86. Early Adopters

“They’ll make you whatever you want to eat here, Grandad.”

The menu is quite impressive. Every egg dish you could think of, either duck or hen. Bacon and sausages of a named breed from a Norfolk farm. At least six kinds of tea. Runner-up in a barista championship. Bakery on the premises. I can see a royal warrant before too long.

“I think that’s them.” I say. His Grandad turns stiffly to see the camera crew that’s just walked in. “Your interview’s not for an hour, so we’ve got loads of time. Have you decided what you’re having?”

It’s no coincidence that this restaurant is called ‘RE.’ It’s both the initials of the original company that owned it, and the beginning of every word used to describe the concept and evolution of the building.

His hands tremble a little as he holds the paper, but his eyesight and hearing are way better than mine, thanks to modern technology. “I’m going to try a fried duck egg, thick cut bacon, field mushrooms, home grown tomatoes and toast, and I want some marmalade. If it’s that same marmalade that you got me at Christmas, then I want another jar to take home with me.”

Half an hour later, we’re sat in that contemplative silence you get when you’re comfortable in each other’s space. He hasn’t set foot in here for over fifty years.

He’s studying the 1970s school chair, stroking the grey and red heavy felted wool fabric on the seat. “These are just like the blankets we had in the war.”

I think of festival stalls piled high with old hospital blankets in mint green or bubblegum pink. Quietly stored for decades in a building just like this one, waiting to live temporarily in a gated community. Life had no meaning outside of those walls. Cloaked, comforted, cherished, then casually discarded.

He’s too polite to ask why the floor is concrete and pipe works are exposed. Air ducts instead of a ceiling, overhead cisterns with pull chains in the loos. Why none of the taps match along the long institutional, animal trough sink. The amber, oval transparent bar of Pears soap with the unmistakable smell like spicy coal tar that transports you back to childhood. A towel machine on a roll next to an airblade hand dryer.

He points out parts of the warehouse where industrial machinery once stood, and why it looks like there’s a door to nowhere halfway up the wall. The hoists that swung out over the canal. How two men lay on their backs on the boat and “legged it” by walking along the inside of the brick tunnel to move the boat along, in the years before the towpath was built. No-one cared, then or now, how hard the job was. The only story everyone wants to hear is how he saved a man’s life by pulling him out from a grain bin, where he would have otherwise suffocated.

I couldn’t have predicted that audio cassettes and vhs tapes would make a comeback so soon, but it’s only a brief glimpse into his world. The working red telephone box in the foyer, next to the second-hand bookshop. A booth selling sweets by the quarter and a florist with exotic blooms for £4 a stem. Offices of companies that only exist online, next to artist space, the obligatory bicycle repair shop and a combination wine and vinyl warehouse, with barely anything for less than a tenner. A cut-throat barber shop complete with tweed knickerbocker-wearing Victorian gents and their twizzly moustaches, straight out of ‘Peaky Blinders.’

Sanitised nostalgia, packaged and sold back to us in red and white striped paper bags for more than we originally paid.

Even this meal didn’t exist back then.

A woman, looking like she’s about to do a Ted talk, wearing loose flannel trousers, a silk shirt, and an expensively scruffy hairstyle strides over, followed by a younger, nervous youth carrying a clipboard and phone. Their lanyards have the name of the TV production company on it. She sticks out her hand and says, “William? I’m Jessica. Pleased to meet you.”

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76. Red

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The tips of my fingers are stained from pitting cherries, as I meticulously push the stone out through each cherry into an empty wine bottle with a chopstick.

My lips look bruised from cherry juice and drinking the wine that used to be in the stone-filled bottle.

“This is going to be a damn fine pie.” I say.

“That’s a damn fine moustache.” She says, chuckling at my wine smile.

Her fingertips are purple from peeling the beetroot.

“We should have worn some CSI gloves for this. What are they gonna think we’ve been up to?”

“I dunno. Tell em our blood, sweat and tears went into this meal.” She replied.

“Good point. It has been pretty hot today. It’s always hotter in London. We’re the red hand gang.” I start singing the tune from what I thought was the theme music to the old 70s kids show, ‘The Red Hand Gang’ but she interrupts it by saying, “That’s the ‘Banana Splits’.”

“Oh yeah, so it is. Hey Siri.” I say, raising my voice a little, “Play the theme tune to The Red Hand Gang.”

Siri can find anything, except the songs I want.

“Have you ever asked Siri what zero divided by zero is?” asks Diana.

“You have no friends.” I reply in a half-robot, half-Cookie Monster voice. “What did you get from the deli?”

“Creme fraiche for the horseradish cream. Goats cheese for the beetroot. Clotted cream for the cherry pie and some mixed mushrooms for the steaks.”

This is a girly weekend, just the four of us. We met on a train from Leeds to London, sat at the same table when the train stopped in a terrible snowstorm. It was somewhere just north of Peterborough, due to ‘a body on the line’. During the next six hours, we shared what snack food we had, donated tampons to strangers, did the crossword together to save our phone batteries and generally put the world to rights. After we got off the train, we went for coffee, to warm ourselves up and decided to keep in touch through twitter, and, eight years later, here we still are.

One New Years Eve, we talked about how difficult it was to maintain friendships as adults. That friendships drift, it gets harder to remember why you still liked each other, and all you seemed to talk about is how good life used to be or your kids. Well, we made a pact to not let those threads fray. We decided then and there to meet up at least once a year for a weekend reunion and make our own, new memories.

Jenny’s sister lives in London but she’s away this weekend, so we have her flat to ourselves. It’s nice to have the freedom outside of a hotel room for a change. She’s gone to St Pancras to pick up Claire, who is a bit scared of the tube. Diana and I are prepping the evening meal.

So, tonight is ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Season 2 marathon. If we have to pull an all-nighter, then so be it. Tomorrow night is a play called ‘Red’ with Alfred Molina playing Mark Rothko. If we’re not too hungover, we’ll have a wander down to the Tate to look at some abstract expressionism,  to get ourselves ready for the play, after a couple of Bloody Marys, and avocado or eggs on toast at that Caravan brunch place at Kings Cross or get the Thames Link to Blackfriars and walk to the other one near to Borough Market.

“Did you see the new Millicent Fawcett statue outside the Houses of Parliament when you went out” asks Diana.

“Yeah, it’s pretty cool. I went to the unveiling of the “Women of Steel” sculpture in Sheffield I love it. Proper Rosie the Riveter.”

“Outside the City Hall? Near Cole Brothers? I think I saw it on TV.”

“I wish I had stacks of green paper in my red right hand.” I say half- singing.

“Ooh, Did I tell you? I made a donation to that Suffragette statue fund. The one that’s being made where I live. This is good this. Get this. I was saving it for later, but I’ll tell them again. Do you remember that time ages ago when I was going out with Robert?” she says.

I screw up my eyes trying to remember him. We don’t generally meet anyone else’s partners or family. It’s just the hardcore of us four. “Did he used to work away a lot?”

“Yeah, that’s him. You remember that time I told you about that woman who started shouting at him in the pub and her friend said to me, “Don’t let him film you love, he’ll put it on youporn”?”

“You had a lucky escape there.” I say.

“Too right I did. I never sent him any pictures, but, we did have one of those couple’s vibrators, that he could control with his phone when he was working away”

Nothing surprises me with Diana. That time she said she’d won 500 dollars on a slot machine and then spent it on hand-feeding a lion in the zoo. When she fell and broke her ankle whilst abseiling and Prince William was the pilot in the air sea rescue helicopter. The time she got chatting to one of the ‘Real Housewives’ in the ladies room at the airport and they got on so well, that she paid for Diana’s upgrade to Business Class so they could sit together on the plane, and then offered her a job as a PA. All true.

“Well anyway” she continues. “There was this class action lawsuit over this vibrator as the manufacturers were collecting data on the users. They could tell what setting I had it one, how long it was used for and what my body temperature was. I got £5,000 compensation for it.”

“Brilliant.” I say.

“So, then after the lawsuit had been in the papers, Robert phoned me. A year after he dumped me, for not ‘being adventurous enough’ he rings me. Me! Not adventurous. Well, he wants to get together for a drink. Well, I’m with Paul now, so I say no. That’s when I got that new number. I don’t know why I didn’t block him before though. So he rings me again the following night and says that he thinks he is entitled to half of the vibrator money because he was the one using his phone to control it, his privacy was violated too!”

I nearly spit out a mouthful of Malbec, trying not to laugh at the incredulity of it all.

“What? After what he did to that woman with the revenge porn?” I’d have told him to do one.” I say.

“I did.” she says. “Even better than that, I told him I was donating it all. Then I reeled off a few women’s charities that I knew would piss him off. I said that if he didn’t leave me alone, I was going to put a metal plaque with his name on it on a bench, saying ‘with thanks for helping me’ outside that sexual health clinic.”

“If he rings you again, tell him that it wasn’t him controlling the vibrator, it was someone else. He can’t prove it was him unless he recorded it and then you can have him for recording a private act or voyeurism it something.”

“I’m definitely saying that if he finds out my number and rings again.” She says.

47. And I Feel Fine

*This post contains descriptions of killing animals for food.

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I am the child of a pair of post-war natural preppers. Survivalists. Hunters, farmers, make-do-and-menders, be grateful for what you have got, eat it or go without. Keep calm and carry on is their outlook on life.

My mother grew up on a farm and went to an agricultural school. She can raise, kill, cook animals. Nose to tail. Nothing is wasted. Seasonal vegetables, preserves, chutney, quilts, saved string, hand knitted jumpers, mended clothes. Honey and beeswax. Bread and yoghurt. Smoked meat and bulk meals. It’s where I get my maker’s streak from.

One time when I was a child, I remember saying I didn’t want to collect the eggs because there was a particular goose that kept trying to get me. My aunt reassured me that it wouldn’t be pecking me anymore. We had goose for that evening meal, but it never occurred to me that it was the same one…

My father grew up dirt poor and often went hungry. Last one up didn’t get shoes that day. Everyone who was in the house at meal times got fed, whether you were in that family or not. If you missed the meal, you could have bread and apples. Grammar school wasn’t an option. The uniform was too expensive.

He can make anything out of bits of wood. Tell the time by the sun. Dig and plant the garden, long after others have given up with fatigue. I’ve seen him ride horses bareback, herd sheep, feed baby rabbits with an eye dropper of milk and swim half a length underwater without coming up for breath.

The sense of community, compassion and sharing culture featured strongly in his upbringing, which I am grateful to have inherited. Job options were to go down the pit or join the army.

Going for a walk whilst camping, we would collect everything we needed for a feast. Foraged greens, nettles or pine needles for a hot drink, watercress, tiny crayfish, mushrooms, elderflowers, dandelion leaves and petals. I’ve eaten grubby maggots and zingy citrus ants.

Later in the summer, free, brown-limbed, in that very particular golden afternoon light, came the real treats of scrumped apples, plums, cherries, cobnuts, chestnuts and blackberries. Then the weird and wonderful pumpkins, that always looked better than they tasted.

My attempts at trying to grind tiny amounts of grain from grasses always failed.  I think I was trying to make some sort of cracker or biscuit. Whilst I was trying not to lose my efforts to the wind, I failed to notice the creation of a rope from the plaited grass stalks, miraculously strong enough to take a person’s weight. Dad’s hands red and sore from twisting.

The humanity of dispatching a rabbit kindly with a few moves was not lost on me. Dangle the rabbit and hold its back legs, push the head back. Pull. Two minutes later, a clean pelt in a single piece with perfectly butchered, jointed game ready for the pot. Innards used as fish bait. Prepare your meal during the day so you’ve got time to cook it properly, bury the pot under the fire, so animals don’t dig it up. Rub an upside-down can on a rock until you see bubbles of liquid. The top levers right off.

We did once find a small stash of canned food with a knife and a little tobacco tin of interesting bits and bobs (fish hooks, half a candle, beef stock cubes, nylon thread, a piece of flint, matches, needles, aspirin, and a single cigarette) wrapped in a tarpaulin in the woods. We left it, because it wasn’t ours, but if this was the real deal, then we would have definitely taken it. I’d like to hope that we would have left them something, but then who knows until you’re actually in the survivalist mindset? When there’s no law, what do you do? What would other people do?

My parents have incredible stories from the early eighties, when the threat of a nuclear war was very real. Preparing for the possibility. Protocol and structure. Systems organised. Plans made. We tried inventing our own 24-hour ration packs as the official ones were pretty disgusting.

I read a book written by a family friend, about how to track people, whilst staying hidden yourself. The fascinating descriptive consequences on his body of living off the same foodstuffs for too long. Competitive games of being holed up in pitch black darkness for days, with no way of knowing the time except through hunger, with the winner being the one who timed their stay to the closest predicted minute.

Resilience. Getting through this. Mind over matter. Positive attitude. Grit. Dry socks. Hot drink. Sleep. Repeat. I’m still not sure if dowsing for water works.

These things have definitely influenced my life. I’ve sometimes trudged though snow in my Sorel boots and Fjällräven parka to work on days when other colleagues ring in saying they can’t get in because of the weather. I buy food for homeless people. No-one who visits my house ever goes home hungry.

As a child I never realised that the end was not definitely nigh and it’s left me with constant low-level anxiety and a continuing obsession with the apocalypse. Many years of rumination followed, but once I had rationalised that I would probably die early on, I felt strangely relieved.

Odd as it may seem to spend hours locked in enthusiastic debate with one’s parents about recent films and TV shows depicting the aftermath, it is something we all enjoy doing as a family, so will continue to baffle others with our tales of conspiracy theories. Just saying the words, “What would Sarah Connor do?” can spark a whole afternoon’s conversation.