Z is for… Ze end

The house that a lot of this month’s stories took place in — my grandparents’ house — no longer exists. Or rather the house itself still exists, the shell of it remains, but the inside is completely different.

One of my biggest regrets was going to see it as it was being gutted. I was in my late teens by that point, and well out of childhood, but seeing the kitchen torn out, the tiles broken, the inside a ruin, was a shock. It felt like someone had abruptly jerked me out what remained of my childhood and kicked me out into the cold.

I really wish that I didn’t have the memory of how sad and forlorn it looked, all empty of furniture and people, and all broken up inside. Continue reading

Y is for… Yoghurt

Picture the scene: a fat toddler, possibly the world’s fattest toddler, or at least a contender for the world’s fattest cheeks, sitting in a high chair. Said toddler is wearing a bib and holding a spoon in her chubby hand. She looks exceedingly happy, and that is because a yoghurt has been taken out of the fridge, and is now making its way towards her. That her mother or father is behind the yoghurt is of no importance. Priorities! There is yoghurt present.

‘-aou’t!!’ (yaourt, or yoghurt in toddler speak) is the word that comes out of that toddler’s mouth. The very first word. No da-da or ma-ma here today

I’m not sure what it says about me that I said yoghurt before Maman or Papa, and all those other normal words. It did set the scene for the next thirty years though – I am just as obsessed with food now as I was then, and with yoghurt too. There was never a chance in hell I’d ever become a vegan or one of those super health conscious people who cut out all fun things from their diet — not with that first word anyway.

I have to pull out my French snob card now by the way, and claim that French Yoghurt is the best. I know, many (most no doubt) of you will disagree, or you won’t care because you’re normal, non yoghurt-obsessed people. But it’s true — yoghurts remain one of my favourite things to have when I go back to France.

X is for… X-traordinary lengths

One year, I developed an intense pre-teen crush on a boy in my class. Unlike my first, five year old crush, I didn’t try to seduce him with a pencil case (here for those who missed that post and are curious). No, I was in fact so shy and awkward that I couldn’t even make eye contact with him, let alone speak to him or reply intelligently to anything he said.

At the time, it seemed obvious that the best way to deal with this awkward situation was to make sure he didn’t find out that I liked him. (I mean can you imagine the embarrassment if he found out!?!) I played it cool. More than cool – I played it ice cold: I went to extraordinary length to ignore him. It wasn’t just that I didn’t seek him out, I ignored his questions, gave him cold looks when I did manage to overcome my excruciating embarrassment and look him in the eye, and was just as aloof and distant as I could manage.

Of course during that entire time I pined like the love sick teenage puppy I was – it was all-round unpleasant.

It wasn’t until years later that I learnt that the poor boy had also harboured a crush on me. My act was so convincing that he felt sure not only that I wasn’t interested in him, but that I actively disliked him. Of course he never suggested we sit together at the cafeteria, or hold hands.

We each pined in our corner, separately miserable, until time eventually did its thing and we forgot about each other.

Taking playing it cool to such extraordinary lengths was one of the dumber things I did on entering adolescence.

 

W is for… Witch

The witch that lived near where I grew up had long grey hair and wore rags. She lived in a car two streets from mine, its windows obstructed with plastic bags, a spray painted dog on one of the doors. A friend of mine lived nearby, and when we had sleepovers we told each other terrifying stories of how she snatched little children off the street and how her car was littered with their bones.

We saw her most days, shuffling her plastic bag wrapped feet, her long grey hair pulled up into a bun on top of her head, her face reddened from the cold, and we always crossed to the other side of the road, shooting her weary glances. Most of the time we were on foot, but on one fateful day, my friend and I were on our bikes.

As soon as the witch caught sight of us, she screamed and waved her bag. The bag caught my shoulder and destabilised me: I crashed my bike into a nearby tree. I wasn’t hurt, just shaken as I scrambled to pick up my bike and pedal off. It was all I could do not to cry.

We had to do something, said my friend. We had to take matters into our own hands, we couldn’t let a witch attack us like that. So we armed ourself with a ouija board which was just a sheet of paper with the letters of the alphabet in marker, and an upturned glass. We said a prayer for the spirits to connect with them, and then we asked that they defeat the witch. The spirits replied, as they always did. I never pushed the glass by the way, I was far too gullible and actually believed in the power of the ouija board. Clearly, my friend did the pushing. Anyway, the spirits answered: the witch would be taken care of.

Months passed and winter fell. The witch wrapped her hair in a scarf against the cold. She seemed less fearsome that way, just old, and a bit sad. We were still weary when we saw her in the street, but we no longer made up stories about the children she ate in her car. In fact, we started to forget about her.

And then her car disappeared. There was no fuss, no great thunderstorm to mark the removal of the witch’s lair. Just that it was there one day, and then the next wasn’t. The spirits had done as we had asked them.

The next time I saw the witch, I felt horridly guilty that we’d taken her home from her. She just looked like an old woman now, and she pulled a trolley of plastic bags behind her. I knew there were no bones under the bags, probably just more plastic bags — plastic bags that no longer had anywhere to live.

***

I heard of the witch again recently. There was a very sad article in the Guardian (a UK newspaper) about her passing. She had in fact been a gifted concert pianist, and a piano teacher. In the 70s she fell on hard times and was asked to leave her lodgings. Believing she had been wronged, she slept in her car, demanding to return to her rooms.

She never did.

Her car was removed because it was a bit of an eye sore and local residents felt that it devalued property prices on that street. Attempts were made to move her into affordable housing instead but she refused, choosing to remain on the streets. She was apparently very clean, washing at the local doctor’s surgery every day, and resourceful too: she used pigeon feathers to insulate her makeshift shoes in the winter.

She was killed by a lorry at 77, having spent most of her life on the streets. By all accounts she was a rather extraordinary woman, but one who sadly was a bit different, and who as a result slipped through the cracks.

For anyone interested, the whole article is here

V is for… Vinegar

*The theme for my A to Z is Childhood Stories. Some are real, some are embellished, some are downright fictional but are based on the kind of things I imagined when I was younger.*

Growing up my mother made her own vinegar. We had a large ceramic jar in the kitchen with a big blue handpainted flower on it, and a wide cork stopper that, at the time, was as large as my two hands.

My mother would pour wine into the jar and it would turn into vinegar, as if by magic. One day, when I asked her, she explained that inside the jar was a kind of mushroom, a “mère” which turned the wine into vinegar.

I thought about this a lot over the next few days. As most of you will know, mère is French for mother, and so I was exceedingly curious about what a mushroom’s mother looked like, whether it was making babies inside the jar, and if so, how did they get out, and how did they find the countryside and forests to plant themselves in? I had seen Fantasia with its dancing mushrooms, and the Maman Champignon and her little ones, trapped inside the vinegar jar, seemed to me like they would be similarly sentient. I wanted to see them for myself, and maybe liberate them. It had to be horrid in the jar, dark and smelling of vinegar.

I’d had recently received a head torch, and I had been patiently waiting for the opportunity to explore a cave, or go on a night time adventure. Investigating a Maman Champignon seemed a very good reason to to take the head torch on its first outing. I stayed up reading my Famous Five book under the duvet (with my head torch), and waited for my parents to go to bed. Such was my curiosity about the Maman Champignon that I was willing to walk past the Dark to go see it.

I put on my slippers, and crept downstairs. As expected, the Dark let me pass easy, but I already  knew that going back up would be much worse than normal because I couldn’t put the hallway light on: this was an illicit night time rescue mission, and discretion was key.

When I reached the kitchen, I pulled a chair up to the counter and climbed up. I pried open the jar’s lid and looked inside.

Far from the colony of baby mushrooms I expected, watched over by a benevolent Maman Champignon, I only saw dark red liquid that reflected the beam of my torch. I pushed the jar to tilt it a little — it was heavy. Still, I didn’t see anything. I tilted it further. Nothing.

I tilted it further, and the jar slipped from my hands, falling to the floor with an almighty crash.

Lights came on, my parents ran downstairs.

“What happened?”

I burst into tears. “I wanted to free the Maman Champignon and her babies! I’m so sorry!”

“Well look, there it is, there’s the mère” said my mother, pointing at what looked like a red, slimy sheet of jelly on the floor among the broken ceramic and spilt vinegar.

“Oh. That’s it?”

It was as far from the dancing Disney version as you can imagine.

The Maman Champignon (or mère de vinaigre, to use its proper name) is in fact a bacteria that interacts with wine, turning it into vinegar. It isn’t even a mushroom. It was believed to be a mushroom until Pasteur discovered bacteria, although it is still widely referred to as a mushroom. It most certainly doesn’t make mushroom babies, nor does it release them into the wild.

Sadly.

U is for… Unauthorized

*The theme for my A to Z is Childhood Stories. Some are real, some are embellished, some are downright fictional but are based on the kind of things I imagined when I was younger.*

A very quick forward before this story: this one is entirely fictional, and is based on an old English folktale which I found in Neil Philip’s wonderful The Penguin Book of English Folktales. It’s sadly out of print, but if you come across it in a second hand bookshop I’d highly recommend it. Some of the tales are amusing, some sad, and some very dark and gothic (including a great story that Dickens’ Nanny told him growing up, and one that terrified him as a child).

***

“Now remember, don’t play over on the Main Road,” said my mother. “You stay on our street.”

I sighed. “Yes mum, I know.”

“I mean it now. If you go on the Main Road, Mr Miacca will come get you.”

I rolled my eyes — I’d heard the warning hundreds of time.

“Yeah alright, I’ll stay on our street.”

I headed out into the early summer sunshine. There was plenty to get on with on our street, but of course, none of it was as interesting as the forbidden Main Road. I looked over at it. There was a sweet shop across the road and a newsagent next to it. I wanted to go have a look.

Mum was in the kitchen so she couldn’t see me out of the window. Maybe if I was quick, she wouldn’t know.

I ran.

When I stepped onto the Main Road, I was surprised to find that the cars on the road and the people on the pavement vanished. I looked around to find the shops were empty. I walked on, puzzled. It was darker somehow on the Main Road, the colours looked different, and there was a faint tinkling in the air, as though tiny bells were ringing in the distance. It made me want to run back home, but I brazened it out.

I’ll just go as far as the lamppost and then I’ll turn back.

I walked quickly.

Behind me, the sound of bells intensified. I turned to find Santa’s carriage flying down towards me — except that it was drawn by dogs and instead of being a sled, it had wheels. At its helm was a man wearing a waistcoat and trousers, with the head and tail of a fox.

Mr Miacca.

“Well, well, little girl,” he said. “Welcome to Unauthorised. Into the bag you go!”

I tried to run but the dogs were faster than me. Mr Miacca grabbed me by the collar and bundled me into the bag. The carriage clattered away and then fell silent: we were flying.

“Where are you taking me?” I shouted from inside my bag.

“To Mrs Miacca.”

A few minutes later I felt the carriage land and Mr Miacca picked me up with the bag. A door slammed. I was dropped out of the bag, rolling out onto a large wooden table. I shook my head to clear the dizziness. We were in a sun filled kitchen with window boxes full of plants I didn’t recognise, and there was a blue mixing bowl in the sink.

“Petunia dear! I’ve brought dinner.”

“Good, good.” Mrs Miacca entered the kitchen. She was a heavy, fleshy woman wearing a flowery pinafore, and she had the same head and tail of a fox as Mr Miacca.

“What’s this?” she asked. “I specifically told you to get a boy.”

“That’s a boy,” said Mr Miacca.

“Er, excuse me,” I pipped up. “I am not a boy, I’m a girl.”

Mr Miacca threw me an annoyed look.

“Now don’t you try and pull one over on me, Algernon.” Mrs Miacca waggled a finger at him. “You know girls don’t agree with you.”

“Well I just thought –”

“I know what you just thought. You thought you could pass her off as a boy because she’s wearing shorts and a T-shirt, not a dress.”

“But girls taste better.”

“You know what the doctor said: a boy only diet for the next month. More nutrients in boys — think of your anemia.”

“Why are there more nutrients in boys?” I asked.

“Boys tend to be more naughty. You –” Mrs Miacca gave me a good sniff — “Have a bit of naughtiness clinging to you, but nearly enough for me to make a full meal out of it.”

“You eat naughtiness?”

“Obviously,” she replied. “What else would we eat?”

I had no answer.

“But see dear, that why I grabbed her,” said Mr Miacca. “Since we need to lose weight and all –”

“Who needs to lose weight?” Mrs Miacca’s tone had both Mr Miacca and I carefully looking in every direction but hers. “Hmm? Who needs to lose weight?”

“M-me dear,” he replied.

“Yes, well, you have put on a few pounds recently.”

Mr Miacca and I studiously avoided making eye contact with her again.

“Now,” she continued, “did you at least get me the condiments I asked for?”

Mr Miacca’s head retreated between his shoulder as if he was trying to imitate a turtle. He gave me a panicked look.

Don’t drag me into this, buddy. 

“Well?” asked Mrs Miacca. “Did you get the badger tears? The dreams of an old man? The mustard?”

“Ummmm –”

“I even wrote you out a shopping list.”

“I think I lost it on the way — must have flown out of my pocket. Anyway I didn’t have time: she just appeared in front of me, so I grabbed her and came home. We could –”

“No, we are not having that disgusting Brown Sauce you brought back last time. Even if there are badger tears in it. Why humans would eat it voluntarily is beyond me. Sometimes, Algernon, I wonder if you were born without taste buds.”

“Yes dear.”

“Now you will take the girl back to where you found her, and go find us a boy with sufficient naughtiness. I’m hungry. And don’t forget the condiments this time — the mustard should be whole grain by the way.”

“Yes dear.”

“And hurry about it or we’ll be late for bridge with the Toothfairy and La P’tite Souris.”

“Yes dear.”

Mrs Miacca wrote a new shopping list, thrust it at her husband, and swept out of the kitchen. With a sigh, Mr Miacca gestured for me to follow him and we headed to the carriage.

“Why is your carriage just like Santa’s?” I asked.

“He borrows our winter carriage to get around at Christmas time. He’s not very organised, old Santa. Always coming to us in a bind at the last minute, to find out which kids have been naughty.”

“How do you know?”

“All the Unauthorised places of the world belong to Mrs Miacca and I. We know as soon as child steps into one of them.”

“Are you going to tell Santa about me?”

“Absolutely. Especially considering the hassle you’ve cost me.”

“So what, that means I won’t get any presents?”

“I don’t know, it depends on him. Now get on.”

I frowned, a little worried this Christmas would be bare. Mr Miacca picked me up and slung me on the front seat, climbing on after me. The dogs wagged their tails and barked excitedly.

“Giddy-up!” called Mr Miacca, twitching the reins. The dogs ran ahead, pulling us behind, and then we lifted off. It was like being in a plane, only better. We went so fast, my eyes were streaming from the wind, and the land beneath us was a blur.

In a few minutes we were over London, like a cluster of dollhouses beneath us through which ran a blue shoelace — the Thames. Mr Miacca brought us down and we landed on the Main Road, just outside my street.

“Go on then,” he said. “Off you trot.”

I climbed down. “Bye Mr Miacca!”

“Feel free to come back in Unauthorised again next month, once my boy only diet is over,” he said with a grin.

I thought about it. “Ok I will, but only if you don’t tell Santa about me — this time and next time.”

“Ok, you have yourself a deal.” He leaned down and we shook hands.

When I reached my street, I looked back over my shoulder. Main Road looked normal once more, with cars running through it, and people on the pavement. Of Mr Miacca and his carriage, there was no trace.

T is for… Tunnel

*The theme for my A to Z is Childhood Stories. Some are real, some are embellished, some are downright fictional but are based on the kind of things I imagined when I was younger.*

Channel tunnel to be precise.

Growing up, we travelled down to France several times a year to see the family. Sometimes we took the plane, sometimes we drove down and took the ferry (that was also exciting, except when we took a hovercraft and the sea was rough – that was seasickness central), and then an amazing new piece of engineering entered our life.

The Channel Tunnel. For those of you who don’t know what it is, over a number a years a tunnel was dug under the Channel to connect the UK and France, so you could drive form one to the other without having to bother with ferries etc.

Considering how often we did the trip back and forth, we followed the digging of the tunnel with interest. For my part, I went to the library and got out a book on fish. I looked at the fish and other creatures of the deep.

Soon I’d get to see them all for myself from the tunnel! I couldn’t wait.

In my mind I pictured the tunnel as a long pipe that would rest in the bottom of the sea. There’d be enough light from the tunnel — I reasoned — for us to see whatever creatures were nearby. Maybe I’d be able to convince my dad to stop the car in the tunnel for a while so we could go and stare out the windows at the fish.

I’m sure you can guess where this is heading. There are no windows in the channel tunnel. The cars are loaded into a train, and there are window in the train, but all you see flashing past is concrete and the odd light. That’s it.

It was a hugely disappointing experience.

In a nice twist of serendipity, my first ride on the tunnel was twenty years ago, and a few weeks ago I kind of got to celebrate that anniversary by going to the amazing aquarium in Monterey, California, and seeing some of the creatures I had expected to find floating around the Channel Tunnel windows. Here are a few of the highlights:IMG_3708IMG_3643

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