The Cleanest Clean

I received a generous dollop of Cold Tongue Pie the other night.

I broke a dinner plate. But it wasn’t for that. Nope, it was because I broke the wrong dinner plate…

“I’ve broken a plate,” I confessed, already reaching for the hair-shirt.

My wife went into the kitchen. “You’ve broken the wrong one,” she said accusingly. “Why didn’t you break the one with the chip in it?”

Married life, eh? You think you’ve finally mastered it after 27 years and then you break the wrong plate…

But I have bigger fish to fry. Or should that be, bigger crayfish?

“How are you doing?” we asked Alex two weeks into lockdown.

“I’m good,” he said. “My flatmates have gone home and I’m locked down with Lizzie.”

Yep, two weeks into lockdown and our youngest son was marooned inside his flat with his new, Australian girlfriend.

“And what’s Lizzie doing?” we asked. “Writing an essay?”

“No,” he said. “She’s cooking a crayfish stir-fry.”

Well, you know what I’m going to write next. Lizzie is coming to visit. Tomorrow.

Which might explain my I have a looming appointment with the oven cleaner. And a screwdriver.

My wife has decided the house needs cleaning. And fixing. I was due to sort the shower out as well – or paddling pool as it was rapidly becoming – but she lost patience and did it herself.

But does it really need doing?

Will Lizzie even notice?

When I was a young lad – still at university – I went to stay at my girlfriend’s. I never once looked at the top of the cooker. There could have been a Komodo Dragon living in the kitchen and I wouldn’t have noticed.

The shower? Yep, I definitely had some thoughts about the shower, but they had nothing to do with how quickly the water was draining…

Bluntly, I only had one thing on my mind.

When were her damn parents going out for a walk?

Come on, the sun’s shining, you live five minutes from the beach. And go to the pub on the way back…

No chance. Christine’s father very pointedly sat in his armchair and turned the TV on. “That’s me settled in for the night,” he declared.

Why not say what you mean? ‘There’ll be no hanky-panky under my roof, young man. And don’t try anything in the night either. Heard you were coming. Installed some special creaky floorboards…’

I now realise there was a sub-plot. He was – I can barely write the words – from the South. He didn’t want to risk any Yorkshire blood in his daughter’s home counties pedigree.

Anyway, a few million gallons of water have flowed under the bridge, and here I am now cast in the role of grumpy old dad settling in for the night.

Except I’m not. I’ve already told my wife that we’ll be doing the decent thing and going for a tactical walk on the beach. Or more likely Beverley will be going to visit her mother and I’ll go and hide in the office.

But first things first. The oven…

And what do you know? She’s already done it. The top of the oven is immaculate. Glistening as the sun peaks in through the kitchen window.

“You’ve done it,” I said as Beverley came out of the shower. “I said I’d do it.”

“I just wanted it done and off the list,” she said.

But like with Christine’s dad and his creaky floorboards, there was a sub-plot. ‘I just wanted it done properly.’

When I clean something there are three stages. ‘Call that clean?’ Clean-ish and what I fondly imagine is ‘really clean.’

And then there’s cleaned by my wife…

Smoke on the Ceiling

I was on the phone. And I was fighting a losing battle.

“The book about Pepper is in Germany,” I said.

“What did you say?” came the reply. “All I can hear is a guitar.”

I finally made myself understood. My wife looked up from the other side of the dining room table. “Are you auditioning for MI5, dear?”

“What?” Sometimes the woman talks in riddles.

“The book about Pepper is in Germany…”

“Yes, Amazon printed the paperbacks in Poland. They go to Germany and then they’re flown to the UK.”

“You still sounded like an apprentice James Bond. What was the reply to your password? Ze cheese sauce for my cauli – fleur eez in Normandie?”

I let her cheap sarcasm pass. “It’s a wonder I can make myself understood at all,” I said, gesturing at the ceiling. “You can’t win against Jimmy Page.”

“Who?”

“Jimmy Page. Lead guitar in Led Zeppelin. I thought you knew a lot about music.”

“It’s Deep Purple,” she said.

“What is?”

Smoke on the Water.”

I checked on Google. So it was.

We were eating breakfast. But humble pie was still on the menu. And those of you who’d tagged me under ‘old so probably a heavy metal fan’ will need to revise your filing systems…

Alex has been home from university for two months now. He arrived with the avowed intent of teaching himself the guitar. He’s been as good as his word and – like all beginner guitarists – has been playing Smoke on the Water remorselessly.

So far, so good. A basic guitar he found in Dan’s bedroom and he was making progress.

And then disaster struck. Josh went back to college.

“Hell’s teeth,” I said. “What’s that? It sounds like the Rolling Stones are warming up.”

There it was again. Coming straight through the dining room ceiling. The clear, unmistakable sounds of an electric guitar.

We rushed up to what had once been our son’s bedroom and was now a recording studio.

“What’s that?” I said, staring at an electric guitar.

Alex did his best not to use the is-it-time-for-your-medication expression my wife and daughter have perfected. He didn’t quite manage it this time…

“An electric guitar,” he said proudly.

“And what’s that black box on the floor?”

“An amp.”

“So Josh has gone back to college and left you those?”

He nodded. I searched noise cancelling headphones on Amazon. Meanwhile I tried to work with Smoke on the Water running endlessly through my head.

“I think we should have Josh’s head on a spike for this,” I muttered.

“Don’t be silly. However loud he is he’s still quieter than Eleanor. Don’t you remember when she was learning the trombone?”

Do I ever? Two terms of purgatory when the school somehow cajoled the Beloved Daughter into trombone lessons. Just when she was at her bolshie-teenager phase as well.

“That’s it, Eleanor. I’ve had enough. Go up to your bedroom and stay there.”

And thirty seconds later she was standing outside the lounge door ‘practising’ the trombone.

But relief was at hand. Two days later the Music Gods smiled on me. Smoke gave way to Sunshine of your Love. Yes! Eric Clapton! One small step for my son, a giant leap for music.

I may even get Layla before he goes back to Edinburgh.

And let’s keep things in perspective. It may be a distraction but it’s still preferable to his First Serious Girlfriend coming round to “help me with my revision.”

But nothing ventured…

I thought I’d try that line on my lovely wife. “Help me with my proof-reading.” You’ll be astonished to hear that after 27 years of marriage it didn’t work…

It’s Wasted on the Young

The window’s open. Cars are whizzing up and down the road outside.

‘Lockdown? Rings a bell, mate. Just remind me will you…’

But I can’t complain. Lockdown has been good to me.

I’ve been out walking every day. I’m fitter – I may even be one of the few people in the country who’s lost weight.

But there’s been a price to pay. Mostly by my knees. Goodness me coming downstairs first thing in the morning is a struggle. And then when I do get downstairs there’s ten minutes of stretching to tell my back it’s a new day.

“I’m done for,” I said to my lovely and ever sympathetic wife.

“What? Permanently?”

“Possibly.”

“That’s a nuisance,” she said. “It’s your turn to cook dinner.”

I reassured her that I might survive long enough to cook Parmesan Chicken. In return she treated me to her I-suppose-I’d-better-express-an-interest face. “What’s fallen off this time?”

She’s not a woman who’s impressed by lists. I merely indicated that sitting at a desk all day wasn’t doing me any good. “You know what they say. Sitting is the new smoking.”

“It’s hardly coal mining is it?”

“What?”

“Writing and editing, dear. Sitting on your bum and breaking off to make yet another coffee is not coal mining. Last time I checked you were wearing shorts and a t-shirt. It’s hardly full PPE.”

I grudgingly conceded she might have a point. And looked out of the window. Two teenagers went past on bikes. Two remarkably fit young people jogged by on the other side of the road.

They had what I need.

The problem is, I’m feeling a little bit mortal. My brother was my age when he died of cancer. Ten more years and that was the end of my dad.

I need to be young again.

I need this fantastic new invention. I spotted it when I was out every day in lockdown. Apparently it’s called ‘youth.’

Goodness only knows who invented it. People my age would pay an absolute fortune for it.

And yet – astonishingly – the inventors of youth give it away for free! And they give it away to people who don’t appreciate it. Who completely waste it. Who have not the slightest idea what to do with it.

Who use up their supply of youth on drinking and parties and nightclubs and everything that goes with them.

Fortunately I have a solution. It would cure the nation’s health woes at a stroke and – bluntly – it cannot be beyond the wit of modern technology to arrange it.

What we do is give millennials a taste of getting older. A week should do it. Bad back. Eye drops every night. Fired out of bed by an ageing bladder at two in the morning. ‘Don’t forget to take your tablets.’

A week of that and they’d appreciate this ‘youth’ thing they’ve been given.

That’s my plan for improving the health of the nation. Send millennials a postcard from their old age and they’d be far less likely to let themselves go. ‘Cheese? Red wine? You must be joking. Still remember when they gave me that grey haired bloke’s body. Nightmare week…’

I’ll send an e-mail to Matt Hancock. It’s not like he’s got anything pressing at the moment.

And – of course – while millennials are learning to tell the time by their bladder, I get a week of being young again.

Whoop!

‘Hangover? Rings a bell, mate. Just remind me will you?’

Think of all the exciting things I could do without worrying about my back. Putting my socks on. Emptying the dishwasher. And the other one.

Whatever it was. Just remind me will you…

Pasta al Vomito

Let’s say you’re writing a novel. You fall into one of two camps. You’re a plotter – or a pantser.

You either plot it all out beforehand, or you fly by the seat of your pants.

Isn’t cooking just the same? You either plot it out – follow Delia’s recipe and do as you’re told – or you make it up as you go along.

If I’m writing, I’m a plotter. I don’t want to re-write Chapter 2 because I’ve reached Chapter 22 and realised that the shifty, ne’er-do-well nephew did it after all.

But when I’m in the kitchen – no, not with the candlestick or the lead piping – plotting goes out of the window.

Recipe? Who’s got time for that?

5g of chilli powder? Nah… That looks about right. Maybe a bit more.

Lightly simmer for ten minutes? Sorry, Delia, it looks done to me…

Sometimes this approach works.

Sometimes it doesn’t.

And sometimes it serves up Pasta with Cat Puke.

Let me explain. I stumbled across a recipe. Chorizo and Prawn Salad. The aforementioned Delia? Joe Wicks? Lean in 15? Yes, an easy assumption to make, given my toned physique and rippling six pack…

Nope, this was from the chef for Wolverhampton Wanderers. Who said I was desperate for news of football…

‘That looks nice,’ thinks I. ‘Could adapt it to go with pasta.’

So I do. Chorizo, prawns, a few spring onions, some cherry toms. We all think it tastes fine. “Maybe it needs a sauce,” my wife murmurs.

We all think it needs a sauce. “I’ll do it again in a few days,” I say confidently. “And I’ll make a sauce.”

Now at this stage a plotter would have done the sensible thing. Consulted Google. How to make a prawn sauce for pasta. Thirty million results. One of them might work…

But no, I’ve got my pants on.

Pants on, brains off.

‘Well, if I just fry off some of the prawns, chorizo etc first and then blitz them that’ll make a sauce…’

No, it didn’t. It did make a fine mess on my t-shirt as the hand-blitzer cheerfully sprayed tomato around the kitchen. But yep, eventually the ingredients were reduced to a liquid.

And now let’s talk about your cat. She throws up. You inspect the result. There are two possible trains of thought.

‘Hmmm… That looks pretty solid. I could pretend not to have noticed it.’

‘Oh crap, that’s going to soak into the carpet.’

The blitzer had produced option B. Prawns and tomatoes. Pale pink cat puke.

Maybe you could describe it as pink porridge. Which sounds worryingly like a euphemism for something found in the darkest depths of the dark web.

My wife and youngest son peered dubiously at their bowls.

“I’ve made a sauce,” I said helpfully.

They continued to stare into their bowls. “Try it then,” I said.

They did, with some reluctance.

“Transmogrification,” Beverley said.

“What’s that then?” I said smugly. “When Harry Potter turns someone into a cat?”

“Changing something into a different form,” she said, tapping it into Google and forcing me to have a slice of humble pie as a starter. “All you’ve done is ‘Chorizo and Prawns Two Ways.’ And one of the ways is vomit.”

“It’s a sauce,” I repeated.

“Dearest, it is not a sauce. Neither is it a reduction or an emulsion or a jus or any of those other up-your-own-arse words off MasterChef. It’s cat puke.”

She tapped away on her phone again. “There,” she said triumphantly. “I’ve given it an Italian name. Pasta al Vomito di Gatto.”

I hate that about my wife. Sitting on the fence. Never telling me what she really thinks…