Wednesday, 16 July 2014

A guest at my table - Ernest

I am sitting here at the kitchen table looking at a photograph of two old men, perhaps in their late seventies, early eighties. It is taken sometime in the early 1980's. It is a bright sunny day and they are both screwing up their eyes slightly and turning their heads to face the camera. The photographer is saying 'Cheese' and they are putting on a broad grin showing lots of off-white teeth. Their bodies are turned towards each other as if they have just been talking and someone holding a camera has said 'This way please.'

The two men in the photograph have snowy white hair and the kind of beaten leather suntans freckled with liver spots that says that they are men of leisure now and like to be outdoors. There is a similarity between them, something in the shape of the forehead, the hook of the nose. It says, we are related, we are brothers; though one of them is tall and gaunt and bending to the level of the smaller one. He is thicker set - solid really - and shorter, but not remotely fat in any way. I would recognise his smile anywhere for I know him very well. The other one has met me only once when I was a baby and I don't remember him at all.

The thing about this photograph that captures me the most is something about the eyes; a kind of desperation about the smile. It tells me that they are very close - they are very pleased to see each other and to be in each other's company - but also about a kind of regret and longing and a desperation to hold the moment in the palm of their hands and never let it go. They are old men now. They have been apart so much of their lives; who knows if this will be the last time that they will see each other.

The taller of the two, the one I know least well, is coming to dinner. He is a child of Edwardian times who has lived through two World Wars and many changes. He has lived much of his adult life abroad on a small Island, where he paints. We are related.

His choice to live quietly abroad is a kind of voluntary exile. He lives with another man. It is not a crime, now, in the early 1980's, but it is still subject to a quiet prejudice, reproach from older relatives and 'friends', and shame. I am amazed to realise that decriminalisation came as late as 1967. But what of the years passed by since then? How many other people - older people, in particular - chose this form of voluntary exile just so that they could live and be happy? And what of the pain that that separation inevitably brings to families everywhere - to closely-bonded brothers like these two, whose wistful smiles belie the pain they feel beneath.

I look up the meaning of exile. The dictionary tells me it is a form of punishment and solitude, 'to avoid persecution' or 'an act of shame or repentance'. There is something incredibly sad about all this. We live in a world, thank goodness, that has moved on from all this. Even in the early '80s, younger men had an easier time of it, somehow, I think. For me, it is noting what is lost by such prejudice. Time, precious time, with the people you love. And who can put a price on that?

The meal I am making for my guest is a sort of 'retro' dish  of Chicken in Cider which I first made in the early 1980's. It is a dish Ernest will recognise and appreciate, I think. We sometimes need to be reminded what has changed and what has stayed the same in order to appreciate where we are right now. It makes us more aware, I think, and reminds us not to be too complacent and oblivious to the injustices still around us.


Thursday, 10 July 2014

P is for a Pile of Princesses

Dear Nigel,

'I have made Dinner' (in the Perfect tense). It is 'Cider Thighs' (page 253) and is bubbling away nicely in the pan. But there is an aspect of 'Present consequences' - and in this case, the consequences involve the potatoes which are taking an inordinately long amount time to cook in the cider. Little by little, the cider is evaporating from the pan, my guest is due any minute now, and still I am prodding the potatoes with a knife, willing them to soften enough to eat. I don't know what variety of potato this is but it is bullet-proof.

There is an air of nostalgia for me in this dish. This, together with Boeuf Bourguignon, was one of the first dishes I learnt to cook when I left home. I remember being almost surprised that anything I made should be not only edible but actually really quite tasty. I felt like a cook for the first time.

My teenage son, Tom, arrives back after his A levels bearing an armful of cans of cider. So, ...what can I say?... I wonder how long it will take him to realise what a wonderful contribution he has made to the meal.

It takes him about ten seconds. Odd, really, when you consider that he has failed the whole week he has been here to notice the pile of washing up sitting on the side, and yet, within ten seconds of coming downstairs - still in his dressing gown at five in the afternoon - he spies the two cans of empty cider on their way for recycling. He thinks I should have used my last bottle of Black Fox. I tell him it is my last bottle and as such, in this case, I intend to consume the entire contents myself in a glass later on. He prefers not to see reason, but happily consumes the dinner anyway.

My guest arrives; still driving himself carefully at a low speed at an age when others might have thought to leave driving to others with quicker reflexes. I think he will like this meal; it is something that he might remember, and will certainly be easy on the teeth (not a concern I've had to think about as yet, but I suppose it's there waiting for all of us). He is still sprightly for his age yet a little fragile. His wrists are thin and papery and spotted with a sprinkling of brown liver spots over a golden tan. I guide him to the table so he can sit down.

We  had a Children's Birthday Party here this week. It was Sophie's and she was eight. I am still recovering. The penalty of producing two children only twelve months apart means that I get to repeat the performance in a week's time when Molly turns seven. I am already psyching myself up.

Sophie wanted a traditional party at home with ice cream and jelly and lots of games. As I look over the lawn - if you can call it such - and round the faces of the circle of little girls aged eight or nearly nine, all dressed up as Princesses, I wonder if this will be the last year that they will want to do this. I feel their precious childhoods ebbing away with every advert they watch aimed to undermine their childish imaginations with more adult desires.

But here, right now, the excitement is all about who can stand still the longest when the music stops, without falling over their lurex trains or losing their diamante tiaras. The Lavatera 'Barnsley' billows out over onto the lawn and the bushes are heavy with bunches of giant Black currants against the path. Over by the freshly-weeded vegetable patch a crop of large floppy poppies are nodding their heads, and I am willing the rain to stay away as the cottage is mouse-sized and would burst to accommodate a gaggle of giggling Princesses. Luckily, the gods are smiling today. Tom has been press-ganged into helping and appears to be being squashed under a pile of Princesses who see him as their new toy. Luckily, he takes it in his stride. He is eager to be off to University and to stretch his wings. The Summer seems too long for him.

There are Gooseberries ready for picking now, and more rhubarb and blackcurrants, although the raspberries haven't arrived as yet as they are Autumn-fruiting. Last year they came early because I planted them at the wrong time but I didn't see a single one anyway as Sophie was out there every day after school pilfering all the ripe ones before I got to them. It is a child's privilege - I remember doing much the same myself.

I am planning to make some compotes as I don't really eat much jam but often fancy something sweet and fruity with a dollop of thick whole milk yoghurt. Also, there are days when I don't get to the shops, when the fresh fruit and veg have run out and I am raiding the freezer and 'making do' with the distant contents of the corners of my cupboards. To have a jar of thick and juicy compote to call on would be very welcome indeed. I am conserving my diesel and making longer lists. Summer's glut will help spread the load as family descend to eat me out of house and home. There is a Pavlova or Eton mess almost every week at the moment as the most requested Summer pudding in our house - a swirl of compote, a scattering of berries and it's done.

Martha






Wednesday, 2 July 2014

A guest at my table - Dougie

Pubs have changed so much these past few years that it's almost impossible to remember back to a time when they were still clinging on to a past that was changing faster than they were. When every other pub is now a gastropub with families openly encouraged and smokers banned to a small wooden canopy on stilts near the car park, it is hard to remember a time when things were different. Yet different they were.

Dougie is coming over to watch a DVD with me and share a pile of homemade potato wedges with Gorgonzola sauce. He is happiest talking when there's something else going on, and that way there won't be any awkward silences on either side. Dougie is the friend I would most credit with introducing me to the seedier side of life of most of the local pubs in the small area in Oxfordshire in which we lived, when I was only....well, somewhere between the ages of 15 and 18....it's a grey area.

Still living with his old mum at the age of 40, Dougie was not the most obvious of friends, perhaps. He had dyslexia problems, amongst others, but still managed to hold down a gardening job at the local college and drive a car. He was a gentle soul who was happiest mixing and socialising with people a few years younger than himself. Technically, he was our Venture Scout leader, and in control. In reality, he was one of the gang - which is where he wanted to be.

Of course it helped enormously that he had a car and could drive. She was an immaculately-polished navy blue Morris minor (are they all that colour?) with a high forehead and surprised-looking eyes. And, loaded up with five or six of us, she flew down the back country lanes with 'The Who' blasting out of all the windows and her suspension rocking in time to the music as we bounced  and sang along at full volume over the bumps and dips in the road.

Dougie had an uncanny resemblance to Eric Clapton in those days with a flop of hair through which he peered and a light brown jawline beard but with perhaps a few slightly more crooked teeth. He smiled a lot, shyly, often instead of saying something. He wanted to be liked, and included. His job involved a great deal of mowing of grass. His home life was quiet. Often in overalls and found lying on the ground under his car doing something with oil - we didn't like to ask. The cars our parents drove didn't seem to need this level of attention.

I think the pubs of our youth hold nostalgically cosy memories for all of us. Whether it is the excitement of being allowed to be there at all, or the camaraderie of being with your friends and trying new and unfamiliar drinks, but the stale tobacco and the stench of male urinals and sticky bar counters fade with time. And in their place, fond memories of pulling the horsehair out of the over-ripe sofa at 'The Crooked Billet', where beer was sold from out of the cellar as there was no bar. And, sitting beneath giant mantraps and razor-sharp scythes slung to the ceilings of 'The King William'. I somehow imagine Health and Safety will have been and tidied up there by now, and the romance and thrill that at any moment a ton of cast iron with huge jaws might suddenly descend on you, will have been wiped away with a whisk of anti-bacterial eradication.

The Landlord at 'The King William' at that time was a man called Brian Penny who drove a Brewers' Dray to local steam rallies with two magnificent-looking Shire Horses. He had a full reddish beard and red cheeks and a stomach to rival Father Christmas. He looked for all the world like he'd just stepped off the set of a Thomas Hardy film and was serving pints to the likes of Alan Bates with a raucous laugh which echoed throughout the pub.

The world of Scouting offered people like Dougie a kind of refuge where they could thrive and be happy and connect with other people without being bullied or feeling ostracised. He was just an over-grown teenager, with the same sense of silliness and fun and it was several more years before he would manage to find a relationship that would stick.

As I pile the potato wedges onto a plate a familiar face puts his head round the door and saunters in with his hands in his pockets. He is wearing the same navy blue overalls which mask the oil stains and the hands that reach out to hug me are black. I pretend not to notice: the smile is genuine, as is mine.







Thursday, 19 June 2014

O is for Open heart surgery (therapy) and a few healthy chips

Dear Nigel,

Summer is big and blousey here; the flowers are all out - swathes of blue Geranium, pink Peonies and my favourite weed the deep pink Valerian. The roads are thick with tractors on their way to yet another field of hay and the whole countryside is busy at work. Young lads pulling balers have England flags jutting out of their John Deere's and the roofing next door has ground to a halt as it's all hands on deck to bring in the hay. Children are regularly pulled out of school (unofficially) to help, and the local schools turn a blind eye to it...though you didn't hear it here.

I am making a 'TV supper'. My guest is coming over to watch a DVD. Sometimes, for some people, the conversation flows easier when there is something to do or something to watch. My guest is one such person; and I am making 'Potato Wedges with Gorgonzola Sauce' ( pg 309) for the occasion. At first I baulk at the sheer amount of chilli flakes involved - in this case a whole tablespoonful - but I trust your judgement, and in hindsight have to agree.

These sort of suppers are vying against the heavily-seasoned tortilla chips, the mono sodium glutamate 'gimme-more' crisps, and over-sugared popcorn; and they have to hold their own. Also, I think there is something about eating mindlessly whilst watching the tele that calls for stronger flavours just to bring your mind back again and again to what you're actually doing. It would be an interesting experiment, I think, to link the heat of the chip/or crisp (in chilli terms) with the degree of action in a film. Perhaps a high action-packed, adrenalin-inducing film might be linked to a greater heat tolerance? What do you think?

My mum sends me a cutting out of the 'Northumberland Gazette'. It is an article about a house I used to live in that a TV company is making a programme about.

When my marriage ended in 1998 and I was left with five small children to bring up on my own, I did the only thing I felt I could at the time when paradise has just been bombed, and took my children somewhere to start a new life where there would be no painful memories holding us back. We moved from Cornwall to an old derelict railway station in the middle of nowhere in rural north Northumberland. The railway was like a time warp. There was a Victorian railway station complete with ticket office, an engine shed, a stationmaster's house (which we were to live in), and a tiny terrace of six cottages on the other side of the station.

The railway was part of Lord Ravensworth's estate in those days, set several miles deep in countryside away from the nearest towns, and remained virtually untouched by time. It was overgrown with weeds and long grasses with wild flowers all down the sides of the grassed-over trackbed and brambles around the coal shed. My parents, who lived not too far away, were absolutely horrified that I wanted to move my family to this desolate place in the middle of nowhere, and kept trying to show me more suitable properties in nice little villages nearby. But I was caught up in the romance of the whole place. In my mind I was Jenny Agutter waving her red knickers at the railway tunnel; and the extreme pain of that time made me feel as if I was living on someone else's film set. My fame went before me, it seemed, and all the locals seemed to know that a 'single mother with five children' was moving in. In one swift move I seemed to have gone from respectable Bank Manager's wife to social leper.

The day we looked round we had to tramp through two foot of snow to get to the house. There was no kitchen to speak of, no basin in the downstairs loo and the plaster bounced if you touched it. To my Dad it was a given conclusion but I was already thinking Farrow and Ball paint charts and planning a very special Birthday party on the station platform. The party was to be for my third son, William, who would be seven years old in the July. There would be a line of old school desks making up a long table and tiny chairs to sit at and lots of balloons strung up to the cast iron tracing.

It was this image that kept me going through some very tough times. And in the July we had the party. It was a beautiful sunny day. New school friends from the village primary school three miles away came and we played games and races on the old track bed. The tea was a fine success, punctuated by the constant sound of mini explosions as balloon after balloon popped against the jagged edges of the cast iron tracing. If you had been  driving over the little bridge towards the Vale of Whittingham, you might have chanced to look down and see a line of happy faces waving and holding hands in a circle.

In many respects it was a happy time of renewal and healing. Three children went one way on a bus, two the other way in a taxi. I played piano at the village school, finished my degree and got a teacher training place, and gardened and walked the dog clockwise around the circular track. Archie the old shepherd who lived at the end cottage, would walk his old sheepdog anticlockwise, and we'd nod in passing. He'd had fourteen children, the youngest of whom, Angela, still lived at home and caught the bus with my lot. Archie had come down off 'the mountain' to retire and one of his sons, who worked on one of the farms on the estate, lived in the middle cottage. At the other end of the row of cottages was John the Gamekeeper - a kindly soul. It was community enough for me.

The producer wants to make a documentary for Channel 4's 'Restoration Man'. At long last someone has bought the place and has grand plans for a home. I often thought it could have been moved lock, stock and barrel to a living museum somewhere, it was so untouched. I am sure it will make a fascinating project and a lovely home. And yet, for every weed that is lifted, a little of the romance of the place is removed. It is somehow impossible to have both it seems.

And Jenny Agutter's red knickers will no longer be waving in the wind.

Martha


Monday, 16 June 2014

A guest at my table - Angie

A long time ago when I was but a little bird turning into an awkward fledgling, I had a friend called Angie who lived only a bike ride away on the edge of the next village. Angie and I had one of those love/hate relationships that young girls do, best of friends one minute, enemies the next. Such is the pain of life at that age. We were as normal a pair of friends as it is possible to be when one of you is the daughter of a fairly famous ageing rock star, often away.

The school we went to was an ordinary state secondary school set in a (perhaps less ordinary) small village in the fairly heavily-wooded area that nestles not far from the banks of the Thames in Oxfordshire. It was an area of small villages and larger properties hidden between the trees where those who wanted to escape the world for a bit of privacy were able to do so. That some chose to give their own children a bit of normality in going to the local state school was a good thing; and indeed there were several offspring and relatives with celebrity connections. But school is a good leveller and any sharp Alec bragging about his dad is likely to get a bloody nose in the playground of a school which caters to all ends of the spectrum.

So Angie and I rode our bikes and camped and talked about boys, and the other half of her life barely came into things at all. Perhaps it simply gave her a far greater confidence to deal with life, and a presumption of entitlement that such confidence often brings. And perhaps it was this that made her do what she did, crushing my fragile first love, betraying my trust.

It is hard enough to deal with your own fragility at that age, to place the trust in another and talk of your hopes and dreams of unrequited love. Perhaps I told the tale too well. Perhaps I made the poor boy of my dreams into such a shining gallant knight that she was mesmerised and caught up in the fairy dust, seeing anew a boy whom she would have passed by daily without a glance. Anyway, their relationship was short-lived - our friendship never quite the same. And the boy of my dreams said, years later to me, 'I wish I'd known'. But it was the wrong time, the wrong place for me by then. Life is full of one-way doors with no way back.

So I'm putting out the biscuits with trepidation. We talk. Now and again. We've followed each other's lives through the ups and the downs in intermittent Christmas cards and the sudden urge to phone. My confidence has grown in life, plummeted and grown again; but then so too has hers. It seems a gilt-edged crib is no protection against the cruelties that life has to offer. And confidence is only skin deep in all of us, however thickly we appear to wear our skins.

She has only a couple of hours to offer me, she says on the phone. She is on her way to take some of her paintings to a new Art gallery. She doesn't know whether they really want them all, or just a few to contrast against another's work. This isn't the Angie I knew back then. Perhaps we have both mellowed in the bottle and the unlabelled plonk is holding its own against the famous name. I give her instructions for her sat Nav and tell her to read it back to me as there's no mobile phone reception here and I may be up the field with the dog. There are no numbers to the houses in this village either, and all the cottages share the same postcode. She could ask at the Post Office, but it's very likely to be closed. I'm starting to sound nervous, despite the biscuits looking like a far better cook than me has made them. She rings off in the exuberant flourish I remember of old when she is keen to finish a conversation and impatient to move on to something else. I bite my lip.

Our letters have been full of the daily doings, the routine, the advent of babies and christenings, school plays and divorces. Her life has had as many twists and turns as mine. And each made light of in the yearly ramblings....'and the weather has been awful here these last few weeks...and by the way, Andrew and I are getting divorced...', she says in one. I let it slide under the carpet like that letter from the postman coming through the letterbox, across the polished parquet floor and found six months later when the rugs are taken up for cleaning. We talk in the crocheted loops of silence. The phone is even worse. She rabbits on about her artwork taking up all her time and I can hear the silence behind that says 'my youngest child has gone off to college and now it's only me and the dog'.

'Come down', I say.
'I can't. I'm busy.I can only offer you a couple of hours next Tuesday.'
'Tuesday's fine. I'll make some biscuits.'
'I'm on a diet.'
'Then I'll eat them for you. But I have to warn you, they're to die for. And you'll have to watch me eat them...'
I hear her smile at this and the chill has gone once more.

So here she is in her navy blue convertible, sunglasses pushed up on her head and her red hair more bottle red than I remember. But she hasn't changed. Still that dimple. Still that warm hug. I used to think, - afterwards, ' I don't want any daughter of mine to have red hair'...and then Hannah was born and she was...beautiful. Angie's changed, a little. We're both a bit - larger, I think. A few wrinkles, perhaps, a bit less energetic, possibly. Do we both look so exhausted all the time? We used to live life on maximum speed and sleep seemed like an optional activity. She says she doesn't sleep well these days. I nod in agreement. We sit outside and she carelessly pulls the petals off a daisy as we catch up on the news, skirting around the real issues, hinting at things and then skimming off in another direction.

'Thank you,' she says, hugging me as she gets up to leave. We've talked. I think. We've shared food.
'My turn next,'she says. We smile. It could be another ten years, or more, or perhaps only a couple of weeks. I wave all the way as she backs down the drive and around the corner and then roars off up the lane. A loose chicken squawks and jumps out of the way. I catch a backward wave of pale white hand with vibrant polish, and she's gone.
'Bye Angie.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

N is for Nice things, Normality and Nigel

Dear Nigel,

I have a friend coming over for coffee. She hasn't time to stay for dinner, apparently, as life is busy, busy, busy....so coffee will have to do. I am marking the occasion with 'Oat and Lemon Cookies' (page 407). I hope she has time to eat, time to savour...time to live....Everyone is so busy these days, it seems, stuck on their own little hamster wheels going round and round ever faster, getting nowhere fast. It gets harder and harder to justify taking time out, it seems. My friend thinks so anyway. I think, what if you were not here tomorrow? What about all those things we left unsaid, those half-finished conversations, the half chewed-through chats we never got to finish because one or other of us was always 'too busy', on to the next thing, moving on...

I am taking time out, for a few days; paddling my feet in the cold north sea, watching the young man with the beard making his designer beers in the microbrewery of the pub on the beach - its door slid open to let the scent of the sea and the seagulls' calls filter through into the amber soup. It is a quiet day; the school children are back at school, mostly, the rain drizzles gently against our faces and the wind is from the land - warm and moist and succulent - like the baked herring I am tucking into for my lunch. My mum says 'Your Granny used to make those for the shop'. (My Grandpa had fish shops down the coast). '...She used to bake them in huge trays in the bottom of the old gas oven. They went like hot cakes when the holiday makers all came.' This would have been in the fifties, I guess. I tuck in and try to imagine the palate of another era, in an age before Focaccia. It is plain and wholesome and tastes just right with a plain slice of bread and butter. It does leave tasteful reminders of itself all afternoon long, however, but I guess that is power for the course and not a good-enough reason to abstain.

There is a ribbon of orange seaweed along the tide line, harvested from the bottom of the sea by a rough tide. It spirals with the ribbons of dark green bubble wrap, like a complicated double helix in a biology textbook, going right across the expanse of the bay. We cross the rock pools to the spit at the turn in the sand and look over towards the ruined castle shadowed against the mist. My camera isn't up to this, in this light; I will have to capture it in my mind's eye and develop it in the darkroom of my subconscious.

The children bring small treasures for me to see. Several jointed crabs' claws that stink out the Landrover in their plastic buckets. There is a whole line of pink buoys in the bay guiding the fisherman to his crab pots, and lunch on to the plates in the pub. I have seen crabs here caught in the morning and brought in and eaten hours later with a squeeze of lemon between two slices of brown bread. We find a square pebble with a calcified shape of a heart, left by a little sea creature. It will make a fine paperweight for a fussy Designer type like David. We stroke the pearlised inners of hinged mussel shells and move a line of slowly-moving tiny black sea snails a little further along their rock. It feels nice to be so absorbed.

There is a word in the Swedish language with no direct English equivalent - 'Lagom' - meaning 'just the right amount'. It also translates as ' in moderation', 'in balance' and 'there is virtue in moderation'. It is a concept I find myself creeping ever closer towards as the years go by. Heady past excesses seem merely that. The real things are to be found at the bottom of a rock pool, and in the conversation with my friend, whose unsaid comments are written loudly across her face even as she tries to hide them. This is real conversation; not the sort you can hide behind a smoke screen of telephone 'verbalism' or a brief non-committal email shot. She will be captive to my scrutiny and she knows it.

This moderation - in all things - (good food included), brings a sense of normality to my life, an evenness that fosters a quiet contentment. It is also the way you cook, I believe; focusing on the simple balance of ingredients, letting things sing for themselves with just a hint of everyday magic  to let them shine. It is an honest way to cook. I like that.

I beat the softened butter and muscovado sugar together in  the mixer. There is a gentle rhythm to it all - baking - I am fond of cake but even more so of a good biscuit. I eat my mum's Gingersnaps because they remind me of my Granny. A good biscuit is a comfort. These seem an indulgence to me - two for the price of one, actually; larger than they should be, and slathered in a mixture of two of my favourite ingredients (lemon curd and mascarpone). These are occasion biscuits. I hope my friend appreciates that. The only way I manage to keep biscuits in the house at all, and keep my weight under control, is (rather meanly I suppose), to buy the plainest biscuits that I can for my kids. They do seem to rather prefer that anyway for some obscure reason. When I was a child it was dead fly biscuits (or Garibaldi if you will).

The biscuits spread and toast lightly in the oven. I am careful not to over-brown them as I want them still soft. You say 'I prefer them the next day, when they become soft and chewy'. I think I will too, if they last that long. An unmarked tin is a dangerous thing in our house. When in doubt I have to leave a note sellotaped to the lid. It wouldn't be the first time I came down in the morning to a scattering of crumbs and nearly cried.

Martha

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

A guest at my table - Arthur Bentley

People often reveal more about themselves than they mean to in the way that they live their lives. Some people don't want to shout about themselves or draw unnecessary attention, but in their quietness and inner completeness they shine a light far brighter for its contrast. Arthur Bentley was one such person.

I don't remember quite what the necessity was that drew me into the shop, but it must have been quite pressing because the outside window was distinctly unfavourable. It was a small, depressing little town, limping on with the imminent threat of closure of the local tin mine. And our nearest town. When my then husband first took me there I nearly turned the car around and left the county there and then. Every area has its grim reality sited not far from its picturesque; but both are two sides of the same, and to know one you have to understand the other.

The town itself consisted mainly of little run down shops selling cheaply-made items at budget prices. It was tempting to go elsewhere. Indeed, to be fair, I often did. But proximity has a draw and often popping in for something is all you want to do. Mr Bentley's Hardware store was just a little run down shop on a back road with dark brown woodwork and peeling varnish on the outside. The windows were dirty with caked on grime and the display of assorted items looked like it had been there since the early '70s.

There was a whitish laminated pegboard with hooks at odd heights to which a strange and random assortment of items had been added, as if done without any thought whatsoever, though surely that had not been the case. There were thin plastic hooks for doors that bent under the slightest weight, blue nylon meshy pan scrubs like spaceships, and corn-on-the-cob skewers in vivid yellow plastic. All looking a little tarnished by age. Inside appeared, at first glance, to not be much better. The same cheap items lined the shelves. The floor was clean in some areas but not others. I can't remember whether there were actual wood shavings on the floor or not, but there was certainly a heavy gathering of something rounding the shape of the room and preventing entry in all directions.

Whatever brought me into the little shop that warm late summer afternoon when shafts of light bounced dust particles up and down  suspension ropes holding the walls to the inside, was obviously found and purchased. And so I returned, again and again. I soon found that the shop was in fact a tardis and the quickest route was to simply ask for what I wanted, however unlikely I thought it to be. Time after time Mr Bentley would disappear to a far off shelf under the cloak of dust, or open one of the row upon row of tiny draws behind the till and reappear with something in his hand. This front part was the only part of the shop to appear looked after. It gleamed with polish, mahogany handles and care; a stark contrast to the layer of dust elsewhere, making it appear like two-tone shoes. But Mr Bentley seemed not to notice.

As time went by I began to learn that there were things here I couldn't find elsewhere. Sometimes I was astounded that such things still existed. We lived in a mid 19th Century farmhouse/cottage and were keen to dress it likewise, with simplicity. That hooks were still being made and hinges in the same shapes was wonderful news. But with every transaction there was a necessary time factor to consider. If I was merely nipping in I needed to allow an extra five minutes, for every purchase was neatly and correctly packaged in old newspaper and tied with string. There was no quick exit; it was part of the deal.

Standing there in his Dad's old brown shop coat, I gradually learned more about the quietly smiling Arthur Bentley, hiding behind his full beard and glasses. He had been a History teacher upcountry for many years, but now in his early sixties had given it all up to come back to his childhood home after his mum and dad had died in quick succession. He had no wife, no family, responsibilities or great needs. He lived simply and quietly and it gave him pleasure to be here in this quiet space with the occasional ring of the bell on the back of the door giving a slow rhythm to his life. I saw in the old fashioned rows of tiny drawers, so highly polished, a way he found to give meaning to his existence, to keep a bit of the past - his past - alive in a way that gave him comfort. All this was long before such places became popular in 'nice' villages in the Cotswolds, before shabby chic, before even that long-lost town got an urgent makeover under  E U grants for rural poverty.

Arthur shared a little of my vision for a past that never quite existed. And, just as I loved to watch him tie each parcel lovingly in newspaper and string, in a manner to which I don't ever remember being seen done in my lifetime, he would help me search for unusual items. In an era before enamelware was everywhere in shabby chic shops, it was harder to find and the best was made almost exclusively in Poland from ancient thick world war 2 machinery, giving a thick coat of white with a dark blue edge. Arthur and I would pore over the thick paper catalogue of line drawings of large pitcher jugs and milk pails (for my goats). Sometimes these would have to be ordered and might take a few weeks to arrive from Poland but I don't remember ever being disappointed in my quest.

Standing here now with him idly stirring the Risotto and me polishing wine glasses for reasons unknown (but exclusively connected with my guest), we are both drinking in the calmness and the quiet. The sound of the stream, only feet away below my kitchen window, is the loudest thing around. We talk intermittently and lapse into a pleasant silence. There is no need or hurry. Like the Risotto, it is to savoured.