Last summer we decided to have a fence built atop part of our garden wall, to give us some privacy from occasional passers-by. Not that we’d mind if they did just pass by (or smile and say hello) but sitting in the sun isn’t quite as enjoyable as it should be when people old enough to know better lean over the wall just to have a good nose. A fence it had to be. So after some local enquiries I tracked down a company based in Abergavenny and a pleasant, outdoorsy young man called Gary duly turned up to quote for the work. A fortnight later he returned with a truckload of wood and other paraphernalia and got on with the job.
So far, so routine. It was when we were chatting, as you do over a mug of tea, that things became a little weird. I’m not sure if other people do this or if it’s a Welsh thing, or just a ‘me’ thing. Let’s assume everyone does it because that’ll help me feel normal and so I know you’ll understand when I explain that the conversation soon turned to the “How long have you lived here?”, “Where are you from originally?”, or “Where did your family come from?” variety. I mean, there’s no point meeting somebody new and not interrogating them is there?
And it was justified because it turned out that although Gary had lived in Abergavenny his entire life, his mother had actually lived next door to me when I was growing up; not only that but his father had lived in the house the other side of hers. Pretty strange, eh? When he came back the next day he told me that he’d spoken to his mother (Pat) and she remembered our family well, and that she’d once made a little girl’s dress in school sewing class which she’d given to my mother for one of us to have. This story was corroborated by my middle sister (“Don’t you remember, it was blue; and Mum made me take in a box of chocolates as a thank you…) who has a memory for things long gone that borders on the freakish. I mean, why would I remember a time when we looked like this?
Port Talbot reared its head again last week when I met an older woman at the local gallery where I volunteer. She was over 80 and was visiting the area for a few days. She started telling me that she’d been living in Cheshire for over 40 years but that she was now on her own there and thinking of returning to South Wales. All her family live either down here or in East Anglia and so she felt isolated and had a hankering to come home. I asked her where she’d come from originally and the conversation went something like this:
“Me, too…which part?”
“Me, too! Which street?”
At this point I was preparing myself to hear that she’d also somehow been a next-door neighbour but no…she’d lived two streets away, before moving to a house on the other side of town…where my cousin now lives.
I suppose just one of these random meetings isn’t that unusual but it starts to get a little strange when a succession of folk emerge from a shared past. The first year we lived here we had some work done in the kitchen which required the input of a tiler. The man, called Paul, was one of those individuals who likes to have a natter and as I’m not averse to that myself, we shared a few anecdotes over tea and biscuits one morning. During the course of the conversation it turned out that his first wife had worked with Michael over thirty years previously, in Cardiff. If we all still lived in the city then possibly we wouldn’t have been surprised at the coincidence but as we don’t and we haven’t had any contact for three decades, it was one of those moments when you really do wonder if the universe does indeed have a plan. And before anyone thinks to themselves “But how distant are you – you’re all less than 30 miles from Cardiff!” then it’s worth pointing out that once outside the city boundaries, some communities are fairly insular. And the reason that this meeting was all the more shocking was that Paul’s wife Vicky had died in childbirth, a searingly awful event at the time to all those of us who worked at the same hospital where she was a nurse on the theatre recovery unit.
It’s got to the point where I just assume that there are better than fifty-fifty odds that I’ll know someone when I meet them, or at least know someone that they know. Lizzie came home with a group of friends recently, who we’d not met before. One of the girls had a Welsh relative and Lizzie must have realised where my mind was galloping off to because she stated firmly: “Mum – just because this is Wales it doesn’t mean that everyone knows everyone else.” But there’s always a chance…
Anyhow, the news this week. Following on from my last post when I told you about one of our woodland group falling into the canal, I have to report that somebody else I know has also got a soaking. Jo, a local friend, was walking her dog on the towpath when the dog’s ball fell into the water. Jo crouched down at the side and leaned over to retrieve the ball when the dog came up behind her and gave her a nudge, resulting in Jo going into the canal headfirst. I just hope we’re not working to the adage ‘these things go in threes‘ here, because I really don’t fancy being number three of that bunch.A trap for the unwary…
My own mini-disaster involved the cooking of Toad-in-the-Hole. For anyone reading this who’s unfamiliar with strangely named British food, it’s a dish of sausages covered in a batter (Yorkshire Pudding to be exact) and then baked. The trick to making it successfully is that the oven needs to be at a very high temperature; you pour oil or scoop fat (traditionally beef lard is used but we don’t usually have that available in our house) into a tin and heat it in the oven until the fat is smoking hot. Then you quickly add browned sausages and pour in the batter, which causes the fat to sizzle and spit, before putting the tin back into the oven and watching with satisfaction through the glass door as the pudding rises dramatically around the sausages. If you don’t have beef fat then the next best option is now reckoned to be duck or goose fat and as I happened to have a jar of duck fat in the fridge I decided to use that. While it was melting and reaching its smoking point in the oven I browned the sausages and mulled over what to cook to go with the Toad. Onion gravy is popular and one of our favourite accompaniments, with peas or green beans added. The other option, and the one I chose to go with on this occasion, provides the ultimate in comfort food: Toad-in-the-Hole and baked beans.
So after a few minutes I opened the oven door to remove my blisteringly hot dish of smoking fat…to be confronted by a brown, sticky mess. This had never happened before and I couldn’t figure it out. Why was the fat not now liquid and smoking? I picked up the jar I’d used and squinted at it, then poked the contents with a teaspoon before eventually realising that I’d been trying to achieve the necessary culinary chemistry with crystallised honey. You won’t be surprised to learn that this meant going back to the starting point.
It reminds me of a day when, as a newly qualified radiographer, I was working in the main operating theatres. We’d finished the cases I’d been involved in and I was tidying up in the darkroom. Back then (late seventies) we had an automatic processing machine which consisted of a tank of developer, a tank of fixer and a tank of water. The films would travel through all the tanks via a system of rollers and emerge, wet, at the other end. I decided to top up the developer and fixer reservoirs before leaving, using the large plastic bottles of decanted chemicals that the darkroom technicians had left there for that purpose. It was only when I saw the bubbles that I got my first inkling there was something wrong …instead of the developer and fixer I’d actually used detergent and bleach that had been left there by the theatre domestic (who had no business being in the darkroom! Just saying…)
Mistakes are easily made and as long as they don’t have bad consequences it’s not a problem – in fact they’re a useful way of learning something. Just last week we were at Powis Castle and I pointed across the grounds and said to Michael: “What sort of deer are they?“
And he answered “Canada Geese“.
The view from the terrace at Powis Castle
Coincidences are spiritual puns
Childhood days in Port Talbot – the place to be in the sixties!