Sunday, 30 December 2012

Four Christmas Cakes

I was late making my Xmas cake this year and a little uninspired as how to decorate it. I also had the annual dilemma of when to actually cut it. I usually wait until Xmas day but more often than not, after the big Xmas dinner, mountains of chocolate and relatively little physical activity, nobody is in the mood for rich fruit cake. I always seem to miss the moment which makes me wonder why I bothered to make it in the first place.

This year I had a plan.

My parents were coming for a pre-Xmas dinner and I wanted to serve cake to them. I also wanted cake to serve other guests we were expecting and an uncut cake for Xmas day (just in case).

I cut my square cake into four equal quarters.

I decorated each quarter differently and had particular fun making icing and marzipan snowmen for one creation. Nothing was planned. I just made it up as I went along.

Three different cakes were available for my three different occasions and the fourth quarter which I left un-iced, wrapped with a ribbon and decorated with glace cherries, remained for our New Year's celebrations.

My four mini cakes may not have had the impact of one show stopping centre piece but it worked brilliantly for what I wanted.

Next year I may go back to making one carefully planned show stopper but it is good to know that this alternative approach worked so well.

Silent Sunday

Saturday, 29 December 2012

A young life cut tragically short

Life feels a little bit surreal right now.

I had a lovely afternoon yesterday when special friends visited and a lovely evening playing board games and drinking beer with family friends who have come to mean a great deal to us.  Somewhere in between these two events filled with laughter, I found out the devastating news that a young man well known in the community (not least because of the coffee business he was involved with) had lost his life in a fatal accident when his car collided with a tree.

He was one of four brothers and I always felt that the family balanced my family of four daughters (before the two little ones from my second marriage came along). Their grandparents are warm and welcoming people that live across the road from me.

It was really hard to believe that this young man, so vibrant and full of potential, was dead.

My daughters remembered how he had given them free hot chocolate to warm themselves when they had been busking at the farmers market next to his coffee van last Christmas.

We lit a candle a for him.

This morning, my daughter Charis was performing in a 'Soiree du Matin' organised by some of the people from the church where she plays piano.  I was invited along and felt full of pride and admiration as I watched her play two solo piano pieces and several duets to an appreciative audience.

Back home, Charis saw the following message on Facebook:

"For anyone who's available and wants to come and lay flowers today for my beautiful brother then we're meeting at the Red Lion at 1:30 and heading down to the site for 2pm, all support is welcomed with open arms."

We dropped everything we were doing to dash to Morrisons for flowers and joined the party of people, all demonstrating a similar air of disbelief.  It was the hardest thing. The jollity of Christmas-time contrasted so starkly with this stunned sorrow. The road where the accident had occurred was closed while flowers were laid and tears shed

Pirate bunting draped across the tree and his hockey sticks amongst the flowers were a poignant reflection of the life cut tragically short.

There are no words that can ease the pain of the parents who have lost their son or the boys who have lost a much loved brother but I hope that the show of support helps in some small way as they all come to terms with what has happened and try to move forwards with their lives.

It has been a very sobering experience me and my girls.

Life is so fragile, so unpredictable. Anything can happen to anyone at anytime.

So live life well. Appreciate all that you have. Smile and treat each day as the miracle that it is.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Christmas Present

My daughter Charis has aspirations to train as a medic. To show our support for her noble ambition, we decided to buy her a full sized anatomical skeleton for Christmas. We ordered it online and it arrived in a large box which would look impressive wrapped.

We didn't wrap it.

We opened it, assembled it and hung it from its mobile stand.

Then we wrapped it.

Obviously, this all had to be done after Charis had retired to her room on Christmas Eve (it would have been impossible to conceal in all its full height glory). We were performing a wrapping operation that was more akin to a mummification at 1o'clock on Christmas morning. It was a delicate procedure and I felt that I had properly earned the freshly laundered sheets on my bed and the bottle of champagne that was chilling in an ice bucket upstairs.

Thankfully, we didn't have a ridiculously early start on Christmas morning... in fact Dylan had a good sleep in, albeit at the bottom of my bed (perhaps he appreciates the fresh sheet sensation too)

I hadn't gone overboard with stocking presents this year as I usually do but my parents had stuffed stockings full for each of my children. While they sat on my bed making new discoveries with every dip inside, I was able to wake up gently with a cup of tea.

Breakfast of warm bread and Bucks Fizz made from leftover champagne got my day off to a great start. There were presents aplenty to be unwrapped and played with and a Christmas dinner for seven that would easily have fed twice that many.

I do regret not getting out of the house for a post dinner walk at the very least to combat the familiar Xmas bloating but the weather was dull and drizzly and not very inviting. Dull and drizzly and mild so I missed having the fire ablaze. We did try it briefly but everyone started to overheat. I lit candles instead.

Everyone loved their presents (always a relief). Addy's gift of a nurse's outfit and medical bag from her Grandma and Grandpa may sow the early seeds for her to follow in her big sister's Doctor footsteps.

If you are wondering what Charis thought of her unusually wrapped gift.... let's say she was more than a little bit pleased!

Monday, 24 December 2012

'Tis the Night Before Xmas

It's Christmas Eve. The presents are wrapped. There is an air of eager anticipation.

Before we all settle down for the 'last sleep', we have a Christingle service to attend (Charis will be playing all seven Carols to accompany the congregation), Carol singing around the Christmas tree in town (I hope it stops raining!) then back home for a Mexican banquet, scattering the magic reindeer food on the lawn and a new tradition this year invented by little Addy - blowing bubbles filled with wishes. That completed, all that will remain will be to put the mince pie and drink out for a deserving Santa.

I am smiling at the thought of how excited the little ones will be tonight as I tuck them up in their beds. With all the warm feeling that that brings me, I wish all my friends, family and faithful blog readers:

A Joyful and Merry Christmas

Hallowe'en Arts and Crafts Project gets a festive makeover

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Getting that Christmassy feeling

How nice to have a few moments to blog, even if it is only while I'm waiting for biscuits to cook for an afternoon of visitors tomorrow.

The last day of term yesterday went by in a blur of activity.

I spent the morning preparing as much as I possibly could prepare in advance for a Xmas dinner with my parents and the afternoon watching my little girl in church with her schoolmates singing Carols. It was a lovely service and although I neglected to pick up the sheet with the words to the Carols, I surprised myself with how many I knew confidently by heart (Hymns and Carol singing featured quite heavily when I was at school).

Back home, it was all systems GO to get the Xmas dinner ready. I made a pie with quorn fillets and homemade mushroom pate that turned out well enough that my dad took the leftovers home with him for his lunch next day.

Despite telling us the interest on his savings was virtually non-existence these days so he would not be spending as much on Christmas presents this year, my dad came laden with festively wrapped gifts and a large Santa sack containing surprises that he was itching to distribute. After dinner, his impatience could be contained no longer. He did not take much persuasion to put on a Santa outfit (probably still a bit sweaty from my Santa Run) and with an exuberant flourish, emptied the contents of the sack onto my coffee table. Sweets and chocolates and biscuits and a packet of monkey nuts (!) cascaded into a tantalising pile of goodies and inevitably, a feeding frenzy ensued.

The kids LOVED it.

Once the initial wave of overindulgence had subsided, I did manage to make some sense of my dad's generous contribution to the Xmas confection, putting some away for the days to come but leaving enough to keep the children feeling thoroughly spoiled.

My parents are amazingly fit and well for their age but they do get tired and do like to be back in their own home at a reasonable time. After they left, we had enough evening remaining to play a fiercely competitive game of Family Fortunes (complete with buzzer that made the trademark 'Uh-Uh" sound when a wrong answer was given). It was great fun.

The following day, my husband and I had been invited to a our daughter's house for mince pies and coffee. Although my daughter and her boyfriend have been a couple for longer than my husband and I have (only just!), we have never been formally introduced to his parents and certainly have never been all under the same roof at the same time. The coffee and mince pie invitation was the opportunity to put this right.

I really enjoyed sitting in my daughter's living room which almost a year ago we had been busy decorating and preparing for them to move in. I remembered how freezing cold it was then and how my fingers would became too numb to hold a paintbrush. Now it was warm and cosy with  lights twinkling on the beautifully decorated tree that was my Xmas gift to them, the smell of freshly made coffee and plates of dainty nibbles. It was perfect.

I spent the afternoon trying to get my kitchen organised for our Christmas celebrations. My husband returned from an expedition to a local farm shop with the little ones with a brussel sprout tree, a sack of unwashed spuds, some odd looking carrots, some beautiful parsnips and a little boy desperately in need of a change of clothes after jumping in too many muddy puddles.

It has been a wonderfully packed, festive couple of days but nothing says Christmas to me quite as much as a brussel sprout tree.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Good News/ Bad News

It has been a Good News/ Bad News couple of days.

Good News: Husband is off work so we head to town for Xmas shopping with the promise of lunch out. Find some great things to buy in the first shop we visit.

Bad News: At the checkout, Husband realises he's lost his wallet.

Good News: He says it only had a few pounds in it and cancels the credit card.

Bad News: I don't feel like carrying on with the shopping trip even though there is one gift I still really wanted to buy.

Good News: He finds the wallet at home.

Bad News: As he said it only had a few pounds in it we can't even celebrate being reunited with the cash and splash out on a takeaway.

Good News: I manage to find a substitute for the one gift  in our local Argos.

Bad News: The Argos catalogue picture did not show how small and tatty the gift was in reality.

Good News: My money was refunded by a cheerful and friendly assistant.

Bad News: Back to square one in terms of the one gift I wanted to buy.

Good News: Found the perfect gift online.

Bad News: Anxious wait to see if the promised 'delivery before Xmas' would be upheld.

Good News: Daughter Taylor's A level Presentation evening gave us an opportunity to forget about Xmas for a moment and celebrate her incredible achievements.

Bad News: A mix up over babysitting meant I had to take my two little ones along to what would be a boring event for them.

Good News: They were both behaving beautifully.

Bad News: Little Dylan started coughing so badly that he vomited - in copious volume - and strongly scented of the banana he had consumed before we left.

Good News: Caretaker efficiently dealt with vile, wreaking, viscous stomach contents and Husband turned up at that exact moment to help me bundle the sick drenched child out and into his car seat. A bath towel left in the car for me to sit on after the passenger window was inadvertently left open all night in the rain came in handy for wiping off undigested banana chunks and protecting the upholstery.

Bad News: Missed Taylor collecting her certificates.

Good News: Once Dylan and I had peeled off our soiled clothes and jumped in a bath together, his mood (and mine) were much improved.

Bad News: A rather unpleasant pile of laundry awaited me.

Good News: Taylor returned with her certificates and two awards that she had been presented with for excellence in Mathematics and Overall Achievement.

Bad News: The post-presentation glass of wine and mince pie with my name on were enjoyed by someone else.

Good News: A parcel arrived this morning. It was the gift I had ordered online.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

A Visit from Kirk

It has been a few days since I sat down at my keyboard and let the thoughts in my mind spill out onto the computer screen. Time is exhibiting that strange elastic quality where things that happened within days feel like weeks ago. I am hoping that as I type, the memories I want to share will sort themselves into some sort of sensible order.

On Saturday, my very wonderful friend Kirk came for his annual Xmas visit. In a classic case of too much going on, I also had tickets that evening for my husband and I to attend our glamorous Black and Red Ball organised by the Dance School we are members of. Kirk volunteered to help my older daughters babysit my little ones while I waltzed, jived and foxtrotted the night away (I did mention that Kirk was very wonderful) and he even bought a couple of new release DVDs to make a movie night of it. The Mince Pie  flavoured popcorn remained unopened ( Kirk is a very wonderful friend with a sometimes alarmingly experimental taste in snacks) but the movie night was much appreciated and enjoyed.

I loved the Ball. I didn't exactly feel like a princess in an old black and red dress that belonged to one of my daughters and hair that I'd barely had time to brush, let alone style, but the heart of a dancer (albeit a pretty rubbish one) beat within me. We watched an amazing demonstration of ballroom at its best by reigning professional champions, Warren and Kristi Boyce. Kristi's costumes were as stunning as the smiles were fixed. I did not at any time try to recreate their grace, strength and fluidity during the 'general dancing' segments but my latin 'hip action' did seem to improve exponentially with amount of red wine consumed.

It was a great night let down slightly by shoes and vegetarianism.

In terms of shoes, I  had never got round to  buying myself the sort of sparkly fabulous dancing shoes that my mother in law has in abundance (unfortunately we do not share the same shoe size) so I wore my training dance shoes which are practical, great to dance in and hideously ugly. My husband on the other hand had his 'Freed of London Patent ballroom shoes' - but they gave him blisters!!

As for being vegetarian, the meal started reasonably well with a tomato and basil soup but when the spinach and ricotta cannelloni was served in a tomato and basil sauce suspiciously similar to the previous course, I began to look longingly at the turkey with all the trimmngs. However, the brussel sprouts were so undercooked that any attempt to stab them with a fork had the tendency to send them off on an unpredictable trajectory across the tablecloth. Maybe the cannelloni was not such a bad option after all.

The morning after the ball, I found out that my daughter Charis had achieved a Pass with Distinction in her grade 5 piano exam. I could not express in any normal way how proud I was of her so instead began a relentless campaign to trick her into passing me things, allowing me to pass or getting her to pass me after which I could declare that she had 'passsed with distinction'. During Sunday dinner, our guest of honour, Kirk (who as well as being a wonderful friend is the master of the pun) almost manage to pull off a 'Parsnip with distinction' moment but by now Charis was getting wise to the carefull manipulation of circumstances to make the tricks work. It was my aim to catch her unawares 10 times before midnight. I think I may have amassed double that target!

Charis with Kirk deliberating his "Pass-nip with Distinction" pun

I was incredibly proud of Charis for passing her grade five (with distinction!) and just as proud of what a good sport she was about my chosen method of rejoicing in the fact. The following day, Kirk and I collaborated to put together a celebration cake for her. She didn't realise for some hours that the chocolate fingers were arranged to look like the keys of a piano but I think she was pleased!

I had further reason to be filled with pride by Charis. On Sunday evening she played piano and sang in the local church's Carols by Candlelight service. I love Carol Services and missed the one I usually attend because it clashed with my little Addy's Xmas Play. It was wonderful to see Charis, confident and serene as a member of the choir and astonishingly good as she played the accompaniment to a lovely little song I'd never heard before called This Tiny Child. A single tear did escape from my eye as I felt moved by the story of the Nativity.

I was less moved by the sermon which attempted to describe the infant Jesus in 9 words "He cries. He Wees. He saves the World. Godbaby". It didn't really do it for me on any level!

My little ones were not too embarrassingly noisy as they played with toys and did arts and crafts in the area especially designated for such activity.

As Monday saw my husband back at work and the kids back at school, Kirk and I enjoyed a relatively calm day doing a bit of local shopping, planning the piano cake and cooking dinner. My calm was well and truly shattered when my eldest daughter came round for our weekly run with the running club. It was not my daughter's arrival that shattered the calm or even the run per se. It was the rain.

In all the months that I have been running regularly, the worst the weather has thrown in my direction has been a little light drizzle. Not so on this occasion. It seemed as though all the rain we had thus far managed to avoid had saved itself up to create the sort of downpour that would probably have been familiar to Noah during the forty days and nights of Biblical flooding. Baggy shorts and trousers took on the appearance of skin tight lycra as sodden fabric clung to legs. I have never been so soaked through. Three miles of splashing along in surface water and deeper puddles, unable to generate enough body heat to counter the icy wetness against skin does not sound like fun - but I loved it. I felt very alive and when I did finally get home to discard saturated running gear and dry myself, the warm all over glow was incredible. It made me appreciate the simple pleasures of a cosy living room, unchallenging TV viewing and the company of loved ones.

Today, Kirk had to return to his home in London. A hearty veggie Wetherspoon breakfast marked the end of his visit. I loved every minute of his stay and  I wish I could see him (and several other dear friends that live all across the country) more regularly.

I am so grateful for the people in my life that support me, make me laugh, make me proud, share experiences and love me. Christmas is a good excuse to remember this.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Shooting Stars

I read on a website that watching for meteors is like fishing - you get out there, enjoy the wonder of nature all around you and if you are lucky you might just catch something.

After a miserable wet and windy day, conditions did clear up yesterday evening. I thought it was worth putting on my coat, grabbing a blanket and taking a chair outside to see if there was anything remaining of the Geminid meteor activity.

The sky didn't have the sort of inky blackness that you can lose yourself in. Streetlights, Xmas lights and most annoyingly, the garish illuminated Lidl sign that is just on the other side of the hedge at the bottom of my garden, all contributed to the light pollution. As well as that, a light smudge of thin cloud appeared and disappeared and reappeared to confuse the eye and spoil the effect of falling into eternity.

However, the air was crisp and fresh and with my hands wrapped around a hot mug of coffee and my head supported against my husband (doing his best Indiana Jones impression with his choice of headwear to conserve body heat), it was lovely.

As the website suggested, I did get out there, I did enjoy the wonder of nature (especially the nature that produced the coffee beans destined for my cup) and I did catch something.

Most of my catches were the little tiddlers of the cosmos... the sort of shooting star where you are not quite sure if you saw it or if it was your mind playing tricks. Some were aeroplanes, which can actually be quite beautiful as they traverse the backdrop of endless darkness punctuated with pin pricks of light. But twice - twice - I witnessed a meteor streak across the night sky leaving a blazing trail that although lasted but a moment, will remain clear in my memory. Magical.

Definitely worth getting cold toes for.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Advent Calendars

It was a completely rubbish night for meteor watching last night but at least the cloud cover kept the temperature above zero for the morning school run. If I'd had a car to defrost, we would not have made it for registration. As it was, Dylan had to sport the pyjamas and wellies look because time did not allow for actually getting him dressed.

 If I thought that the morning after the school play was a struggle to get the children out of bed, today was even worse. It seems such a shame to disturb two perfectly peaceful slumbering angels to unleash the disgruntled monsters desperate to return to warm duvets and dreams of the innocent.

I do at least have one secret weapon to calm the raging beasts and get the day moving forward in the way that it needs to - the Advent Calendar.

On the first of December when terrible 2 year old Dylan threw a tantrum because he didn't understand the concept of 'one chocolate a day until Xmas' and wanted to open all his windows there and then, I never would have imagined what an asset the advent calendars would turn out to be.

He's a bright little thing, my Dylan. He worked out that it was a daily 'pre-breakfast confectionary' treat and played by the rules from day two. Both he and big sister Addy look forward to the ritual of finding the right numbered windows, poking at the perforations to open them, ripping at the foil to free the promised sweetness within and finally, with chocolate melting on warm tongues, reading the little messages printed inside the cardboard flaps. All this before the toast in the toaster has even thought about popping.

My little savages torn from sleep are transformed miraculously into compliant, co-operative darlings at the merest mention of the Advent Calendars - like a Supernanny instant makeover.

Until now, I have not been a fan of chocolate advent calendars. I have a fabric Xmas tree with 24 little pockets, each containing a hanging decoration. As the days of December pass, the bare tree becomes fully adorned with pretty ornaments. I like the idea that it builds into something beautiful as it counts the days until Christmas rather than the chocolate advent calendars that become increasingly tattered and unsightly.

Now I am fully converted to the chocolate side. I see beauty in the ragged windows. My morning ally. The best couple of pounds I've spent all year.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

A School Christmas Play

As I opened a bleary eye this morning to see that the numbers on the clock were telling me it was 8:10 - the time we would normally be up and dressed and having breakfast - I didn't panic too much. I remembered that the kids had been fiddling with the buttons on it yesterday and had probably changed the time. When I turned over in my lovely warm bed and saw that the clock on my radio also said 8:10 - then I panicked!

I managed to drag myself out of bed with the cold cup of coffee on the bedside cabinet seeming to say in a mocking tone - It's your own fault. You should have woken up when I was brought up to you by a faithful husband an hour ago.

Both little ones were still fast asleep.

The reason for their exhaustion and need to sleep was that last night was my little Addy's first school play - an evening performance taking place in our local community owned Festival Drayton Centre which meant a proper stage, tiered seating and an air of great importance. Personally I would have been happy with a makeshift stage and rows of tiny school chairs crammed too close together in a school hall but there was no denying the sense of occasion.

The play was called "Children of the World" and showcased how children all over the world celebrate Christmas. Addy was cast as Poland.

The costume requirement was a bit vague. If I had had the time, I would have googled the Polish National Dress, scoured charity shops for something suitable and even dusted off my sewing machine. Needless to say - I didn't. With what we had at home and big sister Taylor picking up a little waistcoat from Primark on a well timed shopping trip, we cobbled together the 'boy' interpretation of the costume.  Addy looked absolutely delightful but she was not overly impressed.

Neither was she overly impressed with the idea of rehearsals. I was taken to one side by her teacher to be told that she was refusing to join in. When I questioned Addy about it she said that she didn't want to be tripped up on stage. Trying to get inside the mind of a four year old I surmised that it must be quite overwhelming with the whole school involved in the production and lots of movement on and off stage. I reassured her. I told her how proud I'd be to watch her. I tried bribery. I played the Santa card - I bet Santa will leave you an extra special present under the tree if you join in. I waited to see what would happen at the next rehearsal.

She still didn't join in.

Although she was not actually taking part, she was watching and learning. She knew the dance routines. She knew the songs. She had one last chance to overcome her reluctance at the dress rehearsal before the actual performance. I wasn't holding my breath.

Last year, I turned up at the festive setting of Addy's nursery school to delight in my little angel singing Christmas songs with her tiny classmates. The reality was a grumpy Mini Grinch who sullenly refused to sing a single note. Last night, these memories flooded back as I sat in C13 awaiting the start of the show.

She was sat at the back (maybe deliberately) and looked very tiny surrounded by older children. After the introduction, Poland was the first country up on stage to share their Xmas traditions with an eager audience.

Addy awkwardly joined the back of the line of children representing Poland. Each child collected a glittery star from the props lady as they climbed the steps onto stage. Each child except Addy. As she held out her little hand, there were no more stars to hand to her. I guess that as she had not been joining in with the rehearsals, she was not counted and therefore not enough stars were made. I could have cried. I sensed her discomfort as she stood on the stage, starless. The other children launched themselves into their lines and song and dance as Addy stood apart from them fighting back tears. She lost the fight. She didn't just burst into tears - she exploded.

I felt powerless. From the second row back I was so close to my distraught little daughter... yet so far.

Thankfully, the headmaster did his best to sneak discreetly onto stage (he is not a small man!) and scooped her off. He calmed her down and gave her the job of assistant to prop lady.

As 'Poland' she was a disaster. As 'Assistant to Prop Lady' she was fantastic. I could see how much she loved being involved and handing out the various props to the next set of actors waiting for their moment in the spotlight. No more awkwardness and reluctance - just enthusiasm and efficiency.

She was persuaded to go up on stage for the finale - a heartwarming whole school rendition of a song called We are the Children of the World. For a brief moment she joined in with the singing and the actions and I was given a glimpse of the little star she could have been - but mostly her interest lay in what was going on offstage and behind the curtains.

As we made our way back home I asked her if she had enjoyed herself and she answered with a resounding yes. I suppose that is all that really matters.

A late night and much excitement with a little raw emotion thrown into the mix did result in the over sleeping next morning.

It was a rush to get to school but we made it just before the start of registration. I breathed a sigh of relief. Today of all days, an OFSTED official loitered in the classroom with his clipboard of doom. I gave Addy a quick kiss goodbye and was about to make my hasty retreat when the same look descended over her face as I had seen last night when she stood empty handed on stage with the star waving children of Poland. I willed her to hold it together, to sit calmly on the carpet, to wait for her name to be called and answer with a upbeat and 'ready for the day' - Yes, Mrs Buckley.

She didn't.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Royal Christmas Mail

The last time I received one of these through my letter box was many years ago when a boyfriend from my first term at University sent me a Christmas card containing a small plastic bag filled with his mum's home made chocolate spread.

Our Sincere Apologies.
We are very sorry that this item has reached you in this condition. Royal Mail

If his mum had known that he was using the chocolate spread in some sticky naughty games with his girlfriend rather than as a nutritional spreadable on toast to sustain a hungry student, she probably would not have packed him off to Uni with jars full of the stuff. Had my boyfriend known that the chocolate spread package would explode in the card somewhere between his post box and the sorting office, he perhaps would not have attempted to send me a reminder of our little bit of fun in this way!

This latest item delivered by the Royal Mail with their sincere apologies contained no such deviant substances - just a simple red envelope housing one Christmas card with greetings from a very dear friend and his lovely family. It remains something of  mystery as to how the condition of it is such that it looks as though it has had bites torn out of it.

It made me smile when I removed the card from its tattered envelope to reveal the picture on the front.

That cupcake did perhaps look good enough to eat!

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

A Perfectly Lovely Few Days

One of the best things about having a busy schedule is taking a moment to look back at everything you have achieved and realising that if you can do all that in a few days, the possibilities for the next few years are limitless. I'm having one of those moments right now with my cup of coffee and keyboard and feeling very optimistic for the rapidly approaching new year.

Last Friday was my little Addy's school Winter Fayre. I had volunteered to run a 'Decorate a Cake' stall to keep the children entertained as well as making biscuits to serve with mulled wine as an alternative to  the more traditional mince pies on the refreshment stall. I love baking and I particularly love baking on a grand scale, usually for party food or in this case for a fundraiser. I baked four batches of butter biscuits cut in Xmas shapes and then set about the task of embellishing them with icing.

I had just finished decorating Xmas tree biscuits with royal icing (green food colouring producing a disappointingly insipid shade) using an 'outline and flood' technique and topped with a sprinkling of white glitter sugar when the doorbell rang. It was the postman delivering my latest issues of the Cake Decorating part work I subscribe to which included a Xmas Special. It couldn't have been more perfect timing. I used the snowflake cutters providedto emboss discs of ready roll icing to top circular biscuits and did something similar with star shaped ones. Leftover ready roll icing was perfect for transforming snowman shaped biscuits into proper little snowmen. I also had a go at cutting out delicate snowflake shapes using sugar paste. It was fiddly but effective and could well be used again when the time comes to decorate this year's Christmas cake.

I was pleased enough with my biscuits and although transporting them to the school was a bit nerve wracking (a gust of wind blew the cling film right off one tray), the job was done and another box on my to do list could be ticked.

How much money the Winter Fayre raised has not yet been released but I had the feeling that it was not well supported by parents. A lot of effort had been put in to make a successful event but without the people attending to spend their money, it would all be in vain. My 'Decorate a Cake' stall did very little business because there simply wasn't the steady flow of young people I'd hoped for, keen to roll their sleeves up and drizzle icing and sprinkles in imaginative ways. I am not blameless. My own children stayed at home because they were tired by the end of the week and I knew we had an early start the next day to pay a Xmas visit to the grandparents in Brighton.

As I left the Fayre (in a hurry as I still had packing to do), the lovely 'burger van man' gave me a bag full of unsold veggie sausages and burgers to take home. I enjoyed a little snack on my drive home and handed out warm, meaty(ish) goodies to the family on my return. The 'family' numbers were swelled on account of Taylor being home from Uni for the Xmas break. It was a joy to see her looking healthy, happy and confident after completing the milestone of her first term

I always love going to Brighton. It is where my husband grew up so has special meaning for him. It is where my older sister settled and holds many memories for me of her life and death. And it is where my husband's parents live still.

Addy was especially excited about seeing her grandparents and the promise of staying in a hotel.

A four year old's vision of a "ho-tayal"

My mother in law had a terrible health scare recently which resulted in the need for surgery on her heart so it was a wonderful surprise to see her looking fantastically well. Well enough to have gone dancing with her husband and well enough to have made a raspberry trifle for our tea. My mother in law's raspberry trifle is one of my absolutely most favourite things.

The hotel did not disappoint Addy and I thoroughly enjoyed cheering for James Arthur in the X Factor final on the telly from the huge, comfy bed with a pint of beer bought up from the bar.

It would be a shame to go all the way to the south coast and not visit the beach. We wrapped up warm and took the children for a walk along the seafront. It was cold but the sun came out - bracing and glorious. Unfortunately, Addy got a little too adventurous with the breaking waves and as King Canute could have told her, that will never end well. Soggy shoes, socks and trousers removed, she was wrapped in a warm blanket ready for the long journey home.

Borrowing one of Addy's hats and using hubby as a windbreak to keep warm

Hadn't realised I'd dressed Dylan as a mini dad!

Moments before Addy's soaking

The icing on the cake of a perfectly lovely few days was watching James Arthur win X factor 2012, back home in front of a blazing fire.

Monday, 10 December 2012

The Geminid Meteor Shower

So Patrick Moore has died.

He visited my school once, back when I was a 'trying to be nonchalant and cool' teenager.  I spared him a glance out of the common room window but did not make any more effort than that to see him. I wish I had. A legend of a man.

The reason for the visit was that my school was named after the astronomer William Herschel whose claim to fame (apart from living in Slough where I grew up) was that he discovered Uranus. This discovery, of course, generated much mirth amongst the sniggering pupils. If I remember correctly, a camera crew came too to capture some footage for a Sky at Night documentary about the William Herschel telescope. I don't remember ever watching the programme when it was broadcast or if indeed any of the footage was used in it.

I have always loved looking up at the stars and imagined that I would find it fascinating with the aid of a telescope. I was delighted when my first husband gave me a telescope one Christmas. I thought it was a thing of great beauty. Now I don't know if it wasn't set up right or if I was just completely incompetent but I could never manage to focus on anything in particular. Apart from the moon. There was a special lens for viewing the moon and it was amazing. But there are only so many times you can look at the moon and standing outside with a bulky piece of equipment that needed to be moved about and stored safely lost its appeal quickly. My star gazing reverted to being with the naked eye and my telescope was packed away and left to gather dust.

I still have the telescope and maybe one day I will find the enthusiasm to unpack it. If I wasn't so busy with Christmas related things, that day could well be now as an astronomical event is about to happen. That event is the annual Geminid Meteor Shower.

The Geminids should be at their peak on the evening of 13th December and coinciding with new moon to give a dark sky, it could be a spectacular show (providing there is no cloud cover of course!).

Weather permitting, I will definitely be outside wrapped up warm in winter clothes and a duvet, either on a reclining garden chair or a well insulted ground cover on the lawn. For a festive touch I am planning on supplies of warm mince pies and mulled wine. I might even let my mind wander to thoughts of that first Christmas and the star  that appeared over Bethlehem to guide the wise men.

Fingers crossed for a clear night!

Sunday, 9 December 2012

My car is not well.

My car is not well.

I first got my diesel Ford Galaxy the year that Gareth Gates and Will Young battled it out to see who would be the victorious Pop Idol in the predecessor to X Factor. I remember this because the lorry that delivered my shiny new car had WILL YOUNG IS GAY written in the dirt on its side.

It was no surprise to me that Will Young was gay. Wasn't it obvious? But it was a surprise that enough people were bothered by this fact for it to make headlines in certain newspapers the day after the final and for at least someone to make the announcement on the side of a lorry in desperate need of a good clean. I digress. Back to my car.

My Galaxy has been good to me. It has provided me with relatively trouble free and comfortable motoring and I was proud to use it as my wedding car after it was given a "pimp my ride" makeover with bows and ribbons and flowers.

However, 11 years and well over 100,000 miles later, the problems of mechanical old age are surfacing.

We have done a lot of driving this weekend. Once the car had been running for a while, accelerating would cause the car to judder in the speed range of 50 - 60 mph. If the road  surface was less than smooth or there was any sort of uphill gradient, the juddering would be exaggerated. It was like a washing machine on its spin cycle.

I have to admit that the sensation was quite pleasant. A full body vibro-massage. I especially liked the way the vibrations transmitted through the less toned fleshy parts of my middle aged body. What I didn't like was the thought that the car could shake into pieces at any moment in the manner of vehicles usually reserved for circus clowns.

The car did make it home in one piece and as an unexpected bonus I found that I wasn't suffering with any of the usual aches and pains and stiffness associated with long journeys. Putting all benefits and sentimental attachment aside, it has made me think seriously about the need for a new car.

SANTA?!  I have been really good this year!

Friday, 7 December 2012

My beardy man

There was a man that lived down the same country lane where my old house was. I would see him sometimes walking by. He was tall and thin and had a long shaggy beard. He reminded me very much of a boy I once knew at University and hadn't seen for some 20 years - so much so that the first time I saw him I believed it could be him.  Most people who know me in real life or through my blog will be aware that that boy, 20 years a stranger, would come back into my life to sweep me off my feet and marry me.

The neighbour who would walk past my house had no idea of the feelings he would awaken in me. I never even said hello to him. Whenever I saw him, I would think about my tall, thin, bearded friend from long ago and wonder what became of him.

I would find out soon enough.

Through Friends Reunited he kept an old, almost forgotten promise to contact me. We arranged to meet up.

It was the oddest thing when he turned up on my doorstep. Firstly, he was no longer a boy. He was a man. Secondly, he could never have been described as thin. And thirdly, he was clean shaven. He was so unfamiliar in so many ways yet completely familiar in the one way that made me as comfortable with him then as I'd always been. It didn't take me long to adjust to his 'filled out' physique or the fact that time had matured him. However, I really struggled with that smooth face.

Preparing Tete de Moine for the prettiest lunch ever (Switzerland)

It wasn't long before he grew back the beard. There was grey in it now and I loved it. That was over 7 years ago.

Last week, he was challenged to shave off his beard for Movember. He is never one to shy away from any challenge so he accepted and raised £200 for the cause.

He did actually look younger without it and I admit that when he kissed me it was reminiscent of those early smooth faced kisses so charged with passion and hope. I liked it.

He bought shaving foam and razors and kept himself clean shaven until I made the decision for him to stay or grow.

The novelty began to wear off quickly. I missed my beardy man. I wanted him back.

My husband is a hirsute individual. By about 9 o'clock tonight, my wish will probably have been granted!

Thursday, 6 December 2012

A thirty year old box

My 18 year old self had a friend at University. She painted a cardboard box from the supermarket for her friend to keep his LP record collection in.

My 48 year old self is now married to that friend and amazingly, he still has the cardboard box.

It makes me smile to see that thirty years ago I had the same penchant for black and cream zebra-esque design as I do now. It also makes me smile to see my initials carefully painted in the bottom right corner of one side.

The girl who made those marks with her paintbrush three decades ago seems so remote from the person I am today but that old box, once used to transport litre bottles of Fairy Liquid, connects me in a way that I think little else could. It is a very strange feeling.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

A Packed Social Calendar

I love the explosion of activity that happens at this time of year. I have a fairly packed schedule of events for the whole of December and I am starting to wonder exactly when I'm going to find the time and energy for Xmas shopping and menu planning.

On Monday, it was my Running Club's Xmas party. One of the things I miss about work since giving up to be a stay at home mum is the Xmas social so I was really excited about this one. It was held at our local Brewery and I very much enjoyed the three pints of Joule's Slumbering Monk Ale that kept me well lubricated throughout the evening.

The pub attached to the brewery is not blessed with the friendliest of staff but the brewer's hall, also known as the Mouse Room is a gorgeous venue if you enjoy cosy oak panelling, wood carving, beams and the modern touch of large windows giving a view across to the brewery. It was perfect for the party with an elegantly trimmed tree creating a festive feel.

The food was buffet style and although there was some confusion over whether the three vegetarian guests were to be brought a pre-plated selection of non meat offerings or left to the lucky dip of the buffet table, it did not spoil the evening. I managed to procure myself a reasonable selection of dodgy sarnies and mini mince pies. The non-veggies didn't fair much better. I was not particularly envious of their cocktail sausages or scotch eggs. The success of the evening really did not hinge on the gastronomic experience.

It was a fairly standard itinerary - prize giving followed by raffle. I was never in the running (pardon the pun) for any prizes and I didn't even come close to winning the raffle.

So apart from the venue and the ale, what made it a good evening? Simple really. The people. Feeling part of something good. Being inspired to run more - to push myself harder - enter some races next year and see some improvements in my times. It was lovely to celebrate success and look to the future.

Photo by Sophie Murray 

Yesterday I was leaving my little ones in the capable hands of big sister and dad again for another evening out.

The Market Drayton Writer's Club was holding an Open Mic night at the library and my daughter, who is a member, invited me to hear her read an extract from a novel she has been writing as part of the online writing challenge NaNoWriMo.  Her best friend (and mummy blogger) Carole has also been meeting the word count demanded by the challenge and was due to give a reading. As well as being interested in hearing these readings, I was lured by the promise of mince pies.

Carole's parents, boyfriend and boyfriend's mum along with my daughter, her boyfriend and myself occupied two tables pushed together at our local Wetherspoons to enjoy their steak night. Of course steak night is somewhat lost on vegetarians but I happily tucked into the veggie Burger and a Beer option and only gave a brief admiring glance in the direction of the mixed grill ordered by most of the party.

The Christmas lights in town looked absolutely gorgeous as we made our way to the library for the Open Mic event.

It was really interesting listening to the pieces that the town's creative writers had selected to share with their audience. Some were excellent and inspiring. Others, inevitably, not so good. I am not glossing over the truth in any way when I say that my daughter and Carole's readings fell firmly in the excellent and inspiring category! I felt very proud.

I admit that I was starting to ache a bit from sitting still for too long so I was quite relieved when the final reading ended and the mince pies were served.

With all this beer and mince pie indulgence, I am glad that tonight I will be going for my Wednesday 3mile run - and even more glad that I will be home in time to put my little ones to bed and enjoy a cosy evening in with my husband.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Eminent Solina F225

When I received a text from my daughter Taylor's boyfriend to say that there was an organ for sale in the charity shop that he volunteers at,  I admit I was tempted.

Daughter Charis has been playing piano for Sunday services at our local church for nearly a year now and has been given all sorts of opportunities as a result. One such opportunity was to learn the organ. The synchronicity of organ tuition and a serviceable second hand organ available with a modest price tag made the purchase seem almost inevitable. Only 'almost' because I was worried that we would struggle to find a place to house it.

Saturday morning, I set off with my husband and little ones for a walk through town to the canal for some duck feeding. I found myself thinking about the organ - wondering if it would be available still or if some other enthusiast would have snapped up the bargain.  As we looked through the charity shop window, there it was. No SOLD sign in sight. Enthusiasts are maybe in short supply. We went in to have a look. It was an Eminent Solina F225 - bigger than I imagined but my husband was not deterred. He was ready to buy it there and then but I suggested we think about it and bring Charis back later that day to see if her enthusiasm would offset the the hassle of having to rearrange our home to accommodate it.

We had a lovely walk by the canal. Two beautiful swans and more ducks than we could count delighted the children with their antics as my husband and I acknowledged the start of December with a celebratory mince pie (or two!)

Back home we told Charis about the organ and she was in her shoes and ready to go before we had even finished describing it. I stayed home with the little ones while she and dad went back to the charity shop.  Although the organ was tucked behind a rather large wardrobe and getting to it meant clambering over piles of assorted occasional furniture,  nothing was going to stop Charis from treating the charity shop volunteers and customers to a good attempt at a tune! Money exchanged hands and the organ was ours.

The whole rest of Saturday was spent moving furniture, clearing out clutter and reorganising. Miraculously we created an organ sized space. On Monday, the organ was delivered. Three volunteers manhandled it into position. I plugged it in to make sure it still worked and spent much longer than I needed to 'make sure it worked' fiddling with knobs, sliders, switches, pedal and keys to make some very satisfying noises.

When Charis got home from school she could not resist the lure of her new toy. I was impressed with how well she adapted to playing the unfamiliar instrument making recognisable renditions of some popular tunes that she was sight reading from the yellowed pages of an organ music book that came with our purchase.

This is a 30 second video of her first attempt at Greensleeves.

With a little more practice and some tuition, I think she could quickly become an accomplished organist. I look forward to the house being filled with hauntingly beautiful Christmas music and the Gothic classic toccata and fugue. I would be disappointed if she didn't throw in a few cheesy uptempo pop songs and the odd waltz. It would transport me back to the opulent splendour of the Blackpool Tower Ballroom. Time to push the furniture out of the way, put on my sequins and dance!

I love that a charity shop and a talented daughter can bring so much richness into my life. 

Me and My Shadow

Monday, 3 December 2012

A Santa Suit and a Smile

There is a slightly crumpled red and white jacket in my house at the moment - the sort of red and white jacket that might be worn by a jolly fellow who invariably puts in an appearance at this time of year. Pinned to that jacket is a slightly more crumpled square of paper bearing the number 80.

This was the jacket that I wore yesterday to take part in the Bridgnorth Charity Santa Dash.

It was an early start (especially for a Sunday!) with registration opening at 9am and Bridgnorth being on the opposite side of the county from the small market town that I call home. Thankfully, it was a mild morning. The merest hint of wind or rain could well have seen me making a speedy retreat to under my warm duvet.

I was taking part in the Santa Dash with my daughter and a friend from our running club, whose mad idea it was in the first place. After collecting our outfits and identification numbers, we settled ourselves down in the local Wetherspoons to wait for the start of the race with a nice drink and a comfy seat. The hilarity commenced as we tried on our santa suits.

The costumes we had been given were not of the highest quality and designed to fit no one as far as I could tell. We all managed to get the trousers on over our running attire and I had more than enough safety pins to make any adjustments necessary. Unfortunately, no amount of safety pins could deal with the catastrophic seam ripping that occurred with every movement we made. From our Wetherspoons window seat, we could see other participants gathering and there was plenty of evidence of further wardrobe malfunctions in the gusset department. It was encouraging to see that the trousers of people of all shapes and sizes were suffering the same fate as ours. Concerns that maybe it was time for a bum trimming crash diet were forgotten!

As the start time for the race crept closer, we made our not entirely inconspicuous way to the starting point.

The race started and finished right in the middle of a very busy Christmas Market. The organisers made their best attempts to photograph the participants, give a safety briefing and route instructions but it was virtually impossible amongst the hustle and bustle of the market. This would prove even more difficult at the finish.

As we waited for the off, clouds cleared revealing a gloriously blue winter sky and bright sunshine - perhaps a little too bright and low in that gloriously blue winter sky. It was completely blinding. A group of a hundred or so squinting, blinded Santas ran through the market to the cheers of spectators they couldn't see.

The route was described as approximately 2.4 miles long, mostly flat with one gentle incline. I should have anticipated that what the residents of the dramatically undulating South Shropshire countryside classify as a 'gentle incline' would be closer to what their neighbours in relatively flat North Shropshire would  call a long, steep, killer hill. I confess that it was more than I could manage to run all the way up that killer hill, especially given how much I was overheating in the non-breathable fabric of the cheap santa suit. I will be forever grateful that we abandoned any thought of actually wearing the trousers after the third seam splitting comedy ripping sound was the catalyst for more bordering-on-hysterical laughter back in Wetherspoons.

I have always admired the people that conquer the gruelling 26 mile marathon distance. Having had a small taste of how of it feels to run in fancy dress, I have considerably more admiration for the people who run their marathons dressed as chickens and bananas (etc!). I lost my beard before I even started running - it shed white fluff destined to be inhaled or swallowed far too easily. I wriggled out of the top part of the jacket about three quarters of the way round and the hat just had to come off shortly after.

There was lots of support on the way round for the spectacle of the sweaty Santas. However, as we approached the end and called upon our last reserves to go for the big sprint finish, we found our route through the market completely blocked by shoppers. I have never known a race where you have to dodge to the end saying 'excuse me please' repeatedly. It was a bit of an anti climax to an otherwise great run but we eventually squeezed our way through to the finish line via the back of the market stalls and collected our finishers medals!

Squeezing through the crowded market to the finish line!

My medal

It was a fantastically festive event and I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of the run and the fun we had with garments not fit for purpose! Best of all for me was that the entry fee for the race was to raise money for the Shropshire Smile Maternity Charity that supports maternity units in the county. I always like to include some charitable activity at this time of year to counter the pressure to give in to the commercialisation of the holidays. This was lovely start to our Christmas celebrations.

A well earned post race mince pie and coffee

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