little red jottings

when a little red pen wanders off the page

Tag: story snippet

Marmalade days, Part II

I picked up Shonagh Koea’s book, The Kindness of Strangers {Kitchen Memoirs} at breakfast this morning, and I’ve been rolling her words like marbles under my tongue all day. I could start quoting anywhere, really, and my stopping point will be likewise borderline arbitrary, but I thought, y’know, marmalade.

The first time I made marmalade was when I was working as a very junior reporter in New Plymouth. The Daily News was a morning newspaper so we all worked until eleven at night, or even later, and no one wanted boarders going in and out of their houses at that hour so I had a tiny flat of my own. There was a tiny kitchen with a kauri bench and a very old-fashioned gas stove on cabriole legs. It had a mottled blue and while enamel surface and I always thought it was rather pretty. I made my first batch of marmalade on that stove and when I had poured it into the jars and left it to set on the bench I thought it looked truly beautiful, so golden and glittering and clear.

This tiny flat was the first home I ever had of my own and I liked it very much. It was very quiet and looked out on to large trees. When I stepped into the place it was always quiet and exactly as I had left it. In Hastings, my father had a habit of suddenly arriving home in his big car, loading it up to the roof with anything nice like crystal glasses or the better blankets or anything he thought was worth having and, with much shouting, driving away. He would not return for several months. That is why when I had that first little flat it pleased me very much that whatever I had, and it was not much, remained where it was. If I had a coat hanging in my wardrobe when I left for work the same coat was hanging in the same wardrobe when I got home. I found the idea of that absolutely charming. Possibly it was the first time I had any reliable sense of security.

The marmalade I made then is essentially the same recipe I still use but I have altered it slightly over the years. I now take no notice of the recipe’s instructions about when the mixture is ready to be put into jars to set because, for marmalade, the timing often varies with the ripeness of the fruit.

To Make Marmalade

six large grapefruit
four lemons
12 cups of water
12 cups of sugar

Slice the grapefruit and lemons as finely as you can, after washing the fruit carefully. Cover the sliced fruit with the water and leave overnight. The following day bring this mixture to the boil and boil for twenty minutes. Remove the jam pan from the heat and stir in the sugar, bring the mixture quickly to the boil after that and boil it for thirty minutes. At this stage you can start testing it to see if it will set. I used to put a spoonful in a saucer and leave it for a minute or two to see if a skin would form on it but after several years of my using this not overly reliable method, an elderly lady I knew told me a very handy trick. It had been passed on to her by her mother. She said to dip an ordinary silver or stainless steel tablespoon into the mixture and then hold it horizontally over the marmalade so you are looking at the wide inner face of the spoon. When the marmalade drips off the lower edge in two separate places simultaneously the marmalade is ready to be put into the jars. It sometimes takes much longer than thirty minutes’ boiling to accomplish this but it is a very reliable method, I have found. When I first started to make marmalade I used to put the clean empty jars in a slow oven to sterilise, about the time I put the sugar in the mixture. Then I would have to get them out one at a time — and they would be hot — with an oven cloth, in a sudden untidy kind of scramble. But these days I put them neatly in rows in a roasting dish and then I just have to get the whole lot out at once and any drips of marmalade, when I fill the jars, are caught in the dish.

[Interlude for a marmalade loaf recipe and time to marvel at the genius spoon and roasting dish methods which, collectively, would eliminate about 80% of my previous marmalade trauma, then…]

Another very nice loaf I sometimes make has no marmalade actually in it, but I put marmalade on it and sometimes make it instead of having ordinary bread. It is a bran teabread and is very pleasant to have sliced and buttered and spread with marmalade for breakfast at a weekend when I go out to my little garden house to read the paper and have a look at my wilderness (which is really only about as big as a tennis court, if that). I have cultivated quite wild and spreading plants so there is an atmosphere of largesse and tropical wilderness in my garden and through this I walk carefully with a cup of coffee in one hand and a doorstep of homemade bran loaf spread with marmalade in the other. Once I tripped on a low-lying leaf of my big flax plant and fell flat on my face, so I have walked through my garden with greater care since then. I had thought, as it was my very own garden, that I would be able to do anything there and be unharmed but this was just a fanciful thought — I am apt to have such fancies and think that because it is me everything will be all right. It mostly is but sometimes not, like the time I tripped over the flax leaf.

Shonagh Koea, The Kindness of Strangers {Kitchen Memoirs}, Auckland, NZ: Random House, 2007 (pp. 32–35).

The rain clock

After three days of rain, during which the mantle clock had stuck firm at twelve minutes past five, Henry took the clock down to the basement, laid it on its front, and removed the back panel. Inside the casing, metal lay in intricate order — grace embedded in every coil and spring, in the tiny hammer, and the round-headed pins. Henry hesitated, gently removed one coil, and then another.

The basement was cool and still, the brickwork buffering the noise from the house and the insistent drumming of the rain. Henry’s workbench ran along one wall, beneath a window blurred with dust. He kept the workbench tidy, his tools neatly packed away, and odds and ends — nails, screws, tacks, bolts — sorted into small jars, which he kept in a grided shelf to the left of the window. He had a CD player down there, and sometimes played music as he worked, but today he was content with the quiet of empty space, its outer edges softly frayed with children’s voices, the distant hum of the dryer, rain.

There was a tap at the door, and Meg poked her head around. “It’s bedlam up there,” she said. “What are you doing?” Henry started, took a step back. Meg edged into the basement and joined him at the workbench. Together, they looked at the clock, its body empty and its parts scattered on the bench, as mute and indecipherable as fossil bones. “Huh,” said Meg. “Do you know how that all fits back together?” Henry contemplated the wreckage of the clock, felt a ball of panic and shame rise in his chest. Upstairs something thudded to the floor, followed by a moment of silence. Henry looked at Meg, noted the soft creases starting to form around her mouth and eyes. A child’s voice rose, a loud, shocked cry filled more with outrage than with pain. “Oh for fuck’s sake,” said Meg, and hurried outside. Henry bundled the clock pieces inside the casing and screwed the back on. As he walked towards the kitchen door, he could hear Meg with the children, negotiating the terms of peace, smoothing out their spiky discontent. Henry took a deep breath, pushed the clock to the back of his mind, and joined his family.

On Tuesday, the rain stopped, and Henry took the clock to the repairer, a compact, rumpled man with fine-boned hands. “I thought I’d have a go at fixing it,” he said, “but it didn’t really work. I’m sorry.” The repairer looked at him, measured him with a gaze sharpened from years of coaxing delicate mechanical objects into working order. Henry felt himself grow large and clumsy under the repairer’s gaze, an incompetent fool who knew no better than to blunder into the back of a clock as though it were nothing more complicated than a toaster or a child’s toy.

“Sie sind so schön,” said the repairer. “These old clocks, they are so beautiful.” Henry nodded. “Perhaps next time you will bring it to me first, ja?”

But hang on, isn’t this a business blog?

Oh, so you noticed. Noticed that along with the writing tips, the wordplay, and the grammar musings, some other things keep slipping into this blog. Bits of fiction. A poem (!). Stories about my children (good grief). Words like decolonisation (really?). Reflections on motherhood (enough already). Feminist analysis (settle down, ladies). Politics, family history, Christmas presents. What’s all that about? Am I confused? Do I know what I’m doing?

Well, “yes” and “not really”.

 

“Yes”

My main aim with this blog is to treat it like a scrapbook. To gather together snippets of the things that move or inspire me, that have me laughing in agreement or making sense of another day spent trying to fledge a business and hold together the threads of a full and busy household. To say, “Look, this is what writing can do. These are the words we need to guide us into a more hopeful future.”

And I’m also trying to be as open and generous as possible in my understanding of what a business can be. Because why shouldn’t a businesswoman think about colonisation or feminism or children or any of that? Because those things don’t go away when we say, “No, you didn’t see the boundary there; this is business, this is work.” Because I’m not going to cut myself into pieces and sanction one little bit to build this business up. What you’ll get is all of me, stroppy, reflective, silly, curious, ratbaggy as I might be. And I don’t expect anyone else to agree with my views, but I do think that there’s space in the business model for me to wander off the page and write about the rest of my life, about the questions and anchors and truths that keep me alert and keep me whole. And if there’s not that space, there should be.

 

“Not really”

But, of course, it’s not that simple, is it?

Because I do put my own boundaries on what I write, and I do worry away at the distinction between a personal and a business blog. I question my decisions. I self-censure. I link to other people’s words instead of putting my analysis and thinking on the line. I feel vulnerable when I post creative writing and a bit soft when I write about mothering or my children. I tell the funny or appealing family stories — not so much the ones where I am less than graceful and composed.

 

“Well maybe”

So, what to do?

You know, the thing I keep coming back to is the idea of wandering off the page. Of saying, “Yes, this writing is connected to my business, because it all stems from me and my writing self, but it’s a little bit to the side, a little bit meandering. It’s where my thoughts turn in my quiet moments, or where they snag as I’m playing with the kids or making dinner or listening to the radio or having a shower. It’s the writing I do when I’ve got something to say.” And what I’d really like is to live in a world where the page origamis into new shapes, where the centre no longer holds and the eye is free to follow those wandering, marginal lines.

Riff on a washing line

The washing line was empty, and she liked it like that. She liked the unfilled space, the trees behind, the feeling that there was nothing there she needed to worry about. And the liberation was shared; she wasn’t parsimonious with her joy — the pigeon could shit right overhead if it liked, because no-one had their sheets out or their best shirt, and the rain could go right ahead and fall, fall as heavy as damn, fill the gutters and soak the plants, or settle about the house in a fine, drenching mist for all she cared, because there was nothing, not one thing, on the line.

But if not the washing, what was a girl to do? Rachel looked at her novel, contemplated the dishes in the sink, made a cup of tea. She felt adrift, cut loose in these suburban hills where the days drifted slow and peaceful like big old clouds.

She could run, she thought, start slow and build up speed until she crested the hill and launched herself into the sky with all the determined abandon of a hawk. She could circle there, held up by an air current, and look for answers in the green curved land beneath her, the thin little houses and the colour-splashed gardens, look for answers in the big blue luxury of the sky and the washing lines below — some of them empty, some carefully freighted with clean white sheets, scraps of underwear, socks in pairs, blue jeans, and a jersey, poppy red against the green.

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