many people worked full time and still produced something wonderful. I’m not boasting, we weren’t the best at all. But our presentation was fabulous, so that is a small puff to J and Z.

Z the newbie

Back to the past, darlings.

My mother and I were invited by Gill to join the WI in the next village. Unlike many, it has its meetings in the evenings, so that all ages could come and members ranged in ages from their twenties to their eighties. I gathered that it had been in the doldrums and several young mums decided to support and literally rejuvenate it.

There was a speaker every month, of course, and we all sat around the room in a horseshoe rather than in rows. Being very poor with names but anxious to improve, I used to sit there trying to put names to faces every month. I had always been absolutely dreadful with both names and faces but I have worked very hard, over the past 30+ years, at improving and I can tell you that it is possible. I finally pinned down that I can manage the first name much better than both, so that’s what I focus on.

I used to be permanently worried as a child, in case I got a name wrong or hadn’t taken on board that Sue had decided to be called Susie or Liz was now Betty. I was frightened of giving offence or being ridiculed, so avoided using names altogether. I don’t know when I turned that around, but I completely have – if there’s anything I’ve ever achieved, squashing that demon comes high. A couple of weeks ago, in the dress shop, when I greeted a friend from way back by name and asked after her children BY NAME – I was actually genuinely proud of myself, which no one will comprehend unless they’ve been equally incompetent as I used to be.

After a while, i joined the committee and then it was only a matter of time before I became secretary, which really helped with names as I had them all written down.

Food was a big thing at the WI. We’d all eaten before we came out, so didn’t want to eat biscuits with our end-of-evening tea or coffee, but appreciated some nice little snacks to finish the day. There was a rota you signed up for, with a couple of other people, and you set up everything and served it. The big urn in which the water was boiled didn’t have a cut-off so, when the water boiled, the kitchen filled with steam. One tried to remember to pop through and turn it down before that but, invariably, it was forgotten and when the hostess opened the kitchen door, a cloud wafted through and it never failed to amuse.