Saturday, 16 December 2017

in the supermarket

I went to Waitrose to get more Christmas cards, since it was that or central Colchester.  The emergency cards I ended up buying at Tesco a few years ago had such tacky artwork and naff wording that I still remember them with shame.  Since I needed to go to a supermarket I thought I might as well combine it with a preliminary Christmas shop, for things like nuts and ginger beer that are not going to go off between now and Boxing Day.

Waitrose was not at all crowded when I arrived, though it was getting busier by the time I left.  I spent a long time looking forlornly for Paxo stuffing, but couldn't find any.  How can there be so many kinds of risotto rice but no packets of stuffing mixture?  We eat Paxo stuffing once a year and once only, as part of Christmas lunch.  It is traditional.  I know it is awfully 1970s, but that's the point of traditions.  I couldn't find any sausage meat and chestnut stuffing in the chiller cabinets either.  Perhaps stuffing is just hopelessly out of fashion, like being called Mildred or standing up when the national anthem is played.  Maybe people who shop in Waitrose don't eat stuffing, or make their own from sourdough breadcrumbs and fresh herbs.  Or perhaps it was somewhere and I just couldn't find it.  I shall try in Tesco the next time I am passing.  There are 364 other days in the year to eat quinoa and red wild rice, and for Christmas lunch I want Paxo sage and onion.

I stared for a long time at the packets of biscuits to eat with cheese, wondering if there was any point in buying anything besides Carr's water biscuits.  They are the perfect cheese biscuit.  There is nothing, simply nothing so good with a soft French cheese as a plain water biscuit.  Once, by mistake, the Systems Administrator picked up a packet that were flavoured with black pepper.  Flavoured is too kind a description: they were adulterated.  I wish manufacturers would not try to extend their range without making it obvious on the packaging whether you are buying the original article.  I was joined by another, equally indecisive, customer, and we agreed that there was too much choice, and that some biscuits were too strongly flavoured when the cheese had a flavour of its own and the biscuits weren't supposed to compete, and perhaps it was safer to stick to what you knew but perhaps that was boring.

The queue for the till was not too long.  Instead the hazard lay on the other side, where a Rotarian was hovering.  He offered to help pack my bags, and I said that was kind but I would rather pack them myself.  A Rotarian might have been better than a Scout, but I really do prefer to do my own packing.  That way I can be sure that all the heavy things end up in bags together at the bottom of the trolley, unlike the time in Sainsbury when we succumbed to the pressure to let the staff help us pack to keep the queue moving, and found when we got home that the tiny demented woman wearing a Santa hat had pushed the edge of a tin through the foil lid of some yogurt, while a melamine tray that she had with much trouble succeeded in squeezing into a plastic bag had been left behind during the confusion.  Also, I would rather chocolates destined to be given as presents didn't emerge with spots of condensation or worse on their packaging because they'd been shoved in next to the pork chops.  The Rotarian seemed reluctant to be rebuffed, and hovered over me, standing inside what I still considered to be my personal space even in a fairly busy supermarket and watching as I packed.

As soon as anybody watches me do anything, especially if I am trying to do it a hurry, I become slower and clumsier.  It got worse when I lifted the second bag to put it in the trolley and the bottom split, shooting ginger beer bottles and bags of nuts over the checkout.  The Rotarian by now was standing next to me in the aisle, squawking faintly, and I told him again that I would really, really, really rather do my own packing.  The woman on the till could see I was trying to keep the heavy things together, and pointedly handed me a four-pack of tinned tomatoes to go with the mincemeat and flour, and the Rotarian finally retreated.  When I got home I saw in the Body and Mind section of my free Telegraph that for £149 I could buy a Wellbe wearable device, that would measure my blood pressure, track my location, and tell me what situations I had found stressful.  Thank you kindly, Zach Sivan and Doron Libshtein of the meditation site Mentors Channel, but I think I already know that.  The random conversation with a stranger about cheese biscuits was fine.

Addendum  Mr Fluffy has spent the entire afternoon curled loosely in his new fleece Cat Snoozer, not looking as if he were voluntarily going anywhere.  I went and bought a second one to go on the remaining space on top of the cupboard, so that they could have a bed each.  Touching beds might not be a good idea, however.  We put the old blanket in the gap last night, and with two cats side by side there was a certain amount of tail swishing followed by prodding, so it may be that cat beds need to be the feline equivalent of two swords' lengths apart, like the front benches in the House of Commons.

Friday, 15 December 2017

indoor gardening

The green shoot on the amaryllis I won in the garden club raffle, that I thought was an emerging leaf, has turned out to be a flower bud.  It is such a long time since I grew an amaryllis that I'd forgotten what order they did things in.  Now I have one I suddenly see amaryllis everywhere, even in the Marks and Spencer food hall alongside the Christmas chocolates and Prosecco, and it's clear that flowers before leaves is the normal order of events.

The bud is one of a cluster, still held tightly together and pointing upwards so that I can't yet see how many flowers it contains.  The flower stem is lengthening by the day after a slow start, and must be six inches tall by now, while at its base a second bud is emerging from the top of the bulb.  Now I am starting to get my eye in I can see how from the first moment it appears it is subtly fatter than a leaf would be.  At the very bottom of the new bud, just clear of the bulb itself, is what might finally be a leaf.  Although a third flower stalk would be even more exciting.

None of this has anything to do with my efforts as a gardener, beyond the bare fact that I gave the bulb some water while managing not to let it rot.  The embryonic blooms were packed away inside the bulb when I got it, all down to the efforts of some (probably Dutch) grower.  The challenge for me will be to persuade the plant to ever do it again.  I shall have to ask the bulb merchant who donated it to the raffle the next time I see him, would it prefer clivia food, nerine food, agapanthus food, or something else?  And does it ever want to be dried out, or once in growth would it rather keep its roots all year round like a Crinum?  He would probably rather I didn't ask so many questions and simply bought another one next year, but he is an amiable chap.

Meanwhile the day was so cold and raw that I couldn't face attempting to garden.  The Systems Administrator went out briefly to move more of the fallen ash from the far end of the meadow, and clear my bits of overhanging hazel branches and dead rhododendron off the lawn, but I stayed by the Aga writing Christmas cards, only venturing out to go to the post office and in the hope that the Chatto gardens or Budgens might sell Christmas cards, since I was half a dozen short.  They didn't, and the post office counter in the garage had a sign up saying the Post Office was closed until further notice.  That's rural life nowadays, driving two miles to a post office that turns out not to exist any more.

Wherever Mr Fluffy disappeared to the other day I think it was definitely an error, and not a prelude to moving out, since he spent most of today lying on the new cat bed on top of the cupboard.  It has an elliptical base of faux sheep skin, just the right size for a largish cat to fill it completely, and a rim like a squashed, furry life belt, low enough for the cat to look over it but tall enough to curl up against.  We've put an old wicker cat bed at the other end of the cupboard, but on a cold day like today that still left one cat over, as Mr Fidget didn't get a bed and sat staring enviously at his brothers.  I am going to have to buy another fake sheepskin, and the Systems Administrator has had to find a new place for the electrical chargers that used to live on the cupboard.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

christmas is coming

This morning was the Art Society's monthly lecture, which was of course Christmas themed.  I imagine that as the years roll by it might get difficult to find a fresh topic each December.  Today we got the Three Kings, who are not actually described as Kings in the bible, but as magi, and while they are described as bringing three kinds of gift there is no record that there were three of them.  Never mind.  Their bones are now interred in a very splendid sarcophagus in Cologne cathedral, though when the contents were analysed there were remains from more than three bodies.  I have enjoyed the Art Society enough to sign up for another year.  Indeed, I liked the sound of the January study course on the history of architecture, but really can't spare three Mondays.

As I was in Colchester I stopped to do a little shopping, and bought crushed oyster shell for the hens and a new and superior cat blanket to go on top of the cupboard in the study, and most important of all a 2018 classic boats calendar for the hall.  The latter is the work of a local photographer, and we have had one for more years than I can remember.  I suppose at some point she will retire, but with any luck she has a stock of images that will keep the calendar going for years to come.

Colchester wasn't looking too bad.  Fenwick keeps expanding down the High Street.  A branch of Hotel Chocolat has opened, which is good, and The White Stuff, whose clothes are pitched at the middle to upper end of the high street, though I have never actually bought any, but I like Schuh, which opened a couple of years ago.  There is a very good independent bookshop as well as a Waterstones.  Letters to the local paper always seem to bewail Colchester as a litter strewn dump full of pound shops and drunks, but it isn't remotely that bad.  It is about to acquire a branch of Wahaca.  My travels took me to Marks and Spencer, where I bumped into somebody from the garden club, and the book shop, and Millets because when I was looking for my winter gloves a couple of days ago I could only find one.

Millets had a whole rack of gloves, stretching away out of reach up the wall, but when I moved to climb on to a step to get to the ones on the top row, an assistant whisked the step away from me and said she would get them down for me.  I wasn't able to tell her which ones I was definitely interested in, since I was still looking, and she thrust a pair of black and a pair of grey knitted ones into my hands and flounced off.  Both were size nine, while I take a seven and a half.  In the end I bought some by The North Face with furry backs, that felt as though they should be warm but allowed me to move my hands, and were reduced in the sale, and left.  The irony of a shop that sells outdoor equipment not allowing customers to climb on to a step a foot high seemed lost on the assistant, along with the idea of offering any kind of helpful advice to customers.  There is another outdoor shop further down the High Street, so I will go there next time, if I don't give up and simply shop online.  Although it is quite nice to try gloves on.  One pair I tried were so fat my hands felt like the Michelin man and I couldn't move my fingers, a second were too tight over the palm, while a third had the thumbs in completely the wrong place.

It was all rather a waste of good gardening weather.  Retailers and town planners take note, you really need to make the shopping experience more like the independent bookshop and less like Millets if you want people to haul themselves into the middle of town and pay £2.70 for parking, when they could be spending the day doing something else, and do their shopping in the evening from the comfort of their own armchair.  I have my calendar now, and Christmas comes but once a year.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017


After I had posted yesterday's blog entry Mr Fluffy appeared through the cat door.  He did not look like a cat that had been wandering lost all day in the snow and the slush: his feet were too clean, his fur too dry, and his whole demeanour too self-possessed.  He consented to be clasped to my chest, ate some supper, went out of the cat door, came in again, ate some Dreamies in lieu of a fatted calf, and spent the rest of the evening reposing in the bosom of his family, looking gradually more relaxed as he remembered about home.  The Systems Administrator's theory is that he sneaked into a neighbour's garage and got locked in for the day, escaping when they got home.  My mother reminded me of the cat we had when I was a child, that used to go around to be fed by the inhabitants of a nearby bungalow.  They rang up when it snowed and he didn't call on them to check that he was all right.  I am more inclined to the locked-in than the social visiting theory at this stage because Mr Fluffy had never vanished for anything approaching that length of time before, and it seemed unlikely he would choose the coldest day of his short life to start visiting, and stay for so long on his first visit.

We will probably never know where he was yesterday, unless we happen to bump into a neighbour who happens to mention that they saw our cat.  If he starts making a habit of going out for longer we will know not to start worrying so soon, though we can then start worrying in case he is planning to move in somewhere else.

The garden is thawing nicely.  The thermometer sat above freezing all day, and the remaining lumps of snow and patches of ice got steadily smaller, then it rained which helped melt them.  Most of the shrubs that were bowed down by the snow have bounced back without damage, though I was irritated to discover that a piece of the evergreen, hydrangea-like climber Pileostegia viburnoides had been peeled off the front of the house.  It was already on a remedial feeding programme because the leaves had turned so yellow in the poor soil, and I don't want to have to cut a large piece off.  The Systems Administrator will fasten a couple of screws into the mortar for me and I will try tying the loose branches back in, but my provisional assessment of Pileostegia is that once the plant senses a stem is no longer firmly attached to its support it is reluctant to make further growth.  A well grown plant is a joy, but on sand it turns out to need a lot of extra care.  I have been feeding my plant, but clearly not enough.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017


We have not seen Mr Fluffy all day.  He was not around when we got up, and didn't come in when called.  As the morning wore on we began to look for him, at first searching around the garden, and then longer trawls up the sides of the wood, down the brook, and along the lanes.  We walked, we stopped, we called, we listened, we found no trace.

If he were accustomed to wandering I wouldn't be so worried, but he is normally very keen about turning up to meals, and comes running when called if within earshot, and it seems odd for him to decide to start travelling further afield on the coldest night of the year.  Who knows where he has gone.  Perhaps he wandered to the edge of his normal territory and lost his bearings in the snow.  Or met a fox that was bolder and more opportunistic than usual because of the cold.  Or found his way on to ice, or fell while climbing.  He could be anywhere, alive or dead, over a large area.  He is cautious of strange people and seems unlikely to have managed to get locked in somewhere between eleven at night and eight in the morning.

I am deeply upset.  I am very fond of Mr Fluffy, and he gets on so well with the others and we like having a gang of cats.  If he never turns up we can't just get another kitten in a year's time.  Perhaps he will find his way home.  He is microchipped, so if he is lost maybe somebody will manage to bribe him with food, catch him, and take him to a vet.  If he has found his way on to a road and been run down someone might stop to investigate.  Perhaps he won't turn up and we will never know what happened.

Monday, 11 December 2017


Today was as if we were in the Russian season of rasputitsa, when the rains turn the ground to mud.  It rained.  It sleeted.  Yesterday's snow melted in patches.  General Winter and Field Marshall Mud triumphed.

Mr Fidget was curled up in his favourite armchair in the distinctly chilly sitting room when I got up, though according to the Systems Administrator he'd had some breakfast and been for a gallop around the garden.  Mr Cool was in agonies of frustration because it was so wet and so cold outside.  If he'd been a human being he'd have been wringing his hands.  As it was he was writhing on the door mat like Uriah Heep, creeping up to the cat door and recoiling in horror at what lay beyond.  When I opened the front door to go and see to the hens Mr Cool dithered transfixed in the open doorway, before giving it all up as a bad job and spending the rest of the day lying on his blanket on the cupboard in the study.  A few times when boredom overcame him he roused himself to conduct a one-sided fight with the hearthrug or partially disembowel the paper recycling box.

Mr Fluffy was bored and wandered about looking for things to chew, before slumping down on the study window sill to watch the bird table.  Every so often he stiffened at the sight of an especially tempting bird, but mostly he dozed.  A couple of times he went to chew the cord of the wooden blind, and I had to retrieve him in case he should forget himself and jump on top of the stove.  I don't think he would generally touch it, but mistakes can happen when creatures are in a bored, fey mood.

I sorted out a few points of admin that I'd been saving for a rainy day, read through a pile of old beekeeping magazines, ripping out the articles with nuggets of good practical advice that I wanted to keep, and caught up with my backlog of art magazines, occasionally reading out the interesting bits to the Systems Administrator, who may not have been listening given his response to the information that entry to the first exhibition at the newly refurbished Hayward Gallery cost £14.50 with a National Art Pass or £7.25 standard was Uh-huh.

Sunday, 10 December 2017


I woke up this morning and lay fretting that I was sleeping so badly, before looking at the alarm clock and seeing that it was in fact half past seven, and the reason why it felt much earlier was that it was still so dark.  It had not snowed in the night, but the Systems Administrator said that the snow wasn't due until later.  At eleven on the dot, exactly as predicted in the Met Office seven day forecast*, it began.

The cats had not seen snow before, apart from Our Ginger, who does not think much of it, and snoozed in front of the Aga before sleeping in turn on my lap, on the hearthrug, curled up on the little stool that has never been the same since the Artists Formerly Known as Kittens were kittens, or shuffling on and off the Aga warming plate.

Mr Cool was not impressed.  The snow made everything look different, and was not good snow, very wet, and Mr Cool hates change and hates getting wet.  He had eaten a substantial breakfast, all of his own and half of Mr Fluffy's and Mr Fidget's, plus most of Our Ginger's because Our Ginger seems to have decided he does not like one of the flavours in the current packs of cat food.  After that he spent the rest of the morning sleeping on the blanket the Systems Administrator put on the cupboard next to his chair as a sop to try and stop Our Ginger from sleeping on his computer keyboard, and the afternoon staring balefully out of the study window.  He went out a couple of times and came straight in again.

Mr Fluffy thought the snow was great fun, and kept bouncing out of the cat door to frisk around in it before coming in damply to warm up.  Mr Fidget found it amazing but faintly suspicious, and dashed around the front garden in between staring out of the windows at the swirling white blobs.  The tracks in the drive showed neither ventured very far from the house.  There were trails of footprints over to the middle of the turning circle and the concrete outside the greenhouse, but beyond that was virgin territory.  Neither of us could work out what had made the long, straight tracks, unless it was the hare passing through again.

I hate snow.  If I were on holiday and it was not lying on my garden, and if it was dry, crisp snow under a brilliant blue sky or at least an atmospheric gleam of sunshine, I might like it, if only it could look like one of Sisley's winter landscapes or my favourite photograph of a park by Andre Kertesz.  When it is weighing down my plants and threatening to break them, or freeze them, or suffocate them, I do not like it at all.  The only consolation about today's snow was that it was so wet that it began to drop off the trees even while it was still falling.  As I looked out over the back garden I saw one rose bush shake itself convulsively as a mass of snow slid off.

It should rain before too long, which will get rid of the lying snow, thank goodness.  In the meantime it is forecast to freeze, and I have warned the Systems Administrator to be very careful if going out to fetch more firewood.  When I went to shut the hens there were puddles lying on the snow on the doorstep, and once that freezes it will be an ice rink.

* As I frequently whinge when their forecast is wrong it is only fair to highlight when it is absolutely spot on.